Talk about your ravening wolf cast in the rabbit's role.
All these years and Jeff was still hesitant when he came into my metahuman memorabilia store, The Mask's Attic, acting as if he expected me to kick him out of the place. But that particular Tuesday he wandered in behaving like he'd never been through the front door before. He picked up a couple of vintage masked-hero pulps off the front display rack, examined the covers, and blinked his pale blue eyes at them three or four times through his little wire-rimmed glasses. It was a weird performance.
I leaned forward, my crossed arms resting on the old wood-and-glass counter. "Jeff. Hey, Earth to Jeff."
His head came up and a vaguely astonished expression crossed his sharp features.
"Jeff. Had a hard night, pal?"
"Well— Yes, as a matter of fact, I did." He looked around and his face firmed up, as if he'd only just now realized where he was. "I'm sorry, Rusty, was I being rude?" He put the magazines back.
"No, you were only pretending to be an absent-minded professor again. What's up, old buddy, did you figure out a way to prove the Riemann hypothesis?"
His shoulders rose and fell with a sigh that started around his toes. "If only that were the case." He looked around, checking for other customers.
I said, "Don't worry. It's so quiet today I can hear the doughnut I had for breakfast hardening my arteries."
"Only wanted to be sure. Paranoia has become a habit with me, I'm afraid."
"Not a bad one to have in your line of work." Jeff's a masked-hero himself, you see. And that job's not the easy and glamorous ride they make it look like on T.V. "Did you have a bad night on patrol?"
He looked haunted. "I...don't want to talk about it, Rusty."
"Okay." The silence stretched, so I smiled. "C'mon, I'll make you some coffee."
"Tea, if you please. I've tasted that sludge you claim is coffee too many times."
I opened the flap in the counter and let him come back with me and park himself on a stool. He kept quiet while I brewed his tea, and while I sold a back issue of Spicy Vigilantes to a guy in a hurry. When I put the mug down, Jeff wrapped his fingers around it as if he were freezing. Reflexively, I winced, but it didn't hurt him, of course. Instead he eagerly sipped the near-boiling Assam, ignoring the temperature. I'd doctored it with milk and six cubes of sugar, so it brought some color back to his face.
He got through about half of it, and then set the mug down. "Thanks, Rusty."
"If you're going to go drifting around the city rooftops all night long, you should remember to eat something. Burglars know that. Their victims are always complaining about having their refrigerators raided."
"The victims also complain about having their carpets used for toilets."
"Hey, you know enough to use the public washrooms before you bust into other folk's houses. That's why you wear the big white hat, Mister Heroic."
He looked startled, his head went back, and then he laughed. When he's been behind the Mask, it always takes him a few seconds longer than usual to figure out that I've been having him on.
I grinned at him. "So, you want some Thai food? I'm thinking about putting together an order for the Green Palace."
"Yes. Yes, that would be good. Pad Thai?"
"And some Moo Sa Te, some chicken sticks, sure. I'll pay for it if you cross the street and pick up the order."
"It's a deal."
After I got the cash out of the register and handed it to him, he went out the door looking a lot more pulled-together than he had when he'd come in. I sent out my latest e-mail brushing off George Henderson, a big-time local collector who was always bugging me to let him paw through my private stock of rare memorabilia, and then reached for the stack of bills. Ten minutes more and one phone-order customer went by before I heard the bell on the door jangle once. I glanced up from my laptop, expecting it to be Jeff with our lunch. What I got instead was a guy with a gun.
"The safe has a time lock," I said.
"Shut up," he replied, and roamed around the place, probably checking for witnesses. I didn't like that and I didn't like his looks. Not that his looks put me off, or the way he was dressed. He was in a suit, an expensive one of grey wool beautifully fitted across his shoulders. But he wasn't wearing anything to hide his features, so I could memorize the shape of his ears at my leisure, a bad sign. And the gun had a silencer on it long enough to actually work. It was clear I was meant to leave work on a gurney today, with a blanket pulled up over my face.
Satisfied, he backed up against my locked case of first editions and complete original runs of Screen Masks and Hollywood Heroes. His head swung towards me as he obviously considered disposing of me before I decided to yell or jump him like some kind of a hero. Me, a hero; what a laugh.
I looked back at him and my expression must have been too calm. The thin lips stretched into a frown and he was aiming the gun when two lambent blue hands emerged from the front of his chest. His eyes widened until you could see the whites all around them. Then, slowly, he slid to the floor.
The Revenant finished walking out through my display case and I let myself slump for a moment with relief before I straightened and took a good survey. In daylight, its foxfire glow was damped down, but the oily sheen of the god-knows-what-kind-of-leather cloak was still repellent.
I shook my head slightly, and asked, "What did you do with the take-out?"
The two spheres of flame in the eye sockets pivoted in my direction. The take-out?
"The Thai food, Jeff. Our lunch."
Death and destruction in a cloak considered me for a moment, and then said, Ah, that. It reached somewhere into the smoky murk under its cloak and produced two knotted-shut white plastic bags, crossed over to the counter, and set them down. As it drifted across the guy stretched out on the floor, its distorted black footprints burnt themselves into his fancy suit.
I opened one of the bags and checked: still warm. Apparently, whatever eldritch dimension the Revenant went through for his shortcuts conserved thermal energy fairly well. "Okay, are you keeping the Mask on for lunch? I didn't know you could eat that way."
Close up, the approximation of features inside the hood were even less charming than at a distance, but it was still Jeff in there, somewhere. It thought for a moment, and then sat down. Yes, mortal, it is better if I linger for a time.
"Rusty, Jeff, the name is Rusty, remember?" I went over to the front door, closed the slates on the blind, and flipped the sign around to "Be Back Soon."
Of course. It had gone behind the counter and had sat down on the stool again. The much- too-long fingers reached for the bag. There are five chicken sticks. Who gets the extra?
I only raised my eyebrows and gave it a look. "Don't yank my chain here, Jeff. I'm having a hard day."
You'd think I'd know those words would be nothing but an invitation for the day to get harder.
That was an interesting meal. For years Jeff had been keeping the Revenant away from me, probably afraid of what I would think when I was exposed to its charms in person. Not fun, I decided, but not bad, either. As I would have guessed, if you ignored the vocabulary and the make-up, the resemblance to Jeff in a black funk was marked enough that I knew how to manage our little tête-à-tête.
Jeff and I were friends as kids, you see. We were a couple of social rejects at our second-string prep school here in Santa Teresa. He'd dropped down from a big, fancy house in the hills and I'd clambered up from an apartment in an old bracero district on a scholarship, but neither of us fit in well. Jeff dreamed of Cantorian infinities and higher planes, and I just dreamed. We both belonged to the math club, the jazz band, the community volunteers, and the water polo team, and managed to avoid some of the buffeting around that was our nerdish due by hanging out together almost constantly. Then we graduated. He went off to Cal Tech, and I joined the Air Force.
When we met again, years later, we were both badly scarred. Some of mine were on my face. Most of his were inside, but when he displayed them, even more people cringed at him than at me. The Revenant may save hundred of citizens every year, but it'll never make Celebs magazine's annual list of the ten sexiest Masks, that's for sure.
I hadn't asked where Jeff picked up the Revenant, and why it decided to protect our fair metropolis from the usual occult perils and monstrosities. Maybe it showed up while he was hitching the Ph.D. in mathematics to his name. I admit I was curious, but my interest didn't really matter to our friendship. Unlike all the glossy magazines and the gossip shows on cable, I don't mistake the Revenant, for anything other than a part of Jeff even if he is creepy enough not to need a costume. It's not some separate being. After all, I played D&D with Jeff in school, so I'd seen that side of him long before the Spooky Blue Thing started drifting around the streets at night.
It was a neat eater. The food sort of disintegrated as it went through the dark crimson gape where the mouth should be. I said, "Do you want more tea?"
Yes, please. This time, I added his standard two lumps of sugar.
"So, what kept you out so late last night?" I was interested in hearing if his Revenant side would talk about what Jeff wouldn't discuss.
An amateur necromancer needed to be discouraged. My eyebrows probably hoisted. After this afternoon's unwelcome guest, I could imagine what it considered discouraging. And then there was a three-alarm fire over on Vindola and Musgrove. I had to extract the night watchman, fool of a wight that he was.
I winced. "Corn's growing kind of high there, Jeff."
The swirling orbs of indigo fire eyed me balefully.
"Look, even if you're not Jeff, you're so adulterated by his personality that you might as well cut the cackle and answer to his name. To me, you sound just like your old fifth-level NPC Anti-Paladin about to throw an orc into the cauldron for lunch."
It made a noise like dry bones rattling, and I realized it was chuckling. Sorry, Rusty. This One is not used to having - a friend? Yes, a friend, especially one who has already stared into the face of the dark and does not fear meeting its gaze.
Still corny, but I got the message. I shrugged. "S'all right. Listen, are you going to eat those orange slices? If not, I'll take them."
It handed them over. They were sour.
When we were done with lunch, I went over, extracted the wallet from my former guest, and flipped through the contents. Inside I found a driver's license, credit cards, and all the usual I.D., but none of the personal bits of junk, the photos and scraps of paper, that most people carry around with them. I looked down at the guy and prodded him with the toe of my shoe. "So, now what?"
I will remove him. Even now, his sp—
"Do I really want to know this?"
It paused, derailed. Then it considered. No, I would imagine not.
"Okay. If you'll get rid of Mr. Gross Pointless Blank, I can open the store again. Come on back when you're done, will you?"
Yes. It didn't stoop down. Instead it stretched out one long, thin, cloaked arm and my visitor got up. He was still somehow limp-looking, though, and his eyes were rolled up into his head.
Don't watch, then. Was that a hint of exasperation in the voice? Good: in my opinion, Jeff's attitude behind the Revenant's Mask needed some adjustment. I took its advice and went over to flip the blinds back up and change the sign back to "Open." When I turned around, the two of them were gone.
Left behind, I shook my head, and then went back behind the counter. Oh, the many joys of being a Mask's best buddy. On the off-chance my visitor had intended to ambush Jeff and not me, I couldn't have risked revealing his link to the Revenant by calling the cops. Not that I'd really wanted to call them. No, after further consideration of my own situation, that wouldn't have been a good idea at all.
At least the rest of the afternoon went okay. I sold a first edition of Corrosion of the Innocents over e-bay and bought a partial set of Horrors of the Night trading cards from Vinny Sgnezny, a serious Mask fan who was running out of room in his apartment. Then I pulled out the boxes I'd bought last weekend at an estate auction up in the hills. Jackpot: the stuff they contained had belonged to Mrs. Randolph, an elderly woman who'd started collecting Mask memorabilia as a young girl in the 'teens. Since masked-heroes, with their 'supernatural' powers, didn't show up until after the Tunguska strike back in 1908, 'teens and 'twenties Mask material is sparse and valuable. Those boxes were going to bring in ten times what I'd paid for them. By the time Jeff got back I was feeling much better.
He was still tentative, but more in the way of the first guest at the party. So, I'd been right about what his problem had been around me, the last few years. It was probably just as well I'd met The Tall, Thin, and Creepy One, then. "Hey, Jeff."
"Hi, Rusty." He smiled. He took a white paper bag out of his pocket. "From the kosher bakery over on Vermont."
"Ah-hah! Bribery is always welcome. Come on in, and sit back down."
He tried to tell me about my visitor with a mouth full of rugela, and had to settle for waving a hand around, instead. I hushed him while I helped two giggling junior high school girls select glossies of their favorite dream-boat teen sidekicks. Then I said, "Okay, any information as to who sent a contract killer to visit me, and why?"
"I'm afraid it was too late to acquire much information from him. Are you sure he was after you?"
I thought matters over. "No, now that you mention it, probably not. If he had been, his best tactic would have been to walk in, ice me, and leave, rather than hanging around. Do you think he was waiting for you?"
"Why would he?" He fished out some change and pulled a coke out from the cool case. "I don't think anyone's put the Revenant and me together."
"No, or the press would be around here thicker than the fleas on an opossum's ass. Old Blue's been a busy Thing, after all."
"Hey, why the glum face? Is this an involuntary relationship, you and the Revenant? I think of the two of you as one being. Am I wrong?"
"No, not really. It's just that it's - I'm - tapping into a part of myself that usually doesn't get out much. I'm not entirely comfortable with the idea of death, for one thing. And that's what the Revenant's attentions boil down to, in the end: dead people."
"Yeah, you do have to make a lot of what my old bosses used to call 'crisis terminal decisions,' given the sorts you deal with. But I'd worry more if you'd gone numb." Jeff was silent, expression troubled. "Guy, I was in the military, remember? I even saw a little action. So I know a lot of characters who—" The bell on the door rang again.
We stopped talking for a few minutes while a pair of metro types in business suits came in and browsed before trying to talk me into a ridiculous deal for the authentic Snow Owl Mask I had in the front case. I blew them off, and they ended up buying some rare Sentry Junior Auxiliary badges at a reasonable price. Then they got around to asking for what they really wanted: metahuman erotica. I call the stuff "Mask soft-porn" myself, and I like it. But I also get good money for it, especially from folks who use the word "erotica".
To get out of the way, Jeff cleaned up the crumbs of our lunch before wandering out into the store and straightening a few things. He kept at it after they'd left, so I reached down below the counter, pulled out the duster I store there, and said, "Hey, catch." He caught it and started cleaning shelves for me. I went back to my bookkeeping.
I did a few more sales while Jeff cleaned, and then I went through a last box of odds and ends from the estate auction. Mind you, I don't want to claim I was calm about what had happened. I found out later that I'd sent the check for the phone company to my exterminator. Then I misplaced the unauthorized repro Helios talisman I'd unearthed from beneath a scrapbook of press clippings, a broken puzzle box, and several early issues of Black Mask. That latter goof probably cost me a bundle, too, because Helios memorabilia is damn rare. Whoever he'd been behind the Mask, Helios hadn't thought much of merchandizing. But it wouldn't do Jeff any good to see me jitter, so I kept going with my routine even after I realized that I was screwing up.
When five o'clock rolled around, I said, "I owe you dinner for all the spring cleaning. Do you want to eat out or walk over to my place and watch a movie?" I'd intended to visit a bar I knew where my looks actually worked for me and see if I could find some company, but I figured that if I fed Jeff, I could probably coax him into taking a nap before the Revenant drove him back out onto patrol.
Jeff put away the duster before he said quietly, "You don't have to nursemaid me, Rusty. I've made it this far on my own."
"Someone had better do something with you, pal, if you're going to keep up this all-day, all-night stuff. Part of you is mortal, in case you hadn't noticed." I glared at him. "Even the Spook knows you still have friends. Shut up and learn to live with it."
"Okay, okay." He reached out suddenly and mussed my hair. I knocked his hand away and laughed. After I finished closing the store, we agreed to pick up a pizza and a fifties atomic-horror DVD, and go back to my place.
I have rooms on the top floor of an old building about half a block from the sea-cliffs, one that was built as apartments in the thirties, then became a residential hotel when the area got bad, and then turned into apartments again when yuppies gentrified Santa Teresa's waterfront. All during the various changes, no one had bothered to tackle renovating the building, so my closet space was lousy and my kitchen appliances, underneath their former decades of grime, would have been familiar to my grandma. I guess everyone else ignored the high ceilings and nice curves to the built-in bookcases. Me, I signed the lease fifteen minutes after I first looked around. Then, after I moved in, I cleaned the place up, bought some period furniture in the thrift stores, and ended up feeling like some noir heavy waiting for the cops to bust down my door. My guests, including Jeff, liked the atmosphere.
Three hours later, Jeff was snoring on the over-stuffed curves of my sofa while I read the latest issue of the Journal of Metahuman Studies. We'd talked it over, and we still couldn't come to any conclusions as to why someone wanted to kill me, or Jeff, or one of my customers. We would both have to be careful, was all. I made a mental note to do some more poking around on my own.
At midnight, the snoring stopped and I glanced over at the couch. Sure enough, the Revenant was reaching for the last piece of pizza in the open cardboard box on the coffee table. Mmm, charred dead animal, it said, approvingly.
"Ooo, scary." I folded down the corner of the page I was on. "Maybe you'd better check out your own apartment, now that you're back behind the Mask, just in case our former friend left you a present."
I shall do that. It got up - which was kind of like watching a snake uncoil - and drifted over to me. First, though, there is something else I have to do.
"Do you have to sound so ominous about whatever it is? No, don't answer, I bet spooky is part of the job requirements."
Something like that, yes. It stretched out its hands, and my body wanted to cringe away, but I've had practice at keeping still in intimate circumstances that make me fear. The hands closed on my face. They didn't feel as bad as I thought they would from their looks, more like cold silk over ivory than...anything worse. I wondered why my flesh was crawling.
I'm placing my mark upon you. That will let you summon me when hazard threatens. Having accommodated myself to the idea of friendship, I am loath to accept the notion of loss. The face leaned close, bringing those two flaming eye-orbs along. I kept my eyes open. The place where the lips should have been rested against me for a moment, and a cold fire ripped through me in a thrill of sensation so acute that I shuddered.
It backed off, cloak rippling. Call me if you need me.
I shivered again, from the residual, mostly. "Okay, buddy. Same goes for you."
It paused. Yes. Yes, I shall call if I need to, Rusty. Good night. It went out through the window like Marley's ghost. Unlike Scrooge, I didn't follow to watch what happened next. If the dead were wailing outside of my fifth-floor apartment, I really didn't want to know.
Instead I went and got myself a beer. I'm still a little careful, since there had been a time a few years back when alcohol had tasted way too good, but one more brew wouldn't hurt and I needed the feeling of warmth in my belly. The Revenant is my friend, sure, but it still made my flesh crawl. That crawl wasn't any nicer just because something dark inside me didn't mind its touch.
Sometimes facing up to yourself is much harder than facing down a guy with a gun.
I didn't see Jeff, in either of his forms, for two days, but I wasn't worrying. Our local rag, the Santa Teresa Gazette, had told me all about the fire at the chemical plant over in the valley and also described the thing they discovered in the old Catholic cemetery. He – or rather, it - was obviously busy. So on Friday I was surprised to find, when I turned the key and maneuvered the grocery bags through the door, that the Revenant was already inside my apartment. It took the grocery bags away from me and dumped them on the kitchen counter before starting to unload them.
I shook my head and headed for the bathroom. There was something surreal about that barely tamed force of ruin unpacking my cheese and lettuce, but I had some hydraulic pressure to relieve before I could consider the phenomenon in any depth. When I got back, it had finished putting my groceries away, had slammed the refrigerator the required two times to get the door to shut, and was floating cross-limbed above the couch, meditatively disintegrating cheese curls. They were its favorite snack food as Jeff, too. I'd started keeping them around again a while ago, just in case.
I sat down and kicked off my shoes, popped open my beer, and put my feet up on the leather ottoman. "So, what's going on?"
My apartment house burned down.
My feet came down and hit the rug with a thump. "Crap! I hope no one was hurt."
No. I got there in time.
"What about your stuff?"
Gone. There wasn't much to begin with, only some second-hand furniture and clothing. After I was burglarized the second time, I moved what matters to storage. Suddenly, something cold and unpleasant rolled off of it. The flames did destroy the signed poster of The Pard that you gave me for my birthday, which upsets me. I had positioned that on display, in order to dwell upon her enjoyable physical aesthetics.
He'd always liked cat-suits. "Aw, that's too bad. I'll see if I can find another one for you. Do you want to crash here? You can move the barbells out of the way in the spare bedroom."
Are you not worried that the arsonist will follow me?
"No, but that's because I know you. If you thought the fire was anything other than an accident or a coincidence, you would have said so at the start. You're methodical, that way."
You do not mind the Revenant staying with you?
"Look, Jeff, if it makes you feel better to pretend you're some kind of a shit, go ahead. I don't know if the Revenant had any existence before Jeff, or what it was like if it did. But now, for a Mask of the more lethal variety, it's okay. You're okay."
I am of Death.
"No, really?" I snorted. "Get a grip, guy. Life means pain, life is full of danger, life is the theater of good versus evil. Unless I've missed something, death is just dead."
You simplify, but I take your point. It made a noise like wind through dead branches, probably a sigh. I shall remain here tonight, then.
"Fine. I'm watching a re-run of an episode of Heather the Zombie Killer, unless you say otherwise."
No, I like Heather. It hesitated. Rusty, do you have any more dead animal snacks?
It disposed of most of the cheese curls and the bag of pork rinds I'd been avoiding eating before it retired into the spare bedroom to do whatever it did while other people slept. The next morning a familiar unshaven face greeted me over breakfast.
"There's a fresh razor and toothbrush in the second drawer down. Towels are up above in the cupboard."
"Thanks, Rusty." He yawned and then smiled. "It's quiet here. The traffic over on the Boulevard, outside of my old place, never quits."
"Glad you slept well. Pass the orange juice." He did. "Hey, what about your laptop?"
"That's the one thing it managed to save. I've already plugged in. I hope you don't mind my free-loading on your utilities."
"You'll get any extra charges on the phone bill next month, but otherwise, no. I have to go open the store soon." I went over and fished around on top of the refrigerator. "Here's the spare key. Take your time."
"Okay. Thanks." His expression got all earnest. "I can't tell you how much I appreciate the fact that you accept the Revenant."
I shrugged a you're-welcome. Jeff had a mouthful of cereal, so he just smiled in return. He ate without talking much more, and then wandered off towards the shower, absent-mindedly shedding clothing along the way.
Left alone, I shook my head. No way was I telling Jeff that his own naked self disturbed me in a way no spooky Mask ever could.
Don't go thinking I can afford a two bedroom apartment in Santa Teresa's now-desirable seaside historical district just from what I make out of the store. I also have a partial disability pension from the government for assorted damage I took in that little Balkans flare-up back in the nineties. Not that I think my injuries are all that disabling, but there was some nerve damage, and I had a few problems getting around for a while. I had also found out that the northeastern cold made me hurt, so heading back to my home town was a smart idea for more reasons than my knowledge of the region's interesting bars. But, if you ask me, the medical evaluators were biased towards awarding the pension because the surface results of my injuries are pretty ugly. So I didn't argue when Uncle Sam decided to give me some money.
With that money and the life insurance pay-off on my Mom, not to mention a cheap loan I got from the folks of one of the guys who'd been in the field with me, I'd opened my store. Back when I'd been a kid, I'd been crazy about Masks, and unlike most mothers, mine hadn't tossed out my collection of memorabilia when I'd left home. That meant I knew something about the business and had a few goodies to spice up my initial stock. By the time I was thinking about starting the store, I'd also seen enough of the world to have some distance on the masked-hero mystique, which was kind of uncommon in a trade that attracts more than its share of fanatic devotees and nut-cases. So I was doing okay, if not nifty two-bedroom apartment okay.
I hadn't known until I moved back home that I had a friend behind the Mask.
Jeff's letters hadn't given me a clue. Unlike the local glamour-Masks, like Black Wind and Devil's Dare, he's never been the sort to show the public his real face – his real face when he's not the Revenant, that is. He's always thought being a masked-hero is a pain, not a passion. In fact, when we were both kids, he'd jab me every now and then about my fan-boy love of the Masks.
I can still see that then-acned face of his, gone all earnest as he tried to talk me around to his point of view. "Masks are only occult antibodies, Rusty. Ever since the Tunguska Incident brought all the creepy-crawlies back in from the dark, the Masks have been around to keep them under control, just like the heroes took care of the monsters in the old myths and epics."
"Yeah, great." He was telling me what I knew better than he did, but that's what you get when you hang out with a teen-aged big brain. Lectures.
Jeff gave me a look to show what he thought of the lack of proper argumentation in my reply. We were parked in his bedroom in the fancy house up in the hills. You could have fit my Mom's entire living room, kitchen, and bathroom into that one room, but I wasn't looking to trade. When Mom got through with her shift, she'd be heading home to see how I was doing. Jeff's folks, on the other hand, had just taken off for a month abroad, leaving Jeff the keys, a few hundred bucks, and a credit card. Most guys our age would have thought this state of affairs was great. I thought it sucked and so, I suspected, did Jeff.
Anyhow, he was distracting himself by picking on my ideas. "Obviously, there's some species-wide parallel to the human immune system at work."
"Thank you, Dr. Einstein. What a brilliant theory you and those many guys who thought of your idea first have proposed. Too bad there's not a shred of experimental proof for your notion. Now explain why this means I should be bored by Masks."
"Not bored, just not fanning all over the place." His eyes lit up. "Sure, okay, the heroism is good, but think about all the other guys whose jobs make them heroes."
I half-listened to him enthuse, yet again, about the scientists who'd suffered to bring you and me proof of the ozone layer's depletion. The other half of my attention I kept free for reminding myself of his zits and scrawniness. Kind of a pity that, what with water-polo and all, the thin was going away. These days I was one constant hard-on, and I liked Jeff a lot. Also, I'd recently figured out I was queer. Those three clues taken together might give away the crime of Mr. Rusty with the boner in Jeff's bedroom if I didn't keep my mind on business.
Too bad I didn't have enough pals to be taking any chances on making cheap passes at guys with glasses who might get pissed. Jeff had an amazing cross-section of girlie magazines in some of the magazine boxes that were supposed to be filled with the past decade's Scientific Columbia. I didn't think he'd take well to my flat-chested, gawky, red-haired self groping for his crotch.
Maybe I could coax him into some physical expression of our supposedly-shared appreciation of Miss June? Not thinking how it'd look, I shook my head. Nah, a friendship this good wasn't to be wasted on sex. Sometimes it sucked, being smart enough to look before I leapt.
Jeff had seen my head-shake. "You're still not listening to a word I'm saying. Fuck you, Rusty."
I gritted my teeth to block "What a great idea!" until I was ready to substitute, "I'll start listening when you come up with something new. Why don't you stop wasting both our times and boot up that piece-of-crap computer of yours instead, and we'll play some Xorn? Since you won't play Night Killer any more."
He rolled his eyes. "I've decided I don't like guns."
At least that next argument distracted me from my crotch.
I never did get up the nerve to jump Jeff, on that afternoon or on any other. In fact, I was so busy trying not to jump him that I never told him about me. And I'd kept quiet ever since those dear old school days. Recently, though, I'd had to admit to myself that now I was only being a chicken-shit by not telling Jeff about my so-called romantic life. I was scared how he'd respond.
Oh, I wasn't afraid of his reaction to The Gay. Not that I'd want to risk being too specific about my recreational tastes, but Jeff was okay with gays, so I trusted him that way. No, instead I was worried about how he'd react to the wrong I'd done him for so long. He'd handed over his big secret, after all, and what had I given him in return? Over fifteen years of silence about mine.
Now here he was, granting me credit for putting up with the Revenant, something that wasn't even much of a strain for a guy like me. Jeff just didn't get how much he was actually owed, and how grateful I was to be able to make payment against that sum.
Jeff has family money, so I figured that, in a day or two, he'd find another sleazy little apartment where he could disappear into the woodwork and go. That's what he thought, too, but then the Metaphor showed up in town, and he was busy for a while. Three weeks later, he was still camped in my spare bedroom. Having a roommate wasn't unpleasant, I was finding, but it was hell on my social life.
I solved the easy part of the problem by introducing him to my Saturday night gaming buddies and adding him to the Tuesday poker game. He needed more social contact anyhow. Topology journals burn a lot of time but they can't carry on a conversation. And he was a good role-playing gamer. He was too good a card player, but he couldn't bluff worth a damn, so none of the rest of us went broke. Then he got me back by conning me into volunteering for the adult literacy program he was involved with. So we were both busier than usual. But I still hadn't figured out a fix for my more intimate difficulties by the time trouble showed up.
What do the spouses of Masks do, I wonder? Get divorces, if the gossip columns are any guide. I didn't have that option since Jeff was only my roomie. Too bad: I wanted something dramatic to do after the Sunday morning when I looked up from washing dishes and saw it standing there dripping blue, ichorous fire onto the kitchen floor.
"What the hell?" I went over to it. "Jeff, you're eating through the linoleum." It must have been woozy because it let me try to clap a towel over the rent on its face. God, was that stupid. Its hands grasped, and the cape whipped around me like a living, hungry thing.
The lights went out, sound ceased, and I felt a cold shock envelope my entire body as if I'd fallen into a tank of icy water. Blackness enfolded me and yanked my life away, pulling it out through my forehead and into a thread that was being reeled away to use elsewhere to mend some indescribable rent. I couldn't resist, and I didn't try. The feeling was so... Somewhere, there was rapturous hunger, and a horror diluting that ardent, hungry dark that I thought I recognized. Damn, I thought towards the horrified presence, and, Sorry, Jeff.
For some reason, a hard pebble at the center of me was refusing to yield, and the pull of the dark was weakening, turning turbulent as it roiled against both itself and the resistance. My dimming mind grabbed the hard particle and demanded that the lump either help or let go.
Suddenly, there was light.
When I snapped out of my little fit, the Revenant's face was maybe an inch from my own. The cloak was flaring and snapping like a strong wind was blowing through the kitchen. Its left arm-thing was wrapped around me, holding me up against a tendency to sag. 'Sorry, Jeff'? It sounded pretty pissed, and I didn't blame it.
"I didn't intend to bottom to you like that," I said, before my mind could catch up with my mouth. I tried again. "I mean, I made a mistake." I blinked stupidly. "Hey, you're not dripping any more."
Its other hand flew up to where the rent had been. The orbs dimmed slightly. It was confused and let go of me.
I leaned back against the kitchen counter and contemplated the dish towel in my hand, or rather, the blackened scrap of a dishtowel. Then I threw the scrap into the sink. "That was too close. What the hell happened?"
I was devouring you.
"Yeah, I noticed. You were trying not to, but it wasn't working. How come I'm still here?"
You fed me.
"Oh, well, 'you fed me' just explains everything."
You fed me light. The light tasted like life. May I touch you?
"Knock yourself out, guy. You already were touching me when I came to, in case it escaped your attention."
'Yeah, I noticed'. Okay, not a bad comeback. It drifted closer, and the long, chitinous blue-white hands reached out. For the first time, I felt no inclination at all to shrink back. I frowned. Then it touched me, and this time the feeling was...like Jeff would have been, with overtones.
"There is definitely something weird going on here."
Yes. It sounded a bit remote. It ran the hands up and down me, and its foxfire glow intensified. I concentrated on not being disconcerted. One hand moved across the collar of my T-shirt, and my skin lit up, a bright, intense yellow. I made a noise. It snatched its hands away.
The two of us stared at each other. The indigo eye-orbs were roiling like a high-plains thunderstorm. It said, the words measured, Rusty, I think you should take off your shirt.
Jeff knew that usually I avoid taking off my shirt. The worst scars are on my chest. But that evening, mutely, I shucked off and handed my t-shirt to it. Something was not fitting together inside my head.
Aaaahhhh, it said, like a wind sighing through a grove of cypress at midnight.
I peered down. The scars had rearranged themselves on my skin. Where there had been a random series of red blotches, grooves, and ridges of shiny flesh criss-crossing each other was now a pattern. It looked—Egyptian, kind of like a big circle with lines raying out from the bottom.
My brain lit up like a video game. "Oh crap, oh crap. That's what the hit-guy was after. Killing me was only secondary. He really wanted the twenties bakelite talisman from the estate-auction box."
It drifted around the kitchen like a rotting rag in the wind. It was not bakelite. It was not an unlicensed Choco-delite premium at all. It was the real talisman, the lost talisman, the source of Helios's power.
"Then where did the thing go? I turned that box inside out. You saw."
It stopped, turned to me, and made that dry-bone noise. The Ptolemaic Egyptians often sealed amulets and talismans within the nacre-stuffed body cavities of mummies. The talisman must have seated itself in your chest when it decided you were a suitable host.
"Okay, now you've grossed me out and can quit trying. How do I get rid of it? Ex-lax?"
Too late. The words rang like the voice of doom. I looked down at the scars on my chest. I looked at him. As you should know, now the talisman will only appear again when you are dead. Even I have partaken of that much masked-hero lore.
"No." I shook my head. "Not me, no. I am not a Mask. I am no hero." I lost it then, and raged around that kitchen like a complete and utter asshole. It stood there, waiting me out. Was the tilt of the head sympathetic? I didn't want to know.
I was about to start breaking things when it asked, What about the rest of your aircrew, when that plane went down in the Balkans?
"Bullshit!" I yelled. It stared at me, the orbs of fire twisting into tiny whirlpools that drained into someplace where nothing could swim. Confronted by that, it was no surprise that I hesitated and reconsidered my tantrum. As I put the toaster back down, I asked "How the hell did you know about that?"
I read the local papers, Rusty. You received a medal, if you'll remember.
"So? Being a hero is an ongoing job. One stupid impulse doesn't make me a hero, no matter what the media says. And, believe you me, how we got free from the local militia, the part that didn't make the papers—" I broke off and shook my head. "Not heroic." Turns out, enemy militia patrol commanders have their unrealized fantasies, too, but Jeff wasn't getting those details.
Your actions attest that you are a person who cannot tolerate just standing by. Given that, the talisman will make you into a hero, will you, nil you. Such items are reputedly quite stubborn about their perceptions.
I make a living knowing about Masks, so I knew he was correct. That took the fight right out of me. I wandered out into the living room, still feeling dazed. A few seconds later, it followed, carrying a beer. Greedily, I grabbed the drink and said, "Don't let me have another one," before I gulped it down. Then I grimaced. "Jesus, Jeff, what the hell?"
When I am truly feeding I have a deleterious effect on any nearby milk products as well as beer, not to mention green-goods. I threw out your romaine for you.
"Warn me next time, will you? No, don't bother. At least I don't want another beer. That was disgusting." I took a deep breath. "Jeff. I've tried being a hero before. All I did was gross out the guys I thought I was helping and then compounded that first blunder by behaving like an idiot and getting hurt." Okay, here came a real confession to Jeff, of my all-time stupid stunt number one. "The way I got these scars? I thought I was smothering a grenade. It was a smoke grenade some local militiamen had tossed after us as a farewell joke. How dumb is that?"
You can't deny your intent because of your failure, Rusty. Nothing ever always works. The sound of what served it for a voice was colder and more desolate than usual. And if one runs away, then one merely suffers the guilt of inaction.
He had me there. I opened my mouth to say so. But then I took a deep breath and pulled myself together. Feeling my chin jut, I said, "That was then, guy. This is now. I'll take my chance with the guilt. No way am I donning a Mask. No way."
A month and a half later, of course, I found myself standing on a seventh-story rooftop. I was watching the cops respond too late to save some yo-yos who'd thought they were robbing a church, only to be sucked dry by an inter-dimensional leech. Jeff told me later that the old stone church actually housed one of those crackpot cults you get a lot these days, and the reaction of the high priest to someone besides him stealing money from the congregation was to recite a fancy curse he'd read in one of the books he'd gotten off of e-bay. Oops. He should have paid the extra twenty percent and gone to a reputable retailer for his window-dressing, so he could've looked before he bought.
Anyhow, vast slimy eldritch terrors seemed to respond to my new identity as Little Mary Sunshine about the way slugs react to salt. I let the thing have a blast of what was being called the Sunbolt of Helios – the local T.V. news couldn't resist resurrecting that old cliché – and it melted nicely. Meanwhile Jeff took care of the cultic priest guy, who'd been changing into something involving guy-ropes of distorted flesh warping uncanny crystal spikes into indescribable angles, and we'd both been able to bail before the SWAT team arrived. Score another touchdown for the Masks.
Time to leave, I think. That was Jeff, or the Revenant, whichever. They'd been sounding more and more alike over the past few weeks.
"Yeah." I walked over to the rooftop door to the emergency stairs and fried the lock. In this form Jeff could walk though walls, but I couldn't. I could fly now, but when I did I lit up like Las Vegas at twilight every time I lost my concentration. Taking the stairs was slower but a lot less conspicuous if I got distracted. "You coming?"
It hesitated, and then it sighed. Technically I don't get tired, but that was still entirely enough for one night. Following me into the stairwell, Jeff pulled the door shut. Don't forget to call the management company to warn them about this lock.
"The lock can be their payment for giant interdimensional bloodsucker extermination." I dialed up the Helios effect some, to the point where I was a blurry, brilliantly-shining man-shaped light. No sense leaving records of my real self on any hidden security cameras in this place. I'd dial the light back down again as we left the building.
Sixteen flights of stairs and two blocks later, we were in a taxi and heading home. I'm not counting the pauses while Jeff ducked into an alley to pack away the Revenant, and I used a payphone to call about the lock, distorting my voice with a nifty little electromagnetic trick Jeff had suggested the previous week. All that our cabby wanted to talk about was the fuss by the former Christian Science church, but he seemed satisfied with my grunts in response. Jeff wasn't talking. He had his eyes shut and was leaning back against the plastic upholstery, smiling slightly. Other local Masks or no, Santa Teresa is a big city, and the metropolis next door is even bigger. Jeff's schedule is busy. So his having steady back-up for affairs like tonight's was a huge relief for him.
Me, I was just relieved that he hadn't taken notice of how I was dressed underneath the Helios glow. We got back up into the apartment and I went straight to my bedroom. There I quickly stripped off the tight black jeans and black t-shirt I'd been wearing when the invisible mark on my forehead had suddenly burned cold. Tonight hadn't been my shift for patrol. So when Jeff had called me in to help with the leech around one or so, I'd already been over at Bootcamp Dread for a few hours. The guy who'd been at the bar with me was probably wondering what he'd done wrong, why I'd flinched and ducked out on him so suddenly. Too bad: the man had been interesting. And I had really liked his looks, too.
I put on blue jeans and an old MaskCon LXII t-shirt and went out into the living room. Jeff was stretched out on the couch, looking as tired as I felt.
"Okay, pal, you owe me one."
"I'm sorry I had to call you in during your night off." Jeff pushed his glasses back up his nose, frowned, and then took them off and cleaned them. They tended to develop odd stains if he wore them right after he'd been the Revenant.
I waved a hand. "No, not for interrupting me. For letting you talk me into this masked-hero gig." Shaking my head, I added, "After the math and the community service clubs, I should have known what would happen. Hobbies that take over the world."
Jeff sat up abruptly. "D&D was your idea."
"Then you, too, should have known what would happen. We're always getting sucked into each other's dopey pastimes."
He rolled his eyes before closing them to convey how intently he was ignoring me.
"So I believe the time has come to normalize this."
That next-to-last word made Jeff's eyelids fly back open. Then they narrowed like I'd flicked him in the ass with a towel.
I grinned at him. "You've been covering at the shop the last couple of weeks so that I can stay up late." As Helios I seemed to need less sack time than formerly, but, unlike the Revenant/Jeff, I still had to get some sleep every single night. "I think we should put you on the payroll so you can lose wages to taxes and SSE just like everyone else."
I guess whatever Jeff had been expecting, this conversation wasn't it. "Rusty, I don't need the money."
"Having a day-job is good cover."
"I don't—" He frowned. "All right, maybe I do need the cover." I've always liked the fact he'll admit when he could be wrong. "I'm sure that someone somewhere in Washington D.C. knows exactly what I am, but I don't want to share my activities with the remainder of the world." He grimaced. "Especially not the media."
"Plus, as an official employee, you get first option on the new stock," I added sweetly. Having just visibly drooled over a pristine fifties Mask pin-up calendar that I'd earmarked towards getting George Henderson to quit bugging me, Jeff knew better than to claim that he didn't need that perk either. I took a moment to wonder why the hell Jeff didn't take advantage of being a first-string masked-hero to meet more of the lady Masks. Then my brain clicked back on, and I considered how charming the Revenant would be at an ordinary public get-together. Nope, Jeff would have to manage the social life for both of them. Him. Whatever.
Not a good idea to let attention drift while talking with Jeff. He'd been considering. "Okay, I'll take the job. But, in exchange, there's something you can do for me."
"Yeah?" I pitched the word towards receptive with a hint of wary.
"You've been stalling on trying to find out who wanted the Helios talisman enough to hire a hit-man." He studied me some more. "Or you're formulating another one of your clever plans."
"Such as, how about getting someone who knows what he's doing to take care of the inquiry?"
"A private detective?"
"Yup. Nothing solid so far. But his latest report's due in tomorrow, and you can kick in on the bill since you're so interested. Although I took care of finding out more about the old lady who had the talisman myself. There I knew what I was doing."
"Give me a couple of minutes." He got up and went into the kitchen to make his tea and my coffee, and then leaned on the counter that divided the kitchen from the living room to listen. "Okay, keep talking."
"Mrs. Randolph was a collector, all right." I got my mug from him and sat back down. "I found that out from her housekeeper, Mrs. Jimenez, an old neighbor of my Mom's who'd given me the heads-up about the estate auction in the first place. But what I didn't know then, because I hadn't asked, was Mrs. Randolph's maiden name. Betty Weymouth."
I paused for effect, and for a sip of coffee. The pause was long. Jeff slowly grinned and asked, "Remember that time I assumed you knew the story on the Bernoulli family? It turned out that you weren't well acquainted with the generational feuds of mathematicians."
Right: for all that he was a Mask, masked-hero gossip was my field, not his. "Miss Weymouth was what we'd call a metahuman groupie these days."
"If you're feeling polite, you would."
Mask-fucker was the usual slang term, yeah. "She was famous, a Style magazine-gorgeous socialite who not only had lots of fun but the sense to quit while she was ahead by marrying a guy with even more money than she had."
Jeff nodded. "You think that her husband, Mr. Randolph, was also Helios?"
"The timing's right. Later they moved out to this coast, around the time Helios disappeared, and Mr. Randolph died right after that. And if Helios was rich that would sure explain why he couldn't care less about the usual schlock money."
No one pays you for being a Mask, so lots of them keep the roofs over their heads by getting a cut from the manufacturers on the sort of stuff I sell. The huckstering has been going on for generations. Your grandparent's occult protectors handsomely depicted in lush colors on twenties cigarette cards: collect the whole set, preferably by buying them from me. "After all, Jeff, you have a little spare change, and I haven't seen any Revenant action-figures lately."
"Point taken. All right, the trick is to find out who traced you from the auction."
"And that's what the guy I hired is after."
He took off his glasses and examined them again. "About the hiring. Are you sure you can trust this P.I. of yours?"
"Yeah. Harry's fine." Said detective and I had previously met under private circumstances that had left me with a good grip on his character, if not on his identity. When I'd been making my phone calls, checking for a detective I could afford, his voice on the other end of the line had been a shock. And not only for me: Harry told me later that he almost hung up when he realized who he was talking to. Sheer coincidence, but a useful one. So I'd tried to sound confident enough that Jeff wouldn't ask for details.
I must have failed. He was cleaning his glasses again, a delaying tactic I knew from the old days, while he mustered his arguments.
"Look, Jeff, the guy's a personal acquaintance, okay? I trust him." Jeff looked stubborn and his mouth opened, but I cut him off. "Can you take my word on this one? For once?"
Man, he hates being interrupted before he can make his case. Not to mention his dislike of being asked to accept arguments from authority, which may account for what happened next. His eyebrows went up. His tone went bone dry. For a moment the Revenant seemed to peek out of his eyes at me. "Just tell me he's an old boyfriend, Rusty, okay?"
I looked at him during the long few seconds my brain sat in my skull digesting the fact Jeff knew I was gay. Shit, of course Jeff-the-genius knew I was gay. Then I found my voice again. "Damn it, now I'll never know if I would have found my balls someday and told you myself." But I wasn't going to back off entirely. "And my detective wasn't a boyfriend, just a fuck-buddy."
Jeff's lips moved, trying out the phrase. His near-perfect ignorance of both popular and alternate culture was surreal. He hadn't been so isolated before, even back at good ol' Holden Caulfield High. Thanks, Revenant.
"If you're so worried, Jeff, I'll invite him over for dinner some evening this week and you can double-check my judgment yourself. Then you can apologize."
Jeff's expression got earnest. "Rusty, I've been thinking about this. Your guests, I mean, not your ability to assess others, which is ample. Since I don't carry a cell phone we should set up some kind of a signal so I'll realize that you're having a guy over and can be someplace else. You know, like tying something around the doorknob in a college dorm." His face went back towards uncertainty. "I've been hanging around this apartment for so long that I thought my presence might be becoming a problem. Perhaps I should be looking for my own place, instead."
"Your being around's not a problem. In fact, with the Mask stuff this arrangement makes sense. No, I'm still digesting your knowing about my social life."
"Ah?" Obviously stalling now, he took off his glasses and polished them yet again. He was going to wear them out.
"How long have you known?"
"Well." He put the glasses back on and peered, looking more professorial than I'd seen him look in a while. "I suspected something back in high school, but I wasn't sure until your mother confirmed my hunch while you were in the Air Force. She was worried that they'd find out about your preferences and give you trouble."
I closed my eyes. Great. I suppose I'd been lucky to figure out any of my preferences before everyone else did and told me. "I hope you could relieve her mind."
He sounded embarrassed. "I'm afraid I lied. I said I couldn't imagine there being a problem, given your character and skills."
"Yeah, that was a lie. That was also a good decision." Mom had written that Jeff visited her in the hospital, but she hadn't mentioned this particular conversation. I opened my eyes. "Okay, how about a piece of tape on the doorjamb when I have company?"
He smiled rather shyly.
I added, "And, speaking of hanging around, you might as well start kicking in on the rent, too."
"Oh. Okay. And I should take over more of the housework, too." He brightened. "If I'm sharing expenses, I can repaint the back bedroom."
I gave him a steady stare. "Anything but black like your old place, you can. This isn't the Church of Doom." The way I was feeling about him at this moment – hell, the way I'd been feeling for a stupid-long span of time – he could probably even have talked me into black. But, for both our sakes, he really didn't need to know that.
We didn't have to invite Harry over to dinner, as it turned out. He dropped by the store the next morning before I opened, and spotted Jeff behind the counter, where my new-employee-to-be was being glum and filling out paperwork.
"Nice," was Harry's observation.
"Straight," was mine.
He checked again. "Are you sure he's the sort where it matters?"
Even though we were on public terrain this was my detection job he was working on, so I was quite comfortable saying, "Shut up, you. He's not what else you're thinking, either. How about my report?"
He passed me a floppy. Welcome back to the Stone Age. "Here you go. I'd have e-mailed it to you, but you couldn't e-mail me back my check." Then he grinned and asked me, using the same volume, "Free for some fun on Friday? Pretty-please?"
I suppressed a flinch that my body hadn't learned I didn't need any more. Then I took a deep breath, and told myself to say something. But before I could come up with anything, without looking at us, Jeff said, "Rusty's working closing, and we're open late on Fridays. He's off on the weekend evenings, though." Then he added plaintively, "Does anyone know how many people I should be telling the I.R.S. I am this time?"
"Zero gets you more money right now, one less hassle at the end of the year," Harry told him. Then he asked me, "How about Saturday?"
"Saturday's good. If the store's still standing, that is." I spared Jeff a scowl for meddling in my social life. He ignored me.
"Fine, I'll be at the club." Harry gave Jeff another considering once-over. "Feel free to bring a friend."
Jeff looked up, pushed his glasses back into place, did his own considering, and neatly flipped Harry off. Our local reprise of Phillip Marlowe laughed and strolled over to lean on the counter where Jeff was wrestling with his paperwork, but I made the moral effort and rejected eavesdropping in favor of the computer.
I started when Jeff talked right into my ear a few minutes later. I'd gotten preoccupied enough with the report to completely miss the sound of the bell as the door closed after Harry. "Bootcamp Dread?" Jeff asked me. "What kind of social club is called Bootcamp Dread?"
That was a question that could wait for another day and one way distant in the future as far as I was concerned. I was lucky enough to have something more important to tell him. "Never mind that. Guess who was in the auctioneer's office chatting up the staff the day after Mrs. Randolph's Estate sale?
"More like the BMF. George Henderson, big-money fan and persistent customer extraordinary."
I swear, the room darkened and Jeff's glasses started to glow. "Odd that George didn't want to talk to you about the auction face to face."
"Yeah, that's kind of what I thought." Our eyes met. Something dark blue was flickering behind his pupils. "Monday mornings are kind of slow. And I happen to know that George doesn't usually get out of his house before noon."
Jeff nodded thoughtfully and went to get the notice card that I put in the window when emergencies force me to close the store for a while. I flipped the blinds. We took turns in the restroom, and then left by the back door, the one that lets out into an alley. We were on our way to have a little chat with Georgie-boy.
To be accurate, Jeff woke up George for a little chat while I lurked in the master bedroom's closet, ha ha ha. Helios showing up might have been too big a hint about who ended up with the talisman, given how much time George had spent in my store over the years, bugging me. I still hadn't learned a new set of body-language and verbiage for being behind the Mask. Anyhow, the Revenant was better at intimidation than a brand-new Mask being boomed in the press as a force for Shininess and Nice. Good thing they hadn't gotten a peek at my private life.
The sound of loud snores in the bedroom ending in a choking noise told me to stop drifting and start paying attention. I eased the closet door open.
Yuck. Jeff was doing its corpse-candle trick to illuminate the well-shaded bedroom, radiating the bright but somehow slimy blue light that made you realize that the oily murk churning around under its cape had nothing to do with shadowing. I though I could make out faint hints of objects amidst the smoke, coiling and writhing. I hate it when Jeff does that.
"What do you want?" That was George's shriek-voice, and sounding worse than the time I sold El Caballero's whip to another patron while George was still holding out, waiting for me to lower the price.
Child of flesh. Pathetic scrap. I winced. Well, corn should work on George who lived for this kind of crap. Why do you meddle in affairs that are none of your reck? Did you truly consider yourself worthy to bear the talisman of Helios?
For a moment I heard nothing but breathing. At least George was smart enough to keep quiet when he didn't know what to say. Maybe the Revenant would give him a clue.
But Jeff was smarter than that, smart enough to feed George a fake lead. Even by chance, I dislike having my path intersect with that of a professional killer. But the mortal and I lingered together before I removed his body.
Technically true, but implying a lie. George was probably imagining torturous enormities of extracted information. Jeff kept quiet and let him do that. There was a small clicking sound of bone rubbing bone, as if Jeff was honing its forefinger against its thumb. I'd noticed before that the tips of its fingers were very long, razor-sharp.
"I don't know what you mean." Watch out, George had found his voice. Jeff didn't say anything in its turn, but the rasping noise of its fingers got louder. George resumed talking, hastily. "No, I really, really don't. I was only doing a favor for a friend, Mr. Ben Hathaway." Jeff still didn't speak. "Mr. Hathaway's an elder of the Church of the Holy River. My spiritual director."
Even in this crisis you could hear the note of pride in George's voice. What an idiot. The Church of the Holy River is another one of those supposed spiritualist denominations that sprung up after the Tunguska Strike. They're decentralized, and rumor implies that our local lot in Santa Teresa dabbles in some pretty dubious stuff.
I have heard that name recently. Jeff sounded thoughtful. I have heard it from one who thought he was a necromancer. Mr. Hathaway was once his spiritual director, too.
Jeff leaned forward. What should have been its tongue flicked out and then back into the scarlet void of its mouth. I hadn't seen it do that before, and it made me feel slightly cold, a little ill. My pulse sped up. I was busy reminding myself that, being Helios and bonded to the Revenant, I would feel the – object – just as Jeff's human tongue, when Jeff asked, Are you a necromancer, child of flesh?
George didn't say anything. He just wheezed. But through the crack of the door I could see his head frantically shaking no.
Jeff sighed like the last puff of wind before a gale hits, reached out those long hands of its, and George's eyes got real big. He didn't make a sound this time but a certain pervasive smell filled the room. Then he fainted dead away. Impressive. Not nice on Jeff's part, but impressive.
When I had disentangled myself from a plush velour bathrobe and gotten out the closet, Jeff was thoughtfully drumming fingers against George's cheeks, as if the guy was a watermelon it was checking for ripeness.
"You all done, Buddy?"
Perhaps. I am still considering. Tap-tap went the fingers. Tap-tap.
"If it's on my account, don't bother. I'm more worried about his spiritual director than him. If, on the other hand, you're thinking about lunch, still don't bother. The Japanese joint over on Central serves stuff tastier than George any day."
It turned to me. The orbs flared up so intensely they seemed to bulge out of the sockets, an effect that was unpleasant even for it. What the— What do you mean?
I looked over at the bed. "About lunch? Are you sure he's really unconscious? Ah, never mind. Come on."
About two minutes later, perched on the roof in the shade of a big canyon oak tree, it asked, What did you mean when you said 'lunch', Rusty?
Jeff managed to look impressively murky in the sun-dappled shade while seated on warm red adobe tiles, quite the accomplishment. I told it, "I wasn't trying to top you in the drop-the-bomb stakes, there. I thought you knew that I knew your other secret. I really did." The cloak flared and settled, shimmering with odd, oily highlights. It was upset. I started to reach out, thought better of it, and pulled my hand back.
Then I took a deep breath. "Look, I know what I felt the first time you touched me while you were behind the Mask. And I know what happened that time you were hurt and I was stupid. You're some sort of predator. You don't just kill people, you eat them. Their lives, I mean."
It sat, silent except for the heels drumming restlessly on the roof. Beneath it, the tile was gradually darkening a bit, cracking. Odd, since it usually didn't have that effect on inorganic stuff. The poor guy must be extra special upset.
That's not the entire story.
I shrugged. "I didn't think it was, Jeff. And don't worry. I know there are lots of easier ways to find prey than roaming around the city helping to save folks from creeps who might or might not force you to kill them. You could have gone in for geriatric nursing, guy, or become some sort of first-response disaster-insurance assessor. They probably wouldn't have caught you."
It didn't say a word to that. It only drummed its heels a few more times on the tiles.
Suddenly, a window below us slid open with a bang, and a familiar voice said, tone hysterical, "I've called the cops!"
Sure enough, you could just hear sirens echoing up the canyon from the boulevard below. But George was still stupid to have tried to scare Jeff off himself before they arrived. Without warning Jeff threw itself forward over the edge of the roof. Its cape flared and the clawed and prehensile toes hooked into the gutter, which made a noise of protest but held. The Revenant's visage must have popped into view maybe three inches in front of George's nose, upside down.
George's screams were extraordinary and sustained. I shook my head. Some people just don't know when they're well-off.
But Jeff didn't feed before we left. It knew I really did want Japanese for lunch, even if the time was just past eleven. And it would have been sorry afterwards.
Unlike me, once you get him started, Jeff likes to tell his stories face to face. This little chat took place in a corner booth over tea and noodle soup.
I poured him some tea and he wrapped his hands around the cup. Then after the waiter took our orders, he said, "Rusty, I'm dead."
My eyebrows hiked. "Before, as the Revenant, you said you were 'of death.'"
"Maybe the Revenant was. Is. The Jeff part of me is just dead."
I didn't say anything. Instead I waited.
"You know how I used to get, like during that one year in high school? The...moods: the anger, the despair. Well, in graduate school they came back, got worse. So one night I killed myself."
Even at that I kept quiet. I didn't feel so good, but I kept quiet.
Jeff told the willow-pattern teacup, "I was already participating as a test subject in a DoD study on near-death experiences as a tool for detecting possible occult threats to the noosphere. The trials involved the use of some pretty powerful drugs, so I thought I could make my suicide look like an accident." His voice got very low, a sign I knew from old that meant he was feeling guilty. "I didn't stop to think what might have happened to the research team afterwards. That was bad."
"You didn't think of your friends. That was bad, too."
He stared at me for a moment, startled out of whatever memories he was wrapping himself up in. "I didn't feel I had any friends around then, or deserve them..." Catching my look, he trailed off. "Okay, you're right. That was bad, too. I'd never be so dumb these days, but I'll also never have another chance to pull such a stunt. So don't worry."
My snort was half-directed towards myself. Jeff smiled rather wryly before he continued, "I used a little sleight-of-hand to adulterate my own dose for that night's trial, never mind with what, and died. But it turns out that the experimental team was on to something because as I died, the Revenant showed up."
"And it stuck around."
"That's one way of viewing the matter. It wasn't sentient, really. More a kind of complex designed organism with a lot of death-related capabilities but no real self-awareness. I, on the other hand, was self-aware, and able to decide that being the Revenant's dead animal snack was not what I wanted from my afterlife."
He doodled with a fingertip on the tablecloth, sketching out a formula of some kind. "Now I wonder if what I envisioned as being devoured was actually part of the normal process of— Well. Anyhow. Seemingly the particular cognitive abilities that a mathematician cultivates count for something within that environment. I could fight back. I did." He blinked, embarrassed. "You could say I ate it. That's the closest comparison I can come up with. Our struggle even registered on the monitors although I never told the experimental team exactly what happened. After I won, I used its energy and abilities to claw my way back." His gaze met my own. "But I'm still dead."
I pursed my lips. "Sort of. Your physiology seems to be pretty normal."
"By and large. In a manner of speaking." He shut up long enough for the udon to arrive. When we'd arranged everything to our satisfaction, Jeff chewed, swallowed, and continued, "Now I have to do to others what the Revenant did to me. Not want to, not need to, have to." This time his eyes weren't shadowed when he said, "I was worried enough to try suicide again. No go, I'm afraid."
Slowly I hoisted my eyebrows. My noodles slipped off my chopsticks. "You're the Grim Reaper."
"I wish." Jeff poked at a mushroom floating in his bowl. "By all legendary accounts, he gets some sort of list. I have to improvise."
"Yes. Talk about your experimenter's bias. Someone who must kill should not be in charge of the execution roster." He sighed and, for once, the sigh was all Jeff. "I stick to self-defense, if only on behalf of others, but it's hard sometimes. If a man with a hammer sees every problem as a nail, what would a sentient hammer see?"
I thought that over. There was silence, broken only by slurping, for a minute or two. Then I asked him, keeping the words calm, "The killing feels good?"
"Not good, no." He gave me a look that made my throat dry. "The killing feels wonderful. For me." His gaze went back to his noodles. "The fear's good, too."
"If you don't mind how you feel the next morning." Yeah, I was speaking from experience. I'd known those mornings after.
"There is that." He reached for the chili powder.
So when we got back to the store it was time to telephone Harry again. I asked him to check up on George's "spiritual advisor" but I might as well not have bothered. Jeff got on the internet and, excluding time spent coaxing our good gaming buddy and customer Dr. Wendy Lloyd into indulging in some early Toy-Boy movie tie-ins and then selling a bunch of magazines and sodas to the late lunchtime crowd, he found out more than we'd ever wanted to know about Mr. Hathaway.
For all of you who didn't have Mr. Langley, and so weren't paying attention in Civics, I'll remind you that most folks didn't really like what happened in the 'teens, after the Strike, when their nearest and dearest started coming back from the dead. So necromancy is now illegal, excluded from the freedom of religion clause by the twentieth amendment to the Constitution. But since the spiritualists still had lots of influence back then, spiritualism was exempted as a legitimate denomination. Never mind the fact that none of the guys who might have some right to an opinion, like Jeff, has ever said a word about the afterlife involving ectoplasm or tambourines. They've never said anything about there being pearly gates or abandoning hope, either, so the Spiritualists slipped by on a technicality.
Mr. Eric Hathaway and his gang weren't really bothering to pretend they followed the classic spiritualist tradition. If you took a careful look at their website, they promised that "the final door will never close without the intervention of the elect." They also had a lot to say about harnessing the powers of darkness to draw the chariots of the children of light. To one familiar with the rhetoric, it was pretty clear that someone over there was either playing at, or actually attempting, necromancy.
Oh, and Hathaway had posted a complex and extended article about the Egyptian tradition of hermeneutic inquiry, with emphasis on their mastery of life and death. He had all sorts of theories about Anubis, Osiris-Re, and their Greek and Roman syncretic successors as the ultimate sources of all western Occult Wisdom including the Hebrew stream. No wonder he was so hot to get his hands on the Helios talisman.
We'd just gotten done digesting that particular pill, and were debating what to do next, when the door rang again. We both looked up, Jeff from his seat at the computer and me from where I was putting a new roll of tape into the register.
Son of a bitch. No way had I forgotten that face, even in its current condition, starting to rot and stained with dirt.
This time the hit-guy, or whoever was running him, didn't hesitate. The gun, now without the silencer, came out fast from inside what had once been a nice suit jacket. But I was faster. I turned on the light and let him have it. He pulled the trigger before my bolt reached him, but he might as well have been trying to shoot into a blast furnace. By changing into Helios so fast, I torched a perfectly good pair of jeans and a nice Arcane League t-shirt, not to mention incinerating my shorts, my socks, some well-worn sneakers, and the cash-register panel I'd been about to put back into place. Too bad, but I wasn't taking any chances. Jeff was in his human form, and I still wasn't sure how much damage his body could handle that way.
The dead man melted down. It was pretty disgusting, even thought he didn't scream or run around. Those reactions must be reserved for the living. He also didn't set off my store's sprinkler system, which meant that I was in for a long-term wrangle with my landlord about maintenance if I survived the next day or two.
Dropping the light and grabbing my fire extinguisher, I went around the counter and sprayed the flames that wanted to take my store along with the corpse. When I was done I was left with a nasty pile of grease, bits of metal and bone, foam all over my locked cases, and not much more. The section of the carpet he'd been standing on would have to be replaced. Funny that the rounds in his gun hadn't cooked off. I toed at the mess, and then fished the automatic up and looked. Not loaded.
"What the hell?"
Jeff's tone was calm although he was frowning. He doesn't like either of us touching guns. "No bullets?"
"Ah. I wondered why I didn't hear a shot. I'd guess he was being sent to retrace his path on the day he disappeared. Whoever dispatched him to gather information didn't want him able to consummate his revenge."
Although I don't leave fingerprints as Helios, on general principles I heated up what was left of the gun before I dropped it back into the mess. Then Jeff closed the store again while I put on some fancy togs I kept in the back for when I wanted to head straight to the more formal bars after work. He didn't say a word about the boots, or even the leather pants in combination with the black suit-coat, which is probably a sign of how worried we both were.
While I was getting my belt buckled and laced, I called out, "Do you think the necromancer followed in person, or was he looking on through the eyes of the zombie?"
"Lich, not zombie," Jeff replied absent-mindedly. "And the necromancer was probably scrying. I didn't leave enough neurological capacity intact for the corpse to either have been a zombie or ridden."
I poked my head around the divider and grimaced at him.
"I don't actually eat brains," he said, looking hurt. "My feeding merely disorganizes the cerebral tissue to the point where—"
"Jeff. Buddy. Pal." He shut up. "Favor? Don't explain the details. Just get me the shovel in the broom closet and some of the heavy-duty trashcan liners, okay? And you'd better bring the Lysol, too."
As he was helping me do a fast clean-up, he said, "Well, here goes your sales for the rest of the afternoon and evening."
"Yeah." I knew I sounded glum. "At least the Church of the Blessed River has an address. I'm really not in the mood to go hunting all over town, especially for an ambush."
"No need to hunt. The Revenant can sense the source from which this one was dispatched." Jeff pursed his lips before adding, "So you think we're heading into a trap?"
"Could that be more obvious?"
"Not really, no. I only wanted to check that we were on the same wavelength. I'm sure George called his spiritual advisor right after he finished explaining himself to the police." He smiled, and I could see the Revenant in him. I was no longer surprised to feel some goosebumps. "Mr. Hathaway will be expecting me. But you might still be a surprise."
I smiled too, and not nicely. Maybe I was wearing the right togs for this party after all.
After some discussion, we opted for the subtle strategy of me being completely obvious. Twenty minutes later I was hiking across the parking lot and the usual green swath of devout crabgrass to the side door of the Church of the Holy River. The place was fifties vintage, a pale imitation of a pale imitation of a New England saltbox church. I turned the doorknob slowly and felt it give. Unlocked. Then I elaborately straightened my jacket collar. Hi, Jeff.
As I went through the door, the mark on my forehead twinged sharply. Like we'd thought, the place was seething with occult force, probably rotten with protective wards against the likes of Jeff. Easy enough to arrange: given what we suspected this group had been up to, the correct supplies would be right at hand. Mustn't have corpses and ghosts wandering around the streets, terrifying the citizenry, after you were done pumping them for stock tips or blackmail material. But no matter what this Church's protections were, the Revenant's mark on me wasn't, excuse the expression, dead. Good.
Inside, the sacristy was so respectably bland it hurt, furnished with golden-brown pile carpeting in that fashionable seventies big-circle-pattern, lots of cupboards paneled in pseudo-oak, and one of those lame mid-century paintings of Christ the Caucasian Shepard hanging over the sink. There was a faint whiff of recent burning, though, that made my nostrils flare. And standing at the sink, washing out some sort of chalice, was a tall man with dark eyes and a well-cropped black beard that I took to be Mr. Hathaway.
He finished running the water, turned around, looked startled, and frowned. "I know you. You're the Mask store owner. That's an odd outfit for visiting a place of worship, Mr. Reyes."
Yeah, there's nothing like subtle strategy. "And you're Mr. Hathaway, the guy who sent a man with a gun into my store. Twice." His expression turned politely incredulous, but he kept his gaze too firmly fixed to carry off the unspoken lie. So I continued, "You'll have to excuse the way I'm dressed. What your pal did in my store messed up my usual work clothes. And my display cases. And my nerves." I didn't have to fake the shudder. "The visitors just keep getting worse, these days."
"The Revenant demanded that you come here, didn't it?"
"After this afternoon's visit?" I snorted. "Like it had to force me."
He eyed me a little warily. "I hope William wasn't overenthusiastic in obtaining information from you. His only job was to pick up the trail of something we need. I'll pay for any damages." Then he went all frankly and manfully confiding. For the first time he showed enough charisma that I could believe he made a living retailing religion. "But you really shouldn't allow yourself to get pulled into this affair. The Revenant's a dead thing, you know. Such creatures are far outside the protection of any law."
I gave him an incredulous stare. "Hey, I'm alive. And when that guy you sent came in the second time, he was pretty dead. Doesn't that make him a problem by your rule? Look, I wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt, you being an Elder and all, but this is bullshit. Someone else can sort out the mess. I'm calling the cops."
Actually, even given the alternative, one part of me hoped that I wasn't. When it comes to any whiff of necromancy, the powers-that-be arrest and confiscate first and sort everything out way, way second. Not to mention the fact that I didn't want them poking around my life much more than Hathaway probably did. But my threat had a purpose. Unlike the characters in dime novels who'll spout off their plans for no particular reason, real people usually need a coax or a jab before they'll share their business.
"No you aren't." Hathaway smiled as he said the words, but his hand dropped to a big book bound in red hymnal pseudo-leatherette on the counter next to the sink. Somehow I doubted he was turning to Holy Scriptures for comfort. "You're an intelligent man, and this place is protected against the Revenant's influence, so you should now be thinking clearly."
Interesting opening maneuver on his part. I started for the outside door.
"I admit, I picked the wrong member of my congregation to speak with you, but I needed someone who could defend himself against the baneful interest of the dark." He sighed. "I underestimated how baneful that interest would be."
Turning, taking a couple of steps towards him, I hiked eyebrows. "You have a lot of congregational members like that, Elder?"
"A few. Life on the streets teaches you to know evil when you see it." All of the sudden he was very weary. "This is a rough fight I'm in, Mr. Reyes, and I have to recruit some fairly tough allies. I'm afraid they sometimes forget their manners in a crisis. For that, I apologize."
Making sure my face was wary, I kept moving, back into proper speaking range. "What kind of crisis happens in a memorabilia store?"
"One involving memorabilia. Memorabilia that, in this case, is the key to the power of Helios."
Uh-oh. The probability that Rusty-the-deviant-store-owner was in big trouble had just climbed through the ceiling. Even if Hathaway was straightforward and simon-pure, rather than some sort of whack-job, he wouldn't be giving away this kind of information. There'd be too big a chance of merchant-me trying to find the item in question in order to sell it and turn a fast profit.
"You're nuts. The only vintage Helios merchandise I've ever had hands on was a Choco-delite premium, and I sold that." I spotted his minute twitch. Ah, the advantages in this situation of having spent years dealing with rabid collectors.
"It's very important that I have that premium. Very, very important." His eyes seemed to get larger and his voice more sonorous. Could he be trying to slip a whammy over on me, or was he just one hell of a salesman in a crunch? The answer didn't really matter. I kept quiet and looked stubborn. Look at me, Elder Hathaway, protecting my imaginary cash-cow customer.
"Perhaps if I explain." His hand still resting on the book, he considered me, and then said, "My researches have convinced me that, because of its scarcity, I can use the Rite of Similarity on that imitation premium and find the missing talisman of Helios."
Ooo, he'd told a fib. But it was, I had to admit, a sensible fib. "Well, according to the newspapers you can scratch that plan. Someone else obviously got there first. All you'd find at the other end of your rite would be the new Helios guy." Who'd never be someone that dressed like me, now, would he, Mr. Hathaway? "Unless you just want to talk with Helios."
"Not want, but need to talk with Helios. As a Mask fan, you know the power Helios had over the forces of the night. That power was not as well-employed by its previous possessor as it might have been. I've been studying the Greco-Egyptian fusion point in occult lore, and I believe the Helios talisman to be much older and stronger than has been theorized." His expression grew determined. "Powerful enough, in fact, to close the gates to the darkness that the Great Strike of '08 opened and to destroy all the creatures left behind. If I- teach him, that is."
I wondered if he'd being going to say something more along the lines of "If I supplant him"? In either case, his was a great plan with only two problems. First, I was Helios, so I knew he was wrong. No way could I reshape the local cosmos to the pre-1908 pattern all by myself. I made a mental note to double-check, just in case, but that faint possibility still left problem number two in place. Even if his plan was possible, I somehow doubted he was the one to carry it out.
Growing up around smart people gives you some advantages. You learn ways to tell the difference between a valid idea and a valid person spouting the idea. I asked him, "If you're going to get rid of all the night-crawlers, what about the Revenant? It's some sort of creature of the dark, and all the papers say it's a good guy. And it warned me about you, just like you warned me about it."
He said, "Don't be ridiculous. Truth be told, the thing is an inhuman predator that would enjoy killing you more than saving you. I'm sure it will follow you here if it can. It knows that I'm a threat." He shook his head. "No, too dangerous."
Almost every word true, and Hathaway seemed not to have a doubt in the world about what he was saying. On the opposing side, this tricky little conversation had been Jeff's notion. He didn't want to make a mistake about Hathaway with his temper feeling frayed.
Time to push. I paced a little, and then turned back to say, "I'm just not sure that all of them are bad, the creepy-crawlies, I mean. There've been a few decent criminals, so I guess there could be an okay night creature or even an acceptable necromancer." Did he catch the jab? He didn't show any signs that he did. I shook my head and then set him his final exam. "I'm sorry. I still think I'd better call the cops and let you talk to them."
He gave me a flat stare. "You haven't seen what I've seen in the night. But I'm done with attempting persuasion. And I'm afraid you still aren't telephoning the police." He picked up the big book and opened it, then took a deep breath.
Okay. Like I'd thought, he was a whack-job. And a whack-job with no desire to change his fanatical ways any time soon, an active fixation on going after certain types of folks, and a bad back-log of knowledge about how to cause trouble for everyone.
Only the intellectual rags ever discuss the fact, but there's a reason our society doesn't crack down on Masks, rogue vigilantes though we are. We're the left hand that the right hand, the one that can't find a way to safely pen up some of the post-Strike villains, doesn't have to acknowledge. That cultural shortcut is perilous in the long term, and one that I'll probably write some editor to complain about in the very near future. But I had an ambitious and self-righteous necromancer in front of me right then.
The Balkans had taught me to make my choices and take my lumps. Even as his lips shaped that dangerous trigger-word, I stepped back on the inconspicuous small bag I'd spotted during all my wandering around, the one that my specialized retailing skills told me held part of what was needed to ward Hathaway against a dead predator. I ground my boot-heel down hard. I also stuck out both palms and fried his book. Finally I said, addressing the big picture of white-bread Jesus amidst his flock of sheep, "Jeff? Suppertime."
Hathaway, who was beginning to realize how much his hands hurt, had enough attention left over to look suddenly alarmed. That is, he looked alarmed until the Revenant darted through the poorly painted baa-baa-baas and settled onto him. After that, Hathaway stuck to noises.
Like Hathaway had said, this was a truth, and one I had to see. I forced myself to watch them the entire time.
When Jeff was done, we busted open a few locks and went through Elder Hathaway's notes. I'll freely admit to being relieved by what we found although I probably should have been revolted. Then I used the sacristy extension to call the cops. Finally we left the residue there, with a few of his more suggestive notes scattered across what was left of his chest, as a warning to the curious.
It was a warning I needed to consider myself.
Jeff and I met up again, me from the flying and him from his eldritch jay-walking, on the roof of my building. When I showed, Jeff was still behind the Mask, that cloak of its undulating slowly in a way for which the sunset breeze off the Pacific couldn't quite be held responsible. I landed, light-footed, right in front of it. Maybe that wasn't discreet, but I was preoccupied.
So was Jeff. It stood there, murk roiling around like the smoke from a tire fire, while I packed Helios away. Then I ran a hand through my hair trying to get it back into place.
Jeff stirred. It had a certain air I recognized, the "Oh why must I do this horrid thing that feels so good," posture that combines relaxation and a guilty slump. I really must be used to the Revenant if I could read Jeff's body language behind the Mask.
So now you see. The tone of the words perfectly split the difference between Jeff the gentle and Jeff the Revenant.
"Yup. Pretty gross."
Is that all you have to say?
"You ever seen what an anti-personnel air-to-ground missile does to the human body? Like I said, pretty gross." I shook my head. "Keep worrying about your targeting, but don't expect me to be running away while you do it."
The cloak slowly flared out towards me, and then suddenly whipped back as if Jeff had decided the movement was a bad idea. Thank you.
I shrugged. "S'okay. Hey, you're owed. You were always good to me while I was stone-walling, especially given that you must have known I wanted you." There. I'd finally gotten a truth out before he'd let me know that he knew.
He didn't seem surprised, of course. I've never minded because I desired your friendship so much myself. Perhaps too much. The sigh this time was creepy-wistful, like the last closing of the front door of an old, abandoned house about to be torn down. At Prep, back when I still had a reasonably normal human libido, I used to wonder what it would be like fooling around with you— It trailed off.
I gaped at him for maybe five or ten seconds before I found my voice. Too bad that I'd found my temper to go with the words. "Why the fuck didn't you tell me this back then? God damn it, Jeff, I wasted my time blowing the captain of the swim team when we could have been swapping hand-jobs!"
The captain— There was a moment's pause, and then, I can't believe you did that. Its leather cape flapped ominously. Johnny Leiber was an utter and consummate asshole.
"You don't need to tell me that. He was going to pimp my services to the entire senior class until I threatened to spill to Mr. Muir who boosted that missing set of answers for the geometry final. After that incident, I had the sense to hunt down the gay hang-outs and lie about my age to get in."
This at least explains why I was wasting my time waiting for you to introduce me to a steady. Although I'm still waiting.
"What? Take on a commitment? And lose my amateur status?" Okay, maybe the rhetorical questions didn't come out as light as I intended.
The dark blue fire in its eye sockets seemed to dim a little. I don't understand.
How did we get onto this subject? "What's to understand? After those girls at Tech, your love-life has been pretty quiet, too."
After Tech I was dead. And I was the Revenant.
I tilted my head. I snorted. "Long-term problem, true, but you aren't even trying for the short-term substitute anymore."
The cloak suddenly wrapped up tight around its murk, and the chitinous white hands clutched at each other. Jeff was – my eyes widened – embarassed. For once, not guilty, but embarassed. I've been being careful because that's one of the details that changed about my physiology. I don't really have normal desires any more. I'm afraid that, these days, I only seem to want what the Revenant wants.
Well, that still meant he wanted something. No, at least two somethings, and he gave away hints of wanting a few things more. I was opening my mouth to point all this out when Jeff turned back to the offensive. You, for your part, don't have my problem.
"I do have a problem, Jeff." I spread my arms out wide. Ta-da.
What? Your looks? Even with the scars you have presence. And many of your other personality traits would seem ideal for supporting a long-term relationship.
"Come on, Jeff. Not even you can be that naïve. Don't you get why I'm too pungent a mouthful for your average guy looking for a home-cooked meal? Doesn't the clothing tell you anything?"
Oh, it's very scary. Dressed that way, you look like a motorcycle-riding taxidermist who reads Gentleman's Wear Weekly. Even the fluttering cape was disdainful.
The last crack did it for my still-shaky temper. I reached out without thinking, plunged both hands into the murk beneath its cape, and yanked. What I meant to do was yank it in close so that I could yell what was going on with me into its face. What I actually did was turn it inside-out.
The sensation was radically unpleasant, combining aspects of old fish-tank complete with dead fish, lemon juice in a paper cut, ten-below-zero weather, and missing a stair. The emotion the contact spawned was worse: I choked back a scream. The result was a hell of a surprise. I ended up with two handfuls of Jeff. To be specific, I ended up with one hand on either side of Jeff's waist. He was so pale he was almost green, and his skin was damp and cold to the touch. And he was bare-ass naked.
"Shit!" For the first time I regretted not having one of those old-fashioned caped costumes. But this was no time for finicky modesty, so I did the next-best thing. I hauled him in tight and turned up the heat. "You might have warned me you come back with no clothes on."
He had to breathe deep before he talked, but he got out, "Why? I had no idea you could force my transformation." Suddenly, he wrapped his own arms around me and squeezed hard. "Rusty, you're such a dork."
"Right back at you."
"How long have you been pissing away your private life, thinking you were too butt-ugly and creepy for a steady?"
"Me? How about you, Mr. I'm-too-spooky-to-get-any-at-all?" His shivers were damping down, thank God. "Jesus, don't you know where the clubs are?"
He peered at me from point-blank range, completely lost. "What?"
I shook my head in mock amazement at his usual abject ignorance. "Old pal of mine, you are this year's poster boy for the annual Save the Endangered Urban Innocent drive. We have to talk some more, but this setting is ridiculous. We're begging for inquisitive roof-top neighbors with telescopes."
"True. And I need clothes."
"And you, for your part, need to get your hands off my rear." But he gave me another hug before he pulled away, the son of a bitch.
Either the maintenance guy had believed my story about wanting an unofficial balcony, or my gratuity had been good enough that he just didn't care. In either case, I had a key to the roof door. We used it and went back down to the apartment where Jeff put on some old trashed chinos. He didn't bother with a shirt. I didn't give him the satisfaction of showing I'd noticed. Instead I made him some tea, got my coffee, slung my jacket over a chair, and parked my booted feet on the coffee table instead of the ottoman. Two could play at the provocation game.
He put the tea down on a coaster, and then sprawled out on the sofa like usual. "All right. Let's hear what you have to say." Tilting his chin down, he looked at me over his glasses. "Tell me the sociological something everybody knows that I missed this time. But whatever it is had better beat live-surgery T.V."
I gave him a haughty look. "I told you about those shows only so that you could avoid them. Not the same thing at all."
He made a skeptical noise but let me keep going.
"We both admit, when it comes to alternate lifestyles, you know—" He held up his hand, thumb and forefinger maybe an eight of an inch apart. "—yeah, not much. Okay, you've been busy, and I guess you thought you had no reason to care." Long experience had taught me to lay out his counter-arguments for him when I could, to speed up the conversation. "Even so, given your particular powers I would have thought you must have heard of phobophiliacs. P-f? Fright clubs?"
His jaw tightened, and then, without speaking, he shook his head no.
For some reason, that's when the pieces fell together. They'd spent long enough in the air. I drew in a deep breath. "When did you stop reading ghost stories?"
"A while back."
I hiked eyebrows.
"All right, during high school."
"Around the same time you started playing nothing but good characters in D&D? And gave away your horror vids? And switched from shooters to puzzle games?" He'd nodded yes each time. I asked, slowly, "Right after we dumped the guns, the ones you'd make those cracks about us taking along to school one day?"
I could practically see the writhing something start to solidify around him, and the room begin to darken, before he pushed the Revenant back down deep. Maybe that's why my voice was so gentle when I said, "When it came to liking other people's fear, you didn't need it to teach you a thing."
His own voice was barely audible. "No. Not really."
I sat bolt upright and examined him, considered the faint threat of death he sometimes conveyed even in his own skin, and then factored in the mildness and self-discipline he'd cultivated within his darkness. Me, I'd only wandered into the clubs because the patrons often read my scars as frightening, and hence attractive. I wasn't a natural horror-meister. I'd had to rely on physical presence and a slight flare for story-telling until I learned the proper skills to dangle my partners over the edge of the abyss and then pull them back again, safe and sound. In my case both the taste and the talent had been buried deep. But in Jeff's case— "Man, they are going to love you."
Jeff held his peace, waiting for me to explain. That was the up side of his fondness for lecturing. He'd listen almost as intently as he talked.
How to get through to him? "Okay, Jeff. In the U.S., what's the biggest genre of popular literature, not to mention the favorite kind of movie and the element most commonly added to all sorts of performances to spice them up? Half credit if you say sex."
"That too, of course, but horror. You're not discussing anything obscure, Rusty. Our national fondness for fright is well known. Foreign commentators still act as if the trait's somehow astonishing and unique, even though it's historically part of the American character. I remember reading de Tocqueville's description of how frontier Americans were always trying to terrorize each other, gain power through fear. And then after the Strike, with the so-called supernatural resurgence—" His counter-lecture suddenly broke off. You could almost see the light bulb appear over his head. "That outfit of yours. It's supposed to be—"
"Suggestive. Intimidating. Scary. As you'd know if you knew anything about alternative culture."
"Bootcamp Dread." He blinked. "They mix sex and fear there."
"We mix sex and fear, yeah. You thought you were the only one? Not by a long shot. In fact the taste is pretty common these days, if usually not so pure."
"Well, fuck," he said, and then went quiet for a very long time. Finally, "But that's not my big problem."
"No help there, I'm afraid. My guys are strictly safe and sane. So are the gals I know." I shrugged. "But maybe it'll keep you calm if your spring is unwound every now and then. Not to mention, you can use the practice to fine-tune your routine. Man, your dialogue is corny."
Jeff scowled at that and said brusquely, "I don't want—" Those first words were the knee-jerk reaction. His next words were the honest ones. "I wouldn't have to hurt anyone?"
"You?" I snorted. "No, not if you're trained not to screw up. All you'd need is that brain and that mouth of yours. Those, and a little leak of what you really are."
For once he didn't wince at the reminder. Instead he was thinking. "What if, uh, dread makes me hungrier for...the other?"
"I think I know how to check for that problem safely. You've already done your worst to someone with no harm done." I slapped my chest. "Me. Or rather, Helios. So until you know for sure that you can control yourself, I'll ride shotgun."
His eyes, meeting mine, were dark with memory. Back in High School, when we were flirting with our juvenile notions of bad by terrorizing renamed canned goods out in the canyons, he'd favored the automatic pistols. I'd wielded the pump shotgun. "Rusty, it's such a risk."
I thought. I really did, forcing myself to separate the experience from my feelings, my fear and my pleasure. "No, I don't think it would be. When you tried to eat the life out of me, I wasn't even tired afterwards. And you couldn't continue past a certain point," I watched to make sure he was also thinking as I reminded him, "even though we both wanted you to go on. The talisman knew when to stop, remember?"
"Besides," I took a deep breath and then pulled my shirt off over my head, "I know you. Now that you've learned a little, you'll be dying of curiosity until you find out more. I suggest we up the chances that, this time, your 'experiment' is properly monitored." After folding up the shirt, I put it down on the coffee table. His face was a picture, one mixing shock, trepidation, and curiosity. But mostly what I saw was hunger.
"So you tell me, Jeff. What do you want for a bedtime snack?" I flexed my chest a little, showing off the Helios scars. "Hero sandwich?"
"Rusty," his voice had dropped into that sepulcher range that makes me shiver. I grinned. His hands, which somehow seemed to be lengthening, reached towards me. Then he paused. And I bet the more earnest Spanish inquisitors and O.G.P.U. interrogators spoke just the way Jeff did when he took one last try at reasoning with me, "Rusty, Mask or no, what you're proposing may still be perilous. Aren't you scared?"
My brain knew the risk was pretty small. But hell, when all is said and done, what my gut knows is that Jeff is the Revenant. So when I spoke he could see I was telling the truth. "Given what rolls off of you on an everyday basis, without your even trying? Scared shitless, my friend."
Like I'd thought, that fetched him. But I still didn't get our argument all my own way. About one matter, it turned out I was wrong. Under certain special circumstances, sweetest-fleshed of mortals doesn't sound corny at all.
Jeff still slays on the job every now and then although he's managed to stay careful about whose life he eats. And we spend a lot of evenings in social gatherings that most of the country would like to see abolished, even excluding our Dungeons and Dragons game. What else do you want in the way of a conclusion? This isn't an on-going comic book, or a feature article in the yearly Mask edition of Celebs, or even a ghost-written tell-all masked-hero memoir. This is only the story of two guys trying to get by on good intentions and improvisation.
Okay, we were able to turn the spare bedroom back into a combination study and home gym when he started sleeping with me. Having a warm, living body around, one that he can't much hurt, wards off most of his moods. And I'll admit that sometimes in the night we do stuff woven together from the clubs and our various fantasies, stuff you may not want me to tell you about. More to the point, sometimes we also swap words, gentle words that I may not want to tell you about. Truth be told, I'm already too soft to give away my small stake of public tough when I have to play for my life at a coffin-shaped table.
No, we two aren't cool. Often we aren't even nice. Most folks would probably find our daily lives a disgusting mix of claustrophobia, nerdity, and perversity, a grownup purgatory for the violent teen geeks we once-upon-a-time could have been. But you know what? Neither our buddies, both male and female, nor my Mask-loving customers much care.
Nor does anyone care about our lives when we save them from rape and mayhem, murder and disaster, as we prowl the streets behind the Mask. People may cringe away from Jeff, or stare at me with star-dazzled eyes, but what they really want from us both is the same. They just want to be saved, if only for right now. And that's what we want, too. We're all lucky enough to have found someone else to do the job, even if that savior's really a rabbit forced into the role of a ravening wolf.
But then, in the end, that's the reason for the Masks. They hold the roles when we can't. And, as far as I'm concerned, Masks can stay the faces of the heroes. The only face I find I care about is the one behind the counter with me, double-checking my packing slips while I call out for Chinese.