The text on the screen changed.
One night without festivities, a prelude.
Fifteen days. Fifteen nights.
Each night, a game.
A festival, a lark.
Prizes and favors to be won by the clever.
Punishment meted out to the dullest.
I struggled to focus, and wound up shutting one eye to clarify my view.
The numbers didn’t add up. Twelve contestants… one removed each night, for fifteen nights? With more than one contestant potentially being removed?
“Hey, dumbfucks! You can’t have twelve contestants and fifteen rounds!,” another voice echoed my thoughts.
“Hey! I don’t want prizes, I just want to go home!” Someone else. “Please take this mask off and let me go home!”
“What do you mean by punishment?” a woman called out. “We die?”
“No,” I said. I climbed to my feet, using the bars for support. I ignored how my hands trembled as I tried to find a grip on the bars at chest-level and fumbled. I willed it to go away. I paused for a moment, making sure I had a grip on myself, and then very calmly stated, “That doesn’t make sense. Unless they plan to bring in others.”
Wolf was standing by the bars, her arms sticking out straight through. Her mask tapped repeatedly against the bars, as if she could vent that way. She said, her voice eerily calm, “They intend to kill the losers after the winner is decided.”
That’s not impossible.
The text changed.
We anticipate the evening’s entertainment.
Don your masks at day’s end, merry beasts,
to be whisked away to gardens and fields.
The cleverest creature will earn a favor.
To break a rule, or make a rule.
The whimsical nature of the words was at stark odds with our dingy surroundings, imprisonment, and the masks we wore. I felt a little uneasy. Maybe that was the point.
My one open eye fixated on the screen. In the periphery of my vision, I could see others approaching the bars of their cell.
Monkey. He was wearing a glove with metal on it. Almost a gauntlet. His brown hair straight was slicked back from the edges of his mask.
A person wearing a fox mask was wearing some kind of shirt that hung well past his hands. The eyes of his red mask were crescents, with the points facing downward.
Wolf, Rabbit, Fox, Monkey, Spider, and… me. I touched my mask again. The short spike was positioned somewhere between where my nose touched the surface of the mask and my mouth, centered.
Was it a beak?
“Break rules?” Monkey called out. “What do you mean?”
But the screen changed, and it didn’t answer the question.
Beasts slumber in daylight and twilight hours.
A safe place to sleep, to exercise talents,
to set the stage for the night’s events.
An image was displayed below the text. An overhead view of the city. Bold lines were drawn along the edges, the area beyond the outlined area shaded dark and blurred. The sharper, lighter section of the image was a square, three city blocks by three city blocks. It included stores and a small mall, apartment buildings and a tract of houses.
I recognized the area. I could spot my apartment, in the corner at the bottom of the image. My heart was pounding, even as I remained very still.
None of the others spoke, but I could see some of them react. Tells, as it were. Monkey shifted his hands, gripping the bars of his cell door a fraction tighter Rabbit, now kneeling on the floor behind her cell was apparently pretty high strung, almost jumping as she recognized the area. The little boy with the snake mask leaned to one side of his cell, hugging his arms against his body, stopping, then jamming hands in his pockets. Different manifestations of nervousness.
I’d bet good money on the idea that we were all from the same general area.
“Th- they’re a-actually letting us go?” Rabbit asked, breaking the silence.
And they expect we’ll be willing to come back, I thought to myself.
Clever creatures obey the laws of the land,
The cleverest don’t get caught.
The stupidest beasts are reprimanded at dawn,
and shan’t be invited back.
Those that lose the games or tell tales are dumb beasts,
The ones who don’t play stupider still.
But no beast is so foolish as a dead one.
The nature of this little exercise was becoming clearer. Over and over, an emphasis on wit. Two phases. Night to force our hands, to use us for sport or entertainment. Bloody, apparently, so violence was in the cards. Then a day phase to let us rest, sleep or…
I looked around me.
We couldn’t get caught. That wasn’t to say we weren’t allowed to sabotage each other. If we needed our masks to enter into the Night phase, then a mask could be taken away.
There was a chance that one of these people might be capable of murder.
The day phase was when we’d search for each other, sabotaging one another to take someone out of the running and remove any need to play in the game that night. Or, if anyone out there was crazy or desperate enough, the phase where they’d try to kill others.
Thus ends our introduction.
A question from each.
A mask floated on the screen, rotating around so that the backside of it was shown, blank and featureless, then slowly turned to face us. An owl. The eyes were overlarge, the beak hooked, and the ‘feathers’ crested into points at the edges of the forehead.
There was a series of bangs as the locks for the barred doors came loose. My eyes traveled over the rest of the crowd. I could see everyone I’d missed.
I looked for the wearer of the mask, and I found a heavyset man with a large belly. He wore a blue jumpsuit that wasn’t flattering to look at.
The others I hadn’t yet seen included a tall man, broad shouldered, with light brown skin wore a cat mask, orange-brown with white and black stripes.
A sheep, apparently, a girl, crossed the open space to Spider’s side.
And, finally, a woman, pale, with startlingly vivid tattoos of flowers up her arms. Her mask was supposed to be a deer or a gazelle, at a glance, but had only stubs for horns.
As near as I could figure it, it was Owl, Wolf, Rabbit, Rat, Spider, Sheep, Fox, Monkey, Cat, Snake and Doe. And me.
“Hey,” I said, greeting the group to my left. Rat, Doe and Monkey. “What mask am I wearing?”
“Does it matter?” Rat asked. “Damn it. I just want to get out of this getup and go home and let this stop.”
“I don’t think it’s going to stop that easily,” I said. “The more information we have, the better.”
“Like the Wolf said, we’re not your allies,” Monkey told me. “Figure it out for yourself.”
“Right,” I said. Suspicion. I could try to find leverage, to coax and wheedle, but I wasn’t sure it was worth it at this juncture.
“Alright, I’m ready to ask,” Owl called out. “Why the masks?”
Question: Why masks?
Answer: To allow Clever beasts to hide in the day.
“Why attach them like this?” Owl asked, but there was no response. The mask on the screen wasn’t his.
It wasn’t a good answer. Or, more to the point, it wasn’t a good question.
“I guess you’re going to tell everyone the answer, which eliminates a bunch of options. Fine, let’s get it out of the way. Who are these ‘handlers’?”
Question: Who are the handlers?
Answer: Seventy individuals from twelve enterprises, to assist you and reap fame and fortune from your successes.
The screen flickered, and it showed the series of our masks, one second to each, with a series of symbols beneath, one per sponsor. It was almost over by the time that I saw my mask, my eye traveling to the list of sponsors, recognizing Sunny, Ascent and Heart, then darting back up to only glimpse the mask itself.
A bird, after all. A soft brown at the edges and forehead, white elsewhere, with a yellow beak.
A differing number of sponsors to each of us. Cat had none. Spider had fifteen. Most had four to six.
Rabbit asked, “Why do you need such clever people?”
Question: Why do we need clever beasts?
Answer: To find a worthy winner.
“Fuck,” Wolf said, at the same time the word crossed my mind.
We have to be careful what we ask. It’s going to be as vague as possible, I thought.
“Think about what you ask,” Wolf said.
“It wasn’t a bad question.”
“Phrase it better.”
“Tell me all the rules,” Rat ordered.
“It has to be a question,” Wolf said.
“What are the rules?” Rat asked.
“No,” I said. But it was too late.
Question: What are the rules?
Answer: The rules are guidelines,
made to moderate the Day/Night cycles,
and to keep the process manageable.
“I think I’ve figured it out,” Wolf said. “They do want us to kill each other. Putting me in here with idiots, so I have to listen to you fuck up.”
“Fuck you,” Rat said.
Monkey spoke, “Hey, buddy. Pick your question carefully. We can’t keep wasting them.”
“I don’t need help,” Snake said. “Hey, terminal. What were the locations of everyone but me, at the time you picked them up?”
The overhead map again, with blinking lights.
It stayed there, on the screen. I could see my blinking dot.
“Hey, kid. Why the fuck do you need to know that?” Wolf asked. “This doesn’t help our situation.”
But Snake didn’t take his eyes off the screen. He waited a few moments, then said, “Thank you.”
“You little fuck,” Wolf said. “You’re going to try something?”
“I wanted to see if there was any pattern,” Snake replied.
A lie, probably.
The next question was Spider’s. The sheep was kneeling beside his limp form, holding his hands as his fingers and legs periodically twitched and jerked. They made a stark comparison, with her overdone dress covered in ruffles and lace, young, her hair a white-blonde, curly, cut to a boyish length.
He was half-dressed, elderly, with longer hair, shirtless and wearing pyjama pants. His mask was the only one with red eyes.
Sheep’s hand swept over his hair, pushing it away from his ‘face’. “They want you to ask a question.”
“Leave me alone,” he said, his voice weak, but it carried.
When I looked up at the monitor to see, I saw that the next face up there was Fox’s. There were angry and stunned mutters.
“Damn it,” I muttered, along with them. He’d passed, likely unintentionally, and we needed answers.
Fox was trying to adjust the sleeves, avoiding eye contact with the people that were warily observing him… Observing her. I realized it was a woman, with straight black hair. The shirt with overlong sleeves was a straightjacket.
“For the record,” Fox said, “The straightjacket is a joke. Not everyday wear for me.”
“Nobody asked,” the heavyset Owl said.
“Fifteen rounds,” Fox said, “Twelve contestants. Why?”
Answer: Too vague.
Full answer would exceed scope of this window.
Cannot supply a response. Please rephrase.
“Why are there more rounds than contestants?”
Question: Why are there more rounds than contestants?
Answer: There aren’t.
“Can we use the rule-breaking to drop out early without you coming after us to fuck us over?”
Question: Can a favor be used to drop out
Yes? I was suspecting a catch. Too easy. We win the game in one round and we get to live?
It didn’t fit. It was one aspect of a lot of things here that didn’t fit.
The Doe. Deer or gazelle, I was going with the neutral label.
“Okay,” Doe said. She rubbed her hands together. “You bastards. Let’s see… Nine hundred and ninety-nine rounds before this batch, who won?”
“The hell?” Rat asked, but the words were already appearing on the screen.
Question. Who won 999 games prior to this?
Answer: Cannot supply answer. Please rephrase.
“Who won five hundred games before this one?”
Question. Who won 500 games prior to this?
Answer: Cannot supply answer. Please rephrase.
“Who won two hundred games before this?”
Question. Who won 200 games prior to this?
Answer: Cannot supply answer. Please rephrase.
“Who won fifty games before this?”
Question. Who won 50 games prior to this?
Answer: Cannot supply answer. Please rephrase.
“Who won fifteen games before this?”
Question. Who won 15 games prior to this?
Answer: Cannot supply answer. Please rephrase.
“Who won seven games before this?”
Question. Who won 7 games prior to this?
Answer: Bat. Sodusco.
“Shit,” Wolf muttered.
“I’m good at getting mileage,” Doe said. “I think that tells us an awful lot, for a two word response.”
The mask that rotated on the screen was mine. Looking at it in more detail, I still couldn’t guess what kind of bird it was.
Chickadee? Sparrow? A hawk would have a hooked beak.
“I’m not much for following orders,” I said. “Not big on having people decide how I should live.”
“We’re birds of a feather,” Cat said.
“I know I should follow up Doe’s question with something along the same lines, weasel out information, but I’m not really up to playing along. So here’s my question. What course of action can we take that’s most beneficial to us and most inconvenient or damning to you?”
Question: What path would most benefit the beasts while setting us back?
Answer: Too vague. Please rephrase.
“Yeah,” I said. I felt a measure of satisfaction. The damn thing wasn’t as easy to manipulate as my handlers were, but there were weak points. “I bet it was too vague.”
“Just ask,” Fox said. “Some of us want to get home.”
There was restlessness all around. As one of the last to be asked, I was in a bad spot. It would be all too easy for them to settle on a target to vent their frustrations at, and this was a bad, bad place to be the designated target. Especially if this really was something that would extend two weeks.
“What’s the biggest mistake we’ve collectively made so far?”
Question: What is the biggest mistake made by the beasts?
Answer: Assuming that dropping out would be beneficial.
“What?” Cat asked. “I said… fuck, I can’t remember how I phrased it.”
“You asked if they’d come after you,” Snake said. “Which they won’t, necessarily.”
“Damn it,” Cat said. “Hey, Monkey, ask it-”
But Monkey was already speaking. “To come out of this ahead, what course of action should we take in the next bit?”
Question: Best course of action for the beasts.
You should already know your natural-born talents.
Discover the ones we’ve granted.
Know that talents vary from night to day.
Find the hints already provided to you.
“There’s a running theme, here,” Wolf said. “But saying they’ve already provided hints? When? There’s been the introduction where my handlers said hi, and there was this. That’s it.”
The last mask rotated on the screen.
“Hey. Idiot. Ask a question,” Wolf said. “I’m done with this.”
“I know. I’m thinking,” Sheep said, her voice small, as passive as Wolf was aggressive. “I don’t see a time limit, and this might be our only chance.”
A minute passed.
Some of the others were very blatantly studying each other. Studying me. Trying to memorize body types and features. Doe’s tattoos would be a dead giveaway, for one thing.
And others were less subtle. Rabbit spoke up, “We can meet. Right? We all live in the same area. If we go to the Rivermouth tea shop on Yonge, noon tomorrow, we could have a signal-“
“And you poison us?” Owl asked. He was fidgeting, nervous.
“Idiotic idea,” Wolf said. She was more angry than anything. Like Marlene, in a way, channeling stress into a kind of anger. She was more casually abrasive, though.
“We’re not friendly,” Monkey said. “I wouldn’t mind finding a way to make it through this with everyone intact, but that doesn’t mean I trust any of you. If anything, the fact that you’re here makes me wonder if you aren’t less trustworthy the average people.”
“That’s called projection,” Owl said.
The debate and discussion continued. In the midst of it, I withdrew my pocket watch from the vest pocket and held it out, catching the light of the spotlight above me. The light found the lens of Rabbit’s mask.
I saw her head turn a fraction. I ‘dropped’ the pocketwatch, catching it by the chain, and let it swing for a moment before I caught it.
Would she get the message?
She nodded a little. When Rat looked her way, she said, “Fine. I get it. No meeting.”
A potential ally. I knew it could be a trap, but I was good at reading people, and Rabbit didn’t seem that cunning to me. The biggest danger was that someone had caught what I was doing, or that they’d stake out the tea shop.
The sheep had apparently decided what to ask. “How can we get through this without anyone dying?”
Question: How to reach the end of Night 15 without any deaths.
Answer: Don’t kill.
“So it’s possible,” she said. She sounded genuinely relieved.
But Cat had seemingly found a solution, and it apparently wasn’t so simple.
Owl was reacting. The eyelids of his mask had flipped shut. He was blinded.
One by one, the eyes of the other masks closed, all the way around the circle.
The eyelids of my yet-undefined bird mask flipped shut, leaving me in absolute darkness.
Then I smelled that cloying medicinal smell, and perhaps because of drugs lingering in my system, or because the darkness was so deep I couldn’t tell when my eyes were open or shut, I succumbed faster than before.
Back in my apartment, feeling like I hadn’t slept a wink.
I stumbled, making my way out of bed. I was wearing only boxer briefs, my usual sleeping attire, but I was ninety percent sure they weren’t the clothes I’d worn to bed last night.
Disorientation nearly overwhelmed me. My recollection of the scene in that odd little prison was so fresh in my mind I was still adjusting from the warped vision. It all felt surreal, in retrospect.
I had my regular eyes back. They were the same. No surgical alterations.
I examined myself in the mirror. Eyes normal. Hair a touch greasier from sweating than normal, but…
My fingertips found the points at my hairline where the mask had attached.
Caps, skin tone, were plugged into the holes. Impossible to see without close investigation. The spots felt more numb than tender.
I returned to my bedside and opened the drawer. Sitting there, as though I’d put it away before turning in, was the mask. Now complete with beak and the transition from white to brown, with tiny feathers painted onto the surface.
I tossed it back into the drawer and then pulled on slacks and an undershirt.
The names and faces were all a jumble. Too many people at once, too many things to keep track of.
This was reality. Quiet, still, with only two grieving children to worry about. I made my way through the apartment, checking windows and doors. The things I’d unplugged were still unplugged, and everything was locked.
Too many aspects of this didn’t fit. Something told me it wasn’t necessarily them messing with our heads. There was a bigger picture at work.
Desperate for a kind of normalcy, I set about preparing breakfast, with a tall mug of coffee, orange juice, and pancakes made from scratch. I was chopping up fresh fruit when Marlene emerged from the bedroom.
“One minute,” I said.
“I didn’t say I wanted any.”
“Not the time for this, Marlene.”
“I said I don’t want any. I don’t.”
“Then go back to your room and sleep in.”
“Petulance, anger, grieving, whatever else, it’s fine. I understand,” I said. “But it’s going to have to wait until I’ve had my coffee.”
It had to be two different things, all at once. They mingled in an ugly way. What happened to the kids if I got dragged away at an inopportune time? What happened if they were used for this nebulous ‘punishment’?
Except there was nowhere for me to send them. Even if I did send them away, there was no guarantee they wouldn’t be found.
I studied her, the glower, lower in intensity so early in the day. She was a stranger to me, a face I only knew through a few photos. I was a stranger to her, had been until only a few days ago. Still, I felt a kind of fondness. She was family.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I’ve never really had someone push me to the limit.”
“Never?” she challenged me.
“Not in recent memory. I’m not saying I’ve never been stressed. I have. Believe me, I have. But I adapt, I’d like to think I go with the flow, that I’m a willow that bends in the wind where an oak would break. After I’ve had coffee.”
“If that’s true, you’re nothing like dad. Or mom or me or Leo. None of us adapt or flow in the wind or whatever. Kind of the opposite.”
“It’s been a while since I was around family. Things were ugly when I left, so I made a deliberate effort to change myself. To put distance between myself and everything I left behind.”
“And now you’re back,” she said.
“Now I’m back,” I answered. “Maybe at a bad time for you, and apparently at a bad time for me. But I can face the worst the world has to offer if I move forward with confidence.”
I said the words proudly, clearly, but the memories of those men breaking into my room were crystal clear.
Just the thought made my heart do a quick double-beat.
I managed to keep the doubt off my face, my smile unflinching. I added, “After I’ve had coffee.”
“I’ve had coffee before. It tastes like ass,” she said.
“You can be here and be either quiet or pleasant,” I said. “Or you can go to your room to be negative. Those are my rules.”
She nodded, but she took a seat at the counter. She twisted around on her stool to look at the cracked television and blinked twice in succession. Nothing. She did the blink again. “It doesn’t work.”
No comment on the fact that she’d been the one to crack the screen.
“It’s not you” I said. “One sec.”
I checked that things were okay on the stove, and then crossed the room to plug it in.
It was on a moment later, and I could see the three symbols flash across the screen. Heart, arrow, sun.
Then it returned to a regular channel. Marlene changed it to a kid’s show.
My ‘handlers’ were there, watching.
I didn’t habitually put my lenses in when I woke up, which made me different from ninety-nine percent of the population in the first world. I liked to shower early and then put the things in, rather than go back and forth. I went back and got them.
I wasn’t adverse to technology, but I liked old things and simplicity more than needless complication. Wearing the lenses often felt like a complication. Still, I could pry my eyes open and slip them in, watching the little details I’d placed around the apartment coming to life.
Leo was sitting on a stool by the time I got back. I greeted him, served up the breakfast, then gestured, bringing up a menu for my phone. Anyone who was wearing lenses that looked at me would see the phone icon near my head.
At a loss for what to dial, I brought up a menu of symbols and selected three close approximations.
How closely were they looking? How far did this extend, penetrating my day to day life?
“Hello, Wes. Heart here.”
“Ah, so you are there,” I said. I smiled a little at the kids as I topped off my orange juice. “I got your message late last night. I take it you were upset?”
“We’re not your enemy, Wes. We’re on your side in this.”
“I don’t know what this is,” I said. I walked over to the living room, leaving the kids in peace, and started cleaning up more of the mess Marlene had made. “A game?”
“In a way.”
“I don’t want to play. What if I decide to sit things out tonight? Will you do the same thing?”
“If you make us, but then we’re in a bad spot. You don’t understand everything that’s going on here.”
“What’s going on, then? Clarify for me.”
“You’re not the contestant, Wes. There’s a dynamic, there are rules you play by, we get that, but we’re the ones at the helm. If you cooperate, we both benefit. If you throw this, then, well, it’s thrown. You wind up with the worst possible outcome all the same.”
I lowered my voice. “Or I cooperate and I wind up in the midst of a screwed up situation where people are trying to stab me in the back.”
“We can mitigate that,” she said. “You reached out to Rabbit, somewhere along the line. Making alliances with the right people can help you weed out the dangerous ones. Safety in numbers”
“You’re testing us,” I said. “All of this, you’re testing us because you want us to meet a certain criteria. Or because the people running this thing do. Moving it all towards a singular purpose. It’s the only thing that makes sense. Except you’re also making us your enemies. There are too many things here that don’t make sense. I need explanations. Answers.“
“Damn it,” I heard her mutter, on the other end.
“I can’t give you answers, Wes.”
I can get answers out of you, I thought.
But not now, while her guard was up.
I worked in silence, leaving the line open.
“Wes. Are you meeting with Rabbit?”
“With the interest of covering all possible bases, yeah. But I’m still not sure I’m putting on the mask tonight.”
“You’re proving fairly inflexible, for someone who supposedly goes with the flow, bends in the wind,” Heart said. Her digitized voice was grating to listen to for any length of time.
“Polite of you to let me know you’re eavesdropping,” I said. “Kidnapping, vague threats, unsolicited surgery, and nebulous promises of possible murder, or setting me up to be murdered… I think I’m allowed to be less flexible than normal.”
“If you force our hand, we’ll do the same thing we did before.”
“Well, that’s good to know. Thank you for being honest,” I said.
A bit of anger had slipped into my voice. I saw the kids’ heads turn. I flashed a bit of a smile at them to put them at ease.
Heart continued, “I hope you don’t make us. You’ll try to be clever and stop the men that come to take you in, and it still won’t work. In the worst case scenario, you get injured in the process, and it slows you down enough that you get hurt or killed.”
“Ah, a vote of confidence from the people who picked me. Remind me again about how you’re my best friend in all of this?”
“Even if you don’t get hurt, our hands will be tied. We get only a few chances to manipulate things here. We have three moves, at the start, to help you out, and we’ve used two of them. I’m genuinely afraid for you if you strip us of any ability to help you.”
I weighed her words. I was usually pretty good at telling whether people were being honest or not, and I wasn’t getting a dishonest vibe from her.
Then again, voice modulation, and there was the whole kidnapping thing, the invasion of privacy, and the whole laundry list of everything they had pulled me into.
“I can’t figure you out,” I said.
“If it makes you feel any better,” Heart said. “I’ve been studying you for months, alongside a few others. I thought I knew you, and… I don’t. There’s some part of you I’m not getting.”
“That does make me feel better,” I replied.
“You need our help, Wes. Once people start figuring out how this really works, it’s going to get messy.”
“That so? I can manage messy. Sorry, but I’m not really seeing what you can offer me. Explain the mask thing?”
“At least ring me up when trouble’s brewing and someone’s coming my way?”
“We can’t do that either,” Heart said.
In negotiating with people, a good tactic was to ask them questions, already aware of the answer. I was already fairly sure she wouldn’t be able to follow through. So I could hammer her on that front. You’re useless, you’re useless.
It was rather satisfying, in light of everything that had happened. I wasn’t one to consider myself mean spirited, just the opposite. But these were special circumstances.
“Then explain the ins and outs of this whole thing?”
“I can’t. Wes-”
Here was the moment she tried to break the pattern of attack, my cue to move forward. “You’re telling me you don’t have anything to offer me. What are you handling, as my handler?”
Every action had an equivalent reaction. What reaction would I generate, now that I was pressing her on this?
Would she bounce back, desperate to please, or would she fold? I opened the balcony door and stepped outside, then closed it.
“I- that’s complicated.”
Ah. She would deflect.
“Three hours until I need to leave for that rendezvous. I’m willing to sit down and talk it out with you. We’ll unravel that untangled mess. I’ll be in a better place, and so will you. We’ll be on the same page.”
Reasonable, calm, confident. A steady pressure to drive the point home. I rubbed my hands to help ward off the cold.
“It’s not that kind of complicated, Wes.”
Repeatedly using my name to try and build a kind of familiarity.
My eyes fell on the city below. The street was choked with cars, and my lenses showed ads on every flat surface. There were different channels,each with different focuses, from ones that would show sales in nearby stores to kids’ games that would show monsters wandering around, almost as real as anything else.
In a city this big, each channel would be choked with advertisements. People earned pennies each time they deleted one, but there were too many automated functions and paid shills who earned more putting the ads up.
One learned to deal with the visual noise, because the other features of the lenses were too convenient, otherwise. They were rooted in too many things, from access to buildings to phones and shopping. One learned to look past the ads, until they reached the safety of their homes and could relax.
Which only reminded me that I was talking with the person who had invaded that home. In more ways than one.
Could I put her off balance? I could move to the attack.
I spoke slowly, my voice firm. “Alright. Let me unravel my untangled mess, then. I’ve been thrown into a situation that isn’t sitting right, it’s vague and the pieces don’t all fit together. You picked me for that, right? You’re the one that’s throwing me into this situation. Except you’re terrible at this. You’re obviously new to it, you’re clueless, you don’t have any direction.”
All different ways of saying the same thing. Continuing along those lines…
“You’re supposed to protect me or help me somehow, but you haven’t said what you do. You haven’t inspired an iota of confidence. The screen back there, last night, it said you’re an enterprise. You’re in this for fame and fortune, but you’re doing nothing to deserve either of the two.”
She cut in. “It… could have worded that better. We’re here for research, to help people. It’s amazing stuff, but we need funds, and-”
“And throwing me to the wolves and spiders and hares is how you do that? Come on, Heart. What is this? You’re a couple of amoral twits with a gimmick startup idea, operating out of your friend’s mom’s garage, and someone tweaks you onto… this? A bunch of hackers and entrepreneurs orbiting around some screwed up kind of entertainment that’s never going to poke it’s head out of the darkest, scummiest parts of the deepweb?”
If I was completely wrong, she would have sounded more assertive than she did. She would have been able to follow it up.
Had I struck a chord? Landed my remarks somewhere in the right neighborhood?
“Let me give you a tip, Heart. You’re the one that’s supposed to look after me, right? That’s your job in this. Scouting me, keeping me in line, whatever? You want me to like you, but that battle’s already lost. Change tactics. You need to be a jerk. Be rude, be strict. Threaten me instead of convincing me that stuff’s for my own good. Act like that arrowhead guy was.”
“You mean Ascent,” she said.
“Him. Be aggressive, be assertive. Get my respect through fear and intimidation, if nothing else. Come on. Give it a shot.”
“Wes…” Her voice was soft.
“That was terrible,” I said. “If you can’t fake your way through some jerkish behavior or come up with an actual offer you can make me, you shouldn’t be on the phone right now. You need to be rude, even cold. When I call you, you shouldn’t even pick up unless you’re absolutely, completely confident you’ve got things under control, with a way to strongarm me into doing what you need me to do, or something valuable to offer me. Right? I mean, it’s common sense. You’re my handler, you need to take the reins here.”
She didn’t immediately respond.
Prodding her, I asked, “Do you have something to offer me? Bait?”
I waited, thoroughly enjoying the silence.
In recommending a plan of attack against myself, the idea was to head her off. She would inevitably realize that what she was doing wasn’t working. By cutting her off well ahead of that particular point, I could pressure her. I could leave her feeling lost and helpless. I could handle the handler.
In the wake of that, I’d either see her true colors as she found a plan that did work, or at least worked better than this, or she’d fold and I would have leverage over her. Something I could use to get information or help I otherwise wouldn’t.
“Wes, when you figure out what we set up for you, we’ll be able to work with you.”
“That’s thoroughly unconvincing,” I said, leaning back against the door to the balcony. “I think maybe you should hang up. Get your bearings, say something motivational in front of the mirror a couple times, maybe, to build up some confidence. I’d love to hear a different, bolder, useful Heart the next time we talk.”
Which I wouldn’t, most likely. Which would make her feel worse, which would apply more pressure.
I listened to a long silence.
The phone’s icon flashed and turned red. A hang-up.
If she was capable of watching and listening in on me, I couldn’t allow myself a smile. A lifetime of training allowed me to keep my expression neutral as I let myself back inside and served my breakfast.
“Who was that?” Leo asked. Guileless.
“Someone who thinks she’s in business with me,” I responded. “Now, I’m not going to make you guys go to school, given you’re still early into the grieving process, but-”
“I want to go,” Marlene said. Too quickly.
“I want to go where Marlene’s going,” Leo said.
He, at least, sounded genuine.
“You’re not going to run away on me, are you?” I asked. “This is serious, and I’ve got a lot on my plate.”
Besides, I can’t leave the ‘safe’ territory, or unspecified horrible things will happen. I can’t drive all the way to Uncle Peter’s to fetch you if you run.
“It’s been a while since I’ve gone, and it has to be better than being here.” Marlene said.
“Alright,” I said. “Go wash up and dress. I’ll call the school to see if I can’t arrange a tour or a quick class assignment.”
Hopefully with enough time for me to meet the Rabbit.
I was late. I’d dressed down, with a button-up shirt and more moderate shoes, no tie or vest, a jacket folded over one arm. Even knowing I might have missed her, I took my time, getting in line.
Being in line let me observe. Rabbit had red hair, but a wig wasn’t impossible. Nor was a hat. It was spring. The others… there were traits I could look out for. It was more a process of elimination, scanning the crowd. No kids under thirteen, which removed the possibility of a Snake. No fat men, so that meant no Owl.
Wolf and Fox were more dangerous. Too many possibilities for who they could be, but I could scan the collection of people that crowded the tables and counters, and I could eliminate those who were in groups with others, happy, clearly distracted by their own lives and their own things.
I was pretty sure that the others weren’t that good at acting, at slipping into a role.
I found a spot at a counter by the stools, once I had my bacon sandwich and coffee. The shop’s window showed a scrolling advertisement for the desserts and music. I withdrew a pocket watch and spun it around with one hand, catching it before it fell. I ate and drank with my free hand.
“You’re going to break that, if you keep abusing it,” a young woman commented.
“It’s one I keep for more rugged use,” I said. “I’ve fixed it so many times I could repair it blindfolded. Rabbit, I presume?”
Rabbit squeezed herself between my neighbor and me, leaning over the counter. Her hands were trembling, despite her apparent confidence, and the corner of her lip was folded like she was chewing on it. Her chin-length red hair was in her face, and yet she wasn’t brushing it out of the way.
“Mr. Bird?” she asked.
“It’ll have to do,” I answered.
She nodded, a tight motion. “Hi, Mr. Bird. You’re the only one who came.”
“I thought I might be.”
“Have you figured it out?” she asked.
“What they did to us?”
I turned my head, studying her. I could see the fear on her face.
“Invaded our privacy, our homes, they kidnapped us… but you’re not talking about that,” I said. My eyes fell on her hands, which were still shaking. “That’s not fear. That’s a tremor.”
“I was born with that,” she said. “I’m talking about something else. But I can’t talk about it here. They said they’ll punish us if the wrong person hears.”
I nodded. “Want to go for a walk?”
She bobbed her head, another tight, jerky motion. Under her breath, she whispered, “F- fuck.”
I took my time getting my jacket and the remains of my lunch together. We made our way to the door.
She whispered, “Why do you sound as unafraid as I feel afraid, Mr. Bird?”
“Not to worry,” I said. “I’m very good at faking it. So good I fool myself sometimes.”
She nodded as we made our way onto the sidewalk. I pointed to suggest a direction, and she turned.
“I guess that’s your particular talent?” she asked.
“A part of it,” I agreed.
“Lying so well you trick yourself. Not being afraid when you don’t want to be afraid. That’s a good talent. H- how does it hold up when you’re at gunpoint?”
An odd question, odd phrasing and timing. I glanced at her, and she glanced down, furtive.
Her hands were jammed in her pockets. The angle, the shape of the resulting bulge…
“I guess we’ll find out, Ms. Rabbit,” I told her.