Dead Masks by Jesse Pollard
Her name is Emily Graveland. If you’re a hero or a villain in Chevron City, she’s probably your dry cleaner.
She’s a tall, ghostly pale woman, wearing black leather clothes – trench coat, gloves, pants, boots – and a purple tank top. Her hair is long and unkempt. She looks like she has just woken from the nightmare she is about to enter.
She walks in to an apartment building’s foyer. Long, yellow walls trail off to her left. The plastic tile floor vanishes under a spot of darkness, reappearing at the ends of the corridor. All except one light are on; the one above her is blown. Sprinkles of glass litter the floor. Her client’s order, a set of robes hidden under a fabric coating, is strewn across it.
Like a parlour trick, Emily flicks a keychain light out from her sleeve. The glass shines faded blues off everything it finds. Some of the glass covers the order. She makes a note to herself.
Light exploded after robes were dropped.
Soft clicks of glass shattering under her boots. She kneels down, and runs the light across the sleeve. She finds a damp patch on top right corner. Next to it is a trail of red, leading down the corridor.
Blood. Body was moved. Robes were abandoned.
Emily stands up. Her light catches small trickles of blood at head height, seeping down a splatter on the wall. She takes a second to regain herself, and then follows the trail. It goes beneath a door.
She tries the handle, but it’s locked.
Killer must have had the keys. Pre-meditated attack?
Emily looks up and down the foyer. There’s nobody there; at least, nobody who wanted to be seen. Her feet kick a ring of keys. She picks it up and tries every one until one fits.
The door suddenly pushes into her. She braces against it and slowly pulls it open. The body of her client falls out.
He is dressed in red wizard robes. His hair, or what’s left of it, is styled in a black ridge. One shot was fired into the side of his head. She calls the police.
Emily starts giving a statement an hour later. She and the officer introduced as Strackley stand in the apartment plaza. He’s a tall, thin man with a sparse, patchy beard. He looks like he’s a boy playing dress up. There are long pauses while Strackley writes notes.
She tells him she works for the Neutral Services Union of America as a contractor, but has worked for Langleys’ Dry Cleaning for years. Malveon was a regular client. She delivered his order to a secret address all clients provide. She heard a gun just as she was leaving. That’s when she found him dead.
She mentions a lightning strike. ‘Probably why the bulb exploded,’ she says. ‘Why the robes were covered in glass.’ Strackley looks up from his notes.
‘For someone who’s walked right into a murder,’ he says, ‘you sure are calm about it.’
‘You have to be. When you’re NSU, you’re going to see your friends murder each other.’
She mentions the trail of blood and the keys, but she knows nothing about who did it. She catches Strackley’s wandering eye. He’s making notes of her gloves, her legs, and her boots.
‘Why did you open the door?’
‘To know who was behind it.’
‘Because I knew I would look suspicious if I didn’t.’
Strackley is confused, but jots that down too. Then:
‘Miss Graveland, I’m afraid everyone here is a potential suspect. And you were already on the scene.’
Emily is silent. She knows he’s trying to have her made as the murderer. The guilty verdict turns over and over in her head, like a bad card. Everything Strackley does is telegraphed: off-hand glances, lips pursing after each answer, extra care to his notes. He tells her he’ll have more questions and that she should stay in the city. She tells him he’ll find her at work.
The next day starts on another cold morning. Rain paints the high-rise district in dark, wet hues. The soft shadows of the city fade into nothingness. Streetlights flicker off one by one. Chevron City’s masked and caped crusaders scatter.
And then there’s Emily. She walks to a long, beige building, next to some warehouses. The keys to Langleys’ come out with a flick of her wrist. Langley’s Dry Cleaning has two rooms. She starts unstacking the chairs in the waiting room. There’s a faded white carpet, barely nestled between the building’s tan walls.
She turns on a light in the work room. There are entire rows of washing machines, racks labeled magic and non-magic with costumes on each one, and other important-looking equipment. She moves past it all, to a set of lockers.
She pulls out the one thing she keeps: a name tag. She clips it to her coat.
The waiting room already has a customer. A woman with short hair and a thick brown coat.
Allison Sage. Masked hero.
Allie regards Emily with a smile and a silent ‘hey’. Emily nods back, before turning on a radio in the top left corner of the room. The morning news is already on, with reports of assaults and crimes taking place in our fair city. Between each one are reminders of the anonymous tip hotline. Emily leaves to get Allie’s order. Then:
‘Malveon Riversson of the Arcane Thieves Guild was found dead in an apartment building yesterday afternoon. His body was hidden in a broom closet. Police are claiming this is the fourth killing in what they are now calling the “Langley Murders”.’
Emily races back in the moment the report started, costume in hand. The presenter’s voice changes to another woman’s.
‘I thought it was strange that I heard a gunshot. I thought something happened to the generators in the basement, because my light and TV exploded.’
But the lights were still working on both sides of foyer.
Emily waits for more evidence. This time, a young man talks.
‘I heard this gunshot and went down to look around. Then I heard all these loud explosions, like the middle of the building just erupted.’
The presenter comes back.
‘If you have any information, please call the CCPD Anonymous line at…’
The announcer tattles off the first half of the number, but Emily turns the radio off before she finishes.
‘You alright girl?’ Allie asks, ‘you look like you’ve been shot.’
Emily looks up to her.
‘Oh. Yeah. I’m fine.’ she says, but she’s a bad liar. She hoists the costume onto the counter.
‘Busy?’ Allie asks. Emily nods, uncertain. Allie leans in, conspiratorially. ‘Take a sick day. C’mon, you got others to fill in for you.’
‘No, can’t,’ Emily says, ‘I have people expecting me here.’
Emily uses her break to get some fresh air. She steps out through the back door and paces back and forth. Gravel grinds under her boots while she thinks, hoping to make sense of what happened.
This has been the fourth murder. She never thought anything of it; masks and capes die all the time in Chevron. It’s not a city, it’s an arena.
There’s got to be a reason why Langley’s is implicated.
Lighting strikes the other side of the building.
All four victims were customers. Each one was shot, found dead after each delivery.
She stops pacing.
After I made their deliveries.
‘Emily Graveland, we should talk.’
Suddenly she’s surrounded by armed henchmen in black and orange uniforms. All of them are pointing guns at her. Behind them are black vans with NSU logos painted on the side. She knows the NSU discourages them.
The speaker is out of place among the others. Behind his eye mask is a chiseled face, with a full moustache and chops. He’s wearing hiking gear all around his leather jacket and trousers.
‘Oh. It’s you. What do you want?’ Emily asks.
‘The murder of my colleague, Miss Graveland, rests on your shoulders.’
‘Do you have proof?’
Birdseye nods to a minion. She pulls a folder from her backpack and hands it over to Emily.
She regrets opening it. Several lists and police reports nearly flutter out. Her name circled with question marks sketched around it.
‘The troops lifted this from the officer – ‘
‘I can tell.’
Birdseye takes in a long breath. ‘I’m all for a fair go. You give me evidence you didn’t do it, and I’ll drop the charges.’
‘You’re charging me?’
‘Not me Miss Graveland, I meant the police. It helps to have friends in high places.’
She glares at him. He grins back knowingly. Guns click when she tries to move. She holds the folder up. The minion takes it back.
‘Oh, and, cock this up and everyone looking for justice will know it was you.’
She asks how she can trust him. He says it won’t be a problem. He’s the only one who isn’t beating around the bush. They leave as quickly as they came.
The rain returns, rolling through in heavy waves. Small shops and large markets line the roads of the industrial part of the city. A lone white van drives across a road lifted from the sea itself.
Lightning touches down in the distance, but there’s no thunder. Emily doesn’t notice it, too distracted by the rain. Who else is involved? she thinks. What else is there?
Another bolt of lightning strikes the city, this time near the river ports. At the end of the road is a chain-link fence; her client is in one of the warehouses on the other side.
She parks by the side of the road. The client’s order is on a rack in the van. A guard pushes the gate open. Emily walks along the complex’s black asphalt. The door to a warehouse is cracked open. It’s the usual sign her client is in there.
Inside, all the lights are off. She feels around and finds a desk. She places the order down. Suddenly, the door slams shut. She tries it, but it’s locked. Out comes her key light. She can barely make out large red and blue containers. Another strike of lightning hits the roof. The warehouse lights flash before exploding. There’s a long pause before Emily hears the slide of a pistol clicking.
Emily runs to a container. She can hear the attacker stalk closer. There’s nowhere to go but forward, into them.
She tackles them. They both crash to the floor. The gun fires at the ceiling. Emily pounces on it, tries to wrestle it away. She kicks them. The gun comes loose.
Emily hurls it away. The attacker gets up and produces another weapon. The killer swipes at her. It barely misses; she can feel the wind brush past her skin.
She grabs their hand. The killer tries to bring it down on her. She kicks their leg and they lose balance. She pries the knife from them and runs to the door.
She throws herself against it. She can’t find any other escape route and tries it again.
One final time. She barrels through, back into the rain. The complex lights up with another lightning strike but she keeps running.
The guard hears her. He opens the gate.
‘Miss? Miss! Are you alright?’
Emily stops, and catches her breath. The guard says nothing, only extends his hand to offer support.
‘Yeah… fine…’ she says. ‘I think.’
The city’s night watch return at the first sign of dusk. Emily is sitting at her kitchen table, staring silently at nothing. Black countertops and metal sinks and appliances line the walls. To her right is a long glass wall, with nothing to look out to.
The attacker came prepared. They had a knife and a gun. Were they a soldier? Possibly. Could they see in the dark? No. They would have anticipated my attack.
Emily drums her fingers on the table.
But they must have had lightning powers. It’s more than a coincidence that lightning keeps striking near me.
She gets up. In her room is a laptop. She turns it on and searches lightning powers. The laptop responds with superpower self-diagnoses pages. She reads through them until one tells her: can travel through electrical conduits. Her suspicions are confirmed.
She makes a note of it, and then searches: professional lightning soldiers.
She finds herself on a discussion forum for the hot topic of Stormlancers vs. Emberstriders. She’s about to move on when she sees a picture of one of her clients dressed in uniform.
Allie Sage. Or on the site, Erica Atwill. The user arguing for her says they’d love to know her biblically.
Emily moves on to Chevron City News. Two years ago, Erica was supposed to be dishonorably discharged for reckless endangerment of her squad, but vanished before the sentence was official.
A lightning bolt cuts the night outside her window. Emily runs to the kitchen and out the glass door. She turns the power box off. She runs back to the living room, and finds her mobile phone. She calls the anonymous tip hotline.
‘I know who the Langley Murderer is,’ she begins.
The door clicks. Emily looks out the window, sees camouflage shirt and pants. Helmet and mask.
Allie ‘Atwill’ Sage.
‘And they’re about to break in to my house.’
The door is about to open. Emily throws herself against it, throws the phone to the sofa.
‘I know it’s you, Erica. Allie. I know everything about you. It’s my job.’
‘Well I guess everything dies with you, doesn’t it?’
‘If you can kill me.’
Allie fires through the door. She misses.
‘I know why you did it Allie,’ Emily says, ‘those four people you murdered. You were discharged from the Stormlancers – ‘
Allie shoots again. It barely misses Emily.
‘… and after that, you had no cause, so then you start following me!’
Another shot. It sears past Emily’s ankle. She recoils. The door opens. Emily launches at her, crashes into her. The gun falls out of Allie’s hand, out the door. Emily holds Allie’s arms down.
Allie starts to glow and crackle. Pain rolls through Emily’s as electricity throttles her muscles. Allie punches her in the ribs. Emily stumbles back into the wall.
Allie puts up her fists. Emily’s out of breath. She braces herself for one final attack.
Suddenly, there are police sirens in the distance.
Allie tries the living room light. Nothing.
‘I said I know everything about you. Your weakness. You can’t leave, not without exposing your teleportation powers. The police would know what to look for.’
Allie runs outside, down the veranda stairs. The police arrive. She finds her gun.
Emily retreats back into the kitchen. She hobbles over to a sauce pan on the sink.
She slides along the wall, to the door. Allie has a gun trained at the voice of Officer Strackley, telling her to surrender.
Allie starts, ‘I got – ‘
Emily finishes with a TWANG! to her back.
Allie drops down to the floor. Emily slides down the door frame, exhausted. Officer Strackley races up to her. A second officer appears from the shadows. They take Allie’s body to the patrol car.
Strackley dismissed Emily’s assault, claiming it was self-defence. The medics tend to her wounds. Strackley asks to speak to her in private when they finish. Emily looks him in the eye.
‘Dr. Birdseye keeps his promises.’
Strackley chews his tongue. Emily continues:
‘Here’s what I know. Allie has been tailing me all winter for my clients, thinking I’m working with them. She makes notes of where I stop, then gets what she needs to get in where I am. For Malveon’s murder, it was the janitor’s keys. She waits for me to leave, then takes him by surprise. She drags him to the broom closet, but has no time to clean the evidence. She got careless that time. She leaves through the foyer light just as I’m about to go back inside.’
‘… you got all that from just being there?’
Strackley brings out his phone. It’s a long, thin, black thing.
‘You’re not with the city’s detective branch, are you?’ he asks. ‘That would clear up everything.’
But she shakes her head.
‘No. I’m their dry cleaner. Probably.’
* * * * THE END * * * *
Copyright Jesse Pollard 2014