I'm 46k words into my latest fantasy. It's a cross between Oceans 11 and Beauty and the Beast. Mr. Mask is a shape-shifting thief with a soft spot for a young misfit witch. Here's the first draft of chapter one.
Nothing could go Wrong
“Give a man a mask, and he’ll tell you the truth.”
It was Monday morning, so I wore the face of Solomon Bourne, a fortyish mouse of a man who worked for the magical Knox Vault Company. Because my parents never gave me a name, I could choose any I liked. I remembered this identity using the children’s nursery rhyme, “Solomon Grundy, born on a Monday.” Like the poem, he was from
I climbed the stately stone steps of the Maryland Smithsonian office and tugged on the door. I feigned surprise when it was locked. Then, I held my vendor’s ID up toward the security camera.
A heavy guard ambled over from his desk, powdered sugar from a donut staining his solid-blue tie. He was an ex-football player from
with a bad knee. He recognized me the way people did the moving boxes in their
basement that they never opened. “Why are you here? Don’t you know what today
My big score. I tapped the tickets in my left vest pocket. “The comic-book convention?” I asked with a faint British accent. The success of any magic trick is based on staying in character and selling the lie.
“No. Memorial Day. The place is closed. You don’t need to be here to open the vault.”
He was referring to Dangerous Religious Artifacts department, so named because the
US government could never admit
that magic exists. Built in the Lincoln
era, the DRA was the most secure facility in the country. I’d been here as
Bourne every time they opened or closed the vault. But on a holiday, there were
only four guards in the entire building instead of the normal ten. I had
arranged the perfect way past the defenses and rehearsed it until nothing could
possibly go wrong. My client would be pleased.
I pulled an authorization form out of my doctor’s bag. “That’s why the company wants me to drain the tanks today. With all the arrests and artifact seizures this year, you have record levels of dark Kirilian radiation massing. Wouldn’t want any of that stuff leaking out, would we?” That was the polite 1970s term for black magic that would melt your eyes out for even looking at it.
With a sigh, he let me in. The current display in the lobby had to do with Watusi ceremonial dress, but the wooden staff in the mannequin’s hands wasn’t Watusi; it was Northern Chinese. I couldn’t read the runes to be more precise. Not my circus, not my monkeys. Bourne wouldn’t know the difference, so I can’t say anything. Officially, this facility was storage for overflow Smithsonian exhibits, and the workers rotated the items in the lobby to keep us appearances.
While Donut-stain radioed his boss in the control room, I signed the logbook in front of a surly African-American woman. She must have started her civil service career in the TSA because she had me take off my leather sandals first. Then she patted me down thoroughly. In the process, she failed to notice that I had temporarily removed my fingerprints.
“Pass your bag through the scanner.”
I had latex gloves, tools, Chiclets gum, and a dozen other suspicious devices in my kit, but the only thing that raised an eyebrow were the medicated wipes in my jacket. “It’s for hemorrhoids.” I didn’t say mine. The container had a gel-filled false bottom the exact size and shape of the gemstone I was here to liberate. I used a gel because I didn’t want anyone to rattle the container and find the cubic-zirconium replica.
“It’s okay. He always carries them,” said Donut-stain.
I’d made them a part of my identity since the beginning, making them invisible.
She grimaced. “Proceed to the elevator on the left. You must be escorted at all times.”
Yeah, but they never follow me into the bathroom. I had tested the switch technique on a smaller item. I could toss the container out the narrow bathroom window and walk out scot-free. Within a minute of the drop, my associate Elaine would pass by walking her dog and scoop it up in a plastic baggie.
Another side of beef in blue stood at attention beside the elevator. They both had six inches on me, but I could take them out without a sound if I had to. Bored by the holiday closure, guard two did something unheard-of. He asked me a social question. “How about that Polish soccer game last night?”
He meant the FIFA tournament, but I didn’t own a TV. However, I didn’t want to reveal a personal fact that they might use to track me later. So I touched the hearing aid in my right ear. “Pardon?”
Soccer guard averted his eyes. It’s a trick I learned. People avoid looking at what they perceive as disabilities. It makes them uncomfortable and leaves fewer witnesses for me. I can lip-read for other reasons.
The guards put their keys in on either side of the ancient elevator and turned them simultaneously. Donut said to Soccer, “The people downstairs like that he can’t listen in on secrets about m-a-g-i-c.”
“How did it happen?”
“Testing one of their vaults with dynamite. Long story. His family has been in this business for generations. His grandfather met Jesse James.” A good legend grows with each telling.
The doors opened, and I stepped inside. The elevator had two buttons but only needed one—not here. In twenty minutes, I would be holding the thing I’d worked two months to steal. I’d also spent almost every dime I had on the preparations.
As the doors began to close, a woman’s voice called from the lobby, “Hold the lift!”
When I saw her long, white hair, I pushed the Close button frantically. It didn’t help.
Soccer guard put his foot in the gap.
I froze in terror. What is she doing here? If I weren’t working for someone else, I would’ve run away then and there. The Drinking God always enforces oaths; he’s touchy about that. She won’t recognize me if I don’t speak. This can still work.
Slightly out of breath from the run, the gorgeous blued-eyed Nordic woman passed over credentials from the pocket of her business jacket. “Delilah Theowin,
security. I’m here to suspend the wards for the special opening today.”
Donut-stain frowned. “Why not Agnes?”
My sentiments exactly. Agnes was a half-blind bureaucrat and let me get away with anything. If things went south, I couldn’t choke Delilah unconscious and look myself in the mirror again.
“The theonic radiation in the DRA is a concern, so they brought me in as a specialist. I’m a priestess skilled in handling sacred items.” Witches didn’t use judgmental terms like dark or evil.
“Yeah,” said Donut, glancing at me. “I heard something about that.”
Crap. She had certain rare immunities and resistances that had been strengthened by the tattoos all over her body. Instinctively, my eyes went to the ward spiral visible through her white nylons. Don’t stare! With great effort, I raised my chin to be a gentleman, even though nobody else was. I’d brought this on myself, spreading the backstory too far. Stay in character, and this will all work. I held the door open for her, and she backed into the elevator. Her hair smelled of lavender, just like it had ten years ago. With her heels, she was an inch taller than me.
She said one word, and I knew I was screwed. “Morgan!”
The ten-year-old girl came galloping through the lobby like a wild horse, her wavy black mane flowing unbound. Small for her age, she made up for it with attitude. She wore a private-school uniform with a pleated skirt but no shoes. She’d removed them for the security search but never bothered to put them back on.
Her mother growled, but the infraction didn’t merit an argument in front of people she worked with.
Donut-stain frowned. “Hey, this is no place for kids.”
Delilah pushed the down button. “Yeah? Well, I’m not from this country. Nobody told me her new school would be closed today, and she’s been banned from the only suitable day care. Anger issues.”
“Mr. Mask!” said the girl, gazing at me with her chocolate eyes.
How the hell did she recognize me with implants and surgical alteration? Despite having a mouth like a truck driver, this child was the most dangerously smart and creative person I had ever met. I tried to reason with her, putting a finger to my lips.
Donut-stain stepped into the elevator at the last instant to do his job. Why is he starting now? Then I remembered Delilah’s legs. “He can’t hear you, kid. He’s deaf.”
Morgan opened her mouth to contradict him, but I took a chance and signed, “Play along. I can’t talk, or your mother will know my secret.”
Her eyes grew huge. “I understand,” she said aloud. Then slowly, she signed back. “How do I understand?”
“Magic,” I replied vaguely. You don’t tell a little girl about mommy’s nasty deal with an elder god.
“I suck at magic.” She made a gesture that she shouldn’t have known for several years. “I’ve been thrown out of three schools. Can you help?”
I smiled, recognizing the symptoms from other crossbreeds. “Then those schools suck. They only know how to teach people to do magic. You are magic. You have a rare and precious gift. You can speak any language that the person you’re with knows.” Other abilities should manifest as she matured. “Some of your anger may be generated by the disconnect between what people are saying with their mouths and the truth that their body language is revealing.” My mother had been an oracle, and personal information sometimes popped into my head when I met people. The talent came in handy when planning a new job. Hacking people is easier than cracking safes.
“Well, stick a flute up my ass and call me a unicorn,” she muttered in Quebec French. Her face lit up like I’d given her the keys to her own life.
“Language!” her mother said sternly without turning.
The elevator stopped, but our signing conversation continued as Donut led us down the hall toward the head archivist’s office. “Are you my guardian angel?” Morgan asked, pointing toward my sandals.
They don’t have a word for what I am. Not a nice one. “Not an angel, but I watch over you whenever I can.”
Her mother pointed to a row of chairs. “Sit!”
Both Morgan and I obeyed reflexively.
Harrison Tweed stepped out of his boss’s office, the holiday replacement. This buffoon was everything I hated in an Ivy League bureaucrat—attractive, oily, and fond of claiming the accomplishments of others. “Hello… who do we have the pleasure of meeting?”
Gosh, he never kissed my hand.
Donut made introductions.
I whispered, “Call me Pepe Lepew. Mwah.” I kissed the little girl’s hand.
Morgan burst out in a fresh round of giggles.
“You two know each other?” Donut asked.
“What? You mean do I break into her house once a year and leave her presents, while she puts cookies out for me? That would be creepy.”
Covering her face, Morgan held in a snicker. That’s exactly what we’d been doing. When she turned three, she’d left her favorite platypus plush doll in a hotel. I tracked it down with my divination skills and returned it, but she caught me in the act. To buy her silence, I’d taught her how to tie her shoes. Her mom was a rightie while Morgan was a leftie like her no-good absentee father.
The guard took out his phone and pulled up a video of some sporting match. I used his moment of disinterest to transfer the Chiclets into my jacket pocket.
She signed, “Why are you here?”
“To rescue someone.”
The most powerful genie of his age, trapped in a vault. I made a locking gesture over my lips.
“Angel stuff. Got it.”
I wanted to hug her, but that would get me arrested for other reasons. Instead, I asked, “What happened at the day care?”
“I don’t know what the big deal is. I took a nap during some boring movie, and one of the other kids woke me up, screaming that I was a freak. So I washed his mouth out with hand sanitizer.”
She’s glowing in her sleep again. “You can’t do that.”
“They didn’t have any soap.”
“Nap anywhere but your own bed! I warned you.”
“Why not? Normal kids do.”
“For now, you have to trust me.”
The manager’s door opened, and
Harrison frowned at the guard. “Take the child to the
break room. Buy her something with sugar. Just keep her out of our hair.” Then
he gestured me inside.
The access to the vault area was through of the back of the manager’s office.
I glanced down the hall toward the exit. Delilah could lose her job for what I was about to do. Watching her cry about that would be hard, but facing a berserk immortal would be worse.
Just to throw him off his smug stride, I pointed to the two-foot plus sphere in the left corner.
“Like a mailbox,” Delilah said.
“We catalog and shelve them the next morning. Nobody can access the magic sink that we’re draining today without opening that door.”
She smiled at the dramatic flair. “I’ve read the specs, sir. It’s a simple three-person lock. Mr. Bourne turns off the antimagic sponge. I suspend the wards, and you turn the combination. If you don’t mind my asking, why is he here instead of a federal employee?”
“Ah, well… one of the Special Branch geniuses invented a dimensional-gate detector last Halloween, and we’ve been busy rounding up artifacts ever since. Unfortunately, this storage facility isn’t rated for such a large influx, and our last two specialists passed out. Mr. Bourne’s disability has made him immune to the aetheric resonances.”
The first collapse had been a fluke, but I’d arranged the second by coating a car-door handle with a chemicals. I relied on the collapse fallacy for my plan B. If nobody gave me the ten seconds I needed to switch gems, the chewing gum in my pocket contained blood caps. I could fake internal bleeding. While they ran to call the ambulance, I could do the deed.
Delilah frowned at the idea that anyone was disposable.
Tapping his watch,
Harrison prodded me to do my part. The nondisclosure signing
and tour had put us behind schedule. The vault timer only had another five-minute
window where the combination would work.
I opened the access panel and worked the override levers and knobs like an eighties kid with a Rubix cube. I wasn’t as dexterous as one of those teens, but I was a great deal stronger. Mechanical devices respect that about me. I twisted the final valve into the off position and nodded.
“That’s your cue, Miss Theowin.”
Delilah pulled a delicate Sterling silver rod from her purse, slashed downward, and uttered the release phrase. When that didn’t work, she cleared her throat and repeated the incantation.
“We don’t have all day, miss. Are you sure you’re qualified for this?”
Nope, that was the spell to reveal asshats. To be fair, she wasn’t a field tech. Her natural talent was absorbing other people’s magic and redirecting it. While it made her hard to kill, it was no substitute for hours of practice. Her form sucked.
She flipped through her manual, looking for what she might be missing.
Mr. Sphincter tapped his right wingtip.
During the third try, her voice and hand were shaking so much that she botched it worse than a first-year student. Three minutes. I needed her to succeed as badly as the Special Branch did. I let go of the valve and cleared my throat.
“Oh. The dampener must be interfering,” she said. “Something that old is bound to be touchy.”
As someone almost as old, I could have taken offense. Instead, I took her hand and drew a deep breath.
She smiled shyly.
Delilah’s eyes sparked with dangerous fire. She wanted to spend the last few minutes of my window reaming him out.
It might have been worth the loss of the gem to watch this, but the explosion near the elevator knocked us all off our feet. White dust rained down from the acoustic tiles.
As I helped the witch to her feet, I realized someone else had figured out that today would be ideal to rob the vault, but Delilah had blown the timetable. Such precision meant an inside job. I began to suspect Harrington of being more than a jerk, though I couldn’t open my mouth to warn her. My best hope was that these thieves were professionals. I could still rescue the gem and use their incursion to mask my own crime.