The Mason didn’t sleep; the Mason drove. And since going right the hell across the country from the west coast to the east was, for most of the trip, a matter of following one endless freeway through predominantly flat land, there was not a lot to keep Crapsey’s magpie brain interested. The Humvee had big back seats perfect for napping, and he slept a lot, but he didn’t want to sleep too much in case the Mason got annoyed and started vaporizing 18-wheelers and hitchhikers. Insofar as the woman in the cloak was tethered to non-murderous standards of behavior at all, Crapsey was her tether, and without his moderating influence she could get even colder and nastier than usual.
So he sat in the passenger seat, pointing out funny billboards, suggesting an epic side trip to Wall Drug in South Dakota, urging her to stop so he could see various improbable-sounding roadside attractions, and generally trying to make the best of a bad and boring situation. The Mason was even more relentlessly-focused than usual, but at least she didn’t pause to murder any more cross-universe doppelgangers of her old enemies, maybe because they didn’t pass close enough to any of them to trigger her personal proximity alarms.
They drove through desert, and fallow fields, and stands of trees, but mostly they drove through the endless repetitive ecosystem of the Interstate, long stretches of nothing much punctuated by clusters of gas stations and motels and fast-food joints nestled close to the length of the highway like parasites clinging to the body of their host.
Crapsey never actually got tired of drive-through cheeseburgers and french fries – given the way he usually ate, it would take awhile for the novelty of fast food to wear off – but he did get sick of the near-constant confinement in the car, broken only when the Mason consented to pull off to the side of the road long enough for him to piss in a ditch or crap in a rest stop toilet. The only thing resembling a diversion was a lonely gas station they robbed when Susan’s money ran out, but that was a clean, simple bodysnatch-and-drop, hardly more interesting than shaving or changing your socks.
Two days on the road didn’t seem like a long time in theory, but when you spent those two days mostly non-stop driving in a Humvee with no company but the Mason and not a single moment’s privacy and no chance to freshen up other than splashing water on yourself in the sink of a public bathroom, it felt like a long time. Smelled like one, too – the inside of the Hummer was ripe, though Crapsey realized the smell was mostly his own fault. The Mason didn’t seem to sweat much, and while she didn’t eat any better than him on the journey, she didn’t eat as much, so the constant diet of road food didn’t play havoc with her digestive system as much as it did with Crapsey’s; in other words, she didn’t fart nearly as much or as vilely.
When they saw a sign reading “Felport: 200 Miles” – they’d left their old friend Interstate 90 by then, swinging onto a state highway that angled toward the city – Crapsey decided he should get his strength up, and he crawled into the back seat to nap. It seemed like seconds later when the Mason reached back and pinched him viciously on the arm to wake him.
He groaned. “Are we there yet?”
“Annemberg,” she said.
Annemberg. A little one-stoplight town about an hour outside Felport, totally unremarkable except for one thing: it was the secret home of the Blackwing Institute, the place where – in their world, anyway – insane sorcerers were tucked away to keep them out of trouble. The inmates included a handful of dangerous, criminally insane types who were simply too powerful to be executed, and a few others who’d had their brains addled by magic or trauma and posed a danger to themselves and others and the fabric of reality, even though they didn’t necessarily mean any harm.
The Mason had taken over the Institute back home, but she hadn’t changed its essential function: it was still a prison where people too difficult to kill but too dangerous to be set free were warehoused until she found a use for them – or effective means of murdering them. “So what are we doing here?”
“Genevieve Kelley. Her powers could be useful when we meet Marla, assuming Genevieve is institutionalized in this universe as well.”
“Ahhh,” Crapsey said. “But you were pretty clear about that. I thought I wasn’t ever allowed to wear her body again, because you were afraid I’d go all Brutus-vs.-Caesar and try to kill you?”
She turned her terrible face on him, her lack of expression an expression in itself. “Will you?”
Crapsey shrugged. “I’d hate to see what might happen if I tried and failed.”
“Stupid Crapsey. You should worry about what would happen if you succeeded. I implanted a few enchanted beads, courtesy of Nicolette, inside your favorite body there years ago, when you were off in another host. Charms that will destroy that body utterly, beyond reconstruction, if my body should ever die. I believe it’s called a ‘dead man’s switch.'”
Crapsey began groping himself all over, but didn’t encounter any lumps or nodules. “Charms? For real? You messed with my body? That’s cold, boss.”
She shrugged. “You have an unreasonable attachment to that carcass. I thought it was worth exploiting.”
“Yeah, okay, but a deterrent like that only works if I know about it, so I can work up a good head of fear-steam.”
“I do not worry about death by your hand on a regular basis, Crapsey. You are usually harmless. I chose to hold the possibility of your bodily annihilation in reserve until the threat was necessary. That moment has come.”
“Still,” Crapsey said, “give me Genevieve and I could take you out, or try, anyway. I won’t, I mean, I love my body, and basically I’m kind of a coward, but it’s a hell of a risk, isn’t it? You must be really worried about what’ll happen when you face Marla. Like, piss-your-panties afraid.”
The Mason was quiet – terrifyingly so – for a long moment. Then she said, “Shut your mouth, you piece of shit, and do as you’re told.”
Score one for Crapsey, he thought. “Okay, let’s make up and be friends, kissy-face, whatever. So what do we do? Just, like, storm the castle and open cell doors until we find the right one?”
“You know I favor the direct approach.” She guided the Humvee off-road, seemingly into a field, but they passed through a shimmer of illusion and found themselves on a long driveway leading to the slightly run-down, once-stately mansion that housed the Institute.
They parked in the horseshoe drive and got out of the Humvee, Crapsey stretching and working out the kinks in his neck and spine and assorted joints with audible crackles and pops. “After you kill everybody, or whatever, can I take a shower, you think?”
“Your odor is offensive. I insist you wash.” The Mason knocked on the imposing oak doors, rather then merely kicking them to splinters, which suggested she was going to try and take a soft approach. Soft, for her, meant merely granite-hard instead of diamond-hard, but it was something.
The door opened, and a curiously blank-faced, doughy man dressed in green scrubs peered out at them. Oh, right – the place was staffed by homunculi, artificial beings in the shape of humans but with no more inner lives or motivations than inflatable sex dolls.
Crapsey wondered how many of them there were – he couldn’t jump into their bodies, since they weren’t human, which always made him feel oddly powerless. Sure, he had a butterfly knife, but that was messy, and he was still annoyed about having to murder that old woman in the desert so recently. Throwing souls out of the nest was a lot easier.
“Tell your boss Marla Mason is here,” the Mason snapped.
The creature nodded and said, “You will wait.”
“I think I’ll wait inside, worm-eater,” the Mason said. The homunculus didn’t answer or otherwise react, just started to close the door, and the Mason jammed one of her steel-capped workboots in-between the door and the frame. She didn’t want to risk being shut out, Crapsey figured; Blackwing could be a hell of a fortress if the security measures got activated. Kind of spoiled the soft entrance, but that’s the way it goes. The homunculus leaned all his weight into closing the door despite the Mason’s inconvenient foot, its expression blank as a bowl of vanilla pudding, and the Mason got annoyed and reached out to grab the creature’s face with a clawed hand sparking purple light.
Crapsey hadn’t seen a whole lot of movies – he was more a comic book man – but he’d seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, and there was a bit at the end where a Nazi’s face melted off his skull, and that was pretty much what happened here, except the homunculus’s flesh ran more like candle wax, and there was no real skull underneath, just a blank bulb of bone that looked like the featureless mannequin heads used to display wigs.
Getting de-faced didn’t seem to bother the homunculus any, as he kept right on pushing the door, so the Mason pulled his arm off – it made a pop not unlike a champagne bottle opening – and beat him back from the door with his own limb. The whole thing would have been farcical if it hadn’t been so horrible.
The Mason kicked the man-thing aside and pushed the door open. “Yoo hoo,” she called. “Are visiting hours over yet?” She stepped inside, and Crapsey followed, entering a dark-wood-paneled foyer that held precious little besides a low table and bowl of wax fruit (there was a dagger sticking up out of the apple; that was kind of weird).
A woman appeared at the far end of the entryway, and Crapsey’s heart went pitter-pat. He’d never met Dr. Leda Husch, head of the Institute, back in his world – she’d holed up in the Institute when the Mason first took over Felport, and put up a good fight for a while, but eventually the Mason had breached the walls. She hadn’t captured Husch, though – the good doctor had fled into the hills to join a few other sorcerers in the east coast resistance. Those guys were still around, technically, though they weren’t much of a threat. When the Mason got bored, she went out and hunted resistance fighters the way some people go shoot rats at the dump.
Crapsey was glad he’d never seen Dr. Husch before, because he probably would have done something stupid like pledge his life to defend her. It wasn’t just that she was beautiful, though she was that – Helen of Troy beautiful, classical statue beautiful, Emma Frost in a white corset beautiful, the kind of woman who necessitated the invention of painting – it was the fact that her beauty was somehow perfectly calibrated to trip all Crapsey’s switches and levers. If asked, he’d have said he liked girls with lots of piercings and tattoos, so slender their hipbones and ribs showed, though big fake boobs were acceptable additions to the standard template. And yet it turned out his ultimate heart’s delight was platinum blonde hair in a tight bun and va-voom curves barely contained in a severe dark blue suit-with-skirt.
“Leda,” the Mason said, and prodded the dismembered homunculus at her feet. “One of your wind-up toys got a little out of control. Did you accidentally program him to be a homicidal maniac or something?”
“They malfunction occasionally when they aren’t fed properly, and, of course, we can never afford enough provisions, because your government doesn’t give me adequate funding – wait.” Dr. Husch frowned, her lips so red they invited trite but irresistible comparisons to apples and fire engines and hearth fires. “Marla, you look very strange.”
“Yeah, I know. Who says I’m not getting any younger?” The Mason grinned, and Crapsey almost took a step back, because the grin looked genuine – she was a better actor than he’d ever supposed. “It’s a spell, and if I’m not careful it’ll regress me right back to infancy. But I think you’ve got somebody here who can give me a hand, a patient named, what was it, Rondeau?”
Shit, that’s me. “Uh, Kelly something. No, Kelley’s the last name. Genevieve.”
“Right. She up to receiving visitors, doc?”
Dr. Husch nodded briskly. “I’m sure it can be arranged, if it’s necessary, and I trust you’ll keep my assistance in mind next time the council meets to discuss my funding.” She turned toward the door that led deeper into the Institute, then paused and looked back over her shoulder. “Oh, I do have one question, Marla – how is a raven like a writing desk?”
The Mason hesitated, then said, slowly, “I know this one. There’s a ‘b’ in both and an ‘n’ in neither.”
The air around them suddenly came alive with blue sparks, twisting like a net of electric lights, and Crapsey swore. He knew better than to reach out and touch the lights. He’d seen magical confinements before.
Dr. Husch approached the cage of lights slowly. “That’s one answer, yes, and good improvisation. But the proper response, in the code I established with Marla, is ‘Poe wrote on both.’ ”
The Mason snorted. “The proper answer is no answer at all. Lewis Carroll meant that riddle to be nonsense, without a solution, but you humans hate an untied bow, so you had to come up with answers anyway, silly word games. You got the riddle wrong, anyway – it should be why is a raven like a writing desk, not how. Typically sloppy.”
“Well, whatever you are, you’ve read Alice in Wonderland,” Dr. Husch said. “That makes you a literate monster. What are you, anyway? Bodysnatcher? Salt vampire? Doppelganger? Kitsune? Noppera-bō? Tanuki? Gods help us, a clone?”
“Maybe I’m a Skrull,” the Mason said, still grinning.
“Hey, nice comic book reference, boss. Bonus points.”
Dr. Husch circled the cage, peering in at Crapsey. “And you aren’t Rondeau, though you’re close – at least you aren’t fifteen years too young, you’re just too bulked-up and strong.”
“You like big and strong? Because for you I’d hit the gym six days a week, doc. I’d make it seven days a week, but I need at least one day devoted entirely to recovering from hangovers.”
“Fine,” Dr. Husch said. “I’ll let Marla sort this out. She hates leaving the city, but to face her imposter, I’m sure she’ll make the journey.”
The Mason leaned against the crackling cage, looking quite casual, and Husch’s eyes widened. Crapsey guessed that if he touched the cage he’d get zapped pretty hard, maybe knocked profoundly unconscious, but shit like that didn’t bother the Mason. She might be trapped, since this was probably a badass containment mechanism meant to stop the really nasty inmates from making it past the front door in case of escape, but pain and death magics tended to slide right off her. “If you don’t mind me asking,” the Mason said, “what gave me away? The riddle, I know, but what made you test me? I thought I was doing well.”
“I knew something was wrong the moment you dismembered my orderly,” Husch said blandly. “But you asked after Genevieve Kelley, and she’s been discharged – Marla was instrumental in her recovery, in fact. You should have done a bit more research.”
“Well that’s a wasted trip, then,” Crapsey said. Now he wouldn’t get to possess Genevieve, so he wouldn’t have to decide whether or not to try and eradicate the Mason, which was ultimately kind of a relief.
“Not necessarily,” the Mason said. “This building is full of useful people, things, and ideas. And it’s always pleasurable to kill an enemy who’s escaped you once.”
Crapsey winced. He didn’t want to see the doctor die. And if her death was inevitable, he didn’t want to see her get cut up. She was too pretty. “Should I, ah, you know… commandeer the vessel?” Taking over Doctor Husch’s body would get them out of this cage, and probably make it a breeze to get in to see the other patients, and who knows, maybe he’d have time to find a full-length mirror and a Polaroid camera, get some nude snapshot mementos.
The Mason shook her head. “Wouldn’t work, Crapsey. Appearances aside, Dr. Husch isn’t human. Just a homunculus with delusions of grandeur and a couple of advanced degrees. Her creator shouldn’t have bothered giving her a brain, since I’m just going to stick a knife blade in her eye and wiggle it around.”
Dr. Husch snorted. “Threaten me all you like, please. I look after Norma Nilson and Gustavus Lupo for a living. I’ve been threatened by scarier things than you. I’ll just go call Marla. She enjoys taking out the garbage herself.”
“Think you can make a call before I cut my way out of here?” The Mason had drawn her dagger – her special dagger – and held it idly in her left hand.
Dr. Husch shook her head, as if at the antics of a small, comical dog. “There’s not a blade on Earth that can cut through that containment field. Might as well try to break up the sun with a sledgehammer. I had Mr. Beadle himself set up the spell, and it’s strong enough to hold Elsie Jarrow in check. So feel free to break your knife.”
“Oh, surely there’s one dagger on this Earth that can cut through the net? I bet you can think of one.”
Husch laughed. “Marla Mason’s dagger of office you mean? Yes, I suppose. They say it can cut through anything, even ghosts and astral tethers. And I’m very impressed, your little prop knife looks quite like her dagger, the hilt all wrapped with purple-and-white electrical tape, but it’s not enough to just look the same –”
The Mason lifted the knife high, touched the blade to the net above her head, and swept her arm down in a single graceful gesture. The blue threads of magic parted, sputtered, and drifted toward the floor, vanishing before they touched the surface.
“Boo,” the Mason said, face perfectly blank.
Dr. Husch said “Bugger,” and bolted for the door at the end of the hall, disappearing from sight.
“So should we, uh, give chase?” Crapsey said.
The Mason shrugged. “There’s no defense in here I can’t cut through. We’ll stalk her. A slasher movie haunted house sort of experience. She was entirely too in-control there, don’t you think? Too arrogant by half. Some fear and helplessness will do her good.”
“Sadism, right, I get that, but – she was going to call Marla. Are you ready for her whole cavalry to surround us in a siege-type situation?”
The Mason sighed. “It’s less than ideal. Fine, chase her down and sit on her for me. But don’t do anything violent to her yourself. Her counterpart in our world has annoyed me once or twice. I want to take that out on someone.”
Crapsey went through the doorway, and promptly got smacked across the face with what seemed, against all likelihood, to be a cast iron frying pan. He sprawled on his back, half in the doorway, staring at the ceiling and Dr. Husch’s pretty, determined face, wondering if she’d hit him hard enough to fuck up his brain and kill his body and trigger his flight to a new host, and if so, which crazy human behind locked doors he’d end up possessing.
Then Dr. Husch kicked him in the side of the head with one of her perfect feet and everything got fuzzy and wobbly for a while.
Clarity returned to Crapsey like a dripping faucet slowly filling a basin. He found himself in an office, sitting on a couch, while the Mason methodically sorted through a filing cabinet. “Ungh,” he said, checking his skull for dents and gently rubbing the bruises on his face. The illusion hiding his wooden jaw had come unraveled while he was unconscious, and touching the wood was oddly comforting – at least that part of his face didn’t ache. “You kill the doctor?”
“I did my best,” the Mason said. “No thanks to you. Cut her to bits, along with dozens of her orderlies who got in the way. But they’re homunculi, not animals, so it’s tricky to say whether they’re dead – they might as well be foam rubber and wooden frames, you can disassemble them, but kill? Who knows. I suppose someone could put Husch back together again, if they could find all the pieces and took the time, but I don’t imagine she’d ever be the same. Not very satisfying, ultimately. Like killing talking dolls rather than people.” She flipped open a new folder. “Hmm, this is interesting.”
“The Institute’s newest inmate. Down in a cell in the basement. Let’s go visit, shall we?”
“What, it’s someone we know?”
“Know and love, Crapsey, know and love.”
The cell door was well warded with charms of order and confinement, but the Mason’s knife and boots and cloak-magic burned through the defenses easily, and the door swung open slowly, black smoke curling from the half-melted edges. Inside were only white padded walls, and –
The woman in the cell was dressed in plain white pajamas that might have been made of paper, and her hair was shaved to the scalp. She looked a lot different without her braids, but Crapsey recognized her.
“Oh, fuck me, Nicolette?” Crapsey said. “You have to be shitting me.”
“Huh. This is interesting,” Nicolette said. “What’s the deal?”
“We’re parallel-world versions of Marla and Rondeau, on a mission of murder and destruction,” the Mason said. “Would you care to join us, or should we kill you instead?”
“Parallel world. Huh. How’s that poem go? There’s a hell – of a good universe next door?” Nicolette stood up and sauntered toward them. “Got a quarter, jawface?”
Without speaking – nothing he could say now would be the right thing – Crapsey reached into his pocket and handed her a stolen coin from the gas station robbery.
“Heads, I go with you to kill Marla. Tails, we all try to kill each other right here. Sound good?”
“You’re an idiot,” Crapsey said.
“Hey, random chance is my thing, and a girl’s gotta have her thing. I don’t come down to your work and tell you how to be ugly.” Nicolette flipped the coin and let it fall to the ground. They all looked at it. An eagle, spreading its wings. Tails.
“Hell,” Nicolette said, and grinned. “Fact is, I don’t like how that turned out. How about we make it best two out of three?”