The Warden, who’d only been granted possession of Alcatraz about six weeks before, watched the point of the intruder’s knife weave back and forth above her eyes, catching little twinkles of ambient light and seeming almost to sparkle in its motion. She’d tried to bind up the man kneeling on her chest, using magic to chain him, drag him away, bury him in tons of invisible stone, but every incantation broke, every charm sputtered out. The woman standing a few feet away murmured whenever the Warden tried to use her magic, so she was the likely source of the counterspells, but that knowledge didn’t help. The Warden was reduced to merely human means for fighting back, and she was not wholly devoid of such skills, but the man holding her down easily deflected her every attempt to thrash, slash, bite, or grab, and now that knife point wandering about just above her eyes, threatening blindness at best and brain-skewering at worst, had forced her into fearful stillness.
The most troubling thing was, the Warden didn’t know who these intruders were. She’d assumed it was Marla Mason and her associate, but now that this man’s face was inches from hers, he was obviously someone else. There was a resemblance, even beyond the fact that both were Hispanic young men dressed in funky old suits with wide lapels – this one might have been the other’s heavier, musclebound, more thuggish brother. The most obvious difference was this man’s prosthetic lower jaw, made of dark polished wood inlaid with metal in sinuous designs that made her eyes blur if she looked directly at them. When he smiled, she saw the polished, white, sharpened artificial teeth jutting up from that wooden jaw. The prosthesis had obviously been created with magic – the surface of the wood moved like skin, flexing as he smiled, and blended seamlessly into flesh where it met the skin of his face, but if you were going to use magic, why not just grow him a new jaw, something any competent sorcerous surgeon could manage?
The answer was obvious. You’d give him an artificial jaw in order to make him look scarier.
“There, there,” the man – what had the woman called him? Crappy? – said in a soothing voice. “Good girl. Just a few questions and we’ll get out of your way. What settlement is this? Whose riding?”
“I – I don’t understand –” The Warden tried to keep her voice level, but being asked incomprehensible questions by a man who used a knife to compel answers was terrifying.
The woman in the deep purple cloak came closer and crouched beside her, laying one cold finger against the side of the Warden’s face. “Forgive my lackey. He’s a bit slow on the uptake sometimes. He thinks we’ve merely been moved in space, to another part of our world. But this is another world entirely, isn’t it, from the place we come from?”
She was not Marla Mason, but again, there was a resemblance that seemed obviously familial. This could have been Marla’s sister, younger by at least a dozen years, surely no more than twenty, her complexion smooth and her skin wholly unlined, almost mask-like. It was not a beautiful face, no more than Marla’s was, but it was, in a way the Warden found hard to define, an eerily perfect face, like something cast in flawless porcelain.
The Warden swallowed. “I don’t know where you’re from.”
“Of course. Why don’t you just tell us, in your own words, where we are?”
Delighted to have a question she could answer – the knife had never stopped its dance, even when the woman called its wielder a lackey – the Warden said, “Alcatraz prison, on Alcatraz Island, in San Francisco Bay.” She paused. “In California. In the United States. On, ah, Earth.” Who knew where these people were from?
“Well, well, Crapsey,” the woman said. “We’re in San Francisco again. And you had so much fun here last time.”
“Do you work for the Jaguar?” Crapsey said.
The woman who wasn’t Marla sighed and rolled her eyes, and the Warden shook her head. “The… I don’t know who that is. My mistress is Susan Wellstone, chief sorcerer of San Francisco.”
The woman whistled, and Crapsey lifted the knife away. “Susan?” His voice was bewildered, which was better than low and threatening. “She’s been dead for more than ten years.”
“Only in our world, Crapsey. This is another world. A parallel dimension.”
“I don’t get it,” he said.
“Let me put it in terms you understand. It’s like in that episode of Star Trek you like, with Evil Spock, from the mirror universe. Remember?”
“Oh right,” Crapsey said. “When Spock has a goatee. That’s how you can tell he’s evil. Huh. So you think there’s another version of me in this place?” He stroked his wooden chin. “I’m obviously not the evil one. I couldn’t grow a goatee if I wanted to.”
“As usual, your logic is unassailable. Hmm.” She looked down again. “What’s your name, little gray dove?”
“I’m called the Warden.”
“Ha. And yet, here you are, a prisoner. I guess irony’s the same in every universe.”
The Warden decided to risk a question of her own. “Who are you?”
“Me?” The woman pressed one hand to her chest. “Why, I don’t have a name for myself. I’m the only being in the universe that actually matters – ha, in any universe, it seems – so why should I need a name? But some people call me the Mason. It’s a little joke, you see, because once, it was my surname, but also, masons build things. And I’m a builder.”
“Be honest, boss,” Crapsey said. “Mostly you build things for the pleasure of knocking them down again when you’re done.”
“Oh, you,” the Mason said, and while the exchange had the shape of playful banter, her words were utterly without emotion. “My lackey is mistaken, there, as he so often is. Some things I build forever. Like empires. Now, my little Warden, my little ward, tell me – did you bring me here? Work some magic, on purpose or by accident, to rip a hole from here to there through which my companion and I… fell?”
The Warden shook her head vigorously. “No! It wasn’t me. But someone was here, a little while ago, someone else, it must have been her!”
“Mmm.” The Mason knelt and touched the Warden’s cheek, gently, and the Warden gasped at pain that felt like an icicle being shoved deep into her brain. “You speak the truth, as you understand it. Can you tell me about this mysterious other person?”
“She said her name was Marla Mason. She… looked like you, but older. There was a man with her, I didn’t get his name, but he might have been that one’s skinnier brother.” She lifted her chin toward Crapsey, who still had her pinned. “I don’t know why they were here, they live across the country in Felport, they’re not welcome here, but –”
“Where are they now?”
The Warden closed her eyes and extended her senses to feel the whole of her island domain… but the earlier intruders were gone. “Not here. It’s like they just vanished.”
“Aw hell boss,” Crapsey said. “It’s your evil twin. And my evil twin! They hang out together too, that’s wild. This’ll be fun.”
“Interesting, at the very least.” The Mason put her finger on the Warden’s cheek again, turning the woman’s face so she could look into her eyes. “Now, my ward, you can do a favor for me. Set up a meeting with Susan Wellstone. Bring her here. I should introduce myself to the local potentate. But, ah, don’t tell her about me. Just say you need to talk to her. Something very urgent. Very mystical. Be vague. I want her to be surprised. Does she like surprises?”
“No, she doesn’t.”
“Not so different from the Susan Wellstone I once knew, then. But no matter. We’ll surprise her anyway.”
“You want me to call her now? It’s the middle of the night.”
Crapsey flicked the lobe of her ear with his finger, hard. Though the pain was nothing compared to the throbbing from her broken nose and cheekbone, it was somehow even more humiliating for its casual cruelty. “Sorcerers keep weird hours. If you don’t know that, you must not be much of one.”
“I’ll need to get my phone.”
The Mason nodded. “Let the poor thing up, Crapsey, you’re squishing her boobs.”
“Sure boss.” Crapsey moved aside, and the Warden took her first deep breath in many long minutes. She sat up, reached into her suit jacket’s inner pocket, and removed her smartphone.
“Damn, look at that phone,” Crapsey said. “Shiny! Is this mirror universe also in the future or something?”
“I doubt it,” the Mason said. “They’ve probably just had a working consumer electronics sector for the past half a dozen years. Some technological advancements are to be expected over our world, since our focus has been… different. Maybe they even have flying cars and eat their dinners in pill form by now.”
“Yum,” Crapsey said glumly.
The Warden rang Susan Wellstone’s direct emergency line, which she’d also only had for about six weeks, following her ascension to Susan’s inner circle of lieutenants, an ascension that had involved grueling tests of ability and, even more important, loyalty. She’d passed with flying colors. Especially the tests about her willingness to die for Susan’s cause.
Her mistress picked up on the first ring. “Speak.”
“The moon is beautiful tonight,” the Warden said.
“Code.” Crapsey smashed the phone away from her ear and put the knife back, now at her throat. With his free hand he reached out and honked her broken nose, and she screamed and fell to her knees, but he held onto her nose, still squeezing, and dragged her back to her feet. The agony was extraordinary – her pulped nose felt like a bomb going off – but she didn’t care. She’d given her mistress the code that told her there was a hostile and dangerous force at this location, and nothing else mattered. She’d done her duty.
“Naughty,” the Mason said. “But not unexpected. And what did the treachery achieve? Susan will still come here, won’t she? She’ll be expecting something, but I can guarantee she won’t be expecting me. You have to be punished, though. I have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to disobedience. Crapsey? Why don’t you explain what’s going to happen to her?”
Still holding her nose, he leaned over to whisper in her ear. “You’re going to be erased, sweetie. Sent to oblivion. You won’t even burn in hell, and you sure as hell won’t frolic in paradise. You’ll just be gone.” He let go of her nose, took a step back, and sat down cross-legged on the floor.
The Warden stepped forward, planning to aim a kick right at the middle of his face, to make him feel a fraction of the pain he’d inflicted on her, but then his body slumped, chin drooping to his chest, and something happened, a jolt like a bucket of ice water hitting her brain, and the Warden gasped, eyes crossing with the effort to hold on… to what, and even with what, she wasn’t sure, but she felt like she was being driven out of herself, her body, her own head, and then she lost her vision, and hearing, and sense of smell, and taste, and touch, and finally – but not soon enough to be merciful – her consciousness.
Crapsey swore when he took up residence in the Warden’s body, because damn, the chick was in pain, her face was totally messed up, and it took him a moment to shut down the pain centers in her brain. Once upon a time, Crapsey wouldn’t have been able to exert such fine control – hell, he hadn’t even been able to switch bodies at will until the Mason taught him, and it hadn’t been a pleasant learning experience – but he’d taken over so many hundreds of people at this point that he could do all sorts of things with the bodily systems he hijacked. They were just machines, after all, nothing but electricity and chemical reactions running on meat hardware. The trick was to remember you were in the body, not of the body, to treat it like a car you were driving. He was only really comfortable in his usual body, though, the one he’d stolen first and lived in the longest. There were preservation spells on that body so it would stay alive indefinitely in his absence, though he didn’t like to leave it for more than a day or two at most, because the dehydration headaches were wicked.
“So what now, boss?”
The Mason pointed at his now-uninhabited body. “Drag that into one of the cells, out of sight. Then we’ll wait for Susan Wellstone and her entourage to show up. You’re wearing the body of one of her lapdogs, so we can mess with her head a bit before I kill her.” She cracked her knuckles. “That’s a rare pleasure, Crapsey, getting to kill one of your enemies twice.”
“Oh, I don’t know. You’ve done it before. I’ve seen it.”
“Sure, but that usually involves using magic or medicine to revive them, and then they’ve only been dead for a couple of minutes, and when the second death comes so close to the first, it’s only a little thrill. But to kill someone ten years after the first time you did it, that’s enough distance to savor the whole experience over again.”
“Right.” Crapsey had his doubts about whether the Mason really savored anything. She talked about hate and enemies and the joy of crushing people and all that, but her voice was always so cold, and she never actually seemed to take pleasure in any of the things she did – the closest was the occasional look of interest, when she was usually so bored. It was like she was pretending to have human emotions, and if she was pretending with him, her oldest servant, then he was pretty sure nobody saw her true self.
Which was probably for the best. Her untrue self was bad enough. Crapsey did terrible things at her behest on a regular basis, and he’d gotten used to the work, and had an aptitude for it, but if he thought he could leave her without repercussions, find a beach somewhere and live by himself forever in just one body, he’d do it. But he was a useful tool for the Mason, and she’d see him broken before she set him free.
As he dragged his empty body toward one of the jail cells – the Warden had pretty good upper body strength at least, that was good – he thought about the one time he’d tried to take control of the Mason’s body. His only act of rebellion had taken place during their early years together, when she was merely the scourge of Felport and not yet the world, and he was just a kid. After his takeover attempt failed and he bounced off her protective magics, she’d spent a week hurting him for his transgression… and then a month nursing his broken body back to health. It was the closest he’d ever seen the Mason come to mercy, and after that experience, he knew he was hers forever, like it or not. Sure, it was Stockholm Syndrome, but you took what you could get in this world.
But then again, if this was a new universe, one where San Francisco hadn’t been taken over by the Jaguar, one where Susan Wellstone still lived, then maybe anything was possible. Maybe this was a wonderful fairy-tale world where the sorcerer known as Marla Mason had never discovered a certain white-and-purple cloak, and put it on, and conquered most of the world.
“She’s here.” The Mason had been standing with her back against a wall, not moving, staring into space, which was the closest she ever came to sleeping, and Crapsey had been dozing himself. He yawned, forced some extra oxygen to the Warden’s brain – which was a nice brain, very zippy, sorcerers tended to have good brains, robust and perfect for fast thinking – and got ready to play his part.
A blonde woman – who looked pretty much like Susan Wellstone, insofar as he remembered, but he’d only met her the once, right before the Mason put a knife into her throat – strode down the middle of the cell block, the lights overhead coming on as she walked. She was flanked by a couple of others who reeked of sorcery: one a burly guy decked out entirely in black leather, complete with a motorcycle cap, and the other a sort of elfin-looking chick in a tie-dyed dress with crystals tinkling in her hair. Crapsey kept his eyes on the hippie. The obvious bruisers were often dangerous, sure, but it was the sparkly types who came out with shit that surprised you.
“Warden.” Susan crossed her arms and made a great show of looking around. “I’m here with my two most deadly guards. I’ve got all the sorcerers in the city surrounding this godsforsaken rock. Where is this deadly incursion? If you mixed up the codes, so help me, I’ll –”
“I believe I’m the incursion.” The Mason stepped out of a cell and gave a little wave.
Susan narrowed her eyes and gritted her teeth. “Marla.” She frowned. “I never took you for vain – is that pretty young face an illusion, or did you have that mad doctor Langford douse you with the water of youth? Or is it just plastic surgery? I’d think if it was surgery you’d have done something about that nose.”
“You’re still a bitch.” The Mason stepped closer, bruise-purple cloak swaying as she walked, revealing glimpses of the creamy white lining inside. “Now you’re just an older one.”
“I don’t know why you’re here – if you wanted a meeting with me, there are channels, you didn’t have to beat up one of my lieutenants. I could have your head for trespassing.”
“Crapsey,” the Mason said, “take out the bookends, would you? Then you can go back home.”
Crapsey planted his metaphysical feet on the metaphysical soil of the Warden’s body and pushed off. Leaving a living body brought with it a certain tearing sensation, not pleasant, but no worse than ripping a band-aid off an especially hairy portion of one’s anatomy. He floated in the air for a moment, reveling as always in the full 360-degrees-plus-up-and-down vision the bodiless state afforded him. The Warden had already dropped, still breathing for the moment but brain dead. Crapsey allowed himself to drift onto the face of the nightmare hippie girl. She stiffened, fighting back – she was a better fighter than the Warden, had a stronger will, maybe her boss should have given her an island of her own to play with – but Crapsey had the kung-fu of soul-destroying down to a science. When she was ousted he jumped out of her body, letting it drop, and landed on the bruiser, attacking his soul and throwing its mangled body out of the nest too. For a while he’d tried getting people to call him The Cuckoo – he fucking hated being called Crapsey, it was the Mason’s little joke, and it was a mean joke, as all of hers were – but the nickname hadn’t stuck. The ones you gave yourself never did.
He leapt from the biker and flew across the room toward the cell where his body was stashed, admiring Susan’s cool as he went. She glanced at her fallen bodyguards, sighed, and crossed her arms. Susan had been pretty stoic the first time the Mason killed her, too, but there was a nice soupcon of weary annoyance in the mix now. More life experience suited the woman well.
Once back in his own body, he strolled out of the cell, playing with his butterfly knife, making sure he’d gotten reintegrated properly and that all his reflexes and muscle memory were working right. Sometimes he came in a little crooked, tried to move muscles that belonged to other bodies, and in those cases it took a while to readjust, but this time, he’d stuck the landing.
“Rondeau.” Susan shook her head. “Except… not quite Rondeau. Interesting.”
“Haven’t heard that name in a long time,” the Mason said. “Not since he was just a grubby little street kid – well, in a grubby little street kid’s body, anyway. Once he was able to talk again, after what I did to him, he told me he called himself Rondeau. Because he’d heard it somewhere, thought it sounded nice. Naming himself after a kind of French poetry. I said I had a better name for him, another kind of poem – Crapsey. He’s been Crapsey ever since.”
“The Crapsey Cinquain.” Crapsey didn’t bother to disguise the weariness in his voice. The Mason told the same stories over and over, and she never gave enough context. “Invented by a poet named Adelaide Crapsey. Five lines, 22 syllables – two, four, six, eight, and two again. She was inspired by haiku.” He shrugged. “The name just kinda stuck.”
“I like it because it sounds like a type of shit,” the Mason said.
“This shouldn’t be possible.” Susan stepped over the body of her hippie bodyguard, staring hard at the Mason. “You’re from another universe? Many-worlds theory allows for such things, of course, new universes born every moment to allow every possible quantum outcome to take place, but passage between the worlds should be… Well. I’ve been a sorcerer long enough to know you shouldn’t say ‘impossible.’ But it should be very, very difficult. How did you do it?”
“I didn’t do anything,” the Mason said. “Someone else did it. Brought me here. I thought maybe it was you – I know you used to like the big spells, the complex precise ones that took months to get going. But I see now it wasn’t your doing.”
Susan scowled. “What do you mean I used to like those kind of spells? Why the past tense?”
The Mason waved her hand. “Oh, you’re dead in our world. I killed you, hmm, must be a dozen years ago. But apparently my… counterpart here… never struck you down. Tell me, is the Marla Mason of this world… still active?”
“Last I heard,” Susan said, revealing her ignorance of the fact that Marla had been in her city tonight. Sloppy, Crapsey thought. The Mason never missed an intruder. “So you killed me in your world, did you? Well, I was much younger and less experienced then, I’m sure. But about the Marla of this world – are you interested in killing her? ‘There can be only one,’ that sort of thing? Because if so, we might be able to help each other.”
“Mmm. We’ll see. Another question. An important one. Does she – Marla – have a cloak like mine?”
“She does. Well. It’s white, only the inner lining is purple, so it’s the reverse of the cloak you’re wearing. I know she can reverse the cloak, that when the purple shows she becomes a deadly force of borrowed magic, but I’ve never actually seen her do it.”
“You’ve never seen it in this universe, at least,” the Mason said. “How interesting.” She stepped closer to Susan and linked arms with her. “Let’s take a walk around the island. You can catch me up on the history of this world, and once I figure out where things… diverged… I’ll consider my next course of action.”
She glanced at the bodies on the floor. “Jericho and Raine were good bodyguards. It annoys me that you killed them.”
“You know their names,” the Mason said. “How… cute.”
“I could call down an army to destroy you with a thought,” Susan said. “Why should I take a stroll with you?”
“Because your army would die, not me. But forget the sticks. Let’s talk carrots. I probably do need to kill Marla Mason. As a means to an end, if nothing else. And if you’re willing to help, I can make it worth your while.”
They walked off talking together – Susan still bitching, but not as if she were about to do anything violent – and Crapsey trailed along after them, wondering how long he’d have to listen to the Mason pump this cross-dimensional version of her old rival for information before she let him jump in and toss Susan’s soul out a metaphorical window into a very real darkness.
Or maybe the Mason would kill Susan herself, for old time’s sake. The personal touch meant so much.