It Came with the Mask

Doesn't everyone have a sexy, time-traveling, superhero ghost for a grandma?

It Came

 
With
 

the Mask

 

by Erin Halfelven

      Lady Domino

“It’s cold up here,” Jamie LaBelle grumbled. The wind on the rooftop played with his long black hair and he imagined it counting the goosebumps down his bared backbone.

The ghost of his grandmother, Charlene, scoffed. “You think this is cold? Wait till winter.”

“I don’t intend to still be doing this come winter. We’ll find who killed you pretty soon, and I can go back to wearing my own clothes. Who wears a costume like this to run around on rooftops? Fishnets, high heel boots and a bustier?”

“Corset, actually. It came with the mask,” said his grandmother. “Now be quiet.”

“We’re not talking out loud,” he pointed out. “We don’t have to — you’re really inside my head.”

“Yes, but I’m trying to hear what is going on in that building across the alley.”

“We’ve got super-hearing?” Jamie hated getting constantly surprised by the abilities he gained when wearing the Domino mask.

“Not with you yakking away in my ear, we don’t,” his grandmother grumbled. “Now, shush!”

Jamie didn’t point out that ghosts don’t really have ears, just ectoplasmic representations of the ears they used to have. He shivered, not only from the cold, but managed to keep quiet for all of five seconds. “Now I know why Batman wears a cape,” he muttered.

“Shh!”

Then Jamie heard it, too. The low voice of someone murmuring into a phone. “Yeah, we got a shipment ready to go out. Prime meat from the docks. Uh-huh.”

Jamie reflected for a moment that phones in 1950s Los Angeles were not the slick, battery-powered cellular devices that were already around when he was born in the early 2000s; no, they were big heavy black monsters with wires connecting them to the wall.

They both heard a click. “He hung up,” said Jamie, unnecessarily.

“No shit, Sherlock,” said his grandmother. “We’ll make a detective of you sooner or later.”

Jamie fingered the whip hanging at his right hip. It was a magical whip, like the mask and the rest of the costume; he could use it like something out of an adventure book. “We going to swing down and, and… uh?”

“Beat him up? While it would be satisfying, let’s just follow him if he goes anywhere. See if we can catch him with any of the goods and maybe turn him over to the cops.”

Jamie sighed. Beating up crooks was one of the perks of wearing the mask as far as he was concerned. He loved the strength and speed he had in a fight, leaping over people, dodging their attempts at hitting back, kicking someone right in the chops with his high heel boots. And if they pulled a gun, well, he had one of his own on the other hip: another mystic weapon, one that shot darkness.

“Summon Nightmare,” said his grandmother.

Jamie gave a quiet two-note whistle and the hell-horse materialized beside them on the rooftop, its dappled gray hide phosphorescing dimly in the fog that always accompanied its re-appearance from wherever it went when he sent it away.

The beast snorted and its eyes and nostrils lit up with a red glow. Jamie put one foot in the stirrup and swung a silken leg over the animal, settling into the skimpy English-style saddle. He didn’t need reins with Nightmare who obeyed his mental commands.

“Up,” he thought and the horse took four steps up an invisible ramp then strode along in mid-air toward the windows across the alley. “Let’s see if we can catch a glimpse of him before he leaves his office, so we know we’re following the right guy when he leaves,” Jamie suggested.

“Good idea,” said Charlene. “You’re getting the idea of how to do this stuff.”

Jamie and Nightmare both snorted. Being a fifties crimefighter wasn’t rocket science, especially with the powers that came to someone wearing the Domino mask.

The only problem was that if you were wearing the mask, you were Lady Domino. And the Lady part was definitely a problem for Jamie who back in his own time would be a preteen boy with all the angst and drama about sexual identity that went with looming puberty.

But in the here and now, he was Lady Domino. It came with the mask.

Nightmare might not be able to outrun a sports car on an open country road, but Jamie had never had to try that. Following a fat sedan through the city was no problem when you could stay above the traffic and take shortcuts over the top of buildings if necessary.

Jamie and Nightmare, accompanied by the invisible presence of Charlene, kept pace with the gangster’s car from about five stories up. No one in the car would be able to see them in any case, the roofline of the auto hid them from view, but they were above the streetlamps’ glow and nearly invisible in the moonlight to boot. Perhaps a few night owls in the city caught sight of them gliding by the windows of apartment buildings, but no one raised any alarms.

The gangster’s car stopped behind a warehouse surrounded by other such buildings in an industrial complex near the downtown end of a rail line that ran to the harbor miles away. The man they had previously identified as Billy “Snake” Serpento got out of the back and stood for a moment getting a pipe to light. Two other men got out of the front seat while Jamie and Charlene watched.

A short rail siding held two boxcars and Snake headed toward one of those with one of his men while the other went off toward a line of large vans. Two more men appeared from the shadows and fell in beside their boss.

“Any trouble?” asked Snake, puffing to keep his pipe lit. The thread of smoke drifted into the moonlit sky, and Jamie pinched his nose to keep from sneezing as he caught a whiff of the pungent tobacco.

“None at all, Boss,” said one of the men who had been waiting. “Quiet as mice, the whole lot.”

Jamie wondered who was quiet for a moment but missed a line or two of conversation as a diesel engine started up, and one of the trucks’ headlights came on. The van maneuvered over closer to the railcars then the driver got out and, with help, opened the back of the cargo compartment and lowered a metal ramp.

Snake watched, puffing on his pipe, then nodded when the truck had been prepared, signaling for the other men to open the boxcar. Guns appeared in the hands of two of the men as the heavy door rolled back.

Faces peered out of dimness, then more and more. People began jumping down from the railcar opening and turning to help others down. All of the men and women moving in the darkness had black hair and sallow complexions.

“There must be fifty in that boxcar,” Jamie whispered, as much to himself as to anyone else since he didn’t have to speak aloud for his ghostly companion to hear him.

“Or more,” said Charlene. “Snake is smuggling in people. They look Chinese, or at least, Asian.”

With the truck engine idling again, Jamie could overhear the conversation below again.

“Where’s this load going, Boss?” one of the men with guns asked, motioning with his weapon for the frightened-looking “cargo” to keep moving.

Snake took his pipe out of his mouth and tried to peer into the bowl in the darkness. Whatever he saw didn’t please him, and he took a knife out of a pocket, unfolding it with one hand. He paused to answer the question before prodding the dottle in the bowl with his weapon. “San Fernando, right now. From there to the kitchens of restaurants all over the place, probably. A few of the women may end up somewhere else if they are young enough and pretty at all.”

Jamie wanted to grind his teeth. In his own life, he might be only eleven but he had understood the implications of what Snake said well enough. “Let’s get them. Not the people from the boxcar, the gangsters.”

“Okay,” Charlene agreed. “Take out the ones holding guns, first.”

“Down,” Jamie ordered the phantom horse, directing it toward one of the gunmen. Unleashing his whip with one hand, he drew his darkness gun with the other.

Nightmare could not actually touch anyone except Jamie; still, having the phantom horse run through you was an experience to remember. Jamie used the whip to snatch the gun out of the hand of one thug and slipped off Nightmare just before non-impact, reaching out to knock the gun out of the nerveless hand of the second thug who managed only a moan before collapsing in fear.

“Having fun, boys?” he asked in Lady Domino’s sultry coo. “Strange time and place for a party.” He shot another thug in the face with the darkness gun and kicked the fourth one in the middle with a high heeled boot. “Hey, maybe this was a good idea, I’m getting into the swing of things.”

“I’m blind!” screamed the man he had shot as inky clouds enveloped his head.

“Bitch!” snarled a voice behind him.

Jamie began to turn as Charlene’s voice warned, “He’s got a knife.” Jamie made a hard to predict dodge-and-weave as he spun around but Billy the Snake was not within reach. Instead, he had strode to the loading ramp of the truck and seized a young Asian woman and now held his knife to her throat while pulling her away from her fellow immigrants.

“Back off, do-gooder,” Snake growled, “or I’ll cut her throat.”

Shooting him with the darkness gun would do no good, Snake already had hold of his victim, and Jamie felt sure that he could not whip the knife out of the mobster’s grasp before he could use the blade. Not without something to slow Snake down, at any rate.

“Well, now,” Jamie stalled. “Looks like you’ve got a get-out-of-jail-free card.”

“I can’t see,” whimpered the thug in the darkness. “Keep talking, boss, so I can find you.”

“Shaddup,” said Snake.

The one who had faced Nightmare had fallen to the ground, quivering. “Blood. Smoke. Flames,” he moaned.

But the other two were basically still functional. Snake called to them, “Andrew, Pablo, get the car and bring it here.”

Jamie stepped sideways, drawing Snake’s eye. “Party pooper,” he accused in a Lady Domino pout. Several of the Chinese captives had taken to their heels, running away into the darkness and Jamie didn’t want Snake watching them.

“Shaddup,” Snake repeated. He sidled toward where he thought the car would be coming around.

Jamie snapped the whip with one hand as misdirection and shot one of the men heading toward the car with the other. “Let her go,” he ordered Snake.

“Knock it off!” Snake countered. “I’ll cut her throat because she don’t mean anything to me.”

“Do you speak English?” Jamie asked the captive but got no response at all.

Out of sight of Snake, Nightmare came down from above and charged through the last thug who was just getting into the car. The man screamed.

Snake started to turn around, Jamie flicked the whip out to snatch his knife from his hand, the female captive ducked down, trying to escape; it all happened at once.

The Asian girl, she couldn’t be much more than a teenager, stumbled, putting her hand to her throat as the blood gushed out.

“I warned you,” snarled Snake, turning to run.

“NO!” screamed Jamie.

Several other Asian captives suddenly rushed out of the darkness, swarming over Snake, pulling him down.

Charlene’s voice, that only Jamie could hear, snapped out, “Get her to a hospital, you can carry her on Nightmare if you keep hold of her!”

Horse, rider, and burden soon leaped into the air, gaining altitude to see over the buildings. “We’ll never make it in time,” gasped Jamie.

“We have to try,” said Charlene. “I’m going to leave you. See if I can enter her body and slow her heart down.”

“Can you do that?” asked Jamie.

“Maybe,” said Charlene.

“The hospital is too far,” said Jamie. “Too far…. We won’t make it and what happens if she dies while you’re inside her?”

But his grandmother’s voice didn’t answer. Nightmare galloped on, phantom hoofbeats echoing in the canyons of the city buildings. Jamie gasped, something else was happening.

The Los Angeles night began to fade into dreamlike tatters. Jamie tried to cling to Nightmare, to hold the injured woman up as blood covered them both. “Charlene?” he called. “Grandma?” But no one answered.

Blackness grew, blotting out the lights of the city and the dim glow of the sky. The swelling dark swallowed horse, rider, victim and ghost into a dim memory of a forgotten dream a long time ago and a long way away.

* * *

Jamie woke in the narrow bed in the attic room at Mrs. Bishop’s house. Someone had opened the door.

His foster mother herself stood in the doorway dressed in her morning costume of lavender sweats and yellow hairband. “More bad dreams?” she asked. She looked mussed and glowing, obviously just back from her morning run.

Jamie rubbed matter from his eyes with one hand. He knew he had been crying in his sleep. “Uh, yeah,” he admitted. With the other hand, he pulled the sheet up around him, embarrassed to be in bed in his Hulk pjs with Mrs. Bishop looking.

“You wanna make an appointment with the counselor?” she asked.

He shook his head. “They’re just bad dreams. I’ll be okay.”

Mrs. Bishop didn’t press it, stepping away from the doorway instead. “I’ll have breakfast for you downstairs,” she called. “Oatmeal, juice, peanut butter on toast and a boiled egg. Okay?”

His stomach growled in anticipation. “Okay,” he called out his agreement.

He heard her going down the narrow back stairs to the kitchen. “Ten minutes,” she called up. “Shake your booty.”

Jamie smiled without amusement. This dream had not been one of the good ones. He hated when Lady Domino failed at something, and it seemed certain that she had not managed to save the wounded girl.

Good thing he’d heard Mrs. Bishop at the door and got the mask off before she saw it. He pulled the narrow black domino out from under his pillow and stared at it. “Tonight, Grandma Charlene. We’ll try again tonight to find out who killed you.”

Then he put the mask away in his bookcase between “Captain Hero and the Lizard Men” and his collection of graphic novels before getting washed up and changed and going downstairs for breakfast.



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