Masks: Hard Lessons

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This is an excerpt from an uncompleted novel. That work actually predates my Masks universe, but is being rewritten it to fit into the history of those stories. The style is meant to recall the pulps of the Thirties.

Hard Lessons

by

Rodford Edmiston

Downtown San Francisco, a cool Summer's night in 1937.

The raid turned into a siege before it properly got started. Multiple police cars surrounded the building, the law held back by heavy gunfire from inside the brownstone. Return fire kept the occupants bottled. Both sides had not only the usual handguns, but longarms, including the Browning Automatic Rifle, as well as Thompsons. The sounds and scents were enough to send some who were veterans of the Great War diving for cover. Bodies from both sides lay at the entrance where the police had tried to initially force their way in. So far, neither side had been able to check whether any of the fallen still lived.

There were no bystanders this late at night, but many citizens watched from the neighboring buildings, most peering carefully out their windows. A few were bolder, but still remained behind something sturdy. Two of the watchers were not residents.

"It's not going well," said the smaller of the two figures, watching the battle from a nearby rooftop.

The Dragon's Hand shifted impatiently. She had agreed to this partnership with the understanding that each would help the other with their crime fighting efforts. So far, they had mostly gone after the Night Master's quarry. To be fair, though, she was still learning just who her foes were. Spies were by their nature more low profile than gangsters. She quashed her uneasiness, breathing from her one-point for calm. The Dragon's Hand knew her mission would not be a quick one, and this work with the older Mystery Man was important for many reasons. Every outing she learned something important.

"Since Mullerson's mistress died he's become much bolder," said the Night Master, his calm baritone the only clear sign of his presence. Even standing right beside her, he was only discernible as a vague patch of slightly deeper darkness in the larger darkness of the night. "His chief assistant has eagerly embraced his boss' new ways. This has made them more dangerous than before and also more successful. Successful enough to warrant this severe action by the law."

His companion's garb was more colorful, but still subdued... for the most part. A golden dragon wound its flexible way around her head, tail tucking into fanged mouth to complete the circle and hold it in place as a mask. Between the mask breaking up her features and her voluminous garb, a casual observation might leave unresolved the gender of the Dragon's Hand, as well as her heritage. Given her stature and dress and even her voice, she might have been a small but adult woman or a boy, Caucasian or Asian.

"So, will they go up, down, or just bull their way through?"

"Through."

"Because...?"

"Three weeks ago Mullerson bought a vehicle from the wife of a recently deceased crime boss in Los Angeles. A large touring car custom modified with armor and puncture-proof tires. The work of a very talented man, someone who is perhaps even in our elite group."

"A tank," said the Dragon's Hand, smiling at the prospect of a challenge.

"Not quite, but I expect it will provide the police with a rude surprise. Soon, most likely. Mullerson isn't known for his patience."

Indeed, moments later a hail of gunfire preceded the opening of garage doors and a roar of engines. Several cars exited with squealing tires. Only one breached the blockade, and it crashed soon after, as the driver expired in a hail of gunfire.

"I was wrong," said the Night Master, in the quiet following that spasm of violence. "Under, then around. Most likely with his usual driver - Thomas Harris - at the wheel."

The Dragon's Hand heard it, then. The smooth sound of a large V-12, accompanied by the whine of a supercharger. From the parking garage of a building around the corner, out of sight of the police, a large touring car - a few years old but still pristine - lumbered out onto the street. The Night Master was already in motion, the Dragon's Hand right behind.

The man took the fire escape, swirling black cloak and wide-brimmed hat joining to make him resemble a cloud of darkness pouring down the ladders. The Dragon's Hand took a more direct route; stepping over the edge of the roof and trailing her hand along the wall to control her descent. She had their car started and the door open by the time her boss arrived. He drove; her skills in that area were still underdeveloped.

The police needed a moment to notice the gangster's car, and longer to begin the pursuit. As they roared down the street a nondescript sedan pulled out of an alley close behind the touring car. The police stared in frustration as both cars pulled smoothly away from them.

The Night Master's Franklin had its own V-12 and a supercharger added by his mechanic, as well as better handling. However, they were playing catch-up with an expert driver, and dodging gunfire from Mullerson.

Radio cars pulled into an intersection ahead. Unfortunately, they were a bit early, enough for Harris to see them in time to divert down a side street. He made several quick turns, and was soon back on his previous course, having gone around the roadblock.

"Where are they headed?" said the Dragon's Hand, holding on as her associate cranked the wheel back and forth.

"The Oakland Bay Bridge," said the Night Master. "From there, who knows?"

The sun was already rising to their east, dispelling the fog on the bay as they crossed. Under other circumstances the scene would have been something to stop and admire.

Once across the bridge the touring car turned east, perhaps towards Piedmont, where Mullerson was known to have some properties. Again, police radio cars attempted to head them off. In the process of eluding them Harris led a merry chase, turning and turning again, all at the highest speed the powerful touring car could manage. The Franklin kept up, but all this weaving left the occupants disoriented and lost. However, one of them soon recognized something.

"They're headed for the University!" said the Dragon's Hand. "One of my classmates lives in that apartment building, over there, and it's near campus!"

"They seem to have lost the police."

"So it's up to us," said the Dragon's hand, sounding pleased. "Does he mean to head there, or is that just the way he wound up going after evading the police?"

"We can ask him later," said the Night Master, through gritted teeth, cranking the wheel over as they took yet another turn at high speed, tires squealing. "I'm worried he may try to take hostages."

The chase ended near the Paleontology Museum, as the lumbering touring car - harried closely by the Franklin - failed to negotiate a turn, ran off the street across a short stretch of grass and crashed into a flight of steps. The big, solidly-built vehicle bounced away, rolled back onto the pavement - the Night Master swerving wildly to avoid it - then ran over the opposite curb, breaking off an already damaged front wheel. It quickly dragged to a halt in the grass, suspension parts leaving rough furrows.

The Night Master braked to a stop and he and the Dragon's Hand sprang from their car and ran toward Harris and Mullerson. The latter had decided to make a stand; he crouched down behind a rear fender and began firing with a revolver. The Dragon's Hand went after him. Harris ran around behind the Museum, the Night Master in hot pursuit.

The Dragon's Hand ran towards the car, and Mullerson. She could feel the focus of his aim, something which still amazed her. She dodged before he fired, his bullets whistling harmlessly into the distance. Before he could fire more than three times, she leapt over the roof of the car, kicking the door on her way down, causing it to swing wildly and hit him. He grunted explosively as he was caught between door and fender, his arms flying wide. The Dragon's Hand swung the door closed and moved in. She chopped his right wrist lightly, causing him to drop the .45. She then pulled the stunned gangster onto the ground, where she choked him unconscious. Now, how to restrain him so she could go after the Night Master?

The time was quite early yet, barely past dawn, but there were already people about, mostly custodians and grounds keepers. They stared in amazement at the sight of two running men, one bleeding from a head injury, the other wearing a black cloak and slouch hat, both armed. The Night Master paid them little heed; Harris even less.

The gangster ducked down a service alley. The Night Master went wide around the corner, in case Harris was waiting, then ran in when he saw no one. He sped past a cluster of ash cans, to slam uselessly into a solidly locked door; there was no sign of Harris. Not even blood drops. Realizing his mistake, Night Master spun around, just in time to keep Harris from shooting him in the back. Instead, the bullet caught him in the right shoulder. The Dragon's Hand could shrug off bullets, but the Night master was in this respect all too human. His automatic dropped clattering to the pavement as his entire arm went numb and useless. Harris stood upright in the ash can where he had hidden, grinning as he took careful aim. The Night Master tried to dodge, to move in any way, but even he needed a second to recover, and he didn't have that second. He did have time to berate himself for dying in such a carelessly stupid way.

As Harris squeezed the trigger, the crook of a cane came around from behind and hooked his forearm, pulling down and out to send the bullet wide. Harris whirled around, and both he and the Night Master stared at the strange, small figure, the scene momentarily frozen. She wore the garments of an old woman, at least twenty years out of date, complete with gloves and cane. The top of her heavily veiled hat barely rose above the gangster's elbow.

"Young man," she said, in a querulous, elderly voice, "didn't your mother teach you that it is impolite to point?"

The Night Master recovered first, and quickly stepped forward to deliver a strong left-hand punch to Harris' face. The gangster dropped, out cold, the ash can clattering onto its side.

"I owe you my thanks," said the Night Master to his rescuer, not taking his eyes off Harris. "Not to mention my life."

"I almost let him shoot you, after the way you endangered the students and employees of this University with your escapades," the woman replied. The elderly quaver was gone, and she now spoke in a high, clear voice which carried a considerable amount of irritation. She sounded much younger than before; definitely younger than she dressed.

The Dragon's Hand arrived just then. After taking a moment to assess the situation, she moved over to the Night Master and removed a pair of handcuffs from his belt. She rolled Harris over and expertly applied them. Finally, the Night Master could relax. He retrieved his gun and holstered it left handed, then examined his wound. The bullet had gone through the muscle on the outside of his shoulder, not touching the bone. It wasn't even bleeding much. He was lucky, as he so often was. The Night Master pulled out a clean handkerchief and clamped it over his shoulder, squeezing against the entrance and exit wounds. That taken care of, he looked over at his rescuer.

She was even shorter than the Dragon's Hand, yet her presence was at least equal. Through the fabric of the veil the Night Master could make out just a hint of strangely shaped features. There was also something odd about her hands, but the gloves muffled the shape and his head wasn't clear enough just then to figure out what was wrong.

"I am Dr. Fenrisa Freysdottir," the woman announced. "I teach here."

She might have said more, but suddenly noticed several students clustering around the entrance to the cul-de-sack. In the distance could be heard sirens. The tiny woman turned to the gawkers.

"Extra credit to whoever fetches Security!" Dr. Freysdottir announced loudly, waving her cane. There was a general stampede as the students hurried away. She watched them leave, then laughed. "Isn't it nice to see young people with their priorities in order?"

The Night Master could hear the amusement in her voice, and thought he saw a gleam of too-long teeth behind the veil.

"This man and the other..."

"I tied him with his belt and shirt," the Dragon's Hand offered.

"...are known criminals," said the Night Master. "Can you inform the Police that they are Michael Harris and Sylvester Mullerson, who are wanted for questioning in the deaths of three prominent local businessmen? It would be better if we were not here when the law officers arrive."

"Oh, very well," Dr. Freysdottir said with an irritated sigh. "I am aware of the adversarial relationship between you and the Police. Get out of here."

The duo barely made it back to the Franklin before three police cars came careening around the same corner which had wrecked the crooks. The Night Master had the Dragon's Hand shift, but did the driving. He made sure to pull away in a casual manner, hoping to avoid suspicion. It worked; the cops were distracted by the wreck and Mullerson. They hardly glanced at the apparently inconsequential Franklin.

The duo took a back way out of the campus, and drove around the bay instead of returning across the bridge. They returned without incident to the nondescript building which served as their headquarters. A push of a button sent the coded radio signal which actuated the door mechanism, and they drove in. Another push, and the door closed behind them. The Night Master was able to exit the car under his own power. He went straight to the small infirmary, stripping out of his costume on the way, leaving only the innocuous street clothes underneath. He tossed the cloak, hat and gloves onto a chair and sat on the exam table. He pulled a lamp over and turned it on.

"Get the medical kit," he told his partner, as she entered, her golden dragon mask already rolled into a ball and put away.

"Do you need a doctor?" Janis asked. She set the large black bag on the table beside him.

"I don't think so," he replied, as he pulled out a pair of bandage scissors and cut the bloody fabric away from his wound.

He began tending his injury. Janis, meanwhile, went into her room to change. As she did so, she occasionally heard Judson gasp as he cleaned the wound. Reluctantly, hating to put the Dragon's Hand away and return to her mundane self, she undressed, her slippers going on the mat beside the door. As she walked across the small room she removed the black and grey hakama, then the chest wrap. Janis sighed in relief and scratched as her large breasts recovered from being bound; this was pretty much the only part of her crime fighting identity she disliked. Sitting at her dresser, she carefully pinned her hair into place, slipped on her bra, and applied a modest amount of makeup. That done, on went hose, a grey skirt and a white blouse, then the special shoes with built-in lifts to make her appear taller.

Janis sighed again as she studied the result in the dresser's mirror. Gone was the exotic and dangerous Dragon's Hand, with only the prim office assistant and part-time student remaining. When she returned to her partner's quarters, Judson held out pad of gauze already showing a liberal amount of Doc Wilson's Whiz-Bang Antifungal Ointment. The shirt was completely gone, now, leaving her boss sitting there in his undershirt and pants. Janis was too pragmatic about such things to bother being embarrassed.

"You better do this. I'm too awkward with my left hand."

"That woman is very strange," said Janis, as she applied the palliative then bandaged Judson's shoulder.

"You know her from somewhere?"

"She owns my favorite movie theater. I've seen her there. Around the turn of the century she was a freak in a circus sideshow. The Little Werewolf, they used to call her."

"Which would explain the veil."

"They say she's some sort of super genius, trapped in a tiny, deformed body."

"She certainly seemed fit enough when she diverted Harris' shot," said Judson, wryly. He sighed and shook his head. "How strange the world is becoming."

Once Janis finished, Judson stood and flexed his shoulder, wincing.

"Not bad. That should keep it clean and from bleeding through my clothes. Now I think we better head out. I promised your boss I'd make sure you got to work on time."

"Since you're my boss, I think he'll understand if I'm a bit late," said Janis, smirking.

* * *

End of excerpt.



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