Masks VIII: Part 1

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Masks VIII: Part One


Rodford Edmiston

Lest Old Acquaintance Be Forgot

Warning! Sexual situations and violence! Do not read if easily offended!

Part One

I slid on my furry belly down the muddy trough. The slide ended a bit above the current water level, giving me a slight drop, and a moment to position myself. My entry into the water wasn't quite without a splash, but it was very smooth. I was getting better.

I swam with my whole body, under the surface until my lungs insisted on fresh air, then threw myself upwards. I got almost completely out of the water, taking a quick breath before splashing back down. I resurfaced and swam towards the shore in a more leisurely fashion.

The other otters were watching, keeping their distance. I could tell from my empathy that they knew I wasn't one of them, but as long as I didn't come close they left me alone. Which was fine by me. I had come up here to get away from human society for a while, and wasn't interested in joining otter society.

On shore I climbed the muddy bank in a series of elastic bounds. At the top I rolled in the grass for a bit to clean off the mud and most of the water, then went hunting for my clothes. Once at the bundle - which fortunately was still sitting on the stump where I had left it - I shifted back to human and dressed. I moved quickly; now being damp and without fur I quickly became quite cold.

These past few weeks had been among the best of my life. However, the general situation outside my retreat had changed, and I was seriously considering moving back to Los Angeles.

As I walked towards the deceptively simple cabin my hackles rose. There was a strange vehicle parked in front of it, a ridiculously oversized SUV. Before I could decide what to do about it, though, I saw someone. Someone familiar. I felt an odd mixture of relief and aggravation.

"Hello, John," I called out to the very large man standing between my cabin and his vehicle. "I should have known it was you, driving such a behemoth."

He waved cheerfully, but didn't move to meet me. He knew I was coming his way, and didn't feel any need to cut the distance.

"Damned cars these days, most are too small to even fit in!"

"Well, if you weren't descended from Titans you wouldn't have so much trouble fitting," I chided him, grinning.

I knew he wouldn't be satisfied by any mere handshake, but even I was surprised by the fervor of his hug, and the passion of the kiss he bestowed on me.

"John, please," I said, rolling my eyes as I pushed him away.

"Ah, my friend," he said, holding me at arms' length and smiling warmly. "I have not seen you for a span long even by my reckoning."

"Well, come inside and tell me why you're here," I said, breaking free of his grip and moving to open the cabin door.

He ducked under the frame and entered, stopping just inside to look around. He glanced over his shoulder at me, an eyebrow raised.

"A bit rustic for you, isn't it?"

"Looks can be deceiving," I told him, smiling a bit.

"Why do you think I waited outside, rather than making myself at home?" he said, moving further in to make room for me. "I know your penchant for elaborate precautions."

"They keep me alive, John," I told him, seriously. "Not all of us can step outside the world for a decade or two to get away from trouble."

I led him to the kitchen, where I brought out large tumblers and a bottle of the good stuff. John smiled as I filled his glass, and said nothing when I put much less in mine. He drained half his serving before taking a break for breath, gave vent to a gusty sigh and smiled.

"You definitely know how to make a man feel welcome."

"Talk," I said, topping off his glass.

"Can't I just be here to see an old friend?"

"Not you. You wouldn't go out of your way to see someone you know is in hiding without a very good reason."

I didn't mention that he definitely gave the impression he didn't care enough about anyone to go out of his way for them. I knew he would, of course, but he liked to maintain a certain image.

"I have recently learned that an author has completed a book about super human activities in the Fifties." His pleasant expression was replaced with a very unpleasant one. "It is supposedly a serious look at the heroes, villains and background culture of the time, but the author's promotions are pure tabloid material. One of the people he has mentioned in interviews is your old mentor: Mack Risk. The hints being dropped are not honorable to his memory."

I scowled. Mack and I had never been great friends - I was his employee, primarily - but we had been partners in a dangerous business. We had also saved each others' lives more than once. The fact that he was in a profession many saw as rather sleazy, and had come out as gay long before it was fashionable, meant there were many through the years who tried to tear him down. Especially after his bizarre death in the Sixties. He had no living family by that time, so his friends - myself included - would leap to his defense, then and now. Only... There were fewer of us each year.

John wasn't much of a friend most of the time, but when it came to comrades in arms... Well, he _was_ Greek, and a warrior. I also suspected he and Mack had been intimates.

"Who else from the old group have you contacted?"

"No-one, yet," he said. "I felt that if I brought you on board, recruiting others would be easier. Or perhaps even unnecessary. You and he parted company a few years before the events being brought to light, but you still knew his methods and many of his secrets."

Another factor involved here was that most of those folks would be more willing to work with me than John. Something he would likely not want to admit.

"So what's the dope?" I said, deliberately reverting to old slang.

"Did you know that after Sonic Jett disappeared, Mack was hired to find him?"

"Oh, yes. I was called before a Congressional investigation to testify in the matter, even though I hadn't been working with Mack for a while before that. He infuriated people because he refused to give any details, just a statement that Sonic Jett was dead."

"No body was ever found," said John, nodding thoughtfully. "There were rumors Jerome was still alive, maybe a prisoner of the Communists, or hiding from his enemies, or maybe just retired. The family accepted Mack's report, and used it to have him declared legally dead. Which is what got the government involved. They didn't want him dead, and if he really was they wanted to use him as an excuse for pomp and circumstance, with a hero's wake and tomb."

"Which was exactly the opposite of what Jerome Jett and his family wanted," I remembered.

"The fuss eventually died down, except for the occasional 'sighting.' However, this author is claiming that Sonic Jett's disappearance was part of some nefarious scheme. In interviews he vaguely hints at a plot by Jett which backfired."

We spoke for over two hours, by which time the bottle was empty. Mostly through John's efforts. I showed him around the cabin - he was especially glad to find the bathroom, though a bit bemused by the composting toilet - then we went back to the kitchen and talked even more while I started supper.

All this time I couldn't help but be aware of the effect he was having on me. I pride myself on being in control, but I was so aroused by his presence that at times I found myself becoming more feminine without consciously meaning to. There are times I wish I could turn my empathy off.

I was also extremely annoyed. John's larger than life attitude, his assumption that everyone else would simply go along with what he expected them to do, and - especially - his smug certainty that we would share a bed for the night were grating.

He can't help it. When your mother is a literal sex goddess you tend to have a large opinion of yourself. The fact that he's as personable a guy as he is has less to do with inherited abilities than a willingness to try and fit in. When he's not willing, things can get... ugly.

"So, Larry, are you in?"

I paused, knife on the cutting board, thinking. Not about helping - that was a given - but about how that would affect my current situation. John misread my hesitation.

"Sorry," said John, with an apologetic smile. "I forgot you prefer Lawrence these days."

"Actually, I'm back to Larry. Lawrence just sounded too pretentious. And, yes, I'm in. I was just wondering if the world is ready for me to reappear. As far as I know no-one was actually looking for me - I do have a radio and have checked with my lawyer occasionally - but the public attitude..."

"Has greatly improved towards supers," said John, nodding. "In large part due to the efforts of several teams. Especially that new one, the Assembly."

He sighed and put on a bitter expression.

"Some politicians and news reporters have figured this out, but others, naturally, are still determined to rid the world of the menace of supers."

"What's your current status, anyway?"

"Advisory member of the Olympian consul," said John, proudly.

I had to laugh at at that. As well as the problems it must be causing for the bureaucrats. A demigod with diplomatic immunity, loose upon the world! Especially with that name.

"When I tell people about John Love they think I'm talking about a black pimp," I said, laughing again.

"Well, they're half right," he said, joining in. After a few seconds he sighed, and sobered. "The new administration is reforming the Specialists. Remarkably, even some of the previous members are rejoining."

"Incredible," I said, shaking my head.

Supper was simple but tasty. Again, I tapped into the good stuff, partly because I had a guest and partly because I knew this would be my last night here. There were several opened cans with freeze-dried food left in them. What we didn't have for breakfast in the morning would be scattered around the woods. John refused to talk "business" while we ate, instead regaling me with tales of his family. I figure that a bit less than half the stories he told were true, and of those less than half were actually about his kin. The remainder were enough to shame just about any mortal family when it comes too causing and/or correcting trouble.

"So where do we start?" I said, as I cleared the supper dishes.

"I have an important clue," said John, seeming inordinately proud of himself.

John has many strengths, but investigative skills aren't among them. Neither is modesty. He can also be frustratingly indirect, especially when drawing out the tale of some great accomplishment. The fact that he had uncovered something helpful was making him even more smug than usual, and he was milking it.

"Things are already getting better," said John, contemplatively, as he swirled his after-dinner whiskey around in his glass. "Lots of people quit the business - about half of them should never have been in it, in my opinion - and there are several major new teams in operation. The Assembly, as I mentioned before, chief among them. They took over - legally - the old Guild Hall, the one in the mountain. They've already handled - very ably - a number of medium-level threats and one major one. That's how I came to know them."

"How's that?" I asked, curious in spite of my feelings about "super heroes."

"I think you know that travel between planes is hard for humans, and for supernatural beings even harder. Just reaching across to do something takes major mojo. For some reason, though, it's easier for us hybrids than either humans or extra-planars. I was visiting Mother a few months back and there was - to use the modern vernacular - a major disturbance in the force. All of Olympus - most of the Realms, in fact - were in an uproar over it. Turns out a demon lord was manifesting on Earth. Personally, through some sort of huge effort on the part of his cult. He got smacked down very quickly and thoroughly by the Assembly."

"Good news," I said, grudgingly, topping off John's glass.

"The other Olympians asked me to check the group out. They're good folks. They were organized by Dr. Piano, but he's on reserve status now that the major supernatural threat all the mystics were worried about is gone. They've got this gorgeous chick in charge, an avatar of Atana who calls herself Champion. Real hard-ass, though; couldn't make any headway with her."

"Do you have to evaluate every person you meet by their suitability for mating with you?" I said, tiredly. "You're centuries old. When are you going to grow up?"

"Hey, remember who my uncle is," said John, with a leer. "Anyway, I stayed on for a few weeks, helping them recruit and then train more members so they could be fully staffed. While I was there they also had hirelings clearing out the last of the archival material from the base. The material will be copied and sent to teams and people they trust; the originals will go to the secure section of the National Archives. They found a file cabinet full of unsolved cases. Since most of those occurred when I was an active hero I was asked to help update the status of any I might have information on."

I felt an odd chill. I'm not nearly as old as John, but I've lived several decades. That's plenty long enough to have more than one event in my past which could come back to haunt me.

"Don't worry," said John, putting a reassuring hand on my arm and smiling. "You're only peripherally mentioned."

His touch was warm and gentle. I felt the warmth spreading up my arm and into my cheeks, which began flushing. I looked him hard in the eye.

"That's good. You're still not getting laid."

He laughed, as if I had made a very funny and ridiculous joke, and pulled his hand back. Then he abruptly sobered.

"I found some of the lost files of Mack Risk."

The chill was back, stronger.

Many people are still surprised - even shocked - to learn that one of the most famous hard-boiled detectives was gay. Not bi, as some revisionists claim, but completely homosexual. The main reason I was usually in female form when on the job during the years I worked for him was not to "use my feminine wiles" on people for his behalf, but because I was uncomfortable around him as a male. I know, it doesn't make a lot of sense, but what does about human sexuality? Mack didn't mind; he joked it made me less distracting. I trusted Mack as I have trusted few other people. More importantly, he never violated that trust. And we never even mentioned sex unless it was relevant to a case.

"So, was the Sonic Jett case mentioned in those files?" I asked, with forced casualness.

"Oh, yes. Not everything, but what's there is very revealing. Mack and Nimrod went after The Master Assassin, who had some unknown connection to Jett's disappearance. Only Mack was ever seen again."

"So. Mack was asked to investigate Jerome's disappearance. He uncovered clues that the Master Assassin was involved, and figured he needed more muscle."

"Yes," said John, nodding, and gesturing for a refill. "If anyone could have put an end to Jerome Jett it was the Assassin. If you are going after him and you know anything about the business, you want the best brains and brawn you can find. Mack would do for the brains and Nimrod for the brawn, but they really should have had at least one more."

"Mack never talked to me about what happened," I said, remembering. "I wasn't working for him then - hadn't been for years - but we still got together occasionally and talked. I never heard him mention Nimrod or the Assassin in connection with Jett. His reticence caused some bad blood in the community, and was a large part of what led him to retire for most of a decade."

"Yes, and if he had remained retired he might still be alive," said John, sourly. The demigod shook his head. "What possessed him to take on Dr. Fission? That guy was nuts and radioactive."

"Honor, I think. He knew Fission's family and wanted to help them recover their father, and also was trying trying to prove he was still in the game. He almost succeeded..."

I sighed, picked up my own glass and contemplated the amber liquid. John sat unusually silent and - even more unusually - kept his hands to himself. I took a swallow, and put the glass back on the table.

"I have to admit, I've been bored up here," I told him. "Also had a lot of time for introspection. If what I'm hearing on the radio is true - and from what you said earlier it is - then it's safe for me to go back."

"Good," said John. He drained his glass. "I have some others I think will want to help, and having you along will make recruiting them easier."

I was surprised he actually mentioned that.

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