Fall From a Masquerade

“You sure no one's here?”

“I'm sure.”

“How are you sure?”

Andy was often annoyed with Jude's constant doubt in him. After all, it was Andy that scoped the rich neighborhoods in search of the ripest house. He was the one that jogged down those high-class streets every morning, observing when people left their homes, when they returned, what cars they drove. He would park at night and record what time the lights went off and on, and make note of what kind of alarm system they had. Through binoculars, he'd catch yet another banker or lawyer punching in his gate's secret code.

It was Andy that did all the footwork, not Jude.

“This house,” Andy said irritably, “is not expecting any people for another two days. I heard one of the gardeners say so last week. The owner is away on a trip out of the country.”

“What about servants?” David asked, bringing the van to a stop at the mansion's gates.

“No servants, either. The only servant that actually lives in the house is a butler, and he's in the hospital for something, so there's no one here.”

With the van's motor still running, David reached out the window and entered the mansion's security code. Just as Andy said, the code worked, and the immense wrought iron gates slowly swung inward for them.

“Pull up to the side entrance,” Andy instructed, preparing his small tool bag. “There's a set of double doors there, and it's out of view from the street.”

Jude looked up at the mansion as they approached it. From the gate it already seemed incredibly large, but the closer they came to it, the more it resembled a modest skyscraper. Even though Andy assured them that this home was completely vacant, Jude would enter it with his gun's safety switched off.

The alarm system was a piece of pie. Andy cracked it without a drop of sweat. He'd worked on dozens of different kinds of residential and commercial alarms, and this one was surprisingly simple, almost primitive. For a house of this magnitude, it was almost the same as not having a system at all.

The drill was routine. Andy chose the target and took care of the technical end of the mark, breaking codes and rewiring alarms. David was the driver. After quickly going through the house for a rough layout, he did mostly grunt work, loading the heaviest items in the van. Although Jude was quite the weapons expert, he was more refined in a more important area. He was the safecracker.

They spoke in near-whispers, more out of habit than caution, as they entered the dark structure with flashlights in hand. The moonlight coming in through the tall windows was very crisp about its edges, exposing only a few inches of carpet on the floor. All else was unseen in the complete absence of light.

“I've checked most of the rooms,” David said, returning from a parlor. “If there's a safe, it's hiding pretty well.”

“It's gotta be in here, then.” Andy pointed his flashlight to what seemed to be the largest, main room of the house.

“No way,” Jude said. “In houses like this, safes are almost never kept in the first room. They're usually in an obscure room, a room you'd least expect.”

“Almost never,” Andy repeated, fixed on the room before him. He entered it with his companions close behind. They moved their flashlights slowly, keeping them low, avoiding the windows. Then Andy's light...

“Holy Christ!”

Jude's heart jumped as he saw a giant face in the darkness, lit up viciously by Andy's beam. It was still, staring directly at the three thieves.

“Relax, it's just a wooden mask,” Andy noted.

“Big goddamn mask,” David said, not bothered at all by the shocking site.

Jude took a moment to compose himself, embarrassed by his unprofessional behavior. He shined his light along the wall and saw another mask, this one made of metal. He saw more of them, almost covering the entire wall. Each one was abstract in it's design, not resembling any particular creature. It gave Jude a trickle of discomfort to be standing in a warehouse-sized room, surrounded by countless freakish faces.

Upon that fearful thought, all three of their flashlights went out. Already shaken up, Jude's heart almost tore through his chest.

“What the hell?” Andy said. “Dave, you were supposed to check these batteries.”

“I did, man.”

“Batteries??” Jude frantically asked. “Are you saying that the batteries went out on all three of our lights at the same...”

As if thrown into the sun itself, the room's lights all came on, showing the young men the entire expanse of the room. More so than any of them could imagine, the walls were indeed covered with hundreds of masks of all shapes and sizes, made from every material one could conceive. And more so than Jude could imagine, their presence was truly terrifying.

“Where the hell are we, Andy?” Jude asked, cloaking his fear with anger. “What kind of messed up freak lives here?”

“I am that freak,” a voice said.

Jude instantly turned and shot at the voice, realizing a second afterward where it came from. He apparently missed his target, for standing in the two-story doorway to the room was an old man wearing a red robe. His features suggested that he was very old, yet his speech and movements contradicted his age.

Adding to the confusion, he was smiling.

“Please, gentlemen, put your guns away,” the old man said in a clear yet rusty voice. “Or rather, you young man, put your gun away. I don't think your friends are so rude as to enter a man's home armed.”

Jude was getting his senses back, but kept his gun raised in curiosity. “Andy, check him. Maybe he set of an alarm.”

“I disabled the alarm, man.”

“He's right, you know,” the old man told Jude. “The alarm is out of commission. Even if it wasn't, it wouldn't have done anything but make a tiny, ignored noise. As you've probably noticed, it's a very old, very obsolete system.”

“Yes, it is,” Andy said, also curious with the old man. He must be senile, he thought.

“I only have it to make thieves feel as if they're making some modicum of effort. Otherwise, suspicions would arise, and I might not be having this pleasant conversation with you now. So please, I'm just a lonely, unarmed old man, put your little gun away.”

Little? Jude thought. His homemade hybrid creation was almost a shotgun. Jude sized up the situation and put his gun in his nylon strap holster.

“Very good, Jude,” the old man said. “Now please, have a seat and a drink and we'll talk business.” He gestured behind them.

He knows my name? Jude thought. Andy and David's faces showed they were thinking the same thing. Before any of them could inquire about that, they turned around and were surprisingly greeted by an elegant table setting, complete with tea, juices, little sandwiches, candles and glassware. But the floor was barren only a second before, where did this table come from? It was far too decorated with delicate fixtures to be sneakily rushed in.

The old man walked past the stunned thieves and took a seat at the table. “Come come, there's liverwurst,” he said to Andy, who happened to love liverwurst.

The thieves sat in Victorian chairs around an oak-and-brass table which was covered by a satin tablecloth with a fine woven floral pattern. Everything on the table was above what any of the professional young men were accustomed to.

“Who are you?” Andy calmly asked. “How do you know us? Are you from Long Beach?”

“That's it!” Jude said in relief. “You must be Long Beach, that would explain things.”

“If you mean am I in that small-time outfit that resides on Pier in Long Beach, then the answer is no, I am not Long Beach.” The young men were growing more curious with every word from the old man, reaching an instinctual defensive posture. “David, you've hardly said a word. Have some grape juice, it's from my own vineyard. I know you don't drink.”

The three thieves sat upright, looking around them eyes-only, as the old man enjoyed his tea and cookies.

“What else do you know?” Andy said.

“I know that this tea won't be hot for very long. That's the downfall of brass, not the best for holding heat. But then silver is so cliche for teapots...”

“I mean what else do you know about us? No more pretending, no more games.”

“No more pretending,” the old man repeated, “how I wish I could say that sometimes. Not a single question will be answered until I see that you gentlemen are accepting my hospitality. If you're worried about poison, don't. I'm eating, so should you.”

David was the first to entrust in his host. He took nibbles here and there, as did Andy. Jude held onto his almost angry fear.

“Tell me my name, asshole,” he said to the unmoving old man. “Tell me where I came from, who I work for, and why I'm here. I wanna know how much you know.”

The old man removed a large cigar from a wooden box on the table. He smelled it with pleasure as he held it up to one of the tall slender candles. “When you drink tea, you must have a Grand Corona, I don't care what those cigar snobs tell you. A Don Mateo is perfect with a cup of Earl Grey.”

Jude's tone was unchanged in his host's friendly banter. “But back to business,” the old man continued. “You're name is Judeas Marino, you come from Nevada originally, but you live in the San Fernando Valley now. You work for yourself, although you have been with Andy and Davey here for nearly six months. Your first job together was some movie producer's house in Glendale. I'm sure you'll be happy to know that your little robbery didn't affect his lush lifestyle in the slightest, except for a his deepening lack of faith in mankind.”

“And the reason I am here?” Jude persisted.

“Obviously, to do what you do, take things from others. This is my house, so you're here to take from me.”

“That's right,” Jude said in a smile, pointing his gun directly at the old man's face. “I'm here to do what I do, take things. What I don't do is eat poisoned crumpets like my two 'friends', or sit and have tea talk with a crazy old fool.” The old man took a few puffs from his cigar. Jude saw that there wasn't a trace of fear in his weathered face, which aggravated him that much more. “Andy, David, back to the sacks. Let's get the hell out of here, but not without a few souvenirs.”

Andy and David stood from their seats, still not sure what to do. The old man was so calm with the gun aimed at his eyes.

“Now, despite your worthless alarm system,” Jude continued, “I know you must have an excellent safe of some sort. We can't find it, so you'll tell us where it is. While you're at it, you'll tell us the combination, too. No sense in drilling all night when the owner is right here in front of us.” Jude shoved his gun against the old man's wrinkled forehead.

“Jude, put the gun down, what's he gonna do?” Andy said, not sure of what he's saying. “David, search the rest of the house.”

“For what? I already...”

“For other hide-and-seekers, that's what. And yes, I know you already went through the house, so this time you don't have to be as thorough.”

David did as he was told, leaving Andy and Jude with their mysterious host.

“Jude, I can’t have this,” the old man said in frustration. ”Don’t make me regret my decisions. I hate being wrong in my calculations, and I’d hate for things to get ugly. I know you most certainly would.”

As he spoke, the old man's emotionless face grew tired of Jude's gun being pressed against it. His eyes told Andy that he was capable of more than things appeared. Without so much as a blink of an eye, he raised his cigar to his lips, drew in some Latin smoke, and gently blew it at his gunman.

Suddenly, Jude dropped his weapon to the carpeted floor. He shut his eyes, and immediately clutched the table in pain.

Andy could only watch as his partner flopped about in antique chair. He opened his eyes again, revealing them to be completely red. Blood started dripping out of his nose, then his mouth, next his eyes. Within seconds, he was bleeding from nearly every orifice of his body. After a minute, Jude fell to the floor, motionless aside from the constant streams of blood.

Andy stood with his eyes wide open, breathing heavy, stepping back a few feet. The old man sighed as he raised an eyebrow to him.

David returned in a hurry. “I didn't find any... oh fuck...” His words were cut short by the horrid sight of his partner lying on the floor.

“He didn't have to die like that, you know,” the old man said, taking a puff from his cigar.

“Who are you?” Andy asked shakily.

“He could have died in a more subtle manner. His heart could have merely stopped, his lungs could have been clogged, his brain could have been shut off like the kitchen light. But he interrupted my Don Mateo. The whole smoke is wasted now that I've had to do this.” He crushed his cigar, tossing the ashes onto his victim's body. “Plus, I felt that you young gentlemen needed to know what may await you if you choose to be as aggressive as Judeas chose to be.”

A building surge came over David, and he vomited upon seeing what looked like Jude's brain ooze from his ears.

“Who am I?” the old man said. Upon that, he opened his robe and lifted up his shirt, exposing a gunshot wound on his stomach. “You're friend was a good shot, given that he was probably blinded for a moment when the room's lights came on.”

The massive wound shifted, the blood instantly being clotted. A few seconds later, the wound was sealed, and the old man swept away the dried blood. He spit a bloody bullet out of his mouth at David, who shuddered as it bounced off his chest.

“How I do love to make you quiver,” their host said blankly. “My name is not important. I don't expect you to understand. However, I think you know who I am, but you're in that famous mortal denial, the ignorance-is-bliss way of thinking you humans cling to. Lies to calm the masses. Search yourself, and you’ll have no more questions for me.”

“What are you saying? That you're... you're the...”

“That I'm God's 'Significant Other?'” the old man laughed. Well, not how the good book describes. Concepts such as gods and omnipotence are never so clear cut that they can be summed up in words on a page. But as far as your understanding is concerned, yes, I am The Devil.”

David shook in disbelief, zipping his view back and forth from Jude to the old man to the sinister masks that surrounded them. “Andy, let's get out of here, man.”

Andy was instead staring at the old man, looking him fearfully in the face. “I don't know if that's a good idea, David. I don't think we...”

“You were looking for a safe? Remember?” the old man said. “Ironically, that's the reason I called you here. To look after my vault, amongst other things.”

“You called us here? What do you mean?” Andy was beginning to feel trapped.

“You don't think you came here on accident, do you?” the old man smiled his smile. “Thieves of your caliber don't randomly choose houses, especially around neighborhoods such as these. You spend weeks doing 'research', and the house that's the choicest would be the first one hit. I spread the appropriate rumors, allowed you to eavesdrop on rehearsed conversations, as well as made sure that you penetrated my security. But it goes much deeper than that. I've manipulated certain events in your life, shaping your existence so to speak, in that you would all arrive here tonight.

“Andy turned to crime at an early age mostly because his father decided to leave his family when he was young. I was there to encourage this act of release. And David's criminal vocation began when he was denied his college scholarship. He couldn't afford tuition, so he started doing... odd jobs... in the city Long Beach. The money became addicting, so college took a back-seat until he was a full-fledged, full-time thief. You would have been the first of your family to go to college. Instead, you were the first to spend time behind bars, the first to be ostracized from the family. In the end, do you ever think of who, or what, was responsible for denying you that scholarship that began it all?

“So you see, I went through some effort to bring you here. I hand-picked you, as I do all my servants. It's a pity I had to remove Mr. Marino from the plan. I usually foresee deviations like that. But then, only God is perfect.”

What the old man did then clinched exactly what he was, eliminating any sliver of doubt in the young men's minds. He removed his face as if it was made of wet paper, transforming his being into a walking shimmer of colored light.

The creature placed the now-surreal face on a hook in the wall, removing another mask near it. Placing this mask on its “head”, it became a young black man wearing a pressed grey suit.

After a moment of orientation, the black man removed a cigar from his coat pocket and lit it with only a puff of breath. “Savory,” he said in an unknown accent. “Nothing like a good Don Mateo, I don't care what those cigar snobs tell you. And back to business.”

The black man walked to a door nearby and opened it, gesturing for his servants to join him. The speechless young men followed cautiously.

“You did check this room, David,” the black man assured, “in case you're wondering where all this came from.”

The dark room, which David saw as a simple study earlier, was actually a stone walled vault, with endless shelves of antiques. The thieves saw knives, guns, crosses, books, bottles, all covered with centuries of dust.

“This is my vault. Like I said, you checked it before, but it only appears to be a vault when I personally open the door. Among your duties will be to watch over this room. If a certain being ever got in here, or any of his immortals, it would be very tragic for me. It would set me back quite a ways, and I can't let that happen now, in a time when I'm making so much progress.”

Andy managed to gather enough strength to question his new master. “What do you mean we'll be watching this room? Among our duties? What is this room?”

“This room is my collection from across the ages,” the black man said, puffing his Grand Corona. “These trinkets were designed by people of every race and religion to do one thing: to kill me.

“Vampires have there storybook garlic, their stakes through the heart, all that playful nonsense. I unfortunately have a continent of such things that are intended to end my existence. Nothing can end me, of course, but there are ways to kill me in my present form so that I have to go through the trouble of being, how can I describe it? 'Reborn' into the world.

“While I am away on business, you will watch the house, which is quite the easy task, but nonetheless a task. This vault is priority. I have come close to being taken many times, I won't lie to you on that.”

“So we're your servants now?” David asked. “Andy, what does he mean? We're supposed to come here whenever he's away doing whatever he does?”

David's companion knew what was to become of them, and he became ill at the thought of it. He grew nauseous at the idea that his whole life had been guided so that he would become this. “I think, David, that we won't just come here when he's away.”

The black man smiled. Even though his appearance was radically different from only moments before, his smile was unmistakable.

“Why us?” Andy asked. “Of all the people in the world, why did you choose us?”

“I can't expect you to understand. You are mortal, and can't conceive of my thoughts. I didn't just pick you from all the people in the world, but from all the people in time. Just know that God works in mysterious ways... as do I.”

The black man stepped out of the vault and checked his silver wristwatch. “I am due in Australia tonight. There's a virus that will occur in a newborn rabbit in the outback exactly seven hours from now. If it remains in the wild, it will die in a few years, and that's that. However, if it is caught by a tribal hunter, eaten, and the tribal hunter visits the nearby city... well, you get the idea. All I'll be doing is making sure the hunter's usual poor aiming miraculously hits its target.”

The black man laughed, and Andy felt a panic rush through him. He couldn't believe what was happening, or how easy it was for this being to cause such suffering.

“That's my favorite mortal misconception,” their master said. “Miracles aren't always a good thing. By all means, they can go both ways. They can give a blind girl her sight and feed a entire village with only a small basket of fish. But they can also kill a quarter of a million people. Until two days time, good night, gentlemen.”

As the black man started to walk away, Andy grabbed the nearest item from the vault, an medieval English dagger, and ran toward his new master.

He thrust the dagger into his master's back, and immediately the black man winced in pain. In a heavy breath, he looked at Andy through watery eyes. Slowly, all traces of pain fell away, and his face became a vile picture of frustration, eerily similar to when Jude met his demise.

Andy dropped to his knees and clutched at his face. Just as Jude had died, so would he. The black man removed the dagger from his back as Andy took in his last gurgling breath.

“He must have forgot that he's mortal,” the black man said to David, still in the vault. “He panicked, I suppose. Still, this is odd. I usually know when a servant is a wrong choice. Clean this up. And take care of Jude, too. That carpet is going to have to be soaked...”

“Sir,” David interrupted. His master was amazed at his courage, or perhaps stupidity. “Would he have made a better choice if he used this?” David held an old wine bottle in his hands, removed from the vault.

The black man looked curiously at his servant. “Yes, that would have been a better choice. No blade can hurt me, but that bottle of wine is made from the blood of a martyr. It's more sacred than holy water. Still, he was a mortal, it wouldn't have made a difference.”

David removed the cork from the bottle and splashed the blood onto his master. The black man smiled his smile, only to have it fall from his face as he felt a terrible pain surge through him. He felt the blood wine drip down his skin, leaving burning trails, exposing the colored light that made his being.

He fell to the floor, helpless as the blood seared at his flesh. David walked up to him and poured more of the wine onto his body. The black man gripped the carpet in agony, confused as to what was happening.

David bent down and peeled away the black man's face, turning him into his raw form of shimmering light. The creature looked up at David, who held the bottle poised over his fading existence. “I usually foresee these things,” the creature said in effort. “Who are you?”

“My name is not important,” the young man said blankly. “I can't expect you to understand. Some have called me your ‘Significant Other’.“

Upon that, the young man poured the rest of the wine onto the creature, dousing it like a match. Only a stench and a cloud of smoke remained.

He then turned his head and looked about the great mansion, setting it afire with mere thought. He placed the empty holy bottle back in the vault, shut its immense door, and exited the house as it was being enveloped in flames.

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