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Though we called your friend from his bed this night,
he could not speak to you,
For the race is run by one and one
and never by two and two.
-- Rudyard Kipling
From my bat's-eye view, I saw that a tunnel opened off to one side, and so I solidified and followed it to a metal security door whose mechanism required both a palm print and a retinal scan. Instead of magically picking the lock, I stepped through the steel bulkhead, ghost-like.
Once through, I discovered a changing room for washing up. The sink and the paper towels in the wastebasket betrayed the distinctive red face-paint that Warstrike always applied Mohawk-style. It made me feel a little better to think that a macho dude like Brandon Tark would go into action wearing even heavier makeup than Mantra. Such untidiness bespoke use, but there had been no word of any Warstrike appearance in months — unless one counted the hit on Russ Lingaard. Had this room really been unvisited for so long, or had Tark cleaned up here only a couple of days past? I preferred to think the former, but intended to guard myself regardless.
The closet contained several spare Warstrike uniforms as well as a selection of street clothes. The uniforms made me wonder where my fellow ultras, to say nothing of all those super-villains, get their fancy costumes, many of which display great skill of tailoring. I shrugged off the minor mystery and I flashed into my civvies. Once I got into the mansion it wouldn't do for some servant to spot Mantra prowling around and call the 6:00 news. I was wearing a disguise that I hoped wouldn't look out of place.
At one time I had assumed that men had the easier time with disguises since there are many things they can do with facial hair, to say nothing of wigs. Now I know that it's women who disguise better and more naturally. Their hairstyles and cosmetics can change a face utterly, and wearing heavy makeup doesn't even arouse suspicion in public. Furthermore, women have a wider choice of fashions than males. For example, I could have played it sporty, frumpy, trashy, businesslike, or demure. But, as it happens, Eden's wardrobe tends toward the "trashy," and so I decided to go with it.
I don't mean to insult Eden; God knows I revere her memory. No one knows better than I that she wasn't just another party girl. After her divorce she had spent about a year in a closed loop between the office and home, trying to get used to the idea of being a single mom with all the added responsibility. From hints dropped by her mother and best friend Lila, I gathered that the breakup had left her depressed and demoralized and she had gone around for months not caring what she looked like.
Then, as often happens, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction and she had started spending all she could afford on party dresses and Fredericks of Hollywood lingerie. She plunged into a frenzy of dating and one-night stands, pretty much living up to the stereotype of the gay divorcee.
I suspect, though, that she wasn't having all that much fun, that she was just trying to convince herself that she was still beautiful woman capable of winning admiration and love. She was still in that mode when Archimage put me into her body and sent her spirit off to the Soul Walk — that mystical dumping ground that used to imprison all the souls that we knights displaced from Earth. I didn't want to think more about that. It was too painful.
The outfit I'd blinked into was emerald-colored, satiny, and slit to the hip — a style that I didn't think would look out of place upstairs, especially when accented with an auburn wig and some dramatic cosmetic touches. I sometimes think that I should be more self-conscious about appearing in these flamboyant women's fashions and, in fact, during the first few days in Eden's body I could hardly stand wearing anything of hers except jeans and pantsuits. I'd gotten over that attitude by the time I reported to my first day of duty at Aladdin in a miniskirt. I suspect — hope, really — that one's taste in fashion goes with the body and it has nothing at all to do with the man — the person — inside.
Well, regardless, it was time to meet Warstrike.
The door exiting the changing room was locked conventionally, but a shot of kinetic energy opened it easily. I came out in a library furnished with matched leather-upholstered furnishings. There were plenty of floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, too, and a flashy guitar resting on a footstool. Taken together, the ambience seemed somehow wrong. Then I realized that it simply didn't fit my mental image of Brandon Tark.
I read a few titles: The Complete Poems of John Greenleaf Whittier; Ossian by MacPherson; works by Yeats, Lindsey, Aldrich, and many others. Where were the bound volumes of Soldier of Fortune? I couldn't imagine Tark sitting down to read any of these versifiers on a slow evening. Probably the room had been set up to impress visitors — investors, business associates, and women. I've lived long enough to spot a Philistine from a mile away and B. T. was certainly a member of that tribe! Or so I'd always believed.
I have to admit that the incongruity of the decorum with what I'd expected added to my misgivings. Tark was an unpredictable and violent guy and now here were all these elements that ran counter not only to the public image he projected, but also to the impression that he had made on me. His nervous breakdown and that funny phone conversation began to seem even more ominous; I decided to put up a low-wattage force field, one that wouldn't glow in normal light but would fend off anything smaller than a medium-sized artillery shell. It's hell not being able to trust a friend, but I had known and trusted Thanasi a lot better than I knew and trusted Brandon Tark, and what had that gotten me?
My tension grew apace as I passed through a pair of oaken doors into a hall leading into an entertaining room as posh as the library, but decorated with more adventurous elements, such as the African masks arrayed above the mantel.
"Anyone home?!" I yelled, and was nonplussed by the dry, cracked tenor of my voice. To tell the truth, I've felt more at ease in a bear cage. There never was a bear more dangerous than Warstrike when he decided to play rough.
I heard a stir in an adjoining chamber and then a heavy tread. I waited, safe behind my invisible shield, until a giant of a man paused in the arch-shaped ingress wearing a formal suit, but with a shag-style haircut that didn't exactly go with it.
"Eden?" he frowned.
"Come on, Brandon, you know it's me. A red wig and a little war paint isn't that much of a disguise," I replied with a forced grin.
He rubbed his bull neck. "It's just that I wasn't expecting you."
"You weren't?" I asked, slightly perplexed. "Who were you expecting?"
Eh? I suppressed a scowl. Was he going to start ribbing me already? It always burned me up the way he kept needling me about being a woman when he had had a large share in bringing that about. "Oh, and who would that be?" I inquired stiffly.
He gave a faint smile. "Are you saying you're married now? I'm hurt you guys didn't invite me to the wedding. I don't know if I could have come, but I'd still like to have been invited."
"Who in the hell would I marry?" I asked, guardedly wondering what the punch line was.
"Lukasz!" he said emphatically, with a quizzical twitch of his blond brow.
I expected him to continue, but he just stood there, as if the next line were mine to deliver. "Yeah, what?" I finally asked.
He seemed at a loss.
I broke the awkward silence myself. "Before we get down to business, I have to ask whether you've recently had this house swept for listening devices."
"Sure," he shrugged. "I have it done twice a week. I found out a long time ago that a person's never as safe as he thinks he is."
An innocent statement, perhaps, but in the circumstances it carried a slight hint of threat. Pretending not to notice, I said with a nod, "Good."
"Are you here because Lukasz is in some sort of trouble?" he asked with something like a tone of concern.
I thought that that was an odd way of putting the question, but answered anyway.
"No more than usual. You're the one in trouble. I just thought we could talk, get to the bottom of it all, and then maybe I could help"
"I'm flattered, but I didn't expect such interest. I think you're delightful, but I didn't suppose we knew one another that well."
Delightful? His odd word choices and the emotional distance he was maintaining in his tone, glance, and body language didn't seem right, but I decided not to jump to any hasty conclusions. "Well, that's one way of looking at it, but we're not exactly strangers, are we?"
"If you don't think so, I won't think so either."
I tried another subject. "Somebody left his guitar in your den. The Mexican houseboy?"
He grinned. "My houseboy is Japanese; the guitar is mine."
"Do you play, then?"
"A little; it helps me relax. Do you play any musical instrument yourself?"
I tossed my shoulders, once up, once down. "Several. I wasn't bad with the lute. The last instrument I really got into, though, was the banjo."
His brows knit in surprise. "I can't really imagine you playing a banjo, much less a lute." Then, with a slightly patronizing smile, he remarked, "By the way, I see you've been making the news lately. You saved a crowd from some escaped cats at a zoo last March, and drove off a pack of rabid wolves from a campground up in the Sierra Nevadas a couple weeks ago. You're really turning into a first-rate super heroine. I should have guessed that you would, after the way you saved our bacon on the Godwheel."
Super heroine? I didn't relish the term any more than I liked delightful. "I didn't do that much," I told him evenly. And I actually hadn't; it had been Eden who'd saved the day.
He smiled mildly. "You're too modest."
"You just give me more credit than I deserve."
"You haven't said a thing about Lukasz yet. Does he miss those terrific Mantra powers, or is being the man of the house enough for him?"
Then the truth hit me like a sock in the jaw. The piece fell into place and his strange manner began to make perfect sense.
"Brandon," I said slowly and carefully, "I'm not Eden Blake. I'm Lukasz."
Astonishment wiped the bland expression off his face.
"Eden's dead," I explained. "I'd forgotten that you couldn't possibly have known." It's not like there had been an obituary in the newspapers.
"You're — you're Lukasz? Dead? How did —?"
"It's a long story," I said, not eager to relive it.
He was shaking his head. "That poor, sweet woman! I'm so sorry. Please — Lukasz — sit down. Do you want a drink?"
"Some light wine, thanks. That's about all this body will tolerate."
He stepped to the bar and returned with a couple of filled glasses. When I reached out to take mine, the stem broke, spilling sherry over my host's cuff and lower arm.
He recoiled. "W-What was that? A magic stunt?"
"I'm sorry. I had my shield up. I'd forgotten."
He set down his glass and what was left of mine and while brushing the liquor out of his sleeve growled: "Why the shield? What are you afraid of? You invited yourself!"
"I said I'm sorry. I'm a suspicious guy and it doesn't help that people are saying that you've gone bad."
He flung an expletive at me as he shucked off his coat and stripped down to a short-sleeved undershirt.
"I'll pay for the cleaning," I offered.
"Forget it," he rumbled. "I could buy Arrow Shirts if I wanted to — and I mean the company, not the product. Eden's kids need your income more than I do." All at once he got hold of his temper and his tone softened. "You're still with the kids, aren't you?"
I gave back an uneasy grin. "They're the only thing that's keeping me sane these days — which is a good trick, since they drive me crazy! I don't expect you to understand that. It's a parent thing."
"I understand better than you think," he replied with odd inflection.
I thought it best to sidle past the embarrassing moments I'd brought about by getting to the point. "Tell me that you weren't involved in the Lingaard shooting and I'll believe you."
"Do I have to tell you?" he asked, his eyes locked on mine.
"I don't know. You've always been a pretty wild guy. You did kill me for hire once."
"Don't remind me!"
"I'm sorry if I hit a sore point, but I was the one cut down in my prime and you've never actually apologized. Really, Tark, how could you have believed everything a low life like Notch told you about us knights over your beers?"
"I suppose I was pretty dumb. But while we're on the subject, I consider that apologizing is something to do after stepping on a person's foot. I didn't want to insult you by apologizing for what I did to you."
I sensed sincerity in his pained grimace. It was funny, but I always supposed that whenever Warstrike acted like a jerk it was because he felt things too little, not because he felt them too much.
He returned to the bar for something stronger than wine. I could have used the same, but because that wasn't an option I picked up the untouched glass he had set aside and took a sip.
I liked the sherry's flavor, but missed the gin and tonics I used to belt down like they were going out of style. At that point I moved to a chair and adjusted the painful strap that was cutting into my arch. There are things I don't like about being a woman, and the footgear is one of them.
When my host came back, he took the seat across from me and rested his whisky swizzle on his knee. "Can you talk about it?" he said before I could turn the conversation back to his problem.
I sighed. "You mean about Eden? Now that I think about it, I guess I've needed to talk about it a long time. To nearly everyone else I'm Eden Blake and Lukasz's woes are something I can't discuss."
I gave him the whole story then, about how Necromantra had survived her apparent death on the Godwheel, how she kidnapped Eden and Evie, and how Eden had died to save our lives. I told him, too, how with her dying breath she had urged me to take over her life and treat the children as my own.
I was so deep into my regret that too late I realized to what degree I had left myself vulnerable. I remembered the way he'd laughed at me that night I described to him the horror of being incarnated as a woman. This time, though, the man didn't laugh. Instead, melancholy seemed to lie heavily upon him.
"I take it you weren't at the radio station?" I said, finally getting back to the point of my visit.
Tark shook his head and put down the empty glass. "I wasn't and I can prove it. There were two art brokers with me in San Francisco at the time of the shooting. Unfortunately, an alibi for Brandon Tark won't help Warstrike much, since the world can't know that he and I are the same person. You know how that is."
I looked about uneasily. "Can we speak freely?"
"It's all right. The servants don't room here and I saw to it that Shelby would be out, too. Dad has a round-the-clock nurse, but I locked off that side of the house just before eight. As for Giz, he's been away for months."
Glad to know we were alone, I pulled off my wig, which was about as hot as a fur cap. "Giz? Shelby? Friends of yours?"
"Shelby is the one who took your call. She's my — well, I consider her my secretary, but she gives herself one of those fancy businesswoman titles. Sometimes she carries on like we're married, except that she won't jump into the sack." He broke off abruptly, uncertain whether or not his remark was off-color in my company. Since I've known the language of man-talk for more than a thousand years, it wouldn't have occurred to me to get riled.
"But she's a great gal all the same," he resumed. "There aren't many people whom I could trust with my secret identity. As for Gizmo, he is, or was, my Mr. Wizard. He invented most of the gadgets that Warstrike uses. When I told him that I was shutting down my ultra operation and going on a six-month cruise, he took a job in Silicon Valley. I let him know that he didn't have to, that I would keep his salary coming, but he likes to be exercising his brain. He seemed glad to have an excuse to bow out, and I'm not sure he'd come back even if I asked him."
The corners of Tark's mouth turned down and his brow clouded. "Things had started to get chilly between us even before that. I guess he'd figured out that he'd been a better friend to me than I've ever been to him. Anyway, why should I bring him back? The world's probably seen the last of Warstrike anyway."
I realized that if that were true I'd be sorry, but all I said was, "Sometimes I wish I could haul it in, too."
"What do you think? I've only got one life left, and if I keep on in the reckless way I've been going, a couple of innocent kids are going to lose me — assuming that's a bad thing. The trouble is, I don't know if I can give up the action. The way I see it, I have to be Eden Blake, but I need to be Mantra."
"So, where does Lukasz fit in?" Tark asked.
At the question, I stared into my wine, which looked like a field of stars under the pinpoint lights of the chandelier. "That's something I haven't figured out yet," I told him ruefully.
* * * * *
To be continued in four short weeks!
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