I do not own the rights to these characters
Freakazoid was created by Bruce Timm, Paul Dini, Tom Ruegger, and Steven Spielberg
The Mask was created by Doug Mahnke
No copyright infringement is intended
To the tune of the Animaniacs theme song (again, Spielberg)
You’re reading Freakazoid and Mask
Two complete nut jobs who cross paths
Fighting crime helps them relax
When their lives go off the tracks
It’s Freakazoid and Mask
Dexter is a nerd who got powers from cyberspace
Stanley owns a mask and works at the Edge City bank
When they join forces all the villain’s knees begin to shake
I’d go on but how much more of this nonsense can you take
It’s Freakazoid and Mask
Before you start go grab some snacks
What’s the moral? Please don’t ask
The plot’s impossible to grasp
It’s Freakazoid and
They’re overjoyed and
They formed a boy band
Freakazoid and Mask
Let’s make this fast
“Off the seat, Dex.”
Dexter kept his eyes on the computer and refused to turn around, even when he heard the door open. “Just a few more minutes, Mom.”
“It’s time to get a move on. You can keep playing your computer games when we get back.”
“This isn’t a game, I’m tracking the temperature in this house. Did you know we’ve been keeping it three degrees cooler than we did last July?”
“Now that doesn’t sound like the kind of thing anyone should care about. Come on, your grandma’s expecting us and it wouldn’t be nice to keep her waiting.”
Dexter sunk lower in his chair. “Can’t you just go without me? If I’m not here I won’t be able to check the thermometer. Data loss isn’t something to be taken lightly.”
“We’re all going, Dex. You don’t get to see your family nearly enough. Now scoot.”
With a groan Dexter turned off the computer and heaved his body out of the chair. He frowned and slouched as he made his way down the stairs, juxtaposing his mother who smiled broadly and walked daintily with a slight spring in her step. Outside, his father was already in the driver’s seat while his brother, Duncan, was by the trunk. Duncan's flushed as he struggled to lift a suitcase.
Believing the trip was only going to last a few days, Dexter had only filled a backpack with clothes and his laptop. He felt foolish seeing the many suitcases that lay at Duncan’s feet. “What do you have in there?” he asked.
“All my weights,” said Duncan as he squatted over another suitcase. “I can’t be going out of shape on the ride there.”
It was clear there would be no room in the trunk for Dexter's luggage after Duncan's suitcases were tucked away. Dexter rolled his eyes as he climbed into the passenger seat and rested the backpack on his lap. It was a few minutes before Duncan climbed in next to him. His father started the car and turned on the radio, blasting an oldies station that he and his wife sang along with. Duncan found a dumbbell under the seat and grunted as he did curls. Dexter fished his phone out of his pocket and scrolled through his apps. The battery needed to last the entire trip, so he had to be careful about which ones he opened, and of how many programs he had running at once.
Even with his phone, minutes felt like hours. No matter how immersed he tried to be in one of his games, it was impossible to ignore his parent’s singing or the stench that accumulated as Duncan worked up a sweat. Once they merged onto the highway Duncan tapped his father’s shoulder.
“Hey dad, pull over. I wanna get one of my bigger weights.”
Oh great, Dexter thought, now he’ll just grunt louder.
“We’ll stop in at least twenty minutes, son.”
“Come on, dad, I’m gonna lose my pump by then.”
“Don’t you talk back to me,” his father scolded. “I’ll have you know I was mindful of my drinking schedule this morning so I could get at least ninety minutes of driving time in before having to stop and use the bathroom.”
“TMI, dad,” Dexter mumbled. However, the comment gnawed at his curiosity. He opened a web browser and investigated if there were other people who were able to plan urination times by monitoring fluid intake.
“Ugh, twenty minutes,” Duncan pouted, “I’ve already done too many reps with this.”
“Well then switch to the other hand, darling,” his mother suggested.
Duncan looked at his left hand as if he were seeing it for the first time. “Hey yeah. Thanks, mom.” He continued his curls with renewed enthusiasm.
The trip lasted another half hour before they pulled into a gas station. Duncan took the opportunity to get a few dumbbells of different sizes from the trunk while his mother begged Dexter to get out of the car and go into the store with her. Dexter complied, but toyed with his phone as he walked. They returned to the car with various sodas and bags of chips. His father had requested an iced tea, and tried to maintain control of his fluid intake by taking small sips, but as time passed he began drinking it more greedily and they soon stopped again. Once again, his mother begged Dexter to shop with her, and she purchased more sodas and chips. His father consumed the sugary beverages at an increasing rate, and the cycle continued. Dexter estimated all the stops had added at least forty-five minutes to the trip.
When they finally arrived at his grandmother’s house she was waiting for them on the front porch. She might have been rushing to greet them, but it was difficult to tell. She had a hunch and leaned heavily on a cane as she walked. His mother rushed to greet her while his father started unloading the luggage. Dexter slipped out quietly and quickly made his way to the house, eager to find a room where he could be alone with his laptop.
“Hey, Dex,” Duncan called, “help me bring some of these inside.”
Dexter spun and gawked at the three cases that were already on the ground. “You’re joking, right?”
“Oh, Dexter, go help your brother,” his father ordered. “He worked so hard fitting all that equipment in the car.”
Dexter watched his gargantuan brother heave another case out of the trunk. Anything that was difficult for Duncan would be impossible for him. “You can’t be serious.”
“Dexter, now,” his father pressed.
He felt more flustered than frustrated as he returned to the car. Duncan used both hands to lift one case and lugged it inside. Dexter stood over the smallest one and tried to mimic his brother’s body position, but was unable to raise it even an inch off the ground. He changed angle and tried again with the same results. By the time his brother returned Dexter was still searching for a method that would offer a chance at making the suitcase budge. “Can’t you do this yourself? You’re the one who packed them.”
“Don’t be like that,” said Duncan. “You’re a Douglas. We ain’t quitters.”
Dexter waited until he was sure his brother was out of earshot before muttering “you've never had a problem giving up on your homework.” He prepared to make another attempt at lifting the suitcase, but thought better of it and undid the clasps instead. Inside was a stack of iron rings and two bars on either side. Going back and forth would take a while, but by now Duncan had likely already claimed the larger room so there was no rush. He gripped a bar in each hand. Even without the weights attached they were heavier than he expected. A sharp pain shot through his back and he paused. Maybe I should exercise a little,he thought as he slowly straightened his posture.
Duncan met him on the porch and looked at him in disgust. “Seriously, bro?”
“It’s heavy,” Dexter whined. “If you want it done fast go grab it yourself.”
“Just bring it in, shrimp. I took the bigger room.”
“I figured,” Dexter said as he climbed the stairs. He supposed it wasn’t much of a loss. Even the larger room wasn’t much of a room. The ceiling and carpet were a neutral blue that matched the wallpaper. There were no posters or paintings, and the only furniture was the desk and bed. The smaller room wasn’t much different, other than the color choice, which was a forest green. Dexter had considered packing some things to give the room more personality, but decided it would have been too much to carry. Besides, it was his electronics that defined him, not his wall decorations. Every aspect of his personality was stored in his computers.
It took three more trips to move all his brother’s weights. He was a little winded but tried as hard as he could to not let it show. After dropping the empty suitcase near the door of the larger room he rushed to the smaller one and slammed the door. He wiped the drops of sweat off his face with his sleeve as he flopped onto the bed. As he regained control of his breath rate, he turned on his laptop and smiled at the image of his favorite cartoon character that greeted him. Now that’s wallpaper.
It didn’t take long before there was a knock at the bedroom door. “Dexter,” his mother called as she entered.
“I’m in the middle of something, Mom.”
“Come on, off the bed. We’re taking your grandma to the bank. She’s having some financial issues that are going to require professional help. On the way we can get some ice cream.”
“Why can't just the two of you go to the bank? If you get ice cream later I’ll go with you then.”
“You’ve been on your computer since the moment we arrived.”
“That was always my plan, Mom.”
“If you don’t turn that off right now then I won’t let you use it later tonight.”
Dexter’s fingers froze on the keys. “What are you planning on doing tonight?”
“Your grandmother has a seventy-five thousand piece jigsaw puzzle.”
He closed the laptop. “Coming.”
As they drove to the bank Dexter regretted not charging his phone the moment he was inside. The battery was down to less than fifty percent and he didn’t know how long they would be at the bank.
“Dexter, please put the phone away,” his father begged.
His father looked relieved when Dexter slipped it in his pocket, although he’d done it mostly in the interest of conserving power. He noticed they weren’t asking Duncan to put away his grip strengthener but instead of mentioning it he pointed to a music store. “Hey, that looks new.”
“Oh yes,” said his grandmother, “that just came up a few months ago. I’ve only been inside once to talk to the owner. He seemed like such a nice man and we were having a pleasant conversation but he became quite frustrated when I didn’t buy anything.”
“What was it before?” Dexter asked, “and how long was the old place around?” Stores seemed to come and go frequently in the neighborhood. It could be interesting to research what kind of stores opened and how long they stayed in business. He didn’t know why he’d never considered looking into it before.
His grandmother’s eyes rolled upward and she smiled as she recalled the building’s legacy. “It used to be one of those places that sold frozen yogurt. That sort of treat is too sweet for me, but I’d see child after child coming out with bowls of the sugary goop topped with gummies and sprinkles and other kinds of candy I didn’t recognize. You know, when I was your age we kept our ice cream simple. We chose between chocolate and vanilla. If we wanted toppings we put chocolate chips in it or cookie dough, but never both.”
He wanted to inquire as to what the building was before becoming a frozen yogurt shop, but she prattled on about ice cream until they arrived at the bank. Even as they climbed out of the car she continued, describing the time her mother taught her how to make ice cream at home.
“You kids stay out here,” his father said when they were in the lobby. “No need to be around for all the boring grown-up talk. We’ll be back as soon as we can.”
There were plenty of seats available, and while Dexter and Duncan sat next to each other, they might as well have been strangers. Duncan’s eyes were focused on his hand as he continued squeezing his grip strengthener, and Dexter was once again captivated by his phone. Both were too distracted to notice the entrance of a group of masked men carrying guns.
Stanley had been struggling to avoid dozing off at his desk all day. He’d considered getting a cup of coffee, but a gunshot made his heart race faster than any amount of caffeine could. Petrified, he watched as four robbers took their positions. The intruders wore dark pants, long coats, gloves, and concealed their identity with masks that looked like animal faces; there was a pig, a cat, a mouse, and a deer. The pig robber had a gun pointed at the ceiling. Stanley figured he’d been the one who’d fired. People near Pig-face were on the ground, but there was no blood; it seemed he’d fired a warning shot. Even while frozen and panicked, Stanley found a shred of comfort in the fact that nobody had been hurt yet. Some customers tried to make their way to the front door, but the robber in the cat mask stood guard.
Stanley regained enough control of his body to stumble clumsily out of his chair. At gunpoint, the robbers herded the customers and bank employees like sheep to the lobby, corralling them in the center of the large room. Some people made a final desperate attempt to escape. Cat-face stopped them by firing at the ground near their feet.
There was one customer who ran, but not for the exit. Instead of trying to escape, the chubby teenager with glasses ran further into the building, towards the restrooms. Due to the ensuing chaos, the robbers didn’t seem to notice. Figuring it was best for the child to be away from the violence, Stanley kept his mouth shut and joined the rest of the whimpering herd.
He imagined most of them were crying with fear. He was feeling some of that himself, but mostly he thought of the mask tucked away in his closet. If he had it with him he’d be able to save everyone. Instead he just had to wait for help to arrive. The robbers seemed organized based on the positions they’d taken. Cat-face still stood guard by the entrance, while Pig-face and Deer-face maintained control of the hostages. Stanley also noticed the bank’s security guards were absent and he feared the robbers had done something to them. An alarm should have notified the police, but he was worried it had somehow been disabled.
Mouse-face grabbed Charlie, the bank manager. In the distance he heard Mouse telling Charlie to open drawers and put cash in the bag. Pig-face and Deer-face opened sacks and demanded people drop their wallets inside.
Stanley complied without hesitation, as did most other people. He thought of all the things he would have to do later, such as getting a new driver’s license and cancelling the credit card he’d just given away. There was also a coupon in his wallet for a restaurant he’d wanted to try later that night. Now he’d have to find someplace else to eat. Those were sure to be hassles, but not so much trouble to risk his life to avoid. He put his face to the ground and forced all thoughts of his wallet out of his mind.
Out of the corner of his eye Stanley caught a flash, as if a camera had just been activated. A moment later there was a commotion in the other room where Mouse-face had taken Charlie a moment ago. A brief yelp was followed by loud crashes, but thankfully there was no gunfire.
“You alright?” Deer-face called. There was no answer. “Hey, man, I said, you alright?” Charlie slowly made his way into the lobby on wobbly knees. All the robbers pointed their guns at him and he shook even more.
“What happened,” said Pig-face, “what’d you do?”
There was a red blur and suddenly a man was standing behind Charlie. From Stanley’s angle he couldn’t get a good look, but he saw a massive tuft of black hair with a streak running through it that looked like a lightning bolt. Stanley figured the fear was driving him hysterical because he thought the man standing behind Charlie had blue skin.
“Sorry,” said the blue-skinned man, "bad advice.” He grabbed Charlie by the shoulders and pulled him away. It happened quickly, and again, all Stanley saw was a blur. The robbers muttered in confusion, keeping their guns aimed in the spot where Charlie and the stranger had been standing. A moment later, the strange man returned, alone.
Stanley wasn’t hallucinating. The man’s skin was definitely blue. At least, his face was. Most of his body was covered by a red one-piece suit with the letter F centered over the chest. He also wore white boots and matching gloves. He waved to the robbers. “Hi, I’m Freakazoid. I told that guy to make a run for it. Silly me. But don’t worry, he’s hidden safely behind that desk now.” He covered his mouth with his hand. “Oops.”
“Get on the ground,” Deer-face shouted.
“Wouldn’t I have to be off the ground first?” said Freakazoid. His red suit became an intense white as he leapt upward. It appeared as if his body had become a bolt of lightning. When he struck the ceiling he returned to his humanoid form and shouted in glee as he fell.
The robbers opened fire as he descended, but the moment Freakazoid’s feet touched the ground he jumped again. In spite of all their ammunition, they were unable to keep up with him as he continued turning into a lightning bolt, bouncing up and down at different angles. The blasts were deafening and Stanley pressed his hands hard against his ears. When it ended he heard a faint ringing, but lifted his head and tried his best to observe everything that was happening.
“I’m a cat person,” said Freakazoid as the robbers reloaded. “I have one of my own named Mr. Chubbikins and I’d never harm a hair on his body.” He pointed to the robber in the cat mask. “But you, sir, are no Mr. Chubbikins.” He charged at Cat-face, grabbed him by the shoulders and pulled him out of the room.
The other robbers raised their guns and cautiously moved in the direction Freakazoid taken their partner. They paused before leaving the lobby, steeling themselves for whatever came next.
Freakazoid’s voice echoed throughout the room. “I smell bacon!” Before any of the robbers had time to fire a shot, Freakazoid rushed to the one in the pig mask, grabbed him, and darted away.
Deer-Face seemed to become frightened and his head turned about frantically. In a moment, Freakazoid swiftly approached him and tore his mask off. The robber frantically grabbed his own shirt collar and pulled it up to his nose.
Freakazoid examined the mask. “What are you supposed to be? An elk?”
The robber fired one-handed, using his other hand to keep his face covered. Freakazoid moved out of the line of fire, but positioned the mask so a bullet tore through the material. Then, like the other robbers, he grabbed the man and carried him away.
It was quiet for a moment. Stanley, along with a few others, started getting to their feet, but paused when Freakazoid returned to the room. He struck a dramatic pose, falling to one knee as he held the mask above his head. “Alas, poor Yor-elk,” he shouted, “Alas, where are your, um, shoes? No. Where are your sponges? That doesn’t sound right either.” He tossed the mask aside. “Sorry, everybody, I forgot how it goes. Wait here while I look it up.” With one final flash, he left the building.
There was a moment of silence, and then some people rushed to the door. Stanley made his way into the other room. The robbers were unconscious and tied up. Stanley didn’t dare approach them, but it seemed the thing called Freakazoid had used whatever was lying around to bind them. One was constrained with wires ripped from office lamps and another was wrapped in lengths of sturdy string that usually tethered pens to tables. Stanley stood still and remained on edge, but relaxed a little when he heard sirens in the distance. It seemed they had not disabled the alarm.
The aftermath caused as much of a disruption as the event. Plenty of patrons were traumatized and sat near the walls, unable to utter a word about what had happened. There were just as many people reacting in the opposite manner, congregating in groups to discuss it. Stanley was among the talkative ones. When he’d heard the first gunshot his heart had leapt to his throat, but when the blue-skinned man had shown up the atmosphere changed from frightening to thrilling. He sought out Charlie, since he’d gotten the closest look.
Charlie was clearly not in a chatty mood. He sat on the floor with his chin resting on his knees. Stanley sat nearby and spoke gently. “Hey, buddy, how’re you feeling?”
“I wasn’t going to give them anything.” When Charlie spoke he kept is eyes forward, but he didn’t seem to be focused on anything in particular. “I’m the manager. I take my job seriously. I wouldn’t have given them anything.”
“Well, in that case, it’s a good thing that guy showed up to keep you safe.”
Charlie shook his head. “That freak didn’t need to show up. I had it under control.”
“He did look freaky, didn’t he? Maybe that’s why he called himself Freakazoid. It looked like he turned into a lightning bolt. Did you see him do that? When he grabbed you, did you get shocked a little?”
“Forget about him. He didn’t need to show up. I had it under control.”
Stanley felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned around and faced a police officer in a trench coat.
“Let’s go, Ipkiss,” said Mitch Callaway.
Stanley rushed to keep up with the detective as he left the bank and went to the parking lot. Callaway stopped abruptly, spun, and pointed a finger in Stanley's face. “What’re you trying to pull?” he growled.
Stanley’s back struck a lamppost as he tried to move away. “I don’t know what you mean.”
Callaway waved his finger close to Stanley's nose. “Some annoyingly upbeat freak with a strange colored face stops a bank robbery and I’m supposed to believe it’s got nothing to do with the Mask?”
“This freak’s face was blue,” said Stanley. “The Mask has been seen doing and wearing some weird things but his face is always green.”
“Keep treating me like I’m an idiot and I’ll start treating you like a bootlegger caught selling moonshine to a toddler.” He leaned in until his nose was inches from Stanley’s. “What’s your deal, Ipkiss? You got sick of making cops look incompetent on your own so you branched out? Where did you meet this guy?”
Stanley tried to move away, but the detective mirrored his movements. “I don’t know how many different ways I can tell you this, but I’m not who you think I am.”
“You can come up with a million different ways to say it,” Callaway said as he jabbed a finger into Stanley’s chest. “It won’t matter. I’ve been trained to find patterns, and the most glaring pattern I’ve ever come across is that whenever something bizarre happens in this city, Stanley Ipkiss is never far. You sure you don’t want to confess to anything right now?”
Stanley remained silent. He didn’t realize he’d been sweating, or holding his breath, until the detective backed away.
“Have it your way,” the detective said over his shoulder as he left. “The longer you deny it, the worse it’ll be for you when I finally get you.”
Stanley returned to the bank where he was approached by other police officers who questioned him about the event in a much more formal manner than Callaway. It was a while before he was able to talk to Charlie again. “Hey,” he said, “how’re you holding up?”
Charlie adjusted his suit. “I’m fine. It takes more than that to faze me.”
“Glad to hear it,” Stanley said as he fished his keys out of his pocket. “Just the same, you looked a little shaken up earlier. Want to get a drink with me? I know it’s early, but I was thinking of stopping somewhere on the way home.”
“I’m sorry, did you just say you’re going home?”
Stanley began fidgeting with his keys. “Well, yeah. I just thought that, with everything that happened, we might, you know, get the rest of the day off?”
“Absolutely not!” Charlie had raised his voice, drawing attention from nearby employees. “This bank plays a critical role in this city, and I will not allow it to close early, not even now. If anyone wants to go home early I hope they have sick time saved up, because that’s the only way you’ll be able to walk out those doors before 5 p.m.” He marched toward a door placarded with his name. “I’ll be in my office. I expect the rest of you to be at your desks.”
Once Charlie was in his office he lowered and closed the blinds. Stanley approached quietly and tried the handle, only to find he’d locked it. He sighed as he returned to his desk, although he didn’t expect to be busy. The building was devoid of customers. Even if there was someone to help, he wouldn’t be able to focus. His mind was on the blue-skinned man. A thought occurred to him and he made a call with his work phone.
“Hi Peggy, it’s Stanley.”
“Oh my God, Stanley, are you alright?” Her voice was muffled by background noise, making it clear that she was outdoors. “I’ve been busy, but I heard something happened at the bank. I’m on my way now. Is anyone still there? Are you willing to talk about it?”
“It was an attempted robbery,” said Stanley, “and I’ll tell you everything. But I want you to tell me something first. Have you ever heard of someone, or something, called Freakazoid?”
“So at first I told the guy to make a run for it,” Freakazoid said as Mike brought him a Styrofoam cup of papaya juice. “But then I remembered there were more robbers in the other room. I ran in there and got him out before he got hurt.”
“Congrats on saving the day, Mr. F,” said Mike, “but it sounds like you put people in more trouble than you needed to.”
“That’s what heroes do,” said Freakazoid . He drank his entire glass in one swig. “Keep ‘em coming.”
Mike reluctantly filled a new cup. “I hate it when you go on these papaya binges. You sit her for hours downing one after another but then something comes up and you run off without paying.”
His complaint was interrupted by a rumbling and a siren. A beige van with multiple cylindrical devices protruding from its roof rounded the corner with a police car close behind. A bright pink substance shot from one of the contraptions on the van’s roof, plopped in front of the police car, and expanded. It enveloped the tires, which groaned with resistance until the car was forced to stop. A maniacal laugh came from the van as it turned a corner and disappeared from view.
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about,” said Mike.
“Sorry,” Freakazoid said with a shrug, “but when duty calls nothing can interrupt it.” He bounded after the van, but when he turned the corner it was nowhere in sight. He ran throughout the city, turning at intersections randomly. Realizing luck was not on his side, he paused and stroked his chin. “Hmmm, if I were a van, where would I go?”
Freakazoid turned and saw a squat police officer standing outside a coffee shop. “Oh, hi, Cosgrove.”
“Want to take a tour of the paper clip factory?”
Two hours later they were following a tour guide through the factory floor. “Wow,” said Freakazoid as he watched the metal wire being fed into the machinery. He shook the tour guide’s hand. “Thank you for all you do. The world would fall apart without paper clips. Don’t let the stapler fans out there tell you any different.”
The tour guide didn’t react to the compliment and casually continued leading the group around the building.
“It was mighty nice of you to say that, kid,” said Cosgrove. “Oh, by the way, word has it Lobe’s invented some kind of goop that stalls police cars.”
“Oh yeah,” said Freakazoid. “I saw him use it. I’d better go find him.” He lifted his knee, preparing to run off, but paused and continued following the group. “Well, I guess I could wait until this is over. Besides, I still need to tell you what happened while I was out of town.”
After the tour Cosgrove and Freakazoid went to the papaya juice stand together. Freakazoid had been retelling the bank incident during their entire trip over.
“After tying them all up I wanted to say something clever,” said Freakazoid as he took a cup from Mike. “I tried making a Shakespeare reference, but forgot the line. I probably should have thought of something else, but instead I ran to the library to look it up. Unfortunately, I didn’t know where the library was. I decided to get back before my family noticed Dexter was missing. Duncan saw Dexter run to the bathroom, but he figured it was a shy bladder of all the excitement. Mom and dad were too worried about grandma to focus on anything else.”
“That’s great,” said Cosgrove. “Sounds like you got lucky. If those robbers had more experience they might have been quicker to shoot you instead of just shooting the ceiling. Anyway, are you ready to start looking for Lobe and his goop launcher?”
“I keep forgetting about that.” Freakazoid leapt from his chair and stood in front of a couple walking their dog. “Fear not citizens, the goop shall trouble you no more!” He turned his back on the two and ran in place. His boots scraped against the ground, but it was as if they had lost all traction. As he pumped his legs, he turned to Cosgrove and beckoned him to join. “Come on, Cosgrove!”
“If you don’t start paying I’m going to go out of business,” said Mike.
Freakazoid looked sheepish, but did not stop his fake running.
Cosgrove took out his wallet. “I got it, kid. Go get started. I’ll catch up with you.”
With a yelp of thanks Freakazoid ran off, high-stepping with his hands extended straight out as he made whooshing noises.
The after-work walk seemed to have tired out Milo, who’d been curled up in front of the couch since he and Stanley returned, but a knock completely revived his energy and he ran for the door, jumping at the knob and scratching at the wood as he barked.
“Peggy, hi,” Stanley yelped as he lunged for the file in her hand.
“Down, boy,” she said as she pulled the file away and inched her way inside.
“Are you talking to me or Milo?”
Peggy knelt and scratched Milo behind the ears. “You, obviously. I like it when Milo greets me.”
“Well, feel free to keep him company while I take a look at what you brought.” He grasped for the file again and this time she let him take it. He brought it to the couch and flipped through the papers on his lap. “Is this all you could find? It doesn’t look like much.”
“Most people offer their guests something to drink before getting down to business.”
“There’s some orange juice in the fridge.” He selected one of the papers and took a closer look at it.
“Most people offer their guests an adult drink before getting down to business.”
“I don’t have any,” Stanley said with a sigh. “On my salary I can’t exactly afford to spring for the Sauvignon blank.”
Peggy chuckled as she made her way to the refrigerator. “You can’t even pronounce it right. And you got the off-brand orange juice? Come on, Stanley, even you’ve got to be doing better than this.” She took a sip from the small plastic jug. “It’s not even juice, its water and food coloring.”
“Complain all you want, but please finish it. I’d rather not see any of them go to waste.” The article he was looking at was an interview with a teenager who claimed a caveman disrupted his school’s prom night. “Is this a joke?”
“Sorry,” she said as she sat next to him, “but these are the only kinds of situations where Freakazoid’s shown up.” She pulled a copy of an out-of-state newspaper. “Like this one, where a flying saucer landed in front of the White House.”
Stanley snatched the paper from her and stared at the picture of an obese alien that stared blankly at the president with its tongue hanging out. “I kind of remember this. I figured it was a hoax.”
“Yeah, so did I,” Peggy said as she reluctantly took another sip of juice. “So did a lot of people. But look, the guy standing next to the president has the crazy hair consistent with descriptions of Freakazoid.”
Stanley pulled the paper close to his nose and squinted. “Alright, I’ll give you that. But this can’t be all there is, and these can’t all be real.” He tossed the alien article to the floor and pulled another one at random. “There’s a criminal whose hands are stuck to his hips? How is someone like that bad news? How is this considered news, period?”
“You should really be more open-minded. After all, you’re kind of in the same boat.”
“What do you mean?”
Peggy screwed the cap back on the orange juice and placed it on the floor. “I never told you this before. I guess I was nervous about how you’d react. Try to understand, my stories never get much attention unless they involve the Mask, and even then nobody talks about them for long. I wanted to know if there was something wrong with my writing so I started a poll over the phone. I called as many people as I could, including some people out of state.”
“Peggy,” Stanley groaned, “the last thing my alter ego needs is more attention.”
“Don’t worry. He’s not getting any. The long distance subjects who responded sounded a lot like you do now.”
“So you’re saying…”
“You’re an urban legend. Everyone who hasn’t seen the Mask with their own eyes thinks he’s a hoax.”
“Huh.” The couch creaked as Stanley leaned back. “Well, that’s good I guess. The more people who believe in the mask the more people will come looking for it, right?”
“Sure,” said Peggy as she tapped the file. “You’ve got to admit, you’re adventures are about as bizarre as these, if not more. And if he’s real, he could get me a larger audience. If you want to look deeper into him I’m with you.”
A distant explosion rattled the windowpanes. “Speaking of adventures,” Stanley said as he rushed to his closet.
“I never get tired of seeing this,” said Peggy as he donned the mask.
The wooden mask changed color as tendrils stretched from its sides and wrapped around Stanley’s face. His body spun with increasing speed until his figure was blurred. When he stopped he was wearing a yellow suit with a matching hat and his face was bright green. He smiled at Peggy and tipped his hat.
“Get to it,” she said as she neatly stacked the papers and placed them on a table. “And don’t worry about locking up. I know where Stanley keeps his spare key.”
“Now what kind of host would allow his lady friend to show herself out?” said the Mask. He flicked the deadbolt open and closed a few times. “Besides, I never felt this was a very secure system.” He placed a wooden board diagonally against the door and nailed it in place, his hand moving so fast the pounding sounded more like a jackhammer. He repeated the process at a different angle, and soon the door was blocked by four boards arranged like an asterisk. He then ran to Peggy and scooped her up into his arms. “We’ll take the window. It’s more fun.” His eyes fell on a paper. “Hey, what’s this?”
“Oh, that’s just something Stanley and I were looking at.”
“Mind if I take a look?” The index and middle fingers on his right hand extended, closed on the page like tweezers, and retracted, allowing him to examine the paper without putting Peggy down. “Freakazoid?”
“He’s a hero, like you.” She reached for the page, but yelped as she felt the Mask’s arms go slack and drop her.
The Mask became a blur as he once again spun about. When he stopped he was wearing a pink dress and holding a white fan. “I thought I was the only hero in Stanley’s life. Oh, I feel like such a fool.” He collapsed onto the couch and fanned his face. “Why can’t a man just be happy with what he’s got?”
There was another explosion and Peggy pointed to the window. “Uh, hello, bad guys here!”
“Right.” He leapt from the couch, back in his yellow suit before his feet touched the ground. He picked Peggy up again, this time using only one arm. With the other he opened a window and gripped the ledge before tumbling over it. Peggy shrieked briefly as the Mask’s arm expanded like elastic, slowing their descent. “I’ll be on that evil doer like a mouse on cheese,” he said when they reached the ground. He spied a homeless person across the street and rubbed his chin. “But first…”
He reached into the inner pocket of his suit and pulled out a cloth sack emblazoned with a dollar sign. He leapt across the street and dropped the sack in the beggar’s lap. “Your luck has just turned around, my friend. Knock yourself out.” The Mask spun again, and made his way down the street as a yellow tornado.
Shocked, the homeless man tore open the sack and thrust his hand inside. He screamed in pain, and when he pulled his hand out he found his fingers snagged in a mouse trap.
“Psyche!” the Mask called from the corner.
He followed a third and fourth explosion until he found the cause: a short, chubby man with a pale face and spiky hair.
“OK Boomer,” said the Mask, “get ready to be pwned.”
“My name isn’t Boomer, it’s Kablamis,” the stocky man said as his body expanded like a balloon.
The Mask produced an anchor, which he dropped next to himself and wrapped the chain around his waist. He also put his fingers in his ears, sinking them so deep only the knuckle was visible. When Kablamis burst the Mask was thrown back, but the anchor stayed put. When he removed his fingers they were covered in thick globs of earwax.
“Ooh, that’s better,” said the Mask as he flicked his fingers clean and removed the chain. “Alright, you’ve had your fun. Now it’s time to…” The ground shook and a streetlight teetered on its base. Not far from where he stood a building partially crumbled; bricks cascaded from its roof toward a group of bystanders. The Mask rushed to the people in harm’s way and held an umbrella over his head. “Looks like tonight’s forecast calls for some rubble rain.” He pressed a button and the umbrella expanded to a circumference of ten feet. The bricks rolled off harmlessly and when it sopped he shook the remaining dust from it. “We can expect clear skies for the rest of the night, but I’d still advise you to not stand under gargantuan structures,” he said as the umbrella disappeared.
“I’ve studied the geology of Edge City,” said Kablamis as he inflated again, this time more slowly. “We are currently standing above a particularly fragile rock formation. Those last few explosions weakened it. Any further stress could cause a sinkhole.”
“My gut tells me you’re making that up. But just in case,” he threw Kablamis into an iron stove, securing the grate with a padlock.
“This won’t stop me,” Kablamis shouted as he continued to grow, making the bolts strain and squeak.
The Mask grinned and folded his arms. “It won’t stop you from exploding, but it’ll aim the blast.” A moment later there was a loud bang. The legs of the stove shook, but most of the energy was forced upward through the stovepipe protruding from the top. Before Kablamis could re-form, the Mask opened the grate and removed a steaming hot sandwich. “It’ll also cook my dinner.” He consumed it in a single bite and closed the stove.
The street soon became incredibly noisy. Kablamis continued exploding and sirens increased in pitch as they approached. The police car was the first on the scene and Mitch Callaway emerged, along with Doyle, his assistant.
“Don’t even think about going anywhere you spinach-faced freak,” Callaway shouted as he readied a set of handcuffs.
“Surely you don’t think I had anything to do with this,” said the Mask, feigning shock at the accusation. “A stove like that could have come from anywhere.”
“He’s got a point,” said Doyle. “My aunt has one just like it.” He pulled out his cell phone.
“What’re you doing?” said Callaway.
Doyle pressed the phone hard against one ear and used his hand to cover the other. “I’m calling my aunt. Asking her if her stove’s missing.” He went back to the car as Callaway muttered a series of words reserved for when his partner was at his most useless.
A childish chuckle brought the Mask’s attention to the stove. “It’s too late,” Kablamis said, his face pressed firmly against the grate, “the damage is done. A portion of this road could collapse any moment, especially with those heavy vehicles rolling across it.”
The Mask turned to Callaway. “You should listen to him, officer. Apparently he just fractured whatever rock formation is under this city.”
“I don’t care about that. Get over here. You have the right to remain silent.” Callaway lunged for the Mask, swiping the handcuffs towards his wrists.
“I would,” the Mask said as he sidestepped to avoid capture, “but Edge city operates smoothest when everyone knows their function.” He leapt to avoid another advance from Callaway. “Stopping the exploding man? That’s a me problem. Blocking off streets and directing traffic? That’s a you problem.” Callaway made a third attempt and the Mask flipped, landing behind the officer and gripping him tightly. “Keeping nightclubs lively? That’s a me problem.” Callaway struggled, but he was unable to break the Mask’s hold. “Dealing with a wedgie?” the Mask said with a wide grin, “now, that’s definitely a you problem.” He pulled Callaway’s underwear over his head. “Somebody stop me,” he shouted as he fled the scene.
Several hours and a misadventure at a nightclub later, he burst through the apartment door, shattering the boards. Milo ran to him and pawed at his knees. “Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about you. Here, have a bone to pick on.” He dropped a seven-and-a-half foot bone in front of the dog, which gnawed at it ravenously as he went to the couch and picked up an article. “I have a bone I’d like to pick with Stanley. Seriously, what gives? He’s following some other hero now? Does he think this Freakazoid guy’s better than me? Fat chance. Look at these stories, he’s a joke. I’ve got half a mind to head on over to his neck of the woods and show him how it’s done.” He scanned the papers, looking for a common location in which Freakazoid had been seen. “You know what? That’s exactly what I’m going to do.”
A long table appeared in front of Milo, who didn’t pay it any mind as he continued chewing the bone. The Mask sat in the center of the table. His suit was now dark blue and his hat changed into a black fedora. He placed a microphone on the table and shouted into it. “It’s the battle of the century, and the crowd’s guaranteed to go wild. The main attraction? The Mask! Powered by an ancient artifact, he’s got the powers of a God and has foiled everyone from mutants to mad scientists. The contender? Freakazoid, who’s … done some weird stuff a few times, I guess. Place your bets, Milo. Who do you think will take home the championship?”
Milo whined and growled, refusing to take his attention from the bone.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence. Now let’s get ready to rumble!”
He went to the window. Suction cups emerged from his hands and he used them to climb to the roof. “Let’s see, it should be straight,” he licked his finger and held it above his head, “that way.” He impaled a massive slingshot into the roof and climbed to the V section. Positioning his body in the harness and a foot on either stick, his legs extended, stretching the elastic band. “I hope Stanley doesn’t have an important meeting at work tomorrow, because it’s going to be a late night.” His legs snapped back to normal and the sling shot him into the sky.
It was late in the evening when the movie ended. “Wow,” said Freakazoid as he, Steph, and Cosgrove left the theater, “that’s not what I was expecting.”
“I liked it,” said Cosgrove, “but should you really be taking time to watch movies while Lobe is still on the loose?
Steph put an arm around Freakazoid. “Come on, chief, Freak and I have been looking forward to seeing that for weeks.”
“Besides, I looked for him really hard,” said Freakazoid. “I think I earned a break.”
Tires screeched as a van stopped in front of them. The window descended and Lobe stuck his head out. “Enjoying your night, Freakazoid? I know I am.” He laughed as he drove away.
“Well, look at that. He found me. See, Cosgrove? It all works out.”
He chased the van, closing the distance quickly. The devices atop the vehicle spat blobs of the sticky solution, forcing him to slow down as he struggled to avoid them. His agility served him well for a few blocks, but a costly misstep resulted in a ball splattering in his face. He quickly wiped it clear of his nose and mouth, but the liquid pooled around his legs and hardened into a spongy stalagmite. With all his might he tried to bend his knee. The substance resisted and when his strength gave out it reformed its previous shape.
In the distance the van stopped. “Just a moment,” the Lobe shouted as he executed a sloppy three-point turn. It took him several attempts before he was able to drive back to Freakazoid. “Well, it seems that even your incredible strength is inadequate to break free of my super putty. Once it sets it’s stuck that way for good, but it’s still sticky enough to snag anything that comes into contact with it.”
Freakazoid pointed behind him. “That’s neat. You should go tell Cosgrove and Steph.”
“Good idea.” He pulled forward, heading straight for the mounds of super putty Freakazoid had avoided. It stretched like bubble gum as the van rolled over it, but soon it snapped off the tire and reformed its bulbous shape. The van reversed, once again traversing the super putty with ease. “Were you expecting to outsmart me? Sorry, Freakazoid, but these tires are specially designed to counter the super putty’s effects. I’ve made hundreds of them, and I’ve already purchased a storefront where they will soon be available for purchase.”
“Why would you do that?”
“Scheme profiteering. I create the problem and then sell the solution. Once I scatter this super putty on every street in town, people will have no choice but to buy my tires if they want to drive anywhere.” He stepped on the accelerator so hard the tires skidded and smoked. “It’s the perfect plan!”
Freakazoid struggled to escape, and even turned to his lightning bolt form which caused the putty to stretch quite a ways, but it continued pulling him back.
“Looks like you’re in a bit of a sticky situation.”
“Who are you?” said Freakazoid, shocked at the green-faced man he just noticed standing beside him.
“I’m the Mask. The question is, what’s this? It looks like taffy.” His jaw dropped to the ground and with a powerful bite he tore off a chunk of the putty. His teeth moved in circles as he chewed it like a cow. “Hmm, it doesn’t taste like taffy. Something’s missing. Oh, I know, salt water.” His body rotated rapidly as he took off down the street.
“Freakazoid!” a female voice called. Steph and Cosgrove had caught up with him.
He’d stopped trying to escape the putty and stared blankly down the road. “Did either of you see a green guy turn into a yellow twister just now?”
Before either of them could respond their attention was drawn to a faint whooshing. In the distance a wall seemed to be rushing toward them. It took Freakazoid a moment to realize it was a tidal wave. The Mask rode its crest; his suit was gone, replaced by yellow swim trunks that matched his surf board.
“Get out of here,” Freakazoid shouted, but Cosgrove and Steph seemed too shocked to move. As the wave cascaded toward them, the Mask dipped and skimmed down the water in a zig-zag path. He grabbed Cosgrove and Steph a moment before the water crashed onto them.
Freakazoid held his breath and pinched his nose. His body whipped back and forth but the putty held him in place. The assault lasted only moments. Once able to breathe again he frantically searched for his friends.
“Come on, dude,” the Mask said when he returned, still in his swim trunks. “Crack a smile. That was radical!”
Freakazoid ran to him and grabbed his shoulders. Shaking him, he bellowed, “Where are Steph and Cosgrove?”
“Over there,” the Mask said calmly.
They were both by a car, unharmed and shaking their damp hair.
“Hey,” said Cosgrove, “you’re free.”
Freakazoid looked at his feet. “You’re right.”
“Erosion is a powerful process,” said the Mask. He was now wearing a collared shirt, slacks, and standing before a chalkboard that expanded the width of the street. As he spoke he pointed to drawings on it with a yardstick. “It involves fluids such as water breaking down sediment and transporting it to another location. This is typically slow and takes hundreds of years, but I didn’t feel like waiting. Water is also good at transporting larger debris, like cars.” He spun the chalkboard and it vanished. Behind it a dinged van rested upside-down.
“What in tarnation?” Lobe said as he crawled out a window.
“What in the world is that?” said the Mask.
“It’s a guy with a brain for a head,” said Freakazoid. “What’s it look like?”
“You don’t say. Well, then, I guess we can stop him by any means necessary. After all,” he ran circles around the van, kicking up the surrounding water into a mist. When it cleared the van was replaced by a chair which Lobe was tied to. The Mask now wore a three-piece suit and held a scalpel. “The brain itself feels no pain. For example, he won’t miss this little piece here which is part of the prefrontal lobe that they say is responsible for good manners.”
“Get away from that guy,” Freakazoid shouted, “he’s my problem.”
The Mask lifted the scalpel away from Lobe. “Fine. I had no intention of seeing this through.” He became a twister again and stopped in front of Freakazoid, back in his yellow suit and hat. “I just wanted you to know how easily I can take care of your problems for you. See, I’m a superhero too, and I’m more powerful than you’ll ever be.”
“I don’t know about that,” said Freakazoid. “After all, I’m super strong.”
“Good for you,” said the Mask. “I’m completely invulnerable.”
“Oh yeah?” said Freakazoid, “well, I also have super speed.”
“Oh yeah? Well, I can make objects appear out of thin air.”
“Oh yeeeah? Well,” Freakazoid pondered for a moment, “I can say ‘who cut the cheese’ in three languages.”
“Oh yeeeah? Well, I can cut the cheese while speaking three languages.” The Mask’s posterior expanded to five times its original size. When the gas started escaping he shouted over the noise. “Hola como estas?! Bonjour comment se va?! Hallo wie gehts?!”
Freakazoid’s face went slack and his shoulders drooped. “OK, I can’t compete with that.”
“You can’t compete with me at all. I’ve been the guardian of Edge City for years and I don’t appreciate someone barging into my territory and showing me up. Now you know how it feels. We can end it here as long as you don’t do it again. Speaking of Edge City, I really should be getting back.” He rolled a cannon down the street, adjusted its height, and climbed in. “Don’t look at me like that. Cannons are the safest way to travel.” His arm stretched, allowing him to light the fuse. “Think about it. Name one person who ever died travelling across the country via cannon. You can’t, can you?” His head slipped inside the barrel. A moment later the cannon rocked back as it blasted him skyward. “Smokin’!” he called as he faded from view, leaving a trail of smoke.
“That guy might have been weird,” said Cosgrove, “but I have to admit, he stopped Lobe.”
“I have to admit something else,” said Steph, “seeing that wave coming was scary, but kind of cool.”
“I guess I should admit something, too,” said Freakazoid. He pointed in the direction of the theater. “I did not understand the end of that movie.”
The window was still open, and the Mask’s trajectory was aligned with it. He skidded across the floor and stopped in front of the closet. Milo, who had been asleep, jumped up and dashed under the couch.
“Message sent and received. It’s safe to say he’ll think twice before showing his blue, dopey face around here again.” He removed the mask, and once Stanley reclaimed control and took note of his surroundings, he put it back on the shelf nearly by instinct. He paused, however, taking note of how chilly the room was. Before he could investigate, the apartment door flew open and he slammed the closet shut.
“God dammit Stanley,” the old woman who’d barged in shouted, “it’s six in the morning! What’re you thinking making that racket?”
“I’m sorry, Agnes, I’ll…wait, it’s what in the morning?” He checked his watch and nearly swore before running to the bathroom.
“And it’s freezing in here,” Agnes continued. “Has that window been open all night?”
Stanley brushed his teeth furiously as he examined the windows. “Oh jeeth,” he moaned as he went to close it with toothpaste and saliva dribbling down his chin. He also checked the thermostat and fought back a sob when he realized the Mask hadn’t bothered to turn it off.
“Don’t even think about asking for an extension on your rent. I don’t care how much your electric bill is, you’re not getting off the hook.”
“I’ll have the rent in on time. I promise.” He hastily ran a comb through his hair. “But in order to do that I really need to get to work. I’m sorry about the racket.”
They left together and as Stanley rushed out Agnes shouted after him. “You need to get you’re act together, Stanley. I don’t know what you do for a living but if I was your boss I’d have fire you ages ago.”
Stanley hurried to his car, grateful to get beyond earshot of Agnes. Once inside, though, he was filled with a renewed stress. As he inserted the key he muttered “please, please, please.” The engine roared to life and he rejoiced. Before he fully maneuvered onto the street, it sputtered and died. “NOOOO!”
When he finally made it to work just shuffling to his desk was exhausting. In addition to being groggy, the raucous people on the bus had given him a headache. He also wasn’t used to stubble and scratched his neck viciously as he took a seat at his desk. On top of everything, he knew the thought that would be plaguing him all day was his car. Unable to get it started again meant he’d left it with the front tires jutting away from the curb. Knowing his luck, there would be a ticket waiting for him when he got home. He was so preoccupied estimating the total cost of the rent, car repairs, heating bill, and parking fine that he didn’t hear Charlie approach.
“Please don’t tell me you went to a party last night.”
“Of course not,” Stanley said as he rubbed his bloodshot eyes. “It’s just, um, temporary insomnia.”
“In that case the best treatment would be having more time to sleep.”
Stanley snapped his head up. “Are you firing me?”
“Suspending you, at least.” Charlie checked his watch. “You’re over ninety minutes late. I can’t just let that slide.”
“I can’t afford to take any time off right now. I’ll work late tonight. I’ll work overtime the rest of the week. I desperately need my paycheck this month.”
“You should’ve thought of that before you showed up looking like you do. I like you, Stanley, but you’re not in any shape to greet a customer, let alone help them.”
“Fine, put me somewhere else. I’ll get someone to cover for me here and I’ll do something that doesn’t involve talking to customers.”
“It doesn’t work that way. Go home. Come back when your insomnia stops being temporary.” He started making his way toward his office.
Stanley rushed to catch up with him. “What about your work? I’m sure you’re swamped. There’s got to be something you’d be happy to put on my shoulders.”
That seemed to catch Charlie’s attention and he paused. “Well, now that you mention it…”
“I can’t go home,” Stanley repeated. “Give me any assignment you want. Put me in the back room where we send interns to complete their training. I’ll stay here as long as it takes to finish and you won’t hear or see me until it’s done.”
There were plenty of assignments, some of which were due by the end of the day. Stanley knew about Charlie’s habit of procrastination and had figured there would be a few tasks that had been set aside until the last minute. The work wasn’t difficult, but it was tedious and his head refused to stop throbbing. If not for his promise to remain unseen he’d have gone to get water periodically. Instead he resorted to taking micro-breaks to pace about the room while massaging his temples and neck. He completed the important assignments on time, which Charlie accepted with veiled appreciation. He lost track of time as he struggled through the rest of the workload. When he left the building was vacant and the sun had set. He made his way to his usual parking spot then remembered he had no car. He counted the change in his pockets and realized he’d been in such a hurry that he didn’t have enough for another bus ride. Considering how long it would take to walk, he wondered if it would be more efficient to just sleep under his desk.
He jumped and nearly fell over as Peggy ran to him. “What are you doing here?”
“Well, I came here earlier but you weren’t at your desk, so I went to your apartment but you weren’t there either. I was worried so I looked around before making my way back here and I asked if you were available but everyone said you were in some room with an employees-only restriction. I’ve been waiting out here for you to finish whatever you’ve been working on. We’ve got to get downtown. Pretorius is back.”
Stanley sighed and looked down, but that intensified his headache so he rolled his neck. “I don’t even have the mask with me.”
“Oh, come on. After the robbery you should know not to leave the house without it. Where’s your car?” Before he could finish explaining she interrupted. “I’ll give you a ride. Let’s go.”
Peggy sped and slammed on the brakes for every stop sign and traffic light. The jerky motions only worsened Stanley’s condition but he was too grateful for the ride to complain. He just leaned against the headrest as Peggy informed him of the recent heist.
“Pretorius struck a hospital. He stole an X-ray machine, a patient’s shoe, and a flu vaccine. I can’t imagine what he plans on doing with them.”
“I’ll call the police. Give them an anonymous tip. Tell them where Pretorius’ lair is.”
“What are you talking about? This is the part where you save the day.”
“I’m not putting the mask on.” They were both silent for a moment. The traffic light turned green but she didn’t move. A car behind them honked and Stanley clutched his skull. “What are you doing?”
“I’m not going anywhere until you elaborate.”
“Fine,” he groaned as the honking continued, “we’ll talk. Just go.” They made it through the intersection and Stanley thought about what to say. Before they made it a block he noticed they were slowing down. “I need some time off,” he blurted before the car behind them made more noise.
“We’ve had conversations like this before. Let’s skip to the end where you put the mask on anyway.”
He recalled the times he said he wouldn’t use the mask anymore. He needed to convince her this time was different. “Let me rephrase that. I need some help.”
“Help from whom? The Mask can do anything.”
“You need to stop defining me by my alter ego. I’m just a schmuck doomed to spend the rest of my life in a crummy apartment. My car’s been heading for a breakdown for a while but I still drive it to work because sitting next to strangers on the bus scares me. At work Charlie’s the only one who talks to me like we’re friends but I doubt that’s the case. To some people it might look like I took advantage of Charlie today, using his poor time management to avoid punishment. It’s the opposite. I don’t think Charlie was going to suspend me. He just knows I’m such a coward that I’ll do whatever it takes to stay out of trouble. When the Mask is threatened he faces it head-on. Want to know what Stanley does?” He reclined the seat and went limp, as if he were inviting someone to walk on him. “That’s about it.”
“Stop that,” Peggy scolded. “I know having two lives was never a breeze.”
“Have you found anything new on Freakazoid?” he asked as he returned the seat to its upright position.
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Like I said, I need help.”
“He hasn’t been sighted here lately. He only showed up once. For all we know he’s not even in this city anymore.”
Stanley rubbed his chin. “Yeah, but if the Mask stops showing up then he might come back.”
“We don’t have time to wait. Pretorius is putting a scheme in action as we speak.”
“And if he’s stopped he’ll just do something else later. This back-and-forth between him and the Mask has been going on for years. Maybe it’s time to do things the Stanley way; wallow in sorrow, let the wounds fester, and hope that someday there’ll be a miracle.”
“Really? That’s your plan? That’s how we’re approaching this problem?”
“Yep.” He closed his eyes and they drove the rest of the way in silence. She wasn’t speeding anymore, and he was especially grateful that she came to smoother stops at the intersections. When they arrived he started climbing out without saying goodbye but she stopped him.
“I know I talk about the Mask a lot. It’s not because I don’t care about you. It’s because I know in your own way you can take a hit just as well as he can. If it makes it easier, I’m proud of you.” Her face softened and she gestured to the apartment window. “Both of you. For everything you do.”
It caught Stanley off guard and he wasn’t sure how to respond. After a moment he said “thanks, that actually means a lot.”
“Enough to put the mask on?” she said hopefully.
“No.” He went inside, hoping he had some aspirin laying around.
After school Dexter rushed home and to his computer. Normally his research was random and his focus changed throughout the afternoon. It was common for him to start by tracking stocks he didn’t own and within a few hours be immersed in celebrity news. For the past few days, however, he’d spent all his free time concentrating on the Mask. Their confrontation suggested there was some bad blood between them, but he couldn’t imagine why. If the stories he found could be believed, the Mask was a hero, just like his alter ego.
But the comments following the articles indicated many questioned their validity. Many poked fun of the author and dismissed the stories as childish garbage. It was understandable. One described the Mask fighting a talking fish. Another chronicled his encounters with a mutated bee. Nobody in their right mind would accept these occurrences as real news.
But Dexter’s mind was more open than most. After all, he’d been trapped on an island with Orangu-men. Who was he to judge?
He turned his attention to current drama in Edge City. There were no stories of mutants or mad scientists; unless he went to a specific web site owned by someone named Peggy Brandt. The more common news outlets reported robberies, car chases, and an occasional shooting. Looking into past reports, it seemed crimes such as those had been on the rise over the last few years. He found that interesting, but not enough to distract from the current issue: no matter where he looked, there was no mention of the Mask lately. It was almost as if he was just letting these things happen. After all his boasting it seemed unlikely that he’d just give up. What was he waiting for?
Dexter found a live video of a car chase in progress. A passenger in the getaway car was shooting at the pursuing police. “Come on,” Dexter said to the computer, “you’re out there. You can’t just let this happen.” He leaned closer to the screen. Seconds passed, more shots were fired, and the Mask still did not make an appearance. “Oooh,” he said as he continued to hesitate, “ooooooh freak out!”
His body levitated above his chair and was lost in beams of light. His skin turned blue, his hair lengthened, and his clothes became a red body suit. Freakazoid fell into the chair and spun around. “Wee, I love transforming above this chair.” As he slowed he noticed the computer. “Oh, I’ve seen this movie.” He noticed the caption in the bottom corner. “Wait, live? Movies aren’t live. Hey, this is happening in Edge City. Why would Dexter be looking at this?” He grabbed a notepad and jotted a message on it. “Freak in.”
Dexter reappeared and was greeted with the note on the keyboard that read the Mask said stay away. Beneath it, he wrote maybe he’s busy. “Freak out.”
Maybe let the cops handle it. “Freak in.”
Maybe you should go help them. “Freak out.”
Maybe you should go buy Steph a necklace. You know she’s mad at us, right? “Freak in.”
Dexter sighed and grabbed a larger sheet of paper before continuing their conversation. I know you’re uncomfortable going to the Mask’s territory. I think you should go anyway. It comes with the job. Sometimes you have to go into the sewer. Sometimes you have to risk getting hurt. It’s for the greater good. And Steph isn’t mad at us. We’re a great boyfriend. “Freak out.”
Freakazoid grabbed the pen, but pondered the message before responding. Dexter had a point. He’d gone outside his comfort zone before. Perhaps it wasn’t too much to ask for him to risk another display of power from the Mask. Fine, I’ll go. But just so you know, Steph is mad at us. We forgot her cat’s birthday. He placed the note under Dexter’s pillow and looked at the screen again. “Well, at least it’s a car chase. I don’t take the old four wheeler out nearly enough.” He bolted to the Freakalair where his Freakmobile was waiting for him. He sped to Edge City. When he arrived the chase had migrated to a highway. He tried to merge but the onramps were blocked and the roads congested. Freakazoid tapped the steering wheel as cars around him blared their horns.
Realizing there was no chance of getting to the highway the old fashioned way, he pressed a button on the dashboard. A rod with a camera on the tip extended from the back of the car. A screen on the steering wheel showed what the camera captured. He examined distant intersections, noting gaps in traffic large enough for the Freakmobile. “I’m sure glad this came with Bunny Mode now,” he said as the camera retracted. He flipped a switch and a pair of novelty rabbit feet on springs burst from the vehicle’s underside. It was propelled over traffic and landed in one of the gaps. The process continued until he leapt over one of the roadblocks and sped to join the chase.
It didn’t take long before he was behind a row of police cars. He fiddled with the controls again, this time making a robotic hand come from a compartment. It grabbed and lifted the nearest car. Freakazoid maneuvered into the gap and turned to the officer on his left.
“This is still going on, huh?” he shouted as the officer rolled down his window. “What’s your plan? Wait for them to run out of gas?” The robotic hand set the captured police car down behind him and he sped up, leaving the rest of the officers in a black cloud emitted by the Freakmobile’s massive tailpipes.
Only one officer accelerated to keep up with him. The driver had short black hair and wore a trench coat. His teeth were gritted and his face red. Soon he was beside the Freakmobile. Freakazoid smiled and waved.
The officer rammed the Freakmobile. It nearly struck the guard rail. “Hey, I’m on your side,” Freakazoid shouted. The officer rammed him again. Freakazoid activated the robotic hand again and captured the upset officer. “Simmer down and I’ll let you go.”
A massive object shot between them, severing the robotic hand. Freakazoid watched the police car fall to the road in his rearview mirror. He then turned his attention to what had freed it; a hoodless muscle car with a cow catcher on its front. The driver wore a studded leather jacket and a helmet, which would have concealed his green face if the visor were not raised.
“You stay away Kellaway,” the Mask shouted. “Only I can annoy him. In fact, I told you to stay away from this city altogether.” His car struck the Freakmobile.
“Geeze, you too?” said Freakazoid. “I’m trying to help.”
“I know,” said the Mask, “but still.” Another collision.
Freakazoid turned a dial. A disk on a piston emerged on the side of the Freakmobile. When the Mask struck again, the piston extended and the muscle car was forced across several lanes.
“Alright, that’s how you want to do this?” said the Mask. The muscle car tilted on two wheels, driving at a forty-five degree angle to the road. It came down on the Freakmobile, rebounded, and descended again, pounding it like a hammer.
The Freakmobile drove on its two back tires, becoming nearly vertical. A boxing glove burst from the front bumper and tilted the muscle car all the way over. It was overturned, but its momentum carried it over and it landed right side up. Its engine roared and it zipped past Freakazoid. Its tires screeched as it skidded sideways, stopping in front of the Freakmobile.
Freakazoid tried to activate Bunny Mode again to jump over the muscle car, but pressed the wrong button. A cloud of confetti expanded around them as they crashed. The Freakmobile’s engine sputtered and went silent. Freakazoid turned the key and stepped on the gas to no effect. He hopped out and stomped to the Mask, who was puffing on a cigarette and leaning against the muscle car’s caved-in door.
“That’s how we do it on these streets,” the Mask said as he flicked the cigarette to the ground.
“That’s how you do what?” said Freakazoid. “Botch a chase? Look around, the car we were supposed to be chasing got away.”
The Mask changed back into his usual yellow suit. “You’re easily distracted. Those guys got off the highway two exits ago. I’m sure the cops are still on their trail, if they haven’t gotten them already. I could get a fresh car and see if they need help. But first…”
The Mask lunged forward. Freakazoid raised his hands defensively. The Mask rushed past him, and when he turned around he saw the angry officer that had rammed him earlier. A pair of handcuffs fell from the officer’s hand as the Mask gave him an atomic wedgie.
“What is it about you, Kellaway?” said the Mask. “I just can’t resist.”
“You’re a menace,” Kellaway shouted as he fought to remove his underwear from his head. “Both of you!”
“Hey, what did I do?” Freakazoid asked Kellaway. He then addressed the Mask. “And what’s your deal? You go silent and when I stop by to pick up the slack you go out of your way to stop me.”
“Let’s just say I’m having a difference of opinion with a close friend,” said the Mask. “I’m sure he’s going to be pissed when he hears about this. But regardless of what happens between us, my position hasn’t changed. It’ll never change. Stay out of my city.”
Freakazoid threw his hands up. “Whatever,” he said as he climbed back into the Freakmobile. He tried to start it again, but with no success.
“Why do you have that thing anyway when you can just turn into a lightning bolt?” said the Mask.
“Shut up, that’s why,” said Freakazoid. He became a lightning bold and zipped home. Back in his room, he retrieved the paper and left one more note for Dexter.
Stanley woke up groggy. He remembered the thrill of a chase and angry arguing. As he got dressed and prepared coffee, he paused and rubbed his eyes, trying to recall the sources behind the emotions. He could only recall Kellaway being there. It was the most common thing he could remember. Maybe that was because the detective showed up so often while he was under the mask’s spell. He also recalled flashes of blue and red. It may have been wishful thinking spawned from his desire for Freakazoid to return. He focused harder and tried to remember anything other than Kellaway’s flushed face.
When his coffee was ready he plopped on the couch and stared at his phone. Peggy was his best chance for details on what the Mask had done. She was also likely to press him for an interview with the Mask and he didn’t feel like turning her down again.
There was a pounding at the door. Stanley jumped, spilling coffee on his shirt. “Coming,” he called as he rested his coffee on the floor near a couch leg. The pounding continued. “I said I’m coming.” He hardly opened the door more than a crack before it was pushed open and Mitch Kellaway forced his way inside. “Good morning detective. Is there a problem?”
Kellaway faced him, standing tall with his hands on his hips. “You know why I’m here.” He stared hard at Stanley, who stared back blankly. Kellaway pulled out his phone and showed Stanley a video.
“Footage from my body cam.” Kellaway extended his arm. “Go ahead, take it.”
Stanley accepted the phone and went to the kitchen area. He knelt over the counter as he watched a car chase involving the strangest looking vehicle he’d ever seen, driven by Freakazoid. The Mask was there as well, and seemed to be attempting to run the obscure car off the road. He turned back to Kellaway, who was still watching him closely. “What’s wrong?”
“You seem genuinely surprised.”
“Of course. It’s my first time seeing it.”
“You don’t remember it, do you? I’ve wondered how a guy like you can be such a good liar. I’m starting to think you’re telling partial truths. What’s the deal, you got a split personality?”
Stanley felt a chill and turned his focus back to the phone before he started sweating. It seemed Kellaway was always getting closer to the secret of the Mask.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Stanley said as he saw the wrecked cars. “Huh. He really seems to be going all out against Freakazoid.”
Kellaway snatched his phone back. “I was planning on doing the same thing. Good thing I did because the ones who kept following the criminals are either dead or in the hospital.”
Stanley adjusted his shirt collar. Unsure of how to respond, he said “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I didn’t come here for an apology. I came here so we can get on the same page. Do you know how much time is spent at the precinct discussing how to handle things when the Mask shows up? How many resources are going to finding ways to stop him and any of the other weirdos who keep popping up?”
“Of course not. I’ve never set foot in there. How would I know what you talk about?”
“Well, it’s a hot topic. It’s gotten even more heated since the freak Freakazoid showed up. A lot of effort has been going into coming up with ways to slip a short leash on unpredictable perps. While that’s been going on, the little guys have been getting bigger. Robberies have spiked. Muggings are up. That car chase ended in an ambush; when the cops followed that car off an exit they were hit hard by a group armed with heavy artillery. Let that sink in. An arms deal went down in my city and I was too preoccupied to notice.”
“That’s a shame, it really is, but I don’t know why you’re telling me.”
Kellaway came undone. His usual tension dissipated and for once he looked at Stanley with a soft expression. “I’m ready to swallow my pride. I got sick of this song and dance a long time ago. Now it’s getting to be a real problem. I’m not trying to trap you, and I’m not here to arrest you. I’m not even on duty right now. I’m asking you nicely to please stop showing your green face on these streets. It’s doing more harm than good.”
“With all due respect, detective, isn’t the Mask just trying to help?”
Kellaway grabbed his own hair and seemed ready to pull fistfuls of it out. “At this point I don’t care about your intentions. You complicate things. So does the bumblebee man and the fish guy. I’m sick of it. If I know just one freak, good or bad, is no longer in the picture, my day will be a little brighter.”
Stanley waited for a change in the detective’s demeanor. Hearing him speak in a soft tone was a strange experience. He wanted to believe the detective wasn’t trying to trap him, and admit he was sorry for any trouble he’d caused, but he was too accustomed to denying the accusations to give it up. “I’m sick of it, too, detective. Sick of telling you I’m not who you think I am.”
Kellaway left with a heavy sigh. Stanley put his ear to the door and listened for every creaky stair as the detective sulked out of the apartment. He then went to the closet and retrieved the mask.
“He has a point. You are doing more harm than good. I mean, what was up with that video? Freakazoid’s on our side. You know that, right? He protects his city, same as you. He just wants to help protect ours.” He stared at the mask. It had become such an important part of his life, but it was also responsible for many difficulties. It was always right in front of him and he couldn’t have a candid discussion about their problems. He understood Kellaway’s frustration.
He returned the mask to its shelf. “I’m going to make his day brighter. You clearly don’t want outside help. Kellaway’s never wanted your help. Maybe this city doesn’t need our help.”
“Oh, not this again,” said Mike.
Freakazoid sulked to the papaya juice stand. “It’s happening, no matter how much you complain. Get me a cup.”
“How much are you going to drink this time?”
“All of it,” Freakazoid said as he pounded his fist on the counter, “all the papaya juice.” He drained his cup and immediately ordered another. When he ordered his third Cosgrove approached.
“Hey, Freakazoid, want to try out that new cat café?”
“You know something, Cosgrove? No. As fun as that sounds, for once I don’t want to hang out.”
“That bad, huh?” He placed a credit card on the counter. “You better get me a cup, too, Mike, and open a tab.”
“Geeze,” said Mike, “when I set this place up I never thought I’d be opening juice tabs for people.”
“I went back to Edge City,” said Freakazoid as Mike brought them each a fresh cup.
“I told you to stay away from that place,” said Cosgrove.
“Something’s going on in that city,” said Freakazoid. “Violent crimes have been increasing. I went there to help with a car chase.”
“That sounds like something any superhero can handle.” Cosgrove took a long drink of his juice. “Heck, kid, I can handle a car chase and I don’t even have powers.”
“The crime isn’t important. I’m Freakazoid, darn it. People and other heroes should be welcoming my help, not throwing me out of their city.”
“You’re a small town superhero and everyone here is happy to have you around. If it wasn’t for you people like Longhorn would be terrorizing people on a daily basis just for fun, but organized crime isn’t your thing.”
“Why not? If I can stop a super villain I can stop a normal one.”
“Don’t underestimate someone just because they don’t have powers. Even the worst villains around here aren’t all that menacing. There’s a jewel theft here, a scam there. Next time you research Edge City look up some of the people who’ve been put behind bars. Some brutal people have called that place home.”
“I stopped a bank robbery.”
“You got lucky. You had the element of surprise. That won’t last forever. That’s why I want you to stick around here.”
Freakazoid turned in his seat to face Cosgrove. Some of his juice sloshed onto the counter but he didn’t focus on it. “I can’t believe I’m hearing this. You don’t think I’m good enough to save the world. You think the Mask was right to drive me out of his city.”
“I think we have a good thing going here. You’re the crazy guy who keeps the other crazies in check. Next time Cobra Queen rises from the sewers I’m sure you’ll meet the challenge head on like you always do. But please, kid, stick to what you’re good at.”
Freakazoid stood and backed away from the counter. “Fine, I’ll stick to what I’m good at. I’ll go on an adventure right now, and you’re not invited. It’s outside your lane and it’s best if you stick to what you’re good at, which is driving that car around and paying Mike for the papaya juice.” He bolted away, arriving in a nature preserve out of town. “Candle Jack!” he called.
A dark apparition appeared before him. “Freakazoid,” it hissed, “you won’t get away so easily this time.”
“Sorry to bother you,” said Freakazoid, only half paying attention to what Candle Jack was saying. “I’m really just here to blow off some steam. Catch me if you can.” He leapt over a log and rushed deeper into the woods.
“Don’t talk to me like we’re friends. I’m supposed to be the scary one!”
Freakazoid wove his way through the trees. He glanced back every few paces and saw Candle Jack silently floating close behind, quickly gaining on him. He became a lightning bolt and circled a tree, then dashed to another and circled it. The energy trailing behind him created a tapestry of light which Candle Jack gawked at in confusion. After a few minutes Freakazoid stopped behind a tree and stood still with his back against the trunk.
All was silent, but stealth was Candle Jack’s specialty. Freakazoid was about to peek to see if he was gone but felt pressure on his ribs. A rope went taught and pulled him tighter against the tree as Candle Jack came into view.
“Nice try, Freakazoid,” he whispered as he tied a knot, “but I can sense those who speak my name. Until you leave this forest the two of us are linked. Hiding is futile.”
Candle Jack spun around. Freakazoid fiddled with the knot.
“Before I take you away,” said Candle Jack as he picked up a log, “I think I’ll give you a headache.” He turned back to the tree and dropped his weapon. “Hey, how did you get out?”
“It’s a rope,” Freakazoid said with a shrug. He ran off again.
In spite of Candle Jack’s warning of being able to sense his location, he decided to try making the chase interesting. He doubled back, ran through streams, crawled through hollowed out logs, and even climbed trees so he could jump from branch to branch. He paused and looked around, but there did not seem to be anyone chasing him. He wondered if the ability to sense positions had been a bluff.
A distant crash caught Freakazoid’s attention. His first thought was that it was a trap, but that didn’t fit Candle Jack’s personality; he was the kind to stalk and pounce on his victims rather than luring them. He followed the noise and found a red-haired man in a kilt and blue shirt by the stream.
“Roddy?” said Freakazoid. “Roddey MacStew?”
“Well, prepare a feast,” said Roddy. “Good ta see ya again, lad.”
“What are you doing here? Are you running from Candle Jack, too?”
“Candle Jack? Dam’f I know who that is. Nay, I come out here sometimes to toss cabers.” He picked up a piece of a tree that looked like it had been blown down recently.
“Um, that’s a branch.”
“I know it’s a branch,” said Roddy as he sprinted and flipped it.
“You know, I’ve always wondered what you do in your spare time.”
“This ain’t all I’ve been up to. I’ve been surfing the net a lot. Sorry your Freakmobile in got bashed in Edge City. That’s a real kick in the teeth.”
“Well, I’m not getting kicked in the teeth again. Cosgrove seems to think that’s for the best.”
Roddy jabbed finger in Freakazoid’s chest. “I like the guy, but he’s got ya talkin like a damn fool. Quittin’ ain’t ever for the best. Yer goin’ back to Edge City, boy, and yer gonna knock the Mask on his arse like it’s yer job.”
“When we meet he’s always the one who does that to me. As much as I hate to admit it, he’s stronger.”
“Yer right. In a one-on-one, he’s got you beat in special abilities. But that’s yer problem, lad, yer playing his game. Resources on the net are limited, but far as I can tell the Mask works alone. He cannae even get along with the police. Next time ye go to Edge City, don’t go there looking for a meeting, go looking for a fight, and bring help. I’ll happily be by yer side, and I’m sure Cosgrove would as well.”
Freakazoid’s head bumped into Roddy’s as they were forced together. He looked down and saw a rope looped around both their mid sections.
“I’ve got you now,” Candle Jack hissed as he rose, hauling them both skywards behind him.
“Is there something you want to tell me?” said Roddy.
“He haunts this place,” Freakazoid explained. “If you say his name he chases you, and he doesn’t stop until he brings you to his secret place or you leave the woods.”
“And don’t try untying the knot again,” said Candle Jack, “it’s a long way down, and I plan on keeping it that way.”
“All right, I got this,” said Roddy as he produced a produced a cell phone.
Freakazoid’s jaw dropped as Roddy opened an internet application and began typing a series of characters into the search bar.
“Don’t look so surprised, lad. I’ve put Pinnacle Chips in all my devices.”
“I’m surprised that you have pockets. I never knew kilts came with those.”
“Of course it does. Everyone needs pockets. Even your suit has a few, doesn’t it?”
Freakazoid pulled a section of his suit, stretching the fabric and letting it snap back against his skin. “Actually, no.”
Roddy pressed the final character. The Pinnacle chip activated and a beam erupted from the phone’s screen. Freakazoid and Roddy entered the device as pure energy. They emerged in physical from from another device far from the woods.
Freakazoid lifted his arms and stretched. “Alright, let’s get down to business. How are you going to help me beat the Mask?”
“That can wait,” said Roddy. “First order of business is getting a sewing machine and putting some damn pouches on that suit of yours.”
“A body was found by the docks this morning. Police are investigating it as a homicide.”
Milo whimpered and put a paw over his snout.
Stanley’s hand drifted to the remote. “Is it just me or is the news getting more depressing lately?”
The reporter moved on to the next headline involving an investor who had been embezzling from their clients. Milo lifted his head and looked at Stanley with sad eyes.
“Don’t do that. It’s not my fault this stuff’s happening.” The weather forecast came next, which seemed innocent until it segued into an expose about how a recent storm had devastated an orphanage. “Done,” Stanley said as he turned the television off. He grabbed a container of orange juice from the refrigerator and understood Peggy’s point. As he guzzled it he tasted clumps which were either pulp or bits of agglomerated sugar.
Milo leapt off the couch and placed his paws on the windowsill. He stood rigid on his hind legs and growled. In the glass’ reflection Stanley could see his teeth were bared.
“Hey, I’m upset with this city too, but there’s no need to be so vocal.” He went to Milo, scratched him behind the ears. He looked out onto the street, and his fingers froze.
Three cars were parked on the curb. Inside two he could see the silhouette of the drivers. In the third the driver leaned out of the car. He was looking at the apartment with a pair of binoculars; he was looking directly at Stanley.
Milo growled louder and Stanley could feel him growing tenser. He dropped his drink and backed away from the window. “OK, this is probably nothing. Milo’s probably overreacting. That guy was probably looking at a different apartment. I’ll probably be fine.” He pulled out his phone. “I should probably call Detective Kellaway just to be safe.”
A crunching sound made Stanley jump and drop his phone. He turned to find his front door splintered and a group of men entering. He dove to the floor and fumbled with his phone. “I’m calling the police.”
“No you’re not.”
One of the intruders stepped on Stanley’s hand. There wasn’t enough pressure to break any of Stanley’s bones, but it did force him to loosen his grip. The phone was kicked across the room.
Milo charged at one of the trespassers. He didn’t bite, but barked with his face close to a man’s ankle. One of the men approached Milo from behind, grabbed him by the collar, and forced him into a prone position.
“Please don’t hurt him,” Stanley begged.
“Relax,” said the man who had kicked his phone away, “we only hurt people.” He pulled a gun from his waistband and waved it in a circular motion over his head. “Get to work,” he commanded before turning the muzzle toward Stanley. The group dispersed, except for the one pinning Milo and the one holding Stanley at gunpoint. He heard them tossing things around in his bedroom and flipping furniture.
“There’s a shoebox under my bed,” said Stanley. “It’s got over one hundred dollars in it. That’s all the cash I’ve got. Unless you want my wallet. It’s in my back left pocket.”
“I don’t want your money. I know what you are.”
“I’m just an average guy.”
“I’d believe you, but I’ve got eyes and ears all over this city. They tell me the Mask always returns to this building. A closer look showed he always comes out of this apartment.”
“Hey,” a raspy voice interrupted, “did you guys break my door?”
While afraid to move, Stanley risked tilting his head and saw his landlady, Ms. Peenman, standing at the entrance to his apartment armed with a shotgun. She cocked it and adopted her meanest face.
The mobster moved his gun away from Stanley and toward Ms. Peenman. Stanley squinted and saw the shotgun hit the floor as a deafening bang filled the room. He forced his eyelids to widen, expecting to see the old woman’s bloody body flop onto the floor. Instead, she was still standing. Her hand was on her chest and her face was paler than Stanley had ever seen. He looked at the mobster and noticed his arm was tilted down, aiming at the ground.
“Dance, hag,” the mobster said with a sneer. He fired again and Ms. Peenman leapt to her side. He fired three more times, making her jump thrice more before she scurried out of the apartment, her shotgun abandoned and resting near the open door. “Find anything?” he called as he pointed his gun back toward Stanley.
A voice from Stanley’s bedroom responded “There’s some money in a shoebox.”
“Nothing in his fridge ‘cept bread ‘n barbecue sauce,” said someone in the kitchen area. “What you live on? Sauce sandwiches?”
Stanley hoped they wouldn’t force him to answer. Admitting to the accuracy of the accusation would only make it more comical.
“Hey,” said a goon who had opened his closet, “this looks freaky.”
Stanley sighed as the man grabbed the mask from the top shelf.
“Are you kidding me?” said the mobster in front of Stanley. “The secret of the Mask is a literal mask?”
“I don’t know what you think that is, but there’s nothing special about it.” Stanley knew it was a long shot, and as he said the words he realized his voice didn’t sound very convincing, but he needed to try. “It’s just a family heirloom.”
The man in charge moved his gun away from Stanley and turned it on one of his men. “On your knees.”
The goon held his hands out pleadingly. “Boss, please.”
The goon was forced to the ground. The one in charge took the mask and knelt in front of his pinned test subject. He brought the mask to the man’s face slowly. When it was close, it leapt from the boss’ hand and latched onto the goon’s face. The boss lunged forward and grabbed it; he yanked it back as the test subject’s body writhed and the man who had him pinned struggled to keep him still. The battle lasted several seconds until there was a pop. The mask was wrenched away from the subject’s face and the boss rolled across the floor. He sat up, holding the mask in his lap. “Something tells me this is it.”
“Please,” said Stanley, “ple-e-ease, don’t put it on.”
“You think I want to use this?” the boss said as he rose to his feet. “Man, you’re more clueless than I thought.”
Stanley looked up at the boss, his eyebrows so scrunched it hurt his forehead. He’d been in this situation before. Everyone who looked for the mask did so because they wanted to the power for themselves; to use it for some sinister purpose.
“See,” the boss continued, “while everyone in this city has been obsessing over epic battles between heroes and villains, I’ve been taking advantage of the distraction. I’ve been recruiting. Building my forces. Now, we’re ready to step up. There’s enough of us to take this city by storm. The thing is, in order for that to happen, every freak’s got to be taken off the board. People with superpowers are too unpredictable.” He held the mask in front of his face and tapped it with his gun. “We have plans for most of them. I can’t wait to go after that creep, Walter. But the Mask was the most mysterious. I thought we should go after him first. Looks like it was even easier than I expected.”
“Who are you?” said Stanley.
The boss spun his revolver on his finger and grinned. “They call me Six Shooter Oswald.”
The years of fighting villains forced Stanley to consider alternative nicknames. “Have you thought of going by Ozzy, or maybe changing your name to Steve or Stan?”
“Shut up,” said Oswald as he pointed his gun at Stanley again.
“Aw, gross, he peed.”
The goon who had been holding Milo leapt to his feet as a puddle spread across the floorboards. The moment his hand lifted from the collar the dog ran for the door.
“Milo!” Stanley scampered after his pet. He didn’t know what he would do when and if he caught up with Milo, but he didn’t care. Gunshots erupted behind him, but he didn’t care about them either. If a bullet had hit him, he doubted he would have felt any pain. The only thing that mattered was being with his dog, even if it meant dying together.
The gang had not bothered closing the main door to the apartment complex, and Milo squeezed through the gap between the door and its frame. Stanley called his dog’s name again as he bounded after him. He heard a distant voice from above, from the window of his apartment.
“Take him down!”
There were more gunshots, this time coming from cars parked across the street. Stanley ducked, using other cars a cover. At the end of the block Milo turned the corner. Stanley traced his path and followed him for a few blocks. There were no more gunshots, but he heard a car following him. He quickened his pace, determined to grab his dog before someone grabbed him.
“Stanley,” a female voice called, “get in.”
He tore his attention from Milo and saw Peggy driving beside him. He skidded to a halt and her brakes squeaked as the car stopped a few feet in front of him. Milo turned around and bounded toward the car. Stanley opened the door and Milo jumped into the passenger seat. Stanley tried to lift him up and put him on his lap but the adrenaline was wearing off and he didn’t have the strength. He only managed to nudge Milo over and they shared the seat.
“Just in the neighborhood?” Stanley said between breaths. “Thought you’d stop by?”
“You’re my best story,” said Peggy, “and you haven’t been giving me anything to write about lately. Of course I wanted to check on you. I actually stopped by a few days ago. You weren’t home but I saw some people lurking. Something seemed off about them.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because it was just a hunch. I didn’t know what they were up to and if I said anything you’d just think I was being paranoid.”
“In the future, whether I believe you or not, go with your intuition. If you say people are after me and I don’t believe you, drag me to your car and take me someplace safe. Knock me out if you have to.”
“I’ll remember you said that, but let’s focus on the current situation. What did those guys want?”
“They came for the mask.” Milo whimpered and Stanley scratched him behind the ears.
“They didn’t get it, did they? Please tell me you snuck it out.”
“No. Sorry. They got it.”
Peggy accelerated, checked her mirrors, and her head darted about as she looked out the windows.
“They’re not following us,” Stanley assured her.
“Do they need to? I mean, whoever put it on could pop up anywhere, anytime.”
“Nobody’s put it on yet. The boss said he wants freaks like the Mask off the board. The way he was talking it almost sounded like he had a twisted sense of pride. He wants power, but he wants to get it on his own. No supernatural abilities. Just blood, sweat, and bullets.”
“So what, you think he’ll try to destroy it?”
Stanley snorted. “He can try. It takes a lot to put a dent in that thing. I don’t think he’ll hide it, either. He seemed more like the kind of guy who’d keep it as a trophy. I also don’t think we have to worry about the gang doing anything drastic yet. There’re more freaks in this city for them to take down before their power play. All signs indicate we have a minute to breathe, and work out what we’re going to say to Kellaway.”
“Woah, woah, woah, Kellaway?”
“He stopped by recently. Mentioned a gang that’s been getting more aggressive. I’ll bet it’s the same gang that just paid me a visit. I’ll also bet Kellaway’s discovered a few things about them.” Stanley rubbed his face and pulled down on his cheeks. “And he’s known I’m the Mask for a while. I’m sick of denying it.”
“He’s wanted to arrest you for a while. He’s not going to have a change of heart just because you help him bring down this organized crime group.”
“Look, we’re not going to get the mask back without help. One option is to go dark side and turn to an enemy, like Pretorius, who I’m sure has a supercomputer that can locate the gang’s hideout as well as a super weapon that can kill them all in seconds. Another option is to go to the police. Regardless of what happens to me, I feel more comfortable with the latter.”
“Well sure, any plan sounds better than getting into bed with Pretorius. But I’m not letting you go right to Kellaway. There’s got to be another cop we can talk to.”
Freakazoid flew across grassland in his lightning bolt form. When he crossed a field of wheat and stopped to gaze at it. He inhaled deeply through his nose and on the exhale he retrieved a folded sheet of paper from one of the many pockets that had been sewn into his suit; his legs, arms, and stomach were now covered in pouches of various colors. He put a check mark in a box next to AMBER WAVES OF GRAIN. “While I’m here, I might as well get spacious skies off my list.” He looked up and watched a cloud pass by overhead, and then checked the corresponding box. “Let’s see, I still need a fruited plane, a pilgrim’s feet, and purple mountain majesty.” He used the eraser to scratch his head. “I wonder who rules over the purple mountains, anyway.” He imagined two purple grapes on a snowy peak flopping against each other like a pair of elephant seals, vowing that the kingdom would be theirs. A phone rang. He shoved the paper and pencil back in the pocket and shoved his hand in another. “Woops, wrong one,” he said as he pulled out a pack of mints. He groaned as he searched other pockets, retrieving a calculator, a stuffed animal, and a picture of Steph in a swim suit. Finally, he located the proper pocket and answered the call. “You’ve reached the Freakaphone. Freakazoid speaking.”
“I know I’ve reached the Freakaphone, lad. I surfed the net to Edge City and just popped out of a computer. Where are ye’?”
“I’m still on my way. Thought I’d cross some stuff off my to-see list on the way. Have you had any word from Cosgrove?”
“I called but got nary an answer. His phone must still be on airplane mode.”
“Alright, I’ll be there as fast as I can. Wouldn’t want you to get lonely waiting for us.” He hung up and resumed his journey. In minutes he arrived at the headquarters of a small business. After looking through financial records, Roddy had discovered they were going through financial troubles which meant employees were working fewer hours, which meant many computers were not being used for large portions of the day. He figured it would be the best place to emerge from the net without being spotted and causing a scene. When Freakazoid arrived he found Roddy waiting outside the front door.
“’Bout time. I thought electricity was supposed to travel fast.”
Freakazoid raised his index finger. “I don’t literally turn into electricity. When I use my super speed I just take on a form that happens to look similar to a lightning bolt. If I became electricity I wouldn’t be able to travel at all. Air is an electrical insulator.”
Roddy raised an eyebrow. “How do ye know that?”
Freakazoid shrugged. “Doesn’t everybody? Anyway, that’s enough chit chat. Let’s show that Mask who’s boss.”
“Shouldn’t we go to the airport and wait for Cosgrove?”
“I’m sure he’ll show up when we need him most. It’s kind of his thing.” Shattering glass and car alarms echoed in the distance. “And that sounds like my kind of thing.”
They ran together toward the ruckus. Instead of adopting his lightning bolt form, Freakazoid ran with his arms outstretched; his cheeks puffed out as he made whooshing noises. In a little more than a mile they discovered a gargantuan humanoid figure composed of a beige oozing substance. The undulating man reached a dripping hand near his foot and picked up a fish with glasses and curly hair that was as long as Freakazoid’s arm.
The goopy man’s other hand molded into a hammer. He smashed the glass of a nearby shop and tossed the fish inside. “Grab everything you can,” he said as he plunged his hand into his stomach and pulled out a burlap sack which he also tossed into the store.
“Doug,” the fish whined from inside the shop, “I can’t grab anything. I don’t have fingers.”
“Oh, right.” The giant became a puddle of brownish liquid that shlorped through the broken window.
“What are those things?” said Freakazoid.
“It’s a sentient pile of mashed spuds and a talking seabass,” said Roddey. “What’s it look like? Ye gotta focus, lad. They nae be the Mask, but they be villains just the same, and we can take them if we work together like we practiced. Consider this a warm-up. Now, ye ready to throw down?”
The liquid spilled back outside and grew, taking on its human-like appearance again. It reached both arms back inside and pulled out the fish by its tail, along with a now bulging sack. Roddey and Freakazoid stood in the street with their legs wide and their fists clenched.
A multitude of people erupted from alleyways and other stores. All of them held large firearms. They surrounded the blob and the fish but gunshots rang out before they were all in position. Freakazoid looked up and noticed even more people poking their heads out of windows, firing down at the two monsters.
The blob dropped the sack and wrapped both arms around the fish. His body hardened and fissures formed in his torso as bullets struck him.
“Doug,” the fish screamed, “I can feel them getting closer!”
“There’s too many bullets, bro,” said the rock man. “I don’t think I can take this much longer.”
“Ow, one of them hit me. Doug, do something!”
“Um, should we help them?” said Freakazoid. There was no response. He looked to his side and saw he was now standing alone in the street.
Roddey poked his head out from underneath a car. “I said I’d help ye take down a villain. I never said anything about stepping in front of a firing squad.” He withdrew his head like a turtle retreating into its shell.
Freakazoid processed the scene. If the shooting continued the talking fish, the clay man, or both would die. Roddey wasn’t the only one who had sought shelter. In fact, nobody was making any attempt to stop the murder. Of course, why would anyone try to stop it? For that matter, why should he? The victims were definitely monsters, and clearly criminals. He didn’t have any personal connection to them. He should be taking cover, along with everyone else. Self-preservation in the face of danger. It was human nature.
But he wasn’t human. He was a freak. He was THE Freak.
He bolted to a car and lifted it over his head. His muscles bulged under his suit, straining the fabric. With a powerful shout he tossed the car at a line of shooters. The vehicle sailed over their heads but landed close to them and sprayed them with bits of glass and metal flakes as it tumbled. Much of the noise ceased as the gunmen lowered their weapons and shielded their heads.
“Get out of here,” Freakazoid shouted as he bolted down the street and lifted another car. After tossing it he ran to an open seating section of a restaurant. Not wanting to risk damaging the housing of the buildings, he threw plastic tables at the windows occupied by shooters.
The large man liquefied again, becoming a mound of putty that squeezed its way through a sewer grate in a curb. “Doug,” the fish said as it was dragged along, “I hate getting wet.”
When the monsters were out of sight Freakazoid rushed to the car Roddey was hiding under and flipped it over.
“What’re ye doing, lad?”
“I helped those two strangers for no reason. I might as well help a friend, too.” He flung Roddey over his shoulder and fled. He turned corners at random and got lost quickly but his only concern was getting away from gunshots that continued to ring out behind him. If he were paying more attention to his surroundings he’d have noticed the many people tracking him with cell phones. Later many videos would be posted showing the blue, long-haired creature carrying a man in a kilt over his shoulder as the fabric flapped about in the wind.
“That’s far enough,” Roddey shouted, “put me down.”
Freakazoid skidded to a halt. His heels left marks on the sidewalk. “I think we just set a record for fastest-a-plan-has-ever-gone-off-the-rails.”
“I’ll admit this city’s a bit wilder than I expected,” Roddey said as he straightened his clothes. “From now on let’s focus on finding the Mask.”
Tires screeched nearby and horns blared soon after. Freakazoid and Roddey turned and saw a man exit the passenger side of a car and stumble across the street. A motorist in the oncoming lane nearly struck him. He held out his hand and apologized as drivers all around him bellowed swear words. The frazzled man made his way to Freakazoid. “It is you. I didn’t know if you’d be back, after what happened on the highway. I almost didn’t recognize you. You’ve really,” he looked Freakazoid up and down, “changed your look.”
“They look stupid, don’t they?” said Freakazoid. “I knew it.” He tore the pockets off his suit, letting the items fall to the ground.
“So wasteful,” Roddey chided.
“It’s not like I need any of this stuff anyway,” said Freakazoid. He picked up the picture of Steph. “Well, maybe this one.” He stuffed the picture into his collar. “Sorry, do I know you?” he said, addressing Stanley.
“Yes, well, no. Kind of. My name’s Stanley. I’m…” he looked around. He placed his hands flat against his face and pulled back, bringing his cheeks toward his ears.
“Don’t start a funny face war you can’t finish,” said Freakazoid. He put his fingers in his mouth and stretched his lips wide.
“No, I’m trying to make my skin look smoother. Imagine I don’t have hair. Do you recognize me now?” Freakazoid was silent. He leaned closer and in a voice barely audible above the honking said “I’m the Mask.” For a moment they were silent, letting the words sink in.
Roddey lunged at Stanley, wrestled him to the ground. “Now, Freakazoid,” he shouted when he was in a dominant position, “just like we practiced. Thumbs in his eyes!”
“Hey!” a female voice roared over the traffic din, “what are you boys doing? Get in the car already!”
Roddey loosened his grip. Stanley took a breath and tried to get up, but Roddey bore back down. “Come on, lad. If he’s really the Mask this is why we’re here.”
Freakazoid covered his ears but couldn’t block out all the honking. Drivers were still berating each other and the woman was still demanding they get in the car. “Get off him, Roddey,” he blurted.
“What?” said Roddey.
“I said let him up. We’re getting in the car.” Freakazoid put his hands on his hips and leaned over as he gave Roddey a scolding look. Roddey rolled off Stanley and the three crossed the street. Freakazoid and Roddey sat in the back while Stanley shared the front seat with a dog.
The woman looked at them in the rearview mirror. “Hi, I’m Peggy,” she said sweetly.” She then stuck her head and hand out the window, her middle finger raised. “Screw you, assholes,” she shouted before rolling up her window and pressing hard on the accelerator.
“What’d ye want to get in the car for,” said Roddey.
“It was too loud out there,” said Freakazoid. “I needed to get someplace quiet.”
“Why’d ye want to get someplace quiet?”
“Because I’m trying to think. It’s not as easy as it sounds.” Freakazoid rubbed his temples. “You’re the Mask. Why would you tell me that? I thought you hated me. And can you even prove it?”
“I don’t hate you,” said Stanley. “And unfortunately I can’t prove it right now.”
“Then how do we know we can trust ye?” said Roddey.
“You believed me enough to twist my arm,” said Stanley.
Peggy tossed her purse onto the middle of the back seat. “I can prove it. There’s photos in there.”
Freakazoid shuffled the contents of the bag and found a stack of Polaroids held together by a paper clip. Like a flip book, they showed Stanley putting on a wooden mask and transforming.
Stanley snatched the photos and flipped through them himself. “When did you take these?”
“A long time ago,” Peggy admitted. “I don’t have any digital copies, I never let them out of my sight, and I’d never make them public without your permission.”
“I’m not OK with you having these,” said Stanley.
“I figured,” said Peggy. “That’s why it’s been so hard to tell you about them.”
“Alright,” said Freakazoid, “so you’re the Mask. I believe you. But if that’s true then why aren’t we fighting right now?”
“I never wanted to fight you,” Stanley said as he rubbed his neck. “Look, I don’t usually tell anyone about this, but I need your help and which means I need you to trust me, so what would you say to starting with a clean slate?” He extended his hand which Freakazoid shook. “My name is Stanley Ipkiss. I work at the Edge City Bank. A few years ago, completely by chance, I came across a mask. It looked like just an ordinary antique and I planned on just having it on display in my apartment. But one night I put it on and found out it has mystical powers. If you want to know where it came from or how it was made, that depends on who you ask. All I know is that when someone wears the mask, it gets a reading on their personality, their repressed feelings, their souls. It makes the wearer exactly the way, deep down, they want to be.”
“So deep down you want to be a jerk?” said Freakazoid.
“My life is boring,” Stanley explained. “I’m also single and powerless in the face of any and all authority figures. When I put on the mask, I’m fun. I’m a wild womanizer, and, most importantly, I have the power to save people. I think that’s why my alter ego doesn’t like you. Deep down I don’t just want to be a hero. I want to be a savior. I guess that means when it comes to fighting crime, I want to work alone.”
“So, this alter ego,” said Freakazoid, “it’s literally another side of you. The two of you coexist but you’re of two completely different minds?”
“I guess you could put it that way,” said Stanley.
“Well,” said Freakazoid, “I don’t usually tell people about this either, but in the spirit of clean slates, I’ll let you know what makes me tick. Everyone close your eyes.”
“Um, hello,” said Peggy, “driving here.”
“Well, at the next red light, everybody drop their lids,” said Freakazoid.
The traffic light ahead of them was green, but Peggy slowed down anyway. She brought the car below ten miles per hour, but even then the light didn’t change before the wheels rolled over the thick line painted on the road. “I tell you,” she said as she sped up, “as soon as you want to hit a red light, all you get are greens.” She accelerated through part of the next street and then slowed again. She failed to hit a red light a second time.
“Can’t you just show us?” said Stanley.
“No,” said Freakazoid. “Trust me, it’s better this way.”
“Alright, that’s it,” said Peggy as she rolled through a third green light. She turned down the next side street and rushed to a stop sign. She leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes. “Do what you got to do.”
“Freak in,” he said when everyone had their eyes closed. A flash filled the car and he changed into his teenage boy form. “Alright, you can look now.”
Stanley turned around and raised his eyebrows. “Wow, I wasn’t expecting that.”
Dexter extended his hand for Stanley to shake. “My name is Dexter Douglas. I’m a nerd, and a computer ace. One Christmas my parents got me a Pinnacle Chip. You probably don’t know what that is, but it’s a big deal among cyber fanatics. As I was installing it, my cat jumped onto my desk and walked across my keyboard. It turns out the Chip had a flaw that was activated by a specific series of keystrokes. My cat set triggered the flaw, and all the information on the internet was beamed into my head. It turned me into the Freakazoid.”
“Wait,” said Stanley, “computer data was beamed into your head?”
Dexter shrugged. “It makes sense.”
“But how did computer data give you the ability to transform?” Stanley pressed. “And how did it make you super-fast and strong? And what’s the deal with your body turning into a lightning bolt? And why did you need to say those words in order to change back into a human?”
“It makes sense,” said Roddey. “Just take our word for it.”
“Sorry to pry, Scotsman,” said Peggy, “but how do you fit into all of this?”
“The name’s Roddey MacStew. I helped develop the Pinnacle Chip. I even found a different flaw, which downloads me body into the internet but doesn’t make me a Freakazoid.”
“So you’re not, like, a chosen one or anything?” said Peggy. “Anyone can become the Freakazoid?”
“Sure,” said Dexter, “if they have the chip installed and enter the key sequence. Could anyone become the Mask?”
“Yes,” said Stanley. “Thanks for getting us back on track. The mask was stolen. Peggy and I are working on a way to get it back and it would be great if you could help.”
“Stolen by whom?” said Roddey.
“My best guess is he’s some kind of mob leader,” said Stanley. “Although I don’t have a lot to go on. I only spoke to him for a moment last night.”
“Last night?” said Dexter. “He’s probably put it on already. He’s probably causing trouble right now.”
“He said he doesn’t want to use it,” said Stanley. “He stole it to remove the Mask from the equation.”
“Then what makes you think he still has it?” said Roddey. “If I wanted to get rid of the Mask I’d destroy or hide the source of its power.”
“That was my first thought, too,” said Peggy.
“I’m telling you, he won’t,” said Stanley. “Even when it isn’t being worn, the mask has power. I’ve wanted to get rid of it before. In fact, I’ve tried, but I was never able to completely let it go. Even when I tried hiding it, I did so in a place close to my apartment. Trust me, Oswald will keep the mask close, and even though he says he doesn’t want to use it, the temptation will eventually be too much for him to resist.”
“Well,” said Dexter, “whether he puts it on or not, I can understand why you wouldn’t want the mask’s power in the hands of a mobster. I’ll help you.”
“No offense,” said Stanley, “but it’s Freakazoid I need to convince. Could you change back so we can relay the information to him?”
“He knows,” said Dexter. “We can’t influence one another’s actions, but we share experiences. Regardless of what form we’re in, we each see what the other sees and hear what the other hears. Does it work that way with you and the Mask?”
Stanley ran a hand through his hair. “It’s more like falling asleep during a movie. I’m cognizant for a few moments after the transformation, but the longer the Mask is in control the hazier it gets. When I wake up I can remember bits and pieces, but I’m not sure which parts were real and which were just in my head.”
“So you really didn’t mean to run me off the road when I came here in the Freakmobile?”
“I’m truly sorry about that,” said Stanley. “I’m sorry I have a desire to be that kind of person and that the mask brought it out. If I could’ve stopped I would’ve.”
“That’s a weird way of apologizing,” said Dexter. “I’m not sure if either of us can forgive and forget about it, but I’m still on board for helping you this time. Where’s the mask right now?”
“That’s where we have a bit of a snag in our plan,” said Stanley.
“Sounds like a pretty early phase to be hitting snags,” said Roddey.
“You got us,” said Peggy. “We don’t have much of a plan yet, but we know a cop who might be able to help us find Oswald’s hideout. Do you or Freakazoid have any way of swaying police officers?”
The buzz of a vibration filled the car and Roddey pulled out his phone. He answered it and held it in front of him as he put it on speaker. “Hey, Roddey,” Cosgrove’s voice chimed, “have you and Freakazoid met up yet?”
“Hey, Cosgrove,” said Dexter, “perfect timing. Can you meet us at the Edge City Police Department?”
“I leave you two alone for a few hours and you get arrested?” said Cosgrove with a groan.
“It’s nothing like that,” said Dexter. “Can one of you tell him where it is?” Peggy recited the address.
“Who was that?” said Cosgrove. “I missed a lot, didn’t I?”
“Just get to the building,” said Dexter. “Can you call a cab or something? I’ll explain on the way.”
While they drove the four of them worked together to bring Cosgrove up to speed and worked out a rough excuse for him to speak with Kellaway. They arrived at the department first since Cosgrove hadn’t been able to resist stopping for fast food after his flight. When he made it Dexter stepped out to join him inside. “I doubt this’ll work, kid,” Cosgrove said as he sipped the last of his coffee and tossed it in a public receptacle, “but if it does I owe you a coke.”
Inside, Cosgrove showed his badge to people informed them he had business with Kellaway. They were directed to his office and found him flipping through a stack of papers with his feet propped up on his desk. He stomped them on the ground and stood up as they entered. “Can I help you?”
“I’m officer Cosgrove,” he said, showing his badge. “I’m looking into a missing person report and I think you can help me out.”
Kellaway opened his mouth but before he could get a word out Dexter strode forward until his thighs were pressed against the desk. “And I’m officer Douglas,” he said with his hand extended and his fingers spread wide. Kellaway slowly reached out and when their palms touched Dexter shook it furiously. “I’m new to the force. Right now I’m shadowing Cosgrove and he’s been very helpful.”
Kellaway wrenched his hand from Dexter’s grip and rubbed it on his trench coat. “I can tell you’re new from the way you’re talking. You sound like a teen on his way to prom. This job isn’t supposed to be fun. You better lose that upbeat attitude. If you don’t it’ll get beaten out of you.”
“Yeah, he gets annoying sometimes,” said Cosgrove, “but I’ll make a cop out of him yet.”
Doyle entered with a Styrofoam cup in each hand. “Here’s your coffee. You wanted it without cream, right?” He approached the desk and extended the cup in his left hand. His lower lip jutted out. He retracted his left hand and extended his right. He stared at them both in deep thought and then set them both on the desk. He pulled both plastic lids. “This one,” he said as he slid it across the desk. He did it too forcefully and some of the liquid spilled out.
Kellaway looked at Cosgrove. “I feel your pain.”
“Hey, Dexter,” said Cosgrove, “why don’t you get us some coffee while I inform Kellaway of our purpose here?”
“Sure thing, boss,” said Dexter. He looked at Doyle. “Can you show me where it is?”
Cosgrove took a seat as Dexter followed Doyle down the hall.
“So your name’s Dexter Douglas?” said Doyle, “sounds like a super hero’s name.”
“Thanks,” said Dexter. “How long have you been working here?”
Doyle puffed his chest, which also made his gut appear to double in size. “Going on six years. Almost all that time Kellaway and I have been working together. He’s a great partner and an even better friend.”
“Really? What did he mean when he said he felt pain?”
Doyle laughed. “You’re young, but you’ll learn not to take comments like that seriously. Everyone has their own way of blowing off steam. Sure, Kellaway says mean things throughout the day, but he doesn’t mean anything by them. Anyway, here’s the machine. How does your partner like his coffee?”
They stood before a dented vending machine. There was only one slot for paper money, and according to the label it only accepted singles. Next to it were two buttons; one labeled LIGHT and another labeled DARK. “I guess I have a fifty-fifty chance of selecting the right one.” Dexter pressed the DARK button. Cosgrove didn’t seem like the kind of guy who liked taking the edge off his drinks.
Clanking and humming preceded the dispensing of a small cup that fell onto a platform. The machine gurgled and spat a narrow stream of liquid. Doyle jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “If you want a lid they’re on that table over there.”
“Thanks.” He didn’t grab one immediately. The two stood by the machine waiting for the cup to fill. “So, listen, the reason we’re here is we’re looking for someone who was reported missing. We think he might have joined up with some kind of organized crime group around here. Do you know anything about a guy named Oswald? He has a nickname. Smoking Barrel Oswald, maybe, or Headshot Oswald.”
“It’s Six Shooter Oswald, actually.” Doyle seemed to take pride in making the correction. “We’ve known about him for a while, but he was never much of a concern until recently. We questioned some bank robbers recently and have reason to believe they were Oswald’s lackeys. He was never involved in crimes like that before. I don’t know why he would start now.”
“Interesting. Do you know anything else about him, like where his base of operations is?”
“Sure, it’s a hotel downtown called the Pearl. It’s sort of funny, actually. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to see in an old mob movie.”
A thud rang out down the hall. Cosgrove burst from Kellaway’s office. The door vibrated slightly as it bounced off the stop. Kellaway, red faced and teeth gritted, emerged seconds later, shouting “get back here! Are you even a real cop?” Cosgrove’s legs were shorter, and he was losing the footrace. When Kellaway spotted Doyle with Dexter he paused, granting Cosgrove the opportunity to put some distance between them. “Doyle,” Kellaway bellowed, “what did you tell him?” He continued the chase, moving twice as fast.
Dexter waited until Cosgrove passed by. He grabbed the cup and splashed the contents on the floor before following. He heard Kellaway slip, followed by Doyle asking if he was OK, and Kellaway insisting he was fine and rudely ordering Doyle to stop them.
“Start the car,” Dexter called to Peggy as they exited.
Peggy complied and began moving before the back door was fully closed. “What happened?”
“That Kellaway’s sharp as an arrowhead,” said Cosgrove, “and quick as a laser. He saw right through me.”
“I knew it,” said Stanley. “How did things go on your end?”
“Perfect,” said Dexter. “We’re looking for a hotel.”
Peggy parked a block away from the hotel. A pair of concierges stood outside the main door.
Cosgrove assessed the doormen. “Those guys don’t look right. They’re standing too rigid. Their clothes are too baggy. I’d bet a can of hash they’re concealing weapons.”
“I guess I’d better do my thing,” said Dexter. “Close your eyes.” Everyone did one better by pressing their hands over their eyes. “Ooooh, freak out!” A bright flash and a maelstrom later Freakazoid sat among them. He glared at Stanley. “If you put the mask on once we get it back, I’ll knock out one of your bicuspids.”
“He might not have a choice,” said Peggy. “These guys have been building strength to take control of this city from both the police force and supervillains. There are probably tons of goons in there with major firepower. Once inside we’ll need all the help we can get.”
Freakazoid put a hand on the back of Stanley’s chair. “Just tell me where the mask is. I’ll bolt in there and snatch it.”
“I don’t know where it is,” said Stanley. “Why would you think I do?”
“The way you described it, you made it sound like you had some kind of supernatural connection.”
“I got the same impression,” said Roddey. “I figured it called to ye, or ye’d be drawn to it, or something.”
“Sorry I misled you,” said Stanley. “It doesn’t work that way.”
“Well, that stinks like moldy butterballs,” said Freakazoid. “Way to slam a Sarlacc sized hole in our plan.”
“What plan?” said Stanley. “We’ve been flying by the seat of our pants.”
Freakazoid clutched Stanley’s seat with one hand and punched it with the other. “I was forming a plan and it hinged on you having a psychic connection with the mask.” He leaned back in his own seat. “We need time to think. Take us to the nearest papaya juice stand.”
Peggy eyed him through the rearview mirror. “What’s a papaya?”
Freakazoid’s jaw dropped and his eyes bulged. “This city doesn’t have a Mike? How does anyone here get through their day?”
“Uh-oh,” said Cosgrove. “Table the juice talk. We’ve got trouble.”
Stanley followed Cosgrove’s gaze to the front of the hotel. Kellaway’s trench coat flapped in the wind as he ascended the steps. Doyle followed close behind. Kellaway flashed his badge and grabbed one of the guards by the collar. The other guard drew a firearm. In a fluid motion Kellaway took the guard he was holding hostage and brandished a gun of his own. Doyle took cover behind the balustrade.
“What’s he doing here?” said Stanley.
“Doyle spilled the beans about this place to Dexter,” said Freakazoid. “Kellaway probably reasoned this is where we’d wind up.”
Kellaway squeezed his hostage’s neck. The man struggled and then went limp. Kellaway dropped the unconscious man and rushed the second guard, felling him with a single pistol whip. He entered the building. Doyle poked his head out of cover and clumsily followed his partner.
Cosgrove opened his door. “Like I said, the guy’s sharp and quick.”
“What’d ye think ye be doing?” said Roddey. “The lass is right, we don’t know what kind of an arsenal they’ve got.”
“That guy’s a fellow cop,” said Cosgrove. “I’m not letting a brother of the badge take on whatever’s in there on his own.” He slammed the door shut and made his way to the hotel.
“Well,” said Stanley, “the seat of our pants has gotten us this far.” He exited the car, followed by Freakazoid. Roddey and Peggy were the last to leave.
When Stanley entered the lobby Kellaway was gripping a desk clerk by the hair. “Tall guy,” Kellaway shouted as he pounded the clerk’s head into the desk, “skinny, with a high, annoying voice. Where is he?”
Stanley was about to call out but another hotel worker emerged from behind a pillar. Stanley saw the worker’s hand reach under his clothes and the next thing he knew a loud bang reverberated throughout the room. Stanley dove for the nearest cover, which happened to be a potted fern. He tucked his knees to his chest to better fit behind the container and chanced a peek toward the action.
Cosgrove had not run for cover, but had instead leapt onto the gunman’s back. Kellaway released the desk clerk and helped Cosgrove pummel him. Now freed, the clerk reached under the desk. Three sharp tones were emitted from somewhere in the lobby. Stanley thought he heard similar noises through the ceiling. A clanking brought Stanley’s attention to the entrance. A metal cage descended, locking Peggy and Roddy outside. The windows were also barricaded.
“Quick, in here,” Doyle shouted.
Stanley looked away from the entrance and saw an open elevator door. Doyle’s arm protruded, holding it open. Kellaway joined him, punching out the clerk as he passed the desk. Cosgrove kicked the gunman a final time and followed Kellaway.
“Wait,” Stanley called as he rushed to the elevator as well. “Don’t go to another floor! I’m right here!”
Kellaway and Cosgrove were shouting at one another. Their words overlapped too much for Stanley to discern what they were saying but he doubted either had heard him. The doors closed before he could be seen. He pounded the metal doors with his fists.
“I’m back. What happened while I was gone?”
Stanley spun around. Freakazoid was behind him. “You were gone?”
Freakazoid pointed to the entrance. The metal grate had a hole in it. “I got Peggy and Roddy away from here. Found them a less noisy way inside.”
“Inside?” Stanley grabbed Freakazoid’s shoulders and shook him. “What were you thinking? Why wouldn’t you get them away from this place altogether?”
Freakazoid grabbed Stanley’s shoulders and shook him twice as hard. “They wanted to help look for the mask. It’s a big building. We can use all the help we can get.”
Stanley struggled out of Freakazoid’s grip. “But what if Peggy gets hurt?”
“Relax, Roddy’s with her.”
“What if Roddy gets hurt?”
“Relax, Peggy’s with him. Now enough talk.” He scooped Stanley into his arms and bolted out of the hotel.
Stanley felt a strong breeze and his stomach sank as his body was gravitationally compressed. When the sensation stopped he placed his fingers against his forehead, looked down, and saw streetlamps as tiny lights far below him. Vertigo overcame him and he gripped a railing before realizing it was there. “What did you do?”
“I bolted up the wall. Brought us to the penthouse suite. Peggy and Roddy are starting low and working their way up. I figured we’d do the opposite. Before we start, just sit tight for a second.”
With a mighty shout Freakazoid ran through a pair of sliding doors. The shattering pane glass precluded a wild commotion which Stanley dared not approach for a closer look. Soon the balcony was silent and Freakazoid poked his head out of the broken door. “All clear,” he said as he motioned Stanley to enter.
None of the furniture was upright, and much of it had been reduced to splintered fragments. There had been an open bar along a wall. All the bottles were broken and the liquid was dripping down the walls and staining the carpet. Stanley only saw two unconscious bodies. “Did everyone else make a run for it?”
“No. There were only two guys in here. I just got a little carried away. But never mind that. Start searching.”
Stanley found a drawer that had been thrown from a desk and riffled through its contents. There were ledgers, a calculator, and wads of cash held together with elastic bands. He pushed the drawer aside and picked up a couch cushion. As he unzipped it and thrust his hand inside he heard the door creak.
Oswald entered the penthouse. He had the mask in his right hand, suspended by his index finger which protruded through one of the eye holes. “Looking for this?”
“Yeah,” said Freakazoid, “thanks.” He rushed to the prize. When his hands contacted the mask Oswald’s fingers retracted. There was a pop and Freakazoid, still clutching the mask, staggered back. Eyes wide, he looked down at a hole in his suit.
“You’ve got speed, but I’ve got reflexes,” said Oswald. His fingers widened and Stanley saw a squeezer pistol in his palm.
Freakazoid threw Oswald across the room and ran out. Stanley followed and found him leaning against a wall with his hand covering the wound.
“Yargh,” said Freakazoid, “it hurts to move.”
Stanley pulled Freakazoid’s hands away and assessed the ring of blood expanding below his ribs. “I don’t believe it. You’re not bulletproof?”
“How was I supposed to know? Nobody’s ever shot me before. Or maybe the bullet was graphite. I’m weak against that stuff.” He forced the mask into Stanley’s hands as he sank into a seated position with his back against the wall. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but put it on. The Mask can make things appear out of thin air, right? He can conjure up some kind of surgical kit to remove the bullet.”
Stanley brought the mask to his face, but paused with it a few inches away. The Mask was unpredictable, but its aversion toward Freakazoid remained constant. The beast was more likely to kick Freakazoid while he was down than heal him. But whoever wore the mask became indestructible. It was possible that an injured person could be sustained when under its spell.
“I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I think you should put it on.” He turned the mask around and pressed it onto Freakazoid’s face.
There was a pinch along his cranium, more shocking than painful, as if he’d put on a hat that was a few sizes too small. The gripping ebbed but he lost his vision. He brought his hands to his eyes to claw away whatever had descended over them, but then he lost control of his hands; they flew away from his face. His body jolted away from the wall. He moved quickly but with no sense of direction. He became dizzy, but was unable to stop. His skin stretched, as if it was being thrown off, or, dare he think it, as if something had burrowed inside him and was trying to force its way out.
That was Stanley, Freakazoid thought. He’s nearby. I need to get to him. I need to ask him to take this mask off. I need to melt four tablespoons of butter, add one medium finely chopped onion, two carrots, and two celery stalks. He still felt like he was moving, but he could see his arms resting flat on the floor. More instructions came to him. Place 260 milligrams of chromium(III) chloride hexahydrate in a 5 milliliter round bottom flask. Press X or Y to jump, followed immediately by L or R and press the control stick diagonally down. Yarn over and pull through all three loops to complete the double crochet. For a moment, one voice raised above all the others.
What are you?
Freakazoid’s mind filled with banter from countless voices. Heterocyclic amines are carcinogens formed when meat is cooked at high temperatures. Humans are estimated to have between twenty thousand to twenty-five thousand genes. There are eight fluid ounces in a cup. Twin Peaks premiered on the 8th of April, 1990. He felt an urge to shout all his thoughts, but they were coming so rapidly he didn’t know where to start.
“Freakazoid, I don’t know what you’re going through, but you need to get up. They’re coming.”
You’re in danger. Having something to focus on eased the randomness. The voices he heard most clearly shouted similar demands. I can help. Let me out. I have a sword. I have a gun. I have strength. Let me out! The consistency did nothing to ease the uproar. Haphazard chatter continued in spite of being drown out. It was as if a few million voices were amplified to overpower the remaining billions. I can shoot lasers out of my eyes. I’m invisible. Let me OUT! LET ME OUT!
“Freakazoid, please get up.”
Fight, you must. “I,” his breath caught. He’d said that out loud.
Help you, I can. “I’m…”
“There they are,” said an unfamiliar voice.
“Oh, man,” said Stanley, “ they found us. We’re screwed.”
Now or never, it is. “I’m … Yoda!” Every particle within him separated and stayed suspended in the air, vibrating at their unique frequencies. He felt torn, infinitely small, but there was also freedom in knowing that he could become anything. His components settled on their new form and realigned. He looked at his small, green, three-fingered hands.
He sensed the impending danger. Weapons were being trained on him. He thrust a hand in their direction. His enemies no longer posed a threat. Their arms were raised, their weapons pointing to the ceiling. He didn’t need to look to know it was true. To render the weapons completely useless he closed his fingers. The guns folded in half. Turning to his enemies, he reached into his robe and drew a light saber. He ran at the group as fast as his stumpy legs would carry him.
Enough, it’s my turn. His light saber deactivated and he fell to one knee. “No, stay, I want to.” You had your fun. Let me out. “No. Do more, I can.” He clutched his head. “Hrrrn, Iron Man!” He changed again. When he reformed his size had not changed, and neither had the number of fingers. However, he was now coated in a di-chromatic breast plate, boots, and gauntlets. Disks glowed on each palm, as well as his chest. He picked up his light saber and faced his enemies again. Instead of running, his boots flared, blasting him the rest of the way down the hall. The ones who stood still, not knowing what to do, were the first to feel the burns of his green laser and the thrust of his repulsors. As for the ones who fought back, he had fun with them. He blocked and evaded their attacks, then scurried between their legs before driving his metal fist into their legs and ending them with a whirring slash. A few tried to run. With a wave of his hand their feet left the floor and they drifted back to him. His boots flared again, carried him upward, and he beheaded them mercilessly.
“Holy crap,” said Stanley, who had watched the scene in terror. “Is this what I’m like when I wear the mask?”
“Go, we must.” His voice sounded robotic through the helmet. He pivoted his ankles and flew down the hallway. He used the Force to lift Stanley and the two soared through the hotel side by side.
* * *
Cosgrove peeked around a corner. A pair of goons turned at the end of the hall and he took his chance to sneak to a room using a credit card to jimmy the lock. He assessed the situation. Kellaway, Doyle, and he were ambushed the moment they exited the elevator. They were separated and he didn’t know if the other two were still alive. He wanted to find his fellow officers, but he wanted to find Freakazoid more. They’d been a team from the first day Dexter got powers and worked well together. Somehow the thought of his friend working with a stranger was more concerning than him working alone.
The first step was getting to another floor. It was too dangerous to stay put with so many people looking for him, and if Freakazoid was anywhere nearby he had a feeling there would be signs. He looked at the door and tried to remember if he’d seen any signs pointing out the stairs. He’d passed one, but it was a long way from his current position. Before he’d entered he’d seen a series of platforms and ladders along one of the exterior walls. If he could scale the building perhaps he could reach it.
He went to the window and found one of the platforms positioned outside. “Huh, that’s lucky.” He climbed to the floor above and entered another room. It seemed vacant, and he pressed his ear against the door.
There was a shriek. It came from within the room, behind him. A child, barely a teenager, stood outside the now-open bathroom door. Cosgrove placed his palms together as he approached him. “Please, cram it, kid.”
The boy screamed louder as he backed up against a wall. “Who are you? Joey, Joey get in here!”
Cosgrove grabbed the boy's sleeve, pulled him close, and covered his mouth. “I’m not the bad guy here. And I don’t want to hurt you. But you need to pipe down.”
He turned his head about frantically. “My brother’s gonna get you, pig,” he blurted when he momentarily broke his lips from Cosgrove’s hand. “This isn’t their first raid.”
Cosgrove heard a latch click. He drew his gun as he turned and fired one shot, aiming high. The people entering took cover. From what he’d seen there were at least three and he assumed they were all armed. Everyone else was. “I’m sorry to do this, kid,” he said as he took a page from Kellaway’s book and wrapped his arm around the boy’s neck. For once, Cosgrove was glad he was so short. Even the youngster made an effective shield.
A head peeked into the room. Cosgrove placed his gun against the child’s back. He wasn't lying when he said he didn't want to harm the child, so he flipped the safety on. The gangsters entered cautiously and he inched toward a corner of the room so he couldn’t be surrounded. He was happy to see he hadn’t miscounted. There were three of them. He was upset to see his assumption was correct. They were all armed. “Everybody be cool,” he said.
Two more people entered the room. One was Stanley. The collar and pits of his shirt were stained with sweat. The other was Freakazoid, but not the partner Cosgrove knew. His hair maintained its lightning-bolt shape, but his face was green instead of blue. He still wore his one-piece suit with the F on the chest, but its color was altered to give it a brown tint. He also had a yellow blazer. The most dramatic change Cosgrove noticed was Freakazoid’s expression. The fun-under-any-circumstance smile was gone. This Freakazoid’s teeth were gritted, and his eyes were wide but glazed, incredibly focused but infinitely distracted at the same time.
The corner of Freakazoid’s mouth twitched and his left eye closed halfway. “Sia,” he shouted. The three gangsters turned and fired at him. He stood his ground and his skin took on a metallic sheen. “I won’t fall,” he sang as the bullets bounced off his body, “I am titanium.” He ran at one of the shooters with his metal fist raised. It looked like he was about to throw a punch, but he stalled. One hand went to his head and the other reached into his suit. “Smashing Pumpkins,” he wailed as he pulled out a bell-shaped cage with no bottom. He slammed it down, trapping the gangster in front of him. The others continued shooting him, but his skin was still bulletproof. Freakazoid backed away from the man he’d trapped. “Despite all your rage you are still just a rat in a cage.” A rat fell from his blazer, as if it had chewed through a pocket. More followed, their pace increasing until they covered the floor around Freakazoid’s feet. The mischief scurried to the cage and squeezed through the bars. They leapt onto the man’s ankles and gnawed at his legs. The trapped man shouted and stomped on them. More rodents fell out of Freakazoid’s blazer to take their place. The others tried to help their friend. They grabbed the bars and shook the cage, attempting to wrench it off the floor.
“Bruce Springsteen,” Freakazoid bellowed. From his blazer he pulled a chain with an iron ball at one end. He approached one of the men rattling the cage. “Shackled and drawn, shackled and drawn,” he sang as he wrapped the loose end around the man's waist. The ball dropped to the floor and the chain retracted into it. The man was forced down into a seated position, his back pulled tight against the metal. “Pick up the rock, son,” said Freakazoid, now holding a boulder, “carry it on.” He dropped the stone onto the man’s lap. He wailed as the weight crashed down, pressing his spine harder into the metal ball.
The final gangster tried to run from the room. Freakazoid intercepted him. There was a blur, the sound of Freakazoid saying “The Interrupters,” and then the man was on the bed. His arms and legs were tied to the frame with rope. Freakazoid stood beside the mattress and looked down smugly. In one hand he held a wooden match between his thumb and index finger. “I’m a match,” he sang as he waved his hand around. In his other hand he held a tin can. As he shook it back and forth he said “she’s kerosene.” He threw the can upward. The metal bent and cracked, spewing its contents all over the bed and the man tied to it. “You know she’s gonna burn down everything.” Freakazoid flicked his thumb, igniting the match.
Cosgrove had been watching the events play out, trying to make sense of what he was seeing, but seeing the flame forced him into action. He rushed to Freakazoid and grabbed his arm before the match fell onto the doused mattress. “What’s wrong with you, kid?”
Stanley was at Cosgrove’s side. “Hold him,” he commanded as he placed his hands on Freakazoid’s face. He pulled, and the green skin stretched.
“No,” Freakazoid cried as he chopped at Stanley’s arms. Their contact broke, the green skin snapped back into place, and Freakazoid stumbled back a few steps. “Too much power,” Freakazoid said as he looked at his hands and blazer. “Don’t take it away.”
“I don’t know what’s going on, kid,” said Cosgrove, “but get it together. Remember, we’re the heroes.”
Freakazoid fell to his knees. He groaned and held his head with both hands.
Cosgrove went to Freakazoid’s side and put an arm around his shoulder. “Kid? What is it?”
Freakazoid’s body trembled, then shook faster until it hummed. “It’s S-S-Sammy Hagar!”
Freakazoid jumped to his feet. Cosgrove was thrown away and felt his hair stand on end. When he collected himself, Freakazoid was in a short sleeved t-shirt and jeans. He still had his signature lightning bolt haircut, but he now had facial hair as well. He also had an electric guitar. Cosgrove didn’t see an amplifier and didn’t recall Freakazoid taking lessons. Nevertheless, when Freakazoid strummed the strings it sounded to Cosgrove like he had front row seats to a concert.
“Remember the heroes," Freakazoid sang, "who fight for the right to choose. Remember the heroes,” a blade emerged from the body of the guitar. Freakazoid gripped the instrument by the neck with both hands and lunged for the door. He swung the guitar at a gangster Cosgrove hadn’t noticed enter, lopping off his head in a single swipe. “You’ve all got heads to lose,” Freakazoid said as swung the blade at another goon’s neck.
“Damn, kid,” said Cosgrove as he looked about the room. The teen was cowering in a corner. The man in the cage had fallen and his body could no longer be seen under all the rats that were still chewing on him. The lips of the chained one were turning blue and his arms rested limp at his sides. Cosgrove went to the bed and tried to untie the knots of the bound man.
“Forget him,” said Freakazoid. “We need to find the others. Then I’m bringing this place down. Manfred Mann!” He turned into a clown in a baggy yellow-and-red outfit sitting atop a unicycle. He laughed as he rode it around the room. He scooped Cosgrove under one arm and did the same to Stanley. “Ha, ha said the clown,” he sang as he pedaled out of the room and down the hallway, “as the king lost his crown.”
* * *
Kellaway glanced over his shoulder. Doyle’s eyes darted around while his face portrayed a fixed look of uncertainty. He’d met others like Doyle, officers who were always expecting action but never sure what to do if they ever found themselves in an intense situation. Most of them either became hardened after a few years on the job or quit. Doyle was no more competent than the day he was hired but for some reason he stuck around.
In a way, Kellaway supposed, the situation with Stanley was similar. He’d been going back and forth with the bank teller for years. He’d tried arresting Stanley, begging with him, and even asking him nicely to stop becoming the Mask but nothing seemed to be enough. Whenever he’d gone to Stanley it had always been for business but over time they’d gotten to know one another personally. With each visit he saw Stanley was miserable, and he had a feeling it was due to more than his grueling, low-paying job. Being the Mask was definitely painful in some way. Most people would cut the problem out of their lives, but for some reason Stanley kept it up.
Now, Stanley’s unexplained persistence had led to him being trapped in a hotel packed with murderous gangsters. Kellaway hadn’t recognized the cop who’d visited his office, assuming Cosgrove really was a cop, but he’d noticed the car that had torn out of the parking lot. It belonged to Peggy Brandt, who he’d seen with Stanley many times before. Nobody needed to paint him a picture. Interrupting crimes in progress was one thing, but manipulating his partner for information on a criminal lair was another level of recklessness. As dangerous as the situation was, Kellaway didn’t regret his actions. Stanley was here somewhere, and once found Kellaway would put an end to their song and dance for good. He’d put bullets in both Stanley’s legs and drag him back to the police station if he had to, and he’d make him confess to being the Mask by any means necessary.
Kellaway took a breath and counted to ten. He was letting his anger get the best of him. His coworkers had talked to him about that. He shouldn’t be so focused on Stanley. His obsession and aggressive nature had caused him to charge into the hotel without a plan. Now that he was here, the most important thing was getting out alive. Making sure Doyle got out alive.
“I think I heard something,” said Doyle.
Kellaway grabbed his partner’s tie and pulled him close. “Of course you heard something,” he whispered through gritted teeth. “There’s people everywhere. We don’t want them hearing us. If you’re worried about something, tap my shoulder.”
Doyle nodded and Kellaway turned his back on him. He took a few steps, and then felt a frantic tapping on his shoulder. He spun around. Doyle stared at him, wide eyed and biting his lower lip. Within the wall a pipe creaked. Doyle reached out and tapped Kellaway’s shoulder again, and a third time when a breeze rattled a window. Kellaway sighed and turned back around. Doyle followed close behind as he made his way through the building, tapping his shoulder every few steps.
The hall ended in a T intersection. Kellaway held his hand up. Doyle either didn’t notice or didn’t remember what it meant and continued walking. Kellaway grabbed Doyle’s sleeve and pulled him back.
“Over there,” came a distant voice.
Kellaway swore and risked a glance around the corner. There were too many people to count. “Run,” he commanded as he grabbed Doyle’s wrist. He knew the odds were against them. They didn’t know where they were going. Even retracing their steps was difficult since all the doors and wallpaper looked the same no matter where they turned. As they ran he heard the mobsters chasing them calling out to their friends. Kellaway turned a corner and made it halfway down the hall before a group of people emerged at the other end. He turned and found they’d been flanked. Kellaway raised his gun. He fired one shot to the north end of the hallway, and another to the south. Both groups scattered, granting him enough time to pull Doyle around the nearest bend.
It dead ended at a door. Kellaway tried the knob. It wouldn’t turn. He tried to run back, but it was hopeless. In front of him was a solid wall. To either side were mobsters who were undoubtedly drawing weapons of their own. Kellaway straightened his arm and pressed it against Doyle’s chest as he stepped back. They hit the end of the short hall, and even though he knew he couldn’t win, Kellaway lifted his gun. As he awaited his impending doom, he stifled the urge to pass judgement on his partner. Doyle wasn’t a great officer, but he was a good person who didn’t deserve to spend his final moments being berated.
Doyle adopted his shooter’s stance as well. “I’m with you ‘till the end, partner,” he panted.
“I know,” said Kellaway. “I just don’t get why,” he added, unable to stop himself.
A scratching from above drew Kellaway’s attention. The paint in the ceiling chipped and fell. A pair of paws punched through the plaster. They moved rhythmically, forming a gap in the ceiling. A dog’s head protruded through the opening. “Did romeone order a role?”
He only knew it was a dog due to its snout, wet nose, and lolling tongue. Instead of fur, its face was an elastic green material. He would have taken it for the Mask, but it had hair that roughly formed the shape of a lightning bolt. The green-faced-lightning-haired dog jumped through the hole and popped a small, brown cube into its mouth.
“Boy, are we glad to see you,” said Doyle.
Kellaway felt his anger getting the best of him again. “Stanley,” he said, resisting the urge to point his gun at the dog.
“Right here,” said a voice from above.
Kellaway looked up and saw Stanley lower himself through the hole. “Stanley? Then who’s that?”
Stanley dropped to the ground. “At the moment, it’s Scooby Doo.”
The urge was too great to resist and he pointed the muzzle between the dog’s eyes. “Damn it, I’m sick of being played. Who are you?”
The dog’s teeth chattered, and its brow furrowed as if it was considering something. “The Creeper,” it said as it changed into a human wearing nothing but green briefs and a red boa around his neck. “Not to be confused with the Yellow Skinned Wacky Man. Yeeheeheehee.” He back-flipped down the hall and darted to his left. There were words of confusion from the mobsters, followed by the unmistakable sound of fists on flesh.
“Stanley,” Kellaway said, keeping his gun aimed at the spot where the hallway branched, “why aren’t you the one with the green face?”
“I keep telling you,” said Stanley, “I’m not the Mask.”
“Yes you are,” Kellaway shouted.
“Wonder Woman,” a female voice roared. A woman in a red and blue outfit passed by Kelaway’s field of vision, making her way to the other end of the hall and the second group of mobsters. She had the same green face and lightning bolt hair as the dog and the man who called himself the Creeper.
Once again, the voice came from above. Kellaway looked up and saw a pair of black shoes and blue slacks hanging from the ceiling.
“Go ahead and drop,” said Stanley, “I’ve got you.”
A man dropped into Stanley’s arms. “You,” Kellaway shouted as he recognized the man as the one who had been in his office earlier. “Cosgrove, wasn’t it?” He tore his gaze away from the short man and focused on the branching section of the hallway, still expecting their demise to come tearing around the corners at any moment.
“That’s my name, don’t wear it out,” said Cosgrove.
Gunfire erupted and Kellaway tightened his grip on his pistol. He almost fired when a figure appeared, but the sight of the green face mad him hesitate. This time it was a muscle-bound man with gold chains around his neck and a bulky ring on each finger. “B.A. Baracus,” he hollered as he bobbed and weaved to avoid the bullets and made his way to the north end of the hallway.
“Are you even a real cop?” Kellaway asked as the scuffle continued.
“Of course I am,” said Cosgrove. “That’s why I came here. To help a fellow officer.”
“You helped the Mask get here,” said Kellaway. “A cop would never get in bed with a vigilante. The fact that you’re helping him in any way means you’re not worth the uniform you’re wearing.”
“That’s not the Mask,” said Cosgrove. “That’s Freakazoid. He’s not a vigilante, he’s my friend, and if you insult him I'll pop you right in the lip. Besides, he's saving our lives, in case you haven’t noticed.”
“I had it handled,” said Kellaway.
“Glad to hear it,” said Doyle, “because I sure didn’t. I only got my gun out because you did. I was ready to lie down and wait for them to get us.”
Kellaway didn’t have time to absorb the Mask's latest form. All he saw was a lithe woman in dark clothes displaying acrobatic skills while crossing to the other end of the hallway.
“I’ve had enough of this,” said Kellaway. He made his way to the branch off point, his gun at the ready with each step. He started by turning to the north end. In the distance the group of mobsters lay in a heap on the ground. There were spatters of blood on the floor and walls. He whipped to the south end. Again, there was a pile of bodies on the ground while the vigilante – the Mask, Freakazoid, whatever it was – stood triumphantly above them. The others congregated around him. Doyle had holstered his gun but Kellaway kept his at the ready.
“All finished,” said the woman . She then shouted “Ron Weasley” and transformed again, this time into a young boy in long robes. “Come on, we’ve still got to find Roddey and Peggy. Wingardium Leviosa.”
The young boy waved a stick in a swish and flick motion. Kellaway no longer felt the floor beneath his feet. He whipped his arms in a circle as he rose higher, and dropped his gun. There was a blur and a whooshing sound. A breeze rushed over Kellaway’s face as he moved down the hallway, as if being towed. The young boy was in front of him, and was also suspended in the air. It took Kellaway a moment to realize the child was riding on a broom.
Peggy cracked open a door. It was a vacant laundry room. She lifted her camera to her face.
“Would you stop being such a shutter bug for five minutes?” said Roddy. It was louder than a whisper. They had entered through the basement steps and as far as they could tell there was no one else in the sub-ground level.
Peggy captured close-up of the washing machine. If there was evidence the gang was involved in money laundering she’d come up with a pun. “The more shots the better. Pictures make people click.” She scrolled through and assessed her photos. Roddy slapped it out of her hand. If it wasn’t for the neck strap, she would have screamed.
“Get some perspective. Do ye care not for yer friend?”
Peggy jabbed a finger into his chest. “Hey, I care about Stanley. I’ve been worried about him from the start. But I never twisted his arm. He could’ve stopped this super hero gig any time. Whatever happens to him isn’t on me.”
A gruff voice cut through the emptiness. “What are we doing down here?”
A high-pitched, young sounding voice responded “they came in through the basement door. I have a feeling they’re still down here.”
“Cosgrove?” Roddy shouted.
“Told you.” It was the childish voice again.
Peggy and Roddy rushed to the voices and skidded to a halt when they found them all floating. “Stanley,” Peggy cried, “glad you’re alright.”
“You, too,” Stanley replied. He looked toward the child on the broomstick, “alright, we’re all together. Now let’s get out of here. Fast.”
“Yeah, fast,” said the child. “Fast like … Sonic!” Kellaway, Cosgrove, Doyle, and Stanley tumbled to the ground as the broomstick and its rider vanished, replaced by a blue hedgehog in red and white shoes that landed gracefully. The anthropomorphic mammal threw its arms around Cosgrove and tried to lift him up. “Better yet,” he said as he backed away from Cosgrove, “Captain Falcon!” He became a tall man in a blue suit. He wore a helmet, but must have had a hole in it because his long hair jutted out. He hands curled into fists, which he looked at as he said “yeah, this feels right.”
Captain Falcon dashed past Peggy. The rush of wind that followed nearly knocked her off her feet. Before she could regain her composure she heard him shout “Falcon Punch,” followed by an explosion. She spun around. Captain Falcon stood in a fighter’s stance before a hole in the wall. He ran back towards her and leapt over her head. He landed stylishly in a blue car that Peggy was sure hadn’t been there a moment ago.
Captain Falcon flicked switches on the car’s dashboard. “Give me a second.” A compartment opened, revealing more seats. “There we go. Everybody get in.” They awkwardly climbed the wings that jutted out of the sides of the car and buckled their seat belts.
“I’ll take this over the Freakmobile any day,” Captain Falcon said as a Plexiglas dome descended over the seats.
The covering looked like it was soundproof, but Peggy put her hands over her ears anyway. Her hands were forced away from her face when she was pressed back into her seat as the car shot through the hole in the wall and tore down the street. To her surprise, the engines did not rumble and there were no vibrations. It was as if the vehicle was not making contact with the road at all.
The driver seemed at ease maneuvering the vehicle through the city at what felt like supersonic speed, but the buildings were passing by too quickly for her comfort. She closed her eyes and gritted her teeth. If she were able to speak she’d beg for the ride to end. Gradually, it did. The pressure in her core eased and when she opened her eyes her surroundings were stationary again.
“Everybody out,” said Captain Falcon as he flipped more switches.
Everyone’s seat belts unfastened. The seats rose, tilted, and they all slid onto the road. Peggy didn’t recognize where they were. She spun about, and spotted the buildings of Edge City in the distance. “How far did you take us?”
“A long way,” said Captain Falcon, “but don’t worry. I’ve got you covered.” He pressed a button on a key fob and plates of the car’s exterior flipped, folded, and spun. Peggy was speechless as the futuristic automobile transformed into her own car. “There,” Captain Falcon continued as he tossed her the keys. “Now you can get back. Don’t go yet, though. I don’t want you around for this next part.”
He ran off down the empty highway, rapidly becoming a speck on the horizon and then disappearing from view completely. A moment later a Peggy ducked and threw her arms over her head as a massive ship soared above them.
“Huh,” said Doyle, scratching his head. “Was that … the Enterprise?”
Freakazoid stood atop the disk-shaped portion of the starship. Despite the incredible speed his feet stayed in place as if held by magnets. A microphone appeared in his hand and he brought it to his lips as the buildings grew closer. “It’s been a long road, getting from there to here.” The ship dipped and banked as it traveled through the city, making its way back to the hotel. “It’s been a long time, but my time is finally near.” The Enterprise circled the Pearl Hotel. Below it cars filed out of the parking lot, driven by criminals who had seen the damage inflicted on their comrades and decided to flee. A sixth sense told Freakazoid which vehicle contained Oswald, the one who had started this whole mess. “And I will see my dreams come alive at last," he continued as a tractor beam captured the car, "I will touch the sky.” The tractor beam did not pull the car all the way inside. It remained several meters below the ship. The thrusters glowed brighter, gaining power. “And they’re not gonna hold me down no more, no they’re not gonna change my mind.” The Enterprise blasted upward, soaring high above the rooftops and dragging Oswald’s car with it. “Cause I’ve got faith of the heart. I’m going where my heart will take me.” The tractor beam deactivated and the ship rolled. A part of the ship struck the car, knocking it up and away. “I’ve got faith to believe I can do anything.” The weapons targeted the car. A single blast of a photon torpedo reduced it, along with Oswald, to ashes. “I’ve got strength of the soul. And no one’s gonna bend or break me.” The ship leaned back. It became vertical and traveled towards the clouds. “I can reach any star.” Freakazoid’s feet disconnected from the hull. “I’ve got faith,” he sang as he plummeted down with the ship following close behind. He landed on his feet in front of the hotel. He arched his back, pointed his face skyward, and shouted into the microphone “faith of the heaaaaart.” As he held the last note the Enterprise tumbled onto the hotel, crushing it and sending flaming debris flying in every direction.
Stanley would have preferred the front seat, but Roddy called shotgun. Peggy drove while he squeezed in the back with the three officers. While cramped, it was still more comfortable than the rocket car Freakazoid had conjured.
Doyle’s window was down and he stuck his head out like a dog. “That is the Enterprise,” he said as he watched the ship take flight over the distant city.
“You better start talking,” Kellaway demanded.
“I’m just as confused as you are,” said Stanley. He also stuck his head out the window to gaze at the airborne craft.
Kellaway grabbed his shoulder and dragged him back inside. “You’ve done some weird stuff in the past but what I just saw really takes the cake. I’m not trying to trap you right now. I need you to help me process all this.”
The gruff, determined officer was gone; his look now conveyed fear and uncertainty. Stanley didn’t want to believe it was genuine. A part of him said Kellaway was still leading him into a confession.
A flash hit Stanley’s peripheral vision. Peggy shrieked and slammed on the brakes. “What happened?” said Kellaway.
“The Enterprise,” said Doyle. He rubbed his eyes as he brought his head back inside the car. “It pulled a kamikaze.”
They gaped at the tallest buildings that seemed to glow as the windows reflected the embers of flaming wreckage until a pillar of smoke obscured their view of the skyscrapers. The sound hit them a moment later, a low rumble that rattled the axles.
“Stanley’s the Mask,” said Peggy.
“Hey,” said Stanley. He’d said it instinctively, still absorbing the sight.
“Hey yourself,” said Peggy. “I’m with Kellaway. I want to know what’s going on. The first step is putting all our cards on the table.” The car gradually accelerated. “What happened after we were separated?”
Stanley looked at Kellaway, who still seemed legitimately worried. He also noticed how worried Cosgrove and Roddey looked. “Well, first of all,” he began slowly, “Freakazoid’s fine. The mask makes anyone wearing it indestructible.” He explained what happened in the penthouse, becoming more comfortable with each sentence.
“So, the Mask,” said Doyle, “it’s a literal mask? And it’s magic?”
“Magic ain’t real,” said Cosgrove, “but this is the closest thing I’ve ever seen.”
“Magic or not, it affects everyone differently,” said Peggy. “I’ve seen a few people wear it, but something about Freakazoid stuck out.”
“I know what you mean,” said Kellaway. “Back at that hotel he was,” he tapped his knee as he tried to find the right word.
“Unpredictable,” said Roddy.
“Exactly,” Peggy agreed. “I mean, when Stanley wears it, I don’t know what to expect either, but I know that when all is said and done he’s just having fun.”
“Fun?” said Doyle. “All this time you’ve just been having fun?”
“I’m being confident,” Stanley clarified. “I spend most of my day getting pushed around. I hate being everybody’s doormat. I want to be the one who toys with people. The mask makes it happen. It’s bringing out Freakazoid’s desires, too.” He tented his fingers and placed them against his chin. “What does he want?”
“What does it matter why the mask be doing what it’s doing?” said Roddy. “The important thing’s wrenching it off.”
Cosgrove shook his head. “Tried that. Didn’t work.”
“It can be forced off,” said Stanley, “but it’s easier if the wearer wants it removed. If we can figure out his desire we can reason with him. He wants to be a super hero, sure, but what else? Deep down, does he also want to be a cold blooded killer?”
Cosgrove made a fist. “Don’t talk about him that wey. He’s a good kid.”
“Yer thinking of Dexter,” said Roddy. “Freakazoid ain’t no kid. He’s internet incarnate.”
“What the hell does that mean?” said Kellaway.
“All the information on the internet was downloaded into Dexter’s brain,” Stanley said condescendingly. “That’s what enabled him to transform. I don’t understand it, but I’ve been assured it makes sense.”
“Wait, all the information?” Doyle’s mouth hung open as he hung on the verge of a useful idea. “Maybe it’s not Freakazoid’s desires that are coming out.” He pointed skyward. “Think about it, what would Gene Roddenberry desire more than seeing his ship actually flying above the clouds?”
Kellaway slumped rubbed his temples. “I doubt Gene Roddenberry has anything to do with what’s happening.”
“I’m not just talking about him,” said Doyle. “I’m saying information has a desire to be used. Artists desire to see their idea get out of their head and into the real world. Authors publish books. Musicians record songs.”
“Chefs put hash in cans,” Cosgrove added.
“Could that be it?” said Stanley. “Could the mask have made Freakazoid a vessel for everything online?”
Peggy drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. “That would explain his bloodlust. There’s a lot of rage on the internet. Even the most selfless acts are received negatively. I’ll never forget an article I posted about someone who was injured playing with fireworks. A stranger passing by dressed the wound and drove the kid to the hospital. Instead of praising the Good Samaritan, the comments were filled with ridicule. People said social Darwinism should be allowed to take its course and that any kid dumb enough to get hurt that badly deserves to die.”
“All the more reason we won’t be able to reason with him,” said Roddy. “All that anger surging through him, and all that data coursing through his head. In his current state he can’t sit still for five seconds, let alone hear us out while we talk him into taking the mask off. He’s completely out of control.”
“Not completely,” said Cosgrove. “He can be baited. Back in the hotel I accidentally made a song reference and he turned into the singer. If we can find the right reference, something that forces him to say ‘Freak In’, he’ll turn back into Dexter.”
“Will that help?” said Stanley. “I thought Dexter and Freakazoid were one in the same.”
Cosgrove moved his hand like a teeter-totter. “Same body. Different personalities. Dexter isn’t the hero type. If he knew what the Mask was doing he wouldn’t want any part of it.”
“Sounds like we have a path forward,” said Kellaway. “Good enough for me. Can this pile of rust go any faster?”
“First of all, screw you,” Peggy scolded. “This car is my oldest friend. Second, yes, it can.” The engine roared as they picked up speed. “But where are we even going? Freakazoid could be anywhere.”
“I have a disturbing hunch,” said Kellaway. “If Freakazoid’s mind is as vast as you say then he probably has a map of the city committed to memory. If he’s being fueled by his desire to be a super hero, coupled with internet rage, then he’ll head to a place where he can find criminals and make them pay for their actions.”
Stanley finished the thought. “Edge City Prison.”
They reached the city limits. Streets were blocked off by wreckage as well as emergency responders. Even with the windows rolled up the smell of smoke and dust filled the car. “We’re not driving anywhere anytime soon,” said Cosgrove. “Should we get out and walk?”
“The station’s too far,” said Peggy.
Roddy took out his phone. “Assuming that’s where he went. Can ye think of any other places that might be callin’ to him?”
“I really feel like it’s our best bet,” said Stanley. “Freakazoid clearly wants to be a superhero. Now he has the chance to be the best crime fighter in the world. He’s definitely going to surround himself with bad guys.”
“If yer sure, I can zap ye there.” He tapped at his screen. “I keep a phone equipped with a Pinnacle chip with me at all times. It can suck ye into the net, and I can program it to spit ye out of a computer at the police department. The problem is, activating the chip wrecks whatever device it’s installed in. So if I do this, I’ll be needing a ride home.”
“How did you get here?” said Kellaway.
“I used me laptop.”
“You put a pineapple chip in that one, too?” said Doyle. “Are they that easy to make?”
“I said Pinnacle, ye dunce, and they nay be easy to make. Constructing so many shows what a resourceful genius I am.”
“If you really need to hear it, fine, you’re awesome. Now, will it be able to transport my car, along with all of us?”
“I never said it could transport all of us, let alone drag yer car along. Two passengers are safest. Any more risks a Mega Malfunction.”
“That sounds neat,” said Cosgrove, “what is it?”
Roddy turned to the back seat. “If ye want me to explain it I’ll need the windows to fog up so I can draw a diagram.” He pointed to Stanley and Cosgrove. “The point is I think I should zap the two of ye.”
Kellaway slapped Roddy’s hand down. “Why them?”
“Cosgrove be Freakazoid’s bestie, and Stanley clearly has a close connection with the mask. Seems to me they’re fit for the job.”
“I’m up for it,” said Stanley. He broke out in a sweat as Roddy tapped and swiped the phone. “How does it feel, going into the internet?”
“Kind of like falling face-first into a pizza pie.”
Stanley adjusted his shirt collar. “I have no idea what that’s like.”
“Well, try to think about pizza pies,” said Roddy as he turned the phone so the screen was facing Stanley and Cosgrove. “It’ll make the trip easier.
The screen flashed. Stanley shut his eyes, but the glare remained. His body tingled like he was being electrocuted. He wanted to vomit but his gag reflex wouldn’t activate. He took Roddy’s advice and imagined melted cheese on bubbling tomato sauce with black olives, hot peppers, and sizzling pepperoni. It did not make the sensation any more tolerable. His gag reflex suddenly returned and he bent over. As he was dry heaving he realized he was standing on a carpeted floor instead of sitting in a car. Cosgrove was next to him, looking at him in disgust. Stanley straightened his spine and checked his watch. “How long did that take?”
Cosgrove stepped around the puddle of puke. “As long as we’re in the right place at the right time, it doesn’t matter.”
Stanley followed a few paces behind Cosgrove. There were faint screams and crashes as if a riot was going on in a distant room. Through the cracks in the office door the light flickered as people darted past. Cosgrove reached tentatively for the knob, but the door was thrown open and a tall man in an orange jumpsuit rushed in. He slammed the door behind him, and paused. The three looked at each other.
The man in the jumpsuit grabbed Cosgrove. There was a struggle, but the inmate had the height advantage. He spun Cosgrove around and lifted him off his feet.
“Stop,” Stanley shouted. He didn’t know what else to do.
Cosgrove lifted his legs, forming a right angle at his hips. With a huff he thrust his legs down. Stanley wasn’t sure if he’d struck the inmate in the gut or the groin but it was enough to break the hold and send them both tumbling to the ground.
Cosgrove kicked the inmate in the face and moved away. “What’s going on out there?”
The inmate placed a hand over his nose. “I can’t even describe it. Something came in and started breaking all the bars. I thought we were being sprung, but then it started attacking everyone. It changed into this crazy thing. Some kind of cross between the Alien and the Predator.”
“I thought the Predator was an alien,” said Cosgrove.
“That’s not what he means,” said Stanley. “Where was the last place you saw, um, the weird thing?”
The inmate took his hand away from his face. “Why? You looking for it?” he said in spite of the blood that was dripping onto his lips. “No way I’m helping you. I’m getting out of here alive, and my best chance is using a meat shield.” He lunged for Cosgrove again.
Stanley didn’t see Cosgrove strike, but there was a pok and then the inmate was on his hands and knees, coughing and clutching his throat.
“He’ll be fine,” said Cosgrove as he went to the door again. “Try to stay close, but whatever happens keep moving.” He flung the door open.
Many people ran about the hallway. Not all of them had orange jumpsuits, but everyone had a crazed look in their eyes. As they worked their way deeper into the building the madness increased. Others got the idea to take them captive. When they attempted to do so Cosgrove moved in ways that took Stanley by surprise considering the man’s girth. He looked like a flabby bowling ball as he worked his way down the hall quickly, sending people toppling over.
The voice was loud, unmistakable, and it came from Stanley’s left. “This way,” he shouted to Cosgrove.
Cosgrove skidded to a halt as he reversed direction. The maneuver cost him dearly, and a surly man jumped onto his back. Again, Stanley froze.
“Get to Freakazoid,” Cosgrove shouted as he wrestled with the man.
Stanley tore his gaze from the fight and followed the voice. Every few seconds he heard Freakazoid signaling another transformation. An inmate rushed toward him, his violent intentions apparent. Stanley scrambled and narrowly avoided being struck. Desperate to escape the madness in the hallway, he chose a door at random.
Holes had been punched in the walls. Lights dangled from the ceiling by wires. Bodies littered the floor. One man in khakis and a sweater was still on his feet. The man who had attacked Stanley followed him inside, glanced at the scene, and fled.
“Hi, I’m Troy McClure,” the man in khakis said to someone with their back pressed against the wall. “You may remember me from such films as,” his eyes glowed red and a shotgun appeared in his hand, “the Terminator.”
“Wait,” Stanley bellowed, “give peace a chance!”
The barrel widened, turned to wood, and six strings formed alongside it. Seeing supporting evidence for Cosgrove’s hypothesis made Stanley relax slightly. Freakazoid put his tongue between his teeth as if he was about the say “the,” but didn’t speak. For a moment his green face became a faint shade of red.
Freakazoid craned his face up and shouted a word that sounded to Stanley like gibberish. The sweater disappeared. Freakazoid wore his usual one-piece suit with the F centered on the chest. His face was no longer encased in the green material. Instead, the mask on his face looked as it did when not being worn; wooden planks held together by a metal bar with three square holes for the eyes and mouth.
“Hello, Stanley.” The mouth hole closed and opened as the words came out.
Stanley rubbed his eyes. He tried to reason through what he was seeing. “Mask? You’re talking?”
Freakazoid’s hands ran over his chest. “There’s so much information in this entity. Some of it is about my origin. Only a small portion is accurate, but it’s enough. For once, I can exist as myself.” The left side of the mask flopped against Freakazoid’s face, changing back into the green elastic. Freakazoid’s hand became a paw and a black-and-white tail sprang from his lower back. It lasted only a moment, and then he changed back. “I had to fight to get to the surface, and it’s hard to hold this form, but I really wanted to see you, although I’d prefer to speak with you alone.” Freakazoid’s fingers snapped and the inmate standing against the wall fell asleep.
Stanley lifted his shirt. “If you’re going to give me a wedgie, get it over with and let’s get out of here.”
“You don’t understand. I’m only like that when you’re wearing me. I’m not a part of anyone right now. You’re talking to me. The real me.”
Stanley moved closer. He walked around Freakazoid whose body stood rigid as his head turned in a full circle on his shoulders. The mask seemed to be waiting for him to process the situation and contribute to the conversation. There were many questions on Stanley’s mind; things he’d wanted to ask since the beginning. Now that he had the chance he wasn’t sure how to phrase them.
He decided to start simple. “So, you’re alive?”
“That would imply I have free will. My creator gave me sentience, but drew the line at life.”
“Who made you, anyway?”
The mask spoke another word Stanley didn’t understand. It noticed the confusion and chuckled. “That’s the true name of my creator. Not the creator of the mask itself. Before I was confined to these materials I was a unique form of energy. I don’t expect you to understand. Even Freakazoid’s head doesn’t hold the purpose of the universe.”
“Universe?” Stanley had never considered the mask having a purpose. He always imagined some ancient wizard casting a spell that went wrong. “Alright, forget who made you. Why are you here?”
Freakazoid’s body tried to morph again. “I’m part of an experiment,” the mask continued when it regained control. “Everything is. My purpose is to explore what people are willing to do for power. That’s why I reveal my wearer’s truest self. The idea was that an honest portrayal would bring shame, but people would put their self-revulsion aside if it meant gaining my abilities.” One eye hole closed part way as it considered Stanley. “You’ve been using me for a while. Have you been happy with my company?”
“No,” Stanley blurted. He hesitated, regretting how quickly he’d said it. Then again, the mask had fought its way to the surface. It seemed to be in pursuit of an honest conversation. “I hate the way it feels when you take over my body,” he continued. “I hate the childish things you do. I really hate giving people wedgies. You help me help people. That’s the only reason I keep you around.”
“I know. That motivation actually goes against the hypothesis, which was that anyone who kept me would do so out of selfishness and use me to improve their lives. My creator rues the day you found me, and is very disappointed with you for showing human’s capacity for chivalry.” The mouth hole widened and thinned, the closest the mask could get to grinning. “But don’t let that get you down. I’ve been having a blast.” Freakazoid’s hands rose in front of the mask. “But I have to admit, this wearer has provided the most exhilarating experience. Shame on you for wanting to drive Freakazoid out of the city.”
“I never wanted to drive him out.”
“I wouldn’t have reacted the way I did if you didn’t.”
Stanley ignored the comment. “And there’s no way Freakazoid wants to kill people.”
“Again, the fact that I am means he does. I’m the one responding to his personality.”
Stanley shook his head aggressively. “I call shenanigans. Hard. Core. Shenanigans. I’ve learned some things about Freakazoid recently. He doesn’t have just one personality. He’s an infinite collection. I’m curious, when someone wears you, do you bring out all their desires, or just the ones you want to?” He paused, and then amended his question. “Or just the ones your creator wants you to?”
“That’s for me to know and you to not understand.” Freakazoid spun, creating a red tornado. It only lasted a second, and when it stopped the mask remained in control. “Mortal,” it added, spitting the word as if it was an insult.
There was a pounding at the door. The knob jiggled but nobody entered. “Stanley, it’s me, open up.”
Stanley stared at the door. He didn’t understand. He didn’t recall locking it.
“Did you think having this time alone was a coincidence?” said the mask. “I’ve been keeping that door closed.”
“Well open it up,” Stanley demanded. “That’s Cosgrove. He might be in trouble.”
“But he’ll interrupt our conversation.”
“I don’t care. Let him in.”
The mask looked at the door. “If that’s what you want, fine.” It looked back at Stanley. “The thing is, if we can’t talk alone, there’s no point in me fighting to stay in control. I’ll let him in, and I’ll get the two of you out of here, but I’ll do it Freakazoid’s way.”
“You mean you’re going to keep up this wave of destruction.”
“The choice is yours, Stanley. We can either keep talking or I can spill more blood. Sorry, but that’s the way it has to be.”
Fed up with the mask’s condescending attitude and in no mood for its games, Stanley decided to put Cosgrove’s idea to the test. “I’m sorry, too, for not bringing any sharks, or lasers to put on their heads.”
Freakazoid spun again. He paused intermittently, and each time a portion of the mask was wood while the rest was the green elastic material. Soon the mask lost the struggle and a stocky man in a gray ensemble stood before Stanley. He touched his pinky to his mouth and said “you know, I have one simple request, and that is to have sharks with freakin’” his body became a beacon of white light.
Stanley was expecting the flash and covered his eyes. When he lowered his arms Dexter was lying on his back, clawing at his face.
“Get this thing off of me,” Dexter cried.
Stanley grabbed Dexter’s cheeks and pulled. The door was no longer stuck, and Cosgrove stumbled in. Stanley called for help, and Cosgrove held Dexter’s shoulders. The two pulled in opposite directions. With a pop the mask came off and they all sprawled onto the floor.
“Reinforcements arrived,” said Cosgrove, “the kind with the big vests and even bigger guns. Put the mask on and get us out of here.”
Stanley put the mask under his armpit. “No. Don’t ask why, I’m just, not doing it. Dexter, you get us out of here.”
Dexter remained motionless on the floor. Cosgrove checked his pulse, and then slapped him a few times. “He’s out cold.”
A metal canister bounced across the floor. It emitted a white smoke that stung Stanley’s eyes. He ran to the nearest window and used the mask to shatter the glass. He would have called out to Cosgrove, but his throat tightened up and it was becoming difficult to see. He jumped out the window and ran, fighting to fill his lungs with as much fresh air as possible.
Dexter tried scratching a tick mark into the wall, but stopped when his fingernail broke. It wouldn’t have done much good to keep track of time now anyway. He was pretty sure it was Tuesday, but couldn’t be positive. He was a wreck when he’d been taken. He remembered being Freakazoid at the hotel, carrying Stanley to the penthouse. He remembered being shot. The mask being thrust toward him.
After that he only remembered a feeling of hysterical fury. He felt like everybody was inferior to him, both mentally and physically. He wanted nothing more than to crush the world, and laugh as everything in it suffered. Periodically, he recalled doing exactly that. In his dreams he threw a fatal punch, or destroyed someone using a strange weapon.
The dreams sickened him, but they were his best chance at keeping track of time. His initial exhaustion made it a long-shot; he may have slept a full day, or two, or three. However, assuming he’d kept to his regular sleep cycle, he’d been in the windowless room at least four days.
Not knowing where the room was, or why there were no windows, or why there was a camera on the ceiling, filled him with a terror that made him want to relapse into his catatonic state. The more he regained his senses the more he worried about everything he was missing: classes, homework, family dinners, and dates with Steph. Nobody had stopped by to visit. He hoped somebody knew where he was, but with each passing moment the optimism dimmed. He thought of turning into Freakazoid and using his strength to break down the metal door, but the camera gave him pause. Until he knew who was watching, he didn’t want to reveal his secret.
A panel on the door slid open and a small meal skidded along the floor. It was the one form of human interaction he’d had since being locked up. Dexter dove to the floor and placed his face close to the hole as the plate. “Just tell me where I am,” he shouted as the hole closed. He pressed his ear to it and heard footsteps fade. “I’m sorry,” he sailed as he pounded on the door. “Whatever I did, I’m sorry.” He sat by the door a while and then collected the peanut butter sandwich and bottled water. He wasn’t hungry, but figured it was important to keep his strength up.
He kept as close track of his sleep as he could. Precision was impossible since his phone, along with his wallet, keys, and everything else he typically carried, were missing. By his internal clock, it was Friday before the door’s hinges creaked.
“Cosgrove!” Dexter ran to the officer and hugged him as the door was locked.
“Good to see you, too, kid. Sorry it took so long.” He waddled to the bed. Dexter refused to release him. “You can let me go and take a seat,” Cosgrove said when they were by the mattress, “or I can hit your pressure points.”
Dexter reluctantly let go and plopped onto the bed. “Where are we?”
“You’re still in Edge City. This is a nut house. You’d be in prison, but that place is being renovated after what Freakazoid did to it.”
Dexter gestured to the camera. “Careful what you say,” he whispered.
“Relax. Roddy put some doohickey together to mess with their surveillance. They’ll hear what he wants them to hear.”
“Oh.” Dexter rested his elbows on his knees. “How long have I been here? And why am I still in Edge City? Why aren’t I back home? Do my parents even know where I am? Does Steph?”
“There’s a lot of confusion. The Edge City Police Department has their hands full chasing down the criminals that got away. Relief efforts are underway to clean up the mess from the explosion. Hospitals are at capacity with everyone who was injured.”
Dexter’s eyes widened. “Geeze, what did I do?”
“You don’t remember anything?”
“I mean,” Dexter shrugged. “I have flashes, but after Stanley put the mask on me, it mostly goes blank.”
Cosgrove folded his arms and smiled. “I knew that wasn’t you. Someday, when you’re ready, I’ll fill you in. For now, you’re better off in the dark.”
“Wait, you said I’m supposed to be in prison. Does that mean someone knows I caused the trouble? Does someone know I’m Freakazoid?”
“Kellaway does. I’m sorry. I tried to get you out but he caught up with me. He had people with him, and he ordered you to be taken into custody.” Cosgrove rubbed the back of his neck. “He’s scared. I get it. I would be, too, if I didn’t know you.”
“But, since you’re here, I’m guessing you got through to him, right? You’re getting me out of here?”
“You can’t go home. Most people don’t understand what happened but everyone wants somebody to pay. It kills me to tell you this, but you’re head’s on a chopping block.”
Dexter leapt to his feet. “Tell me what I did. I need to know.”
Cosgrove rubbed his face and sighed. “You know anything about that gas pipeline that exploded in Cleveland in 1944?”
“That, but worse. Trust me; you’re not ready for the details. Now, if you want to survive, you’ll need to Freak Out.”
Dexter eyed the camera. “Is Roddy’s doohickey messing with the images, too?”
“It won’t hide you’re transformation, but that’s alright. We’re taking you into hiding.”
“What? No way!”
“I wasn’t joking when I said your life’s on the line.” Cosgrove jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Freak out, bust down a wall, and lightning-bolt the both of us five blocks in that direction. Peggy and Stanley are waiting for us. They’ll drive us somewhere we can lie low.”
“But, Mom, Dad, Steph, school, Mr. Chubbikins.”
Cosgrove put a hand on Dexter’s shoulder. “I know it’s a lot to let go, but in spite of how quiet this room might be, the whole city’s in a frenzy. You need to leave. It’s simple as that. Now do as I say.”
Dexter looked into Cosgrove’s eyes, and then at the floor. His hands balled into fists. “Oooooh Freak Out!”
Cosgrove averted his gaze and shut his eyes tight.
“Freedom,” Freakazoid shouted as he jumped on the bed. “I thought he’d never say it again. It feels so good to be back in my suit.”
Cosgrove snapped his fingers. “Hey, focus. We need to break out of here.”
“Not yet. I need to find whoever’s been bringing me those bland sandwiches every day.” The mattress springs squeaked as he bounced toward the door.
Cosgrove grabbed a part of the suit. The fabric stretched as he pulled Freakazoid back. “You need to stay with me. This is important.”
“Don’t tell me what’s important,” Freakazoid said as he fought his way to the door. “You weren’t locked in here like I was. You didn’t feel the isolation I felt. You didn’t eat the sandwiches I ate.”
“Tell you what, if you get us out of here, I’ll make you any sandwich you want.” Freakazoid stopped resisting and spun around. Cosgrove released the fabric which snapped against Freakazoid’s skin with a snap.
People outside the room were shouting. They were too far away to understand.
“Really,” said Freakazoid, “any sandwich?”
“Anything you want. Just get us out of here.”
Faint footsteps rapidly became louder. “What if I ask you to put ketchup on a well-done steak and stick it between two pieces of rye?”
“Sure, if that floats your boat.”
“What if I ask for a roll, filled with cream cheese and bananas, dipped in beef broth?”
“I’ll get it for you. I’ll get you anything you want.”
A gruff voice mere meters from the door said “be careful.”
“What if,” Freakazoid scratched his chin.
Cosgrove waved his arms above his head. “Dang it, kid, just get us out of here!”
Freakazoid lifted Cosgrove and ran headfirst into the wall. The bricks crumbled and they were dashing across the street. Freakazoid stopped suddenly and put a hand to his forehead. “Ooh, I’m starting to regret not using my fist to break that wall. Better make sure my brain’s OK.” He drove his index finger into his ear and wiggled it around.
“Yeesh,” said Cosgrove, “cut that out. Also, get us someplace more private. The fewer people that see you right now the better.”
“Uh oh, I don’t feel anything. Can brains shatter?” He jammed his finger in deeper.
“I mean it,” said Cosgrove. “You can’t be seen. Find a place to change back.”
“Alright,” Freakazoid said as he looked around. “Do me a favor; take a picture of Dexter’s face when he gets out.” He ran to a building and leapt into a dumpster. “Freak in!”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Dexter groaned as the smell of rotten food hit him. He lifted the lid and poked his head out.
Cosgrove stood in front of the dumpster with his cell phone. “Sorry, kid,” he said as the phone emitted a click. “I gotta capture this moment. It was a special request.”
“I know,” Dexter said as he hopped out. “What now?”
Distant sirens caused Cosgrove to perk up. “Well, that’s probably the guards from the nut house trying to chase you, so Peggy had better hurry up.” He tapped the screen and put the phone to his ear.
A car horn honked. Peggy leaned out the window and waved.
Cosgrove slipped the phone into his pocket. He grabbed Dexter’s arm and dragged him to the car.
“Go, go, go,” said Stanley as Dexter joined him in the back seat. Cosgrove took the front next to Peggy.
“Where are we going?” Dexter asked as he buckled his seatbelt.
“Not far if those sirens get closer,” said Cosgrove.
Dexter was forced back into his seat as the car jerked into motion. “Are one of you going to tell me what happened?” he asked through gritted teeth.
“The mask,” said Stanley, “it brought out a lot of psyches after Freakazoid put it on. Most of them were, um, not gentle.”
“That’s the understatement of the century,” Peggy muttered.
“Where’s the mask now?” said Dexter.
Cosgrove patted his uniform blazer. “I’ve been holding onto it.”
Dexter cocked an eyebrow at Stanley. “Why didn’t you use it to break me out?”
Stanley rubbed the back of his neck. “I haven’t put it on since… that day. As far as Kellaway knows, the mask was lost in the calamity. It’s best for everyone if he keeps thinking that.”
“Is that the only reason?” said Dexter. Even though he couldn’t remember what happened, he felt some emotional tension between him and Stanley; as if things were said while he was under the mask’s influence that couldn’t be taken back.
Stanley looked out his window and fidgeted as a police car passed close by. “Yeah. That’s the only reason.”
“Hey, Stanley,” said Peggy, “just so you know, trying not to look guilty makes you look exceptionally guilty. Refrain from looking out the window, at least until we’re out of the city limits.”
“You still haven’t told me where we’re going,” said Dexter. “Cosgrove said I can’t go home. Why not?”
“Kellaway didn’t publically announce you’re responsible for the destruction,” Peggy explained as she merged onto the highway. “But he did draw attention to you. You were taken to the hospital after passing out and he kept close watch on you. People started asking why he was so interested in you and he didn’t have a good answer. It raised suspicion. Fellow reporters have brought details about you to the surface, like how you don’t live in Edge City, or that you were found in the prison even though you don’t have a criminal record.”
“That’s why I had to bust my hide getting you out of there now,” said Cosgrove. “Your parents have been getting calls from investigators. I’m sorry to tell you this, but it doesn’t look like your secret’s going to be kept safe much longer.”
“Well,” said Dexter, “just throwing it out, but what’s the worst that can happen if the world knows I’m Freakazoid?”
“Any other day it wouldn’t matter,” said Stanley. “Until today you were widely considered a hoax. But you killed a lot of people in the hotel.”
Dexter straightened in his seat. “What?”
“And then you blew up the building,” said Peggy.
“And when you raided the prison you broke a lot of cells,” said Cosgrove. “The surviving inmates escaped and a bunch of them are still on the loose.”
“Hey, it wasn’t you,” said Stanley. “I know what it’s like to wear the mask. Keep telling yourself you weren’t in control. It’ll make it easier.”
“Oh man,” Dexter moaned. He tried to imagine going back to his old life as if nothing had happened and doubted he’d be able to. “You’re right. I can’t go home.” He leaned closer to Cosgrove’s seat. “But, wait, neither can you. If you were seen in my room before we broke out, then people will be after you, too.”
“I know,” said Cosgrove. “I’m not going home either.”
“You’re not a cop anymore?”
“I didn’t quit,” Cosgrove said with a shrug, “but I’m sure everyone will take the hint when I stop showing up.”
Dexter shook his head. “No, there’s got to be a way around this. Roddy was already messing with the cameras, right? Maybe he can mess with the footage some more.” He looked at Peggy. “And you can come up with some story, right? Make Cosgrove look like some innocent bystander who was in the wrong place at the wrong time?”
Cosgrove turned to face the back seat. “You’re right, kid, I could go try to weasel my way out of this. Or, I could make sure you’re safe. I’m choosing the latter.”
“No offense, but can you keep me safe? If I did all that stuff you said I did, I’m pretty much public enemy number one. Where are we supposed to go to hide?”
“We’ve discussed that,” said Stanley. He handed Dexter a business card. “There’s a guy who knows I’m the Mask. In fact, he’s helped me before.”
“Pet Detective?” said Dexter, scowling at the card. “That’s a profession?”
“He’s a weird guy,” said Stanley, “but he’s clever and he can handle himself in strange situations. Like I said, he’s helped me before.” He and Dexter held each other’s gaze. “Look if you have a better idea, I’m listening.”
“Well,” said Dexter as he handed the card back, “now that you mention it, I know a guy, too. He’s another super hero.”
“That sounds like the last thing we need,” said Stanley.
“It’s not what you think,” said Dexter. “He doesn’t see a lot of action. He calls himself the Huntsman and he lives in the woods. He has to run into the city whenever he thinks there’s a problem and even when he does it’s usually a false alarm.” He and Stanley held each other’s gaze again. “Look, we’re all in agreement that we need to hide, right? How much more secretive can you get than going deep into the woods and living off the land?”
The car was silent for a moment. Peggy fished a coin out of the cup holder and placed it on the dashboard. “Flip that.”
“Seriously?” said Cosgrove as he picked up the quarter.
“We’re choosing between two kooks,” said Peggy. “If those are our only options then I’m comfortable letting fate decide which is best.”
With a grin Cosgrove flipped the coin, caught it, and slapped it onto his forearm. “Alright. Heads, we go to the Pet Detective. Tails, we go to the Huntsman.”
He lifted his hand.