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Jordan shrugged and turned away from the chalk outline on the floor, reaching for another cigarette despite the standing order to not smoke backstage.
"So how does this work? Is this something you all get taught? Let me guess, it's called Understudy, right?"
Tim shook his head and stood up. "There are all sorts of different ways to change appearance or actual identity in Personamancy, depending on how much 'oomph' you need."
"Oomph? Is that a technical term right there?"
"Quiet you. The girl in the police station had a paper mache mask that looked a lot like me. Now that sounds like a classic case of Mask of the Man."
"And if I knew what that meant, that would be something I'd know."
"Mask of the Man is less of a spell and more of a ritual. You take a bit of somebody's body - blood, hair, semen, whatever."
"Combine that with a mask made out of whatever, then fuse it all together with some mojo. If it works, everytime you put the mask on, you turn into that person."
"What, like, all the way?"
"All the way. You also get the personality and behavioral quirks, but not the memories. The thing is, there are some limits."
"There always are. Spill the beans."
Tim scratched his chin, then headed towards the door. "Well, the big limit is that these things are only supposed to work for Personamancers. And even then, only for the one who made the mask to begin with. If I were to put on that mask the girl... wait, bad example."
"Gimme another example."
"Let's say our mystery actor makes a mask of Elton John. If I put it on, it only lasts a few minutes before it goes back to being a normal thing to hide the face."
"Hmmm. Okay, makes sense. What doesn't make sense is the first thing you said being a bad example."
"Well, that's the limitation of imitation, you might call it. The deception created by Mask of the Man is perfect except in one way; you can't beat the original. As soon as I saw the girl, the mask had already lost its power. There can only be one."
"Okay. Now we're getting somewhere. Did you happen to grab the mask on your way out?"
Tim reached inside the attache case he'd left by the door and brought out the mask. "Of course. Wouldn't do to let the Sleepers get any evidence pointing towards me."
"Let's take a look at this evidence then."
Jordan took the mask in his hand, staring at it, then closed his eyes. "Okay... there's you... now I see a big guy with a bad comb over and the friggin gout. Mean anything to you?"
"Then on we go. Hmmm... okay, there's a girl here. The girl on the slab, did she have an eyebrow peircing?"
"If she did, it wasn't in. Whoever put the mask on might have taken it out first to prevent facial distortion."
"Hmmm. Okay, another owner cha- FUCK!" Jordan's eyes snapped open and and he threw the mask as far as he could away from him; it smashed into the wall and crumbled. Tim blinked.
"What? What'd you see?"
"I saw... a man. Yeah. I think. There was no face. No FACE, man. What the hell?"
"Now when you say 'no face,' do you-"
"I mean that where there's supposed to be stuff like eyes and a nose and a mouth, there this fricking black hole."
"Oh. So it's not like a featureless mass of flesh like the Dick Tracy villain."
"I think that's our guy. Whoever he is. Or WAS. Come on man, back to the bar. I need some hard liquor."
"You know, Jordan, maybe we've been tackling this the wrong way."
"What wrong way?"
"Mojo wrong way. The thing about mages is they think magick is superior. They fight with it and if they're smart, they cover their tracks with it. But it's a rare spell-slinger who views normal mundane work as a threat. This leads to overconfidence, which leads to mistakes."
"I think I was just insulted. And you too."
"Whatever. Look, answer me honestly now: What are you afraid of more than anything else in the world?"
"Dude, if you're gonna be asking me stuff like that, I hope you've got a damn ring picked out."
"It's pertinent. Trust me."
"This is against my better judgement, but... rabies. My sister got totally mauled by a rabid dog when we were kids."
"Okay. We have a starting point. I suspect we're fighting somebody whose mind has been totally consumed by their magick. Remember Sally?"
"Well, I do NOW. And I'm gonna have to suppress all those damn memories all over again. Thanks for nothing."
"No problem. Our thespian foe has no face you can see magickally because his identity has eroded under the pressure of different behavior patterns. He probably imitates the first other human being he sees when he wakes up in the morning."
"I fail to see what that has to do with my worst fear."
"Well, I've never heard of double dipping a spell with a mask, but I thought he would have combined something called Visage of Terror with the mask in case anyone tried to trace him. But if he did that than you probably would have seen like a killer werewolf, or a pack of rabid dogs running towards you, or his face would be the face of the dog that-"
Jordan's finger stopped less than half an inch from Tim's face. "When I wake up screaming in the night from those images you put in my head, I'm dragging you back to my apartment and making you fuckin' SING me back to sleep. Do we understand each other?"
Tim lit another cigarette, staring at the scenery as the car moved down the street. "Y'know, I've been wondering. Why would somebody want to fake my death anyway?"
"There's a lot of different reasons to fake your death. Get out of debt, avoid taxes, it's cheaper than divorce.... the list is endless."
"What about reasons that don't involve money, and are done to somebody else?"
"Hmmm. I got nothing on the first one, but the second one... hey. You were an IRS agent when you snuck in to check on yourself, right?"
"Hold on, your grammatical butchering just gave me a brain cramp."
"Har har. That's just it, man. Defamation of character. Or maybe just unwanted attention. The signals get sent out that you're dead, then people find out you aren't. That smacks of trying to dodge something, be it taxes or marriage or prison or whatever. Then you have the boys in blue on your case. Or the men in black. Or both. That kind of makes it hard to charge up."
"Unless you get off on playing chicken with John Law."
"Yeah. Maybe... uh oh."
"...Understudy. Heh. Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
"Only if you're thinking we need to get more gas."
"That is almost completely the opposite of what I was thinking."
Jordan frowned at the gas station sign as he pulled in and headed towards the pumps. "First the fricking war, then the hurricane, and I hear the oil companies made close to ten BILLION in profits in the third quarter. Stupid businessmen who can't really appreciate money hoarding all the damned cash for themselves, meantime just filling up the gas tank is almost enough to zero an honest Plutomancer. Bastards! All of em!"
"...are you done?"
"Then listen up. You mentioned the word 'understudy' earlier, and that made me think about how in the old days, the understudies would try to sabotage the main actors in order to get their big break. And since we're dealing with another Personamancer, that adds even more weight. Probably jealous of my position."
"Right, right. Mages can't share. Put out your cancer stick man."
Tim jammed the cigarette into the ashtray, blowing out the last bit of smoke. "Okay, we have a starting point... so once we gas up, we'll have to get organized."
"Organized for justice. Send the bat-signal, commissioner! We need Rodney the Periscope!"
"...this proves it. All actors are insane."
-To Be Continued...