He pulled on a tuxedo, painted his face like a clown, and once again girded himself in the armor of what he was not.
Oscar knew the physical markers were only a small part of the disguise. His attitude and the way he carried himself were far more important. He needed to walk with a subtle swagger, and the paradox of those words was the challenge. He had to have pride, confidence, and even arrogance, but also had to be so comfortable with those traits that he did not throw them in other people’s faces. Meekness is easy to exude. So is brash arrogance. Subtle confidence? That’s easily mistaken for diffidence or aloofness. It’s not easy to go into a room and, without talking, make people understand that you are fully in control of the situation, because you deserve to be in control. But that was the sweet spot he needed to hit.
The costume helped. It was distinct. Word got around. People talked, which was good, because that was the whole point of wearing it.
He traveled by limo. There was no alternative. Public transportation wouldn’t do with this guise, and he certainly couldn’t be seen driving his own car. It didn’t fit the profile. Maybe screaming through the streets on a motorcycle would have worked, but one of his deep secrets was that he didn’t know how to ride one well enough to keep up the appearance he had assumed. So chauffeured travel it was.
The black Mitsubishi Nightsky dropped him off in front of a mechanic’s shop with a boarded-up door but functional entry bays. Light peeked out from under the closed garage doors. The clown snapped his fingers and one of the doors slid up, just clearing his head as he passed under it. He had spent all night a few days ago in an abandoned parking garage, working on the timing of that particular move, but he was almost thrown off by the fact that this heavier door moved up slower than the old grating he’d used for practice. He was able to slow his stride enough to compensate, though, so the intended effect held.
He walked into a dark garage strewn with auto parts, rags, and grease. His contacts provided the low-light vision his heritage did not, so he picked his way smoothly and easily around the obstacles, making sure nothing oily touched the finely creased trousers of his three-piece suit (one piece, the jacket, was slung over a chair in his doss—leaving it behind allowed him to show off his pin-striped vest). He was aware of the surprise and tension building up around him. He did not respond to it, telling himself over and over to stay poised, act casual, look languid, even though he was pretty sure at least two guns were pointing at him.
A voice called from near one of the work lights hanging off the frame of a bullet-ridden auto. “Who the hell are you?”
“The tragedy of living in a vulgar age,” the clown responded, “is that any transgressive power profanity once had is lost. While in times past your exceedingly mild curse word might have acted as a signifier of your malicious intent, in the world we live in it is mere punctuation, if even that. It is glossed over, ignored. The meaningful has become meaningless.”
“The fuck?” the voice from the darkness responded.
A deeper voice spoke. “Don’t matter. Wax him.”
The clown could not be sure his ability to watch guns fire without flinching was all his own. Yes, he had practiced it for many long, fearful hours, but avoiding incoming gunfire was a deeply intrinsic instinct, and one did not write such things over with ease. He spent many long nights worrying about how his employers may have altered him, and then despairing over his failure to discover what they might have done. Regardless of how the fearlessness had been instilled, when the bullets flew his way, his posture did not change. His emotions did not rise.
The projectiles stopped in mid-air, dropping to the floor in front of him.
“And these bullets. So common. Barely commas.”
He made a little exploding motion with his hand, and the windshield of the car in the shop shattered, glass flying outward. The men hidden in the dark yelled briefly as glass pebbles tinkled on the floor.
The clown waited for it to be silent, then spoke. “At some point you will come to a full realization that I am serious, and you will decide to listen to what I have to say. The only question before you is how long that will take, and what I will have to do to you before that point is reached.”
Silence again, then some muttering.
“Say what you gotta say,” the deeper voice said.
It was truly pathetic. The third person, the one moving behind the clown, thought he was being silent. Had he only worked with low-class criminals who couldn’t afford decent gear? His feet scraping the cement floor were as plain as the red diamonds painted on the clown’s face.
The clown didn’t turn. He stood straighter and pulled on the bottom of his vest, as if preparing to make a speech.
The third man leaped. And hit an invisible wall behind the clown. The force of his own momentum laid him out on the filthy floor.
The clown still did not turn around. “Here’s the message: Know your place. Your appetite has been getting too big. You can steal cars from all the middlemen you want and still keep the revenue flowing. But you’ve climbed too far up the ladder. Don’t keep ascending. Back down a few rungs, or I’ll cut the whole thing down from beneath you.”
The clown knew the next part of this was where they tried to reassure themselves about their toughness by denying that he had any power over them.
The higher-voiced speaker spoke first. “You think you can show off a few magic tricks and then start giving orders? Shit, no way.”
The clown sighed theatrically. “I’m not going to lie to you and say that I hoped for better. But even after all this time, I’m still ready for humanity to surprise me. Maybe someday it will. Now, I could do some more flashy magic, or put a squeeze on your throat and cut off your air supply without touching you, but while fun, those things would have limited long-term benefits. So I’ll just move on to the good stuff, and here it is: You’re broke. Out of money. Personally and professionally. I would say I hope it doesn’t cause you much inconvenience, but that would be a lie.”
More mutters, then movements as they checked AROs only they could see. The reactions were rapid.
“Shit! Shit shit shit shit shit shit shit shit shit!”
Another mutter, difficult to hear, but the clown was pretty sure it was along the lines of “What’d he do?”
The deeper voice was not so deep anymore, and didn’t bother to hide its words. “My personal account, my secret account, our operations account—hell, if there’s a source of money, he took it. Damn it!”
Oscar was relieved—but not surprised—that the money had been moved as planned. His employers were shadowy, but quite good at whatever they set out to do. “And I’m going to assume the operations account for this fine establishment was not made with your personal funds,” the clown said. “I’d wager it’s someone else’s money—someone who will expect to see it again at some point, correct?”
The following pause was brief. “Look, I don’t know who the hell you are, but you’ve killed us. You know that, right? With that money gone, I’m a dead man.”
The clown shrugged. “A single vulgarity edited out of the manuscript of life.”
“Look, look, look, you went too fast! You know we can’t just be intimidated by someone who walks in and flashes some magic, but okay, you showed us you’re the real deal. We’ll scale back, all right? I’ll tell the bosses. Just get that money back in here, all right? We’re just damn car thieves. You don’t have to make this deadly.”
“All I’m doing is showing you the ramifications of your own choices. Are you saying you’d like to change them?”
The man paused a moment before answering, likely choking on his pride. “Yes, dammit.”
“I will graciously allow that change. To err is human, to forgive is mine.”
“That’s not how the saying goes,” the higher-voiced man said, likely out of reflex.
The clown snapped two fingers, and the three small casement windows located two meters high on the wall shattered.
“It is today.”
The rest was mere negotiation—which, honestly, was more like the clown giving orders than a discussion—before Oscar sauntered away in casual triumph.
He had done this sort of thing a half-dozen times before, and each time, when he was done, he felt like curling into a ball and whimpering, and also like walking down a crowded street so that others could bear witness to his magnificence. If there was a temper on his emotions, it came off once the work was done, leaving them to spin from high to low and back again. He wanted to go to a bar and both huddle in a corner unseen while drinking a full bottle of scotch and pick up every attractive person in the place, regardless of gender.
He had not yet found a way to reconcile those dueling impulses, but he had noticed with each job, the swagger impulse grew stronger.
He could not, of course, go out in public without taking a few moments in his car to clean off his face paint, remove his fake ears, and assume a normal appearance. He had this down to a polished routine, so he was ready to be seen in public after only ten minutes.
He drove to Featherstone’s, a restaurant in the CAS sector that was pleasant, low-key, and frequented by neither tourists nor foodies. The food would be simple and unpretentious, and the drinks would have plain names and generous pours.
At this time of night, the main room was closed, and six patrons sat at the bar. An old man in a fedora that looked like it had been purchased in the twentieth century stared into a glass that had maybe three drops of scotch in it, a man and a woman sat in a dark corner trying to look casual while all too obviously scanning the area for anyone they would prefer not to see them together, and the last three people huddled together around a small table with about ten empty mugs and four full ones. Clearly they had ordered a number of rounds and then told the bartender (a weary-looking ork woman in a stained white blouse and apron from some multi-national chain, of which this bar was not a part) to leave them be. She seemed only too happy to oblige.
The three people with the empties were an elf male, an ork male, and a dwarf female. Their tones were low, and their glares telling people to leave them alone were practiced and professional. They were not, however, Awakened, and it was not a large trick to create a channel of sound that brought their voices to Oscar’s ears.
“—This isn’t about having ears on the ground,” the dwarf was saying. “No one on the streets knows anything until after it happens. There’s never advance word. If we rely on street rumors to clue us in, we’ll miss out.”
“The only way that works is if the information we already have is good,” the ork said. “Do you trust Mr. Johnson?”
“Of course not. But I trust myself. If he’s lying about anything, I’ll find out and adjust. Thinking on the fly is what we do.”
The elf spoke up. “If you think you can adapt to anything the world might throw at you, you haven’t seen enough of it.”
The dwarf shrugged. “Running away counts as an adjustment. I can do that any time I need to.”
“What if they’re faster than you?”
“If they’re faster, I’m more elusive. If they’re more elusive, I’m faster. No one combines the two like me.”
“Dwarfs aren’t exactly known for their speed.”
“Only cuz not enough people know me.”
“Look, the attitude is important. I’m not saying it’s not. But it’s the attitude you show in the field that counts, not while sitting around a table with your friends.” The words were out of Oscar’s mouth before he realized he was talking.
“Consider this practice,” the dwarf said.
Oscar leaned back and looked at the dwarf while stroking his chin. The ork reached over and clapped him on the shoulder. He hadn’t thought he had placed himself within arm’s reach of the ork, but apparently he had.
“You’re not going to talk him out of his attitude,” he said. “Talk can only go so far.”
Oscar tilted his head. “That’s the kind of thing people who aren’t good at it say.”
In the darkest corner of the joint, the woman slammed the table. She wore a tight black shirt without a right sleeve, showing off a black cyberarm with a satiny finish. A piece of the table might have splintered under the blow.
“I need more than just talk!” she said. The man next to her looked around panicked while reaching for her left arm to pull her back into her chair.
She became quieter, but not much. “If I need someone who can break promises, I have the whole damn world. You’re supposed to be different. Your actions matter. They say what you really are.”
The man’s mouth moved, but he apparently had an excellent sotto voce, because no sound carried beyond the edge of his table.
The woman shook her head. “You can’t just explain it away. I know what happened. What I’m trying to figure out is why.”
The man in the fedora glowered down at his drink. “Dames, huh?”
“Dames? Really?” Oscar asked.
The man in the fedora looked up long enough to shoot Oscar a glare that could have flash-frozen a whale. “You gotta problem?”
“Not really. Just didn’t think that word got much use this century.”
“I talk how I talk. You don’t like it, talk to someone else.”
“Sure. I don’t remember why I wanted to talk to you in the first place.”
“Because with all the jokers and kiddies in this joint, you knew I was the person who might tell you something real.”
Oscar leaned back. He was trying to look amused and distant, but something inside his head was spinning. He hoped leaning back would make the world settle down. “I did? So just what truth do you want to hand out?”
The man looked up again. There seemed to be no distinction between his irises and pupils. “The world is not a senseless place. People do things for a reason. Sometimes they’re stupid reasons, but they’re reasons. Understand the reasons, and you understand the world.”
“Might be a little beyond me,” Oscar said. “The world is big.”
“Then let’s understand at least one thing,” the ork shadowrunner said. “The chop shop. Simple job, really—a little intimidation, set some over-reaching thugs in their place. Why go to so much trouble?”
Oscar shifted in his chair, moving a bit away from the ork and his team. How had word gotten out so fast?
“It’s punctuation,” the elf said. “It’s making sure that the message is sent with an exclamation point.”
The ork nodded. “Probably, but it’s good to get the right message. The easy message is the one that was stated: ‘Know your place.’ But there’s more. First, ‘I know what you’re doing.’ Second, ‘I can get to you.’ Not messages stated in words, but important—possibly more important than what was actually said.”
“And the messenger is as important as the message,” the elf added. “That’s part of the question—why him?”
“Why her?” the woman said. “Just because she’s available? Maybe you don’t think commitment is possible, or desirable, or whatever, but if that’s the case, tell me. Don’t just yank me around.”
The man, as was his custom, moved his mouth without making any noise. Then he buried his face behind a menu.
“Maybe this is just some sort of game to you. Maybe that’s all this whole thing is, a big game. Money is a way to keep score, but so are…how should I say it…conquests. A game that goes on forever, and there’s no way to win, so it can never end.”
The man didn’t reply, but Oscar didn’t think something like that, from a person so clearly upset, should just hang there. He blinked a few times to ward off dizziness, then leaned toward her.
“Even if that’s how some people treat life, you don’t have to,” he said. “You never have to play by someone else’s rules.”
The woman moved a corner of her mouth in a way that might have, in other circumstances, attempted to become a smile.
“Of course you do. Unless you want to be alone.”
“We’re all alone.”
Her smile somehow became more bitter. “Were you trying to cheer me up or depress me more?”
Oscar shrugged. “Just trying to get your mind off that jerk.”
The man dropped the menu, and Oscar recoiled. He was wearing a clown face, white paint with red diamonds over the eyes, spiked eyebrows, and a grotesquely wide grin. Oscar knew the face. He had seen that face, or a reasonable facsimile of it, in the mirror many times. He jerked back and got ready to stand up and run, then realized it must have just been a trick of the light. The man might have been a little pale, yes, but who could blame him after what the woman had said? But he had no red diamonds, no wide grin. Oscar must have been tired or overly stressed to be imagining such things. Taking a deep breath, he settled back into his seat.
“There is only one real part of love, and that’s loss,” the man in the fedora said. “The rest is just a myth you force yourself to believe. A story you beg your emotions to convince you is true.”
“Did you practice that line a few times in your head?” Oscar asked.
“Being fooled by others is bad, but it’s nowhere near as embarrassing as fooling yourself. Entertaining illusion after illusion because you don’t have the will to see through them.”
“And you know the truth, and this is where it gets you? Drinking alone in some crap bar?”
“It gets me free of strings.”
“You mean you’ve got nothing left to lose,” Oscar said. He reached his right hand up to scratch the left side of his neck, and it stayed there after his fingers stopped moving.
He looked down curiously at his right hand sitting on his left shoulder. It raised a centimeter or two and waved back and forth a bit. Something light but scratchy brushed his cheek. He focused. It was string—or maybe twine—running from the back of his hand to the ceiling. Did it stop at the ceiling, or go beyond? He couldn’t tell. And there wasn’t just one. He had a string attached to the back of his hand, to each finger, to his elbow. They pulled, and his hand went up. Then his left went up too, since it had an identical set of strings attached to it. His hands spread apart, his arms rising above the level of his head, palms down, putting him in an odd sort of position, like he was trying to fly, but had no real idea of how flapping worked. And didn’t realize his arms were not wings.
But despite the awkwardness, he rose. Only five centimeters off the ground or so, but far enough so that he could only touch the floor if he straightened out his ankles. Then he could scrape the ground with his toes. He hung there, swaying gently.
The man in the fedora looked up, the nearly empty glass still clutched in his hand. “They’re using you. Making you into a toy. They had to know what was coming. You had to know I was coming. But you did it anyway. I would spend time wondering if you were foolish or bold, but I no longer believe there is much difference between the two. The important thing is, you had to know that you were taking a stroll on the train tracks, and if you kept that course, you would see the train approaching. You can’t be surprised when you finally hear the whistle.”
Oscar abruptly fell down into a chair. He tried to make the drop and the pain look natural.
“So you get a message like that, you want to respond,” the ork said. “What’s the response?”
“Here’s the thing,” the dwarf said, leaning forward. “We know about the messenger. But who actually sent the message?”
“Yeah, that’s important,” the elf said. “A message saying ‘Don’t cross me’ doesn’t mean as much when you don’t know who ‘me’ is.”
“And if you’re told not to cross boundaries, it helps if you know where those boundaries are,” the man in the fedora continued. “This is what I’m saying. The message is not complete.”
The ork threw up his hands. “Why go out of the way to send a message and not send the whole thing?”
“Because you’re playing a game,” the woman said. “Not having a relationship. With the one, you talk. You communicate. With the other, you do some fool thing, and think some stupid thing like ‘I made my move. Ball’s in her court.’ Whatever stupid metaphor you want. It’s being childish instead of being a grown-up.”
This earned her another soundless response.
“The problem is, you want me to play by your rules, to make one of the moves you predict, or the one you like. If I try another move, you get angry. But if it’s my move, I get to do whatever the hell I want.”
The strings were back, pulling Oscar’s hands, palms down, to shoulder level. Then there were strings on his back, his neck, pulling. They hurt. His ass was off the chair, then his feet were off the ground. He looked down—his feet were almost half a meter off the ground, just that quickly.
The woman looked up at him. She had to. “Faithlessness is the plague of our times. Do you have faith in anything? What would you die for? Are you about to die for the right thing?”
The three shadowrunners solemnly pulled out their weapons. Oscar could have sworn they each had three or four arms, because it seemed like an entire firing squad’s worth of gun barrels were pointed at him. But the only things the barrels held were bullets. He could block those. He knew how. He started gathering mana.
A scream entered his skull like a drill punching through bone. He gritted his teeth, even though they felt like they were shattering. He let in his astral sense, only to see what he should have noticed as soon as he’d entered the bar. Magic. Magic everywhere. He might have been the only real thing in the bar. And he wasn’t even sure about that.
His heart raced. His breathing had turned to panting, and his ears mostly heard a rhythmic echo. He had missed important information, and he was going to pay.
The man dropped the menu he had been hiding behind. The clown face was back. The red diamonds had the moist glisten of wet paint. The smile had the twist of a sidewinding snake.
“You do have a pair of balls on you,” the clown said. “My first inclination was to remove them.”
Oscar thought about responding, but new strings had grown binding his lips together, and wordless grunting seemed beneath his dignity.
“I suppose I should do something about that if we’re to talk,” the clown continued. He snapped his fingers. The thread on Oscar’s mouth had one loose end on the right side. It wriggled forward, pulling the rest of the string behind it. With no anesthetic, Oscar could feel every millimeter as it moved through his lips, pulling and straining, tearing his skin. When it was finally out, he moved his hand to his mouth. The strings held it back for a moment, then loosened, and he was able to rub his lips. When he moved his hand away, he was stunned to see no blood. He was also a little surprised to see he was back on the ground, in a chair.
He flexed and pursed his lips, then spoke. “You could have just made it disappear. You didn’t have to do that the hard way.”
The clown lowered his chin, glowered, and said nothing.
Oscar sighed. “No, you couldn’t. I know. I understand.” He wiggled his toes a little—hanging in mid-air had made them numb.
“I suppose this is a sort of cease-and-desist letter,” Oscar said, since the clown still wasn’t talking. “For what, trademark infringement? Identity theft?” He stretched his neck to the left and to the right. “I suppose the exact cause doesn’t matter. But what happens next? I promise to stop? You kill me? Where do we go from here?”
The clown walked over to the man in the fedora, who was the only other person left sitting in the bar. He sat at the man’s table and grabbed his suddenly full shot glass. A quick toss of his head, and the glass was empty again. He reached out and patted the man’s shoulder.
The man looked up and doffed his hat, revealing the face of Oscar, without the makeup.
Oscar considered the two versions of himself, sitting side by side. “I don’t know what you want from me.”
A deck of cards appeared in the clown’s hands, long cards with grey and green dragons and birds on the back. He laid them on the table, one by one.
“The Hanged Man,” the clown said, turning over the first card. His voice was leather sandpaper. “Change is coming. You will see the world in a new way.” The next card. “Two of Cups. New partnerships and the resolution of a former conflicts.” Next card. “Ace of Swords. Cutting through confusion. Overcoming deception. Gaining clarity.” Next card. “Seven of Swords. Secret plans. Following the Ace of Swords, it means battling deception with deception.” Next card. “The Fool. Or the Bastard. Take your pick of what you want to call him. A troublemaker, a force of chaos.”
On the last card, a clown with red diamonds over his eyes was stomping on the hand of a man dangling outside a broken office building window.
“Nice read,” Oscar said. “Are you going to attempt to convince me that you didn’t stack the deck?”
The clown smiled, and the corners of his mouth seemed quite close to touching his ears. “Why else would I use cards?”
He placed his right hand on the Bastard card, showing a man who looked very much like himself looking out a broken window. He spun it slowly. “Inverse. Upright. Inverse. Upright,” he said with each turn. “Positive or negative. Good or bad.”
Oscar remained hanging, but the nerves, the rapid heartbeat, the fog in his mind that had possessed him were gone. The clarity of the Ace of Swords was making its cuts.
“What will make this good?” he asked.
“You tell me,” the clown said. “I made a move. It’s what the people pulling your strings wanted. I’m sure they have a response planned. What is it?”
Oscar was on the verge of shaking his head and trying to put together a denial, when there was a rush of sound, a blinding headache that came and went almost instantly, and he knew. He knew the information, and he knew what he was supposed to say, and he felt like he maybe had a choice about that, but he probably didn’t.
“Here’s the rest of the message,” Oscar says. “Jane says you’re not the only one who can push buttons.”
He waited for a reaction—a sign of surprise, a few stammered words—then he remembered who he was dealing with. There was not so much as a tap of the clown’s fingers. He just shook his head, maybe in sadness, maybe in disappointment. “This was a roundabout way to deliver a message,” the clown said. “Overly elaborate.”
“Because you’re all about efficiency and directness, right?” Oscar said, then couldn’t believe that he said it.
The clown didn’t seem to mind. “Touché.” He might have even smiled. “It’s a character flaw, I suppose. I’m used to being one of the few unchanging things in the world. I forget that sometimes even I have to adapt. So. You are not the student, I am not the mentor. How would you like to define our relationship?”
Oscar paused, tilted his head, and tried to understand the message he was receiving. “I don’t think she believes it needs definition. That’s too—confining, I guess?”
Oscar didn’t even blink, but the clown was suddenly immediately in front of him, teeth bared, chin down. He had a serrated, sharp-looking blade in his hand.
“I could end you now,” he snarled. “I could have ended you when you walked in here.”
Then, just as abruptly, the clown was back in his chair, stroking his chin, looking contemplative.
“You’re not scared. Not at all. Why aren’t you scared?”
“I…” Oscar paused to consider. “I’m not sure.”
The clown stood and walked over toward Oscar. It was a smooth, unhurried walk. Some part of Oscar’s brain told him that maybe he should be worried. He tried to become worried about not being more worried, but that didn’t work either.
The clown lazily waved a hand over Oscar’s head. “There are strings I’m not even seeing. So much work to impress me. Confining someone else so you can demonstrate your freedom.” He took five steps away, then turned back to Oscar. “I’m going to talk to you as if Jane is listening. Jane, do you remember visiting Roggoth’Shoth? We saw that plain of rocks, with a faint aura on them? You asked me what it was, and I wouldn’t tell you. You were very put out, launched on one of those speeches where you said I didn’t treat you as an adult—as if an adult is the high-water mark of how a person should be treated. You found out what it was, though, didn’t you?”
Oscar was silent until the knowledge was given to him. “Bodies. It was bodies.”
“A remnant of the War of Sorrows, idiots playing with magic we don’t understand now, and if there is any mercy in the world, we will never learn it again. Though hope for mercy is not something I spend much effort having. If they were dead, though, how come they still had auras? After all this time?”
Oscar again waited for an answer. It was slow in coming.
“Because they weren’t entirely dead. There was some form of life sitting in that petrified skin. They sat there, for centuries, in motionless agony.”
“And your response to that knowledge? How did that affect your study of the field?”
Another longer pause. “I haven’t been back since I learned what it was. I can’t bear to walk among them.”
The clown waved his arms in dismissive disgust. “The sentimental weakness of humanity. We’re not supposed to have that. Your pity for the dead of the past keeps you from learning things that might keep people from dying in the future. Foolishness, but I knew you’d fall prey to it. If there are facts that might hinder your learning, my job was to keep them from you.”
“I’m not here to argue,” Oscar said, using words that came quickly. “Well, I’m not here at all, but that’s beside the point. You don’t see as much as you think you do. You made a nice trap here, but you didn’t catch me. You didn’t even know I was behind it, wouldn’t have known if I didn’t tell you. You don’t get to decide what I know anymore. I am not your puppet, and these are not your strings.”
The clown stood stiffly, then nodded once. “No, this puppet is all your own. So what happens to him?”
Again Oscar waited for an answer. None came. He kept waiting, then began to feel awkward. He didn’t like it, but at least he was finally allowed to feel something. If he was going to have an answer, it would have to be his own.
“Maybe we could let me grow up to become a real boy,” he said.
The clown might have hinted at a smile, or it might have just been his make-up.
“You’ve been fearsomely manipulated,” the clown said. “What could be more grown up than that?”
Oscar had no good response.
“You had to know you were inviting trouble when you did all this,” the clown said. “But you did it anyway. Which means either your emotions were out of your control, or you have some brass balls. I can’t punish you much for either offense.”
He snapped his fingers. “But I can punish you a little. The most fitting punishment I can think of. Be me.”
The bar changed. It was empty, closed, abandoned. Oscar looked around, startled. There was no trace of food or drink anywhere. Only one set of footprints in the dust, and they looked his size, made by his shoes. He stood, but his legs were weak. He didn’t move for a moment until he felt stronger, then he strolled slowly toward the door, which sat halfway ajar.
He caught a glimpse of himself in a cracked mirror behind the bar. His face was white, with red diamonds around the eyes. He ran forward, almost tripping over what used to be a chair, to get a closer look. He rubbed his face, but nothing so much as smudged. He tried some counterspelling, but nothing had an effect.
He glanced toward the door. It looked dark outside. There were people out there who knew the clown, or at least knew what he was supposed to be. He’d have to be careful, but if someone caught him, hiding in the shadows, looking like that while trying to hide—it wouldn’t be good. But being out in the open didn’t seem like a good idea either.
Outside the door, an intersection was empty of cars while lights slowly shifted to green, yellow, and red and back. He stared, thinking about where to go.
He had played the clown once; now he had to be it.