Perception by Diinzumo
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Timeline: After #81

Halloween is one of those holidays Utoland adopted long ago, and it seems to get bigger every year. It used to be a kids' holiday; now adults wear the costumes and decorate their homes like it's Christmas. When I was growing up, Halloween either wasn't celebrated where my family lived, or it was just too dangerous to go to the doors of strangers. These days, I spend too much of my life in various identities for a disguise to be that much fun. However, when it means drink discounts and no cover charge--both rarities at Jun's snack bar--plus a concert by one of the best bands in town, I'll gladly wear a costume.

I found something cheap at an adult party store: Long black robe with hood, rubber skull mask, skeleton gloves and useless plastic scythe. The outfit wasn't terribly original and probably cost the same as the cover charge, but what the hell. I could wear my civvies under the getup in case we got an emergency call.

I arrived at the Snack Jun to find the place packed and the bouncer turning people away. When I pulled the skull mask off and he saw my face, he let me in. After that, I just fixed the mask to my belt. You couldn't see my face in the dark anyway--the cowl did a good job of hiding it.

The band had already started their set. Strange shapes danced and jostled to the backbeat, flashing lights and strobes creating an even weirder effect. Across the room, I spotted a familiar set of pointy ears bobbing close to the speakers, and the hair on my neck stood up. In ten strides, I was across the room, had a grip on a stiff purple collar, and was about to whip the person around to face me. Then I realized that I had a handful of cheap rayon fabric, and the mask was sagging in spots. Just as I let go, the dancer turned toward me--obviously female, and nearly a hundred pounds too heavy. She looked startled, then gave me a big smile. I turned away.

I should have known better than that. People often dress as the prominent criminals and terrorists of the day--no accounting for taste. I saw more than one person wearing a mask of the current president, and another Katse--this one with a commercial rubber mask. I still felt a jolt at that--I'll have to buy one just for the satisfaction of ripping it to shreds.

I decided to sit at the bar, which was far enough from the speakers to be able to actually hear the music, and which gave me a good vantage point to people-watch--and one of those discounted drinks. On the way, I brushed up against another familiar figure, and I almost laughed. He gave me a dramatic salute, and I did laugh then.

Jun was behind the bar, wearing a hula girl costume complete with grass skirt and coconuts. I put the hood down for a second so she could recognize me, and she gave me a smile and a beer. "Glad you made it," she shouted over the music.

"Who else is here?"

"Jinpei's on the dance floor dressed as a vampire, and Ken's around here somewhere. Enjoy the party." Then she was off waiting on other customers.

I turned the stool around and leaned my back against the counter, checking out the costumes. Some were pretty cool, though many were the store-bought monster variety and the old standbys like French Maid and Vampire Girl. The latter was dancing with Jinpei, who I have to admit, did a good job with the tuxedo and slicked-back hair. I saw a witch in a tall pointed hat, low-cut slinky dress, cobweb-patterned stockings and spike heels. I didn't see a boyfriend.

The pirate sitting beside me left, but the stool didn't stay empty for long. A ghost took the seat, then turned the stool to face the dancers as I had. After a second, he leaned over to me. "Nice costume," he said. "How does it differ from your day job?"

I felt a chill at that. I hadn't picked this for any other reason than it fit my budget and my dignity. At least I thought I hadn't.

I rolled my eyes. "You should talk. That has to be the most cheapshit costume I've ever seen." He wore a sheet with eyeholes cut into it. At least it was a white sheet. "You gonna put that back on your bed when this is over?"

He shook his head. We sat back for a while. I drank my beer. The band finished their set and left the stage, and the dancers retreated to their tables while the recorded music played.

"What did you think of Jun's outfit?" I couldn't help ribbing him just a little. "Nice coconuts." He just shook his head again, refusing to take the bait. Too bad.

"At least no one has the stupidity to dress as Gallactors tonight," he said.

"No, but I saw two people in Katse costumes. I almost hit one of them," I growled. "People should know better. I want to say Katse would never do something so stupid as show up here dressed as himself, but he's done crazier things. Did you see the guy in here dressed up as Gatchaman?" I pointed the guy out. I had to admit he had the build for it, almost. The cheap polystyrene helmet rattled around on his head when he moved, and the gloves and boots didn't fit, but the total effect was priceless. I know the Kagaku Ninjatai is newsworthy, the Gatchaman especially, but it's still a shock to see our images in pop culture. Jinpei was talking to the guy now, and the kid was grinning like a little fiend.

"Too bad there isn't anyone dressed as Condor Joe," he said.

"No, I'm glad he's not that popular," I said. Last thing I wanted to see was some two-hundred-pound couch potato in my colors. It had been creepy enough seeing a replica of myself when Dr. Nambu had created those robot decoys a few months ago.

Oh, God. Now Jinpei had the fake Gatchaman hamming it up. He flexed his muscles and tried some heroic poses while admirers--including the chick in the Katse suit--gathered around him and giggled. Cameras flashed. The sexy witch shoved his helmet aside and gave him a kiss on the cheek. Not even the real Ken, and he's raking in the girls. I glanced to my left, but my drinking partner hadn't moved. Hard to read an expression in the dark through a couple of eyeholes.

"They just see the game, don't they?" He spoke so quietly I barel y heard him over the music. "Just the white hats and black hats. They don't see the death. They don't see the reality of it." Again I felt chills.

I glared at him. "That's our job. Let them have their fun."

He turned and stared at me.

"Shit, what is with you tonight?" I snapped. "We're off duty and it's a party. Lighten up!"

He kept staring at me. Just staring. I wished he'd take the stupid costume off. Something moved beneath the sheet, and just then I got the feeling something was very wrong. My hand moved beneath my robe to my jeans pocket and the two feathers inside.

Then, just out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a familiar face. I turned my head to see Jinpei and the guy dressed as Gatchaman talking to Ken.

Ken was dressed as an old-fashioned barnstormer: leather flight jacket, jodphurs, boots, leather cap, goggles and long white scarf. I recognized a few of those things as gifts from his pilot friends. But it was most definitely Ken. I could clearly see his face, and he looked uncomfortable as hell to be talking to the guy in the bird suit.

So who had I been talking to all night? Who clearly knew who I was? I had the feather shuriken in my hand, ready. With my left hand, I reached for that sheet to yank it off.

I never touched him. Slowly, deliberately, he got off his stool, and one of his hands came out from under the sheet to grab the edge of the counter. I saw a black coat cuff. He had a gold engagement band on his ring finger.

My breathing stopped. That cold feeling hit me full force, every hair on my body standing on end. Again, he leaned close.

"By the way," he said, in that same awful, quiet voice. "I forgive you."

By the time I could move, he had made his way through the crowd and out the front door. I yelled, "Wait!" and ran after him, through the door and into the street. There I stopped, putting the hood down around my shoulders and looking around. A nearly full moon shone low in the sky, and the street was empty.

"Joe n'aniki! What's the matter?"

I turned. Jinpei and Ken were standing at the door. "You forgot your stick-thing," Jinpei said. "Is everything okay?"

"Ken, where the hell've you been all night?" I snarled. Anger felt a hell of a lot better than the way I felt when I saw that ring.

"I had my costume stuff stashed in the attic. It took me a while to find it," Ken said. His voice sounded nothing like the guy in the sheet. And come to think of it, I knew that voice--its owner had pointed a rifle at Ken's face, right before I'd pulled the trigger on my own gun. I'd never forget it. Why had I wanted to think it was Ken?

"You gonna come back inside? Jinpei asked. I shook myself, flipped the cowl back over my head to hide the glare, and went back inside with them.

"Neh, Joe, didja see the guy dressed up as Ken?" Jinpei said. "He teaches martial arts on the other side of town. That was great!" Ken just rolled his eyes. "The girls were all over him, too. Next time, Aniki could just show up in his real uniform, and--"

"Cut it out, squirt," Ken said. "It's just too bad nobody dressed up as Condor Joe."

Again I felt that chill.

"Oh, somebody did! You should have seen it." Jinpei started to laugh. "It was a girl! And the other girls chased her, too!" Ken laughed with him, and he nudged my arm to make sure I got the joke.

I looked over my shoulder at the door, still unable to shake the chills and that yawning pit in my gut. In my mind's eye, I could still see that empty street. It had to be four in the morning, well out of Halloween and into the Day of the Dead.

You were right, Alan. People don't see the reality, do they?

Not even me.

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