作者 主题: 【Drawing Destiny】大家都来扮小丑  (阅读 566 次)

副标题: 神仙打架 翻译:薛猫

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【Drawing Destiny】大家都来扮小丑
« 于: 2020-09-11, 周五 19:28:01 »
EVERYBODY  PLAYS THE FOOL
大家都来扮小丑
(THE BASTARD)
JASON M. HARDY
他套上燕尾服,把脸涂成小丑的样子,再次用不属于自己的铠甲武装全身。
奥斯卡知道外表只是伪装的一小部分。他的态度和表现方式重要得多。他走路要带上隐藏的傲慢,而自相矛盾的话语才是真正的挑战。他有骄傲、自信甚至傲慢,但还要习惯于那些他不会直接展现在他人面前的特征。
流露顺从很容易。盛气凌人和傲慢也是。
不易察觉的自信?很容易被误认为是谦逊或冷漠。走进房间,不说话就让其他人感受到你在掌控全局,你应当掌控全局,这不容易。但这正是他进攻的最佳目标。
装扮有用。很特别。流言传播。有人讨论。很好,这正是穿它的目的。
他开豪车。没有其它选择。公共交通和伪装不搭,他也绝对不能让人看见开自己的车。不符合外形。或许开一辆机车咆哮着穿过街道也可以,但他有个最深藏的秘密,就是他的骑车技术不足以支撑他假装的外表。所以只能是私家车了。
黑色的三津滨夜空把他送到一间机械铺门口,正门被木板封上了,但还有可供行走的入口。光从关上的车库门底漏出。小丑打个响指,一扇门向上滑开,他进去时正好到他的头顶。他几天前花了一整晚在一个废弃的车库里练习,把握这个动作的时间,但这扇门比练习的门更重,上升得更慢,几乎让他前功尽弃。但他成功减慢步伐弥补了时间差,预计效果达成。
他走进昏暗的车库,里面落满了汽车零件、破布和油脂。隐形眼镜提供了他的血统缺乏的低光视觉,让他能够轻巧地绕开障碍物,不让油污碰到三件套(其中一件,外套,挂在了临时卧室的椅子上——不穿外套能够展示他的细条纹马甲)里裁剪得体的裤子。他能感受到周围的惊讶和紧张感。他没有回应,一遍遍告诉自己要沉着、随意、慵懒,哪怕他确定至少有两杆枪指着他。
满是弹痕的车子上挂着的一盏工作等附近传来一个声音。“你他妈什么人?”
“生活一个粗俗时代的悲剧,”小丑回答,“便是往日所有秽语所具有的侵越之力都已遗失。过去你那尤其轻微的咒骂或许能强调恶意,而在我们生活的这个世界,不过是寻常标点。意义变为毫无意义。”
“什么鬼?”黑暗中的声音回应。
一个更低沉的声音说话了。“不用管。干了他。”
小丑不确定镇定自若看枪开火的才能是他独有的。的确,他练习了很久,漫长而恐怖的时间,但躲避子弹是根植于人类本能的动作,不可能轻易将它改写。许多个夜晚他都在担心雇主可能会如何改变了自己,之后因无法发现他们可能做了什么而绝望。无论他的无畏感是如何获得的,当子弹朝他的方向射来时,他的姿势没有变。他的情绪没有波动。
子弹停在半空,落在前方的地板。
“还有这些子弹。如此寻常。就像逗号。”
他的手做出一个爆炸的动作,里面这台车子的挡风玻璃炸裂,玻璃碎片四散。玻璃落到地面时藏在影子里的人发出短暂的尖叫。
小丑等他们安静下来,然后开口。“某个时刻你们会完全意识到我是认真的,接着你们会决定听我说话。你们面前唯一的问题是需要多久,以及在那个时刻之前我要做什么。”
再次安静,接着是低语声。
“说你要说的,”比较低沉的那个声音说。
真是可悲。有第三个在小丑身后移动,虽然他没出声。难道他只给买不起装备的低级犯罪干活?他的脚摩擦水泥地的声音就如同小丑脸上的红方块一样明显。
小丑没有转身。他站得更直,扯了扯马甲下摆,仿佛准备发言。第三个人跳起来。撞到小丑身后隐形的墙壁。他被自己的力道撞倒在肮脏的地板上。
小丑依然没有转身。“信息是这样的:知道你们的位置。你们的胃口太大了。你们可以从所有中间商那里偷车,留下所有的收益。但你们爬太高了。不要再向上爬了。往下几格,否则我会从下面砍掉你们的梯子。”
小丑知道接下来是他们否认自己对他们的掌控权、相信他们的实力。
比较尖的声音先说话。“你以为秀点魔法把戏就能发号施令了?狗屎,没门。”
小丑戏剧化地叹口气。“我不会对你们撒谎说我希望情况会更好。但这么久以来,我依然准备好让人性给我惊喜。也许某一天吧。现在我可以用些更花哨的魔法,或者在不触碰你们的情况下捏住你们喉咙掐断你们的氧气,可虽然这么做很有趣,但长远利益有限。因此我继续说好消息,如下:你们破产了。没钱了。你们个人和你们的职业。我本会说希望没给你们带来太多不便,可这是撒谎。”
更多低语,接着是检查只有他们能看的ARO的动作。反应来得很快。
“操!操操操操操操操操操操操操!”
又是低语,听不见,但小丑确信差不多是“他干了什么?”
比较低沉的声音不低沉了,也打算隐藏。“我的私人账户、秘密账户、我们的工作账户——见鬼,只要是有钱的地方,他都拿走了!该!”
奥斯卡放心了——但不惊讶——钱依照计划被转走。他的雇主在阴影中活动,但至少擅长完成他们的计划。“我猜这个漂亮设施的工作账户不是你们个人的资金,”小丑说。“我猜是别人的钱——某个指望再见到这些钱的人,对吗?”
接下来是短暂的停顿。“行吧,我不知道你是什么鬼,但你等于杀掉我们了。你知道的吧?没了那些钱,我们就是死人了。”
小丑耸耸肩。“一句污言从人生的手稿里剔除。”
“等等,等等,等等,你太快了!你知道我们不能被一个进来放点魔法的人吓到,但是行,你展示了你是来真的。我们会缩小规模,行吧?我会告诉老板。把钱回来,行吗?我们只是偷车的。你没必要弄出人命。”
“我要做的不过是向你们展示自身选择的后果。你说你想改主意?”
那人停顿片刻,如果被自尊噎住一般答道:“是的,该死的。”
“我将仁慈地允许你做出改变。犯错乃人之常情,宽恕为吾之职责。”
“这句话不是这么说的,”声音比较尖的人说,可能是放松下来了。
小丑打个响指,墙上两米高位置的三扇窗户应声而破。
“今天是。”
接下来只是交涉——老实说更像是小丑下指示而不是讨论——接着奥斯卡迈着胜利而轻松的步子离开。

他干过差不多十次了,但每次结束后,他都想蜷成一个球发出悲鸣,但也想走进拥挤的街道让其他人目睹他的伟大。如果说他的情绪有脾气的话,那么会在工作结束后出现,他的情绪从高到低,如此反复。他想去酒吧,想躲在没人看见的角落里喝掉整瓶苏格兰威士忌,也想和酒吧里每个迷人的对象搭讪,无论他们是什么性别。
虽然还没有找到协调两种对抗冲动的方法,但他注意到每次工作都让炫耀的冲动变得更强烈。
当然,他不能不花点时间洗掉油彩、移掉假耳朵、换上普通打扮就进到公共场所。他已经熟悉了流程,因此只花了了十分钟就能出去见人。
他开到羽石,CAS区一家舒适、低调、没有游客和美食家的餐馆。食物简单朴素,酒类名字普通但量大。
晚上这时候主厅已经关门,有六名顾客坐在酒吧里。有个老男人,戴一顶看起来是在20世纪买的浅顶软呢帽,盯着可能还剩两三滴酒的玻璃杯。一个男人和一个女人坐在昏暗的角落里,装作放松实际上在寻找任何最好不要看到他们在一起的人。剩下三个挤在一张小桌子边,桌上摆了十个空的和四个满的杯子。他们显然叫了几轮酒告诉酒保(一位目光疲惫的兽人女性,穿着有污渍的白色上移和某个跨国产业链的围裙,这就酒吧不属于其中)别管他们。她看起来十分乐意。
面前有空杯子的三人有一个精灵男性、一个兽人男性和一个矮人女性。他们声音很低,他们阻止其他人靠近的眼神很专业。但他们不是觉醒者,而创造一条把他们的声音送到奥斯卡耳边的通道不是什么困难的把戏。
“——不是说在地上有耳目,”矮人说。“事情发生前街头没有人知道。没有提前预报。要是我们靠街头流言获得显示,就错过了。”
“能成的唯一方法是我们拿到的信息是真的,”兽人说。“你们信约翰逊先生吗?”
“当然不信,但我信自己。如果他撒谎了,我会发现调整计划。随时计划才是我们的风格。”
精灵开口。“如果以为你能适应一切状况,你想得太少了。”
矮人耸耸肩。“逃跑也是适应。要是有必要我就会跑。”
“如果他们比你快呢?”
“如果他们比我快,我比他们隐蔽。如果他们比我隐蔽,我比他们快。没人能把像我一样把两者结合。”
“矮人可不是以速度快闻名的。”
“因为没多少人认识我。”
“这样,态度很重要。不是说不重要。但只有在现场的态度,不是和朋友坐在桌子边的态度。”奥斯卡意识到之前话已经从他口里说了出来。
“就当练习,”矮人说。
奥斯卡往后靠,一边摸下巴一边注视矮人。兽人伸手拍拍他的肩。他没想到已经到了能被兽人碰到的位置,但事实如此。
“你没法用说的改变他的态度,”他说,“话就这么多。”
奥斯卡歪着脑袋说:“这是不擅长此道的人说的。”
酒吧里最暗的角落里,那个女人狠狠地拍桌子。她穿了一件缺了右边袖子的黑色紧身衬衫,露出一只缎光黑丝赛博臂。桌子可能被拍掉了一片。
“我需要的不只是说话!”她说。她旁边的男人慌乱地看向周围,并伸手拉住她的左臂把她拉回椅子。
她稍微安静了一点,但还是大声。“假如我需要有谁破坏承诺,整个世界都能帮忙。你应该和他们不同。你的行动很重要。他们说了你真正是什么。”
男人的嘴巴动了动,但看起来他把声音压得很低,因为没有声音穿过桌子边缘。
女人摇摇头。“你不能靠解释解决。我知道发生了什么。我想要弄懂为什么。”
戴浅底软呢帽的男人瞪着他的酒。“堂客之扰啊。”
“堂客?说真的?”奥斯卡问。
戴浅底软呢帽的男人稍稍抬头,正好能用冻死鲸鱼的眼神瞪着奥斯卡。“有问题?”
“没有。只是我不知道这这个世纪还有人用这个词。”
“我用自己的说话方式。你不喜欢,和别人说话去。”
“当然。我都不记得我为什么要和你说话。”
“因为这里都是丑角和小鬼,你知道我是唯一可能告诉你真实的人。”
奥斯卡向后靠。他试着露出好笑和冷漠的表情,但脑子嗡嗡作响。他希望后靠能让世界稳定下来。“我知道吗?你打算给我什么真相?”
男人再次抬起头。他的虹膜和瞳孔仿佛没有分界。“世界不是无意义的。人们做事总有理由。有时是愚蠢的理由,但有理由。理解这些理由,你就理解了世界。”
“可能有点超出我的能力,”奥斯卡说。“世界很大。”
“那么至少理解件事,”兽人狂奔者说。“汽车销赃点。简单活——稍微威胁一下,让手伸太长的恶棍知道自己的位置。为什么这么麻烦?”
奥斯卡在椅子上挪了挪,稍微远离兽人和他的队伍。消息怎么传得这么快?
“是标点,”精灵说。“保证信息带上了感叹号。”
兽人点头。“大概是,但正确传递信息总不错。简单的做法是:‘注意你的位置。’但还有更好的。首先是‘我知道你们在干什么。’接下来是,‘我能处理你。’不需要文字信息,但很重要——可能比真正说出口的更重要。”
“信使和信息同样重要,”精灵补充。“这是问题的一部分——为什么是他?”
“为什么是她?”女人说。“因为她在?可能你觉得不可能遵守承诺,或者不愿意,什么都好,但如果是这样,告诉我。不要把我甩来甩去。”
那个男人,还有他的服装,不出声响地动了动嘴。接着把脸埋在菜单后面。
“也许对你来说只是游戏。也许整个事情都是,一场大游戏。钱是得分,但也是……该怎么说……战利品。永远进行的游戏,没有赢的方法,因此结束不了。”
男人没有会议,但奥斯卡觉得这种话,从一个明显生气的人口中说出,不会就这么挂着。他眨几下眼,去除晕眩感,靠近她。
“哪怕有的人这样对待生活,你也不必,”他说。“你永远遵从他人的规则。”
女人的嘴角微微移动,在其它场合可能会是微笑。
“你当然要遵从。除非打算独自一人。”
“我们都是孤独的。”
她的微笑变得苦涩。“你是想给我打气还是让我更绝望?”
奥斯卡耸耸肩。“只是让你不想那个混蛋。”
男人放下菜单,奥斯卡缩了回去。他有一张小丑的脸,白色的油彩,眼睛位置是红色方片,放射状的眉毛,诡异的笑容。奥斯卡认得这张脸。他见过这张脸,或者说是这张脸的模仿品,在镜子里见过许多次。他向后一缩准备好站起来逃跑,接着意识到是光线的错觉。那人是有点苍白,但在女人说了那些话之后谁能怪他呢?可他没有红色方片,没有咧嘴笑。奥斯卡一定是太累了,或是压力太大了,才会看错。他深吸一口气,坐回椅子。
“爱唯一真实的部分,就是失去,”戴浅底软呢帽的男人说。“剩下的只是你强迫自己去相信的传说。你乞求你的情绪去相信的故事。”
“你在脑子里练习过这些句子吗?”奥斯卡问。
“被他人愚弄不好,但愚弄自己则是难堪得多。沉迷于一个接一个的幻象,因为你不愿看穿。”
“而你知道真相,你被真相困住了?独自在垃圾酒吧里喝酒?”
“让我远离束缚。”
“你的意思是你没有可以失去的东西,”奥斯卡说。他伸出右手挠脖子左边,手指停止动作后手还留在那里。
他好奇地看着搭在左肩上的右手。它抬起了一两厘米,稍稍前后晃动。有什么很轻但扎人的东西擦过他的脸。他集中注意力。是线——也可能是是绳子——从手背连到天花板。线就到天花板吗?还是继续向上?他无法分辨。不只一根。他的手背有一根线,每根手指、手肘都有线。线拉扯,他的手向上。接着他的左手也向上,因为左手也连着同样的线。他的双手张开,手臂举过头,掌心向下,形成一个奇怪的姿势,好像要飞起来,但却不知道该怎么扇翅膀。也没意识到他的手臂不是翅膀。
虽然他十分别扭,他升了起来。只离地五厘米左右,但他只有伸直脚踝才能碰到地板。接着他可以用脚趾蹭地板。他挂在那里,轻轻摇晃。
戴浅底软呢帽的男人往上看,几乎空掉的玻璃杯还在他手上。“他们在利用你。把你变成玩具。他们一定知道会发生什么。你一定知道我回来。可你还是去做了。我本会花时间好奇你是愚蠢还是鲁莽,但我再也不认为两者有什么去不了。重要的是,你知道你在轨道上走,如果你一直走,总会看见火车朝你开来。听见汽笛声你不会惊讶。”
奥斯卡突然落在一把椅子上。他试图假装坠落和疼痛都很自然。
“你收到了这样的信息,你要回应,”兽人说。“回应是什么?”
“问题是,”矮人靠过来。“我们认识信使。但是谁的信息?”
“没错,这个要紧,”精灵说。“‘不要惹我’这种信息,如果你不知道‘我’是谁就没什么意义。”
“如果你被告知不要越界,你最好知道界在哪里,”戴浅底软呢帽的男人继续说。“这是我要说的。信息不完整。”
“为什么要送一条信息但不送整条信息呢?”
“因为你在玩游戏,”女人说。“而不是维持一段关系。后者,你要说话。要交流。前者,你会做蠢事,想诸如‘我动完了。球在她的场地’这种蠢话。随便你喜欢什么蠢比喻。这是小孩干的,成年人不干。”
她得到了另一个无声的回应。
“问题是,你想让我按照你的规则来玩,让我走你预测到的一部,或者你喜欢的一步。如果我走另一步,你会生气。但如果这是我的动作,我能够按照我他妈的想法行动。
线回来了,扯着奥斯卡的手,掌心朝下,扯到肩膀高度。接着他的背、脖子都有线在扯。。先是他的臀部离开椅子,接着脚离开地面。他低头看——脚已经离地有半米了,就这么快。
女人不得不抬头看他。“缺乏信仰是我们这个时代的瘟疫。你相信什么吗?你愿意为什么而死?你要为了大义去死吗?”
三个狂奔者冷静地掏出武器。奥斯卡发誓他们每个人都有三到四只手臂,因为看来有一整支行刑队地枪管对准了他。但枪管里只有子弹。他可以挡掉。他知道怎么做。他开始积聚法力。
尖叫如同钻头一半穿过骨骼直达颅腔。他咬紧牙关,感觉牙正在碎裂。他开启星界感官,却只看见了刚进酒吧时就该看到的东西。魔法。到处都是魔法。他或许是酒吧里唯一真实的东西。就连这点他也不敢确信。
心跳加速。呼吸变成喘息,他的耳朵几乎要听见有节奏的回声。他错过了重要信息,现在要付出代价了。
男人方向遮住自己的菜单。小丑脸回来了。红色方片闪着湿油彩的光泽。笑容扭曲得如同蠕行得蛇。
“你有胆,”小丑说。“我的第一个想法是把它挖出来。”
奥斯卡考虑回答,但有新的线绑住了他的嘴唇,不成词句的闷哼似乎有太过没尊严。
“我想要是我们打算交谈的话我得处理一下那个,”小丑继续说。他轻弹手指。奥斯卡嘴上的线从右边松开了,向前扭动,拉扯其它线。没有麻醉剂,奥斯卡能感觉到它毫米一毫米地在嘴唇里拉扯、摩擦、撕裂它的皮肤。线终于全部出来了,他移动自己的手到嘴边。线扯了一下,接着松开,他能够抚摸嘴唇。把手移开后,他惊讶地发现没有血迹。他也有点惊讶地发现自己回到了地面,坐在椅子上。
他扭动、抿紧嘴唇,开口说:“你可以直接让线消失的。没必要用麻烦的方式。”
小丑放低下巴,瞪着他,没说话。
奥斯卡叹口气。“你不能。我懂。我理解。”他稍微动动脚趾头——挂在半空中会让脚趾发麻。
“我猜这是封停止侵害信,”奥斯卡继续说,比较小丑还没开口。“为什么呢?商标侵权?身份盗用?”他把脖子扭到左边,又扭到右边。“我猜真正的理由不重要。可接下来?我保证不再犯?你杀掉我?我们接下来怎么办?”
小丑走到戴浅底软呢帽的男人面前,他是唯一一个还坐在酒吧里的人。他做到男人桌子边,抓起突然满上的玻璃杯。快速仰头,玻璃杯又空了。他伸手拍男人的肩。
男人抬头,取下帽子,露出奥斯卡的脸,没有油彩。
奥斯卡想象两个自己并排坐。“我不知道你想让我干什么。”
小丑手上出现一副牌,长的牌,背后后灰色和绿色的龙还有鸟。他把它们一张一张放在桌上。
“倒吊人,”小丑翻开第一张牌。他的声音如同磨砂纸。“变革正在来临。新的伙伴和与旧伙伴冲突。”下一张。“宝剑1。切开迷惑。克服欺骗。获得解答。”下一张。“宝剑7,意思是用欺骗对付欺骗。”下一张。“愚者。或者叫杂种。自己挑喜欢的名字。麻烦制造者,混沌之力。”
最后一张牌,是一个眼睛上有红色方片的小丑踩在一个扒在破碎的办公楼窗户边缘的男人的手上。
“解读不错,”奥斯卡说。“你打算说服我你没有事先排好牌吗?”
小丑笑了,嘴角边缘似乎要碰到他的耳朵。“否则我为什么用牌呢?”
他把右手放在杂种牌上,上面那个很像他的男人从破碎的窗户向外望。他缓慢地转动牌。“逆位。正位。逆位。正位。”随着每次转动他念道。“积极或消极。好或坏。”
奥斯卡依然被吊着,但紧张感、加速的心跳、占据大脑的迷雾都消失了。宝剑1的解答切开了一切。
“什么会让这个变好?”他问。
“要你告诉我,”小丑说。“我行动了。这是牵着你的木偶线的人想要的。我相信他们准备好了回应。是什么?”
奥斯卡几乎要摇头否认,突然一个声音,一阵剧烈的头痛,瞬间便消失了,他知道了。他知道信息是什么,他知道他该说什么,他感觉自己可能有选择,但大概没有吧。
“下面是信息的剩余部分,”奥斯卡说。“简说不只有你能按下按钮。”
他等待回应——惊讶、几个结结巴巴的词——接着想起了面对的是谁。小丑的指头都没动。他只是摇摇头,可能是悲伤,可能是失望。“真是兜圈子,”小丑说。“过于复杂了。”
“因为你就是有效率、直截了当?”奥斯卡说,接着不相信他说出口了。
小丑似乎不在意。“说得对。”他可能还微笑了。“性格弱点,我想是的。我习惯了作为这个世界上永不改变的事物之一,忘记了有时我也需要适应。那么。你不是学生,我不是导师。你想怎么定义我们的关系?”
奥斯卡停顿了,歪歪头,努力理解自己收到的信息。“我认为她觉得需要定义。太过——受限,我猜?”
奥斯卡甚至还没眨眼,小丑突然出现在他面前,露出牙齿,下巴低沉。他手中握着一把锯齿状、看起来很锋利的刀。
“我可以现在了结你,”他低吼道。“我可以在你进来时就了结你。”
接着,和刚才一样突然,小丑回到了椅子,摸着下巴,看起来在沉思。
“你不怕。一点都不怕。为什么你不怕?”
“我……”奥斯卡停下来思考。“我不知道。”
小丑站起来走向奥斯卡。顺畅、不着急的步伐。奥斯卡有一部分大脑说或许他该担心。他尝试担心为什么不担心,但没有用。
小丑懒散地在奥斯卡头上挥挥手。“有连我都看不见地线。为了给我留下印象真是大费周章。约束一个人来展示你的自由。”他走开乌布,接着转过来重新面对奥斯卡。“我要假装简在听。简,你还记得去罗格斯索斯(Roggoth’Shoth)吗?我们看到了普通的岩石,上面有微弱的灵感?你问我那是什么,我不肯告诉你。你很不高兴,开始所谓我不把你当成年人的演讲——好像成年人是个怎么对待一个人的水位标记似的。但你发现了,不是吗?”
奥斯卡保持沉默,等着被赋予知识。“尸体。是尸体。”
“哀伤之战的遗物,傻瓜用我们现在不了解的魔法玩火自焚,假如世界上还有慈悲,我们永远不会再学到。虽然慈悲不是我会花功夫希望的东西。但如果他们死了,为什么还有灵光?已经过了这么久?”
奥斯卡再次等待答案。来得很慢。
“因为他们没有完全死去。石化的皮肤里依然存留有某种形式的生命。他们在那里坐了许多世纪,不能动弹地忍受痛苦。”
“你对这份知识的反应呢?它如何影响了你的研究领域?”
又一次漫长的停顿。“我知道那是什么之后再也没回去。我不能忍受走在他们中间。”
小丑轻蔑而厌恶地挥挥手。“人类感性的弱点。我们不该拥有。你对过去死者的同情让你无法学习在将来能够阻止人们死亡的东西。愚蠢,但我知道你会落入陷阱。如果事实会阻止你学习,我的工作就是让你远离它们。”
“我不是来争吵的,”奥斯卡说出快速送达的话语。“好吧,我都没来,但没关系。你知道的没有你以为的多。你设下陷阱,但没有逮住我。你甚至不知道背后是我,如果我不说你就不会知道。你再也不能决定我能知道什么。我不是你的木偶,这些也不是你的牵线。”
小丑僵硬地站起身,点了一次头。“是的,这个木偶是你的。他会怎么样呢?”
奥斯卡继续等待答案。没有。他接着等,但是开始感到尴尬。他不喜欢这样,可至少他终于能感觉到点东西了。如果他要给出答案,必须是他自己的答案。
“或许我们可以让我成长为一个真正的男孩,”他说。
小丑或许露出了一丝微笑,也可能只是化妆。
“你被可怕地操纵了,”小丑说。“有什么比这更能让人成长呢?”
奥斯卡没有好的答案。
“你做这些事情的时候你知道你在招惹麻烦,”小丑说。“可你还是照做了。要么你的情绪不受你掌控,要么你有豹子胆。我不会因为任何一个原因惩罚你。”
他打个响指。“但我会稍稍惩罚一下。我能想到的最合适的惩罚。成为我吧。”
酒吧变了。变得空旷、锁闭、废弃。奥斯卡四处环顾,惊呆了。到处都没有水或酒的痕迹。只有一组灰尘里的脚印,看起来是他的尺寸,是他的鞋踩出来的。他站在那里,双腿发软。他一动不动,直到恢复一些力气后,慢慢地朝门走去,门是半开的。
他在吧台后一块碎掉的镜子里瞥见了自己。脸是白的,眼睛周围是红色方片。他向前跑,想看得更仔细,几乎被椅子的残骸绊倒。揉揉脸,没有被擦掉。他试着消解法术,没有用。
他看向门。外面是黑的。外面有人认识小丑,或者至少知道他是什么。他必须要小心,但如果谁发现他躲在黑暗里,像是要躲藏的样子——不行。可走到外面也不像个好主意。
门外的十字路口没有车,交通灯缓慢地转成绿色、黄色、红色,再从头来过。他盯着灯,思考该去哪里。
他曾经扮演小丑;现在他必须成为小丑。

剧透 -   :
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.
If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's probably an Andrik