I stand as a statue among statues. I am one more gargoyle in a collection of gargoyles. I watch and am watched across a distance filled with perfumed air and gentle laughter. Rooms away, a jazz band strikes up a modern tune. With hearing beyond that of man or beast, I hear Lorna floors above frightening guests with tales of her latest acquisitions from South America.
I can always find Lorna’s voice no matter the surrounding noise. She is always the one graceful note amid cacophony.
Lorna shows the guests the shrunken head from Borneo. Men gasp. Women scream. And then there is laughter. It is, after all, only a small, dead thing from half a world away. It is a tamed fear like the Bantu spears on the wall, the French guillotine in the corner, the Grand Guignol poster by the stairwell depicting a woman menaced by a masked maniac, and an etching hung by the window titled Hell by Eduard Wiiralt depicting nightmarish, humanoid faces staring out from their black world.
What Lorna shows the guests are theatrical scares. Halloween and ghost story scares.
But I wonder how they would react if they learned that evil did not have to be so exotic and so distant?
How would they react if they knew that evil grew wild and untamed in their city, grew fat and powerful like tigers in the darkest of jungles?
I imagine there would be very little laughter--very little laughter indeed.
The social elite of Mainline City pass by me radiant and gaudy in their opulent finery. They regard me with curious, mirthful eyes. I am as amusing to them as the shrunken head.
“This one.” A plump man with a pink tie says to his personal cloud of friends as he waves his pudgy fingers toward the hara-kiri sword resting in its black sheathe. “This one she picked up in the )rient. From Japan! It’s a sword they use to kill themselves with. You dishonor yourself, you got to take up this sword and thwack! Right in the gut!”
“Thank god you aren’t Japanese then, Alan!” A woman cries.
“God.” A man behind the man with the pink tie takes a sip from his cool drink. “I can’t help but shiver looking at things like this--like that guillotine she keeps upstairs. Death things and dead things everywhere you look! It feels like I’m walking through a cemetery every time I come here.”
“Then why do you keep coming Johnny?” A woman asks.
He shrugs, and nearly tips his drink onto the carpet from carelessness. “Eh. I guess it's kind of fun--like walking through a haunted house but with the lights on. It's a lot less dusty at any rate!”
Once, years ago, I thought Lorna was like these people. I thought she was a debutante seeking stimulation from tamed horrors. I thought she was the type to like looking at lions from the safety of zoo cages.
But I was wrong. Oh how wrong I was!
She is like Ram and I. Death is her passion. Death is her art. She places her hand on the lion and is not afraid. She is never afraid. I have tried making her afraid and failed. I, who have reduced cold blooded murderers to sobbing infants, cannot frighten her.
She has seen me as I am. She has seen me with blood dripping from my metal claws. She has seen the bodies. She has cleaned my wounds.
And she is not afraid.
In The Faerie Queen by Edmund Spenser, there is a character named Una. Completely without sin, she traveled with two companions--a ferocious lion tamed by her goodness and the Red Cross Knight, an idealized embodiment of the knightly code of chivalry.
Lorna is Una, and she believes me to be the lion and prays me to be the knight.
But I am neither.
I am nothing so noble as a knight or a lion.
I am another character from the novel--Talus, the metal man. Talus, whose heart was a cold lump, whose skin had no softness, who was justice without mercy, and who I am if I am anything at all.’
He killed evildoers.
That was all he did. That was all he could do.
That is how I am.
Lorna, poor Lorna, is drawn to me. And I fear that I am drawn to her.
If there is a just God, I hope he punishes me for attracting an angel to the depths of my private Hell.
“Hey Philip! Where did Lorna pick this one up?” A woman stinking of perfume points at me and laughs in my face. Others join her.
With my superhuman sense of smell, I am assaulted by a cloud of complexities. Every ingredient in her drink, every sent in her perfume, every medication she takes to dull the growing cancer in her stomach--I smell it all.
I calmly sip my water.
Water is about all I can stand to drink these days--and only if its thoroughly filtered.
“Oh this one?” A man with a white trilby and blond curls steps to the woman’s side and waves his finger in my face.
I know this man to be Philip Bartholomew Tyro. I have been meaning to talk with him.
“Yeah Phil!” The woman says. “You’ve been to Childe manor more than a few times. You know where this one’s from?”
Philip looks over sagacious, humble Lee Walker. He looks over Lee Walker’s graying hair and wrinkles. He looks over Lee Walker’s cheap, grey suit.
He looks over the soft base upon which I construct my other self.
“This one...well I got to say, it doesn’t look as bad as the others. He almost looks human!”
As with previous laughter, I watch with all the boredom a lion has for what gapes at him beyond his cage.
Mistaking my impassivity for offence, Philip offers his hand.
“Hey now Mr. Walker, we’re just clowning around ya know? No hard feelings?”
I shake his hand. I am polite. “Hello.” I say. “No hard feelings Philip. Welcome to our house. I hope you enjoy the party.”
Philip Bartholomew Tyro. I have known this man for some time.
He is an important, though innocent, key in my latest strategy against organized crime. I need to use him. I will use him. But how exactly I will use him remains to be seen.
When I first came to Mainline City several years ago, there was a man named Mal Gideon who ruled over Mainline from the shadows. In every vice and every evil he had a hand. Human misery was his stock and trade. I hunted him for three years during which he ordered the death of a noble friend of mine. I retaliated in a terrible rage and destroyed him utterly in a way that men find hard to describe. In the wake of his passing, a new criminal tyrant has risen to take up his underworld fiefdom--seemingly.
In the power vacuum left in the wake of Mal Gideon, his name echoes.
Oswald Marvin, CEO of Highborn Banking.
It echoes from the lips of poolhall drunks and alleyway prostitutes, in unaddressed letters handled only with gloves, in secret ledgers, from the mumblings of flophouse derelicts, and from the confessions of criminals that do not feel safe even behind bars.
Highborn Banking is a nexus for criminal finances the country over. Where Mal Gideon acquired and held power by knowing as many bloody secrets as possible, Highborn Banking acquires and holds power by diffusing its secrets. Accountants and managers take blood money from button men and bank robbers nationwide and wash it in a sea of transactions. No one man has all the power. No one man has all the guilt. Some are even completely innocent.
Highborn Banking calls no shots and makes no plays. It simply moves the money. Oswald Marvin is CEO, but I have no idea what that really means. Oswald Marvin is a fat insect in the center of a web of violence--but I do not know if he’s a spider or a fly. Does he spin the web, or is he caught in it?
Mainline’s criminals have adapted to me. I made an unholy example of Mal Gideon and in doing so I have taught Mainline’s criminals not to have an Al Capone. I am known to never harm an innocent man and to only kill those that spill innocent blood and so I have taught Mainline’s criminals to usa a network of innocents as a shield.
But though they adapt, I adapt in turn.
Philip Tyro is part of my latest adaptation.
How exactly I will use him remains to be seen. But I will use him. Ram calls me the “master of men” because I move all men in my proximity, even my enemies, to serve my own ends.
Some men become my agents like the two I have at the party tonight--George Douglas, professional pickpocket who I helped turn professional watchmaker, and Arthur Gideon, relative to Mal Gideon who dedicated his life to my cause after I saved him from suicide. Some men become reluctant allies like police detective Michael Rose who finds my methods abhorrent but cause just. Years ago, he shot at me. Now he is content to tolerate my presence so long as it ultimately benefits the city. Some men become my enemies, and I set them against each other. I can harm indirectly. Not all my bloodshed comes from his claws and firearms. Some men become pawns. They will never know that I have used them. I meddle in their lives only in a slight, imperceptible way. I take something from their wallet. I read their ledger. I steal a key. They remain the safest and most innocent.
Through my spider-web of informants and agents and pawns, I have known Philip Tyro as a high-ranking banker in Highborn. I have known him as a fine arts enthusiastic with a particular interest in avant-garde architecture and the romantic revival movement fueled by the recent boom in the global superhuman population. I have known him as a jovial, good natured socialite who regularly attends not only Lorna’s parties but parties held by Oswald Marvin in what has so far been constructed of his latest and soon to be tallest skyscraper, the Apollion.
But tonight, I will know Philip Tyro as a man.
“Hell of a party!” Philip vigorously shakes my hand. “You know Mr. Walker, you should really see about getting Lorna to pin “Walker” at the end of her name….Hey huh?” His elbow jostles against a stitched wound. The pain is dull and itches.
“We find our living arrangements acceptable.” I reply.
“They also get people talking. But I suppose that’s part of the point right? To keep the socialites talking?”
I shrug. “People will talk. I imagine they’ll talk about Lorna and I no matter how we live.”
The crowd begins to fan out. Happy guests filled with wine go off to gape at dueling pistols and death masks.
“I suppose there are a few benefits to keeping the formality of marriage at bay.” Philip says. “Childe manor has a bit more of a ring to it than Walker manor.”
“I assure you that nothing you see is an affectation. What you see is simply how we are and what we are.”
“Forgive me Mr. Walker. I didn't mean to give the impression that you or Lorna were disingenuous in your tastes. I’m simply making banter. “ Philip waves his arm at a gargoyle perching over my head, corpse-white and leering. “No. It is very, very clear that you and Lorna are genuine bohemians.”
The gargoyle’s horned head rests on its clawed hands. Its smooth marble eyes watch all that unfolds beneath its glare.
We have much in common, this gargoyle and I. We like to hide in plain sight.
“That’s a colorful way of putting it.” I say. “Genuine bohemians. It sound pleasant.”
Philip points to the sword waiting dutifully in its sheath. “Why this hara-kiri stuff is crazy isn’t it? Tell me, was that sword really…”
“I’d be damned...Well, I guess when you don’t have guns you gotta make due with what you have right?”
“The Japanese had rifles.” I explain. “Dutch imports. But the ritual wasn’t meant to be painless. It was meant to redeem honor. Though there was a second who stood ready with another sword to end the participant's pain once the proper motions had been observed.”
“Two complete cuts across the abdomen were customary.”
Phil whistles. “Yeah you are Lorna’s boyfriend, aren’t you? How come you know so much about this stuff Mr. Walker?”
“I’ve long been fascinated, like Lorna has, with death. How men deal death, how men face death, and how men justify death. What you see with this oriental blade is one such justification. There is a warrior code from Japan called bushido. It is in deference to this code that men commit hara-kiri.”
“You really are a scholar at this stuff, you know that?”
I flash a sly smile. “I’m afraid Lorna would have nothing to do with me if I were not an expert in violence and grotesqueries”
“Gro-tes-curies huh? Nice word. I’ll have to remember it. So you’re interested in warrior codes huh? Like chivalry? I know about that one.
“Yes. Chivalry is a good comparison to bushido.”
“I’ve got an interest in warrior codes myself. Though I must confess my knowledge is rather limited compared to your own. May I ask you a question Mr. Walker?”
“Do you think warrior codes have anything to teach the modern man?”
“I suppose it would depend on what warrior code specifically.”
“Well, how about bushido?”
“I find the slavish devotion it requires on behalf of a vassal to his lord distasteful. A vassal, a samurai, must place his lord above himself, his family, and his entire life. I cannot abide a code that places one man so above another. And yet, there are aspects of bushido that are admirable. Its focus on selflessness, for instance.”
“How so?” Philip follows my conversation intently. It is good to see that Philip is not simply another reveler. The things in this house speak to him where to other men they are silent. This speaks of potential.
“There is a certain book Philip, written in the 18th century by a samurai named Tsunetomo, called the Hagakure. In it, Tsunetomo writes that the principle element of the samurai is that of being a man already dead. A man without a self.”
Or in my case, a man already dead twice over.
“A Japanese wrote that?”
“The Japanese can write?”
I stare blankly. “Yes Philip. The Japanese can write.”
He cracks a broad grin and I remember that I am at a party.
“Ahaha! Come now Mr. Walker, I’m nowhere near the orientalist you or Ms. Childe are, but I know a few things about Celestials. I get your point though.” Philip takes a long, thoughtful glance at the sword. “Bushido…No matter how you eh, cut it, its indeed a bloody barbarism by a bloody and barbaric race....but just between you and me Mr. Walker, I think our modern society could use a little bushido. I think our modern society could use a little barbarism.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Ego, Mr. Walker. Ego and the crippling aimlessness ego gives a man. People these days have no backbone, no humility, and no discipline. Because of this, fear spreads like flu and courage is hoarded like gold bullion. It’s fear that’s got the world by the neck and...I don’t suppose you’d mind if I voiced some political opinions Mr. Walker?”
“Go right ahead. Politics is a monstrosity and this is a house of monsters.”
“Ha! Well said Mr. Walker, well said! Man has grown soft, soft and malleable like clay. All our technology and superhuman saviors have made us soft. It’s like a muscle wasting away from disuse. And the few men that are strong...all they need to do to affect entire swaths of humanity is squeeze their fingers into a fist.”
I fear that I know where this conversation is heading. “You imply superhumans are these strong men?” I ask.