A high school student finds a grimoire that shows how to make magical disguises.
|Previously: "Hand Off, Face Off"
You stare at the work table, where you last saw the book. It's gone.
"I dunno," you stammer, playing for time. "You're the last one that had it, weren't you?"
Caleb gives you a look. "Yes, and I left it right here." He taps the table top.
"Well, don't look at me!" you exclaim. "I didn't touch it! You must have moved it somewhere else and forgot!"
Caleb sighs, starts peering around the basement. You pretend to help him, looking inside desk drawers and under stacks of furniture.
You make sure to check the drawer where you left the four twenty-dollar bills. They're gone as well.
And Chen didn't leave anything in their place.
Son of a bitch! you fume to yourself. That slimy, double-crossing, cock-sucking son of a bitch!
He must have taken the book, too, though how he got it out of the basement you don't understand. You locked the door after he came out, and he wasn't carrying it when you ambushed him.
But though you and Caleb make a very systematic search, you can't find it. Caleb grows more and more angry. It's not until you catch him shooting dirty looks, though—looks that say, I know you carried it off, cocksucker, what are you up to?—that you break down and come clean.
"Chen must have carried it off with him," you finally admit.
"What?" Caleb says. "What are you talking about?"
"Gary Chen. I met him out here. We came down into the basement." You swallow hard as Caleb's eyes narrow. "Yeah, the book was down here, we saw it. He even touched it, said something about it. He must have—"
"God damn it, Will!" Caleb explodes. "The fuck were you even doing down here with—? I mean, what the fuck?"
"Well, we weren't down here fucking, if that's what you're thinking!" you scream back. That tactic—a blistering counterassault—almost always works on Gordon, but it doesn't work on Caleb, and he just glowers back at you. "I had some business to talk over with him, is all!" You hiccup. "The weed. I was trying to sell it back to him. Part of it. We came out here to make a deal—"
"Why here, of all fucking places?" Caleb demands.
You squirm. "Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time! It was—"
You suddenly remember the mind-strip that you got off Chen, and pull it from your pocket. Caleb asks, "What's that?"
"It's the reason I asked him out here. It's a copy of his brain." You show him the strip.
"Oh, fuck!" Caleb looks like he's going to vomit. "Why the hell would you want to—?"
"Because his stash disappeared on me." You stare at the metal band, over which floats not a name but an ornate cluster of Chinese characters. "I moved it up into the loft—the fuck room, you know—and now it's gone. I was wondering if Chen broke in and took it and, so I thought if I copied his memories—"
Caleb turns purple.
"How much goddamn ass-fuckery have you been getting up to behind my back?"
* * * * *
You explain it to him as best you can—your plot to sell the weed back to Chen a bit at a time while collecting a 50% commission on sales by steering new customers to him; and how you copied Stephanie Wyatt as a disguise to ambush Chen when you suspected him of stealing the stash from the gym loft; and of meeting him earlier. Your story leaves Caleb clutching his head with horror.
When you're done, he snatches the metal strip from you and slaps it onto his own forehead. The sequel would have been even more horrifying if it hadn't also been ludicrous: Caleb woke and, after getting himself centered, tried channeling Gary Chen at you. You told him he was being ridiculous when he started talking at you like a bad-ass gangbanger, you finally put a stop to his nonsense by forcing him to look at himself in the mirror. He shriveled right up, and with a sour expression on his face sat down to tear the mind-strip off himself. He shuddered all over when he woke again, and told you that having Chen in his head was like being zipped up inside a sleeping bag with a hundred tarantulas.
But at least you learn that Chen did take the book from the basement, and that he didn't break into the fuck room to steal the weed back. So why did he steal a book that was just sitting out randomly in the middle of an old school basement? Because he's a fucking sociopath, Caleb snarled when you asked.
And now he's a sociopath with your book of magical disguises. And you don't have any blank masks you can use to trick it away from him, and no way to make more.
* * * * *
"God, this is such a bad idea," you mutter.
"It better work, Will," Stephanie hisses back. "Or I'm going to kick your ass so hard you'll have to shit through your ears."
It's not Stephanie, of course. It's Caleb, wearing the mask you made of the basketball player. Something's gone wrong with it, he complained after getting it on, because he can't get the memories that should be in it. Maybe you're just a retard, you shot back, because you had them fine when you wore the mask this morning.
But Caleb isn't the only one disguised for this visit. So are you. Sort of: You've taken off Chelsea's mask and have put on Caleb's clothes, so that you're approaching Chen under your own face. You shrilly argued against the idea when Caleb suggested that you go as yourself, but had to give up when he pointed out (so logical is he!) that there's someone else now sleeping in your house and taking your classes, so that if "Will Prescott" gets in trouble with Chen, it will be that other "Will Prescott" who'll take the brunt of it, not you. "You're totally safe, Will," he honked at you. "You're Chelsea Cooper now, so your real face is a disguise!"
And you're both in "disguise" because you're striding up the walk to the small but neatly kept house where Gary Chen lives.
You got a cluster of texts from him while you and Caleb were talking. The first—Wats with ur crazy bitch frend steaphnie u tell her I don't fuckin play her stupid cunt games or fuck her—was alarming enough because it implied that Chen had talked to Stephanie already. The last was even more terrifying because because of rage that that blazed out from behind its froth of gibberish: Ur cunt fend Stephanie says no deal so duck her n fuck u n eat shit bitch I not playing fucknw u blow me f I u want something I will fuck u up if u screw me.
The door is answered by a small woman who looks like Chen to the extent that she too is Chinese, and when you ask for "Gary" she shouts back into the house. Chen appears behind her. His expression goes blank when he sees you, but it darkens when it latches onto Stephanie.
"Hey," she says to him, "me and Will were driving by and wanted to stop and see if you wanted to hang out."
One of his eyelids flickers. Then, calmly and politely, he says, "Yeah, sure, let's take a walk, I'll show you around the neighborhood." He slides past his mom, pulls the door shut, and leads you back down to the street. "I ain't apologizing for anything I said to you over the phone," he mutters under his breath.
"That's alright," Stephanie says. "It's probably better to talk like this. Sorry about what happened at the old school, by the way."
Chen mutters something under his breath.
"So I saw that you got the money I left there for you," the girl continues.
"Oh, did you leave some money there, Stephanie?" Chen says in a tone of mock surprise. "You know, I found some but I didn't know it was yours. Do you want it back?"
"'Cos I don't take things that don't belong to me, you know, but I saw those bills and I thought maybe I should pick them up and keep them safe until I find out who they belong to and—"
"Cut the crap, man," Stephanie snaps. "If you wanna give it back, I'll take it back. But there was something else down in that basement, you know. A book."
"A book?" Chen echoes. "I didn't know you could read, Stephanie. I thought you just held guys down and punched them until they did your homework for them."
"That sounds more like your—" Stephanie catches herself. "There was a book down there, and now it's gone. You remember the book."
"Nope! Can't say I do!"
"It doesn't belong to me," Stephanie says. "It belongs to Will here. So if you think you're getting back at me by taking it, you're wrong."
Chen turns to give you a very long and steady look. You almost shit yourself. I would not want to be my replacement come Monday, you think.
But no matter how Stephanie argues and cajoles him—you keep silent—Chen refuses to admit to taking anything but some twenty-dollar bills from the basement.
And you don't even get those back before giving up and leaving.
* * * * *
That evening, back inside Chelsea's mask and in her bedroom, you send Chen a text. It's a last, desperate throw when you tell him that you talked to Stephanie, and that you'd do Chen "a solid" if he gave that book back to its owner.
You shiver when he replies, What kind of solid?
Before you can come to grips with his implied meaning, you get a second text from him, asking to meet up at Westside.
* To meet with Chen: "Ambushed and Bushwhacked"
* To blow him off: "The Song of Yourself"