“The Spider & The Mantis”
A Masks Short Story
He watched her swim from their motel room’s porch balcony. The soft moonlight illumined the shimmering water, making her slim figure dance under water. She wore his favorite green two-piece which complimented nicely with her dyed, black hair. Her eyes remained closed and she wore a careless expression as she backstroked back and forth from one side of the pool to the other, while he drank up the sight of her, his insides ever boiling with envy for something he knew he never would enjoy.
“Quit staring and get in,” Sally cooed.
“Appointment will be here any minute now,” Frank grunted, nervously brushing his gelled, bleach-blonde hair.
“He’s keeping us waiting. Besides, you never get in,” she teased.
You know our arrangement, he wanted to say, though he knew better than to entertain the dialog any further, knowing that her persistent taunting would in fact lure him into the pool with her.
“I want us to leave town after this client,” Frank switched subjects.
Sally finished her lap to the side of the pool near him, and looked up with a consternated gaze.
“We have a good thing going, Frankie.”
“We’re running out of motels, Sally.”
“Then we leave Nymphis.”
“We’ve gotten lucky doing this routine in this crazy city. We pick up and move, people won’t think we’re vigilantes, or Masks, or whatever we are.”
“Is that what you think we are, Frankie?” She asked, batting her eyes at him. “Are we the good guys?”
Frankie bit his tongue. He at least pretended that they were. It helped him sleep at night when their work became difficult.
“Because I know that’s not what I am,” she said in a sultry voice, slowly pulling herself out from the pool. “And you were there to see it from the beginning.”
As she shot him a serious look, he remembered back to his freshman year in college, their first time ever exchanging words with one another, the one day he regretted the most of his entire life…
It was after one of his football games, after most teams and spectators had vacated the field. Frank had returned to the gridiron to look for his helmet, a symbolic totem he left on the bench in frustration for the lost game, for his failure as a linebacker.
“Should’ve left you out here,” he grumbled to his helmet, finding it on the bench.
“Should’ve just quit the game…”
That’s when he saw her, behind the bleachers, pinned to the turf by one of the away team’s running backs.
Seeing her struggle helplessly to buck the player twice her size, Frank did what he did best. He charged.
Frank tackled the running back full force, knocking the stranger off of her and crashing him to the turf. Frank winced hearing a crack and pop from his rival’s body snap against the ground, and the running back writhed on the grass, holding his shoulder and crying in pain.
“What the hell, man?!”
“Nobody ever teach you how to be a gentleman?” Frank growled.
“This isn’t your business! I paid her, man!”
Frank looked back, seeing Sally stand up and straighten out her cheerleader’s skirt
“Didn’t pay me for getting to home base!”
Frank blinked and his jaw dropped agape.
“You mean…he paid you to…”
“I owe you one, meathead,” Sally said, rummaging through the running back’s pockets and leaving the field with a wad of cash.
Frank hastily took his leave, not looking back in the hopes the other player might not see or remember his face. The whole rest of the night he wrestled with his conscience, proud and beaming for protecting the helpless dame, while also unable to totally reconcile with the circumstances from which he saved her, especially knowing that she walked off the field with a payment.
Frank had seen her the very next day in the campus cafeteria. While he hung his head low in a tinge of shame, Sally had no problem walking straight up to him.
“Want an easy hundred?” She asked him pointedly.
“Wh-what?” He stammered.
“One hundred dollars. I’m give you one hundred, literally just to stand somewhere and look tough.”
“Look, if this is about last night…”
“Fine,” she stormed off. “I’ll take my chances, and keep my share.”
But she didn’t, and he followed.
He couldn’t explain why he took her bait, why he silently followed her to her next “transaction.” A part of him liked to think that he saw her as defenseless and pursuing a legitimate and consensual transaction, but he could not help but shake the critic in the back of his head detecting something nefarious and dishonest about her aim.
It was a short walk to the men’s dorms, and Frank couldn’t help but feel implicated and embarrassed to walk in his own halls behind her. They stopped just outside a room two stories above his suite, and once again Frank looked over his shoulder, as though standing next to her implicated him in some way.
“Listen,” Sally said to him matter-of-factly in a low voice. “The guy in here is a half your size, and a total tool. Nymphis University ain’t cheap. When I scream help, I need you to barge in and do your thing.”
“Was last night staged?” Frank asked pointedly.
“No,” Sally whispered. “But that jock you took out had a lot on him, triple the amount he was supposed to give me. Now, I get you might have mixed feelings with me walking off with a profit from that incident, but you don’t know what it’s like being pinned by a frisky guy twice your size!”
“But you’re staging this?” Frank said, nodding to the door.
“I know what I am, but that also means I know the kind of guys that pay for a girl like me. Trust me, meathead, I’ve been around the block a few times, this isn’t my first rodeo. Stupid shit like last night doesn’t happen often, but I’m fed up with dirt bags like that, and I think it’s time someone tried turning the tables.”
“And I walk away from this, you don’t turn the tables?”
“What’s your name, meathead?” She asked, squinting at him while folding her arms.
“Ok, Frankie. What do you study?”
“I’m going for law.”
“That’s an expensive degree. Think you’ll have enough brain cells for it too after a career of playing football?”
“Good luck,” Frank said, spinning on his heel.
“Hey,” she said, putting her small hand upon his meaty shoulder. “Look, I saw last night’s game, and I saw you hang your head lowest for letting the other team break the line and sack your quarterback. I know you take pride in protecting others. Other guys would’ve walked away from me and that guy instead of do something about it.”
Frank turned and looked over his shoulder, seeing her eyes bore up at him with a puppy-dog plea.
“I need a hero, Frank. I’m not proud of the things I’ve had to do to just get here at this school, but I think I might catch a break if I have at least one guy looking out for me.”
Frank grimaced as he felt a fire of duty rekindle in his chest, burning him with zeal to do play his part.
“This guy is a creep?”
“He’s copped a feel in the cafeteria before. Mommy and daddy are covering his whole tuition, if that sweetens the deal.”
“Let’s get this over with.”
In five minutes Sally cried her cue, and Frank barged in without much resistance. The frail freshman was on the floor in two punches, and Sally had picked the room clean of its valuables in two minutes. The two made off with just under a grand, more than what Frank had expected for his take.
“We’re quite the team,” Sally told him afterwards.
“I hope you’re not implying we’ll be doing that again,” Frank replied suspiciously.
“Not here. There’s bigger fish to fry in Nymphis.”
From there, the two branched out of the university, going into areas of ill-repute in the city. Sally posed as an escort, Frank as her procurer, and the two went from street corner to street corner, motel to motel, luring desperate males, trapping them, mugging them, leaving them bruised where they lie.
The escalation eventually warranted a change of tactics and appearance as word got out of the con-artist couple. A new motel meant a new hair color, a new set of clothes, new temporary markings and tattoos, and new names.
“Nice tattoo,” Sally complimented him after they moved to a motel in Roseray, Nymphis’ Red Light District.
“Got a mask to compliment it,” Frank said, holding a balaclava with spider designs up next to his neck tattoo of a spider web.
“No football helmet?” Sally teased.
“Left that part of me behind. Besides, it’s not that easy to slip on in a pinch.”
“Why wear any mask in the first place?”
“The city has been catching onto us. We need to jump on this Mask bandwagon. After all, we’ve been hurting a lot of Johns. That makes us heroes, doesn’t it?”
“This city thinks we are heroes?” She scoffed. “Please.”
“Didn’t you call me your hero?” Frank asked.
“I did,” she said, kissing him platonically on the cheek. “But I have no intention to share you. Besides, Spider, my role in this doesn’t work well with a mask, not unless I get into the weird stuff.”
“That’s a shame. I had a name picked out for you and everything.”
Sally flashed him a curious grin.
“What’s my name?”
“Mantis,” he said, handing her a pair of green contacts and green lingerie. “The Man-Eater.”
“I’m not tied down to this city, Frank,” Sally said, toweling off. “Nymphis hasn’t give me anything but a lot of grief. We could easily do another year of this and be set for the next thirty years. Do the math.”
“We’re already set for a while, Sally,” Frank countered.
“Not with that last guy you shanked.”
Frank blinked away the dead face that looked back up at him, the one face that haunted him from their cons.
Their last client was different than the rest. He was a fighter, a Mask, and, worse of all, he was armed. When Frank barged in, the client pulled a knife on Sally’s throat. It was a messy altercation resulting in superficial stitches for both Frank and Sally, and ending in multiple stab wounds to the client once Frank muscled the blade from his grasp.
“I didn’t tell you, but taking care of the body cut into a lot of our savings,” Sally said.
“Just another reason to get out of this business,” Frank grunted.
“It was a fluke.”
“It was murder.”
“It was self-defense, Frankie.”
“It’s a face I can’t forget.”
“I thought you said that guy was with the Den.”
“Doesn’t make the face any harder to forget.”
Suddenly, the pool and walls of the motel lit up as a sedan pulled into a parking spot and beamed its brights at the two of them.
“Better late than never,” Sally sighed, joining Frank at his side.
“We could have walked away from this,” Frank grumbled.
“Hey, big guy,” Sally said, pecking him on the cheek, “every single dirtbag you’ve pummeled and stabbed had it coming. There’s a lot less John’s out there because of you, and a lot fewer girls being preyed upon after the shape you leave them in, after leaving them penniless. I know what I am, Frank, but you’re still my hero.”
“We’re leaving town after this one,” Frank said flatly. “And I don’t think it’s wise we keep playing our game with all our near-misses.”
“We’ll talk shop later, Frankie. For now let’s focus on what’s ahead of us. Clock me at three minutes and then come in and do your thing.”
“I thought we agreed sixty seconds,” Frank growled. “You almost didn’t make it out with a jugular last time you took that long.”
“Sixty seconds is way too short of time to ploy my wiles. Trust me, Frankie, I’ll be alright, I just need time.”
The sedan went dark, and out from it stepped a lanky young man, dressed in shorts and a button-down strolled up to the two of them.
“Damn, looking fine, girl,” the client said with a whistle, eyeing up Sally’s body.
“Care to shower to get things started?” Sally asked suggestively.
“That’s extra,” Frank said, holding out his hand.
“Whatever you say,” the client said, stuffing a wad of cash into Frank’s hand before taking Sally’s and leading her into the motel room.
Frank’s eyes immediately went to his watch once the door closed shut. He stuffed his hand in his pocket and nervously felt for his collapsible truncheon and spider balaclava, hoping that Sally would let out a premature scream. After all, waiting was the real torture of the operation.
Though every ticking second filled Frank with dread that Sally’s well-being would come once again in jeopardy, the real anguish he felt in the delay of time was the pestering thought he had of the client setting himself onto Frank’s damsel. His heart would pound in a mixture of indignation and envy, his mind run frantic with monstrous and covetous thoughts. Perhaps, he thought, that is why Sally always had him wait instead of outright mug the client: to use his suppressed lust for her and his quickly stoked hatred for the client to stir him in getting the job done.
“Alright, you’ve had your time,” Frank said to himself as his watch reached three minutes.
With one hand he slipped the mask over his face, and the other he relinquished and flipped upon his truncheon. But as he opened the door to their room, he marveled seeing the lights off and the room quiet, save for the closed bathroom door that shone a sliver of light and hissed faintly with the sound of a running shower. Though it was unlike her to leave all lights off, Frank knew of instances when operating in total darkness had provided him the necessary edge, though always with the help of some sound.
Frank cautiously stepped to the bathroom door, holding his truncheon tight in hand, over his head, while slowly opening the door with his other.
And to his surprise, the bathroom was empty.
Then, a blinding light pierced through the room’s windows accompanied by a flashing red and blue strobe, and Frank could make out nothing but the figure of the client stepping out from a closet space.
“That’s him!” Frank heard Sally shriek from somewhere in the room. “That’s the killer! That’s my captor!”
Frank did only what he knew to do. He charged.
He made it within striking distance before two pistol rounds pierced into his chest. He staggered for a second, the blood loss forcing him to his knees, and then collapsed back as the client’s heel struck him in the chest.
“This is Officer Bucik,” the figure began after barking into his radio. “Suspect is down and will need medical attention…if he makes it.”
“She,” Frank attempted to sputter as he felt blood fill his lungs. He slowly pointed his truncheon Sally, seeing her rise out from underneath the bed, the faintest crack of a smirk barely visible through the darkness.
“She’s the…the…the Ma…the Man…”
“Save it for a judge, meathead, if you live to see a courtroom,” the undercover cop spat. “Only good Mask, is a dead one.”