In honor of Halloween, and to provide the masses with a taste of this book before doing a deep dive into this novel of crime fighters and villains, I’m releasing Chapter Thirteen of my book for free.
But why throw you into the middle of the book instead of something more introductory?
Chapter Thirteen has a special place in my heart. It’s a “good ole fashion bank heist” with a pair of villains that see the world differently and their actions and goals even in conflict with one another. In this chapter, we see the embodiment of philosophical nihilism pit against common altruism.
This chapter also happens to have not too many outside references that require explaining. That being said, just a tiny bit of context may be helpful: Den refers to the masked criminal syndicate to which our villains belong to, Devil’s Dust refers to a “truth serum” kind of drug that renders its victim totally suspetible to any command, and “Masks” when capitalized refers to any individual (vigilante or criminal) that puts on a mask and a new identity.
With that, I give you…
Masks: The Unmercenaries
Chapter 13: Thief
Overman sat uncomfortably next to Baron in the back of a cramped SUV. His bright blue eyes peered out from behind his birch mask, scanning over their jittery bunch of lackeys stuffed inside the vehicle with them. The lot of them wore grey suits and birch masks similar to Overman’s. Only Baron stood out from them, donning a black tuxedo and top hat that paid homage to his Haitian loa. Though Overman found his matching tuxedo confining and stuffy compared to his breathable fabrics, he happily went along with the attire change given the occasion.
“I hate robbin’ banks,” Baron groaned, chewing nervously on an unlit cigar.
“And I love it,” Overman answered flatly, picking at a loose thread hanging off of Baron’s suit jacket with one of his knives.
“Dey are cliché, and never wort’ de pay when you consider de risks.”
“And selling drugs is so glamorous?”
“It’s crime dat pays well. How can a criminal argue wit dat?”
“Because peddling is for businessmen. Trafficking your product may be illegal, but it’s mere business, and so that makes you a businessman. A true criminal is a thief.”
“You splittin’ hairs. What difference is der between a businessman and a t’ief?”
“A businessman sees the world and wonders what he must offer for it. A thief sees the world and wonders how he might take it.” Overman made the lackey crammed in the seat next to them flinch with a single tap of his blade against his birch mask. “I wonder, how many businessmen you brought today, Baron, and how many thieves?”
“Nei’der. I brought soldiers.”
“They look a little nervous to be called soldiers.”
“It’s not nervousness you see. It’s amphetamines, da drug of war. Increases response time and aggression. Dat’s what helped Silverback’s Sanzaru get de job done at the police headquarters shooting.”
“Sounds like a crutch.”
“I t’ink a better word would be enabler. It takes away der inhibition. Paves a path for dem to der potential.”
Overman rolled his eyes, knowing Baron purposefully used his treasured word to try and convince him otherwise. He didn’t deny that Baron’s drugs brought out something dangerous in his subjects. He simply disagreed with the shortcut taken to access such potential.
“You want to see a city of masked villains, Overman,” Baron continued. “Well, I do you one better and give you a city of supervillains.”
“Super slaves,” Overman corrected. “Your drugs are a mere parlor trick. Show me some free monsters, and then you’ll earn your bragging rights.”
“I’ve already shown dis city monsters. It be your turn to show us a monster, Overman.”
The vehicle lurched to a stop once they’d finally reached their destination in front of a slow ascent of marble steps. The bank’s tinted windows served as a double-edged sword, blocking out whatever defense waited for them inside while also providing concealment once they made it inside. Baron craned his head out the window, curiously cocking his head at the narrow alley leading to the bank’s side exit.
“We really gonna squeeze de SWAT van in dat tiny alley?” Baron asked doubtfully.
“It’ll work,” Overman reassured. “And once it backs in, nobody will have visibility of our exit. They’ll just assume the specialists are stacking up. You and your men just need to work fast enough before the real SWAT team arrives.”
“I take da money, and I set da distraction, but what does da t’ief do in dis one?”
“Run security and take credit for organizing another successful heist. Any other questions?”
“Yeah. You ready?”
“More importantly, are your men ready?”
Baron reached over his seat, threw open the SUV’s side door, and Overman marveled seeing the men pour out like a pack of greyhounds coming out of the gate. Overman watched as they pulled their sub-machine guns from their suit jackets once they reached the bank doors, and smiled hearing muffled gunfire last for but a few seconds before complete silence followed.
“Let’s see how your upper did,” Overman said.
Overman and Baron casually strolled into the bank together, and the two snickered in tandem seeing the bank’s lobby herded into a neat circle as four of their five lackeys circled the patrons and clerks threateningly like a kettle of vultures. Puddles of blood pooled on the shimmering, marble floor around four dead security guards while one lackey stood holding his abdomen from a gunshot wound, his gun still poised at the herd of civilians.
“Four out of five, and all theirs dead,” Overman remarked. “Not bad.”
“Two of them tried surrendering,” the injured lackey reported proudly.
Overman turned toward the injured lackey, stepped slowly in his direction, and cocked his head.
“And you shot them?”
“Jitters? Out of rage? Any particular reason?”
“I wanted to show no mercy, Overman,” the lackey said with forced conviction, though Overman could pick out the shiver in his words.
“We all wear your mask, sir. The resistance should expect no mercy from the Overman.”
Overman looked back at the cowering, rounded-up herd. Few dared to look up at Overman, and those that did quickly craned their heads back into their submissive position. Overman shook his head. He wanted an audience.
“We require access to the vault, and we are asking for a volunteer.”
Overman waited briefly and grumbled, seeing all curious looks quickly averted at his behest.
“Your attention, please,” he started over, pulling a knife from his jacket.
The corralled herd sheepishly looked up, and Overman swiftly inserted the blade into the lackey’s sternum. The herd gasped, the lackey’s comrades froze in terror, and Overman drank in his prey’s look of shock. As the injured lackey staggered, Overman took hold of his gun and effortlessly peeled it from his hand. Overman rescinded his knife from the dead man’s chest, let the body fall at his feet, rested the gun ceremoniously upon its chest, and cleared his throat.
“I said: we need a volunteer from the crowd to access the vault. Are there any volunteers? Any heroes?”
Overman searched their cowering faces, unable to discern among their scared, tearful eyes one hopeful gaze, one resolute stare that would give away an individual of principle for him to play with.
The crowd only clung to one another tighter at Overman’s bark, bowing their heads even lower.
Overman sighed impatiently, knowing he had little time to savor any further theatrics, and forfeit the hope of finding any boldness among them. Arbitrarily, he plucked out a young, blonde clerk by her arm from the herd and placed his blade against the knuckle of her index finger.
“Would you be so kind as to point to whoever has access to the vault while you have the fingers to do so?”
The clerk pointed almost immediately to a portly man at the center of the herd. Although the man kept his head down, he slowly rose to his feet in a slowly as though instinctively knowing he’d been ratted out. The man wore a seething look upon his face, though it was unclear to Overman if it was for Overman’s presence or the blonde’s betrayal.
“Oh, now we have a hero, do we?”
“No,” the man responded curtly, “just the manager.”
“That’ll do. Care to escort my friends to the vault?”
“You know who you’re robbing from?”
“The Spades, a remarkably dated syndicate, bank here, don’t they?” Overman asked knowingly.
“They do. So, I think I’d much rather die protecting their money than give it to scum like the Den.”
Overman blinked at the response. He had hoped for resistance, though he did not expect it to come in the form of criminal loyalty.
“Are you sure you can’t be persuaded?” Overman asked, drawing with his knife a long but superficial line down the blonde’s arm, drawing out from the crowd a faint-hearted gasp.
Only the manager furrowed his brow as he stared resolutely at Overman.
“You showed little mercy to your own man. Why should I have any assurance that any of us will make it out alive if we oblige the Den’s demands?”
Overman watched the herd shuffle uneasily at the manager’s astute argument. Overman held his breath, hoping to find one among the herd to be provoked at the thought of certain death, a candidate for heroism or monsterhood. And yet not a single soul stirred.
Overman sighed disappointedly.
“Baron. Nothing but rabbits here. Do your work.”
Baron strode up to the manager eagerly, dug his spindly hand into his pocket, brought his fist up to the manager’s face, and blew a breath of white powder into his face. The manager coughed irritably and stumbled back, blindly tripping over the herd. For a moment, he rubbed anxiously at his nose and eyes, frantically coughing as though to rid himself of Baron’s poison. Though within seconds, the manager calmed, his furrowed expression abnormally placid, his resolute glare docile and catatonic.
“You gonna cooperate now?” Baron asked.
The manager nodded obediently, his neck moving rigidly like a robot.
“How do we open your vault?”
“An 8-digit passcode and my key.”
“Da passcode is?”
The Devil’s Dust really does work, Overman thought to himself.
Baron took the key from the manager, motioned for two lackeys to follow him off to the vault, and shot Overman a devious smile.
“Don’t have too much fun wit’ out us. Remember, we need some of dem alive.”
The heels of Overman’s dress shoes echoed ominously through the lobby while the herd whimpered in his presence. Even the blonde that he dragged around in his arms stepped lightly, stifling her own sobs while her tears wet Overman’s arms. He searched the faces of the clerks and patrons, hungry for a look of opposition, a trace glint of angst or heroism. After a few rotations around the crowd, he stopped in front of the manager who continued to stare silently, in an unfocused manner, his mouth slightly agape.
“No heroes in this lot?” Overman asked, pulling from his suit jacket a pistol and dropping it at the manager’s feet. “Or perhaps a villain? I leave you all an option. Anyone can pick up the gun and shoot me now and free the world of one less menace. The other option is to shoot this unconscious buffoon and join us. After all, this man has none of your interests in mind. Either way, you fare better making a choice instead of cowering with your peers.”
Overman stepped back from the pistol and waited, and waited, tapping his foot impatiently on the marble floor.
“It’s not true what he said,” Overman attempted to reassure his audience, gesturing his knife at the manager. “I do not decide which of you live and which of you die. But if I may offer some unsolicited advice: a butcher always fares better than a calf.”
His eyes hovered around the crowd again. Few peered up at the gun with curiosity, though each set of eyes that dared to cast a glance at it immediately returned their gaze toward the floor once Overman’s own stare spotted them.
Overman repositioned the woman in his arms and forced their fingers to interlock together around the knife. The blonde hung her head toward the floor, allowing her hair to conceal her terror, her arms and body hanging weightlessly in his embrace. He cocked his head at her and began to sway, forcing her to move to a rhythm playing in his own head.
“It’s not so hard, becoming someone like me,” Overman said, beginning to waltz his hostage around the circle of captives. She complied weakly, sobbing as Overman hummed and continued, “It’s a lot like dancing. Clumsy at first, compelled to watch your partner’s feet to learn the moves. But all dance begins with a tune, a melody that moves mind, heart, and feet together. It’s only natural to resist swaying at first, afraid you might step out of beat, conscious that someone else might watch you acting like a fool.”
Overman gave the blonde a twirl, and she let out a shriek as she spun away and then back, her head resting helplessly against his chest, her neck even closer to the blade.
“It’s supposed to feel disorienting; it is only natural to feel wrong at first,” he hissed into her ear, “But once you learn to let loose, allow your heart to sync up to the song that your soul has forever been silencing, you will find your liberating ecstasy.”
Overman complied, holding the blonde rigidly in his arms as he dipped her, her face pale and her eyes fluttering weakly.
“Let her go!”
Overman turned his head, spotting at the far end of the lobby a security guard training his pistol upon him, stepping out from the safety and cover of the men’s restroom door. Overman’s two remaining lackeys poised their firearms in turn at him, and Overman felt their stares, awaiting his kill command.
“I don’t think her skull would fare well against the floor,” Overman quipped.
“You leave her alone!”
Overman repositioned the blonde against his chest again and moved both their hands around the knife, forcing the blade to rest near her throat.
“Finally, a hero,” Overman hissed.
“I’m just doing my job.”
“Don’t underestimate yourself. You could have stayed in your stall. Instead, you decided to take a stand, and now you’re outgunned and in deep with the rest of us.”
“I’m warning you,” the security guard said, cocking the hammer of his gun back. “I’ll shoot you right now.”
“And risk maiming her beautiful face?”
“I heard what my boss said. You’re with the Den. So we’re all dead anyway. So you better give me a good reason not to do the world a favor right now and end you.”
“Your boss can pretend to know what the Den’s policy is, but neither you, nor your boss, nor my own men,” he said, tilting his head toward the lackey he killed, “know me.”
“So what will it take for them to make it out alive?”
“You assume I own their lives. What a depressing notion. I am not a broker of life.”
“Then take your knife away from her throat.”
“It’s not what it looks like. We were just dancing.”
“You’re a creep and a monster!”
“And you’re a beat security cop!” Overman jeered. “Tell me, did you drop out of police academy in fear of losing your soul to this city’s corrupt nature, or did you give up on your dreams of keeping the peace when we Masks showed you how futile the prospect of peace really is?”
The security guard hesitated to answer as though embarrassed to say. As Overman waited for an answer, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed the strobe of red and blue lights just outside the tinted glass of the bank’s front door, accompanied by their blaring sirens.
“I failed police academy,” the guard admitted.
“I suppose that makes you brave for admitting so. But, are you sure your police department didn’t fail you?”
“A few bad apples don’t ruin the badge.”
“Perhaps you should consider what kind of tree is producing such fruit.”
“It’s not the precinct that fails the city!” The security guard shouted. “It’s losers, spineless roaches, who hide behind masks like you that do! And that’s the truth!”
“You want to speak about truth?” Overman began excitedly. “The truth is you regurgitate platitudes without giving them a second thought. The truth is you are outgunned, and of everyone in this room, it is you that is in the most amount of jeopardy because of some misplaced sense of onus. The truth is you are far too underpaid for the protection you are attempting to provide and so far out of your own league. But you want to know what the real truth is?”
Overman flung the blonde behind him and opened his arms as though welcoming the crosshairs to rest squarely upon his chest.
“The truth is, you may take your shot, and neither of us will see our own legacy. But I promise you, those unhindered by any sentiment for honor or justice will covet my face, take up my name, and act as a copycat in an attempt to outmatch my infamy, while your legacy will be a nuisance of a bloodstain for a janitor paid just as much as you to mop up!”
Overman’s eyes narrowed gleefully, noticing the security guard’s hold on his firearm begin to shake, as though he strained to keep his aim at Overman, as though he realized how burdensome his conviction was.
“I can make this easy for you,” Overman offered. “You can walk away from this alive, live to see another day, without anyone knowing of your turncoat. I can even pay you for your troubles and give you a cut of our profits.”
“At their cost, right?” The security guard asked, his voice shaking.
“I’ve already assured you that their lives are not mine to broker. I do not decide whether they live or die.”
“You think I’d believe that you’re going to leave them all unharmed? You think I’d join you and leave them at the cruelty of whatever you have planned?”
“I think you would’ve shot me by now if my offer weren’t so simple.”
The security guard stepped forward, outstretched his arm even further, as though bringing the gun a foot closer to Overman’s head were indicative of his intention to kill him. Overman chuckled at the hollow threat as the security guard stammered, his lips batting together wordlessly to try to put together a retort.
“If you took my offer,” Overman began, raising his palms to the guard, “you’d put on my mask and see the world through my eyes. Yes, you’d fight with your own conscience a little knowing that this herd of cattle would be left in some kind of danger. That would sting you for some time, but eventually, you’ll find it gets easier, even liberating, knowing that there is no other life to save but your own, realizing that your job of protecting the money of dishonest men is not worth its pay. In short, if you take my offer, you’ll come out of this wealthier, freer, alive, and, most importantly, you’ll come out of this a new man … a powerful man you’ll have wished you met a long time ago.”
Overman savored every second of the security guard’s hesitation. His heart warmed with hope, seeing behind his mad stare the cogs of reason wheeling, an invisible abacus weighing each side of the dilemma. It assured him that even if the offer was denied, that deep down, there was another Overman buried inside another human being clawing at the dirt of conventional boundaries and archaic principles, fighting to unearth itself.
Overman turned and sighed at the interruption. The blonde stood aiming at him the empty pistol Overman had left on the floor. She stared at the gun in horror, bewildered that the weapon did not strike down its target.
“What awful timing,” Overman grumbled at her. “Can you not see that we’re in the middle of …”
Bang. Bang. Bang.
Overman spun on his heel and began twitching in a barely contained fury seeing Baron emerge from the hall of the vault, holding a smoking revolver in hand. At the other end of the lobby, the security guard staggered on his feet before falling backward, his body shaking on the floor as a puddle of blood pooled around his torso.
“You’re welcome,” Baron cackled.
Overman resisted the urge to chuck his knife into Baron’s throat and instead flicked his wrist and sent it into the manager’s. As the manager fell like dead weight, Baron shot Overman a betrayed glare.
“Hey! We needed him! You cost me a dose of my good stuff!”
“And you cost me a monster,” Overman hissed, marching down the lobby toward the fallen guard. “Prepare your thralls, Baron, use your Devil’s Dust on the blonde, and set the trap.”
The guard craned his head up and shakily raised his gun at Overman as he approached him, and Overman stepped on the pistol and gently pried it from his cold fingers without resistance.
“No,” Overman said, claiming the weapon and sheathing into his jacket, “you had your chance. You had your chance to be the hero, to be a lot of things, and you hesitated.”
The guard looked up at Overman, the muscles in his face straining to convey something. Overman cocked his head, wondering what the guard struggled to communicate, wondering what words he would offer were it not for Baron’s bullets lodged into his chest. Overman moved behind the guard and hefted him across the hard floor to prop him up against the wall. As the guard sputtered to produce some kind of remark or curse, Overman knelt to his level and met his gaze.
“Entropy,” Overman began. “Absolute futility. You stepped out of the restroom just to be gunned down without changing anyone’s circumstances. You made your life’s work protecting others people’s money, only to make a fraction of what they piss away. And here I am, wasting my breath, lecturing a dead man.” Overman tapped his knife to his own mask, “That’s the reason why I put this thing on. It’s all rather meaningless. Still, we all have to make something of it. Not that it matters if anyone remembers or pretends to be the Overman. But, what else is a man to do with his short time on this decaying rock?”
Overman looked back at the herd as the screams of patrons and clerks devolved from lucid cattle into Baron’s mindless thralls, while each one of them wore a replica of his birch mask. Though Overman looked forward to his plan all coming together, it pained him to see each of the individuals stripped of their agency and reason while donning his mask. The longer he stared at the little Overmen thralls, the more empty he felt seeing a cruel allegory to the image: as long as the masses had their opiate, they would never truly know what it meant to be Overman.
“Maybe they’re all happier than the two of us?” Overman sighed in defeat, rising to his feet and turning away from the security guard.
As he made his way for the side door with the rest of his men, he could not help but stare at the train wreck that began to unfold before him, of the blonde taking orders from Baron to open the bank doors, obediently barking at the drug-induced clerks and patrons.
Overman watched giddily as the herd trampled over the blonde and barreled down the steps toward an onslaught of gunshots from the police brigade.
“Cattle don’t quite understand when something is taken from them.”