?

Log in

No account? Create an account
 
 
22 January 2010 @ 01:57 am
Writing for Haiti  
In an effort to raise support for the victims of the disaster in Haiti, Crossed Genres is hosting the "Post a Story for Haiti" initiative. On their website they are collecting links to free stories posted online for you to read and enjoy without any form of payment or obligation. In return, they ask that everyone enjoying these stories give donations to a charity of their choosing that is involved in the Haiti relief efforts.

You can find the entire list of links as well as links to some of the charities involved in helping the Haitian people here: http://crossedgenres.com/haiti

To show my support for this incredibly important cause, I would like to make available my short story The Mask of Tezcatlipoca, which originally appeared in Steampunk Tales.

Please visit the "Post a Story for Haiti" page and take advantage of the incredible stories that have been collected there. And while you are doing that, please, please donate whatever you can to a charitable organization working to help Haiti. This is not just a good cause: it is a vital cause.



The Mask of Tezcatlipoca
by G. D. Falksen



Otto Uhrmann decided that he liked Mexico, entirely against the country’s recent efforts to persuade him to the contrary. These efforts included, in chronological order, a few peculiarities of the weather, an over-fondness of spice in the food, a lack of German-speaking girls, a blow to the base of the skull, three kicks to the chest, and a rather smelly bag that had somehow found its way onto his head. Somewhere in the process, a length of rope had been used to tie his hands behind his back; the knot was not particularly impressive, however, and it was really more insult than injury. Still, Otto was determined not to allow a few minor inconveniences to stand in the way of his admiration for a land of otherwise impeccable hospitality and natural beauty.

Otto’s fondness for Mexico’s aesthetic wonders was slightly dampened by the stale stench of the sack covering his face, but this was soon rectified as the offending bag was pulled free. Otto blinked a few times as the sunlight flooded into his eyes. Soon the blinding whiteness began to recede into the form of a woman’s beautiful face, graced with dark eyes and high cheekbones, and framed with a wild rushing main of black hair. The blur receded further to reveal a body to match, shaped perfectly by nature and then further refined by human effort--specifically by hours spent on horseback, if the woman’s riding pants and boots were any indication. Otto found himself staring at the front of the mysterious woman’s dust-stained white shirt, quite unintentionally he promised himself. The woman took notice of Otto’s very focused gaze, but rather than react with anger she gently reached out and began patting his cheek.

A few moments later, as the blindness and confusion finally left, Otto realized that the woman was in fact striking him.

“Ouch!” he cried in an ambiguous mixture of three languages, before lapsing into a string of fairly unconscious German.

“Good, you are awake,” the woman said in English, her voice touched with the faintest and most charming of accents. It made the throbbing in Otto’s head all that more unpleasant.

“I didn’t know I was asleep!” Otto protested.

The strange woman was not amused. She put her hands on her hips and gave Otto a purposeful look. “Are you ready to cooperate, or should I give you a few minutes for my men to convince you?”

Otto blinked a few more times to bring his vision under control. As the fog in his head cleared, he could see that he had been deposited at the center of some ancient ruined plaza, surrounded on all sides by the remains of Aztec buildings and monuments left to crumble. The most commanding of these was a great pyramid that dominated the skyline in front of Otto.

As he looked around, Otto could see about a dozen grim-faced men scattered about the place. They were all armed with rifles and pistols, and several of them wore bandoliers of extra ammunition. Most of them were dressed little better than frontier bandits but a couple wore dusty Mexican Army uniforms, suggesting that the group counted deserters among its numbers. Otto thought it best to play for time until the terrible disproportion in numbers did something to correct itself.

“I am putty in your hands,” Otto replied with his most sincere and un-scruffy smile.
Unfortunately, Otto’s very being tended to exude “scruffy” and the woman’s response was a scowl. Otto thought he was about to be slapped again, but evidently the woman had had enough physical exertion for one interrogation. She simply snapped her fingers and a sizable mass of gnarled, hand-shaped muscle and bone appeared out of nowhere and proceeded to apply itself liberally to Otto’s wiry chest. After a few blows the woman snapped her fingers again and the hand receded.

After gasping for breath, Otto grumbled out, “Or I will be soon if this keeps up.”

The woman held out her hand to one of the soldiers, who handed her a leather satchel. Otto recognized it as the bag holding his personal effects. Having taken the bag, the woman snapped her fingers and made a circling motion to the nearest soldier. “Check on the patrols,” she said in Spanish. “There may be others. And tell Salazar.”

The soldier snapped to attention, evidently not at all bothered by taking orders from a woman. “Sí, Señorita Espinosa.”

The woman turned back to Otto, again speaking in English. “I hope you will be more cooperative, Señor...” she proceeded to flip through Otto’s wallet and passport, “Señor Uhrmann. You are such an amusing little man. I would hate to have you broken.”

“Why do people always say that to me?” Otto wondered aloud.

“Do not offend your betters with such talk,” the woman snapped. She fixed Otto with a furious glare. “I am Yolotli Espinosa, a direct descendant of Moctezuma’s line. The blood of Aztec kings flows through my veins. You are scarcely mud beneath my boot.”

Miss Espinosa dumped the identity papers back into the bag and withdrew Otto’s sketchbook. She flipped through this a few times, arching her eyebrows with interest at some of Otto’s more esoteric imagery. All the while, she slowly circled around Otto’s chair with long, elegant strides. Otto could not tell if she was trying to be seductive or intimidating, but she accomplished both with great success.

“Well, Señor Uhrmann, why are you here? This land is private property...not open to the public.”

“I’m most awfully sorry,” Otto replied with as much sincerity as he could manage. It still managed to come out scruffily. “I’m a tourist. I saw ruins and I wanted to take a closer look. I meant no harm.”

“Oh, a little tourist? And these?” Miss Espinosa flipped to the last pages in the sketchbook, which were filled with scenic local landscapes and detailed renditions of the Aztec monuments. “Why does a tourist spend all his time drawing the landscape, hmm? Perhaps you are a land surveyor, or an archeologist...or perhaps you are a spy.”

Otto had been progressively loosening the ropes that bound his wrists, but he still needed more time. “No! No, no, nothing like that,” he protested, emphatically enough to keep Miss Espinosa suspicious. “I’m an artist. When I see something beautiful, like this land of yours, I draw it so I can make it into a beautiful painting when I get home.”

“Ah...the artist Uhrmann...” Miss Espinosa mused, tapping one fingertip against her lips. “I remember who you are.” Her face took on a funny smile, like a cat hoping to play with a mouse. “Perhaps you will paint a picture of me, no?”

“Your face will be the first I paint when I return home.” Otto waited a moment, looking for the little voice that told people when to stop talking. Naturally, his was missing. “But we’ll have to do something about those clothes. Gray really isn’t your color.”

A snap of Miss Espinosa’s fingers brought another punch smashing into Otto’s chest.

“Ow....”

“Now let us stop playing, Señor Uhrmann. You will give me the answers I want, or my men will begin to do much more permanent things to you.” She snapped the sketchbook shut and shoved it back into the satchel, which she then promptly discarded on the ground like a piece of rubbish. “Now tell me again, why did you come here? And if you say that you are a tourist, you will be beaten.”

The rope around his wrists was almost undone, so Otto felt it safe enough to answer with a half-truth. “I came to see the ruins. A man in town told me about them, and I thought no one would be here to know I trespassed.”

“ ‘A man in town’ you say?” Miss Espinosa pursed her lips. “Perhaps. Or perhaps you are here at the request of my sister...hmm? Did Xochitl send you?”

Otto replied with silence.

“Be stubborn if you want. It will cost you later.” Miss Espinosa turned away from Otto and took on the stance of someone about to reveal something a great significance, which Otto was unlikely to understand or much care about. “Your lies do not help you, Señor Uhrmann. I know why you are here. You are a shameless treasure-hunter, a modern day conquistador, come like a coward thief to steal the treasures of Mexico. I know what you are after. You have come to find the Mask of Tezcatlipoca.”

Miss Espinosa had spoken with such confidence in her voice and assurance in her stance that Otto felt terrible breaking the truth to her, but he had always been raised to believe that honesty was best. He had also just noticed where the brute behind him carried his pistol, and that moment seemed the right one to encourage a little more positive action.

“The what?” Otto asked, sounding even more befuddled than he had originally intended.

Miss Espinosa let out a growl like some dreadful jaguar. Her hand swung outward, fingertips poised for effect inches from Otto’s nose. When she snapped her fingers, it was like the crashing of a gavel proclaiming a death sentence. The soldier behind Otto took a step forward, grabbed Otto’s collar with one hand and drew the opposite back in a meaty fist. The big man’s face appeared in front of Otto’s and his lips split apart into the unpleasant smile of a bully about to have himself a good time. Otto did the only polite thing he could think of. He smiled back.

Before the soldier could fully grasp the implications of his victim’s smile, Otto snapped his head forward and connected his brow with the bridge of the man’s nose. The soldier let out a howl of pain and stumbled back a step. With a twist of his arms, Otto released the final bit of tension on the ropes about his wrists and bounded out of the chair. His first action was to give his former tormentor a solid punch to the throat to knock his breath away; this was followed instantly by a hard kick to the back of the man’s knee. As the big man collapsed, Otto snatched his revolver.

Spinning around, Otto came almost face to face with Miss Espinosa, who was staring in numb shock at the unthinkable change in power that had just taken place. Otto’s smiled pleasantly and aimed his captured revolver at Miss Espinosa’s heart before the soldiers had even begun to adjust their aim.
“Well, well, well, Señor Uhrmann,” Miss Espinosa said with measured breath, “you are a little package full of big surprises, eh? Not just an artist, are you?”

Otto shrugged modestly. “My Iron Cross is in a desk collecting dust.”

“Very impressive, Señor, but you must see that your situation is hopeless. You have the upper hand now, yes, but the moment your aim wavers, you will die.”

Otto gave a small smile. “I’m patient. Let’s see which of us breaks first.” There was a lengthy pause, and then the sound of an automobile engine thundering at raceway speeds broke the silence. “Does anyone else hear that?”

* * *


Xochitl Espinosa lay on the dusty ground next to the titanic-framed Bernard Andersen as they both studied the ruined city through sets of binoculars. Behind them, the brilliant and quite probably mad Dr. Friedrich Veynom lounged in the back seat of their open-topped car and sipped from a flask of brandy. Compared to “Xochi” and Bernard--who were dressed in hard-wearing clothes suited for rough country--“Freddy” looked like an English gentleman out for an afternoon’s shooting in his sporty Norfolk jacket and long leather driving coat. His command of the King’s English was equally telling, an irony given that he was a Rhinelander and a proud advocate of the German Republic.

“No sign of Otto,” Bernard said, and lowered his binoculars with a sigh.

Xochi stood up and began to brush the dirt off her knees and the front of her jacket. “We know he was taken into the plaza,” she said, her English betraying only a very faint accent. “My sister has him, and she is used to getting her way. She will beat him until he talks and then shoot him if he does, once she has her answers.”

“Otto’s a stubborn fellow,” Freddy reassured her. “From Baden, you know.”

Bernard rolled onto his side and gave his friend a look. “Freddy, you realize that neither of us understand what that means.”

Freddy shrugged, took another sip of brandy, and began loading an elegant Mauser C96 pistol. “But I know, Bernard, and that’s what counts.”

Nearby, Xochi chuckled at this for a moment. “Look,” she said, serious once again, “if your friend Otto does not give way to beating, he’ll be given to Colonel Salazar. And that will be the end of him.”

Bernard opened the trunk of the car to reveal a small arsenal. “Just who is this Salazar anyway?” he asked, as he selected a Thompson submachine gun and a pair of Colt .45s.

“You saw those men down there in Mexican uniform?” Xochi asked. “They are deserters. Most of them came following Salazar. He is completely insane. Most of the men are here for the money, but when my sister talks about our Aztec heritage and cutting away the sickness of the Europeans, Salazar listens. He has made himself up as Aztec high priest and rants on and on about giving sacrifices to the old gods. I imagine it’s only a matter of time before Yolotli gives him free reign to do it. The thought makes me sick, but it would disgust me further to think of your friend being made his first ‘sacrifice’.”

Bernard snapped a magazine onto his submachine gun. “Well, then we’ll have to go in and make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Freddy was still lounging in the car. “We still haven’t agreed on what to do about the mask.”

“There is nothing to agree upon,” Xochi replied. “The Mask of Tezcatlipoca is a treasure of Mexico. It belongs in a museum here in this country, not in some private collection.”

“My interest is not private, my dear,” Freddy insisted. “I do this for Science!” From his tone, it was clear that the word had an implied capital. “If the legends are to be believed, then that mask has unique and mysterious qualities, and I plan to find the truth of the matter.”

Bernard sighed. “Freddy, this mask is made out of obsidian, gold, turquoise and jade. None of those amplify light! You don’t honestly believe some mad Spanish monk’s story that when held up to a flame it shines like the stars at night, do you?”

“That’s why Science demands--“

“No! No more!” Bernard held up his hand. “Let’s worry about what’s important first. Otto got himself caught trying to find the blasted thing for us. We have to get him out.”

“Agreed,” Freddy and Xochi said in unison.

Bernard rubbed his knuckles against his jaw and peered through his binoculars again. “Trouble is, Miss Xochi hired us to get the damn mask, and if we rescue Otto they’ll know he wasn’t alone and they’ll redouble the security. We won’t be getting in twice.”

“He was captured because of me,” Xochi said. “We will rescue him, and I will find another way to get the mask. The mask is just a thing. Otto is a good man.”

Xochi’s soft half-sigh of noble resignation was more than enough to awaken the sentiment of Bernard’s soul.
“No, no. We came down here to get that mask, and I’ll be damned if my friend Otto’s gotten himself captured for nothing.” He knelt down and began drawing a crude map of the plaza in the dirt. “Here’s what we’re going to do. Freddy, you get to rescue Otto and be a distraction. Think you’re up to snuff?”

Freddy gave a narrow smile and ran his fingers along the side of the car. “Bernard...when am I not?”

* * *


The soldiers could hear the sound of the car’s engine roaring long before Freddy turned onto the avenue leading to the plaza. The men stood amazed at the sight of him, barreling down on them with a suicidal daring, driving goggles over his eyes and a soft cap pulled down upon his head. He drove one-handed, with his Mauser pistol out and ready. As he tore down the ancient Aztec roadway, gunshots rang out from the nearest soldiers, and Freddy returned fire with uncanny precision.

The soldiers were not fools, of course, and several raced for the collection of trucks parked in a small square a few dozen yards from the plaza. Freddy anticipated this, but did not swerve from his seemingly suicidal track. As the he entered the plaza, barreling down on the place where he assumed Otto was being held prisoner, Freddy twisted the car about and threw it into reverse, finally coming to stop in a cloud of dust and exhaust next to Otto and the hostage Miss Espinosa.

Freddy did not bat an eye. “Hello Otto,” he said in German. “Lovely bird you’ve got there.” He gave Miss Espinoza a nod and tapped his cap. “Ma’am.” He looked back at Otto. “Well...silly fellow that I am, I thought you were in need of rescue.”

“Well, I wouldn’t turn down a ride. Much better than walking.”

“What about your lady friend here?”

Otto gave Miss Espinosa an appraising look, which was answered with a furious glare of indignation. “We haven’t really been getting along,” Otto explained.

“Better to make clean break of it?” Freddy asked.

“You know how much I hate tearful partings.”

“I didn’t know you cried.”

“Forgot how to on the Western Front.”

“Poor fellow.”

“On ‘five’?”

Freddy began counting casually, “Eins, zwei, dre--“

Bearing in mind the great likelihood that Miss Espinosa had command of at least some German and was following portions of the conversation, Otto decided to skip the intervening numbers and hop right along from zwei to fünf. On the down-beat just after the count of ‘two’, Otto snatched up his satchel from the ground with his free hand, and then vaulted over the car door and into the passenger seat.

The soldiers were noticeably competent, and the moment their leader was free from the danger of Otto’s revolver, they opened fire without hesitation. Fortunately, Freddy had anticipated Otto’s jumping the gun, and he slammed his foot down on the accelerator while Otto was still descending through the air. The car bounded forward to catch Otto with a thump and then roared back along the roadway. Rifle bullets pinged against the car’s metalwork and tore up its back seat, but neither the passengers nor the critical workings of the automobile were struck.

A moment later, three trucks finally rumbled into the plaza, already sporting an assortment of troops picked up on the way. Regaining her senses, Miss Espinosa began shouting orders, demanding that her troops do their job and bring back the heads of her enemies on spikes. The plaza’s defenders dashed to join their comrades in the trucks, and in record time they were racing off in the direction of Freddy’s dust trails.

Miss Espinosa stood quietly in the plaza, breathing deeply to regain her senses. She was not accustom to being disrespected, disobeyed or defied, and to have been threatened by a scruffy little artist was beyond the pale. Presently, she felt the rush of anger flow out of her and she straightened her back confidently. The foreigners were outnumbered and outgunned. Still, their automobile might well have been faster than the trucks her soldiers had at their disposal.

She motioned to one of the few soldiers that had remained. “Get word to the airfield. I want a plane in the air looking for an escaping car. Now!”

Miss Espinosa felt calmer as she gave the order and had the satisfaction of having it obeyed without question. The last tinges of fury cooled and faded away. It was as Miss Espinosa began to relax once again that she did something rather unusual for someone in her position: she realized that she had made a mistake.

She looked around the plaza, now significantly depopulated along with the rest of the encamped ruins. Her soldiers were almost entirely out chasing the two Germans.... She turned and looked along the lengthy plaza toward the great temple-pyramid she had appointed as her headquarters. With slow steps she began to walk toward this monolithic structure, her pace quickening as she turned the situation over and over again in her mind. What if....

“Damn it!” she shouted. “You, you,” she motioned toward the two remaining soldiers in the plaza, “come with me!”

As she spoke, the sounds of gunfire erupted in a short, abortive burst from the top of the pyramid.

* * *


Bernard and Xochi dashed up the back of the pyramid, keeping their bodies low to the ground to avoid notice. The sounds of their footsteps were masked perfectly by the tremendous noise of Freddy’s driving, and the four soldiers who stood guard at the top of the pyramid had all been drawn away to one side to watch. Bernard matched eyes with Xochi, silently mouthed a count of “one, two, three”, and then the two of them charged the remaining distance to the top of the pyramid and to the cluster of soldiers.

The fighting was quick, brutal, and terribly one-sided. Bernard struck one man in the belly with the stock of his Thompson and then knocked another senseless with an off-hand punch. Xochi caught a third man behind the head with the butt of her revolver and then repeated the process with the fourth man as he was distracted by Bernard’s furious assault.

With the soldiers unconscious, Bernard and Xochi flattened their backs against the temple wall and quickly shuffled around to the entrance. At the corner, Xochi peaked out and saw Freddy pull up alongside Otto in the plaza. She concealed a giggle at the sight of her overbearing sister being held at the mercy of someone so unkempt and uninspiring as Otto.

Bernard lead the way into the temple shrine, which was a single chamber of moderate size filled with beautiful and stunning pictographs and carvings. Electric lights had been set up around the room, connected to a portable generator. Crates of supplies were piled up in neat stacks, and a table and chairs had been set up to serve as a makeshift workspace. A footlocker was shoved into one corner, and Bernard made for this directly. Xochi followed behind, keeping her eyes focused on the entrance. Too late, Bernard noticed a flash of movement nearby; too late, he realized that there was a man lurking behind the stack of supply crates.

A gun went off twice, and Bernard felt his body jerk as he was hit. He let out a gasp and clutched at his chest. His knees gave way and he sank onto the ground, trying to lift his submachine gun. From the shadows stepped a tall man dressed in the uniform of a Mexican officer. He had a proud face marred by the twinge of cruelty that twisted the corner of his mouth into a sneer.

“Salazar!” Xochi cried, turning around and raising her revolver.

Colonel Salazar gave Bernard a firm kick to the chest, knocking the burly American onto the ground. He raised his pistol and aimed it at Bernard’s head before turning to look at Xochi with a domineering expression.

“Drop your pistol, girl, or I will blow his brain across the floor of this holy place.”

“Coward!” Xochi cried. “Point your gun at me.”

Salazar answered her with a smirk. “If I did that, you would shoot me. Now, drop the gun or he dies.”

Xochi hesitated and her dark eyes flashed with anger. Slowly she knelt down and deposited her revolver on the ground. Rising again, she kept her hands open and out to her side. Salazar stepped across to her and grabbed Xochi by the back of her neck. Giving Bernard another solid kick, he dragged Xochi toward the back of the room and shoved her against the table.

“The little traitor comes home, eh?” he asked.

“ ‘Traitor’?” Xochi spat back. “I am a traitor to my mad sister. You are a traitor to your country!”

Salazar was not a man used to being talked back to by women other than his employer, and he backhanded Xochi with the force of a man trying desperately to prove his masculinity to a skeptical audience. Grasping Xochi’s chin firmly with one hand, Salazar tossed his gun away and drew a long knife with an obsidian blade. Grinning with delight, he began to cut the buttons of Xochi’s shirt, his purpose clear.

“You are a traitor, girl. Your sister will thank me when I have shown you your place.”

On the ground, Bernard felt his adrenaline rising. The pain in his chest began to fade away into a dull ache. He slowly reached beneath his jacket, feeling for the two Colt pistols concealed there. He tried to hurry, but his limbs were still heavy as his pain and anger slowly built toward boiling point. He doubted if he could rescue Xochi before Salazar did something horrible.

Fortunately, Xochi required no rescuing. She cringed back from Salazar, but her expression was one of fury rather than fear. Overconfident and delighting in his work, Salazar lowered the knife and reached for Xochi’s belt. Xochi saw the opening and took it. Hands free, she curled her fingers into a fist and give Salazar a hard right hook. As the man stumbled backward, clutching his nose, Xochi followed up with knee into his nether regions. Salazar grunted and doubled over for a moment. However, as Xochi turned to see to Bernard’s condition, Salazar recovered, lunged for her and pressed the blade of his obsidian knife against her throat.

“Stop, Salazar!”

Miss Espinosa’s voice rang out in the confines of the temple like a shot fired from a gun. Salazar froze, and Xochi pulled free from him and clutched her shirt about herself. Miss Espinosa stepped into view at the temple’s entrance, followed by a pair of soldiers. She took one look at Xochi and another at Salazar, paying little heed to the crumpled mass of Bernard playing possum on the floor.

“Give me the knife, Salazar,” Miss Espinosa commanded. When he had done so, she turned the object over in her hands. “You presumed to lay hands on my sister....”

“Please!” Salazar cried. “She is a traitor! I was punishing her for betraying you!”

Miss Espinosa grabbed Salazar by his collar. “Traitor she may be, but she is of my blood! It is not your place to imagine touching my sister, let alone to do it!”

She raised the knife into the air, and then brought it down across the side of Salazar’s face. Salazar howled in pain and slapped one hand against his bleeding cheek. Miss Espinosa gave him a final look of disgust and threw the knife onto the table.

“Let that be a lesson to you.”

Miss Espinosa spun around to look at Xochi, but as she turned past the entrance she saw a sight that froze her in place. Bernard, whom she had taken for dead, now stood hunched over from pain, extending a Colt .45 toward the two soldiers standing in the middle of the room. The men were already in the process of lowering their rifles to the ground.

“Right,” Bernard said, shrugging off his jacket and offering it to Xochi, “I’m in a lot of pain right now, so let’s make this quick and easy. Xochi, get the Thompson. And while she’s doing that, one of you tell me where you hid the Mask of Whatever His Name Is.”

Miss Espinosa keep her mouth firmly shut, and she glared at Bernard in a mixture of defiance and amazement. Bernard shifted his aim toward the soldiers, but they clearly had no idea. Finally, he pointed his pistol at Salazar and kept it there. Salazar mimicked Miss Espinosa’s defiance for a few moments, but his mouth continued to twitch.

“It’s in the chest!” he finally blurted out, pointing toward the footlocker.

“Coward!” Miss Espinosa snapped at him.

Xochi crossed to the footlocker and tried to pull it open. “It’s locked.”

“Where’s the key?” Bernard demanded.

This time, Salazar managed to keep his mouth shut, likely more terrified of Miss Espinosa than of death itself.

Xochi thought for a moment, and then smiled. “I know where it is.”

She crossed to Miss Espinosa and reached for a chain around her sister’s neck. The necklace came away with a firm tug, revealing a small key dangling at the end. Xochi gave her sister a triumphant smile, and kissed her on the cheek.

“Thank you, dear sister.”

It took Xochi only a few moments of rummaging to find the object of her search. When she removed the Mask of Tezcatlipoca from the box, it was with the utmost care and reverence for a piece of history. The mask was largely as it had been described: a sheet of gorgeous obsidian, gold, turquoise and jade arranged in the shape of a god’s face. It was as if one of the pictographic images that filled the ruined city had been pulled from the wall and into life. Only on one point had the account been wrong: it was not a single piece of obsidian, but rather a delicate layering of precisely measured fragments arranged to mimic the contours of an actual face.

“Let’s go.”

Bernard took the mask and covered the door as Xochi led the way out. There were three more soldiers running up the pyramid’s steps as they exited. The soldiers made the mistake of pausing to aim their rifles, and Xochi gunned them down with two sweeps from the Thompson. Bernard should have been struggling as he descended, but his blood was finally pumping, and the pain in his chest had been replaced by a giddy energy.
As they descended the steps, the car carrying Freddy and Otto zoomed across the plaza, vanished at the other side, and then drove backward into view. Freddy honked excitedly, and then sped the car over to the foot of the pyramid.

“Haha!” he cried. “Just in the nick of time, I see! Do you have the mask?”

Bernard waved it in the air for a moment before passing it to Xochi and then stumbling against the car door.

“Help him!” Xochi said. “He’s been shot.”

“My word! I’ll get my kit--“ Freddy began.

“No time!” Bernard barked, throwing open the driver’s side door. “Freddy, over. Otto, in the back.”

Freddy and Otto did as they were told, like clockwork. Freddy stepped across into the passenger seat moments after Otto vacated it by bounding into the back.

“But you’ve been shot!” Xochi protested, even as she climbed into back seat with Otto.

“Not to worry,” Freddy assured her. “A nice juicy steak and a tall glass of milk, and he’ll be right as rain tomorrow.”

“What?” Xochi demanded.

Bernard dropped in behind the wheel and gunned the engine. The trucks that had been chasing Freddy and Otto seemed to have caught on to where they were going. Two of them zoomed into the plaza, packed with armed soldiers who had their rifles raised. Bernard twisted the car sideways to avoid a near collision, and the other three occupants strafed the soldiers with gunfire.

As they took off down the central avenue, Bernard held out his hand toward Freddy. “Flask!” he shouted.
Freddy took a sip of his own brandy and then passed it over to Bernard, who took a long swig before returning it. A glance in the mirror told Bernard that both trucks were still very much in commission and still on the chase.

“Xochi! Thompson to Otto, now!”

Xochi passed the submachine gun to Otto, who tucked it into his grip, braced himself and then began firing at the trucks with precisely controlled bursts.

“Xochi, Colts!”

Bernard reached beneath his jacket and passed his pistols one by one to Xochi, who accepted them and began covering the left side of the car. In the front, Freddy tucked away his flask and covered the right hand side with his Mauser.

A third truck appeared ahead of them, and Bernard twisted the car sideways between the remains of two crumbling buildings. Xochi opened fire on the new truck as they passed, spraying the cabin with bullets. The truck twisted out of control and slammed into the remains of an ancient wall.

Above them, a pair of soldiers appeared in view on the top of a building, eagerly preparing to open fire into the car’s passengers. Freddy raised his Mauser and took them down with a bullet each.

“I say!” he cried. “What fun!”

Bernard was clearly not having “fun”, but he did feel a certain degree of elation as his foot pressed the accelerator against the floor of the car. They hurtled along past the Aztec ruins and then broke free into open country. The two remaining trucks finally found an alternative route from the one blocked by the third of their number and roared out of the city in pursuit. Otto continued firing at the nearest one and finally managed to blow out one of the tires. The truck twisted out of control, struck a small ravine and flipped over onto its side. The passenger soldiers spilled out across the ground.

“Good shooting, Otto!” Freddy shouted.

“I’m out!” Otto replied.

“Bernard! Magazines!”

“Try the glove box!” Bernard shouted back, as if this was the logical answer and Freddy should have known better than to ask.

Freddy popped the glove box open to reveal a stack of Thompson drum magazines. “On ‘three’!” he shouted. “Eins, zwei, drei!”

One of the magazines sailed through the air and landed neatly in Otto’s hands. Meanwhile, the remaining truck was doing its damnedest to keep up, and the hail of rifle shots that resounded from the soldiers in the back reminded Bernard of machine gun fire. Xochi emptied the Colts into the soldiers, bringing two of them down; but as Bernard weaved back and forth to evade the return fire, he exposed their flank and the truck zoomed up on the right hand side while Otto was still reloading. The driver began to swerve his truck against the side of the car, and the smaller vehicle jumped sharply as Bernard struggled to keep it under control.

Freddy raised his Mauser and lined up a shot at the truck driver; but as he pulled on the trigger the magazine clicked on empty. For a moment, the driver had given a wide-eye look of terror; then his lips split open in a grin as he drew his revolver and leveled it at Freddy’s head. With a sigh, Freddy threw his flask overhand into the truck cabin, where it struck the driver neatly in the face. The truck swerved out of control and barreled away.

“Good throw, Freddy!” Xochi exclaimed, and leaned forward to give him a kiss on the cheek.

In spite of this attention, Freddy frowned. “Dash it all, I liked the flask.” After a moment he shrugged and produced a packet of home-rolled incense cigarettes from an inside pocket of his driving coat. “Anyone got a light?”

Bernard laughed uproariously with relief, until his chest began to hurt again. “Thank God, that’s over.”

“Yes, that seems to be the worst of it,” Freddy agreed. He peered off across the landscape to be sure there were no more trucks following them. “We’re safe now. They won’t be able to catch up with us at this rate, unless they have an--“

In the back seat, Otto cocked his head and listened. “Does anyone else hear an aero--“

At that instant, a biplane roared overhead and the rata-tat-tat of machine guns sounded above them. On reaction alone, Bernard pulled hard on the wheel and twisted the car sideways, narrowly avoiding the barrage of bullets. Clouds of dirt erupted in parallel lines behind them.

“You were going to say ‘an aeroplane’ weren’t you?” Bernard demanded of Freddy.

“I didn’t say it.”

“You thought it!”

Bernard swerved again to get back on his original route. Above, the plane circled around for another pass. Xochi and Freddy fired their pistols into the air as a distraction, but it was largely ineffective. Bernard was forced to zigzag as the plane dove in low and opened fire again. Already the agony in his chest was beginning to flare up. He was an old hand at carrying on in spite of grievous wounds, but he still felt the pain.

“Anyone got an idea?” he demanded.

Otto was leaning over the back of the car, sighting down the barrel of the Thompson. He slowly raised his hand.

“Otto does!” Freddy announced.

Bernard looked over his shoulder and sighed. “Otto, are you going to try and shoot a plane down with a submachine gun?”

“Maybe.”

Otto kept his eye on the biplane as it zoomed in for another pass. Everyone else reflexively ducked as the bullets were narrowly evaded by another one of Bernard’s sharp swerves, but Otto remained in place. At the last moment, he opened fire with a short burst just below the plane’s nose, and then followed it along to pump rounds into the engine block as the plane continued on.

“Did you hit it?” Xochi demanded, pulling out her binoculars and scanning the sky.

“I see smoke!” Freddy exclaimed.

The plane was indeed belching smoke from the side of its engine. In short order, a fire erupted behind the propeller and within moments the entire front of the plane was aflame. Freddy and Xochi began cheering in triumph as the plane twisted around and, burning, descended magnificently across the sky. Bernard pushed on at top speed for another mile or two, and then slowed the car to a gradual stop. He was breathing heavily and sagged back in the driver’s seat. His chest was covered with blood.

“Freddy, get these damn bullets out of me.”

Freddy pulled a small surgical kit out from an inside pocket of his coat and exchanged places with Otto in the back seat. Xochi climbed onto the car’s trunk to give the field surgery added room and sat there with a pistol in her hand and her arm resting on one knee, eyes alert for signs of movement on the horizon.

“Otto,” Bernard continued, “get behind the wheel. Just...just wait...in case more follow us.”

On the trunk, Xochi looked down at Bernard. “And what am I supposed to be doing?”

Bernard smiled up at her. “You’re going to tell me exactly why this damn mask was worth my getting shot.”