by Joe Kinski, Doc Quantum and Libbylawrence
The nightmares came for him again. The details sometimes changed, but the outcome was always the same, no matter what he did.
His heart pumped vigorously, and his brain pounded like it was going to explode. Alicia. She was always in his dreams, only in his dreams. Had she ever even lived? Was she ever even real?
It was all so vivid in his mind. He and Alicia had been together in the royal palace. He was on his motorcycle. He was in the castle. He was everywhere and nowhere. Every turn was like looking in a mirror, to see only his face.
He saw her. She was in the castle with the version of him he could not reach. His motorcycle had stalled. He could not move. He could not breathe. She left the castle. He turned to watch her go, gunning the engine on the motorcycle at last. He started running out of the castle. He hit thirty on the motorcycle. So close. So close.
But still it happened. It always happened, no matter how many times he tried. And, God, how he tried. He desperately wanted Alicia to know that he tried.
He yelled at her, but what was the use? She could not hear. Yet he screamed, he brayed, he bellowed — but she did not hear. So close, he could feel her hand just barely out of reach as that black Mercedes-Benz came flying out of the side street and gunned her down — gunned her down again and again and again, a royal assassination on the front page of every newspaper in the world.
How long? How long would he remember every second, every breath, as she lay dying in his arms? How long? The nightmares came for him again. Always the same. Always the same.
His day began, as it often did, with the simple ring of a phone call. A quick ring could thrust anyone into action. There were places to go, things to do, people to meet. But that people-to-meet bit was overrated. You could bet on it.
It was time for him to rub the cobwebs out of his eyes and pick up the telephone. Maybe it would chase away the nightmares.
He grabbed at the phone on the nightstand. The digital clock in that small hotel room said it was three o’clock A.M. It was too early. Who in the world could know where he was? He hadn’t bothered to call anyone when he pulled into this small hotel in Paris last night. He had just thrown himself down on the hotel bed and fallen asleep.
“Yeah?” he muttered into the receiver.
“Mr. King, it’s about time you picked up the phone. I was afraid I was going to have to send one of my men in to get you.” The voice on the other end of the line chuckled dryly. The young man didn’t like dry chuckles, but it told him who was on the phone.
“Lowell Cade,” growled King. Cade was the last of the tough guys, last of the wild men, and one of the original dirty tricksters of the CIA. He had recruited Sarge Steel himself, helping mold that private eye into a high-ranking agent, and King would believe it if Cade told him that “Will Bill” Donovan himself had in turn trained Cade. The CIA man was sharp, almost too sharp, and always ready to hand off some of his dirty work to him. He was also very good, able to track him down in the middle of the night.
King smiled at the mirror in the dark but then scowled. All he could see was the mask staring back at him. He shook his head to remember who he was, who he could be, and what Lowell Cade wanted him to be.
“That’s it exactly, Mr. King. Lowell Cade. I have a little job, and I think you just might be the man for it.” King could picture Cade sitting there relaxed and smoking his cigar, a nice fine Cuban cigar, with a glass of brandy next to him. Won’t you come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly?
“Why?” asked King. “What makes you think I want anything to do with you? I told you before I wasn’t interested in any of your business. I don’t like your business. I’ve never liked your business. You know… you know that the only reason I got involved with you at all was because of… because of Alicia.” He said it. It was a good thing. It had been three years now, and he knew he had to snap out of it. He could say her name — Alicia. Of course he could say her name; hadn’t he begun to move on with his life? Hadn’t he made new friends? Hadn’t he even begun dating again? But that life was still somehow separate from this one. “And I’ve still never been able to track down those who ordered her assassination.”
“Oh, come on, Mr. King. I offered you the full resources of the Company in exchange for your help. Together we got the sonuvabitch trigger man who killed her, didn’t we? Don’t forget you’re on retainer.”
“I’ve forgotten nothing,” said King, remembering how the gunman died in his arms, killed by a sniper rifle on the streets of Lisbon. He had been silenced before he could reveal the identity of the man who had hired him for the assassination.
“Rumor has it that you’ve fallen on hard times, willing to anonymously pawn your services off in exchange for the merest hint of a lead on Alicia’s assassins. I could get specific, but this is a public line. Hate to think someone might be listening in. Could sully your aristocratic reputation, huh, Mr. King?” Lowell Cade placed special emphasis on the name.
“That’s a dirty trick, Cade. You can’t do that.” The mask beckoned to him. All he needed to do was don the mask, grab his Colt .45, and strap it on. It would be easy. All he needed to do was wait until Cade told him where he was.
“Oddly enough, Mr. King, I didn’t start these rumors. Call it serendipity. Kismet.”
“Yeah, beautiful fate,” King said sarcastically. “I don’t believe you, not for one moment.”
“Then tell me what you were up to in Tunisia, Mr. King. You come clean, I move on. I’ve got other fish to fry.”
That night in Tunisia. What could he tell him about Tunisia? He could tell him about the slave trade, about the young kids whose bodies were sold to wealthy European tourists and politicians. He could tell him about the pit of iniquity he walked into. He could tell him about the corrupt police officials and the pedophile ring they protected. He could tell him about the bullet to that head. He could tell him all about his other life, about the mask he wore. Lowell Cade had been keeping track of King’s whereabouts ever since they met, but so far the young man had kept his masked life a secret, and he aimed to keep that secret, not only for himself but for his royal family.
“All right, I’ll hear you out,” he replied. “I owe you that much. But it had better be good.”
“Get up. Get dressed. Meet me at a nightclub downtown called Le Chat Noir. I’ll be waiting. I’ll even buy you a drink.”
“C’mon, Cade, it’s three in the morning.”
“You’re in the City of Lights, Mr. King. Paris never sleeps, and neither should you.”
In the home of Alvar and Britta Sundin in Stockholm, the young mother was distraught, unable to deal with what had happened to both her daughter and her husband. First their daughter Annika had begun to rapidly age from an eleven-month-old infant into a girl of around five years old, and then she suddenly turned into a full-grown woman dressed in an archaic outfit from the Middle Ages. Even worse, Alvar had also been transformed into a living, breathing figure from Edith Hamilton’s Mythology.
Alvar had used his talisman to change himself back to normal, but he was unable to do the same for Annika, and he began pacing as he racked his brain for a solution. His beautiful young wife Britta sat nearby, terror marring her otherwise flawless features. Her first reaction as a mother had been to scream, and keep screaming, but she had finally broken down into heaving sobs. The worst part was that there was absolutely nothing the young couple could do. Whatever was happening was completely out of their realm.
Their guests, Zaza the Mystic and Baron Weirwulf, did their best to calm the couple down, but the transformation that had just happened was unlike anything they’d witnessed before their eyes. Still, the Baron reasoned, it could not have been completely unique, given the recent sightings of all the gods and monsters across Europe.
Baron Weirwulf finished his appraisal of the transformed Annika Sundin, who was still standing in the same place in the living room with her eyes closed. He turned to the Sundins and said, “Let’s review what we know. Just days ago, your child was a normal infant. Then a living wooden plant covered the child like some type of natural cocoon.”
“Right,” said Britta, nodding. “It must have been caused by Alvar’s pendant! Why can’t we just get rid of the thing?”
“That won’t solve things, dear,” said Zaza. “The pendant may have played a hand in things, but it didn’t cause your daughter’s transformation.”
“Indeed not!” the Baron added. “If anything, the talisman caused the mystical process affecting your daughter to be drastically slowed. It should have been instantaneous!”
Alvar slammed his fist into the wall in frustration. “All this talking is getting us nowhere! Annika has changed into a woman, and she’s completely unresponsive! If we can’t bring her back to normal, how could we ever forgive ourselves? You’ve got to help her!”
“Mr. Sundin, that is precisely what we are trying to do!” shouted the Baron. “Now sit back down and let me think!” Alvar obeyed, and Baron Weirwulf began frowning in concentration. “All right, we know that your use of the talisman transforms you into the avatar of the Norse god Thor. Given the girl’s Nordic attire, we might assume that she has been transformed into someone from the same pantheon, perhaps Thrud, the daughter of Thor and Sif, or perhaps Freyja or Frigg, or some combination of several goddesses.”
Britta jumped up and rushed toward her transformed daughter. “I can’t wait for this. I’ve got to try anything to save her!” Falling to her knees, she pleaded aloud, “Help her! Help her, gods of my ancestors! Please!”
Baron Weirwulf rolled his eyes and shouted, “Dear woman, this is hardly the time to–!”
“Look!” cried Zaza, pointing at Annika.
As the others stared at the transformed girl, they watched as her eyes opened for the first time since her transformation. The beautiful young woman she had become looked around at the other four in the room and smiled. “I am Frigg, prophetess of the Aesir,” she said. “What questions would you ask of me?”
Britta embraced her, weeping happily as her grown-up daughter returned the hug, albeit awkwardly. “Annika, my baby!” she cried. “How can we change you back?”
“In this form, little mother, I am not your daughter Annika,” said Frigg. “I know things no child could know. Ask me what you will.”
“I think I see,” said Zaza the Mystic. “We must address all questions to Frigg, not to your daughter.”
“Then, Frigg, how can we bring our daughter back?” asked Britta. “We miss her so!”
“Your daughter has never left,” said Frigg. “She is still present.”
“But that’s not–”
“Frigg, prophetess of the Aesir,” interrupted Baron Weirwulf, “by what process can we transform the body of Annika into her natural state of a child who is not possessed by a goddess?”
“There is no process by which you can accomplish such a thing, Baron Weirwulf,” said Frigg with a smile.
“What?” bellowed the Baron. “What are we to make of this? She speaks in riddles!”
“Frigg,” shouted Alvar, “what must I do to save my daughter?”
The goddess Frigg smiled and said, “Alvar Sundin, you cannot save your daughter.”
“I don’t understand!” cried Britta. “Is Annika beyond saving?”
“She’ll answer every question put to her,” said Zaza the Mystic with understanding, “but the quality of the answer depends on the quality of the question. We need to be asking the right questions.”
“Frigg, who can save my daughter?” asked Alvar. “Who can save Annika?”
“Alvar Sundin, only Thor, god of thunder, can save little Annika,” said Frigg.
“No,” said Alvar. “I can’t.”
“You started this, Alvar,” said Britta in an accusing tone. “You’ve got to finish this. And if you’ve got to change again in order to save our daughter, then what are you waiting for?”
Alvar sighed and nodded his head, then placed his talisman in his hand and concentrated. A bolt of lightning and a clap of thunder heralded the return of Thor. As the god of thunder, Alvar stood before his transformed daughter and addressed her. “Frigg, prophetess of the Aesir, how can I, Thor, change Annika Sundin back to normal?”
The goddess Frigg smiled once more and said, “There is only one way to accomplish your task, god of thunder. Listen carefully to my words…”