"Sorry, Carol; forgot something."
"You know, had to throw a blanket over a dead body. Wouldn't want people to see it and panic."
"Ah, of course. That's understandable."
Ruiz took his coffee back from the bemused barista, sipped it once to check the taste, then downed the cup in one gulp. He moved to his regular seat, pulling out his phone and checking for new messages.
Be there in ten.
Ruiz sighed, typing a response.
im in the coffee shop down the street
He tapped his chin pensively with the phone.
"So what are you up to today, Ruiz?"
Carol sat across from Ruiz, the counter unmanned.
"Well, I'll have to dispose of that body, of course. Can't just keep a blanket over it forever. Then I need to somehow track down my brother. He knows where I am, so he's got the upper hand at the moment. He likes to play games, though; I imagine he'll send me some kind of formal invitation to some kind of stupid 'secret lair'. He's always had a flair for the dramatic. Then I need to get him to start taking his meds again, since he's almost certainly off them at the moment… After that, I'll need to scare off a couple of scragglers, and then I'll have saved the city. A true artistic community can be established, free from the judgement of old farts and everymen. We'll be able to do something different; I don't know what, but anything's better than this. We're sitting in squalor and stagnation, some too stupid or senile to see the sensibility of severing ties with shittier artists. We need someone to slice away the shit, shear off the silliness; perhaps all we need is someone to snip-"
"Alright, I get it, business as usual, mad artistry ahoy. Hang on, I've got a customer."
Carol stood back up and walked to the counter, taking an order and preparing a fresh drink. Ruiz sunk into his thoughts. His streams of consciousness twirled within his mind like ethereal dancers, threading innumerable ideas in complex combinations. Like most anartists, his thought processes were not entirely coherent, not entirely logical, and not entirely sane. It is said that some have a tenuous grasp on reality. Anartists cannot be said to have a grasp on it at all. If we were to use the metaphor of reality as a stick, most anartists throw it away, or snap it into pieces, or set fire to it, or hit things with it, or do anything other than just hold the stick. The mindset was almost childish, and yet, it was perhaps the most coherent, logical, and sane reaction to the world. Why would you settle for just holding a stick? Why not make the stick a sword, jump into the world of make-believe? Leap gloriously into escapism, run headfirst into danger, live without reverence for your own life or that of others. If all the world's a stage, then murder's but removing a side character. The plot is more important than the people, the storyline goes beyond any player. Let the masses die. Let the show go on. Ruiz tapped a small note into his phone.
never hold sticks
Ruiz looked up at Felix, smiling.
"Felix! Know anyone who can get rid of a corpse?"
"Yes, I do, I suppose. You killed him, then?"
"Oh, no, I didn't kill him."
"That's right, he was supposed to kill himself, I forgot."
"Oh, no no no, that didn't end up happening at all. My brother killed him, bullet to the head."
Felix frowned harder, taking a seat across from Ruiz. He pulled out his phone and started composing a new message.
"Your brother was busy last night. Made quite a show at the exhibition."
"What did he do?"
"Something that got the suits called in, they mind-wipe gassed half the city. Can't remember it myself, unfortunately, but my friend had the foresight to wear a gas mask. Filled me in after the fact."
Felix kept tapping his phone, Ruiz descended into thought. Pico had attracted the attention of the suits. Perhaps he was attempting to orchestrate a crackdown? But what was his endgame? What was the reason for killing The Critic? To spite Ruiz, perhaps. Ruiz wanted him dead to shatter his control, to swing society into a state of flux. Payback for Redd was also a factor. Perhaps Pico was driven by the same thing? If there was method to the madness, he could be reasoned with.
"So how was he supposed to die?"
"The Critic. How were you going to have him kill himself?"
"Oh, a stupid little thing. An electric chair."
"And how did you intend to get him to pull the switch?"
"I told him that the exhibit was a doomsday machine."
"You said it wasn't anomalous."
"No I didn't. I said it didn't break reality. You'd be surprised at what can be done without exploiting, Felix, if you just put a bit of ingenuity behind it."
"So how did you make a non-anomalous doomsday machine?"
"But you said-"
"I said I told him that it was a doomsday machine. He then investigated it and believed me. I didn't have to break reality, I just had to convince him that I did."
Ruiz took a coin from his pocket and spun it on the top of his finger.
"Consider this, Felix: for hundreds, even thousands of years, mankind has been enamoured with the idea of magic, of violating the laws of physics, of bending the world to their will and whimsy. Here we are, able to do the impossible, breaking the rules that god or happenstance forced upon us, flipping the finger to the magic man in the sky. That's not how they did it in the old days, Felix. Artistic exploiting is a new fad, comparatively. Do you know how it started?"
"Warhol. Most modern exploiting tools can be traced back to his studios. He was a good salesman, filled his places with demonstrations, played off his popularity. Then, of course, The Club shut him down, and he's been underground ever since."
"What, so he's still alive?"
"Probably, but I digress. That's not how they did it in the old days, Felix. Magic's been around a lot longer than exploiting has. Not shooting lightning from your hands, of course. Just simple illusionism."
Ruiz let the coin drop from his finger into his palm, clenched it, then showed Felix his empty hands.
"See, illusionists purport to perform the impossible, but do it in a mundane way. And people believe it, they eat it up, and that's something that I respect more than the stuff that most artists pump out. They do the impossible with nothing more than smoke and mirrors."
Ruiz pulled the coin from behind Felix's ear.
"It's more interesting, to me. Actually performing the impossible, when you're someone like us, is boring. Just putting something together that breaks reality is the work of a hack. But if you can get the same effect without doing anything impossible, that's much more impressive. See, I could have sent this coin into a little pocket dimension, pushed it in and out of our world, and you couldn't tell the difference between palming it. This is the point that I'm trying to make, and this is where we need to go: the impossible is more interesting when it's all mundane. Stage magic, street magic, these are the roots we need to return to. None of it was anomalous, Felix. It was all just smoke and mirrors."
"Smoke and mirrors?"
"Carefully orchestrated triggers. It's the same sort of stuff that hypnotists do, and it's brilliant because it's the last thing you'd expect. The Critic would fight the impossible, he'd fight drugging, or infohazards, or memetic bullshit. The last thing that he would expect, the only thing he couldn't possibly be anticipating, was the mundane. The second he entered that room, the second I approached him, and turned around him, and spun those blades, the tone of that whirring resonated perfectly, the sawblade I gave him was weighted off-centre, and his sensation of gravity moved, and I turned the lights on, and they flickered to life in a set order, guiding his eyes so they'd dart from side to side, which reflexively caused a primal fight or flight instinct, flooding his body involuntarily with chemicals, imbalancing him, disorienting him, and then all I needed to do was tell him what he wanted to hear, and he was putty in my hands. He deferred to my guidance like a lamb, and he didn't notice it at all. The triumph wasn't in driving him to suicide. It was in controlling him as an audience so completely, so utterly entrancing him, that he'd be so entirely under my control, that he'd risk his life on the truth of my words. Wowwee is not an installation, it was performance art for an audience of one. It was making reality seem unreal to a man who dealt in the impossible. An anti-anart anartist's art."
Ruiz opened his fists above the table, clattering hundreds of coins onto the floor.
"Molly! We've gotta go!"
"Hang on, I'm still packing my hats!"
"Forget the hats! We need to leave!"
Overgang tapped Joey on the shoulder.
"I've told people to tell other people. FTF's continuing their tour, so they were leaving town anyway. Albeit with three new members. Nibman only came through because we called him up, the Brit's gone back home, and everyone else seems to be disappearing too. They're switching numbers so Tan can't track them. Except Arsehole, of course, she doesn't seem to care."
"She never really does. You're still coming with us, yeah?"
"Yeah. Sick of living with my parents anyway. Dad's glad to see me gone."
"Right. Great. Damn, we're finally going nomad."
Rita walked through Joey's front door, trundling a wheelie bag behind her. She was wearing a schoolgirl outfit with a plaid green skirt.
"All packed and ready to go, guys."
Joey patted her on the head.
"You look like a real schoolgirl."
"I am a real schoolgirl, Joey."
"Of course you are. Figured it all out with your folks?"
"Yup. I'm just going over to my friends' house for the night. They'll panic, but they'll get over it. Probably."
Joey and Overgang shared a concerned look.
"You sure you want to do this, Rita?"
"You think sticking with mummy and daddy's going to stop them from stealing me away in the middle of the night?"
"Fair point. We've gotta go, Molly, hurry up!"
"Still packing hats!"
"Seriously, how many hats does she need? She's only got the one head. Rita, how many hats have you packed?"
"Four. Well, seven if you count tiny decorative hats."
"Damn. What's with girls and hats?"
"How many pairs of those sunglasses have you packed, OG?"
Overgang awkwardly re-adjusted his signature shades.
"Twelve pairs of sunglasses. I haven't even packed one pair."
"Yeah, well I haven't packed a hat!"
"Well, the two of you can borrow hats or shades or panties from each other once we GET A MOVE ON!"
"Alright, I'm coming!"
Molly ran down the stairwell, heaving two bulging suitcases in her arms. A long red feather boa was draped around her floral dress, braided hair making her a perfect mix of hippie and bohemian. Joey took one of the suitcases from her as she reached the ground.
"You must be Rita, right?"
"Yup! Nice to meet you."
The pair shook hands, then Molly turned to Joey and Overgang.
"You boys need to learn some patience. Never rush a lady."
Overgang rubbed his neck guiltily.
"Ha, no he's not. Give me the keys."
Rita smiled as the four of them walked outside to the waiting van. Leaving school, moving away, going out into the great big world for the first time. Making things that meant something, enacting change where change could be enacted. Finding people who really understood them; constantly on the run from heavily armed men in black. It would be just like all her family road trips, only interesting. Oh yes, Rita thought as she hopped in the back seat. This was going to be fun.
"Your friend's taking a while."
"Probably just busy. Nothing stopping us from just waiting."
Felix sat watching Ruiz solve a Rubik's cube.
"So where exactly is the body?"
Ruiz carelessly gestured to the blanket-covered corpse on the other end of the room. Felix stood up and walked over to it, carefully pulling down the top to reveal The Critic's still-shocked face, eyes still wide in shock. Felix closed the body's eyelids, then looked up at the broken skylight.
"So he shot from up there?"
"Where's the glass? The floor should be covered."
"I cleaned it up. That stuff's dangerous, wouldn't want someone to step on it."
Felix rolled his eyes, gesturing around the room filled with deathtraps; Ruiz didn't notice, still engrossed in the cube. The Critic's hat still sat on his head, a flawlessly circular hole punched perfectly through the front. Felix went to pluck it off, then hesitated.
Felix spun to face the tall masked figure at the entryway. Ruiz looked up from his cube, and was struck with an instant sense of awe and confusion. The Janitor's dark trenchcoat dangled down its legs, billowing around without a breeze. It glanced around, silently appraising the room. Ruiz looked straight into The Janitor's darkened eyeholes. His pupils widened, his tongue felt as dry and rough as sandpaper, his lungs felt like they were on fire and his extremities felt numb and cold. For the first time in his life, Ruiz felt deep, soul-crushing fear. Well, that or love. He’d never felt either before, and from what he had heard, the two seemed very similar. Here was the being that would deliver him from his conundrum, the instrument of salvation; the supplier of The Critic's last rites. Ruiz blurted out the one thing he knew, from an artistic perspective, was objectively true.
"You are beautiful."
Ruiz stood and walked to The Janitor, grinning dumbly while offering the completed Rubik's cube. The Janitor cocked its head to one side, as if confused, then took the cube and placed it inside an inner trenchcoat pocket. A heavily obscured, almost mechanical voice buzzed from the diaphragm of the gas mask, and yet Ruiz understood every word.
"You bring me order where once there was chaos. My thanks."
Ruiz's grin widened even more, stunned into silence. Felix interjected.
"The body's over here, Janitor."
The Janitor turned and walked to the covered body. It carefully removed the blanket, folded it, and laid it down on the ground near the seat. It moved its hands into the body's pockets, checking for anything important. It removed a wallet; when opened, it was not simply empty, but brand new, the cardboard inserts still keeping its shape flat. The Janitor placed it on top of the blanket. It turned to Felix, asking for reassurance.
"I am to remove the body, then?"
"If it's not too much trouble. Sorry about… well, you knew him better than I did."
"I knew him not better or worse. I knew what he was, and only that."
The Janitor turned to the body, moving its gloved hands across the clothes, continuing to search for hidden possessions. It stood, then turned to Felix and Ruiz.
"Avert your eyes. This will be brief."
The pair of them turned away, then heard The Janitor click its fingers. Ruiz heard the sound of crunching bone, squelching flesh, crackling flames and running water. And then, in the next instant, it was gone.
"It is complete."
Ruiz turned around. The body was gone, as were the clothes, blanket, and wallet. The Janitor was crouched over the chair. All that remained of The Critic was his grey fedora, sitting immobile where the body had once sat.
"I cannot remove the hat."
Ruiz widened his eyes, surprised that anything was beyond the capabilities of the masked giant.
"I am not allowed to. Is that all, Felix?"
The Janitor stood and spun to face the man.
"I think it should be, yes. Many thanks; I'm in your debt, as always."
"Be prepared to follow through on that. I may collect sooner than you think."
Felix chuckled as The Janitor briskly walked out the door.
Ruiz continued to stare at the grey fedora.
The Sculptor ran into The Composer's office, interrupting his work at a synth bank.
"We've fucked up, Sam. Snipper's gone rogue, fucked everyone last night. Suits everywhere, and… fuck. You don't want to know what happened, man. It was bad. Suits pulled Bob and Robbo out, so they're gone, Felix's buggered off, Sandy's in the hospital still, and Critic won't answer his fucking phone."
"Fuck. So it's you and me, then?"
"Me and you… ha. Not quite."
The Sculptor moved towards The Composer, driving a knife deep into his neck. The Composer's eyes widened in shock; he moved his mouth to scream, only coughing up blood.
"Shhhhh, shh shh shh… don't try to talk. Whatever you were going to say was probably as stupid and derivative as your shitty little excuses for songs."
The Composer mouthed silently, eyes rolling up into his head.
"It's all part of the plan, Sam, don't worry. We didn't fuck up, you did. I executed this shit fucking flawlessly. Yeah, yeah, I was the one who gave Sandy that play, I pinned it on Ruiz, I sent those lazy fuckers Bob and Robbo in and got them caught. If my trace on Felix is still working, then Critic's dead, too. Leaving me to be the king of the hill… after some housekeeping, of course. That asshole Ruiz made a move before I could; Snipper reckons he was first into the subterfuge game. Those upstart little twats almost screwed me out of a well-planned coup. Still, had you all fooled to the end. I'm the last one standing. The way it was always meant to be."
The Sculptor pulled the knife from The Composer's throat, letting his body drop to the floor. He flicked blood and viscera from the blade and carefully placed it back into his pocket.
"I was here first, you fucks. I did it first, I was the one who got this shit started, and you have the fucking nerve to make me one of many? It doesn't work like that. It will never work like that. I am above you. Compared to what I've done, you're nothing. You get me? YOU GET ME?"
The corpse remained silent. The Sculptor laughed madly, then abruptly stopped, angrily glaring at the gaping neck wound.
"That's what I fucking thought."
The Sculptor walked out of the room, leaving Sam's body to bleed out, rot, and be forgotten.