The Darker Mask

The Darker Mask

by Gary Phillips, Christopher Chambers

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Expanding on the concept behind Byron Preiss's Weird Heroes from the 1970s, George R. R. Martin's Wild Card series, and Michael Chabon's McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, The Darker Mask is a collection of original prose stories recalling the derring-do of the beings we call Superheroes and the worlds they fight to save.

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Expanding on the concept behind Byron Preiss's Weird Heroes from the 1970s, George R. R. Martin's Wild Card series, and Michael Chabon's McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, The Darker Mask is a collection of original prose stories recalling the derring-do of the beings we call Superheroes and the worlds they fight to save. But unique to The Darker Mask stories is that these plots and characters color a literary universe outside of what has been predominantly white, idiosyncratic, and male in previous homages to pulp. This is the stuff of urban legends, new mythos, and extraordinary folks who might live in a soon-to-be-gentrified ghetto, the dreary rust-belt of the city, or in another dimension. The Darker Mask offers an eclectic mix of popular fiction writers exploring worlds gritty, visceral, and fantastic.

Including stories by: Walter Mosley, L. A. Banks, Naomi Hirahara, Lorenzo Carcaterra, Tananarive Due and Stephen Barnes, Mike Gonzales, Gar Anthony Haywood, Ann Nocenti, Jerry Rodriguez, Reed Farrell Coleman, Doselle Young, Mat Johnson, Peter Spiegelman, Alexandra Sokoloff, Christopher Chambers, Gary Phillips, Victor LaValle, and Wayne Wilson.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Themed along the grayer areas of superhero fiction, this anthology of 18 original stories nonetheless covers a wide spectrum. One standout is "Switchback," by Ann Nocenti (Daredevil), in which teenage Mimi must try to cope with both her strange mind-control powers and the shards of familial ties that still bind her to her broken family. In "Tat Master," Edgar award-winner Naomi Hirahara (Snakeskin Shamisen) introduces tattoo artist Eye, who discovers the ability to bring her designs to life while on the run from her abusive boyfriend. Shamus winner Peter Spiegelman (Black Maps) pulls off a classic tale of superheroics meeting reality with "In Vino, Veritas," delving into a simple tale of ethics and love through the viewpoint of lie-detecting Veritas. Deceptively simple and entertaining while never skimping on serious topics, this tight anthology will satisfy any superhero enthusiast. (Aug.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Phillips (Violent Spring) and Chambers (A Prayer for Deliverance) edit this anthology wherein the superhero origin tale meets the mean streets. Transients and junkies, abuse victims and prostitutes, tattoo artists and bounty hunters are among the folks (mostly of color) who use their edgy superpowers to retaliate against their victimizers. Many of these stories would work better in a graphic format, but each does get a first-rate illustration. After a slow start, patient readers will be rewarded and transported by strong work from Gar Anthony Haywood, Naomi Hirahara, Mat Johnson, Victor LaValle, Walter Mosley, Ann Nocenti, Jerry A. Rodriguez, and Peter Spiegelman. A solid choice for libraries where speculative anthologies circulate but especially recommended for inner cities and libraries with diverse readership.
—Neil Hollands

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Tom Doherty Associates
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The Darker Mask

By Gary Phillips, Christopher Chambers

Tom Doherty Associates

Copyright © 2008 Gary Phillips and Christopher Chambers
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-8400-3



by L. A. BANKS

Cassandra Hubbard pulled the collar up higher on her puffy down coat and hunched deeper into its warmth to brave the elements. Unforgiving sleet slashed at her face as she hurried to make her train to work, muttering curses as she was jostled and bumped during the usual rush hour mayhem. Another cup of coffee was calling her name. She could barely keep her eyes open at seven a.m. As she descended the slick subway steps, she saw one. A Watcher.

It had slithered between two people and was gone. Now she was awake.

Glancing around and holding on to a post to be sure she wasn't accidentally pushed over the edge of the platform by one of those things that haunted her, she waited. It was always the same. The night before the dreams came, they'd find her.

Oblivious commuters moved up in anticipation of the train. She squeezed her eyes shut and clung tighter to the post, knowing that this was when it could happen. The point of vulnerability.

Perspiration soaked the T-shirt and sweater she wore beneath her coat. Her gloves would slide if she were grabbed. A horrific image of being snatched by the back of her coat, wool gloves snagging against the nicked concrete, then flung at just the moment the train rumbled into the station pierced her mind. The sensation riddled her body and she fought not to scream in public. Nearly panting, she closed her eyes quickly and then glanced around again, thoroughly paranoid.

The train screeched to a stop. The throng on the platform bustled forward. Cassandra let go of the post and dashed between the doors just as they shut.

No one looked up as she tightly clutched a pole. In Cassandra's eyes, the colors around her were melting and fading gray. Watchers emerged. They peered at her with their dark flickering eyes as their shadow-like, willowy bodies writhed and slithered among the oblivious passengers.

There had never been this many before. Usually just one or two. And they had never been so aggressive as to scare her early in the day. Or in public — despite the fact that no one but she could see them. They would always arrive while she was alone in her barren little apartment or in the Laundromat. Anywhere quiet and confined.

Cassandra began to hyperventilate as the Watchers crawled across the ceiling, along the walls, and wriggled closer to her on the floor. The entire train soon went black.

Cassandra screamed and began thrashing when icy fingers touched her face in the dark. The lights came back on. Blank-faced passengers simply stared at her like she'd lost her mind. She bolted off the train at her stop and ran up the steps, glad to be back in the frigid weather, and then ran three long blocks to her building. By the time she reached the lobby, tears were cascading down her face and she couldn't stop shivering.

"Cold as a witch's tit out there, ain't it, Cas?"

She nodded trying to compose herself as Fred, the lobby security guard, leered at her. Sometimes she wished that she came in with the normal eight-thirty crowd, instead of the earlier shift where she'd most often be in the lobby with him alone. Today was one of those days. All she wanted to do was get upstairs to her desk, but she knew she'd have to endure Fred's advances until the elevator came.

"So, how was the weekend? Do anything good?"

"I did laundry," she muttered, wondering how in the hell had she gotten trapped answering phones at a boring-ass box and paper supply distributor.

"I keep telling you, sweetheart, you can do ole Fred any time." He hoisted up his pants over his rotund belly, making it jiggle as he jumped off the stool and laughed at his own lame joke. "I got something for you."

He continued to laugh; she didn't look at him, but cracked a smile. She'd give him that; he'd baited her good and she'd fallen for the line. Their routine was a ritual.

"Your wife might have a problem with that, though. That's the thing."

"Aw, what she don't know won't hurt her — or me ... or you."


"I'm telling you, I beat laundry any day and can tumble better than any washer or dryer." He rubbed his jowls with a meaty palm. "Would work your little five foot seven stuff into a knot, girl — wit' your pretty brown self. Uh-huh."

"I'll remember that when I'm buying fabric softener."

"That's cold, Cassie. Real cold. Why you treat me like that?"

"Because I haven't had my morning coffee yet, Fred. Have a nice day."

"You, too, beautiful." He blew her a kiss. "I like them new braids you got, too. Bet they hang all down your back almost to your juicy behind."

"Thanks, Fred," she replied flatly. "I'll tell my stylist you approve."

"See, a black woman with an attitude. Why can't a man just give a woman a compliment — y'all so mean! I love you, girl."

"Yeah, okay, Fred. I love you, too ... but, oh, did I mention it before — that I'm so mean because you're so married?"

He laughed and went back to sitting on the stool behind the tiny sign-in desk that he dwarfed. "One day it's me and you, baby."

"Yeah, okay."

Cassandra kept her eyes glued to the numbers and waved at him without looking back as the doors opened. Her life was already screwed up enough. What did she need with a beer-bellied, horseshoe-bald, married guy that was almost twice her age? The dental plaque in his mouth alone was enough to send her back into the streets screaming. But at least Fred talked to her. That was her building buddy.

As long as someone saw her and talked to her, they couldn't come. When she wasn't invisible, they had to stay back in the shadows. She kept her body stone rigid as the elevator lumbered up to the seventeenth floor. They were getting so bad now, it seemed, and they might finally come for her at work, her only sanctuary. Sadly, this had been the only place she'd never seen them.

Bolting out of the elevator, Cassandra rushed to her desk, glad that some routines hadn't changed. Joe Schrader, the systems guy, was always in early like her and hunched over a keyboard, and so was Linda Duncan, one of the very harried shipping managers who didn't really speak to anyone civilly before ten o'clock. It didn't matter that they only muttered cursory acknowledgments, her coworkers were warm bodies in the office who would speak to her, if they came.

A thrumming headache pierced her temples but Cassandra relaxed knowing that meant the Watchers were gone. She reached into her desk for an Aleve and swallowed it dry before going to the coffee station.

All she had to do was answer the phones, sort the mail, route people to voicemail. She could do that. All she had to do was make it till lunchtime, and then she could find somewhere to hide and go to sleep. She'd survive till then, had for thirty years.

Unlike her parents.

The Watchers came for her mother in a derelict building where she smoked the rocks that would have killed her eventually anyway. They had come for her father in prison. Guards found him dead in his cell. That would never be Cassandra, not if she could help it. She didn't care what the doctors had said about her sleeping disorders while she was a ward of the Department of Social Services. She didn't give a rat's ass about teachers having a problem with her falling asleep in class. She'd gotten her GED anyway, and had started night classes for a degree in criminology. Right now it was about making sure they didn't get her while she was awake. None of the regulars — normal people — could see what she did.

Cassandra poured steaming black coffee into the huge, ceramic mug that she always kept hidden in her desk, stirring in so much artificial creamer and sugar that it all clumped together on the top making her work hard with a red plastic stirrer to dissolve it.

Sugar and caffeine were paramount to staying alert until it was time to escape. Some of her coworkers bitched about her always using up the stash because she clocked in before them and they offered unwanted advice about the way she fixed her coffee being a health hazard. But that was okay, she liked it like that. The regulars had no idea the things that could really challenge her life, and freakin' artificial creamer and white sugar or caffeine didn't have jack shit on those possibilities.

By eleven thirty, she was practically weaving at her desk. She needed to lie down so badly. Each blink of her eyes felt like sandpaper was scratching her corneas, and if her head bounced and jerked up one more time, she swore she'd get whiplash. The space heater under her desk keeping her legs warm was like a narcotic.

"Gonna need a neck brace and a chiropractor soon, hon," Joe said to her, coming out front and buttoning his coat. "I've gotta get some air. Storms are screwing with the lines, servers are on the fricking blink, and this weather is making me wanna just go the hell home and climb back in bed to pull the covers over my head."

"I hear ya," Cassandra said, rubbing her palms down her face. "But I thought everybody would be ordering in today because it's so damned cold outside." She let out a healthy yawn and stretched. "Anybody back there ordering? Lemme know, because I'm out at twelve and you know how they always try to make me hang and wait until their lunch comes."

"Screw 'em," Joe said with a shrug. "Ain't your problem."

They both looked at each other. "Unless it's Stan Buckner's lunch," they said in unison.

"Call Stan the man and ask him, then," Joe said, giving her a sympathetic glance. "Or ..."

"Not," Cassandra said with a smirk, gleaning one from Joe.

"Hey, what can he do if you left 'cause you didn't know?" Joe said, shrugging and opening the door that led out to the hall.

She shook her head, about to go back to staring at the same page of the magazine she'd been on for an hour, when she spotted the usual lunch delivery guy, a brother named Saddiq, getting off the elevators. Relief swept through her, straight thug though he was. Seeing Saddiq meant that she wouldn't have to hang around for the managers' lame excuses as to why they couldn't come out and retrieve their own damn food. So she waited, eager, ready to buzz in whoever brought the lunches to the front desk that the managers had ordered so she could jet.

"Yo, got a delivery," Saddiq said, loping toward her carrying several Chinese food takeout bags.

"Cool. Set 'em down, I'll call."

Cassandra studied him as he brought the food to her desk. Tall, basketball lanky, a perpetual scowl set in a dark-ebony, sculpted face — a hoodie hiding half of his handsome, angry features, baggy jeans, black Tims, a huge puff coat that would make any cop on the block wonder if he was carrying a street sweeper beneath it. Intense but weary eyes stared at her.

"Got an order for a Stan, a Linda, a Mildred, and a Nicole," Saddiq reported. "Total's forty-seven, eighty."

Cassandra depressed the intercom button and repeated what Saddiq had told her, taking the receipt from him. The dragon tattoo that curled over his broad knuckles always intrigued her, but she'd never ask ... he'd never tell. Only, today he looked more tired than usual.

"Night gig kicking your ass?" she said, not sure why.

He just looked at her as though looking through her for a moment. "Yeah." His gaze traveled up and down her body. "Same wit' you?"

She nodded as Mildred came out and collected the lunches, exchanging cash with Saddiq.

"I can go on break now?" Cassandra asked Mildred.

"Sure. Lorna can relieve you, I'll send her out." Mildred spoke without looking at her and went back through the doors.

"I'll see you later," Saddiq murmured in a tone that gave Cassandra pause.

She watched him lope out of the office and through the doors, becoming mesmerized by his fluid stride as the door he'd passed through slowly closed behind him. She saw a sliver of him, enough to see him glance back at her while waiting for the elevator. Was that an innocuous "I'll see you later" — as in next time they order, or was it a "Hey, baby, I'll see you later"? Unfortunately, she didn't have the luxury to dwell on it. She had to find somewhere to close her eyes for a half hour and the storeroom was calling her name. The moment Lorna appeared in the hallway behind her, Cassandra was out of her chair like a shot.

"Dang, you could at least wait till I got to the console," Lorna muttered.

It took everything within Cassandra not to flip Lorna the bird. But she kept walking and yawning. There were advantages to having keys to locked rooms that rarely got used except for excess product overflow and supplies.

Opening the door, she slipped inside the small, cramped space and pushed several boxes together to create a giant L shape that she could recline on. In a moment she would be safe. In a moment, they couldn't get her. Cassandra wiped off the surface of the dusty boxes, and then wiped her hands on the back pockets of her jeans and climbed up. She didn't care if her olive, knobby knit sweater got a little dusty, either. Maybe this time she'd go somewhere tropical where she didn't need boots, a T-shirt, sweater, jeans, a coat, a hat, gloves, muffler, and layers of socks. Her eyelids were so heavy that she couldn't keep them open a moment longer ...

... Then she was gone.

She'd asked for tropical and got Chinatown — but at least it wasn't winter. She shed her sweater and her new, athletic, toned body filled out her neon white tank top and jeans. Even her leather boots looked better. The road salt and slush crud was gone. Color was everywhere. Vibrant, alive, moving. Her hair went from drab ebony to honey brown, and she made a mental note to try that shade when she woke up.

Cassandra smiled and curled her grip around a black, handheld semiautomatic that took shells the diameter of a quarter. The made-up weapon was a gleaming monstrosity; her other hand itched and a Glock nine millimeter filled it. Oh, yeah, time to rock and roll.

She crossed the street with certain authority. She knew there was some bullshit going down. There always was. She immediately heard a young child's muffled cry coming from inside the warehouse next to the restaurant. Then it came from the restaurant.

The street was isolated — plenty of storefronts, but no patrons. She stepped across the threshold of the restaurant. Meals had been abandoned. Fabric banners overhead made the colors dance in the darkened space. Ceiling fans whirled. She could hear food frying, but the cooks had long gone. The sizzle filled her ears as the char of burning food began to sting her nose. Then she saw one scamper by. A Watcher.

Instantly a thin wisp of black-shadow creature darted up a wall and sent a butcher knife whirring toward her. She backflipped out of the way and landed on the table; the blade was thrown with such velocity that it halved the chair.

She pump-sprayed the wall following the nasty little bastard, unloading her nine until it splattered puss-white gunk. It was only then that she realized the whole thing was a trap.

They were everywhere! Under tables, coming out of vents, up and out of the drains. What the fuck — she sprayed the ceiling, the walls, doorways, the front window, shattering glass and dodging scalpel-sharp cutlery. Shrapnel from flying debris ricocheted in a blinding hail. Knives hit the wall as fast as bullet spray but she flipped out of the way, shooting two-handed, using furniture as temporary shields.

Shreds of shadow skins littered the destroyed tables, chairs, and walls. Decimated food and broken dishes and glasses created a razor-sharp mosaic on the tabletops and floor. Puss ran everywhere, the stench enough to make her gag, but she still heard children's wails.

Sliding on their oily remains and using the momentum of her semi-gunfire, she shot her way to the kitchen, kicking open a basement door, listening for the cries — then it came from outside. She reached down quickly, tossed away her spent Glock, and yanked up her jeans leg to extract a credit card — sized slice of C-4 from her boot. The moment she saw movement in the darkness she tossed it down the blackened staircase, and opened fire, flip-rolling out of the way and through a back window as the building imploded from the basement up.

A truck crashed through the back wall of the warehouse from the inside, and she had mere seconds to roll out of its way. As it barreled past, she sat up in the street, took aim and —

"No!" she heard a male voice, a strangely familiar one, shout. "The kids are in the truck! Hold your fire!"

Cassandra jumped to her feet, looking around for the voice. She sprinted behind the truck then darted through an alley to head it off — anything to get a clear shot at the driver. Then she saw a human form, muscular and male in shape and dressed in black, drop from a building overhang onto the truck's hood. The figure punched through the front windshield. It flung the driver out and over the hood. Whoever that poor bastard was got run over by his own truck. Within seconds, the black figure was behind the wheel and had brought the vehicle to a stop. Cassandra could see the building overhangs filling with writhing shadows. She extracted a fresh clip from her back jeans pocket and slammed it into the bottom of her semi.


Excerpted from The Darker Mask by Gary Phillips, Christopher Chambers. Copyright © 2008 Gary Phillips and Christopher Chambers. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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