The police were expecting us, of course. They weren't allowed to send up the signal anymore. Technically they weren't even allowed to have them, just in case there'd be a misunderstanding, but the older ones, especially the detectives, especially anyone who had been on the night shift a long time, they had them anyway. It was all very deniable. Wink and a nod law enforcement. Not that what we were doing was really law enforcement.
"Can you find him? Can you find my baby? We can get the money, we'll pay it, but the police say we can't just pay the money, that it doesn't help..." She was wringing her hands right next to me, the mother, and I never knew what to say in situations like this. Did I try to play it up with bravado and maybe make her feel better. Should I try to hedge my bets and be honest? I told her the truth. I told her that I could find any lost or missing thing, and that if her little boy was still alive, we would come back with him or not at all. She broke down crying and I don't know if I said the right thing or not, but it was true and I will always stand by the truth.
I assumed there would be a 'we.' Within ten minutes or so, two more showed up. I knew Lighthouse, but not the other one, who said her name was Staccato. The police showed us what had happened. There in the boy's bedroom, and he wasn't really a baby, from the robots and toy guns I'd say he was eight or nine, there was a shadow under the bed. An umbral darkness, like a hole in the floor. Lighthouse shone a light at it, but the darkness ate it up...no. You could see dust motes. There was a space down there.
I went and knelt down and there was a blackness floating there in the space between the bottom of the bed and where the floor should be. I knew that this was where the boy had gone, that it was the shortest route to him. I put my hand in there, and it was like a doorway into another room. Some kind of dimensional thingy. You never really knew. The wrongness of it was revolting, sickening. Everyone who wasn't a mask had to look away, it was like some weird Escher thing, sitting dark and hungry in the middle of a normal well-lit room. I reached to where the bottom of the bed should be, and there was nothing but dark space. My hand should have been sticking out of the top of the mattress, but from the shoulder on I was in some other place, not a little boy's bedroom at all. The uniforms had all stayed outside the bedroom, couldn't take looking at it and there was no reason to.
The detective was a tall, wiry man, bald with salt-and-pepper eyebrows. He stayed, but had to struggle to keep from throwing up. It took most people that way. He showed me the ransom note. Low seven figures. I didn't get anything that mattered from the note, but he was brave to be here and ashamed that he could do no more than that, so I thanked him and told him he'd been a huge help. That I wanted him to keep the family calm for us. Three was enough, you almost never got more than three, and so Staccato and Lighthouse and me dropped down into the darkness under the bed while the sick, scared, brave detective held the frame up for us. I know that putting even his fingers into that shadow had to be one of the scariest things he had ever done. Most people couldn't have done even that. Normal people, anyway, people who didn't have a second face.
The way it happened to me is not the way it happens for everybody. I think it's always different. But I've been around the block enough times that I've actually talked to some of the others. Real Talk, not just terse discussion or whispered conference. So I guess the following is a pastiche of themes I've heard repeated and things that I believed enough to write them down.
You have to live in a city. Nobody has ever heard a of a mask from a rural area. You have to feel like some inchoate thing is missing from your life, like there's a part of you that just isn't there. You need to fast, and make a dark room and line the walls with mirrors, and light it with only a candle. No sunlight. No clocks. Nobody should know you are there and nobody should be checking on you. You have to watch the mirrors, from at least one dawn to the next dawn. Eventually you'll see your other face in the mirror. It might take a few tries, a few whole entire days spent staring at yourself, hungry and thirsty, never looking at your watch or taking a break to go to the bathroom and not dozing off. It's going to seem like a huge waste of time and it takes a big leap of faith to make it work, but eventually you might see your second face.
Making your second face is hard. It takes time and craft skills, and you have to actually get it right and not just slop something together and hope for the best. You'll know when it's right. It might take weeks or months. I know a guy who had to learn to work leather. You can't have someone else do it for you, and if you've never sewed a stitch in your life you'll have to, but by now you'll know if it's working or not.
Then you have to take it out and walk at night. Go where the road takes you. Follow the wind. Listen to the secret voices in the cemeteries and sit under overpasses with the old homeless folk. Don't talk. Watch, and listen. If you practice martial arts in the park that's okay. If you try to learn parkour, that's okay. But go somewhere new every night, and listen and watch instead of talking and being seen. Don't take a phone with you, no radio, no money, no ID, no weapons. Nothing more than a small flashlight and your mask. If people see you're wearing it, they won't bother you. People who spend a lot of time out at night know what it means, and they won't bother you.
Eventually, you'll see your first Flare. Go where it came from. Introduce yourself to whoever else appears, but keep it short. Names, how long you've been out at night, and tell them you haven't found your power yet. They may give you a hard time or dismiss you, but they aren't allowed to keep you from trying. Whatever situation is in front of you, set the wrong things right. Do your best. Your power will appear when you need it, and when it does you will know what it does and how to use it. Not before.
Your second face will give you a shield against the fear, and when your mask is on you you can wrestle with the horrors of the night. The black-eyed children, the backwards walking man, Bloody Mary, shadow people, the madmen and the asylum escapees and the inventors. Your power may seem a paltry thing, but it's not really the power that makes you able to stand when others would flee or fall.
Be brave. Be just, and fear not.
Over time, I learned the others that lived in my city. They called me Seeker, though I didn't pick that name myself. I met Shift, who was small and soft-spoken and polite, but who could do miraculous, impossible things sometimes (and other times could not so much as light a match without striking it on the box.) Staccato's power was that she knew how to fight. At first no one believed this was a power, but one night she challenged five other masks to put her to the test, and not one single blow landed on her. I wasn't there for that, but I knew she was a true mask after she stepped into the shadow with me. Crag had the strength of ten. Breathe would heal from any injury, with wounds sealing up before your eyes. Lighthouse could shine lights, bright enough to blind and enough to find your way in any dark. Squeeze could fit through any opening that air could pass through. Love only ever wore a red bandana across the top of his head, with holes cut for eyes. It was barely a mask at all, but nobody could remember a time that Love wasn't answering the call, with the ability to look at you and know what you wanted. Love had been out longer than anyone, and then one day disappeared and was not seen again. We plant climbing roses for Love, but we do not speak his name. Bone could touch a thing and see its past, Walker could take you on roads no one else could know, Pitch could be both heavy and light, and Cup could put things away in a secret place and draw them out again at need. Most masks do learn to fight, eventually, and some get frighteningly good at at the problems we can resolve with fists, but it's not your fists that make you walk into the dark when you should turn around and run home and throw your mask in the fire and never talk about it again.
One night the signal went up from a neighborhood. I came to find Crag and Walker already waiting. A monster that came in dreams to hurt people was preying on the neighborhood, night after night. The monster hid in nightmares, but with Walker to lead and Seeker to find there was nowhere in this world or any other that it could have hidden. We circled through alleys and dilapidated sheds, up trees and across roofs to crawl through attic windows, but Walker found a path to Dream and we tracked the monster to its lair. Crag wrestled with it like Jacob wrestling with an Angel, and eventually with his hands he broke it. We left Dream through a different way, and came out in a far part of the city a week after we had left.
One night the signal went up from a mansion on the edge of town. Love and Shift met me there, and the man who sent the signal up was waiting by his car, his family in their pajamas waiting inside. They had moved into the house and found it haunted, and if we couldn't drive the ghosts away, they would never sleep a night there again. The ghosts had not hurt them, and I think they couldn't have, but not everything has to be about deadly danger. The sound of sobbing came from their closets at night and they awoke to find a man with hate in his eyes sitting on their chests so they couldn't move. Doors slammed open and shut at all hours, and the family had the wide and staring eyes of people being driven from their sanity.
We agreed to drive the ghosts away if we could, and they thanked us for coming. All that night and until the dawn, we did our best to unravel the haunting as though it were a knot we could untie. An awful man, the kind of monster that only an ordinary man could be, had tormented the people around him and killed a few of them, then himself. His hatred, wherever it came from, could not be exhausted, and they were all forced to replay the scenes of their lives like broken records. We could not touch them or speak to them, but Love could read their hearts and I could find their hidden journals and secret passages and the old bones hidden under the koi pond. And then, an hour before dawn, we saw the ghost of a lovely young woman with features like a china doll, ready to repeat the last moments of her life and die under the knife of her fiancee. It was only an image, a spider could not have hung a web on them. But Shift reached out, and grabbed her spectral wrist, and jerked her through life and death and time and back into the world. She was there, twenty years old and alive as you or me, a hundred years away from her proper time and trembling like a leaf.
Shift could do impossible things, sometimes, and the haunting burned away like dew in the morning. The young woman had no proper place in the world, but we told the family who lived in her home that our price for our help was that they help her, and they did. She lives there with them still, and strong people find it in themselves to make their own place in the world. She hosts a talk radio program now, and she keeps company with the lonely souls who call in every night from midnight to four AM. I have personal knowledge of ten people she has talked down from committing suicide.
One night the signal went up from a park in the center of the city. A groundskeeper was in the grip of a nameless fear, and could barely leave his shed after the power went out suddenly. I think he was wise to trust himself, when he saw shadows moving in the moonlight and there had been no wind. There were things in the secret heart of the park that night, things for which I could not find a name. Pitch leaped from branch to branch like a squirrel, and moments later stood on the ground as immovable as a monolith. The things came for us, but Breath stood against them and could not be killed, and Pitch knew how to use fists and feet. We drove them back with torches, and though we were wounded they fled. We did not defeat the things in the park, but they have not returned, and perhaps they will not.