The coupe with the fishhooks welded to the fender shouldered up over the curb like the nose of a nightmare. The girl in its path stood frozen, her face probably stiff with fright under her mask. For once my reflexes weren’t shy. I took a fast step toward her, grabbed her elbow, yanked her back. Her black skirt swirled out.
The big coupe shot by, its turbine humming. I glimpsed three faces. Something ripped. I felt the hot exhaust on my ankles as the big coupe swerved back into the street. A thick cloud like a black flower blossomed from its jouncing rear end, while from the fishhooks flew a black shimmering rag.
“Did they get you?” I asked the girl.
She had twisted around to look where the side of her skirt was torn away. She was wearing nylon tights.
“The hooks didn’t touch me,” she said shakily. “I guess I’m lucky.”
I heard voices around us:
“Those kids! What’ll they think up next?”
“They’re a menace. They ought to be arrested.”
Sirens screamed at a rising pitch as two motor-police, their rocket-assist jets full on, came whizzing toward us after the coupe. But the black flower had become a thick fog obscuring the whole street. The motor-police switched from rocket assists to rocket brakes and swerved to a stop near the smoke cloud.
“Are you English?” the girl asked me. “You have an English accent.”
Her voice came shudderingly from behind the sleek black satin mask. I fancied her teeth must be chattering. Eyes that were perhaps blue searched my face from behind the black gauze covering the eyeholes of the mask. I told her she’d guessed right. She stood close to me. “Will you come to my place tonight?” she asked rapidly. “I can’t thank you now. And there’s something you can help me about.”
My arm, still lightly circling her waist, felt her body trembling. I was answering the plea in that as much as in her voice when I said, “Certainly.” She gave me an address south of Inferno, an apartment number and a time. She asked me my name and I told her.
I turned obediently to the policeman’s shout. He shooed away the small clucking crowd of masked women and barefaced men. Coughing from the smoke that the black coupe had thrown out, he asked for my papers. I handed him the essential ones.
He looked at them and then at me. “British Barter? How long will you be in New York?”
Suppressing the urge to say, “For as short a time as possible,” I told him I’d be here for a week or so.
“May need you as a witness,” he explained. “Those kids can’t use smoke on us. When they do that, we pull them in.”
He seemed to think the smoke was the bad thing. “They tried to kill the lady,” I pointed out.
He shook his head wisely. “They always pretend they’re going to, but actually they just want to snag skirts. I’ve picked up rippers with as many as fifty skirt-snags tacked up in their rooms. Of course, sometimes they come a little too close.”
I explained that if I hadn’t yanked her out of the way, she’d have been hit by more than hooks. But he interrupted, “If she’d thought it was a real murder attempt, she’d have stayed here.”
I looked around. It was true. She was gone.
“She was fearfully frightened,” I told him.
“Who wouldn’t be? Those kids would have scared old Stalin himself.”
“I mean frightened of more than ‘kids.’ They didn’t look like ‘kids.’”
“What did they look like?”
I tried without much success to describe the three faces. A vague impression of viciousness and effeminacy doesn’t mean much.
“Well, I could be wrong,” he said finally. “Do you know the girl? Where she lives?”
“No,” I half lied.
The other policeman hung up his radiophone and ambled toward us, kicking at the tendrils of dissipating smoke. The black cloud no longer hid the dingy facades with their five-year-old radiation flash-burns, and I could begin to make out the distant stump of the Empire State Building, thrusting up out of Inferno like a mangled finger.
“They haven’t been picked up so far,” the approaching policeman grumbled. “Left smoke for five blocks, from what Ryan says.”
The first policeman shook his head. “That’s bad,” he observed solemnly.
I was feeling a bit uneasy and ashamed. An Englishman shouldn’t lie, at least not on impulse.
“They sound like nasty customers,” the first policeman continued in the same grim tone. “We’ll need witnesses. Looks as if you may have to stay in New York longer than you expect.”
I got the point. I said, “I forgot to show you all my papers,” and handed him a few others, making sure there was a five dollar bill in among them.
When he handed them back a bit later, his voice was no longer ominous. My feelings of guilt vanished. To cement our relationship, I chatted with the two of them about their job.
“I suppose the masks give you some trouble,” I observed. “Over in England we’ve been reading about your new crop of masked female bandits.”
“Those things get exaggerated,” the first policeman assured me. “It’s the men masking as women that really mix us up. But, brother, when we nab them, we jump on them with both feet.”
“And you get so you can spot women almost as well as if they had naked faces,” the second policeman volunteered. “You know, hands and all that.”
“Especially all that,” the first agreed with a chuckle. “Say, is it true that some girls don’t mask over in England?”
“A number of them have picked up the fashion,” I told him. “Only a few, though--the ones who always adopt the latest style, however extreme.”
“They’re usually masked in the British newscasts.”
“I imagine it’s arranged that way out of deference to American taste,” I confessed. “Actually, not very many do mask.”
The second policeman considered that. “Girls going down the street bare from the neck up.” It was not clear whether he viewed the prospect with relish or moral distaste. Likely both.
“A few members keep trying to persuade Parliament to enact a law forbidding all masking,” I continued, talking perhaps a bit too much.
The second policeman shook his head. “What an idea. You know, masks are a pretty good thing, brother. Couple of years more and I’m going to make my wife wear hers around the house.”
The first policeman shrugged. “If women were to stop wearing masks, in six weeks you wouldn’t know the difference. You get used to anything, if enough people do or don’t do it.”
I agreed, rather regretfully, and left them. I turned north on Broadway (old Tenth Avenue, I believe) and walked rapidly until I was beyond Inferno. Passing such an area of undecontaminated radioactivity always makes a person queasy. I thanked God there weren’t any such in England, as yet.
The street was almost empty, though I was accosted by a couple of beggars with faces tunneled by H-bomb scars, whether real or of makeup putty, I couldn’t tell. A fat woman held out a baby with webbed fingers and toes. I told myself it would have been deformed anyway and that she was only capitalizing on our fear of bomb-induced mutations. Still, I gave her a seven-and-a-half-cent piece. Her mask made me feel I was paying tribute to an African fetish.
“May all your children be blessed with one head and two eyes, sir.”
“Thanks,” I said, shuddering, and hurried past her.
“ ... There’s only trash behind the mask, so turn your head, stick to your task: Stay away, stay away--from--the--girls!”
This last was the end of an anti-sex song being sung by some religionists half a block from the circle-and-cross insignia of a femalist temple. They reminded me only faintly of our small tribe of British monastics. Above their heads was a jumble of billboards advertising predigested foods, wrestling instruction, radio handies and the like.
I stared at the hysterical slogans with disagreeable fascination. Since the female face and form have been banned on American signs, the very letters of the advertiser’s alphabet have begun to crawl with sex--the fat-bellied, big-breasted capital B, the lascivious double O. However, I reminded myself, it is chiefly the mask that so strangely accents sex in America.
A British anthropologist has pointed out, that, while it took more than 5,000 years to shift the chief point of sexual interest from the hips to the breasts, the next transition to the face has taken less than 50 years. Comparing the American style with Moslem tradition is not valid; Moslem women are compelled to wear veils, the purpose of which is concealment, while American women have only the compulsion of fashion and use masks to create mystery.
Theory aside, the actual origins of the trend are to be found in the anti-radiation clothing of World War III, which led to masked wrestling, now a fantastically popular sport, and that in turn led to the current female fashion. Only a wild style at first, masks quickly became as necessary as brassieres and lipsticks had been earlier in the century.
I finally realized that I was not speculating about masks in general, but about what lay behind one in particular. That’s the devil of the things; you’re never sure whether a girl is heightening loveliness or hiding ugliness. I pictured a cool, pretty face in which fear showed only in widened eyes. Then I remembered her blonde hair, rich against the blackness of the satin mask. She’d told me to come at the twenty-second hour--ten p.m.
I climbed to my apartment near the British Consulate; the elevator shaft had been shoved out of plumb by an old blast, a nuisance in these tall New York buildings. Before it occurred to me that I would be going out again, I automatically tore a tab from the film strip under my shirt. I developed it just to be sure. It showed that the total radiation I’d taken that day was still within the safety limit. I’m not phobic about it, as so many people are these days, but there’s no point in taking chances.
I flopped down on the day bed and stared at the silent speaker and the dark screen of the video set. As always, they made me think, somewhat bitterly, of the two great nations of the world. Mutilated by each other, yet still strong, they were crippled giants poisoning the planet with their dreams of an impossible equality and an impossible success.
I fretfully switched on the speaker. By luck, the newscaster was talking excitedly of the prospects of a bumper wheat crop, sown by planes across a dust bowl moistened by seeded rains. I listened carefully to the rest of the program (it was remarkably clear of Russian telejamming) but there was no further news of interest to me. And, of course, no mention of the Moon, though everyone knows that America and Russia are racing to develop their primary bases into fortresses capable of mutual assault and the launching of alphabet-bombs toward Earth. I myself knew perfectly well that the British electronic equipment I was helping trade for American wheat was destined for use in spaceships.
I switched off the newscast. It was growing dark and once again I pictured a tender, frightened face behind a mask. I hadn’t had a date since England. It’s exceedingly difficult to become acquainted with a girl in America, where as little as a smile, often, can set one of them yelping for the police--to say nothing of the increasing puritanical morality and the roving gangs that keep most women indoors after dark. And naturally, the masks which are definitely not, as the Soviets claim, a last invention of capitalist degeneracy, but a sign of great psychological insecurity. The Russians have no masks, but they have their own signs of stress.
I went to the window and impatiently watched the darkness gather. I was getting very restless. After a while a ghostly violet cloud appeared to the south. My hair rose. Then I laughed. I had momentarily fancied it a radiation from the crater of the Hell-bomb, though I should instantly have known it was only the radio-induced glow in the sky over the amusement and residential area south of Inferno.
Promptly at twenty-two hours I stood before the door of my unknown girl friend’s apartment. The electronic say-who-please said just that. I answered clearly, “Wysten Turner,” wondering if she’d given my name to the mechanism. She evidently had, for the door opened. I walked into a small empty living room, my heart pounding a bit.
The room was expensively furnished with the latest pneumatic hassocks and sprawlers. There were some midgie books on the table. The one I picked up was the standard hard-boiled detective story in which two female murderers go gunning for each other.
The television was on. A masked girl in green was crooning a love song. Her right hand held something that blurred off into the foreground. I saw the set had a handie, which we haven’t in England as yet, and curiously thrust my hand into the handie orifice beside the screen. Contrary to my expectations, it was not like slipping into a pulsing rubber glove, but rather as if the girl on the screen actually held my hand.
A door opened behind me. I jerked out my hand with as guilty a reaction as if I’d been caught peering through a keyhole.
She stood in the bedroom doorway. I think she was trembling. She was wearing a gray fur coat, white-speckled, and a gray velvet evening mask with shirred gray lace around the eyes and mouth. Her fingernails twinkled like silver.
It hadn’t occurred to me that she’d expect us to go out.
“I should have told you,” she said softly. Her mask veered nervously toward the books and the screen and the room’s dark corners. “But I can’t possibly talk to you here.”
I said doubtfully, “There’s a place near the Consulate...”
“I know where we can be together and talk,” she said rapidly. “If you don’t mind.”
As we entered the elevator I said, “I’m afraid I dismissed the cab.”
But the cab driver hadn’t gone for some reason of his own. He jumped out and smirkingly held the front door open for us. I told him we preferred to sit in back. He sulkily opened the rear door, slammed it after us, jumped in front and slammed the door behind him.