The Shadow in the City


This was originally written as an attempt at being selected for an anthology. Unfortunately, it didn’t make the final cut so I get to share it directly. 


 

The city was bathed in twilight, but then again it was always twilight until a Star arrived on the scene. Aaron Little hated the time between Lines and the arrival of a Star; colors fled from the world and even the sun hid from view. The smells and flavors were less intense; the world felt shallow, muted, and dull. He wondered what it must be like to be a Star, to always experience the world full of light and intensity. He knuckled his brow to banish the unspoken blasphemy. He should count himself lucky to have even the short duration of a Line to live in the glow of a Star. It was selfish to wish the world to be different. He would visit the Best Boy later to receive penance for his wayward thoughts.

The city bus shuddered to a halt in the town square; Aaron and half a dozen other Seconds popped up and raced for the doors. The Bits stood more slowly, shuffling toward the exits. Aaron knew that if he got stuck behind the Bits he would spend the next twenty minutes getting off the bus. He wanted time to chat with friends.

Aaron sniffed the air, it was stale and flat, there was no hint of the Star. He looked around the town square. It was a dingy city intersection of half a dozen streets. The buildings were gray and soot-stained. Once the Star arrived, the city would still be bleak and depressing, but that was to be expected for a noir Line.

He noted the location of Le Petite Homme, the restaurant where he would enjoy his scene. He had a dozen lines during his first scene, three of them with the Star. This was the largest part he had yet undertaken. Over the past few years, his participation in each Line had grown. He might get to be a major Second, fulfilling important roles in a Line soon.

The marquee at the intersection of 1st and Main bore the title The Shadow in the City but no Star’s name was shown. A young Hispanic woman, wearing a starched white blouse and narrow pencil skirt, stood beneath. She smoked a cigarette and tapped her foot, impatiently.

“Sofia, I didn’t know you were in this Line.”

Sofia’s look of boredom gave way to a broad smile as she waved at Aaron. He jogged over to join her. She wore her long wavy hair in a large bun and her lipstick was garish red. Even in the washed-out twilight that permeated the world the red stood out.

“I’m the Star’s secretary. We’re flirty co-workers with an undercurrent of sexual tension. There’s even a moment when it looks like we’ll kiss but then the femme fatale co-Star arrives to steal his heart. I’m so excited, it’s the biggest part I’ve ever had.”

“Sweet. Hey, can I bum one of those?”

Sofia proffered a cigarette which Aaron lit it from her cigarette’s glowing tip.

“I’m a waiter but I have a bunch of lines, and at the end of act two I get wounded in a pivotal gun battle at the restaurant. So, do you know who the Star is?”

“I heard it’s this up-and-comer named Humphrey. He’s been doing a bunch of noir and detective Lines the past few years, really popular. I don’t know who the co-Star is though.”

“Humphrey? That’s odd, I’ve been in over a dozen noir Lines and I’ve never heard of him. Not much of a hard-boiled detective name either, he sounds more like an accountant. Feh, who am I to judge, he is a Star after all.”

An echoing ululation seemed to come from everywhere at once. It rebounded from the stone buildings around them until it faded into silence. The hair on Aaron’s neck stood in primal reaction.

“What the hell was that?”

Sofia looked around, remarkably unperturbed by the sound. “Probably a mangy dog, it’s a noir after all–it’s atmosphere. Do you know if there’s a flashback scene in this Line?”

“Why do you ask?”

Sofia pointed with her cigarette. Across the street, a building was entirely gray, white and black. Even the striped canopies were monochromatic. A dozen Bits stood silently in front of the facade. They wore uniformly dark clothing and their exposed skin was deathly pale. The effect was that of a black and white image.

“I guess there is. I’m not in it so I can’t be sure.”

“Don’t they just freak you out?”

“Who?”

“Bits. I mean look at them. Not just the black and white ones, any of them. They never speak, they move like they’re half asleep, they’re barely human. Can they even speak? I’ve never heard one. I know they’re not supposed to say anything in a Line but can they speak ever? I don’t know why they even exist, they’re creepy.”

Aaron took a puff and threw his cigarette down into the gutter. “Bits are people too. It’s just the way the world works. Without them think about how empty the world would be. There wouldn’t be anyone making deliveries or cleaning the streets. There’d only be a small population of Seconds and even fewer Stars; the world would be a lonely place.”

“Maybe, but they are still weird. At least we’re not forced to socialize with them.”

“Look, I gotta go. I want to scope out the restaurant before I have to go to work.”

Aaron turned away without saying goodbye and walked across the intersection, dodging slow-moving cars. His heart pounded hard enough to shake his body. He liked Sofia but never realized she was such a bigot.

He couldn’t tell her that his mother had been a Bit. It was the dark family secret that his father had made him swear on his life to never reveal. It was a scandal at the least. It was tantamount to blasphemy for a Second to mate with a Bit. The classes stayed within their silos. Seconds mingled with Seconds and Bits with Bits, it was just the way the world worked. His father had loved his mother despite her silence. Aaron had never heard a sound from her but knew that she loved him fiercely. She was as bright as any Star to him as a child. He couldn’t stand someone badmouthing Bits but he never could explain why.

He stopped in front of the restaurant. He didn’t want to be there yet, but it was the best excuse he could come up with to escape Sofia. He pulled out a chair and sat. After a moment the air took on a tangy smell. Car exhaust, a myriad of ethnic cuisines, and the effluvium of the sewers below filled the air. The world around Aaron brightened. A ray of sunshine broke through the clouds. Aaron’s dull gray apron brightened to a rich burgundy color–the Star must be arriving. Aaron stood and turned expectantly toward the street. Every Second in view craned their necks hoping for a glimpse of the Star as he arrived. A trio of limousines rocketed down Main Street and pulled to a halt in front of the marquee. The rearmost pair disgorged a veritable army of men and women in long white coats. One man, older than the others, with a clipboard in hand walked up to the lead limousine. He was the Director.

As the Crew spread out through the town square a final occupant of the trailing limo exited. He wore a single-piece jumpsuit; it was of such high quality that it looked like a high fashion outfit. The coverall was battleship gray as was his neatly trimmed goatee and hair. His hair was so rigid with hairspray or some other product that it looked like a helmet perched on his head. Years of working on noir Lines brought the phrase ‘secret villain’ to Aaron’s mind but this man was not a Star. Nothing about him said Second or Crew, he was an enigma. Aaron looked away from the gray man when the Director clapped his hands, demanding attention.

The Director opened the limo door and a hush fell over the world. A glossy black shoe preceded a well starched dark blue pant leg. In a moment the entirety of the Star rose from his seat within the car. Humphrey was a compact man, impeccably dressed with a rugged look. He wasn’t like other Stars whom Aaron had met. His features were plain and coarse in a manly fashion. His eyes appeared eternally sad like a basset hound. There was something about him that made everyone want to rush forward just to bask in his presence.

“Ladies and gentlemen, Seconds and Bits,” the Director said, his voice boomed, filling the square. “May I present the Star of the Line, Humphrey.”

Applause filled the town square as every Second and Bit clapped their hands. Humphrey nodded slightly at the accolades and then turned back to the limo and offered his hand. A slim hand, tipped with brilliant red nails, emerged and gripped the offered hand. The woman who emerged from the limo took Aaron’s breath away. She was taller than Humphrey even without her six-inch stiletto heels. Her face would have shamed the sculptors of Aphrodite for daring to think that they had captured the feminine ideal. Her blonde hair sparkled in the sun, as it spilled across her bare shoulders to the top of her form-hugging silver dress.

“It is my pleasure to also introduce our co-Star, Ingrid.” The Director clapped his hands. The males in attendance stood silently staring, spellbound by her beauty. After a moment they remembered their manners. The applause was even more thunderous for Ingrid than it had been for Humphrey.

One of the white-coated Crew fetched a ladder from inside the cinema and scrambled up to affix the Stars’ names to the marquee. Aaron searched in vain for the gray man but he was no longer visible in the square. The arrival of the Crew and Stars meant that the Line could finally begin.

#

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the Director’s voice boomed across the square. “Welcome to the Line. Today we will be creating a noir detective Line. It’s an age-old story of a hard-boiled detective haunted by his demons, played by our Star, Humphrey. He is drawn into a web of lies, betrayals, and violence by a beautiful femme fatale, the lovely Ingrid. I expect everyone to fulfill the roles they received to perfection. Nothing less than utter immersion in your part will make this Line a success.

“Seconds, I expect you to strive to emulate our Stars in your roles. Push yourself beyond your normal range. Reach for that glowing performance which will guarantee you a place in the Credits. Bits, you know this won’t work without you. Be on your marks, perform your tasks, and make our Stars shine. Now everyone to your first positions. Let’s get this Line in gear.”

Bits resumed their seemingly aimless activities up and down the street. The Seconds scattered to their interaction points. The Stars huddled with the Director beneath the marquee to receive their final briefing. What Aaron wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall for a Star’s coaching session.

Aaron watched Humphrey, followed by Sofia, walk through a door across the street. Faded lettering on the door read Sam Stone, Private Investigator. Ingrid stepped into a waiting cab that pulled away for parts unknown. The world seemed to vibrate with anticipation until the Director’s booming voice called, “Action.”

Aaron felt the Line begin, the world solidified around him. He was no longer Aaron Little, middle-tier Second, he was Aaron the waiter. He rushed to the kitchen and gathered up the plates waiting there and began serving his tables. The Bits nodded to him as he delivered their meals. Within seconds the restaurant was a bustling venue of normality.

Activity in the restaurant continued smoothly for almost an hour until the Director walked through the door.

“Restaurant, this is a Cut. I’d like all the Seconds outside for the pre-scene briefing and your chance to meet our Star.”

Aaron wiped his hands on the towel at his waist. He always treasured the meet and greet moments before a scene. Some Stars were quite personable. They made the Seconds feel as if they were as important to the Line as themselves. Humphrey stood casually at curbside surrounded by Crew who made last-minute adjustments to his hair and outfit.

“All right people,” the Director said. Since he was addressing a location rather than the entire set, his voice no longer boomed. “In this scene, Sam Stone comes to meet his informant over coffee. Charlie, as the maitre-d’ you’ll be first interaction. Make it professionally snooty, this is a fancy French restaurant after all. Where’s the waiter?”

Aaron raised his hand.

“Aaron, right? Let’s keep this to just taking the order. Your original lines for this scene have been cut. Don’t worry, your big gunfight scene later will more than make up for it.”

Aaron’s chest clenched, it was as if the Director’s words had stopped his heart. He had been looking forward to light banter with the Star as he took the order. This felt like a demotion. Things like this could hurt a Second for standing in future Lines.

“Where’s the shoeshine boy?”

A young boy pushed through the milling crowd and raised his hand.

“OK, Billy, once the Star and his informant lean in, you interrupt. Ask if they need a shine, this is the break in the scene which will trigger the action sequence. Make sure you’re especially persistent with the informant. I want an excuse for him to be riled up and take action.”

The boy nodded energetically. This type of scene was a big break for a young Second like him.

“Just do your jobs and make this a believable scene. OK, enough coaching, come on up and meet your Star, I can see you’re all chomping at the bit.”

As the most senior Seconds, Aaron and Charlie pushed their way through the small crowd. Charlie took the place of honor at the head of the line. As Aaron queued up behind him he noticed the gray man once more. He stood away from the cast and Crew. He stood like a statue, watching the briefing. Aaron considered asking the Director about him but Charlie moved aside and he was face to face with the Star.

“You’re Aaron, right?” Humphrey’s voice was deep and rough. It was the voice of a man who’s been through a lot but was still a regular guy.

“Yes sir, it’s an honor to meet you.” Aaron held out his hand in greeting. The Star’s hand was warm and lightly calloused, there was strength there. A shadow fell across the pair and Aaron looked up just as something large and covered in fur dropped from above. The shape slammed into both men, knocking them to the ground.

Seconds and Crew screamed around Aaron and then the most horrible sound he had ever heard reached his ears, a Star screaming. Something warm and wet splashed into Aaron’s eyes, blinding him. He felt something hard slam into his chest while wet tearing sounds filled the air. In seconds, whatever was happening was over. Aaron felt, rather than saw the furred shape bolt away. The screams of the Seconds continued as he wiped his eyes. He was covered in a thick red fluid. It coated his hands, arms and most of his torso. Aaron looked toward the Star. What remained of Humphrey looked like road kill. His torso was torn open exposing savaged organs and his right arm was missing. Worse still, the Star’s head was absent. Aaron looked around in shock, for some reason his eyes met those of the gray man still standing nearby.

The man, who had been as immobile as a statue, actually snarled and then turned and ran. From an alley behind Aaron, a loud echoing howl rang out. Aaron tried to stand but something in his lap hindered him. He looked down and met the dead gaze of Humphrey. The Star’s head lay in Aaron’s lap, the mouth frozen in a scream. Aaron screamed until his voice broke and then blackness closed in as he passed out.

#

Aaron swam up from the darkness, what a horrible dream. He felt something rubbing at his face and forced his eyes open. Billy looked down at him with concern. The young boy’s shoe-shine rag was in his hand and covered in red. Everything raced back, it wasn’t a dream, the Star was dead, killed by some animal right in front of him.

Aaron sat bolt upright and looked around wildly. The entire cast had poured into the street while he lay unconscious. Seconds were openly weeping and the Crew looked like soldiers after the worst battle of the war. Even the Bits wailed and screamed silently at the edges of the crowd.

“It was a werewolf,” Billy said.

“A what?”

“Werewolf, it’s a monster, a giant wolf, and it eats people. I was in a horror Line when I was little and saw one. It gave me bad dreams. I don’t like horror Lines any more.”

“You mean that thing wasn’t part of the Line? Is Humphrey really dead?”

“I guess. The Director won’t stop crying. Someone said that Humphrey isn’t coming back.”

Stars and Seconds and especially Bits died all the time during a Line, but those deaths were part of the Grand Script. When the Director declared a wrap everyone got up and went back to their normal lives until the next Line. If Humphrey had been killed by something from outside the Line, he wasn’t coming back after the wrap.

“How the hell did this werewolf thing get into a detective noir? I’ve never even heard of one. How can something like that even happen?”

“I don’t know. The Crew don’t know either. But the Line is still running. That must be good, right?”

Aaron looked around, the world was still full volume. There was a subliminal feeling, almost an itch, letting him know that the Line was still intact. The Star was dead, how could there still be a Line?

“If Humphrey’s dead, how can we finish the Line? What if we’re stuck in this Line forever?”

“I dunno. Maybe–will it just end?”

Aaron struggled to his feet. His face and hands were free of blood thanks to Billy’s rag but every other inch of him was covered in gore.

“I’m not going to stand around like this. If nobody’s got answers I’m going to go home and get cleaned up.”

Aaron patted Billy on the head and threaded his way through the crowd. Bloody footprints followed him for several blocks. It felt strange walking off the set with the Line unfinished but the death of a Star changed everything. The world was never going to be the same again. He prayed that he wasn’t trapped in this Line forever unable to return to the normal world. Had anything like this ever happened in the history of the world?

Aaron avoided a homeless Bit pushing a large shopping cart loaded with bric-a-brac and spotted the gray man on the opposite side of the street. He took a step toward the man when a loud crash came from behind.

He spun around to see the werewolf it stood in the middle of the wreckage of the Bit’s shopping cart. The cart lay flattened beneath the creature’s bulk. The monster stood nearly nine feet tall and was twice as wide as a man. Dark gray fur covered the monster from its snarling head to its claw-tipped feet. The poor Bit dangled, limply in the monster’s right claw. Enormous talons entered the Bit’s chest and erupted from his back. Blood poured from the wounds and the Bit’s mouth. The man twitched as his lifeblood ran down the monster’s arm.

“Not the Bit you fool,” the man in gray shouted. “Him, you’re supposed to kill him.”

Aaron turned to see the man pointing directly at him. He looked back at the wolf creature which turned its long muzzle toward Aaron and unleashed a terrifying howl. The monster dropped the still twitching Bit, crouched and then leaped.

Aaron raised his arms attempting to shield himself. The monster’s right foot tangled in the crushed shopping cart. The weight of the cart upset the monster’s leap and it crashed onto its face on the concrete. The universe had given him a gift and Aaron didn’t waste a second. Turning on his heel, he ran. He turned left at the corner, then right. He took more random turns down streets and alleys.

He heard the beast howling behind him but the sound was more distant so he increased his speed. Maybe this was now part of the Line. Any second now another Star would turn the corner and offer him protection. That’s it, the detective noir was now a horror noir and he just needed the Star to show himself and kill the monster.

“Help me,” he panted, looking up to the uncaring sky. “I need a Star.”

Looking at a street sign, Aaron got his bearings and sprinted toward the town square. He needed to talk to the Director, he didn’t understand his scene in this new twist to the Line.

Aaron charged down Main Street and into the town square. The entire cast gathered in front of the cinema. The Bits stood mute while a susurrus of conversation drifted to him from the Seconds and Crew. Someone had lain a tablecloth over Humphrey’s remains for which Aaron was grateful. He couldn’t bear to look at the carnage again. Without preamble, he raced to the Director and grabbed the man by the shoulder.

“It’s a new genre, isn’t it? There’s another star who’s supposed to fight the werewolf, right?”

“Unhand me, Second. What the hell are you talking about? The Line is ruined, our Star is dead.”

“No, no, I figured it out. The werewolf makes this a horror noir Line. The man in gray directed it to attack me. He’s a villain right? It’s obviously a plot point. We just need the Star to take the lead and save us.”

“What man in gray? What Star? Do you expect Ingrid to fight some kind of animal? I don’t know–”

The Director was interrupted by a woman’s shriek which in turn was drowned out by a grotesque howl. The werewolf had found the square. Aaron saw a spray of red as the werewolf went through the first Bit in its path. The man in gray strode into the square right behind the beast. He was shouting something and pointing. Aaron couldn’t hear him over the tumult but the pointing finger left no doubt, Aaron was still the beast’s target. Why was it after him?

Aaron started to run once more but spotted Billy. The boy knew about these things, maybe together they could figure out how to survive until the Star arrived. He grabbed the boy by his arm and dragged him into motion.

“We have to get someplace safe.”

The duo dodged Bits and Seconds running for their lives. The door to the detective’s office came into view and Aaron dragged Billy toward it. Once through the door, Aaron locked it and dragged the boy up the creaking wooden staircase to the second-floor office.

Sam Stone’s office looked like every noir detective’s office Aaron had ever seen. A chaos of paperwork covered every surface. A corkboard in one corner was covered with mug shots and clues. A table holding a stained coffee pot stood in another corner. Finally, two desks, one for the fearless detective and the other for his secretary were near the window and door, respectively.

“We just have to hide here until the new Star arrives.”

“What Star, Aaron? Is another one coming?”

“There has to be a Star, the Line will never end otherwise. Who else is going to kill this thing?”

“What about you?”

“Don’t be stupid, kid. I’m a Second, we don’t do Star things.”

“Maybe we’re the plucky sidekicks. They fight bad guys too, don’t they?”

“Only in young adult Lines, not noir.”

“What are we going to do?”

A crash came from downstairs. The beast must have found them and broken through the door.

“A gun, detectives have guns right?”

Billy nodded. Aaron raced around the room searching drawers and cabinets for a weapon. He could hear the monster thumping up the staircase, the room shook with each step it took. A beige trenchcoat hanging near the door caught his eye; the gun had to be there. He raced to the coat and pulled it from the hook. A bestial silhouette filled the frosted glass of the office door. They were out of time.

“Come on.” Aaron raced to the window and threw open the sash. He thanked the Great Critic that these old buildings had fire escapes. He and Billy scrambled onto the rattling metal landing. The trench coat was too cumbersome to carry while he climbed so Aaron pulled the garment on and then descended to the street.

The werewolf exploded through the window spraying shards of glass into the square. Aaron dug in the pockets and felt something cold and metallic. He pulled a snub-nosed .38 from the pocket.

He looked around wildly. This was where the Star rushed up and plucked the weapon from the sidekick’s hand.

The werewolf leaned over the metal railing and roared at Aaron and Billy a dozen feet below.

“Shoot.” Billy wept and huddled against Aaron’s back.

“I’m not the Star.”

“It’s gonna eat us.”

Aaron looked at the cowering child, tears and snot poured down his face.  He had never fired a gun before but had seen enough Stars do it that he knew the basics. He raised the weapon and pulled the trigger. The gun bucked in his hand, the sound was deafening. The bullet hit the werewolf squarely in the chest. Aaron pulled the trigger until the gun clicked. He heard two ricochets from the fire escape but the other three rounds struck the monster. The werewolf looked down at its chest which appeared unharmed.

“Silver bullets, you need silver bullets.” Billy was frantic.

“Kill him already.” The man in gray stood in the center of the square and pointed at Aaron. Aaron pointed the pistol and the man and pulled the trigger, the gun clicked, he was out of bullets.

“Damn it. Billy, where can I get silver bullets?”

“I don’t know. Maybe the jewelry store on 3rd Street?”

Where the hell was the Star? They couldn’t stay here safely; the Star would just have to find them.

“Show me.”

The pair took off at a run. As they ran Aaron dug around in the pockets of the trenchcoat. He almost cheered when he found six more bullets rolling loose in the left pocket. A wild idea took shape in his mind and he ran faster toward the jewelry store.

#

In the jewelry store, Aaron grabbed a handful of silver necklaces and a few silver coins. He led Billy out the back door and then doubled back toward the town square.

“Where are you going?” Billy skidded to a halt.

“Back to the detective’s office.”

“Are you nuts? The werewolf is there.”

“Right now it’s searching for us so it’s not there. Trust me, I have an idea. Come on.”

Aaron took off again and a moment later Billy caught up.

“I hope you know what you’re doing.”

“Me too, kid.”

They ran in silence until they reached the shattered entryway to the detective office. Terrified members of the cast peeked from windows and doors around the square watching the duo race into the damaged building. They pounded up the staircase. Deep gouges had raised splinters on every step where the beast had stepped. Upon reaching the office Aaron ran to the table with the coffee pot. As he had hoped there was a two-burner electric cooktop. He picked up the sloshing coffee pot and unceremoniously dumped the contents onto the floor. He turned on one of the heating elements and dumped the silver into the pot and placed it onto the stove.

“Find me tongs or pliers or something. I need to be able to dip the bullets into the silver once it melts.”

“You’re a genius.” The boy moved like a whirlwind through the office, leaving a wake of devastation as he frantically searched every nook and cranny.

Aaron didn’t know at which temperature silver melted. When he peered into the pot, the coins and necklaces were starting to deform. He had hoped but hadn’t dared voice his hope. Things always worked out for the Star in a Line, no matter how improbable. Maybe the Great Critic was smiling on them.

As the bottom of the pot became a bubbling pool of silver, Billy approached, brandishing two wooden sticks.

“I found chopsticks, they might work.”

Aaron fumbled the last six bullets from his pocket and gingerly lifted one with the chopsticks. The bullet popped from between the sticks and rolled across the table. He tried three more times. Each time the bullet slipped from the grip of the chopsticks.

“They’re too slippery to grab. Did you see any tape when you were looking?”

“Yeah, just a sec.” Billy ran to the secretary’s desk and soon returned with a roll of tape.

Aaron held a bullet against the end of the chopstick and directed Billy to wrap it with several loops of tape. After several experimental tugs, it appeared the bullet would hold. Aaron lowered the bullet, tip first, into the pot and submerged the tip in the liquid silver. He pulled the bullet free and then dipped it several more times until it was well coated. It was slow work but soon the six bullets shined with silver tips.

“I didn’t think that would work,” Billy almost sounded disappointed that it had.

“More proof that the Line has shifted to accommodate the new twist. Whatever needs to happen will happen. Now we just have to wait for the Star to save the day, take his bows and end this Line properly.”

“Aaron Little, show yourself.” A voice boomed from outside.

Aaron went to the window and saw the man in gray standing in the center of the intersection. There was no sign of the werewolf. There was also no sign of a Star.

The bullets were still hot but not so hot that he couldn’t load them into the pistol. Armed once more, Aaron turned from the office and marched down the stairs still praying for the appearance of a Star. Billy trailed close behind, his faithful companion.

When they reached the street Aaron pointed the pistol at the man in gray.

“You did this. You sent that monster to kill our Star. Why? Why would you do that?”

All around the square, people emerged from their hiding places to watch the encounter.

“You idiot. I didn’t want Humphrey dead. He was worth one hundred of you. I sent it to kill you.”

The pistol dropped to his side without conscious thought. Why would this man want him dead? It wasn’t part of the Line, he was supposed to be wounded not have a death scene. Was this some Second who was jealous of his success? No, nothing about this man screamed Second. He was something Aaron had never met.

“Why me? Who are you?”

“Because you’re an abomination.” The man strode several paces toward Aaron. “You cannot be allowed to exist, it goes against the natural order.”

Did he somehow find out about Aarons’ parentage? Was that the reason for all this death? He was the offspring of a Second and a Bit but that couldn’t justify the devastation of a Line and the death of a Star.

“Who are you to judge me? My mother was a wonderful woman.”

The man appeared confused. “Your mother? I am a Producer, you freak. I never bother myself with the minutia of a Line but you are a threat to the entire world and have forced my hand.”

Aaron had never heard of a Producer. Did this mean that there was even more to the world than he knew? Was there something beyond Lines and Stars and Directors?

“You have to die,” the Producer said. “It’s the only way to set the world to right. You cannot continue on your path. Kill him.”

A howl erupted from beneath the marquee and the werewolf emerged from the shadows. Its eyes glowed red and spittle dripped from its fanged maw to sizzle on the sidewalk. Aaron pushed Billy behind him, shielding him from harm. He looked around wildly, no Star raced to save the day, he was on his own.

He lifted the pistol and pointed it at the werewolf. His arm shook so badly that he couldn’t keep the barrel centered on the monster.

“Call it off, you don’t have to do this.”

“Kill him!”

The werewolf surged forward at the command of its master. It bounded across the square on all fours. It was a nightmare the size of a car and it was closing in on Aaron. His knees felt like jello and his mind gibbered in terror. The monster was almost upon them. He was going to die, Billy was going to die, everyone would die if he didn’t do something.

Aaron steadied the pistol. The monster showed no fear; it already knew the weapon could not harm it. Aaron pulled the trigger as fast as he could. The recoil sent him staggering backward. Six bullets tore into the monster ripping chunks of furred flesh from its body. Blood sprayed and the beast staggered and then collapsed in mid-stride. It slid to a halt mere feet from the quivering Aaron.

Music was playing somewhere but the pounding in Aaron’s ears muted it to mere white noise. He could hear screaming and slapping sounds. He looked around for another threat but saw none. Instead, every Crew, Second and Bit were emerging from their places of concealment. Everyone applauded and cheered.

The Producer fell to his knees repeatedly screaming, “No.”

Aaron felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to see a woman dressed in a gray coverall. Her short hair was equally gray, she could have been the Producer’s twin.

“Congratulations Aaron, you’ve done something that no one has ever done in the history of the world. Some think it unnatural, I think it’s wonderful. I’m sorry for my colleague’s irresponsible actions, he will be disciplined.”

“Wait. Why did he do this? Why did he kill the Star and try to kill me?”

“Aaron, don’t you understand? Look around you.”

The cast was crowding close around Aaron and the female Producer. Their faces were lit with joy as they wildly applauded. It felt like a wrap party to Aaron. The Director approached Aaron and threw his arms around him in a crushing hug.

“Well done, my boy.” He turned to the crowd and yelled, “That’s a wrap.”

“What does it mean?”

“Aaron, look.” The Producer pointed toward the cinema. It took a moment to register but the marquee had changed. The Shadow in the City remained but Humphrey and Ingrid’s names were gone, replaced by the text, starring Aaron Little.

“You’re a Star, Aaron. Welcome to the red carpet.”

 

 

 

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