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Enfant Terrible (IC)

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May 1, 2013 

Midtown Cafe 


"It's okay, Mom, she'll be here," said Mark reassuringly, watching his mother nervously sketch human figures on the napkin. Even with a ballpoint pen on a cafe paper napkin, his mother's talent came through as Martha made the figures seem to dance and pace on the paper before her. "You know Erin, she's a very good friend, and she's always been there for me." The good cheer wasn't entirely false, but Mark was nervous, albeit not as nervous as his mother. When she'd called him and told him her work had put her on psychiatric leave, he'd heard the raw edge of tears in her voice, and even now that she'd calmed her voice and wiped her eyes, she was clearly pulled tight as a wire. When she'd told him _why_ she'd gone on leave, he'd gotten pretty tense too. 


"...still can't believe they put me on leave after all the years I've given that company," Martha muttered in reply, her flowery sundress looking out of place in the Midtown cafe full of urban professionals. But then, his mom had always been a little out of place in the real world, embracing a lifestyle of the generation before her upon marrying her older husband. "Just because I criticized their golden boy, suddenly it's 'you need a break, Martha,' 'you need a vacation, Mrs. Lucas,' blah blah blah bunch of old hippies in their tie-dyed..." She made a hard scratch with the pen that actually tore the paper, then sighed, setting it down with an unhappy look before looking back at her son. "At least there's somebody in the world who still believes in me." They embraced over the table, and Mark said the only thing he could. 


"I always believe in you, Mom." And he did. 

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Erin hurried in the door of the cafe, checking the time on her phone before shoving it into the pocket of her trim blue and black work uniform. Meeting Mark for lunch in the middle of a work day wasn't easy, but he'd sounded so strange on the phone, so nervous and unhappy, that she'd promised to make the time. It wasn't anyone's fault, really, that she'd gotten caught up trying to dissuade a couple of researchers from ripping a hole in the dimensional wall right next to the power generator so that by the time she was finished she was late and had to leap across the rooftops to get downtown. She was only five minutes late, anyway. 


She hesitated in the doorway of the cafe when she realized that Mark wasn't alone at his table. It wasn't that Erin disliked Martha Lucas, not really. "Pitied" was probably a better word, and "felt uneasy around" was probably more honest. Erin could remember years ago when she'd been seventeen, Mark had taken her to his house for Thanksgiving because he realized she had nowhere to go and didn't believe her when she said she'd be better off alone. Dinner had been awkward, but Martha had seemed so normal, so steady between the two affable and slightly unbalanced men in her life. Something had snapped inside Martha when Rick had lost his way, and it wasn't getting any better. Mark didn't want to see it, but the time was coming when Erin or Trevor or someone was going to have to step in, and that wasn't going to be a fun scene. Erin hoped it wasn't going to be soon, but the way Martha was fidgeting didn't give her a lot of hope. 


It took Erin only a second to evaluate the scene, then another second to put on a smile she hoped looked genuine as she crossed the restaurant. "Sorry I'm late," she told Mark. "Busy morning at work. How's it going?" she asked both of them. 

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Mark smiled with real relief at the sight of his friend, and so did Martha. "Hey, Erin!" he said with a smile, giving her a quick hug. Martha shook the girl's hand, giving her a searching look, before sitting down behind the table again as the young heroes joined her. "Anyway, uh, Erin, thanks for coming out on such short notice. It was really nice of you to come out when you were working," he added with a significant look his mother's way. Martha settled a little at that, visibly taking a breath as Mark went on. "As you probably figured, I called you because I want to do something for my mom, and I need your help to do it. Mom's been having some trouble at work, and she thinks that she needs the help of people in our business." 


"There's a new man there," said Martha without changing expression. "Alan Curtis. They just...they just _hired_ him with no notice, and they gave him an office next to mine. Have you heard of him?" she asked Erin. She was already reaching into her work bag and pulling out comic books, dumping them on the table as if they would give her a disease. "The man is a freak. Sitting there with his unkempt beard, reeking of who knows what he's been smoking...and do you know what he writes? Awful stuff!" She paged through the comics quickly, pointing as she went. "Look, he turned HP Lovecraft into some...perverse sex thing where the heroine changes sides after Cthulu forcibly impregnates her, and in this one a thinly-veiled Harry Potter is some kind of freakish sex thing...I don't know, everything he does is just full of cursing and sex, and some kind of weird steampunk fetish thing." She threw the comics down again, a look of disgust on her face. 


"Curtis used to do nostalgia comics, back in the mid-80s and 90s. He even did a biographical piece about my dad once," offered Mark, obviously worried about his mother. "But now he does this adult comics stuff, for people who think the Freedom League's adventures are too boring." The look on his face showed what he thought about that. "His stuff is really gross, yeah, and I hear he's pretty weird in person. Anyway, Mom got into a fight with him at work, and they asked her to take a couple of weeks off to-" 


"He's a cultist!" Martha hissed, as if that explained everything. "Everyone thinks it's just some affectation, but I've seen the look in his eyes and he is a crazy cultist. He keeps coming over to my studio and whispering to me about things, and this last time he asked if I wanted to be there when he summoned A-sa-sa-ra, the Minoan snake goddess! And so then I threw my scissors at his smug bearded face, and somehow _I'm_ the bad guy!" She reached over and took Mark's hand, looking at Erin pleadingly. "Everyone there thinks I'm crazy because of...of what happened with Rick, and because I was gone for so long, but I'm telling you something very bad is going to happen." 

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Erin listened to Martha's account, keeping her face impassive and attentive only through great force of will. Even willpower, though, couldn't keep her from giving Mark a look that was slightly more wide-eyed than normal. Was this it, then? Did  Mark need help convincing his mother to seek help? "That does sound disturbing," she agreed wholeheartedly when Martha finished her recitation. "And like it could definitely be dangerous. How long has this been going on, exactly?" The question was ostensibly directed at Martha, but Erin kept her eyes on Mark. 

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"A few weeks. I don't know, I didn't know the man before he started up." Martha folded her arms. "As far as I know, he started as soon as they hired him from our British imprint. Maybe it was something he picked up over there." She reached behind her head and tugged briefly at her hair, trying to smooth it down into place. "I don't even know why they hired him here, usually our company has better standards than to hire someone like that, even if they did turn one of his books into a movie." She frowned and looked down at her hands. "I think he cast a spell on them. That has to be it, from that serpent staff he always carries. You've got to understand," she said, looking at both Mark and Erin almost pleadingly, "these people at my company, they don't really know anything about super-problems. They haven't published a superhero comic in fifty years. They think worshiping snakes and summoning dark goddesses, and talking about how you ripped your heart out and showed it to Death, is some kind of charming eccentric affectation, and maybe it is in their bubble. But this is the real world." 


"I promised my mom we would look into it," said Mark, looking almost beseechingly at Erin. "And that if we didn't find anything, we would look into other reasons she might be feeling this way." he added, looking back at Martha firmly. "Whatever is happening, it's very bad, and we're going to fix it." 


"Good, good," said Martha, "He, uh, he's going to do his ritual tonight at the company fundraiser. We do a talent show, you know, writers and artists showing they can do more than just put things on paper? Everyone thinks what he's going to be doing is some kind of magic act, but I know the truth." she whispered fiercely. "He's going to summon his god and some very bad things will happen." 

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Erin rubbed the bridge of her nose and kissed goodbye her fond dream of an evening at home with Trevor. They'd spent their anniversary together for the third year in a row, maybe hoping for two nights in one week was just getting greedy. Or maybe Mark was going to owe her a favor by the time all this was done. A company party at a squeaky-clean comics publisher wasn't her idea of a fun way to spend any amount of time at all.


"All right, we can check it out," she told Martha. "See what this guy does with his crazy magic act thing. If he starts to summon anything bad, we'll be right there to stop him and it'll all be just fine." She picked up Mark's untouched water glass and drank half of it. "Now are you allowed to be at this thing tonight," she asked Martha frankly, "or is that part of your enforced vacation too?" 

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"I'm not invited, no. I'm not even supposed to set foot on company property this week, even though it's supposed to all be for my own good. But they'll know Mark," she said, "and he won't have any issues bringing a guest over." 


"I grew up with those people," said Mark seriously, "my mom's been working there since before I was born. No  one's going to think there's anything weird about my being there, with a +1 or otherwise. Or, heck, I can go there alone and you can just sneak around if you want. It's in a big old-fashioned auditorium they rent every year, so there are lots of places to hang around." It didn't look like he believed his mother anymore than Erin did, but he was trying to humor her for now. 


"Thank you so much," said Martha, reaching across the table to try and take Erin's hand. "Ever since...everything happened, sometimes I've felt like it's just Mark and I against the world. This really means so much to me." 

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Erin allowed the contact just for a moment, though Martha's clammy hand made her skin crawl a little. It was better than risking a scene in a crowded restaurant. "Whatever's going on, we'll get to the bottom of it," she promised. "And I'll help fix it." Pulling back her hand, she drank the rest of Mark's water. "I've got to get back to work," she told Mark, setting down the cup. "I'll give you a call later on my break and we'll work out the details." The look she gave him suggested they'd be talking about more than basic strategy and coordinating outfit choices. "You guys take care, all right? Try and get some rest and not worry about anything, Mrs. Lucas. It'll be okay." 

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By that afternoon, Mark and Martha were back home. Martha was in her studio, working assiduously at her easel, as if nothing strange had happened in her career and life up to that time. From the living room, Mark watched nervously, trying to concentrate on the paperback novel Nina had bought him for his last birthday. His mom spent a lot of time in her studio these days, almost more time than she even spent in her bedroom. Sometimes he thought she slept in a corner down there when she couldn't go up to the room where she and his dad had spent so many years together, but he'd tried to talk her out of that. Mark watched his mother and realized unhappily that, after all this time, though he would go with Erin to the party and keep a close eye on the man who had made his mother so unhappy, he fully expected that he was...nothing. Just a bastard who had taken advantage of his mother's problems to drive her crazy. Maybe this wasn't a problem superheroes could fix. 

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His cell phone rang around 3:30, the number popping up as scrambled. Heroes wouldn't have much of a secret identity if they couldn't mask their cell phone calls, after all. Erin's voice was immediately recognizable anyway, clipped and impatient as she almost always was. "Are  you alone?" she asked him immediately. "I think we need to have a talk about your mom," she told Mark bluntly. "I knew she's been having problems, but this? Evil coworkers, sacrifices to pagan gods? She works at a comic book company." Erin sighed, modulating her voice to try and be more sympathetic. "Has she been seeing anybody, talking to anybody about this since, you know, everything happened?" 

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"No," said Mark, and Erin could hear the fear and worry in his voice clear as a bell over the line. "I mean, not really. She's been to a couple of different therapists, but she says they're just quacks or incompetent, so she never stays with them for more than a few sessions. And she went on a couple of dates this summer, yeah, but she says she's still married to my dad." Mark sat on his old bed upstairs as he talked, his voice soft as he tried not to let it carry downstairs. "It's...it's really been tough on her, Erin. My mom's extended family had... a lot of problems, so she was cut off from them even before she met my dad, and after what happened, most of my dad's old friends have gotten...colder." He swallowed hard. "Not that anyone blames her, or me, but everyone in the old super community knows what happened, and why. They're just not around like they used to be. My mom _lives_ for her work, she always has, and if she's losing her job, I honestly don't know what she'll do." 

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Erin sighed into the phone. "Listen, if it'll help, I'll do this thing with you tonight. If these people don't know you're with Nina I'll come as your date, otherwise you can call me your cousin who loves comics or whatever. We'll watch the party, let your mom get a decent night of sleep. Maybe you can talk to some of her coworkers and see how she's been acting at work, how worried the people who know her well are feeling. But after that, you really need to start taking charge, Mark. You're an adult now, and you know a lot of people who are doctors and scientists ,or who know people who are. You can get her some help even if she doesn't understand right now that she needs it. You can get it for her before she throws away everything that's still important to her." 

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"I...I, yeah, you're right..." Mark rubbed his eyes, the edges of a sob in his voice. "God, Erin, I don't want to lose my mom too." He took a long, deep breath, fighting off that sob, remembering who he was and the person his mother would want him to be even as she herself was falling apart. "When we get back, I'll talk to her about something. A _real_ something, where she can actually get some help. We do know some psychiatrists, and some of them she even likes. But for now we'll go to the party, and we'll check it out, for her, because that's what you do for family. You're there for them." The cold memories of the months she'd followed his father away from their reality, to a place she still wouldn't discuss even after tearful apologies to him for leaving, weren't something he wanted to dwell on now. "You, uh, you shouldn't have to know too much. They spend so much time dealing with fans that they don't like to talk about the stories very much. And it might be better if you're my cousin, yeah. We'll...we'll make it work." 

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Erin was quiet for a moment. "Yeah," she finally said, "I understand. But getting help for her doesn't mean losing her, it means doing everything you can to get her back, instead of losing her bit by bit. Therapy's not so bad," she added dryly. "Take it from a pro. Anyway, I'll meet you at your place tonight and we'll go over together, that's probably easiest to handle.If we meet up a little early, we can case the venue beforehand, get an idea of the tactical situation." Just because it was a stupid mission, she figured, didn't make it less a mission. Everything was practice. "What's the dress code going to be like?" 

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"Formal, but not too formal. They're business professionals throwing a party, but you're not gonna see anyone in tux and tails or anything." Mark had never been invited to one of Erin and Trevor's social functions, largely because his personal background just didn't fit into that kind of occasion, but he knew enough not to tell someone who lived at Hunter Mansion to go all-out. "In any event, I'll take care of all the explaining and stuff. They may peg you for a super since they know I work for UNISON's super-division, but since you don't they shouldn't look too closely." He sighed, and said "Thank you for this, Erin, so much. I may have a lot of people I like, but I don't have a lot of people I would trust with something like this." 

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"Don't worry about it," she told him. "I wouldn't trust many people with Singularity either, and you had my back there. We've all got family stuff to deal with. I'll see you at six, okay?" Erin spent the rest of the day attending to her work, but with part of her mind worrying over what was going to happen with Martha Lucas. She knew she couldn't wholly discount the possibility that something bad really was happening. It was Freedom City after all, where almost anything was plausible. But it was still very hard to believe, given the reliability of the source. What were they going to do about her? 


She took off a half-hour early, promising Steve she'd make the time up to him later, and headed back to North Bay, to the house where it was still hard to believe she lived. Trevor wasn't home yet and there was no sign of Travis, but Charlie met her at the door, purring and casting insinuating glances back towards the kitchen. Since the cleaning team's visit not long ago, the house smelled like lemon oil and old books, a welcoming sort of scent that made her just want to settle in somewhere and not go out for awhile. That wasn't in the cards, though, so she dumped food into an ecstatic Charlie's bowl, then headed to her closet. "Formal but not too formal" was probably the biggest hole in her wardrobe, since most of what she wore was either durable enough to chase crooks and fix cars in, or suitable for an evening party with the set Trevor Hunter the secret identity socialized with. Neither were quite in order tonight. 


It took some doing, but by ten of six she was dressed and ready, with makeup and appropriate shoes and everything, a note for Trevor scribbled and left on the counter. Despite her own color preferences, Frank insisted on putting her in colors that looked good, so for tonight she'd put on a beige and gold ballroom sheath, then dressed it down with a linen jacket that reached her thighs. Frank would probably tell her it was all wrong, but she wasn't trying to win any fashion awards. The dress was stretchy enough that she could easily fight in it, and that was what mattered. Not tonight, probably, but in general. Stepping onto the long driveway outside the manor, she took a few running steps and leapt into the air, jacket fluttering behind her like a cape as she angled towards Mark's house. His car was a little more suited than her truck for tonight's festivities.

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Mark was waiting by his car on time, looking business dapper in his sports jacket, slacks, and red tie. It wasn't the sort of outfit he'd have worn to a formal UNISON event, but this certainly wasn't that. "Hi, cousin," he said with a little smile, carefully not looking back at the house behind him where he knew his mom was watching. He knew she'd appreciate it more if he acted like everything was normal, as if he wasn't acutely aware that she would be sitting up all night until they came home. "You look nice," he said, cracking the door for her before walking over to the drivers' side. Inside Mark's car was its usual neat self - as lazy as Mark could be, looking good was one thing he always took the time to do. Or maybe it was just that he was lucky enough to never make a mess. He turned off the Soquitri language CD on his radio as they headed out. 

"Okay, if anyone asks, tell them you're a fan of Kim Park. Kim is the newest student at Oceanside and he's a trans man. My mom introduced him last year and he's gotten a lot of good press, but he hasn't been in that many stories. That way they won't expect you to know the kinds of stuff a long-term fan would know. It's that or be a squealing fangirl, and that doesn't sound much like you." He snerked, then sobered quickly as he remembered the gravity of the situation. "We'll probably just be expected to eat something from the buffet, then watch the talent show. It shouldn't be too hard." 

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"Kim Park, got it," Erin answered. She spent part of the trip asking a few more questions about events in the Andie universe, just so she wouldn't look a total fraud, Eventually, though, they  both lapsed into a silence weighted heavily by the absent Martha Lucas. It was difficult, Erin thought, to see the usually ebullient Mark seem so worried and dispirited.


"The thing is," she finally said, breaking the silence as they got close to the office complex, "sometimes people just need a break from bad times. It's almost like a protective thing, the mind clicks onto a weird channel to keep itself from breaking in a way it can't be fixed. And it's still bad and all, but you get better from it. Eventually the mind starts to heal up and come back to reality and be okay again. I mean..." She hesitated, struggling with the words, wondering if they'd even help. "I mean, I'm not like Singularity, but before I came to Prime, there was a long time, months and months, where I wasn't in my right mind, couldn't let myself take in reality, it was too hard. But eventually... it got better, you know? Little by little. People can get better from this stuff." She laced her fingers together in her lap, looking uncomfortably out the windshield. 

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"I just want my mom to get better," said Mark, not quite looking at Erin as they pulled into the garage. "I know things will never go back to how they were. Not for her, not for me, not for how we were as a family...but she's been through enough, she should just be able to be happy. Things need to get better for her. She was so happy, you know, when you agreed to do this, so sure it was going to make things right. And that's what we'll do," he said definitively, as if trying to reassure himself as much as Erin. "We'll do this, because we promised, and then afterwards I'll make sure she gets help. Things are going to get better because of what we do tonight." He gave Erin a reassuring smile, and if he wasn't all the way better, it looked like her words had least pointed him in the right direction. 
The Andi Comics buffet dinner and talent show turned out to be a fairly sedate affair; no surprise given the middle-aged corporate types who made up most of the leadership. If you left out the giant picture of America's favorite perpetual teenager over the small stage and a few posters of famous characters like Kim Park or Prince Sweetheart, it might have been any other second-tier corporate get-together. Mark found them the table reserved in his mom's name, and soon was introducing his cousin to several artists and writers who were carefully asking "How's your mom doing?" in between shaking Erin's hand. 
"She's okay, she's resting at home," Mark reassured them automatically. "Is Alan Curtis here? I didn't know how he was doing after everything that happened." 
"Oh yeah, he's fine," said Ted Barker, a middle-aged man with a heavy combover in a suit that must have been in fashion about a decade before Mark or Erin was born. "I don't think he's coming to the buffet, he's setting up for his stage show. it's really gonna be something!" 
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Erin glanced at Mark, a significant look coupled with a slight tilt of her head that said she wanted to get a look at the stage show. And that was true, because she believed in being thorough, but it was also an excuse to get away from the very uncomfortable atmosphere at the table. These people had obviously known Mark since he was small, and most of them seemed to actually like him, but none of them seemed to know what to say or do in this particular situation. The food wasn't even particularly good, though Erin knew full well that was probably because between home and HAX, she was getting spoiled.


"You know," she commented to Mark, "I just realized I left my phone in the car. Could you come unlock it for me?" She rose from the table, giving the other people there a polite smile. "Back in just a minute." 

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"Sure," said Mark readily. "Coming right with you." He headed out after Erin with a smile back at the table of his family friends, only his hands in his pockets betraying his stress. As soon as they were in the hallway, after a look both ways, Mark took a moment to rub his eyes. "I...I almost wish they weren't so worried," he confessed softly. "If they were all loopy-eyed with bad mojo magic, all this would make a lot more sense. But they've been my mom's friends for thirty years, and they're really worried about her." He looked at Erin and added, "What they weren't saying, is that the company has had a lot of budget problems over the years, especially after the movie flopped. If they have to get a new artist to do Andi, they're going to lose readers, which means they're probably going to have to fire people..." 

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Erin pursed her lips and struggled not to bite the lower one, an obvious enough tell of tension that even Mark was likely to notice. "I guess it's a good thing you're already resolved to make sure she gets help, then," she told him as they turned down the hall that seemed to run beside the banquet room and towards the stage. "See what you can do about making sure nobody happens by while we're sneaking around, all right?" She slipped off her heels and set them in an alcove, walking on silent bare feet towards the first set of double doors that looked like they could hide a backstage area. She paused outside the door and listened for any signs of activity, trying not to feel foolish. 

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Through the door, Erin heard a melodramatic laugh, almost like a hammy actor overplaying the part of "villain", and then chanting in a language she didn't understand. If that was Alan Curtis, he had a deep, booming voice that might have made him as good a baritone actor as a comic book writer. Following it up came a slow, rhythmic chant in English that she did understand.


"Yes. We all love the snake. Yes." 

And then came that laugh again, and an English-accented voice that boomed, "Aaah, what a wonderful performance! We will all have such a great show tonight, my friends! Go ahead and take five, everybody, we can't be tired out for the biiig show! Hahaha!" 


Beside her, Mark was biting his lip, obviously fighting the urge to throw open the door and confront the man, but then he shot a look her way as they heard footsteps heading straight for the doors from the other side!

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Erin took a couple of steps back from the door, but their options were limited in terms of places to hide. She glanced up and noted that back here in the service areas of the hall, they hadn't bothered with a drop ceiling to cover the exposed pipes and joists overhead. Catching Mark's eye, she pointed upwards, then made a stirrup with her hand to boost him up. In seconds, he was securely tucked up in the pipes, ten feet off the ground, and a moment later Erin was up there with him. She kept her eyes on the door, wanting to get a look at this guy before he got a look at her. 

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The famous Alan Curtis was probably pretty impressive if you hadn't fought Omega hand-to-hand; he was tall and bulky with a physique that was muscle as well as fat, his black beard long and bushy and down to his chest, his laugh booming enough that for a moment it sounded like he had speakers hooked up somewhere. Up close he was just some guy, with deep enough bags under his eyes that his age was obvious. He was probably just a couple of years younger than Mark's dad, who had worn his years with grace.


He looked like a particularly showy magician in glittering black and red robes covered in gold and jewelry that neither Mark nor Erin knew enough about to tell if it was fake; carrying in his hands a long white viper-headed cane whose snakey top wore two glowing red gems for eyes. Curtis didn't look up as he passed beneath Erin and Mark, he seemed to be spending his time trying to chat up a much younger woman who seemed to be hanging on his every word. She wore a costume line the Minoan goddess Martha had been concerned about - a tight bodice which covered nothing above the chest, a long flounched skirt, and an apron made of material with embroidered snake decorations. If not for a thin, nearly sheer chemise over her top, emblazoned in writhing gold serpents, the woman might have been nearly topless - as it was she looked almost shockingly risque for what was otherwise such a staid party.  No one around them, however, seemed to be commenting on this.


The small group that had been with him, a handful of middle-manager types in sensible suits, certainly didn't seem to be paying attention - they headed as one down the hallway and disappeared into a half-open room that Erin and Mark had seen was full of snacks on the way in. 

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