Another Job. This one had me crouched in a doorway for three straight hours, disguised as a homeless person. I wear all-black under the tattered rags, a poor man's ninja disguise. The evening stars are starting to come out, slowly, like a photo being developed. The single-bedroom flat across the street looks deserted, but I know the sole inhabitant was in his darkroom. I could almost smell the developer fluid. My eyes burn with the strain of too many hours under the dim red light. But it's all worth it- not only do you get to see them, caress them, but you're actually getting paid for bringing your beauties into the light. Your father always said the greatest thing in life is getting paid for doing what you love, and how could you not love this?

My lunch lurches somewhere far below. I try not to eat before the culmination of a Job; experience has told me that food rarely stays where it's supposed to. I finger the instrument in my pocket and wait for the light in the bedroom window to come on.

Two hours later, it does.

I make my move in five quick, silent sprints across the lawn. Then I am at the door, fumbling under my beggar's rags for the lock picking set. I am glad shacks like these are not benefited with the luxury of home security; for once, things are easy. The front door opens on its hinges and I slip inside. Above, the full moon watches my little B & E with an infuriating impassivity. I put my fingers to my nose and smell formaldehyde.

The shadows chase me around the room a while before I figure out where I am. The furniture is minimal and badly stained, giving the impression of an interior design strip show. A patchy sofa appears turns itself inside out for the viewing pleasure of the wallpaper, itself reaching lecherously towards the floor in grisly strips. The ancient refrigerator kicks in, sending my chest flying in several heart stopping directions. I creep around the corner of the adjoining hallway and pause, listening.

Crooning from the bedroom. A noise that makes me think of women standing knee-deep in a river, scrubbing soiled clothes against washboards. A rough, repetitive sound. I kneel and put my eye to the keyhole for a better look.

The Job sits on the edge of the bed. Deceptively broad shoulders lead to incongruously skinny limbs, like toothpicks sticking out of a potato. He's hunched over, shaking, as if sobbing. The crooning and noises are coming from him. He's looking at something in his lap, where all the activity seems to be focused.

I stand up and let my bag softly to the floor. The rock I had found outside is large enough to fill the palm of my hand. I toss it behind me into the living room, where it bounces gracelessly into a lamp with a satisfying cacophony of breaking glass.

A muted scuffle from the bedroom. An angered, frightened smatter of a voice, and then the door opens.

"What the h-hell-" the guy says, one hand on the doorknob and the other hastily pulling up his boxer shorts. He stops when he sees me standing in the hallway, blinking from the sudden flood of light.

"Who the f-fuck are y-you?"

"I'm sorry," I say, almost conversationally. "I don't know who you are or what you've done. But in a few seconds, I'm going to find out." My hand twitches in its pocket.

"What-" he starts, before I mace him in the eye.

The blossom of excruciating vein-tinseled pain starts immediately, as do the images, the voices. My hand- his hand- our hands reach up to clutch at the left eye, a singularity of agony at the centre of the universe. My fingers are wrinkly and criss-crossed with paper cuts from handling the Product. Ah, but just caressing that silver flesh wipes away the physical stress. You recall the latest batch: Pale white skin struggling against dark splotches that could be hair, could be something else. You can almost hear the screams as you run your fingers over the glossy surface, still vinegary from its bath. Had it been pain, or pleasure? Or both? Either way, those agonized lips seem to be forming a message just for you...

The screaming in our throats brims with hate and confusion and Oh God it hurts, why God why. I'd answer if I could, but I'm busy being assaulted by his voice in my head, his stained flesh on my burning face.

writhing figures spiral through the air as the photos are hung to dry. You almost wish you could have been there, maybe even held the whip, but the sight of blood makes you queasy. Black on white is so much more beautiful, more poignant. That's why they call you the Zebraman. They know your game, know everything about you; but the cash doesn't stop, and neither will you stop loving your formaldehyde-perfumed beauties with their mouths a round O of black lipstick and their leather-bound wrists and darkness and cool and bliss.

When my eyes open, the stinging from the acid is gone; but the memories remain imprinted in my mind, the way images stay on your retina if you stare at something bright for too long. It only takes me a minute to retrieve the nylon rope from my bag, and then the Job is trussed up nicely on the bed, each toothpick limb attached to a bedpost. I try not to touch him very much as I do this; I'd obviously interrupted a very private ceremony and his boxers have stiffened into a tent shape above his crotch.

The last thing I do is gag him; don't want the neighbors hearing any more than they already have. Not that it matters. I step back to review my handiwork. The flesh over his left eye is bubbling slightly, giving the skin a reptilian texture. He doesn't stir. Not yet.

I wander around the room, feeling nauseous. I want to be out of here, away from this room and its poison. I could explore the basement if I wanted to, but there's no point: I know this house intimately, and all the secrets it contains. I know the people who will be stopping by next week, to pick up "the Product". They give me the Product. I develop the Product. I sell it back to them, for a reasonable price. And in the meantime, I get to touch, gaze at, lick and jerk off to the Product at no extra cost.

Residue. I think I'm going to be sick. I want- no, I need this out of my head. At the very least, I want the piece of filth lying on the bed right now to wake up so I can have some fun. That's the only good part about Jobs, is knowing you did a Job well done.

Something catches my eye as I whirl about in frustration. A rectangle of white, half under the bed. I bend down and peel it off the hardwood. Photographs, spilled all over the floor. This is where I came in.

I pick them all up before looking at them, fanning them out like a new hand. Seven in total, black and white, blurrily shot but fairly well composed given the subject matter. At first I'm not sure what I'm looking at; then the picture snaps into focus like those optical puzzles that you have to squint at for an hour before they work. Strange, because the Job should have revealed this to me when I gave him the eye bath. But the only thing on my radar was a bizarre sense of affection, combined with a furtive urge to masturbate.

The first thing that registers is flesh. White. Most of it female The second thing is the... Equipment, for lack of a better word. All of it silver or black. Metal, mostly leather. Certain parts could be shadow. For some reason, I'm afraid to scrutinize it too closely. And there's something else in these miniature windows of pain... Something dark and fluid, and present in every scene...

The Job moans and starts shifting around. I sit on the edge of the bed, holding the photos loosely in one hand. With the other, I reach out and pull the gag off. His lips are thin and mottled and slick with drool. But his one-eyed gaze is unexpectedly unafraid, as if he'd been waiting for me. He licks his lips and coughs. "W-what do y-you want?"

I show him the hand. "Did you take these?"

He shakes his head, slowly, more like a head roll. "Nooooo."

We both stare at the photos, and I am struck by something. The third photo. There's a woman, lying on her back, legs being forced apart by something black and shiny. Naked men in black hoods loom over her, doing things with their hands. As a whole the scene is difficult to make out, but the woman's inverted face looms in the foreground with disturbing clarity, white and in the middle of a silent tooth-filled scream.

I pocket the photo. Just the one.

The Job looks at me with dull surprise. Maybe he thinks I'm like him, that somehow he can be saved. Hey, pal, I knew you'd understand. Wanna trade? I have more questions and I don't know why. I should be done by now. Someone might have phoned the police while I was out, and then I'd be trapped. Hesitation like this was dangerous, even with the night on my side.

"A-are you with them? T-tell me what y-you want, I'll do anything." Again, that curious lack of inflection. Almost like the guy doesn't care, like he's going through the motions. Playing the possum.

"You're the Zebraman, right?"

"H-how did you-"

"Do you know who took these photos?"

Silence. I drop the photos, replace the gag and stab him quickly in the thigh with my pocketknife. It's only a flesh wound, and I can take it even though my phantom nervous system is trying to climb out of my skin. He's thrashing around with bulgy eyes and a scream blocked up in his throat.

"The sooner you tell me, the sooner I can leave."

"Agh... Agah... I don't know w-who they are. They c-come every two m-months, in a b-blue v-van, with an envelope f-for m-me. F-Full of money. D-do you w-want s-some? It's in the c-cupboard next to the r-rat poison..."

I already know all this, and I know he's telling the truth. I can leave, but the Job wants me to do one more thing. I want it over with fast so I can get the hell out. The knife comes up again and the Zebraman's right eye twitches with reaction. But he sighs, and already my mind is floating elsewhere.

"L-let's g-get this over w-with," he says. My hand couldn't agree more. The blade drops, and even though the Zebraman must know he'll never see his "beauties" ever again, I don't even have to replace the gag.

I leave the six remaining pieces of evidence on the bloody bedspread for easy access. I know the basement holds no further clues, but the authorities should at least know what they're dealing with. They should be able to get to the bedroom before everything goes up in smoke. It'll require perfect timing and incredible luck, but when I'm on a Job, neither of those are my problem. Someday I'd like to know whose problem they are, but tonight seems like a bad time to ask questions.

As I strike the match, I wonder briefly about the strangeness of the evening. Somehow it doesn't feel like my typical outing. The residual pain is still there, but the Zebraman's strangely Zen attitude about being struck blind for the rest of his life doesn't sit well with me. When I finish a Job, I usually get just enough information to get out; this time, the holes are large enough for me to see the abyss behind the veil.

Ignorance is bliss. I light the match and toss it down the stairwell, still reeking of gasoline. Dial 911 for fire and I'm outta there, down the steps and across the street, feeling like a snake that's just shed its skin. This feeling of exposure is foreign to me; usually I'm cloaked by the anonymous night, made invisible by whatever powers are forcing me along. So I run harder, that damn chemical stench following me all the way to the apartment and into my dreams.
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