"It is better to be out of the world than out of the fashion."– Jonathan Swift

*****

Things started to go wrong when my model Casey saw the man outside.

On that particular Wednesday, I was fitting her for a dress that I planned to show in Madrid. She was the best model I had for testing sizes, American size two and five foot ten, average for a runway model, and so I used her for most of my fittings, because the dress would be more likely to fit one of the Spanish girls, too.

It was a good-looking dress, more delicate than my usual work, silky and shimmering. I hoped would get me a decent amount of recognition, and I wanted to have everything just so. I had told her that the fitting would take a few hours, and promised her that she would be out by midnight. We were on the fourth hour already, with eleven o'clock drawing near, so I couldn't blame her for looking outside with a bored sigh.

But I nearly choked on a pin I had clenched in my teeth when she gasped aloud and started to move away from me. The dress I was working on was pretty fragile, and I didn't want her to ruin it. For a moment, I envisioned heaps of torn dupion silk and a ruined dress. "Casey!"

The girl glanced back at me, and the look she gave me made me forget about the dress. Her near-violet eyes were wide and luminous, and her face had gone paler than it already was. The dress rustled in protest as her spine straightened. "He's out there again, Josh."

I looked over towards the window. I didn't see anything there that didn't belong. There was just the fairly typical city-outskirts streetlights and traffic array. I told her so, after plucking the pin from my mouth and gathering a length of the dress hem. "What do you see?" I asked, curious.

She paused for a moment, as if unsure what to say. I wondered why. She made a little gesture that would have better suited an orchestra conductor, her long hands flourishing like a signal to the violin section. "The same fellow who's been out there for a few nights. I know he isn't watching us, but I can't help but think that he is." She turned back towards me, and I shivered at the look on her face. I've never seen someone look so haunted. "We should call the cops," she insisted, and for a moment I almost suggested the services of an exorcist, too.

Instead, I drove the pin through the silk with more force than I had expected, nearly stabbing myself in the heel of my hand. "No, we shouldn't. What we should do is close the curtains. What you should do is forget about the whole thing."

Her eyes lit with anger. "You wouldn't be able to forget it if you saw him. Go on. Look at him."

I wanted to tell her that no, I didn't want to look at him. No, I wanted to do anything but look at him. No, I wanted her to forget all about him, because I had never seen as frightened a look on anyone as I had just seen on her. Acid rose in my throat. I had to swallow it. "Fine," I said despite myself. "I'll look at him."

I stalked towards the door, peering down on the street.

He was hard to miss. He had seemingly positioned himself for surveillance from this apartment. His coat was an oil-slick of black leather, and I could almost see the bones through the skin of his face. I thought for a moment that he was grinning at me, and I wondered if Casey had gotten the same impression.

"Do you see him?" Her voice floated up from somewhere behind my right shoulder. "He's been watching us – me – you – I'm not sure."

"He's just standing there waiting for a bus or something." I knew that was a lie. I didn't entirely expect Casey to believe me. "Don't worry about it, huh? There's no law against standing there."

"If it's someone standing there looking like him, there should be," Casey said, and I couldn't exactly disagree with her. Her hand touched my shoulder lightly, and I turned around, quicker than I thought I should have. "I'll let you know if he's still staring at us," she promised. "Let's get back to work."

It was hard to concentrate on the dress after that. I am a good designer. I am fairly original, I'd say, and I think I'm better at constructing a dress than most people I know. I have my own style, and it's not to everyone's taste. That night, though, construction, design, and style all flew out the window, and I could have been making something for Walmart's bargain bin for all I knew or cared.

I had promised Casey she would be out of my shop by midnight, but somehow neither of us wanted to leave. It was nearly two in the morning by the time she started to fidget again, and I had gotten most of the fitting done. I was being especially careful with this one, I told myself. It wasn't that I was afraid to head onto the street and possibly run into the guy in the jacket.

"Walk with me to the bus stop?" she suggested, and I wasn't sure if it was for her sake or mine. "I've got to be around people. What if I get into a taxi with him?"

*****

The next day, Casey kept on chattering so much that I had to tell her to shut up a few times. I'd never thought of her as shy or mousy, but she kept on talking that Thursday like she had to. It was as if, had she said nothing, she might never get the opportunity to again. There was a real urgency to her conversation, and I almost asked her if everything was all right.

It was weird, though. She was talking about pointless things – about her boyfriend, about how he'd gone out to dinner with her, but how they couldn't go to the French restaurant she liked because the specialty was some sort of shellfish and she was allergic to them, about how she would love to have the newest CD by some band I was too cool to listen to and would have thought she'd have grown out of by fifteen, let alone twenty-three. I figured if there was something really wrong, she'd tell me. She usually did. So when she kept yammering and nothing important came out, I finally had to tell her to hush up.

She looked desperate for conversation, so after a while I decided to start talking instead. It would be better for her to hear me ramble on than for her to do the talking, I told myself. I talked about that music that she wanted, trying to make it sound like I cared about that band. I was surprised that she liked them. I would have thought that she would have had more taste than that. I would have had more taste than that.

Whatever the case, when seven at night rolled around, she was looking better. Some color had returned to her cheeks, and the dress looked much better on her now that her skin was less wan, the pale yellow hue standing out a bit more with her renewed complexion. I waved her to the screen to get out of the dress, and leaned back to glance over the sketches I'd made for the dress, lighting up a cigarette. Casey hated it when I smoked around her, but she would be leaving soon, so she didn't have a lot of room to complain.

" – shit!"

Something spasmed deep in my stomach. I pressed my lips together and drew a deep breath. She couldn't have torn the dress. If she had torn it, then all my work was shot to hell. I wouldn't be able to afford any more silk, and she didn't have the money to pay for it. The dress wouldn't be able to go to Madrid, and if this dress couldn't go, I couldn't go either. When I felt like I could talk without screaming, I drew a breath. "What happened?"

Fortunately, it wasn't the dress. Unfortunately, when she peeked out from behind the screen at me, she motioned to one of the windows. "I can see him. I don't think he can see me. " She had been watching our friend, clearly. I hadn't been. I kicked myself for that.

She pulled on a T-shirt as she stepped out from behind the screen again. "Go say something to him, Josh. Please?" She stepped towards me, one dainty hand wrapping its slender fingers around my arm, and I let her turn me towards the door.

"What do you want me to say?" I asked. " 'Hey, you, stop looking at my model. You're spooking her.' – is that it? No, that's stupid." I pulled open the door and turned to look at her. "Whatever. By the time that I go out there, he'll probably be gone anyway."

I certainly wanted him to be, and I somewhat expected him to be as well. Part of me knew he would stay, however, so I wasn't wholly surprised when he was still standing there, beneath the lamplight.

It was hard to make out most of his face. The sheen of the lamplight hit him in such a way that his face still seemed carved from bone, the eyes unreadable, the mouth turned up in a deep crescent that might have been called a genuine grin, if its presumed mirth reached the man's eyes. He watched me as I approached, the collar of his jacket drawn up on his neck, making him look like a cobra about to strike.

"How is the dress coming?" he wanted to know. I had expected many things – threats, mainly – but hadn't thought he might start a conversation. He took a step towards me, adding, "Your girl takes Route Eleven home." His head cocked, as if he wanted a response.

I was damned sure going to give him a reply, too. "If you lay a hand on Casey, I swear – " I began, but choked off my own threat as I realized there was nothing useful that I could leverage against him. What do you say to scare a fellow that you don't know anything about?

"Her name's Casey?" he asked, still just making small talk, not much interest in the new knowledge. "Then you're Joshua Starks. The designer. I saw you in a magazine recently." His lips curved up further, the bloodless smile increasing. It seemed like he shouldn't have been able to smile any further, and yet he did. "Tell me, Mr. Starks, what does it feel like to be in print?"

I had a series of stock answers for this, everything from exultation to bored disaffection with the whole thing. I couldn't think of any of them, though. I couldn't think of much at the moment, other than the fact that this guy was weird and I didn't want to talk to him any more than I had to, and I wanted to make sure Casey would stay away from him.

"It – feels all right," I finally managed. I rubbed at the back of it, swallowing hard. "Go smoke somewhere else, though, huh?"

He liked my answer, for some reason. His eyes burned, almost feverish in their intensity. He spread his arms, the leather jacket creaking. "Where would you like me to smoke, Mr. Starks? Name the place, and I'll go to it. I don't want to bother you. You have work to be done."

There was a strange purpose behind those last words, but I couldn't place it at the moment. I motioned to the furthest lamplight I could see, speechless. I wanted to think I wasn't talking because I was playing it cool, but to be honest, I think it was because I was scared. He raised his hands as if pretending self-defense, and headed to smoke far away. I think I only breathed again once he walked away, and I made sure I walked with Casey out to the bus stop and watched her until the bus came to pick her up. When I saw the bus pull away, and the bus stop emptied, I was satisfied.

*****

It was three in the morning when I left the studio. I didn't need Casey to come back the following day, as I'd gotten all the pinning done. Now, I needed to work. The dress was in its final stages, and if I stayed up late for the next few nights, I could probably get it done by the end of the week. Visions of Madrid sped through my brain, and I could see myself applauded and awarded.

Finally, they would understand all the things I had been trying to get across with my dresses. Finally, I would "arrive," as they called it. They would be asking me how I could be so forward-looking with my designs, and I would have to think of more responses to say to the press. I hadn't been able to come up with any good ones for the man in the leather jacket, but I could definitely think of plenty when I thought about the particular dress.

You'll be the next big thing, I told myself, and I really believed it. I was so lost in my thoughts that I didn't notice the man in the leather jacket had started to walk beside me until I crossed Casey's bus stop.

"You should have stood beside her," he said. I heard amusement in his voice, mixed with pity. "You had work to do, though. So I've done my work, too."

I felt my shoulders stiffen. I turned towards him. He was smiling at me like he knew a secret, and all of a sudden, I knew it too. I didn't want to share the secret, though, and the knowledge of what it implied for Casey hit me like a bucket of water dashed in my face. "You killed her!"

"Do you really think so?"

I turned towards him, and I could see his face, or the boniest features of it, nose and jaw and eye sockets, gleaming, cadaverous. He shook his head, disappointed. I wasn't sure what I had missed. He grabbed my arm, and I felt for a moment like his fingers might grind my wrist to dust. There was a brittle, painful strength to his grip, and I knew instantly that it was pointless to fight.

He said, sounding bored, "Fine. I killed her, yes. I waited until the bus came, and then when it came, I took her from the bus stop while you couldn't see, and I snapped her neck." He jerked at my hand, demonstrating just how he had done it. "I cut out her eyes, too, because she was watching me. Those pretty eyes, so big and almost purple. That's why you made a yellow dress, isn't it? So it could go with those purple eyes of hers."

I wanted to scream. I knew it would do no good. "Yeah," I admitted, "that's why the dress is yellow."

The man nodded absently. "The color of cowardice. Are you a coward, Mr. Starks?"

I should have known then. If I hadn't been off my game, I would have known. I felt my heart beat somewhere in the back of my head and in my throat. "I'm not a coward," I said. I could see the light from the street lamp glint down upon us, and suddenly I felt feverish and sick. I thought I might throw up. Bile rose in my throat, and for the second time in as many days, I tasted acid.

"You're the one I was watching. I didn't kill her. I don't give a fuck about the girl." The man in the leather jacket stared at me, his eyes glinting. I still couldn't make out any real expression in them. There was plenty of emotion, but it was indefinable, indescribable, any direction blunted from its singular intensity. "And neither do you. You care about that dress more than her."

How could I disagree? I had been more worried for the garment than I had for her, and she had known it, and all the while, this guy had known it too. I deserved what was coming to me. The weight of the realization bore down on me, and I staggered a step. The only thing keeping me from collapsing on the sidewalk was his hand.

" 'Better be out of the world than out of the fashion,' " he said, and for a moment, it sounded like a nice motto. I wanted to agree. I wanted to say something, but I could not open my mouth. I tasted thread and metal, felt the sting of something sharp, and wondered in one fantastical moment if my mouth had been sewn shut.

The man in the leather jacket held up a spindly finger, and it gleamed like a pin. His eye shone from the inside like light through a needle. His coat blotted out the streetlight like the heaviest, biggest piece of damask, and his face turned into a white skull.

I knew then that I had really arrived, but not to where I wanted. I tried to scream through sewn lips.

*****

(This is an old story of mine--about five years old now. I dug it up based on a forum conversation. I'm sure bits were rusty, but I hope it was enjoyable!)