The Masked Mist

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I know who I’m looking for. Gentle music from the quartet fill the hall, overlaid by the dull hum of polite judgmental chatter. I glance around, patiently searching. Radiant women float around in lavish dresses, poised with well-practised smiles, faker than their unnaturally beautiful appearances. I take in every little detail, from the cheerful balloons to the dainty petals scattered over the black Italian silk tablecloth. It’s a habit of mine.
    After taking another quick sweep in search for the person, my own face hidden under black and silver lace, I resign to a seat at the bar and order my fourth Chardonnay. For the hundredth time, I compare the scrunched up riddles to Alison’s neatly inscribed phone number, trying to find anything, anything, that would distinguish the two. But her tidy handwriting, almost too tidy, makes me all the more certain that the two are one hundred percent identical. I shudder. If I am one step too late, some people in this very hall may never take their masks off again. One person, ten, a hundred…that heartless murderer couldn’t care less.
    “May I get you a drink?” I draw in a sharp breath, feeling flushed, as a young man slides into the seat next to me. His black mask conceals the left side of his face, but, regardless, his dazzling beauty still shines through, almost blinding like the crystal chandeliers above.
    “Oh, it’s ok. I already ordered.” I flash him a small, hypocritically well-practised smile. A normal girl would have melted by now. But I just sit here, analysing his every aspect as always, until he gives me a brief nod and gracefully glides off, already heading towards another– I freeze. Hastily I snatch out my phone and find the image of Alison that Rachel sent me. I glance up again. The young man’s charm has found its victim. A glamorous blonde woman enticed by his magnificence, one arm wrapped affectionately around him and the other holding a red c***tail. A glamorous blonde woman who, aside from her purple mask, looks exactly like the woman in the picture on my phone. Exactly.
    A strange sensation of excitement surges through me. I motion Theo to come over, who reluctantly obliges after bidding an overly-dramatic farewell to his little fan club of girls.
    “What’s wrong?” he inquires.
    “I saw Alison. Over there. Something’s not quite right. I…Wait a sec...” The suffocating waft of flowery perfume vanishes. The peaceful melodies fade away. Everything around me pauses; everything around me blurs, leaving only one thing in focus. The strangely regular layout of blue and silver balloons tied around central pillars. Suddenly it clicks. Of course!
    “Theo,” I whisper, “The balloons. That’s what the riddles meant. The mist. As soon as Rachel gets near a balloon, someone’s gonna pop it, and I believe they’re filled with the tiniest fraction of sarin gas, but that’s enough to kill her and everyone around her within seconds. So–” I turn to see Theo looking distracted, his gaze elsewhere. I narrow my eyes and sigh angrily, frustration tainting my enthusiasm like a drop of ink in pure water.
    “Were you even listening? Look I know I told you to act like you’re a guest enjoying yourself, but could you please prioritise peoples’ lives over your little admirers?” He remains silent, which would have infuriated me even more, had I not noticed the unmistakable fear that washed over him. The furrowed brow, clenched jaw, stiff posture. A haunted ringing fills my ears. The world spins and slows to a million frames per second as I follow his concentrated gaze to two women. Two women having a quiet, tense argument.
    Right beside a marble pillar with three balloons tied to it.






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