The thing about Archie's All-Nite Arcade was that-- Well. It wasn't open all night, was it? Not nearly. So Mason supposed it must've then been some sort of bad joke, like the pizza place over on Spruce that served something more akin to crackers with red sauce on than delicious Italian pie.
No, Archie's was only open until midnight, after which they chucked everyone out, even if they'd quarters to burn. Unreasonable, obviously, and Mason had learned it the hard way. He once got through thirty-seven stages in Joust before Sandy the Slayer (what could Mason say: he didn't know the guy's name, but that one seemed to fit as good as any) tapped him on the shoulder and threatened bodily harm -- or worse: permanent excommunication from that hallowed neon hall -- if Mason didn't vamoose.
Mason clenched his fists. Hell, but he was almost trembling. "You don't understand. I've never got this far before. And I've been at it for a long--"
"Out," grunted Sandy. By then, they were alone. Three dozen stand-up consoles blinked and bleeped about them, witnesses-in-waiting to no doubt what was quickly entering the territory of justifiable homicide. "Don't make me go Sub-Zero on your ass."
They were fighting words. They really were.
Mason always loved a good fight (to turn down). It was as easy as anything: "I'll be back," but in the form of a weak, muffled moan. Gods, but he was glad Roxy wasn't there to see him.
Wonder of wonders, she was there for this: "Earth to Mason. Come in, Mason."
Mason rolled his eyes. "Copy that, Rube."
"You're a fucking moron, over."
This was a really great way to start out the morning. Sure, Mason had rumbled into Der Waffle Haus after Georgie and Daisy'd gone, and a day without seeing those two shining faces was indeed not much of a day. But he still had his coffee, his Number Four with a side of extra bacon, and his thrashing from Sergeant Sofer. (Even now that trifecta gave him enough of a buzz to forgo reaching for the bit of cocaine he had squirreled away in his shoe. Or at least save it 'til elevensies.)
Roxy groaned, "Why the hell am I waiting around here while you two state the fucking obvious. Rube, just hand over the post-it. I'm gonna be late for my rounds."
"Um. Yeah," Mason agreed cheerfully, swallowing around a full quadrant of syrupy waffle. "Rube?"
"Mason. Help me help you."
"Well, seeing as I must also be off: y'know, deaths to proctor and such. Um. And since you asked, if you don't mind, I'll take my assignment with a side of fish fingers to go."
Rube closed his eyes. Took a deep breath. And with a huffed, "Christ almighty," he handed Mason the devious little sheet.
ETD 1:17 AM
Oh. Oh, bloody hell. "This is for tomorrow," Mason whined.
Rube nodded. "That is what one calls a fact."
"Yeah? And what if I've somewhere else to be?"
"What's the matter?" Roxy laughed. "Got a hot date?"
"Yes," said Mason. And then: "No. Not as such, not yet."
"This may be your lucky day," said Rube, sliding out from the booth. He slipped into his coat and began to walk away, but his voice had a way of carrying: "She could be a real stunner."
Mason stopped. Now that was something he'd not lately considered. In fact, it was sturdy enough to think on straight through the day -- past lunch, well into the afternoon, and then finally night: A. Cole was definitely ginger, probably leggy, and she just loved Brian Jones-era Rolling Stones.
When Mason found that he was right on all counts -- oh, the moment he spotted her through the plate-glass window he felt the frisson of unity, one Stones fan to another -- it was all he could do to coax his triumphant hoot down from the ledge and into a yelp. But the best part? The reap was on location at Archie's Arcade.
"In-flight entertainment!" Mason trilled. "Oh, Rubey-boy, you were right."
"Hey, dickhead!" The words rode roughshod on the thump thump of a fist at the door. "You alive in there?"
"What?" Mason called in return, content to dry his hands, then check himself in the mirror, then wet his hands again to finger through his hair. He smiled back at his reflection: it was a rare thing for him to look as good as he felt, and oh, he was feeling a treat.
Then: "You want I should call an ambulance?"
"Won't be a minute!"
"It's been twenty!"
Mason's smile stretched into a grin. He opened the door, happy to see that a queue had formed. "Ah, my adoring fans. To whom shall I dedicate the first autograph?"
This earned him a punch in the kidney -- but it was more like a gnat plowing into a rhino: the kid behind the insults was a real featherweight.
"Oh, ho," Mason crooned. "Wasn't my idea to have only one Gent's room in an establishment predominantly frequented by fellows, was it?" With that, he made his way back to the Donkey Kong machine, where he reckoned A. (Alyce with a Y, he'd learned) Cole (he assumed) was waiting to continue her education on the b-side of Get Off of My Cloud.
The machine was unattended. Mason gave a cursory glance round the place, then skirted the periphery -- surely he'd got mixed up and gone to the wrong one -- but no, there wasn't another Kong. And also, Alyce had gone.
One likelihood: she'd meant to have him follow her. She no doubt planned to lead him on a merry adventure, something worthy of her nearly-namesake. The thought warmed him. But damn it all, if she wasn't his reap, he hadn't the time: Mason was absolutely, unequivocally devoted to his work. And besides: after that whole Mount St. Helens thing, he'd all but quit adventuring.
Archie's was safe. But Mason must have spent more time in the loo than he thought: by now, the patronage had dwindled to naught but hipsters and truant kids, and both were trailing out fast.
Devoted? Mason rattled. Bloody well indentured, at that.
Anyway, work was one thing.
Waiting, on the other hand, was the single worst pastime in existence. Even half an hour spent feeding quarters into a Twilight Zone pinball machine was hardly enough to cheer him. Before long, even the tinny warnings of old Rod Serling were sufficient to induce brain trauma, so Mason shoved the frame with an arc of hip and knee, jostling the coin mechanism. Steady, steady, beauty of beauties--
"It's like that, is it? Utter shit." Mason was itching, impatient and fierce. "I bet your mum was a toaster."
"Easy, fella," came a voice beside him. "Those things are just sensitized to slams tilts."
"Pardon?" Mason wiped his sweaty palms on his jeans. The he looked up. Some yards away, a man was tapping at a Pac-Man console -- he was lanky enough that he had to stoop to see the screen properly, and he had a jacket knotted round his waist, all the better to show off a well-worn Iggy Pop tour shirt (Summer '82: Mason remembered that one, but blearily).
It took him longer than it ought to've to realize he was standing face-to-back with Sandy the Slayer himself. Also: they were alone.
"There's a trick to using these machines," Sandy said, still without turning. In the screen-glow reflection, Mason saw Sandy's eyes flick up to meet his own, then back down again to follow the yellow on black bleep-bleep-bleeper.
Mason watched for a moment before whistling through his teeth: Pac-Man and the ghosts were going fast, each movement all but choreographed, like a day-glo ballet. Then the screen flashed and reset. "What's that, then?"
It was captivating. Stage 200 became Stage 220 became Stage 239. "And you mean to tell me there're only 256?" Mason pressed, jittery. He leaned close over Sandy's shoulder. "D'you realize what this means? We'll've beat it tonight! Like a couple of prize figh--" Mason paused: Sandy'd caught his eye in reflection again "--you, I mean you'll be like bloody Muhammad Ali himself."
Anyway, in Mason's head it was still the two of them. Mason and Sandy, together through fruit or high voltage. He clapped Sandy on the shoulder, feeling the camaraderie surge through him.
Sandy's shoulder glowed where Mason's hand had been. Then the glow dissipated and was gone.
Oh. Mason smiled thinly. He'd known. He wasn't a kid, fresh on the scene: of course he'd known.
And he'd long ago got used to that certain sinking feeling.
"What happens on the last screen?" he asked, after a while. 242, 243. What would it be? Electrocution? Heavy object? Cola down the wrong pipe?
Anyway, they'd had a laugh before the end, hadn't they?
"Code cuts out. But there's--"
A. Cole (né Slayer) nodded. 244. "You have to make every keystroke count."
"You're very good," said Mason, almost meaning it. Almost grateful. "I bet you're the best in the city."