Of Mats And Masquerades
rating: +22+x

September 18th, 1957

Robert Parsley put a Concentrated Look on his face as the elevator door opened. This was Concentrated Look #3 that he was using today; he saw it fulfill his purpose adequately as he walked past Bethany, the receptionist. Concentrated Look #3 was appropriate today; Concentrated Look #1 had too much concern for him to use feasibly when receiving a commendation from the director of the FBI, and he had already used Concentrated Look #2 the day before. No matter what happened, no matter what went wrong, Robert Parsley always knew what emotion he needed to seem to feel at any given moment.

"Good morning, Agent Parsley," Bethany said as he walked by. "The Director is still in his ten o'clock, but I think they'll be finished in a moment. Can I get you some coffee?"

Concentrated Look #3 shifted to its corollary, Distracted Grin #3, as he looked at Bethany. "Yeah, sweetie, that'd be great." He returned to a Concentrated Look once she left. He had to use Concentrated Look #3 today for those moments when he wanted to look very consumed in his work and not interested in conversation. It was relatively effective for most people, but J. Edgar Hoover's secretary was chosen and trained carefully to behave like the most hospitable human being in America. Whatever Bethany thought, felt, or wanted was completely disconnected from what she said and did. Robert sympathized.

Returning with the coffee, Bethany picked up the ringing phone. She handed the Styrofoam cup to him absently while listening. "He's ready for you now, Agent Parsley," she said.

Robert slurped down as much of the scalding coffee as he could (Mr. Hoover didn't allow improprieties like carrying drinks into a meeting) before putting the cup back on Bethany's desk. "Thanks, sugar. I'll be back for that in a minute." He considered winking in a flirty sort of way, pursue the possibility of the Plan moving in that direction, but he was just too distracted to think about his masquerade in that much detail.

J. Edgar Hoover's office was not as special as one might expect from an FBI director. He was sitting behind a mahogany desk, with two lamps and and inkwell within arms reach. His nameplate, reading 'HOOVER', was flanked by two brass statues of athletes mid-victory. Hoover himself was flanked by two American flags. There were no photographs on the desk. Robert sat in a small, overstuffed purple office chair as Hoover watched him.

"Afternoon, make yourself comfortable. I heard you were the boy who did the Masterson case, yes? That was a tricky one."

"Thank you, sir," Robert said, feeling many things but projecting Prideful Grin #2.

"The Unusual Incidents Unit, I've learned, is an important apparatus to national security. I'm glad they had a man who knew to trust his gut and see it through to the end. A man of good character." Hoover shifted in his seat. "Do you mind if I ask what church you go to?"

Robert reinforced Prideful Grin #2, nearly bumping it up to #1 out of sheer discomfort. "I have a membership at Sand Hill Baptist Church back home, sir, but I've been attending different ones here and there lately. Trying to get a feel for the neighborhood. I won't be moving my membership from the family church any time soon, though, sir."

Everything Robert had said was technically accurate while ignoring several pertinent details.

Hoover smiled. "Maybe you'll see me at your service one day, eh? After you do some work on this." He pulled out a small manilla envelope, and handed it over. "Case down south, in Atlanta. They're having a hell of a time getting the case off the ground. I'm sure they'll tell you as much when you get there."

Robert stood, and Hoover followed him to the door.

Hoover slapped the back of the tall, pale man walking with him out of the office. "Now, you and your boys have been doing a fine job down south, but I need you to check in with me more. I'm starting to think you don't like coming to see me!"

Robert smiled a phony smile. "Well… I've got to be going."

"Here, talk to my secretary. She'll put you up in a hotel, nice place. It's old, but it looks new on the inside."

"Thank you, sir. I'll see my way out."

Robert made the necessary arrangements (possibly flirtatiously? Robert was too distracted to notice) and left the office, making a series of well-formed and empty gestures of politeness as needed. He was on full autopilot now, expressions changing as needed, some probably unnecessary. He made sure to keep his pace steady to avoid attention from people at a distance. Even in this town, people were nosy. Always looking. Robert always thought they suspected. He was so good at keeping his secret, and if anybody could keep his secret at the place where he worked, the center of red-blooded Americanism, working for the patron saint of Christian manhood, surely he could keep it from everyone else around him.

But he had to stay in control. Just need to get home, Robert thought. Just need to get to That Room. The Room that nobody needed to know was there. The Room where he could be himself, where nobody else could see him. One day, one day soon, he would be somewhere where he could always be himself. But until then, he had to play his part. Only one man in this town knew about his true self, and he was going to need to see him as soon as possible.

Robert made it home in record time. Close the door. Lock the door. Close the windows. Close the shutters. Lock the shutters. The ritual was well known by now. Go to the bathroom and wash himself, feel the judgment and the watching eyes running off of his body. Go to the bookshelf in the hallway, latches and hinges concealed by careful, painstaking carpentry. Unlatch the shelf from the wall. Swing the shelf fifteen, twenty degrees out; all the spare room available in the hallway. Just enough room to open the hidden door and squeeze through. The ritual was well known by now.

In that dark, windowless room was a light bulb with a string beside it; he lit the room. Closing the door behind him, he looked down at the two objects on the floor. The only evidence in this place, possibly the only evidence in his life, that anything he did, said, or believed was anything other than what he said it was. He closed the door behind him, lamenting how much it looked like he was ashamed of what he was about to take part in. One day, he thought to himself, I'll be able to be like this in public. He looked at the book on the ground and considered how much it would horrify the man whose office he just left. Then he thought about the man who knew his true feelings, the man he would speak to tomorrow.

He stood on the sajjāda, turned towards Mecca, and began to pray.

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