/ Language: English / Genre:sf / Series: Wild Cards

Down And Dirty

George Martin


Down And Dirty

George R R Martin

October 1986 – April 1987

Only the Dead Know Jokertown by John J. Miller

I

Brennan moved through the autumnal night as if he were part of it, or it were part of him.

The fall had brought a coolness to the air that reminded Brennan, however palely, of the Catskills. He missed the mountains more than almost anything, but as long as Kien was free they were as unattainable as the ghosts of dead friends and lovers that had lately come to haunt his dreams. He loved the mountains as surely as he loved all the people he'd failed down through the years, but who could love the dirty sprawl of the city? Who could even know the city, could even know Jokertown? Not him, certainly, but Kien's presence bound him to Jokertown as solidly as chains of adamantine steel.

He crossed the street, entering the half block of urban debris that bordered the Crystal Palace. With the sixth sense of the hunter he could feel eyes follow him as he passed through the wreckage. He shifted the canvas bag that carried his broken-down bow to a more comfortable position, wondering, not for the first time, what sort of creatures chose to make the mounds of junk their home. Once or twice he heard twittering rustles that weren't the wind and glimpsed flashes of movement that weren't shifting moonshadow, but no one interfered as he swung up onto the rusted fire escape hanging down the Palace's rear wall. He climbed silently to the roof, went through the security system that would have given him pause if Chrysalis hadn't keyed him to it, and entered through the trapdoor that opened on the Palace's third floor, Chrysalis's private domain. The corridor was totally dark, but he avoided, by memory the delicate stands cluttered with antique bric-a-brac and let himself into her bedroom. Chrysalis was awake. Sitting naked on her plush winecolored fainting couch, she was playing solitaire with a deck of antique playing cards.

Brennan watched her for a moment. Her skeleton, her ghostly musculature, her internal organs, and the network of blood vessels that laced through it all were delicately lit by rosy light from the Tiffany lamp hanging above the couch upon which she'd spread her cards. He watched the articulated skeleton of her hand flip through the deck and turn over the ace of spades.

She looked up at him and smiled.

Her smile, like Chrysalis herself, was an enigma. Difficult to read because her face was only lips and smudges of ghostly muscle on her cheeks and jaw, it could have meant any of the thousand things a smile could mean. Brennan chose to interpret it as a welcome.

"It's been some time." She looked at him critically. "Long enough for you to start a beard."

Brennan closed the door and set his bow case against the wall. "I've had business," he said, his voice soft and deep. "Yes." Her smile continued until Brennan could no longer ignore the edge in it. "Some of which interfered with mine." There was no doubt as to what she referred. Several weeks ago, on Wild Card Day, Brennan had broken up a meeting at the Palace at which Chrysalis was brokering a very valuable set of books that included Kien's personal diary. Brennan, hoping that volume had enough evidence in it to nail Kien's damnable hide to the wall, had eventually gotten it for himself, but it had proven to be worthless. All the writing in it had been destroyed.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I needed that diary."

"Yes," she repeated. Ghostly muscles bunched, indicating a frown. "And you've read it?"

Brennan hesitated a beat. "Yes."

"And you'll not be adverse to sharing the information in it?"

It was more of a demand than a request. It would do no good, Brennan thought, to tell her the truth. She probably would think he was trying to keep it all to himself. "Possibly."

"In that case I suppose I coud forgive you," she said in a not-very-forgiving voice. She gathered her cards together slowly, careful of their age and value, and set them aside on a spider-legged table that stood next to the couch. She leaned back languorously, her nipples bobbing on invisible pads of flesh whose warmth and firm texture Brennan knew well.

"I've brought you something," Brennan said conciliatorily. "It's not information but something you might like almost as well."

He sat down on the edge of the couch, reached into the pocket of his denim jacket, and handed Chrysalis a small, clear envelope. When she reached out to take it, her warm, invisible thigh touched, then rested on, Brennan's own.

"It's a Penny Black," he said, as she held the glassine envelope up to the light. "The world's first postage stamp. Mint, in perfect condition. Rather rare in that state, rather valuable. The portrait is an engraving of Queen Victoria."

"Very nice." She smiled her enigmatic smile. "I won't ask you where you got it."

Brennan smiled in response, said nothing. He knew that she knew perfectly well where he'd gotten it. He'd asked Wraith for it when they were inspecting the stockbooks full of rare stamps she'd heisted from Kien's safe, the same safe from which she'd removed his diary during the early hours of Wild Card Day. Wraith had felt bad that Brennan hadn't gotten what he'd wanted from the worthless diary and had gladly given him the stamp when he'd asked for it.

"Well, I hope you like it." Brennan stood and stretched as Chrysalis set the envelope aside on her stack of cards. It had been a long day and he was tired. He went to the sidetable by Chrysalis's canopied four-poster bed and lifted the decanter of Irish whiskey that she kept there for him. He looked at it, frowned, and put it down. He rejoined Chrysalis on the couch.

She edged forward lithely and covered his body with hers. He drank in the musky, sexual scent of her perfume and watched the blood rush through the carotid artery in her neck. "Change your mind about the drink?" she asked softly. "The decanter was empty."

Chrysalis drew back a little, stared into his questioning eyes.

"You only drink amaretto." It was a statement, not a question. She nodded.

Brennan sighed. "When I first came to you, I only wanted information. I didn't want anything personal between us. You started that. If it's to continue and become meaningful, I have to be the only one in your bed. It's the way I am. It's the only way I can give myself to anyone."

Chrysalis stared at him for several seconds before replying. "Whomever else I sleep with is no concern of yours," she finally drawled in the British accent that Brennan, with his ear for languages, knew was faked.

He nodded. "Then I'd better be going." He stood and turned.

"Wait." She stood too. They looked at each other for a long moment, and when she spoke, it was in a conciliatory voice. "At least have your drink. I'll go downstairs and fill the decanter. You can have your drink and we… we can talk."

Brennan was tired and had no other place in Jokertown he wanted to be. "All right," he said softly. Chrysalis wrapped herself in a silk kimono spattered with whisps of smoke shaped like galloping horses and left him with a smile that was more shy than enigmatic.

Brennan paced the room, watching his image shift across the myriad antique mirrors that decorated the walls of Chrysalis's bedchamber. He should get out, he told himself, and leave well enough alone, but Chrysalis was as fascinating out of bed as in it. His best intentions to the contrary, he knew that he needed her companionship and, he admitted to himself, her love.

It had been more than ten years since he'd allowed himself to love a woman, but as he'd been discovering since his arrival in Jokertown, the emotions that he allowed himself weren't the only ones he felt. He couldn't live on hate alone. He didn't know if he could love Chrysalis as he'd loved the French-Vietnamese wife whom he'd lost to Kien's assassins. He didn't even want to love a woman while he was on Kien's trail, but despite all his fixity of purpose, despite his Zen training, what he wanted and what actually happened were often two entirely different things.

He stood in the silence of Chrysalis's bedroom, studiously not thinking about his past. Long minutes passed and he suddenly realized that Chrysalis should have returned.

He frowned. It was almost inconceivable that something could happen to Chrysalis in the Crystal Palace, but the habitual caution that had saved Brennan's life more times than he cared to remember made him assemble his bow before going after her. He would feel foolish if he bumped into her in the dark, but he had 'felt foolish before. It was preferable to feeling dead, a sensation he was more intimately acquainted with than he liked.

Chrysalis wasn't in the corridors of the third floor, nor on the stairway leading down to the taproom, but he heard murmuring voices as he crept down the stairs.

He drew an arrow, placed it on the string of his bow, and peered around the edge of the stairwell where it opened up into the back of the taproom. He gritted his teeth. He had been right to be cautious.

Chrysalis was standing before the long, polished-wood bar that ran almost the entire length of the taproom. The whiskey decanter, still empty, was forgotten on the bar next to her. Her arms were crossed and her jaw was clenched. Her lips were compressed in a thin, angry line.

Two men bracketed her and a third sat facing her at a table in front of the bar. Brennan coud discern few details in the dimness of the night-light that burned above the bar, but the men all had hard, tough faces. The one facing her drummed his fingers on the tabletop next to a chrome-plated pistol.

"Come on," he said in a soft but dangerous-sounding voice. "We just want some information. That's all. We won't even say where we got it." He leaned back in his chair. "Soon there's going to be war, but we don't know who to hit."

"And you think I do?" Brennan recognized the edge anger put in Chrysalis's drawl, but he also recognized the fear under the anger.

The seated man smiled. "We know you do, babe. You know everything about this Jokertown shithole. All we know is that someone has put together these nickel-and-dime gangs into something called the Shadow Fists. They're moving into our territory, taking our customers, and cutting into our profits. It's got to stop."

"If I knew a name," Chrysalis said, coming down hard on the if, "it would cost you more than you can pay to learn it." The man sitting at his table shook his head. "You don't understand," he said. "This is war, babe. And it's going to cost you more than you can pay to keep your mouth shut." He let his words sink in while he drummed his fingers on the tabletop. "Sal," he said after a moment, nodding at the man who stood to Chrysalis's right. " I wonder if her famous invisible skin would scar?"

Sal considered the question. "Let's see," he finally said. There was a loud snick and Brennan saw light glint off a shiny blade. Sal waved it in Chrysalis's face, and she shrank back against the bar. She opened her mouth to scream, but the man standing on her left clamped his gloved hand over it. Sal laughed and Brennan stood and loosed the arrow he'd been holding. It struck Sal in the back and catapulted him over the bar. No one had any idea what had happened, except possibly Chrysalis. The man seated at the table snatched his pistol and leaped to his feet. Brennan calmly shot him through the throat. The thug holding Chrysalis let out a startled stream of obscenities and fumbled under his jacket for a pistol that he carried in a shoulder rig. Brennan shot him through the right forearm. He dropped his gun and spun away from Chrysalis, staring at the aluminum-shafted hunting arrow skewering his arm and mumbling, "Jesus, oh, Jesus." He stooped to pick up his pistol.

"Touch it," Brennan called from the darkness, "and I'll put the next arrow through your right eye."

The thug wisely stood up and backed against the bar. He clutched his bleeding arm and moaned.

Brennan stepped forward into the diffuse light cast by the nightlamp burning over the bar. The man stared at the razor-tipped arrow nocked to his bowstring.

"Who are they?" Brennan asked Chrysalis in a harsh, clipped voice.

"Mafia," she replied, her voice cracking with tension and fear.

Brennan nodded, never taking his eyes off the thug who stared at the arrow that was pointed at his throat.

"Do you know who I am?"

The mafioso nodded violently. "Ya. You're that Yeoman guy-the bow 'n' arrow killer. I read about you alla time in the Post." The words tripped out of his mouth in a fear-filled torrent.

"That's right," Brennan said. He spared the man who'd been sitting at the table a quick glance and saw that he was curled on the floor in a widening pool of blood, a foot of arrow sticking out from the nape of his neck. He didn't bother checking Sal. He'd had a clean heart shot on him.

"You're a lucky man," Brennan continued in his same dead voice. "Know why?"

The mafioso bobbed his head vigorously side to side, sighing in relief when Brennan relaxed the tension on the taut bowstring and set the bow aside.

"Someone has to deliver a message for me. Someone has to tell your boss that Chrysalis is off bounds. Someone has to tell him that I have an arrow with his name on it, an arrow I would not be slow in delivering if I heard that something had happened to Chrysalis. Do you think you could tell him that?"

"Sure. Sure I could."

"Good." Brennan reached into his back pocket and showed the thug a playing card, a black ace of spades. "This is so he knows you're telling the truth."

He grabbed the man's wounded arm by the elbow and yanked it straight. The thug groaned as Brennan stuck the card on the arrowtip.

"And this," Brennan said through gritted teeth, "is to make sure you don't loose it."

With a sudden, forceful jerk he impaled the man's other arm on the arrowpoint. The mafioso screamed at the sharp, unexpected pain. He sagged to his knees as Brennan bent the aluminum shaft of the arrow under and around both of his arms, pinning them together as tightly as handcuffs would. Brennan yanked him to his feet. The man was sobbing in fear and pain and couldn't look Brennan in the eye.

"If I ever see you again," Brennan said, "you'll die." The thug staggered away, sobbing and gibbering incomprehensible protestations. Brennan watched him until he tottered through the front door, then turned to Chrysalis. She was looking at him with fear in her eyes, more than some of which, he was sure, was directed toward him. "Are you all right?" he asked softly.

"Yes… yes, I think so… "

"You'll have to answer a lot of questions," Brennan said, "unless we get rid of the bodies."

"Yes."; She nodded sharply, suddenly decisive, suddenly in control again. "I'll call Elmo. He'll handle it." She looked him straight in the eye. "I owe you."

Brennan sighed. "Does your entire life have to consist of rigidly tabulated credits and debits?"

She looked at little startled, but nodded. "Yes," she said firmly. "Yes, it does. It's the only way to keep track, to make sure…" Her voice trailed away, and she turned and went around the bar. She looked down at Sal's body, and when she spoke again, she voiced a totally different thought. "You know, Tachyon invited me to go on that world tour of his. I think I'll take him up on it. No telling what information I'll pick up rubbing elbows with all those politicians. And if there's going to be street warfare between the Mafia and Kien's Shadow Fists,"-she looked into Brennan's eyes for the first time-"I would be safer elsewhere."

They looked at each other for a long moment, and then Brennan nodded.

"I'd better be going, then."

"Your whiskey?"

Brennan let out a long sigh. "No." He looked at the body at his feet. "Drink brings memories, and I don't need any tonight." He looked back at her. "I'm going to be… indisposed… for the next few weeks. I probably won't see you before you leave. Good-bye, Chrysalis."

She watched him go, a crystalline tear glistening on her invisible cheek, but he never looked back, he never saw.

II

The Twisted Dragon was located somewhere within the nebulous boundary of an interlocking Jokertown and Chinatown. One of Brennan's street sources had told him that the bar was the hangout of Danny Mao, a man who had a moderately high position in the Shadow Fist Society and was said to be in charge of recruitment.

Brennan watched the entrance for a while. The swirling snowflakes that missed the brim of his black cowboy hat caught on his thick, drooping mustache and in his long sideburns. A fair number of Werewolves-they were wearing Richard Nixon masks this month-were going into and out of the place. He'd also seen a few Egrets, though for the most part the Chinatown gang was too picky to hang out in a joint frequented by jokers.

He smiled, smoothing the tips of his mustache in a gesture that had already become habitual. Time to see if his plan was a stroke of genius, as he sometimes thought, or a quick way to a hard death, as he more frequently thought.

It was warm inside the Dragon, more, Brennan guessed, from the press of bodies than the bar's heating system, and it took a moment for him to spot Mao, who was, as Brennan's source had told him he'd be, sitting in a booth in the back of the room. Brennan threaded his way between crowded tables and the shuffling barmaids, staggering drunks, and swaggering punks who crossed his path as he headed toward the booth.

A girl, young and blond and looking vaguely stoned, sat next to Mao. Three men crowded the bench across the table from him. One was a Werewolf in a Nixon mask, one was a young Oriental, and the one in the middle was a thin, pale, nervous-looking man. Before Brennan could say anything a street punk stepped in Brennan's path, blocking his way.

He was a lean six four or five, so he towered over Brennan despite the cowboy boots that added an inch or two to Brennan's height. He wore stained leather pants and an oversize leather jacket that was draped with lengths of chain. His spiked hair added several inches to his apparent height, and the scarlet and black scars crawling on his face added apparent fierceness to his appearance, as did the bone-a human finger-bone, Brennan realized-that pierced his nose.

The scars that patterned his cheeks, forehead, and chin were the insigna of the Cannibal Headhunters, a once-feared street gang that had disintegrated when Brennan had killed its leader, an ace named Scar. Gang members not slain in the bloody power struggle after Scar's demise had for the most part gravitated to other criminal associations, such as the Shadow Fist Society.

"What do you want?" The Headhunter's voice was too reedy to sound menacing, but he tried.

"To see Danny Mao." Brennan spoke softly, his voice pitched in the slow drawl that he remembered so well from his childhood. The Headhunter bent lower to hear Brennan over the cacaphony of music, manic laughter, and half a hundred conversations that washed over them.

"'Bout what?"

"'Bout what's not your business, boy."

Brennan saw out of the corner of his eye that conversation in the booth had stopped and that everyone was watching them.

"I say it is." The Headhunter smiled a grin he fondly thought savage, showing filed front teeth. Brennan laughed aloud. The Headhunter frowned. "What's so funny, asshole?"

Brennan, still laughing, grabbed the bone in the Headhunter's nose and yanked. The Headhunter screamed and reached for his torn nose and Brennan kicked him in the crotch. He fell with a choking moan, and Brennan dropped the bloody bone he'd ripped from his nose onto his curled-up body.

"You," Brennan told him, then slid into the booth next to the blond girl, who was staring at him in stoned astonishment. Two of the three men sitting across the table started to rise, but Danny Mao waved a negligent hand and they sat back down, muttering at each other and staring at Brennan.

Brennan took his hat off, set it on the table in front of him, and looked at Danny Mao, who returned his gaze with apparent interest.

"What's your name?" Mao asked. "Cowboy," Brennan said softly.

Mao picked up the glass in front of him and took a short sip. He looked at Brennan as if he were some kind of odd bug and frowned. "You for real? I ain't never seen a Chinese cowboy before."

Brennan smiled. The epicanthic folds given his eyes by Dr. Tachyon's deft surgical skills had combined, as he had known they would, with his coarse, dark hair and tanned complexion to give him an Oriental appearance. This slight alteration of his features, his newly grown facial hair, and his western manner of speaking and dressing all added up to a simple but effective disguise. It wouldn't fool anyone who knew him, but he wasn't likely to run into anyone who did.

And the irony of his disguise, Brennan thought, was that every aspect of his new identity, except for the eyes given him by Tachyon, was true. His father had been fond of saying that the Brennans were Irish, Chinese, Spanish, several kinds of Indian, and all-American.

"My Asian ancestors helped build the railroads. I was born in New Mexico, but found it too limiting." That, too, was true.

"So you came to the big city looking for excitement?" Brennan nodded. "Some time ago."

"And found enough so that you have to use an alias?" He shrugged, said nothing.

Mao took another sip of his drink. "What do you want?"

"Word on the street," Brennan said, his intense excitement buried under his southwestern drawl, "is that your people are going to war with the Mafia. You've already hit them once Don Picchietti was assassinated two weeks ago by an invisible ace who shoved an ice pick in his ear while he was eating dinner at his own restaurant. That was certainly a Shadow Fist job. The Mafia will undoubtedly retaliate, and the Shadow Fists will need more soldiers."

Mao nodded. "Why should we hire you?"

"Why not? I can handle myself."

Mao glanced at his erstwhile bodybuard, who had managed to drag himself to a hunched position on his knees, his forehead resting on the floor. "Fair enough," he said thoughtfully. "But do you have the stomach for it I wonder?" He looked at the three men crowded together on the bench across the table, and Brennan, too, looked at them closely.

The Werewolf sat on the outside and the Oriental, probably an Immaculate Egret, was on the inside. The man they sandwiched, though didn't look like a street tough.

He was small, thin, and palid. His hands looked soft and weak, his eyes were dark and bright. Many street toughs had a streak of madness in them, but even on first sight Brennan could see that this man was more than touched by insanity. "These men," Danny Mao said, "are going on a mission. Care to join them?"

"What kind of mission?" Brennan asked.

"If you have to ask, maybe you're not the type of man we're looking for."

"Maybe," Brennan said, smiling, "I'm just cautious."

"Caution is an admirable trait," Mao said blandly, "but so is faith in and obedience to your superiors."

Brennan put his hat on. "All right. Where're we headed?" The pale man in the middle laughed. It was not a pleasant sound. "The morgue," he said gleefully.

Brennan looked at Mao with a lifted eyebrow.

Mao nodded. "The morgue, as Deadhead says."

"Do you have a car?" the Werewolf asked Brennan. His voice was a mushy growl behind the Nixon mask.

Brennan shook his head.

"I'll have to steal one," the Werewolf said.

"Then we can go to the drive-up window!" the man called Deadhead enthused. The Asian sitting next to him looked vaguely disgusted but said nothing. "Let's go!" Deadhead pushed at the Werewolf, urging him out of the booth.

Brennan lingered to glance at Mao, who was watching him carefully.

"Whiskers," Mao said, nodding at the Werewolf, "is in charge. He'll tell you what you need to know. You're on probation, Cowboy. Be careful."

Brennan nodded and followed the unlikely trio onto the street. The Werewolf turned and looked at Brennan.

"I'm Whiskers," he said in his indistinct growl. "This is Deadhead, like Danny said, and this is Lazy Dragon." Brennan nodded at the Oriental, realizing his initial assessment of the man had been wrong. He wasn't an Egret. He wasn't wearing Egret colors, and he didn't have the demeanor of a gang member. He was young, maybe in his early twenties, small, about five six or seven, and slender enough so that his baggy pants hung loosely on his lean hips. His face was oval, his nose slightly broad, his hair longish and indifferently combed. He didn't have the aggressive attitude of the street punk. There was a reserve about him, an air of almost melancholy thoughtfulness.

Whiskers left them waiting on the corner. Lazy Dragon was silent, but Deadhead kept up a constant stream of chatter, most of which was nonsensical. Lazy Dragon paid him no attention, and neither did Brennan after a while, but that seemed to make no difference to Deadhead. He burbled on and Brennan ignored him as best he could. Once Deadhead reached into the pocket of his dirty jacket and pulled out a bottle of pills of different sizes and colors, shook out a handful, and tossed them into his mouth. He chewed and swallowed noisily and beamed at Brennan.

"Take vitamins?"

Brennan wasn't sure if Deadhead was offering him some or asking if he took vitamins himself. He nodded noncommittally and turned away.

Whiskers finally showed up with a car. It was a dark, late model Buick. Brennan hopped into the front seat, leaving the back for Deadhead and Lazy Dragon.

"Good suspension. Smooth drive," Whiskers commented as they pulled away from the curb. Brennan looked into the rear-view mirror and saw Lazy Dragon nod and reach into his pocket for a small clasp knife and a block of soft, white material that looked like soap. He opened the knife and began to whittle.

Deadhead kept up a stream of running chatter that no one listened to. Whiskers drove smoothly, cursing potholes, spotlights, and other drivers in his muffled voice, continually glancing in the mirror to follow Lazy Dragon's progress as he carefully carved the small block of soap with delicate, skillful hands.

Brennan didn't know where the morgue was or what it looked like, but the dark, forbidding structure that they finally stopped before met all of his expectations.

"Here it is," Whiskers announced unnecessarily. They watched the building for a few moments. "Still looks busy." Occasional lights illuminated scattered rooms throughout the multistoried structure, and as they watched, people occasionally entered or left by the main entrance.

"Ready yet?" Whiskers growled, glancing into the mirror. "Just about," Lazy Dragon said without looking up. "Ready for what?" Brennan asked, and Whiskers turned to him.

"You gotta take Deadhead to the room they use for long-term body storage. It's in the basement. Deadhead will take it from there. Dragon will go first and scout. You're muscle in case anything goes wrong."

"And you?"

Whiskers may have grinned under his mask, but Brennan couldn't be sure. "Now that you're here, I just wait in the car."

Brennan didn't like it. This wasn't the way he liked to do things, but he was obviously being tested. Equally obviously, he had no choice. He made one more try for information.

"What are we looking for?"

"Deadhead knows," Whiskers said, and Brennan heard a disquieting titter from the backseat. "And Dragon knows the general layout. You just deal with anyone who tries to interfere." He glanced back into the mirror. "Ready?"

Lazy Dragon looked up. "Ready," he said calmly. He folded his knife, put it away, and stared critically at what he had carved. Brennan, mystified and curious, turned around for a better look and saw that it was a small but credible mouse. Lazy Dragon studied it carefully, nodded as if satisfied, set it on his lap, settled back comfortably in his seat, and closed his eyes. For a moment nothing happened, then Dragon slumped as if asleep or unconscious, and the carving began to twitch.

The tail lashed, the ears perked up, and then, creakily at first but with increasing fluidity, the thing stretched. It stopped for a moment to preen its fur, then it leaped from Dragon's lap to the shoulder of the driver's seat. Brennan stared at it and it stared back. It was a goddamn living mouse. Brennan glanced back at Lazy Dragon, who seemed to be sleeping, then looked at Whiskers, who was watching impassively beneath his Nixon mask.

"Nice trick," Brennan drawled.

"It's okay," Whiskers said. "You carry him."

Lazy Dragon, who seemed to be vitalizing and possessing the little figurine he'd carved, climbed up on Brennan s shoulder, scurried down his chest, and popped into his vest pocket. He peeked out, holding the pocket-top with his little clawed paws. This was, Brennan thought, more than passing strange, but he had the feeling that things would get stranger before the night was over.

"Okay," he said. "Let's do it." Whatever it was.

They entered the morgue through an unlocked service entrance in a side alley and took the stairway to the basement. Lazy Dragon popped out of his pocket, ran down his vest and pant-leg, and scurried down the poorly lit corridor in which they found themselves. Deadhead started after him, but Brennan held him back.

"Let's wait until the mou-until Lazy Dragon gets back." Deadhead's eyes were shiny and he was even more jittery than usual. His hands shook as he took out his pill bottle, and he dropped a dozen capsules on the floor as he gulped down a mouthful. The pills scattered on the concrete floor, making loud skittering noises. He grinned maniacally and the corner of his mouth kept twitching in a torturous grimace.

What the hell, Brennan thought, am I doing in a morgue corridor with a madman and a living mouse carved out of soap?

Lazy Dragon came scampering back before Brennan could think of a satisfactory answer to this disturbing question, his tiny feet moving as if he were being chased by the hungriest cat in the world. He stopped at Brennan's feet, dancing with excitement. Brennan sighed, bent over, and held out his hand. Lazy Dragon jumped up on his palm, and Brennan, still hunkered down, lifted the mouse close to his face.

Lazy Dragon sat up on his haunches, his beady eyes bright with intelligence. He drew his tiny right front paw over his throat repeatedly. Brennan sighed again. He hated charades.

"What is it?" he asked. "Danger? Someone in the corridor?" The mouse nodded excitedly and held up his paw. "One man?" Again the mouse nodded. "Armed?" The mouse shrugged a very human-looking shrug, looked doubtful. "Okay." Brennan let the mouse down, then stood up. "Follow me." He turned to Deadhead. "You wait here."

Deadhead nodded a jittery nod, and Brennan went off down the corridor, Lazy Dragon scurrying at his heels. He had no confidence in Deadhead and wondered what part in the mission he could possibly play. It's hard, he thought to himself, when your most dependable man is a mouse. Around the bend of the corridor a man was sitting in a metal folding chair, eating a sandwich and reading a paperback. He looked up as Brennan approached.

"Can I help you, buddy?" He was middle-aged, fat, and balding. The book he was reading was Ace Avenger #49, Mission to Iran.

"Got a delivery."

The man frowned. "I don't know nothing about that. I'm the night janitor. We usually get deliveries during the day." Brennan nodded understandingly. "This is a special delivery," he said. When he was close enough, he reached behind his back and drew the stiletto he carried in a belt sheath under his vest, touching the tip of its blade lightly against the janitor's throat. The janitor's lips made a round O of astonishment and he dropped his book.

"Jesus, mister, what are you doing?" he asked in a strangled whisper, trying to move his throat as little as possible. "Where's the long-term storage room?"

"Over there, over that way." The janitor made little jerking motions with his eyeballs, afraid to move even a muscle.

"Go get Deadhead."

"I don't know no one with that name," the fat man pleaded, sweat beading his forehead.,

"I wasn't talking to you. I was talking to the mouse."

"O Lord." The janitor started to mumble an incoherent prayer, sure that Brennan was a crazed maniac who was going to murder him.

Brennan waited patiently until Lazy Dragon returned with Deadhead.

"Anyone else on this floor?" he asked, urging the janitor up with a slight flick of his knife wrist. The janitor, catching on quickly, stood immediately.

"No one. Not now."

"No guards?"

The janitor looked as if he wanted to shake his head, but the proximity of the knife to his throat stopped him. "Don't really need them. No one's broke into the morgue for, jeez, months now."

"Okay." Brennan eased the knife away from the janitor's throat and the man visibly relaxed. "Take us to the storeroom. Be quiet and no funny business." By way of emphasis Brennan touched the tip of the janitor's nose with the tip of his knife, and the janitor nodded carefully.

Brennan squatted and held out his palm, and Lazy Dragon climbed onto it. He put the mouse in his vest pocket, holding back a smile at the janitor's bug-eyed stare. He looked as if he wanted to ask Brennan a question, then thought better of it.

"It's this way," the janitor said, and Deadhead and Brennan, with Lazy Dragon peering from his pocket, followed him.

The janitor let them into the room with his key. It was a dark, cold, depressing room with floor-to-ceiling body lockers in the walls. It was where the city kept all the corpses that no one wanted or that no one could identify, before their pauper burials.

Deadhead's jittery smile widened when they entered the room, and he hopped from foot to foot with ill-suppressed excitement.

"Help me find it!" he commanded. "Help me find it!"

"What?" Brennan asked, truly mystified.

"The body. Gruber's fat, cold body." He looked frantically at the lockers, capering in a macabre dance as he went along the wall.

Brennan frowned, herded the janitor in front of him, and started searching the opposite wall. Most of the name tags set into the little metal holders on the locker doors simply had anonymous ID numbers. A few had names.

"Say, this what you looking for?"

The docile janitor, who was preceeding Brennan, looked back helpfully. Brennan stepped to his side. The locker he was pointing at was third up from the floor, about waist high. The tag on it said Leon Gruber September 16.

"Here it is," Brennan called softly, and Deadhead scuttled across the room. There had to be, Brennan thought, some sort of message on the corpse, something that only Deadhead could decipher. Perhaps this Gruber had smuggled something into the country in a body cavity… but surely, he thought, anything like that would've been found by the morgue technicians.

"The body's been here a long time," Brennan commented as Deadhead opened the locker door and pulled out the retractable table on which the corpse lay.

"Yes, it has, yes, indeed," Deadhead said, staring at the dingy sheet that covered the body. "They pulled strings. Pulled strings to keep it here until I… until I could get out."

"Get out?"

Deadhead pulled the sheet down, exposing Gruber's face and chest. He had been a fat young man, soft and pastylooking. The expression of fear and horror pasted on his face was the worst that Brennan had even seen on a corpse. His chest was puckered with bullet holes, small caliber from the look of them.

"Yes," Deadhead said, but he never looked up from Gruber's dead, staring eyes. " I was in prison… hospital, really." From somewhere on his person he had produced a small, shiny hacksaw. His lips twitched in incessant, spasmodic jerks, and a line of spittle ran from the corner of his mouth to drip off his chin. "For corpse abuse."

"Are we taking the body with us?" Brennan asked through tightly clenched lips., "No thanks," Deadhead said brightly. "I'll eat it here." He began to saw Gruber's skull. The blade cut through the bone easily. Brennan and the janitor watched, horrified, as the top of the skull came off and Deadhead, with maniacal, somehow furtive glee, scooped chunks off Gruber's brain and stuffed them in his mouth. He chewed noisily.

Brennan felt Lazy Dragon dive into his vest pocket. The janitor vomited and Brennan fought off the rising tide of nausea that threatened to overwhelm him, holding on with grim, tight-lipped self-control.

III

Brennan gagged the janitor with his handkerchief and bound him at wrist and ankle with packing tape Lazy Dragon found in a corner of the storage room. He had to do all the work himself because Deadhead, mumbling incoherently, had sagged against the wall after wolfing down Gruber's brain. After Brennan took care of the janitor he guided the mumbling maniac out of the storeroom. Brennan wished that Lazy Dragon could tell him what the hell was going on.

"How'd it go?" Whiskers asked when Brennan threw open the Buick's rear passenger door and pushed Deadhead in. Brennan slammed the door and slid onto the front seat before answering.

"Fine, I think. Deadhead had a snack."

Whiskers nodded, started the car, and pulled away from the curb. Lazy Dragon climbed from Brennan's pocket, balanced precariously on the shoulder of the car seat, then leaped onto the lap of his human body, which, after a moment, awoke, yawned, and stretched. The mouse, undergoing a transformation somewhat analagous to that of Lot's overcurious wife, turned back into a block of soap.

"How'd it go?" Whiskers mumbled again, glancing up into the rearview mirror as he dove.

"Lazy Dragon dropped his mouse-sculpture in his jacket pocket and nodded. 'As planned. We found the body and Deadhead… dined. Cowboy did fine."

"Great. We'd better get Deadhead to the boss while he's still digesting."

"Now that we're all buddies," Brennan drawled, "maybe you can tell me what's going on."

Whiskers flipped off a driver who'd cut in front of them. "Well

… I suppose it'd be all right. Deadhead there," he snickered, "is an ace, sort of. He can get people's memories by eating their brains."

Brennan made a face. "Jesus. So Gruber knew something that Mao wants to know."

Whiskers nodded and gunned the Buick, running a red light. "We think so. We hope so, anyway. You see, Danny Mao's boss is this guy named Fadeout who wants to find some ace who calls herself Wraith. Gruber was her fence before she bumped him off. Mao figures Gruber probably knew enough about her so we can use his memories to track her down."

Brennan pursed his lips, suppressing a smile. He knew more about this than these guys did. Fadeout was one of Kien's aces who had tried, and failed, to capture him and Wraith on Wild Card Day, and Wraith had told him that someone-not her-had killed her fence that very day. "Why'd you wait so long to get to Gruber's corpse?" Brennan asked.

Whiskers shrugged. "Deadhead was in some kinda hospital. Cops caught him doing his thing with a body he'd found on the street back on Wild Card Day, and it took the lawyers a couple of months to spring him."

Brennan nodded, and to stay in his role as bewildered newcomer, he asked a question he already knew the answer to. "So why does Fadeout want to find this Wraith?"

Because she'd lifted Kien's private diary in the early morning hours of the wildest Wild Car Day ever, Brennan thought, but the Werewolf evidently didn't know that. He shrugged. "Hey, you think I'm Fadeout's confidant or something?"

Brennan nodded. He wasn't at least he tried not to be, introspective. His memories of the past were frequently painful, but Wraith-Jennifer Maloy-had often been on his mind since their meeting in September. It was more than the adventure they'd shared on Wild Card Day, more than the easy comradeship and grudging confidence between them, more than her tall, athletic-looking body. Brennan couldn't, wouldn't, admit why, but he knew that he'd try to get himself on the Shadow Fist task force that'd been given the job of hunting her. In that way he'd be in position to help her if the Fists got too close.

Not, he thought, that they'd be able to use Gruber's memories to track her down. Although Wraith had never told Brennan his name, she'd mentioned that she hadn't trusted her fence and had, in fact, never even told him her real name.

They drove on in silence. Whiskers finally pulled over and killed the engine in front of a three-story brownstone in the heart of Jokertown.

"Cowboy, you and Lazy Dragon help Deadhead. He can't do much on his own while he's digesting."

Brennan took his left arm, Lazy Dragon took his right, and they dragged him across the sidewalk and up the flight of stairs to the brownstone's entrance, where Whiskers was already talking with one of the Egrets who'd been standing in the foyer. They passed them on into the interior of the building, where another Egret guard spoke briefly into a house telephone and then told them to go upstairs. Getting Deadhead up two flights of stairs was like dragging a sack of half-set cement, but Whiskers didn't offer to help. Another Egret nodded to them on the third-floor landing. They went down a corridor with a threadbare carpet, and Whiskers rapped smartly on the door at the end of the hall. A masculine voice called out, "Come in," and Whiskers opened the door and preceded Brennan, Lazy Dragon, and Deadhead into the room.

It was a comfortably appointed room, rather luxurious compared to what Brennan had seen of the rest of the house. A man in his thirties, handsome, well-dressed, and fit-looking, was standing in front of a well-stocked liquor cart, having just fixed himself a drink.

"How did it go?"

"Fine, Fadeout, just fine."

Brennan didn't recognize him. He'd last seen him on Wild Card Day, but Fadeout had been invisible until Wraith had bashed him on the head with a garbage can lid and he'd fallen unconscious to the street. Brennan had had his hands full of Egrets at the time and had only spared the fallen ace the briefest of glances. It was evident that Fadeout also didn't recognize Brennan, who'd been masked at the time. "Who's this?" the ace asked, nodding in Brennan's direction. "New guy named Cowboy. He's all right."

"He'd better be." Fadeout stepped away from the cart, settled himself in a comfortable chair nearby. "Help youself," he said, gesturing at the liquor.

Whiskers stepped forward eagerly. Brennan and Lazy Dragon turned to dump the near-comatose Deadhead, who was now mumbling about excessive overhead and the price of cocaine, in a convenient chair, when a sudden, terrifyingly loud explosion boomed through the building, shaking it to its foundations. It seemed to come from the roof.

Fadeout's drink sloshed over his suit, Whiskers fell into the liquor cart, and Lazy Dragon and Brennan dropped Deadhead.

"Jesus Christ!" Fadeout swore, lurched to his feet, and staggered to the door as the ratcheting roar of automatic gunfire came from below.

Brennan followed Fadeout and found himself staring at three men armed with Uzis who'd come through a hole they'd blasted in the ceiling. Fadeout stood rooted in place by fear-induced paralysis. Brennan, acting instinctively, knocked the ace to the floor as a stream of slugs from their assailants' compact machine guns ripped into the wall above their heads. Brennan carried his Browning Hipower in a shoulder rig, and he knew that he couldn't draw it in time to return fire, he knew that he was going to be nailed to the floor by the next burst of slugs. Cursing the fate that had brought him to die among his enemies, he grabbed for his gun.

Something tossed from the room behind them fluttered in the hallway, a small sheet of paper that had been intricately folded. Before Brennan could draw his automatic, before their assailants could trigger another burst, there was a twisting shimmering in the air as the paper changed, transformed, grew, into a breathing, living, roaring tiger charging down the corridor, its eyes red and glaring, its mouth full of long, sharp teeth.

It caught a burst of slugs but didn't stop. It hurled itself at the three men at the end of the corridor, and Brennan heard bones splinter as it landed among them.

Brennan got to his knees, drew and aimed his Browning.

Lazy Dragon was holding one man down with his front paws, and with a single, quick motion bit cleanly through his throat. Blood sprayed over the hallway as a panicked gunman put a long burst through Dragon from point-blank range. The red dot from the sighting mechanism of Brennan's pistol shone on the gunman's forehead, and Brennan shot him as the tiger collapsed, falling with all its weight on the third assailant.

Fadeout had faded. Brennan half-stood and ran in crouching, crablike fashion down the corridor. He put a bullet through the head of the man who was trying frantically to pull himself out from under Lazy Dragon, then dropped to his knees before the gigantic cat. It was covered in blood, whether its own or from the slain men around it Brennan couldn't tell, but it was perforated by scores of wounds and was panting heavily. Brennan had seen enough mortally wounded creatures to know that Dragon was dying. He had no idea what he should do, or what this meant to Lazy Dragon's human form. He paused to pat the tiger sympathetically, then quickly moved on.

Bursts of automatic gunfire still rattled below as Brennan cautiously made his way down to the second-floor landing and carefully peered over the rail to the ground floor.

The foyer's double doors were open. Half a dozen Egrets, shot to pieces by automatic gunfire, lay on the stained marble floor. As Brennan watched, the few living members of the assault team backed grudgingly through the wreckage of the front door, swapping gunfire with the Egret guards and their reinforcements. Within moments the firefight had moved unto the stret outside, where gunfire echoed loudly in the night.

Brennan stood up. "Goddamn wops."

He looked over his right shoulder. A pair of blue eyes, nerve tendrils and connective tissue dangling eerily from them, were floating five and a half feet above the floor. Fadeout blinked into existence, looking slightly rumpled and very, very angry.

"The Mafia?" Brennan asked.

"That's right, Cowboy. Rico Covello's men. I recognized what was left of their ugly faces from our dossiers." He paused, his anger replaced by sudden gratefulness. "I owe you one. They would've had me if you hadn't knocked me down."

Brennan shrugged. "If not for Lazy Dragon, we'd both be chopped meat. Wed better see if he's okay. His tiger got shot to shit."

"Right."

They went back upstairs. Brennan was relieved to see then immediately angry at himself for the feeling-that Dragon was sitting calmly in one of Fadeout's comfortable chairs. He looked up as they entered the room.

"Everything is all right?" he asked.

"I wouldn't say that," Fadeout replied, still angry. "Those guinea bastards just waltzed in here and almost offed me." He looked angrily at Whiskers, who was standing uncertainly in the middle of the room. "What were you doing about it, you joker shitbag?"

Whiskers shrugged. "I-I thought someone should stay with Deadhead-"

"Take off that goddamned mask when you talk to me!" Fadeout ordered angrily. "I'm sick and tired of looking at Nixon's mug. No matter how ugly you are, it can't be worse."

Lazy Dragon watched Whiskers with calculated interest, and Brennan's hand crept closer to his holstered Browning. Werewolves had been known to fly into killing rages when unmasked, but Whiskers, as indicated by his earlier actionor lack of action-wasn't the fiercest of Werewolves. He took off his mask and stood in the center of the room uncomfortably shifting his weight from foot to foot.

Every bit of his face, except for his eyeballs, was covered with thick, coarse hair. Even his tongue, which was nervously licking his lips, was furred. No wonder, Brennan thought, his voice was so mushy.

Fadeout grunted, said something under his breath that Brennan didn't quite catch but had 'joker bastard' in it, and turned away from the Werewolf.

"We've got to leave. The police will be here any minute. Dragon, you and Whiskers get that freak,-he nodded at Deadhead, who was still slumped muttering in his chair, and bring him around back. Get the car and pick me up in front. Cowboy, come with me. I have to do a quick damage assessment."

Dragon stood. Brennan stopped in front of him and they looked at each other for a long moment. There was something strange about Lazy Dragon, Brennan suddenly thought, something hidden, something utterly unfathomable that went beyond his unusual ace power. But the man had saved his life.

"Lucky you had a tiger on you."

Dragon smiled. "I like to have a backup handy. Something more deadly than a mouse."

Brennan nodded. "I'm in your debt," he said.

"I'll remember that." Dragon turned to help Whiskers with Deadhead.

Downstairs there were five dead Egrets, and half a dozen deceased mafiosi. The surviving Egrets were buzzing like angry bees.

Fadeout shook his head. "Damn. It's escalating. Little Mother isn't going to like this."

Brennan squelched the expression of sudden interest before it reached his face. He said nothing, because he was afraid his voice would betray him. Little Mother, Sin Ma, was the head of the immaculate Egrets. If Fadeout was a lieutenant in Kien's organization, she was at least a colonel. In all his months of investigation he'd discovered only that she was an ethnic Chinese from Vietnam who'd come to the states in the late 1960s to become the wife of Nathan Chow, the leader of a penny-ante street gang called the Immaculate Egrets. Her arrival corresponded with a quick rise in the fortune of the Egrets, little of which was enjoyed by Chow. He had died under unspecified but mysterious circumstances in 1971, and Siu Ma took over the gang, which continued to grow and prosper. Kien, then still an ARVN general, used it to funnel heroin into the States. There was no doubt that Siu Ma was very high in Kien's organization, very high indeed.

"We have to split before the cops arrive," Fadeout said. He turned to an Ingram-toting Egret. "Leave this place. Take all the files, all valuables."

The Egret nodded, sketched an informal salute, and started shouting orders in rapid Chinese.

"Let's go," Fadeout repeated, carefully picking his way among the bodies.

"Where to?" Brennan asked as casually as he could. "Little Mother's place in Chinatown. I've got to tell her what happened."

A sleek limo pulled up to the curb. Whiskers was driving, Deadhead lolled in the backseat with Lazy Dragon. Fadeout got in and Brennan followed him, excitement thrumming through his body like tautly stretched wire.

He carefully noted the route that Whiskers took, but he had no idea at all where they were when the limo finally stopped in a small, ramshackle garage in a dirty, garbage choked alley. His unfamiliarity with the area irritated him and upset his fine-tuned sense of control. He hated the helpless feeling that had been plaguing him lately, but there was nothing to do but swallow it and go on.

Whiskers, his mask back in place, and Lazy Dragon dragged Deadhead from the limo on Fadeout's order. The significance of that wasn't lost on Brennan. He knew that he'd gone up a notch or two in Fadeout's estimation, which was exactly what he wanted. The closer he got to the core of Kien's organization, the easier it would be for him to bring it tumbling down like a house of cards.

The door they approached wasn't as flimsy as it appeared. It was also locked and guarded, but the sentinel let them in after peering through a peephole when Fadeout knocked.

"Siu Ma is asleep," the guard said. He was a large Chinese dressed in traditional baggy trousers, broad leather belt, and matching tunic top. The machine pistol holstered on his broad leather belt was a jarring anachronism with his antique style of dress, but, Brennan reflected, was a sensible compromise with what was apparently Siu Ma's strongly developed sense of tradition.

"She'll want to see us," Fadeout said grimly. "We'll be in the audience chamber."

The guard nodded, turned to a very modern intercom system, and spoke Chinese too quickly for Brennan to follow. The audience chamber was as luxurious as the outside of the building was dilapidated. The decorating motif was dynastic China. There were rich rugs, beautiful lacquered screens, delicate porcelain, a couple of massive green bronze temple demons, and undoubtedly valuable knickknacks of ivory, jade, and other precious and semiprecious stones set about on tables of teak and ebony and other rare woods. Wraith, Brennan thought, would love this place.

Although it could have been overwhelming, the room's overall effect was actually quite pleasing. It was like a living museum exhibit that had been assembled with a discerning eye and in the utmost good taste.

Siu Ma was already waiting for them. She was seated on a gilt chair that dominated the chamber's rear wall, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes. She was short with a round, plump face, dark, long-lashed eyes, and black glossy hair. She looked to be in her early thirties. She stiffled a yawn with a pudgy hand and frowned at Fadeout.

"This had better be important," she said, glancing distastefully at Deadhead and his attendants, curiously at Brennan. Her English was excellent, with just a lingering trace of a French accent.

"It is," Fadeout assured her. He told her of the Mafia hit on his brownstone. As he spoke, a young girl bearing a tray came into the room and poured her a small cup of tea. Siu Ma sipped the tea as she listened to Fadeout's story, and her frown deepened.

"This is intolerable," she said when he'd finished. "We must teach those comic-book criminals a lesson they won't forget."

"I agree," Fadeout said. "However, our spies have told us that Covello has withdrawn to his estate in the Hamptons. It's one of the Mafia's most heavily fortified strongholds. It has two walls around it-an armored outer wall that encircles the entire estate and an inner electrified fence that protects the main building. Covello's entrenched there with a company of heavily armed Mafia thugs."

Siu Ma looked at Fadeout coldly, and Brennan could see ruthless strength in her near-black eyes.

"The Shadow Fists have weapons too," she said. Fadeout bobbed his head. "I agree, but we don't want to expend our men in a futile attempt at revenge. And think of the unwanted attention such an assault would draw from the authorities."

There was an uncomfortable silence as Siu Ma sipped her tea and stared coldly at Fadeout. Brennan saw his chance.

"Excuse my interruption," he said in his soft drawl, "but one man can often go where many would be unwelcome." Fadeout turned to him, frowned. "What do you mean?" Brennan shrugged depreciatingly. "A one-man sortie might accomplish what a full-scale raid could never hope to do."

Brennan felt Siu Ma's eyes boring into him. "Who is this man?" she asked.

"His name's Cowboy," Fadeout said, distraction in his voice. "He's new."

Siu Ma finished her tea and set the cup down on the tray. "He sounds as if he has a head on his shoulders. Tell me,"she said, speaking directly to Brennan for the first time, "are you volunteering to be this man?"

He bobbed his head in a respectful bow. "Yes, Dama." She smiled, pleased as he'd hoped she'd be by the respectful form of address.

"It will be dangerous, very, very dangerous," Fadeout said cautiously.

Siu Ma turned her gaze to him. "Never," she said, "stop to count danger in a matter of revenge."

Brennan suppressed a smile. Siu Ma, it seemed, was a woman after his own heart.

IV

It was bone-chillingly cold at the West Thirtieth Street Heliport. The wind was an icy whip that cut through the stained jumpsuit that Brennan wore. The smell of immanent snow was in the air, though Brennan could barely discern it through the grease and oil odors of the heliport where, disguised as a mechanic, he waited patiently.

Brennan was good at waiting. He'd spent two days and nights doing just that in a hidden observation post across the road from Covello's Southampton estate. It was apparent that Covello, choosing discretion over valor, had decided to go to ground for the duration of the Mafia-Shadow Fist war. He was surrounded by a company of heavily armed Mafia goons and protected by walls that were safe to anything but a full-scale assault. The only vehicles allowed inside the grounds brought supplies to feed the don and underlings to consult with him, and even these were stopped and thoroughly checked at the front gate.

The only other way into the estate was the helipad on the mansion's roof. Brennan had watched Covello's helicopter come and go several times each day, on different occasions ferrying in and out expensive-looking women and dark-suited men. The men, when identified by snaps Brennan took of them with a telephoto lens, were mostly high-ranking members of the other Families. The women were apparently call girls.

His reconnaissance over, Brennan waited patiently at the heliport that was the Manhattan base of Covello's chopper. Since, he decided, he couldn't go through Covello's walls, he'd go over them. In Covello's own chopper.

Night had fallen before the chopper pilot showed up with a trio of shivering women dressed in fur coats. There was no one else near the chopper. As Brennan approached them, the pilot let down the ladder to the cabin. The first hooker was trying to climb aboard, but was finding it difficult to mount the metal stairs in her high-heeled boots.

It was too almost too easy. Brennan slugged the pilot, and he staggered backward, hit hard against the body of the chopper, and slid to the ground. The call girl who'd been clutching his arm teetered precariously, her arms windmilling vigorously, then Brennan steadied her with a hand on her rump.

"Hey!" she complained, either at the placement of Brennan's hand or his treatment of the pilot.,

"Change in plan," Brennan told them. "Go on home." They regarded him suspiciously. The one on the stairs spoke. "We haven't been paid yet."

Brennan smiled his best smile. "You haven t been killed yet, either." He reached for his wallet, emptied it of cash. "Cab fare," he said, handing the bills over.

The three glanced at each other, at Brennan, then back at each other. The one climbed down the stairs, and hunched over against the cold, walked away muttering. The others followed.

Brennan hauled the pilot into the chopper cabin. He was out cold, but his pulse was steady and strong. Brennan stared at him for a moment. The man, after all, was nothing to him, not even an enemy. He was just someone who happened to be in the way. Brennan took a ball of strong twine from his jumpsuit pocket, bound him, gagged him, and left him on the floor of the cabin. He stripped off his dirty jumpsuit, wadded it up, and flung it in a corner. He moved through the cabin into the cockpit and slid into the pilot's seat.

"I'm off," he said to the empty air, but those listening on the chosen frequency heard him and started on their own way to Southampton.

Brennan hadn't piloted a chopper in more than ten years, and this was a commercial rather than a military model, but the old skills returned quickly to his hands. He asked for and received takeoff clearance, and scrupulously following the flight plan he'd found on a clipboard in the cabin, soon left behind the million twinkling jewels that was New York City.

Flying over Long Island in the cold, clear night gave him a fresh, clean feeling that he lost himself in. All too soon, however, Covello's brightly lit private helipad was below him.

As he settled down as gently as a feather, a guard carrying an assault rifle waved at him. Brennan sighed. He shook the clean feeling of the night sky from his brain. It was time to get back to work.

The guard sauntered casually toward the chopper. Brennan waited until he was half a dozen steps away, then he leaned out the cockpit window and shot him in the head with his silenced Browning. No one saw him enter the mansion through the door in the roof, no one saw him flit from room to room, as quiet and purposeful as a haunting spirit.

He found Covello in a library that had rows and rows of unread books that had been bought by the mansion's interior decorator because of their matched bindings. The don, whom Brennan recognized from his photo in Fadeout's dossier, was shooting pool with his consuldre while a man who was obviously a bodyguard watched silently.

Covello missed an easy cushion shot, swore to himself, then looked up. He frowned at Brennan. "Who the hell are you?"

Brennan said nothing. He raised his gun and shot the astonished bodyguard. Covello started to scream in a curiously high-pitched, womanish voice, and the consulare swung at Brennan with his poolstick. Brennan ducked out of the way and put three slugs in the consuldre's chest, blowing him over the pool table. He shot the don in the back as he was running for the door.

Covello was still breathing as Brennan stood over him. There was a pleading look in his eyes and he tried to speak. Brennan wanted to finish him with a shot to the head, but couldn't. He had orders.

He pulled a small black nylon sack from his back pocket, and a knife, much longer and heavier than the one he usually carried, from the belt sheath at the small of his back.

He was on the clock now. Covello's screams had certainly aroused the household, and he had little time before more goons would arrive. He bent down. The dying don closed his eyes in unutterable horror at the sight of the knife in Brennan's hands.

The man wasn't his enemy, but neither would his death be a great loss to society. Still, as he cut through Covello's throat, leaning hard on the blade to sever the spinal cord, Brennan couldn't help but feel that he deserved a cleaner death. That no one deserved a death like this.

He lifted Covello's head by his oiled hair and dropped it in the nylon bag. Moving quickly, he went back through the corridors that led to the roof and waiting chopper. He moved quickly and quietly, but he was seen.

A Mafia soldier let out a wild burst of gunfire and shouted to his companions. The burst didn't come close to hitting Brennan, but he knew now they were on his trail. He moved faster, running down corridors and up stairs. Once he blundered into a group of men. He had no idea who they were, and they looked surprised and not a little bewildered at the commotion. He emptied the Browning's clip at them as he charged, and they scattered without offering resistence as the sounds of pursuit drew closer and closer.

He spoke aloud to unseen listeners without breaking stride. "I've got the package and I'm coming home. I need backup." He reached into his vest pocket, dropped something to the carpet, and ran on.

A fluttering sheet of delicate paper, intricately folded into a small, complicated shape, fell from his hand. He didn't look back, but he heard the challenging roar of a big cat, terribly loud in the close confines of the corridor, reverberate and echo endlessly as it mixed with the sounds of gunfire and the screams of terrified men.

The route he flew to the small Suffolk County airport was on no authorized flight plan, and the flight itself was not as exhilarating with the stained and leaking black bag keeping him company on the copilot's seat.

Fadeout and Whiskers were waiting at the airport with a limo.

"How'd it go?"

"As planned." Brennan held out the bag and Whiskers took it.

Fadeout nodded. "Wrap it up in a blanket or something and put it in the trunk." He caught Brennan's look of disgust as Whiskers hustled off. He shrugged. "Yeah, it gets to me, too, sometimes. Deadhead is a useful tool, though. Think of all the inside info he'll pick up from Covello's brain."

"I thought Deadhead was working on another problem," Brennan said casually. "Some ace named Wraith?"

"Oh, that?" Fadeout waved a hand. "He solved it. Wraith apparently didn't like Gruber too much. Never even told him her real name. But she did let her birthday slip once. And Deadhead is a talented sketch artist-hard to think of him as having any real human qualities. We have deep connections in a lot of government agencies, the DMV, for example. Her birthday and Deadhead's sketch will be enough to nail that bitch to the wall."

A wave of fear washed through Brennan, sweeping away the fatigue that weighed heavily on his body and spirit. To hide it he rubbed his face and yawned hugely.

"Well," he said, desperately trying to sound casual, "it sounds pretty important. I'd like to be in on it."

Fadeout looked at him closely, but nodded. "Sure, Cowboy. You earned it. It won't come down for a day or two, but you look like you could sleep that long."

Brennan forced a grin. "I could at that."

They dropped Brennan at his jokertown apartment, where he slept around the clock, then worried for another day before he got the call. It was Whiskers's mushy voice at the other end of the line.

"We got her name, Cowboy, and we got her address."

"Who's in on it?"

"You and me and two of my Werewolf pals. They're watching her place now."

Brennan nodded. He was glad that Lazy Dragon wouldn't be along. He had ample respect for the ace's power and adaptability.

"There's a problem, though." Whiskers hesitated. "She can turn into a ghost or something and walk right through walls and shit, so we can't even really threaten her."

Brennan smiled. Jennifer was extraordinarily difficult to deal with.

"Fadeout's got a plan though. We break into her place and see if we can find this book he's looking for. If not, we can try to deal with her. Buy it back or something. Then," Whiskers said, some satisfaction in his voice, "she can always catch a bullet in the back of her head sometime. She ain't always going to be a ghost."

"Good plan," Brennan made himself say. And it was. They knew her name. They knew where to find her. He had to do something or she wouldn't live out the month, even if they turned over the diary. His mind raced. "I'll meet you in an hour, at her place. Give me the address."

"Right, Cowboy. You know, it's too bad she can turn into a ghost. She's real good-looking. We could have a real party with her."

"Yeah, a real party." Brennan hung up after Whiskers gave him directions to the apartment. He stared at nothing for a moment, marshaling all his Zen training to calm his mind, to soothe his racing pulse. He needed calmness, not a brain drenched in hate, anger, and fear. Part of him wondered at his strong reaction to Whiskers's news. Part of him knew the reason, but the biggest part told him to forget it for now, to bury it and examine it later. There was a way out of this mess… there had to be…

He sunk his consciousness in the pool of being, seeking knowledge through perfect tranquility, and when he brought his mind back from zazen, he had his answer. It was Kien, and what he knew of the man, his fears, his strengths, his weaknesses.

Some of the details would be tricky, and painful, to work out. He picked up the phone, dialed a number. It rang, then he heard the sound of her voice on the other end of the line: "Hello?" he held the phone tightly, realizing that he had missed her voice, and despite the circumstances, he was glad to hear it again. "Hello?"

"Hello, Jennifer. We have to talk…"

Snow was falling in blinding sheets and the wind was roaring like lost souls through the gray city canyons. Somehow winter seemed colder here than in the mountains, Brennan thought, colder and dirtier and lonelier. The maskless Werewolves, dressed as maintenance men, were waiting in the lobby of Jennifer's apartment building. One was tall and thin with acne-scarred cheeks. His joker deformities were hidden by the baggy coveralls he wore. The other was short and thin, his deformity evident in his sharply twisted spine that rotated his torso abnormaly from his hips. Whiskers and Brennan, also wearing coveralls, stamped the snow from their boots.

"Cold as hell," Whiskers offered. "She's gone?" he asked in a low whisper.

The tall and thin one nodded. "She left no more'n ten minutes ago. Caught a cab."

"Okay, let's do it."

No one saw them go up to Jennifer's apartment. Her front door yielded easily to the Werewolves' burglary tools. Brennan told himself that he'd have to speak to her about that, if, he amended, they were both still around when this caper was finished.

"We'll toss the bedroom first," Whiskers said as they entered the apartment. He stopped and frowned at the bookshelf-lined walls. "Shit, finding a book in this will be like looking for a needle in a goddamned haystack."

He led the way into a small bedroom that contained a single bed, a nightstand with a lamp, an ancient wardrobe, and more bookshelves.

"We'll have to check all those damn books," Whiskers said. "One might be hollowed out or something."

"Jeez, Whiskers," the short and thin Werewolf said, "you've seen too many mov-"

He stopped, stared, as a tall, slim, good-looking blonde in a black string bikini stepped out of the wall. She wavered, solidified, and pointed a silenced pistol at them. She smiled. "Freeze," she said.

They froze, more in astonishment than fear.

Whiskers swallowed. "Hey, we, we just want to talk. We were sent by important people."

The woman nodded. "I know."

"You know?" Whiskers asked, bewildered.

"I told her."

Everyone turned to stare at Brennan. He had opened the drawer of the nightstand, and he, too, had a gun. It was a long-barreled, peculiar-looking pistol. He pointed it at Whiskers. The joker's eyeballs bulged from his furry face.

"What the hell are you doing, Cowboy? What's going on?" Brennan looked at him with no expression at all. He flicked his wrist, squeezed the trigger twice. There were two small, nearly soundless explosions of air, and the Werewolves stared in astonishment at the darts implanted in their chests. The tall, thin one opened his mouth to say something, sighed, closed his eyes, and slipped to the floor. The other didn't even try to speak.

"Cowboy!"

Brennan shook his head. "My name isn't Cowboy. It isn't Yeoman either, but that will do."

Whiskers's face took on an almost comical look of terror. "Look, let me go. Please. I won't tell anyone. Honest. Trust me " He sagged to his knees, his hands clasped imploringly, tears soaking his furry cheeks.

Brennan s air pistol spat another dart, and Whiskers slipped facedown on the carpet. Brennan turned to Jennifer. "Hello, Wraith."

She dropped the gun on the bed. "Can't you… can't you let them go?"

Brennan shook his head. "You know I can't. They know who I am. It'd blow my cover. It'd also ruin our plan."

"They have to die?"

He approached within reach of her but made his arms stay at his side. "This is deadly business you're involve in." He gestured at the drugged Werewolves. "No one can walk away from this, except me, if you want to live." He stopped, looked troubled. "Even then, there's no guarantee…"

Jennifer sighed. "Their lives are on my head-"

"They made the decisions and led the lives that brought them here. They were prepared to rape, maim, and kill you. Still"-Brennan looked away from Jennifer, looked inward to himself-"still…"

His voice ran down to silence. Jennifer put her hand on his cheek, and he looked up, his dark eyes haunted by memories of death and destruction that despite his Zen training, despite his dogged concentration, were never far from the surface of his thoughts.

Jennifer smiled slightly. " I like your new eyes." Brennan smiled back and almost unwillingly covered her hand with his.

"I have to get going. It'll be dark soon and I have to take care of them,-he nodded at the unconscious Werewolves, and… other details."

Jennifer nodded. "Will I see you again? Soon, I mean." Brennan took his hand away, half-turned, shrugged. "Don't you have enough problems?"

"Hey, the crime lord of New York City has marked me for death. How much worse could it get?"

Brennan shook his head. "You couldn't even begin to guess. Look, you'd better disappear. I have to take care of things."

Jennifer looked at him silently. "I'll call you."

"Promise?" she asked.

Brennan nodded. She gave the Werewolves a final troubled glance, then faded through the wall again. Brennan had no intention of keeping the promise. None. Not at all. But by the time he'd hoisted the first unconscious joker to his shoulders, his resolve was already fading.

V

Fadeout, Siu Ma, and Deadhead were in conference when Brennan was admitted to the audience chamber. Deadhead was babbling lists of names, addresses, telephone numbers, bank accounts, and government connections. Everything that Covello had kept in the storehouse of his brain was Deadhead's. Everything the don had known…

A sudden insight struck Brennan. Only the dead, he thought, could know everything. They were finished and done with. Their lives were complete. Only the dead could know Jokertown, totally and completely, for they had no need of new knowledge. Like him, when he'd been in the mountains. His life had been peaceful, unchanging, and serene. And quite dead. Now he was living again. The sense of uncertainty and loss of control that had increasingly been plaguing him was the price he paid for living. It was a high price, but so far, he realized, he could afford it.

Fadeout and Siu Ma exchanged concerned glances when Brennan entered the chamber alone.

"What happened?" Fadeout asked.

"Ambush. That crazy Yeoman bastard. Killed Whiskers and the other Werewolves. Pinned me to the wall by my damn hand." Brennan held out his right hand. It was wrapped in a bloody rag torn from his shirt. It had hurt like hell to drive the arrow through his palm. It'd been, Brennan reflected, penance of a sort for what he'd done since his arrival in the city.

"He let you live?" Siu Ma asked.

"He wanted me to deliver this. He said it was no good to him." He held up Kien's diary, which had been blanked when Jennifer had ghosted it from Kien's wall safe. He hated like hell to give it back and let Kien know that he was safe from the secrets he'd written therein, but he had to give Kien something concrete to get him off Jennifer's back.

Fadeout took the diary from him and, mystified, riffled through its blank pages. "Did… did Yeoman do this?" Brennan shook his head. "He said it happened when Wraith stole it."

Fadeout smiled. "Well, that's great. That's really great." Even Siu Ma looked pleased.

"There was one more thing." Brennan forced himself to speak like a dispassionate messenger when he really wanted to brand the words on Fadeout's forehead so Kien would be sure to understand the iron behind them.

Fadeout and Siu Ma looked at him expectantly.

"He also had a message. He said to tell Kien-yeah, the name was Kien-that he knows where Kien lives, just as Kien knows where Wraith lives. He said to tell Kien that their feud goes beyond life and death, that it is one of honor and retribution, but that he will be satisfied with Kien's life if anything happens to Wraith. He says he has an arrow with Kien's name on it waiting… just waiting."

He'd delivered a similar promise a few months ago in behalf of another. But perhaps justifiably she had refused to accept his protection and chose instead to go away. Jennifer, though, had simply nodded when he'd told her his plan, had accepted it as if she truly, totally trusted him.

"I see." Fadeout and Siu Ma exchanged worried glances. "Well, yes, I'll pass that on." Fadeout nodded decisively. "I will indeed." He pulled worriedly at his lower lip.

Siu Ma stood up. "You have proven yourself worthy," she said. "I hope that your association with the Shadow Fists will be long and prosperous."

Brennan looked at her. He permitted himself to smile. "I'm sure it will," he said. "I'm sure it will."

All the King's Horses by George R.R. Martin

I

Tom found the latest issue of Aces in the outer office, while the loan officer kept him waiting.

The cover showed the Turtle flying over the Hudson against a spectacular autumn sunset. The first time he'd seen that photograph, in Life, Tom had been tempted to have it framed. But that had been a long time ago. Even the shell in the picture was gone now, jettisoned somewhere in space by the aliens who'd captured him last spring.

Underneath, letters black against the scarlet-tinged clouds, the blurb asked, "The TurtleDead or Alive?"

"Fuck," Tom said aloud, annoyed. The secretary gave him a disapproving look. He ignored her and thumbed through the magazine to find the story. How the hell could they possibly say he was dead? So he got napalmed and crashed into the Hudson in full view of half the city, so what? He'd come back, hadn't he? He'd taken an old shell and crossed the river, flown over Jokertown near dawn the day after Wild Card Day, thousands of people must have seen him. What more did he have to do?

He found the article. The writer made a big deal of the fact that no one had seen the Turtle for months. Perhaps he died after all, the magazine suggested, and the dawn sighting was only some kind of mass hallucination. Wish fulfillment, one expert suggested. A weather balloon, said a second. Or maybe Venus.

"Venus!" Tom said with some indignation. The old shell he'd used that morning was a goddamn VW Beetle covered with armor plate. How the hell could they say it was Venus? He flipped a page, and came face-to-face with a grainy photograph of a shell fragment pulled out of the river. The metal was bent outward, twisted by some awful explosion, its edges jagged and sharp. All the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put the Turtle together again, said the caption.

Tom hated it when they tried to be clever.

"Miss Trent will see you now," the secretary announced. Miss Trent did nothing to improve his disposition. She was a slender young woman in oversize horn-rimmed glasses, her short brown hair frosted with streaks of blond. Quite pretty, and at least ten years younger than Tom. "Mr. Tudbury," she said, from behind a spotless steel-and-chrome desk, when he entered. "The loan committee has gone over your application. You have an excellent credit record."

"Yeah," Tom said. He sat down, for a moment allowing himself to hope. "Does that mean I get the money?"

Miss Trent smiled sadly. "I'm afraid not."

Somehow he'd expected that. He tried to act as though it didn't matter; banks never lent you money if they thought you needed it. "What about my credit rating?" he asked.

"You have an excellent record of timely payment on your loans, and we did take that into account. But the committee felt your total indebtedness was already too high, given your present income. We couldn't justify extending you any further unsecured credit at this time. I'm sorry. Perhaps another lending institution would feel differently."

"Another lending institution," Tom said wearily. Fat chance. This bank was the fourth one he'd tried. They all said the same thing. "Yeah. Sure." He was on his way out when he saw the framed diploma on her wall and turned back. "Rutgers," he said to her. "I dropped out of Rutgers. I had better things to do than finish college. More important things."

She regarded him silently, a puzzled expression on her pretty young face. For a moment Tom wanted to go back, to sit down and tell her everything. She had an understanding face, at least for a banker.

"Never mind," he said.

It was a long walk back to his car.

It was just shy of midnight when Joey found him, leaning against a rusted rail and watching the moonlit waters of the Kill Van Kull. The park was across the street from his house, and from the projects where he'd grown up. Even as a kid, he'd found solace there, in the black oily waters, the lights of Staten Island across the way, the big tankers passing in the night. Joey knew that; they'd been friends since grade school, different as night and day, but brothers in all but name.

Tom heard the footsteps behind him, glanced over his shoulder, saw it was only Joey, and turned back to the Kill. Joey came up and stood beside him, arms folded on the railing.

"You didn't get the loan," Joey said. "No," Tom said. "Same old story."

"Fuck 'em."

"No," Tom said. "They're right. I owe too much."

"You okay, Tuds?" Joey asked. "How long you been out here?"

"A while," Tom said. "I had some thinking to do."

"I hate it when you think."

Tom smiled. "Yeah, I know." He turned away from the water. "I'm cashing in my chips, Joey."

"What the fuck is that supposed to mean?"

Tom ignored the question. "I was getting nostalgic about that last shell. It had infrared, zoom lenses, four big monitors and twenty little ones, tape deck, graphic equalizer, fridge, everything on fingertip remote, computerized, state-of-theart, Four years I worked on that mother, weekends, nights, vacations, you name it. Every spare cent I had went into it. So what happens? I have the damn thing in service for five months, and Tachyon's asshole relatives just toss it into space."

"Big fucking deal," Joey said. "You still got the old shells out in the junkyard, use one of them."

Tom tried to be patient. "The shell the Takisians jettisoned was my fifth," he said. "After I lost it, I went back to number four. That was the one that got napalmed. You want to look at the pieces, go buy a copy of Aces-there's a swell picture in there. We cannibalized all the useful parts from two and three years ago. The only one that's still more-or-less intact is the first."

"So?" Joey said.

"So? It's got wires, Joey, not circuit boards, twenty-yearold wires. Obsolete cameras with limited tracking capabilities, blind spots, black-and-white sets, vacuum tubes, a fucking gas heater, the worst ventilation system you've ever seen."

"How I got it over to Jokertown back in September I still don't know, but I was in shock from the crash or I never could have tried such a fucking moronic thing. So many of the tubes burned out that I was flying half-blind before I got back."

"We can fix all that stuff."

"Forget it," Tom said with more vehemence than he knew was in him. "Those shells of mine, they're like some kind of symbol for my whole fucking life. I'm standing here thinking about it, and it makes me sick. All the money I've put into them, all the hours, the work. If I'd put that kind of effort into my real life, I could be somebody. Look at me, Joey. I'm forty-three years old, I live alone, I own a house and an abandoned junkyard, both of them mortgaged up to the hilt. I work a forty-hour week selling VCRs and computers, and I've managed to buy a third of the business, only now the business isn't doing so great, ha ha, big joke on me. That woman in the bank today was ten years younger than me, and she probably makes three times my salary. Cute too, no wedding ring, the secretary said Miss Trent, maybe I would've liked to ask her out, but you know what? I looked into her eyes, and I could see her feeling sorry for me."

"Some dumb cunt looks down at you, that's no reason to get bent out of shape," Joey said.

"No," Tom said. "She's right. I'm better than I looked to her, but there's no way she could have known that. I've put the best part of myself into being the Turtle. The Astronomer and his goons almost killed me. Fuck it, Joey, they dropped napalm on my shell, and one of them made me so sick I' blacked out. I could have died."

"You didn't."

"I was lucky," Tom said with fervor. "Damn lucky. I was strapped into that motherfucker, every one of my instruments dead, with the whole fucking thing, all umpteen tons of it, headed straight for the bottom of the river. Even if I'd been conscious, which I wasn't, there would have been no way to get to the hatch and open it manually before I drowned. That's assuming I could even find the hatch with all the fucking lights out and the shell filling up with water!"

"I thought you didn't remember this shit," Joey said.

"I don t," said Tom. He massaged his temples. "Not consciously. Sometimes I have these dreams… fuck it, never mind about that, the point is, I was a dead man. Only I got lucky, incredibly lucky, something blew the goddamned shell apart, blew me right out without killing me, and I managed to make it to the surface. Otherwise I'd be down in a steel tomb on the bottom of the Hudson, with eels slithering in and out of my eyes."

"So?" Joey said. "You're not, are you?"

"What about next time?" Tom demanded. " I been breaking my back trying to figure some way to finance a new shell. Sell my share of the business, I thought, or maybe sell the house and move into some apartment. And then I thought, well, great. I sell my fucking house, build a new shell, and then the goddamned Takisians show up again, or it turns out the Astronomer had a brother and he's pissed, or some other shit goes down, the details don't matter, but something happens, and I wind up dead. Or maybe I survive, only the new shell gets trashed just like the last two, and I'm right back where I started, except now I don't have a house either. What's the fucking point?"

Joey was looking into his eyes, Joey who had grown up with him, who knew Tom better than anybody. "Yeah, maybe," he said. "So why do I think there's something you're not saying?"

"I used to be a pretty smart kid," Tom insisted, turning away sharply, "but somehow I got pretty dumb as I grew up. This double life shit is a crock. One life is hard enough for most people to manage, what the hell made me think I could juggle two?" He shook his head. "The hell with it. It's over. I'm wising up, Joey. They think the Turtle is dead? Fine. Let him rest in peace."

"Your call, Tuds," Joey said. He put a rough hand on Toms shoulder. "It's a damn shame, though. You're going to make my kid cry. The Turtle's his hero."

"Jetboy was my hero," Tom said. "He died too. That's part of growing up. Sooner or later, all your heroes die."

Concerto for Siren and Serotonin by Roger Zelazny

I

Sitting shade-clad in a booth at Vito's Italian, odd-hour and quiet, lowering a mound of linguini and the level in a straw-bound bottle-black hair stiff with spray or tonic--the place's only patron had drawn attention from the staff in the form of several wagers, in that this was his seventh entree, when a towering civilian with a hand like a club came in off the street and stood near, watching, also, through bloodshot eyes.

The man continued to stare at the diner, who finally swung his mirror lenses toward him.

"You the one I'm looking for?" the newcomer asked. "Maybe so," the diner replied, lowering his fork, "if it involves money and certain special skills."

The big man smiled. Then he raised his right hand and dropped it. It struck the edge of the table, removed the corner, shredded the tablecloth, and jerked it forward. The linguini spilled backward into the dark-haired man's lap. The man jerked away as this occurred and his glasses fell askew, revealing a pair of glittering, faceted eyes.

"Prick!" he announced, his hands shooting forward, paralleling the other's clublike appendage.

"Son of a bitch!" the giant bellowed, jerking his hand away. "You fuckin' burned me!"

"Fuckin' shocked,"' the other corrected. "Lucky I didn't fry you! What is this? Why you taking my table apart?"

"You're hirin' fuckin' aces, ain't you? I wanted you to see my shit."

"I'm not hiring aces. I thought you were, the way you came on."

"Hell, no! Bug-eyed bastard!"

The other moved quickly to adjust his glasses.

"It's a real pain," he stated, "looking at two hundred sixteen views of an asshole."

"I'll give you something up the asshole!" said the giant, raising his hand again.

"You got it," said the other, an electrical storm erupting suddenly between his palms. The giant stepped back a pace. Then the storm passed and the man lowered his hands. "If it weren't for the linguini in my lap," he said then, "this would be funny. Sit down. We can wait together."

"Funny?"

"Think about it while I go clean up," he replied. Then, "Name's Croyd," he said.

"Croyd Crenson?"

"Yeah. And you're Bludgeon, aren't you?"

"Yeah. What do you mean `funny'?"

"Like mistaken identity," Croyd answered. "Two guys thinking they're each somebody else, you know?" Bludgeons brow was furrowed for several seconds before his lips formed a tentative smile. Then he laughed, four coughlike barks. "Yeah, fuckin' funny!" he said then, and barked again.

Bludgeon slid into the booth, still chuckling, as Croyd slid out. Croyd headed back toward the men's room and Bludgeon ordered a pitcher of beer from the waiter who came by to clean up. A few moments later, a black-suited man entered the dining area from the kitchen and stood, thumbs hooked behind his belt, toothpick moving slowly within a faint frown. Then he advanced.

"You look a little familiar," he said, coming up beside the booth.

"I'm Bludgeon," the other replied, raising his hand. "Chris Mazzucchelli. Yeah, I've heard of you. I hear you can bash your way through nearly anything with that mitt of yours."

Bludgeon grinned. "Fuckin' A," he said.

Mazzucchelli smiled around the toothpick and nodded. He slid into Croyd's seat.

"You know who I am?" he asked.

"Hell, yes," Bludgeon said, nodding. "You're the Man."

"That I am. I guess you heard there's some trouble coming down, and I need some special kind of soldiers."

"You need some fuckin' heads broke, I'm fuckin' good at it," Bludgeon told him.

"That's nicely put," Mazzucchelli said, reaching inside his jacket. He removed an envelope and tossed it onto the tabletop. "Retainer."

Bludgeon picked it up, tore it open, then counted the bills slowly, moving his lips. When he was finished, he said, "Fuckin' price is fuckin' right. Now what?"

"There's an address in there too. You go to it eight o'clock tonight and get some orders. Okay?"

Bludgeon put away the envelope and rose.

"Damn straight," he agreed, reaching out and picking up the pitcher of beer, raising it, draining it, and belching. "Who's the other guy-the one back in the john?"

"Shit, he's one of us," Bludgeon replied. "Name's Croyd Crenson. Bad man to fuck with, but he's got a great sense of humor."

Mazzucchelli nodded. "Have a good day," he said. Bludgeon belched again, nodded back, waved his clubhand, and departed.

Croyd hesitated only a moment on reentering the dining room and regarding Mazzucchelli in his seat. He advanced, raised two fingers in mock salute, and said, "I'm Croyd," as he drew near. "Are you the recruiter?"

Mazzucchelli looked him up and looked him down, eyes dwelling for a moment on the large wet spot at the front of his trousers.

"Something scare you?" he asked.

"Yea, I saw the kitchen," Croyd replied. "You looking for talent?"

"What kind of talent you got?"

Croyd reached for a small lamp on a nearby table. He unscrewed the bulb and held it before him. Shortly it began to glow. Then it brightened, flared, and went out.

"Oops," he observed. "Gave it a little too much juice."

"For a buck and a half," Mazzucchelli stated, "I can buy a flashlight."

"You got no imagination," Croyd said. "I can do some heavy stuff with burglar alarms, computers, telephones-not to mention anybody I shake hands with. But if you're not interested, I won't starve."

He began to turn away.

"Sit down, sit down!" Mazzucchelli said. "I heard you had a sense of humor. Sure, I like that stuff, and I think maybe I can use you in a certain matter. I need some good people in a hurry."

"Something scare you?" Croyd asked, sliding into the seat recently vacated by Bludgeon.

Mazzucchelli scowled and Croyd grinned. "Humor," he said. "What can I do for you?"

"Crenson," the other stated, "that's your last name. See, I do know you. I know a lot about you. I've been stringing you along. That's humor. I know you're pretty good, and you usually deliver what you promise. But we got some things to talk about before we talk about other things. You know what I mean?"

"No," Croyd answered. "But I'm willing to learn."

"You want anything while we're talking?"

"I'd like to try the linguini again," Croyd said,

"and another bottle of Chianti."

Mazzucchelli raised his hand, snapped his fingers. A waiter rushed into the room.

"Linguini, e una bottiglia," he said. "Chianti."

The man hurried off. Croyd rubbed his hands together, to the accompaniment of a faint crackling sound.

"The one who just left…," Mazzucchelli said at length. "Bludgeon…"

"Yes?" Croyd said, after an appropriate wait. "He'll make a good soldier," Mazzucchelli finished. Croyd nodded. " I suppose so."

"But you, you have some skills besides what the virus gave you. I understand you are a pretty good second-story man. You knew old Bentley."

Croyd nodded again. "He was my teacher. I knew him back when he was a dog. You seem to know more about me than most people do."

Mazzucchelli removed his toothpick, sipped his beer. "That's my business," he said after a time, "knowing things. That's why I don't want to send you off to be a soldier."

The waiter returned with a plate of linguini, a glass, and a bottle, which he proceeded to uncork. He passed Croyd a setting from the next booth. Croyd immediately began to eat with a certain manic gusto that Mazzucchelli found vaguely unsettling.

Croyd paused long enough to ask, "So what is it you've got in mind for me?"

"Something a little more subtle, if you're the right man for it."

"Subtle. I'm right for subtle," Croyd said.

Mazzucchelli raised a finger. "First," he said, "one of those things we talk about before we talk about other things." Observing the speed with which Croyd's plate was growing empty, he snapped his fingers again and the waiter rushed in with another load of linguini.

"What thing?" Croyd asked, pushing aside the first plate as the second slid into place before him.

Mazzucchelli laid his hand on Croyd's left arm in an almost fatherly fashion and leaned forward. " I understand you got problems," he said.

"What do you mean?"

"I have heard that you are into speed," Mazzucchelli observed, "and that every now and then you become a raging maniac, killing people, destroying property and wreaking general havoc until you run out of steam or some ace who knows you takes pity and puts you down for the count."

Croyd laid his fork aside and quaffed a glass of wine. "This is true," he said, "though it is not something I enjoy talking about."

Mazzucchelli shrugged. "Everybody has the right to a little fun every now and then," he stated. "I ask only for business reasons. I would not like to have you act this way if you were working for me on something sensitive."

"The behavior of which you've heard is not an indulgence," Croyd explained. "It becomes something of a necessity, though, after I've been awake a certain period of time."

"Uh-you anywhere near that point yet?"

"Nowhere near," Croyd replied. "There's nothing to worry about for a long while."

"If I was to hire you, I'd rather I didn't worry about it at all. Now, it's no good asking somebody not to be a user. But I want to know this: Have you got enough sense when you start on the speed that you can take yourself off of my work? Then go crash and burn someplace not connected with what you're doing for me?"

Croyd studied him for a moment, then nodded slowly. "I see what you mean," he said. "If that's what the job calls for, sure, I can do it. No problem."

"With that understanding, I want to hire you. It's a little more subtle than breaking heads, though. And it isn't any sort of simple burglary either."

"I've done lots of odd things," Croyd said, "and lots of subtle things. Some of them have even been legal."

They both smiled.

"For this one, it may well be that you see no violence," Mazzucchelli said. "Like I told you, my business is knowing things. I want you to get me some information. The best way to get it is so that nobody even knows it's been got. On the other hand, if the only way you can get it is to cause somebody considerable angst, that's okay. So long as you clean up real good afterwards."

"I get the picture. What do you want to know, and where do I find it?"

Mazzucchelli gave a short, barking laugh.

"There seems to be another company doing business in this town," he said then. "You know what I mean?"

"Yes," Croyd replied, "and there is not usually room on one block for two delicatessens."

"Exactly," Mazzucchelli answered.

"So you are taking on extra help to continue the competition by heavier means."

"That is a good summary. Now, like I said, there is certain information I need about the other company. I will pay you well to get it for me."

Croyd nodded. "I'm willing to give it a shot. What particular information are you after?"

Mazzucchelli leaned forward and lowered his voice, his lips barely moving. "The chairman of the board. I want to know who's running the show."

"The boss? You mean he didn't even send you a dead fish in somebody's pants? I thought it was customary to observe certain amenities in these matters?"

Mazzucchelli shrugged. "These guys got no etiquette. Could be a bunch of foreigners."

"Have you got any leads at all, or do I go it cold?"

"You will be pretty much a ground-breaker. I will give you a list of places they sometimes seem to operate through. I also have names of a couple people who might do some work for them."

"Why didn't you just pick one of them up and pop the question?"

"I think that, like you, they are independent contractors rather than family members."

"I see."

Then, "And that may not be all they have in common with you," Mazzucchelli added.

"Aces?" Croyd asked. Mazzucchelli nodded.

"If I've got to mess with aces it's going to cost more than if they're just civilians."

"I'm good for it," Mazzucchelli said, withdrawing another envelope from his inner pocket. "Here is a retainer and the list. You may consider the retainer ten percent of the total price for the job."

Croyd opened the envelope, counted quickly. He smiled when he finished.

"Where do you take delivery.?" he asked.

"The manager here can always get in touch with me."

"What's his name?"

"Theotocopolos. Theo'll do."

"Okay," Croyd said. "You just hired subtlety."

"When you go to sleep you turn into a different person, right?"

"Yeah."

"Well, if that happens before the job is done, that new guy's still got a contract with me."

"So long as he gets paid."

"We understand each other."

They shook hands, Croyd rose, left the booth, crossed the room. Moth-sized snowflakes swirled in as he departed. Mazzucchelli reached for a fresh toothpick. Outside, Croyd tossed a black pill into his mouth.

Wearing gray slacks, blue blazer, and bloodclot-colored tie, his hair marcelled, shades silver, nails manicured, Croyd sat alone at a small window table in Aces High, regarding the city's lights through wind-whipped snow beyond his baked salmon, sipping Chateau d'Yquem, hashing over plans for the next move in his investigation and flirting with Jane Dow, who had passed his way twice so far and was even now approaching again-a thing he took to be more than coincidence and a good omen, having lusted after her in a variety of hearts (some of them multiples) on a number of occasionsand hoping he might fit the occasion to the feelings, he raised his hand as she drew near and touched her arm.

A tiny spark crackled, she halted, said, "Yike!" and reached; to rub the place where the shock had occurred.

"Sorry-" Croyd began.

"Must be static electricity," she said.

"Must be," he agreed. "All I wanted to say was that you do know me, even though you wouldn't recognize me in this incarnation. I'm Croyd Crenson. We've met in passing, here and there, and I always wanted just to sit and talk a spell, but somehow our paths never crossed long enough at the right time."

"That's an interesting line," she said, running a finger across her damp brow, "naming the one ace nobody's certain about. I bet a lot of groupies get picked up that way."

"True," Croyd replied, smiling, as he opened his arms wide. "But I can prove it if you'll wait about half a minute."

"Why? What are you doing?"

"Filling the air with neg-ions for you," he said,

"for that delightfully stimulating before-the-storm feeling. Just a hint at the great time I could show-"

"Cut it out!" She began backing away. "It sometimes triggers-"

Croyd's hands were wet, his face was wet, his hair collapsed and leaked onto his forehead.

"I'm sorry," she said.

"What the hell," he said "let's make it a thunderstorm," and lightning danced among his fingertips. He began laughing. Other diners glanced in their direction.

"Stop," she said. "Please."

"Sit down for a minute and I will."

"Okay."

She took the seat opposite him. He dried his face and hands on his napkin.

"I'm sorry," he said. "My fault. I should be careful with storm effects around someone they call Water Lily."

She smiled.

"Your glasses are all wet," she said, suddenly reaching forward and plucking them from his face. "I'll clean-"

"Two hundred sixteen views of moist loveliness," he stated as she stared. "The virus has, as usual, overendowed me in several respects."

"You really see that many of me?"

He nodded. "These joker aspects sometimes crop up in my changes. Hope I haven't turned you off."

"They're rather-magnificent," she said. "You're very kind. Now give back the glasses."

"A moment."

She wiped the lenses on the corner of the tablecloth, then passed them to him.

"Thanks." He donned them again. "Buy you a drink? Dinner? A water spaniel?"

"I'm on duty," she said. "Thanks. Sorry. Maybe another time."

"Well, I'm working now myself. But if you're serious, I'll give you a couple of phone numbers and an address. I may not be at any of them. But I get messages."

"Give them to me," she said, and he scribbled quickly in a notepad, tore out the page, and passed it to her. "What kind of work?" she asked.

"Subtle investigation," he said. "It involves a gang war."

"Really? I've heard people say you're kind of honest, as well as kind of crazy."

"They're half-right," he said. "So give me a call or stop by. I'll rent scuba gear and show you a good time."

She smiled and began to rise. "Maybe I will."

He withdrew an envelope from his pocket, opened it, pushed aside a wad of bills, and removed a slip of paper with some writing on it.

"Uh, before you go-does the name James Spector mean anything to you?"

She froze and grew pale. Croyd found himself wet once again.

"What did I say?" he asked.

"You're not kidding? You really don't know?"

"Nope. Not kidding."

"You know the aces jingle."

"Parts of it."

"'Golden Boy ain't got no joy,"' she recited. "'if it's Demise, don't look in his eyes…'-that's him: James Spector is Demise's real name."

"I never knew that," he said. Then, "I never heard any verses about me."

"I don't remember any either."

"Come on. I always wondered."

"Sleeper waking, meals taking." she said slowly. "'Sleeper speeding, people bleeding.'" P› "Oh."

"If I call you and you're that far along…"

"If I'm that far along, I don't return calls."

"I'll get you a couple of dry napkins," she offered. "Sorry about the storms."

"Don't be. Did anyone ever tell you you're lovely when you exude moisture?"

She stared at him. Then, "I'll get you a dry fish too," she said.

Croyd raised his hand to blow her a kiss and gave himself a shock.

Breakdown by Leanne C. Harper

The pair of bodyguards left Giovanni's first. Behind their dark glasses they immediately began scanning the street, looking for trouble. At a wave from the man on the right, another bodyguard preceded Don Tomasso, head of the Anselmi Family, onto the street. The don had to be assisted in walking. He was an old man, bent and in obvious pain, but his old-fashioned black suit had been hand-tailored and pressed into sharp creases. He surveyed the street as well, swiveling his shaking head from between his hunched shoulders like an aging turtle. The red and green neon of the restaurant's sign alternately revealed and hid his weathered face.

Don Tomasso's black Mercedes limousine was doubleparked directly in front of Giovanni's entrance. Surrounded by his men, the don approached his car with his head held as high as possible in defiance to any unseen observers. A dark BMW pulled up behind Tomasso s Mercedes. He nodded in recognition at the driver before ducking his head and climbing into the limousine. One of the bodyguards followed him. The others moved back to the BMW Both cars were in motion before the doors of the BMW were shut.

Lit by a dull orange streetlight, two children played on the sidewalk in front of a brownstone half a block down the street from the restaurant. The boy had just tossed the baseball to the younger girl when the Mercedes exploded, followed instantly by the BMW's destruction. The fireballs bloomed and met as pieces of the cars and bricks from the nearby buildings crashed back to earth.

Rosemary Muldoon continued to watch the flames on the oversize video screen in front of her. She said nothing until the tape ran down into static. She sat immobile in the carved black walnut chair at the head of the long table, but her hands clutched the chair's arms until her knuckles were white.

Chris Mazzucchelli got up from the chair beside her to pull the tape from the VCR. Rosemary glanced around her father's library, where strategy meetings for his Family, the Gambiones, had always taken place. She had left almost everything in the penthouse the same, only bringing in some high-tech equipment such as the video and her computer to help her run the empire she had inherited. Right now, the room felt very empty, as if even her father had abandoned her.

When Chris came back to the conference table, he laid the tape down and stroked her dark brown hair. As his hand cupped her face, Rosemary roused herself.

"Only two of us left now. Don Calvino and I. Three dons dead in a matter of weeks, and we don't even know who's destroying us. All we know is who they are using." Rosemary shook her head. "The Five Families have never faced a threat like this. We're not prepared to fight on this scale. We've lost most of the drugs in Jokertown. Harlem has stopped paying our portion of the numbers. We're getting hit from the top and the bottom. They took over our biggest drug factory in Brooklyn."

"We've got to get prepared. You're the only active don left. I talked to Tomasso's capos; they're all with us just like the others. I only wish I could point them in the right direction. Right now, I'm just trying to keep business going so we have the money to survive and fight back. Calvino tried his hand at negotiating. So far, it doesn't seem to have worked. We had both of the remaining dons covered at all times. That's how we got this tape." Chris picked it up and tossed it into the air. "Remotely controlled explosives, EE., we assume. They were probably within sight of the cars to make sure they got Don Tomasso."

"So they knew about the kids." Rosemary glanced up at "Probably." Chris shrugged. "So far they haven't been particularly careful about civilian casualties. They're terrorists."

"They're bastards." Chris nodded and Rosemary knew he was already working out the details of backtracking the explosives. One of the things she had learned in the last few months of working with him was that he was superb at taking her objectives and desires and accomplishing them through his position as her front man to the Families. She had known she would never be accepted as the head of the Gambiones by the capos. They required a masculine figurehead. So Chris ran things in public, and she, Maria Gambione, pulled the strings. Except that it had not worked out quite like that. Chris could almost read her mind. He had the practical experience she lacked. They made a great team. Without him she would never have pulled it off.

"The Shadow Fist is causing us trouble, but I didn't think that it had the organization to accomplish all of this. On the other hand, we know they are working with the Immaculate Egrets and the Werewolves from Jokertown. Together, they're giving us a lot of trouble. But a bunch of gangs…"

"With the right leader…" Rosemary spread her hands. "With the right leader anything's possible. But we would have heard something about him. How could they keep him under that sort of deep cover?" Chris shrugged. "I'll check it out, but I won't hold my breath. I had another idea. Think about Tomasso's murder. Those cars would have been under twenty-four hour guard by teams of his most trusted men. How the hell did they plant those bombs?"

Chris pulled a chair out and sat down backward. "How?" Rosemary had learned not to get too impatient with Chris's occasional use of Socratic method. As in law school, it taught her much.

"Aces, again. Just like Don Picchietti. Who else could pop in and out without being seen? Nobody really knows how many there are or who they are or what they can do. What if some of them decided that wearing funky costumes and being altruistic was silly? Jokers, too. Look at the Werewolves. Get back at the nats. That's a pretty fierce army we're talking here. Look at where the action is going on most of the time. Jokertown. Maybe it's because we control it and they're trying to get us, or maybe it's because the jokers have decided that they want their own piece of the action." Chris had leaned forward to emphasize his point. "If these guys aren't all aces, they've got some working for them. And I think that's the way to go. If we don't get our own aces, we're going to get slaughtered. We can't compete."

"I like that. I could use the district attorney's office to get volunteers. A little steering of their efforts and a number of our troubles could get solved. We'll get higher-quality aces that way too. Pity a lot of the big names are still on that WHO tour." Rosemary nodded, more enthusiastic about this plan than she had been about anything in some time. "Good. Can you pull in anyone?"

"To be honest, I already have. We've got a detective named Croyd doing some checking for us and a heavy name of Bludgeon who'll come in handy in a fight. 'Course they won't be as `high quality' coming from the criminal element like me." Chris straightened and looked down his nose at her, trying to hide his grin.

"They'll do. The criminal element isn't all bad." Rosemary reached up and pulled him down to her to kiss him.

Bagabond walked down the crowded East Village street trying not to be impatient with C.C. Ryder's window-shopping. It seemed as though every ten feet the spike-haired redhead saw something she just had to have-as long as she didn't actually have to go in and talk to anyone about it. Bagabond was about to suggest going back to the songwriter's loft when she heard a bayou-accented voice behind her.

"Hey, y'all, que pasa?" The teenage hyperactive body encased in a tiger-striped leotard with gold-lame sneakers belonged to Jack's niece Cordelia. She bounced out of the restaurant she had been about to enter and grabbed both Bagabond and C.C. Ryder by the elbows to guide them into the Riviera with her before either could muster a protest. C.C. quickly shrugged her off when they were inside, but neither woman put up a struggle when Cordelia immediately got them a table. Bagabond had learned it was useless to resist unless one wanted an excessively hurt teenager on her hands.

"So, y'all seen Rosemary's television appeal to aces yet?" Cordelia opened and shut her menu with the same movement. "Gonna join up, Bagabond?"

"Haven't been asked." Bagabond chose to take her time with the menu. "What about you?"

Glancing up over the top of her oversize menu, Bagabond was surprised to catch the expression of revulsion on Cordelia's face. For possibly the first time she had stopped Cordelia cold in her tracks.

"I, uh, don't do that anymore." Cordelia opened her menu again and stared at it fixedly. "I could hurt somebody y'know. I'm never going to do that again. It's not right."

"I'm not sure it's a good idea. Ace vigilantes are not what we need in this city," C.C. looked from Cordelia to Bagabond before excusing herself.

"So, you seen Jack lately?" Cordelia followed C.C.'s progress to the rear of the restaurant intently before turning to Bagabond with wide, innocent eyes.

"Yeah. He asked if I'd seen you. Ever think of calling your uncle once in a while?" Bagabond's irritation was evident in her rough voice.

"I've been so busy, what with working for Global Fun and Games an' all-"

"And you haven't wanted to talk to him anyway, right?"

"I don't know what to say…" Crodelia blushed. "I mean, it's like I don' know him anymore. You don' understand. I was raised in the Church. I was taught that bein' a homo-what Jack is, is one of the worst sins."

"It's not catching and he's your uncle. He's risked his life for you and you wont even give him a call. I'm glad you're so strong on right and wrong." Bagabond looked disgusted and unconsciously flicked her wrist at the girl. "Michael's good for him. I've never seen Jack so happy."

"Yeah, well, Michael's a son of a bitch! I saw him in a club in the Village last week. He was with someone and it wasn't Uncle Jack." Cordelia was furious.

"Everything okay here?" C.C. seated herself and looked at each woman in turn.

"Hey, no prob." Cordelia waved the waitress over. "You goin' to do my benefit or what?"

"You keep asking and I keep saying no." C.C. shook her head in affectionate exasperation. "I just want to write my songs, do some recording at home. I don't need a live audience and I certainly don't want one."

"C. C., de audience needs you. It's a benefit for wild card victims as well as AIDS. You of all people should have sympathy for the cause."

Bagabond watched C.C.'s face tighten at the mention of the wild card virus. It had taken years of drugs, therapy, and God knew what else to bring her back to humanity. C.C.'s very real nightmare was that she would again become a living subway car formed from nothing save hate. Or something much worse. C.C. had spoken of a little of this to Bagabond.

C.C. Ryder controlled her emotions rigidly, never allowing them to exceed a certain low level. If she continued taking the downs and antidepressants prescribed for her, she couldn't write. Not being able to create her songs was even worse than the prospect of changing back. So she avoided any situation that might be more than she could handle. Not even Tachyon could tell her what might set off the series of internal changes that could result in another transformation. Bagabond did not understand how C.C. could live in that state of constant fear and still create the songs, but she did understand why she wanted to stay away from most humans. She approved.

"No." C.C.'s voice had become as tense as her muscles, although it was equally clear that she was controlling the effect the discussion was having on her.

"It could be your big comeback-"

"Cordelia, you can't have a comeback if you were never there in the first place." C.C. forced a smile. "I'm sure there are many more likely candidates out there."

"Your songs have been recorded by the best: Peter Gabriel-" Cordelia barely paused in her diatribe at the arrival of their burgers. "Simple Minds, U2… It's time for you to show them all what you can do."

Bored by the argument and reasured that C.C. was holding her own, Bagabond reached out across the city, flashing through the tangle of feral intelligences. Darkness, bright light; hunger, fulfillment; the tense anticipation of the hunter, the cold, shivering fear of the stalked; death, birth; pain. So much pain in living each minute-why did these human fools insist on creating even more for themselves by their little games? Playing at living. She touched a squirrel with a broken back. It had been struck by a passing car near Washington Park, and she stopped its heart and brain simultaneously. In Central Park the gray son of the black and the calico dashed into a copse of oaks and sheltered by the underbrush, spun and raked the nose of the Doberman that had chased it. Bagabond felt the cat's triumph for an instant before it recognized her touch and hissed in anger. Feeling no need to force the contact, she moved on. She allowed herself another instant to ascertain that the black and the calico's most recent litter of kittens was well in the warm service tunnels beneath Forty-second Street.

As her eyes rolled back down, Bagabond realized that Cordelia's conversation with C.C. had stopped.

"Suzanne, are you okay?" C.C. ran her gaze across Bagabond's face then nodded slowly.

"She's fine, Cordelia." C.C. brought the young woman's attention back to herself, giving Bagahond time to return. Sometimes it had become difficult to come back to the slow, jabbering world of the humans. Someday, she thought, looking at C.C. Ryder, she would not come back. C.C. was the only person she had ever met who understood that. One day she would ask what C.C. had felt as the Other. C.C. mentioned it rarely, but when she did, Bagabond had seen a haunted need still there behind her eyes.

"Um, okay. Anyway, GF amp; g, you know, would love to back you on your reintroduction. The Funhouse is an intimate venue. Perfect for you and your music." Cordelia leaned toward C.C." hand extended. 'And you know Xavier Desmond's one of your biggest fans."

"Christ, girl, you're turning into a freaking agent." C.C. leaned back in the fifties plastic-covered chair. "And I've already got one agent. That's bad enough."

"Well, hey, I've got to get home. It's late. Good to see you guys." Cordelia dropped a few bills onto the table and got up. She swung the armadillo shoulder bag off her chair. Catching Bagabond's eyes on the dead animal, she elbowed it behind her and backed toward the door, still working on C.C. "You've got a few weeks to make your final decision. The show's not until late May. Bono said he was looking forward to meeting you. So'd Little Steven."

"Good night, Cordelia." C.C. Ryder had clearly reached the end of her patience. "I'm too old for this, Suzanne."

Wriggling underneath the padded shoulders of the business suit Rosemary had bought her, Bagabond stepped out of the elevator onto Rosemary's floor. The receptionist recognized her instantly.

"Good morning, Ms. Melotti. Let me buzz Ms. Muldoon."

"Thank you, Donnis." Bagabond sat down uncomfortably in one of the chairs scattered around the waiting area.

"I'm afraid you just missed Mr. Goldberg. He left a few minutes ago for his court appearances today." The older woman behind the word processor smiled at Bagabond indulgently while she punched Rosemary's intercom number and announced her.

"For once everything's running on time. Go right on in." Bagabond nodded and got back up onto her high heels. With her back to the receptionist, she blinked at the pain in her feet. She hated these days when she played dress-up to talk to Rosemary. At Rosemary's closed door she knocked twice and walked in to see the assistant DA with a phone resting on one shoulder. As usual, Bagabond sat on Rosemary's big oak desk. She listened to the conversation.

"Wonderful, Lieutenant. I'm so glad that tip on the designer drug factory panned out." Rosemary rolled her eyes at Bagabond as she signed papers and balanced the receiver.

"So it wasn't a Mafia operation after all. Any clues as to the ownership? If we could just find out who's behind this senseless crime war with the Mafia, we could go a long way toward stopping it." Rosemary nodded to her unseen caller and almost dropped the phone. "True, but as long as they're wiping each other out, they're hurting innocent people."

"Well, you can rest assured that I'll be forwarding any other aces who volunteer over to you immediately. You're right-uncoordinated activity is dangerous for all concerned. I'm just glad to help. Right. I'll be in touch. 'Bye." Rosemary hung up the phone.

"We took out a drug plant last night." Rosemary leaned her chin on her hand and smiled up at Bagabond. "I'm pleased."

Bagabond nodded, looking across the office toward the dark wooden door.

"And I'm curious." Rosemary got up and checked to make sure that the door was securely closed. "Why haven't you volunteered?"

Bagabond noticed for the hundredth time that Rosemary had no trouble walking in her spike heels. She looked up to see Rosemary staring at her, a muscle jumping along her jaw.

"You never asked." Bagabond was uncomfortable. She hated it. Guilt was for humans. Or pets.

"I didn't think I had to. I thought we were friends." They glared at each other like two cats in a territorial battle. Rosemary broke the impasse.

"And of course we are." The DA sat down and leaned back in her chair. "I should have asked. I'm asking now. I need your help."

Rosemary's smile reminded Bagabond of a tiger's yawn. Teeth, lots of teeth. Bagabond felt cold.

"What can I do? I talk to pigeons." Bagabond examined Rosemary's face for duplicity.

"Well, pigeons see things. Sometimes I'm sure they see interesting things. I'd just like to hear about those things."

"Which one of you? The DA or the Mafia don?" Rosemary's eyes flashed up to the door and back to Bagabond. After an instant of hesitation she smiled at the woman sitting on her desk.

"You'd be amazed to discover how much their interests are intertwined."

"Yes. I would." Bagabond shook her head. "No, I don't think I can help."

"Come on, Suzanne. People are getting hurt out there. We can stop that." Rosemary reached toward her window. "People killing other people." Bagabond nodded. "Good. The fewer of them, the better I'll like it."

"Being a hard case today, I see." Rosemary relaxed back into her chair. "I've heard this one."

"I mean it." Bagabond looked down at her old friend.

"I know. But I do need you. I need your connections. I need your information. And it's not just humans getting hurt." Rosemary stretched her hands out on top of the papers on her desk. They both watched the fingers shake until they were clenched into fists. "Don Picchietti and Don Covello are already dead. They just took out Don Tomasso. He was my godfather. Please, Bagabond. Help me." Rosemary looked up at Bagabond, pleading her case with both her voice and her face.

"Picchietti was hit with an ice pick in his ear. Nobody around him saw anything." Rosemary smiled at her with a twisted and unamused grin. "And for once they weren't lying."

"You don't know what you're doing. But my help won't hurt anything either." Bagabond tasted bitterness at her surrender and felt anger at herself, but she could not abandon her friend.

"Thank you." Rosemary relaxed and picked up her pen, flipping it through her fingers. "Talk to Jack lately?"

"Almost never." Bagabond slid a part of her consciousness to the rat whom she had set to watch Jack as he worked his way through the subway tunnels. She smelled him first. Then, turning the rat's head toward Jack Robicheaux, she saw him in the rat's dim, black-and-white vision.

"Maybe you could pass on that I'd like to see him?" Rosemary had obviously tired of sparring with Bagabond.

"I can tell him." Bagabond nodded. "No promises. Who's the lieutenant I report to?"

"Don't be ridiculous, Suzanne. You'll give anything you come up with directly to me." When Rosemary met her eyes, Bagabond found no friendship at all.

Hands clenched atop a stack of case briefs, Rosemary stared out the window of her office. She was afraid for Chris. Until they found out who was behind the war on the Families, he was in extreme danger as the public chief of the Gambiones. And they still had few clues, although every day there was another Mafia loss. They'd hit all the numbers runners, dealers, small-timers, and extortionists they could find to try to get a lead to the top. It hadn't worked. The cells of lower-level criminals had no information about the cells above them. It was brilliant organization on someone's part, and it was destroying her people. She shook her head unconsciously, one part of her preoccupied with the Families while the other was trying to keep on top of her office's caseload. More and more she had come to depend on her assistants for aid in prosecuting the cases she would have dealt with personally a few months ago. She wondered if anyone had noticed and made a mental note to be more careful. But it was so hard to balance everything, so much more difficult than she had ever imagined.

"There's someone here to see you, Ms. Muldoon." Donnis's quiet voice broke into her thoughts so abruptly that she jumped.

"Who is it, Donnis? I've got a desk full of cases."

"Well, Ms. Muldoon, she says her name is Jane Dow." The name was familiar although Rosemary failed to place it for a moment. Then she had it: Water Lily. What did the girl want?

"I'll see her."

Entering, the auburn-haired girl, no, young woman, Rosemary corrected herself, carefully closed the door after herself "Thank you for seeing me, Ms. Muldoon."

"Please have a seat, Ms. Dow. What can I do for you?" Water Lily looked down at her twisting hands, and Rosemary saw droplets of liquid forming on her forehead. Rosemary wondered if sweating was the extent of her ace, power. Just what she needed.

"Well, I thought maybe I could do something for you. I heard that you were looking for aces and-I know I'm not much of one, but I thought I could work for you. Help out." For the first time Water Lily met Rosemary's eyes and shrugged. "If you have anything that I could do."

"Possibly." Rosemary sighed. She couldn't imagine what, but she was not about to turn down any help at this point. "Tell me what, precisely, is the extent of your power?"

"Well, I control water. I'm really good at floods." Water Lily turned pink and the water on her face shone. She seemed very young. Rosemary heard dripping but chose to ignore it.

"All water, everywhere? I mean, do you have a range? Do you generate it, or can you use the water around you?" Rosemary stopped and smiled apologetically. "Sorry about the third degree. I'm just trying to see where you'll fit in."

"It has to be fairly close, but I can use any water in my vicinity and control the force of its flow. And I can change the electrolyte balance in someone and knock them out." Water Lily was looking fractionally less embarrassed now that she was being taken seriously. Rosemary no longer heard the dripping. " I was thinking that I would be good with crowd control, sweeping people off their feet without really hurting them with a small flood, or causing distractions if you needed it."

"What about other forms of water, high-pressure steam, for example?"

"I don't know. I've never tried it." Water Lily appeared to be interested in the idea.

"Okay, that sounds as if it could be quite helpful. Welcome aboard, Water Lily. Or do you prefer Jane?" Rosemary thought about the raids she was trying to organize on some of the Shadow Fist drug operations. A few burst pipes could do an amazing amount of damage. She smiled broadly at the younger woman without seeing her.

"Jane, please. You can reach me at Aces High. I brought a card. Just let me know what I can do." Jane looked pleased by her acceptance.

Rosemary stole half an hour to familiarize herself with the cases stacked in front of her before she called in Paul Goldberg. His experience had made him an obvious choice to be her immediate aide, and Rosemary had taken advantage of it.

Paul came in and sat down uninvited. He held a fat sheaf of reports that he dropped on her desk with a thud.

"The latest info on our caseload. We won the case against Malerucci." Rosemary glanced up from the paperwork at the mention of the name. "I know you didn't think much of the case we had, but I decided to go ahead with it. It worked out. Maybe you're not aware of this, but we've been taking some heat about the number of Mafia cases we're prosecuting, or rather not prosecuting. The cops have come to me several times complaining about doing all the work and getting no support from this office."

"The cops are always complaining. You know that, Paul. They don't understand that we have this Constitution thing we have to pay attention to when we haul someone into court. Good work on the Malerucci case, but you took a chance there. The jury could have gone either way based on that evidence."

"Especially after somebody got to the Police Evidence Lab and destroyed most of the coke." Paul crossed his legs on Rosemary's desk and leaned back in the chair. "We haven't been able to trace that leak yet."

"In the future, please stick to my instructions on which cases to go after. I'd appreciate it, speaking strictly as your boss." Rosemary smiled at him and leaned back in her own chair.

"Boss, I've noticed a trend in the cases you okay, and I'm not the only one. Why aren't we going after the Mafia? With this war going on, we could put a lot of nasty people away. Their resources are stretched too thin to protect all of their people." He reached out and tapped the stack of papers with a rigid forefinger. "It's all right here. I've even got a possible tax evasion on Chris Mazzucchelli. What do you say? Let me at 'im."

"No." Rosemary put on her best inscrutable madonna look. "I want to wait until the war has shaken out some more."

"The Mafia appears to be self-destructing anyway. We can just save ourselves the trouble."

"You know that if we put some of these people behind bars we might just be saving their lives." Paul was watching her closely. His scrutiny made Rosemary uncomfortable.

"I make the decisions here." The tone in her voice was meant to shut Paul up and it worked, but she still didn't like the stare she got after she said it.

After working out strategy for the twenty most urgent cases they had, Rosemary had relaxed and so had Paul. In many ways it reminded her of working with Chris. She came up with the plan and he carried it out. Only with Paul, everything was on the right side of the law. It was after six and she was leading Paul and his stack of cases to her door when he turned around to speak to her once more.

"You ever go to Holy Innocents?" Paul asked about her Catholic elementary school in offhand tones.

"Me, are you kidding? That's for rich Italian kids. I went to good old ES. one ninety-two in Brooklyn." Rosemary studied his face.

"I didn't think so. Friend of mind went there. He said the craziest thing the other night. Thought you looked just like Rosa Maria Gambione grown up. What a crock, huh? She died back in the early seventies. See you in the morning." Paul nodded his farewell and Rosemary wondered if she had seen a warning in his eyes-or an indictment.

Bagabond moved quickly through the subway maintenance tunnels, accompanied by the black and one of his kittens. The kitten, a mottled ginger, was even bigger than he was. She had watched Jack return to his old home in the nineteenthcentury abandoned station through the eyes of a succession of rats. Bagabond waited to catch him when he was still underground. It always felt more natural talking to him here, When she met him above, he was different. They both were. She pulled the ragged blue coat farther up above her knees and hurried to cut him off before he could go. The black paced her while his daughter loped ahead to spot trouble.

Bagabond reached the door and opened it onto Jack reaching for the knob. The compact, pale man smiled in surprise. "'Allo dere." He set down the box he had been cradling and knelt to let the black sniff the back of his hand. The other cat kept her distance, standing in front of Bagabond to protect her.

"I haven't seen you for a long time. I've been a little worried." Jack stood up to face the woman in tattered clothing. "Come on in and sit down."

"You've been busy." Bagabond had swung her snarled hair back down across her face and hunched within the pile of ill-fitting dresses and pants she wore. She knew that with her rough voice and trembling manner she now looked at least sixty years old.

"So have you." Jack looked at her hesitantly making her way down the carpeted stairs. He grinned broadly. "You could win a Tony for that, you know. I met this Broadway producer, he's looking for an actress."

"Friend of Michael's?" Bagabond straightened as she sat on the edge of the Victorian horsehair sofa. The ginger sat tensely at her feet. The black leaned against Jack's leg and looked up at him.

"Yes, a friend of Michael's. Why won't you come over and spend some time with us? Get to know Michael. You'd like him."

"Why don't you get to know Paul?" Bagabond drew her feet up under her and looked at Jack sitting on the equally antique chair opposite her.

"I don't think a yuppie would see much in a blue-collar transit worker."

"I don't think Michael would approve of my style sense." Bagabond spread out her layers of mismatched clothing along the couch.

"So there we are, hmm? I don't like it and neither do you, but we've become trapped in our undercover lives as normal people." Jack looked sad. "Have you seen Cordelia?"

Yeah." Bagabond shrugged. Another shrug, another avoidance of responsibility. She straightened her shoulders. "I tried. I don t know,

"When you see her again, tell her… tell her I understand. I grew up there too, after all." Jack ran the palms of his hands down his sharply creased black denim jeans. "So, you tracked me down. What can I do for you?"

Jack reached down to scratch behind the black's ears, and they both listened to the loud purring for a few moments. "Rosemary wants to see you." Bagabond had pulled her knees up and drawn her armor back around her. She refused to meet Jack's eyes.

"No."

"Jack, she's just trying to keep everything cool. She could use some help."

"For Christ sake, Bagabond, she's on the side of the bad guys. She's the head of the frigging Mafia." Jack got up and began pacing on the Oriental carpets. The black got up to join him, then looked at Bagabond and lay back down. Bagabond got a flash of warning from the cat. She didn't know if it was for her or for Jack. "What the hell does she need me for anyway?"

"Well, you could help with surveillance. You could keep your ears open for anything strange going on."

"Oh, right. Am I supposed to be her lead into the gay community? No, maybe she thinks the reptiles are against her too. Or maybe she just wants me to bite off a strategic foot or two." Jack turned to face Bagabond. "No fucking way."

"Jack, she just needs someone on her side-"

"Someone on her side! She's got the whole Mafia. I find it a little hard to believe that one were-alligator would make all that much difference." Jack walked over to the sofa and looked down on Bagabond. She refused to look up to meet his eyes. "Suzanne, you stay out of this. She doesn't care about you anymore. She'll use you too. Get you killed. And not even blink."

The black stood up and moved between Jack and Bagabond. The ginger began growling deep in her throat, the hair on her back standing up. Jack retreated a few steps.

Bagabond slid off the sofa onto her feet and stared back into Jack's green eyes.

"She's my friend. I guess she's my only friend."

She stalked to the stairs. The cats followed her. The ginger never took her eyes off Jack as she backed across the narrow room. The black walked a few steps, then stopped and looked back at Jack before leaping up the stairway to catch up with the others.

"Well, whoever they are, you're keeping them busy." Chris helped himself to a bite of Rosemary's grilled tuna. "You said you weren't hungry," Rosemary swatted away his fork.

"I lied. It's definitely not the Yakuza. They're taking hits too. Lost one of their top men here in the city. It seems our friends are not above going after anybody if they can't have their Mafia for breakfast. Your program of authorized trouble is taking its toll. They may not be out, but they're definitely down. You having any trouble with that?"

"No. Now that the capos are all following our instructions I know everything that's happening anywhere among the Families. It makes it easy."

"I hate to say this, but you may need to arrange a hit on us. Nothing too severe, just something to ease off any suspicions." Chris glanced around the bright kitchen. It was the only cheery space in the otherwise dark and gloomy penthouse. "Got any cookies?"

"Afraid not. Do you know something I don't?" Rosemary examined Chris's face.

"No, I just believe in prevention. I don't want anyone to see a pattern in what your aces are doing."

"I'll be fine. Who'd connect me, assistant DA, with the Gambione Family? I'm more concerned with you." Rosemary pushed away her plate. She was not about to mention Paul's suspicions to Chris. She already knew what he would say. "What kind of security are you carrying?"

"Beretta, of course." Chris swung open his black leather jacket.

"That's not what I mean."

"All right, okay. You got no sense of humor sometimes, ya know. I've got some guys I know I can trust. They're with me twenty-four hours a day. One's outside right now. Three more are downstairs. I'm covered, babe. These guys owe me; their souls are mine."

"Tell me what's happening with our regular operations." Rosemary was annoyed at his possessiveness of his cadre of her men but decided it was only her native paranoia.

"Don't worry about it. I've got it all taken care of. Each of the other Families has a representative who reports to me directly. Any problems I take care of them. You need to come up with a way to find out who we're up against and how to take them out." Chris smiled happily at the ceiling. "You know, I think those boys still don't like my rattail."

"I'm still working on it. Have you investigated the Vietnamese? The Shadow Fist gang in Jokertown is involved in this somehow. That much has become clear." Rosemary decided not to press the issue of her normal briefing. Chris was right; she had more important things to think about.

"Well, I'm trying to get somebody to infiltrate them. You got any idea how hard it is to find an Oriental in the Mafia?" Chris sighed elaborately. "I'm trying to borrow somebody from the Yakuza."

"Good idea. Listen, Chris, I need some time by myself tonight, okay?" Rosemary hesitated. "To make plans."

"I can find something to keep myself busy." Chris smirked in a way that worried Rosemary.

"Stay out of trouble. I don't know what I'd do if I lost you."

"Me either." Chris got up and kised the top of Rosemary's head. "I may not be around for a few days. Don't worry about me. I'm just taking care of business."

When Chris had gone, Rosemary went to the library. She kept trying to keep her two lives straight, but it was getting more and more difficult. She had promised herself that she would get the Mafia out of drugs and prostitution. But now that the war was going on there was no way that she could do that. They needed the money desperately. Protecting her people was causing her trouble at the office. Paul Goldberg had openly asked her if her informants couldn't get more dirt on the Mafia. And that comment about Maria Gambione. Christ. There had to be something she could do about him. Kill him, before he passed on his suspicions? But he was Suzanne's boyfriend. What could she do?

She had thought it would be easy to run things from behind Chris. Instead it seemed that he was more and more in control of what was happening in the streets. Nothing was going the way she had planned. Rosemary rested her forehead on the table between her outstretched arms.

She knew that she was not doing her job in the DA's office. But it was only a matter of time until this damned war was over and she could get back to doing what she was supposed to be doing. Then she could get rid of the drugs, prostitution, and corruption. Just as soon as they had won the war.

She woke up from the nightmare with a small cry, quickly stifled by the heavy atmosphere of the library. She had been in a religious painting she had seen as a child, the Crucifixion. But it was her broken body on the center cross, with Chris hanging on her right and her father on her left. Rosemary put her arms around herself to stop the trembling.

Bagabond woke instantly, the warning of danger as insistent as a cat's claws set in her skin. She separated the thought-streams entering her own mind and found the sending carrying the cry for help. There was still a shock when she recognized Jack Robicheaux down the alley. The strength and clarity of the sending told her that the creature observing the scene in the alley was the black. So that's where he had been for the last few days. When he vanished, she had not followed him mentally except to make sure he was alive and well.

Silently she told him to return home. He snarled at the suggestion. He and Jack had been close since they had first met. The black's curiosity about the man/big-lizard had created a bond. The black focused on the tableau at the end of the streetlight-spotted alley. Jack was trapped by a much larger man who taunted him. Despite herself, Bagabond allowed the black to transmit more and draw her into the situation.

"Hey, fucking faggot! Guess taking off down this alley wasn't so smart, huh?" The hulk looming over Jack was ugly, with close-set eyes and a sloping forehead. Bagabond suddenly recognized him. Bludgeon. She'd seen him once before in the Tombs with Rosemary. He was just as mean and just as stupid as he looked. Jack was in trouble, but Jack could handle himself.

"All I wanted to do was play wit'cha a little. An' I know you faggots jus' love rough trade."

"You don't want to mess with me, man." Jack was plastered against the fence cutting off the alley. "I'm a lot more trouble than I look."

"Oh, I wanna mess wit' chou, pretty-boy. I'm gonna start wit' your face and work down, pervert. Ain't nobody gonna want you when I get through." Bludgeon reached out for Jack, but the smaller man ducked under the paw.

"Please, I don't want to hurt you. Just leave me alone." Jack's voice shook. Bagabond wondered why he was so afraid. "You won't like what you see."

"You think you know that gook chop-sockey stuff, huh?" Bludgeon laughed, and even Bagabond winced at the sound like gears stripping. "It's okay. I'm part of the Family now. I got me an insurance plan."

The black was more insistent as he sensed Bagabond's reluctance to help his other human friend. It transferred to pain in Bagabond's own mind. She sent Jack's refusal to help her and Rosemary back out to the black, but the cat would not turn away. Tiring of watching the two men spar, Bagabond called the black to return and showed him Jack's transformation to alligator. If he didn't want her help, fine. She wouldn't force it on him. He thought he didn't need her around, okay.

The black's wild anger at her stand surged back at her and she cut off contact. It wasn't her problem anymore. She lifted her hands to probe gently at the pain in her temples. The black had overridden her defenses because she had not expected his response. Christ, what was wrong with everyone? Why did everybody hate her now?

Curled upon a pile of rags in a steam tunnel yards below the surface, Bagabond had slept for hours. Despite her best efforts, the headache clung on. She couldn't reach the black either, although she knew he wasn't dead. She searched through her layers of clothing until she found the strapless wristwatch she used when she needed to keep track of time. Less than an hour until she was supposed to meet Paul. She'd be late. It would take half an hour to get to C.C.'s, where she had taken to keeping dresses and suits that had to be hung up. Stupid game. With a little luck C.C. would be working in the studio and never know she had been there.

The only luck she'd had all week actually happened. The red light was on over the door to C.C.'s studio, so Bagabond got in and out without distraction. Still, the always-late Paul was standing in the bar waiting at West Fourth Street where they were meeting for dinner before a movie. Dinner was pleasant, but Bagabond knew that Paul was not entirely there even as he regaled her with tales of the latest escapades and defenses he had encountered during the last week.

"So then this guy starts claiming that his what-do-you-callit, his ancient Persian contact, told him that this other poor guy was really an ancient Greek and a personal enemy. And he starts channeling, right there in the courtroom. Lots of grunts, rolling around on the floor, speaking in tongues-who knows if it's Persian. The judge breaks two gavels screaming for order while the schmuck's defense attorney is alternately calling for a doctor for his client and trying to build a defense based on this fit. He did get a continuance. Which means I have to go back in there with those idiots next week. Oy vay, as my sainted mother used to say." Paul Goldberg grinned over the cheesecake at her. "So, how was your week?"

"The animals are all okay. No major problems."

"What a city to be a veterinarian in. Between poodles and rottweilers, I don't know how you manage."

"That's why I try to stick to cats, with the occasional exotic rat or raccoon." Bagabond smiled across the table, wondering why she had ever come up with this story. Paul's mood changed abruptly.

"Listen, I need to talk to you. Can we skip the movie tonight?" Paul stared into his coffee cup as if the swirls of cream would reveal his future.

"Sounds serious."

"It is. At least I think it is. You're the sensible sort. You'll tell me if you think I'm crazy."

"Just don't start speaking in Persian."

"Right." He picked up the check. "This one's mine. Don't argue."

They took a cab over to Paul's huge two-level apartment on the upper East Side. He said almost nothing, just examined her hands with their short, blunt nails and joked about her lack of claws. Once up in the apartment he made coffee and put on Paul Simon. When he finally sat down, it was in a chair he pulled to face her rather than on the couch beside her.

"There are some things happening down at the office. Weird stuff. I need a second opinion. You're probably not the best person to ask, for a number of reasons, but you're a friend and that's what I need right now." He rolled the coffee cup between his palms.

"I'm here." Bagabond knew she wasn't going to like what he was about to say.

"I think somebody's gone bad. I've got people out on the street, snitches, we all do. Rumors are springing up about the DAs office. Rumors about Mafia connections."

"What sort of Mafia connections?" Bagabond got up and walked around the white-on-white living room.

"Nothing specific. But I do know that the last three raids on Mafia operations have netted us nothing, just a few minor soldiers, virtually no drugs or guns. We're being given enough to keep us happy, but not enough to do actual damage." Paul looked up at Bagabond. "We're being used. The raids on the Mafia's enemies are always well-informed and almost always effective in hurting the opposition. And I think I know why."

"What are you going to do about it?" Bagabond sipped her coffee and pondered her options. If she killed him here, she had been seen and would be a suspect. Rosemary might or might not protect her.

"I can't trust anyone in the DAs office. And I'm not so sure about the mayor's office either." Paul put down his cup and paced across his living room in front of the fireplace. "I want to go to the press. The Times."

"Are you absolutely certain about your information?" Bagabond stared past Paul into the flames. Rosemary had left herself open to this. She had not been careful enough.

"Absolutely. I can corroborate everything I've said." Paul turned his back to her and warmed his hands over the fire. Bagabond stared into the back of his head. "But I'm hoping that the situation can be salvaged. If the person in question comes to their senses-maybe all this can be avoided. There are some other strange things going on here too. Some of this information that I have appears to have come directly from the Mafia. That I don't understand."

Bagabond remembered Chris Mazzucchelli. She had never trusted the man regardless of Rosemary's attachment to him. Was he betraying Rosemary?

"You have to do what your conscience tells you. But if these people are really mafiosi, isn't that a little dangerous?" Bagabond remembered Rosemary's telling her how everything was going to be different now that she was in charge. Rosemary had made her decision.

"True. That's one of the reasons I'm telling you. I've told some other people, given them the evidence. I didn't want to endanger you with it." Paul seemed relieved that she had not openly recognized Rosemary from the description. Bagabond wondered if this conversation had been a trap of some sort. Had she failed or won?

Paul put his arms around her and pulled her close. Bagabond did not resist, but she did not encourage him. She awkwardly embraced him in return.

"You could stay over tonight." Paul kissed her forehead. "No. Paul, I'm just not ready to get involved that way. I'm old-fashioned, I guess." Bagabond pushed him away. "I need time."

"We've been seeing each other for months. I still don't know where you live. What is it about me that you don't trust?" Paul stood in front of her with his hands dangling at his sides.

"It's not you. It's me." Bagabond avoided his eyes. "Give me time. Or don't. It's your choice."

"My choice?" Paul shook his head in resignation. "This woud be easier if you weren't so damned intriguing. Next Friday, dinner and, I promise, a movie next time. Meet me here?"

"Okay. Good luck. At work." Bagabond didn't know whether she meant it for Paul or for Rosemary.

Bagabond watched the muzzle-flashes and heard the sound of pistols, rifles, and shotguns going off and destroying the night as she circled the building. With a small army of rats, cats, and a few wild dogs, she was patrolling the perimeter, as Rosemary had put it in their meeting two days ago. Whenever anyone tried to break and run, she and the animals drove them back to the waiting police.

She almost tripped over a body, face blown off by a shotgun blast. As she retreated, she ran into a black cop. He caught her gently and steadied her.

"Ma'am, it'd be better if you found someplace else to sleep tonight." His big hands turned her away from the battle toward the quiet surrounding streets. Those hands reminded her of Bludgeon's reaching for Jack. She twisted free, leaving a dirty leather coat in his hands, and limped swiftly away.

When she found herself hidden in the darkness again, she made contact with her animals. The ginger remained with her at all times, but the others ranged around the building. With the eyes of a rat crouched on a pile of garbage, she followed the slow progress of a young Oriental man who was attempting to flee the fight. A trail of blood followed him, dripping down the right leg of his pants. She smelled it and so did the escaped rottweiler that suddenly filled the mouth of the alley. The Vietnamese gasped and began to back slowly down the alley. Holding the dog back, Bagabond pulled the rottweiler onto her haunches, and the dog howled a summons to the sky.

There was water everywhere. Rosemary had said that a new ace named Water Lily would be there that night. Bagabond had grown tired of splashing through puddles. The bottom six inches of her coats and skirts were soaked through and so were her boots. Where was all the water coming from? She hoped there weren't any fires in Jokertown tonight.

Even though it revealed her presence, Bagabond had set up a fireline of feral cats to prevent any jokers from coning closer than a couple of blocks away from the fighting. The Jokertown warehouse at the center of the ring of protection was, according to Rosemary, one of the major Shadow Fist weapons storage areas. Bagabond's concentration was flagging. Rosemary had given little thought to how long her pet ace could continue to scan through animals' minds and control hundreds of them in coordinated action.

The ginger cat snarled and woke Bagabond from her reverie. She straightened up from the wall she had leaned against to conserve her strength. Holding an Uzi in firing position, another Vietnamese was making his way down the dark street, moving from shadow to shadow without a sound.. Bagabond fixed on him, then called the rats. Within seconds a hundred rats attacked the man, driving him back. They leaped up his pants and ran up his flailing arms, biting his face and neck. Their sheer numbers tripped him as they covered the ground beneath his feet. He screamed. The Uzi began firing and did not stop, its pulsing fire echoing between the walls in an eerie rhythm to the mans screams. Both climbed the scale until the Uzi ran out of ammunition and the man's throat was too raw to make another sound. It was a silence broken only by the scrabbling rats. Bagabond sent them scurrying away to a new position. The sight of the man in his pool of blood disturbed her. He should not have struggled.

Lasers arced through the sky above the building, surgically cutting it apart. When the beams hit Water Lily's puddles, clouds of steam rose. The intermittently lit scene reminded Bagabond of a Ken Russell staging of hell.

Using the kitten Bagabond had left with her, Rosemary called her. Bagabond turned and left the body. He had done nothing to her. He would not feed her or the animals. What right did she have to kill him?

When Bagabond arrived, Rosemary had stepped back into a deep, shadowed doorway to wait for her. The bag lady slipped along the wall, remembering the Vietnamese maneuvering in the same way minutes before. No one saw her.

"What do you see?" Rosemary had no time for preliminaries. "We got everyone. Nobody escaped through my eyes."

"Good, good. The bastards wont forget this one soon."

Rosemary was pleased, but her thoughts were elsewhere. "You see, I knew you could do a lot for me."

Rosemary stepped out into the street as a policeman stepped up to greet her.

"Great job! Those aces of yours really made the difference, much as I hate to admit it. That black guy-the Hammer?-something else. Gave me a chill just being around him and that cloak of his." The captain thrust out his hand in congratulations.

"Glad we could help, Captain. But the Harlem Hammer is still out of the country. Sure it wasn't one of your undercover people?" Rosemary smiled and shook his hand. "By the way, could you have one of your officers help this lady out of the area?" Rosemary nodded toward Bagabond, who waited next to the doorway. "She got herself a little lost."

Before the cop could catch her, Bagabond moved down the sidewalk and ducked into an alley. She took a moment to scatter her gathered animals before following the ginger into a manhole she had left open earlier. In the wet night below the streets she considered what she had accomplished. To what end? So that Rosemary's Mafia could carry on? At least a score of rats, a cat, and one of the dogs had been lost tonight. Not again, Rosemary. Your games aren't worth it to me. Catching the gleam of the ginger's eyes, she followed her home through the tunnels.

When Rosemary got to the Gambione penthouse, Chris was already there. He was sitting in the chair at the head of the conference table in her father's library. He said nothing while she took a seat next to him.

"We've got trouble." Chris reached out and took her hand. "Paul Goldberg knows who you are."

"How?" Rosemary simultaneously felt fear and a strange, small relief that the masquerade was over.

"That we don't know, but it doesn't matter much now, does it? We've been watching your office on general principles and found this stuff in his apartment." Chris shoved an envelope across the table at her. When she opened it, she discovered pictures of herself and her father, records, everything they needed to pin her to a wall.

"We've got to get rid of him." Chris drummed his fingers on the oak tabletop. "But I wanted to get your okay first. He is one of your employees after all."

"Of course, immediately." Rosemary kept staring at the photographs and moving them around. "Did he give it to anyone? Who else knows?"

"I think we got him in time." Chris picked one of the pictures and looked at it almost idly. "I'd suggest you check with your great, good friend Suzanne, however. They've been seen together."

"Jesus, she and Paul have been dating. I don't know what she'll do if he's hit. She's not very stable sometimes."

"So you want us to wait on the hit? Come on, you know it's either him or you." Chris tipped the heavy chair back on its rear legs.

"No, take him out. Take him now. If he hasn't had time to tell anybody, I'll still be safe." Rosemary turned her head from side to side as if seeking an escape route.

"It's the only good choice. I'll take care of it. Unless…" Chris set the chair down with a small crash that was quickly dampened by the heavy rug.

"No. You do it." Rosemary looked up at him gratefully. "Thank you."

Smiling broadly, he leaned over and kissed her. "No problem. That's what I'm here for."

Walking around the corner of Paul's high rise, Bagabond simultaneously' tugged her skirt down and tried to avoid the puddles left by the afternoon rain. The doorman held open the heavy glass door for her with a badly hidden smirk that told her he had seen her adjustments. She considered making his life a little more miserable by perching a pigeon directly above him, but he was not worth it. She had more important things on her mind. It would depend, she had decided, but she might stay with Paul tonight. She still felt a little queasy about the decision.

She waved at Marry, who nodded and checked her off on his guest register. As always, the echoes of her heels tapping across the marble made her self-conscious. The elevator took forever. She had determined that everyone who had seen her come in knew what she was thinking about Paul by the time it showed up. This was ridiculous. She was an adult for Christ's sake. One deep breath and she was in the car headed for Paul's thirty-second-floor apartment.

Mercifully there was no one in the hall when she got out of the elevator. Up here the carpet felt three inches thick, and she made no noise at all as she stepped up to Paul's front door and rang the bell. When several minutes had passed, she rang again and began paying attention to any sound from inside. She heard nothing. She mentally scanned for any creatures inside, a mouse or a rat, but Paul's building was much too classy for that. Failing to locate an animal inside, she pulled a pigeon across the windows. A couple of lights were on, but she didn't see Paul.

Great. What a night to stand her up. Good timing, Paul. Bagabond started back for the elevator with a certain lurking sense of relief that she kept shoving to the back of her mind.

Riding down, she realized that she must have been expected or the security guard would not have let her up. For the first time she felt concern about Paul.

Marty, the guard, had seen Paul come in several hours earlier. They had chatted about the fact he had actually won a case for once and had left early to relax before Bagabond came over. Marry blushed as he mentioned that Mr. Goldberg had told him to look out for her. Paul had said they would be celebrating together. There was no record of Paul's going back out, and none of the doormen had seen him leave. Marry called another guard to take over his station and got the skeleton key for Paul's apartment.

As soon as the door opened, Bagabond knew that something was wrong. Following her sense of dread, she led Marty straight to the bathroom. Paul was naked in the black marble Jacuzzi. Blood swirled around him in the bubbling water. He had been shot in the eye at close range. She stared at him while Marty frantically dialed the police.

The police took her down to the station and questioned her for hours. At first they were determined to get her to confess to the crime. When the initial coroner's report finally came in, they gave up and began asking her about her knowledge of Paul's activities. Who might have wanted him dead? She thought about Rosemary, over and over, but denied knowing anything.

Could Rosemary have had him killed? Rosemary knew that she cared about Paul. Rosemary had encouraged them. Was she capable of murdering someone she had worked with and respected? Bagabond did not allow herself to answer the questions.

It was almost six in the morning when C.C. finally got permission to take Bagabond home. Bagabond said nothing on the taxi ride back to C.C.'s loft. She reached out for the cats and mentally pulled them close to her, shivering. C.C. scooped her morning paper up off the sidewalk in front of her building and tucked it under her arm as she guided Bagabond into the lift. In the loft Bagabond stared blindly at the opposite wall while C.C. made tea.

Bagabond realized that C.C. was repeatedly calling her name. It had brought her back to herself. She preferred spreading her consciousness across the city. It spread her pain as well. Only the urgency in C.C.'s voice made her focus on the paper in front of her.

Rosemary Gambione Muldoon's picture took up a quarter of the front page.

Rosemary was icily calm. The warning had come from an obit writer who just happened to owe a lot of money in Vegas. She had bought his marker some time ago. Today had been the payoff. He had heard the excitement in the newsroom and checked it out. Seeing her picture on the front-page mock-up had been enough. He placed the call to his Family contact. Chris had pounded on her door at two A.M. and together they had thrown clothes into a suitcase.

Chris had brought four of his best men to guard her twenty-four hours a day. The six of them sat in the black limousine that took them to one of the Gambione safehouses. Rosemary said nothing. What was there to say? Part of her life had been destroyed. Only the Family was left. As she had begun, she was going to finish.

Rosemary sat alone in the house. Her bodyguards patrolled the exterior and kept watch on the windows and doors. Chris had left her to organize a safer retreat from which she could lead the Gambiones. She felt free and more alive than she had since she had taken over the task of living two lives. Her head swam with plans for keeping the Families alive and viable. Now that she could concentrate on the problems at hand, everything would be different. Paul had done her a favor. Pity he had had to die for it, but one couldn't show weakness, after all. She wondered when Chris would come back. She had so much to discuss with him.

All the King's Horses

II

The water made a sullen gurgling sound somewhere in the close, hot blackness. The world twisted and turned, sinking. He was too weak and dizzy to move. He felt icy fingers on his legs, creeping up higher and higher, and then sudden shock as the water reached his crotch, jolting him awake. He tore away his seat harness with numb fingers, but too late. The cold caressed his chest, he lurched up and the floor tumbled and he lost his footing, and then the water was over his head and he couldn't breathe and everything was black, utterly black, as black as the grave, and he had to get out, he had to get out…

Tom woke gasping for breath, a scream clawing at the inside of his throat.

In his first groggy waking moment he heard the faint tinkle of broken glass falling from the window frame to shatter on the bedroom floor. He closed his eyes, tried to steady himself. His heart was trip-hammering away in his chest, his undershirt plastered to his skin. Only a dream, he told himself, but he could still feel himself falling, blind and helpless, locked in a coffin of burning steel as the river closed in around him. Only a dream, he repeated. He'd lucked out, something had exploded the shell and he'd gotten out, it was over, he was alive and safe. He took a deep breath and counted to ten, and by the time he hit seven he'd stopped trembling. He opened his eyes.

His bed was a mattress on the floor of an empty room. He sat up, the bedclothes tangled around him. Feathers from a torn pillow floated in the shafts of sunlight that came through the broken window, drifting lazily toward the floor. The alarm clock he'd bought last week had been flung halfway across the room and had bounced off a wall. A series of random numbers blinked red on its digital LED display for an instant before it went dark entirely. The walls were pale green, utterly bare, and spiderwebbed with a growing network of cracks. A chunk of plaster dropped from the ceiling. Tom winced, untangled himself from the sheets, and stood up.

One of these nights his fucking subconscious was going to bring down the whole house on top of him. He wondered what his neighbors would make of that. He'd already reduced most of his bedroom furniture to kindling, and the plasterboard walls weren't holding up real well either. Then again, neither was be.

In the bathroom Tom dropped his sweat-soaked underwear into the hamper and stared at himself in the mirror over the sink. He thought he looked ten years older than he was. A couple of months of recurring nightmares will do that to you, he supposed.

He climbed into the shower, closed the curtain. A halfmelted bar of Safeguard sat in a film of water in the soap dish. Tom concentrated. The soap rose straight up and floated into his hand. It felt slimy. Frowning, he gave the cold faucet a good hard twist with his mind, and he winced as the stream of icy water hit him. Very quickly he grabbed for the hot faucet with his hand-turned it, and shuddered with relief as the water warmed.

It was getting better, Tom reflected as he lathered up. Twenty-odd years as the Turtle had atrophied his telekinetic abilities almost to nothing, except when he was locked inside his shell, but Dr. Tachyon had helped him understand that the block was psychological, not physical. He'd been working on it ever since, and it had gotten to the point where bars of soap and cold-water faucets were candy.

Tom stuck his head under the showerhead and smiled as the warm water cascaded down around him, washing away the last residue of nightmare. Too bad his subconscious didn't realize his limits; he'd feel a fuck of a lot safer going to sleep, and maybe his bedroom wouldn't be such a mess when he woke up. But when the nightmare came, he was the Turtle. Weak, dizzy, falling, and about to drown, but still the Great and Powerful Turtle, who could juggle locomotives and crush tanks with his mind.

The late great Turtle. All the king's horses and all the king's men, Tom thought.

He turned off the spray, shivered in the sudden chill, and climbed out of the tub to towel off.

In the kitchen he fixed himself a cup of coffee and a bowl of bran cereal. He'd always thought bran cereal tasted like wet cardboard, and these new extrahealthy bran cereals tasted like wood shavings, but his doctor said he had to get more fiber and less fat in his diet. He was also supposed to cut down on his coffee, but that was a hopeless case-he was an addict by now.

He turned on the small TV next to the microwave and watched CNN as he sat at the kitchen table. The city was launching a full-fledged investigation of corruption in the Manhattan district attorney's office, which seemed like the least they could do now that one of their assistant DAs had been exposed as a Mafia don. Indictments were promised. Rosa Maria Gambione, alias Rosemary Muldoon, was still being sought for questioning, but she'd vanished, gone underground somewhere. Tom didn't figure she'd be turning up anytime soon.

He'd felt guilty about ignoring Muldoon's appeal for ace volunteers when the gang war had begun raging in the streets of Jokertown. It wasn't like the Turtle to ignore a plea for help, and if he'd had a working shell or the money to build one, his resolve might have softened enough to bring the Turtle back from the dead. But he hadn't so he didn't and now he was glad of it. Pulse and Water Lily and Mister Magnet and the other aces who had responded had put their lives and reputations on the line, and now they had hack politicians going on the evening news demanding that all of them be investigated for ties to organized crime.

It was times like this that made Tom glad that the Turtle was dead.

On the tube, they moved to the international desk for an update on the aces tour. Peregrine's pregnancy was already old news, and there had been no new violence like the incident in Syria, thank god. Tom watched footage of the Stacked Deck landing in Japan with a certain dull resentment. He'd always wanted to travel, to see distant exotic lands, visit all the fabulous cities he'd read of as a child, but he'd never had the money. Once the store had sent him to a trade show in Chicago, but a weekend in the Conrad Hilton with three thousand electronics salesmen hadn't fulfilled any of his childhood dreams.

They should have asked the Turtle to be on the tour. Of course transporting the shell might have been a problem, and he couldn't get a passport without giving them his real name, which he wasn't prepared to do, but those problems could have been handled if anyone had cared enough to bother. Maybe they really did think he was dead, though Dr. Tachyon at least ought to have known better.

So here he was, still in Bayonne wth a mouth full of high-fiber bran, while the likes of Mistral and Fatman and Peregrine were sitting under a pagoda somewhere, eating whatever the hell the Japanese ate for breakfast. It pissed him off. He had nothing against Peri or Mistral, but none of them had paid the dues he had. Jesus Christ, they'd even invited that scumbag Jack Braun. But not him, oh no, that would have been too much fucking trouble; they would have had to make special arrangements, and besides, they had so many seats allocated for aces and so many for jokers and nobody knew quite where the Turtle fit.

Tom drank a mouthful of coffee, got up from the table, and shut off the TV Fuck it all, he thought. Now that he'd decided that the Turtle was going to stay dead, maybe it was time that he buried the remains. He had a notion or two about that. If he handled it right, maybe by this time next year he could afford to take a trip around the world too.

Concerto for Siren and Serotonin

II

Checking to see that no one was watching, Croyd dropped a pair of Black Beauties with his espresso. He cursed softly as a part of the sigh that followed. This was not working out as he had anticipated. All of the leads he had tried during the past days had pretty much fizzled, and he was further along into the speed than he cared to be. Ordinarily this would not bother him, but for the first time he had made two separate promises concerning drugs and his actions. One being business and one being personal, he reflected, they kind of caught him coming and going. He would definitely have to keep an eye, or at least a few facets, on himself so as not to mess up on this job, and he didn't want to turn Water Lily off on their first date. Usually, though, he could feel the paranoia coming on, and he decided to let that be his indicator as to his degree of irrationality this time around.

He had run all over town, trying to trace two leads who seemed to have vanished. He had checked out every possible front on his list, satisfying himself that they had only been randomly chosen rendezvous points. Next was James Spector. While he hadn't recognized the name, he did know Demise. He had met him, briefly, on a number of occasions. The man had always impressed him as one of the sleazier aces. "If it's Demise, don't look in his eyes," he hummed as he signaled to a waiter.

"Yes, sir."

"More espresso, and bring me a bigger cup for it, will you?"

"Yes, sir."

"For that matter, bring me a whole pot."

"All right."

He hummed a little more loudly and began tapping his foot. "Demise eyes. The eyes of Demise," he intoned. He jumped when the waiter placed a cup before him.

"Don't sneak up on me like that!"

"Sorry. Didn't mean to startle you." The man began to fill the cup.

"Don't stand behind me while you're pouring. Stand off to the side where I can see you."

"Sure."

The waiter moved off to Croyd's right. He left the carafe on the table when he departed.

As he drank cup after cup of coffee, Croyd began thinking thoughts he had not thought in a long while, concerning sleep, mortality, transfiguration. After a time he called for another carafe. It was definitely a two-carafe problem.

The evening's snowfall had ceased, but the inch or so that lay upon the sidewalks sparkled under the streetlamps, and a wind so cold it burned whipped glittering eddies along Tenth Street. Walking carefully, the tall, thin man in the heavy black overcoat glanced back once as he turned the corner, breath pluming. Ever since he'd left the package store he'd had a feeling that he was being watched. And there was a figure, a hundred yards or so back, moving along the opposite side of the street at about the same pace as himself. James Spector felt that it might be worth waiting for the man and killing him just to avoid any possible hassle farther along the way. After all, there were two fifths of Jack Daniel's and a six-pack of Schlitz in his bag, and if someone were to accost him abruptly on these icy walks- He winced at the thought of the bottles breaking, of having to retrace his path to the store.

On the other hand, waiting for the man and killing him right here, while holding the package, could also result in his slipping-even if it was only when he leaned forward to go through the man's pockets. It would be better to find a place to set things down first. He looked about.

There were some steps leading up to a doorway, farther along. He headed for them and set his parcel down on the third one, against its iron railing. He brushed off his collar and turned it up, fished a package of cigarettes from his pocket, shook one out, and lit it within cupped hands. He leaned against the rail then and waited, watching the corner. Shortly a man in gray slacks and a blue blazer came into sight, necktie whipping in the wind, dark hair disheveled. He paused and stared, then nodded and advanced. As he came nearer, Spector realized that the man was wearing mirrorshades. He felt a sudden jab of panic, seeing that the other possessed an adequate first line of defense against him. It wasn't likely to be an accident either, in the middle of the night. Therefore, this was more than some strong-arm hood on his tail. He took a long drag on his cigarette, then mounted several steps backward, slowly, gaining sufficient height for a good kick at the other's head, to knock the damned things off.

"Yo, Demise!" the man called. "I need to talk to you!" Demise stared, trying to place him. But there was nothing familiar about the man, not even his voice.

The man came up and stood before him, smiling. "I just need a minute or two of your time," he said. "It's important. I'm in a big hurry and I'm trying for a certain measure of subtlety. It isn't easy."

"Do I know you?" Demise asked him.

"We've met. In other lives, so to speak. My lives, that is. Also, I believe you might once have done some accounting for my brother-in-law's company, over in Jersey. Croyd's the name. "

"What do you want?"

"I need the name of the head of the new mob that's trying to take over operations from the kindly old Mafia, which has run this town for half a century or so."

"You're kidding," Demise said, taking a final drag on his cigarette, dropping it and moving his toe to grind it.

"No," said Croyd. "I definitely require this information so I can rest in peace. I understand you've done some work other than bookkeeping for these guys. So tell me who runs the show and I'll be moving along."

"I can't do that," Demise answered.

"As I said, I'm aiming for subtlety. So I'd rather not work this the hard way-"

Demise kicked him in the face. Croyd's glasses flew over his shoulder, and Demise found himself staring into 216 glittering eye-facets. He was unable to lock gazes with the points of light.

"You're an ace," he said, " or a joker."

"I'm the Sleeper," Croyd told him as he reached out and took hold of Demise's right arm, then broke it across the railing. "You should have let me be subtle. It doesn't hurt as much."

Demise shrugged even as he winced. "Go ahead and break the other one too."

"But I can't tell you what I don't know."

Croyd stared at the arm hanging at Demise's side. Demise reached across and caught hold of it, twisted it into place, held it.

"You heal real fast, don't you?" Croyd said. "In minutes, even. I remember now."

"That's right."

"Can you grow a new arm if I tear one off?"

"I don't know, and I'd rather not find out. Look, I've heard you're a psycho and I believe it. I'd tell you if I knew. I don't enjoy regenerating. But all I did was a lousy contract hit. I've got no idea who's on top."

Croyd reached out with both hands, catching hold of Demise's wrists.

"Breaking you up may not do much good," he observed, "but there's still room for subtlety. Ever have any electroshock therapy? Try this."

When Demise stopped jerking, Croyd released his wrists. When he could speak again, Demise said, "I still can't tell you. I don't know."

"So let's lose a few more neurons," Croyd suggested. "Cool it a minute," Demise said. "I never learned the names of any of the big guys. Never meant dick to me. Still don't. All I know is this guy named Eye-a joker. He just has one big eye and he wears a monocle in it. He met me once, in Times Square, gave me a hit and paid me. That's all that matters. You know how it is. You freelance yourself." Croyd sighed. "Eye? Seems I've heard of him someplace or other. Where can I get hold of the guy?"

"I understand he hangs around Club Dead Nicholas. Plays cards there awhile on Friday nights. Kept meaning to go by and kill the fucker, but I never got around to it. Cost me a foot."

"'Club Dead Nicholas'?" Croyd said. "I don't believe I know that one."

"Used to be Nicholas King's Mortuary, near Jokertown. Serves food and booze, has music and a dance floor, gambling in a back room. Just opened recently. Kind of Halloween motif. Too morbid for my taste."

"Okay," Croyd said. "I hope you're not bullshitting me, Demise."

"That's all I got."

Croyd nodded slowly. "It'll do." He released the other and backed away. "Maybe then I can rest," he said.

"Subtle. Real subtle." He picked up Demise's package and put it in his arms. "Here. Don't forget your stuff. Better watch your step too. It's getting slippery," He continued to back away, muttering to himself, up the street, to the corner. Then he turned again and was gone.

Sinking to a seated position on the stoop, Demise cracked open a fifth and took a long swallow.

Jesus Was an Ace by Arthur Byron Cover

In these times of trouble and dark travail; in this fertile land where the handiwork of Satan is on the verge of bearing fruit: you don't need to pussyfoot with Marx; or stick your nose in Freud; you don't need the help of liberals like Tachyon; you don't need to open yourself up to anyone but Jesus-because he was the first and the greatest ace of them all!

– REVEREND LEO BARNETT

I

There are a few blocks or so between Jokertown and the Lower East Side that nats and virus victims alike call the Edge. No one knows which group originated the term, but it applies equally to either side. A joker might think of the place as the edge of New York, a nat as the edge of Jokertown.

People come to the Edge for the same reasons why some people watch a slasher movie, or see a good speed metal rock concert, or get wasted on the designer drug in fashion at the moment. They come to the Edge drawn by the illusion of danger, a safe, fleeting illusion that gives them something to talk about at parties attended by people too timid to go to the Edge themselves.

The young preacher thought about that as he watched the television news team wandering the street below through the bathroom window of the cheap hotel room he had rented for the night, though he had intended to use it for only a few hours. The team consisted of a male reporter in a coat and tie, a Minicam operator, and a sound man; the reporter was stopping pedestrians, nats and jokers alike, jabbing his microphone into their faces and trying to get them to say something. For a long, torturous moment the young preacher was afraid his tryst with Belinda May was the story the news team was searching for, but he comforted himself with the notion that the news team no doubt prowled this vicinity routinely. After all, where else did they have a better chance of finding a strong visual lead-in for the eleven o'clock news? The young preacher didn't like to think sinful thoughts, but under the circumstances he relished the hope the news team would be distracted by a spectacular auto accident a few blocks away, with lots of visual flair in the form of fire and crumpled hoods-but with no fatalities, of course.

The young preacher let the flimsy white curtain drop. He finished his business and while washing his hands with quick, efficient motions, stared at his cadaverous reflection in the mirror over the rust-stained sink. Was he really that unhealthy, or was his pale, yellowish complexion only the result of the unshielded glare of the two naked light bulbs above the mirror? The young preacher was a blond, blue-eyed man just turned thirty-five, with handsome features dominated by high cheekbones and a dimpled, square chin. Right now he was stripped down to a white T-shirt, light-blue boxer shorts, and socks. He perspired profusely. It was definitely hot in here, but he hoped to make it a lot hotter real soon now.

Even so, he couldn't help but feel out of place in this tacky little hotel room, with this particular woman who just happened to be one of the key staff members of his new Jokertown mission. Not that he was inexperienced. He had done it many times before, with many kinds of women, in rooms like this one. The women had done it because he was famous, or had felt good listening to his sermons, or wanted to feel closer to God. Occasionally, when he himself was having a little difficulty feeling close to God, they'd done it for money, the payments having been arranged by a trustworthy member of his most intimate circle. A few women had foolishly believed they were in love with him, a delusion he generally shattered without much trouble, but only after satiating their carnal desires.

But nothing in the young preacher's experience had quite prepared him for a woman such as Belinda May, who apparently was here for the sheer joy of it. He wondered if Belinda May's attitude was typical of unmarried big-city Christian women. Where in the world is Jesus going to come from, he thought, when the time arrives for him to return again? He opened the door to the bedroom and, before he had taken a single step outside, received the shock of his life. Belinda May sat cross-legged on the bed, smoking a cigarette, as pretty as you please but as naked as a jaybird. He'd expected to see her naked, of course, but not right away. And even then, he'd thought she'd be discreetly under the sheets. "About time you showed up," she said. She stubbed out her cigarette and stepped into his arms before he could take a breath. Now he knew how a frying pan felt on a hot stove. She clung to him as if she wanted to pull herself into his body. He was unbelievably aroused by the sensation of her breasts pressed against his chest, and by the way she had mounted his thigh rubbing against it as if she were trying to sit on the bone. Her tongue was like an eel exploring his mouth. One hand was under his T-shirt, the other down his shorts, caressing his buttocks.

"Hmmm, you taste good," Belinda May whispered in his ear after what seemed like an eternity in a place that was an eerie combination of the stratospheres of heaven and the lower levels of hell. No doubt about it, Belinda May was more sexually aggressive than the kind of woman he was used to. "Come on, let's go to bed," she whispered, taking him by the hands and pulling him along. She climbed on the bed, got on her knees, and directing him to stand beside the bed, gently placed his right hand smack onto her pussy.

Though the young preacher experienced a deep and abiding satisfaction every time his foreplay brought her to orgasm, he felt strangely disjointed from the entire affair, as if he was watching the scene through a one-way mirror in the wall. Very self-consciously he wondered anew what he was doing in this dive, with its paint peeling off its badly plastered walls, those tacky lamps, the bed with creaky springs, and that television set staring at him with an unsleeping eye. He regretted going along with Belinda May's request that they pick a room here, at the Edge, to engage in their encounter. It disturbed him to think that in some part of his soul he so closely resembled the people who routinely came to the Edge in search of a safe chance to take. The young preacher wanted to believe God had already filled the important voids in his heart.

However, Belinda May's accessible beauty disturbed him on a deeper level than did his instrusive self-doubts. Gently he pushed her down, and with a strange thrill, not unlike the one he had experienced as a youth the first time he'd knelt alone before an altar, he noted how her blond hair was spread out over the pillow like the wings of an angel. She squirmed beguilingly as he kissed her ear and moved down to lick her neck. He moved down further to kiss her breasts and felt a renewed surge of heat in his scalp as she signaled the measure of her passion by running her hands through his hair and groaning softly. Then he was down at her stomach; running his tongue around the edges of her belly button-an outie-with what he hoped was a delicate, masterful touch. He was gratified beyond his capacity to understand when she at last spread her legs wide apart, an invitation he accepted almost instantly, burying his face and licking her with pagan ferocity. Never had he known a woman to taste so good. Never had he desired so fervently to serve another, instead of being served. Never had he worshiped so humbly, so eagerly at the altar of love. Never had he so gladly debased himself, or so wantonly…

"Leo?" said Belinda May, moving back on her elbows. "Is something the matter?"

The young preacher rose onto his elbows and looked down between his legs, where his male member hung as limp as a man on a noose. O Lord, why have you forsaken me? He thought forlornly, reining in a childish urge to panic. He smiled sheepishly, looked past the altar with its still wideopen invitation, past her sweat-drenched body and those glistening breasts, to her sweetly smiling face. "I don't know. I guess I'm just not with it tonight."

Belinda May pouted and stretched as innocenty and as naturally as if she'd been alone. "Too bad. Is there anything I can do to help?"

For the next few seconds the young preacher weighed several factors in his mind, most of them having to do with the proper balance between frankness and delicate diplomacy. In the end he decided she would respond well to frankness, but he wasn't sure how much he could get away with. He smiled wolfishly. "Think you'd like to something to eat?"

His life passed before his eyes as she swung her left leg over his head, climbed off the bed, and exclaimed, "What a great idea! There's a sushi bar across the street! You can buy me dinner!" Her buttocks bounced enticingly as she disappeared into the bathroom, closing the door behind her. She turned on the water faucet and then, apparently before commencing her business, opened the door and stuck out her head just long enough to say,

"Then we can come back here and try again."

The young preacher was speechless. He rolled over and stared at the ceiling, the random pattern of the intersecting cracks there enigmatically symbolic of his entire existence at this juncture. He sighed heavily. At least the possibility that the roving news team outside would discover his tryst was no longer the worst thing that could happen to him.

Now, the worst thing would be if they discovered he hadn't been able to get it up.

In that case, the damage done to his political ambitions would be incalculable. The American people were willing to forgive any number of sins in a presidential candidate, but at the very least they expected their sinners to be good at it.

"You really have a good pair of hands, you know that?" called out Belinda May from the bathroom.

Terrific, thought Leo Barnett, clinging to the precipice of despair with progressively weaker force. Bye-bye, White House; hello, Heaven.

II

Tonight he felt the city inside him, and he was inside it. He felt its steel and mortar and brick and stone and marble and glass, felt his organs touching the various buildings and places of Jokertown as their atoms phased in (and out) on their way (and back again) across the planes of reality. His molecules grazed the clouds swirling toward the city like an incoming black cotton tide; they mingled with air pregnant with moisture and the promise of more moisture to come, they trembled with the vibrations of distant thunder. Tonight he felt inexorably linked with Jokertown's past and future; the coming rainstorm would differ in no way from the last one, and would be exactly the same as the next. Just as the steel and the mortar were constant, the brick and stone forever, and the marble and glass immortal. So long as the city remained so, however tenuously, would he.

His name was Quasiman. Once he had had another name, but all he could remember about his previrus self was that he had been an explosives expert. Currently he was a caretaker of the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Misery, and of him Father Squid relished saying, time and time again, "The bomb squad's loss has been the God squad's gain."

Usually it was all Quasiman could do to remember those bare facts, because the atoms of his brain, like those in the rest of his body, constantly, randomly, phased in and out of reality, soaring to extradimensional realms and snapping back again. This had the dual effect of making him more than a genius, and less than an idiot. Most days Quasiman considered it a victory to keep himself in one piece.

Tonight maintaining even that modest goal was going to prove more difficult than usual. Blood and thunder were in the air. Tonight Quasiman was going to the Edge.

As he reached the door at the top of the stairs leading to the roof of the cheapjack apartment building where he lived, portions of his brain glanced off the immediate future. Already he felt cool night air, saw distant flashes of lightning, felt rooftop gravel crunch beneath the soles of his tennis shoes, and saw an old bag lady, a joker, sleeping beside a warm-air duct, her belongings beside her in a cart she had pulled up the fire escape.

The intersection between present and future became stronger and more vivid the instant he actually touched the doorknob, and becoming stronger still once he turned it. Quasiman was used to this sort of minor precognition by now. For him the different levels of time constantly clashed together like discordant cymbals. Long ago he had accepted the only conclusion possible from living in such a mindworld: Reality was just the fragments of a dream shattered before the dawn of being.

Future and present merged seamlessly as he steped through the doorway. The lightning flashes and the gravel underfoot and the sleeping old woman were there, as he had known they would be. What he hadn't envisioned was the creaking of the door's rusty hinges, screeching like a buzz saw cutting through nails over the steady hum of the automobile traffic below, startling the old woman from her uneasy sleep. She had brown scaly skin, and the face of a furless rat. Her lips drew back and exposed sharp white fangs. "Who the fuck are you?" she demanded with false bravado.

He ignored her. A hunchbacked man with an unbending left hip, he shuffled to the building's ledge with the efficient grace of a dancer permanently engrossed in a sick, satirical joke.

Without the slightest hesitation he stepped off the ledge.

The old woman, mistakeningly believing he was committing suicide, screamed. Quasiman didn't care.

He was too busy doing what he always did after stepping off a bulding: he willed himself to where he wished to be. Time and space folded about him. In the following instant his rapidly fading intellect fought hard to hold on to his own self-image. For an enduring nanosecond he almost became lost in the fluidity of the cosmos. But he maintained, and when that moment ended, he was in an alley in the Edge. He was one second closer to the thunder, one step closer to the blood, one event closer to the final blackout.

III

Tonight was the night of Vito's big break. The Man never would have instructed him to come along on this little excursion to the Edge if he hadn't already indicated his ability to handle responsibility. Of course that also meant Vito was a mite expendable, but that was okay, it came with the territory. You had to take risks if you wanted to move up in the Calvino Family.

And lately there had been a lot of openings in the Family hierarchy. Vito, an ambitious youngster, hoped to survive long enough to rise a few notches, just high enough to get somebody else to take the more obvious risks.

Unfortunately a truce of some sort seemed likely, if there was any truth to the scuttlebutt he had picked up from a few of the boys while he was busy waxing the Man's limo. Evidently the Man planned to hash over some important business with one of the high mucky-muck jokers pulling the strings on all the hits that had decimated the Five Families recently.

Some joker named Wyrm, yeah, that's his name, thought Vito tensely as he walked down a sidewalk in the middle of the Edge, weaving through a flood of tourists and jokers and maybe even a few aces. He checked out the street scene for potential trouble. It wasn't his job-that was to walk into the lobby of the cheap dive just ahead and pick up the key to the room where the Man and the joker had agreed to meet-but he couldn't help hoping he'd notice something significant in the security area anyway, so the Man and the boys would maybe consider him a little less expendable.

Stepping into the lobby, however, Vito felt like a blind bear walking into a campsite full of hunters. Trying to keep his posture straight* and his jaw tightly set, the way he'd seen the boys do while rousting some welsher, he strode up to the registry counter and slammed his palm on it with what he hoped was an authoritative air. "I'm here for one of your, ah, most important customers," he said with an unfortunate crack in his voice.

Theclerk, a seedy old man with white hair and a black eyepatch, probably some joker passing for nat, barely looked up from the girly magazine he was reading. The back of the cover heralded some joker fetish article, and in the blurry photo some beefy dude straddled a creature with gorgeous, lusty eyes, but who otherwise resembled a giant scoop of vanilla ice cream with skinny arms and legs and tiny hands and feet. The clerk nonchalantly turned a page.

Vito cleared his throat.

The clerk cleared his. After a long pause he finally looked up and said, "We've got a lot of important customers, young man. Which one do you represent?"

"The one you owe so many favors to."

The words were barely out of Vito's mouth when the old man jumped up and picked up a key from the rack and dashed to the counter and held it out for Vito, saying, "Everything's been taken care of, sir. Hope you find the facilities to your liking."

"It's not my opinion that counts," Vito said, plucking the key from the clerk's hand. "Watch it or else those pages will stick together," he added, turning toward the exit. Briefly he wondered if he should check out the room, but then he remembered that his instructions had been very succinct and to the point. Go to the lobby and bring back the key. Vito had already learned from watching a few fellas learn the hard way, that the boys often didn't appreciate initiative.

So he went outside into the cool air and put his head down as if walking into a strong wind, although it was barely blowing and his posture allowed his greasy black hair to fall into his eyes. His confidence that things would go his way tonight, based on how things had gone so far, was almost immediately negated by the presence everywhere of men he recognized-on both sides of the street, standing around, i sitting at the tables of junk food venues or in parked cars. Usually the only time that many family members and grunts were together in the same area was during a funeral. Now though, rather than being conspicuous in their clothing of mourning, they were trying to blend into their surroundings. Vito didn't recognize a few of the people accompanying the boys, but something about their cool confidence exuded an air of restrained cruelty that made even the roughest, toughest boys appear a little uneasy.

His mind racing with a hundred questions, Vito walked with a quickened pace to the streetcorner where Ralphy was waiting for him. Ralphy was one of the Man's most trusted assistants. Rumor had it he had been a hit man of such talent that he once shot a mayoral candidate from two hundred yards and disappeared into a crowd right in front of the television cameras. Vito didn't doubt it was possible. For him, Ralphy was more of a force than a human being. So when Vito halted a few respectful yards away from Ralphy, he looked up into those cold brown eyes above those pockmarked cheeks and saw a man who would snuff him out as casually as he would step on a bug. Vito held out the key. "Here it is!" he proclaimed, perhaps a trifle too loudly.

"Good," said Ralphy in his gravelly voice, pointedly not taking the key. "You check out the room?"

"No. I wasn't told to."

"Right. Check it out now."

"What's going on?" Vito blurted out. " I heard this was supposed to be a peace conference."

"You ain't heard nothing. We're just taking precautions, and you've been volunteered."

"What am I looking for?"

"You'll know if you find it. Now get."

Vito got. He didn't know if he should be elated or worried that he was being trusted with this part of the operation. His musings were interrupted as he accidentally bumped into a hunchbacked joker with a stiff hip shuffling from an alleyway. "Hey-watch it!" he barked, pushing the joker away.

The joker stopped and drooled, nodding fearfully at Vito. Something flickered on in his dull eyes, lasting for only a second, as the joker clenched and unclenched his fist. During that second the joker straightened and Vito got the distinct impression he could crush granite in that massive fist.

Then the joker deflated, another stream of spittle drooled from his mouth, and he shuffled backward into the alley until he bumped into a garbage can. The joker ignored Vito and rummaged about in the garbage. He found a dried, half-eaten chicken and took a big chomp of it with his white, straight teeth, masticating it furiously.

Disgusted, Vito turned away and hastened back to the hotel. Only as he pushed his way through the rotating doors that led into the lobby did Vito note that the joker's clothing-a lumberjack shirt and blue jeans-had been very clean and tidy. He couldn't remember having seen before a street person, reduced to scrounging in garbage cans for food, with fresh patches on his jeans at the knees.

Vito put the picture of the man from his mind with a shrug. He walked past the counter where the clerk still had his nose buried in the magazine, and thinking he might be trapped in the elevator with an unsavory sort who could reduce his probability of surviving the peace conference to zero, he instead took the six flights of stairs to the third floor. The hallway was depressingly dark, the dim fluorescents casting as much haze as actual light, light that barely reflected off the grimy tan walls, infusing them with an unpleasant glare.

He found the room. He looked up and down the hall. No one was there. He could hear the muffled sounds of a few TV sets coming through the doors, as well as what seemed to be the sounds of the plumbing working in the room across the hall. All this was pretty normal hotel activity in Vito's opinion, but he nevertheless felt prickly and uneasy inside, the way he always felt when he beleieved he was being watched by unseen eyes. He inserted the key with trembling fingers and opened the door.

And found himself staring into the face of one ugly motherfucker. The dude had virtually no jaw, two nostril pits instead of a nose, and a forked tongue that flicked in and out of his mouth. The way the joker grinned and looked at Vito with those predatory yellow eyes was definitely evil. Vito was used to a more banal, businesslike version. This joker savored the knowledge that he had already frightened Vito to the core.

The joker sneered. "I sssee the Calvinos are sending boysss to do their work now. Tell your boss it'sss all right for him to come in. I am quite alone."

IV

"Maybe you should try taking off your socks next time," said Belinda May mischievously as the young preacher pulled the door closed. He winced at the playful sting of her words as he twisted the knob to make sure the room was locked. Belinda May giggled and put her arm around him. "Lighten up, Reverend. You take yourself too seriously." She gave him a squeeze that started his heart pounding, and he attempted a smile. "Just remember what Norman Mailer said," she whispered seductively into his ear. "'Sometimes desire just isn't enough.' It doesn't make you any less of a man."

"I don't read Mailer," he replied as they walked toward the elevator.

"His books too dirty for you?"

"That's what I've heard."

"It's only life that he writes about. Life is what's happening to us now."

"The Bible tells me everything I need to know about life."

"Bullshit."

Shocked by her casual profanity, he opened his mouth to reply-but she continued before he could get a word in: "It's a little late to protest your innocence. Leo."

The young preacher supressed his anger. Normally he only became angry before his congregations, and he wasn't used to being talked back to. Furthermore he wasn't used to being in the company of a female who implied his understanding of the moral dilemmas of love, life, and the pursuit of happiness wasn't beyond questioning. But in this case he was forced to admit, though not aloud to Belinda May, he was in the wrong, because he had indeed read the works of Norman Mailer-in particular The Executioner's Song, the exhaustive case-study of the tormented young ace who had been executed for turning nine innocent people into pillars of salt. The young preacher still had a copy of the paperback edition, hidden away in a cabinet drawer in his study in his southwestern Virginia home, where it was unlikely to be seen by anybody else. Many other books of dubious moral content were hidden away in the same drawer, and in many others, concealed from the curiosity of his closest associates the way other evangelical preachers might conceal the contents of their liquor cabinets.

So what else could he do except let Belinda May get the better of him? He was satisfied with the prospect of getting the better part of her body later. Besides, he wasn't all that interested in her mind anyway.

She gave him another squeeze as they stood and waited for the elevator to arrive. The thrill was twice as great as before, because this time she squeeed a buttock. "You have such a cute ass for a possible presidential candidate," she said. "Most of the current crop looks like a bunch of hound dogs."

His eyes darted back and forth suspiciously.

"Don't worry," she said, giving him a pinch. "There's nobody here."

Then the elevator doors opened and they found themselves staring at four men with impassive faces and eyes of steel. The young preacher felt his knees quake, and Belinda May's squeeze this time conveyed her fear and need for protection, a signal direct and primal.

The two men in the middle were the focus of the young preacher's attention. One was short and corpulent, red-faced and thick-lipped, with a long patch of white hair combed over the top of his head in a failed attempt to conceal the bald dome glistening beneath the fluorescents. His big eyes looked as if they would pop out of his head if someone slapped him on the back too hard. His fingers were thick and meaty. Despite a well-tailored black suit, with a red carnation in the lapel, and a neat white shirt and a gray vest, his taste in clothing was questionable at best, thanks to a red tie whose shade practically sent it into the Day-Glo category. The man serenely puffed at a big Havana cigar. The tobacco at the end had been darkened by his spittle, making it resemble nothing so much as a dried turd.

The man blew cigar smoke into the young preacher's face. The act was deliberately inconsiderate, and the young preacher might have responded had it not been for the cold brown eyes of the tall, pockmarked man beside the fat one. This man had thin, pale lips that looked like scars. His brown hair was pressed so flat against his skull the young preacher imagined he slept with a stocking over his head. He wore a beige trench coat with a decided bulge in the right pocket. Two beefy men flanked them. They wore the brims of their hats tilted down so that most of their faces were concealed in shadow. One had his arms crossed, while the other, the young preacher belatedly noted, was waving the couple aside.

The couple obeyed. The four men left the elevator and walked down the hall without a backward glance. The young preacher couldn't help pausing to stare at them, even as Belinda May dashed inside. "Come on, Leo!" she whispered, holding open the closing doors with her body.

The young preacher hastened inside. "Who was that?"

"Not now!" Only when the elevator had begun its downward descent did Belinda May add, "That was the head of the Calvino Family. I saw him on the news once!"

"Who's the Calvino Family?"

"The mob."

"Oh, I see. We don't have the mob where I come from."

"The mob's wherever it wants to be. There are five Families in the city, though right now there're only three heads. Or maybe two. There've been a lot of gang murders lately."

"If that guy's such a bigwig, what's he doing here?"

"You can bet it was business. Calvino numero uno will probably incinerate his shoes when he gets out of here." The elevator doors opened at the lobby. Completely oblivious to the fact that several people, including a beefy joker with a rhino face, were standing at the entrance. Belinda May put her hands around the young preacher's elbow and said, "Did you bring a box of prophylactics, by any chance?"

He felt his face blaze red. But if any of these people recognized him, he got no indication of it. At least he did not hear his name being spoken or the click of a camera. As they made their way through the rotating doors, he realized that his relief at having gotten out without being recognized could be illusionary. If he was being staked out by a muckraker, the young preacher would never know until he saw the proof on the evening news or read it on the front pages of the supermarket rags. "Belinda-why did you say that-?" he demanded.

"What? Do you mean about the prophylactics?" she asked innocently, reaching for a cigarette and lighter from her pocketbook. "It seems like a reasonable question. I think it's very important for sexually active people to practice safe sex, don't you?"

"Yes, but in front of all those people!"

She stopped at the edge of the sidewalk, turned away from him, cupped her hand over the cigarette in her mouth, and lit it. When she turned back to him, puffing smoke, she said,

"What do they care? Besides," she added with a mischievous smile, " I should think you'd approve my inherent optimism."

The young preacher covered his face. He clenched his other hand into a fist. He felt as if the eyes of every individual on the street were upon him, even though the most casual appraisal of the situation demonstrated he was simply being paranoid. "Where do you want to eat?" he asked.

Belinda May playfully jabbed his ribs. "Brace up. Reverend! I was only kidding. You worry too much. Keep on worrying and we'll be in that room for weeks. I'm not sure I've got that much credit on my plastic."

"Oh, don't worry about that. I'll see that the church reimburses you somehow. Now, where do you want to eat?"

"That place looks good," she said, pointing across the street. "Rudy's Kosher Sushi."

"It's a deal." He took her by the elbow and walked her to the corner of the intersection. He looked both ways as the light at the crosswalk turned green, not just to make sure all the automobiles were stopping-something no big-city denizen took for granted-but to see if anyone was around whose presence he should be concerned with. The television crew was accosting a young woman at the end of the next block, but that was it. He felt reasonably certain they would be safely seated at a restaurant table in the back if the crew came this way again.

Before they had stepped off the curb, someone coming from his blind side bumped into him. On a usual night the young preacher would have turned the other cheek, but normally he wasn't so frustrated. He yelled, "Hey! Watch where you're going!" and then realized with a shock of horror that his harsh words had been spoken to a joker:

An obviously retarded joker with a hunchback and dim eyes. The man had curly red hair and wore a freshly pressed lumberjack shirt and denim jeans. "Sorry," said the joker, sticking the tip of his forefinger in his nostril, and then, as if thinking better of it, merely wiping his wrist across his nose.

The young preacher for some reason suspected the gesture as an affectation and became certain of it when the joker bowed stiffly and said, "I was just a tad preoccupied-lost in my own world, I suppose. You do forgive me-don't you?"

Then the joker stepped away from the curb as if he had completely changed his mind about which direction he was headed in. A trickle of drool dropped down his chin almost as an afterthought.

Wide-eyed and confused, the young preacher took a few steps after the man. Belinda May detained him, demanding, "Leo, where do you think you're going?"

"Uh, after him, of course."

"Why?"

The young preacher thought about it during a particularly uncomfortable moment. "I thought I would tell him about the mission. See if he couldn't use a little help. He looked like he could."

"Nice sentiments, but you can't. You're incognito, remember?"

"I am. All right." He couldn't see the hunchback anymore anyway. The pitiful creature had already disappeared into the crowd.

"Come on, let's feed our faces," she said, again taking him by the elbow. They weaved through a slew of automobiles gridlocked at the intersection.

The young preacher was still looking back, searching for a glimpse of the hunchback, when they came to an abrupt stop. He turned to see a microphone poised before his face. The television news team blocked their path.

"Reverend Leo Barnett," said the reporter, a clean-cut man with curly black hair, wearing glasses and a three-piece blue suit, "what in the world are you, with your well-known stance on jokers' rights, doing here in the Edge?"

The young preacher felt his life passing before his eyes. He managed a weak smile. "Ah, my date and I are simply having a bite to eat."

"Do you have an announcement for the society pages?" the reporter asked slyly.

The corners of the young preacher's mouth turned. " I make it a policy never to answer questions of a personal nature. This young lady is my companion for the evening. She works at the new mission my church has opened in Jokertown, and she suggested we sample some of the fine cuisine the Edge has to offer."

"Some commentators think it strange, peculiar even, that a man who has opposed jokers' rights so stridently at his pulpit would be so concerned with the day-to-day plight of jokers. Just why did you open the Mission?"

The young preacher decided he didn't like the reporter's attitude. "I had a promise to keep, that's why I did it," he said curtly, trying to imply the interview was over. That was precisely the opposite of his true intention.

"And what was that promise? Who did you make it to? Your congregation?"

The reporter had taken the bait. Now the young preacher's major difficulty was in keeping a straight face. The information on his mind hadn't been made public before, and his instincts guessed these were the right circumstances to do so. "Well, if you insist."

"There's been a great deal of speculation on the matter, sir, and I think the people have a right to know."

"Well, I met a young man once. He had been infected by the wild card virus and had gotten himself in a great deal of trouble as a result. He asked to see me, and I came. We prayed together and he told me he knew I couldn't do anything for him, but he wanted me to promise to help as many jokers as I could, so maybe they wouldn't get into the same type of trouble as he did. I was very moved and so I promised. A few hours later he was executed by electrocution. I watched as twenty thousand volts of current shot him in a hot flash and fried him like a piece of bacon, and I knew I would have to keep that promise no matter what anyone else thought."

"He was executed?" the reporter asked stupidly.

"Yes, he was a first-degree murderer. He had turned some people into pillars of salt."

"You made that promise to Gary Gilmore?" the reporter asked incredulously, his face ashen.

"Absolutely. Though maybe he wasn't a joker, maybe some people would call him an ace, or an individual with some of the powers you'd expect from an ace. I don't really know. I'm only finding some of these things out."

"I see. And has your opening of the Jokertown mission had any effect on your position toward jokers' rights?"

"Not at all. The common man still must be protected, but I have always emphasized that we must deal with the victims of the virus compassionately."

"I see." The reporter's face remained ashen, while the sound man and the Minicam operator smiled smugly. Evidently they realized, as the young preacher realized, that the reporter lacked the quick wit necessary to ask a logical follow-up question.

But since the young preacher was feeling fairly mercifulas well as confident that he had just achieved his sixty-second bite, on the news-he felt like giving the reporter a break.

A slight break. "My companion and I must get something to eat, but I think we have time for one more question."

"Yes, there is something else I'm sure our viewers would like to know. You've made no secret of your presidential ambitions."

"That is true, but I really have nothing further to add on the subject right now."

"Just answer this, sir. You've just turned thirty-five, the minimum age for that office, but some of your potential opponents have stated that a man of thirty-five can't possibly have the experience in life that's necessary for the job. How do you respond to that?"

"Jesus was only thirty-three when he changed the world for all time. Surely a man who's reached the grand old age of thirty-five can have some positive effect. Now if you'd excuse me…" Taking Belinda May by the arm, he brushed past the reporter and the crew and walked into the restaurant.

"I'm sorry, Leo, I didn't know…" she said.

"That's all right. I think I handled them well enough, and besides, I've -been meaning to tell that story for some time."

"Did you really meet Gary Gilmore?"

"Yes. It's been a fairly well kept secret. There really hadn't been the need to publicize it before now, though it might do the mission some good in the public relations arena."

"Then maybe you have met Mailer? He said he hadn't been able to confirm all the identities of the people who saw Gilmore toward the end."

"Please, we have to have keep secrets from one another. Otherwise what would we discover about each other tomorrow?"

"Would you like a table for two?" asked the maitre d', a tuxedoed, fish-faced man weaing a water helmet for breathing purposes. The words from the speaker grill on the helmet gurgled eeriely.

"Yes, in the back, please," said the young preacher. When they were alone at the booth, Belinda May lit yet another cigarette and said, "If those reporters find out about us, would it help if we assure them we're only going to use the missionary position?"

V

Quasiman did not fear death, and death certainly did not fear him. Quasiman lived with a little piece of death in his soul every day, a little bit of terror and beauty, of blood and thunder. Fragments of his forthcoming demise perpetually crashed together with fleeting images of his previral past inside his brain.

How distant were those fragments? Quasiman had the distinct sensation the future might be closer than he had hoped.

He shuffled up to a newsstand and stood before the rows of girlie magazines. He thought how there had been something tantalizingly familiar about the face of the man he had bumped into, something that eluded him as parts of his brain twisted into another dimension. Quasiman would have dropped everything until enough of his brain had reassembled in one plane for him to remember, but right now he figured it was more important to remember why he had come to the Edge tonight in the first place.

Suddenly his hand became very cold. He looked down at it. It had gone somewhere else, and his wrist tapered off into a stub as if the hand had become transparent. He knew it was still attached because otherwise he would be feeling intense pain, as he had when an extradimensional creature had eaten a stray toe. The extreme cold numbed his arm all the way to his shoulder, but there was nothing he could do about that, except suffer until the hand returned. Which would be soon enough. Probably.

Even so, he couldn't help thinking about how Christ had visited a synagogue and cured a man who had a withered hand.

Something in his heart like faith told him Father Squid had sent him to the Edge tonight on a mission. Whether or not the idea for the mission had originated in Father Squid's fevered mind was a moot point-many from all walks of life requested assistance from the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Misery, and Father Squid was only too happy to provide it, if he saw that only good could result.

Quasiman shuffled up and down the street, casing out the scene. His suspicions were aroused by a few of the men sitting at some tables on the sidewalk. The rumpled clothing of a man at the newsstand, come to think of it, had indicated he probably wasn't the type who'd spend so much time looking at investors' magazines. Finally, an unusual number of alert, grim-faced men just sat in their cars, watching, waiting. Several little pieces of death manifested themselves in Quasiman's brain, death that pointed, thank God, at these grim-faced men.

For a moment Quasiman saw the streets running red with blood. But a closer inspection of the environment indicated the vision had just been an optical illusion, caused by reflecting red neon lights off water collecting in a few large, shallow potholes.

The revelation could not, however, explain the smell of blood and fear, permeating the air like a memory that hadn't happened yet.

As important parts of the muscle group in his right thigh phased into another plane of existence, where the air had a slightly acidic quality, Quasiman shuffled to a street corner.

There, pretending to be a beggar, he would wait for the blood and the fear to become real.

The memory of thunder echoed in his ears.

VI

"War is a bad thing for business," said the Man philosophically. He sat, legs crossed, in a chair in the corner of the room, beside a table and the other chair. He absently rolled his half-smoked cigar in his fingers.

"It'sss especially bad for the losssers," said Wyrm with a grin, sitting in the other chair.

Vito stood at the door with his arms folded across his chest and felt something inside turn to ice. He had assumed, as presumably the Man and the boys had assumed, that this joker was just another businessman whose interests lay outside the law, just as their own did. Vito couldn't help feeling, however, this Wyrm character had a hidden agenda.

If the head of the Calvino clan was as disturbed as Vito, though, he gave no indication of it. He conducted himself forcefully, secure in his position as the person who pulled the strings on the other four men in the room. Of these, Mike and Frank were simple enforcers; Vito wasn't particularly afraid of them, but he wouldn't want to be on their bad side either. It was always prudent to be a little afraid to Ralphy, even when he was in a good mood.

Even so, Vito couldn't help but notice that the Man was deliberately acting defferentially to this joker who couldn't keep his forked tongue in his mouth. Thus far in the course of their conference, whenever Wyrm had raised his voice, the Man had soothed his feelings. When Wyrm made demands, the Man had said he would see what he and the boys could do to strike a balance. And whenever Wyrm dared the Man to step over a line, the Man politely declined. Vito had to admit to nursing some concern for the future of the Five Families, if they'd have to kowtow to the jokers to survive.

"Besidesss, a man diesss a little every day," said Wyrm with a cryptic smile. "What difference doesss it make if he diesss all at once?"

The Man laughed. His smile was condescending. If Wyrm noticed the implied insult, he gave no indication. "Once I believed as you," said the Man. " I took delight in times of trouble and took great relish at seeing my enemies fall. But that was before I got married and began raising a family. I began to yearn for a more orderly way of resolving differences. That is why we are meeting now, so that we can resolve our differences like civilized human beings."

"I'm not particularly human."

The Man's face reddened. He nodded. "Forgive me. I did not mean to offend."

Vito glanced at Ralphy, leaning against the wall beside a desk. Ralphy's cheek was twitching, a sign he was getting suspicious. The fingers of his right hand twitched too. Ralphy and the Man exchanged glances, and then as the Man turned back to Wyrm, Ralphy looked meaningfully at Mike and Frank, who sat on the bed, carefully watching the proceedings. Mike and Frank nodded.

Vito wasn't exactly sure of the meaning of all those signals, but he definitely wasn't going to ask.

"There has been much killing, much bloodshed," said the Man. "And for what? I do not understand. This is a big town. It is a gateway to the rest of the country. Surely there is enough business for all."

Wyrm shrugged. "You don't underssstand. My asssociates strive for sssomething more than just lining their pocketsss."

"That is what I am trying to say," replied the Man, "though please don't get me wrong. Greed is a great and noble thing. It makes the world go round. It makes for the bull market."

Wyrm shrugged. "Bull or bear, it isss all the same to the man who ownsss the building where the market standsss. My asssociates claim our fair share of every businesss operating in thisss market. What you get out of it isss your own affair, but you will have to bargain with usss first."

Ralphy stood straight up. Mike and Frank both reached toward the guns in the holsters beneath their jackets, but they were restrained by a signal the Man made with his forefinger. The silence filled the room like the scent of a crisp pizza in a microwave, and Wyrm ran his forked tongue over his face as if anticipating the tasty morsels to come.

Vito debated which way he should duck.

The Man stared at Wyrm for several moments. He thoughtfully rubbed his double chin. He put his cigar in his mouth, took a lighter from his pocket, and in a few seconds had filled the room with the pungent odor of burning Cuban tobacco. "Vito, I am hungry," He reached for his wallet, which Ralphy took and gave to Vito. "Take my credit cards," said the Man, "and go to that sushi bar across the street. Order a generous selection. For six! Who knows? By the time you return, our business might be concluded and well be comfortably watching a hockey game. Isn't that right, Mr. Wyrm?"

Wyrm hissed in agreement.

"It's amazing how the game becomes much more exciting every year," said the Man, settling back comfortably in his chair. "Tonight's Ranger game should be a good one, shouldn't it, Mr. Wyrm?"

This time Wyrm merely nodded.

Hustling down the hall toward the elevator, Vito realized how relieved he was to be out of Wyrm's company. he imagined the Man would feel the same way, and Vito admired the manner in which his boss hid his discomfort. Wyrm seemed not to notice.

Of course you could never really be sure what a joker noticed, and what he simply chose to ignore.

VII

"What is it you people want?" the Man asked Wyrm angrily after Vito had left. "We're both businessmen. What is it that we can reasonably do to help us live together?"

Wyrm hissed. "Yesss, that isss the question. The organization I represssent, like the organization you represssent, isss very large. It already hasss consssiderable influence. Ssso naturally it wantsss more."

The Man puffed his cigar. "Your ambition has not escaped me," he said sarcastically.

Wyrm grinned. "I didn't think it would. I am merely emphasssizing that, like yourself, I can't make promisesss for othersss."

"Oh, but I can," said the Man, making a subtle gesture that restrained Ralphy from giving the signal, to Mike and Frank. "And I gather you can too, otherwise you wouldn't have taken the trouble to have this meeting with us-alone. We're not naive, Mr. Wyrm. You must have some bargaining leeway, otherwise there'd be no point in you being so very, very alone."

"You are alone, aren't you?" said Ralphy, completely ignoring the irate glare the Man shot at him as he walked past Wyrm to the window and peeked out the curtain, looking to the streets below.

"Of courssse," Wyrm replied.

Suddenly they heard the sounds of two men arguing in the hall. The tone quickly became violent. They heard the sound of a fist striking a jaw. Someone grunted and thumped hard against a wall. The impact made the floor shake. One of the men snarled a curse and then went thump! against the other wall, twice as loud as before.

Ralphy turned from the window and said to Mike and Frank,

"Check it out." The noise of the altercation in the hallway continued unabated.

Mike and Frank walked from the room. Ralphy followed them to the door to make certain it was locked. They heard Mike say something, then the hallway quieted down.

"You still haven't answered my question," the Man said. "What quessstion isss that?" asked Wyrm, glancing up at Ralphy as the enforcer returned to his position at the window. "What can we do to help us live together?"

"Oh, I think I can come up with a reasssonable anssswer." Then there was a knock at the door.

"What is it?" Ralphy called out.

"You better'd come here." It was Frank.

"Good," said the Man, responding to Wyrm's remark. "The Calvino interests want to be reasonable."

Wyrm hissed, his tongue darting in and out.

Ralphy opened the door and barked, "What, for Christ's sake?"

His answer was a gunshot. The bullet ripped a hole the size of a silver dollar in Ralphy's back and sprayed the room with bright red blood. Ralphy was dead before he hit the floor. He twitched, his eyes staring blankly at the ceiling.

Standing in the doorway were two toughs wearing Mackintosh coats. Their faces were concealed by plastic masks that, even in his state of surprise and shock, the Man found to be strangely, disturbingly familiar. Between them was Frank, a gun held to his head.

There was another shot, and an eruption of blood and brains sprayed from Frank's temple and splattered the door. Frank slumped to the floor.

"Mike?" said the Man softly. It had been many years since he had personally witnessed violence. He hadn't refrained because he was afraid, or gotten soft in his old age, but because his lawyers had advised him to conduct his affairs in this manner. So he was a little slow to react, a little slow to realize he was one hundred percent alone.

By the time he stood up, with the intention of calling to his men on the street, Wyrm had already grabbed him. The Man struggled, but Wyrm was too strong. The Man was like a rag doll in his grip.

The last thing the Man saw was Wyrm's open mouth, coming closer to his face. The Man closed his eyes in panic and kept them closed as Wyrm kissed him. The Man tried to scream, then unconsciousness claimed him as Wyrm bit off his lips and spat them across the floor.

VIII

"Where is our food?" the young preacher asked, half-impatiently, half-rhetorically. He saw the waitress coming their way, carrying an array of trays on suspiciously wide arms.

She stopped at a foursome two booths down and served two plates of steamed seafood in kelp boats, plus one of chilled noodles with peanut-miso sauce and another of a variety of meats and vegetables deep-fried tempura style. A large bowl of rice and replenishment of refreshments were quickly added for the entire table.

The air conditioner carried a fresh whiff of the tempura to the young preacher, and his mouth watered in anticipation. The worm of envy gnawed in his soul as he made a quick inspection of the lucky ones whose food had already arrived. They were a team of double-daters. Three, including an Oriental man, seemed normal enough, but he found himself unable to pry his eyes away from the scarlet-skinned victim of the virus, a beautiful woman with soft pink compound eyes like a butterfly's, and two large blood-red antennae protruding from her forehead. She wore a low-cut gown that revealed her shape to be enticingly, even staggeringly normal. He deduced that the scintillating silver cape hung up on a nearby coatrack belonged to her.

The dining area of the sushi bar itself was L-shaped, with the front door and the cash register in the middle corner. The young preacher and Belinda May sat in the row of booths at the discreet furthermost edge of the shorter corridor, which was hidden from the storefront window that ran along most of the longer corridor. The young preacher distracted himself from the beautiful ace by watching the fish-faced maitre d' seat a couple who laughed and made jokes between themselves. At the register booth was a somber young man whose slick black hair made him resemble some juvie or punk from a gangster movie.

"Leo, you're staring at that woman," said Belinda May, a mischievous light appearing in her eyes.

"I was not. I was looking at that boy."

"Hmmm. I bet he's some kind of fledgling gangster. They're all over the streets tonight, for some reason. Did you notice?"

"No, I didn't."

"Anyway, you were looking at that ace earlier."

"Well, yes. Who is she?"

"Her name is Pesticide. She's becoming quite well-known, thanks to that society column she writes for the Jokertown Cry. Anyway, if you're going to stare at any woman tonight, it's going to be me."

The young preacher raised his cup of coffee as if to make a toast. "It's a deal."

Then the worm of envy finally knew defeat, as the waitress brought their meal. In a few moments all thoughts of small talk were erased as the young preacher reached out for a piece of hirame flounder, its tender white color, like glistening ivory, beckoning him like a white, cool light. The cold rice was scrumptious, the taste of the flounder delectable.

Belinda May's fingers flittered over the selection of sushi and tempura on her tray. Quickly she settled on a piece of dark red maguro. She bit the tuna in half and chewed with an expression of ecstasy he remembered all too well.

He picked up a fantailed shrimp and bit off all but the tip. The shrimp was nudging its way down his throat like a pebble in a narrow water pipe when a sudden chilly blast of air whipped through the sushi bar. He glanced up to see the patrons in the other booths, including Pesticide, looking toward the door. A gang of young toughs had entered, dressed in mackintosh coats to a man. It was evident they had some sinister purpose in mind.

The fish-faced joker gurgled something to them via his helmet speaker, probably urging them to vacate the premises at once. The short tough who appeared to be their leader responded threateningly with a hammer, directed at the joker's water helmet.

Their faces, Leo thought, the muscles in his gut tightening. He barely noticed the young juvie, if that's what he was, slipping out the door. Something about their faces…

The toughs' faces were all the same, immobile, strangely devoid of life. The young preacher realized with a start the toughs were wearing plastic masks. The familiar, grinning likeness-an exaggerated pug nose and a lick of blond hair falling across the broad forehead-was distorted with a tone that would have been satirical if the toughs hadn't exuded such dark menace.

With a bolt of horror he recognized the face as his own. The toughs were wearing Leo Barnett masks!

He barely felt the restraining touch of Belinda May on his arm as he stepped from the booth. "Don't go, don't draw any attention to yourself!" she hissed. "They're Werewolves! A joker streetgang! And they know who you are!"

Her words reminded him that many jokers had publicly spoken of their hatred of him for the political and the moral stands he had taken in the past. Their overreaction had only hardened his followers in the belief that something had to be done to end the problem of the wild card virus. This in turn had hardened victims in their belief that something had to be done to end political repression. The young preacher trembled. What would he do if the Werewolves recognized him?

Wild, fearful thoughts that made him ashamed flashed through his brain. A moment ago he had been a semi-anonymous patron of a sushi bar; now he was a lightning rod that anyone in danger could point to in order to distract the Werewolves.

"For God's sake, sit down!" hissed Belinda May, yanking him down beside her. He landed with a thump.

And a hollow chill tore through his being as he saw the nearest of the masked faces turn toward him. That thump had been just loud enough. He instinctively put his hand over his mouth, as if to hide a belch or an untimely remark. And for the next few moments he dared to hope his ploy had worked, for the tough seemed content to use his tentacle to scratch the folds of skin hanging below his mask.

The maitre d', meanwhile, was held motionless by the threat of the hammer above his helmet. One tough withdrew a gun from beneath his mackintosh. There was a commotion at the far end of the sushi bar, as the other patrons reacted to the situation.

Another tough withdrew a machete from his coat and tossed it into the air. He tapped the forehead of his mask-a gesture evidently indicating his telekinetic power over the weapon, which spun out of sight down the far corridor like a giant version of those deadly ninja stars Leo had seen thrown in kung fu movies.

There was a loud ssshhhick!

People screamed. Drawing their knives, two other toughs moved out of sight. The machete returned to the hand of the thrower like a boomerang. The tentacled tough, meanwhile, nodded at two comrades, pointed at someone, then at someone else, and then at Leo. The trio walked up the corridor. The young preacher barely noted the screams from the other corridor.

Sweet Jesus, not me, don't let them be heading for me, he thought. Now very much afraid that even the slightest motion would make the Werewolves notice him, he refrained from wiping the beads of sweat on his brow. Regardless of what happened next, the spotlight of the nation would be thrown on him. He prayed to the Lord, asking for guidance.

But none came. He could only wait, and hope. The ensuing seconds seemed like eons, endless stretches of time punctuated by the sounds of gunfire from outside, or screeching tires, and of people screaming. The Edge had erupted into a war zone.

The toughs with the knives, now bloody, returned. Their leader shouted to the ones approaching the young preacher, "What are you assholes doing? Let's get out of here!"

The tentacled tough looked back just long enough to say, "In a minute, man. We've got some business to take care of." An obese tough with lobster's claws instead of hands stopped by the booth where Pesticide sat, put one claw under her chin, and lifted her face to his. One of the men with her almost made a move but was detained by a look from the third tough, who signaled very clearly with his handgun. "Pretty, pretty," said the clawed tough. "You wouldn't be so proud to show your face in public if it was anything like mine."

The tentacled tough turned toward the young preacher and motioned as if to say, "Be right with you."

The tough menacing Pesticide became distracted by staccato machine gun fire from outside, and Pesticide took advantage of the oppotunity to bat his claw from her face with a tiny hand and stand up defiantly. Compared to the man she saw facing, she seemed fragile, helpless, and small.

Meanwhile the young preacher's sense of outrage grew, overpowering both fear and common sense.

The sushi bar alarm began to clang deafeningly, with no sign of abating.

The leader of the toughs said, "That was a stupid thing to do, fishface!" and smashed his hammer down on the maitre d's water helmet.

The joker immediately began coughing, unable to draw oxygen from the air. He cut his hands on the shards of his helmet as he brought them to his throat, as if warding off an invisible strangler.

While everyone was preoccupied with the maitre d's death throes, a strange yellow light began to glow from within Pesticide. It became so bright that her clothing resembled gossamer thrown over a spotlight. Her entire skeleton became visible, sheathed by the outlines of her skin and the dim silhouettes of her inner organs.

A black force gathering inside her became evident.

She opened her mouth, as if to scream. Instead an intense light like that of a laser stabbed from her mouth and struck the lobster-handed tough.

The black force rushed up her throat. And came out of her mouth.

And followed the path of the light.

It was a horde of scarlet insects, wing-backed and hideous, chirping like the incessant chorus of a nightmare. They covered the tough like a swarm of locusts before he could react. They began chewing immediately, chewing through his coat, through his mask, through the shells of his clawsburrowing inside him in a matter of seconds.

The tough screamed and fell backward onto the table of an empty booth. He rolled into the seat and beat what was left of his claws frantically on his body, futilely attempting to stop the horde of insects from continuing their grisly meal. Through it all Pesticide stood motionless, shining, staring at him with lifeless eyes that in the wake of her inner glow resembled ebony jewels.

She did not notice the tough with the gun point the barrel at her head. The shot that rang out was only dimly muffled by the clanging of the alarm. Pesticide's brains splattered against the wall and onto the friend beside her. She fell, dead instantly, into his arms. The tough backed away, pointing his gun at her other two companions to hold them off.

The leader called out, "Come on! Let's get the fuck out of here!"

Belinda May shouted, "No, Leo, no!"

For the young preacher had already given in to his rage and charged the two remaining toughs in the corridor. He had no idea exactly what he planned to do. He only knew Pesticide's only crime had been defending herself, however strangely, against their aggression.

His ill-defined plans were quickly aborted when he was stopped by a tentacled tough-the Werewolf's arm was elongating from his sleeve! It wrapped around the young preacher's neck and lifted him from the floor like a doll caught in a hangman's noose. The young preacher kicked and waved his arms about; he attempted to scream in defiance, but the hold of the tentacle was too tight. All he could really do was choke. He had just enough air to breathe, no more. Still he continued to fight and kick.

Something hard struck him at the back of the head. It was the ceiling. He felt the world swirl around him as the tough partially retracted his tentacle.

The touch drew him close. He stared into the weird gray eyes behind the mask. "Look what I've got," the tough said. "How does it feel to be staring into your own face, preacher? It isn't pretty to live in fear, is it?"

The young preacher half-screamed, half-choked.

The tough laughed unpleasantly. " I have to thank you for providing us with something to play with after the evening's entertainment is over. Don't worry. She'll be returned to you unharmed. Only her pride will be a little damaged."

The young preacher turned into an animal at that moment, a trapped, frenzied animal. His weak fists beat furiously but vainly at the tentacle. He heard Belinda May scream but didn't catch exactly what was happening to her because he felt himself rising. His last coherent vision was that of the dead tough still being eaten by the insects, who were slowing down, now that their host had died. Even so, half the tough's torso had already been consumed, as well as most of his arms and thighs. Chirping insects listlessly poked through the joker's eyes and crawled out on what remained of the mask, to breathe their last.

The young preacher's last coherent thought was, Oh, well. At least no one can fault me for fainting-not under these circumstances.

Then his head struck a beam, and the lights went out.

IX

Mother of mercy, is this the end of Vito? thought the young hood as he ran from the sushi bar into the street. For a moment he hoped he had been imagining everything, that the Werewolves were just out on an insignificant robbing spree, and that he would return to the hotel room to find the Man incredibly incensed that he had left the sushi bar before even placing an order. Then the shooting started.

Vito hit the sidewalk and rolled beneath an automobile. He bruised his knee against the concrete and scraped his forehead against the metal, but except for being inconvenienced by the trickle of blood flowing into his left eye, he was way beyond caring about minor injuries. Judging from how things were going so far, he would be lucky to survive the night.

Across the street two of the boys were being attacked by more members of the Werewolves street gang. One of the boys managed to stab a Werewolf in the chest, but as the blood spurted high in the air, the Werewolf behind him cut his throat from ear to ear. It became difficult to tell who's blood was whose. The other boy pulled out his gun but only managed to get a single shot off-getting a Werewolf smack between the eyes of his plastic mask-before he was sliced to ribbons by a slew of attackers. Indeed the Werewolves, apparently unimpressed by the fact that their victims were decidedly dead, continued to cut them both up with such frenzy that Vito feared they might throw the ensuing pieces of meat to the rest of the gang.

Of course the rest of the Werewolves were a little too busy at the moment to notice. Chaos had erupted on the streets of the Edge. Nats and jokers alike ran in every direction, taking cover wherever they could find it, which was nowhere to be found. There were simply too many bullets flying about for anybody to be safe for long. Those Werewolves not engaged in personal combat with the members of the Calvino Family indiscriminately fired machine guns in every direction, sometimes cutting down their fellow gang members in their efforts to get everyone who even looked like they might be a Calvino. The members of the Calvino Family reacted pretty much in kind, except for those trying to get away in their cars.

Vito covered his head with his hands and watched as a Werewolf stood before an oncoming automobile and sprayed the front windshield with bullets. Vito couldn't tell if the driver bought it or if he merely ducked. In any case the guy in the passenger seat lost the majority of his brains. The car plowed into the attacking Werewolf and then carried along several pedestrians until it crushed them against a parked car. A few survived long enough to know their last few seconds would be spent waiting for the cars to erupt into flame. The plume of fire was spectacular. Pieces of flaming metal and scorched meat flew high in the air, and they landed on the ground in the sort of slow-motion ballet of violence Vito had thought only happened in the movies.

Vito scrambled to the rear of the car he was under, figuring he'd be safer if he was as far away as possible from all that hot debris. He saw a fight happening right next to him. He could only see the legs of the people involved, but he gathered a panic-stricken tourist was trying to wrestle a gun away from a Werewolf. The guy's girlfriend was trying to stop him. Vito was still trying to decide whom he should root for when the Werewolf succeeded in knocking the guy down. The guy landed on his butt, doubled over with the wind knocked out of him. His girl-a black chick in a tight green dress-knelt beside him and said something. Vito couldn't hear what because of all the noise going down, but whatever it was, it didn't do either any good, because two seconds later the pair was riddled with bullets and lying in a pool of blood. Vito's stomach tightened into a slab as he watched the Werewolf walk away. Vito resolved to stay where he was until one side was wiped out or the cops arrived, whichever came first. He wasn't going to be like some fool showing off to his girlfriend, and he wasn't going to have any stories to brag about to whoever was left in the Calvino clan tomorrow. He was going to survive, and nothing more. That would be enough.

Across the street a couple of fool Werewolves threw Molotov cocktails. Vito imagined he was a bug, lying low in a pile of leaves, hoping if he imagined hard enough, then maybe on some level he would become one. Even then, he thought, being a bug might still be too big.

Vito turned around to see a familiar pair of legs kneeling beside the dead couple. The person was low enough so Vito could see his face. It was the hunchback, making the sign of the cross. Vito couldn't help wondering just how intelligent this nut-case really was.

Suddenly the hunchback turned his head, and Vito found himself staring directly into the nut-case's eyes.

He believed he saw many things happening there. The eyes quickly misted as if they were peering into some far-off place just around the corner. Fear manifested itself in the hunchback's eyes. His face lost all color, and he opened his mouth to say something.

But whatever he had on his mind, it was already too late to say it. In that brief second before Vito was engulfed in the flames of the Molotov cocktail that smashed under the car, he was curiously aware that the hunchback recoiled from something that hadn't happened yet.

X

The young preacher woke up on the floor of the sushi bar. The bar was packed with folks attempting to escape the chaos outside, which, from what he could hear, resembled one of the more horrendous visions from the Book of Revelations.

The place where the young preacher lay, however, was nearly empty. It contained just a few corpses and a lot of dead insects.

Belinda May was nowhere to be found.

The young preacher rose, brushed off a few dead insects clinging to his jacket and trousers, and then sat down in the nearest booth to nurse his aching head. He touched the spot where the throbbing was the greatest. When he took his fingers away, they were flecked with dried blood.

From outside he heard the shrill sound of approaching sirens. The police were coming. He hoped they were bringing with them a full complement of paramedics. Of course there was still all that shooting and screaming going on outside too, so the scene from the good book wasn't over yet.

Suddenly the sushi bar was racked from the shock waves of a nearby explosion. The young preacher dived under the booth and struck his head against the pedestal. He didn't mind. After what he had already been through, a tad more excruciating pain wasn't going to make that much difference.

He crawled on the floor through a pile of dead bugs, under the limp legs of the dead Pesticide, and wondered where Belinda May was. He couldn't think straight, but he knew he couldn't let his mental fog prevent him from finding her. What would the people say? What would the Lord say, or the reporters? Worse, what would she say if he tried to have her again and discovered he didn't have the courage to brave fire and brimstone for the honor of parting her like the Red Sea?

He was vaguely aware of people trying to stop him as he got up and staggered into the street where the ruins of a car burned. There weren't nearly as many panic-stricken people running about as he had expected. Bodies, bloody or burned to a crisp, were strewn all over the sidewalks. The young preacher hoped the television crew was picking all this up.

Where's Belinda May? he wondered.

Then he saw the tentacled tough in the middle of the street. The tough held a limp Belinda May high, daring others to make her a target.

The tough approached some hoods with machine guns. The hoods were beaten and battered, but they were still alive. And they were lifting their guns.

The tough lowered Belinda May. He was going to use her as a shield!

XI

Now that it was too late to make a difference, Quasiman remembered that Father Squid had sent him to the Edge to prevent Wyrm from making a hit on a Mafia don.

Of course neither Quasiman, Squid, or the individual who had provided the information about the hit had guessed that Wyrm would cover his tracks with a sea of blood. It was proving to be an effective, if brutal, idea. And although Quasiman knew no one would blame him for being unable to prevent the bloodshed of the evening, he hated himself for not having done anything to prevent all this suffering.

He had seen so many people die. A few details were lost as portions of his brain phased in and out of reality, but nothing could diminish the profound sense of desolation that assailed him. The worst death he had seen was that of the kid hiding beneath that car. He'd watched the flames engulf the kid before the event had actually happened. Maybe that was why it had been so unnerving.

But the night wasn't over yet. Quasiman had seen the blood, but the thunder was still to come.

Quasiman belatedly noticed the sounds of the approaching sirens as he decided he might as well split with the rest of the survivors. A few hoods and Werewolves still battled on the street, but Wyrm had doubtlessly made himself scarce long ago. Quasiman was still visualizing where he wanted to be when he saw the Werewolf, an unconscious woman in his tentacle above his head, walking down the middle of the street toward a couple of hoods. The hoods lifted their weapons.

Quasiman didn't need precognitive senses to guess what might happen next. He knew he had to help the woman, somehow.

He was about to make a turn through space when he saw the man with the familiar face rushing toward the Werewolf and the woman. The blasting reverberating in Quasiman's head wasn't exactly thunder.

XII

If the young preacher had given the matter a serious thought, he would have gotten down on his knees and prayed. Instead he ran as fast as he could toward the Werewolf and knocked him down. The hood's tentacle snapped like a whip, flinging Belinda May to safety. She landed on the hood of an automobile. At the same time the Werewolf and the young preacher struck the ground, the two members of the Calvino clan pulled the triggers of their machine guns.

Surprisingly the young preacher felt no anticipation for the next life to come. Instead he felt a curious sense of regret, along with a particular, only slightly contradictory sense of relief. He drew his mind in upon itself and tightening it up into a psychic ball, hurled it to a place where he had once dared not look.

The gunshots were like thunderclaps magnified to an infinite power, and he almost visualized the bullets speeding through the barrels. If this was to be the last nanosecond of his life, well}hen, he would live it gladly. It was still a long time.

Enveloped by cold, he felt himself going down. Going down, down, down into a hell colder than any polar nightmare. He felt his soul dissipating. Was this what death was like? Would he soon envision himself lying on the street, surrounded by the others who had died before him? Would he then be inexorably pulled toward a beckoning white light, where the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ stood side by side with his own mother, awaiting him with outstretched arms? Would he know at last what Heaven was like?

Why then did he feel as if his mind were being ripped apart in a thousand directions? A hundred flashes of intense heat alternated with a hundred flashes of absolute zero. He suddenly believed all his concepts of eternity were just timepieces glimpsed in a dream, his concepts of infinity motes in a sandbox. The young preacher couldn't escape the notion that he had merged, somehow, with all conceivable times and places-a prelude to merging with the inconceivable times and places that lay just beyond the confines of reality.

Death was turning out to be a more complicated experience than he had ever imagined. He wondered if the bullets had already penetrated his body, if his skull was being shattered, and his heart and lungs perforated.

Thankfully there was no pain. Yet. Perhaps he would be spared that one unpleasant aspect of his death.

It was strange, though, to feel so whole and complete when he was actually coming apart.

It was strange still that the nothingness, at first incomprehensible and indescribable, suddenly became just an expanse of concrete, lined at varying intervals, just like a sidewalk.

It was strangest of all to think that instead of lying in the street beside the dead tentacled Werewolf, he found himself still alive. The sidewalk was drenched with blood, none of it, thankfully, his.

But what was that weight on top of him? How had it gotten there?

The weight slid to the sidewalk beside him. It was the hunchbacked joker he had spoken harshly to earlier. Only this time the hunchback lay face up, as haggard as a corpse, and was sinking half an inch into the concrete. The young preacher could only guess how, but he was certain the hunchback was paying the price for saving him.

Suddenly someone jammed a microphone in his face. He looked up to see the television reporter, flanked by his remote team, leaning down. The sound man had a bloody, makeshift bandage over his wirst, and the reporter a fresh wound across his forehead. The camera was on. The sound was on. And the reporter said, "Hey, Reverend Barnett, how are you feeling? Do you have any words for your-"

But before the young preacher could answer, a policeman yanked the reporter away. Another policeman grabbed the young preacher and tried to pull him away from the hunchback. The wail of sirens blasted the air with shrill vibrations, and a horde of rotating red and blue lights added an entirely new level of surreality to the scene.

"Get the fuck away from me!" the young preacher shouted, breaking away from the policeman.

He was vaguely aware of the newsman saying softly into his mike, "You heard it on Channel Four first, folks-a minister using an expletive in public. I'm sure a lot of Reverend Barnett's constituents are wondering what this world's coming to…"

The young preacher felt a flash of anger at the impertinent bozo, but he decided to be patient and beg God to curse him later. Right now all he was concerned about was the ace, or joker, or whatever, who had saved him. He knelt beside the man, who was already sinking deeper into the sidewalk. A paramedic with a confused expression knelt beside the pair.

"Save him!" the young preacher implored. "You've got to save this man!"

"How?" asked the paramedic helplessly. "I don't know what the matter is-and besides, I can't even touch him!" It was true. The paramedic's hands had penetrated into the hunchback's body. The paramedic yelped and jerked them out and stuck them beneath his armpits. He shivered as if he had been immersed in a deep freeze. The young preacher remembered feeling cold while he thought he was dying. A small, dark part of that cold still resided in his soul like an unwanted friend.

He realized nothing the paramedic or anyone could do would help the hunchback. The hunchback was gradually becoming just an outline of his former self. Even as he watched, the hunchback sank another half inch into the concrete. The poor man's glazed eyes stared at the sky, and his breathing was tortured, as if whatever kind of air he was gasping at was unsuitable for the job at hand.

"Who are you?" Leo asked. "How can we help you?"

The man blinked his eyes. It was hard to tell just how lucid he was. "My name is… Quasiman," he whispered. I've never jaunted with so much weight before… so hard… so hard even now to hold myself together…" He coughed. The young preacher looked up to see Belinda May kneeling down beside him. "Are you all right?" he asked curtly but not without feeling.

"Yes," she replied. "What happened to you?"

"I'm not sure, but I think this man was responsible."

"My God-I remember him! Leo, you've got to help him."

"How? I can't even touch him."

That old mischievous light returned to Belinda May's eyes. "You're a preacher," she said in a tone greatly resembling the one she had used when she'd said she wanted to go to bed with him. "Heal the poor bastard!"

It had been many years since the young preacher had performed an act of faith healing. He had refrained from the activity, having been advised that it didn't look good on videotape, especially for a man planning a presidential bid.

Even so, he coudn't let this noble spirit be snuffed out. Not if it was somehow in his… in God's power. He looked up to the sky. The clouds, pregnant with rain, were occasionally illuminated by flashes of lightning; their thunder was only a soft rumble. He breathed deeply. He reached out to those clouds, to the earth beneath the concrete of this city, to the dark forces of creation. He gathered it all into his spirit, and into a single ball of energy.

Then he reached inside Quasiman. The spectrum of sensations in his fingers clearly originated someplace he would never know-at least during this lifetime.

He forced himself to be calm, to ignore the cold, to disassociate himself from the itching of his hands, and the overwhelming numbness of his fingertips. And when he believed he had succeeded, he said with all the passion he could muster, "Heal, you goddamn son-of-a-bitch! Heal!"

Finally it began to rain. The thunder erupted directly overhead as if a nuclear device were ripping the sky apart.

XIII

That night over fifty people died at the Edge. A hundred more were seriously injured. The carnage, however, wasn't the lead-in story on the news that night, nor was it the biggest headline on most of the front pages across the country. After all, the gang war had been going on for some time, and the fact that scores of innocent people had been caught in that grisly crossfire was unfortunate, but not really of much consequence so far as the day-to-day development of the news was concerned.

There's a big place between New York and Los Angeles. It's known as the American Heartland, and for the people who live there, the story of the hour was the one about the Reverend Leo Barnett proclaiming his candidacy for president of the United States. He had laid his hands on the outline of some poor joker and had brought him back from an involuntary trip to parts unknown. He had done something no one had ever done before-using only the power of his faith, he had healed a joker. He had proved that the grandest power on earth was the love of the Lord and of Jesus Christ, and he had put some of that love in the body of a creature whose body had been polluted by that obscene alien virus. Even the liberal news media, which had captured that event for all the world to see on videotape, had to admit that the Reverend Leo Barnett had done an amazing thing. Maybe it didn't qualify him to be president, but it certainly set him apart from the pack as someone to watch.

It also helped that immediately after healing the joker and watching the paramedics carry him off on a stretcher, the Reverend Leo Barnett didn't consult with his advisers or wait to see how the incident played on the news or how it sat with the public, he simply walked up to the array of cameras and microphones and announced that God had said the time had come for him to declare his candidacy. He demonstrated, clearly and forcefully, that he could make a decision and act on it.

Reverend Leo Barnett's standing in the polls became very high, very respectable, almost immediately. Of course a few of the voters were a little concerned about what he was doing in the Edge in the first place, especially with regard to that hotel room he and the young mission worker had checked into, but it wasn't as if either one was married or anything. And there had been talk, which neither would confirm or deny, of an impending engagement announcement. Women in the Democratic party, as it turned out, were particularly impressed that the Reverend Leo Barnett might have found his true love and his political destiny on the same night. If true, then perhaps all that carnage hadn't been in vain.

If God doesn't judge America, he'll have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.

– REVEREND LEO BARNETT presidential candidate

All the King's Horses

III

The junkyard sat hard by the oily green waters of New York Bay, way at the end of Hook Road. Tom got there early, undid the padlock, and swung open the gates in the high chain-link fence. He parked his Honda beside the sagging tin-roofed shack where Joey DiAngelis had once lived with his father, Dom, back in the days when the junkyard had been a going concern, and sat for a moment with his arms folded across the top of the steering wheel, remembering.

He'd spent endless Saturday afternoons inside that shack, back when it had still been habitable, reading old issues of Jetboy to Joey after they'd heisted their comic book collections back from a PTA bonfire.

Over there, back behind the shed, was where Joey used to work on his cars, long before he turned into Junkyard Joey DiAngelis, king of the demolition derby circuit.

And way in back where no one ever went, behind that mountain of rusted junkers, that was where he and Joey had welded armor plate over the frame of a VW Beetle to make the first shell. Later, much later, after Dom had died and Tom had bought the junkyard from Joey and shut it down, they'd dug the bunker under the junkyard, but they hadn't been that sophisticated at the start. A greasy tarp was about all the concealment they had.

Tom climbed out of the car and stood with his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his shapeless old brown suede jacket, breathing the salt air off the bay. It was a chilly day. Out across the water a garbage barge passed slowly, flocks of seagulls circling around it like feathered flies. You could see the vague outline of the Statue of Liberty, but Manhattan had vanished in the morning haze.

Vanished or not, it was out there, and on a clear night you could see the lights shining off the towers. A hell of a view. In Hoboken and Jersey City run-down houses and cramped condos that offered views like this went for six figures. Constable Hook was zoned for industrial use, and Tom's land was surrounded by an import-export warehouse, a railroad siding, a sewage treatment plant, and an abandoned oil refinery, but Steve Bruder said that none of that mattered.

That big a chunk of land, right on the waterfront, it was just prime for development, Bruder had said when Tom told him he was thinking of selling the old junkyard. He should know; he'd already made himself a millionaire with real estate speculation in Hoboken and Weehawken, rehabilitating old tenements into expansive condos for yuppies from Manhattan. Bayonne was next, Steve said. In ten years all this rust-belt industry would be gone, replaced by new housing developments, but they could be first and make the biggest killing.

Tom had known Steve Bruder since childhood and cordially loathed him most of that time, but for once Bruder's words were music to his ears. When Bruder offered to buy the junkyard outright, the price made Tom's head spin, but he resisted the temptation. He'd thought this all out beforehand. "No," he said. "I'm not selling. I want to be a full partner in the development. I provide the land, you provide the money and know-how, we split the profits fifty-fifty."

Bruder had given him a shark's slow smile. "You're not as dumb as you look, Tudbury. Someone been coaching you, or is this all your own idea?"

"Maybe I've finally gotten smart," Tom said. "Now what is it, yes or no? Shit or get off the pot, asshole."

"It's not nice to call your partner an asshole, wimp," Bruder said, extending his hand. He had a very firm handshake, but Tom was careful not to wince.

Tom looked at his watch. Steve would be bringing the bankers by in about an hour. Just a formality, he said. The loan would be candy; the property screamed with potential. Once they had the line of credit, they could get the zoning changed. By spring they'd have the junk cleared out and the land subdivided into building lots.

Tom wasn't sure why he'd come so early… unless it was just to remember.

It was funny that so many of his important memories were rooted in this junkyard… but somehow appropriate, considering the way his life had gone.

But all of that was about to change. Forever. Thomas Tudbury was about to become a rich man.

Tom walked slowly around the shack, kicked at a threadbare tire in his path, then lifted it with his mind. He held it five feet off the ground, gave it a brisk telekinetic shove that set it spinning, and counted. At eight the tire began to wobble; at eleven it fell. Not bad. Back in his teens, before he'd crawled into a shell, he could have held that tire up all day… but that was when the power had been Tom's, before he'd given it away to the Turtle. Like he'd given so much else.

"Sell the junkyard?"Joey had said when Tom told him the plan. "You're serious about this, aren't you? That's one hell of a bridge to burn. What if they find the bunker?"

"They'll find a fucking hole in the ground. Maybe they'll worry about it for five, ten minutes. Then they'll push some dirt into it and it'll be over."

"What about the shells?"

"There are no shells," Tom said. "Just some junk that used to be shells. 'All the king's horses and all the king's men,' remember? I'll go out there one night and turn Turtle just long enough to drop them into the bay."

"Hell of a waste," Joey said. "Weren't you the one telling me how much money and sweat you put into those fucking things?" He took a long swig of beer and shook his head. Joey looked more like his father Dom every year. The same skinny arms, the same rock-hard beer-belly, the same salt-and-pepper hair. Tom remembered when it had been pure black, always falling down into his eyes. In those days before pull-tabs, Joey used to wear a church key around his neck on a leather thong, even when he'd donned a cheap frog mask and gone to Jokertown with the Turtle to help roust Dr. Tachyon from an alcoholic pout.

That was twenty-three years ago. Tachyon hadn't aged, but Joey had, and so had Tom. He'd grown old without growing up, but all that was changing now. The Turtle was dead, but Tom Tudbury's life had just begun.

He strolled away from the shoreline. Broken headlights stared at him like so many blind eyes from mountains of dead cars, and once he felt live eyes and turned to see a huge gray rat peering out of the damp, rotten interior of a legless Victorian sofa. In the depths of the junkyard he passed between two long rows of vintage refrigerators, all the doors carefully removed. On the far side was a flat, bare patch of earth where a square metal plate was set into the ground. It was heavy, Tom knew from past experience. He stared at the big ring set into the metal, concentrated, and on the third try managed to shift it enough to reveal the dark tunnel mouth below.

Tom sat on the edge of the hole and dropped down carefully into darkness. At the bottom he fumbled against the wall and found the flashlight he'd hung there, then walked down the cold, damp tunnel until he emerged in the bunker. The old shells waited for him in silence.

He'd have to get rid of them soon, he knew. But not today. The bankers wouldn't go poking around back here. They just wanted to eyeball the property, see the view, maybe sign a few papers. There was plenty of time to dump this junk in the bay; it wasn't going anywhere.

Painted daisies and peace symbols covered shell two, the once-bright paint now faded and chipped. Just looking at it was enough to bring back memories of old songs, old causes, old certainties. The March on Washington, folk-rock blaring from his speakers, MAKE LOVE NOT WAR scrawled across his armor. Gene McCarthy had stood on that shell and spoken with his customary wry eloquence for a solid twenty minutes. Pretty girls in halter tops and jeans would fight for the chance to ride on top. Tom remembered one in particular, with cornflower-blue eyes beneath an Indian headband and straight blond hair that fell past her ass. She loved him, she'd whispered as she lay across the shell. She wanted him to open the hatch, let her in; she wanted to see his face and look into his eyes; she didn't care if he was a joker like they said, she loved him and she wanted him to ball her, right then, right there.

She'd given him a hard-on that felt like a crowbar in his jeans, but he hadn't opened the shell. Not then, not ever. She wanted the Turtle, but inside the armor was only Tom Tudbury. He wondered where she was now, what she looked like, what she remembered. By now she might have a daughter as old as she'd been the night she'd tried to crawl inside his shell.

Tom ran his hand over the cold metal and traced another peace symbol in the dust that lay thick on the armor. He'd really felt as though he was making a difference in those days. He was a part of a movement, stopping a war, protecting the weak. The day the Turtle had made Nixon's enemy list had been one of the proudest of his life.

All the king's horses and afl the king's men…

Beyond the painted shell was another hulk, larger, plainer, more recent. That one had seen some hard service too. He paused by the dent where some lunatic had bounced a cannonball off him. His head was ringing for weeks afterward. Underneath, Tom knew, if you looked in the right place, you could find the imprint of a small human hand sunk four inches deep into the armor plate, a souvenir left him by a rogue ace the press called the Sculptress. She was a cute bit of business; metal and stone flowed like water under her hands. She was a media darling until she started using those hands to shape doorways into bank vaults. The Turtle delivered her to the cops, wondering how they were going to stop her from just walking out again, but she never tried it. Instead she'd accepted a pardon and gone to work for the justice Department. Sometimes it was a very strange world.

There wasn't much left of either shells two or three except for the frame and armor plate. The interiors had long since been gutted for parts. Cameras, electronics, heaters, fans, you name it; all that stuff cost money, of which Tom had never had an overabundance. So you borrowed from the old shells to build the new, where you could. It didn't help much, it still cost a fortune. By his rough figuring, he'd had about fifty grand tied up in the shell the goddamned Takisians had so casually spit out the airlock, most of it borrowed. He was still making payments.

In the darkest corner of the bunker he found the oldest shell of all. Even the layers of badly welded armor plate couldn't quite obliterate the familiar lines of the VW Beetle they'd started with back in the winter of 1963. Inside, he knew, it was dark and stuffy, with barely enough room to turn around, and none of the amenities of the later shells. Shining the flashlight over the exterior, he sighed at his naivete. Black-and-white TV sets, a Volkswagen body, twenty-year-old electrical wire, vacuum tubes. It was more or less intact, if only because it was so hopelessly obsolete. The very idea that he'd crossed the bay in it just a few months prior made him want to shudder.

Still… it was the first shell, with the strongest memories of all. He looked at it for a long time, remembering how it had been. Building it, testing it, flying it. He remembered the first time he'd crossed over to New York. He'd been scared shitless. Then he'd found the fire, teked that woman to safety-even now, all these years later, he could see the dress she'd been wearing vividly in his mind's eye, the flames licking up the fabric as he'd floated her down to the street.

"I tried," he said aloud. His voice echoed strangely in the dimness of the bunker. "I did some good." He heard scrabbling noises behind him. Rats probably. It had gotten so bad that he was talking to rats. Who was he trying to convince? He looked at the shells, three of them in a crooked row, so much scrap metal, destined for the bottom of the bay. It made him sad. He remembered what Joey had said, about what a waste it was, and that gave him the beginnings of an idea. Tom pulled a pad out of his back pocket and jotted a quick note to himself, smiling. He'd been playing shell games for twenty years, and he never did find the pea beneath any of them. Well, maybe he could turn the old shells into a whole can of peas.

Steve Bruder arrived forty-five minutes later, wearing leather driving gloves and a Burberry coat, with two bankers in his long brown Lincoln Town Car. Tom let him do all the talking as they walked around the property. The bankers admired the view and politely deigned not to notice the junkyard rats.

They signed the papers that afternoon and celebrated with dinner at Hendrickson's.

Concerto for Siren and Serotonin

III

The wind came and went like heavy surf, vibrating streetside windowpanes, driving icy pellets against the stone lions flanking the entranceway. These sounds were intensified as the door to the Jokertown Clinic was opened. A man entered and began stamping his feet and brushing snow from his dark blue blazer. He made no effort to close the door behind him.

Madeleine Johnson, sometimes known as the Chickenfoot Lady, doing a partial front desk deathwatch for her friend Cock Robin, with whom she had a good thing going, looked up from her crossword puzzle, stroked her wattles with her pencil, and squawked, "Close the damn door, mister!"

The man lowered the handkerchief with which he had been wiping his face and stared at her. She realized then that his eyes were faceted. His jaw muscles bunched and unbunched.

"Sorry," he said, and he drew the door closed. Then he turned his head slowly, seeming to study everything in the room, though with those eyes it was difficult to tell for certain. Finally, "I've got to talk to Dr. Tachyon," he said.

"The doctor is out of town," she stated, "and he's going to be away for some time. What is it that you want?"

"I want to be put to sleep," he said.

"This isn't a veterinary clinic," she told him, and regretted it a moment later when he moved forward, for he developed a distinct halo and began emitting sparks like a static electricity generator. She doubted this had much to do with virtue, for his teeth were bared and he clenched and unclenched his hands as if anticipating strenuous activity.

"This-is-an-emergency," he said. "My name is Croyd Crenson, and there is probably a file. Better find it. I get violent."

She squawked again, leaped and departed, leaving two pinfeathers to drift in the air before him. He put out a hand and leaned upon her desk, then mopped his brow again. His gaze fell upon a half-filled coffee cup beside her newspaper. He picked it up and chugged it.

Moments later there came a clattering sound from the hallway beyond the desk. A blond, blue-eyed young man halted at the threshold and stared at him. He had on a green and white polo shirt, a stethoscope and a beach-boy smile. From the waist down he was a palomino pony, his tail beautifully braided. Madeleine appeared behind him and fluttered.

"He's the one," she told the centaur. "He said, `violent."' Still smiling, the quadrapedal youth entered the room and extended his hand. "I'm Dr. Finn," he said. "I've sent for your file, Mr. Crenson. Come on back to an examination room, and you can tell me what's bothering you while we wait for it."

Croyd took his hand and nodded. "Any coffee back there?"

"I think so. We'll get you a cup."

Croyd paced the small room, swilling coffee, as Dr. Finn read over his case history, snorting on several occasions and at one point making a noise amazingly like a whinny.

"I didn't realize you were the Sleeper," he said finally, closing the file and looking at his patient. "Some of this material has made the textbooks." He tapped the folder with a well-manicured finger.

"So I've heard," Croyd replied.

"Obviously you have a problem you just can't wait for your next cycle to clear up," Dr. Finn observed. "What is it?" Croyd managed a bleak smile. "It's the matter of getting on with the crapshoot, of actually going to sleep."

"What's the problem?"

"I don't know how much of this is in the file," Croyd told him, "but I've a terrible fear of going to sleep-"

"Yes, there is something about your paranoia. Perhaps some counseling-"

Croyd punched a hole in the wall.

"It's not paranoia," he said, "not if the danger is real. I could die during my next hibernation. I could wake up as the most disgusting joker you can imagine, with a normal sleepcycle. Then I'd be stuck that way. It's only paranoia if the fear is groundless, isn't it?"

"Well," Dr. Finn said, " I suppose we could call it that if the fear is a really big thing, even if it is justified. I don't know. I'm not a psychiatrist. But I also saw in the file that you tend to take amphetamines to keep from falling asleep for as long as you can. You must know that that's going to add a big chemical boost to whatever paranoia is already present."

Croyd was running his finger around the inside of the hole he had punched in the wall, rubbing away loose pieces of plaster.

"But of course a part of this is semantics," Dr. Finn went on. "It doesn't matter what we call it. Basically you're afraid to go to sleep. This time, though, you feel that you should?"

Croyd began cracking his knuckles as he paced. Fascinated, Dr. Finn counted each cracking noise. When the seventh popping sound occurred, he began to wonder what Croyd would do when he was out of knuckles.

"Eight, nine, ten…" he subvocalized. Croyd punched another hole in the wall.

"Uh, would you like some more coffee?" Dr. Finn asked him.

"Yes, about a gallon."

Dr. Finn was gone, as if a starting gate had opened.

Later, not telling Croyd it was decaf he was guzzling, Dr. Finn continued, "I'm afraid to give you any more drugs on top of all the amphetamines you've taken."

"I've made two promises," Croyd said, "that I'd try sleeping this time, that I wouldn't resist. But if you cad t knock me out fast, I'll probably leave rather than put up with all this anxiety. If that happens, I know I'll be back on bennies and dexes fast. So hit me with a narcotic. I'm willing to take my chances."

Dr. Finn shook his mane. "I'd rather try something simpler and a lot safer first. What say we do a little brain wave entrainment and suggestion?"

"I'm not familiar with the procedure," Croyd said.

"It's not traumatic. The Russians have been experimenting with it for years. I'll just clip these little soft pads to your ears," he said, swabbing the lobes with something moist,

"and we'll pulse a low amp current through your head-say, four hertz. You won't even feel it."

He adjusted a control on the box from which the leads emerged.

"Now what?" Croyd asked.

"Close your eyes and rest for just a minute. You may notice a kind of drifting feeling."

"Yeah."

"But there's heaviness, too, within it. Your arms are heavy and your legs are heavy."

"They're heavy," Croyd acknowledged.

"It will be hard to think of anything in particular. Your mind will just go on drifting."

"I'm drifting," Croyd agreed.

"And it should feel very good. Probably better than you've felt all day, finally getting a chance to rest. Breathe slowly and let go in all the tight places. You're almost there already. This is great."

Croyd said something, but it was muttered, indistinguishable.

"You are doing very well. You're quite good at this. Usually I count backward from ten. For you, though, we can start at eight, since you're almost asleep already. Eight. You are far away and it feels fine. Nine. You are already asleep, but now you are going into it even more deeply. Ten. You will sleep soundly, without fear or pain. Sleep."

Croyd began to snore.

There were no spare beds, but since Croyd had stiffened to mannequinlike rigidity before turning bright green, his respiration and heartbeat slowing to something between that of a hibernating bear and a dead one, Dr. Finn had had him placed, erect, at the rear of a broom closet, where he did not take up much space, and he drove a nail into the door and hung the chart on it, after having entered, "Patient extremely suggestible."

May 1987

All the King's Horses

IV

"I need a mask," he said.

The clerk towered above him, grotesquely tall and thin, with a manner as imperious as the pharaoh whose death mask he wore. "Of course." His eyes were gold, like the skin of his mask. "Perhaps you had something specific in mind, sir?"

"Something impressive," Tom said. You could buy a cheap plastic mask for under two bucks in any Jokertown candy store, good enough to hide your face, but in Jokertown a cheap mask was like a cheap suit. Tom wanted to be taken seriously today, and Holbrook's was the most exclusive mask shop in the city, according to New York magazine.

"If you'll permit me, sir?" the clerk said, producing a tape measure. Tom nodded and studied the display of elaborate tribal masks on the far wall as his head was measured. "I'll be just a minute," the man said as he vanished through a dark velvet curtain into a back room.

It was more than a minute. Tom was the only customer in the shop. It was a small place, dimly lit, richly appointed. Tom felt acutely uncomfortable. When the clerk returned, he was carrying a half dozen mask boxes under his arm. He set them on the counter and opened one for Tom's inspection.

A lion's head rested on a bed of black tissue paper. The face was done in some soft, pale leather, as buttery to the touch as the finest suede. A nimbus of long golden hair surrounded the features. "Surely nothing is as impressive as the king of beasts," the clerk told him. "The hair is authentic, every strand taken from a lion's mane. I couldn't help but notice your glasses, sir. If you'll provide us with your prescription, Holbrook's will be pleased to have custom eyepieces made to fit."

"It's very nice," Tom said, fingering the hair. "How much?"

The clerk looked at him coolly. "Twelve hundred dollars, sir. Without the prescription eyepieces."

Tom pulled back his hand abruptly. The golden eyes in the pharaoh's face regarded him with condescending courtesy and just a hint of amusement. Without a word Tom turned on his heel and walked out of Holbrook's.

He bought a rubber frogface for $6.97 in a Bowery storefront with a newspaper rack by the door and a soda fountain in the back. The mask was a little too big when he pulled it down over his head, and he had to wear his glasses balanced on the oversized green ears, but the design had a certain sentimental value. To hell with being impressive.

Jokertown made him very nervous. As many times as he had flown over its streets, walking those same streets was another proposition entirely. Thankfully the Funhouse was right on the Bowery. The cops avoided the darker alleys of Jokertown as much as any other sane person, even more so since the start of this gang war, but nats still frequented the joker cabarets along the Bowery, and where the tourists went the prowl cars went as well. Nat money was the lifeblood of the Jokertown economy, and that blood ran thin enough as it was.

Even at this hour the sidewalks were still busy, and no one took much notice of Tom in his ill-fitting frogface. By the second block he was almost comfortable. In the last twenty years he'd seen all the ugliness Jokertown had to offer on his TV monitors; this was just a different angle on things.

In the old days the sidewalk in front of the Funhouse would have been crowded by cabs dropping off fares and limousines waiting at the curb for the end of the second show. But the sidewalk was empty tonight, not even a doorman, and when Tom entered, he found the checkroom unattended as well. He pushed through the double doors; a hundred different frogs stared at him from the silvered depths of the famous Funhouse mirrors. The man up on stage had a head the size of a baseball, and huge pebbled bags of skin drooping all over his bare torso, swelling and emptying like bellows or bagpipes, filling the room with a strange sad music as air sighed from a dozen unlikely orifices. Tom stared at him with a sick fascination until the maitre d' appeared at his side. "A table, sir?" He was squat and round as a penguin, features hidden by a Beethoven mask.

"I'd like to see Xavier Desmond," Tom said. His voice, partially muffled by the frog mask, sounded strange in his ears.

"Mr. Desmond only returned from abroad a few days ago," the maitre d' said. "He was a delegate on Senator Hartmann's world tour," he added proudly. "I'm afraid he's quite busy."

"It's important," Tom said.

The maitre d' nodded. "Whom shall I say is calling?" Tom hesitated. "Tell him it's… an old friend."

When the maitre d' had left them alone, Des got up and came around the desk. He moved slowly, thin lips pressed together tightly beneath a long pink trunk that grew from his face where a normal man would have a nose. Standing in the same room with him, you saw things you could not see in a face on a TV screen: how old he was, and how sick. His skin hung on him as loosely as his clothes, and his eyes were filmed with pain.

"How was the tour?" Tom asked him.

"Exhausting," Des said. "We saw all the misery of the world, all the suffering and hatred, and we tasted its violence firsthand. But I'm sure you know all that. It was in the papers." He lifted his trunk, and the fingers that fringed its end lightly touched Tom's mask. "Pardon, old friend, but I cannot seem to place your face."

"My face is hidden," Tom pointed out.

Des smiled wanly. "One of the first things a joker learns is how to see beneath a mask. I'm an old joker, and yours is a very bad mask."

"A long time ago you bought a mask just as cheap as this." Des frowned. "You're mistaken, I'm afraid. I've never felt the need to hide my features."

"You bought it for Dr. Tachyon. A chicken mask." Desmond's eyes met his, startled and curious, but still wary. "Who are you?"

"I think you know," Tom said.

The old joker was silent for a long moment. Then he nodded slowly and sagged into the nearest chair. "There was talk that you were dead. I'm glad you're not."

The simple statement, and the sincerity with which Desmond delivered it, made Tom feel awkward, ashamed. For a moment he thought he should leave without another word.

"Please, sit down," Des said.

Tom sat down, cleared his throat, tried to think how to begin. The silence stretched out awkwardly.

"I know," Desmond said. "It is as strange for me as it must be for you, to have you sitting here in my office. Pleasant, but strange. But something brought you here, something more than the desire for my company. Jokertown owes you a great deal. Tell me what I can do for you."

Tom told him. He left out the why of it, but he told him his decision, and what he hoped to do with the shells. As he spoke, he looked away from Des, his eyes wandering everywhere but on the old joker's face. But he got the words out.

Xavier Desmond listened politely. When Tom had finished, Des looked older somehow, and more weary. He nodded slowly but said nothing. The fingers of his trunk clenched and unclenched. "You're sure?" Des finally asked. Tom nodded. "Are you all right?"

Des gave him a thin, tired smile. "No," he replied. " I am too old, and not in the best of health, and the world persists in disappointing me. In the final days of the tour I yearned for our homecoming, for Jokertown and the Funhouse. Well, now I am home, and what do I find? Business is as bad as ever, the mobs are fighting a war in the streets of Jokertown, our next president may be a religious charlatan who loves my people so much he wants to quarantine them, and our oldest hero has decided to walk away from the fight." Des ran his trunk fingers through thinning gray hair, then looked up at Tom, abashed. "Forgive me. That was unfair. You have risked much, and for twenty years you have been there for us. No one has the right to ask more. Certainly, if you want my help, you'll have it."

"Do you know who the owner is?" Tom asked.

"A joker," Desmond said. "Does that surprise you? The original owners were nats, but he bought them out, oh, some time ago. He's quite a wealthy man, but he prefers to keep a low profile. A rich joker is, well, something of a target. I would be glad to help set up a meeting."

"Yeah," Tom said. "Good."

After they had finished talking, Xavier Desmond walked him out. Tom promised to phone in a week for the details of the meeting. Out front, on the sidewalk, Des stood beside him as Tom tried to hail a taxi. One passed, slowed, then sped up again when the cabbie saw the two of them standing there.

"I used to hope you were a joker," Desmond said quietly. Tom looked at him sharply. "How do you know I'm not?" Des smiled, as if that question hardly deserved an answer.

"I suppose I wanted to believe, like so many other jokers. Hidden in your shell, you could be anything. With all the prestige and fame the aces enjoy, why would you possibly hide your face and keep your name a secret if you were not one of us?"

"I had my reasons," Tom told him.

"Well, it doesn't matter: I suppose the lesson to be learned is that aces are aces, even you, and we jokers need to learn to take care of ourselves. Good luck to you, old friend." Des shook his hand and turned and walked away.

Another cab passed. Tom hailed it, but it shot right past. "They think you're a joker," Des said from the door of the Funhouse. "It's the mask," he added, not unkindly. "Take it off, let them see your face, and you'll have no problem." The door closed softly behind him.

Tom looked up and down the street. There was no one in sight, no one to see his real face. Carefully, nervously, he reached up and pulled off the frog mask.

The next cab screeched to a stop right in front of him.

Blood Ties by Melinda M. Snodgrass

I

"I QUIT! I QUIT! HE DOESN'T NEED A TUTOR, HE NEEDS A WARDEN! A

GODDAMN ANIMAL TRAINER! A STINT IN THE PEN!"

The slam of the door shook papers from the stacks that stood on his desk like the bastions of a white cellulose fortress. Tachyon, a rental contract hanging limply from long fingers, stared bemusedly at the door. It cracked open.

A pair of eyes, swimming like blue moons behind thick lenses, peered cautiously around the door.

"Sorry," whispered Dita. "Quite all right."

"How many does that make?" She eased one shapely buttock onto the corner of his desk. Tachyon's eyes slid to the expanse of white thigh revealed by the hitch of her miniskirt. "Three."

"Maybe school?"

"Maybe not." Tach repressed a shudder as he contemplated the havoc his grandchild would wreak in the dog-eat-dog world of public school. With a sigh he folded the apartment lease and slipped it into a pocket. "I'll have to go home and check on him. Try to make some other arrangement."

"These letters?"

"Will have to wait."

"But-"

"Some have waited six months. What's another few days?"

"Rounds…?"

"I'll be back in time."

"Doctor Queen-"

"Is not going to be happy with me. A common enough event."

"You look tired."

"I am,"

And so he was, he thought as he walked down the steps of the Blythe van Renssaeler Memorial Clinic without bestowing his usual pats on the heads of the stone lions that flanked the stairs. In the week since his return from the World Health Organization tour, there had been little time for rest. Worries snapped at him from all sides: his impotence, which left him (one should forgive the pun) with a growing sense of pressure and frustration; the candidacy of Leo Barnett; the crime wars that were threatening the peaceful (peaceful, ha!) life of Jokertown; James Spector wandering loose, and continuing to-

But all of this seemed oddly distant, so unimportant, mere bagatelles when compared with the arrival of a new presence in his life. An active eleven-year-old boy playing havoc with his routines. Making him realize just how very small a one-bedroom apartment could be. Making him realize how long it took to find something larger, and how much more it would cost.

And then there was the problem of Blaise's power. During his childhood Tachyon had frequently railed against the strictness of his Takisian psi lord upbringing. Now he wished he could apply some of that same severe punishment to his wayward heir, who could not be brought to realize the enormity of his sin when he casually exercised his psi powers on the mindblind humans that surrounded him.

But to be honest, it was not simply a matter of sparing the rod. On Takis a child learned to survive in the plot-ridden atmosphere of the women's quarters. Surrounded as they were by other mentats, children quickly became cautious about the unrestrained exercise of their power. No matter how powerful an individual might be, there was always an older cousin, uncle, or parent more experienced and more powerful.

Upon their emergence from the harem a child was assigned a companion/servant from the lower orders. The intent was to instill in the young psi lord or lady a sense of duty toward the simple folk they ruled. That was the theory-in actual fact it generally created a sort of indulgent contempt for the vast bulk of the Takisian population, and a rather offhanded attitude that it really wasn't very interesting or sporting to compel servants. But there were tragedies-servants forced to destroy themselves upon a whim or a fit of fury on the part of their masters and mistresses.

Tachyon rubbed a hand across his forehead and considered his options. To blather on about kindness and responsibility and duty. Or to become the most dangerous thing in Blaise's life.

But I wanted his love, not his fear.

The boy reminded him of some feral woodland creature. Coiled in the big armchair, Blaise warily eyed his grandsire and tugged fretfully at the long points of the lacy Vandyke collar that spilled over the shoulders of his white twill coat. Red stockings and a red sash at the waist echoed the blood red of his hair. Tach tossed his keys onto the coffee table and sat on the arm of the sofa, keeping a careful distance from the hostile child.

"Whatever he said, I didn't do it."

"You must have done something." They spoke in French.

"No."

"Blaise, don't lie."

"I didn't like him."

Tach drifted to the piano and played a few bars of a Scarlatti sonatina. "Teachers aren't required to be your friends. They're meant to… teach."

"I know everything I need to know."

"Oh?" Tachyon drew out the word in one long, freezing accent.

The childish chin stiffened, and Tach's shields repelled a powerful mind assault. "That's all I need to know. At least for ordinary people." He blushed under his grandfather's level gaze. "I'm special!"

"Being an ignorant boor is unfortunately not terribly unique on this world. You should find yourself with plenty of company."

"I hate you! I want to go home." The final word ended on a sob, and Blaise buried his face in the chair.

Tach crossed to him and gathered the sobbing boy into his arms. "Oh, my darling, don't cry. You're homesick, that is natural. But there is no one for you in France, and I want you so very much."

"There's no place for me here. You're just fitting me in. The way you make room for a new book on the shelves."

"Not true. You have given my life meaning." The remark was too obscurely adult to reach the child, and Tachyon tried again. "I think I've found a new apartment. We'll go there this very afternoon, and you can tell me just how you want your room."

"Really?"

"Truly." He scrubbed the child's face with his handkerchief. "But now, I must return to work so I will take you to Baby, and she will tell you tales of your blood."

"Tres bien."

Tach felt a momentary flare of guilt, for this plan was designed less for Blaise s pleasure than to assure his good behavior. Locked within the walls of the sentient and intelligent Takisian ship, Blaise would be safe, and the world at large would be safe from him.

"But only in English," Tachyon added sternly. Blaise's face fell. "Tant pis."

Back to the clinic for five hours of frenzied work. Most of it unfortunately of the paper variety. With a start he remembered Blaise and hoped that Baby had been very entertaining. Collecting the child, Tachyon hurried him to his karate lesson. He then sat in the outer office reading the Times, a wary ear cocked toward the dojo. But Blaise was behaving.

Wild Card/AIDS Benefit Concert to be Held at Funhouse. How like Des, Tachyon reflected. Interesting that this event was to take place in Jokertown. Probably no other forum in New York would host it. They would want to place plastic liners on the seats.

There were a number of emotional similarities between the two scourges. As a biochemist, he saw a different correlation, herpes to wild card. But a herpes/wild card/AIDS benefit would offer far too many unfortunate opportunities for sexual innuendo.

Warning: The Surgeon General has determined that fucking may be hazardous to your health.

"Well, I ought to live to be two thousand," muttered Tach, crossing his legs.

Blaise bounced out looking adorable in his little white gee. There had been an initial tussle with the manager of the karate school over that gee. The standard color was black, but despite forty years on Earth, Tach still held a stubborn bias against the color. Laborers wore black. Not aristocrats.

The boy thrust his clothes into Tach's' arms. "Aren't you going to change?"

"No." He climbed onto a chair to investigate a display of shurikiens, kusawagamas, and naginatas.

"Is the language barrier a problem?" he asked Tupuola as he wrote out a check.

"No. Even in just the past few days his English has improved remarkably."

"He's very bright."

"Yes, I am," said Blaise walking across the chairs to hug Tachyon around the neck. Tupuola frowned, twiddled a pen. "I wish you would show me some of this English improvement."

"It's easier to speak French with you," Blaise said, lapsing into that tongue.

Tach ran a hand through his grandchild's straight red hair. "I think I shall have to develop selective deafness." He suddenly chuckled.

"What?" Blaise tugged at his shoulder.

"I was remembering an incident from my childhood. I wasn't much older than you. Fifteen or so. I had decided that physical workout was dull. Only the sparring really seemed to matter. So I had taken to ordering my bodyguards to do the workouts for me." Tupuola laughed, and Tach shook his head sadly. "I was an unbearable little prince."

"So what happened?"

"My father caught me."

"And?" asked Blaise eagerly. "And he beat the crap out of me."

"I'll bet your bodyguards enjoyed it," chuckled Tupuola. "Oh, they were far too well trained to ever show emotion, but I do seem to recall a few telltale lip twitches. It was very humiliating." He sighed.

"I would have stopped him," said Blaise, his eyes kindling. "Ah, but I respected my father and knew he was right to chastise me. And it would have violated the tenets of psi to engage in a long, drawn out mind battle with my sire in front of servants. Also, I might have lost." He flicked a forefinger across the tip of the boy's nose. "Always a consideration when you're a Takisian."

"The tenets of psi. Sounds like a mystic book out of the sixties," mused Tupuola.

Tach rose. "Perhaps I'll write it." He turned to his grandchild. "And speaking of the sixties, there is someone I want you to meet."

"Someone fun?"

"Yes, and kind, and a good friend."

The corners of Blaise's mouth drooped. "Not someone I can play with."

"No, but he does have a daughter."

"Behold me! Mark, I am home!" Tach announced with a swirl of his plumed hat from the front door of the Cosmic Pumpkin ('Food for Body, Mind, amp; Spirit') Head Shop and Delicatessen.

Dr. Mark Meadows, aka Captain Trips, hung storklike over the counter, a freshly opened package of tofu balanced delicately on his fingertips.

"Oh, wow, Doc. Good to see ya."

"Mark, my grandson, Blaise." He pulled him from where the child had been hiding behind him and pushed him gently forward. "Blaise, je vous presente, Monsieur Mark Meadows."

"Enchante, monsieur."

Mark flashed Blaise a peace sign, and Tach a sharp glance. "I can see you've got a lot to tell."

"Indeed, yes, and a favor to ask."

"Anything, man, name it."

Tachyon glanced significantly down at Blaise. "In a moment. First I want Blaise to makes Sprout's acquaintance."

"Uh… sure."

They climbed the steep stairs to Mark's apartment, left Blaise playing with Mark's lovely, but sadly retarded, tenyear-old daughter, and settled in the hippie's tiny, cluttered lab.

"So, like, tell all."

"Overall it was a nightmare. Death, starvation, disease but at the end… Blaise, and suddenly it all becomes worthwhile." Tachyon halted his nervous pacings. "He's the focus of my life, and I want him to have everything, Mark."

"Kids don't need everything, man. They just need love." Tach laid a hand fondly on the human's skinny shoulder. "How good you are, my dear, dear friend."

"But you haven't told me anything. How you found him, and what's the real poop on that shit that came down in Syria?"

"That's why I say it was a nightmare."

They talked, Tachyon touching on his fears for Peregrine, all of the events leading up to his discovery of Blaise. He omitted his final confrontation with Le Miroir, the French' terrorist who had been controlling the quarter-Takisian child. He sensed that gentle, sensitive Mark might be shocked at Tachyon's cold-blooded execution of the man. It was something that, in retrospect, Tachyon wasn't very comfortable with himself. He reflected, a little sadly, that after an almost equal number of years on Takis and on Earth he was still more of Takis than of Earth.

He checked the watch set in his bootheel and exclaimed, "Burning Sky, look at the time."

"Hey, great boots."

"Yes, I found them in Germany."

"Hey, about Germany-"

"Another time, Mark, I must be going. Oh, what a fool I am! I came not only for the pleasure of seeing you, but to ask if I might occasionally borrow Durg? He's virtually immune to the effects of mind control, and I can't keep Blaise with me constantly, nor can I continue to lock him away in Baby everytime I have other responsibilities."

"burg as a babysitter. It sorta boggles the mind."

"Yes, I know, and believe me it goes very much against the grain to have Zabb's monster guarding my heir, but Blaise is like a Swarm mother among planets if I leave him unattended with normal humans. You see, he has no self-discipline, and I'm damned if I can see how to instill it in him."

Trips dropped an arm over Tachyon's shoulders, and they walked to the door of the lab. "rime, give it time. And relax with it, man. Nobody's born a father."

"Or even a grandfather."

Mark looked down into the delicate, youthful face and chuckled. "I think he's going to have a hard time relating to you as Gramps. You're going to have to settle for-"

The sight in the living room knocked wind and words from Mark's throat. Sprout was down to her teddy bear panties, daintily dancing while she sang a little song. Giggling, Blaise bounced on the sofa and manipulated her like a puppet.

"K'ijdad, isn't she funny? Her mind is so simple-" Tachyon's power lashed out, and Sprout-suddenly freed from this terrifying outside control-burst into frightened and disoriented tears. Mark gathered her in a tight embrace. "SIMPLE! I WILL SHOW YOU A SIMPLE MIND!" The boy jerked about the room like rusty automaton under the brutal imperative of his grandfather's mind. "IS THIS PLEASANT! DO YOU ENJOY-"

"NO, MAN, NO! STOP IT!" Tachyon rocked under the hard shaking. "It's okay," Trips added in a more moderate tone as the devil's mask that had slipped over Tachyon's normally pleasant features faded.

"I'm sorry, Mark," Tach whispered. "So very sorry."

"It's okay, man. Let's… let's just all calm down." Tachyon dropped into telepathy. Can you ever forgive me?

Nothing to forgive, man.

Meadows dropped to one knee before the sobbing boy, took him gently by the shoulders. "You see, you're as scared as Sprout was. It's no fun to be in somebody else's power."

"And yeah, Sprout's mind is weak, but that's all the more reason for someone strong like you to be kind, and to look out for people like her. You understand?"

Blaise slowly nodded, but Tachyon didn't trust the shuttered expression in those purple/black eyes. And sure enough, as soon as they were out on the street in front of the Cosmic Pumpkin, the boy said, "What a wimp!"

"GET IN THAT TAXI."

"Ancestors!" Glass crunched under bootheels, and for a brief, breath-catching moment time rolled back, and the past clung like a gnawing animal at his throat.

Glass shattering and falling, mirrors breaking on all sides, silvered knives flying through the air… blood spattering against the cracked mirrors.

Tachyon shook himself free of the waking nightmare and stared at the carnage that filled the Funhouse. A janitor with enough arms to handle three brooms was busily sweeping up the broken glass that littered the floor. Des, grey-faced and frowning, was talking with a man in a business suit. Tachyon joined them.,

"I'm not entirely certain your policy-"

"Of course not! Why should I think that twenty-four years of premiums paid on time, and no claims made, should entitle me to any coverage now," spat Des.

"I'll check, Mr. Desmond, and get back to you."

"What by the purity of the Ideal is going on here?"

"Do you want a drink?"

"Please." Tachyon pulled out his wallet, and Des stared down at the bills, a funny little smile twisting his lips, the fingers at the end of his incongruous trunk twitching slightly. The alien flushed and said defensively. "I pay for my drinks."

"Now."

"That was a long time ago, Des."

"True."

Tachyon kicked at a sliver of mirror. "Though God knows this brings it all back.", "Christmas Eve, 1963. Mal's been dead a long time." And soon you will be too.

No, impossible to speak such words. But would Des ever speak? While Tachyon, of course, respected the old joker's desire for privacy as he prepared to die, it nonetheless hurt that he maintained his silence.

How am I to say farewell to you, old friend? And soon it will be too late.

The cognac exploded like a white-hot cloud on the back of his throat, banishing the lump that had settled there. Tachyon set aside the glass and said, "You never answered my question."

"What's to answer?"

"Des, I'm your friend. I've drunk in this bar for over twenty years. When I enter and find it busted all to hell, I want to know why."

"Why?"

"Maybe I can do something!" Tachyon tossed down the rest of his drink and frowned up into Des's faded eyes.

Des swept away the glass and refilled it. "For twenty years I've been paying protection to the Gambiones. Now this new gang is muscling in, and I'm having to pay off two of them. It's making it a little tough to meet overhead."

"New gang? What new gang?"

"They call themselves the Shadow Fists. Toughs out of Chinatown."

"When did this start?"

"Last week. I guess they waited until they knew I was back in town."

"Which means they made quite a study of Jokertown." A shrug. "Why not? They're businessmen."

"They're hoodlums." Another shrug. "That too."

"What are you going to do?"

"Keep paying both sides and hope they let me live in peace."

"However long that's going to be," Tachyon muttered, and drained the fresh cognac.

"What?"

"Oh, hell, Des, I'm not a blind man. I'm also a doctor. What is it? Cancer?"

"Yes."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

The old man sighed. "For a lot of complicated reasons. None of which I want to go into right now."

"Or ever?"

"That too is possible."

"I count you a friend."

"Do you, Tachy? Do you?"

"Yes. Can you doubt it? No! Don't answer that. I've already seen it; in your eyes and your heart."

"Why not my mind, Tachyon? Why not read it there?"

"Because I honor your privacy, and-" His face crumpled, and he sucked in a sharp breath. "Because I can't bear to face what I might read there," he concluded quietly. He tossed more bills on the bar and started for the door. "I'll see what I can do to make your hope a reality."

"What?"

"That you end your days in peace."

It had been the same story at Ernie's and Gobbler's Delicatessen and Spot's Laundry and so many others that he dreaded to even recall them all. Frowning, Tachyon tore the skin from an orange, the juice stinging briefly as it hit a hitherto unnoticed paper cut. Goons out of Chinatown. Goons from the mob, and him with his big mouth promising to do something about it. Like what?

He finished peeling the orange and popped a segment into his mouth. A light breeze ruled his curls and brought the sound of Blaise's delighted laughter. A rumbling call from Jack Braun sent the little boy scampering across the park, his red-stockinged legs a blur of motion. Braun leaned back the football cradled in his big hand and threw. He looked like a movie star; sun-bleached blond hair falling across his forehead, tan sinewy legs thrusting out from a pair of safari shorts, a very attractive, brilliantly colored Hawaiian shirt.

Tach threw crusts of bread to some interested pigeons. How ironic, Sunday in the park with Jack. Hated enemy transformed into… well, perhaps not friend, but at least a tolerated presence. It didn't hurt that Jack's visit had been prompted by a desire to see Blaise, which raised him in Tach's estimation. To love Blaise was to find favor. And this outing had at least pulled Tachyon out of the brown study that had held him for days since his visit to the Funhouse.

The orange segment finally slipped down, and Tach's stomach rebelled. With a moan he rolled onto his back on the blanket and fought down nausea. The wages of worry. Over the past few days his stomach had closed down into a tight and painful ball. He began a litany of problems.

The fear that lay like a palpable shadow over Jokertown. Leo Barnett offering to heal jokers with the power of his god, and if they failed to respond, then clearly it was an indication of the depth of their sin. What if he became president?

Peregrine. In a month her child was due. The ultrasound he'd run two days ago still indicated a normal, viable fetus, but Tach knew with soul-deep horror what the stress of the birth experience could do to a wild card babe. Blood and Line, let this little one be normal. If it wasn't, it would destroy her.

And he still hadn't been by the Jokertown precinct to work with a police artist on the preparation of a drawing of ames Spector…

A girl went jogging by, an Afghan hound loping at her heels. A sheen of sweat brought a golden glow to her skin, and several strands of long black hair lay plastered on her bare back. Tach watched the play of muscles in her legs and back, studied the ripe breasts bouncing beneath the halter top, and felt his mouth go dry and the urgent thrust of his penis against his zipper. It was a bitter and tantalizing glimpse of wholeness, for he knew after countless hopeless encounters that the power would fade when the moment came upon him.

Furious, he rolled onto his stomach and beat his fists on the ground-furious at his impotence, and at his flighty, undisciplined mind that could be distracted from concern over an ace killer by the sight of female flesh.

A toe nudged him in the ribs, and he shot to his feet. "Hey, hey." Braun held up his hands placatingly. "Take it easy."

"Where's Blaise?" Tach stared anxiously about. " I gave him some money for ice cream."

"You shouldn't have let him go alone. Something might happen… ."

"That kid can look out for himself." Braun dropped crosslegged onto the blanket, lit a cigarette. "Mind if I give you some advice."

"Yes."

"You're not on Takis now. He's not a prince of the blood royal."

Tachyon gave a bitter little laugh. "No, far from it. He's an abomination. On Takis he would be destroyed."

"Huh?"

The alien swept up the scattered orange peels and carried them to a garbage can. "The greatest penalties are reserved for those who mingle their seed outside their class. How could we rule if everyone possessed our powers?" he tossed back over his shoulder.

"Charming culture you come from. But it supports my point."

"Being what?"

"Stop driving him crazy. You're laying way too much pressure on him. You expect him to abide by rules of behavior that have no correlation on Earth, and you're also spoiling him rotten. Music lessons, karate lessons, dance lessons, tutoring in algebra and biology and chemistry-"

"Well, you're wrong there. His third tutor quit days ago, and I haven't been able to find a replacement. And that is why I have to expect so much of him. His power and his breeding make him special. At least to me."

"Tachyon, listen to me. You can't give a kid every toy and every gimcrack he desires, tell him he's special, special, special, and then expect him not to be an arrogant little bastard. Let him be a kid. Take his clothes."

"What's wrong with his clothes?" There was a threat in the husky voice.

"Get him out of the knee britches, and the lace, and the hats. Buy him some blue jeans, and a Dodgers cap. He's got to live in this world."

"I have not chosen to conform."

"Yeah, but you're a crank. It's a big flamboyant act with you. You're also an adult, and one incredibly arrogant son-ofa-bitch, and you could care less what people say about you. You don't want Blaise to abuse his power, but you've almost guaranteed that he'll have to. There's nothing crueler than kids, and he's going to be tormented until he lashes out. Then you'll be disappointed and disapproving, and he'll be resentful, and what a perfect vicious circle you've created."

"You should write a book. Clearly your vast experience has made you an authority on child rearing."

"Ah, hell, Tachyon. I like the kid. I even occasionally like you. Love him, Tachyon, and relax."

"I do love him."

"No, you love what he represents. You're obsessive about him because your im-" He bit off the words and flushed a deep red. "Ah, hell, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to bring that up."

"How do you even know?"

"Fantasy told me."

"Bitch."

"Hey, relax there too, and everything will probably work out. It's no big deal."

"Braun, you cannot conceive of what a big deal it is. Progeny, continuance-Oh, fuck! Are you also planning to offer psychiatric counseling at your new casino? Do what you do best, Jack-drift and make money. But leave me alone!"

"With pleasure!"

Seizing the picnic hamper and the blanket, Tachyon stormed away in search of Blaise.

"Where's Uncle Jack?"

"Uncle Jack had an appointment in Atlantic City."

"You two had a fight again. Why do you two fight so much?"

Ancient history,

"Then you should forget it."

"Don't you start too." Tach waved down a cab. "Where are we going?"

"To Mark's."

"Oh."

"J. J., Please wait for me," Tachyon instructed when they pulled up in front of the Cosmic Pumpkin.

"Hokay, but the meters she keeps running," the man replied in a thick and unplaceable accent.

"That's fine."

"I'll wait too," said Blaise in a small voice. And Tachyon felt a moment's shame, remembering his lack of control the last time they had visited the Pumpkin.

He stuck his head in the door. "Mark."

"Yo."

"Quick question. Have you been bothered with emissaries from various criminal organizations?" The handful of diners from CUNY stared at the Takisian wide-eyed. "Huh?"

Tach expelled air in a sharp puff of irritation. "Have you been asked to pay protection?"

"Oh, is that what you meant. Oh, yeah, man, months ago, but I like

… had one of my… friends show up, and they haven't been back."

"Would that everyone had friends like yours, Mark."

"Is that it?"

"That's it."_ "Anything I can do to help?"

"I don't think so."

Tachyon slid into the cab and gave the hack the clinic's address.

"Ohhhh, Jokertowns. Yous that doctors?"

"Yes."

"I sees you on the televisions. Peri Green's Perches."

"That's Peregrine, and yes, that was me."

"Holy Jesus!"

The driver's exclamation jerked Tach's attention to the road ahead. A jumble of police cars, their lights flashing, blocked Hester Street. With a wail an ambulance shot past. "Shit, must be anothers, how you says, hits."

"Stop, stop at once."

Leaping from the cab, Tach darted under the police tape. A woman's keening filled the air, and a basso voice amplified by a bullhorn ordered knots of muttering people to move along. Tachyon spotted Detective Maseryk and pushed up to him.

"What?",

"How the hell… oh, hi, Doc." The detective stared curiously at the small boy who gazed with interest at the sprawled bodies in the shattered restaurant.

Tachyon rounded on Blaise. "Get back to the cab and wait there."

"Ahhh-"

"Now!"

"Looks like another little party," said Maseryk when Blaise had reluctantly drooped away. "But this time an uninvited guest got mixed up in it too." He jerked his head toward the sobbing woman, who was clutching at a small form in a bodybag being lifted into the ambulance.

Tachyon ran to the stretcher, unzipped the bag, and stared down at the child. He hadn't been very attractive to start with, a squat-bottomed heavy body sat upon broad flippers, and he looked a lot worse with half his head shot away. Spinning, the Takisian caught the woman in a tight embrace.

"MY BABY! MY BABY! DON'T LET THEM TAKE MY BABY!"

A rescue worker approached, hypodermic at the ready. Tachyon stilled the sobbing mother with a brief touch of his power and handed her to the man.

"Treat her kindly."

"Looks like Gambione boys," Maseryk called as he stared thoughtfully down at one sprawled body. Several strings of spaghetti hung from the corpse's mouth, leaving wet, red trails on his chin. "The Fists came cruising by and opened up. Car will be found, and be stolen, so that'll be another dead end. Too bad about the kid though. Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time."

The detective noticed Tachyon's continued silence and glanced down.

"I don't want dead ends, Maseryk, I want these men."

"We're working on it."

"Perhaps it is time I took a hand."

"No, for Christ's sake, the last thing we need are civilians getting in the way. Just stay out of this."

"Nobody kills my people in my town!"

"Huh? The mayors going to be mighty surprised to hear he lost and you won the last election," he yelled after Tachyon's retreating back.

"Cognac," spat Tachyon to Sascha, the Crystal Palace's blind bartender. He threw his blue velvet hat, sewn with pearls and sequins, onto the bar and tossed back the drink. He extended the snifter. "Another."

A whiff of exotic frangipani perfume, and Chrysalis slid onto the stool next to him. The blue eyes floating within their hollows of bone stared impassively down at him.

"You're supposed to savor good brandy, not throw it down like a wino after a cheap drunk. Unless that's what you're after."

"You sound like a recruiter for AA."

Reaching out, Chrysalis wrapped one short red curl around her forefinger. "So what's the matter, Tachy?"

"This senseless gang war. Today an innocent caught in the crossfire. A joker child. I think he lives on this block. I remember seeing him on Wild Card Day last September."

"Oh." She continued playing with his short-cropped hair. "Stop that! And is that all you have to say?"

"What should I say?"

"How about a little outrage?"

"I deal in information, not outrage."

"God, you can be a cold bitch."

"Circumstances have rather guaranteed that, Tachyon. I don't ask for pity, and I don't give any. I do what I have to do to survive with what I am. What I've become."

He reared back at the bitterness in her voice. For she was one of his bastard children-born of his failure and his pain.

"Chrysalis, we have to do something."

"Like what?"

"Prevent Jokertown from becoming a battlefield."

"It is already."

"Then make it too dangerous for them to fight here. Will you help me?"

"No. I take sides, and I've lost my neutrality."

"Willing to sell weapons to all sides, eh?"

"If that's what it takes."

"What is it you're after, Chrysalis?"

"Safety."

He slid off the stool. "There is none this side of the grave."

"Go be a fire-breather, Tachyon. And when you come up with something a little more concrete than an amorphous desire to protect Jokertown, let me know."

"Why? So you can sell me out to the highest bidder?" And now it was her turn to rear back, the blood washing like a dark tide through the shadowy muscles of her face.

"Okay, let's come to order now," called Des, delicately tapping a spoon against the side of a brandy snifter.

The shifting throng gave a final shudder, like a beast falling into sleep, and silence filled the Funhouse. Mark Meadows, looking even more vacuous and absurd in the image-distorting mirrors of the Funhouse, was conspicuous for his very normalcy. The rest of the room looked like a gathering of carnival freaks. Ernie the Lizard had his rill raised, and it was flushed a deep scarlet under the emotion of the moment. Arachne, her eight legs catching at the thread of silk being extruded by her bulbous body, placidly wove a shawl. Shiner, with Doughboy huge and lumpish seated beside him, jiggled nervously in his chair. Walrus, in one of his loud Hawaiian shirts, fished a paper from his shoping cart and handed it back to Gobbler. Troll leaned his nine-foot length against the door as if ready to repel any outsiders. "Doctor."

Des dropped into a chair like a discarded suit. As Tachyon stepped forward to face the crowd, he wondered how much longer until the old man was forced to enter the hospital for that final stay.

"Ladies and gentlemen, you've all heard about Alex Reichmann?" There were murmurers of assent, sympathy, and outrage. "I had the misfortune to stumble across that scene only moments after the Shadow Fists had made their hit and succeeded in killing not only their intended targets but one of our own. I've only been back a few weeks. I've heard the stories of intimidation and vandalism, but I thought I could stay neutral. In the words of another, and perhaps more famous, physician: 'I'm a doctor, not a policeman.'" That drew a couple of laughs.

"But the police are failing in their duty to us," Tachyon continued. "Not perhaps out of deliberate neglect, but because this war far exceeds their capacity to keep the peace. So I'd like to propose today that we form our own peacekeepers. A neighborhood watch on a grand scale, but with a twist. Many of you fall into that uncomfortable category of joker/ aces." The alien nodded to Ernie and Troll, whose metahuman strength was well-known. "I propose that we also form response teams. Pairs of jokers and aces ready to respond to a call from any concerned citizen of Jokertown. Des has already offered the Funhouse as the central axis, the switchboard, if you will, for incoming calls. People who agree to be part of this effort will turn in times they would be available, and their work and home addresses. Whoever's on duty here will match a team to the problem spot and send them out."

"Just a point, Tachy," called jube. "Those guys have guns."

"True, but they're also just nats."

"And some of my… er, the Captain's 'friends' are impervious to bullets," piped up Mark Meadows.

"As is Turtle and Jack and Hammer-"

"So you propose using aces as well?" asked Des, a slight frown between his eyes.

Tach looked at him in surprise. "Yes."

"May I point out that Rosemary Muldoon tried that back in March, and then it was revealed that she was a member of the Mafia herself. It's left rather a bad taste in people's mouths where aces are concerned."

Tachyon waved aside the objection. "Well, none of us are likely to be revealed as secret members of the Mafia. So what do you think? Are you willing to work with me on this?"

"Where does Chrysalis stand on this?" asked Gobbler. "And is it a comment that she's not here?"

"Well," began Tach, shifting uncomfortably.

"Yeah," called out Gills. "If Chrysalis isn't here, it's got to mean something. She may know something."

Tachyon stared in dismay at the sea of faces before him. They were closing down like night-blooming flowers retreating from the touch of the sun.

"Chrysalis and Des have always been two of the top figures in Jokertown. If she's not in on this, I don't trust it," cried Gobbler, his red wattle bouncing on his beak.

"What about me?" cried Tachyon.

"You're not one of us. Never can be," a voice called from the back of the room, and Tachyon couldn't pick out the speaker. A grinding weight seemed to have settled into the center of his chest at the woman's words.

"Look, we're not saying it's a bad idea," said the Oddity. "We're just saying that without Chrysalis it seems like were missing a major part."

"If I get Chrysalis?" asked the Takisian a little desperately. "Then we are with you."

Digger Downs was trotting down the stairs from Chrysalis's private third-floor apartments. Tachyon glared at him and nodded shortly. He noted that the journalist was carrying the current issue of Time with Gregg Hartmann's picture on the cover and the caption "Will He Run?" and a copy of Who's Who in America.

"Hey, Tachy. Des. What's the good word?"

"Beat it, Digger."

"Hey, you're not still sore-"

"Beat it."

"The public's got a right to know. My article on Peregrine's pregnancy did a valuable service. It pointed out the dangers of a wild card child."

"Your article was a sensational bit of garbage."

"You're just pissed because Peri got mad at you. You never are going to get a crack at her, Doc. I hear she and that boyfriend are thinking about getting-"

Tachyon mind-controlled him and marched him down the stairs and out the front door of the Crystal Palace.

"I'd consider that an assault," said Des.

"Let him prove it." "You don't have a lot of sensitivity sometimes, Tachyon." The alien turned, leaned against the banister, and frowned down at the joker. "Meaning what, Des?"

"You shouldn't involve aces in what should be a joker project. Or don't you think we're capable of handling it ourselves?"

"Oh, burning sky! Why are you so touchy? There was no implicit slur in my inviting in aces. I would say the more firepower we have the better."

"Why are you doing this?"

"Because they're hurting my people, and no one hurts my people."

"And?"

"And Jokertown is my home."

"And?"

"And what!"

"You come from an aristocratic culture, Tachyon. Do you by chance view us as your own private fiefdom?"

"That's not fair, Des," he cried, but he knew that his hurt was tempered with a sudden flare of guilt. He climbed a few more stairs then paused and said, "All right, no aces."

Chrysalis was waiting for them, seated in a high-backed red velvet chair. Victorian antiques littered the room, and the walls were filled with mirrors. Tach suppressed a shudder and wondered how she could stand it. And again felt a stab of guilt. If Chrysalis wanted to look at herself, who was he to judge her? He who in many senses was her creator. He frowned at Des, wishing the old joker had not raised so many uncomfortable emotions.

"So without me you've got no goon squad," she drawled in her affected British accent.

"I should have known that you would have heard by now."

"That's my business, Tachy."

"Chrysalis, please, we need you."

"What are you going to give me for it?"

Des seated himself opposite her, hands clasped between his knees, leaned in intently. "Make a gift to yourself, Chrysalis."

"What?"

"For once in your life put aside profit and margin. You're a joker, Chrysalis, help your fellows. I've spent twenty-three years fighting for jokers, for this little piece of turf. Twentythree years with JADL measuring my life by a few successes. Now I'm dying, and I'm watching it all erode away. Leo Barnett says we're sinners, and our deformities are God's judgment upon us. To the Fists and the Mafia we're just so many consumers. The ugliest, most hateful consumers they've got, but consumers nonetheless, and our town is their central marketplace. We're just things to them, Chrysalis. Things who stick their dope in our arms, and our cocks in their women. Things they can terrorize and things they can kill. Help us stop them. Help us force them to see us as men."

Chrysalis stared at him out of that impassive, transparent face. The skull without emotion.

"Chrysalis, you admire all things British. Then honor an old British custom of granting a dying man his last request. Help Tachyon. Help our people."

The Takisian held out his hand and twined his fingers through the fingers at the end of Des's trunk. Drew him close and embraced him. Said farewell.

Concerto for Siren and Serotonin

IV

When Croyd awoke, he pushed aside mop handles, stepped into a bucket, and fell forward. The closet's door offered small resistance to the wild, forward thrust of his hands. As it sprang open and he sprawled, the light stabbing painfully into his eyes, he began to recall the circumstances preceding his repose: the centaur-doctor-Finn-and that funny sleepmachine, yes… And another little death would mean another sleep-change.

Lying in the hallway, he counted his fingers. There were ten of them all right, but his skin was dead white. He shook off the bucket, climbed to his feet, and stumbled again. His left arm shot downward, touched the floor, and pushed against it. This impelled him to his feet and over backward. He executed an aerial somersault to his rear, landed on his feet, and toppled rearward again. His hands dropped toward the floor to catch himself, then he withdrew them without making contact and simply let himself fall. Years of experience had already given him a suspicion as to what new factor had entered his life-situation. His overcompensations were telling him something about his reflexes.

When he rose again, his movements were very slow, but they grew more and more normal as he explored. By the time he located a washroom all traces of excessive speed or slowness had vanished. When he studied himself in the mirror, he discovered that, in addition to having grown taller and thinner, it was now a pink-eyed countenance that he regarded, a shock of white hair above the high, glacial brow. He massaged his temples, licked his lips, and shrugged. He was familiar with albinism. It was not the first time he had come up short in the pigment department.

He sought his mirrorshades then recalled that Demise had kicked them off. No matter. He'd pick up another pair along with some sun block. Perhaps he'd better dye the hair too, he decided. Less conspicuous that way.

Whatever, his stomach was signaling its emptiness in a frantic fashion. No time for paperwork, for checking out properly-if, indeed, he'd been checked in properly. He was not at all certain that was the case. Best simply to avoid everyone if he didn't want to be delayed on the road to food. He could stop by and thank Finn another time.

Moving as Bentley had taught him long ago, all of his senses extended fully, he began his exit.

"Hi, Jube. One of each, as usual."

Jube studied the tall, cadaverous figure before him, meeting diminished images of his own tusked, blubbery countenance in the mirrorshades that masked the man's eyes.

"Croyd? That you, fella?"

"Yep. Just up and around. I crashed at Tachyon s clinic this time."

"That must be why I hadn't heard any Croyd Crenson disaster stories lately. You actually went gentle into your last good night?"

Croyd nodded, studying headlines. "You might put it that way," he said. "Unusual circumstances. Funny feeling. Hey! What's this?" He raised a newspaper and studied it. "'Bloodbath at Werewolf Clubhouse.' What's going on, a fucking gang war?"

"A fucking gang war," Jube acknowledged. "Damn! I've got to get back on the stick fast."

"What stick?"

"Metaphorical stick," Croyd replied. "If this is Friday, it must be Dead Nicholas."

"You okay, boy?"

"No, but twenty or thirty thousand calories will be a step in the right direction."

"Ought to take the edge off," Jube agreed. "Hear who won the Miss Jokertown Beauty Pageant last week?"

"Who?" Croyd asked.

"Nobody."

Croyd entered Club Dead Nicholas to the notes of an organ playing "Wolverine Blues." The windows were draped in black, the tables were coffins, the waiters wore shrouds.

The wall to the crematorium had been removed; it was now an open grill tended by demonic jokers. As Croyd moved into the lounge, he saw that the casket-tables were open beneath sheets of heavy glass; ghoulish figures-presumably of waxwere laid out within them in various states of unrest.

A lipless, noseless, earless joker as pale as himself approached Croyd immediately, laying a bony hand upon his arm.

"Pardon me, sir. May I see your membership card?" he asked.

Croyd handed him a fifty-dollar bill.

"Yes, of course," said the grim waiter. "I'll bring the card to your table. Along with a complimentary drink. I take it you will be dining here?"

"Yes. And I've heard you have some good card games."

"Back room. It's customary to get another player to introduce you."

"Sure. Actually, I'm waiting for someone who should be stopping by this evening to play. Fellow name of Eye. Is he here yet?"

"No. Mr. Eye was eaten. Partly, that is. By an alligator. Last September. In the sewers. Sorry."

"Ouch," Croyd said. "I didn't see him often. But when I did he usually had a little business for me."

The waiter studied him. "What did you say your name was?"

"Whiteout."

"I don't want to know your business," the man said. "But there is a fellow named Melt, who Eye used to hang around with. Maybe he can help you, maybe he can't. You want to wait and talk to him, I'll send him over when he comes in."

"All right. I'll eat while I'm waiting."

Sipping his comp beer, waiting for a pair of steaks, Croyd withdrew a deck of Bicycle playing cards from his side pocket, shuffled it, dealt one facedown and another faceup beside it. The ten of diamonds faced him on the clear tabletop, above the agonized grimace of the fanged lady, a wooden stake through her heart, a few drops of red beside the grimace. Croyd turned over the hole card, which proved a seven of clubs. He flipped it back over, glanced about him, turned it again. Now it was a jack of spades keeping the ten company. The flicker-frequency-switch was a trick he'd practiced for laughs the last time his reflexes had been hyped-up. It had come back almost immediately when he'd tried to recall it, leading him to speculate as to what other actions lay buried in his prefrontal gyrus. Wing-flapping reflexes? Throat contractions for ultrasonic wails? Coordination patterns for extra appendages?

He shrugged and dealt himself poker hands just good enough to beat those he gave the staked lady till his food came.

Along about his third dessert the pallid waiter approached, escorting a tall, bald individual whose flesh seemed to flow like wax down a candlestick. His features were constantly distorted as tumorlike lumps passed beneath his skin.

"You told me, sir, that you wanted to meet Melt," the waiter said.

Croyd rose and extended his hand.

"Call me Whiteout," he said. "Have a seat. Let me buy you a drink."

"If you're selling something, forget it," Melt told him. Croyd shook his head as the waiter drifted away.

"I've heard they have good card games here, but I've got nobody to introduce me," Croyd stated.

Melt narrowed his eyes. "Oh, you play cards." Croyd smiled. "I sometimes get lucky."

"Really? And you knew Eye?"

"Well enough to play cards with him."

"That all?"

"You might check with Demise," Croyd said. "We're in a similar line of work. We're both ex-accountants who moved on to bigger things. My name says it all."

Melt glanced hastily about, then seated himself. "Let's keep that kind of noise down, okay? You looking for work now?"

"Not really, not now. I just want to play a little cards." Melt licked his lips as a bulge ran down his left cheek, passed over his jawline, distended his neck.

"You got a lot of green to throw around?"

"Enough."

"Okay, I'll get you into the game," Melt said. "I'd like to take some of it away from you."

Croyd smiled, paid his check, and followed Melt into the back room, where the casket gaming table was closed and had a nonreflective surface. There were seven of them in the game to begin with, and three went broke before midnight. Croyd and Melt and Bug Pimp and Runner saw piles of cash grow and shrink before them till three in the A.M. Then Runner yawned, stretched, and turned out a small bottle of pills from an inside pocket.

"Anybody need something to keep awake?" he asked. "I'll stick with coffee," Melt said.

"Gimme," said Bug Pimp.

"Never touch the stuff," said Croyd.

A half hour later Bug Pimp folded and made noises about checking on the line of joker femmes he hustled to straights wanting jittery jollies. By four o'clock the Runner was broke and had to walk. Croyd and Melt stared at each other.

"We're both ahead," said Melt. "True."

"Should we take the money and run?" Croyd smiled.

"I feel the same way," Melt said. "Deal.,"

As sunrise tickled the stained glass window and the dusty mechanical bats followed the hologram ghosts to their rest, Melt massaged his temples, rubbed his eyes, and said, "Will you take my marker?"

"Nope," Croyd replied.

"You shouldn't have let me play that last hand then."

"You didn't tell me you were that broke. I thought you could write a check."

"Well, shit. I ain't got it. What do you want to do?"

"Take something else, I guess."

"Like what?"

"A name."

"Whose name?" Melt asked, reaching inside his jacket and scratching his chest.

"The person who gives you your orders."

"What orders?"

"The ones you pass on to guys like Demise."

"You're kidding. It'd be my ass to name a name like that."

"It'll be your ass if you don't," Croyd said.

Melt's hand came out from behind his coat holding a. 32 automatic, which he leveled at Croyd's chest. "I'm not scared of two-bit muscle. There's dumdum slugs in here. Know what they do?"

Suddenly Melt's hand was empty and blood began to ooze from around the nail of his trigger finger. Croyd slowly twisted the automatic out of shape before he tore out the clip and ejected a round.

"You're right, they're dumdums," he acknowleged. "Look at the little flat-nosed buggers, will you? By the way, my name's not Whiteout. I'm Croyd Crenson, the Sleeper, and nobody welshes on me. Maybe you've heard I'm a little bit nuts. You give me the name and you don't find out how true that is."

Melt licked his lips. The lumps beneath his glistening skin increased the tempo of their passage.

"I'm dead if they ever hear."

Croyd shrugged. "I won't tell them if you won't." He pushed a stack of bills toward Melt. "Here's your cut for getting me into the game. Give me the name, take it and walk, or I'll leave you in three of these boxes." Croyd kicked the coffin.

"Danny Mao," Melt whispered, "at the Twisted Dragon, over near Chinatown."

"He gives you a hit list, pays you?"

"Right."

"Who pulls his strings?"

"Beats the shit out of me. He's all I know."

"When's he at the Twisted Dragon?"

"I think he hangs out there a lot, because other people in the place seem to know him. I'd get a call, I'd go over. I'd check my coat. We'd have dinner, or a few drinks. Business didn't get mentioned. But when I'd leave, there'd be a piece of paper in my pocket with a name or two or three on it, and an envelope with money in it. Same as with Eye. That's how he worked it."

"The first time?"

"The first time we took a long walk and he explained the setup. After that, it was like I just said."

"That's it?"

"That's all."

"Okay, you're off the hook."

Melt picked up his stack of bills and stuffed it into his pocket. He opened his distorted mouth as if to say something, thought better of it, thought again, said, "Let's not leave together."

"Fine with me. G'bye."

Melt moved toward the side door, flanked by a pair of tombstones. Croyd picked up his winnings and began thinking about breakfast.

Croyd rode the elevator to Aces High, regretting the absence of a power of flight on such a perfect spring evening. Arriving, he stepped into the lounge, paused, and glanced about.

Six tables held twelve couples, and a dark-haired lady in a low-cut silver blouse sat alone at a two-person table near the bar, twirling a swizzle in some exotic drink. Three men and a woman were seated at the bar. Soft modern jazz sounds circulated through the cool air, accompaniment to blender and laughter, to the clicks and splashes of ice, liquid, and glass. Croyd moved forward.

"Is Hiram here?" he asked the bartender. The man looked at him, then shook his head. "Are you expecting him this evening?"

A shrug. "Hasn't been around much lately."

"What about Jane Dow?"

The man studied him. Then, "She's taken off too," he stated.

"So you really don't know if either of them'll be in?"

"Nope."

Croyd nodded. "I'm Croyd Crenson and I plan to eat here tonight. If Jane comes in, I'd like to know."

"Your best bet's to leave a note at the reservation desk before you're seated."

"Got something I can write on?" Croyd asked.

The bartender reached beneath the bar, brought up a pad and a pencil and passed them to him. Croyd scribbled a message.

As he set the pad down, his hand was covered by a more delicate one, of darker complexion, with bright red nails. His gaze moved along it to the shoulder, skipped to the silver decolletage, paused a beat, rose. It was the solitary lady with the exotic drink. On closer inspection there was something familiar…

"Croyd?" she said softly. "You get stood up too?"

As he met her dark-eyed gaze a name drifted up from the past.

"Veronica," he said.

"Right. You've a good memory for a psycho," she observed, smiling.

"Tonight's my night off. I'm real straight."

"You look mature and distinguished with the white sideburns."

"Damn, I missed some," he said. "And you're really missing a custom- Er, a date?"

"Uh-huh. Seems like we've both thought about getting together too."

"True. You have dinner yet?"

She gave her hair a toss and smiled. "No, and I was looking forward to something special."

He took her arm. "I'll get us a table," he said, "and I've already got a great special in mind."

Croyd crumpled the note and left it in the ashtray.

The trouble with women, Croyd reflected, was that no matter how good they might be in bed, eventually they wanted to use that piece of furniture for sleeping-a condition he was generally unable and unwilling to share. Consequently, when Veronica had finally succumbed to the sleep of exhaustion, Croyd had risen and begun pacing his Morningside Heights apartment, to which they had finally repaired sometime after midnight.

He poured the contents of a can of beef and vegetable soup into a pan and set it on the stove. He prepared a pot of coffee. While he waited for them to simmer and percolate, he phoned those of his other apartments with telephone answering machines and used a remote activator to play back their message tapes. Nothing new.

Finishing his soup, he checked whether Veronica was still asleep, then removed the key from its hiding place and opened the reinforced door to the small room without windows. He turned on its single light, locked himself in, and went to sit beside the glass statue reclining upon the day bed. He held Melanie's hand and began talking to her-slowly at first; but after a time the words came tumbling out. He told her of Dr. Finn and his sleep machine and talked about the Mafia and Demise and Eye and Danny Mao-whom he hadn't been able to run down yet-and about how great things used to be. He talked until he grew hoarse, and then he went out and locked the door and hid the key again.

Later, a pallid dawn spreading like an infection in the east, he entered the bedroom on hearing sounds from within. "Hey, lady, ready for a coffee fix?" he called. "And a little angular momentum? A steak-"

He paused on observing the drug paraphernalia Veronica had set out on the bedside table. She looked up, winked at him, and smiled.

"Coffee would be great, lover. I take it light. No sugar."

"All right," he replied. " I didn't realize you were a user." She glanced down at her bare arms, nodded. "Doesn't show. Can't mainline or you spoil the merchandise."

"Then what-"

She assembled a hype and filled it. Then she stuck out her tongue, took hold of its tip with the fingers of her left hand, raised it, and administered the injection in the underside.

"Ouch," Croyd commented. "Where'd you learn that trick?"

"House of D. Can I fix you up here?"

Croyd shook his head. "Wrong time of month."

"Makes you sound raggedy."

"With me it's a special need. When the time comes, I'll drop some purple hearts or do some benz."

"Oh, bombitas. Si," she said, nodding. "Speedballs, STP, high-octane shit. Crazy man's cooking. I've heard of your habits. Loco stuff."

Croyd shrugged. "I've tried it all."

"Not yage?"

"Yeah. It ain't that great."

"Desoxyn? Desbutol?"

"Uh-huh. They'll do." "Khat?"

"Hell, yes. I've even done hudca. You ever try pituri? Now that's some good shit. Routine's a little messy, though. Learned it from an abo. How's about kratom? Comes out of Thailand-"

"You're kidding."

"No."

"Jeez, we'll never run out of conversation. Bet I can pick up a lot from you."

"I'll see that you do."

"Sure I can't set you up?"

"Right now coffee'll do fine."

The morning entered the room, spilling over their slow movements.

"Here's one called the Purple Monkey Proffers the Peach and Takes It Away Again," Croyd murmured. "Learned itheard of it, that is-from the lady gave me the kratom."

"Good shit," Veronica whispered.

When Croyd entered the Twisted Dragon for the third time in as many days, he headed directly to the bar, seated himself beneath a red paper lantern, and ordered a Tsingtao.

A nasty-looking Caucasian with ornate scars all over his face occupied the stool two seats to his left, and Croyd glanced at him, looked away, and looked again. Light shone through the septum of the man's nose. There was a good-size hole' there, and a patch of scabbed pinkish flesh occurred on the nose's tip. It was almost as if he had recently given up on wearing a nose ring under some duress.

Croyd smiled. "Stand too near a merry-go-round?"

"Huh?"

"Or is it just the feng shui in here?" Croyd continued. "What the hell's feng shui?" the man said.

"Ask any of these guys," Croyd said, gesturing broadly. "Especially, though, ask Danny Mao. It's the way energy circulates in the world, and sometimes it gets you in a tricky bind. Lady from Thailand told me about it once. Like, killer chi will come blasting in that door, bounce off the mirror here, get split by that ba-gua fixture there and,"-he chugged his beer, stepped down from his stool and advanced-"hit you right in the nose."

Croyd's movement was too fast for the man's eyes to follow, and he screamed when he felt that the finger had passed through his perforated septum.

"Stop it! My God! Cut it out!" he cried. Croyd led him off his stool.

"Twice I've gotten the runaround in this joint," he said loudly. "I promised myself today that the first person I ran into here was going to talk to me."

"I'll talk to you! I'll talk! What do you want to know?"

"Where's Danny Mao?" Croyd asked.

"I don't know. I don't know any-aah!"

Croyd had crooked his finger, moved it in a figure eight, straightened it.

"Please," the man whined. "Let go. He's not here. He's-"

"I'm Danny Mao," came a well-modulated voice from a table partly masked by a dusty potted palm. Its owner rose and followed it around the tree, a middle-size Oriental man, expressionless save for a quirked eyebrow. "What's your business here, paleface?"

"Private," Croyd said, "unless you want to stand out on the street and shout."

"I don't give interviews to strangers," Danny said, moving toward him.

The man whose nose Croyd wore on his finger whimpered as Croyd turned, dragging him with him.

"I'll introduce myself in private," Croyd said. "Don't bother."

The man's fist flashed forward. Croyd moved his free hand with equal rapidity and the punch struck his palm. Three more punches followed, and Croyd stopped all of them in a similar fashion. The kick he caught behind the heel, raising the foot high and fast. Danny Mao executed a backward flip, landed on his feet, caught his balance.

"Shit!" Croyd observed, moving his other hand rapidly. The stranger howled as something in his nose snapped and he was hurled forward, crashing into Danny Mao. Both men went down, and the weeping man's nose gushed red upon them. "Bad feng shui," Croyd added. "You've got to watch out for that stuff. Gets you every time."

"Danny," came a voice from behind a carved wooden screen beyond the foot of the bar, "I gotta talk to you." Croyd thought he recognized the voice, and when the small, scaly joker with the fanged, orange face looked around the screens corner, he saw it to be Linetap, who had erratic telepathic abilities and often worked as a lookout.

"Might be a good idea," Croyd told Danny Mao.

The man with the bleeding nose limped off to the rest room while Danny flowed gracefully to his feet, brushed off his trousers, and gave Croyd a quick burning glance before heading back toward Linetap.

After several minutes' conversation Danny Mao returned from behind the screen and stood before him.

"So you're the Sleeper," Danny said. "Yep."

"St. John Latham, of the law firm Latham, Strauss."

"What?"

"The name you're after. I'm giving it to you: St. John Latham."

"Without further struggle? Free, gratis and for nothing?"

"No. You will pay. For this information I believe that soon you will sleep forever. Good day, Mr. Crenson."

Danny Mao turned and walked away. Croyd was about to do the same when the man with the nose job emerged from the rest room, holding a large wad of toilet tissue to his face.

"Hope you know you've made the Cannibal Headhunters' shit list," he snuffled.

Croyd nodded slowly. "Tell them to mind the killer chi," he said, "and keep your nose clean."

The Second Coming of Buddy Holley by Edward Bryant

Wednesday

The dead man slammed his fist through the pine door.

No knuckles broke, but his skin tore. Blood streaked the wooden shards of door panel. It hurt, but not enough. No, it didn't hurt much at all, other things considered. "Other things,"-what a euphemistic code for people and relationships, lovers and kin. The dirty little politics of rejections and betrayals. Jesus god, they hurt.

Real mature, my frien', Jack Robicheaux thought. Going through the grieving process at Mach 10. Right past denial and directly to self-pity. Real grown-up for a guy into his forties. Fuck it.

He gingerly withdrew his hand from the shattered door. Naturally the long wooden splinters faced the wrong way. It was like trying to extract his flesh from some sort of toothy trap.

Jack turned and walked back into the shambles of his living room. It still looked like Captain Nemo's stateroom on the Nautilus-after the giant squid had wrestled with the submarine in the middle of the Atlantic's storm of a century.

He loved this room. "Love." Funny word to use anymore. Kicking aside a shattered antique sextant, Jack crossed to the outside door-the one opening on a passage leading to the subway maintenance tunnels-and bolted it. As he did so, he caught a last whiff of Michael's sharp citrus after-shave. The image of Michael's retreating back, shoulders slightly hunched with denial, flickered in the space the door occupied, vanished, slipped out of existence with not even a whimper.

Jack stepped over the old-fashioned phone crafted as the effigy of Huey Long. Somehow it had miraculously ended on the floor upright with the earpiece still cradled in Huey's upraised right hand. 01' Huey had communicated like a son-of-a-bitch. Why couldn't Jack?

He couldn't call Bagabond. He wouldn't call Cordelia.

There was no one else he wanted to talk to. Besides, he thought he'd talked enough. He'd spoken to Tachyon. An apple a day hadn't worked. And he had talked to Michael. Who was left? A priest? Not a chance. Atelier Parish was too far behind. Too many years. Too much memory.

Jack stepped behind the carved mahogany bar with the brass fittings, smelled the dusty plush velvet hanging as he opened the cabinet. The brandy had cost close to sixty bucks. Expensive on a transit worker's salary, but what the hell, he'd always read in sea novels about brandy's being administered to survivors of wrack and storm, and besides, the cut-crystal decanter fit this Victorian room beautifully.

He poured himself a triple, drank it like a double, and filled the glass again. He didn't usually gulp like this, but-

"There is an interesting fact about Mr. Kaposi," Tachyon had said. His medical smock shone an immaculate white with almost the albedo of an arctic snowfield. His red hair seemed aflame under the examining-room lights. "Shortly before he discovered and named his sarcoma in 1872, Kaposi had changed his name from Kohn."

Jack stared at him, unable to form the words he wanted to say. What the fuck was Tachyon talking about?

"There was, of course, a pogrom in Czechoslovakia," Tachyon said, slender fingers gesturing expressively. "He reacted to the sort of ill-informed prejudice that has cursed both jokers, not to mention aces, of course, and AIDS patients alike. Exotic viruses might as well be the evil eye."

Jack looked down at his bare chest, gingerly touching the blue-black bruiselike markings above his ribs. "I don' need no double-barreled curse. One to a customer, no?"

"I'm sorry, Jack." Tachyon hesitated. "It's difficult to say when you were infected. The tumors are well-advanced, but the biopsy and the anomalous workup results suggest there's a synergy going on between the wild card virus and the HIV organism attacking your immunosuppressant system. I suspect some sort of galloping accelerated process."

Jack shook his head as though only half-hearing. " I had a negative test a year ago."

"It's as I feared then," said the doctor. "I can't forecast the progress."

"I can," said Jack.

Tachyon shrugged sympathetically. " I must ask," he said, "if you habitually use amyl nitrite."

"Poppers?" said Jack. He shook his head. "No way. I'm not much on drugs."

Tachyon marked something on Jack's chart. "Their use is frequently connected with Kaposi's."

Jack shook his head again.

"Then there is another matter," said the doctor.

Jack stared at him. It was like trying to look out from the center of a block of ice. He felt numb all over. He knew the psychic shock would go away soon. And then- "What?"

"I must ask you this. I need to know about contacts." Jack took a deep breath. "There was one. Is one. Only one. "

"I should talk to him."

"Are you kidding?" said Jack. " I will talk to Michael. An' den I'll have him come see you. But I'll talk to him first." His voice dropped off. "Yeah, I'll talk to him."

He proceeded to remind Tachyon of the confidentiality of the doctor-patient relationship. Tachyon seemed affronted. Jack didn't apologize. Then he left. That was in the morning.

– this was a special occasion. He felt as if he were drinking after his own funeral. "Cajuns do great wakes," he said aloud, pouring another brandy. Had the decanter been full? He couldn't remember. Now it was down close to half.

He glanced at the phone again. Why the hell did he want to talk to anyone? After all, no one wanted to talk to him. Now that he thought about it, for the last few months living with Michael had pretty much been like living alone. Now he might as well die alone. Can the self-pity. But it was so easy

"So what's up?" Michael had said, closing the door after him before giving Jack a squeeze. No other greeting. No preamble. As light as Jack was dark, tall and slender-limbed, Michael had always seemed to bring something of the sunlit street-level spring down with him to Jack's subterranean dwelling. Not today. Jack couldn't read him at all.

"Huh?" Michael said. Jack turned his face away and disengaged himself from the other's arms. He stepped back. "Something wrong?" Jack scrutinized Michael's face. His lover's features were the very model of glowing health. Of innocence.

"You might want to sit down," said Jack.

"No." Michael stared at him. "Just say what whatever it is you want to say."

Jack's mouth was dry. "I went to the clinic today."

"So?"

"The tests-" He had to start over. "The tests were positive."

Michael looked at him blankly. "Tests?"

"AIDS." He said the hateful word. His stomach twisted. "No," said Michael. He shook his head. "Naw. Not a chance."

"Yes," said Jack.

"But who-". Michael's eyes widened. "Jack, did you-"

"No." Jack stared back. "There's been no one. No one else, mon cher."

Michael cocked his head. "There has to be. I mean, I wouldn't-"

"It isn't like immaculate conception, Michael. No miracle here. It has to be."

"No," said Michael. He shook his head vehemently. "It's impossible." His eyes flickered and he looked away. Then he turned on his heel, opened the door, and left.

"No," Jack had heard Michael say one more time.

– to feel the rusty blade twisting in his gut.

The brandy, it occurred to him, as like an emotional tetanus shot. Except it wasn't working. All it did was make him feel worse because it lessened his ability to control what he was feeling.

He felt suddenly as if he had inhaled all the oxygen there was to breathe in his home. He wanted to get out, to go up to the streets. So he carefully, with what he realized were exaggerated motions, put away the brandy decanter. Then Jack left by the same door Michael had exited. He followed the ghost's footsteps to the tunnels and ladders that took him up to the streets.

He walked. Jack could have taken the track maintenance car down below but decided he didn't want to. The night was too chilly, but that was fine. He wanted something astringent to cleanse him, to flense the bruise marks, to clean out his flesh. He realized he was wishing there was now some overt pain.

He walked uptown, not truly comprehending where he was until he saw the sign for Young Man's Fancy. I shouldn't be here, of all places, he thought. He'd met Michael here. He shouldn't be in the West Village at all. And not at this bar. But by now it was too late. Here he was. Shit. He turned to leave.

"Hey, pretty boy, lookin' to get some tail? Or you the tail?"

The voice was all too familiar. Jack looked up and saw the memorably overmuscled face, not to mention the body, of Bludgeon emerge from the shadowed downstairs entrance to the closed laundry below the bar. Jack turned and started away.

There was the smack of size-eighteen Brogans on the sidewalk. Fingers like German sausages curled around his shoulder and spun Jack around. "The thing about them gorgeous eyes," said Bludgeon, "is that all I gotta do is dig my thumbs in there and they'll pop out like the green cherries onna wop cookies."

Jack shrugged the fingers away. He felt impatient and not terribly cautious. He just didn't give a damn. "Fuck off," he said.

"You need one of these too." Bludgeon put spurned fingers to his own cheek and touched the ragged, inflamed scar that ran all the way from the edge of his right eye to his bulbous chin.

Jack remembered the triumphant shriek of Bagabond's black cat. The feline was old but agile enough to have dodged Bludgeon's flailing fists after the claws had raked down the man's ugly features.

"Cat scratches get infected," Jack said, continuing to back toward the street. "You ought to see to those. I know a real good doctor."

"Chickenshit like you's gonna need an undertaker," Bludgeon threatened. "Mr. Maz'll be real pleased if I bring in your cock in a sammich bag. Them Gambiones love to make sausage, specially outta yellow dicks like you."

"I don't have time for this," said Jack.

"Gonna make time." Bludgeon's jaws split in the kind of smirk that can deform unborn babies. "You and me-I figure I can handle a little 'gator rassling."

The door of Young Man's Fancy swung open and a gaggle of about a dozen guys spilled out onto the street. Bludgeon stopped uncertainly in midstride.

"Witnesses," said Jack. "Down, boy."

"I'll take 'em all," said Bludgeon, surveying his prospective victims. He smacked the macelike mutation of his right hand into the palm of his left. It sounded like dropping a beef roast off a stepladder onto a tiled floor.

"A little gay bashing?" said the man apparently leading the others. He grimaced at Bludgeon. "You still hanging around, dork-breath?" His hand dipped inside his jacket and came out filled with blued steel. "Wanna see my Bernie Goetz impression?" He laughed. "It's a guaranteed killer."

Bludgeon looked around the semicircle of faces. "I gotta job to protect," he finally said to Jack. "You," he said to the man with the gun, "I'm gonna take out your guts with my thumb. Just wait. And you-" he said back to Jack, "you I'm gonna really hurt."

"But ancther time," said Jack.

"Fuckin' A." Bludgeon couldn't seem to find a better exit line. He lurched away from the growing crowd of onlookers and stomped down the street.

"Pretty rough trade," the man with the gun said to Jack. He put the pistol back under his coat. "I hope you know what you're doing."

"Thanks," said Jack. "I don't know the guy. He just stopped me for a light." He turned and headed the opposite direction, ignoring the murmurs.

"So you're welcome, man," said the man with the pistol. "Good luck, buddy."

Jack turned the corner and headed down a darker block. Christ it was cold. He hugged himself. He hadn't worn a coat. The chill was making him sluggish. Bad sign. He tentatively touched the back of his left hand with the fingers of his right. The skin felt rough, scaly, beginning to transform. No! He started to run. He didn't need this too. Not tonight. Stress symptoms. He almost giggled.

He looked for a subway entrance. It didn't matter which. Red globe or green. BMT, IRT, or PATH. Uptown or downtown. Just as long as the stairs led down.

He searched for the telltale steam from a manhole cover. The sewers would do. That would be better. There'd be no people in the sewers. Those tunnels, warm and slimy, would lead toward the bay. Good hunting. Fine with Jack. He thought about his 'gator teeth ripping into albino gar. That was okay. Bagabond didn't give much of a shit about mutant fish. Food. Blood. Death. Exhaustion. Blankness.

Jack stumbled toward the deeper darkness, homing in on a warm grating.

I'm losing it, he thought.

He saw Michael's face. Bagabond's. Cordelia's. Yeah, he'd lost it all right. Everything.

Jack plunged into the night.

Thursday

The volume of the bootleg mix of the new George Harrison album was sufficient to shiver the framed pictures on the office wall. But then the size of the office wasn't enough to provide much challenge to the cassette deck's amplifier. It wasn't a large office and didn't occupy the corner of the office tower, but it was a separate office regardless, with permanent walls, and it did have a window.

Cordelia Chaisson was happy with it.

Her desk was old and wooden and held, besides the computer, stacks of albums, tapes, and press kits. The pictures on the opposite wall were photos of Peregrine, David Bowie, Fantasy, Tim Curry, Lou Reed, and other entertainers, whether aces or not. In the midst of the photographs was a framed cross-stitch sampler reading DAMN, I'M GOOD. Tacked to the wall behind and to Cordelia's right was a large rectangle of poster board. It held a list of names, copiously emended with cross-outs, question marks, and shorthand notes such as "check film startup,"

"rel. fanatic," and "won't perform Brit. hol."

Her phone beeped to her. It was a few moments before Cordelia noticed. She thumbed down the volume control on the deck and picked up the receiver. Luz Alcala, one of her bosses, said, "My sweet lord, Cordelia, do you think you could perhaps use the headphones?"

"Sorry," said Cordelia. " I got carried away. It's a great album. I've already turned down the volume."

"Thank you," said Alcala. "Any word yet on who'll cut the promos for us?"

"I'm going down the list. Jagger, maybe." The young woman hesitated. "He hasn't said no."

"Have you called him in the last week?"

"Well… no."

Alcala's voice took on a mildly reproving tone. "Cordelia, I admire what you're accomplishing with the benefit. But GF and G has other projects to consider as well."

"I know," said Cordelia. "I'm sorry. I'm just trying to juggle a lot of things." She tried to sound more upbeat-and change the subject. "The clearances came through for China this morning. This means we'll be beaming to better than half the world."

"Not to mention Australia." Alcala chuckled. "Including Australia."

"Call Jagger's agent," said Alcala. "Okay?"

"Okay." Cordelia hung up the phone. She picked up the small, intricately carved, stone lizard-shape from the desktop where it had nearly been covered over with a heap of glossies. It was actually an Australian crocodile, but she had been assured that it was her cousin and therefore appropriate as a fetish. She preferred to think of it as a 'gator. Cordelia replaced the figure, setting it in front of the small, framed black-and-white photo of a young aboriginal man. He scowled seriously out of the portrait. "Wyungare," she whispered. Her lips formed a kiss.

Then she swiveled her chair around to face the poster board on the wall. Taking a thick marker, she began crossing out names. What she ended up with was a list of U2, the Boss, Little Steven, the Coward Brothers, and Girls With Guns. Not bad, she thought. Not damn bad a-tall.

But-she chuckled with satisfaction-there was more. She reached up again with the marker-

The three of them had eaten an early lunch at the Acropolis on Tenth Street, just off Sixth Avenue. Cordelia had offered to take them to a plusher place. After all, she had an expense account now. The Acropolis was a mere cafe, indistinguishable from thousands of others in the city. "The Riviera's only a few blocks away," she'd said. "It's an okay place."

C.C. Ryder was having none of it. She wanted an anonymous meeting place. She asked that they meet well before the mealtime rush. She wanted Bagabond along.

She got what she wanted because Cordelia needed her. So they ended up in the Naugahyde booth with C.C. and Bagabond on the side facing both Cordelia and the door. Cordelia looked up from the menu and smiled. " I can recommend the fruit cup."

C.C. didn't smile back. Her expression was serious. She took off her nearly shapeless leather porkpie cap and shook out her spiky red hair. Cordelia noticed that C.C.'s brilliant green eyes looked very much like Uncle Jack's. I've got to call him, she thought. She didn't want to, but she had to.

"See the raccoon rings?" said C.C., pointing to her own eyes. Today she didn't look much like one of rock's top lyricists and performers. The effect was deliberate. She wore jeans so old and worn, they looked acid-washed. Her floppy John Hiatt sweatshirt appeared to have endured almost as many washings.

"Nope," said Cordelia. C.C.'s skin looked smooth and white, almost albino in its lightness.

"Well, there ought to be." A bare smile ghosted across C.C.'s lips. "I've been losing sleep over this whole thing with the benefit."

Cordelia said nothing; kept looking the singer in the eye. " I know this is Des's last hurrah," C.C. continued. "And I know the cause is a good one. A joint benefit for AIDS patients and the wild card victims is something whose time is long since due."

Cordelia nodded. This was looking good.

C.C. shrugged. "I guess I gotta come out of the anxiety closet sometime and perform in front of live folks." She smiled for real. "So the answer is yes."

"Super!" Cordelia leaned across the table and hugged C.C. fiercely. Startled, Bagabond half-rose from her seat, ready, it seemed to Cordelia, who saw the motion from the corner of her eye, to tear out her throat if she were actually attacking C.C. Cordelia did hear a low snarl, much like one of Bagabond's cats, as she disentangled herself from C.C. and settled back in her seat.

"That's wonderful!" said Cordelia. She stopped burbling when she saw C.C.'s face. She could read the expression. "I'm sorry," Cordelia sobered. "It's just that I've loved your music, loved you as a writer for so long, I've wanted to see you perform your songs more than just about anything."

"It's not going to be easy," said C.C. Bagabond looked at her concernedly. "What have we got, ten days?"

Cordelia nodded. "Barely."

"I'm gonna need every minute."

"You've got it. I'm going to give you someone as a liaison with me who will get you whatever you want, whenever you need it. Somebody I trust, and so do you."

"Who's that?" said Bagabond with evident suspicion. The muscles of her gaunt face tightened. Her brown eyes narrowed. Cordelia took a deep breath. "Uncle Jack," she said. The expression on Bagabond's face was not pleasant. "Why?" she said. C.C. glanced aside at her. "Why not me?"

"You can help C.C. as much as you want," said Cordelia hastily. "But I need Uncle Jack to be involved with all this. He's competent and he's levelheaded and he's trustworthy. I'm in over my head," she said candidly. "I need all the help I can scrounge."

"Jack know about this?" said Bagabond.

Cordelia hesitated. "Well, I been waitin' to tell 'im." She realized the Cajun was starting to creep through more as she got flustered. She took a mental grip on herself. " I been leavin' messages on his phone machine. He hasn't been answering."

Bagabond leaned back in her seat and closed her eyes. A minute went by. It seemed a long time. The Greek waiter came by to take their orders. C.C. told him to come back shortly.

When she opened her eyes again, Bagabond shook her head as though clearing it. " I don't know when the boy's going to answer your calls."

"What do you mean?" Cordelia felt a listing feeling as though her plans were papers sliding off a carefully leveled table.

"It's all broken up," said Bagabond. "Jack's a ways offprobably about New York Bay, I'd judge. He's getting his rocks off duking it out with the kind of critters you don't see in the Castle Clinton Aquarium. As much raw meat as he's getting,"-she smiled humorlessly-"I couldn't say whether he's going to get home for dinner anytime soon."

"Quelle damnation," Cordelia muttered. "In any case," she said to C.C., "call me at the office tomorrow morning and I'll have something lined out. Either Uncle Jack or someone else."

"Make it someone else," said Bagabond.

Cordelia smiled placatingly. The waiter returned and she ordered the fruit cup.

– and marked C.C. down on the roster of benefit performers in bold, black letters.

"Doggonit," Cordelia said aloud to herself, "I'm good." Then she hesitated and glanced back at the copy of the Village Voice lying on the desk. A small events notice in microscopic type was circled in red.

She scrawled one additional name on the board.

Friday

Merde.

No two ways about it. That's what he felt like as he dragged into his home in the early morning. There was nothing welcome about entering the shambles of his living room. Jack stumbled through the debris. Ahead of him he saw the shattered door to his bedroom. His hand still hurt. But now, so did his teeth. His head, his hands-it seemed to him that every bone in his body ached.

"Enter,"he swore as he saw the blinking red light of his answering machine. He almost managed to ignore the singleeyed demon; then he bent and slapped the playback switch.

Three of the messages were from his supervisor. Jack knew he'd better call back later in the morning, or he'd have no job to return to. He liked living down here, and he enjoyed the privilege of gainful employment down in the darkness.

The other eight messages were from Cordelia. They were not very informative, but neither did they sound like emergencies. Cordelia kept saying it was important for Jack to get back to her, but the tone didn't indicate mortal peril.

Jack rewound the message tape and turned off the machine, then went into the kitchen. He surveyed the refrigerator and didn't bother opening it. He knew what was inside. More, he simply wasn't hungry. He had some idea of what he had devoured over the past day and night and didn't want to think about it. Blind, albino gar. You wouldn't find that on the menu at any Cajun restaurant in New York.

He went into the bedroom and flopped down on the bed. There was no question of undressing. Jack only moved sufficiently to wind the antique quilt around himself. He was out.

The phone by the bed awoke him at eight A.M. precisely. He knew this because the red LED numerals on the clock burned themselves into his retinas when he finally opened his eyes and reached over to stop the shrilling that was scraping his inner ear into shreds.

"Mmmppk. Yeah?"

"Uncle Jack?"

"Yeah-uh, Cordie?" He came a good deal more awake. "It's me, Uncle Jack. I'm sorry if I woke you. I've been tryin' to get you for better den a day."

He yawned and adjusted the receiver so the pillow would hold it snug. "'S okay, Cordie. I got to call the boss and tell him I'm down with something and been too sick to phone the last couple days."

Cordelia sounded alarmed. "You really sick?"

Jack yawned again. Remembered what he could have said. "Pink of health. Just went off on a bender, that's all."

"Bagabond said-"

"Bagabond?"

"Yes." Cordelia seemed to be picking her words carefully. " I asked her to look for you. She said you were out in the bay, uh, killing things."

"That about describes it," said Jack. "Something wrong?"

He waited a few seconds before answering. Took a breath. "Stress, Cordie. That's all. I needed to unwind."

She didn't sound wholly convinced but finally said, "Whatever you say, Uncle Jack. Say, listen, do you mind if I come by tonight after work and bring along a friend?"

"Who?" Jack said guardedly.

"C. C."

Jack thought about her, remembered visiting her in Tachyon's clinic. He owned everything she'd ever recorded, albums and tapes both, shelved out in the next room. "I guess so," he said. "It'll give me an excuse to clean up the house."

"No need," said Cordelia.

He laughed. "Oh, yeah, dere is a need."

"Five-thirty okay?"

"Should be. By the way," he said, "what's this all about?" She was candid. "I need your help, Uncle Jack." She filled him in on how things were proceeding with logistics for the benefit. "I'm snowed," she said. "I cannot do everything."

"I don' know much about putting on this kind of event."

"You know rock 'n' roll," she said. "Better, you can handle just about anything that happens."

Almost anything, he thought. Tachyon's face floated in front of him. Michael's. "Flatterer," he said.

"Verite. "

A few moments went by. "One thing I got to ask," said Jack. "We haven't been talkin' much…"

"I know," she said. "I know. For now I'm just not thinking much 'bout it."

"No resolution, then?"

"Not yet."

"Thanks for bein' honest."

More seconds went by. It seemed as though Cordelia wanted to say something, but finally all she said was, "Okay, thanks then, Uncle Jack. I'll be by with C.C. at half past five. `Bye."

Jack listened to the silence until the circuit disconnected. Then he turned over and dialed his supervisor at the Transit Department. He wouldn't have to concentrate to sound convincingly sick.

When he opened the door to Cordelia and C.C. late in the afternoon, Jack realized that cleaning up his living room probably had been the easier part of the day. Cordelia's eyes seemed to squint as she looked at him, as though she were actually seeing two images and trying to choose the one she would perceive.

"Uncle Jack," she said. There was a stiff instant as she appeared to debate whether to give him a hug.

The woman standing beside her defused the moment. "Jack!" said C.C. "It's good to see you again." She stepped past Cordelia into the living room, giving Jack a firm hug and a warm kiss on the lips. "You know something?" she said. "Even though I didn't know what was going on for a long time, it really meant a lot, your coming to visit me in the clinic. Anything ever happens to you, you know I'll be there every visiting period, okay?" She grinned.

"Okay," he said.

"Mon Dieu," said Cordelia, looking around Jack's home. "What happened here?"

Jack's restoration efforts had not been totally successful. Some of the smashed antique furniture was stacked to one side of the room. He hadn't the heart to take it topside to a Dumpster. There was still the chance of careful repair and restoration.

"When I was coming in last night," he said. " I slipped."

"Shot while trying to escape," said Cordelia ironically. "Whatever happened, Uncle Jack, I'm really sorry. This was such a beautiful place."

"It still ain't shabby," said C.C., plopping down in a claw-footed love seat. She spread her arms as she sank into the overstuffed upholstery. "This is great." She smiled up at Jack. "Got some coffee?"

"Sure," he said. "It's all made."

"Bagabond was going to come along-" C.C. started to say.

"She had some errands uptown," said Cordelia. "I think she'd want me to say hello," said C.C.

"Sure." Right, he thought. Cordelia offered to help with the coffee, but he shooed her back to the living room. When everyone was settled with a steaming mug and a plate of scones with strawberry preserves, Jack said, "So?"

"So," said C.C., "your niece is very persuasive. But so's my own ego. I'm gonna come out of seclusion for the benefit, Jack. Back to public performance. Cold turkey. Nothing half-assed. A couple billion potential viewers. There I'll be, in front of God and everybody." She chuckled. "Nothing like hitting acute agoraphobia head on."

"Pretty gutsy," said Jack. "I'm glad you're doing it. New stuff?"

"Some old, some new," she said. "Some borrowed, some blues. It all depends on what the boss here,"-C. C. gestured at Cordelia-"gives me for time."

"Twenty minutes," said Cordelia. "That's what everybody gets. The Boss, Girls With Guns, you."

"Equality's a great thing." C.C. looked back at Jack. "So you're gonna help me get ready for the big night?"

"Uh," said Jack.

"CF and G can persuade the Transit people to give you time off," said Cordelia quickly. " I talked to one of their guys in community relations. They think it'd be terrific to have one of their own involved in something like this."

"Uh huh," said jack.

"With pay," Cordelia said. "And GF and G'll give you a fee too."

"I've got savings," Jack said quietly. "Uncle Jack, I need you."

"I've heard that before." Gently, this time.

"So I say it to you again." It seemed to him Cordelia's voice, her expression, her eyes, were all one coordinated appeal.

"It would be good to work with you," said C.C. She winked one emerald eye. "Free backstage pass. Rub shoulders with the stars."

Jack looked from one woman to the other. "Okay," he finally said. "It's a deal."

"Great," said Cordelia. "I'll start feeding you the details. But there's one more thing I want to mention now."

"Why do I have the feeling," said jack, "that I ought to be a 'gator at this very moment, lookin' up at the gaff?"

"You have plans for tomorrow night?" Cordelia said.

Jack spread his hands. " I thought I'd maybe refinish some chairs."

"You're coming with us to New Brunswick."

"New Jersey?"

Cordelia nodded. "We're going to the Holidome. We're going to see Buddy Holley."

Jack said, "The Buddy Holley? I thought he was dead."

"He's been on the lounge circuit for years. I saw a note about his appearance in the Voice."

"She wants him for the benefit," said C.C. again.

"A nostalgia act?" said Jack.

Cordelia was actually blushing. "I grew up with his music. I worship the man. I mean, nothing's set with the benefit and him. I just want us to go see him and find out if he's anything like he used to be."

"You may be in for a rude shock," said C.C. "Guitar of clay and all that."

"I'll risk it."

"'Not Fade Away, s one my favorite songs ever," said Jack. "Count me in."

"Tell him," C.C. said to Cordelia. "Bagabond's going too," she said reluctantly.

"I don' know bout this," said Jack. He thought about his first encounter with Bludgeon, when the black cat had saved him from having to tangle with the psychopathic gay-basher. Had the cat been acting on his own, or at Bagabond's suggestion? He'd never asked the woman. Maybe he would tomorrow night.

"Uncle Jack?" said Cordelia. He smiled at her. "Let's rock."

Saturday

"Oh, my god," C.C. said, sufficiently low that only Jack heard. "He's covering Prince, goddamned Prince!"

"And not very well," said Jack.

Cordelia had worried because of glacial traffic in the Holland Tunnel that the four of them would be late for Buddy Holley's first set. She also fretted that Jersey youth would make off with the Mercedes she'd borrowed from Luz Alcala.

"It's a Holiday Inn," said Jack as they pulled into the entrance.

"So?"

"The parking lot's illuminated," said Jack.

"There's an empty space close to the lobby," said Cordelia with relief.

"You want me to slip ten to the clerk to keep an eye on the car?"

"Would you?" said Cordelia seriously.

So they'd parked and secured the Mercedes and entered the New Brunswick Holidome.

The trip over from the city had been tense enough. Jack had ridden shotgun in front with Cordelia driving. Bagabond sat in back on the opposite side, as far from Jack as she could get. Both C.C. and Cordelia had done their best to keep a conversation going. Jack decided it was an inappropriate time to quiz Bagabond about whether his erstwhile rescuer, the black cat, had been acting autonomously or on his mistress's orders.

"Dis is god be great," said Cordelia. She had slotted a cassette of Buddy Holley and the Crickets' greatest hits into the Blaupunkt player. The speaker system was far, far better than adequate.

"Cordelia," said Bagabond, "I like Buddy a lot, but maybe so he doesn't hurt my ears?"

"Oh, sorry," said Cordelia. She turned the volume knob down to barely endurable.

Then Saturday-evening traffic slowed to a stop-and-go creep within the tunnel, the stench of auto exhaust rose up in visible clouds, and the four in the Mercedes listened to all of Cordelia's Buddy Holley tapes before they reached New Jersey.

Cordelia had become more nervous the later it got. "Maybe there'll be a warm-up group," she'd muttered. There hadn't been, but it turned out not to matter. When the four walked through the door of the Holidome lounge, they saw there was no need to worry about seats. Perhaps half the booths and tables were vacant. Clearly Saturdaynight bacchanalia in New Brunswick didn't center here. They took a table about ten feet from the low stage, Jack and Bagabond on opposite sides, buffered by C.C. and Cordelia. And Buddy Holley covered Prince.

Jack recognized Holley from the album portraits. He knew the musician was forty-nine, close enough to Jack's own age. Holley looked older. His face carried too much flesh; his belly wasn't completely camouflaged by the silver-lame jacket. He no longer wore the familiar old black horn-rims; his eyes were masked by stylish aviator shades that couldn't quite hide the dark bags. But he still played the Fender Telecaster like an angel.

The same couldn't be said for his sidemen. The rhythm guitarist and the bass player both looked about seventeen. Their playing was not inspired. The muddy sound mix didn't help. The drummer flailed at his snares, the volume coming through at about the right level to completely mask Holley's vocal delivery.

In rapid order Buddy Holley segued from Prince into a bad Billy idol and then a so-so Bon Jovi.

"I don't believe it," said C. C., drinking a healthy dollop of her Campari and tonic. "All he's doing is covering top-forty shit."

Cordelia watched silently, her expression of initial enthusiasm visibly fading.

Bagabond shook her head disapprovingly. "We shouldn't have come."

Maybe, Jack thought, he's biding his time. "Give him a little while."

As the desultory clapping faded after a game attempt at evoking Ted Nugent, a voice from the back of the lounge yelled, "Come on, Buddy-give us some oldies!" A ragged cheer went up. Most of the clapping came from Cordelia's table.

Buddy Holley took his Telecaster by the neck and leaned toward the audience. "Well," he said, the West Texas twang still pronounced, "I don't usually take requests, but since you've been such a terrific crowd…" He settled back and strummed out a rapid-fire sequence of opening chords that his backup group more-or-less followed.

"Oh, lord," said C.C. She took another drink as Buddy Holley tore into Tommy Roe's "Hurray for Hazel," then a quick verse of "Sheila," finally a lugubrious, almost-bluesy version of Bobby Vinton's "Red Roses for a Blue Lady". Holley continued in that vein. He played a lot of music made famous by Bobbys and Tommys in the fifties and sixties.

"I want to hear `Cindy Lou or `That'll Be the Day' or `It's So Easy' or `T town,"' said Cordelia, distractedly swirling her gin and tonic. "Not this shit."

I'll settle for "Not Fade Away," Jack thought. He watched Buddy Holley slog through the dismal pop retrospective and started getting real depressed. It was enough to make him maybe wish that Holley had died at the height of his initial popularity and not survived to fall into this ghastly self-mockery.

Inebriated conversation and drunken laughter escalated at the surrounding tables. It appeared that most in the lounge had completely forgotten that Buddy Holley was performing onstage. When Holley came to the end of his set, he introduced the final number very simply. "This is something new," he said. The sparse crowd was having none of it; they had turned actively hostile.

"Fuck you!" somebody shouted. "Turn on the jukebox!" Holley shrugged. Turned. Walked off the stage.

His backup guitarists quietly put their instruments down; the drummer got up and laid his sticks on an amp.

"Why doesn't he do his classics?" said Cordelia. "Hang on," she said to her companions. Then she got up and collared Buddy Holley as he headed toward the bar. They saw her talking earnestly to the man. She led him back to the table, dragged up a vacant chair, appeared to be making him sit through dint of sheer will. Holley looked bemused at the whole affair. Cordelia made introductions. The musician courteously acknowledged each name and shook hands in turn.

Jack found the man's grip warm and firm, not flabby at all. Cordelia said, "We're four of your greatest fans."

"Sort of sorry you're all here," said Holley. "I feel like I owe everyone an apology. This isn't a good show tonight." He shrugged. "'Course most nights in lounges are like that." Holley smiled self-deprecatingly.

"Why don't you play your own music?" said Bagabond without preamble.

"Your old music," said Cordelia. "The great stufF" Holley looked around the table. "I've got my reasons," he said. "It ain't a matter of not wanting to. I just can't."

"Well," said Cordelia, smiling, "maybe I can help change your mind." She launched into her spiel about the benefit at the Funhouse, about how Holley could go on early in the following Saturday's performance, that maybe he could do a medley of the music that had propelled him to superstardom in the fifties and early sixties, that perhaps-just maybe-the concert and the telecast could rejuvenate his career. "Just like when the Boss found Gary U.S. Bonds playing in bars like this," she finished up.

Buddy Holley looked honestly astonished by Cordelia's outpouring of enthusiasm. He put his elbows on the table, closely studying the club soda and lime the waitress had brought him, finally looking up at her with a slight smile. "Listen," he said. " I thank you. I truly do. Hearing something like this makes my night-hell, the whole year." He looked away. "But I can't do it."

"But you can," said Cordelia. He shook his head.

"Think about it."

"Won't do no good," he said. "It won't work." He patted her hand. "But thanks for the thought." And with that, he nodded to the rest of them, then got up and trudged through the smoke to the stage for his second set.

"Damn," said Cordelia.

Jack watched the musician's back as Holley hoisted himself up onto the stage. There was something familiar about how the man carried himself. It was the sense of defeat. Jack thought he'd last seen that slight slumping of shoulders and hanging of head when he'd looked in the mirror. Just this morning.

He wondered how many years and what disasters had beaten Buddy Holley down. I wish-At first the thought didn't complete itself. Then he said to himself, I wish I could help.

"You want to go or stay?" said C.C. to Cordelia.

"Go," said Cordelia. Almost too low to be heard, she continued, "But I think I'll be back."

"Like MacArthur?" said Bagabond.

"More like Sergeant Preston of the Mounties," said Cordelia.

Sunday

"So who are you calling a chickie?" said Cordelia, voice colder than the ocean off Jones Beach.

"What I be sayin'," said the Holiday Inn morning clerk, "is that we can't be givin' out guests' room numbers to just any chickie what comes along." He smiled at her. "Rules."

"You want to know how early I had to get up to catch a train out here?" Cordelia demanded. "Do you know how long I waited for a cab at the New Brunswick station?"

The clerk's easy smile started to fray at the lips. "Sorry."

"I'm not a goddamned groupie!" Cordelia slapped an expensively embossed business card down on the counter. "I'm trying to make Holley a star."

"Already was." The clerk picked up the card and examined it. Below Cordelia's name it read Associate Producer.' The escalated job title had been in lieu of a raise. "No shit? You work with GF and G, the folks what do the Robert Townsend show an' all that Spike Lee stuff?" He sounded halfway impressed.

"No shit," said Cordelia. She tried smiling. "Honest."

"And you're gonna pull Buddy Holley out of this shithole?"

"Gonna try."

"O-kay," said the clerk, grinning. He glanced at the registration spinner. "Room eighty-four twenty," He looked at Cordelia significantly.

"So?"

With a tone of voice that suggested "Don't you know nothin'?" the clerk said, "The main roads leadin' out of Lubbock. The highway to Nashville."

"Oh," said Cordelia.

Buddy Holley had been asleep when Cordelia knocked on the door of room 8420 at 9:25. That had been obvious when he opened the door. His gray-streaked black hair was in disarray. His glasses were slightly askew as he peered out into the hallway.

"It's me, Cordelia Chaisson. Remember? From last night?"

"Um, right." Holley seemed to gather himself. "Can I help you?"

"I'm here to take you to breakfast. I need to talk with you. It's quite important."

Buddy Holley shook his head bemusedly. "Are you the irresistible force? Or the immovable object?"

Cordelia shrugged.

"Give me ten," said Holley. "I'll meet you down in the lobby."

"Promise?" said Cordelia.

Holley smiled slightly, nodded, and shut the door.

Buddy Holley came to the breakfast table in crisp denim jeans, a flowered western shirt, and a brown corduroy jacket. He looked somewhat the worse for wear, but comfortable.

He seated himself and said,

"You gonna evangelize me again?", "If I can. We can talk about dat after we get some coffee."

"Tea for me," he said. "Herbal. I brought my own. The tea selection in the kitchen is pretty shabby."

The waitress came and took their order.

"Around your neck," said Holley, pointing with his glance. "That a fetish? I saw it last night, but I was preoccupied." Cordelia unhooked the clasp and passed the fetish over. The tiny silver alligator and the fossil tooth were bound to the delicate oval of sandstone with a tough strand of dried gut. Holley turned the object over and over, examining it closely. "Doesn't look American southwest-Polynesian? Australia, maybe?"

"Pretty good," said Cordelia. "Aboriginal."

"What tribe? I know the Aranda pretty well, even the Wikmunkan and the Murngin, but this just ain't familiar."

"It was made by a young urban aborigine," said Cordelia. She hesitated a moment. It both excited and hurt her to think of Wyungare. And how, she wondered, was the central Australian revolution, such as it was, going? She'd been too busy with the benefit to watch much news. "He gave it to me as a going-away gift."

"Let me guess," said Holley. "The sandstone's from Uluru?" Cordelia nodded. Uluru, true name of what the Europeans called Ayers Rock. "And the reptile's your totem, of course." He held the object up to the light before passing it back over. "There's considerable power here. Not just a token."

She refastened the chain. "How do you know?"

He grinned crookedly at her. "Just don't laugh too loud, okay?"

Cordelia felt puzzled. "Okay."

"Ever since things went to hell-since they fell apart around 1972," he said hesitantly, " I been lookin' around." He contemplatively sipped his tea.

"For what?" Cordelia finally said.

"For whatever, for anything that meant something. I was just-searching."

Cordelia thought for a moment. "Spirituality?"

Holley nodded vehemently. "Absolutely. The limos were gone, the homes, the private jet and the high living, the-"

He stopped in midsentence. "All gone. There had to be something else besides hitting the bottle and the bottom."

"And you've found it?"

"I'm still huntin'." He met her gaze and smiled. "Lotta years and a lotta miles. You know something? I'm a lot more popular in Africa and the rest of the world than I am here. Back in '75 my agent gave me a last chance and booked me into this crazy pan-African tour. Things fell apart-well, I fell part. I really got screwed up after I backed out of a gig in Jo'burg. Somehow I stole a Land-Rover and ended up drinkin' two fifths of Jim Beam 'way out in the bush. You know how alcohol poisonin' works? Shoot, I was well on my way."

Cordelia stared at him, held entranced by the flat, West Texas twang. The man was a storyteller.

"Bushmen found me. Tribesmen from out of the Kalahari. First thing I knew was a! Kung shaman leanin' down over me and lettin' out the most ungodly screams you ever heard. Later I found out he was taking the sickness into himself and then gettin' shed of it into the air." Holley contemplatively touched the pad of his thumb to his incisors. "That was the beginning."

"And since?" said Cordelia.

"I keep lookin'. I search everywhere. When I played a string of bars in the Dakotas and the Midwest I learned about Rolling Thunder and the generations of Black Elk. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know," His voice took on a dreamy quality. "When I was with the Lakota, I cried for a vision. The shaman took me through the inipi ceremony and sent me up the hill to receive the wakan, the holy beings." Holley smiled ruefully. "The Thunder Beings came, but that was about all. I got wet and cold." He shrugged. "So it goes."

"You keep searching," said Cordelia.

"I do that," said Holley. "I learn. I been off booze since South Africa. No more drugs either. As for what I'm learnin', it ain't easy to work with a hardshell Baptist growin' up, but that's what I've tried to do."

It occurred to Cordelia that, for all he'd been saying, Buddy Holley still seemed very anchored in the physical universe. She didn't have the same sense of ethereal dissociation that she'd gotten from spiritually transformed rock stars such as Cat Stevens or Richie Furay. She nibbled a bite from her neglected English muffin. "Most of what I know about this, I learned from my aboriginal friend, but I've thought about it. Sometimes, in my job, I wonder whether rock stars, pop singers, entertainers in the public eye in America, are sort of the contemporary equivalent of shamans."

Holley nodded seriously. "Men and women of power. Absolutely."

"They have the magic."

Buddy Holley laughed. "Fortunately the ones who believe they do, usually have nothing. And the ones who truly possess the power, don't consciously know it."

Cordelia finished her muffin. "The performers at the benefit concert next Saturday all have the power." Holley looked wary. "I'm changing the subject," Cordelia said lightly.

"I don't think things have changed since last night. You want me to play all my old standards. I just can't do that."

"Is this-" Cordelia hunted for words. "Is this a crisis of confidence?"

"That's probably part of it."

"Same thing happened with C.C. Ryder," said Cordelia. "But she changed her mind. She's gonna appear."

"Good for her." Holley hesitated. "The truth is, I can't play the songs you want me to do."

"Why not?"

"I don't own them anymore. `Long about the time things went to hell, a New York outfit called Shrike Music bought up my entire catalog. They're real sweethearts. Ever see their logo? A quarter-note stuck on a spike. They been keeping my songs on ice. I hate it, but I can't do spit to get them back." Holley spread his hands helplessly.

"We'll see," said Cordelia without hesitation. "GF and G's got some pull. Is that the only other catch?"

"You think you can do anything, don't you?" Holley smiled as he shook his head. This time it was a genuine smile. His teeth were even and white. "Okay, look. You spring some of my music loose and maybe we've got a deal. Just for old times' sake."

"I don't -understand," said Cordelia.

"Well, let me tell you something," said Buddy Holley. Animation filled his features and his voice. "Back in high school in Lubbock? Back when Bob Montgomery and I were first putting together a band and doin' some crazy recordings, there was a girl. I thought she was just-well-" He took a deep breath and smiled shyly. "You know the story line. She never noticed me a-tall. Couple years later, she was still in my head when I recorded `Girl on My Mind' in Nashville. That was about the time Decca wanted me to sound like everyone else with a rock 'n' roll hit in 1956. I sort of got out of the formula with 'Girl."' He shook his head. "So anyway, you remind me of her. She knew her own way too." He leaned back in his seat and regarded her.

"That's a great story," said Cordelia. "It's just like-"

"Rock 'n' roll," Holley finished.

They both laughed. Things, thought Cordelia, were back on track.

Monday

First thing Monday morning, Cordelia sat at her desk and contemplated her sins while she waited on hold with the rights and permissions department at Shrike Music. The background tape for Shrike's hold circuit was classical, somber and dirgelike. Cordelia suspected it was a deliberate psych-out tactic.

It occurred to her as she examined her nails that she had not yet tried to contact Mick Jagger. Luz Alcala would not be happy. At least she had gotten the Mercedes back to Luz without a scratch or dent. Well, there were priorities. It seemed very important to secure Buddy Holley for the Funhouse benefit.

She riffled through the phone messages that had been stacked on her desk. U2's manager wanted her to know that The Edge had got his fingers caught in a car door over the weekend. U2 just might be without the services of their guitarist. Maybe, she thought, she could convince Bono to do an acoustic set?

The tech people had left a note alerting her that ShowSat III was acting up over the Indian Ocean. They were working on it. They were somewhat confident that malfunctioning relays could be cleared. Somewhat? she thought. Shit. 'Somewhat' had better translate into 'absolutely'. She knew damn well she didn't have the clout to get GF amp;G to commission a shuttle repair flight with five days notice. With any notice. Christ, what was she thinking? Cordelia gulped some coffee and glared down at the phone. How long was Shrike going to hang her up?

Another note was from Tami, the half-Eskimo lead guitarist of Girls With Guns. The world's greatest all-women neopunker band was stranded in Billings. And could Cordelia wire just enough cash so that all the members of the band could get to New York by Saturday? Probably. Cordelia jotted a note. Talk to Luz.

There was a double beep on the phone and a voice said, "Miss Delveccio, rights and permissions."

Cordelia introduced herself, sounding as calm, self-assured, and in control as she could manage. She sounded good to her. "I want to talk about Buddy Holley's catalog," Cordelia said. "I understand Shrike holds the rights. Here at Global Fun and Games we're very much looking forward to having Mr. Holley perform a selection of his past hits at this weekend's global benefit for medical victims."

There was a brief silence. "What sort of medical victims?" Cordelia didn't like the sound of her voice. South Bronx, probably. "Um, AIDS and the wild card virus. The live video feed will reach-"

Miss Delveccio interrupted her. "Oh, right, that benefit. I'm sorry, Ms. Chaisson, but it will be quite impossible to cooperate with Global on this project. I am sorry," She didn't sound sorry.

"But surely there-"

"Shrike owns Mr. Holley's music under an exclusive license. We just won't be able to release the permissions you need." The tone of her voice said, and that's final.

"Perhaps if I could speak with your department head-"

"I'm afraid Mr. Lazarus isn't in today."

"Well, maybe-"

"Thank you for thinking of us, Ms. Chaisson," said Miss Delveccio. "Have a nice day." And she hung up.

Cordelia stared at the phone for a minute or two. Damn it. She hoped Miss Delveccio would have an extremely difficult period. After another minute she switched on the desk terminal and pulled up the on-line Variety. She flipped through a few electronic pages at random and then turned on the modem and dialed up Variety's index base. While there were quite a few key-word entries for Shrike Music, but not many for Buddy Holley, there was one story that flagged both. It was dated nearly three months before, while she had been in Australia. It seemed that Shrike Music had inked a megabucks deal with America's second-largest advertising firm. The advertising company was a client of a major evangelical organization that was looking to market its theme amusement parks and other commercial subsidiaries through what the article, quoting Leo Barnett, termed 'the innocent, but energetic, nostalgia, of Buddy Holley's music'.

Oh, Cordelia thought. Oh, no. No wonder Shrike wasn't eager to have Holley's songs associated with the benefit. This was going to be a problem.

Luz Alcala stuck her head through the office door and said, "Good morning, Cordelia, did you have a good weekend?" Cordelia looked up. "Definitely. You get your keys okay? Thanks again for the car."

Luz nodded. "You all right? You look a bit distracted."

"It's just Monday morning."

Luz smiled sympathetically. "By the way, did you reach our lycanthropic friend?"

Cordelia shook her head. Thought fast. "Still can't find him."

"Let me give you a suggestion. After you try their management, call the presidents of the companies they record for. When you can't get satisfaction, go upstairs. It almost always works."

Aha! thought Cordelia. "Thanks," she said.

After Luz chatted a little more and then left, Cordelia dialed Shrike back and asked for the president's office. After two layers of secretaries, she finally reached one Anthony Michael Cardwell. Cardwell was more sympathetic than Miss Delveccio, but ultimately no more helpful. "True, Shrike Music has a responsibility to the community-and we participate in nwny projects toward that end-but ultimately we are responsible to our shareholders and our corporate owners," he said. "I believe you can appreciate the difficulty of our position."

Bullshit, Cordelia thought, furious. What she said was much the same thing. Definitely too blunt. The president of Shrike Music cut the conversation short.

After setting the phone down, Cordelia drummed her fingers on the desktop. Go upstairs, Luz had said. Cordelia touched the terminal keyboard and called up GF amp;G's research list of entertainment industry data bases. As she started to dig out the roots of Shrike's corporate family tree, she wondered how Jack was doing.

Naturally Jack had believed Cordelia when she had told him Sunday night that things looked good so far as obtaining permission for Holley to play his own music. More, GF amp;G would take care of Jack's leave of absence Monday morning. That would free Jack so he could help move Holley into Manhattan. Cordelia had arranged a room downtown at the Hotel California, Manhattan's premiere hostelry for visiting musicians. "The management," Cordelia had said, "doesn't care what happens to a room so long as the damage gets paid for. Platinum Amex cards are welcome."

By noon Monday, while Cordelia was playing silicon Nancy Drew, Jack had moved Buddy Holley into his eighth-floor room at the Hotel California. "You've got an open account," the desk clerk had said, so they ordered up sumptuous lunches.

Jack watched as Holley unpacked a compact tape deck and a box of cassettes. There was an eclectic selection of new age music-lots of Windham Hill albums, along with starkly packaged relaxation tapes of wind, storm, sea, rain-and a varied lot of early rock, blues, and country. "Got some scarce stuff here," said Holley, picking up a handful of what were obviously home-dubbed tapes. "Tiny Bradshaw, Lonnie Johnson, Bill Doggett, King Curtis. Got the better-known stuff tooRoy Orbison, Buddy Knox, Doug Sahm." He chuckled. "A real Texas collection, those last boys. Also have some George Jones-got a soft spot in my heart for that boy too. Me and my first band played behind him back in '55 on the Hank Cochran show."

"What's that?" Jack pointed at what seemed to be the only vinyl record in the box of tapes.

"I'm real proud of that." Holley held up the 45. "'Jole Blon.' Waylon Jennings's first record. I produced that for him back when he was playin with the Crickets."

Jack took the record and examined it gingerly, as though looking at a holy relic. " I guess maybe I heard this on WSN."

"Yep," said Holley. "Just about everybody I respect from that era learned about music first from listenin' to the Grand Ole Opry."

Jack set down the 45 of "Joie Blon." A tremendous lassitude swept across him. He looked at the remains of lunch. Nausea rocked back and forth in his belly. He sat back on the hotel couch and tried to keep his voice steady. "'Fore I came to New York, I listened to the Opry all the time. Once I was here, I found a station out of Virginia dat carried it."

"You come from the same place as your niece?" Holley said interestedly.

Jack nodded.

"Alligator your totem too?"

Jack said nothing, trying to control the new pain in his gut.

"'Gator's a powerful guardian animal spirit," said Holley. " I wouldn't mess with one."

Jack doubled up and tried not to whimper.

Holley was at his side. "Somethin' wrong?" He ran his hands down Jack's chest and stomach. His fingers fluttered lightly over the man's belly. He whistled. "Oh, man, I think you've got some trouble here."

"I know," said Jack. He groaned. Any other year he'd be pretty sure he could avoid the flu-type stomach bugs. But Tachyon had briefed him about opportunistic infections. He'd had the instant image of viruses zeroing in on him from every pesthole in the world. " I think maybe it's just the flu."

Holley shook his head. "It's a heavy-duty power intrusion I'm pickin' up here."

"It's a bug."

"And the bug's gettin' through to you because your protection, your personal mantle is screwed."

"Couldn't have put it better myself," said Jack.

Holley took his hands away from Jack's abdomen. "Sorry, nothin' personal. I don't know if Cordelia told you, but I-well, I know something about this stuff." Jack looked back at him bewilderedly. "What you need," said Holley seriously, "is a traditional treatment. You need to have the intrusion sucked out. I think it's the only way."

Jack couldn't help himself. He started chuckling, then guffawing. He couldn't remember the last time he'd laughed like this. It hurt to laugh, but it helped as well. Buddy Holley looked on, apparently astonished. Finally Jack straightened a bit and said, "Sorry, I just don't think, uh, sucking an intrusion out of my body would be a real wise idea right now."

"Don't get me wrong," said Holley. "I'm talkin' about a psychic thing, pullin' out the cause of the discomfort usin' the power of the soul and the mind."

"I'm not." Jack started laughing again. But Dieu, he did feel better.

By two in the afternoon Cordelia had accessed both the New York Public Library Reference Base and the Public Records DB in Albany. She covered several notebook pages with scrawled numbers and notes. Her task was akin to one of the thousand-piece jigsaw puzzles she never had the patience to finish.

Shrike Music was a wholly owned subsidiary of Monopoly Holdings, a New York corporation. Cordelia had dialed Monopoly's central Manhattan number and tried for the president. Whom she eventually got was the executive vice president for corporate affairs. That man told her the Buddy Holley matter was not his to comment upon, but that she should send a detailed letter to Monopoly's president, one Connel McCray. But couldn't Cordelia speak to McCray directly? she inquired. The president was indisposed. It was hard to say when he'd be back in the office.

Cordelia ascertained from Public Records that Monopoly Holdings was a division of the Infundibulum Corporation, a consortium controlled by CariBank in Nassau. The call to Infundibulum netted her a frustrating twenty minutes holding for an equally unsatisfactory conversation with the CEO's executive assistant. The long distance call to Nassau got her a heavily accented Bahamian voice claiming complete confusion about this Holley chap.

After hanging up, Cordelia regarded the frustration the phone represented. " I think I go home now," she said to herself. A break was in order. She could come back to the office later and work all night.

Veronica and Cordelia shared a high-rise apartment downtown on Maiden Lane. There wasn't much of a view-the living room windows looked out on a narrow courtyard with eleventh-floor neighbors only thirty feet away. At first it had been like watching very dull big-screen TV Cordelia quickly learned to ignore the rest of the building. It was pleasant just having her own small room. Veronica could use the rest of the apartment as she pleased.

Cordelia had made the maximum use of her room, engaging a Soho carpenter to build an inexpensive frame of two-byfours to support her bed. Instant sleeping loft. She just had to remember not to roll off the top during the night. The six feet of space beneath the mattress allowed her a closet, book shelves, and space to store her albums. That left her most of the wallspace for prints and posters. One wall was dominated by a color poster of Ayers Rock at dawn. The opposite wall had the common WHEN YOU'RE UP TO YOUR ASS IN ALLIGATORS poster, but with the tired maxim's payoff amended in black marker to read YOU

KNOW YOU'RE HOME.

Cordelia was slotting a Suzanne Vega tape into the deck when her roommate walked in. Veronica was wearing a slinky white gown, along with a platinum wig and violet contacts. "Masquerade?" Cordelia said.

"Just a date." Veronica rolled her eyes. "It's a guy from Malta with a crush on both Marilyn Monroe and Liz Taylor." She changed the subject. "Listen, any good tickets left for Saturday?"

"At twenty-five hundred dollars a pop, I can't really comp you," said Cordelia.

"No problem. These are for management. Miranda and Ichiko can afford them. They just would like a little consideration about table placement. Close to the stage okay?"

"I'll see what I can do." Cordelia jotted a note and put her book of Things to Do back in her handbag.

"So how's work?" said Veronica innocently. Cordelia told her.

"Sounds like you could use a real detective."

"If I knew one, I'd ask. I'm desperate."

"Well," said Veronica. "It just so happens maybe I can help you out."

"You want to tell me what you're talking about?" It would be so good, thought Cordelia, to turn this over to someone else.

"Not yet," Veronica said. "Let me work on it. And you can make sure those seats are good ones."

"Help me get Buddy Holley in front of the cameras," said Cordelia, "and I'll let Miranda and Ichiko sit onstage behind the monitors. They can hold the microphones. Anything their hearts desire."

"It's a deal. Now then," continued Veronica, "before I go uptown, whose turn is it to buy cat food?"

The men sat and listened to music and drank. Buddy Holley drank soda. Jack drank dark beer. Room service was accommodating. They talked. Every once in a while Holley would get up to change the tapes. They went through Jimmie Rodgers and Carl Perkins, Hank Williams and Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley and Conway Twitty. Jack was surprised that the singer had some tapes of newer artists: Lyle Lovett and Dwight Yoakum and Steve Earle. "Like the monkey said," Holley said simply, "you gotta keep up with evolution."

They talked about the fifties-about Louisiana bayou country and the dry vastness of West Texas. "Tell you," said Holley, "it ain't sayin' much about Lubbock when about the only place to go on Saturday night is Amarillo. I went back there after the oil boom, and then again after the crash, and nothin' much had changed either time."

"No Buddy Holley Day?" said Jack.

"Figure I'll have to die before that happens."

They had a lot in common, Jack decided. Except there'd never be a Jack Robicheaux Day in Atelier Parish. Not even after he'd died. He fumbled through the box of cassettes and held up one that was unlabeled except for the word "new."

"What's this?"

"Aw, that's nothin'," said Holley. "Nothin' you'd want to hear."

There was something about the way he'd protested, Jack thought. When Buddy Holley went into the bathroom, Jack set the mysterious cassette in the deck and punched "play." The music was simple and unadorned. There was no backup, no double-tracking, no layered sound. The singing was reflective in the first song, exuberant in the second. The lyrics were mature. The characteristic hiccup in the vocal line was there. This was Buddy Holley. Jack had never heard either of these songs before.

He heard the bathroom door open behind him. Buddy Holley said, "After the plane went down with my family, and Shrike bought all my music, people seemed to think I just wasn't gonna write anymore. And for a few years, I guess I didn't."

The third song began.

"All dis is new," said Jack reverently. "Is it not?"

Buddy Holley's voice was soft and powerful. "Just as fresh as resurrection."

Tuesday

The Funhouse was no Carnegie Hall, and as with virtually any other Manhattan club, daylight didn't become it. This morning the mirrors were streaked and dusty. They'd be polished to a high sheen by Saturday. As Jack looked across toward the stage, what he mostly saw were chairs stacked on tables. The few windows and skylights admitted bars of spring sunlight that contained myriad dancing dust motes. The place smelled stale. The other predominating odor was that of machine lubricant.

Jack stood beside Buddy Holley. Holley stood beside C.C. Ryder. On the other side of C.C. was Bagabond. It was an unbreakable protocol. Bagabond had chosen to be C. C.'s constant companion and protector. Jack realized he had consciously picked a similar role with Buddy Holley. He genuinely liked the singer, and it wasn't merely a matter of nostalgia for the fifties and sixties. He felt he was becoming genuine friends with the Texan, though too bad, whispered the nasty voice in his head, you're not going to be buddies for very long. Jack had seen Dr. Tachyon earlier in the morning. Tachyon had proposed hospitalizing him. "No way," he'd said. Tachyon appealed to his reason. "Can you really predict what my version of the virus is going to do?" he'd asked. Tachyon admitted that he didn't truly know. But there were precautions… Jack had shrugged ruefully and left.

Xavier Desmond, his elephantine trunk seeming to wilt down his chest, watched over the stage preparations. He moved slowly, in the manner of a man knowing the real proximity of death, yet he seemed proud beyond words. For a night the eyes of most of the world would be on his beloved Funhouse.

The limited space in the club was being further curtailed by the camera tracks laid in front of and to the side of the stage. The tech people had cleverly rigged a superthin Louma boom from the ceiling. "Don't let it brush the chandelier!" Des said as the remote operator put the mantislike camera mount through its paces.

Even with the shafts of sun glinting off the mirror balls, the club looked drab.

Buddy Holley scratched his head. "Shoot, I've seen worse stages."

C.C. laughed and said, "I've played them."

"Guess there won't be no chicken wire around the stage, huh?"

C.C. shrugged and affected a deep, deep Texas accent. "Joe Ely used to tell me about places so tough, you had to puke three times and show a knife before they'd let you in. And that was if you was singin'."

"Des runs a classier dive," said Jack. "I figure people laying out twenty-five hundred dollars a seat aren't gonna heave Corona bottles at the band."

"Be more real if they did." Holley glanced at C.C. "I gotta tell you, I'm pretty excited about hearing you sing."

"Same here," said C.C., "though I'm still edgy as a cat. You decided to go on for sure?"

Holley turned to Jack. "Anything from your niece?"

Jack shook his head. "I talked to her this morning. I guess things are going slow with Shrike, but she said no sweat. Just bureaucratic runaround."

C.C. poked Holley in the ribs. "Listen, man, I will if you will."

"A challenge?" Holley slowly grinned. "Think this'll be as much fun as racin' for pink slips? What the hell. Okay. I'll go on first like the Ghost of Charts Past, and if I have to, I'll cover-oh, Billy Idol."

"No!" Bagabond spoke up. "No, you won't."

Things weren't going terribly well for Cordelia. She had gotten into the office by seven. It was too bad about being so phased that she forgot about the sequence of time zones west. Little Steven's road manager wasn't terribly happy about being awakened in his hotel room at a little past four in the morning.

On the other hand, better news had come in about ten. X rays had determined that The Edge's fingers were mildly sprained rather than fractured. Even though U2's performance that night in Seattle was being scrubbed, the guitarist had a good shot at being operational by Saturday.

Then there was the matter of Shrike Music. Cordelia had a terrific flow chart with lines and arrows indicating the tangled skein owning the music publishing firm. She had lists of CEOs, presidents, vice presidents, and heads of promotion departments. And lawyers-lord, hordes of attorneys. But no one would talk to her. How come? she wondered. Is it my breath? She giggled. Fatigue, she thought. Early burn out. Way too soon. There would be time to collapse after Saturday night. She poured another cup of high-caf Columbian and started thinking seriously about Shrike and its masters, and why everyone was evading as if she were a Congressional investigator out birddogging payola charges.

The phone beeped. Good. Maybe it was one of a dozen executives connected with Shrike or its Byzantine ownership returning her calls.

"Hi," said her roommate. "You got the tickets for me?"

"Have you lined up Spenser, or maybe Sam Spade?"

"Even better," said Veronica. "Got somebody here I want you to talk to."

"Veronica-" she started to say. Why was everyone playing cloak-and-dagger?

"This is Croyd," said an unfamiliar male voice. "You met me. We had a little date, you, me, and Veronica."

"I remember," said Cordelia, "but-"

"I'm in investigations." Flatly.

"I guess I knew that, but I didn't think-"

"Just listen," said Croyd. "This is Veronica's idea, not mine. Maybe I can help. Maybe not. You want to know something about Shrike Music."

"Right. Buddy Holley and I need to find out who really owns his music, so I can get permission for him to sing it, and I can convince him to appear Saturday-"

"So isn't Shrike in the phone book?" said Croyd. "They've been stonewalling me like they were the Mafia or something."

She heard a dry chuckle. "Maybe they are."

"Anything you can do," Cordelia said, "I'll be very-" Croyd broke in again. "I'll see what I can find out. I'll get back to you." The connection clicked o$:

Cordelia set the phone down and allowed herself a smile. She crossed her fingers. Both hands. Then she picked up from the desk the next note begging her attention. This one was simpler. Maybe she could find out in less than an hour exactly why Girls With Guns seemed to be hung up in Cleveland.

Wednesday

GF amp;G had decided that the Funhouse club band would back both C.C. Ryder and Buddy Holley. Actually it was C.C. who approved them; GF amp;G paid the checks.

"They're all sound musicians," said C.C. to Holley. "Good enough for me." He watched and listened as the two guitarists, drummer, keyboard woman, and sax player tuned.

Jack observed too. Practice would be long and tedious. But if you were an observer, it was show business in action. It was diverting. Glamorous. It was heaven.

C.C. led Holley onto the stage. Bagabond sat down at a front table, though the action looked performed under duress. Jack knew that she really did want to follow C.C. on up there.

"Mind if I sit here?" he said to her, setting his hand on the back of the chair opposite. Bagabond's dark eyes fixed on him fiercely for just a split second; she shrugged slightly and Jack sat.

"Okay," C.C. was saying to the musicians on the stage. "Here's what I'm gonna want to start with. Or maybe end with. Damned if I know yet. All I really know is that it's new and it's part of my twenty minutes." She jacked in her ebony twelve-string and strummed a chord progression. "We got a whole three days to get in tune. So remember the advantage we have over dudes like the Boss or U2.- Everybody grinned. "Okay, let's do it. This is called "Baby You Been Dealt a Winning Hand.' One, two, three, and-"

The moment C.C. started to play, she looked stricken. "Nervous," Jack thought, was too mild a word for it. There was no crowd. There was no audience save the musicians, the technicians working on sound and lights, and the few odd observers such as Jack and Bagabond. C. C.'s lead went hideously flat. She stopped, looked down at the stage while everyone in the club seemed to hold a collective breath. Then C.C. looked up, and to Jack it seemed the motion was executed with enormous effort. Her fingers caressed the strings of her guitar. "Sorry," she said. That was all. And then she played.

Baby, the cards are out Baby, there is no doubt That when the dealer calls You been dealt a winning hand

The drummer picked up the backbeat. The bass player chugged in. The rhythm guitar softly filled the spaces. Jack saw Buddy Holley's fingers lightly stroking the strings of his Telecaster even though it wasn't jacked in.

You played since you were just a kid You played till you got old Baby, you never knew a thing Cause all you ever did was fold

The woman on keyboards ran an eerie, wailing trill out of her Yamaha. Jack blinked. Holley smiled. It sounded like the rinky-tink Farfisas both remembered from the presynthesizer, good old days.

Baby, don't ever fold Not when you got That winning hand

When it was done, there were a long few moments of absolute silence in the Funhouse. Then the tech people started to clap. So did C. C.'s backup musicians. They cheered. Bagabond get to her feet. Jack saw Xavier Desmond in the back of the room; it looked as if there were tears on his face.

Buddy Holley scratched his head and grinned. A little like Will Rogers, Jack thought. "You know somethin', darlin'? I think maybe all of us here were privileged this mornin' to see the high point of the concert."

C.C. looked pale, but she smiled and said, "Naw, it's pretty rough. It's only gonna get better."

Holley shook his head.

C.C. Ryder marched over to him and tilted her face up toward his. "Your turn in the barrel, boyo."

The man shook his head, but his fingers were caressing the guitar.

C.C. tapped the side of her head. "I showed you mine." Holley made a little shrug. "What the heck. Gotta do it sometime, I reckon."

"No Billy Idol," Bagabond said.

Holley laughed. "No Billy Idol." He strummed contemplatively for a moment. Then he said, "This is new," He glanced over at Jack. "This one ain't even on the tape you heard." The strum deepened, picked up strength. "I call this one 'Rough Beast.'"

Then Buddy Holley played.

"It was incredible, Cordie. It's the old Buddy Holley with all the maturity laid in." Jack's voice was exuberant and uncritical. "Everything he played was new, and it was absolutely great."

"New, huh?" Cordelia tapped the earpiece with her right index finger. "As good as 'That'll Be the Day' and 'Oh, Boy'?"

"Is "Maxwell's Silver Hammer' better than 'I Want to Hold Your Hand'?" The excitement crackled in Jack's voice. "It isn't even apples and oranges. The new stuff's as energetic as his early songs-it's just more,-Jack seemed to be searching for the precise word-"sophisticated."

Cordelia stared at the photographs across the office but wasn't seeing them. Click. There might as well be a light bulb switching on above my head, she thought. I've gotta slow down. I'm starting to miss a lot. "What I'm guessing," she said, "is that Shrike doesn't have any claim on the new stuff. What I can do is put him in the hammock in the middle of the show. Maybe cut him down to ten minutes."

"Twenty," said Jack firmly. "It has to be as much as everyone else."

"Maybe," said Cordelia. "Anyhow, he's in the center so the audience warms up before they have to decide whether they're gon' be disappointed when Buddy Holley don' sing 'Cindy Lou.,"

There was a silence on the line. Jack finally said, "I don't think he'll mind."

"Okay, then. Great. This is really gon' simplify matters. I can tell the wet-brains at Shrike to screw off." Cordelia felt the crushing weight start to lift from her head. "You sure he'll do the show with new material?"

Jack's words were a verbal shrug. "The ice do seem to be broken. He and C.C. are reinforcing each other. I think it's all gon' work out."

"Great. Thanks, Uncle Jack. Keep me current." Cordelia's mood was cheerful after she hung up the phone. So Buddy Holley was in. And now she could call Croyd off the wild-goose chase. But when she phoned the apartment, no one answered. All she reached was the answering machine.

Maybe, she thought cheerfully, it's all gon' be downhill from here.

Thursday

Cordelia realized she was humming "Real Wild Child." The up-tempo rocker perfectly matched her hyper mood this afternoon. She wondered for a moment where she'd heard it as she identified the tune. She knew it was on none of her Buddy Holley albums. The song must just be in the air.

She tapped along with her fingers to the guitar runs in her head as she dialed her postlunch calls. Cordelia had phoned over to the Funhouse just about the time her takeout Vietnamese soup had arrived. Jack was sounding up.

"Practice is going great," he had said. "C. C. and Buddy ' are getting along fine. And Bagabond even nodded to me when I said good morning."

"How's the music?"

"They're both doing mostly new stuff-well, Buddy's is all new."

"Can he fill the whole twenty minutes?" Cordelia had said.

"Just like before-when I said he wouldn't have any problem? He still won't. You really ought to give him an hour."

"I'm not sure how U2 or the Boss would like that," Cordelia said dryly.

"I bet they'd love it."

"We won't be finding out." Cordelia sniffed the fragrance of crab and asparagus wafting out of the styrofoam soup bucket. "I've got to go, Uncle Jack. My food's here."

"Okay." Jack's voice hesitated. "Cordie?"

"Mmmp?" She already had the first spoonful in her mouth.

"Thanks for asking me to do this. It's a terrific thing. I'm grateful. It's… keeping my mind off everything else going on in the world."

Cordelia swallowed the hot soup. "Just go on keeping C.C. and Buddy Holley happy. And Bagabond, too, if it's possible."

"I'll try."

About two o'clock Cordelia was dialing the contract firm that was trying to exorcise the demons from ShowSat III when, out of the corner of her eye, she caught an unfamiliar figure silhouetted in the office doorway. Setting down the phone, she saw a distinguished-looking middle-aged man dressed in a cream silk suit that she knew had to be worth two or three months of her salary. Tailored to the final angstrom unit. Knotted foulard precisely positioned. Head cocked, he regarded her with sharp eyes.

"You're too well-dressed to be Tom Wolfe," she said. "Indeed I am not. Tom Wolfe, that is." He didn't smile. "Do you mind if I come in and chat with you?"

"Did we have an appointment?" Cordelia said puzzledly. She glanced down at her calendar. "I'm afraid I don't-"

"I was in the neighborhood," said the man. "We have an appointment. It's just I'm afraid you were not informed." He extended one hand. "Forgive the lack of formal introduction. I'm St. John Latham, at your service. I represent Latham, Strauss. I expect you've heard of us."

Cordelia caught a gleam of intensely manicured nails as she grasped his hand. His grip was dry and perfunctory. "The attorneys," she said. "Uh, yes, please, do sit down."

He took the guest chair. As a backdrop for Latham's suit, the Breuer looked a mite shabby. "Let me get to the point, Ms. Chaisson-or may I call you Cordelia?"

"If you wish." Cordelia tried to gather her thoughts. For the senior partner of one of Manhattan's priciest and nastiest law firms to be sitting in her office just might not be a good omen.

"Now," said Latham, his fingers steepled, the index fingers just brushing his thin chin, " I am informed you have been causing considerable commotion with a number of Latham, Strauss's client corporations. As you doubtless discovered, we are retained by the CariBank Group, and thus have an interest in their respective subsidiary holdings."

"I'm not sure I see-"

"You have obviously been rather inventive with your computer and modem, Cordelia. You've not been terribly discreet with your calls to a variety of corporate officials."

It was suddenly coming very clear. "Oh," said Cordelia, "this is about Shrike Music and Buddy Holley, right?"

Latham's tone was even-and functioned at about the same temperature as a superconductor. "You seem to have an extreme interest in CariBank's corporate family."

Cordelia smiled and held up her hands. "Hey, no problem, Mr. Latham. It's not my hassle any longer. Holley's got a whole collection of new music that Shrike can't touch."

"Ms. Chaisson-Cordelia-Shrike Music Corporation is the least consequential of your enquiries. We at Latham, Strauss are concerned about your apparent need for information about the rest of CariBank's family. Such information could be… a bit troublesome-"

"No, really," said Cordelia decisively. "This is a nonproblem. Honest, Mr. Latham. No problem." She smiled at him. "Now, if you don't mind, I've got an incredible amount of work to catch-"

Latham stared at her. "You will desist, Ms. Chaisson. You will pay attention to your own business, or, I assure you, you shall be very, very sorry."

"But-"

"Very sorry indeed." Latham looked at her levelly until she finally blinked. " I hope you understand me." He turned on his heel and exited with a whisper of expensive tailoring.

It hit her. Hang me with corde a boyau, she thought. I've just been threatened by one of Manhattan's most powerful and predatory attorneys. So sue me.

Cordelia had plenty to do that helped take her mind away from Latham's visit. She called the tech people in charge of satellite transmissions and discovered the happy fact that ShowSat III was operational again. A healthy chunk of the other side of the world would have a shot at viewing the Funhouse benefit after all. " I guess the gremlins are on vacation," said the consulting engineer.

Then GF amp;G's switchboard relayed a collect call from Tami in Pittsburg.

"What on earth are you doing there?" Cordelia demanded. "I sent enough cash so all the Girls With Guns could fly into Newark today."

"You're not gonna believe this," said Tami. "Probably not."

"We bought a lot of feathers."

"Not coke?"

"Of course not!" Tami sounded scandalized. "We ran into a girl who had an incredible selection. We need 'em for our costumes Saturday night."

"Feathers don't cost six hundred bucks."

"These do. They're rare."

"'Dose feathers gon' to help you fly?" Cordelia said dangerously.

"Well..; no," said Tami.

"I'll wire some more money. Just give me an address." Cordelia sighed. "So. You ladies enjoy riding the bus?"

Friday

Jack and Buddy Holley headed back to the latter's dressing room after they'd both watched the Boss do his run-through. Holley's final rehearsal session was scheduled for ten o'clock, later that night. Little Steven, U2, and the Coward Brothers had gotten in their licks early in the afternoon. The Edge had winced a lot, but he'd played. Then came the Boss and the other guys from across the river.

"Not too shabby," said Holley.

"The Boss?" said Jack. "Damn straight. So how did it feel, him treating you as though you were one of the faces on Mount Rushmore come to life?"

"Shoot." Holley said nothing more.

"I thought it was pretty impressive when he asked if you'd play `Cindy Lou."'

Holley chuckled. "Funny thing about that tune. You know it almost wasn't gonna be `Cindy Lou'?"

Jack looked at him quizzically.

They rounded the corner of the hallway behind the stage. The lighting was something less than adequate. "Watch out for the wire on the floor," said Holley. "Good old `Cindy Lou.' Well, that was the original title all along, but about the time the Crickets and me were gonna record it, our drummer, Jerry Allison, asked if I'd change it."

"Change the music?" said Jack.

"Change the title. Seems as if Jerry. was marryin' a gal named Peggy Sue, and he thought she'd be just tickled to death havin' a song named after her."

"But you didn't."

Holley laughed. "She jilted him, broke the engagement before anything permanent could be done about the song. So `Cindy Lou' it's stayed."

"I like it better," said Jack.

They turned a final corner and came to the small room where Holley was keeping his guitar and the other things he'd brought over from the hotel. Holley went in first. When he flipped the light switch, nothing happened. "Blamed bulb must be out."

"Not quite," said a voice from inside.

Both Jack and Holley jumped. "Who's in dere?" said Jack. Holley started to back out of the doorway.

"Hold it," said the voice. "Everything's fine as long as you two're Buddy Holley and Jack Robicheaux."

"You got that right," said Holley. "The name's Croyd."

Holley said, " I don't know any Croyd."

"I do," said Jack. "I mean, I know who you are."

The voice chuckled. "I'm in a bit of a hurry, and I'm trying to be subtle, so why don't the two of you come on in and shut the door."

The two men did so. Croyd snapped on a penlight and let the beam play briefly across their faces. "Okay, you're who you say." He set the light down on the makeup table but didn't turn it off. "I've got some information for your niece," he said to Jack, "but her office doesn't know where she is, and I don't have time to wait around on her."

"Okay," said Jack. "Tell me. I'll get it to her. She's jumping around like a frog in a tub of McIlheney's, what with about ten thousand things to get done before tomorrow night."

"She asked me to look into Shrike Music," said Croyd. "Oh, yeah?" Holley sounded interested.

"I thought it might be one of the Gambione fronts; you know, a Mafia laundering operation."

"So?" said Jack. "Are Rosemary Muldoon's hands dirty there too?"

"No," said Croyd. "'I don't think so. Whatever Shrike is-and I think it's dirty as hell-I really don't think it's connected with the Gambiones or the other Families. Tell Cordelia Chaisson that."

"Anything else?" said Jack.

"Yeah. As far as I could follow the trail back, I got some hints that the brain behind Shrike is Loophole. You know, the lawyer, St. John Latham. If I'm right, you better tell your niece to be real careful. With Loophole, I'm talking one dangerous son-of-a-bitch."

"Okay," Jack said. "I'll tell her."

"If you find out more-" Holley said.

"I won't. I've got my own problems to deal with." Croyd's chuckle was very dry.

"Oh," said Holley. "Well, thanks anyhow. At least I know my songs aren't tied up in pasta."

"Listen," said Croyd, some animation coming into his voice. "'Shake, Rattle and Roll' is one of the best rockers ever recorded. Don't let anyone ever tell you different. I just wanted to say that before I took off."

"Well," said Holley. "Thank you very much." He strode forward in the darkness, toward the makeup table. "I'll shake the hand of any man who tells me that."

"What can I say?" said Croyd. "I've liked your work for a long time now. Glad you're back."

Jack had the impression of a pale albino face in the dark. Pink eyes flashed as the penlight snapped off.

"Good luck with the concert." Then Croyd's indistinct form was out the door and gone.

"Okay," said Jack, "let's see if we can round up a fresh light bulb." He winced. The pain was coming back, the pain and something else. In the darkness he touched his own face. The skin felt scaly. The virus was eroding his control. It was getting harder to remain- He didn't like filling in the blank. Human was the word he was looking for.

Saturday

The audio ocean combers of U2 crashed over them. The Edge's picking fingers had healed just fine for tonight. Bono swung into 'With or Without You' with his exuberant neversing-the-song-the-same-way-twice voice in great form.

C.C. abruptly stared at Buddy Holley with concern. She reached out to steady him. Jack moved in from the other side. "What's wrong, babe?" She touched his forehead with the back of her right hand. "You're burning up."

Bagabond looked concerned. "You need a doc?"

The four of them stepped back as a cameraman with a SteadiCam double-timed by, heading for the stage.

Holley straightened. "It's okay. I'm all right. Just a little flop-sweat."

"You sure?" said C.C. skeptically.

"I guess," said Holley, "maybe I was feeling some momentary melancholy." His three companions registered uniform incomprehension. "Waitin' to go on out there, it's getting to me in a strang way. I'm looking at all this and I'm thinking about Ritchie and the Bopper and how they both went down with Bobby Fuller in that Beechcraft back in '68 when Bobby was tryin' his comeback tour. Lord, I do miss 'em."

"You're alive," said Bagabond. "They're not."

Holley stared at her. Then he slowly smiled. "That's putting it straight." He looked past the curtains toward the full house. "Yep, I'm alive."

"You're gon' sit down for a bit," said Jack. "Rest just a while."

"Remind me," said Holley. "When do I go on?"

"The Coward Brothers are on next. Then Little Steven and me," said C.C. "I'll warm 'em up for you. You'll be up before Girls With Guns and the Boss."

"Comfortable in the hammock, huh? Heavy-hitter company." Holley shook his head. "You know how the world would change if somebody nuked this club tonight? Not a bit." He staggered. "Well, maybe just a little bitty bit."

"You're gonna sit down," said C.C. firmly.

Jack looked toward the stage. This was probably the only rock concert he'd been to that wasn't choked with smoke. But in the confined space of the Funhouse, the management, the Health Department, and some of the performers had begged for abstinence. The tech crew was using a fog machine to get the right lighting. With the lights in his face Jack could see nothing. But he knew who was out there.

Cordelia was sitting next to the small, roped-off space where the floor director was sequestered with her video monitors. Everything looked good. The satellite feeds were webbing the globe satisfactorily, though god only knew if any eyes out there were actually watching.

Every seat was taken. People had paid two grand just for standing room. Cordelia had checked around her chair before U2 had been announced. The table immediately behind her was occupied by New Jersey's junior U.S. senator, the senator's wife-Hoboken's head of cultural development-a hot, teen heartthrob actor, and the actor's ICM agent. The next table to the left held Senator Hartmann and his party. Tachyon was back there too. A beaming Xavier Desmond was right up front.

Off to her right, Miranda and Ichiko had seen her looking and had waved and smiled. Cordelia had smiled back. Luz Alcala and Polly Rettig, GF amp;G's top management, also sat at Cordelia's table. Now and then they said appropriately laudatory things to her. Obviously they were enjoying how the benefit concert was progressing. Boffo, thought Cordelia. That's how Variety will describe this. Dey better damn better.

U2 ended its set and the Irish quartet trooped offstage. The applause thundered on, and they came back for a quick encore. That had been budgeted into the schedule. It was assumed.

After the encore the screen dropped down from the Funhouse's ceiling, barely missing the Louma crane, and the slick, donated media spot for the New York AIDS Project blazed forth. This was the commercial. No one minded. Cordelia wondered if she should go backstage and check that all was in order. No, she decided. She needed to be in place where she was-waiting for hideous crises. No use seeking them out.

The Coward Brothers came out to a storm of applause. T-Bone and Elvis burned the place up with 'People's Limousine' and another sixteen minutes that flashed by like no time at all.

Between sets, when the broadcast had gone to a taped message, the lighting director turned the spots on the Funhouse's mirror balls and chandelier. The interior of the club exploded in a phantasmagoria of shattered light.

Little Steven and his band came on. The roadies had been fast and accurate. The musicians plugged into the house system and were off. Little Steven had a new scarf for each song in the set. The crowd loved it.

It was C.C. Ryder's time. She held the neck of her shining black twelve-string with both hands.

"Don't strangle it," said Holley. He wrapped his hands loosely around hers.

"Break a leg." Jack gave her a hug. Bagabond didn't seem to mind.

The latter hugged C.C. in turn for a few seconds and said, "You'll be great."

"If I'm not," said C.C., "I hope this time I'm an express."

Jack knew she was referring to her years-ago wild card transformation when trauma had catalyzed her into becoming a more than reasonable facsimile of a local subway car.

C.C. hit the stage running and never stopped. It was as though she was casting a net of power over the audience. There was a moment at first when she faltered. But then she seemed to gather strength. It was as though energy were flowing out into the people in their seats, then being amplified and broadcast back to the singer. The magic, Jack thought, of genuine empathy.

She started with one of her old standards, then quickly segued into her new ballads. Her twenty minutes flashed past for Jack. C.C. ended with the song she had publicly debuted at the first rehearsal.

Baby, you never have to fold

'Cause what you've got

Is a winning hand…

… Is a winning hand, came the refrain. Never forget. C.C. bowed her head. The applause had megatonnage. When she came offstage, she waited until she was past the curtains before collapsing. Jack and Bagabond both caught her. "What's the matter?" said Bagabond. "Oh,

C.C."

"Nothing," said C.C. She grinned up at them, her face lined with exhaustion. "Absolutely nothing."

"Okay," Cordelia muttered as the Jokertown Clinic spot unspooled above her. "Buddy Holley's next." In spite of what Uncle Jack said, she wondered if she should cross her fingers. Maybe toes too.

"Hold on a sec," said the floor director. She leaned toward Cordelia. "Change in plans."

Shit, thought Cordelia. "What?"

"Seems. to be a minor rebellion among the musicians. It's still getting sorted out."

"Better be quick." Cordelia glanced at the LED counting down on the director's console. "Like in about twenty-two seconds."

"But I'm supposed to go on now," said Buddy Holley stubbornly.

"The deal is," said Jack, "both the Boss and Girls With Guns have decided they want to go now and let you be the final act."

Bagabond glanced beyond them. "The Boss and that girl Tami are arm wrestling. Looks like she's winning."

"But it's my gig," said Holley.

"Shut the fuck up," said the Girls With Guns' leader, Tami, as she strutted up, rubbing her right shoulder. She uttered the words with considerable affection. "Him and I"-she gestured at the Boss, who was ruefully grinning-"we both figure we learned most all we know from you. So you're gonna be the climax. That's it, Bud." She leaned up on tiptoes and kissed him on the lips. Holley looked startled.

The stage director was signaling frantically.

The glass eyes of the SteadiCams implacably zoomed in. Girls With Guns upped the energy ante by tearing out the heart of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart's bubblegum standard "I Wonder What She's Doing Tonight," stomping it into jam, smearing the residue on their sneering lips, and just generally raising hell. They ended up with "Proud Flesh," a razor-edged anthem of romance and nihilism.

"So," said Tami to the Boss as she led her sisters swaggering offstage, "top that."

The Boss did his best.

Oh, god, thought Cordelia as the echoes finally died. She watched the Boss raise his guitar in one hand and elevate a fist with the other. Let Buddy work out. Please. The Boss gave the audience another bow, then led his band backstage.

Cordelia blinked. She thought she'd seen St. John Latham at a table in the back of the club. Latham, Strauss's cash is as good as anyone else's, she thought. The problem was, Latham seemed to be staring directly at her.

She sighed as the penultimate PSA faded to black and the director cued in the Louma. The monitor showed a wide tracking shot sweeping back and up from the stage.

"And… go!" said the director into her mike. Please, Cordelia again mentally implored.

"Hello, Lubbock!" Buddy Holley said to the immediate audience and their five hundred million electronic shadows. The crowd smiled.

Jack smiled too from his vantage at the edge of the stage. He crouched down to avoid getting in the way of the camera dollying past on its track. The pain was gnawing regularly at his gut, and he didn't know how long he'd be able to hold this position. He realized that what he wanted now more than anything else was simply to lie down. He wanted to rest. Soon enough, he thought morbidly. I'll rest all I want. For good.

Holley hit his first note, then brushed his fingers across the chord. The magic Buddy Holley touch. Now it might be a standard technique, but three decades before, it had signaled a revolution.

Rou-ou-ou-ou-ough beast

The characteristic hiccup was still there, though no one in the paying audience had ever heard this Buddy Holley tune before.

When the moon slides low

And lo-ove rubs thin

I'll be knockin'

Askin' to be let in

To Jack it seemed a little like vintage Dylan. Maybe a dash of Lou Reed. But most of it was just pure Holley.

Rou-ou-ou-ou-ough beast-almost a wail.

Jack realized he could easily cry.

When my friends

Like my center

Cannot hold

And every feeling I got

Has just been sold

He was crying.

I'm the rough beast's prey

In the rough beast's way

Buddy Holley's Telecaster sobbed. Not in self-pity, but in honest grief.

Without friends without love Forever

Jack loved the music, but the pain was horrendous. When he could no longer withstand it, he got up and quietly left. He missed the encore.

Cordelia was already looking ahead to the final extravagant encore when every performer would come onto the stage and all would stand there with hands and arms linked. She blinked and registered a double take as she realized Buddy Holley looked about ready to fall flat on his face as he stood there taking the applause from his final song. She was close enough that she could see the flush in his face. Holley staggered. Oh, Jesus, she thought, he's sick. He's going to collapse.

But he didn't. It was as though the flush in his skin metamorphosed into a ripple of heat that ran along his body from feet to head.

What the hell? thought Cordelia.

Then it was Buddy Holley's flesh itself that rippled. A transforming nimbus of energy seemed to glow around his body. He held the Fender Telecaster out in front of him and something astonishing happened. The steel strings became ductile, melting like taffy; flashing away from the frets, stretching out and out like lines of silver sparks. They whipped around camera mounts and lights, anchoring themselves like jungle snakes.

Illusion? Cordelia thought. Maybe it was telekinesis. The guitar strings formed a kind of enormous cat's cradle. Buddy Holley looked around at this, then at his hands. He slowly raised his head and gazed upward. Holley seemed to be seeing something nobody else could comprehend. He smiled and the smile transformed into a joyous grin.

And then he danced. Slow and deliberate at first, the pace grew more rapid as Holley began to whirl around the stage. The audience stared, gaping.

She had seen this dance before-or something like it. Cordelia recalled the memory. Wyungare. She had seen the young aboriginal man dance in this manner deep within the Dreamtime, far into the desert heartland of Australia. This was a shaman's dance.

Holley's grin widened. He leaped and gyrated. Screamin' Jay Hawkins and James Brown could have done no better. Then Holley leaped into the shimmering, almost invisible webwork of silver sparks.

He whirled and his right hand came off, severed at the wrist with a gush of crimson smoke.

Someone in the audience gasped.

Holley continued to dance. The other hand. The right arm, up to the elbow. His left leg at the knee. Scarlet smoke fanned out like the curving trails of fire from a catherine wheel.

Cordelia became aware the director was addressing her. "Should we go to a spot?" The director's voice was taut.

It was all coming clear to Cordelia. "No," she said. "No. Leave it. Broadcast everything."

Buddy Holley whirled within the cradle of sparking tracers. He disassembled himself as the audience murmured and cried out.

From the chair beside her at the table Cordelia heard Polly Rettig say, "God almighty, it's just like with Kid Dinosaur."

"No." Cordelia said aloud. "It's not. It's the death and resurrection show. It's just-a joke. It's entertainment." "Entertainment?" said Rettig. "He's… killing himself."

"I don't think so," said Cordelia. "He's transforming, but he's not dying. This is a shaman's trick."

The last of Buddy Holley, a nearly limbless torso, wavered and tumbled to the stage. The body parts lay stacked in a haphazard heap. Curtains of bright smoke rose up. Sparks shot up in fountaining streamers.

The audience watched, uncertain how to react.

Cordelia felt calm and sure. She trusted Wyungare. She wondered if Holley's transmogrification was a direct result of the wild card virus. That would explain his apparent illness.

The pile of arms and legs 'stirred. The bones began to reconnect, joint to joint. The muscles and ligaments wound around them. The skin slithered onto the limbs, and the limbs rejoined the body.

Buddy Holley stood before them, whole again. He wasn't completely the physical original. This Buddy Holley was fitter, the spare tire around his waist and the bags under the eyes gone. His hair was a glossy black again, with no gray. His skin was smooth and unwrinkled.

The crowd began to clap. The cheering rose as the audience's collective tension released. Someone behind Cordelia said, "That's the absolute fucking performance of a lifetime."

The guitar had also reassembled. Holley picked up the Telecaster and held it loosely.

He got what he wanted, Cordelia thought. "He's become a shaman," she said aloud.

"Buddy Holley and the Shamans," said a voice behind her. "Bitchin' name. After this, it'd sell like Fawn Hall's underwear. Man, this Holley could become a presidential candidate."

Cordelia turned and saw it was the ICM man who had spoken. She gave him a frigid stare and turned back toward the stage. The new being that had been Buddy Holley smiled reassuringly. Then he brought his hand across the guitar strings. The chord throbbed as though resonating with every heart in the audience.

The sound, thought Cordelia. It's a trigger for states of heightened consciousness. This is the power of rock and roll. Then Buddy Holley, the reborn man of power, stood before the awestruck audience and played the best version of 'Not Fade Away' that had ever been performed.

It was, Cordelia suspected, a portent.

As Jack slipped away from the alley door of the Funhouse, he felt sick in heart and body. I should have stayed for Buddy's encore, he thought. But Buddy would do just fine.

There was the scraping on asphalt of something inhumanly large shifting its weight.

Jack stopped abruptly as a shadow deeper than the darkness in the rest of the alley fell across him.

"I figured a blue-ribbon fag party like this would draw all my little buddies," said Bludgeon. "But I didn't even hope the first fucker would be you." Without warning, his deformed right hand whistled out, catching Jack across the head and slamming him back into the brick side of a building.

Jack felt something give, bone or cartilage he couldn't tell. All he knew was that he was slipping away from what light there was. He wanted the darkness, but not yet, not this way. He tried to struggle. He was aware that Bludgeon was grasping him tightly and holding him upright. Bludgeon jerked loose Jack's belt and pulled down his pants.

"Got a little going-away thing for you, Jack. Something I figure you'll love. I bet your niece Cordelia'll eat it up when I get around to her too."

Jack tried to will himself back into full consciousness. Then he felt what Bludgeon was shoving between his buttocks. Into him. Spreading and tearing. Nothing had ever hurt this much. Nothing!

"I'll save the little girl for later," said Bludgeon.

Jesus, thought Jack through the agony. Cordelia. "Let her alone you rat-bastard cochon!"

"Sticks and stones," said Bludgeon, emitting a high-pitched giggle, "but only the Fatman can hurt me…" He thrust forward and Jack screamed.

Where was the other? Jack thought desperately, his brain seeming to heel over in a grinding haze of pain. I need you. Now. I've got to transform. This once. Just to kill the son-of-a-bitch.

And then he felt the change coming. He also knew he was dying.

Good, he thought. Good to both. And a surprise for Bludgeon.

Jack felt the teeth springing up as his jaw elongated. Pestilence or claw, you son-of-a-bitch, you're gon' die. The fierce anger carried him a little further.

Bagabond! his thought shouted into the night. Hear me! Save Cordelia.

I'll save the little girl for later, Bludgeon's threat echoed. It all rippled into a void. And died.

The dead man plunged into darkness.

Blood Ties

II

The seven-to-midnight shift was just coming off. The midnightto-five-A. M. shift was preparing to sally forth from the Crystal Palace onto the streets of Jokertown. Coughs, hacks, a few subdued laughs as they lined up at the long trestle tables to be served. Hiram Worchester, the immensely large and immensely elegant owner of Aces High, oversaw the feeding effort. It was his way of showing support, and a very welcome one to the always-tired Jokertown patrols.

Tachyon, seated on a table, with a booted foot propped on the chair, sniffed appreciatively. Coq au vin. He noticed Sascha pausing to speak with Hiram. The big ace jerked his head toward one of the secluded alcoves, and they moved away. Business of some sort, mused Tachyon. Everyone did business at the Crystal Palace.

The door to the Palace was flung open, and Mr. Gravemold surveyed the room. He brought with him an indescribable smell, and the chill of the grave seemed to wash from his tall, wiry person. Beneath his absurd porkpie hat a skull mask decorated with black and white feathers leered about the room. There were some muttered curses from the assembled jokers. It was going to be tough to choke down even Hiram's delicious food with Mr. Gravemold stinking up the place.

Tachyon, a scented handkerchief held to his nose, was about to slide to the floor and join the line when the brash voice of Digger Downs riveted him in place.

"Oh, no, you don't, Doc, interview time."

"Why me, Digger?"

"Because you owe me for that mind control last week. Not nice, Tachy, not nice."

"Digger, if you weren't so goddam irritating and unscrupulous-"

"Captain Ellis doesn't approve of this protection racket," the reporter bulled ahead. "She says somebody's going to get hurt, and it ain't gonna be the bad guys."

"I would submit to the good captain that the protection rackets have all been coming from one direction. And she's being unduly pessimistic. I think we can look out for ourselves. Ideal knows we've had enough practice," he added dryly, recalling all the years when the police were curiously uninterested whenever a joker was beaten or killed, but Johnny-on-the-spot whenever a tourist howled. Things were better now, but it was still an uneasy relationship between New York's jokers and New York's finest.

Digger licked the tip of his ballpoint pen, a silly, affected gesture. " I know my readers will want to know why these patrols consist only of jokers. With you heading up this effort why not pull in some of the big guns? The Hammer for example, or Mistral or J.J. Flash or Starshine."

"This is a joker neighborhood. We can take care of ourselves."

"Meaning there's hostility between jokers and aces?"

"Digger, don't be an ass. Is it so surprising that these people choose to handle this themselves? They are viewed as freaks, treated like retarded children, and ignored in favor of their more fortunate and flamboyant brethren. May I point out that your magazine is titled Aces, and no one is panting to found a concomitant magazine entitled jokers? Look around you. This is an activity born out of love and pride. How could I say to these people you're not tough enough or smart enough or strong enough to defend yourselves? Let me call in the aces."

Which was of course precisely what he had been going to do until Des had opened his eyes. But Digger didn't need to know that. Still, Tach had the grace to blush as he shamelessly appropriated Des's lecture and passed it on to the journalist. "Comment on Leo Barnett?"

"He is a hate-mongering lunatic."

"Can I quote you on that?"

"Go ahead."

"So who's going to be the white knight? Hartmann?"

"Maybe. I don't know."

"I thought you two were real tight."

"We're friends, but hardly intimates."

"Why do you think Hartmann's been such a friend to the jokers? Personal interest? His wife a carrier, or maybe an illegitimate joker baby hidden away somewhere?"

"I think he is a friend to the wild cards because he is a good man," replied Tachyon a little frigidly.

"Hey, speaking of monstrous joker babies, what's the latest poop on Peregrine's pregnancy?"

Tachyon went rigid with fury, then carefully uncoiled his fists, and relaxed. "No, Digger, you're not going to get me again. I will never stop regretting that I let slip that the father of Peregrine's child was an ace."

"Have a drink on me, Tachy?" asked the journalist hopefully, eying the almost empty snifter.

"NO!"

"Just a little hint to reassure all those breathless fans who are worried about Peri?"

"Oh, go away, Digger, do. You plague me worse than horse flies." He waved a hand toward the jokers. "Interview them, and leave me in peace. I'm far less important in all of this than they are."

"Jesus, Tachy! Modesty, from you?"

The Takisian stared hard, and Digger lifted the glass from the table and dribbled the remaining brandy over his head. "I'm not… in a very good mood… right now."

The journalist mopped at his wet neck. "No fuck! And that makes two, Tach. I'll be collecting on that next interview soon."

"I'll count the moments."

"Asshole."

Tachyon stared morosely at his empty glass, then scanned the room for a waiter. Durg at'Morakh bo-Isis Vayawand-sa had been stolidly eating his way through an enormous plate of food, but Tachyon noticed that his pale eyes kept drifting toward the staircase. Chrysalis appeared and, the Morakh killer, light-footed despite his incredible bulk, moved swiftly to her side. He lifted her hand with courtly grace and bestowed a fervent kiss upon it. Chrysalis snatched it back and stared coldly down at hire. Drawn despite himself, Tach drifted toward them, trying to overhear. Suddenly Chrysalis's hand shot out, and the sharp slap echoed about the crowded bar.

"Tachyon!" she gritted. He obediently followed her to her private table. Lifting her deck of antique cards, she shuffled quickly several times and laid out a solitaire hand. "Will you keep your pet freak away from me!"

"He's not mine, he's Mark's, and what's the problem?"

"He wants me."

"Good god!"

A tangle of conflicting emotions washed through him.

Disgust and amazement that Durg could be attracted to the joker. Monster he might be, but he was still a Takisian.

Shame for his reaction, and pity for Chrysalis beset by such a monstrous lover.

"Will you get him off my back?"

"I'll do what I can, but remember he was raised from childhood to hate and despise me; first by the Vayawand and then by my cousin Zabb. He tolerates me now solely for Mark's sake."

"Please."

"All right, but be a bit more forbearing, I beg you. The Morakh may be a perversion, but they are Takisians, and as such used to getting what they want from groundlings. Never forget he's a killing machine."

"Thanks so much, Tachy, I feel so much better now."

"Sorry."

"Well, maybe the Mafia or the Fists will beat my head in before he does. And to think I let you talk me into this. You know this really is all your fault. Oh, stop looking so stricken. It was a joke."

"Not to me."

Dita came toddling down the hall, the heels of her improbably high heels clicking on the faded tile floor.

"Doctor, Mr. Marion quit!"

Tachyon looked up from the chart he was studying. "Who?"

"Mr. Marion, the tutor."

"Oh, shit." It was not a common expletive from him and Dita stared. "Dita, I'm far to busy to deal with this right now, and since it's a losing proposition anyway, would you please hire a new tutor for me."

"But I wouldn't know what to look for."

"A thorough grounding in mathematics, and the sciences."

Some history and literature, and a knowledge or at least an appreciation for music would be nice.'

The click and hiss of the pager, and the smooth voice of the switchboard interrupted. "Dr. Tachyon to emergency. Dr. Tachyon to emergency."

"But…"

"Just use your judgment." Looping his stethoscope around his neck, Tach lifted the phone from the third-floor nurses' station. "What is it?"

"Wild card," came the terse response from Dr. Finn. He wasted no more time but headed for the elevator.

The child was writhing on the examnation table. Finn's hooves were clattering nervously on the tile as he sought to restrain her. He was the first joker physician at the Blythe van Renssaeler Memorial Clinic, and there had been some initial resistance from the joker community fearful that he had gotten through medical school because of affirmative action and not through merit. After two weeks of working with the young man, Tach could assure them that their fears were unfounded.

The child's mother stared with panicked eyes at Tachyon.

Superficially she was a nat; what her genetic code held was of course another matter. Manifestation, or new infection? Only testing would show.

"Initial exam indicates no transformation. We've managed to stabilize pressure and heart rate, and I've ordered up a trump' but…"

"Thank you, Doctor. Mrs…?"

"Wilson," supplied a nurse.

"Wilson." Tachyon took her arm, urged her away frm the convulsing child. "Your daughter has contracted the wild card, and its fairly evident that she's drawn a Black Queen."

The woman gasped, whimpered, clapped a hand over her mouth. "We must very quickly make a decision. We can give her a dose of a countervirus which I have developed-"

"Give it to her!"

"But I must warn you that this treatment is successful only twenty percent of the time. The usual result is that there is no improvement. The virus runs its course. There is also a very slight chance of death in reaction to the trump."

"She's dyin' anyway. It don't matter if she does it faster." A nurse appeared at her elbow with the release.

Tachyon was already preparing the syringe. It took Finn and three nurses to hold the girl quiet. The plunger was depressed. Tach held her wrist, the flutter of pulse beneath his fingers. Fainter, fainter. The monitor went flat. The deadly keen was echoed in the mother's cry.

The aftermath was always so hateful. The inadequate words of comfort, obtaining consent for an autopsy, blood tests on both parents-in this case unfortunately incomplete for Beth Wilson was a welfare mother, and the man who'd sired little Sara had long since vanished from her life. She had spent the last thirty dollars of her welfare check on taxis shuttling from hospital to hospital, being turned away when the virus was discovered, until at last she reached the Jokertown clinic. Tach gave her money and sent her home with Riggs in the limousine.

Sprawled back in his chair, Tach pulled a flask from the desk drawer and slugged back a large swallow.

"Mind if I have one?" asked Finn.

He was on the floor with all four legs curled neatly beneath him. His golden hide twitched slightly over one haunch, and he cranked around to scratch the itch. Tach, canted back in his chair, studied the young man and decided that Finn looked like a Disney character. Small pointed face, tipped-up blue eyes, a riot of white curls that tumbled over his forehead and ran down his spine to form a mane. His tail spread behind him like a white cloak. When he was in surgery they braided it up and wrapped surgical tape around it. Tach had suggested that he bob it and gotten a horrified look in response. He then realized that that floor-length fall of hair was Finn's pride and joy.

Staring at those four teacup-size hooves, Tach wanted to ask if Finn had been born this way or metamorphosed after birth. If his had been an in utero transformation, Tachyon sure as hell bet he had been delivered by cesarean section. But it would be gauche to ask. Although Finn seemed incredibly well adjusted Tachyon would be the first to admit that he didn't know the man at all well.

The doctor turned the flask slowly between his fingers and frowned off into space.

"What's the matter?" asked Tach.

"I've never worked among jokers until now."

"Oh?"

"Yeah, my old man had enough clout and money to send me to the finest medical schools and get me into a residency program at Cedars in L.A."

"So why are you here?"

"I thought it was about time I got to know some jokers. To take a look at the joker experience."

"That's quite noble."

"No, it's guilt. I grew up in a Spanish colonial palace in Bel Air. If dad couldn't buy people to accept me, he'd intimidate them until they did."

"What did your father do?"

"'Does.' He's a movie producer. A very successful one."

"And you became a doctor."

"Well, I could hardly become an actor."

"True." Tachyon rose. "If you'd like a bit more joker experience, I'm on my way over to the Crystal Palace for the daily report. If you would care to accompany me?"

"Sure. Beats staying here waiting for another Black Queen to be rolled in. Wish you guys had done a little more lab work before field-testing xenovirus Takis-A."

"But Finn, by anyone's standards it was an astounding success."

"Yeah, tell that to Mrs. Wilson."

Even the lights had been turned off in an effort to make the skinny teenager who huddled in a chair next to Chrysalis comfortable. Video was an undersize sixteen-year-old who would never dance at her senior prom or go to the movies or, in short, live with any of the modern conveniences that make life comfortable. For the presence of any electrical equipment in her vicinity sent her into ventricular fibrillation, and without immediate aid she would die.

Until one noticed her eyes, Video seemed normal. Long brown hair, parted in the middle, fell straight to her shoulders. A narrow, worried face peered out from behind this curtain of hair. And the eyes. White and perfectly round, they seemed to billow and change like whitetops on waves, or clouds torn by a passing wind.

"Hi, Dr. Tachyon," she muttered around a mouthful of gum.

"Hi, Video, how are you today?"

"Pretty good."

"This is Dr. Finn."

"Hi."

"So what have you got for us today?"

"I got around pretty good so I got quite a bit."

"Excellent."

"Uh… Doctor?"

"Yes?"

"Ummm… you're a friend of Senator Hartmann's, right?"

"Yes."

"Is he gonna run?"

"For president, you mean?"

"Yeah."

"I don't know, Video."

"Well, I wish he would. One of my friends got beat up near that Barnett mission."

"Were Barnett's people behind it?"

"I don't know. He thinks so. The cops thought it was probably the Werewolves."

"In other words, no proof."

"Paul was sure," she said with a mulish expression. "But that's not proof."

"Well, I don't think this guy ought to become president."

"I doubt he will, Video," said Tachyon, and wished he was as certain as he sounded.

"Senator Hartmann oughta run."

"I'll ask him next time I talk to him."

"I'd vote for him. If I were eighteen."

"I'll tell him. Now, the replay."

"Oh, okay."

The girl stared hard at the clear space before Chrysalis's table. Figures sprang to life.

… An Oriental man in gang colors stuck the tip of a switchblade up Gobbler's nose slit. A flick, and blood poured over the old man's beak. With a screech he collapsed onto the floor. A lean, ganglingly tall street punk dressed in stained leather pants and chains grinned, pulling the crawling scarlet and black scars on his face into hideous relief. Spiked hair made him seem seven feet tall as he gripped the joker by the tuft of feathers sprouting from his bald skull and pulled him up. The feathers came loose in his fist.

"Put 'em on a hat," yelled the Oriental gleefully. Suddenly Elmo boiled in the door of the deli. Launched himself at the tall, scarred Occidental. They wrestled. The dwarf leaned forward, his powerful jaws closing on his opponent's bandaged nose. Elmo reared back, and the man screamed and clapped a hand over the raw, bleeding wound where his nose had been. Elmo spat the nose into his palm… "Gross," said Finn.

… The Twisted Sisters shuddered and clung more tightly to one another's waist. Gray hair twisted like smoke about their gaunt bodies. It snaked out as soft and insubstantial as cobwebs, as insinuating as a sigh. It crept up nostrils and past lips. Thickened until it lay like cotton wadding in windpipes and lungs. The bully boys collapsed onto the floor of the deli like deflated balloons.

… A pair of men in polyester sports jackets and a wealth of gold chains thrust Spots's head into one of her own washing machines at the Spots Out Laundromat. They dragged her out gasping and dripping, soap clinging to her piebald hair and skin. Mister Gravemold slipped through the door, flexed his fingers, and laid a hand on one goon's shoulder. The man reared back, cried out, and collapsed. The other soon joined him…

"What's he using?" asked Tachyon with a glance to Chrysalis. "Hypothermia."

"Oh." He waved to Video to proceed.

… The back door of the bakery spilling light into the alley. Screams from the kitchen. Shadow Fists pausing like alert hounds in the cluttered alley. Rushing in to join in a fight with their Mafia competitors. Terrified jokers backed against the walls, smoke rising from doughnuts boiling to ash in the hot oil.

In the distance a clear whistle floating over the bleat of horns, and the rumble of subways. The theme to High Noon…

Tachyon dropped his face into his hands. "I didn't know you were there."

"I can be pretty sneaky," said Video with pride. Chrysalis shot the Takisian an ironic glance. "Very interesting. So our little doctor is riding with the posse. Go ahead, Video, I want to see this."

"Doug's bakery is a block from the clinic. I buy doughnuts there in the morning. When the call came, Troll and I were convenient."

"Right," she drawled.

… Tachyon, the. 357 Magnum like a cannon in his small hand, entering from the alley. Troll roaring in from the front of the bakery. Troll doubled up a ham-size fist and beat heads like a man playing bongos. One of the Mafia thugs drew a. 22 pistol. Fired point-blank into Troll's massive chest. The bullet ricocheted off the joker's thick greenish skin with a whine. The man went white. Troll lifted him by his shirt front.

"You shouldn't have done that, mister, because now I'm really mad."

Troll coolly broke both the man's arms, then his legs, and then propped him in a corner like a discarded sack. A sack that screamed.

Tachyon switching his gaze from man to man. Each one dropping in a snoring heap as soon as those strange lilac eyes were leveled upon him. One of the Fists succeeded in unlimbering a. 45 automatic. Tachyon shot the gun from his hand. Raised the gun to his lips, and blew lightly across the barrel…

"Show off," said Chrysalis.

The alien shrugged. "I'm a good shot."

"I don't believe for a moment that you didn't know Video was there. That has got to have been a performance for the benefit of the applauding masses."

"Chrysalis, you wound me."

"Tachyon, you're an arrogant son-of-a-bitch, and don't try to tell me otherwise."

"I didn't know you were taking part in all this," said Finn. " I organized it… helped organize it. I should share in the risks." The alien drained his drink and bowed to Video and Chrysalis. "Ladies, I thank you." He paused at the door. "By the way, Chrysalis. How do you think we're doing?"

"I think we've got them on the run. I just hope they don't decide to take a crack at us."

"Scared?"

"You bet your sweet little alien ass I am. I know more about this situation-who's behind it-than you do."

"And you're not going to tell me."

"You've got that right."

June 1987

All the King's Horses

V

ADMISSION ONLY $2.50 said the sign over the darkened ticket booth in front of the Famous Bowery Wild Card Dime Museum.

The booth was empty, the museum doors locked. Tom rang the bell by the ticket window. After a minute he rang it again. There were shuffling noises from within, and a door in the back of the booth opened. An eye appeared, a rheumy pale-blue eye on a long fleshy stalk that curled around the doorframe. It fixed on Tom, blinked twice.

A joker stepped into the booth. He had a dozen eyes on long prehensile stalks that sprouted from his forehead and moved constantly, like snakes. Otherwise he was unremarkable. "Cancha read?" he said in a thin, nasal voice. "We're closed." In one hand he had a small sign, which he slid in front of the ticket window. It said

CLOSED.

The way the joker's eyes kept moving gave Tom a queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. "Are you Dutton?"

One by one the eyes turned, stilled, until every last one of them was fixed on him, studying him. "Dutton expecting you?" the joker asked. Tom nodded. "All right, c'mon round the side." He turned and left the booth, but two or three of his eyes stared back at Tom, curious and unblinking, until the door shut.

The side entrance was a heavy metal fire door opening on an alley. Tom waited nervously while locks were unlocked and bolts lifted inside. You heard stories about Jokertown alleys, and this one seemed to him especially dark and gloomy. "This way," eye-stalks said when the door finally opened.

The museum was windowless, its interior hallways even gloomier than the alley. Tom looked around curiously as they passed down several long corridors, with dusty brass railings and waxwork dioramas to either side of them. He had floated over the Dime Museum thousands of time as the Turtle, but he'd never set foot inside.

With the lights out, the figures in the shadows seemed remarkably lifelike. Dr. Tachyon stood on a mound of white sand, his spaceship painted on the backdrop behind him, while nervous soldiers climbed from a jeep. Jetboy clutched his chest as steel-faced Dr. Tod pumped bullets into him. A blond in a torn teddy struggled in the grasp of the Great Ape as he scaled a model of the Empire State Building. A dozen jokers, each more twisted than the last, writhed suggestively in some dank basement, clothing strewn all around them.

His guide vanished around a corner. Tom followed, and found himself face-to-face with a roomful of monsters. Drenched in shadow, the creatures looked so real that they brought him up short. Spiders the size of minivans, flying things that dripped acid, gigantic worms with rings of serrated teeth, humanoid monstrosities whose skin quivered like gelatin; they filled the room behind the curving glass, surrounding him on three sides, crowding each other, slavering to break out.

"Our newest diorama," a quiet voice said behind him. "Earth versus the Swarm. Try the buttons."

Tom looked down. A half dozen large red buttons were set into a panel by the railing. He pressed one. Inside the diorama a spotlight picked out a wax simulacrum of Modular Man suspended from the ceiling, as twin beams of scarlet light flashed down from his shoulder-mounted guns. The lasers struck one of the swarmlings; thin tendrils of smoke rose, and a long hiss of pain issued from unseen speakers.

Tom pushed a second button. Modular Man vanished back into the shadows, and the lights found the Howler in his yellow fighting togs, outlined against a plume of smoke from a burning tank. The simulacrum opened its mouth; the speakers shrieked. A swarmling quivered in agony.

"The children love it," the voice said. "This is a generation raised on special effects. I'm afraid they demand more than simple waxworks. One must adapt to one's times."

A tall man in a dark suit of old-fashioned cut stood in a doorway to one side of the diorama, the joker with the eyestalks hunched over beside him. "I'm Charles Dutton," he said, offering a gloved hand. A heavy black cape was thrown over his shoulders. He looked as though he'd just stepped from a hansom cab in Victorian London, except for the cowl drawn up over his head that kept his face in shadow. "We'll be more comfortable in the office," Dutton said. "If you'll step this way."

Tom was suddenly very uneasy. He found himself wondering, once again, what the hell he was doing here. It was one thing to float over Jokertown as the Turtle, secure in a steel shell, and quite another to venture into its streets in his own all-too-vulnerable flesh. But he'd come this far. There was no backing out now. He followed his host through a door marked EMPLOYEES ONLY and down a narrow flight of steps. They passed through a second door, through a cavernous basement workshop, into a small but comfortably furnished office.

"Can I get you a drink?" the cowled man asked. He went to a wet bar in the corner of the office and poured himself a brandy.

"No," Tom said. He was -a cheap drunk, too easily affected by booze, and he needed all his wits about him today. Besides, drinking through the damned frog mask would be a bitch.

"Let me know if you change your mind." Cradling the snifter, Dutton crossed the room and seated himself behind an antique clawfoot desk. "Please, sit down. You look terribly uncomfortable standing there like that."

Tom wasn't listening. Something else had caught his eye. There was a head on the desk.

Dutton noticed his interest and turned the head around. The face was remarkably handsome, but the oh-so-perfect features were frozen in a rictus of surprise. Instead of hair, the top of the skull was a plastic dome with a radar dish beneath. The plastic was cracked. Severed cables, blackened and half-melted, dangled from the jagged stump of its neck.

"That's Modular Man," Tom said, shocked. Numbly he eased himself down onto the edge of a ladderback chair. "Only his head," Dutton said.

It had to be a wax replica, Tom told himself. He reached out and touched it. "It's not wax."

"Of course not," Dutton said. "This is authentic. We bought it from one of the busboys at Aces High. I don't mind telling you, it cost us quite a tidy sum. Our new diorama will dramatize the Astronomer's attack on Aces High. You'll recall that Modular Man was destroyed during that fracas. His head will give a certain verisimilitude to the display, don't you think?"

The whole notion made Tom ill. "You planning to put Kid Dinosaur's body on display too?" he said testily.

"The boy was cremated," Dutton replied in a matter-offact tone. "We have it on good authority that the mortuary substituted a John Doe, cleaned his bones with carpet beetles, and sold the skeleton to Michael Jackson."

Tom found himself at a loss for words.

"You're shocked," Dutton said. "You wouldn't be, if you were a joker beneath that mask. This is Jokertown." He reached up, pulled back the cowl that covered his face. A death's head grinned at Tom across the desk; dark eyes sunk deep beneath a heavy brow ridge, leathery yellow skin stretched taut across a noseless, lipless, hairless face, teeth bared in a rictus of a smile. "When you've lived here long enough, nothing shocks you," Dutton said. Mercifully he yanked up the cowl again to conceal the living skullface, but Tom could feel the weight of his eyes. "Now," he said. "Xavier Desmond gave me to understand that you have a proposition for me. A major new exhibit."

Tom had seen thousands of jokers in his long years as the Turtle, but always at a distance, on his TV screens, with layers of armor plate between them. Sitting alone in a gloomy basement with a cowled man whose face was a yellowed skull was a little different. "Yeah," he said uncertainly.

"We are always in the market for new exhibits, the more spectacular the better. Des is not normally given to hyperbole, so when he tells me you're offering us something truly unique, I'm interested. Exactly what- is the nature of this exhibit?"

"The Turtle's shells," said Tom.

Dutton was silent for a moment. "Not a replica?"

"The real thing," Tom told him.

"The Turtle's shell was destroyed last Wild Card Day," Dutton said. "They dredged up pieces of it from the bottom of the Hudson."

"That was one shell. There were earlier models. I've got three of them, including the very first. Armor plate over a Volkswagen frame. It's got some burned-out tubes, but otherwise it's pretty much intact. You could clean it up, rig the TV screens for closed circuit, make a real ride out of it. Charge extra for people to crawl inside. The other two shells are just empty hulls, but they'd still make quite a draw. If you have a big enough hall, you could hang 'em from the ceiling, like the airplanes in the Smithsonian." Tom leaned forward. "If you want to make this place into a real museum instead of just a tacky freak show for nat tourists, you need real exhibits."

Dutton nodded. "Intriguing. I'll admit I'm tempted. But anyone could build a shell. We'd need some kind of authentication. If you don't mind my asking, how did they chance to come into your possession?"

Tom hesitated. Xavier Desmond said Dutton could be trusted, but it was not easy to set aside twenty-four years of caution. "They're mine," he said. "I'm the Turtle."

This time Dutton's silence was even longer. "There are those who say the Turtle is dead."

"They're wrong."

"I see. I don't suppose you'd care to give me proof." Tom took a deep breath. His hands curled around the armrests of his chair. He stared across the desk, concentrated. Modular Man's head rose a foot into the air and turned slowly until its eyes were fixed on Dutton.

"Telekinesis is a relatively common power," Dutton said, unimpressed. "The Turtle is distinguished not by the mere fact of his teke, but by its strength. Lift the desk and you'll convince me."

Tom hesitated. He didn't want to queer the deal by admitting that he couldn't lift the desk, not when he was out of his shell. All of a sudden, without thinking, he heard himself say, "Buy the shells, and I'll fly them here. All three of them." The words slipped out glib and easy; it wasn't until they were there hanging in the air that Tom realized what he'd said.

Dutton paused thoughtfully. "We could videotape the arrival, run the loop as part of the exhibit. Yes, I'd think that would be all the authentication we'd need. How much are you asking?"

Tom felt a moment of blind panic. Modular Man's head thumped back onto Dutton's desk. "One hundred thousand dollars," he blurted. It was twice what he'd intended to ask. "Too much. I'll offer you forty thousand."

"Fuck that," Tom said. "This is a one-of-a-kind exhibit."

"Three-of-a-kind, actually," Dutton pointed out. "I might be able to go to fifty thousand."

"The historical value alone is more than that. This is going to give this fucking place respectability. You'll have lines going around the block."

"Sixty-five thousand," Dutton said. "I'm afraid that's my final offer."

Tom stood up, relieved but somehow disappointed as well. "Okay. Thanks for your time. You don't happen to have a number for Michael Jackson, do you?" When Dutton didn't answer, he started for the door.

"Eighty thousand," Dutton said behind him. Tom turned. Dutton coughed apologetically. "That's it. Really. I couldn't do better if I wanted to. Not without liquidating some of my other investments, which I'm not prepared to do."

Tom paused in the doorway. He'd almost escaped. Now he was stuck again. He didn't see any way out that wouldn't make him look like a fool. "I'll need cash."

Dutton chuckled. "I don't imagine a check made out to the Great and Powerful Turtle would be very easy to negotiate. It will take me a few weeks to raise that much cash, but I imagine I can work it out." The cowled man unfolded from his chair and came around the desk. "Are we agreed, then?"

"Yeah," Tom said. "If you'll throw in the head."

"The head?" Dutton sounded surprised, and a little amused. "Sentimental, aren't we?" He picked up Modular Man's head and stared into the blind, unfocused eyes. "It's just a machine, you know. A broken machine."

"He was one of us," Tom said with a passion that surprised even him. "It doesn't feel right, leaving him here."

"Aces," Dutton sighed. "Well, I suppose we can do up a wax replica for the Aces High diorama. It's yours, as soon as we can take delivery on the shells."

"You get the shells when I get my money," Tom said. "Fair enough," Dutton replied.

Jesus, Tom thought, what the fuck have I gone and done? Then he got a grip on himself. Eighty thousand dollars was one hell of a lot of money.

Enough money to make it worth turning turtle one last time.

Concerto for Siren and Serotonin

V

After running a small favor for Veronica, reporting his progress to Theotocopolos, and phoning Latham, Strauss for an appointment, Croyd met Veronica for dinner. As he told her of the day's doings, she shook her head when he told her about St. John Latham.

"You're crazy," she told him. "If he's that well-connected, what do you want to fool around with him for, anyway?"

"Somebody wanted to know about something he was up to."

She frowned. "I find a guy I like, I don't want to lose him so quick."

"I won't get hurt."

She sighed, put a hand on his arm. "I mean it," she said.

"So do I. I can take care of myself."

"What does that mean? How dangerous is it?"

"I've got a job to finish, and I think I'm almost there. I'll probably wrap it up soon without any sweat, get the rest of my money, and maybe take a little vacation before I sleep again. Thought we might go someplace real nice togethersay, the Caribbean."

"Aw, Croyd," she said, taking his hand, "you've been thinking of me."

"Of course I've been thinking of you. Now, I've got an appointment with Latham for Thursday. Maybe I can finish this thing by the weekend. Then we'll have some time for just the two of us."

"You be careful, then."

"Hell, I'm almost done. Haven't had any problems yet."

After stopping at one of his banks for additional funds, Croyd took a taxi to the building that held the law offices of Latham, Strauss. He had made the appointment by describing a fictitious case designed to sound expensive, and he arrived fifteen minutes ahead of time. On entering the waiting room he suppressed a sudden desire for medication. Hanging out with Veronica seemed to have him thinking about it ahead of schedule.

He identified himself to the receptionist, sat and read a magazine till she told him, "Mr. Latham will see you now, Mr. Smith."

Croyd nodded, rose, and entered the inner office. Latham rose from his seat behind his desk, displaying an elegantly cut gray suit, and he offered his hand. He was somewhat shorter than Croyd, and his refined features remained expressionless.

"Mr. Smith," he acknowledged. "Won't you have a seat?"

Croyd remained standing. "No."

Latham raised an eyebrow, then seated himself. "As you would," he said. "Why don't you tell me about your case now?"

"Because there isn't one. What I really need is some information."

"Oh? That being?"

Instead of replying Croyd looked away, casting his gaze about the office. Then his hand moved forward, to pick up an orange and green stone paperweight from Latham's desk. He held it directly before him and squeezed. A cracking, grinding sound followed. When he opened his hand, a shower of gravel fell upon the desk.

Latham remained expressionless. "What sort of information are you seekng?"

"You have done work for the new mob," Croyd said, "the one trying to move in on the Mafia."

"Are you with the justice Department?"

"No."

"DAs office?"

"I'm not a cop," Croyd responded, "and I'm not an attorney either. I'm just someone who needs an answer."

"What is the question?"

"Who is the head of this new family? That's all I want to know."

"Why?"

"Perhaps someone wishes to arrange a meeting with that person."

"Interesting," Latham said. "You wish to retain me to arrange such a meeting."

"No, I only want to know who the person in charge is."

"Quid-pro-quo," Latham observed. "What are you offering for this?"

"I am prepared to save you," Croyd said, "some very large bills from orthopedic surgeons and physiotherapists. You lawyers know all about such matters, don't you?"

Latham smiled a totally artificial smile. "Kill me and you're a dead man, hurt me and you're a dead man, threaten me and you're a dead man. Your little trick with the stone means nothing. There are aces with fancier powers than that on call. Now, was that a threat you just made?"

Croyd smiled back. " I will die before too long, Mr. Latham, to be born again in a completely different form. I am not going to kill you. But supposing I were to cause you to talk, to stop the pain, and supposing that later your friends were to put out a contract on the man you see before you. It wouldn't matter. He would no longer exist. I am a series of biological ephemera."

"You are the Sleeper."

"Yes."

"I see. And if I give you this information, what do you think will happen to me?"

"Nothing. Who's to know?"

Latham sighed. "You place me in an extremely awkward position."

"That was my intention,-Croyd glanced at his watch., and I'm on a tight schedule. I should have begun beating the shit out of you about a minute and a half ago, but I'm trying to be a nice guy about this. What should we do, counselor?"

"I will cooperate with you," Latham said, "because I don't think it will make an iota of difference in what is going on right now."

"Why not?"

"I can give you a name, but not an address. I do not know from where they do business. We have always met in noman's-land or spoken over the telephone. I cannot even give you a telephone number, however, for they have always gotten in touch with me. And I say that it will make no difference because I do not believe that the interests you represent are capable of doing them harm. This group is too well staffed with aces. Also, I am fully convinced that they are going to manage what we might refer to as a 'corporate takeover' very soon. Should your employer wish to save lives and perhaps even settle for a bit of pocket money as something of a retirement bonus, I would be happy to try to arrange the terms for such an agreement."

"Naw," Croyd said, " I don 7t have any instructions for that kind of deal."'

"I'd be surprised if you did." Latham glanced at his telephone. "But if you would like to relay the suggestion, be my guest."

Croyd did not move. "I'll pass the word along, with the name you're going to give me."

Latham nodded. "As you would. My offer to negotiate does not assure the acceptance of any particular terms, though, and I feel obliged to advise you that it may not be acceptable at all to the other side."

"I'll tell them that, too," Croyd said. "What's the name?"

"Also, to be completely scrupulous, I ought to tell you that if you force me to divulge the name, I have a duty to inform my client that this information has been given out, and to whom. I cannot take responsibility for any actions this might precipitate.",

"The name of my client has not been stated either."

"As with so much else in life, we must be guided by certain suppositions.", "Stop beating around the bush and give me the name."

"Very well," Latham told him. "Siu Ma."

"Say again."

Latham repeated the name. "Write it down."

He jotted the name on a pad, tore off the sheet, and handed it to Croyd.

"Oriental," Croyd mused. " I take it this guy is head of a tong or a triad or a yakuza-one of those Asian culture clubs?"

"Not a guy."

"A woman?"

The attorney nodded. "Can't give you a description either. She's probably short, though."

Croyd looked fast, but he could not decide whether the residue of a smile lay upon the other's lips.

"And I'll bet she's not in the Manhattan directory either," Croyd suggested.

"Safe bet. So I've given you what you came for. Take it home, for all the good it will do you." He rose then, turned away from his desk, moved to a window, and stared down into traffic. "Wouldn't it be great," he said after a time, "if there were a way for you wild card freaks to bring a class action suit against the Takisians?"

Croyd let himself out, not totally pleased with what he had let himself in for.

Croyd required a restaurant with a table within shooting distance of a pay phone. He found what he was looking for on his third try, was seated, placed his order, and hurried to make his first call. It was answered on the fourth ring.

"Vito's Italian."

"This is Croyd Crenson. I want to talk to Theo."

"Hold on a minute. Hey, Theo!" Then, "He's coming." Half a minute. A minute.

"Yeah?"

"This Theo?"

"Yeah."

"Tell Chris Mazzucchelli that Croyd Crenson's got a name for him and needs to know where he wants to hear it."

"Right. Call me back in half an hour, forty-five minutes, okay?"

"Sure."

Croyd phoned Tavern-on-the-Green then and was able to make reservations for two at eight-fifteen. Then he phoned Veronica. It was answered on the sixth ring.

"Hello?" Her voice sounded weak, distant.

"Veronica, love, it's Croyd. Not to be carried away, but I think I'm just about done with this job and I want to celebrate. What say we cut out about seven-thirty and start doing it?"

"Oh, Croyd, I really feel shitty. I ache all over, I can't keep anything down, and I'm so weak I can hardly hold the phone up. It's gotta be flu. All I'm good for is sleeping."

"I'm sorry. You need anything? Aspirins? Ice cream? Horse? Snow? Bombitas? You name it and I'll pick it up."

"Aw, that's sweet, lover. But no. I'll be okay, and I don't want to expose you to this thing. I just want to sleep. Okay?"

"All right."

Croyd headed back to his table. His food arrived moments later. When he finished it, he ordered again and rolled a pair of pills between his thumb and forefinger. Finally he took them with a swallow of iced tea. Then he ordered again and checked various of his personal phones for messages till his next order arrived. He went back and took care of it, then buzzed Theo again.

"So what'd he say?"

"I haven't been able to get hold of him, Croyd. I'm still trying. Get back to me in maybe an hour."

"I will," Croyd said, and he called Tavern-on-the-Green and canceled his reservation, then returned to his table to order a few desserts.

He phoned before the hour had run as there were a number of matters he was anxious to attend to. Fortunately Theo had made a connection in the meantime, and he gave him an apartment address on the upper East Side. "Be there nine o'clock tonight. Chris wants you to make a full report to the management.",

"It's just a lousy name I could give him over the phone," Croyd said.

"I am only a message service, and that is the message." Croyd hung up and paid his tab, the afternoon open before him.

As he stepped outside, a short, broad-shouldered man with an Oriental cast to his features emerged from a doorway perhaps ten feet to the left, hands within his blue satin jacket, gaze focused on the ground. As he turned toward Croyd, he raised his head and their eyes met for a moment. Croyd felt later that he had known in that instant what was to occur. Whatever the case, he knew for certain a moment later when the man's right hand emerged from his jacket, fingers wrapped in an unusual grip about the hilt of a long, slightly curved knife, its blade extending back along the mans forearm, edge outward. Then his left hand emerged as he moved forward, and it held a matching blade in an identical grip. Both weapons moved in unison as his pace accelerated. Croyd's abnormal reflexes took over. As he moved forward to meek the attack, it seemed as if the other had suddenly dropped into slow motion. Turning to match the doublebladed pass, Croyd reached across a line of gleaming metal, caught a hand, and twisted it inward. The weapon's edge was rotated back toward the attacker's abdomen. Its point entered there, moved diagonally upward, and was followed by a rush of blood and innards. As the man doubled, Croyd beheld the white egret that decorated the jacket's back.

Then the window at his side shattered and the sound of a gunshot rang in his ears. Turning, drawing his collapsed assailant before him, he saw a dark, late-model car moving slowly along the curbside, almost parallel to him. There were two men in the vehicle, the driver and a passenger in the rear seat who was pointing a pistol in his direction through the opened window.

Croyd moved forward and stuffed the man he held into the car. He did not fit through the window easily, but Croyd pushed hard and he went in nevertheless, losing only a few pieces along the way. His final screams were mixed with the roar of the engine as the car jumped forward and raced off.

It had been, he realized, a kind of proof that Latham had told him the truth and nothing but, though not necessarily the whole truth; and by this he was pleased with his work, after a fashion. Now, though, he had to start looking over his shoulder and keep it up till he had his money. And this was aggravating.

He stepped over some of his attacker's odds and ends and felt in his pocket for one of his pillboxes. Aggravating.

As Croyd approached the apartment building that evening, he noted that the man in the car parked before it appeared to be speaking into a small walkie-talkie and staring at him. He'd grown very conscious of parked cars following the second attempt on his life, a little earlier. Massaging his knuckles, he turned suddenly and stepped toward the car.

"Croyd," the man said softly.

"That's right. We'd better be on the same side."

The man nodded and shifted a wad of chewing gum into his left cheek. "You can go on up," he said. "Third floor, apartment thirty-two. Don't have to ring. Guy by the door'll let you in."

"Chris Mazzucchelli's there?"

"No, but everyone else is. Chris couldn't make it, but it don't matter. You tell those people what they want to know. It's the same as telling him."

Croyd shook his head. "Chris hired me. Chris pays me. I talk to Chris."

"Wait a minute." The man pressed the button on his walkie-talkie and began speaking into it in Italian. He glanced at Croyd after a few moments, raised his index finger, and nodded.

"What's comin' down?" Croyd asked when the conversation was concluded. "You find him all of a sudden?"

"No," the guard answered, shifting his wad of gum. "But we can satisfy you everything's okay in just a minute."

"Okay," Croyd said. "Satisfy me."

They waited. Several minutes later a man in a dark suit emerged from the building. For a moment Croyd thought it was Chris, but on closer inspection he realized the man to be thinner and somewhat taller. The newcomer approached and nodded to the guard, who nodded at Croyd and said, "There he is."

"I'm Chris's brother," the man said, smiling faintly, "and that's as close as we can get at the moment. I can speak for him, and it's okay for you to tell the gentlemen upstairs what you've learned."

"Okay," Croyd said. "That's good. But I was thinking about collecting the rest of my money from him too."

"I don't know about that. Maybe you better ask Vince about it. Schiaparelli. He sometimes does payroll. Maybe you shouldn't, though."

Croyd turned toward the guard. "You've got the bitchbox. You call the guy and ask him. The other side's already hit on me today for what I got. If my money's not here, I'm walking."

"Wait a minute," Chris's brother said. "No reason to get upset. Hang on."

He pointed at the walkie-talkie with his thumb and the guard spoke into it, listened, waited, glanced at Croyd. "They're getting Schiaparelli," the guard said. After a longer while he listened to a low squawking, spoke, listened again, looked at Croyd again. "Yeah, he's got it," he told Croyd.

"Good," Croyd said. "Have him bring it down."

"No, you go up and get it."

Croyd shook his head.

The man stared at him and licked his lips, as if loathe to relay the message. "This does not make a very good impression, for it is as if you had no trust."

Croyd smiled. "It is also correct. Make the call."

This was done, and after a time a heavyset man with graying hair emerged from the building and stared at Croyd. Croyd stared back.

The man approached. "You are Mr. Crenson?"

"That is correct."

"And you want your money now?"

"That's the picture."

"Of course I have it here," the other told him, reaching into his jacket. "Chris sent it along. It will grieve him that you are so suspicious."

Croyd held out his hand. When the envelope was placed in it, he opened it and counted. Then he nodded. "Let's go," he said, and he followed Schiaparelli and Chris's brother into the building. The man with the walkie-talkie was. shaking his head.

Upstairs, Croyd was introduced to a group of old and middle-aged men and their bodyguards. He declined a drink, just wanting to give them the name and get out. But it occurred to him that giving them the money's worth might entail stretching the story out a bit to show that he'd earned it. So he explained things, step by step, from Demise to Loophole. Then he told them of the attempt to take him out following that interview, before he finally got around to giving them Siu Ma's name.