[Version History]

 

 

 

 

MINDKILLER

 

by Spider Robinson

 

A NOVEL OF

THE NEAR FUTURE

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 1982 by Spider Robinson

 

ISBN 0-03-059018-3

 

 

This book is dedicated

to Psyche

and to Allison.

 

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments 2

 1. 4.................................................................. 1994. 4

 2. 26.................................................................. 1999. 26

 3. 48.................................................................. 1994. 48

 4. 69.................................................................. 1999. 69

 5. 103.................................................................. 1994. 103

 6. 129.................................................................. 1999. 129

 7. 160.................................................................. 1995. 160

 8. 180.................................................................. 1999. 180

 9. 196.................................................................. 1995. 196

10. 206................................................................. 1999. 206

11. 223................................................................. 1995. 223

12. 232................................................................. 1999. 232

13. 250................................................................. 1999. 250

 

 

Acknowledgments

 

In writing this novel I have borrowed from the ideas, insights, and observations of many people. In no particular order, they are:

Dr. Jim Lynch, my oldest friend, who first put me onto brain reward; Larry Niven, whose novella "Death by Ecstasy" is probably the definitive story on the subject; Dr. Jerry Pournelle; Dr. Adam Reed of Rockefeller University; Bob Shaw; Aryeh Routtenberg, whose article in the November 1978 Scientific American was the final spark for the creation of this book; John D. MacDonald; Robert A. Heinlein; and of course Olds and Milner, who started the whole thing by poking electrodes into rat brains at McGill University in the 1950s. None of these gentlemen are to blame for what I have done with their ideas; as I write, only two are even aware that I have borrowed from them.

Research assistance was given me by Bob Atkinson, Bill Jones, John Bell, George Allanson, and Andrew Gilbert; Bob Atkinson typed more than half the manuscript while my arm was in a cast. Invaluable suggestions were made by my editor, Donald Hutter of Holt, Rinehart and Winston, and by my agent, Kirby McCauley. Jeanne, my other leg, read the whole thing in progress, called me back from the blind alleys, and helped me patch the leaks. Heartfelt thanks to them all. Oh, and thanks to the Gunner in Brattleboro for the Atcheson Assault Twelve and to the Sea Breeze Inn in St. Margaret's Bay for the hospitality.

Any resemblance between characters in this book and real people, living or dead, is unintentional. A character's opinions should never necessarily be taken to be those of the author, but I would like at this time to specifically repudiate any derogatory opinions about the city of Halifax expressed by characters hereinafter. It is the nicest city I have ever inhabited. But try persuading a New Yorker of that!

For those interested in influences, this book was written on a steady diet of Charlie Parker, Jon Hendricks, Frank Zappa, John Lennon, Tom Waits, and the Dixie Dregs.

-Halifax, 1981

 

 

 

1

 

1994

Halifax Harbor at night is a beautiful sight, and June usually finds the MacDonald Bridge lined with lovers and other appreciators. But in Halifax even June can turn on one with icy claws.

A thermometer sheltered from the brisk wind would have shown a little below Centigrade zero. Norman Kent had the magnificent scenery all to himself.

He was aware of the view; it was before his face, and his eyes were not closed. He was aware of the cold too, because occasionally when he worked his face frozen tears would break and fall from his cheeks. Neither meant anything to him. He was even vaguely aware of the sound of steady traffic behind him, successive dopplers like the rhythmic moaning of some wounded giant. They meant nothing to him either. On careful reflection Norman could think of nothing that did mean anything to him, and so he put one leg over the outer rail.

A voice came out of the night. "Hey, Cap, don't!"

He froze for a long moment. Running footsteps approached from the Dartmouth end of the bridge. Norman turned and saw the man coming up fast in the wash of passing headlights, and that decided him. He got the other leg over and stood teetering on the narrow ledge, the wind full in his face. His hat blew off, and insanely he spun around after it and incredibly he caught it, and was caught himself at wrist and forearm by two very strong hands. They dragged him bodily back over the rail again, nearly breaking his arm, and deposited him hard on his back on the pedestrian walkway. His breath left him, and he lay there blinking up at bridge structure and midnight sky for perhaps half a minute.

He became aware that his unwanted rescuer was sitting beside him, back against the rail and to the wind, breathing heavily. Norman rolled his head, felt cold stone bite his cheek, saw a large man in a shabby coat, silhouetted against a pool of light. From the frosted breath he knew that the large man was shaking his head.

Norman lifted himself on his elbows and sat beside the other, lifting his collar against the cold. He fumbled out a pack of Players Lights and lit one with a flameless lighter. He held it out to the man, who accepted it silently, and lit another for himself.

"My wife left me," Norman said. "Six years this August, and she left me. Six years.' Said she married too soon, she had to 'find herself.' And the semester's almost over, I've bitched it all up, nothing at all lined up for the summer, and there's a really good chance I won't be hired back in September. Old MacLeod with his hoary hints about austerity and sacrifices and a department chairman's heavy responsibility, he wouldn't even come right out and tell me! Find herself, for Christ's stinking sake! Got herself a nineteen-year-old plumbing student, he's going to help her find herself." He broke off and smoked for a while. When he could speak again he said, "Perhaps I could have handled either one, but the two together is . . . it's only fair to tell you, I'm going to try again, and you can't stop me forever."

The other spoke for the first time. His voice was deep and gravelly and dispassionate. "Don't let me stop you."

Norman turned to stare. "Then why—?" He stopped then, for the knife picked up the oncoming headlights very well.

"I never meant to stop you, Cap," the large man said calmly. "Just, uh—heh, heh—hold you up a little."

He was not even troubling to keep the knife hidden from the traffic. Norman glanced briefly at the oncoming cars; as in a slapstick movie sequence he saw four drivers, one after the other, do the identical single-take and then return their eyes grimly to the road. He yanked his own eyes back to the knife. It was quite large and looked sharp. The large man held it as though he knew how, and all at once it came to Norman that he had cashed a check today, and had two hundred New dollars in twenties in his wallet.

He let go of his cigarette and the wind took it. He put his gloved left hand palm up on his lap. On it he placed his wallet, his cigarettes, a half-empty pack of joints, and the small lighter. As he peeled the watch from the inside of his wrist he noticed that both hands were shaking badly. Oh, yes, he told himself, that's right, it is very cold. He added the watch to the pile, worked the right glove off against his hip, and took his pocket change in that hand.

"On my lap, brother," the large man directed. "Then go. Back to town or over the side, it's all the same to me."

Norman sighed deeply, and flung everything high and to his right. Nearly all of it went over the rail and into the harbor; a few bills were blown into traffic and toward the other rail.

The large man sat motionless. His eyes did not follow the loot but remained fixed on Norman, who stared back.

At last the large man got to his feet. "Cap," he said, shaking his head again, "you got a lot of hard bark on you." The knife disappeared. "Sorry I bothered you." He turned and began walking back toward Dartmouth, hunching against the wind, still smoking Norman's cigarette.

"You gutless bastard," Norman whispered, and wondered who he was talking to.

***

Norman Kent was thirty years old. He was one hundred and sixty-five centimeters tall and weighed fifty-five kilograms—although, having been born in America in 1965, he habitually thought of himself as five-five and a hundred and twenty pounds. Despite his actual stature, people usually remembered him as being of average height: there was a solidity to his body and movements. It implied a strength and physical conditioning he had not actually possessed since leaving the United States Army six years before. His face was passable, with wide-set grey eyes, a perfect aquiline nose, and a chin that would have seemed strong if it had not been topped by a mouth a fraction too wide. Overdeveloped folds at each corner of the mouth made it seem, when at rest, to be a faint, smug smile.

One could have flattered him most by calling him elegant. He had shaved for his suicide. The suit was tasteful enough to befit an assistant professor of English—it was his best suit—and the topcoat was pure quality. At thirty his hairline had not yet receded visibly. He wore his hair moderately long; the wind had whipped it into a fantastic sculpture and kept revising the design. The only nonconformist indulgence he permitted himself was his necktie, which looked like a riot in a paint shop.

After a time he put his glove back on, got stiffly to his feet, and left the bridge at the Halifax end, stamping his feet to restore circulation. He had not known genuine physical fear in six years, and he had forgotten the exhilaration that comes with survival. It was a twenty-minute walk home, and he savored every step. The smell of the harbor, the seedy waterfront squalor of Hollis Street, the brave, forlorn hookers too frozen to display their wares, the fake stained glass in the front windows of Skipper's Lounge, the special and inimitable color of leaves backlit by a street light, the clacking sounds of traffic lights and the laboring power plant of Victoria General Hospital—all were brand new again, treasures to be appreciated for the first time. He walked happily, mindless as a child. When he reached his apartment tower on Wellington Street, he was whistling. On the way up in the elevator, he graduated to humming, and by the time he reached his floor he was singing the words too, whereupon he was amused to discover that the tune he had been humming so merrily was the old Tom Lehrer song, "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park."

Half the lights were out in the hall, as usual, including the one by his door, but he did not care. He felt preternaturally observant, as though all his organs of perception had been recently fine-tuned and the gain stepped up, and along with this came such a feeling of euphoria that when he reached his apartment door and perceived coming out from under it not the sounds of the tuner, which he had left on, but the soft light of the lamp, which he had not, the implications failed to disturb him in the slightest. Got to be junkies, he thought calmly, Lois is off on the Mountain for the weekend. Ho ho. Ought to go right back down-shaft and wake up old Julius, have him phone this in. Yes indeed.

As recently as the night before, he would have done precisely that, while congratulating himself on being too much of an old soldier to walk unheeding into danger.

Still singing, he took his keys from his pocket, making a noisy production of it. He was heartened to notice that the security camera over his door was intact, as were the ones at either end of the hall—his antagonists must be idiots. The cameras did not depend on visible light. Let's see, he thought, the gun is in the bottom left-hand drawer of the desk: one long run and I'm there, claw it open from underneath, kick the legs out from under the bookcase to spoil their aim, and roll behind the corner sofa—it'll stop bullets. Then try to negotiate.

A part of his mind was startled to learn that a mild-mannered assistant professor could undertake anything like this so cheerily—it had been a long time—but he was in no wise afraid. It was not fear that made time slow so drastically for him now, but something more like joy. He shucked off topcoat, jacket, tie, and gloves. He unlocked the door, dropped into a sprinter's crouch so as to convey his head into the room at an unexpected height, and threw the door open—hard, but not so hard that it would rebound into him. He got a good start, clearing the frame just as the door got out of his way, staying low and gaining speed with every step, still singing lustily about poisoning pigeons in the park.

The room was poorly lit by the lamp, but he saw the desk at once, unrifled, drawers all closed, gun presumably undiscovered. Glance left: no hostiles visible. Glance right: one in deep shadow, very long hair, half hidden by the couch, possibly more in the hall or other rooms. He wanted to study the one he could see for at least another tenth of a second, because both hands were beginning to come up and he wanted to know what was in them, but his subconscious insisted on yanking his gaze back in front of him again. It was very nearly in time, but by the time he saw the Village Voice lying where he had left it on the floor, he was committed to stepping on it. His feet went out from under him and he went airborne. He lowered his head automatically, and even managed to get both hands up in front of him, with the net result that the top of his skull impacted with great force against both fists. He dropped heavily on his face on the carpet.

Remarkably, he was unstunned. He sprang to his knees at once and yanked the drawer open, expecting at any second to experience some kind of impact. The gun seemed to spring into his hand; he whirled on one knee and located the long-haired one, frozen in an attitude of shock. "Hold it right there," Norman rapped.

The other burst into sudden, uproarious, unmistakably feminine laughter.

Now he was stunned. He lowered the gun involuntarily, then simply let go. It landed unheeded and safely, the safety still locked. He fell off his heels and sat down hard on the carpet.

"Jesus Christ in rhinestones," he said hoarsely. "Maddy. What are you doing here?"

She could not stop laughing. "Don't . . . don't kill me, brother," she managed, and doubled over.

He found that he was giggling himself, and it felt very good, so he let it build into deep laughter until he too was doubled over. The aching of his hands and the throbbing of his head were hilarious. The shared laughter went on for a long time, and when it might have stopped she said, "Poisoning pigeons," and they were off again. It was one of the great laughs.

At last she came around from behind the couch and sat in front of him, taking both his hands. "Hello, old younger brother," she said in a Swiss French accent. "It is very good to see you again."

"It is incredibly good to see you," he responded enthusiastically, and hugged her close.

Madeleine Kent was four years older than her brother, and a good eight centimeters taller. The resemblance was fairly pronounced: she had his audiotape-colored hair, his perfect nose and perfect teeth, and on her the overwide mouth looked good. But a different character had built on those features; a polite stranger would have called her not elegant but bold. Or possibly daring . . . but not quite reckless, there was too much wry wisdom in the eyes for that. The facial difference between the siblings was subtle but unmistakable. Norman looked like a man who had been around; Madeleine looked like a woman who had been around and still was. Her voice was deeper than he remembered, a throaty contralto that was quite sexy. Her clothes were impeccable and expensive. Her arms were strong.

The hug stretched out, and then they both became self-conscious and disengaged. Madeleine smiled uneasily, then got to her feet and stepped back a few paces. She turned away and put both hands on a bookcase.

"I'm a little bit embarrassed at how good it is to see you," she said.

"You speak English like a Swiss," he said, getting up.

She started. "Do I? Why, I do." She made an effort and dropped the accent. "Habit, I guess. An American is not a good thing to be in Switzerland these days."

"Why is it that I'm embarrassed too? At how good it is to see you."

She pulled a volume at random from the bookcase and appeared to examine it closely. "Why I am embarrassed is that you and I have never been the very best of friends."

"Maddy—”

"Let me say it, no? It's been ten years. I don't write many letters. I'll be honest, in that ten years I might have thought of you ten times. Well, give or take five."

He had to smile. "Much the same with me."

She turned to face him, and smiled when she saw his smile. But hers was tight, unconvincing. "Now here I am on your doorstep. Past your doorstep, there are four suitcases in your bedroom. I needed a place to be, and it came to me that you are the only close family I have left in all the world, and Norman, I need close family very badly right now. Can I stay here for a while?"

Norman was still smiling, but his eyes glistened in the lamplight. "Maddy, if you haven't written much in ten years, you haven't left any letters unanswered either. I have this crazy impulse to apologize because I didn't pop up and see you when I was in Africa. I will confess here and now that if you had called ahead first, I would have tried to put you off. But the moment I recognized you, it came to me that you are all the family I have left in the world. As you speak, I realize that I need close family very badly now too. Please stay."

Relief showed in her face, and they hugged again, without reservation this time.

"Have you eaten?" he asked, fetching his outer clothes from the hallway.

"No. I showed the security guard downstairs—Julius, is it?—my identification and got him to let me in, but I didn't feel right prowling around in your home while you—"

"Our home. Let's eat."

"Well—coffee? Black and sweet?"

"And toasted English, lots of jam, Irish in the coffee."

"Merveilleux. Go ahead, I'll join you in a minute."

She was true to her word; he had only just finished producing two cups of fresh coffee and toast, a sixty-second job, when she came into the kitchen, carrying a package of unmistakable shape: a disc.

"A present for you," she said. "It was quite a job getting it past customs."

Norman finished pouring hastily and unwrapped his present, wondering what program she had brought him. But it was not a floppy disc, but an old-fashioned vinyl audio-only record.

It was a copy of Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross's first Columbia recording, "The Hottest New Group in Jazz." Not the 1974 reissue, the original. It was older than he was, one of the first stereo jazz albums. The cardboard jacket was also original, in impeccable condition.

"Holy God," he breathed.

The inner sleeve was new, a paper-and-plastic disc preserver. He took it from the jacket and slid the record out with a practiced hand, touching it only at the rim and label. The disc was immaculate. It did not appear ever to have been played, it had that special sheen. He could not guess at its worth in dollars. Not many people bothered with the obsolete disc format for their music these days; simply as an artifact, the thing was priceless.

She saw his awe. "I chose wisely, then?"

"Dear God, Maddy, it's—" Words failed him. "Thank you. Thank you. God, if they'd caught you at customs, they'd have had your bloody head."

"I remembered that you liked their music, and I didn't think you had this one in your collection. I was certain you didn't have it in disc form."

"I've heard it through twice in my life. It's never been accessed. There might be half a dozen copies in North America, and none of them would be virgin. Maddy, where did you get it? How did you get it?"

"A present from—from a friend. Forget it. Where do I sleep tonight, the couch?" She picked up her coffee and looked for sugar.

He fetched it, and found that he was terrified of dropping his new treasure but could not bear to set it down anywhere in the kitchen. "Nonsense. I've got a bed set up in the den, I'll doss there and you take the queen-size." He went to the living room, stored the record safely by the antique turntable, looked at it and sighed, and returned to the kitchen. She had already demolished her English muffin and finished half her coffee. He thought: She was really hungry and she waited for me to get back home. Maybe this is going to work out okay.

"Listen," he said, "I don't know how to thank you."

She smiled. "I'm glad you're pleased."

Her smile seemed to fade a bit too quickly. "Hey, I'm sorry. You spoke of bed."

"Oh, I didn't mean right now, necessarily . . . unless you—"

"Wait a minute now, let me get the chronology straight. It's—" He tried to look at his watch, but it was not there.

"Ten o'clock," she supplied.

"Then it must be the middle of the morning by your internal clock. You must be dead on your feet . . . or have I got it backwards?"

"Here, it's simple. I left my apartment in Zurich at 4:30 p.m., flew straight to London, and caught an Air Canada flight to here. Total transit time, ten hours, eight of that in the air. I got here half an hour ago, at 9:30 Atlantic Standard Time. By my 'clock' it's 3:00 a.m."

"Then let's get you to bed—"

"Hold it. First of all, my customary bedtime is about 2:00 A.M."

"But jet lag—”

"—is not so bad traveling west as it is traveling east. I chased the sun all day, so for me it has only been a few hours since sunset. I'm not sleepy yet." She finished her coffee. "But that's not it. You don't look at all sleepy . . ."

He considered it. "No. Not at all."

". . . and somehow I get the impression that you have a good deal on your mind that you want very much to talk about."

He considered that. "Yes, I do. How did you know?"

She hesitated. "Well, partly from the fact that Lois isn't here and there's no trace of her in the apartment and you haven't said a word about her."

He winced. "Ah, yes," he said, in halfhearted imitation of W. C. Fields, but dropped it at once. "And there would, I suppose, be a general overall spoor of the bachelor male in his anguish about the place, wouldn't there? Laundry all about, bed unmade, ashtrays full—"

"—bottles empty," she agreed. "If you've been having any fun lately, it hasn't been here."

"It hasn't been anywhere. Till you showed up."

"Norman, if . . . look, if you need any money, just to tide you over, I can—"

"Money? What gave you the idea I needed money? That's the only problem I don't have."

"Well, you've no hat—your hair looks like something out of Dali. And I know you pawned your watch—I can see the little stickum patch where it used to be on your wrist."

He looked blank for a second, and then suddenly burst into laughter. "I will be go to hell!"

She looked politely puzzled.

"That's just too perfect." He gave himself to his laughter for a moment. "No, it's all right, I'll tell you. Look, let's go into the living room; this is going to take a while."

They took freshened cups of coffee relaced with Bushmill's. It was excellent coffee, and he was faintly miffed that she had not commented on it. Perhaps in the circles she'd been traveling in, first-rate coffee was taken for granted.

"Now, what's so funny?" she said when they were seated.

"The watch and the hat. The watch is at this moment lying on the bottom of Halifax Harbor, and the hat is almost certainly floating somewhere in the selfsame harbor. That's the funny part. If it wasn't for that hat, I'd undoubtedly be down there with the watch—do you know I simply never gave it a thought until you mentioned it?" He chuckled again.

"What do you mean?" she said, and being self-involved he missed the urgency in her tone.

"Well, it's kind of embarrassing. What I was doing—about the time you were talking Julius into letting you in here, I think—I was committing suicide."

He glanced down at his coffee, and so he failed to notice that at that last word she actually relaxed slightly.

"Seems silly now, but it made sense at the time. I wasn't toying with the idea, I was fucking well doing it—until I was stopped by a Bad Samaritan."

He narrated the story of his interrupted suicide, cheerily and in some detail.

"You see?" he finished. "If I hadn't tried to save that idiot hat, he'd never have gotten me, I'd have been over the side and gone. The damned thing was important enough to give up dying for, and from that instant until the time you mentioned it, I never gave it another thought. It must have blown off the bridge while I was being mugged!"

He began to laugh again, and to his utter astonishment the fourth "ha" came out "oh!" as did the fifth and sixth, each harsher and louder than the last, by which time he was jackknifed so drastically that he fell forward between his own knees. She had begun to move on the second "oh!"; her knees hit the carpet at the same instant as his, and she caught him before he could land on his face. With unsuspected strength she heaved him up into a kneeling position and wrapped her arms around him. It broke the stuttering rhythm of his diaphragm, and like an engine catching he settled into great cyclic sobs that filled and emptied his chest.

They rocked together on their knees, clutching like a pair of drowners, and his sorrow was a long time draining. Well before awareness returned to him, his hips began to move against her in the unconscious instinct of one who has been too near death, but she did something neither verbal nor physical, that was neither acceptance nor rejection, and something in him understood and he stopped. It did not come to his conscious attention because he had none then; his memory banks were in playback mode. Firmly but not suddenly, she moved so that she was sitting on the rug and he was lying across her lap, and he flowed like quicksilver into the new embrace without knowing it. Something about the position changed his weeping, or perhaps it was sheer lack of air; the sobs came shorter and closer together, the pitch rose and fell wildly. He had been weeping as a man does; now he wept as a child. It might have been neither the position nor anoxia, just childhood imprinting of the smell of Big Sister, who has time for your smashed toe when Mother is at work and Dad is drinking. More than one species of pain left him in that weeping, more than one wound or one kind of wound closed over and began to scab. After a time his sobs trailed off into deep slow breathing, and she stroked his hair.

His first conscious thought was that something was hurting his cheek. It was one of the silver cashew-shaped buttons of her blouse, and when he moved he knew it had left an imprint that would last an hour or more. With that, reality came back in a rush, and he rolled away and sat up. Her arms, which had been so strong a moment ago, fell away at once when he moved, and she met a searching gaze squarely. He looked for scorn or amusement or pity, and found none of them. As an afterthought he looked within himself for scorn or shame or self-pity, and again came up empty.

"Lord have mercy," he said shakily. "I thought I got it all out in that laugh before." He grinned experimentally. "Thanks, sis."

She had found Kleenex. "Sure. Here."

Why do people always roll up their eyes when they wipe away tears? he wondered, and thought at once of the last time he had wondered that. "God, I missed you at the funeral, Mad."

She smiled briefly.

"I'm sorry, stupid thing to say, of course you couldn't come. I just meant—"

"It's all right, Norman. Really." She patted his hand. "I said goodbye to both of them in my heart before I left for Europe, and they to me."

"Yes." They both smiled now.

"Can you tell me about it now?" she asked.

"Why I was trying to do myself in tonight? I think so."

He sat on the couch again and lit a cigarette. Seeing this, she produced a pack of Gauloise from her vest and raised an inquiring eyebrow. This surprised and pleased him. To a smoker of North American cigarettes, Gauloise smell like a burning outhouse—a fact of which most Gauloise smokers are sublimely unaware. She had not smoked since she arrived, had not even asked until she was sure that he smoked himself.

He nodded permission at once, and she lit up gratefully. "Now we're even," he said, making them both grin.

"All right," he went on. "Lois. I suppose I should start from the beginning. I'm just not certain where that is."

"Then do it backwards. Where does she live now?"

Norman pointed toward the living room window. "About a thousand meters that way and eight floors down. A second-and-third-story duplex apartment across the street. They're away for the moment, at Lois's place in the Valley. She's living with a third-year plumbing student named, God help us all, Rock, and she's still working at the V.G. Hospital up the street from here. She's got a floor now, Neurosurgery."

"How long has she been gone?"

He smiled. "That's another of those difficult questions."

"When did she move out?" she amended patiently.

"Well, over a period of several months, but she took her TV six months ago, I've always sort of considered that conclusive. After that she came by about twice a week for a while, to pick up something or other or share some new insight, and since then she seems to find some reason to drop by on the average of every other week. Her appearances are always unannounced and usually inconvenient for me, and I always let her in. I would estimate that we fuck two visits out of three. She is always gone in the morning. It's a lot like having a leg rebroken every time it's begun to knit." His voice was calm, unemotional.

"What is this Rock like?"

"Aside from biographical trivia, location of aunts and so forth, all Lois has ever seen fit to tell me is that he is nineteen, that he lets her be herself, and that he is a better lover than me. From my own experience I can report only that he is very large and very fast and all over hair and has knuckles like pig iron."

"You fought with him?"

"Oh, yes. As you saw from my entrance tonight, I haven't lost that fine edge of physical conditioning I had in the army. The trained killing machine. I lost a tooth I was fond of, and a suit I wasn't. So I sucker-punched him. Lois gave me hell, and carried him offstage cooing sympathetically."

"Why did she leave you?"

He made no answer, did not move a muscle.

"Why did she say she was leaving?"

The answer was slow in coming. "As nearly as I can understand it, her gist was that in living with her for six years I have acquired some sense of who she is and what she's like. This, to her way of thinking, limits her. Makes it impossible for her to become something new."

"You disagree."

"Not at all. I see and concede the point. People tend to behave the way you expect them to, in direct ratio to your certainty and their own insecurity. It is why marriages often require extended solo vacations. I would happily have given her one if she'd asked for it. Instead she—"

"Perhaps she didn't want to ask."

"—had to go and—what?"

"Nothing."

"—to go and throw everything away, smash the whole business. I came home one night at the usual time and found her in bed with another man. Absolutely the first I knew of any serious discontent, and my God, the blowup we had. You know, she had never once yelled at me before, never once lost her temper and told me to—I—she walked out and didn't come back for a week. I—this is only my perspective, my biased—I don't believe that I ever got a single opening, from that day on. She never gave me a chance. You should smoke the new ashless kind."

She carefully conveyed her hand to the ashtray beside her chair, nicked ash into it.

"I know," he went on, "to be surprised by the whole thing implies that I had blinders on for years. How well could I have known her, to be so stunned? Well, I've run that mental loop about six million times, and I can't buy it. Oh, to some extent, of course—you can't be fooled that well for that long without wanting to be fooled. But God, Maddy, I swear there were no clues to be seen, no hints to be picked up. She never paid me the compliment of telling me what she disliked about me and our life, never trusted me to help anything. I could have tried." He stubbed out his cigarette angrily, "I would have."

She sat perfectly still. He lit another cigarette, drew on it harshly, and during this she was motionless and silent. Norman felt that his relationship with his sister had come to another crux. For all of his life Madeleine had been four years older, smarter, stronger, more knowledgeable, and by the time he was twenty and the age difference would have begun to mean less, she was gone to Europe. At the time of her departure they had been on friendly terms, but not friends. He had not seen her since, had seldom heard from or of her, had never had an occasion or an opportunity to put aside a lifetime of subconscious resentment. And from the moment of her reentry into his life he had behaved like an idiot, blundering into his own fists, waving a safetied gun like a spastic desperado, weeping in her lap. Norman perceived his resentment now, to which he had not given a conscious thought in years, tasted it afresh and in full. Against it he balanced the fact that she was an extremely well-mannered house guest who had brought him an extremely valuable guest's gift.

No. It was more than that. It was valuable to him. She had remembered his tastes in music, picked one that would have endured for the decade she had been gone.

He hadn't the remotest idea what her tastes in music were.

"That came out rather glibly, didn't it?" His decision process had lasted the span of a deep drag on his new cigarette.

"She's been gone for six months," she said at once. "The story gets polished with repetition."

He smiled. "Almost enough to be really convincing. Thanks, Maddy, but I'm a liar. The signs were there. Some of them were there the day I met her. I chose not to see them."

"And she chose to let you."

He nodded. "That's true." He got a thoughtful look, and she left him with it, finishing her coffee. Presently he said, "And ever since she left I've been behaving like a perfect jackass. It hasn't seemed like it. I haven't felt as though I've even had any choices—more as if I were on tracks. But what I've been doing is systematically harvesting every opportunity for pain that the situation affords. Because . . . because she enjoys it, and I—I seem to feel I owe it to her. I've known this all along. Why didn't I know I knew it?"

"You weren't ready yet."

"It has been harder saying this—to you—than it was weeping on your collar. Why is that, I wonder?"

She thought about it. "It is hard for a person, especially a man perhaps, to admit to being in pain. But I think for you it has always been even harder to admit stupidity. I think you got that from me."

At the last sentence he sat up straighter. He remembered for the first time that upon her arrival she had tacitly admitted to being in pain herself. "I could certainly have used you, these ten years past," he said suddenly. "You're a good sister, Madeleine. And after thirty years I think it is past time I became your friend. You've helped me to see clearer. Perhaps it's time I looked past my own nose. What brings you to Halifax?"

It was not quite a bodily flinch. Her face acquired the expression of one suppressing a sneeze. "Norman . . ." She paused. "Look, the bare outline is easy. I loved—I love—a man. I've given him half a year of my life. And then I found out . . . things that make me suspect he is not . . . not who I thought him to be, not what I thought him to be. I found out that I had been closing my eyes too, like you. I think I have. It's hard to be certain. But if I'm right, I've been giving my love to—to a—to someone unworthy." She hesitated. "But that's just the bare outline. And I'm afraid it's all I can tell you now, Norman." She held up a hand. "Wait. I'm not trying to cheat you, honestly I'm not. I'm not too proud to swap stupidity stories with you—and if what I fear is true, I've made you look like a genius. But I mustn't speak about it yet. Will you trust me, brother? For perhaps as long as a week or two?"

But maybe I can help! was what he started to say, but something in her face stopped him. "Are you sure that's what you want?"

"I'm sure."

"You know," he said cheerfully and at once, "ever since you got here I've been trying to put my finger on exactly what the hell the 'continental look' is. Because you've got it—I'd never have taken you for an American. It's more than just the accent. Something about the way you carry yourself."

It was her first smile of its kind, unplanned and soft at the edges; it destroyed temporarily the "look" to which he had just alluded. For the first time she reminded him powerfully of the Maddy he had known as a child. "A friend of mine said something very like that once," she murmured wistfully. "His theory was that Americans make a fetish of appearing strong, and Europeans just naturally are." Norman saw her pursue that line of thought and find something that made her hastily retrace her steps. "I'm not sure about Canadians."

"Oh, Canadians are insecure and don't care who knows about it," Norman said with a grin. "Look at Halifax, capital of this great province. No Sunday news programming, no Saturday postal service, and within fifteen minutes' drive you can find whole communities with outdoor plumbing, sound-only phones, and one communal terminal in the general store. There's no opera, next to no dance, a shocking amount of fake country music, and from one end of the city to the other there might be two hundred people who have ever heard of Miles Davis. You can draw a blank with Ray Charles.

"And do you know what? I love this town. I've been walking the streets unarmed for over five years, and tonight was only the second time I've been hit on—it almost made me homesick for New York, but not quite. Ordinary glass is good enough for windows here, and you can drink tap water with the right filter. Police service is still voluntary; you can enter a mall without having to go through a god damned metal detector. You never have to wait for computer time. Even though a goodly amount of North America's heroin enters at this port, none of it stays—you could fit all the junkies in town into three or four squad cars. For a city it's pretty pleasant, in other words."

"Compared to Zurich, it sounds like paradise. I can live without opera."

"Well, at least we've got good music here—thanks to you. What say we heat up the old turntable, if the drive band hasn't rotted by now? I keep having this feeling that I should get that record on tape before lightning strikes it."

"That sounds wonderful. They are the ones who wrote 'Shiny Stockings,' aren't they?"

"Jon Hendricks did, yes," he said, getting up and retrieving both their empties. "With a guy named . . ." He stopped. He stood as if listening for a moment, then cleared his throat and met her eyes. "Madeleine, I know I said this already, but it's awfully good to have you here."

"It's good to have here to be."

***

It was 4:00 a.m. for him, and 9:00 A.M. for her, when they finally broke it up and went to bed; fortunately it was Saturday. That set the pattern for the next week: every hour not occupied by mundane necessities they spent talking together. Some of the talk was catching up on the ten years they had spent apart, essentially a swapping of accumulated anecdotes. Another, perhaps larger part of the talk involved reliving their respective childhoods, each giving their own perspective on the formative years of the other, and comparing their memories of shared experiences. By the end of the week, Norman felt that he knew himself better than he ever had, and knew that Madeleine felt something similar. A kind of tension went out of both of them as they talked, to be replaced by something like peace.

This mutual spiritual progression was not accomplished smoothly in tandem, but more the way a tractor operator works his way out of deep mud, feeding power to alternate wheels in fits and starts. It was their firm connection that made any progress possible.

By the second week, conversation had achieved about all it could on its own. He began introducing her, carefully and thoughtfully, to certain of his friends, and was satisfied with the results. The end-of-term madness was beginning to snowball at the University, and he was startled to discover how little it troubled him. Dr. MacLeod, the department chairman, actually paid him a grudging compliment. Norman met an attractive and interesting woman, a single parent who had come to his office to discuss her son's prospects of passing his course, and saw small signs that his interest was returned. One night he dug out the half-forgotten, half-finished manuscript of The Book and read it through; he threw out half the chapters and made extensive notes for their replacement.

Madeleine fit right into the rhythms of his home life, enhancing it in many small ways and disrupting nothing he cared about. She had a fanatic neatness learned in a country where living space was at a premium, and an easy tolerance of his own looser standards. She was seriously impressed by parts of his music library, which flattered him, and one day she came home with an armful of tapes that startled him just as pleasurably. They swapped favorite books and videotapes, favorite recipes and jokes. She displayed no inclination to look for work, but she used her free time to do household maintenance chores he had been forced to neglect. And she did not appear to lack for money—indeed, he had to be quite firm before she would let him reimburse her for half of the groceries and staples she bought. She respected his privacy and welcomed his company, cleaned up her own messes and left his the hell alone.

The only thing that bothered him was concern for the private pain of which she still would not tell him, and which she could not altogether hide. She did not tantalize him with it; he acquired only by accident some idea of the depth and extent of her hurt, when he woke quite late one rainy night and heard her weeping in the next room. He nearly went to her then, but something told him that it was the wrong thing to do. He waited, listening. He heard her moan, in a voice softer than her sobs but still plainly audible: "Jacques, who are you? What are you?" Then her weeping became wordless again, and after a time it was over and they both slept. In the morning she was so relaxed and jolly that he wondered if he had been dreaming.

He noted certain subtle signs that she was becoming attracted to his good friend Charlie, who lived eight blocks away with three male roommates. Norman gave the chemistry careful thought, and decided that he approved. On the twenty-first day of her residence he saw to it that they were both invited to a party at Charlie's, and that night when it was time to go he announced that a whole day of processing final exams had tired him out, why didn't she go along without him? He was going to turn in at once and sleep the night away, would doubtless be sound asleep whenever she might return, early or late. He smiled to himself at how she tried to keep the pleasantness of her surprise from showing, bundled her out the door, and retired at once to his bed in the den, where he lay with the lights out. In point of fact he was wide awake, but he resolved to lie there in the dark till sleep did come. Charlie, he knew, was not a slow worker, and Madeleine seemed to have a European directness of her own.

Nonetheless, they had not showed up by the time he finally fell genuinely asleep at midnight.

In the morning he tiptoed about, trying to make breakfast as quietly as possible so as not to wake them . . . until he noticed that the bedroom door was open. He found that she had not come home the night before, and went off to work wondering what the hell Charlie had done with his three roommates and the party.

She was not home when he returned, which did not surprise him inordinately, but she had left no message in the phone, which did. He swallowed his prurient curiosity and a solitary dinner and put his attention on the work he had brought home for the weekend. To his credit, it was eleven-thirty before he broke down and phoned Charlie's place.

Charlie answered the phone. The screen showed him in bed with a pleasant-looking Oriental woman whom Norman vaguely recognized. Charlie was quite certain of his facts. Madeleine had arrived at the party, had not been overly depressed at finding Charlie already paired off with Mei-Ling, had stayed and drunk and smoked and laughed and danced with several men without settling on any of them. She had sung them all a devastating impromptu parody of the new Mindfuckers single. She had left the party, unquestionably alone, cheerful and not overly stoned, at about one in the morning.

In his guts, Norman knew before he had hung up the phone. But it was a full three days before he could get it through his head as well that Madeleine was never going to come back.

 

 

2

 

1999

I smelled her before I saw her. Even so, the first sight was shocking.

She was sitting in a tan plastic-surfaced armchair, the kind where the front comes up as the back goes down. It was back as far as it would go. It was placed beside the large living room window, which was transparent. A plastic block table next to it held a digital clock, a dozen unopened packages of self-lighting Peter Jackson cigarettes, an empty ashtray, a full vial of cocaine, and a lamp with a bulb of at least a hundred and fifty watts. It illuminated her with brutal clarity.

She was naked. Her skin was the color of vanilla pudding. Her hair was in rats, her nails unpainted and untended, some overlong and some broken. There was dust on her. She sat in a ghastly sludge of feces and urine. Dried vomit was caked on her chin and between her breasts, and down her ribs to the chair.

These were only part of what I had smelled. The predominant odor was of fresh-baked bread. It is the smell of a person who is starving to death. The combined effluvia had prepared me to find a senior citizen, paralyzed by a stroke or some such crisis.

I judged her to be about twenty-five years old.

I moved to where she could see me, and she did not see me. That was probably just as well, because I had just seen the two most horrible things. The first was the smile. They say that when the bomb went off at Hiroshima, some people's shadows were baked onto walls by it. I think that smile got baked on the surface of my brain in much the same way. I don't want to talk about that smile.

The second horrible thing was the one that explained all the rest. From where I now stood, I could see a triple socket in the wall beneath the window. Into it were plugged the lamp, the clock, and her.

I knew about wireheading, of course—I had lost a couple of acquaintances and one friend to the juice. But I had never seen a wirehead. It is by definition a solitary vice, and all the public usually gets to see is a sheeted figure being carried out to the wagon.

The transformer lay on the floor beside the chair, where it had been dropped. The switch was on, and the timer had been jiggered so that instead of providing one five- or ten- or fifteen-second jolt per hour, it allowed continuous flow. That timer is required by law on all juice rigs sold, and you need special tools to defeat it. Say, a nail file. The input cord was long, and fell in crazy coils from the wall socket. The output cord disappeared beneath the chair, but I knew where it ended. It ended in the tangled snarl of her hair, at the crown of her head, in a miniplug. The plug was snapped into a jack surgically implanted in her skull, and from the jack tiny wires snaked their way through the wet jelly to the hypothalamus, to the specific place in the medial forebrain bundle where the major pleasure center of her brain was located. She had sat there in total transcendent ecstasy for at least five days.

I moved finally. I moved closer, which surprised me. She saw me now, and impossibly the smile became a bit wider. I was marvelous. I was captivating. I was her perfect lover. I could not look at the smile; a small plastic tube ran from one corner of the smile and my eyes followed it gratefully. It was held in place by small bits of surgical tape at her jaw, neck, and shoulder, and from there it ran in a lazy curve to the big fifty-liter water-cooler bottle on the floor. She had plainly meant her suicide to last: she had arranged to die of hunger rather than thirst, which would have been quicker. She could take a drink when she happened to think of it; and if she forgot, well, what the hell.

My intention must have shown on my face, and I think she even understood it—the smile began to fade. That decided me. I moved before she could force her neglected body to react, whipped the plug out of the wall, and stepped back warily.

Her body did not go rigid as if galvanized. It had already been so for many days. What it did was the exact opposite, and the effect was just as striking. She seemed to shrink. Her eyes slammed shut. She slumped. Well, I thought, it'll be a long day and a night before she can move a voluntary muscle again, and then she hit me before I knew she had left the chair, breaking my nose with the heel of one fist and bouncing the other off the side of my head. We cannoned off each other and I managed to keep my feet; she whirled and grabbed the lamp. Its cord was stapled to the floor and would not yield, so she set her feet and yanked and it snapped off clean at the base. In near-total darkness she raised the lamp on high and came at me and I lunged inside the arc of her swing and punched her in the solar plexus. She said guff! and went down.

I staggered to a couch and sat down and felt my nose and fainted. I don't think I was out very long. The blood tasted fresh. I woke with a sense of terrible urgency. It took me a while to work out why. When someone has been simultaneously starved and unceasingly stimulated for days on end, it is not the best idea in the world to depress their respiratory center. I lurched to my feet.

It was not completely dark, there was a moon somewhere out there. She lay on her back, arms at her sides, perfectly relaxed. Her ribs rose and fell in great slow swells. A pulse showed strongly at her throat. As I knelt beside her she began to snore, deeply and rhythmically.

I had time for second thoughts now. It seemed incredible that my impulsive action had not killed her. Perhaps that had been my subconscious intent. Five days of wireheading alone should have killed her, never mind sudden cold turkey.

I probed in the tangle of hair, found the empty jack. The hair around it was dry. If she hadn't torn the skin in yanking herself loose, it was unlikely that she had sustained any more serious damage within. I continued probing, found no soft places on the skull. Her forehead felt cool and sticky to my hand. The fecal smell was overpowering the baking bread now.

There was no pain in my nose yet, but it felt immense and pulsing. I did not want to touch it, or to think about it. My shirt was soaked with blood; I wiped my face with it and tossed it into a corner. It took everything I had to lift her. She was unreasonably heavy, and I say that having carried drunks and corpses. There was a hall off the living room, and all halls lead to a bathroom. I headed that way in a clumsy staggering trot, and just as I reached the deeper darkness, with my pulse at its maximum, my nose woke up and began screaming. I nearly dropped her then and clapped my hands to my face; the temptation was overwhelming. Instead I whimpered like a dog and kept going. Childhood feeling: runny nose you can't wipe. At each door I came to, I teetered on one leg and kicked it open, and the third one gave the right small-room, acoustic-tile echo. The light switch was where they almost always are; I rubbed it on with my shoulder and the room flooded with light.

Large aquamarine tub, Styrofoam recliner pillow at the head end, nonslip bottom. Aquamarine sink with ornate handles, cluttered with toiletries and cigarette butts and broken shards of mirror from the medicine cabinet above. Aquamarine commode, lid up and seat down. Brown throw rug, expensive. Scale shoved back into a corner, covered with dust in which two footprints showed. I made a massive effort and managed to set her reasonably gently in the tub. I rinsed my face and hands of blood at the sink, ignoring the broken glass, and stuffed the bleeding nostril with toilet paper. I adjusted her head, fixed the chin strap. I held both feet away from the faucet until I had the water adjusted, and then left with one hand on my nose and the other beating against my hip, in search of her liquor.

There was plenty to choose from. I found some Metaxa in the kitchen. I took great care not to bring it near my nose, sneaking it up on my mouth from below. It tasted like burning lighter fluid, and made sweat spring out on my forehead. I found a roll of paper towels, and on my way back to the bathroom I used a great wad of them to swab most of the sludge off the chair and rug. There was a growing pool of water siphoning from the plastic tube, and I stopped that. When I got back to the bathroom the water was lapping over her bloated belly, and horrible tendrils were weaving up from beneath her. It took three rinses before I was satisfied with the body. I found a hose-and-spray under the sink that mated with the tub's faucet, and that made the hair easy.

I had to dry her there in the tub. There was only one towel left, none too clean. I found a first-aid spray that incorporated a good topical anesthetic, and put it on the sores on her back and butt. I had located her bedroom on the way to the Metaxa. Wet hair slapped my arm as I carried her there. She seemed even heavier, as though she had become waterlogged. I eased the door shut behind me and tried the light-switch trick again, and it wasn't there. I moved forward into a footlocker and lost her and went down amid multiple crashes, putting all my attention into guarding my nose. She made no sound at all, not even a grunt.

The light switch turned out to be a pull-chain over the bed. She was on her side, still breathing slow and deep. I wanted to punt her up onto the bed. My nose was a blossom of pain. I nearly couldn't lift her the third time. I was moaning with frustration by the time I had her on her left side on the king-size mattress. It was a big brass four-poster bed, with satin sheets and pillow cases, all dirty. The blankets were shoved to the bottom. I checked her skull and pulse again, peeled up each eyelid, and found uniform pupils. Her forehead and cheek still felt cool, so I covered her. Then I kicked the footlocker clear into the corner, turned out the light, and left her snoring like a chain saw.

***

Her vital papers and documents were in her study, locked in a strongbox on the closet shelf. It was an expensive box, quite sturdy and proof against anything short of nuclear explosion. It had a combination lock with all of twenty-seven possible combinations. It was stuffed with papers. I laid her life out on her desk like a losing hand of solitaire, and studied it with a growing frustration.

Her name was Karen Scholz, but she used the name Karyn Shaw, which I thought phony. She was twenty-two. Divorced her parents at fourteen, uncontested no-fault. Since then she had been, at various times, waitress, secretary to a lamp salesman, painter, free-lance typist, motorcycle mechanic, and unlicensed masseuse. The most recent paycheck stub was from The Hard Corps, a massage parlor with a cut-rate reputation. It was dated almost a year ago. Her bank balance combined with paraphernalia I had found in the closet to tell me that she was currently self-employed as a tootlegger, a cocaine dealer. The richness of the apartment and furnishings told me that she was a foolish one. Even if the narcs missed her, very shortly the IRS was going to come down on her like a ton of bricks. Perhaps subconsciously she had not expected to be around.

Nothing there; I kept digging. She had attended community college for one semester as an art major, and dropped out failing. She had defaulted on a lease three years ago. She had wrecked a car once, and been shafted by her insurance company. Trivia. Only one major trauma in recent years: a year and a half ago she had contracted out as host-mother to a couple named Lombard/Smyth. It was a pretty good fee—she had good hips and the right rare blood type—but six months into the pregnancy they had caught her using tobacco and canceled the contract. She fought, but they had photographs. And better lawyers, naturally. She had to repay the advance, and pay for the abortion, of course, and she got socked for court costs besides.

It didn't make sense. To show clean lungs at the physical, she had to have been off cigarettes for at least three to six months. Why backslide, with so much at stake? Like the minor traumas, it felt more like an effect than a cause. Self-destructive behavior. I kept looking.

Near the bottom I found something that looked promising. Both her parents had been killed in a car smash when she was eighteen. Their obituary was paperclipped to her father's will. That will was one of the most extraordinary documents I have ever read. I could understand an angry father cutting off his only child without a dime. But what he had done was worse. He had left all his money to the church, and to her "a hundred dollars, the going rate."

Damn it, that didn't work either. So-there suicides don't wait four years. And they don't use such a garish method either; it devalues the tragedy. I decided it had to be either a very big and dangerous coke deal gone bad, or a very reptilian lover. No, not a coke deal. They would never have left her in her own apartment to die the way she wanted to. It could not be murder: even the most unscrupulous wire surgeon needs an awake, consenting subject to place the wire correctly.

A lover, then. I was relieved, pleased with my sagacity, and irritated as hell. I didn't know why. I chalked it up to my nose. It felt as though a large shark with rubber teeth was rhythmically biting it as hard as he could. I shoveled the papers back into the box, locked and replaced it, and went to the bathroom.

Her medicine cabinet would have impressed a pharmacist. She had lots of allergies. It took me five minutes to find aspirin. I took four. I picked the largest shard of mirror out of the sink, propped it on the toilet tank, and sat down backward on the seat. My nose was visibly displaced to the right, and the swelling was just hitting its stride. I removed the toilet-tissue plug from my nostril, and it resumed bleeding. There was a box of Kleenex on the floor. I ripped it apart, took out all the tissues, and stuffed them into my mouth. Then I grabbed my nose with my right hand and tugged out to the left, simultaneously flushing the toilet with my left hand. The flushing coincided with the scream, and my front teeth met through the Kleenex. When I could see again, the nose looked straight and my breathing was unimpaired. When the bleeding stopped again I gingerly washed my face and hands and left. A moment later I returned; something had caught my eye. It was the glass and toothbrush holder. There was only one toothbrush in it. I looked through the medicine chest again, and noticed this time that there was no shaving cream, no razor, no masculine toiletries of any kind. All the prescriptions were in her name.

I went thoughtfully to the kitchen, mixed myself a Preacher's Downfall by moonlight, and took it to her bedroom. The bedside clock said five. I lit a match, moved the footlocker in front of an armchair, sat down, and put my feet up. I sipped my drink and listened to her snore and watched her breathe in the feeble light of the clock. I decided to run through all the possibilities, and as I was formulating the first one, daylight smacked me hard in the nose.

***

My hands went up reflexively and I poured my drink on my head and hurt my nose more. I wake up hard in the best of times. She was still snoring. I nearly threw the empty glass at her.

It was just past noon, now; light came strongly through the heavy curtains, illuminating so much mess and disorder that I could not decide whether she had trashed her bedroom herself or it had been tossed by a pro. I finally settled on the former: the armchair I'd slept on was intact. Or had the pro found what he wanted before he got that far?

I gave it up and went to make myself breakfast. The milk was bad, of course, but I found a tolerable egg and the makings of an omelet. I don't care for black coffee, but Javanese brewed from frozen beans needs no augmentation. I drank three cups.

It took me an hour or two to clean up and air out the living room. The cord and transformer went down the oubliette, along with most of the perished items from the fridge. The dishes took three full cycles for each load, a couple of hours all told. I passed the time vacuuming and dusting and snooping, learning nothing more of significance. The phone rang. She had no answering program in circuit, of course. I energized the screen. It was a young man in a business tunic, wearing the doggedly amiable look of the stranger who wants you to accept the call anyway. After some thought I did accept, audio-only, and let him speak first. He wanted to sell us a marvelous building lot in Forest Acres, South Dakota. I was making up a shopping list about fifteen minutes later when I heard her moan. I reached her bedroom door in seconds, waited in the doorway with both hands in sight, and said slowly and clearly, "My name is Joseph Templeton, Karen. I am a friend. You are all right now."

Her eyes were those of a small, tormented animal.

"Please don't try to get up. Your muscles won't work properly and you may hurt yourself."

No answer.

"Karen, are you hungry?"

"Your voice is ugly," she said despairingly, and her own voice was so hoarse I winced. "My voice is ugly," she added, and sobbed gently. "It's all ugly." She screwed her eyes shut.

She was clearly incapable of movement. I told her I would be right back, and went to the kitchen. I made up a tray of clear strong broth, unbuttered toast, tea with maltose, and saltine crackers. She was staring at the ceiling when I got back, and apparently it was vile. I put the tray down, lifted her, and made a backrest of pillows.

"I want a drink."

"After you eat," I said agreeably.

"Who're you?"

"Mother Templeton. Eat."

"The soup, maybe. Not the toast." She got about half of it down, did nibble at the toast, accepted some tea. I didn't want to overfill her. "My drink."

"Sure thing." I took the tray back to the kitchen, finished my shopping list, put away the last of the dishes, and put a frozen steak into the oven for my lunch. When I got back she was fast asleep.

Emaciation was near total; except for breasts and bloated belly, she was all bone and taut skin. Her pulse was steady. At her best she would not have been very attractive by conventional standards. Passable. Too much waist, not enough neck, upper legs a bit too thick for the rest of her. It's hard to evaluate a starved and unconscious face, but her jaw was a bit too square, her nose a trifle hooked, her blue eyes just the least little bit too far apart. Animated, the face might have been beautiful—any set of features can support beauty—but even a superb makeup job could not have made her pretty. There was an old bruise on her chin, another on her left hip. Her hair was sandy blonde, long and thin; it had dried in snarls that would take hours to comb out. Her breasts were magnificent, and that saddened me. In this world, a woman whose breasts are her best feature is in for a rough time.

I was putting together a picture of a life that would have depressed anyone with the sensitivity of a rhino. Back when I had first seen her, when her features were alive, she had looked sensitive. Or had that been a trick of the juice? Impossible to say now.

But damn it all to hell, I could find nothing to really explain the socket in her skull. You can hear worse life stories in any bar, on any street corner. Wireheads are usually addictive personalities, who decide at last to skip the small shit. There were no tracks on her anywhere, no nasal damage, no sign that she used any of the coke she sold. Her work history, pitiful and fragmented as it was, was too steady for any kind of serious jones; she had undeniably been hitting the sauce hard lately, but only lately. Tobacco seemed to be her only serious addiction.

That left the hypothetical bastard lover. I worried at that for a while to see if I could make it fit. To have done so much psychic damage, he would almost have to have lived with her . . . but where was his spoor?

At that point I went to the bathroom, and that settled it. When I lifted the seat to urinate, I found written on the underside with magic marker: "It's so nice to have a man around the house!" The handwriting was hers. She had lived alone.

I was relieved, because I hadn't relished thinking about my hypothetical monster or the necessity of tracking and killing him. But I was irritated as hell again.

I wanted to understand.

For something to do, I took my steak and a mug of coffee to the study and heated up her terminal. I tried all the typical access codes, her birthdate and her name in numbers and such, but none of them would unlock it. Then on a hunch I tried the date of her parents' death, and that did it. I ordered the groceries she needed, instructed the lobby door to accept delivery, and tried everything I could think of to get a diary or a journal out of the damned thing, without success. So I punched up the public library and asked the catalog for Britannica on wireheading. It referred me to brain-reward, autostimulus of. I skipped over the history, from discovery by Olds and others in 1956 to emergence as a social problem in the late eighties, when surgery got simple; declined the offered diagrams, graphs, and technical specs; finally found a brief section on motivations.

There was indeed one type of typical user I had overlooked. The terminally ill.

Could that really be it? At her age? I went to the bathroom and checked the prescriptions. Nothing for heavy pain, nothing indicating anything more serious than allergies. Back before telephones had cameras I might have conned something out of her personal physician, but it would have been a chancy thing even then. There was no way to test the hypothesis.

It was possible, even plausible—but it just wasn't likely enough to satisfy the thing inside me that demanded an explanation. I dialed a game of four-wall squash, and made sure the computer would let me win. I was almost enjoying myself when she screamed.

***

It wasn't much of a scream; her throat was shot. But it fetched me at once. I saw the problem as I cleared the door. The topical anesthetic had worn off the large sores on her back and buttocks, and the pain had woken her. Now that I thought about it, it should have happened earlier; that spray was only supposed to be good for a few hours. I decided that her pleasure-pain system was weakened by overload.

The sores were bad; she would have scars. I resprayed them, and her moans stopped nearly at once. I could devise no means of securing her on her belly that would not be nightmare-inducing, and decided it was unnecessary. I thought she was out again, and started to leave. Her voice, muffled by pillows, stopped me in my tracks.

"I don't know you. Maybe you're not even real. I can tell you."

"Save your energy, Karen. You—"

"Shut up. You wanted the kharma, you got it."

I shut up.

Her voice was flat, dead. "All my friends were dating at twelve. He made me wait until fourteen. Said I couldn't be trusted. Tommy came to take me to the dance, and he gave Tommy a hard time. I was so embarrassed. The dance was nice for a couple of hours. Then Tommy started chasing after Jo Tompkins. He just left me and went off with her. I went into the ladies' room and cried for a long time. A couple of girls got the story out of me, and one of them had a bottle of vodka in her purse. I never drank before. When I started tearing up cars in the parking lot, one of the girls got ahold of Tommy. She gave him shit and made him take me home. I don't remember it, I found out later."

Her throat gave out and I got water. She accepted it without meeting my eyes, turned her face away and continued.

"Tommy got me in the door somehow. I was out cold by then. He'd been fooling around with me a little in the car, I think. He must have been too scared to try and get me upstairs. He left me on the couch and my underpants on the rug and went home. The next thing I knew, I was on the floor and my face hurt. He was standing over me. Whore he said. I got up and tried to explain and he hit me a couple of times. I ran for the door but he hit me hard in the back. I went into the stairs and banged my head real hard."

Feeling began to come into her voice for the first time. The feeling was fear. I dared not move.

"When I woke up it was day. Mama must have bandaged my head and put me to bed. My head hurt a lot. When I came out of the bathroom I heard him call me. Him and Mama were in bed. He started in on me. Wouldn't let me talk, and he kept getting madder and madder. Finally I hollered back at him. He got up off the bed and started in hitting me again. My robe came off. He kept hitting me in the belly and tits, and his fists were like hammers. Slut, he kept saying. Whore. I thought he was going to kill me so I grabbed one arm and bit. He roared like a dragon and threw me across the room. Onto the bed. Mama jumped up. Then he pulled down his underpants and it was big and purple. I screamed and screamed and tore at his back and Mama just stood there. Her eyes were big and round, just like in cartoons. His breath stank and I screamed and screamed and—"

She broke off short and her shoulders knotted. When she continued, her voice was stone dead again. "I woke up in my own bed again. I took a real long shower and went downstairs. Mama was making pancakes. I sat down and she gave me one and I ate it, and then I threw it up right there on the table and ran out the door. She never said a word, never called me back. After school that day I found a Sanctuary and started the divorce proceedings. I never saw either of them again. I never told this to anybody before."

The pause was so long I thought she had fallen asleep. "Since that time I've tried it with men and women and boys and girls, in the dark and in the desert sun, with people I cared for and people I didn't give a damn about, and I have never understood the pleasure in it. The best it's ever been for me is not uncomfortable. God, how I've wondered . . . now I know." She was starting to drift. "Only thing my whole life turned out better'n cracked up to be." She snorted sleepily. "Even alone."

I sat there for a long time without moving. My legs trembled when I got up, and my hands trembled while I made supper.

***

That was the last time she was lucid for nearly forty-eight hours. I plied her with successively stronger soups every time she woke up, and once I got a couple of pieces of tea-soggy toast into her. Sometimes she called me by others' names, and sometimes she didn't know I was there, and everything she said was disjointed. I listened to her tapes, watched some of her video, charged some books and games to her computer account. I took a lot of her aspirin. And drank surprisingly little of her booze.

It was frustrating. I still couldn't make it all fit together. There was a large piece missing. The animal who sired and raised her had planted the charge, of course, and I perceived that it was big enough to blow her apart. But why had it taken eight years to go off? If his death four years ago had not triggered it, what had? I could not leave until I knew.

Midway through the second day her plumbing started working again; I had to change the sheets. The next morning a noise woke me and I found her on the bathroom floor on her knees in a pool of urine. I got her clean and back to bed, and just as I thought she was going to drift off she started yelling at me. "Lousy son of a bitch, it could have been over! I'll never have the guts again now! How could you do that, you bastard, it was so nice!" She turned violently away from me and curled up. I had to make a hard choice then, and I gambled on what I knew of loneliness and sat on the edge of the bed and stroked her hair as gently and impersonally as I knew how. It was a good guess. She began to cry, in great racking heaves first, then the steady wail of total heartbreak. I had been praying for this, and did not begrudge the strength it cost her.

By the time she fell off the edge into sleep, she had cried for so long that every muscle in my body ached from sitting still. She never felt me get up, stiff and clumsy as I was. There was something different about her sleeping face now. It was not slack but relaxed. I limped out, feeling as close to peace as I had since I arrived, and as I was passing the living room on the way to the liquor, I heard the phone.

As I had before, I looked over the caller. The picture was undercontrasted and snowy; it was a pay phone. He looked like an immigrant construction worker, massive and florid and neckless, almost brutish. And, at the moment, under great stress. He was crushing a hat in his hands, mortally embarrassed. I mentally shrugged and accepted.

"Sharon, don't hang up," he was saying. "I gotta find out what this is all about."

Nothing could have made me hang up.

"Sharon? Sharon, I know you're there. Jo Ann says you ain't there, she says she called you every day for almost a week and banged on your door a few times. But I know you're there, now anyway. I walked past your place an hour ago and I seen the bathroom light go on and off. Sharon, will you please tell me what the hell is going on? Are you listening to me? I know you're listening to me. Look, you gotta understand, I thought it was all set, see? I mean I thought it was set. Arranged. I put it to Jo Ann, cause she's my regular, and she says not me, lover, but I know a gal. Look, was she lying to me or what? She told me for another bill you play them kind of games, sometimes."

Regular two-hundred-dollar bank deposits plus a cardboard box full of scales, vials, razor, mirror, and milk powder makes her a coke dealer—right, Travis McGee? Don't be misled by the fact that the box was shoved in a corner, sealed with tape, and covered with dust. After all, the only other illicit profession that pays regular sums at regular intervals is hooker, and two bills is too much for square-jawed, hook-nosed, wide-eyed little Karen, breasts or no breasts.

For a garden-variety hooker . . .

"Dammit, she told me she called you and set it up, she give me your apartment number." He shook his head violently. "I can't make no sense out of this. Dammit, she couldn't be lying to me. It don't figure. You let me in, didn't even turn the camera on first, it was all arranged. Then you screamed and . . . I was real careful not to really hurt you, I know I was. Then I put on my pants and I'm putting the envelope on the dresser and you bust that chair on me and come at me with that knife and I hadda bust you one. It just don't make no sense, will you goddammit say something to me? I'm twisted up inside going on two weeks now. I can't even eat."

I went to shut off the phone, and my hand was shaking so bad I missed, spinning the volume knob to minimum. "Sharon you gotta believe me," he hollered from far far away, "I'm into rape fantasy, I'm not into rape!" and then I had found the right switch and he was gone.

I got up very slowly and toddled off to the liquor cabinet, and I stood in front of it taking pulls from different bottles at random until I could no longer see his face—his earnest, baffled, half-ashamed face.

Because his hair was thin sandy blond, and his jaw was a bit too square, and his nose was a trifle hooked, and his blue eyes were just the least little bit too far apart. They say everyone has a double somewhere. And Fate is such a witty little motherfucker, isn't he?

I don't remember how I got to bed.

***

I woke later that night with the feeling that I would have to bang my head on the floor a couple of times to get my heart started again. I was on my makeshift doss of pillows and blankets beside her bed, and when I finally peeled my eyes open she was sitting up in bed staring at me. She had fixed her hair somehow, and her nails were trimmed. We looked at each other for a long time. Her color was returning somewhat, and the edge was off her bones.

She sighed. "What did Jo Ann say when you told her?"

I said nothing.

"Come on, Jo Ann's got the only other key to this place, and she wouldn't give it to you if you weren't a friend. So what did she say?"

I got painfully up out of the tangle and walked to the window. A phallic church steeple rose above the low-rises a couple of blocks away.

"God is an iron," I said. "Did you know that?"

I turned to look at her and she was staring. She laughed experimentally, stopped when I failed to join in. "And I'm a pair of pants with a hole scorched through the ass?"

"If a person who indulges in gluttony is a glutton, and a person who commits a felony is a felon, then God is an iron. Or else He's the dumbest designer that ever lived."

Of a thousand possible snap reactions, she picked the most flattering and hence most irritating. She kept silent, kept looking at me, and thought about what I had said. At last she said, "I agree. What particular design screwup did you have in mind?"

"The one that nearly left you dead in a pile of your own shit," I said harshly. "Everybody talks about the new menace, wireheading, eighth most common cause of death in less than a decade. Wireheading's not new—it's just a technical refinement."

"I don't follow."

"Are you familiar with the old cliche, 'Everything in the world I like is either illegal, immoral, or fattening'?"

"Sure."

"Didn't that ever strike you as damned odd? What's the most nutritionally useless and physiologically dangerous 'food' substance in the world? White sugar. Glucose. And it seems to be beyond the power of the human nervous system to resist it. They put it in virtually all the processed food there is, which is next to all the food there is, because nobody can resist it. And so we poison ourselves and whipsaw our dispositions and rot our teeth. Maltose is just as sweet, but it's less popular, precisely because it doesn't kick your blood sugar in the ass and then depress it again. Isn't that odd? There is a primitive programming in our skulls that rewards us, literally overwhelmingly, every time we do something damned silly. Like smoke a poison, or eat or drink or snort or shoot a poison. Or overeat good foods. Or engage in complicated sexual behavior without procreative intent, which, if it were not for the pleasure, would be pointless and insane. And which, if pursued for the pleasure alone, quickly becomes pointless and insane anyway. A suicidal brain-reward system is built into us."

"But the reward system is for survival."

"So how the hell did ours get wired up so that survival-threatening behavior gets rewarded best of all? Even the pro-survival pleasure stimuli are wired so that a dangerous overload produces the maximum pleasure. On a purely biological level, man is programmed to strive hugely for more than he needs, more than he can profitably use. Add in intelligence and everything goes to hell. Man is capable of outgrowing any ecological niche you put him in—he survives at all because he is The Animal That Moves. Given half a chance he kills himself of surfeit."

My knees were trembling so badly I had to sit down. I felt feverish and somehow larger than myself, and I knew I was talking much too fast. She had nothing whatever to say—with voice, face, or body.

"It is illuminating," I went on, fingering my aching nose, "to note that the two ultimate refinements of hedonism are the pleasure of cruelty and the pleasure of the despoliation of innocence. Consider: no sane person in search of sheerly physical sexual pleasure would select an inexperienced partner. Everyone knows that mature, experienced lovers are more competent, confident, and skilled. Yet there is not a skin mag in the world that prints pictures of men or women over twenty if they can possibly help it. Don't tell me about recapturing lost youth: the root is that a fantasy object over twenty cannot plausibly possess innocence, can no longer be corrupted.

"Man has historically devoted much more subtle and ingenious thought to inflicting cruelty than to giving others pleasure—which, given his gregarious nature, would seem a much more survival-oriented behavior. Poll any hundred people at random and you'll find at least twenty or thirty who know all there is to know about psychological torture and psychic castration—and maybe two who know how to give a terrific backrub. That business of your father leaving all his money to the church and leaving you 'a hundred dollars, the going rate'—that was artistry. I can't imagine a way to make you feel as good as that made you feel rotten. But for him it must have been pure pleasure."

"Maybe the Puritans were right," she said. "Maybe pleasure is the root of all evil. Oh, God! but life is bleak without it."

"One of my most precious possessions," I went on blindly, "is a button that my friend Slinky John used to hand-paint and sell below cost. He was the only practicing anarchist I ever met. The button reads: 'GO, LEMMINGS, GO!' A lemming surely feels intense pleasure as he gallops to the sea. His self-destruction is programmed by nature, a part of the very same life force that insisted on being conceived and born in the first place. If it feels good, do it." I laughed, and she flinched. "So it seems to me that God is either an iron, or a colossal jackass. I don't know whether to be admiring or contemptuous."

All at once I was out of words, and out of strength. I yanked my gaze away from hers and stared at my knees for a long time. I felt vaguely ashamed, as befits one who has thrown a tantrum in a sickroom.

After a time she said, "You talk good on your feet."

I kept looking at my knees. "I think I used to be an actor once."

"I would have gues—"

Hiatus.

I was standing by the door, facing out into the hall, and she was still speaking. "I said, will you tell me something?"

"If I can."

"What was the pleasure in putting me back together again?"

I flinched.

"Look at me. There. I've got a half-ass idea of what shape I was in when you met me, and I can guess what it's been like since. I don't know if I'd have done as much for Jo Ann, and she's my best friend. You don't look like a guy your favorite kick is sick fems, and you sure as hell don't look like you're so rich you got time on your hands. So what's been your pleasure, these last few days?"

"Trying to understand," I snapped. "I'm nosy."

"And do you understand?"

"Yeah. I put it together."

"So you'll be going now?"

"Not yet," I said automatically. "You're not—"

And caught myself.

"There's something else besides pleasure," she said. "Another system of reward, only I don't think it has much to do with the one I got wired up to my scalp here. Not brain-reward. Call it mind-reward. Call it . . . joy. The thing like pleasure that you feel when you've done a good thing or passed up a real tempting chance to do a bad thing. Or when the unfolding of the universe just seems especially apt. It's nowhere near as flashy and intense as pleasure can be. Believe me! But it's got something going for it. Something that can make you do without pleasure, or even accept a lot of pain, to get it.

"That stuff you're talking about, that's there, that's true. But you said yourself, Man is the animal that outgrows and moves. Evolution works slow, is all." She pushed hair back from her face. "It took a couple of hundred million years to develop a thinking ape, and you want a smart one in a lousy few hundred thou? That lemming drive you're talking about is there—but there's another kind of drive, another kind of force that's working against it. Or else there wouldn't still be any people and there wouldn't be the words to have this conversation and—" She paused, looked down at herself. "And I wouldn't be here to say them."

"That was just random chance."

She snorted. "What isn't?"

"Well, that's fine," I shouted. "That's fine. Since the world is saved and you've got everything under control I'll just be going along."

I've got a lot of voice when I yell. She ignored it utterly, continued speaking as if nothing had happened. "Now I can say that I have sampled the spectrum of the pleasure system at both ends—none and all there is—and I think the rest of my life I will dedicate myself to the middle of the road and see how that works out. Starting with the very weak tea and toast I'm going to ask you to bring me in another ten minutes or so. With maltose. But as for this other stuff, this joy thing, that I would like to begin learning about, as much as I can. I don't really know a God damned thing about it, but I understand it has something to do with sharing and caring and what did you say your name was?"

"It doesn't matter," I yelled.

"All right. What can I do for you?"

"Nothing!"

"What did you come here for?"

I was angry enough to be honest. "To burgle your fucking apartment!"

Her eyes opened wide, and then she slumped back against the pillows and laughed until the tears came, and I tried and could not help myself and laughed too, and we shared laughter for a long time, as long as we had shared her tears the night before.

And then, straight-faced, she said, "Wait'll I'm on my feet; you're gonna need help with those stereo speakers. Butter on the toast."

 

 

3

 

1994

The room was ripe with the pungencies of sex and sweat. Darkness was total, and now that their pulse and breathing had slowed, the stillness was complete. Norman tensed his stomach muscles briefly, felt the warm honeyed weight of Phyllis from his left shin to left shoulder, felt the barely perceptible movement with which she nestled a breast more comfortably into his armpit, tasted the sour sweetness of her breath. Idly he moved his left hand up and down the smooth length of her, reflected on how pleasant it was to caress a body whose dimensions were not precisely and thoroughly known, how very pleasant to encounter unfamiliar swellings and taperings, and in the encountering to trigger unpredictable responses and quickenings.

This caused him to wonder why, in all his five years of marriage to Lois, he had never been seriously tempted to be unfaithful. He had been experienced when he met her, aware of the sweetness of novelty, and during the course of their marriage perhaps a dozen women had inspired lust in him at one time or another. But he had allowed only a handful of those temptations to progress even as far as the fantasy stage—and in retrospect those were the only ones where actual fulfillment of the fantasy was out of the question. Ever since their estrangement he had sought no other partner until now. From the vantage point of satiation, he wondered why he had waited so long.

Well, he answered himself, if you consistently pass up a chance at something very pleasant, it must be because you're afraid of risking something else, something that's better than very pleasant. There must be something about long-term intimacy, about familiarity, that is sweeter than variety; something more to life than that spiciest of its spices.

He considered the lovemaking just now finished, and he thought, Well, that was definitely more . . . explosive than anything Lois and I have had in years. But he didn't know if he could say it was more satisfying. There had been clumsinesses, false starts, and missed signals. It is a tricky, finicky road to orgasm, different for everyone on Earth. If this woman and he remained lovers for any length of time, they would have to learn each other's ways—such a clumsy, self-conscious process.

And then Norman understood the sweetness of familiarity. Some say it breeds contempt, but he saw now that there was a tremendous security in having someone who knew you inside and out, who had found it worth the time and trouble to learn where your buttons were and when and how to push them, and whose own personal buttons you could find in the dark. It was worth some loss of mystery. In that moment he learned what it had been about his marriage that was so sweet that, over the past half-year, he had bartered away most of his self-respect for occasional morsels of counterfeit.

And with that learning he knew that the thing he still yearned for so badly—having someone so close to you that they become your other leg—was gone for good, and that counterfeit was all he would ever have of it again from Lois—that it was finally and forever over, irretrievably lost, and that he must find someone else and work five more years ever to have anything like it again. The last scrap of hope, nourished for so long, left him at last. His heart turned over inside him, and his eyes stung fiercely.

Phyllis rolled away from him suddenly. It was a single quick movement, but it was made up of many subtle parts, the drag of breast across his chest, the pleasant pulling apart of fleshes cemented by dried sweat, tiny tugs of intertangled hairs separating, moist sounds from her loins. She left a hand palm up on his belly to maintain contact between them, and rummaged in the tangle of clothing beside the bed. She struggled up into a sitting position, replaced the hand with a leg across his leg, and used both hands to shatter the darkness with a struck match.

The effect was rather like that of a star shell going off over a deserted battlefield, for Norman's bedroom was a mess. But he saw only her, the sudden and terrible beauty of her nakedness. She was flat-chested compared to Lois, but he was not comparing her to Lois; Lois was gone from his mind, and his sorrow with her. This was Phyllis, and she was lovely. When her weight had come off him he had automatically taken a deeper breath; now he could not exhale it.

The sight lasted only long enough for her to light two Player's and pass one to him; then she whipped the match flame to death. But he took the opportunity to take several mental photographs, apply fixative, and store for easy access. In the sudden return of darkness, his breath left him whistling. He replaced it with tobacco smoke.

"That," she said softly, "was good enough to be illegal."

"Madam, your son just passed Victorian Poetry."

She chuckled. "You bastard. 'Passed'? That was B-plus at the very least."

"He'll graduate Mama Cum Loudly," he assured her, and she pinched him.

"Seriously, Norman . . ." She drew on her cigarette, and her face and one shoulder reappeared briefly and ectoplasmically. "I don't make a habit of bolstering my lovers' egos, but that was extraordinary."

"Wasn't my doing. Wasn't even our doing. We were both privileged to be present at an extraordinary event."

"Bullshit. It may have taken me till five-thirty in the morning to seduce you, but it was worth waiting for. You're a very good lover, don't you know that?"

A flip answer died on his tongue and left a strange taste. "No," he said finally, "I didn't."

"Well, then, let me tell you: in the last hour or so you fulfilled just about every fantasy I had left, and showed me at least one erogenous zone I didn't know I had. Listen, I'll be honest: I've had better. But I've never had a better first time, and I doubt I ever will."

He could think of nothing to say.

"Hey, look, I don't want to belabor this. I didn't mean to make you self-conscious. I just . . . I guess I just wanted to say thanks. It's . . . well, there's been a long line of guys who couldn't have cared less if I'd been awake or not."

It startled him. "Why the hell would anyone want to have fun alone? Given an alternative like you?"

"The ultimate test of cool. Maintain independence even in the ultimate sharing. You, now: you've got more guts than that. You've given me a piece of yourself, and for all you know I might rip you off."

"Phyllis," he said gently, butting out his smoke, "my checkbook and credit cards are on the bureau. Clean me out and we'll be about even. You've done me a world of good." He sat up, and she hugged him.

When they separated again, he realized that he could dimly see her outlines now; a warm glow was faintly visible at the edges of the window shade. "Jesus. It's come morning." All at once, and for the first time in many hours, he was immensely tired. He lay back down and closed his eyes.

"Norman?" she began, and from the tone in her voice he knew at least in general where she was going, and started to protest his fatigue, but she kept on talking, saying, "Do you have any unfulfilled fantasies?"

Fatigue gone. "Uh . . . sexual fantasies, you mean?"

"Chicken. Come on, be honest. Aren't there any secret wishes I can make come true for you?" Her hand found him, began working gently.

"Well . . ."

"Come on, you're stalling, trying to think of something else plausible to ask me for, in place of whatever you first thought of."

Even Lois had not pushed all his buttons. He made his decision. "How do you feel about being tied up?"

Even in the semidarkness he could tell she was frowning; her hand stopped.

"Further than you wanted to go?" he asked after a while.

"You know," she said slowly, "I'm not sure." She lit another cigarette, cupping it so that all the light was reflected down away from her face. "I had a friend, once. She and her husband were into master-slave stuff, I mean they were incredible. She wore a collar around her neck, had whip scars, and I swear to God she was as proud and happy as hell. I thought it was sick."

"Jesus," he said, "so do I."

"I used to ask her how she could stand to be degraded like that. She said it was like the ultimate proof of her love for him. I asked her if he ever proved his love, and she said it didn't work that way, that she gave him what he needed and he gave her what she needed."

"Christ on a skateboard. They still together?"

"Of course not. After a while she had no more proofs to give him, so he dumped her. I haven't seen either of 'em in years."

"Uh . . . that's considerably stronger than what I had in mind. I don't think I'd go for bullwhips and pain and abuse."

It was light enough now to see her grin as her hand squeezed. "But hearing about it got you hard, didn't it?"

He could not deny it.

"I'll tell you something. I think she was off the wall, I mean industrial-strength crazy . . . but once in a long while I think about it and I get wet myself. Isn't that sick?"

"First tell me what 'sick' means when applied to a normal condition. Nobody leaves the TV for a snack during the rape scene. That does not necessarily mean that anybody wants a rape for Christmas." He took another cigarette himself, and she lit it for him with hers. "Look, my subconscious is as screwed up as anyone's. Just from the little I've told you about Lois and me, you must be able to see that there's probably a lot of hostility towards women buried in me right now, certainly towards one woman. But—well, I don't know if this will make any sense or not, but a fantasy is not necessarily a wish."

"All right, then," she said, and began gently stroking his penis. "Tell me about your wishes." He could make out her features now, and she was looking him square in the eye. He could not look away. Involuntarily his back began to arch, his buttocks to clench.

"I would like to tie you down to this bed," he said thickly, "and tease, tantalize, and otherwise titillate your fair young body until you scream for mercy. The only kind of pain I have in mind—beyond the occasional pinch or scratch we've already tried—is the sweet agony of wanting to come so badly you can't see straight or remember your name."

Her busy hand paused, and she grinned suddenly. "That does sound more interesting than scrambled eggs and coffee. I just don't know if I understand the tying-up part."

He disposed of his cigarette and she followed suit. "Well, partly it's the symbolic trust, of course, which is fairly heady stuff. But most of it is a sheerly muscular thing. I mean, sex is a process of allowing tension to build to a peak and then release, right?"

"When you're doing it right."

"All right—but ordinarily there's a certain point beyond which your subconscious will not let you build that tension—because if you did, the sheer intensity of the climax would break your partner's back, or nose, or whatever. But when you're restrained, you can exert total effort safely. Every muscle in your body can turn into steel cable, and it's okay."

She was looking thoughtful. "You sound as if you've had it done to you."

"Once, a long time ago. A woman I lived with."

"You enjoyed it?"

"Very much."

"How come only that once, then?"

"She didn't want to talk about it afterward. I think she was deeply disturbed by how much she enjoyed it. Which was her privilege; I didn't push it."

"But you'd try it again?"

"Well, I have to admit that these days it's not what I'd call one of my premier urges. I guess I just feel like I've had my fill of being helpless, this last year. But if you wanted to, I guess I could get behind it."

"Another time, perhaps," she said softly, and lay down spread-eagled on her back. "Right now I'm yours on toast. Bring on your ropes."

He used neckties, and was careful about circulation.

"Norman," she said as he was securing the last knot, "can you see my handbag?"

"Sure, what do you need?"

"In the inside compartment there's a vibrator."

"Oh." He fetched it, stopped on the way back to the bed. "You know, this is a hell of a first date."

All the tension blew away in their shared laughter.

He opened the shade, and it was well and truly morning now, an impossibly rosy dawn from some Tourist Bureau postcard. He spared it only a glance, then brought his gaze back to her vulnerable nakedness.

"You know," she said, "there is something thrilling about being helpless . . . when your subconscious is convinced that there's nothing to be really afraid of."

"Thank you," he said. He tried the vibrator: it sounded like an alarm clock buzzer. He grinned at her. "Never tried one of these."

"The single mother's home companion. It'll be a learning experience for both of us."

"That it will."

After fifteen minutes she begged for a gag. "Honest to God, I've gotta scream so bad, I'll wake up the whole building." He insisted that they work out signals first by which she could communicate the concepts "stop doing that" and "I need a breather." Half an hour later he still had not allowed release to either of them. His penis was iron-hard and uncharacteristically standing completely upright against his belly, and she was in a state somewhere beyond babbling incoherency, when the doorbell rang.

He ignored it, of course. It penetrated his attention only just far enough to cause him to tuck the vibrator under a sheet, muffling it, and continue manually. Phyllis was beyond noticing anything external.

Of course the bell rang again; he was expecting that, and paid it no more mind than he had the first time. From somewhere Phyllis had found the strength to begin whimpering again.

But the third time it rang, long and hard, he began idly wondering who it could be that was not going to get access to Norman Kent's attention that morning. Certainly not Lois. From nine at night to two or three in the morning was her visiting range—one reason it had taken Phyllis so long to seduce him. Not Spandrell, he'd have given up after the second ring. Little George could scarcely be imagined ambulatory before noon, and the Bobcat was gone south for the summer. Some stranger? Norman's rhythm faltered slightly.

The fourth time it rang it didn't stop.

Anger welled in him, and his hands ceased work altogether. In ten or twenty seconds Phyllis's eyes had unrolled and she heard it too. By that time he had found his slippers. He was blazing mad, but he did not want the first thing she saw to be an angry face, so he made a terrific effort and produced a fair smile. "It's all right, darling," he said, caressing her cheek. "Some impertinent idiot. I'll blow him out into the hall and be back in thirty seconds."

She nodded and he rose and left the room. He stuck his head back in, said, "Now, don't go away," and closed the bedroom door carefully and firmly behind him. As it clicked shut, her leg spasmed; the vibrator dropped to the floor and lay buzzing.

Norman went to the door naked and fully hard, fervently hoping that whoever was on the other side would prove to be shockable. Already composing his opening blast, he slipped the locks and flung the door open, and his breath left him.

Lois took her finger off the bell. "Good morning," she said brightly.

"God damn it," he said, and lost his voice again.

She glanced at his erection and grinned. "Got you up, I see." She gripped it briefly, in a proprietary way, and stepped into the apartment, starched whites rustling. "You always did wake up hard."

Somewhere in his highly educated brain were the words he wanted now, needed now, but all that came to mind was "Get out of here. I don't want to see you now," and he could not say those words to Lois. Moreover, he knew she would not obey them.

"God, this place is a wreck. That's not like you, Norman."

"Lois—" His throat and mouth were too dry to produce speech; hastily he went to the fridge and threw orange juice past his teeth. "Lois, listen to me—"

"Jesus Christ, you must have been on some binge last night, you've slept right through your alarm. I hear it buzzing."

"NO!"

Too late, she was already halfway down the hall, he dropped the orange juice and ran flat out but she was already opening the bedroom door.

"Lois, God damn it—"

She screamed.

Through the door came the muffled sound of Phyllis screaming too, and with weirdness incredible the screams harmonized. As Norman crashed into his ex-wife he roared himself, a great bellow of unendurable frustration, and when they had landed in a mock-obscene tangle on the hallway floor and the last of his bellow had left him, in that moment of stillness before the world could come crashing down around all of them, the doorbell rang again.

Lois heaved him off her and headed for the door in a stumbling, scrabbling run, nurse's cap askew. For an insane moment he wondered why she should want so badly to answer the doorbell, why anyone would ever want to answer a doorbell. Such was not Lois's intention. To her the door was not a gadget for letting people in; it was a gadget for letting them out. Norman heard a loud crash, Lois's war cry ascending the scale, sounds of violent body contact, an astonishing chorus of voices expressing shock and/or indignation, and Lois's footsteps rapidly receding in the direction of the elevator. By then he was on his hands and knees, shaking his head in a perfectly futile attempt to clear it.

"Time out," he said plaintively to the universe in general.

"It's okay," one of his unseen callers told the rest. "He says he'll be right out." Thus reassured, they began entering the apartment—perhaps a dozen of them, by the sound.

Norman had started this overtired. He yearned most to race to Phyllis, but he did not want to leave a large number of strangers alone in his apartment until he had at least examined them and learned their business. On the other hand, he was loath to greet them naked. In a few seconds they would have progressed far enough into the apartment to command a view of the hallway. If only the God damned vibrator would stop buzzing . . .

All human brains have a component that takes over problem-solving when the conscious mind is stunned. Often it does as well or better. Norman's had gotten him out of the jungle alive six years before, and it did its best now.

"Hang on, Phyllis," he said urgently, and got to the bathroom a split second before the first uninvited guest came even with the hallway. It should have been the work of a moment to deploy a towel, but incredibly he was still erect. Cold water, he thought wildly, and raced for the sink, but halfway there he decided that the noises coming from the living room sounded somehow technological in nature, and he recalled that there was a two-thousand-dollar sound-and-video system in the living room. He whimpered, spun on his heel, and left the bathroom, doing the best he could with the towel.

There is no way to evaluate a dozen people quickly. They looked like a dozen people. The first thing that registered was the source of the technological sounds. Three golf-cart-type video packs with appropriate color cameras, four still cameras, and five audiocassette decks. Every outlet in the room was in use, and two people were setting up high-intensity lights.

Norman stared at the people, and the people stared at him.

An extremely fat lady with a single eyebrow recovered first. "You were expecting us?"

"No."

"Oh, dear. I am Alexandra Saint Phillip."

He had never heard of her. It was obvious that he had never heard of her. She could not believe he had never heard of her.

"Alexandra Saint Phillip," she explained. "And this is Rene Gerin-LaJoie." She indicated a short dapper man with a monocle. "And Harry Doyle, of course, and Gloria Delemar, and—"

Norman had never heard of any of these people, and every second he left Phyllis alone lowered the already-low probability of his ever seeing her again. "What do you want?"

"The story, of course," Gerin-LaJoie said impatiently. "Today, if possible. There's a fire over on Spring Garden Road we could be covering."

Is that so? Norman thought. "What story? Hold it," he added as a bearded man began to walk down the hall in search of another outlet. The man paused expectantly.

"You are the young man whose sister has disappeared?" Saint Phillip asked in astonishment.

In the two and a half weeks since Maddy had failed to come home, there had literally not been a waking hour in which she was absent from his thoughts—until ten o'clock the previous night. Being reminded was like being slapped in the face with a two-by-four.

"Oh," he said weakly. "Oh, my." Pain twisted his face.

"This kitchen's all over orange juice," complained a dwarf with a fake Oxford accent and a Nagra stereo deck.

"He's the one, Alex," Gerin-LaJoie said. "And we couldn't all have gotten the appointment wrong—so MacLeod must have failed to reach him." He turned to Norman. "Obviously our names ring no bell, Monsieur. Perhaps it is more helpful to say that I am ATV News, and Alex is CBC. These other people are the other major Halifax media. We have come at the behest of your department chairman to publicize the disappearance of Madeleine Kent."

"Wait here," Norman said suddenly. "Please, wait right here. I must go, I'll be back in a moment. Make coffee if—" The phone rang. The new picturephone in the bedroom. "Oh, slithering Jesus."

"I'll get it," the technician in the hallway said helpfully.

"NO!" Norman screamed, stopping him in his tracks. Alexandra Saint Phillip's single eyebrow became a circumflex, and Gerin-LaJoie's ears seemed to grow points. "Please wait here."

Norman hurried to the bedroom, losing his towel just as he got the door safely shut behind him. Phyllis was bright red; whether with fury or shame was unclear. He saw at once that it was MacLeod on the phone, in the process of recording a message.

"—concerned after our last conversation," the department chairman was saying, "and then your estranged wife came to see me. She told me a bit more about your situation, and—well, I called in a few favors. I hope you're there, Norman, they'll be arriving any minute now. Lois said she'd drop by and warn you on her way to work, but I wasn't—"

With what was intended as a reassuring smile at Phyllis, Norman spun the phone carefully away from her, adjusted the camera to show him only from the collarbone up, and activated his end. "Yes doctor they're here right now I have to go thank you very much," he said, and cut the connection.

He expected MacLeod's image to look startled as it faded out of existence. But: that startled? Instinctively, Norman glanced over his shoulder. There was the bureau mirror, perfectly angled to catch Phyllis's reflection.

He literally fell down laughing.

The horror fed the laughter in the vicious feedback loop of hysteria. He made a last massive effort and beat at his head with his fists, barely succeeded in disrupting the loop. Even before he had his breath back he was hunching across the floor toward her like a brokenbacked snake.

He said no word as he untied her bonds, partly from an awareness that it is impossible to apologize to a captive audience, and partly because he could not conceive of anything to say. She stared fixedly at the ceiling until he was done, then rolled convulsively from the bed.

Of course her legs would not support her. No more would her hands break her fall; she landed heavily on her face.

"Are you all right, Mr. Kent?" the technician called from the hallway.

Sure thing, Jimmy, Norman thought for the millionth time in his life, just changing into Superman. "Yes," he roared. "Right out."

"That's what he said the last time," Norman heard the dwarf complain.

He managed to heave Phyllis up onto the bed. She bit him as he did so, and he let her. When she let go, he began dressing at once. "Phyllis, listen. Stay right there. Get dressed when you can, leave when they're gone. There's no second choice. There's a gun in my desk, I'd appreciate it if you could blow my fucking brains out before you go."

She had the gag down now. "Do it yourself, motherfucker."

He shook his head. "If I had the guts I'd never have waited this long." He finished sealing his trousers and decided slippers eliminated the need for socks. "Phyllis, I have to talk to these people, now. That's CBC and ATV and both papers and most of the FMs out there, they want to know about Maddy. I might—it could—she could be—" His jaw worked. "Phyl, for the love of God wait until they're gone. If you go out there now with rope marks on your wrists they're going to think I killed Maddy and ate her. I've got to get her picture on the air."

Without waiting for an answer he left the room, returned at once, shut off the vibrator, left again.

***

He held up his hands as he entered the living room, partly to head off conversation and partly to save his eyesight—his living room was now hellbright. "Hold it, ladies and gentlemen. I'm still not here yet, it just looks like it. Is coffee made?"

"Let's just get a reading on you, darling," the dwarf said.

"No," he said firmly. "I'm a different color when I've had my coffee."

"See here—"

"No, you see here. Every piece of equipment in this room has its own battery pack, and you're all draining my wall outlets. I'll accept that, because I want the opportunity to shout with your voice. But I will damned well have coffee first."

One of them had figured out the machine; ten cups of coffee were ready. Norman took his cup back into the glare of video lights.

"Now," he said, sitting in his desk chair, "explain something to me. Dr. MacLeod has a good deal of influence in this town—but this big a turnout is ridiculous. I ignore news myself, but you people are obviously the first string. Since when does the first string cover a simple missing-persons story?"

"Since Samantha Ann Bent was found dead in a stand of alders outside of Kentville," Gerin-LaJoie said, coming back with his coffee.

Norman's ears began to buzz. "I don't believe I—" The dwarf thrust a light meter in his face and clipped a mini-mike to his shirt.

"She disappeared from Halifax two days after your sister. She was . . . it was a sex crime. A very ghastly sex crime."

Coffee slopped on his legs. He set the cup down on the desk with exquisite care and lit a cigarette. "Where was she last seen?" he asked mildly.

"Kempt Road," Saint Phillip supplied. "Near the all-night donut place, at about four o'clock in the morning."

"What did she look like?"

"Mr. Kent, I don't know if you want to—"

"Before, dammit!"

"Oh. She was blonde, dyed blonde, and rather short. About seventeen or eighteen, but she looked younger, I should say. Perhaps fifty kilos. A rather bad complexion, and a sort of teenybopper figure, with—"

"They searched the area where her body was found?"

"For others, you mean? Yes, I imagine so. Probably still at it now."

"Any leads on the killer?"

"Nothing yet," from Gerin-LaJoie. "Except that he is very sick."

Norman let out a great slow breath, and worked his shoulders briefly. "All right. I think it's okay. I don't think the same man got Maddy."

Gerin-LaJoie murmured something into his cassette deck. "Why not, Monsieur Kent?"

"Well, I'm not positive—but it doesn't feel right. My understanding is that sex killers pick a type and stick with it. Maddy was—is—thirty-four years old, brown hair exactly the same shade as mine, about three inches taller than I am, and a good sixty-five kilos. Her figure was excellent and her skin superb. When I last saw her she was not dressed remotely like the way seventeen-year-olds dress these days. She dressed sensibly, tastefully. Her clothes were European, with those loose lines, and that air of durability we stopped respecting over here a long time ago." He ran down awkwardly.

"Sex criminals don't always stay with a type," Gerin-Lajoie said. "Some like variety."

"The circumstances don't match. This Bent girl was way over at the North End at 4:00 a.m. Maddy was last seen downtown, on Argyle Street, planning to walk down one block to Harrington and catch a bus, at a little after midnight. The whole MO is different." He puffed on his cigarette and frowned. "Perhaps I shouldn't be telling you all this. If a tie-in gives it more news value—"

"Mr. Kent," Saint Phillip said, "when two women disappear off the streets of Halifax within forty-eight hours, it is news even if one is built like a hippo and the other a giraffe. It is not inconceivable that two killers independently—" She broke off. "I'm sorry, I—"

"No, you're right." Norman's face was stony. "None of this makes things look any brighter for Maddy. But at least I don't think it was your butcher-crazy that got her."

"Monsieur Kent," Gerin-LaJoie said, "forgive me please, I have not had a chance to familiarize myself with your case. Is there no chance that your sister could have . . . taken it into her head to—"

"I don't think so." Norman frowned. "Look, in your business you must hear a lot of people tell you, 'but she had no reason to.' Maddy not only had no reason to, she had reason not to. It's too long a story to explain, but—will you just accept it that Sergeant Amesby down at Missing Persons believes she was abducted? He's a rather skeptical man."

"Hell yes," the dwarf agreed. "If Amesby says she was snatched—"

"Hadn't she been in Switzerland for ten years?" asked Saint Phillip, who had plainly done her homework. "Couldn't she have—"

"Leaving everything she owned? It's been almost three weeks, and Interpol comes up empty," Norman said.

The bedroom door opened, and Phyllis entered the living room. She wore her own jeans and one of his shirts, with the sleeves buttoned. "Goodbye, Norman," she said icily, and exited. There was a brief pause.

"Look, are you ready to tape?" Norman asked.

"Yes."

He ran his hands through his hair. "Okay." He looked at the largest of the videocameras, told himself it was an old and understanding friend who happened to have one round eye. "My deepest sympathies go to the family of Samantha Ann Bent. I think I know something of what they are feeling now. But I don't believe that the beast who took their girl got my sister Madeleine. Their physical types and the manner of their disappearances are too dissimilar. I'm all the family Maddy has left and I don't know what has happened to her." He took a folder from his top desk drawer, selected a large color glossy. He held it up to the cameras, which all trucked in. "This is my sister, Madeleine Kent. She is thirty-four. She was last seen on June twelfth near Barrington and Argyle, wearing a tan calf-length skirt, matching jacket and pale yellow blouse, carrying a yellow purse. She had just returned from ten years in Switzerland, and she tended to speak as though English were a learned language, although she was losing the tendency. If you have any information which could help us locate her, I beg you to contact Sergeant Amesby of the Halifax police, or the RCMP. Complete anonymity can be guaranteed.

"My sister has been gone for eighteen days. I am worried sick. If you know anything at all, if you saw anything unusual near Argyle or Harrington streets on Friday, June twelfth, please . . . call Missing Persons. I—" His voice broke. "I need your help. Thank you." He sucked hard on his cigarette. "Okay?"

"In the can." "Got it." "Good take." At once all the video people and half the others lit cigarettes.

"All right." He drained the coffee, set it on the desk, and took a folio from the same drawer. Most of the journalists came closer, gathered round the desk. "You newspaper people, here is a dossier I've compiled on Madeleine. I gave a copy to Sergeant Amesby, but he won't have let you see it. It contains everything I know or was able to find out about Maddy, everything known about her last evening. Statements from people who were at the party. A copy of the posters I distributed to all the cab companies. Still shots of Maddy, ten years out of date. She had a home videocassette in her belongings that seems fairly recent. I've had some stills made up from that. You can see that she hasn't changed a great deal in ten years."

"More worldly-wise," Saint Phillip said. "A faint flavor of cynical amusement. Of self-assurance. She was a very beautiful woman, Mr. Kent."

Norman clenched his teeth. "And still is, so far as I know."

"Oh, my God, I'm sorry. Of course she—"

"As for you print and radio people, perhaps it would save us all a good deal of time if I simply ran off several copies of this dossier for you to take with you. Then if you have any questions you can phone me; I have full-range audio."

"Can we borrow these photos, Mr. Kent?" one of the print journalists asked.

"I'll fax them to you, if you'll all be so kind as to give me your access." He started a notepad circulating. "If there are no more questions, I'll start these through the copier. Please feel free to start a fresh pot of coffee, and there are munchables in the first cabinet on the left."

He collated the dossier and took it down the hall to the library. As paper was stacking in the output hopper, he became aware that he was not alone.

"Mr. Kent?" Alexandra Saint Phillip said.

He did not turn.

"Mr. Kent, it is my business to listen to sad stories all day long. In my darker hours I think of myself as a sob-sucker. I know how to give sincere condolences to people I don't give a damn about. I . . . I just . . . I'm sorry, Mr. Kent. I'm sorry for your sister, who looks like she is a hell of a woman. But most of all I'm sorry for you. Whatever happened to her, at least she knows it."

He kept feeding sheets into the copier, perhaps a little more clumsily.

"I've been a journalist a long time, Mr. Kent. You start to get a feeling. I can't be sure, of course, but I don't think you are ever going to know any more than you do know. I don't think she'll ever be found."

Norman stopped feeding the machine. His shoulders knotted. "I don't think so either."

"You are either going to learn how to live with that, or you aren't. I read you as the kind of man who has what it takes to survive something like this. But—forgive me, aren't you in the midst of a divorce right now?"

"That was my ex who greeted you at the door."

"Yes. Look, I have no wish to pry. I'm not trying to get a juicier story, this is off the record. But I think if you own a gun you should throw it away. If you own a straight razor, buy an electric one instead. Perhaps I talk too much. I—if there's anything at all I can do—well, here."

He turned to see her offering a card. Past her he saw the dwarf looking through the open bedroom door. "Get the hell out of there," he barked.

"Certainly, old man. Thought it was the loo."

"Try the one I came out of wearing a towel," Norman suggested bitterly.

"Sorry."

Norman turned back to Saint Phillip. "Madam," he said slowly, "I don't know if I'm the kind of man who can take a lifetime of this. But I value your opinion. And your concern. Thank you very much."

She smiled, a very sad smile. "Take the card. It's the one with office and home numbers. I don't give it out often. My husband's name is Willoughby. Go on with your copying."

After they all left he noticed that the orange juice had been mopped from the kitchen floor, and knew that she had done it.

That evening he took another walk out onto the MacDonald Bridge. He watched the clouds slide past the moon for several hours, and once he sang a song, and at eleven-thirty he threw his gun over the side into the harbor.

 

 

4

 

1999

I woke the next morning with less headache than I deserved. The nose hurt worse. I was alone in the bedroom. I heard distant kitchen sounds, smelled something burnt. I found I was irritated. I had not cleared Karen for solo flight yet. That made me laugh sourly at myself, and any kind of laugh will do to get a morning started.

I found her sitting on a pillow in the dining area adjacent to the kitchen. She did not acknowledge my arrival. She was staring expressionlessly at what she had intended to be an omelet. It was the toast that had burned, and these days it's hard to burn toast.

Breakfast with a stranger is always awkward. You come upon each other before you have had time to buckle on your armor. And so the question becomes, how urgent is the need? Even if you made love the night before it doesn't necessarily help: you can get to know someone better than you wanted to over first breakfast. Neither of us was capable of making love, but I knew Karen fairly well, in terms of the pattern of her history. But the Karen I knew had died, had committed suicide. The new Karen I had created by aborting her suicide I did not know at all.

I found that I wanted to know her. As a man who has accidentally caused an avalanche cannot prevent himself from watching to learn the full extent of the damage, I needed to know, now that it was too late, what I had done by my meddling. I wanted to like her. That would make me a hero.

I took the omelet and toast from in front of her. She started indignantly, a good sign. I dumped the stuff down the oubliette and took new ingredients from the fridge. On a hunch I went back and took a sip of her coffee. I pitched that too and got the grounds from the freezer.

I mixed and sliced and grated, assembled and seasoned the resultants, and arrayed them in the cooker. I studied the controls. The combination she had programmed was straight out of the owner's manual, with one plain error. I had figured out the quirks of this particular model—extensive ones—the first day I had been in the apartment. She was a rotten cook. I set it correctly and initiated.

"I think I'm going to move out of this dump," she said.

I nodded. I did not ask where she would go. I prepared cups to receive coffee. Her sugar had been stored in a cabinet, so she didn't take any. Expensive cream was on her shopping list, so she used it.

"Hey, that smells good."

I dealt out onion-and-cheddar omelets, bacon, crisped English muffins. I put two straws in a quart of orange juice and poured Antiguan coffee. The shopping-list program had been her own. She was in the habit of ruining some very expensive food. Well, she earned her money. She started to dig in, pulled up short. "You think I'm ready for a meal this size?"

I had reoriented her stomach with tea, soup, and other soft foods. "If it looks good to you, you should certainly have at least a little of everything."

She fell to at once, but ate with some caution. She did not talk while she ate, which suited me. We paid respectful attention to the food. She made occasional small sounds of enjoyment. I found this remarkable. It did not seem that any of the jelly of her hypothalamus had been boiled away. Her pleasure center was functional. Remarkable.

While the food occupied her attention, I studied her. Her hair had been washed, dried, and brushed. She looked squeaky clean. She wore a glossy fluff-collar robe that covered her to the chin. She wore no makeup, no jewelry. Her hands were reasonably steady, her color okay.

After a while she caught me studying her. Without hesitation she began to study me right back. For a few seconds it got like two kids trying to outstare each other, but there is a limit to the amount of time two chewing people can do that and keep a straight face. We shared a small explosion of laughter, then smiled at each other for a few seconds more and went back to our food.

I had given her a portion a third the size of my own. Though she chewed much more slowly, she finished first. At once she reached for a nearby package of Peter Jackson. I did not react, kept eating. She looked down, saw her fingers taking a cigarette from the pack, and put it back. Though I still gave no sign of noticing, I chalked up a point for her.

When I was done, she took the cigarette back out and touched it alight on the side of the pack. "Gasper?" she asked, offering me the pack.

"Don't use it, thanks."

"Grass in the freezer."

"That either."

She was surprised. "You don't get high?"

"'Reality is for those who don't have the strength of character to handle drugs,'" I quoted. "That's me."

She pursed her lips, nodded. "Uh-huh." She took a deep drag. "You're a good cook, Joe. Thanks. Very much."

"Yeah."

She held her cigarettes down between middle and ring fingers. It seems like one of those meaningless affectations, until you notice that with each puff, half of the face is hidden. The inverse is to hold the cigarette like a home-rolled joint between thumb and forefinger tips, minimizing facial coverage. Now that I saw her with her hair brushed, on a head held upright, I saw that the hair too was styled for maximum concealment, in long bangs and forward-sweeping wings. If she'd been a man she'd have worn a full beard.

"Joe what? I forget."

Embarrassing. So did I. "Nixon," I tried at random.

"Temple something. Templar . . . Templeton."

"Well, I knew it was a rat's name," I said. She didn't laugh, of course. She had been a small child when the pack brought Nixon down, and nobody reads Charlotte's Web anymore these days. But she could tell that I thought I'd said something witty, so she smiled. She had manners.

"You don't have to tell me the real one," she lied. "It doesn't matter."

Do you ever learn things from your mouth? I have a hundred glib evasions and outright lies on file for the question "What is your name?" To my astonishment I heard myself tell her the truth.

"There is no real one."

"Eh?"

"I don't exist."

She could tell I had stopped kidding, even if she still didn't understand. "You lost me. I'm dumb in the morning."

Nothing to do for it now. "I'm not on file. I'm not on tape. The government and I don't recognize each other. I'm a nonperson."

"No shit?" Though she had hidden it well, she had been just a trifle annoyed, thinking I was withholding my real name out of mistrust. Now she was realizing how much I did trust her. So was I. "God, that's fantastic. How did you do it?" She caught herself. "I'm sorry. That's not a proper question."

I was beginning to like her. "It's okay, Karen. I have told two people what I just told you. Both of them asked me how I pulled it off, I told them both the truth, and neither one believed me. Not at first, or ever. So I don't mind telling you."

"Okay. How'd you do it?"

"I haven't the faintest idea."

She thought about it. "Yeah. Yeah, that's kind of hard to get a handle on, all right." She puffed on her cigarette. "I take it there's about a two-hour rap that explains it."

"Yeah. It gets less probable with each sentence."

She nodded. "And you don't especially feel like going into it right now."

Definitely beginning to like her. "Another time. Why'd you stop dealing coke?"

Her eyebrows rose a fraction of an inch. "Tossed the place, eh? I liked it too much. The toot and the loot. Contentment is not in my pattern, if you dig. I'm a Pisces. When the situation's been comfortable too long, I find some way to kick it apart. There are so many. In this case I got involved with my supplier, and when the relationship went sour, so did the career. Of course I couldn't have predicted this without going to the trouble of thinking about it for a second. I believe you, by the way."

"I know."

There went her no-hitter. I hate people who do that, look you in the eye and tell you matter-of-factly how screwed up they are. I have this conviction that screwed-up people are supposed to be embarrassed about it. It's as common a vice as smoking these days, and at least as much nuisance to those around you. It lowers the general morale.

On the other hand, I make a habit of bitterly criticizing every aspect of reality except myself—which is also bad for general morale.

"After a while I found myself owing considerable money to some very sandy people," she said. "Well, I'd always told myself I could hook if times got bad. I thought it out and made my move, and it didn't work out very well. I mean, I got paid all three times, but I could tell they weren't real happy. They weren't repeat business, they weren't word-of-mouth. A girl could starve that way.

"The fourth one set me straight. We talked afterwards, and he was nice. I told him just a little about me, just that my first time was a rape. 'That's it,' he says. 'You're not a bad little actress, but Señorita, no way will you ever convince anyone that you like it.' About a day and a half later it hit me that that wasn't a drawback, it was an advantage, and I changed my PR and tripled my price. I paid off my people in a week. So that's"—she grinned bitterly—"that's what a bimbo like me is doing in a class joint like this." She took a last puff, pinched the filter harder than necessary, and tossed the butt, before it had quite finished going out, in the general direction of the oubliette.

I sat perfectly still. I had scrubbed that floor on my hands and knees—but not by invitation. You don't own the place, I reminded myself, you're just robbing it.

But if I had not been irritated (I'm embarrassed to admit), if the effort of not wrinkling up my nose hadn't made it throb, I might have been humane enough to save the obvious next question for another day or two.

"What will you do now?"

She visibly flinched, and dropped her gaze. Of course I felt like a jerk at once. Of course that irritated me more. She rose suddenly from the table. I was between her and one exit, so she took the other. Into the living room.

When she stiffened, I opened my mouth, slapped myself in the forehead, and raced after her. I was days too late. There in the same position between the lamp and the plastic table, from which I had never thought to move it, was the God damned armchair. Framed and lit like a tableau at Madame Tussaud's, lacking only a waxy body . . .

A moist noise in her throat decided not to be a word after all. She looked around, hesitated. She was not going to sit those bedsores on the chair that had put them there. But if she sat on the couch she had to look at the chair. I stepped past her, turned the chair so that it faced away from the window, and tilted it back as far as it would go, bringing up the footrest. With some throw pillows from the couch, the result was a cushioned flat surface about thirty degrees from horizontal, the high end facing the window.

"Come here," I said in what I hoped was a kindly but firm tone. She did not move. "I'll clear the window. Lie on your belly and watch the sun try to brighten the Hudson Sewer." She still didn't move. "What do you do when you fall off a horse, Karen?"

She nodded, crossed the room, and stretched out without further hesitation. I dialed the window transparent and fetched her cigarettes. She lit one gratefully. "Joe?"

"Yah."

"Would you rub some more of that anesthetic gunk on my ass? And could I have some rum?"

"Just what your system needs. How about some aspirin? If I can find any in that haystack."

She sighed. "Okay."

I fetched cream, aspirin, and water from the bathroom and pulled a footstool near her chair. She lay with her face toward me while I applied the cream, and though she sucked air a few times she didn't cry out. One excellent test of trust is the ability to receive a butt-massage unselfconsciously, and she paid me that compliment. As I worked up to the sores on her back I looked around the room. I had given her story-tapes a B-minus. A boxed set of historical romances had cost her points. On the other hand, she kept a handful of real books, good ones. Maybe the set was a gift. She had a fairly good multipurpose music collection, deficient in classical but otherwise sound; there were items I had already stolen. Her video library was strictly tape-of-the-month club, but with the incongruous addition of some classic early Emsh. An overall rating was hard to decide. A C-plus would have been strictly fair, but a B-minus could have been justified to the . . .

Hiatus.

I was sitting on the couch with half a drink in my hand, and she was looking out the window, smoking a cigarette I didn't remember her lighting. The sun was high over the river now. It looked hot out there. I saw a gull make a dead-stick landing on a distant roof and lay where it hit. What boils up off the Hudson at mid-day would take pages just to catalog. How come pigeons have adapted to pollution and gulls haven't?

After a while she pinched out a cigarette, dropped it on the rug. She got up and put the robe back on. She walked over to the window and stood staring out over lower buildings, watching faraway boats trying to slice the water. "One thing for sure. I've gotta get out of this pit. I always wanted to live in a place like this. My old man's life savings couldn't have bought a month in a place like this. The week before last I found myself sitting in front of the video with the stereo playing and a story on the reader on my lap. I looked around and on the table next to me was a burning cigarette, a burning joint of Supremo, a couple lines of coke, and a drink with the ice all melted. Four kinds of munchies. It came to me that I was bored. I couldn't think of one thing on earth to do that I would enjoy." She turned around, leaned back against the window, and surveyed the room. "It's kind of like that now. I need to change the channel. This just isn't the kind of place where you figure out what to do with the rest of your life."

She was as close as she could come to asking. I was reluctant. "What about, uh, Jo Ann?"

"She lives with two other girls, it's like Times Square."

So think about it. Crazy little hooker with a socket in her scalp, miserable cook, slob, sexual cripple, two kinds of smoker.

Tough as a Harlem rat, in both mind and body. With pretty good manners. She had respected my privacy considerably more than I had respected hers. And she knew what you do when you fall off a horse. In many ways she was the ideal roommate for someone like me, at least for a while. Maybe my own life had gotten a little boring.

"You can crash at my place," I said. "I'll put up with tobacco, but no grass. I do all the cooking, you do all the dishes, I do all the rest of the housework. You can bring five percent of the contents of that medicine cabinet."

Relief was plain on her face. "I'm grateful, Joe. Really grateful. You're sure it's okay," she added, not quite making it a question. I answered it anyway.

"Sure."

"I won't be putting you out any?"

"Karen, why don't you just figure out what questions you want to ask me and ask me? I don't promise to answer any, but we'll save time that way."

She smiled. "Fair enough. You live alone?"

"Yeah."

"Involved with anybody?"

"No."

"Born New Yorker?"

"I don't think so."

She blinked, but let it pass. "Got any family?"

"I don't know."

"You don't know?"

"Next question."

"How come you burgle?"

"It's the only job my background has prepared me for. I'm trying to furnish a flat."

"How'd your nose get all broke up like that?"

"I don't know how I got the first break. You broke it the second time, when I unplugged you."

"Jesus wept and died. I'm sorry, Joe, I—how can you not know how you broke your nose?"

"I wish to God I knew."

"Jesus."

That ended the Twenty Questions for a while. She paced and thought about what I had said, absently lighting another smoke. I could see her working it out. Most of what I had told her made no sense. Lord, who knows better than I? But I had not been smiling when I had said it, so she believed me implicitly. Therefore there had to be a startling but logical explanation, and I must have reasons of my own for not wanting to go into it.

I wished that were so.

It was a little annoying, how implicitly she trusted me. Perhaps it is vaguely unflattering to be considered harmless. Or a little too flattering: more responsibility than I liked.

I was just as annoyed at how implicitly I seemed to trust her. I depend on my instincts—I have to in my position—but sometime soon I was going to have to sit down with them and ask them exactly why they had had me offer my two most dangerous secrets to her. I must stand to gain something from the ultimate risk—but what?

"Look," she said, still pacing, "maybe there's one thing more we should—" She saw my face and stopped. "No," she said thoughtfully. "No, I guess I don't have to discuss that with you. Okay, look. Can you wait another day or two? I know I promised to help you with these speakers, but honest to God I don't think I could make it to the corner right now. If I don't lay down soon, I'll—"

"Go to bed, Karen. I'll get the dishes. Maybe the day after tomorrow, maybe the day after that. My time is my own." Something made that last sentence taste bitter in my mouth.

"Thanks, Joe. Thanks a lot."

"Take two more aspirin."

After she left I got up from the couch and selected one of her better audiotapes. I intended to steal it, or at least dub it onto my home system, but my subconscious felt like hearing it now: Waits's classic Blue Valentine. I adjusted the headphones and sat back.

His courageous version of "Somewhere" made me smile sadly as always. For all us losers and thieves and junkies and nighthawks there is a place, somewhere. But: my place? The next track also seemed apropos, "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis," but only in that Karen could have written such a letter. It did not explain why I had answered as I had. I drifted through the next track, and then my ears woke me up again in the middle of the hypnotic blues "$29," and I had it. Waits's whiskey-and-Old-Gold rasp filled my head.

When the streets get hungry baby

You can almost hear 'em growl

Someone's settin' a place for you

When the dogs begin to howl

When the streets are dead

They creep up and take whatever's

left on the bone

Suckers always make mistakes

Far away from home

Chicken in the pot

Whoever gets there first

Gonna get himself $29 and an alligator

purse . . .

I had already taken all her cash myself, and planned to take other items. Still, there were other thieves on the street who would consider me shockingly wasteful. If I left her here to work out her destiny, I was morally certain that she would drift back to hooking within a week or two. The money is addictive. But she had been working as an independent for a surprisingly long time. Such luck could not last; luck had never lasted for Karen. One day soon she would come to the attention of an entrepreneur. When his training period was over, even a woman as tough and strong as she would be docile, obedient, and tremblingly eager to please. In this largest city in the land of the free, it happens every day.

I could not leave her to the slavers. I hated and feared slavery too much myself.

But it was more than that.

I had meddled. I had forcibly prevented her from ending her life when and as she wished. Stated that way, my action was morally repugnant to me; as a kid I had canvassed and petitioned vigorously for Right to Death, and cheered when it became law of the land. I had no defense now, no excuse: I had acted out of "instinctive" revulsion, which is never an excuse for overriding morality. She had been fleeing from a life that was misery occasionally leavened with horror. If I simply returned her to that life and washed my hands, I was a monster.

I hoped it would not take her too long to find some new kind of direction, some kind of plan or purpose. Because I was stuck with her until she did.

I found myself cursing her for having been so inconsiderate as to pick a slow, pleasant death, and laughed out loud at myself. And went to do the breakfast dishes.

***

It was actually three days before I clouted a delivery van over on Broadway, and drove us and the plunder I had selected to my place. What I didn't want she left behind. The rent would keep paying itself, the lights would go on and off in random patterns simulating inhabitance, the rugs would clean themselves once a week, from now until her lease ran out in another two years or her credit balance dropped too low. That was the rent she paid to stay at my place: the maintenance of a legal address elsewhere on all the proper punch cards.

I had told her almost nothing about the place. So few people ever see it that it's fun to savor the reactions.

She was neither impressed nor dismayed when we pulled up behind the warehouse. It was a moonless night and there were no lights, but a warehouse does not look impressive even in the daytime. The daytime appearance of mine is, in fact, particularly weatherbeaten and long-abandoned, even for the neighborhood.

It was probably just about what she had expected, and I would guess she had lived in worse circumstances before. "Do we unload now?" was all she said.

"Yeah."

We took the swag in the back way and by candlelight we stacked it, for the moment, where burglar's plunder should be stored, in a corner where casual random search of the warehouse would probably not find it.

An office module formed a block in the center of the warehouse. I led her toward it through the black maze by memory, having left the candles where they would be useful. Most people being led through total darkness are a pain in the ass, but she knew how to move in the dark. As we rounded a stack of packing crates something subliminal warned me. I tightened my grip on her hand and flung her bodily into an aisle between two rows of boxes. That changed the position of my head, so the sap came down on the point of my extended shoulder. My right arm died. There is no good way to get a gun from under your left armpit with your left hand. For me to have tried it would have presented my one remaining elbow to that sap. I back-pedaled, spun, and bugged out.

He followed. Not many could have followed me through my own turf in the dark, but he was one of the few. I tried angling toward the crowbar pile, but he guessed it and moved to cut me off. He pressed me too closely to give me a chance to spill the gun and pick it up. I took us to a cleared space large enough to allow room to work and spun at bay, feeling pessimistic. He pulled up just out of reach and puffed and chuckled. I kicked one shoe up into the air, sent the other in another direction, hoping to misdirect him. He flinched as the first one hit, but by the second he had figured it out. He chuckled some more.

"I couldn't get in your place . . . this time either, Sammy," he puffed. "But you'll take me in . . . won't you? You'll beg for the chance."

His sap arm would be behind him; no matter where or how I hit him, he'd have a terrific shot at my head. I should have saved one shoe to flip into his face. Dumb.

"Hey, thanks for throwing in the fem, Sam. She'll never find her way outta here in the dark. You saved me another twenty bucks."

I had to make my move soon, he was getting his breath back. Go for the gun? Try to yank my belt free left-handed? Charge and hope for a break? They all sucked.

"Hey, no hard feelings, huh?"

A shinbone was the least risk; I got ready to try a kick, rehearsing what I would do after he broke my leg. "No hard feelings, Wishbone."

If it is possible to grunt above high C, that is what he did then. He came at me in a shambling walk, hissing, and when he cannoned into me he embraced me. I was too startled to react. The hiss ended in the word "Shit," and then he slid slowly down me.

God damn it, was my whole house full of armed hostiles? I stepped out of his arms, bent and searched hastily for the sap without success.

"Twenty bucks, huh?" Karen said. "Mother fucker."

I got slowly to my feet. "What the hell did you do to him?"

"Put a fist through his goddam kidney. Son of a bitch. Help me find his crotch, I want to kick it."

"Take it easy. Your honor is satisfied."

"But—”

"He sapped me. It's my turn."

"Oh. Are you okay?"

"I'll be okay for another couple of minutes, until this arm comes back to life. Then I will be very disconsolate for a long time."

"How can I help?"

"Help me drag him over here."

We arranged him on a low flatbed handtruck. He was making mewing sounds. He wanted to scream, but he would give up the idea long before he had the breath. I was glad she had hit me only a glancing blow that first day; full strength and she might have killed me, and wouldn't that have made interesting copy for the Daily News?

"Who the hell is he?"

"Wishbone Jones. Small-time mugger and a little of this and that. Skinny as a stork and stronger than I am. Lives down by the wharf. Not bright, but a good fighter. We've tangled." By now I had my gun out. I gave it to her and sat down on the handtruck beside him. My arm and shoulder were just beginning to catch fire, but that was mitigated to some extent by the exhilaration of survival. "Hello, Wishbone."

"H—hi, Sam." He was getting back under control.

"Bad day at the track, Wishbone?"

"Nuh . . . no."

"Then it's got to be basketball or poker."

"Neither one. My ex from Columbus caught up with me."

"Yep. That's kharma for you. Well, I believe we discussed this the last time?"

He grimaced. "Aw, shit, Sam. If I go to the hospital they give me the cure."

"We did discuss it."

He shook his head. "Ah, shit. Yeah." He gave me his arm.

"No hard feelings, Wish?"

"No hard feelings." He closed his eyes and I broke the arm across the edge of the handtruck as quickly and cleanly as I could. He screamed and fainted.

Karen had not uttered a sound when I had suddenly flung her into the darkness, but she yelped now.

I slumped, exhausted and unutterably depressed. I wanted to vomit, and I wanted to scream from the pain in my shoulder, and I wanted to cry. I stood up. "Let's go inside."

It took one metal key and a five-number combination to get us into the office module. The windows are not boarded, they're plated. The door is too heavy to batter and the roof is reinforced. Still, it is no more secure than the average New York apartment. A cleverer cracksman than Wishbone could have opened it in fifteen minutes with the right tools. There is no such thing as an unbeatable lock, just incompetent craftsmen.

"What about him?" she asked as we stepped in.

"Wishbone will find his way home. To the hospital if he's smart. But Wishbone's not smart. Damn his eyes." I sealed the door and turned on the light.

She was looking at me expressionlessly. She came suddenly close, took my face in her hands, and studied it. Nearly at once she nodded. "You hated it."

"God damn you, did you think I enjoyed it?" I yelled, flinging her hands away.

She shook her head. "No. Not for a second." She backed away one step. "But for just a minute there I was scared to death that you didn't give a damn, one way or the other."

I dropped my eyes. "Fair enough." I turned around and walked a few steps. "Simulating total ruthlessness is, I guess, the hardest thing I've ever had to do in my life. Sometimes it's necessary."

"Yeah. I know."

I whirled, ready to flare up at any sign of pity or sympathy, but there was neither. Only a total understanding of, and agreement with, what I had said.

"Come on," I said. "I'll show you around." My shoulder ached like hell, but as I said, I wanted to see her reaction.

The room we were in had not been substantially altered since the last time it was used as an office, perhaps fifteen or twenty years ago. The alterations I had made had not involved cleaning. There wasn't much to see that was worth looking at, unless she had a thing for busts of President Kennedy the Second. I led her into the back, throwing on lights as we went.

It was obvious that a bachelor burglar of no great fastidiousness lived here. Three inner offices were converted to living space, furnished with things too rickety, threadbare, or ugly to fence. Empties lay here and there, and all the wastebaskets were overflowing. The "kitchen" could produce anything from peanut butter on moldy white bread to a tolerable mulligan, and not much in between, if you didn't count the beer. The office with the toilet had perforce become the master bedroom. A truly astonishing calendar hung on the wall. The mattress lay on the floor, and the sheets had that lived-in look. A rancid glass of orange juice sat beside the bed, next to a sound-only phone and a disorderly pile of recent newspapers all opened to the society page.

She really did have manners. She kept a poker face, made no comment at anything she saw, just looked around at each room and nodded. Perhaps she had lived in worse. Finally my shoulder hurt too much. I decided I had milked it for all it was worth and took her back to the outer office.

She lit a Peter Jackson. "By the way, how many names have you got, Sam?"

"How many are there? Sit over on that desk, 'Sharon.'"

She complied.

"Now lift your feet off the floor, completely, and keep them there."

I waited until she had done so. Initiating dislock sequence while there is additional human-size mass anywhere in the room except on the four places where those desk legs meet the floor will cause the room to be blown out of the warehouse. When she was seated correctly I turned to the desk nearest me. I opened the middle drawer. Then I crossed the room and flipped the switch for the ventilation fan that no longer works. On, off, on. I went back to the desk and closed the drawer. What looked just like a battered old Royal manual typewriter sat on a rubber pad on the desk's typing shelf; I typed some words. Karen watched all this without expression, but I could tell that she was wondering if I had sustained any head injuries in the scuffle with Wishbone.

I walked over in front of the bust of Kennedy and smiled at it. Its right eye winked at me. A large section of floor hinged back and up like a snake sitting up, soundlessly. Carpeted stairs led down into a place of soft lights.

"Now I'll show you where I really live."

"You bastard," she said.

I bowed and gestured: after you.

"You bastard," she said again softly. "This you did enjoy."

I lost control and grinned hugely. "Bet your ass." I gestured again. "Come on. You can get down off there now. Or do you want to spend the night up here?"

She came off the desk with a you'll-get-yours grin, tugged her skirt around, and whacked dust from it. "The secret temple of Karnak. Do I have to take my shoes off?"

"Not even your dress." Perhaps an indelicate joke, but I had found that she liked being kidded about her occupation.

She grimaced. "That's another buck for ironing, chump." She came to the stairs and went down. I followed. I didn't crash into her on the bottom step because I was expecting her to stop dead. I waited while she stared, and when she finally stepped into the living room I moved past her.

She was still staring around her, with an astonishment that refused to fade. No matter where she looked, she could find nothing unremarkable. I drank her astonishment thirstily.

Perhaps I am excessively houseproud. But I have some reason to be. The location is a large part of its value, of course—but as a conventional apartment it was worth two and a half of hers, and she had not been living cheaply by any means. I seldom indulge my weakness; Karen was the fifth person to come down those stairs with me. Almost all of the others had lived with me upstairs for at least a week before I let them into my real house.

She would not say a word.

"This is the living room," I said, and she jumped. "If you'll step this way . . . ?" Oh, I was disgusting.

She remained resolutely silent during the rest of the tour, but it cost her. It took a good ten minutes; my house has a little more than twice the cubic of the office complex that sits on it.

As we walked I flipped switches and brought the house back up to active status, started the coffee program, and turned up the fans to accommodate her inevitable cigarettes.

The message light on the phone panel was not lit. Maybe one day I will come home and find it lit. When that happens I will drop to the floor and pray that the end is quick.

At last my shoulder made me cut it short. I led us back to the living room and dropped into the nearest Lounger, drawing its attention to my shoulder. "Excuse me," I said. "This won't wait any longer."

She nodded. The chair began doing indescribable things to my shoulder girdle, and I closed my eyes. When I could open them again, she was standing on the same spot in the same stance, looking at me with the same lack of expression. My chair cut back to subliminal purring. I tried the shoulder and winced, but decided against repeating the massage cycle.

"Joe," she said finally, "you are a good burglar."

"I'm a very good burglar."

"If that grin gets any bigger, you're gonna split your face clear back to your ears. Just before that happens, would it be all right if I were to ask some of the obvious questions?"

"I'll tell you anything I can."

"All right." She took out cigarettes and lit up. Then she put her fists on her hips. "What the fuck is this place?"

"Are you familiar with the expression, 'to go to the mattresses'?"

"Sure. Are you trying to tell me that all this"—she swept her hand around the room—"is some kind of gangster's command post?"

"No. But I am telling you that big multinationals sometimes have to go to the mattresses too."

Her eyes widened. "But—that's silly. Multinationals don't have shooting w—well, yes they do, but not in New York."

"Not on page one, no. They tend to be much neater, much subtler."

She thought it through. "So it's a corporate command bunker. What corporation?"

"I don't know."

"It looks like it would make a great fortress. How come the original owners aren't here?"

"My guess is undeclared war, a sneak attack. The secret of this place would naturally be known only by a few—presumably 'one grenade got them all.' I estimate that it has been abandoned for almost fifteen years, since about '85. I found it about ten years back, and nobody's come around since, that I know of. Could happen any time, of course."

"So how the hell could you happen to 'stumble across' that song-and-dance routine you did upstairs to open the door?"

"I can't imagine."

She frowned. "Conversation with you certainly has a lot of punctuation. Forget I asked." She looked around again. "Who pays the utilities? Since you don't exist, I mean."

"Nobody."

"What do I look like, an idiot? That's a full-service phone over there, and two powered chairs, and your tape console alone must draw . . . not to mention that terminal in the bedroom, and lights and climate and—don't tell me. There's an inconspicuous solar collector on top of the abandoned warehouse, no bigger than Washington Square."

I smiled. "I misspoke myself. I should have said 'everybody.' I get my power and phone from the same place you do—I just don't pay for it."

"But they've got hunter programs monitoring for unmetered drain—"

"Programs written and administered by corruptible, fallible human beings. Whoever built this place built it well. I never get a bill."

"I'll be damned." She stared at the phone. "But how can anybody call you? You can't have a number, the switching syst—"

"Nobody can call me. It's the perfect phone."

Her grin was sudden. "I'll be go to hell. So it is." She took off her rucksack and checked to make sure she had broken or crushed nothing when she fell. "Where should I stash my stuff?"

"I'll do it. Sit down."

I gestured toward the other Lounger. She put down the sack and went to it, stroked the headrest reverently. "For years I've wanted one of these. Never could afford it." She shook her head. "I guess crime pays."

"No, but the perks are terrific. Go on, try it."

She sat, made a small sound as she realized that it did not hurt her sores, then made another as the chair adjusted to her skeletal shape and body temperature. I set it for gentle massage and took her bag to the spare bedroom. When I got back I had her chair mix a Preacher's Downfall for me and a rum-and-rum for her. (I had satisfied myself by then that wireheading had cured her of compulsive overboozing. A marvelous therapeutic tool, save that its side effects included death.)

She did not see me at once; her eyes were rolled back into her head. But after a while her ears told her that ice cubes were clinking nearby, and she came slowly back to the external world. "Joe," she said, smiling happily, "you're a good burglar."

It was nice to see her sitting back in a chair, with a smile that I liked on her face.

We drank and talked for an hour or so. Then on impulse I put on some Brindle to see if she knew the difference between music you talk over and music you don't. Sure enough, three bars in she shut up and smiled and sat back to listen. When the tape was through she was ready to admire my bathroom, and then I showed her her bedroom. By then she was too tired to admire anything. I started to head for my own room, but she caught my arm.

"Joe . . ." She looked me in the eye. "Would you sleep with me tonight?"

I studied her face until I was sure the question was meant literally. "Sure."

"You're a good burglar," she murmured, peeling out of her tunic.

It did feel almighty good to have arms around me in bed. I fell asleep no more than five seconds after we had achieved a comfortable spoon. She beat me by several seconds. From that day on, if we slept at the same time it was together.

***

I introduced her to the bust of Kennedy, who filed her in his permanents. I showed her the defense systems and emergency exits. I showed her my meditation place down by the river, and how to get there and back safely. She started spending a lot of time alone there, even though she couldn't smoke while filtered and goggled. She did not discuss what she thought about there, and I did not ask. I could search her home, rifle her strongbox, and milk her terminal—but some things are personal. Four days went by this way.

I was sitting in the Lounger having my neck rubbed and planning my next job when I heard the dislock sequence initiate. I glanced up, expecting Karen. But when the door cycled up it was the Fader who came down the stairs, with a tape in his hand.

Fader Takhalous is fiftyish and just as nondescript as a man can be. I have mistaken half a dozen strangers for him, and once failed to recognize him until he spoke to me. He could mug you in broad daylight and rent a room from you the next day. I held much the same relationship to him that Karen held to me, except four years further along. I only saw him two or three times a year, and was surprised to see him now; I hadn't been expecting him for another few months.

But the tape explained it. He nodded hello on his way to the stereo; I nodded back, but he didn't see it. He fed the tape to the heads and turned the treble back to flat. He sat in the other Lounger, leaving it turned off, and stared at the ceiling. I dialed the lights down and shut my own chair off. The music was almost unbearably good, a synthesizer piece that was alternately stark and lush, spare and majestic; that took chances and succeeded. It reminded me of early-period Rubbico & Spangler. The Fader smoked a joint while we listened, and for once I didn't mind the faint buzz that breathing his waste smoke brought; the music made it okay.

And about the time I could tell that the unknown composer was building to the finish, Karen did come home, the music masking the noise of her arrival. I had not thought this through. As she came down the stairs she took in the scene, threw me a hello smile, and headed for the kitchen, carrying groceries.

When she returned she sat on the couch without a word and listened, staring at the ceiling. The Fader raised an approving eyebrow, then returned his own attention to the music.

When it had ended we awarded it ten seconds of silence. Then the Fader rose from his chair. He bowed to Karen. "You listen well, Miss—"

"Karyn Shaw. That was worth listening to."

"They call me the Fader. Which is what I'm about to do. A pleasure to meet you." She offered her hand and he kissed it. Then he turned to me. "Pop me that tape, son. I'll bring it back for duping another time. I just remembered I left the kettle on."

I got the tape and gave it to him. "What's your hurry?"

"A small matter of business." His eyes slid briefly to Karen.

"She's okay, Fader. She's a friend. She's here, right?"

He relaxed slightly. "I've got a mark up to Phase Two, and I just now thought of a way I could take him straight to Phase Four in one jump. If it works it cuts down the seed-money investment substantially—but it has to happen now. I'll let you know how it turns out."

I grinned. "Ah, the delicious urgency of the creative impulse. Good luck." He smiled and nodded at Karen again, and was gone.

"Nice old duck," she said when the door had closed behind him. "I get the funny feeling maybe I . . . frightened him away somehow. I'm sorry if I did, that music was nice."

"You're the sorriest thing I've seen all day," I said. "What did you buy us for dinner, and why aren't you pouring it?"

"Whups." She left and came back with whiskey and cashews and raisins. "I'm cooking stew."

"The hell you say."

"God damn it, Joe. I know I'm no good with a microwave. My folks were too poor to have micro. But you've got that old-fashioned stove that still works in there, and a perfectly good pressure cooker, and that's what I learned at my mother's knee. So shut up and wait till you taste it before you—"

"All right, all right, I'll take a chance."

She found the Fader's joint on the rug, which thank heaven is burnproof, and looked up inquiringly. I nodded, and she toked it back to life. After two or three deep puffs, she set it down on what we still call an "ashtray" even though it's been years since cigarettes or joints produced ashes, probably because "buttrest" seems indelicate. "Hey, Joe. Guess what? I think I figured out what I want to do when I grow up."

I sat up straighter and felt myself smiling. "Tell me about it." It was the best news I'd had in a long while. I hadn't been sure whether her meditation was helping or hurting her.

"You remember that conversation we had back at my place, back on Day One? About joy? As distinguished from pleasure?"

"Sure."

"So there's two kinds: the kind from doing a good thing, and the kind from passing up a real tempting chance to do a bad one. The second kind's easy. It is really tempting to go back to the life, the money's fabulous—and it's giving me great joy not to, because the life is a bad thing."

"You don't rationalize that it's therapeutic for the customers?"

"If acting out aggression drained it, there'd be fistfights before football games instead of after. I did my customers no favor, and I charged 'em plenty for it.

"But dumping that is only a kind of negative joy. I've been looking for a good thing to do. Something really worthwhile, something to benefit the world in a significant way, and commensurate with my talents and background."

"Uh-huh."

"Well, that's the hard part. I've never learned how to do anything really useful except fuck and fix motorcycles, and I can't go back to bikes because I can't stand working on the junk they make nowadays. Besides, the existence of motorcycles in good running order isn't all that great a boon to mankind. I figure I can do better than that."

"I'm sure of it," I agreed. "What have you selected?"

"Well, I got to thinking about this socket in my skull. I got to thinking about people who have 'em put there, and why. Self-destruction's too quick an answer. I've been over it in my head a lot, and I can't be certain, but I think if that option hadn't been there—if there hadn't been a friendly neighborhood wireshop all of six blocks away—if wireheading hadn't come along and presented itself, I do not think I would have just found some other way to suicide. Other than tobacco and a risky lifestyle, I mean.

"I mean, I don't think dying is what I wanted at all. I don't think hardly any of the people the juice has killed wanted to die, as such, exactly. I think we just . . . just wanted to have it all, just for once, just for a little while to have it all and not be hungry anymore. And if dying was the ticket price, well, okay."

I wasn't certain I agreed, but then I'd never asked a wirehead's opinion. Very few people ever get to. I remembered the great lengths she had gone to with the water bottle to prolong her own last ride as far as possible.

"So it seems to me, now, that the existence of that option is an evil thing. An attractive nuisance, like the swimming pools and old refrigerators little kids get into. It makes it so that people past a certain point of instability are unbearably tempted. Maybe I'm rationalizing, trying to shift some blame for what I did from myself."

She finished her drink and lit a Peter Jackson, masking the last fragrances of the Fader's joint. "So what I'd like to do is everything I can to remove that option."

I sat there trying not to frown. "How, exactly?"

"I haven't exactly got detailed plans yet—"

"Phone your congresscritter? Write a letter to The Village Voice? Shoot every wire-surgeon in town?"

"The shock docs don't matter one way or another. They'd just as soon be botching abortions and faking draft deferments. It's the corporations that make and market the hardware that are the real villains."

"Anybody can put together a juice rig."

"The wire and transformer, sure—but the droud itself, the microfilaments and the technology to place them properly, that's not workbench stuff. Without the corporations, wireheading just wouldn't happen."

"Do you have any idea how many corporations are involved?" I asked sarcastically. I had no firm idea myself.

"Three."

"Nonsense. There have to be at least—"

"Three. The shock doc I picked took it out in trade, and he felt talkative afterward. I didn't think I was listening at the time, but I was. There are over a dozen juice-rig models on the market, but they all get their basic modules from one of three corporations. There used to be five, but two of them went under. And the doc said he had his eyes and ears open, and he had a hunch that two of the three were really different arms of a single outfit that nobody knows."

"How could a juice-head company go broke?"

"How should I know? Sampling the merchandise, maybe. Anyway, all the basic patents are held by a Swiss outfit, so that makes a total of three targets and four avenues of approach."

"Infiltrate and destroy, huh?"

"Something like that. Freelance industrial espionage."

"I repeat, what's your plan? See how many executives you can poison before they get you?"

"I thought of it," she admitted.

"Pointless and stupid. Honey, you start in killing sharks, they just start showing up faster than you can kill them."

"Yeah, but that's not why I gave up the idea. I don't think I've got it in me to kill."

That impressed me. Most of the children of television are convinced that they have in them what it takes to murder in cold blood. The overwhelming majority of them are wrong. Surprisingly few have what it takes to murder in hot blood, or even self-defense. "Congratulations."

"But there are other ways. There's no such thing as an honest corporation. A hooker often learns things, without even trying, that the IRS would love to know. Or the Securities and Exchange Commission. Or the Justice Department, or—"

"Or Newsday, right. They pay the best, you might as well get a terrific coffin out of the deal. I'm certainly glad to hear that you have no death-wish."

"I'm not especially afraid of death. Not anymore. Someday, no matter what I do, random chance is going to strike me dead. I might as well be doing something worthwhile at the time. It should be a shame that I died."

"It sure will be. Karen, the kind of people you're talking about have all the access they could over want, and more leverage than you can believe. There is no way you can sell that kind of information and not be traced. Hell, they'll be able to follow the path of the check."

"I won't sell the information, then. I'll give it away."

"Don't be silly. Who'd trust free information?"

"But I could—”

"Damn it to hell, listen to me. I was professionally trained to infiltrate and destroy once, by experts. I've been on the con for a long time now, and I have a unique advantage you don't share. I can't be traced. If my life depended on it, I wouldn't get within a hundred miles of a scam like this. With a crack team of about a dozen, and an unlimited bankroll, you could maybe put a big bruise on people like that and live to admire it. No way is anybody going to bring them down. Let alone a single commando, let alone a crusading hooker with a hole in her head. Get serious, will you—"

"Shut the fuck up!"

I am not used to being outshouted. I hadn't even known I was shouting.

"Don't talk down to me! I don't care how old you are, don't talk down to me. I'm sick of that shit. I don't have to listen to that. I have been around, chump. I've been in on enough scams to know what I can do. I'm pretty smart and I'm pretty tough, and I don't scare worth a damn. God damn it, I've been hooking for almost a year in this town and nobody owns me. I'm a fucking independent, do you know that? Do you know what that means?"

Of course I did—but I had never thought it through, never considered the cleverness and strength it implied. She saw me working it out and grinned. "There's a sucker out on the street now with three new creases on his face. One that I put there, and two from worrying about where I might put the next one. Joe, I know the way things are. I know this job is too big for me, and I expect to enjoy it right up to the end, and I don't need any lectures. Oh, Jesus, the stew!"

She leaped up and galloped to the kitchen. I sat there with my empty glass, listened to the squeal and hiss and clatter of the silly obsolete pressure cooker, listened to oh-shit noises turn to dubious mmms and finally to mollified nnns and a last triumphant ha.

Once I blew a radiator hose on the highway. A Good Samaritan stopped to help me. He acted very knowledgeable about cars. While I was getting the spare hose out of the trunk, he helpfully topped off my transmission fluid for me. With the brake fluid I kept behind the right headlight. "Oh, it's all the same stuff," he assured me. "They just put in different dyes and charge you more money." It took me three days to get a tranny shop to flush and refill the system, and for those three days the transmission slipped so badly that I nearly went crazy. The engine would roar smoothly in response to the accelerator, while the car crept along in fits and starts as it slipped in and out of gear. It was a helpless, frustrated feeling. I had all the horsepower in the world, and it took me two city blocks to coax her up to thirty.

At the moment that was the inside of my head. High revs, but it wouldn't go anywhere. I attributed it to the pot smoke I had breathed. The thought train went like so:

(I'm much too agitated.) (Well, sure I am, my new friend is planning something dangerous and stupid.) (No, there's more to it than that.) (Something else?) (Yes.) (What else?) (. . . my new friend is planning something dangerous and stupid.) (No, there's more to it than that.) (What else?) (. . . my new friend is planning . . .)

Pull back on the accelerator and try again.

(Why must there be something else?) (Because I'm much too agitated.) (Why?) (Because my new . . .)

Same loop. Try again.

(Why do I feel my agitation is "too much" ?) (Because if I were only concerned about my friend, I'd be trying to persuade her to drop her plans.) (And . . . ?) (And getting agitated is the wrong way to persuade her.) (Sure?) (Yes; it will only strengthen her resolve.) (Conclusion?) (I'm not really trying to talk her out of it.) (What am I doing, then?) (Getting very agitated.) (Why?) (My new friend is planning something . . .)

Christ.

The aroma of stew struck like a symphony, disrupting the inner loop. I heard silverware being assembled, bowls being ladled full. I saw the cigarette she had left burning give one last puff of smoke and expire. Stop the brain, put it away, maybe after dinner . . .

(What should I be doing?) (Talking her out of it.) (How?) (By going along with the gag.) (By—?) (Wait for her own doubts to emerge, wait for her to falter—and she will—and then nudge.) (Con my friend?) (That, or stubborn her up and send her out there alone. There's no third choice.) (I can't do that.) (Why not?) (It's dangerous.) (What do you mean, dangerous?) (It makes me very agitated.) (Why?) (My new friend is planning to . . .)

(I'm trying to talk myself out of it!)

She brought two bowls into the room, and the symphony of smells crescendoed. She put them on the coffee table, left, and reentered with a jug and two glasses. She poured for us. She left again for garlic-and-butter-toasted French bread, and then she sat opposite me. I started to dig in.

"Joe? It should cool a little first."

"Right."

"Look . . . I just did some thinking. I had no call to blow up at you that way, no right. It's just that you came on kind of . . . paternal, and you're about forty." That made me wince. In my head I'm twenty-eight. "About the same age as he was when . . . I'm sorry I yelled at you."

"I'm sorry I yelled too. I don't know why I did."

We ate the stew. It was superb, and I told her so.

"Joe?"

"Yeah."

"Look, you've done an awful lot for me. You saved my life, you put me—"

"Please."

"—back together again, let me say it, you gave me this place to come to and a warm bed every night, you never ask when I'm gonna get it together and do something, you give me all this and I give you bupkiss."

"My ass. I got all your cash and a terrific pair of speakers."

"You're a good man, Joe, and only a selfish bitch would ask you for anything more."

"The way you're about to?"

"The way I'm about to."

I tried to sigh, but a belch spoiled it. "Ask away, honey. Your stew has softened my heart."

"Your terminal has just about all the access there is. I want you to get me readings on all my targets."

The fear was back, a muffled yammering in a distant compartment of my skull.

"Just give me a deep reading of each one. That's all. I'm not asking you to come in on the scam. It's not personal with you, it's not your crusade. But you could save me weeks of legwork—maybe months."

"I'm sorry, Karen. I can't."

"Why not?"

(Why not?) "The kind of information you're talking about is ringed around with alarms, tricky ones. If I trip one, a tracer program could start hunting me back."

"So what? You don't exist, not on tape."

"Exactly. How come you're still an independent? Forget about how tough and smart you are—what's the main reason?"

She frowned. "Well . . . my Johns don't talk much. Not even to their best friends."

"Bullseye. How long do you think you'd last in this town if The Man heard about you and decided he could use you? A couple of gentlemen would call on you, and when they were done you'd be terribly, terribly anxious to do any little thing that might please them. Now suppose that you're a big-time corporate shark. The kind whose attention The Man himself tries not to attract. Somebody tries to crack your shields, and when you investigate you discover that the interloper has no legal existence. Could you not find uses for such a person? Important uses? Would it not be worth a lot of time and trouble to track him down and enslave him? Honey, I continue to exist as an independent for the same reason you do, or anybody else with something special to offer. The bastards haven't noticed me yet. Should I stick my nose in their window and start sniffing?"

We both listened to the argument as it came out of my mouth. It convinced her, and it should have convinced me. My subconscious had done a good job on it. It was a pretty good argument, with only a couple of holes in it, and it was indeed something to be afraid of. But it wasn't what I feared. I could tell.

But she bought it. She didn't even bother poking at the holes in the logic to see what I had them stuffed with. If a good friend doesn't want to do you a favor, there's no point in arguing.

"I guess you're right. I hadn't thought it through." She sat crestfallen for a moment, then squared her shoulders. "Well, there are other keyboard men in town."

"Sure. Professionals with equipment almost as good as mine. Better connected, better protected. But Karen . . . listen, no matter how you go about this, it's suicide city, I'm telling you. Give it up."

"Two weeks ago I was willing to die just to find out what pleasure was like."

"If all you want is a socially useful kamikaze mission, just stop paying off your draft board. You'll be on the New York police force the next day, and stiff in the South Bronx before the year is out."

"And chase guys like you? And chippies like me? Don't be silly. Look, I've got to piss—you stay here till I get back. Surprise dessert in the kitchen." She leaped up and was gone.

I sat there trying to figure out what I was really afraid of.

It was astonishingly, frustratingly difficult. I knew that the answer was in my possession, that some part of my mind held the knowledge. I could even tell in what "direction" that part lay. But every time I steered that way and gave her the gas, the transmission slipped. It could run away faster than I could pursue. Stubbornly, hopelessly, I stalked it, knowing only that it tasted like nightmares.

Something yanked me out of my brown study; the outside world was demanding my attention. But why? Everything looked okay. I smelled nothing burning, all I heard was the distant sound of Karen urinating . . .

I played back tape, and discovered that I had been hearing that sound for an impossibly long time.

I didn't even bother to run. She had found a small length of hose under the sink, and used adhesive tape to run a siphon from the toilet tank, to simulate the sound of urination. Then she had left, by the second of my two emergency exits. The one I had not told her about. On the face of the lid she had left a lipstick message: "Enjoy the speakers, Joe. I'm glad that fucker landlord didn't get them. Thanks for everything."

I nodded my head. "You're welcome," I said out loud. I went to the kitchen, made a pitcher of five-to-one martinis, frowned, dumped it in the sink, made a pitcher of six-to-one martinis, nodded and smiled, brought it into the living room, and hurled it carefully through the television screen. Then I rummaged in the ashtray for the Fader's roach, and got three good deep tokes out of it before I burned my lip. I had not smoked in many years; it smacked me hard.

"Lady," I said to her empty stew bowl, "if you can con me that well, maybe—just maybe—you've got a snowball's chance."

 

 

5

 

1994

Norman halted just outside the front door of his apartment building, let it close behind him, and sighed. Fall had always seemed to him a silly time to begin the new school year. Like hibernating bears, scholars sealed themselves away from the world just when it was at its most beautiful. A farmer would have been his most involved with the outdoors now, trying to outguess the frosts and prepare his home for winter. Norman could not even yield to the temptation to kick apart heaps of rainbow leaves in his path, for an assistant professor in public can no more take off his dignity than his trousers.

It was only a block to the campus, but Norman was running late. He sneered at his briefcase, turned right, and began the walk to work. As he passed the underground garage ramp it blatted at him and emitted a Toyota. Norman watched the car as he got out of its way, wondering for the thousandth time why anyone living in this city would want to own a car. Walking was much cheaper, much less trouble—and healthier too.

If you're such a health nut, he asked himself, why have you let yourself get so badly out of shape? In the six years since he had left the army, Norman's only sustained regular exercise had been this daily two blocks' walk to and from the university. He had long since given up even pretending that he was trying to control his tobacco habit, and he knew he weighed more than he should. He could remember what it had felt like in the army, to be in shape, and wondered why he had let such a good feeling go out of his life upon his discharge, without a backward glance. He had known an echo of that easy confidence, that readiness for anything, the night when Maddy arrived and he had thought her a prowler. But the absurd failure of his charge that night proved that it was only an echo, an adrenaline memory, that he no longer deserved that confidence. Norman resolved to begin a rigorous program of calisthenics that very night, and to sign up for swimming privileges at the university pool that very afternoon, whereupon he lit a cigarette.

This whole thought-train had occupied only the space of time necessary to glance at the puffing Toyota and then down into his jacket pocket for his cigarettes. His cupped hands came away from his face, and the one holding the match began to shake it out, and instead held the match upside down long enough to burn him. Lois stood before him on the pavement—tall, slim and beautiful—frosting at the mouth and shivering. She wore no coat. Her hair and makeup were impeccable, and her expression was somewhere between afraid and exhilarated.

"I'm late," he said at once, and then, "Ouch." He disposed of the match, making his hundredth mental note to switch to the new self-lighting cigarettes.

"I know. I nearly froze my face off waiting in my lobby for you to come by." She could not meet his eyes, though not for lack of trying.

"Lois, for God's sake, it's the first day. I've got—"

"I planned it this way. First I thought I'd have you over for coffee and spend about three hours leading you around to it, and then I decided that would be dishonest and you'd resent being manipulated, so I thought I'd just say it bang and let you have time to think about it before you say anything. That way you sort of don't just say something, like, spontaneously, and then feel like you have to live up to it or something."

This was a more or less familiar ritual with them. When she had, say, lent five hundred (Old) dollars they couldn't spare to a friend who couldn't possibly be imagined repaying them, she would begin the news like this. And he would think, What is the most horrible thing she could possibly say next? and then he would be relieved when it wasn't that. So he thought now of the most horrible thing she could possibly say next, and she said it.

"I want to come back to you."

He stared at her, waited for a punchline, for the alarm clock to go off, for a freak meteorite to come and drill him through the heart.

"I'm off today at three, I'll be home all night, call me when you're ready."

She was gone.

Since his path was no longer blocked, he resumed walking. At this particular time her proposition—no, damn it, her proposal—was simply and literally unthinkable. He placed it firmly out of his mind and walked on, thinking of pushups versus situps and wondering if the bookstore had gotten his texts in yet. When he had gone about twenty steps he paused, spun on his heel, and roared at absolute maximum volume, "What about the plumber, then?"

Across the street a second-floor landing window slid open on Lois's building. "He moved out a week ago," she called back, and closed the window.

A handful of students on either side of the street were motionless, staring at Norman with some apprehension. He glared back, and all but one resumed their own migrations. That one continued to stare, quite expressionlessly, past glasses that doubled the apparent size of his eyes.

"Moved out of his own apartment, by God," Norman muttered to himself. He puffed furiously on his cigarette. There had to be some way to make that insolent bookstore manager show a little respect. Norman couldn't complain to MacLeod . . . but perhaps he could mention it to someone who would tell MacLeod. Yes, that idea had promise . . .

He walked on.

His first sight of the campus delighted his sense of irony. The original layout designer had placed concrete walkways where he thought they would look nice. Generations of students had taken more convenient paths, destroying grass and creating muddy ruts. Generations of administrators had taken this as a personal affront, and had struck back with strict, unenforceable prohibitions. The current administration had faced reality: all the previous summer they had torn up and reseeded the walkways, poured new ones where the students' ruts were. Now Norman saw at once that the majority of the upper-class students were ignoring the new walkways and following the old paths they had always scorned, through the new grass. In one place a small circular flower plot stood precisely on a no-longer-extant path; Norman watched a student walk directly to it, circle its perimeter carefully, and continue on the imaginary walkway.

Having just made himself a public spectacle before students who might well be his own, Norman walked where he was meant to walk. But he resented having to do so.

He picked up memos and schedule revisions at the department office, stored his hat and coat in his office, and went to deal with the bookstore. By a stroke of luck the assistant departmental chairman was present when Norman said in a slightly raised voice, "Another month? But these were ordered in March. Of last year." The assistant chairman glanced up, and Norman had the satisfaction of hearing the store manager hastily give an excuse that was not only patently false, but checkably false: a memo from the Chancellor would reach the manager within twenty-four hours, and Norman's students would have their textbooks before the close of the add-drop period. He reached his first class, Introduction to Joyce, in a cocky, go-to-hell state of mind, and when he looked about the room and saw at least a dozen versions of the same mask—eager interest mixed with respectful politeness—something clicked in his head and he made an impulsive decision. Norman had always been rather conservative for an English teacher, had never needed to be given MacLeod's Number Three Lecture on The Irresponsibility of the Maverick, had always respected even the forms and traditions which he personally found silly. Ever since the army he had been willing to pay lip service to any ritual-system that promised stability—or even only familiarity. But all at once he heard himself say to his students the very same words that had nearly ended his father's career twenty-five years before.

"Is there anyone here who does not want an A?"

Total silence.

"I say, is there anyone here who objects to being given an A in this course, for the semester, here and now?"

One hand rose near the back, a skeptical woman sensing some kind of trap. (Norman's father had drawn three of them.)

Norman nodded. "Okay. Come see me in my office sometime, we'll discuss it. The rest of you, you've all got an A in this course. You can go home now."

Pandemonium. Hands shot up all over, and no one moved from their seats. (Twenty-five years before, several students had whooped with glee and left the room by this point.) When the general outcry reached its first lull, Norman spoke up and overrode it.

"I am perfectly serious. Those of you who signed up for this course because you needed another three credits in English may now leave, satisfied. You have what you paid for, and are spared six months of diligent hypocrisy."

"And then when we take you up on it and leave, you fail us, right?" said the woman who had first raised her hand.

Norman frowned. "You have nearly managed to insult me, Ms . . . ."

"Porter."

"Ms. Porter. Let me assure you: I say what I mean, and vice versa. Those who choose to leave have my blessing, and my thanks. I will not even make a list of your names, since everyone except Ms. Porter is getting the same grade. I will not so much as look with private disapproval on those of you who choose to go. I fully understand that the existing system pressures you to matriculate at the expense of learning about anything you're interested in, and acquiring a necessary job credential seems to me as valid a reason as any for attending a university. God help us. If that is your purpose, accept it and be proud of it and do it efficiently. And don't clutter up my classroom. Because you see, I happen to be enormously interested in—and greatly confused by—the writing of James Joyce. Some of the things he wrote stir up my brains and haunt my off-hours, and other things he wrote mystify or bore me to tears. And I propose to spend a couple of hours a week for the next several months in the exclusive company of people who are also enormously interested in the writing of James Joyce. I believe this will increase my own knowledge and appreciation of Joyce, and I'm confident that it will increase yours."

A young man who wore the only necktie in the room besides Norman's spoke up in a nasal voice. "Will there be any tests?"

"Well, I should hope there will be at least one or two in every classroom period, but not the way you mean, no."

"Papers?" asked a short rat-faced woman.

"Anytime you feel you have the makings of a paper, cogent or otherwise, write it up and leave it in my office. The very best I will help you to have published, if you're interested. Those and the second best will be photocopied, distributed, and discussed. The bad ones will be discussed privately. They'll all get A's."

The necktied young man supplied Norman with the straight line he'd been hoping for. "But Dr. Kent, if we've all got A's . . . what's supposed to motivate us to work?"

Happily, Norman again quoted his late father. "Why, bless you, the intrinsic interest of the material itself."

Blank faces stared at him. He waited, and after a few moments a third of the class left the room. Ms. Porter was among them. Most of the remaining two-thirds looked mightily interested.

Be damned, Norman thought, history does repeat itself.

He repeated the procedure at Victorian Poetry, his only other class that day, with similar results.

At nine o'clock that night he stubbed out an expensive marijuana cigarette, set his phone for record, shook his head at it, and said, "Not a chance." He played it back, nodded, and punched Lois's number. When his board told him that she had answered, he fed the recording on a loop. His own screen stayed dark, and after a while she hung up. He put Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross on the stereo, lit another of the cigarettes, and after some while cried himself to sleep.

***

The next morning history continued to repeat itself. The summons was waiting on his desk, and the reaming was thorough. It did not help at all that MacLeod knew the story about Norman's father. MacLeod had made all the allowances he was going to make for Norman's personal misfortunes; for the rest of the semester, and perhaps the year, Norman was on sudden-death overtime. The next mistake would be his last. He was obliged to contact all the students who had left and advise them that he had been overruled. No part of that was fun.

Thoroughly sobered at last, lusting again for any kind of security, Norman became over the next three or four months a model teacher—that is, a tireless and blindingly efficient robot. He shouldered a tremendous course load including two freshman World Lit courses and a two-night-a-week seminar, and performed brilliantly in all of them. He completed and published an exemplary paper on Dwyer's 1978 "Ariana Olisvos" hoax, which was anthologized nearly at once. He took over the campus literary magazine when old Coxwell died, restructured the staff to tremendous effect, and figured out a way to get the printing done at half cost. He kept his promise to himself: he spent every hour not used for work or sleep in hard exercise at either the gym or the pool. He gave up tobacco and cannabis and cut down on alcohol. Good physical condition came back hard at his age, after nearly seven years of neglect, but he pursued it hard. His students either loved or hated him; none was indifferent. MacLeod allowed himself to become friendly again.

To those around him Norman came to seem almost unnaturally alert and rational. In fact, he was in a kind of trance, the peace of the dervish.

***

At Christmastime came Minnie and the Bear.

Both sets of parents had guessed wrong. A man christened Chesley Withbert should not be very tall, very broad, immensely strong, and covered all over with curly black hair; it is unfair to those tempted to laugh. His inevitable nickname was first given to him at age eight. Similarly, a woman born Minnie Rodenta should not be five feet high and mouse-faced, but no nickname had been found for her yet that was not worse. To Norman they were beloved friends, not seen in three years and frequently missed. He was greatly cheered by their arrival in that loneliest of all seasons, which of course was why they had come.

Norman and the Bear had served together in Africa; each had saved the other's life once. Norman had been wounded and discharged first, but by the time he was out of the hospital the Bear too was out of the army, and had moved to Nova Scotia. While Norman was sitting in New York, pondering what the hell to do with his life, he got a letter from the Bear, inviting him up to Halifax for a couple of weeks. Halifax is one of the few remaining North American cities from which one can reach raw nature in ten minutes' drive; by the middle of the second week Norman knew that he could never go back to New York. There was a regional shortage of trained English teachers, the only job for which his prewar degree had prepared him; he overcame his lack of experience with a brilliant interview and was hired. Presently the Bear and his new lover, Minnie, introduced him to a girl Minnie worked with at Victoria General Hospital. Named Lois. Both couples spent a great deal of time together, swapped twice experimentally, and gave it up when it seemed to interfere with their friendship. They were married within three months of each other.

Then three years ago Minnie's work had taken her to Toronto. Bear had by then established himself as a copy-hack, and was earning a fair living knocking out tecs, sits and scifis for several software networks; he had no strong objection to moving. Since that time the two couples had communicated largely by birthday phone call, and in the last year even that had been interrupted by the collapse of Norman's and Lois's marriage. The reunion now was explosively enthusiastic on both sides.

"Jesus," the Bear rumbled as he released Norman from one of his classic hugs. "You're in great shape, man."

Norman's grin nickered momentarily. "Some ways, brother, some ways," he said, and then Minnie was taking her hug. Her first words were, "Sorry it took us so long, Norm. It's been crazy out."

"Nonsense. I'd've been too busy to be a proper host if you'd come sooner. God, it's good to see you two. I've been on eleventerhooks ever since you called." He took their suitcases, showed them where to put their coats and boots and where to find the liquor cabinet. As soon as they were all seated in the living room he raised his glass high. "To great friendship," he said, drained the glass, and flung it across the room. It smashed on the baseboard heater.

Minnie and the Bear broke up. They faced each other, said in unison, "We've missed him," and followed his example.

"Missed me again," he said exultantly, and then, "Oh, God, I've been hanging out with ordinary people for so long. Thank you two."

"There are crazies in Hogtown," Minnie said, "but few with your elegance." Norman rose from his chair, bowed, and produced more glasses, threading his way carefully through the scatter of glass on the carpet.

"This is fantastic," he said wonderingly. "You two have been here less than a minute, and it's as though you'd never left. All the time between has just disappeared." He giggled. "How thoughtful of it." Suddenly he looked away.

The Bear lay in magnificent repose in one of Norman's huge beanbag chairs, looking rather like a beached whale covered with colorful tarpaulins and black seaweed. He made a joint appear, tapped it alight, and sucked hugely. "So? Which side brings the other up to date first?" He passed the joint.

Norman hesitated, decided training was shot to hell anyway, and took a toke. "Is yours cheerful?" he croaked, passing the joint to Minnie. With her nose wrinkled up she looked even more mouselike.

The Bear looked thoughtful. "Yeah, on the whole. A couple of real bright spots, and one genuine tall tale."

"Then we'll save it for catharsis, okay?"

The two nodded at once, "Lois?" Minnie asked economically.

"Yes and no," Norman said. "Not really; I think I've got that under control now. It's more Madeleine. And, I suppose, mostly it's me. It's been a hard-luck voyage, mates. I—you didn't get here any too soon."

"Damn straight," the Bear agreed. "I still see double yellow lines and headlights coming at me. So talk."

Norman brought them up to date, beginning with Lois's first request for a separation and including his botched suicide, Maddy's arrival and disappearance, and subsequent events. The Bear interrupted frequently with questions, Minnie more seldom.

"Argyle, Barrington area, huh? Pedestrians around there all night long on a Saturday."

"And a little bit of residential. Enough so that a scream could not go unheard."

The Bear nodded. "Two blocks over nobody'd pay any attention. But right there it'd cause phone calls. And you're sure she didn't know anyone in Halifax well enough to get into a car with them at 1:00 a.m.?"

"No one in North America. Except Charlie, who was occupied."

"And alibied by many witnesses," Bear clarified. "So, that leaves two possibilities."

"Psycho cabbie or rogue cop."

"Right. Nowhere except in the crap I write do you take an armed and able-bodied citizen off a public street with no fuss at all. Only a fool would try it. And from what you say, she could take care of herself. You checked out both angles?"

Norman produced a file folder from his desk, took two sheets of paper out, and gave one to each. "This is the poster I put up everywhere a cabbie might conceivably see one. It's got a good recent picture, her description and the circumstances of her disappearance, and my phone number. While I was putting them up I questioned all the dispatchers and half the drivers in town. I pieced together people's memories and accounted for every driver seen in that area during that time, with some computer assistance."

"That leaves a cop." The Bear frowned. "Hard to track."

"Sergeant Amesby at Missing Persons brought up that theory before I could think of a graceful way to phrase it. He's been running his own check, with a lot better data, and he comes up empty too."

"Yeah, but is he really looking?"

"I've been living in Amesby's pocket for months. I know him. He looked."

"A cop with no partner can fake his whereabouts."

"Not so Amesby couldn't catch it. Believe me, Bear, he's good."

"Most fortunate. We'll dismiss the notion of a citizen in a cop suit."

"That he sewed himself, right." He passed them the rest of the folder's contents, mostly press clippings and blowup facials of Madeleine taken over a period of fifteen years. "The firm she worked for in Zurich supplied some company videotapes with footage of Maddy in them, and I had stills made."

"You got terrific coverage," Minnie observed.

"Saturation. A woman named Saint Phillip has been very helpful. No woman in the Maritimes has died mysteriously without a paragraph mentioning that police do not believe this case is connected with the disappearance of Madeleine Kent, followed by a three-paragraph synopsis. I've been on all three local stations and the CBC twice each. Lots of results, none worth talking about."

The Bear finished off the joint and lay back thoughtfully into the chair. "Well," he said, gazing at the ceiling, "when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, et cetera. So a total nut pulls up to the curb, shoots a total stranger in the head with a silenced gat—"

"In the back of the head. She went armed, and she was fast."

"Right. Yanks her into his car before anybody comes around the corner, and departs at a moderate speed, takes her out up into the maples. He's local, woods-wise enough to find a spot where no one will walk—which is much harder than a city killer could imagine—and he's immensely strong, because he can haul the corpse of a pretty big woman to that spot without aid. In the dark. Oh, goat berries, I don't believe it for a second." He grimaced ferociously.

"Wait a minute," Minnie objected. "Why does it have to be woods, just because there's so much of 'em around here? How about that business from your last, darling? The newly poured concrete?"

The Bear nodded. "And the psycho who happens to have unrestricted access. You will recall that I didn't put my own name on that one."

"But I mean what about some urban or suburban disposal site?"

The Bear looked pained. "Darling, this was summer."

"Oh. That's right. Well, what about the harbor?"

"Darling, remember how many summer Friday nights we tried to find a spot along the water uncrowded enough to make love? Imagine trying to dump a corpse. You might pull it off—but would you bet on it?"

Norman suddenly smiled. "You know, except for Amesby, you two are the first people I've spoken to since Maddy left that don't use euphemisms. I can't tell you how grateful I am."

The Bear grinned back at him. "Damn straight. Not many people are understanding enough not to be understanding. You, for instance, are not one of those offensively oversolicitous hosts, who fusses about making sure one's glass is full and offering one coffee and such."

Norman shook his head sadly. "How can you live with such a snide bastard, Min?" He got up and headed for the coffeemaker.

"I beat him regularly."

"Damn straight," the Bear agreed. "I keep thinking: this time I'm gonna fill that straight."

"You fill practically anything, dear." They grinned lewdly at each other.

"I'm about ready to fill a straitjacket myself," Norman called from the kitchen. "You two still take cinnamon?"

"Yeah."

He came back with three coffees and cake on a tray. "So what all this comes d—what are you doing?"

The Bear was lighting another joint. "Dr. Withbert's famous bluesectomy procedure