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BENSON, JIM GREEN said. Barton. Bingam.

Bingham has seven letters, Chiratchkovich objected.

Not without the H.

Looking surprised, Chiratchkovich said, We can do that?

We can do whatever we want, Jim Green told him, as long as its six letters long and starts with B. Burger. Bailey. Boland.

The room Jim Green and Anton Chiratchkovich sat in, almost knee to knee, was small, square, windowless, illuminated almost completely by the dials and screens on just about every surface. Jim Green, a lanky soft-edged man of indeterminate age, with features that faded away as you looked at himnose-shaped nose, boring eyes, just enough eyebrow, thin but not too thin mouth, completely unnoticeble jawline, a rug that so thoroughly imitated the onset of male-pattern baldness in shades of tan and gray that it was impossible to believe it really was a rug, because who would go out of their way to make their head look like that? perched on a metal folding chair, feet up on tiptoes to raise his lap slightly so he could better peck away at the laptop he held, its dim light rising from the surface of the screen to fade into the folds of his face.

Opposite him, seated on a sagging old oft-recovered armchair, waited Anton Chiratchkovich, bulky, sixty-ish, heavy-browed, fat rolls on neck, overdressed in a too-tight black suit and white shirt and dark thin strangling necktie, who looked exactly what he was: a longtime small-time bully and embezzler whod swum for years in the stew of a corrupt government somewhere east of the Urals until his string had run out, and who at the moment was being hunted down like a dog.

Well, not at the moment. Not in this secure room here, so deep within Jim Greens bland suburban development house outside Danbury, Connecticut, that it wasnt even within the house any more, but burrowed into the hillside behind it, reachable only through a long passage lined with both copper and lead, to keep intrusions out and radio waves in.

Unlike Chiratchkovich, Jim Green had never attempted to turn his government service into cash. He was an artist, identification manipulation was his art, and the United States government his patron. It had been sufficient for him to do his job better than anyone else in the world, to recognize the awe in the eyes of the cognoscenti who knew of his works, and to move like the shadow of a shadow through the greater world of the unknowing.

Greens own distant past contained secrets so horrible, so chilling, from the years before hed learned self-control, that he himself couldnt stand to look in that direction. Like the volunteer in the French Foreign Legion, he had slipped into the persona of Jim Green to forget, and except for the rare nightmare, he had forgotten.

He had been happy in government service, but times change, and sometimes a valued skill becomes less valued. When the enemy was German or Russian, there was much for Jim Green to do, because basically everybody in the cast looked the same. But when the enemy became Pakistani, or Indonesian, or Korean, the skills of identity morphing gave way to the skills of bribery and subornation. His final years with the agency, Green had less and less to do.

And yet, he loved his work, and wanted to go on doing it. Outside the government, there were still, as it turned out, many who needed desperately to be able to say, Here! to a new name, and who had the money, a whole lot of money, to make it happen. Thus Jim Green became a freelancer, his work now as secret as his history.

Chiratchkovich, for instance, had come to him, as most of them did, through the recommendation of a previous satisfied customer. After preliminary telephoning, and Greens own background check to be certain Anton Chiratchkovich was (so far) who he claimed to be, they had met today in a parking garage in Bridgeport, where Chiratchkovich had submitted to the blindfold and the handcuffs and the trip in the trunk of Greens no-color Honda Accord. In his own attached garage outside Danbury, hed helped his guest out of the trunk, then led him, still blindfolded and cuffed, through the invisible door at the end of the garage, down the cement steps, along the metal corridor, and into this secure room, where hed removed the cuffs and blindfold, both had sat down, and Green had gone to work.

Photos had been taken, eyes scanned, blood tested, voice recorded. Some of Chiratchkovichs more blameless history had been noted down, to adapt to the new persona.

Chiratchkovich had a slight but noticeable eastern European accent, which meant he couldnt present himself as native-born American, but that wouldnt be a problem. In some ways, it made the job easier.

Every day, the web of information grows thicker, more convoluted. When so much is known, what can still be secret? But the very complexity of the knowledge stream at times betrays it. Here and there, in the interstices of the vast web of details covering the globe, there are glitches, hiccups, anomalies, crossed wires. Jim Green could find those like a hunting dog after a downed quail. He could find them and store the knowledge of them for later use.

Now, for instance, he could use one of those lacunae in order to insert into the system, as though hed always been there, a naturalized American citizen who had shortened and anglicized his name to something of six letters that started with B. All Chiratchkovich had to do was choose the name he would answer to the rest of his life.

Buford. Bligen. Beemis.

Beemis! said the customer.

Green looked up at him. Beemis?


Youre sure.

It feels like me, Chiratchkovich said, and breathed it like a drawn-out prayer: Beeee-mis. Yes. I like.

Fine, Green said. Beemis it is.

Ah, but the first name, the new Beemis said. What do I do for a first name?

Keep your own, Green advised. Youre used to it. Americanize it. Anthony. Youll be Tony.

Tony. Tony Beemis. The heavy jowls parted for a heavy smile. I know that is me.

Good. Green made a note. In two weeks, Ill have your paperwork.

And I, Tony Beemis assured him, shall have the gold.

Ill phone you, Green said, at the same number.

Yes, of course.

Green closed his laptop, rested it on the floor, and leaned it against the front of a cupboard. And now, he said regretfully, getting to his feet, Im sorry, but well have to button you down for the return trip.

Certainly, Beemis said, rising, extending his hands for the cuffs. I understand.

It was when he returned home after delivering Beemis to his car in the garage in Bridgeport that Green found the message on his answering machine from little Anne Marie Hurst: Hi, Jim, its Anne Marie Carpinaw. Remember when I was Anne Marie Hurst, my father was your neighbor, the congressman from Kansas, John Hurst? Ive got a question that, gee, youre the perfect guy to ask on this. I hope Im not intruding, I got your number from Fran Dowdy, remember her? Shes still a secretary there at the agency, isnt that something? Let me give you my cell phone number, and I hope youll call. Be nice to talk to you again.

Copying down the number as she reeled it off, Green couldnt help but grin. Oh, yeah, he remembered little Anne Marie Hurst, all right. Not even that little. Just right, in Jim Greens estimation.

It had been years, though. He wondered if she was at the peak of perfection these days, or maybe just a little over the hill. Oh, sure, hed call her, all right. Nice to see little Anne Marie again.

It didnt even occur to him to wonder what she wanted.

| The Road to Ruin | c