JOE GIBSON GROANED out loud.
"Not again. Oh, God, not again."
It would have been a lie to say that the pain was indescribable. He was able to describe it all too well. He knew it like the backs of his hands, or maybe like the insides of his eyelids. Over the last few months, since Desiree had walked out on him, citing cruel and unusual behavior, the pain had been with him more mornings than not. The morning's suffering followed the evening's excess as surely as day followed night. His tongue was glued to the roof of his mouth. The knife stabs were working on the nerves at the back of his eyes, and blood was trying to force its way into a brain that felt like an old dried-out sponge. This post-alcohol purgatory had become so familiar that it was now routine.
Equally familiar was the sudden elevator drop into the black, empty shaft of no memory, no recall of getting home or much of what had gone before.
With the drop came the fear. Joe Gibson's head fell back onto the pillow, and he groaned aloud, "Oh, God, what did I do this time?"
He closed his eyes, hoping in vain for the darkness to return so the awful moment of actually getting up could be delayed for an hour or so. The darkness refused to oblige. He was on his own with the day. Not that there was all that much of the day left. The green numerals on the VCR at the foot of the ridiculously huge bed told him that it was 4:19 in the afternoon. The daylight was all but shot, and his vampire status safely intact:
Anxiety was the natural aftermath of a drunken blackout. He firmly repeated this litany to himself. Most of the time the fear was unfounded. Most nights it turned out that he hadn't really done anything so terrible. Maybe he'd stumbled, maybe he'd upset a waitress or a maitre d' or else pissed off a cabdriver. It was possible that he'd heaped unreasonable abuse on some unfortunate whose only mistake had been to fall for his rapidly fading legend and have the good grace to ignore the tarnish on his charisma and to be blind to his public fall from favor. Of course, there had been the other occasions, like the time that he had stormed into the Plaza, roaring like a psychotic moose, waving a bottle of Jack Daniels and bent on telling Morgan Luthor, a guest in there at the time, what he thought about him and his stupid twelve-piece band and his brand-new, big-ass double-platinum, megabit album, He had finished up in jail after that escapade. His only consolation had been that his notoriety had gained him a cell to himself and he had managed to come out of the experience with both his boots and anal virginity intact. The media had made a meal of it, though, and the pictures of him coming out of court, disheveled and once again hung over, had confirmed to an already convinced music industry that he was washed-up, burned-out, and uncontrollable. It had been right after the incident at the Plaza that Desiree had left.
In his more private moments, he tended to forgive himself the Plaza fiasco. It had, after all, been at the end of a four-day, no-sleep, bourbon-and-Coke jag, and Luthor had made some snide crack about him on Entertainment Tonight. Worse than that, Gibson had never had anything but contempt for the man's dumb songs. The fact that they sold zillions of units didn't make them anything other than trite commercial garbage. And what did the media expect? Where did they get off writing all that stuff about him? Stone Free particularly could go screw itself. The damn magazine was nothing more than a criminal waste of trees. When he'd been up there, they'd been down on their knees lapping up every last fleck of his self-destructive bullshit. Damn it, they had fawned over him as though we were Lucifer incarnate, coming for to carry them home. Did they really expect him to change his trim just because his career had slipped a little? They probably resented the fact that he hadn't died five years earlier like some of the others.
There was a pack of Camel Lights and a book of matches in among the debris on the night table. He shook one out, stuck it between numb lips, and lit it. The matchbook was a garish pink and advertised a set of phone-sex numbers. "FOR THE PASSION OF PAIN-1-900-976-LASH. ALL MAJOR CREDIT CARDS ACCEPTED." And they called him degenerate. He inhaled the first smoke, started coughing, and knew he had to sit up immediately. He swung his legs over the side of the bed but was forced to drop his head between his knees as the coughing escalated to the dry heaves,
"Sweet Jesus Christ!"
When the coughing fit subsided, he examined the floor at his feet. The fur rug had once been pristine white, but now it was a dirty gray. He had trouble keeping staff. Housekeepers couldn't handle him, and au pairs ran out screaming and sent for their things later. At the moment, he was reduced to Arthur, the out-of-work dancer who came in one afternoon a week and disposed of the worst of the wreckage. Arthur didn't ever get as far as shampooing the rugs. Gibson's clothes were strewn across the floor, lying where they had fallen. He could see only one of his red snakeskin boots, but otherwise he seemed to have made it home fairly intact. So far so good. Then he spotted the other clothes mixed in with his: a laddered black stocking, a leather miniskirt. The sound he made was not so much a groan as a whimper.
"Oh, shit, there's someone here."
He stood up. His head revolted at being elevated so quickly, and a wave of giddiness gripped him. He gritted his teeth and went into the connecting bathroom, and the reek of stale Scotch. A pair of gold, high-heeled, slingback sandals sat side by side on the floor, and a broken glass lay in the basin.
"Goddamn it, how the hell did that happen?"
He had no recollection of bringing anyone back with him. The best he could dredge up was a vague blurred image of leaning on a dark bar staring into a shot of tequila while some woman with a lot of lipstick and eyeshadow endlessly babbled at him. Was she the owner of the miniskirt and laddered stockings? All he knew for sure was that there was a strange woman somewhere in his apartment.
Mercifully, she wasn't in the bathroom. He removed the worst of the broken glass and ran the cold tap. The running water made him want to piss. He took care of that and then swallowed three Advil. As he splashed the cold water on his face, he realized that he was only assuming that the leather skirt and gold heels belonged to a woman. It wasn't beyond the realm of possibility that the stranger in the apartment was some demented transvestite. It wouldn't be the first time. Woman or man, it was a reasonable bet that whoever it was would be three parts crazy. That was the only kind who seemed to go for him these days.
He picked up one of the shoes and examined it. It was a size seven. If it did belong to a man, he had tiny feet. Did transvestites go in for foot binding? There was still no recall.
He became aware of the smell of coffee. Oh, Christ, she was being domestic. That could bode ill. If she started cooking anything, he would probably throw up. Something had to be done. He slipped into his black silk Christian Dior robe. There were dubious stains all down the front, but he was too sick to think about grooming. He went back into the bedroom and blearily took stock of the room. Where were his Ray-Bans? A man needed a measure of protection. Outside, on Central Park West, the sun was still up. Finally he spotted the sunglasses and his missing boot on the floor beside the art-deco dressing table, the one that Desiree had bought in that place down in SoHo. He picked up the Ray-Bans and clamped them firmly on the front of his face. Feeling a little more protected, he started down the corridor that led to the kitchen. The sunglasses made it a little hard to see, but he didn't care. He knew what the apartment looked like, all twelve, white elephant rooms full of his accumulated junk. He was cultivating a serious dislike of the apartment that was primarily self-protection. If the IRS had their way, soon he would be living in a refrigerator carton on Avenue C. He might as well prepare himself for the worst.
She was sitting at the kitchen table with her back to him. She was eating cornflakes and wearing one of his shirts. Romantic, darling, he thought sourly. Just like in the TV commercials. The bitch hadn't stopped to think that it might be his last clean shirt. Her hair was an untidy mess of blond curls with the roots coming in dark, cut in a style favored by heavy-metal babes and porno stars. As he walked in, she looked around. Her small, rather vapid face wasn't improved by the panda smudges of the previous night's smeared eye makeup. She definitely wasn't the one who had been babbling at him while he had meditated on the tequila. Her mouth was set in a small, tight, disagreeable line. She clearly wasn't in misty-eyed, slack-jawed love with him. There must have been a problem.
"Fuck you, Joe Gibson."
Joe Gibson sighed. There had been a problem. "So what did I do?"
"Not much except swill cognac and abuse me until well after dawn."
Joe Gibson knew that he didn't have the strength to accept a load of guilt before breakfast, particularly from a woman he couldn't even remember, Desiree had handed him a lifetime's supply of that kind of shit. He resorted to blunt rudeness.
"So why don't you leave?"
The woman wasn't going to let go of it. "Do you realize that I used to idolize you?"
That was all he needed. A bloody fan who thought he owed her something for a lifetime of adoration. She had fastened only two of the buttons on his shirt, and as she twisted round in the chair to face him, he had a clear and gratuitous view of her left breast. It was a good breast, small and young-girl firm. He was tempted by that perverse, swamp-thing lust that was the paradox of hangovers. Maybe he should take her back to bed and lose himself in her warm feminine moisture. Slurpings at the portal, smelling the smoke and perfume in that hair-although maybe he should brush his teeth first. Then part of him revolted. Good grief, no! That would only complicate matters. He didn't want to encourage her. It was a nice fantasy, but it had to remain a fantasy. Next thing he knew, she would be moving in.
"Is that coffee?"
"Do you realize that when I was a kid I thought you and the Holy Ghosts were the next best thing to God?"
Gibson peered at the Krups coffeemaker that was dripping happily. "We weren't. We weren't nothing but a rock 'n' roll band. Be assured of that." Despite himself, he grinned. "We did have our moments, though."
"How did it all go so wrong?"
That was a good question.
"Maybe too many people thought we were the next best thing to God."
He poured himself a cup of coffee. "I don't have the energy. Blame it on eight years of Reagan. Just say no. One way or the other, we fucked up. What did everyone expect? We were the grand fuck-ups. Nobody played it harder than us and then suddenly it was Perrier and the Jane Fonda workout, ego enhancement and the Nissan Imperator. It's not easy to be an unreconstructed leftover from the sixties."
On the other side of the kitchen there was a huge, almost life-size photo portrait of him that had been taken back in the glory days when he and the band had thought they owned the world. His image stared coldly down at the two of them. Elegant and wasted. Flowing black hair like Charles II, black leather, the curl of the lip that he had learned from Elvis, shadows under his cheekbones, and arrogant hooded eyes. Jesus, he had been magnificent. Maybe that was what the girl was seeing. Yesterday's rock princeling, not today's has-been in a stained silk robe. She looked as though she was working up to tears.
"I would have done anything for you." Maybe he should take her back to bed and damn the consequences. The coffee was too hot and burned his lip. He cursed and put down the cup. The woman didn't appear to notice.
"When I saw you in the bar last night I could hardly believe it. It was like a teenage dream come true."
What bar? There had been a great many bars, running one into the next like some dark melting Rembrandt. It was always the same on the nightwatch. How was he supposed to know what bar? He couldn't even remember her face.
"So you came home with me and it turned into a grown-up nightmare."
"Why are you so bitter?"
"Honey, I'm not bitter. It's just that my ability to laugh at it all is getting a little threadbare."
"But you've had everything. How can you act the way you do?"
There was a catch in her voice. The tears were very close. To start his day with an emotional disaster right in his own kitchen was more than he could face. Why me, Lord? He was about to ask her name but he bit off the question. Maybe he really ought to take her back to bed. It might stop her becoming hysterical.
"Listen, why don't we go back to bed and try to be nice to each other?"
She didn't exactly jump at the offer. "It's the evening already. Maybe I ought to just go."
"You've got something to do?"
She shook her head. "No."
She was still shaking her head. "This is too weird."
"Ten years ago, I would have killed to be here like this."
Gibson said nothing. The girl looked up at him in the hope that he would somehow bail her out. Finally she stood up and came toward him. The shirt had fallen open and he could now see both of her breasts. He put his arms around her. Her body was stiff and reluctant. He steered her back down the corridor, past the gold records and the photographs, the award plaques and the posters and all the rest of the trash that was the tangible backwash of his career. He had to suppress a shudder. The place was a museum, a home for some rock 'n' roll Addams Family. In the study there was a life-size cardboard cutout of him posing with his shirt off. There had been a week when copies of that cutout had been in record stores across three continents. Maybe the best solution would be to let the IRS take the whole wretched mess.
An hour later, they lay naked, side by side in the gloom of the bed, but there was no real contact. She was propped up on one elbow, staring at his face. Her look was definitely not one of adoration. If anything, she looked depressed. Perhaps she was holding a solitary wake for the illusions of her youth.
"I think I should go."
Gibson nodded. There was really nothing else to say. She threw back the covers and slid out of bed. He watched her in silence as she dressed. With her clothes-first the garter belt and the ruined stockings, then the leather mini, the lace blouse, the chain belt-she assumed a tough sexuality that she wasn't able to maintain while she was naked. When she started putting on her shoes, he, too, rose and slipped once more into his robe.
"I'll see you to the door."
She didn't answer. At that moment the phone rang, and Gibson picked it up.
"Could I please speak to Joseph Gibson?"
The voice sounded very old and was strangely accented, possibly South American.
"Could I please speak to Joseph Gibson?"
Gibson was immediately suspicious. "Who is this?"
"My name is Don Carlos Gustavo Casillas."
"This is Joe Gibson, but I'm afraid I don't have a clue who you are."
"That's understandable, Senor Gibson. We have never met."
"What do you want, Mr. Casillas?"
"I want to talk to you."
The girl signaled that she would see herself out.
Gibson put a hand over the mouthpiece of the phone. "Wait a minute…"
Either she didn't hear him or she wanted to pass on the farewells. She was gone down the corridor. A moment later the front door slammed.
"Are you still there, Senor Gibson? "
"Yeah, I'm still here. Someone was just leaving." Gibson didn't know for the life of him why he was explaining anything to the stranger on the other end of the phone.
"I wish to come and see you."
Gibson was unconsciously shaking his head. "I don't think so. I don't see many people these days."
Casillas was persistent. "This is a matter of some importance."
"I should warn you that I don't have any money anymore."
"Believe me, Senor Gibson, I am not in the least interested in your money. This is something far more important."
"If you're one of those people who have a scheme to put the band back together for some reunion show, forget it. It'll never happen. Pretend we're all dead."
"I'm not interested in your band, either."
"So what is your interest?"
"It would be impossible to explain over the phone. I would have to see you in person."
Gibson was shaking his head again.
"No. I really can't go along with that,"
"You might also be in some degree of danger, Senor Gibson."
Joe Gibson was suddenly angry. Who did the old fool think he was? "Are you threatening me?"
"I'm not threatening you, Senor. Quite the reverse. All I want is to meet and talk with you. Might I suggest I call on you at eight this evening."
"I won't be home at eight."
"I think by eight you may want to see me. I'll call anyway."
And with that, Don Carlos Gustavo Casillas hung up.
Gibson was left standing, listening to the dial tone. He was not at all happy. First the hangover and now this. What was he supposed to make of it all? Although he'd initially been angered by the suggestion that he might be in danger, in retrospect it gave him something to think about. He glanced at the VCR. It was after six. He had less than two hours to decide what to do about Senor Casillas.
He went into the living room. Here the clutter was much more high-tech-guitars, a computer, a DX7 keyboard. A monolithic bank of recording equipment shared a wall with the big David Hockney nude drawing of him. He went to the window, parted the curtains a couple of inches, and peered out. A black helicopter was hovering over the park. For no conscious reason, the helicopter disturbed him. He closed the curtains again.
It was only a matter of minutes before Gibson made up his mind what he was going to do. He would pour himself a stiff drink, put the security chain on the door, turn on the TV, and if the doorbell rang at eight o'clock, he'd ignore it.
The apparition appeared on the TV right after the start of the NBC Nightly News. One moment there was anchorman Gary Elliot doing the lead-in to a story on corruption in the Justice Department, and the next he'd been replaced by the face of some weird, cartoon-skull demon, an animated mosaic, like the wall of an Aztec temple brought to life by Hanna-Barbera. Gibson blinked in amazement.
"Now what the fuck is this?"
His first thought was that it was some arty commercial that he hadn't seen before, cued in at the wrong place. That was a better idea than wondering if he was losing his mind. The trouble was that even arty commercials usually had music and a voice-over. The only audio behind the skull was the sound of labored breathing, as though the thing was suffering from bronchial asthma. Then it spoke to him, addressing him by name in a high-pitched, wheezing, Mighty Mouse voice.
"Hey, Joe, whattaya know?"
Gibson slowly put down his drink. Now he had to seriously consider the possibility that he was losing it. DTs? He'd had only a couple of shots. He was aware that he was topping up his blood alcohol from the night before, but he shouldn't have been that far gone so fast.
"What is this?"
"You're a bit of a mess, Joe."
Gibson couldn't believe it. Could DTs come from the TV? Had someone cut into his cable to try to drive him crazy? He was suddenly frightened.
"I'm going to quit drinking."
The skull thing's face stretched into an insane grin. The jaw actually detached itself from the upper part of the skull.
"Come on, Joe, you say that every morning."
"What the fuck is going on here?"
"Don't worry, Joe, be happy. The tide always turns. It's always darkest before the dawn. That's the reason for the season. It's just the ebb before the flow, Joe. And you've got a visitor coming. You should do yourself a favor and talk to him. Way to go, Joe. Have a nice day."
And then the cartoon skull had vanished and NBC was back as if it had never been gone. Gibson stared uncomprehendingly at the end of the piece on Justice Department corruption. He was terrified. What was happening to him? On the screen, Gary Elliot had started into a health piece about botulism in pancake mix. He grabbed for the remote and killed the power. His hands were shaking as he picked up his drink. Was it him or was the whole world taking get-weird pills? One thing he knew for sure: There was no way that he was going to open the door to Casillas. He wasn't going to answer the door to anyone,
Gibson should have remembered that it was always a mistake to make hard-and-fast predictions. If he had learned anything from the way his life had gone, it should have been exactly that. As the clock on the VCR moved from 7:59 to 8:00, the intercom beeped. Despite his resolve, Gibson pushed the button.
"Mr. Gibson, this is Ramone the doorman."
"What is it, Ramone?"
"You have a visitor, Mr. Gibson."
"Who is it?"
"He says his name is Casillas."
Ramone sounded as though he didn't quite approve of the visitor. Then again Ramone didn't approve of most of Gibson's visitors.
"Send him up."
Gibson couldn't believe that the words had come out of his mouth. The very last thing he wanted was some weirdass in his apartment, and yet he seemed to have lost all will to resist. He looked round like a condemned man seeking a way out of the inevitable. What was happening to him?
Two and a half minutes after Ramone's call, the doorbell rang. The set of chimes that played the first two bars of Howling Wolf's "Smokestack Lightning" was one of his more absurd rock-star purchases, and normally he took a childish pleasure in it, but this time the final note was a funeral bell tolling gloomily in the air. Like a zombie, he stood up and walked to the door. His legs didn't feel as though they even belonged to him. He took off the chain, snapped back the two deadbolts, and opened the door. The man standing there looked at least a hundred years old. His face was like an ancient walnut, deeply etched with a thousand lines and creases. The eyes, however, that looked out from beneath bushy white eyebrows were bright with a penetrating intelligence. He was not only old but very small, a tiny birdlike figure in a set of clothes that were totally incongruous not only for a man of his age but for practically anyone else. It should have belonged to a pachuco zoot-suiter from the early forties. His shoes were two-tone; his pants wide-cut, draped and pleated; the black coat reached almost to his knees; and his watch chain hung in a long, three-foot loop. His tie was skinny, and the brim of his hat was wide. When he removed it, a full head of snow-white hair was revealed, neatly brushed back into an immaculate DA.
Gibson nodded and held the door wide open. "Please come in, Mr. Casillas."
The old man stepped across the threshold, moving with an energy that also wasn't in keeping with his apparent years.
"I believe your TV had a word with you earlier."
They had walked through into the kitchen. The odd little man seemed no more real to Gibson than the thing that had interrupted the NBC news.
"You did that?"
"I felt that I needed to get your attention."
Gibson took a unopened bottle of Scotch from the Welsh dresser. He cracked the seal with a brisk, businesslike twist and poured himself a large shot. Before he drank it down, he held the glass up to the light. He had to believe that something was real.
"Are you telling me that you interrupted a network TV broadcast just to get my attention?"
Casillas shook his head. "Believe me, I didn't interrupt anything. I only borrowed the facility. Besides, the skull was instructed to appear only on your set."
Gibson poured himself a second shot. "Do you want a drink?"
Casillas shook his head a second time. "Alas, I am unable to indulge in alcohol anymore, but please feel free to do so yourself, as much as you want. I can still enjoy watching a young man drink."
Gibson drank half the shot. "I'm not that young anymore."
"You're but a child from where I stand."
In an attempt to restore some minor normality to the situation, Gibson sat down at the kitchen table and indicated that Casillas should do the same. There had to be a way to find a point of perspective on all this, a position from which he could handle what was going on. It wasn't easy, not when faced with Casillas's preposterous clothes and even more preposterous suggestion that he could alter someone's television programming at will. And yet the skull had appeared on his TV. Gibson was starting to feel that it was going to be a long night.
"What exactly is this all about?"
"It is complicated."
Gibson sighed. "You know something? I rather thought that it might be."
"We also have very little time."
"Very little time."
When Casillas had first entered the kitchen, his eyes had moved around the room, darting from side to side, watchful, cautious; the jerky gaze, plus the small, fast motions of his head, and his delicate, fragile-looking bones gave him such a resemblance to an inquisitive bird, but once seated he fixed Gibson with an unwavering stare.
"Very little time indeed," he repeated.
Gibson leaned back in his chair. He didn't like that stare at all. The old man's eyes seemed to radiate power, as though they could bore into his head and read his very thoughts.
"Maybe you could start by telling me how you put that thing on my TV?"
Casillas looked sad. "I don't want you to think me rude or feel insulted, but if I did try to explain it, I very much doubt that you would understand. Shall we just say that my associates and I have considerable resources at our disposal?"
Gibson raised an eyebrow. "Associates?"
"I'm not acting alone here, Mr. Gibson. I am the representative of a much larger organization."
"Do you want to tell me what this organization is?"
"No yet. For the moment it will have to remain anonymous."
Gibson lit a cigarette. His patience was wearing a little thin. "This is all a bit too mysterious, Senor Casillas. If you don't want to tell me anything, why did you come here?"
Casillas sat up a little straighter in his chair and neatly folded his hands in front of him. "I have a problem."
Gibson regarded him expressionlessly. "We all have problems, senor."
"I seriously fear that you may have difficulty believing much of what I have to tell to you."
Despite himself, Gibson couldn't help grinning. "I've seen more than my fair share of the weird."
Casillas nodded. "I know that. That's why I'm here."
"So try me."
"My first reason for coming here was to see you, to look at you face-to-face and decide if you really were the person we were looking for."
"Are you telling me that this is an audition?"
Casillas smiled. "If you want to think of it like that."
"It's been a long time since I auditioned for anything."
"You could also think of it as the first phase of a recruiting process."
"And do I get the part?"
Casillas's smile faded. "Unfortunately, I think that you do. If you're agreeable, that is."
"I still have a number of reservations regarding your erratic and self-destructive life-style. You live in a serious state of denial, Mr. Gibson."
"I'm sorry I'm such a disappointment."
Casillas's fingers flexed. "Would you be willing to come with me and meet my associates?"
Gibson was on guard again. This was something new. "Right now?"
"There's no time like the present."
Gibson started to shake his head. "I'm not sure that I can do that."
Up to that point, Gibson had been prepared to let Casillas ramble on, figuring that he would get to whatever was on his mind in his own good time. To have the crazy old geezer sitting in his kitchen was one thing. To go out into the night with him was quite another.
Casillas had placed both hands flat on the table. "I can't urge you strongly enough. I realize that I'm expecting you to take a great deal on trust, which must be hard for a paranoid individual such as yourself, but this really is a matter of the utmost urgency."
Something was happening to the old man's eyes as he spoke: they seemed to be growing in his head, making it impossible for Gibson to look away. With a major effort of will he pulled loose from the bright-eyed stare and focused his attention instead on the portrait of himself on the wall.
Anger overtook Gibson. "This is a fucking charade."
The old man wasn't amusing anymore. It was an invasion, first of Gibson's home and then of his free will.
Casillas tilted his head slightly. "A charade, Mr. Gibson?"
"Yeah, right. A charade. I have the distinct impression that you can make me do pretty much what you want. First you cause some Aztec human-sacrifice demon to take over my TV and then…"
"Actually it was a rather benign mortality demon, low-level and virtually harmless beyond the odd prank."
Gibson pressed on regardless, feeding on his own fury. "And then you show up at my door, and I'm damn sure that if there hadn't been someone or something working on me I never would have let you in here. When it started, it was intriguing, but the idea of someone having the gall to sit right here in my kitchen and try to hypnotize me makes me good and mad. I don't give a fuck what the problem is or how little time you and your associates have got, but I'm not going anywhere with you or anyone until I know what all this is about. You can go on trying to work your mojo on me, but it's hard to put something over on an angry man."
Casillas was actually smiling. "You seem very adept at detecting what you call a mojo."
With a boldness that verged on recklessness, Gibson looked straight back into the bead-bright black eyes. "I've been around."
"That's exactly why I'm here."
"So start talking."
Casillas, seemingly aware that he had gone too far, took a deep breath. "You must understand that my associates and I are under a great deal of pressure and it tends to make us a little high-handed in our dealings with others." Gibson nodded. "I know how that goes." Casillas's expression was suddenly very hard and very cold. "You do?"
"Like I said, I've been around."
The old man seemed about to respond with an anger to match Gibson's, but then he controlled himself with a visible effort.
"The world is a nervous place, my friend. Already it dances from one real or imagined fear to the next. Although it doesn't know it yet, it now has very good reason for fear. A catastrophe is building of a magnitude that will surpass anything humanity has ever witnessed. Indeed, if it comes, it will be more destructive than anything ever witnessed by any life on this planet. It will be the worst thing to happen since the asteroid Telal exploded and wiped out the dinosaurs."
Casillas looked to Gibson for a reaction. Gibson was in the process of surrendering. If this was madness, it was madness on a refreshingly lavish scale. Getting no response, Casillas went on.
"We live in a multidimensional universe, and by far the greater part of it is not, and possibly never will be, understood by human beings. We do, however, live in it, and when forces are unleashed across those dimensions, they can threaten and even destroy us whether we understand them or not."
Casillas once again looked for a response, but Gibson was biding his time, just letting the idea of a multidimensional universe flow over him. He hadn't even started to consider what truth there might be in any part of the bizarre tale.
"Few of us, with the possible exception of Albert Einstein, have the math to even approach a grasp of the dimensions immediately aligned with our own. We have yet to do better than the Chaldeans, who, simply and succinctly, described the universe as consisting of the Earth, the zones above the Earth, and the zones below the Earth. They, at least, could accept the idea that there are other realities and existences about which we have little or no awareness. How about you, Mr. Gibson? Are you able to accept that?"
Gibson nodded. "Round about now, I could accept almost anything."
"Please don't be flippant."
"I'm not being flippant, it's just the sound of one mind boggling."
The old man half smiled. "Just try and stay with me."
"I'll do my best."
"In normal times, these various dimensions move forward in unison along the time stream with little or no interface one to another. From time to time there have been leakages, minor print-throughs. The UFOs with which we have become so familiar are a product of exactly one such recent occurrence. There are, however, moments of major confluence, and these have the potential for the kind of disaster that we seem to be approaching. At such times it is briefly possible for entities with the necessary knowledge to pass from one reality to another. History is littered with the stories and legends of these beings-Zeus, Azag-Thoth, Jesus of Nazareth, Abdul Alhazred the so-called Mad Arab, Vlad Tepes the Impaler…"
Gibson blinked. "Are you telling me that Dracula was from another dimension?"
Casillas made a dismissive gesture. "Did you ever think otherwise?"
Gibson sighed. "I guess I'm a little slow."
"We are approaching an era where the slow may lose everything."
"I'm guessing that all this is the lead-in to your telling me that this disaster that's on its way is going to come screaming out of another dimension."
Casillas nodded. "Exactly that. A prime confluence is very close. Even under normal circumstances this would be a time of confusion and possible global danger. These, though, are far from being normal circumstances. There is an entity."
Gibson raised an eyebrow. "An entity?"
"He was known to the ancients as Akhkhara and later he was called Necrom."
"Necrom." Casillas let the name sink in. "Necrom is one of the most massive and malevolent intelligences in the as yet realized universe. He normally occupies a dimension that is so far removed that it scarcely even impinges upon ours and the others near us."
"So why do we have to worry about him?"
"For millennia, Necrom has slept but, very soon, he will wake. And his waking will coincide exactly with the major confluence. If, once he is risen, this being, this awesomely powerful and unbelievably evil thing, is able to roam loose, to move, as he is quite well able to, from dimension to dimension at will, the potential for destruction on all levels of the universe would be beyond description."
Gibson had become numb. Necrom? The multidimensional universe? If he had let it, his head would have been reeling, but his hangover, which was still very much with him, made it simpler to go numb. What he needed was some handhold by which he could pull himself back into the infinitely more comfortable world where he drank too much and took too many drugs, where his career was a shambles and the record companies put him on hold, where he owed a cool half million in back taxes. Necrom or the IRS? It was a questionable choice, and he unashamedly scrabbled for disbelief. The best he could do was to hold up a hand to cut Casillas's flow,
"Okay, okay. Even if, for the sake of argument, I go along with all this, what does it have to do with me? Why have I been picked out for a private, personal warning? You like my old records or something? It seems to me that there isn't too much I could do about Necrom if he ever decided to come after me."
Casillas smiled sadly and shook his head. "This isn't a warning, Joseph Gibson. This is a request for help."
Now Gibson's head was reeling.
"You want my help?"
Gibson couldn't stop himself. He burst out laughing.
"Let me get this straight. You want a drunken, broken-down ex-rock star to go out and fight Necrom? Give me a break, will you?"
Casillas was expressionless. "Nobody would expect you to go anywhere near a leviathan like Necrom. Those of his own kind will do their best to deal with him."
"So what do you want of me?"
"He is not the only entity that will be on the move during the confluence. Hundreds of others, from simple tricksters to the brilliantly malign, will be stirred up by the rising of Necrom. Like the tiny scavenger fish that swim in the wake of a great whale, they will stream through the wormholes created by the confluence to wreak whatever mischief they can on a whole spectrum of realities. These will be our adversaries and, believe me, they will be more than enough to test the limits of our strength. Accordingly, we are recruiting anyone we think might have the potential to aid us in the coming conflict."
Gibson covered his shock by slowly lighting another cigarette, doing his best to stop his hands from shaking.
"What the hell makes you think that I'll be of any use to you? I mean, look at me. I can hardly manage my own life, let alone save the multidimensional universe."
"We have studied enough of your background to know that you are no stranger to the paranormal. Even though it was the fleeting interest of the dilettante, you have attempted to gain a measure of enlightenment and seem to have managed to avoid the path of universal evil. That in itself is a rarity in these blighted times. You attended a yage ceremony in that apartment in Mexico City and a coven in the Scottish Hebrides. You have eaten peyote with the Hopi and-"
"But that was just dabbling," Gibson protested, "what we used to call kicks, an extra twist on sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll."
"Even dabbling can produce a certain insight, but I think you protest too much. That ceremony in the graveyard in Port-au-Prince went a good deal further than mere dabbling."
Gibson swallowed hard. He had always assumed that no one had known about that grisly and thoroughly terrifying Haitian escapade beyond those who had been present at the time.
Casillas grinned as though he actually was reading Gibson's thoughts. "The most important fact about you is that you have the energy and you have the aura. The aura may currently be tarnished and the energy low, but you can be built up again. The latency is still there. Without it, you could never have been what you were, and an aura is something that you cannot lose."
Gibson mashed out the cigarette. Nobody had ever wanted him for his aura before, at least not in so many words.
"You keep talking about 'we' and 'us' and your associates. Who is this 'us'? Do you and your associates have a collective title?"
"We are the Nine."
Gibson frowned. "I've heard of the Nine."
"You've heard the legends."
"And now you're going to tell me the truth?"
Casillas nodded. "In ancient times, the Nine were the overseers of humanity's occult destiny, the custodians of this dimension and this reality. When we discovered, this time around, that there had been nine of us contacted, we took the title. It seemed only reasonable. We are fulfilling the same function. We are the new guardians."
"When you say 'contacted,' what exactly do you mean?"
"We have been in contact with beings from elsewhere."
For Gibson, that was the final straw. Clearly the old geezer was barking nuts.
Casillas saw his reaction and quickly went on. "I know it's hard to believe but I beg you to retain an open mind. We are nine human beings, nine mortals who, by differing routes, have become partially aware of the true nature of the multidimensional universe. When the threat presented by the coming confluence became known, we were brought together by representatives of the dimensions nearest to us with a view to forming a defensive alliance."
"You're telling me that you've been to another dimension? "
Casillas wearily shook his head. "Alas, no. All contacts have so far been in this world."
The old man was starting to look very tired. For the first time, his energy seemed to match his apparent age. He raised both hands.
"I really can't talk any more. If you want to learn more, please come with me. That's all I can say. Come with me now."