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Chapter Ten

GIBSON WOKE FROM a hideous dream into an almost as hideous reality. In the dream, the well that contained Balg had given up its dead. One by one, and then in increasing numbers, an army of slow-moving, crawling luminous corpses had scrambled painfully over the rim of the shaft, dragged themselves across the flagstones, and started clawing their way up the stairs on their hands and knees while Gibson watched in horror. He had spotted Lancer, the president, in among the crowd, along with a host of friends and faces from his past: Gideon Windemere and Christobelle; Rob Tyler, the bass player from the Holy Ghosts who'd been the most bitter about the breakup of the band; even Desiree and the woman who'd been at his apartment the day that Casillas had come calling were part of this legion of the living dead.

He only recognized the woman that he'd seen seen sacrificed by the torn black lingerie still clinging to her green, decaying flesh. Instead of crawling to the stairs like all the others, she made straight for Gibson, giggling as she dragged herself toward him, the same mindless, stoned-out, space-case giggle that he'd heard the previous night, as she had swayed on the edge of the pit, staring uncomprehendingly at her death. Her black fingernails scraped on the granite flags, and her eyes had the vacancy of madness. He wanted desperately to get away from her but he found that he couldn't move. He was flat on his back, naked, exposed, and helpless, chained by the wrists and ankles to the iron rings set in the flagstones. He twisted and struggled until his wrists were raw and bleeding, but he couldn't free himself. He also didn't seem able to close his eyes, and he was compelled to watch as she agonizingly inched nearer, leaving a slime trail like a slug or snail.

The giggle and the scrape of the nails was close to deafening, and her hands were reaching out for him. "I'm going to hurt you, Joe Gibson and you're going to love me for it."

His screams were still ringing around the circular chamber when his mind lurched back into the real world, but he experienced none of the grateful sense of relief that usually comes after waking from a nightmare and realizing that it was all just a bad dream. To his horror, he found that he was still in the underground chamber, Balg was still in his pit, and very little was right with the world. No corpses were crawling from the well shaft and he wasn't chained to the flagstones, but he was naked, frozen and stiff and hung over. There were scars across his chest as though he'd been raked by talons, and Nephredana had vanished. He couldn't believe that he had fallen asleep in this hellish place. How the fuck had he managed that? He hadn't even been particularly drunk. The only mercy was that he was alone in the awful place, unless he counted Balg.

His clothes were scattered all around, and Gibson started hastily gathering them up, at the same time praying that Nephredana hadn't locked the door at the top of the stairs, if indeed she had left by the door at all. He didn't want to spend another moment in the green glow of Balg and was already frightened about what ugly long-term effects he might have racked up in his mind or body by sleeping in such close proximity to the monstrous entity. He saw it as the psychic equivalent to bedding down in a nuclear reactor. As he wriggled into his pants, he held off from wondering about what might have possibly happened to cause Nephredana to disappear, leaving him alone in a place like this.

Without bothering to slip into his tux jacket or tuck in the tails to his dress shirt, he started up the steps that led out of the chamber, taking them two at a time and not looking back. To his infinite relief the door opened when he tugged at it. Up to that point, his only motivation had been to get away from Balg. As soon as he was through the door, however, a whole new set of problems dropped on him with lead boots. He was not only in Raus's mansion with no readily available means to get away, but he was also deep beneath the mansion in an area that had to be fatally off limits to strangers like himself. He took the next flight of stairs slower and with a great deal more caution. The very last thing he wanted was to run into a couple of Raus's minions bringing Balg his breakfast. Gibson had no doubt that such an encounter would almost certainly result in his being included on the menu.

Fortunately, he seemed to be blessed with the kind of after-the-fact luck that allows one to crawl away intact following a disaster. The mansion was very quiet. The only noises were what he might expect from an early-morning cleanup crew, plus somewhere in the main hall someone was playing a slow walking-bass figure that was almost rock 'n' roll.

Gibson started down the main corridor in the direction of the grand hall, doing his best to look like a drunk who had woken up in a dark corner somewhere and was now trying to retrieve his bearings and get home. It hardly required any award-winning feat of acting to create the illusion.

The grand hall smelled of smoke and stale booze, and the floor was a sea of debris that was being slowly swept into more manageable piles by four men in gray overalls pushing wide industrial brooms. One of them glanced up as Gibson came across the empty dance floor.

"Where did you come from?"

Gibson rubbed his eyes and looked bleary. "That's a good question."

"You just wake up?"

Gibson nodded. "Sure did."

The man pushed the garbage in front of his broom for a few more feet. "Some party, huh?"

"What I remember of it."

"They're serving coffee in one of the marquees by the lake for stragglers like you."

Gibson slipped on his jacket. "I could use some coffee."

He glanced up at the stage, where a figure in a tuxedo was standing by himself on the empty bandstand with his back to the room, plucking thoughtfully at the strings of a standup bass. Gibson watched him for a tew moments and then shrugged. Some people never stopped. He started toward the coffee and whatever his next move might be. He had just realized that he had no money. His wallet was still in the borrowed suit in Slide's Hudson. This upset him more than anything since Balg. He seemed to be moving toward a dependency on the kindness of strangers, and this wasn't a pleasing prospect in a place where albinos appeared to be high on the list of targets for prejudice.

The voice that stopped him in his tracks echoed across the grand hall just as he was approaching the French windows that opened on the lake.

"Wait up there, I'll come with you."

There was no mistaking the millennia-old rasp. Gibson spun round. "Yancey Slide?"

The figure on the stage was carefully setting the bass on its side. "I've been waiting for you."

"I didn't know you were a musician."

"You learn a lot of things by the time you're as old as I am."

Slide jumped down from the bandstand and walked briskly toward Gibson, who stood waiting for him.

"You ready for some breakfast?"

"Where's Nephredana?"

Slide made an unconcerned gesture. "She's around somewhere."

"Why did she leave me alone with Balg?"

"You'll have to ask her about that. Nephredana can be a little strange at times." He glanced quickly around. "I also wouldn't go shouting about Balg around here, someone might hear you."

Outside, a gray dawn did little to raise Gibson's spirits. A waist-deep white ground mist was rolling off the lake, lending everything a sad and sinister unreality that was heightened by the handful of leftover guests who wandered aimlessly like lost souls in disheveled evening dress. Crews were already pulling down the marquees, and the one that was left standing, a red-and-white island in the mist, was presumably the one where coffee and breakfast was being dispensed. Gibson never made it there, however. With Slide beside him, he had walked down the steps from the terrace and into the mist until, once again, his quest for creature comforts was interrupted by a voice from behind.

"Stand where you are, Gibson. We want to talk to you."

The four people Gibson most wanted not to see in this world or any other were standing on the terrace looking down at him. Smith, French, Raus, and Rampton had arranged themselves between the statues on the terrace, the classic marbles of gods and heroes, like a quartet of avenging angels, posed dramatically in the dawn against the facade of the mansion, Gibson's first thought was that it was a setup and his instinct was to run like hell, but logic quickly reasserted itself and pointed out that the running would most likely get him shot. Smith, French, Raus, and Rampton weren't alone; behind them, a four-man backup lurked like threatening shadows. Two uniformed streamheat toted their distinctive weapons, and two of Raus's goons, maybe the selfsame ones who had fed the girl in the black lingerie to Balg, were armed with heavy, old-fashioned machine guns that looked very like Thompsons, right down to the fifty-shot drum clips. The pretending seemed to have stopped. The gloves were off, and Gibson wondered how long it would be before someone started hitting him.

He glanced quickly at Slide. "Any way you can get me out of this?"

Slide shook his head and moved a few steps away from him. "Sony, kid, I have a strict policy of nonintervention."

"You bastard! Did you set me up for them?"

Smith spoke from the top of the steps that led up to the terrace. "Don't blame Slide, Joe. We could have picked you up anytime. We just thought we'd let you run around and have some fun until we needed you. Allow you the illusion that you'd escaped."

Gibson's lip curled. "Oh, yeah? If you were so fucking clever, how come you didn't know that I was hiding in the chamber last night when you were all watching Balg get fed?"

Beside him, Slide groaned. "You've got a big mouth, kid."

Just how big became immediately evident. Raus rounded angrily on Smith. "He's seen Balg."

Smith didn't show the slightest concern. "It hardly matters."

Raus, however, thought differently and wasn't about to let it go. "He has to die. It's the rule by which I live. I've not remained the master of this thing for as long as I have by breaking that rule."

Slide guffawed. "You really believe that you're the master of Balg, do you, Raus? Are you really that stupid?"

Smith snapped at him. "Keep out of this, Slide." She turned to Raus. "Gibson can't be killed. We have to have him."

Gibson felt decidedly relieved, but it was short-lived. Smith looked straight at him. "We have to keep him alive until after the Lancer project is completed. After that, we have no more interest in him."

Relief deflated like a punctured tire. Gibson made one last appeal to Slide. "Can't you do anything? They're going to kill me."

"I'm sorry, kid, it's nothing personal. I just can't get involved."

There was the sound of a car engine and Gibson turned to see the Hudson coming across the lawn, bouncing through the mist like a battleship in a heavy sea. Gibson experienced an irrational moment of hope that it was Nephredana coming to the rescue.

The group on the terrace must have thought the same thing, because both the streamheat and Raus's goons raised their weapons and trained them on the car. Slide moved quickly toward the steps. "Hold it! Hold it! It's nothing to worry about, it's just my ride coming to pick me up."

Gibson was drifting into a state of total unreality. The thing from the TV, Balg, Nephredana's unbelievable lovemaking and then the dreams, and now standing, up to his waist, in horror-movie mist while this latest drama unfolded all added up to a feeling that his world was being governed by the laws of surrealism. He also had the impression that some kind of influence was being used. Despite the obvious drama that was taking place in the area between the terrace and the lake, there were no curious bystanders hanging around. Even the small residue of party guests had melted away, and the cleanup crews went on with their work as though nothing was happening.

The Hudson came to a stop beside Gibson and Slide. On the terrace, they still didn't look terribly happy about the arrival of the car, but they weren't about to start shooting. The driver's door opened and Nephredana stepped out. Her image had completely changed from that of the night before. Now she had her hair scraped back into a bun and was dressed in a black leather version of a ninja suit, with decorative chrome shoulder guards. The black sunglasses had been replaced by a diamante creation with flyaway wings. Even her voice had altered. She talked out of the side of her mouth like some B-movie Chicago gun moll.

"Okay, Yance, ya ready to blow?"

Slide began to walk to the car, and Nephredana beckoned to Gibson. "Ya wanna get the shit that ya left in the car?"

Smith started down the steps of the terrace with the two uniformed streamheat behind her. "Don't try anything, Gibson."

Nephredana stepped into Smith's path. "He isn't gonna try nothing. If he does, I'll break him in half. I just want him to get his stuff out of the car."

Gibson didn't know what the hell was going on, but it seemed like the best idea for the moment was to bow to the superior firepower.

He faced Smith. "Is it a problem to get my things out of the car? I can't live in a tuxedo for the rest of my life, no matter how short you think it may be."

Smith nodded. "Get your stuff, but no tricks."

Gibson moved to the Hudson, and Nephredana opened the back door. He leaned inside and started gathering up the look-alike's clothes.

He glanced back at Nephredana, who was standing watching him. "Thanks for leaving me with Balg."

She moved closer to him and spoke in a low voice. "Don't panic yet, Joe. It ain't over until it's over." It was her normal voice and all trace of the gun moll had gone.

"And what's that supposed to mean?"

She ignored the question. The gun moll was back. "Ya want what ya left in the glove compartment?"

Gibson thought of the gun in the glove compartment and then of weapons that were ranged against him and shook his head. "No, I think I'll leave it where it is."

Nephredana nodded. It was the old voice again. "Wise move, Joe. They'd cut you down before you could get off a shot. Remember, I've seen you shoot a pistol."

Gibson stepped away from the car with the bundle of clothes in his arms. Nephredana reached into the backseat, pulled out Gibson's hat, which he'd left behind, and stuck it on his head; men she and Slide climbed into the car. The doors slammed, the engine revved, and the Hudson backed up, made a fast turn, and drove away into the mist. Gibson watched it go and then, feeling totally abandoned, braced himself to face whatever fate had in store for him.

"Okay, what are you going to do to me?"

Smith gestured to the pair of uniforms who followed at her heels. "Take him."

Raus was coming down the steps after her, still protesting. "I think you're making a big mistake."

Smith regarded him coldly as the two streamheat seized Gibson. "What do you want me to do? Cancel the entire Lancer project?"

Rampton caught up with them. "Be sensible, Raus. There's no way that we can bring it off without Gibson."

"But suppose he talks?"

Rampton blinked impatiently behind the Himmler glasses. "And who would believe him? Who would believe that one of this country's most successful entrepreneurs kept a supernatural monster in his cellar?"

While the argument was going on, Gibson's arms were being pulled behind him and handcuffs clamped on his wrists. It was the final confirmation that the streamheat's pretense of protecting him or attempting to obtain his cooperation was now history. He was their prisoner, pure and simple.

Meanwhile, Raus seemed to be finally caving in. "There must be no mistakes."

Smith was all but showing her contempt for the Kamerian power broker. "There will be no mistakes."

"And I want it on record that my choice was dispose of him here and now."

"Your position has been noted. Can we go now?"

Raus couldn't forgo a final burst of huffing and puffing. "I still don't like it."

Smith ignored him and signaled to French. "You'd better bring the car around."

When French arrived with the car, a large black sedan that looked a lot like a Packard, Gibson was unceremoniously bundled into the back with a uniform on either side of him.

" Since I seem to be under arrest, do I get to call my lawyer? "

Smith glared at him from the front seat. "Shut up, Gibson. I don't want to hear from you."

"I thought I was crucial to the plan?"

Smith eyes were steely and dangerous. "We have a use for you, Gibson, but don't let that go to your head. You can fulfill your function with any number of minor bones broken. Burroughs and Wellcome here, the gentlemen on either side of you, are experts at causing pain without doing serious damage."

This was enough of a warning for Gibson. He leaned back in the seat, closed his eyes, and did his best to make himself as comfortable as possible with his arms pinned behind his back. An old-time criminal had once told him, "When you're really in the shit and there's nothing you can do about it, rest up. You may need your strength later." Gibson didn't say a word for the rest of the drive.

Their destination turned out to be an apartment building back in the city, in much the same neighborhood as the last one. The apartment, however, was much larger, with a big living room that looked more like a temporary command post than a home, and three, maybe four bedrooms. Gibson didn't have much time to look around as he was hustled through, but he did see a large chart table with a model of a city square set up on it, a lot of sleek electronic equipment that was too advanced for Luxor and had to be all streamheat. Maps and photographs were pinned to the walls, and a selection of small arms that were a mixture of local and streamheat designs were stacked in a makeshift rack.

Wellcome and Burroughs took Gibson directly to a small windowless bedroom at the far end of a corridor from the living room and threw him inside. There was nothing in the room except a narrow, military-style cot and a bucket that he assumed was for emergency waste.

"Are you going to take these damned handcuffs off?"

Wellcome and Burroughs ignored him and left the room, locking the door behind them. In a sudden flash of rage, Gibson was across the room, kicking on the door and screaming after mem. "Fuck you, you bastards! My hands are getting numb."

His anger, however, was short-lived. It had been a rough night and he quickly ran out of steam. With no response forthcoming, Gibson sat down on the bed and stared at the opposite wall. He was past the point of self-pity or asking why him or what had he done to deserve any of this. It didn't even help to wail that he was deeper in the shit than he had ever been. All he could do was to sit and wait and maybe pray that some kind of way out would present itself and that he'd have the presence of mind and the resources to take it. He wasn't exactly optimistic about his chances.

He sat like that for maybe forty-five minutes with the pain in his hands worsening with every one of them before a key rattled in the lock. It turned out to be Klein with an amiable smile on bis face that Gibson didn't buy for a moment.

"I brought some cigarettes."

Gibson gazed at him with a look of solid dislike. "How am I supposed to smoke them with my hands chained behind my back?"

"Nobody took your cuffs off?"

Gibson scowled. "Full marks for observation, nobody took my cuffs off and my hands are swelling up."

Klein raised a hand. "I'll see to it straight away."

He quickly left the room and was back in less than a minute with a key. He freed Gibson's hands, stepped back and handed him a pack of the Luxor-style Camels. "Are you hungry?"

Gibson didn't answer right away. He massaged his wrists until there was circulation in his hands again; then he shook a cigarette from the pack and stuck it in his mouth. "Could I get a light for this?"

Klein lit his cigarette, leaving the matches on the cot, and repeated the question. Gibson exhaled and nodded. "Yes, I'm hungry, and I could kill for a drink."

Klein smiled. "I don't know about the drink, but I'm sure I can rustle up some food for you."

Klein's whole act was irritating Gibson, and he found the implied chumminess in the word "rustle" really offensive. "Listen, Klein, if you're trying to Mutt and Jeff me, forget it. I'm too far gone for any good-cop, bad-cop routine."

Klein had the gall to actually look hurt. "I was only trying to make you a little more comfortable."

"Bullshit, Smith probably sent you in here to soften me up, but it ain't going to work. You want something from me and once you've got it you're going to kill me. For my part, I'm going to do my best to stay alive by any means possible. That's the relationship and pretending it's anything else is garbage. Do I make myself clear?"

Klein stood up with an expression of guarded neutrality. "I'll see about the food."

"You do that."

Once again there was the sound of the door being locked. Allowing that he was probably incapable of feeling any worse, Gibson's mood had actually improved after his clash with Klein. He'd had a chance to vent some of his hostility, and also the fact that Klein had come in there to try and get on his side indicated that whatever they wanted him to do required some measure of his cooperation. It wasn't exactly a break, but it might prove to be the source of some slack and he was certain that slack was the only thing that was going to save his ass.

Klein was back in fifteen minutes with a plate of eggs and beans and bottle of local Luxor beer. "I managed to find you a beer."

Gibson looked dourly at the food. "You even managed to make something like prison food."

"It's what we all eat."

"You ought to complain."

Klein seemed to realize that it was pointless arguing with Gibson. "Is there anything else that you want?"

Gibson nodded. "Yeah, I want to go home."

"You know that isn't possible."

" So fuck off and leave me alone to eat this mess."

Gibson did his best to make the food last as long as possible; eating was something that kept him occupied and let him avoid thinking. After a couple of forkfuls, though, he realized just how hungry he was and wolfed down the rest of the eggs and beans in double time. He took a little longer over the beer and longer still over his second cigarette. When that was done, there was nothing to do but sit and wait. After Klein's departure, he had expected to be left alone until the streamheat felt like feeding him again. Thus it came as something of a surprise when, after only a half hour, the door was being unlocked again. This time the visitor was Smith, and she was making no attempt to make nice.

"Klein tells me you're acting belligerent," Gibson's face twisted into a sneer. "What was I supposed to be? Grateful?"

"You're suddenly acting uncharacteristically tough."

"Maybe all the things that haven't killed me lately have made me stronger."

Smith clearly didn't like this new attitude of Gibson's. "You're really in no position to be paraphrasing Nietzsche at me."

Gibson's sneer broadened. "Oh, yeah? It seems to me that I'm in a position to do pretty much what I want. Or, more to the point, not to do what I don't want. I mean, what can you do? You already told Raus that you're going to kill me when I've done whatever it is you want. You've kind of closed off your options."

"Pain can be a great motivator."

Gibson met her gaze. "Burroughs and Wellcome."

"They're just outside."

"You know something? I really don't think you're going to torture me."

Smith raised an eyebrow. "You don't?"

"I think whatever you want from me has something to do with the look-aiike."

"The look-alike?"

"My double. The guy who was living in that appartment before you put me there. The guy whose wallet and ID I found."

"Leh Zwald."

"Is that his name?"

Smith nodded. "What about him?"

"I figure that the reason you brought me here was to use me as a ringer of some kind, a substitute. I don't think I'm going to be any use as a ringer if I'm too busted and messed up to walk or talk."

Smith looked amused. "You've changed, Gibson."

"Probably because I've been fucked with and lied to a little too consistently."

"You think we've been lying to you?"

"I know you've been lying to me. You've been lying to me since you picked me up in Jersey. All that bullshit about looking after me and protecting me, that's all it was, bullshit. The way I see it, you had a plan for me from the get-go."

Smith's eyes were hard slits. "That's what you think?"

"I've been hearing all about you people and a few things are starting to make sense,"

"You've been hearing about us?"

"All about you."

Smith sniffed. "You've been talking to those ridiculous idimmu."

"They filled in some of the blanks."

"I suppose they gave you the usual human-sacrifice nonsense and how we're bent on conquering the universe."

"That was touched on."

It was Smith's turn to sneer. "And you, of course, believed them."

"It all seemed pretty plausible."

"That's the word for it, plausible. Not necessarily the truth, though."

Gibson lit a cigarette, with the matches that Klein had left for him. It seemed the streamheat weren't worried that he'd set fire to the bed. "I still tend to believe it."

"Your demon friends weren't much help to you this morning."

Gibson had to concede this. "You have a point there."

Smith changed the subject. "You want to tell me the point of this tough guy talk, Gibson? What are you hoping to achieve by it?"

Gibson dragged on the Camel before he answered. He felt that he was near to playing the only card that he had. "I'm trying to save my ass."

"That's understandable, although, from where I'm standing, you don't seem to have much bargaining power."

"I could cooperate. Fully."

Smith smiled nastily. "Believe me, Gibson, you'll cooperate."

"I think the saying goes 'One volunteer is worth ten pressed men.' "

"And what would you want in return for this full cooperation?"

"Just that I'd walk away once whatever it turns out to be is all over. You shoot me back to my own dimension and I keep my mouth shut."

Smith actually laughed. "It certainly is an intriguing proposition."

"So you want to deal?"

Smith shook her head. "I don't know. I'll have to think about it and discuss it with my colleagues. I promised Raus that I'd have you eliminated."

"How would Raus know, if I was in another dimension?"

Smith continued to shake her head. "I really have to think this one through. There are a couple of things that you ought to know, however."

"What's that?"

"Leh Zwald isn't just your double. He's actually the parallel of you in this dimension."

Gibson's jaw dropped. He didn't quite know what to do with this bombshell, "Jesus."

Smith was obviously enjoying this part. "There's something else."

"There is?"

"Leh Zwald is planning to assassinate the president of the UKR."

While Gibson was dealing with that one, Smith turned and let herself out of the bedroom. "I'll give you my decision later."

Gibson flopped back on the bed, totally drained. He had given it his best shot and then had it handed back to him in spades. Assassinate the president? There was almost a bizarre logic in that. He'd made his mark in his dimension, and it seemed that this Zwald was trying to make a truly indelible mark on his. Indentical personalities, presumably with the same primal drives and desires, are shaped by two very different societies, and one turns out to be an entertainer while the other strives to carve a niche in history by killing the leader of a country. Just to complicate the matter, the streamheat had organized it so both individuals were now in the same dimension and participating in the same killing. Gibson pulled his feet off the floor and lay on his back. He was actually surprised at his own calm and a little curious why he wasn't in the throes of a life-threatening anxiety attack. The big question was the same one that had been hovering over him ever since this thing had started. What exactly did the streamheat want with him? Some of the periphery of the puzzle had been filled in, but the essential core was still a frustrating blank.

As far as he could estimate, two hours passed before he got any further answers, although it was hard to gauge the passage of time in the locked bedroom. The only thing he knew for sure was that he had smoked five more cigarettes before he once again heard the sound of the door being unlocked.

This time it was Klein, who held the door wide and beckoned to Gibson. "Come with me, will you?"

Klein seemed less than friendly. Perhaps he was miffed at Gibson's negative response to his providing him with beer, butts, and breakfast. Gibson followed Klein down the corridor into the living room. The first thing that he noticed was that the model on the chart table had been covered over with a white sheet. Presuming that it was a miniature of the planned assassination scene, they plainly didn't want him looking at it. Smith, French, and Rampton were waiting for him, and, to Gibson's great relief, there was no sign of Burroughs and Wellcome.

Smith came straight to the point. "You'll be pleased to hear that we have provisionally decided to take you up on your offer."

Gibson nodded. "If I cooperate, you'll let me live?"

"That's the gist of it."

"Well, I'm very pleased to hear that. What are the provisions?"

Smith smiled. "Really there's only one. If you try to double-cross us, we'll shoot you out of hand."

"That's direct and to the point."

"It is, of course, a somewhat strange agreement since we don't trust you and I imagine you have equally little faith in us."

Gibson thought about this. "What you might call a conspiracy of mistrust."

Rampton seemed to like this. "There are times, Gibson, when you put things very well."

Gibson looked round the room. A number of the photographs on the walls were different views of the same building. It was a square, seven-story industrial building, either a factory or warehouse, but there was something oddly familiar about it and he couldn't for the life of him put a finger on what it was or where he might have seen it before.

Giving up on the puzzle, he faced Smith. "Since we seem to have the basis of an agreement, shall we get down to business? I'm a little anxious to know what's expected of me. I take it, since you're so friendly with Raus, that you're on the side of the assassins in this plot."

"That's not strictly true."

Gibson raised his eyebrows. "You mean that you're going to try to save the president?"

Smith sighed. "No, we're not doing that either."

"So what's the deal?"

"Essentially we are monitoring events in Luxor. There's no real debate that the administration of Jaim Lancer has been a complete disaster for this country, but this is an internal matter of the UKR, and contrary to popular opinion, we don't actually go around interfering in the domestic affairs of sovereign states in other dimensions. The most that we can do is to nudge events in the direction that we believe will lead to maximum stability in the region."

"And I'm to be a part of this nudging process?"

"In fact you may only be a backup. The assassination will be carried out by Zwald and three other unnamed shooters. Behind them are Raus and a number of other powerful men in the country. Although the mantle of power will naturally fall on Raus and his friends, there will also be a major public outcry following the president's death. Lancer enjoys a totally irrational popularity among the people of the UKR, and there's bound to be a massive outcry following the assassination and probably the need for a scapegoat."

A chill ran up Gibson's spine. "I hope you don't have me cast in that role?"

"It was considered at first but rejected as impractical."

"So who will take the fall?"

"Zwald."

"While Raus gets crowned king?"

Smith's expression was that of the world-weary professional. "Isn't that the way these things are done?"

Gibson went to the window and looked out. Many floors below, people were walking on the sidewalks and traffic was moving up and down the street. The overcast was breaking up, and patches of watery blue sky were showing through. It was a normal day in any big city. "No honor among conspirators?"

"Would you expect any?"

Gibson nodded in slow agreement. "So what do I have to do?"

"Basically, it's very simple. We move you around various locations in the city to confuse witnesses and generally promote the idea of Zwald being a lone-nut assassin."

"Trying for the lone-gunman theory?"

"That's what Raus is looking for."

"And you?"

"We would prefer the most massive conspiracy paranoia that is possible without Raus's position actually being compromised."

"This sounds a hell of a lot like the Kennedy assassination."

"That was one of the models we used for reference."

"And does Raus know about the Kennedy assassination?"

Smith shook her head. "Of course not."

Rampton seemed to feel a sudden need to show off his knowledge. "There's something called the bottleneck theory that puts forward the proposition that certain events are, for all practical purposes, preordained, racked up in the time stream like a bottleneck that has to be passed before the culture of that dimension can move on."

Smith and French exchanged swift angry glances. It was plain that, as far as they were concerned, Rampton had said too much. Smith went into spin control. "I wouldn't worry about the bottleneck theory, Gibson. Many of us don't subscribe to it."

Gibson, however, was a lot more interested in Rampton than he was in the theory. "While all this explaining is going on. how about someone explaining to me what exactly Rampton is doing here?"

Rampton looked at Gibson coldly. "I don't see what concern it is of yours, Gibson."

Smith still didn't seem particularly pleased with Rampton. "Rampton is simply here to observe."

"Like observing the sacrifice to Balg?"

"He's here to study our methods."

Gibson smiled in disbelief. "That seems about as plausible as the CIA taking along a Boy Scout to show him how they work. What did they promise you, Sebastian? To make you king of the hill back in our dimension once they're finished with this one?"

Rampton only kept his temper under control with some difficulty. "At least I'm not begging for my life."

"Don't speak too soon, Jack. You may be yet."

Smith had had quite enough of this. "Really, Gibson, the reasons for Rampton's being here don't concern you."

Rampton's face broke into a faint sneer. "Ever heard the phrase 'need to know,' Joe?"

"The only thing that I need to know is that he isn't going to be coming up behind me at some crucial moment."

Smith put a final stop to the exchange. "You have our assurance on that."

"I seem to be getting a lot of assurances. "

Rampton laughed. "What did you call it, Gibson? A conspiracy of mistrust?"


For the next three days, the streamheat were as good as their word. Gibson was taken by car to various locations in the city and expected to perform simple tasks under the watchful eyes of either French, Burroughs, or Wellcome. He was sent to walk down a specific block, or through the lobby of a building. On one occasion, he had to walk into the offices of a bank and exchange briefcases with a man in a dark suit. Gibson assumed that all this was probably being filmed or photographed or at least watched by a third party who might serve as a witness at some point in the future. Gibson knew that these actions were probably digging him deep and that he was setting up a lot of stuff that could backfire on him if anything went sour. This was an eventuality, however, that he tried not to dwell on. For the moment, he was alive and functioning and that was what counted when you were living on a one-day-at-a-time basis. The fact that he didn't have a solitary clue regarding the relevance of any of the things that he was doing was something else that he preferred not to ponder.

Before the first of these excursions, Gibson had created a fuss about how exactly they expected an albino to impersonate a normal man, no matter how much alike they might look in every other respect. Fortunately, this problem had been anticipated. A makeup artist was brought in, an attractive Luxor native who looked a little like Elizabeth Taylor, who spent a half hour transforming him but didn't seem too pleased that she was hired.to help some dirty albino pass as blue.

While all this was going on, Gibson was totally insulated from the outside world. The streamheat made sure that nothing came to him except through them. He saw no television, and, even when he passed a newsstand, the knowledge that Smith, Burroughs, or Wellcome probably had a gun on him didn't encourage him to pause to even look at the pictures on the banner front pages of the newspapers. Thus it came as something of a surprise to be told, as he was returning from an afternoon of posing for photographs in front of a brick wall at some abandoned industrial site, holding a rifle and looking belligerent, that the assassination would take place in the morning.

"As soon as that? I thought it wasn't for a week or more." Gibson had no tangible facts on which to base this assumption. He had just been hoping.

French had smiled one of his contemptuous smiles. "What's the matter, don't you feel ready for it?"

Gibson had scowled. "I don't know what I'm ready for. Shouldn't I be briefed for this? It'd be nice if I knew what I was doing."

"In fact, you won't be briefed until the last moment."

"Security or just keeping old Gibson in the dark as usual?"

"Neither, actually. The truth is that we aren't even sure if we'll need to use you at all. If things go smoothly, we won't."

"That's good news."

"I thought it might be."

Despite French's words, though, a clawing tension built inside Gibson all through the evening. He was no longer locked in the small bedroom, and the streamheat had gone so far as to allow him a couple of beers, but that was it, and it hardly made a dent. Unable to read and without a TV to distract him, Gibson found that there was nothing to do except pace, chain-smoke, and stare down at the lights of the cars in the street below. It had gone beyond the level of thinking about it. He wasn't asking himself how or why or what-if any longer; anxiety was a fist-size knot in his stomach, and he had a fist-clenching need to be constantly on the move. The robot state of just doing what he was told, by which he'd been surviving since he'd agreed to cooperate, was a trick that had been used from the dawn of time by those who only stand and wait, but there was a limit to how long he could turn it. He'd reached the point, this final evening, when he simply couldn't pretend anymore, or keep on shifting the fear along with the responsibility. In the morning, he'd be involved in the killing of a president, and that was all she was going to write. His life had become so terrifyingly fragmented that nothing remained on which a hold could be maintained. Mindless motion was the only thing stopping him from coming apart. Finally, even Smith realized that he couldn't go on building up this kind of pressure without something blowing. "Gibson, do you want a tranquilizer? "

"I'd rather have a bottle of Scotch."

"We can't have you hung over in the morning." Down on the street, a black police cruiser was scanning doorways with a spotlight.

Gibson watched until it was gone. "I thought you weren't expecting to have to use me."

"Nothing's settled yet."

"Suppose the local cops have a line on us?"

"They don't. They've been taken care of."

Gibson turned away from the window and paced across the living room. "This shit is starting to get to me. I need a fucking drink."

"Let me give you a shot."

"Will it put me out?"

"It should. You probably won't even dream."

She was already reaching in a drawer for a syringe, a foil-wrapped needle, and a bottle of colorless fluid. "Roll your sleeve up."

Gibson didn't like the idea of being shot up by Smith, but it was worth it if it stopped him twitching. He bared his arm without a word. Doing what he was told seemed to have become habitual.

The drug put Gibson out almost immediately, and he only just made it to the small bedroom before his eyes stopped focusing and their lids began to droop. It didn't stop him dreaming, though, and sleep became an ordeal as his subconscious disgorged a fearful invasion of violent newsreel images, stampeding crowds, screaming mouths, terrified faces, and helpless, ineffectual gestures as flesh tried to ward off bullets.

The images came on relentlessly: huge black cars with Secret Service men swarming all over them, a woman in a pink wool suit crawling back over the trunk of one of them, hand reaching out. Brown hair, a head haloed in the pink spray of its own brains going forward and back, forward and back. Knives slashing, a machete-wielding figure being clubbed to the ground by riot police. Another figure, a wild-eyed, tubercular kid, running alongside an open, horse-drawn carriage. A dead man's pistol shot, and the kid was cut down by the sabers of the hussars, blood spurting, head going backward and forward, backward and forward. And more pistols in the night, pistols in the light of the TV cameras and more shots and more blood, blood matting more brown hair and more hands reaching out, bloodstained white uniforms, and blood running in the gutter, white shirts, dark suits, clubs and sabers swinging, fists hurting, faces blank with shock, screaming. "Get him! Get him!"

And each time he was the assassin. He was always the assassin. Eternal, now and forever, world without end, universe of pain.

"Amen."

"Get him!" "Get him!"

Twice Gibson woke sweating, fearing psych attack but knowing that the nightmares were only the creations of the terror in the black bilges of his own mind.

And then it was morning and Klein was sitting on the bed, holding out a cup of coffee. "Are you okay, Joe? You were screaming during the night."

Gibson struggled and sat up.

"Yeah, yeah. I guess so. I've been having nightmares ever since this thing got started."

He took the coffee and sipped it tentatively.

"What time is it?"

"Six A.M."

"What's happening?"

"I'm afraid I have some bad news."

Gibson lowered the coffee with a sinking feeling in his stomach. "What?"

"Zwald is dead."

"Huh?"

"He tried to back out at the last minute."

"Back out of the assassination?"

"Right."

"I know how he felt."

"Raus's people killed him."

"What did they do? Feed him to Balg?"

Klein shook his head. "I believe they shot him."

Gibson beamed as though the sun had just come up in a blaze of glory and a great weight had slipped from his shoulders. "I don't want to come on like I'm self-obsessed or anything, and I'm sure it's real bad news for the late Leh Zwald, but what does this mean for me? The assassination is canceled, right? So you don't need me anymore, right?"

Klein wasn't smiling. "The assassination hasn't been canceled, Joe."

The sun went out and the weight crashed back onto Gibson like a cement overcoat. "What?"

"The assassination is still on. There are two other shooters, don't forget."

"What happens to me?"

"I'm afraid you're going to have to play the assassin."

Gibson feit sick. "I can't do that. I'll never hold together."

"All you have to do is to walk through the moves that Zwald was going to make. It's no different from what you've been doing already, and you'll be covered every inch of the way."

Gibson started slowly, shaking his head. He felt as though he was going into shock. "No."

"It's very simple. All you have to do is walk into a building, ride up in the elevator, wait awhile, then ride back down again and leave. Once you're clear of the immediate area you'll be pulled out, and Zwald's body produced as that of the lone assassin. All you have to do is allow yourself to be spotted by a few witnesses and that's it."

"That's it? Aren't you forgetting the fact that the president of the country will be shot between this going in and coming out? Won't that make this getaway a little difficult, particularly if I'm pretending to be the assassin?"

"It'll be a total chaos right after the shooting. No one will imagine you're the assassin until well after the fact. Remember that Raus controls most of the news media. He'll make sure that everything is pinned on the late Leh Zwald. Besides, French will be with you every step of the way."

French's voice came from the doorway. "Doesn't that fill you with confidence, Gibson, that I'll be right beside you?"

Gibson was shaking his head again. "I'm not doing this."

French leaned against the doorjamb. He was wearing duty tan workman's coveralls and holding another set, which he tossed onto the bed in front of Gibson. "Put those on and cut out the dramatics."

"I'm telling you, I'm not doing this."

French straightened up and put one hand in his pocket. "I'm going to keep this real simple, Joe." He pulled out a large revolver of local design, not unlike the one that Gibson had fired in Raus's shooting gallery, and pointed it at Gibson. "You see this gun, Joe? Regular pistol, no fancy technology, straight bullet in the brain, right? Well, that's exactly what you're going to get if you're not out of that bed and into those coveralls in the next thirty seconds. You understand me?"

Gibson sighed. "I understand you."

Watched by French and Klein, Gibson crawled from the bed and began pulling on the coveralls. His only thought was that it was a sorry set of clothes in which to die.

French hadn't finished with him. "I'm going to have the same gun all the way through the operation, and if I have the slightest feeling that you're trying to screw things up, I use it on you. You understand that?"

Anger came to Gibson's rescue. "Yes, I understand it. Death is real easy to grasp."

French nodded and then looked at Klein. "Okay, give him his shot."

"Shot? What shot?"

"A stimulant, to help you through."

"Not more goddamned speed?"

Klein was preparing the needle. "No, something of ours. It has a long complicated name, but usually it's called hero serum."

The needle went into his arm, and within seconds Gibson was feeling a whole lot better, light-headed and reckless. Rolling down the sleeve of his coveralls, he followed French into the living room. He was seeing things from a detached, insulated point of view that had to be an effect of the drug. He noticed a line of local script, presumably the name of a company, was stenciled across the back of French's coveralls, and Gibson presumed that his carried the same name and that they'd be posing as workmen.

Beyond the living room windows, the first gray dawn was creeping over the city and the sky was streaked with high pink clouds. It looked as though it was going to be a fine day. What was the Indian saying, "It's a fine day to die." Lights were burning in some of the apartment buildings nearby, others rising early or nighthawks not yet ready to give up and go to bed. It was all so damned normal. He wanted thunder in the distance and portents of doom. His mind wandered further. Somewhere out there, the president was sipping his coffee or talking on the phone, maybe dressing, maybe, at that very moment, splashing water on his face and blinking at his reflection in a bathroom minor, readying himself for the parade through Luxor and unknowingly readying himself for death.

French, briskly getting down to business, put a stop to Gibson's speculations. "Do you want to eat?"

Gibson quickly shook his head. "No."

"I didn't think you would. The hero serum tends to suppress the appetite." He pointed to a small collection of objects that had been placed on a side table: two packs of cigarettes, Leh Zwald's wallet, some loose change, and a couple of packs of matches.

"Put that stuff in your pockets."

"What's this, my junior assassin's kit?"

French ignored the remark. "Is there anything else that you want?"

"I want a drink."

French didn't argue and called out to Klein. "Get Gibson a large shot of whiskey."

Gibson flipped open the wallet. It contained Leh Zwald's ID and a bundle of notes. Gibson didn't count it, as at that moment Klein had come into the room with a generous measure of booze in a tumbler. Gibson took the glass gratefully and downed its contents in two swallows. When he spoke, the words came out as a hoarse gasp. "Damn but that's better."

He glanced at French. "What about my makeup?"

"The woman will be here momentarily."

The makeup woman was as good as French's word. In a matter of minutes, the door buzzer sounded and Klein let her in. She quickly rendered Gibson blue and left again. After she'd left, Gibson was thoughtful. "Aren't you running a risk using her? I mean, she could talk. She knows that I'm an albino."

French didn't look in the least perturbed. "She won't talk."

"She won't?"

"As we speak, she's being picked up by Raus's people on her way out of the building."

"What's going to happen to her?"

French was putting things in his own pockets. "That's none of your concern."

"Are you saying that she's going to be killed? Christ, she was an attractive young woman and has nothing to do with any of this."

"She was a drug addict, deliberately selected because of that. No one cares what happens to them."

Gibson's expression was grim. "Oh, of course. No one cares about drug addicts, do they?"

French gestured to the door. "Shall we go?"

"Where are we going?"

"I'll explain in the car."

On the way down to the street, another question came up.

"Where are Smith and Rampton?"

"Smith has duties elsewhere. I don't know what Rampton might be up to."

"How come he isn't along on this little junket? Shouldn't he be observing or something?"

French scowled. For once, he seemed to agree with Gibson's sentiments. "I don't think Rampton does field work."

A beat-up blue car that was completely in keeping with the two men's blue-collar image was parked at the curb. French got behind the wheel, and they pulled out into the stream of traffic. French talked as he drove. "We are heading for a warehouse building across town. It belongs to the Crown Electrical Company, and the reason that we're going there is that it overlooks the point where Lancer's motorcade will pass through Craven Plaza."

Gibson nodded. "This is the building that Zwald was going to shoot from? "

"Exactly. It was arranged some four weeks ago that Zwald would go to work there. We're going to park the car in the employees' lot and go into the building just like two regular guys on their way to work. From the moment that you enter the building, you will be Zwald. Fortunately, he kept very much to himself and it's unlikely that anyone will engage you in anything but the briefest conversation."

"What if they do?"

"Make an excuse, say that you're busy and have to be somewhere."

"Wouldn't that appear a little weird?"

"Not for Zwald, believe me. He was weird, you can take my word for that."

"So what do I do once I'm inside the building?"

"You punch in just like anyone else. I know you can't read but I'll indicate which card to use. After you've punched in, we take the elevator up to the sixth floor. Turn right out of the elevator and the fourth door along the corridor will be that of a large, empty storeroom. We go inside and wait."

"That's it?"

"That's it."

"And you'll be with me?"

French smiled nastily. "I'll be right behind you, Gibson. There's no way you'll be able to give me the slip."

Gibson sighed. "I think you've made that point."

"So, is there anything else you need to know?"

"There is one thing. What's your cover story when we get to Crown Electrical? I mean, do you have a job there or are you just going to wing it on the strength of wearing the work clothes?"

"I have a job there. I'm due to start this morning."

"Isn't that asking for trouble? Surely the local equivalent of the FBI or whatever are going to be checking on all newly hired employees and stuff like that."

This time French's smile was grim. "By the time they start doing that kind of checking, I'll be a long way away."

They drove across town for about fifteen minutes, but Gibson, not having even the foggiest idea of the geography of Luxor, had no idea where they were going. They left the residential neighborhood and passed through an area of industrial buildings. All along the route there were the signs of a city waking up and starting the day. Lines of gray-faced workers waited for buses while others thronged the roads in their own almost uniformly run-down cars. For anything but the closest examination, Gibson and French fitted right in with nothing to make them stand out from the crowd. During the last five minutes of the trip, they were diverted by a number of police sawhorse barriers and temporary detour signs. They were obviously near an area that was being kept clear for the presidential motorcade.

The Crown Electrical building was a square brick structure and, apart from the fact that it overlooked the open space of Craven Plaza, was totally unremarkable. There were probably a thousand commercial buildings just like it in the city. French parked and locked the car, and he and Gibson walked to the staff entrance just like any other poor bastards on their way to work. The act of punching in went without a hitch, even though Gibson hadn't punched a clock since sometime in the sixties when, as a struggling rock 'n' roller, he'd worked in a bakery before the advent of fame and fortune.

He and French rode up in the elevator together with two other characters in the same tan overalls. One of the characters nodded in a routine way to Gibson. "How you doing, Zwald? Heard you went out sick."

Gibson fought down panic and nodded back. "I must have ate something that didn't agree with me."

"That's a bitch, ain't it. You still look a bit under the weather. You want to take it easy."

Gibson grinned. "I'll sure do that."

To Gibson's relief, the two men got out on four and he and French continued to the sixth floor on their own. As soon as the elevator door closed, Gibson let out a long sigh. "I could have done without that."

"You're doing fine, just hold it together."

Gibson blinked. As far as he could remember, it was the first time that he'd ever heard French utter an encouraging word.

They emerged from the elevator, turned right, and went through the fourth door they came to. As French had predicted, there was nothing behind it apart from a large dusty storeroom containing a half-dozen or so empty boxes. French immediately went to the window and looked out; then, apparently satisfied that all was as it should be, he turned to Gibson and pointed at the radiator against the wall. "Look down behind that radiator and see what you can find."

"The radiator?"

"Just do it."

Gibson gingerly reached down the back of the radiator. He had once heard a story about how, in Australia, they had something called the funnel web spider whose bite could kill a grown man in a matter of seconds. Since the coming of modern civilization, the funnel web had taken to living behind radiators in hotels, factories, and apartment buildings. He hoped there was nothing similar in Luxor. His fingers touched wrapping paper. A package of some kind was hidden down there, long and narrow. When he lifted it out, he could feel its hard metallic contents: it contained either curtain rods or a broken-down rifle.

"Is this Zwald's gun?"

French nodded. "It's been hidden there for over a week."

"You want me to unwrap it?"

"No, come and help me with these boxes."

French was walking a packing case over to the window. As Gibson brought more, he arranged them into a low wall in front of the window so they formed a perfect sniper's nest. Gibson scratched his head. He didn't know if it was a side effect of the hero serum but the modest exertion had made him sweat. "Did we really need to do that?"

French was pushing up the window. "Got to make it look right."

Gibson moved over to the window and looked out. Crowds of spectators were already lining the motorcade route where it passed through the square of sooty green that was called Craven Plaza. On the right-hand side of the square, there was a low rise dotted with scrawny trees and, at the far end, a bridge that carried the monorail tracks over the streets. Motorcycle cops formed knots on every corner, and patrolmen on foot were strung out all along the route. The sinister, black, armored police cruisers were prowling up and down like grim headwaiters making final adjustments to the place settings before a banquet. Gibson gave thanks for the hero serum, which was keeping him from imagining every law-enforcement officer that he could see storming up to the sixth floor of Crown Electric to get him.

French was tearing the wrapping from the rifle. It came in five basic parts, clean, brand new, and covered in a thin film of gun oil. He quickly snapped together the barrel, the trigger mechanism, and the skeleton stock. He'd fitted the scope sight and banged in the clip with a final flourish, and then, to Gibson's horror, he knelt in the firing position and experimentally sighted the rifle out of the window.

"For Christ's sake don't do that, someone will see you."

French shrugged and lowered the gun. He placed it on a packing case beside him. "You worry too much."

Gibson shook his head as though he couldn't quite believe French. "Damn straight, I worry. How long do we have to wait here?"

French took the pistol out of the pocket of his overalls and placed it on the packing case beside the rifle. Now both weapons were handy for use.

"Lancer isn't due for another hour."

"Jesus. What if someone comes up here?"

"I locked the door behind us."

Gibson's mouth was very dry. "I think maybe this hero juice is wearing off, I'm starting to feel a little jumpy."

"I'll give you another shot in about forty-five minutes so you don't falter when the moment comes."

Gibson lit a cigarette. "It's going to be a long hour."

While Gibson chain-smoked, French sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the window with one hand on the rifle. There was something almost Zen about his level of calm, as if he had the ability to just turn himself off until he was needed.

In the plaza below, the crowds were growing larger and the cops had completely closed off the streets along which the motorcade would pass and those feeding into them. A loud metallic clack made Gibson start. French had jacked a round into the breech of the rifle.

Gibson dropped his latest cigarette onto the floor and ground it out with his heel. "What do you need to do that for?"

"Just force of habit."

"Now I'm so far in, how about explaining something to me?"

"What's that?"

"How does all this, the plot against Lancer and everything, fit into the battle against Necrom? How does it help?"

"It's a matter of stability."

Gibson was quite suiprised that French was willing to talk to him. He supposed that with all the preparation complete, there was nothing to lose. "Stability?"

"The waking of Necrom will produce an era of violent chaos across the dimensions. Our only hope is to maintain the maximum areas of stability that we can sustain. Behind the combination of Lancer and the current oligarchy in Hind-Mancu, this dimension is already drifting toward chaos."

"So Lancer has to go."

"It would seem so."

"Will Raus be any better?"

French shook his head. "I doubt he'll even weather the scandal of the assassination. A junta composed of police and military officers will be in power inside of two months. Then we'll have some stability."

"The Kamerians aren't going to like that too much, are they?"

"That's hardly the point, is it?"

This seemed to end the conversation, and Gibson turned back to the window. Something about the plaza below had started to bother him, a nagging feeling that somehow it seemed familiar. After worrying it around for a while, he dismissed the thought. It was probably the effect of the drug. Wasn't it time for another shot? He put this to French, and the streamheat produced a small junkie kit in a flat stainless-steel box. Gibson normally hated needles but in this case he would make an exception. The hero serum really did make the fear go away. French filled the syringe and indicated that Gibson should roll up his sleeve. "You know that this stuff can be highly addictive if used for an extended period?"

Gibson sighed. "All I need is a brand-new drug habit."

French smiled. "I wouldn't worry about it. After today, you won't be able to get any more, so you can crave all you want but it won't be more than a wistful memory."

French's tone led Gibson to suspect that he was speaking from personal experience.

Gibson lit yet another cigarette. The first of the two packs was almost empty. "Shouldn't Lancer be here by now?"

French nodded. "He's late. Lancer's famous for being late. He'll probably be late for his own funeral,"

French was sighting the rifle again, resting it flat along the stacked-up packing cases. Gibson couldn't see the point of this. It seemed like such a needless risk. "I wish to hell you wouldn't do that."

French looked at him as though he clearly thought that Gibson was an old woman. "Relax, will you? Don't you know people never look up?"

"Cops look up on a gig like this."

"Let it go."

Gibson couldn't let it go. "Anyone would think you were going to do the thing for real."

There was the sound of cheering, out of sight, away down on one of the side streets.

"He's coming!"

French tensed, hunching into the rifle.

Gibson knew that something wasn't right.

The motorcade came round the corner. Four motorcycle policemen led the way on bikes as big as the biggest Harley Davidsons back on Earth, They were followed by two LPD cruisers, and a closed black car not unlike a Cadillac Coupe de Ville of the early sixties. After that came the president, riding in the back of a long, black, open-topped limo with Secret Service men or the equivalent riding the running boards. More motorcycles roared alongside the cars in low gear, belching black, unburned fuel. President Lancer was waving, acknowledging the cheers of the crowd. He was slim with an easy debonair stance and a shock of light-brown hair. His wife was beside him; she was wearing a pink dress. The motorcade was taking the curved road that ran diagonally across the plaza and on down to the underpass at the far end.

The pink dress did it. Gibson knew what wasn't right.

French was aiming the rifle.

The plaza was so familiar because he'd seen it all back on Earth. He'd seen it in newspapers, in newsreels, and on TV. The Zapruder film. It hadn't been in Luxor, it had been in Texas. It wasn't indentica] but it was damned close. The motorcade had made it complete. The underpass, the grassy knoll to the right. Dealey Plaza.

"Stop!"

Gibson made a grab for French's pistol.

"Stop!"

French fired. "There are certain events contained in the time stream that cannot be avoided. The bottleneck theory."

Parallel worlds and parallel events,

"Stop!"

Inevitable.

French worked the bolt and fired again.

The president jerked forward.

Unshakable destiny.

Simultaneously there were more gunshots that seemed to come from the grassy knoll.

A pink halo briefly surrounded the president's head.

How many shooters were there on this thing?

The president jerked back.

French fired a third time.

Gibson had the pistol. He knew and was consumed by rage. The streamheat were still lying to him. He was set up. He was the dumb bastard who could be conned twice. He was the fall guy and they were going to turn him into Lee Oswald!

"I'm going to kill you, you motherfucker!"

French turned. The rifle was pointed at Gibson.


The White Room | Necrom | The White Room