THE TWO OF them rode down in the elevator without speaking, Casillas leaned impassively on his cane, and Gibson wondered what the hell he was thinking about going anywhere with the weird old man. This time he couldn't blame it on the old man using any ancient Mexican whammy. Don Carlos Gustavo Casillas had been very insistent that Gibson came of his own free will. His own reckless curiosity had to take sole responsibility for the fact that he was leaving the building on his way to an unknown destination to meet a group of people who claimed to be in touch with other dimensions. After all those years, he really should have known better. His curiosity had certainly landed him in enough trouble to teach him some sort of a lesson. Most of his current problems had started with that small but devilish voice that always began its arguments with a grin and a shrug and the exclamation, "Ah, what the hell." In this case it was, "Ah, what the hell, suppose everything that Casillas said is true. Wouldn't that be a kick in the head?" Of course, that would also mean that Necrom was real, and he didn't like the sound of Necrom one little bit. But one thing at a time. First he'd see what the Nine were all about and then take it from there. The odds were that it'd be a total letdown and they'd turn out to be the kind of loonies who also sent messages to Venus by banana-powered radio. He just couldn't resist the temptation to see for himself.
As they walked through the lobby, Ramone stared curiously at them but made no comment. Gibson nodded and Ramone nodded back with that look of supercilious disapproval that was unique to the doormen of expensive Manhattan apartment buildings. Fuck you, Ramone. You ought to be used to it by now.
Weird visitors going to and coming from his apartment were hardly a novelty anymore.
Outside, on Central Park West, Gibson finally broke the silence. "Do we get a cab?"
After all that Casillas had been saying, Gibson was mildly surprised that he wasn't levitating the pair of them to wherever they were going.
The old man shook his head. "My car will be here in a moment."
He didn't explain how whoever was driving the car would know that he was waiting for it.
An immaculate, midnight-blue Rolls Royce Silver Ghost with whitewalls and tinted windows was majestically commanding the inside lane. The other traffic seemed actually to defer to it, and Gibson knew instinctively that it belonged to Casillas. Sure enough, it slowed to a stop right in front of them. A tall, black chauffeur in pearl-gray livery and with Stevie Wonder braids under his formal peaked cap climbed out and walked round to open the near-side rear door.
Casillas glanced at Gibson. "This is Amadeus." Gibson nodded to the chauffeur, who returned his gaze as though he wasn't particularly impressed,
Casillas concluded the introduction. "This is Joseph Gibson."
It was Amadeus's turn to nod. He was curt in the extreme. "I know. I used to see him on TV."
Gibson didn't see why he should stand for this hostility. He smiled right back at the chauffeur. "I hope you enjoyed it."
"I never enjoy seeing a white boy ripping off Chuck Berry and James Brown."
Gibson nodded. At least he knew where the two of them stood. Casillas terminated the exchange by ducking quickly into the car. After a moment's hesitation, Gibson followed, and as soon as Amadeus was behind the wheel, the Rolls quickly pulled out into the stream of traffic.
They seemed to be heading downtown, rounding Columbus Circle and then along Central Park South to turn down Fifth Avenue. The early-evening traffic was light and moving rapidly and, in short order, they were passing the blank-eyed bronze eagles that flanked the steps to the Public Library. Casillas didn' t seem to want to talk, so Gibson stared through the smoked-glass windows as they continued south. No one seemed willing to tell Gibson anything about where they were going. It wasn't until they passed Twenty-third Street, with the landmark of the Chelsea Hotel on the corner, that Amadeus broke the silence, and then it turned out to be an emergency.
The chauffeur glanced sharply back at Casillas. "I think we're being followed. There's this guy who's been sticking to our tail since just below Forty-second Street."
Casillas cursed softly in Spanish. "What kind of car is it? "
"A black Jeep Cherokee with crash screens and the whole bit."
Gibson swiveled in his seat and peered through the Rolls's narrow rear window. Sure enough, there it was, just as Amadeus had described it, equipped with every kind of exterior gizmo short of machine-gun mounts and finished in a dull black that gleamed dimly as it passed under the streetlights and cheap neon around Fourteenth Street; it might have just been a trick of the light, but the car seemed to carry with it an aura of profound menace.
Gibson suppressed a shudder. "Are they really following us?"
Amadeus nodded. "And making no secret of it, either."
Gibson looked at Casillas. "Do you know who they are?"
The old man's face was tight. "Whoever they are, I don't think they mean us any good."
"Maybe you ought to let me off here."
Casillas didn't even consider the idea. "It's too late for that."
Amadeus glanced into the rearview mirror. "You want me to take evasive action?"
Casillas frowned. "They may be hard to lose."
"I'll do my best."
Amadeus, who up to that point had been maintaining a fairly dignified speed, quite in keeping with the stately demeanor of the Rolls, suddenly put the hammer down. There was no more dignity in the car's engine. The snarl of raw power drowned out the ticking of the clock. Someone had done a superb job on whatever was under the hood. Unfortunately the Jeep also had the horses, and it stuck with them. Now they were down in the Village and the traffic was heavier, complicated by cabs dropping off and picking up in front of bars and clubs and restaurants. Amadeus, however, maneuvered his way through it, swerving and weaving like Steve McQueen in Bullitt, ignoring the horns and the cursing that he left in his wake.
Gibson was now thoroughly alarmed. "Listen, I'm not kidding. I want to get out. Right now."
Casillas glanced behind. The black Jeep was just two car lengths behind."It wouldn't do you any good. On the sidewalk, you'd be a sitting duck. You're much safer with Amadeus."
Gibson didn't care if his voice sounded desperate. "I don't have any beef with these people, whoever they are."
Casillas's expression was politely regretful. "I'm afraid, as far as these people are concerned, you became one of us the moment you got into the car. Guilt by association."
"What do they want?"
"They want us, Mr. Gibson. They want us. Although I wouldn't care to speculate what they intend to do with us if they get us."
Gibson felt sick. "Jesus Christ."
Amadeus turned in his seat and flashed Gibson a broad grin. Three of his front teeth were gold. "Life's a bitch, ain't it, Joe?"
They were through the Village and headed for Canal Street, The three towers of the World Trade Center loomed luminously in front of them. Amadeus ran the lights by the ball court at Houston, but the Jeep came through right behind them in a drawn-out, discordant fanfare of angry New York horns.
Amadeus was shaking his head. "These guys just don't give up. With your permission, padrone, I'm going to swing into the Holland Tunnel and try and shake them on the Jersey side. Jersey got a mojo all of its own."
Casillas nodded. "Whatever you think."
Amadeus left the turn until the very last second and then screamed the Rolls across three lanes in the hope of faking out the Jeep's driver and leaving him racing fruitlessly toward the Battery. Again, the drivers around him leaned on their horns in protest. It was a good theory but it didn't work. As the Rolls plunged into the smell and dirty tiles of the tunnel, the Jeep followed as though it were glued to them. Amadeus swore bitterly, using what sounded like African curses.
"It's like the motherfucker knows what I'm going to do before I do it."
Casillas nodded gravely. "They may have help."
"So when does our side come through with some?"
"We'll just have to wait and see."
"Shee-it. You better hold on in the back there. These guys are coming for us."
Casillas and Gibson grabbed for handholds as Amadeus swung the Rolls from side to side across the width of the tunnel. The Jeep was aggressively jockeying to move up beside them. Something black and cylindrical protruded from a slit in the mesh screen that covered the right-hand passenger window. Gibson's stomach lurched and knotted as he recognized it as the snout of an assault rifle.
"They've got a gun, goddamn it!"
Amadeus grunted. "We're lucky they ain't got a fucking rocket launcher."
A voice shrieked in Gibson's head. Get out of here! Get out of here! It was only the last shreds of a self-destructive pride that stopped him from sliding to the floor of the car and huddling there whimpering.
Amadeus only managed to keep the black Jeep at bay by making it impossible to get past the Rolls in the narrow confines of the tunnel. The tunnel, however, wouldn't go on forever. The two vehicles came out on the Jersey side like twin shots from a cannon. The Rolls howled past the tollbooths and startled faces gaped from the cars waiting for the lights. The Jeep swung wide, running abreast of the Rolls, and muzzle flashes chattered from the weapon aiming out of the side window.
Amadeus was yelling, "Get down and keep hanging on!"
A stammer of bullets raked the Rolls. Gibson now had no reservations about hitting the floor. The old man was crouched beside him. The left rear window starred but didn't shatter.
He found that his voice had gone up an octave.
Amadeus grunted as he wrenched the wheel around and spun the car into a side street. "Inch thick."
He made four more fast turns and then eased off slightly. There was no sign of the Jeep Cherokee.
"I think we may have thrown them off for the moment."
"Don't speak too soon."
Amadeus kept looking back. "I don't see them."
Casillas eased himself back into the seat. "Just keep going, drive around for a while, and then we'll try to slip back into Manhattan."
Gibson was also up off the floor. He looked out of the window. He didn't have a clue where he was except the vaguest idea that they were somewhere in back of the Jersey City waterfront. They were passing factories and warehouses and two-story houses punctuated here and there by the lights of a liquor store, corner grocery, or fast-food joint. After almost twenty minutes of zigzagging through this kind of terrain, Casillas decided that it might be safe to make for the Lincoln Tunnel and back to New York. In just five blocks, he was proved wrong. Once again it was as though whoever was in control of the black Jeep Cherokee could read their minds. They made a turn and there it was, coming straight at them, the wrong way down a one-way street.
Amadeus yelled a warning. "Motherfucker's going to ram us!"
Amadeus's feet tap-danced, heel and toe, across the brake, clutch, and gas pedals as he spun the steering wheel. The moonshiner's turnaround. Gibson had heard of it but never actually seen it done outside of a movie. He was thrown sideways as the car spun on its axis with a scream of tires and tortured suspension. The front wheels were up on the sidewalk. The Jeep swerved to intercept. For a stretched moment of confusion Amadeus fought with the wheel. A lamppost was coming up. Amadeus stomped down on the brakes. Casillas lost his hold and was thrown forward. He cracked his head on the partition separating the driver from the passengers.
As the Rolls lurched to a stop, Amadeus gestured urgently to Gibson. "Out of the car! Run! Save yourself!"
Gibson looked down at Casillas. He seemed to be out cold, maybe even dead. "What about him?"
"I'll take care of the old one. Go quickly. The armor on this thing is good but it won't stand up to a conceited close-range attack."
Joe Gibson didn't need a second urging. He hit the ground running. The Jeep had come to a stop maybe twenty to thirty yards up the street and was backing up, but he didn't pause to look. In the old days, he'd done a lot of running to and from cars. Back then, the threat had been from hysterical fans who had wanted to tear his clothes off for souvenirs. God knew what the shadowy denizens of the sinister Jeep wanted to do to him.
Gunfire echoed around the buildings behind him, but he didn't look back. He could all too easily imagine bullets tearing into his back. His overwhelming instinct was to dive for a doorway and huddle there, but common sense kept him pounding down the sidewalk. Police sirens wailed intermittently in the distance. For Christ's sake let them get here. He couldn't think of anything better right there and then than being arrested. By the end of three blocks, he was winded. His lungs were laboring and his legs were threatening to cave on him. Too much booze and too many cigarettes-dear God, he was out of condition. There was no sound of footsteps behind him and so far he hadn't been shot, but after another block he couldn't force himself to go any farther. He stopped for a moment and leaned on a fire hydrant, gasping for breath. For the first time, he looked back and immediately wished that he hadn't. The Jeep had reversed up alongside the Rolls, blocking it from moving. Worse than that, though, two men were loping down the street on silent running shoes, obviously coming for him. He took one look and started off again. They had to be from the Jeep. Sweatsuits and porkpie hats, black wraparound sunglasses at night. Both were carrying weapons-which looked uncomfortably like machine pistols- at high port. Over and above the hardware, there was something else that kept Gibson running down that back street in Jersey City. The two figures bore a terrible resemblance to the tontons that he'd seen cruising the street that time in Port-au-Prince. They'd also had a thing about Jeep Cherokees. Just the sight of one of them, with crash bars and black windows, was quite enough to strike mortal terror into the average Haitian, and it was doing much the same for Gibson right then. There was nothing he could think of that scared him more than the idea of falling into the hands of a couple of tonton macoute with a grudge. The very thought of them set his mind racing in nineteen different directions like a gang of roaches suddenly hit by the light. The things that these voodoo gestapo were rumored to do to their prisoners were the subject of fearful looks and glances over the shoulder. Between the electric shocks and the rubber hoses and the juju chants and zombie powder, they were supposed to not only be able to break man's mind and body, they also came for his soul. Gibson was so scared that it didn't even occur to him to wonder what the hell they might be doing running all over New York and New Jersey and, in particular, why they were coming after him.
He pushed himself off the hydrant and fled on down the street. It was quite enough that the world had stopped making sense with a viciousness that defied even his imagination. The blood was pounding in his head, and his heart threatened to burst. He chanced a glance behind. They were still coming. In fact, they'd gained on him. Not shooting, but just padding effortlessly, a Zulu lope, like hunters running down a wounded buck, seemingly content to let him run himself out. He came to the end of a block and quickly turned the corner. Lose them, he told himself, lose them. He knew in his heart that these guys would be hard to shake, but he had to tell himself something. His sanity was at stake. Why him? What had he done? The new street was nothing more than a black industrial wall thick with graffiti to the height that a kid with a spray can could reach. No yards or back alleys, no place to hide. The tontons came round the corner and that moment was close at hand. He searched the night for a bodega or a liquor store that was open. Maybe they wouldn't try anything if there were other people around. There was nothing-no kids hanging out, not even the red light of a Budwetser sign. Gibson could only see the red that was pulsing behind his own eyes. His legs could scarcely lift themselves. It was the point in the nightmare when you woke up, except this was no dream, Gibson knew that he was through; not even mortal fear and certainly not effort of will was going to stop him dropping in his tracks. He was about to faint.
And then the third car was on the scene. The white Cadillac Eldorado came out of the night like the Lone Ranger. As it swept toward him, Gibson dropped to his knees and then to all fours, completely exhausted. He was past caring what this new twist was going to mean, although his pursuers apparently didn't like the look of it. They halted and readied their weapons. The Cadillac slowed to a halt a matter of feet from where Gibson was on his hands and his knees, silhouetting him against the double headlights. He slowly raised his head and stared blindly into their glare. He could almost have sworn that he was being inspected. Nothing happened for a full five seconds. Then the car's doors flew open. Dark figures were moving with the speed and precision of highly trained professionals. What the fuck was this? Mossad? The SAS? He had no more assumptions. Anything could happen.
As Gibson's mind boggled his knees also buckled, and he fell over on his side in the road. It was only a burst of wild gunfire from one of the tontons that galvanized him back to life. He curled his body into a tight fetal ball and hugged his head with his arms. His eyes were tightly closed. When the firing suddenly stopped, he hesitatingly opened just one of them. The vision that presented itself had the crystal clarity that only comes when the mind is about to save itself by going into shock. A physically perfect young man was standing beside him. He was wearing neat, dark-blue coveralls with small gold sun symbols at the throat. Lank blond hair hung over a pale face, his knees were bent, and both arms were at full stretch, aiming a hand weapon that was like something out of Star Wars, a collection of parallel tubes mounted on an elaborate pistol grip and frame. One of the tontons loosed another burst of fire. Gibson curled tighter, but the young man took his time. When he did fire, there was a pair of twin white pulses of light at what was the weapon's approximation of a muzzle and the nearest tonton simply vanished. He was gone. No muss, no fuss, not even a puff of smoke or a beam-me-up-Scotty shimmer. Just gone. In the next second the other tonton disappeared in exactly the same way as more twin pulses came from the other side of the car.
The young man looked down at Gibson. He could have been a high-tech avenging angel or have come from a flying saucer.
"Streamheat. Just stay put."
"We're the good guys, stay right where you are."
And then he was gone. The Cadillac was swerving around Gibson and speeding off down the street, presumably to help Amadeus. It was only at that point that Gibson realized that the Cadillac hadn't made a sound. He eased himself into a sitting position. Gibson could only suppose whoever else had been in the Jeep had gone the same way as their two brothers. Although what way that might have been was something that he didn't want to think about.
It was almost five minutes before they came back to see how he was. He was still sitting in the road. This time the Cadillac halted beside him and two young men in overalls stepped out.
"You'd better get in the car."
Gibson was through. He didn't care if he sat there until the end of time. "Fuck off."
The two perfect young men looked down at him. "You want to sit there all night?"
Gibson petulantly folded his arms. He was aware that he was making an asshole of himself in front of rescuers but he didn't care. "It's my goddamned inalienable right, if I want to. And what the fuck is streamheat anyway."
"Why don't you get in the car and stop causing grief?"
The young man's voice had the paper-thin patience that law-enforcement officers the world over use on the drunk and the difficult. Gibson had heard it plenty of times before, and he couldn't help going for that little extra mileage.
"I told you to fuck off. I'm not getting in any more strange cars."
"Please don't be difficult."
Gibson abruptly changed the subject. "What's happened to Casillas?"
"He's okay. Amadeus is taking care of him. It's taken a lot out of him. Contacting us nearly fried his brain."
Gibson scowled. "He's not the only one with a fried brain."
"So we see."
"Do you wonder at it?"
"Get in the car."
"I told you, fuck off."
Without a word, the two perfect young men reached down, gripped him under the armpits, and started to lift. Gibson had enough common sense left not to resist. He didn't want to go to wherever the tontons had gone. They lifted him with no apparent effort, and all he could do was to mollify the old rebel in him by shaking himself free of them when they had him on his feet.
"Okay, okay, I can walk."
He ducked in to the backseat of the Cadillac without any help. The interior had that brand-new leather, fresh-from-the-factory smell, which was a little strange since, as far as Gibson could see, it was an old Caddy, maybe 1964 or 1965. A woman was already sitting in there on the far side of the car, the exact female counterpart of the young men. She was wearing the same coveralls with the same gold sun insignia. In fact, the three of them were so alike that they could have been siblings.
She smiled coldly at Gibson as he sat down beside her. "You really shouldn't be difficult."
"I think I've earned the right."
The woman shrugged. At least he was in the car. The two men got into the front. As the car pulled away, Gibson looked round belligerently. "So who are you? What's all this stream-heat stuff?"
The woman was even better at professional patience than the men were. "We're agents of the Time Stream Directorate."
Gibson looked at her bleakly. "Silly me. I should have known."
"We're part of a multidimensional task force formed in response to the Necrom crisis. I'm Smith-" She indicated the man driving, "-he's Klein-" She pointed to the remaining young man in the front passenger seat, "-and he's French."
Gibson nodded. "Smith, Klein, and French. Am I to understand that you are another three of the Nine?"
Smith laughed. "Us? Hell, no. We're just a set of out-of-town triggers."
"And which town are you out of?"
"You wouldn't know it."
"Try me. I'm widely traveled."
"We're not from this dimension."
Gibson sighed. "Something else I should have known?"
Smith regarded him as though he was a particularly tiresome, low-grade moron. "It's hard to grasp at first."
Gibson allowed himself a long time to digest this. Damn straight it was hard to grasp. He could feel himself slipping again. The interior of the Cadillac had provided a brief illusion of normality. He'd been in a lot of Cadillacs in his time. Now even that was melting away. Once again his cake was in the rain.
"So where are you taking me? To Ganymede? Alpha Cen-tauri?"
The woman may have had more patience but it was quickly ebbing. "You're going to a secure loft in SoHo. You wouldn't like Ganymede."
"And what happens to me when I get there?"
"That will be up to Casillas and his associates. We were only called in as backup."
"Suppose I don't want to go? Suppose I want to go back to my own home and forget all about this lunacy?"
Smith shook her head. "You wouldn't want to do that."
Gibson's eyes narrowed. "Why? Because you'll make me vanish with one of those weird fucking weapons of yours?"
Smith shook her head. "You wouldn't vanish, you'd just fry."
"What are those things anyway?"
Smith touched the weapon at her hip. "The DL20? If I explained, you wouldn't understand."
"Why don't you try me? There seems to be a real shortage of straight answers around here."
French turned in his seat. "Maybe that's the result of a real shortage of straight questions."
The chill silence that followed this shutout was only broken when Gibson finally pulled out his battered pack of cigarettes. "Is anyone going to object if I smoke?"
Smith shook her head. "We don't get cancer."
"Well, good for you." Gibson stuck a Camel Light in his mouth and lit it.
"Maybe you could tell me one thing. If us humans are so dumb and weak and cancer-prone and all-around inferior, how come you superior beings bother?"
French's lip curled. "Just following orders." Gibson noticed that his hands were shaking. He was in delayed shock. A certain detached part of him wondered how he was managing to adapt so fast to this multidimensional craziness. The weird part was that he wasn't only accepting all that was being thrown at him, but that he was now thinking very clearly. He was even becoming suspicious, and that had to be a good sign.
Gibson eyes swiveled sideways. "Or maybe you aren't really bothering with us. Maybe we're just the inconvenient natives on a prime piece of strategic real estate. Is that it?"
All three streamheat looked sharply at him. Even Klein took his eyes off the road. Gibson seemed to have struck a nerve. He knew it was going to take a lot for him to trust these individuals, even though they had rescued him from the tonton macoute. They were just too slick and certain. He loathed people who came on superior, even if they were. He wondered if Chilean peasants looked at the local CIA man in the same way. Smith seemed to sense the way his thoughts were riding and climbed down a couple of notches.
"Listen, Gibson, we know the last few hours must seem like a fever dream to you, but try and go with the program. We've got orders to look after you and that's exactly what we're going to do, whether you cooperate or not. If you have any questions about us, please ask them and I'll do my best to answer in terms that you can understand."
Her tone was still condescending, but at least she seemed to be trying for minimal common ground. The shreds of Gibson's rationality advised him to go along.
"Why you, what?"
"Why is it me being rescued? Why is it me being chased by tontons in the first place?"
Smith's face blanked over. "I don't have any information about that. We just had orders to come and get you. You, Casillas, and the chauffeur. Maybe they'll tell you more when you get to SoHo."
"I thought you were going to answer rny questions?"
"I can't tell you what I don't know."
"So what do you know?"
Gibson took a long drag on his cigarette. "What happened to those guys back there? People don't vanish like that. It's against the laws of physics."
French's expression was pure John Wayne. Gibson almost expected the man to call him pilgrim. "We brought our own laws with us."
Smith shot French a hard warning look and then attempted to answer Gibson's question. "In simple terms, our weapons returned them instantly to their dimensions of origin. "
Gibson slowly rubbed his jaw.
"Are you telling me they were also from another dimension?"
"Suppose they'd really been human?"
"We're all human, more or less."
"But suppose they'd been from this dimension."
"Like I said before, they would have fried. When the weapon's used on an individual who's in his or her dimension of origin, there's nowhere for the energy to vent to. A circle burn starts in the molecular structure. Fizzipp. High-speed sizzle."
Gibson was a little sickened by the idea. He eyed the weapon on Smith's hip.
French laughed nastily.
"Maybe a grease spot."
Gibson was still having trouble with it all. The more he learned the greater the confusion. One thing he knew for sure, though- he really didn't like the streamheat.
"I don't get it. Why the hell should a bunch of cats from another dimension want to disguise themselves as a Haitian death squad?"
"Habit. And maybe because they enjoy it. Haiti has been a major entry portal to this dimension for more than a century."
"The voodoo lets them through?"
"Among other things."
Gibson sagged in the seat. "This is getting out of hand."
Klein spoke for the first time. "Makes your head spin at first, doesn't it?"
Gibson nodded. "You can say that again." He thought fora moment. "Let me get this straight. These guys slip through and your job is to zap them back again?"
"That's putting it a little crudely."
"But those weapons do zap them back?"
Smith nodded. "Right back to their own dimension."
Gibson snapped his fingers.
"Just like that?"
Smith smiled. It was the first time Gibson had seen any crack in the cold efficiency. "Just like that. Sometimes they arrive intact and sometimes they don't. Sometimes they come out at ground level but other times they materialize in the middle of a mountain or a thousand feet up in empty air."
"You sound like you don't particularly care."
"We don't lose any sleep over it."
Something occurred to Gibson. It was one of those thoughts that one immediately regrets thinking. "You say that everyone's human, more or less?"
"More or less, except those who aren't."
Klein laughed. He must have seen Gibson's expression in the mirror. "Don't worry, we can't turn into the Dunwich Horror right before your eyes."
Gibson turned to Smith for help.
"This is more than making my head spin."
"That's because you have no real grasp of the multidimensional universe."
"Perhaps you'd like to explain it to me?"
Smith frowned. "Not really. I don't have the time, and you don't have the math."
Gibson was starting to come out of his shock, and the repeated double-talk was starting to make him angry. "You call this answering my questions?"
Smith did her best to placate him. "I'm not trying to be difficult. It's just that you keep asking questions that only show you don't even understand the fundamental principles. I mean, you probably think that when I'm talking about another dimension, I'm referring to things that are-" She gestured airily to beyond the car window. "-over there somewhere."
"Well, aren't they?"
Smith shook her head. "Quite the reverse; thousands of dimensions exist at once in the same relative space."
"So how come we aren't knocking into each other all the time?"
"Because different dimensions exist at different levels of reality, at different wavelengths if you like. Like the different channels on a TV set if it helps to think of it that way."
Gibson nodded. "I understand wavelengths. One zigs and the other zags so the twain never meet. There seems to be quite a lot of meeting of the twain, though. I mean, you guys are here."
French half smiled. "He's really quite smart for a primitive."
Gibson scowled. "That's what Custer said about Sitting Bull."
Smith ignored the exchange. "In normal times, the worst that happens is a degree of leakage."
"But these aren't normal times."
Klein snorted. "There's leakage all over the place. Things are getting real messy,"
Gibson was thoughtful. "So, when you travel from one dimension to another, it's really a matter of tuning, of changing wavelengths?"
"You could look at it that way."
"How do you do it?"
"How do you do what?"
"Travel from one dimension to another?"
Smith shook her head as if talking to a child who amazed her with its relentless questions. "There are dozens of ways, maybe hundreds. They range from primitive, animalistic energy rites to the most sophisticated subpartical-"
French quickly cut in. "You think you should be telling him that?"
Smith looked surprised. "I'm hardly giving him a course in how to do it."
"I think all that Gibson really wants is a reassurance that we aren't monsters disguised as humans."
French was right, but Gibson greatly objected to the way that he said it.
Smith spread her hands. "Back in our own dimension, we're as human as you are. There are certain minor changes that take place when we go through transition. Local adaptation is part of the process; it's integral to the dimension crossover. It quite literally comes with the territory. Much depends on subjective perception but, all in all, we are all very similar, certainly not monsters."
Gibson didn't sound quite convinced. "Just our brothers on another wavelength?"
"That's a relief."
"I thought it might be."
Gibson looked at Smith. She really was a good-looking woman. "So what I see is what I get?"
"And how do you see me?"
"The adaptation process is really a two-way street. It allows us to interface in all the normal ways."
Despite his confusion, Gibson managed to raise a flippant grin. "And does normal interface include sex?"
Smith's eyes became steely. "It's possible, but try anything with me and I'll break it off."
They were back in the Holland Tunnel. In a couple of minutes, they'd be in SoHo, and Gibson decided it was time to concentrate on psyching himself up as far as he could in preparation for whatever might be coming next. He didn't doubt that their destination would deliver a whole new set of shocks and surprises. They were passing the Four Roses Bar on Canal Street, and he was forcibly reminded how badly he needed a drink. Damn but he could use a shot before they got to where they were going. He had half a notion to ask Klein to pull over, but then he pictured the three streamheat-even if they could be persuaded to stop at the bar, which he didn't imagine they could- marching into the Four Roses, with their neat uniforms and whitebread-clone good looks, while the disco lights flashed and James Brown pumped out from the jukebox. They'd clear the place. The clientele of the Four Roses, as Gibson remembered it, would assume that the trio were some new kind of narco task force and instantly vanish for parts unknown.
They turned up Lafayette and then doubled back on Broome Street. Finally they turned into Greene. The Cadillac slowed to a stop in front of a loft building with no lights showing.
Klein turned off the engine. "This is it."
Smith looked at Gibson.
"Stay put until we're sure there's no problem."
Although apparently deserted, the place was covered by what, even to Gibson's untrained eye, had to be a considerable screen of discreet security. Two heavyset thug types in dark suits flanked the totally unremarkable entrance, like the doormen of some clandestine nightclub. Two others, junior mob in leather jackets and those stone-washed jeans that were so big with Italians, were stationed under the streetlamp on the other side of the street. Every so often, one of them would mutter something into his cupped hand as though he was holding a small transceiver. A black van with darkened windows and Virginia plates was parked at the curb.
Smith, Klein, and French looked round carefully. It was only when they seemed thoroughly convinced that everything was in order that they started to make a move. Smith fixed Gibson with an I'll-only-say-this-once stare.
"We're going to get out of the car and walk directly to the door of that building. Don't worry about the two men standing there. They have orders to let us through. Whatever you do or whatever happens, don't stop. Don't stop for anything. Do you understand?"
Gibson nodded. "I keep going, no matter what, until I'm inside the building."
"Okay, let's go."
They were out of the car and walking smartly across the sidewalk. From what Smith had said, Gibson wouldn't have been too surprised if the air had suddenly been filled with tontons macoute paratroopers in Ray Charles sunglasses. As it was, nothing happened at all. One of the men in the entrance pushed open the street door and they were inside. Two more security goons waited in the small lobby, inner-circle Nation of Islam with faces hard enough to cut glass. The Nine seemed to draw their muscle from the most diverse sources. While Gibson and the three streamheat waited for the elevator, they were inspected at length by the cold black lens of an automatic surveillance camera. A second camera inside the elevator gave them an equally thorough going-over. The walls of the car were lined with armor plate, and no less than three very complex electronic locking devices were mounted on its sliding doors. Gibson didn't find the level of security exactly comforting. It was nice to be protected, but it also indicated that those who occupied the building appeared to consider themselves to be in some considerable danger.
Gibson wasn't exactly sure what he'd expected to see when he stepped out of the elevator, but what confronted him when the doors slid back certainly wasn't it. The major surprise was the absolute normality. The black-glass reception area could have belonged to any trendy SoHo office space: an overly hip real-estate broker, a young, happening rock 'n' roll lawyer; a model agency. The wall behind the designer Swedish reception desk bore the legend Group Nine in a foot-high, slickly corporate typeface. Only two things didn't fit the contrived image of Lower Manhattan yuppiedom. One was the large framed William Blake print. The fiber-optic sculpture was okay but the Blake was a tad too mystic. The other was the thick steel door that led to whatever else the loft might contain. This was simply incongruous. It belonged in a bank or on the bulkhead of a nuclear submarine. No amount of interior decorating could disguise the fact that it could probably withstand a concerted attack with thermite and explosives.
A sleek young woman with straight, Nordic blond hair was sitting behind the reception desk. She stood up when Gibson and his escort came out of the elevator.
"We've been expecting you."
The black rollneck sweater and learner skirt showed off a slender thoroughbred figure that could have been featured in Vogue.
"If you'd like to follow me, the members are waiting for you."
"Please follow me."
She walked over to the massive steel door and tapped an eleven-figure code into a keypad on the wall beside it. The big door slid back absolutely silently, no mean feat of precision engineering considering that the door proved to be almost a foot thick. What the hell were these people using for money? He'd only seen the tip of the iceberg so far, but already the tab was up in the millions, Move important, what were they scared of? The area beyond the door was closer to Gibson's imagining than reception had been. He'd expected the extremely strange and now he was unquestionably getting it. He found that he'd stepped into some weird-science hybrid of NORAD and the Temple of Thoth. It had to be the next best thing to visiting another planet. Even the air was far from normal. There was an almost vibrant metallic bite to it, as though it had been filtered through some run-amok comfort system.
The receptionist smiled back at him as though she'd read his thoughts. "You're in a controlled and sterile biospace, Mr. Gibson. It's heavily over-oxygenated and, of course, the equipment gives off a lot of ozone."
"It takes a little getting used to at first but, after a while, you don't really notice it, and the extra oxygen gives you so much more energy. Of course, you can't smoke."
"The only places that you can smoke are in the designated areas. I can't stress this strongly enough, Mr. Gibson. Smoking outside the designated areas is extremely dangerous."
Message received and understood.
"I was out of cigarettes anyway."
The receptionist was leading Gibson and his streamheat minders down the central aisle of a very large loft. So large, in fact, that it must have run all the way through to the other side of the block. On one side of the central aisle, there was an area that looked for all the world like a compact version of NASA mission control or possibly the launch center of an MX-missile complex. Lines of computer workstations were arranged in semicircular rows facing the big board, a multiple split-projection display the size of a small cinema screen. The main display was a simplified map of the world according to Mercator. This was surrounded by a bank of smaller displays, some twenty in all; the majority of these small screens showed the layouts of familiar cities-New York, London, Paris, Los Angeles, Beirut, Jerusalem, Tokyo, Rio-but others were showing places that Gibson didn't recognize, either by name or configuration.
The large map was dotted with a hundred or more blood-red points of light. In the main they corresponded with the major centers of population, but here and there there were dots in some of the most inaccessible spots on the face of the Earth. There were two in Antarctica, two more in remote parts of the Andes, three up the Amazon, and no less than six in the Australian outback. Here and there, two or more dots had merged to produce irregular shaded areas that resembled the blemishes of an unpleasant disease. The planet on the big board looked sick and infected, and Gibson knew in his heart that this wasn't just an error in design. The big board was plotting some very bad news. He searched out Haiti. It was one solid red island. The area of Tibet was similarly shaded.
Gibson transferred his attention from the display screens to the people who sat hunched over the rows of computer terminals. Most were the kind of shirt-sleeved, crew-cut young men one might expect to find at a military installation; there was also a sprinkling of beards and rock-band T-shirts that might be more in keeping with MIT or Caltech. Right in the middle, however, there was a shaved head and a saffron robe. What the hell was a Buddhist priest doing running a state-of-the-art computer?
Something else caught Gibson's eye. He paused in midstride and leaned over the shoulder of one of the operators in the back row and looked at his terminal. The characters that were traveling from the bottom to the top of his screen, green and orange out of black, were completely alien, like nothing that Gibson, who prided himself on being pretty well traveled, had ever seen before.
The receptionist immediately snapped him to heel. "Please don't linger, Mr. Gibson. The members are waiting."
The other side of the aisle was even more fantastic. Gibson didn't even recognize the components. A circular area of floor, about twenty feet across, had been surfaced in what looked like either black marble or some sort of plastic substitute. Lines of a red substance were inlaid into the marble like giant symbols or possibly even a huge printed circuit. A pair of sturdy translucent pillars, some two feet in diameter, stood in the center of the marble circle and extended almost to the roof. They were sunk into gold floor settings, and they terminated in two large gold spheres. Inside the pillars, a dimly glowing, green-tinged liquid energy writhed and undulated, making the pillars look like two giant lava lamps arranged side by side. The space between the pillars appeared to pulse with an indistinct shimmer like the heat haze on a blacktop in the afternoon sun. Although there were no people in this part of the loft, the whole area seemed to be alive with abnormal and unearthly energy.
At the end of the aisle there was a pair of double doors. Gibson was a little relieved to see that they were simple mahogany with plain brass fittings. It pleased Gibson that they hadn't been constructed to withstand a small nuclear attack. They were, however, flanked by two more young women in leather skirts and black rollnecks. Unlike the receptionist, though, these women had sidearms strapped around their hips in military-police style, white webbing holsters. The overall effect was not unlike an old sixties Matt Helm movie, and it added a definite touch of the absurd to what had previously just been outlandish and impossible.
Gibson's party halted in front of the doors. Smith raised a hand. "This is where we part company."
Gibson was too overawed by the place to think much about the streamheat. If anything, he was glad to be rid of their certain superiority and condescension.
"Yeah, okay. Thanks for pulling me out of the shit back there in Jersey."
French nodded. "It was nothing personal."
With that, the three of them turned on their heels and walked back the way that they had come.
The receptionist exchanged curt salutes with the two guards.
One of them turned and opened the right-hand door, and the receptionist indicated that Gibson should go in.
After the bizarre combinations of technology in the outer area, the inner room was more like something out of the Middle Ages. The space was dominated by a long conference table of solid dark wood. Its top, polished to a mirror finish, was empty apart from a foot-high gold pyramid and a long, very old double-handed broadsword. Gibson wasn't pleased to note that the blade was pointed directly at him. The lights were dim, going on gloomy, and the walls of the chamber were hung with deep-purple drapes. The only concession to the modern world was a smaller version of the big board outside, mounted on the wall at the head of the table where he might have expected a heraldic coat of arms to be given pride of place. The screen showed the same map of the world with the same scattering of ugly red dots.
"Welcome, Joseph Gibson, enter freely and remain only from your own choice."
Casillas and three other men were seated at the far end of the table. It had been one of the others who had spoken in greeting and who now held out a hand indicating the single chair that had been placed at his end of the table.
"Please be seated."
The lone, isolated chair was too much like the kind of seat that might be offered to a prisoner who'd been hauled before the Inquisition. Gibson sat down in silence, inwardly reminding himself that this wasn't fifteenth-Century Spain but New York in the 1990s. Just beyond the purple-draped walls there were the crowds on West Broadway; the bars, nightclubs, and bustle of downtown in full swing. Men and women were out there going about the everyday business of looking for lovers, copping drugs, getting drunk, hustling for status. There were people in nearby buildings watching TV, making themselves snacks, or fucking. There was probably at least one individual getting mugged within a matter of blocks. Life was going on as usual, in blissful ignorance of interdimensional conflict and impending disaster. It was a reminder that didn't provide much comfort. For Gibson, reality had become this purple room, and he didn't like that one little bit.
The man who had greeted him was seated on Casillas's right. He was black, thickset, and completely bald. From the lines etched in his face, Gibson could only guess that he was at least in his early seventies, but everything else about him gave the impression that he was as strong as an ox. Indeed, that was the overall feel of the man: the old bull, the unquestioned monarch of his herd. Visually, he was easily less plausible than the ancient Hispanic. He was dressed in a silver, three-button mohair suit with narrow lapels, a black shirt, and a white tie. The outfit was completed by blue mirrored aviator glasses. He looked like either the venerable star of a Motown singing group or a retired Detroit pimp. When he spoke, there was the faintest trace of a French accent. For almost a minute he looked at Gibson; then he loudly cleared his throat.
"We realize that you have been through a great deal during the last few hours and that you are very close to being in a state of shock. We who have been dealing with this situation for so long now are apt to forget the trauma that can be produced when an ordinary individual is precipitated without warning into our world. In an ideal situation, we would have preferred to allow you a more gradual and humane introduction to all this. Unfortunately this is not an ideal situation. To put it bluntly, we are at war. It matters not that the great majority of the human race has yet to become aware of the conflict. Their lack of awareness doesn't render the circumstances any less dangerous. We are fighting for the very existence of civilization, the survival of this planet, and, in war, it is not always possible to regard the niceties of humane behavior."
Casillas glanced at the big man and smiled, "I think we may find Senor Gibson a good deal more resilient than it would first appear."
Gibson, in fact, had something other than his potential resilience on his mind right at that moment. He was wondering if the man in the mohair suit was yet another Haitian. There seemed to be far too many Haitian connections in all this. First the pseudo tontons and now this French accent. Haiti still scared the hell out of him. The time that he and the band had taken that ridiculous trip to Port-au-Prince, although he hadn't admitted it to Casillas, had been an episode of terrifying stupidity. They had gone completely out of their depths, and he'd come close to things that he still preferred to keep locked down in the deepest recesses of his memory.
He looked guardedly at the four men. "You know who I am. Perhaps you ought to start by telling me who you are."
Go for it, Joe. Take the high ground. Let these bastards start coming up with some specific answers. Enough of this "you're too dumb to understand" bullshit.
"We are four of the Nine."
This first answer did a lot to take the wind out of his sails. There was no easy way to deal with people who called themselves the Nine. The answer had come from the individual on Casillas's left. This new speaker was nothing as flamboyant or exotic as Casillas or the man in the silver mohair, but he quietly radiated an intense personal magnetism. His prominently curved nose and broad, flat cheekbones clearly identified him as Native American, probably from somewhere in the southwest. His long hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and he was wearing a conservative, Western suit of the kind that might be favored by an Arizona banker. His only flourishes were a silver-and-turquoise bolo tie in the shape of the traditional thunderbird and a matching ring on the third finger of his left hand.
Gibson resisted giving in to intimidation. "So where are the other five?"
The Indian had the hardest pale-blue eyes, an extreme rarity among Native Americans.
"They are in a number of different cities across the globe. This is only one of our worldwide crisis centers. The pressure has already become so strong that we've been forced to abandon the single original monitoring base in Lhasa and divide our strength. This New York center is of sufficient importance to warrant the presence here of four of us."
Gibson jerked a thumb at the doors behind him. "There are more setups like this?"
The Indian nodded. "This is one of the more sophisticated ones."
"How many other bases are there?"
"That's one of our best kept secrets."
Casillas, who seemed to be playing the role of mediator at this initial meeting, cut in quickly. "Perhaps, before we go any further, I should introduce everyone." He gestured toward the Indian.
"This gentlemen on my left is William Storm Eagle. He came to us from the Ghost Society of the Lakota Nation."
William Storm Eagle nodded impassively.
Casillas went on. "To my right, in the sunglasses, is the Very Reverend Houn'gan Jean Paul Le Blanc Agassou."
Gibson let out a slow breath. "Sure is turning out to be a day for voodoo. First tontons and now a houn'gan."
The mirrored shades flashed as the houn'gan minutely inclined his head. "Remember I am a houn'gan, Mr. Gibson, a minister of the white light and the true path. Don't confuse me with the macoute and the bocor witchmen who control them. I don't practice the Petro, I don't draw the veve, and I don't take council with evil."
It was one weird statement to hear in a place that came equipped with NASA-style computers. Gibson bowed his head, thoroughly put in his place. Casillas tactfully went on with the introductions. His hand extended to the last of the quartet. "At the end here, beyond the Reverend Agassou, is Mr. Sebastian Rampton."
Gibson couldn't help himself. Despite all his efforts to remain a paragon of cool, his eyebrows shot up. Sebastian Rampton might not actually have been a household name, but he was certainly notorious on both sides of the Atlantic. His followers looked on him as the natural successor to Aleister Crowley. After a number of lurid scandals and a sensational court case centering around orgies, animal sacrifices, and underage girls, he had been saved from serving time only by a seven-figure lawyer and a couple of very reluctant witnesses. As a result, the popular press had started treating him like the embodiment of pure evil. A couple of TV preachers had loudly expressed the opinion that he was the Antichrist and busily solicited funds to fight him. Back in the old days, Gibson had been approached on a number of occasions by Rampton's people looking to hook him into their trip and probably relieve him of a great deal of his money along the way. Around that time a number of rock 'n' roll bands had fallen under his influence. Gibson, showing what he congratulated himself on as unusual common sense and foresight, had decided in front that they were too seriously creepy and refused to see them.
Rampton, who was sitting well back in the shadows, smiled wanly. "I see you recognize the name."
Gibson nodded. "Your reputation does tend to precede you."
"Why don't you just come out and say it, Gibson? Rampton the Satanist. Isn't that what they called me? The tabloid media seem to have this habit of confusing me with Charles Manson."
Rampton looked exactly like his photographs. A black-and-white combination of corpse and mortician, with a touch of the renegade Jesuit or defrocked priest. His black suit was Victorian in its severity, and his small, round, and very thick eyeglasses gave him a myopic, fish-eyed stare. The glasses bore an unfortunate resemblance to the kind that had been worn by Heinrich Himmler. What was a maniac like this doing working along with those who at least professed to be the good guys? The whole business of multidimensional conflict was hard enough to swallow under the most favorable of circumstances. To find that an individual who was rumored to have a thing about virgins and dead goats was one of those who were running things tended to stretch the suspension of disbelief to its limits. Gibson looked to Casillas for some sort of explanation, but it was Rampton who answered the question that he hadn't even asked,
For the first time, he leaned forward into the light. His hands were folded in front of him like a pair of dormant albino spiders. "Understand one thing, Gibson, this is not a cozy conflict of good and evil. We are dealing here with power and counter-power. If the power that threatens us cannot be deflected by any means available to us, we will all be destroyed. Such a situation can produce some very odd alliances."
"So it would seem."
An Indian mystic, a voodoo priest, whatever the hell Casillas was supposed to be, and the leader of a highly publicized occult sex cult? This bunch was going to save the world? Gibson inwardly shrugged. He was in now, and nobody seemed to be offering a way out.
Agassou interrupted to put an end to the exchange between Rampton and Gibson. "In the near future, you may find that alliances will become considerably stranger. Up to this point in time, we have relied heavily on help from other dimensions to protect our world and our reality. Unfortunately, the enemy is pressing hard on all fronts and we find ourselves having to organize a very rapid process of humanization."
"We are expected to play an expanded role in our own defense. "
"You make us sound like South Vietnam."
"The analogy is not inapt."
"Am I part of this humanization? "
"You were to be."
Gibson didn't like the sound of that.
"The original plan was to recruit you to our side and, after a period of basic training, to place you in control of one of the points of penetration." He indicated the display map with its red dots. "After the night's events, however, we have been forced to change our plans. For some reason known only to them, the enemy appears to have assumed that you are much more important than we ever thought you were. Either they are mistaken or they know something that we don't."
This was something else the sound of which Gibson didn't like.
"If that's the case, it's something that I don't know about, either. I haven't been important to anyone for years."
Rampton's lip curled. "The enemy moves in mysterious ways, but I must confess that I see no reason why the fellow travelers of Necrom should be interested in a broken-down ex-rock star."
Agassou treated Rampton to a cold look. "As you say, the enemy moves in mysterious ways. " He turned his attention back to Gibson. "The way things stand, we are now forced to move you to some safe location until the situation either resolves itself or the reason for the enemy's interest in you becomes apparent."
Gibson thought about this. He wasn't too taken with the idea of being moved to some safe location. It was too much like a euphemism for protective custody. "Wouldn't it be a whole lot simpler if I just slipped away and minded my own business? I mean, if the enemy does have its eye on me, it's going to be quickly apparent that I'm not a threat to anyone."
Rampton smiled. "It's far more likely that, once you've left our protection, the enemy will merely eliminate you, just to be on the safe side. I know that's what I'd do."
Even after their short acquaintance, Gibson didn't doubt that was what he'd do. He raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. "Okay, I give up. What do you want to do with me?"
This time it was Casillas who answered. "For tonight, you will remain here. I very much doubt that the enemy has anything like the strength in New York City to mount an all-out attack on this installation. In the morning, we will attempt to transfer you, without the enemy's knowledge, to a less high-profile location. To be truthful, we have yet to formulate a plan to remove you from the city. This has all taken us rather by surprise. I would suggest that we all retire and reconvene in the morning."
"I'm staying here?"
"For the moment."
"There are a lot of things that I need to know. I-"
Casillas cut him off. "Please. We will attempt to answer your questions in the morning. We have all had a very arduous evening. It is time to rest."
"There are also a couple of people I ought to call. Let them know where I am."
Storm Eagle shook his head. "That isn't possible. Outside calls would be far too dangerous."
Rampton's sneer was back. "You've been thoroughly researched, Gibson. There's no one out there who gives a damn where you are, except maybe some IRS agents."
"So why go to all this trouble to get me here?"
"It wasn't my idea, believe me. I was of the opinion that you were simply a worthless burnout and nothing that I've seen this evening has done anything to convince me otherwise."
Something inside of Gibson finally snapped. He'd been listening to this shit for a couple of years now and he was sick of it. He wasn't going to take it. He slowly stood up and faced Rampton.
"I don't know what's going on here and I don't know how a man with your track record got here, either. In fact, I don't know anything. All I know is fuck you, man. I didn't ask to come here so don't be busting my fucking balls. You hear me?"
Gibson suddenly felt good. For the first time in months, he stopped feeling sorry for himself and was genuinely angry. Out of the corner of his eye he was surprised to see that the other three-Casillas, Agassou, and Storm Eagle-looked almost approving. He turned and started for the door. The receptionist was standing there waiting for him.
"If you come with me, Mr. Gibson, I'll show you to your room."
Rampton's voice stopped him in his tracks.
"I may have a checkered history, Gibson, but the reason I'm here is that I've been all the way in. Can you say that?"
Gibson smiled and shook his head. "No, but I've been a lot farther than most and that must count for something."
He followed the receptionist out of the meeting room.