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The Mandarin Crew

 

The Mandarin Crew

by

J. Clayton Rogers

 

Copyright 2002

 

…indeed, our body is but a social structure composed of many souls.

Nietzche

 

The strong struggle in every individual to preserve possession of what he has found to belong to him and to distinguish him is one of the securities against injustice and despotism implanted in our nature… It is a sour, malignant, envious disposition, without taste for the reality or for any image or representation of virtue, that sees with joy the unmerited fall of what had long flourished in splendor and in honor.

Edmund Burke

 

 

ONE

 

Commend the souls who commend your souls to the deep. I’m not talking about priests or captains at sea. I mean the Mandarin crews.

 

*****

 

If it’s true each of us creates his own reality, in part or whole, then each of us is a kind of novel published by our own secret vanity press. Only in my case, I was also simultaneously living my sequel. At least this was what I thought when I saw myself at 8th and Main near lunchtime, Monday. I had a foolish gait, like a character out of a Keystone comedy. But I suppose that most everyone would have had that opinion of themselves given the opportunity to see themselves in full stride. When you hear a recording of yourself for the first time, you think: “That’s me? I sound like a moron.” I was definitely not the kind who loved the sound of his own voice. Or the sight of me taking on the same gentle slope that Edgar Allan Poe had trod over a century ago.

My walk had too much lope and loop, was my first thought. But on further observation I wondered if it was completely normal. I needed the opinion of a second party. No…a third party.

But I certainly did not like my fawning approach to strangers. You don’t meet people’s eyes on the sidewalk. Even in the South the old “hey there” nod is passé, and in some cases as dangerous to try as it is up north. I could see myself flinch at an approaching pedestrian, try to meet his eyes, look away, try again, look away again, and finally look off in the distance when we drew too close to exchange glances, when eye contact would have been freighted with real implications. I watched my awkward reactions. My other self seemed smugly pleased that I had avoided interacting with a fellow human being, but also nonplussed at this additional evidence that our community was a fiction.

Yet over all these complicated facial gyrations lay a firm, implacable coat of innocence.

Innocence! The truly innocent don’t know what innocence is. I felt myself straining forward. I wanted to approach me, to show me the lie, the lie the other me knew that even then he was perpetuating. The devil was as much in the other as it was in this me, separate, eyes wide open.

“Not a good idea.”

A hand on my shoulder. Not forceful. Almost gentle. Yet a potent restraint, because of my own doubts.

“Why not? There’s nothing in the contract against talking to myself while in the Work Zone.”

“She’s right, Bongo. You’ve never done it before.”

“And you have?”

“Never while on a job. Much too time-consuming.”

They were right, of course. We were tracking a target. But I could not take my eyes off me waiting for the light to change at the intersection. The other “I” was staring up at the electronic marquee outside the brokerage house across the street. The Dow was down over eighty points.

“Are you able to hear your other self?” I asked. Of course we see and hear our other selves when we merge. Sometimes, even after we’re doubled. But what about when we were in the middle of the Work Zone? “Can your other self hear and see you?’‘

“I’ve never seen my original while on a Mandarin job,” came the voice of the woman whose hand was on my shoulder. “Not directly. But my case is unusual.”

I held my breath. Mai Ling, the mystery woman, the pint-sized dragon lady. She was what used to be termed ‘shy’, then ‘repressed.’ Naturally, in today’s aggressive culture, she was just another loser. But now she seemed on the verge of baring her breast.

“Unusual how?”

Her response was indirect, imprecise, and perfectly typical of her. “But sometimes I think she suspects I’m there.”

“You mean you think you’re there,” I said, determined to keep our awkward pronouns on their grammatical doilies in this new, terrible universe. It was my way of maintaining the unity of my identity.

“No. The other isn’t me. I mean—this isn’t me. This can’t be me.’‘

Mai Ling’s voice choked. She never verged but wallowed in a deep mire of despair. She was a permanent fixture in her self loathing.

“Cut it out,” Dead Eye berated me. “You’re upsetting her.”

“You should know better than anyone,” I persisted. “The others are us. We are the others. This split is just a trick.”

“Oh, we’re tricks all right.”

“You know what I mean. What if the Mandarin is toying with us? Maybe we’re all under some form of hypnosis. Maybe this is all only…me.”

“You think we don’t exist, Bongo?” Mai Ling asked in a soft voice.

“Turning tricks day and night, that’s all we do,” Dead Eye harped melodiously.

I watched my other self watch the ticker drop another point and wondered at my apparent fascination with the stock market. I had never been enamored with Wall Street before, when I was whole. You might need money in order to make money, but even more important was an aggressive purpose in life. Watching me, and my sudden interest in the ups and downs of the financial market, I wondered if some of my othersoul had leaked into my more innocent twin. Who was, of course, no more innocent than I was.

Confused? So was I. I don’t think the Mandarin ever intended for us to comprehend all the permutations of what he’d done to us. Or rather, what we’d done to our selves.

“Why not talk to myself?” I insisted. “We’ll…I’ll be joined again later, when we finish this job.”

“There’s an enormous difference.” Mai Ling’s fingers gripped deeper. “I think that if I saw myself by chance one day while on a job…and I went up to me…and told me what was happening, what I was doing…”

“Yes?”

“Bongo, I wouldn’t be able to tell which of my selves made the pact with the Mandarin.”

That swerved my attention. Turning, I looked down at the petite woman, whom Dead Eye had taken to calling Weeping Willow—behind her back.

“And if you met yourself while on a job, what would you say to…you?”

She struggled to answer, the lineaments of the Far East lashed by doubt and fear. “I would tell her I’m not bad. That I’m not evil.”

“Then…” I twisted the pronouns in my mouth. “Then you saw you, right? It’s not as though we become invisible to our selves.”

“I told you, my case is unusual.”

“In so many ways.”

“But if I did see myself while on a job, I don’t think I would recognize this…” she draped her hands to either side of her “…as my self. If I spoke to me, I don’t think I would be able to comprehend. Not at first.”

“But if you’re like me, your other self knows you might be doubled.” My attention was sorely divided. I wanted to watch my self. On the other hand, this was the most Mai Ling had said in all the years I’d known her. I was eager to keep the conversation going. When she did not respond, I continued, “‘At first’? That means you—”

A girlish sigh. “Sometimes you have to be knocked over the head before you realize you’ve become a monster. I don’t think I would be able to convince her—”

“You.”

“There’s no way for you to understand. All right, I did confront myself, but not in a way that you can imagine. And you know what? She convinced me! That was my knock on the head. Now that both of me have met inside the Zone…. I don’t know which one of us walked away from that meeting.” Then she added in a strange smirking undertone, “Walked…” It was as though she was berating herself for her imprecision.

The ‘Work Zone’. Our uninventive term for the seamless terrain we entered when on a job. Up to now, aside from the murders, the worst thing was not knowing who else we met on the street might also be in the Work Zone, since it was indistinguishable from reality. Hell, for all we knew everyone was in the Work Zone. Excepting, of course, our own ‘others’.

I could imagine all too well the moral dilemma Mai Ling had confronted. Picture her confusion. Now that I was forewarned of the consequences of approaching me, I could duck out of the idea. I despise reasonable warnings. They turn me into a reasonable coward.

“I have a clue,” Dead Eye announced.

“Hold on.” I looked towards the intersection, but I was gone. I darted my eyes further down the street and caught a glimpse of me as I entered the Commonwealth Building, where Madison Insurance had its regional office. It would involve a major detour now if I wanted to talk to myself. We didn’t have time for it. I was saddened. And relieved.

“Where’s the clue?”

Dead Eye lifted his cane.

“You’re pointing at the middle of the street.”

“I know that. I can hear the traffic. That’s an old Sunbird that just drove by.”

I glanced up. Damn if he wasn’t right. “OK, what color’s the Sunbird?” I said in a crass attempt to disparage his uncanny ability. After the next volley of cars had passed I walked to the middle of the road.

“I don’t see anything,” I called back in protest. And I was the one with 20/20 peepers.

“Lower. On the ground, I guess,” Dead Eye shouted over the noise of an oncoming bus. “Hey Bongo, you’d better get a move on. I can hear your sphincter popping.”

“Yeah? What color is it?”

I saw the clue and my heart sank. I swept it off the pavement and jumped back to the angry accompaniment of the city transit horn section.

“This?” I held it before Dead Eye’s sunglasses.

“Mm-hmm. What’s that smell?”

Ignoring him, I showed the clue to Mai Ling. She wrinkled her nose in despair.

“Yeah. The Mandarin isn’t making this one easy.”

“Are they ever?”

Surveying the block, I saw we were near the 8th Street Diner.

“Maybe some coffee will help us decipher this.”

Dead Eye and Mai Ling agreed. Guiding Dead Eye up the single step, we entered the diner and occupied a booth. Mai Ling and I shared a bench seat, the better to study the wrapper.

“‘Wrigley’s Winterfresh Chewing Gum’,” I read out loud for Dead Eye’s benefit.

“Go on.”

I waited until the waitress took our order to continue.

“‘Even cooler, even better!’”

“Even cooler and even better than what?” Dead Eye asked.

“Doesn’t say.”

“OK. Go on.”

I turned the wrapper over and squinted at the fine print. “‘Icy cool breath that lasts’. That comes with the trademark logo.”

“That’s it?”

“No,” said Mai Ling. I frowned at her and flipped the paper over. Right. More fine print.

“‘Keep foil wrapper to put gum in after use.’”

“And inside the wrapper?”

I prized it open. “It’s just blank paper.”

“Are you blind?” Mai Ling reprimanded me. “What do you call this?”

She rested a fingernail on a narrow white bar exposed when I opened and flattened the paper. “OK, some letters and numbers. ‘US96-1 2004-5 13.’”

“U.S. United States?”

“I wouldn’t take it for granted.”

“2004-5. That could be a ‘best used by’ date.”

“You’d think they’d be more specific. That’s a two-year window.”

“Thirteen…the lot number?”

“Too small for a lot number. I think the whole sequence is the lot number.”

The coffee came. We hunkered in thought over the steaming cups.

“The numbers. A street address?”

“Doesn’t match anything near here.”

“A room number?”

“Business district. Could be a suite.”

After a silent minute, I asked, “You’re sure this is a clue?”

“I can see it as clearly as you see the nose on my face.”

I could only guess at what Dead Eye actually saw through his cosmetic sunglasses. Was it a glow? A blip in his eternal darkness? He couldn’t say. Yet he was the only one of our little crew who could see the clues. We presumed the Mandarin had made it so. But he could only see the fuzzy outlines of the clues, not the details. Not until we told him did he know what he was looking at.

Mai Ling had taken out a pen and was writing on her paper napkin. She was playing with the lot number, trying to nudge secret codes out of the sequence.

“Could the target’s name be Wrigley?”

“The Mandarin’s never given us a name before.”

“According to him, he’s not the one who supplies the clues.”

“You believe that?”

“Anyway, this could be a first. For once I would like to know who I was shooting or pushing out a window or electrocuting or—”

“Stop it!” Mai Ling slapped her pen on the table, her dark eyes digging into me even as tears welled up. Had we been outside the Work Zone, off duty, she would not have had to say anything to shut me up. She had that ability.

“Any luck with the numbers?” I asked gently.

“I’ve got it,” Dead Eye interrupted. “The Federal Building. Not the courthouse. The building near the river.”

I mentally slapped myself on the forehead. The clues always seemed obvious once they were unraveled. “The Mint.”

“The Federal Reserve,” Mai Ling corrected. “They don’t print money.”

“They manage hundreds of millions. That’s mint enough for me.”

“But it deviates from the clue. It’s your own interpretation.”

“The same with all the clues. It may not make sense to you, but it does to me, and obviously it makes sense to Dead Eye. If we’re wrong, we look somewhere else.” Which would not be unusual. Over half our clues led us astray at first go.

“Hang on to the wrapper,” Dead Eye advised. “That still might turn out to be a room number on there.”

We finished our coffee. Several patrons stared at us as we left. Usually, they looked away, as a courtesy to Dead Eye. But my tiff with Mai Ling had drawn attention. Was it a lover’s spat? What did Dead Eye have to do with us? Was he some kind of spiritual arbiter? Noticing the patrons’ eyes on us, Mai Ling made them look away. An eerie chill always swept up my spine whenever she did anything like that. Collateral psychic damage? Or my imagination?

“Security is a bitch at the Federal Reserve,” I commented as we walked downhill towards the river. I never swore when I was whole. Either being doubled brought out a vulgar streak, or it imparted a sense of freedom that prompted one to be…well, vulgar. “They were thinking the terrorists might attack it at one time.”

“Still might.”

“Then we should wait and let them do the job for us.”

“Do you want to be a success in life or not?”

“I wonder…”

“Too late for wondering.”

Words best left unspoken. Mai Ling was already teary-eyed. Murder is amusing to crazies, but the worst thing about this crew was its certifiable sanity. We were doing what many others only dream about. Correction. What many others already did, and had always done. That was how the world functioned. Were it not for malice and envy, we would still be living in caves.

Mai Ling, so adverse to killing she practically went into convulsions at the mere thought of it, was the deadliest accomplice to murder anyone could imagine. She made my part of the job almost easy.

We rarely went back to the van or used public transportation once we reached a target area. Going on foot gave Dead Eye a better opportunity to spot clues. But it slowed our progress, and sweltering days like this one made the hunt all the more miserable. Looking for lost change on the sidewalk helped me cope with our sluggish pace. So far I’d found 17 cents. Not bad.

We were approaching the Federal Reserve Building when my eyes clamped upon a quarter sitting pertly on a cast iron water meter cover. I scooped it up with a grunt of pleasure.

“How did you see it?” Dead Eye demanded.

“It was just sitting there,” I answered, nonplussed by his amazement. Then it struck me. “It’s a clue?”

“Yes. What—?”

“It’s a quarter.”

“Are we near the Reserve Building?”

“Right across the street from it.”

“Then that’s it,” Dead Eye smacked his lips in satisfaction. A coin. The Federal Reserve. The “Mint”.

“Oh God…”

I hoped Mai Ling didn’t balk. As scarily efficient as she was when things got rolling, she had more than once dragged out the prelude with her tearful doubts. We were tired of cajoling her into action. I took Dead Eye by the elbow and guided him to a bench in a small park set awkwardly between the road and a downtown expressway off-ramp. We sat and waited for Mai Ling’s storm of scruples to blow over. I glanced at the quarter.

“It was stamped in 1989.”

“Could be the suite number. Or the number on the wrapper could be where the target’s located. Is Mai Ling crying? I can’t hear over the traffic.”

“It’s hard to say. She’s just standing there.”

“Where’s ‘there’?”

“The curb.”

“Can you reach her in time if she decides to jump in front of a car?”

“Not from here.” I turned to him, instinctively wanting to catch his eye. Was such intimacy possible with a blind man? I stared at my reflection in his polarized sunglasses and had the odd sensation that I was about to address myself. “That’s an interesting notion. What would happen to our originals if we committed suicide? For that matter, what would happen if one of us got killed while on duty?”

“Not much risk in offing defenseless victims,” Dead Eye responded in a ridiculously sage tone.

“We’ve had some unexpected resistance. More than one close shave. I almost went out the window once, instead of the target. Twenty-three stories, I think that was.”

I studied Mai Ling. She was facing the oncoming traffic. Was she leaning forward?

“Mai Ling!” I called out.

No response.

“Mai Ling!” I repeated more demandingly.

“What!” she cried peevishly.

“Come over here.”

She hesitated a moment, then reluctantly dragged her feet our way.

“Why don’t you sit down and rest a moment? There’s room here. And there’s a street vendor over there. Want me to get you a sno-cone?”

“Let’s go,” she said bluntly. Her eyes were still red, but the tears had stopped.

“Go where?”

She nodded at the Federal Reserve Building.

I looked at Dead Eye, as though to exchange glances.

“She’s ready,” I told him.

“Good.”

We helped him across the street and stood before the metallic-looking building.

“The guards are watching us,” Mai Ling informed us.

“No kidding.”

Bite your tongue, asshole, I bitterly chided myself. So we didn’t need a gee-whiz psychic to tell us how noticeable we looked standing there in front of one of the country’s primary terrorist targets. She was just doing her job.

For a city this size the Reserve was imposing. Not world class, perhaps, but enough to cow the locals. Its semi-isolation sustained the illusion of objective remoteness, being segregated from the clustered skyscrapers of the financial district. Wide boulevards and lawns kept the civil world at bay. The four beams at the corners bulged like the flare shields of a Saturn V booster. It seemed to hint that the economy was about to take off.

A car pulled up to the guardhouse. After the driver’s credentials were inspected, a barrier that made me think of a row of elongated cheese wheels sank into the ground, allowing the car to proceed up a long, semicircular driveway. The steel cheese then rose to its former position. The rest of the building was surrounded by a tall fence whose iron-wrought spikes appeared sharp enough to skewer anyone who tried to hop it.

“The employees don’t come to work through here,” I observed.

“The entrance to the underground garage is on the river side,” said Mai Ling, who didn’t always have to see to see. “There are even more guards back there.”

“Damn!” I fumed. “This could be a bloodbath. There’s no room for maneuver here. Why is the Mandarin sending us here? Straight up the gut. Why not the target’s home?”

My question was strictly self-posed. None of us had a clue as to the Mandarin’s motives, and knew little more about his methods. Besides, he had long ago insisted that he had no control over where the clues led us.

As he often did when feeling stressed, Dead Eye began to hum. We had learned from experience it had to be nipped in the bud before he broke into a dismal, full-throated rendition of A Bad Case of the Blues. I hissed him quiet.

“It looks bad, doesn’t it?”

There was something visual about his voice, as though he was shaping sonic images around things he couldn’t see.

“Have any of our jobs looked good?” I said testily. And then, my own voice breaking, my own heart cringing in a pitiful, thumping lump, I said, “Pull yourselves together, both of you! We can’t back out. You know that. If we didn’t do this, someone else would.”

“You don’t know—” Mai Ling began.

“But we know it’s probable. The Mandarin said there were other crews. Plenty, in fact.”

My anxiety was laced with exhaustion. We’d been through this before. In fact, we went through it whenever we did a job. But the first assassination had made none of the others any easier. Each time, we had to shrug off the heavy mantle of morality.

We remained conspicuously standing there for several minutes, excreting dismay through our pores, waiting to see who would move first.

“I’ll bet every outdoor security camera is zoomed in on us.”

“I’ve already fixed them,” said Mai Ling. Meaning she’d already broken them.

We suddenly found ourselves inching forward in timid baby steps. Confidence slowly entered our stride, although in Dead Eye’s case is was more a matter of keeping up as we tugged at each elbow.

The guardhouse was a shiny steel cube with long windows (no doubt bullet proof) on each side. It looked large enough to hold a squad, though only one man was visible. He was speaking into a radio. Another guard was sauntering down the driveway, holding a walkie-talkie up to his chin. He wasn’t in a hurry. We could not have presented a very intimidating threat. A blind man, a tiny woman, and a clerk. We looked more likely to whip out a disagreeable protest sign than a bomb.

“What do you have in mind?” I asked Mai Ling.

“Some proactive angina.”

The guard had just stepped out to intersect us at the barrier when a bolt of agony stamped his face. Clutching his chest, he stumbled against one of the elongated cheese-wheel barriers and fell with a loud smack on the pavement. The guard coming down the driveway broke into a sprint, reaching his coworker before we came up on the barrier. He gave us only the briefest of glances as he concentrated on his partner. We were innocuous, and he was probably counting on his security buddies stopping us at the main entrance.

“He’ll live,” Mai Ling hissed when she caught my expression.

My concern was genuine. It was bad enough snuffing assigned targets without adding bystanders to our collective guilt. Non-targets had been hurt and even killed in some of our previous forays. But were they innocent bystanders? People just like us, before we met the Mandarin, who wouldn’t have hurt a fly? Perhaps, by the logic of chance, they would have become targets anyway, sometime in the future.

Of course, most of our targets were innocent enough, their only offence being in the wrong place in the wrong time with the wrong ambition. They were bystanders to their own crimes. The crime of existence.

Dead Eye’s dread became more resistant to our prodding as we came up to the front entrance. Mai Ling did what she could to keep him moving, but most of the dragging fell to me.

Word of the guard’s apparent heart attack had already reached the front desk, where another guard was calling for an ambulance.

Another gray uniform was trotting towards us. She tripped abruptly on the smooth linoleum and rolled in agony on the floor, grabbing her knee.

“Where to?” I demanded.

Dead Eye seemed blinded by a blind man’s equivalent of the kind of blank stare you use to confront the incomprehensible. “There’s too many people here.”

An immaculate conception of tension.

“Don’t bother about what you can’t see,” I said uncharitably. “Where’s the next clue?”

“I don’t see anything.”

“There was a man on the next bench in the park,” Mai Ling said tightly. “What if the target isn’t in the building, but across from it?”

“He would’ve stuck out like a searchlight. Dead Eye couldn’t have missed him.” Strictly theoretical conjecture on my part. As I mentioned before, I didn’t have a clue what it was Dead Eye actually saw.

If I’d been alone I could have blended inconspicuously even without an ID badge or visitor pass. Even Mai Ling would have been relatively invisible, if not for the terror that bulged her eyes whenever she invoked her psi powers, powers she was certain would one day backlash upon her.

Scruffy, his beard looking like a lawn chopped by a dull blade and his Afro pillowed in a Cat-in-the-Hat knit job that sloped down his back, it was Dead Eye who drew attention. The dark glasses seemed part of a disguise, a misconception easily rectified when he removed them.

“Then let’s take him past the elevators. For all we know, the target’s on the first floor.”

“Too easy,” Mai Ling murmured, but helped me guide Dead Eye beyond the burnished portals of the elevators.

“There’s nothing down here. Just empty lobby. The offices are upstairs.”

“But which floor?”

We turned Dead Eye 360 degrees.

“What’s that?” Dead Eye aimed his cane over our heads.

“A clock.” One of those in-your-face jobs spread out over twenty feet, the hour hands pointing approximately at distant bronze Roman numerals. “That’s the next clue?”

“Yes.”

Mai Ling gave me a tight-lipped smile. The clues weren’t always subtle.

A door was standing open when we returned to the elevator bank. Luck, or Mai Ling? I wondered. If luck, it was exceptional. The elevators should have been jammed with hordes of Federal employees racing for their favorite local restaurants. The time was 11:52. We stepped into the elevator and I punched eleven.

“Room 1152?” I asked skeptically. “Could we be that lucky?”

Luck again. I hoped Mai Ling couldn’t read minds. She denied that she could. Personally, I would never have admitted to an ace in the hole that valuable and seedy.

“Let’s check the layout before speculating. I’m more concerned with how we’re going to get out once we do the job. I doubt you can handle so many security guards at once.”

“Easy. Walk up and shoot him with everyone looking on. There’ll be mass panic and a run for the exits. We run out with the mob.”

Unlike the cranky elevator in the old building where my other self worked, the Federal Otis shot us to the eleventh floor in a matter of seconds. I was mentally running the tagline the Mandarin had given me when the doors slid open. On this particular occasion, before killing the target, I was to tell him or her, “Your dreams and aspirations are unworthy and deserve to be ended.”

Was the Mandarin serious, or were these parting shots intended to be sick jokes? Perhaps they were a little of both.

“Which way?”

Several executive-looking types saw us turning Dead Eye in a circle. No doubt we looked odd, but their first impulse was to think we were guiding a helpless blind man back the way he had come. They would be relieved that someone else was dealing with the handicapped intruder, and only on afterthought realize they did not recognize the two people assisting a blind man through their hallways. And then it would dawn on them that we didn’t have ID’s.

“I don’t see anything.”

“Bongo. Look.” Mai Ling nodded at the directory on the wall.

1150 – 1157 →

We went right.

Between the elevator shafts and the wing was an open space chock-full of cattle pens—a common enough near-euphemism for workstation cubicles. Partitions formed a maze to either side of the aisle leading to the main wing hallway. A heavy swell of clicking pummeled us. The clones of bureaucracy were busy at their keyboards. The resemblance to my own job outside the Zone was more actual than symbolic. My other self might not be herded into quite so literal a stockyard, but the ambience differed only in degree.

But what was I looking for beyond this type of existence? Under my contract with the Mandarin I would get a promotion once my term in the Work Zone was done. But if I went up a grade, would I really be better off? I had killed men and women of far greater status than the position I was seeking. Observing them in their last moments, it had struck me they too were slaves to the daily grind. Once, while trying to talk Mai Ling out of a weeping fit, I had argued we were actually rescuing our victims from the eternal rut of dog-eat-dog. She pointed out that some of our targets might enjoy being in a rut—at least, prefer it to being dead. And there were the inventors, scientists, doctors, CEO’s and countless others who enjoyed what they were doing, who were leaders of the pack and had no notion of ruts or inconsequential lives. Hell, we’d even murdered a mother superior. Were we doing them any good?

“We’re not saints, Bongo,” she had continued. “We’re creeps. Horrible creeps. We’re destroying the natural order of things.”

“Are you sure of that? Maybe it’s the natural order that put us in this position. You know, the meek shall inherit the earth and all. That would include the wimps and wusses and talentless and lazy, don’t you think?”

She had cried all the harder. What a load of crap I had in me. Of course we were creeps. Here we were, meek killers. Any sense of empowerment we experienced was muted by our guilt, and by the fact that, when we left the Work Zone, we would return to our usual, wormy existence.

To my dismay, when we reached the hallway we discovered 1152 was not a single room, but a suite of offices, both solid and partitioned. There was 1152-A, 1152-B and on to what could have progressed to the end of the alphabet, considering how big the place was. It was a fluorescent swale similar to the one through which we had just traversed, with the partitioned herd nibbling at numbers and crapping statistics. Set off in their own stalls, in this case offices with real walls, were those who had gained the visible accoutrements of status. But they remained sub-functions of 1152.

“Still nothing?” I whispered to Dead Eye. When he gave a slight shake of his head, I said, “You aren’t walking with your eyes closed, are you?”

A manager in one of the offices saw our trio shuffle by and came out to confront us. Mai Ling gave him a look. He shrugged in confusion and went back inside.

I was so nervous I thought my skin would drop off my skeleton. The Mandarin had never put us in a situation quite like this before, with hundreds of witnesses who might try to intervene. Of course (I reminded myself for the hundredth time), he’d always denied having anything to do with the timing and locations of our murderous scenarios.

“Think of solar alignment,” the Mandarin had explained. “If you’re an astronomer who wants to see light bend, you’ve only got so many chances.”

We guided Dead Eye to the end of the hallway and showed him 1152-I. No luck. Mai Ling was beginning to hyperventilate. “Let’s skip this one.”

She was out of her mind. To pass on a target added another year to our commitment, a penalty that had been made clear to us from the beginning. The original agreement had been for one year. We had been at this for five. Only two weeks earlier we had sat down and agreed we would never again turn away from a target.

And now this.

There were more people circulating between the partitions, preparing for lunch. We garnered quite a few glances, and I wondered who would be the first of them to call Security.

“Hey! There!”

Dead Eye smacked a man with his cane as he raised it to point out the target. Mai Ling suppressed the office worker’s cry of pain. We left him stumbling in our wake as we began to retrace our steps.

“You mean we passed the target already?” I fumed. But the reason was obvious. So many people were tucked behind their partitions that Dead Eye hadn’t spotted the target until he or she stood.

There were many standing now, leaning over neighbors’ desks to inquire where they were going for lunch, chatting aimlessly, or staring at us. I looked where Dead Eye was pointing and saw at least two dozen potential targets.

“The Mandarin did this on purpose.” Mai Ling, close to weeping, was not helping us to remain discreet. “He must know about our agreement. He wants to show us how easy it is to rob another year out of our lives.”

Sensing something amiss, some of the office workers were beginning to back away from us. Maybe they thought we had bombs strapped to our waists. Others resolutely ignored us, while a few, who looked as though they worked out regularly at American Family Fitness, formed vague semi-circles in the cubicle terrain to either side of us. The only reason it didn’t become a complete circle was because of the psychic stink bomb Mai Ling had set off in our vicinity. A gentle if effective repellant, I doubted it would protect us for very long.

Was Mai Ling right? Had the Mandarin (his protest regarding his ignorance about the clues notwithstanding) put us in an impossible situation to wring another year out of us? Dead Eye had painted the intended victim (that was how I thought of it, the way a laser beam ‘paints’ a target), yet we couldn’t distinguish him or her within the crowd.

Dead Eye was swinging his cane to the right. The target was moving, but so were a lot of other people. My gun felt like a heavy steel weight in its hidden holster. Well, it was a heavy steel weight. Yet it seemed to be growing larger and hotter, like some tumor under my armpit.

“We have to get closer.”

“You’re asking me distance?” Dead Eye complained.

“Of course not. Mai Ling…?”

I heard the ping of the elevator in the distance. We were so far from the center of the building that, under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t have been able to hear it. Sometimes the Work Zone was like that, allowing you to hear and see things usually out of range. Whose heart was thumping so loudly?

Oh.

Mine.

There was no room for three abreast as we left the main aisle and entered the partition maze. Mai Ling went ahead as I took Dead Eye by the elbow. It would have made more sense had Dead Eye gone first, as he was the only one who could see the target, but it was our little weeping willow’s task to clear our path through the curious, aggressive, and increasingly fearful crowd ahead of us.

Nudged out of the way by a force they could neither see nor feel, they watched in alarmed confusion as I guided the blind man through their miniature offices. In spite of my efforts, Dead Eye sometimes banged into a soft partition, loosening T-pins and sending down a rain of memos and personal memorabilia. Worse, whenever he swung his cane to signal a directional shift of the target he would knock over clip lamps, coat racks, anything higher than the panels, including several office workers.

Feet pounding up the wide central aisle signaled the arrival of Security. If I pulled my gun now, I would have a half dozen gray shirts drawing down on me.

Dead Eye lowered his cane. He had lost sight of the target. Judging from where he’d last pointed, I guessed he or she had joined the workers funneling through the small hallway in the back of the room. Mai Ling turned to me, frightened, yet also relieved. It was too much, and we all knew it.

“Another year,” she said in a low moan.

“Shit.”

“What is it?” Dead Eye whispered, so accustomed to the futility in our tones that he did not realize we’d given up. “Aren’t we going to follow? You’re not giving up, are you? We don’t want another year of this. We agreed!”

I leaned towards his ear. “We’re about to be arrested.”

TWO

 

Don’t ever forget that a large percentage of people who are murdered deserve it. I should know. I did a lot of the killing. You wouldn’t have thought it, looking at me, or my family.

Somehow, I had squeezed all of my dreariness into a single sperm, which by sheer chance drifted into my wife’s egg-of-the-month to produce a dull lump of daughter. This morning, my darling lump was aimlessly stirring lumps of sugar-clumped cereal in her bowl. She was frowning so intently her forehead looked like the frozen ripplets of a murky puddle.

“What’s wrong, Sugar?” Eileen asked, planting a palm on the girl’s surly head.

“I don’t want to go to school.”

“Are you all right?” The hand lowered to Barb’s forehead. “Do you have a temperature?”

“Oh, stop it, Mom! No, I’m not sick. I mean…yes, I am! I’m sick because they make fun of me in school.”

Eileen released a virtuous gasp of horror. “Who, Dumpling? Tell me, Sugarplum! Who?”

“My teacher! My friends! All of them!”

“But why, Honeysweet?”

“It was that stupid geography. I mean, who knows where Virginia is?”

“Uh…” I intruded faintly, “that’s where you live.”

“See! See!” Barb screeched and buried her head in her arms.

Stabbing me with a pointed glance, Eileen resumed caressing her daughter’s hair. “Now there, Apple-plum, don’t worry about those nasty people. You’re fine. You’re wonderful.”

In all of my wife’s gooey endearments for our daughter, I was surprised she had not included “Mercy Fuck”, since that accurately described the circumstances of Barb’s conception.

It had been inconceivable that I should end up in Eileen Percy’s pants. Benumbed by my own boring personality, I was resigned to a life of lonely dinners in the comfort of my video family, John Dong, Holly Hotpussy, Velma Sodabottle, eat al, and the complete oeuvre of skin classics from ‘Sitting on the Fence Post’ to ‘Can I Touch It?’ One year of community college had taught me I was far from being a genius, while two years as a glorified administrative assistant informed me I had found my natural sedimentary layer in life. I’m not exactly a bottom feeder—but there are plenty of bottom feeders better paid than insurance raters.

Looking at myself in a theoretical way—not literally, as I had the other day at 8th and Main—my lowly status struck me as a profound mystery. I was good looking, a good lover, and sociable to a degree just short of being an extrovert.

Eileen, at one time a file clerk, should have been lower on the chain of commercial being than I was. But at entry level (and that was where I was stuck—a permanent entry level desk jockey) fairness and legality become vague in the fog of personality and sex.

Eileen’s sister once told me that, in her early teens, Eileen had fancied herself another Betty Davis. And it was true, her feminine mockery could shred a man’s defenses with a single glance. What made a mockery of her mockery, however, was her own profound insecurity.

She could not decide if she wanted to be business chic or barnyard natural. During the first year that I knew her, I watched her come to work dressed in everything from executive minis to ratty jeans—a sartorial concession rarely allowed other employees. In every incarnation I found her fetching. Whether unsheathing perfect legs while stooping to the bottom shelf, or exposing scarcely-restrained hemispheres, perfectly visible through an old, thin T-shirt, while stretching for the top row, she made my heart race. Her vagueness of personality intrigued me. But frankly, at that age, my main concern was to ease the loneliness of my bachelor mattress.

One of my fatal flaws, as I see it now, was my inclination to associate sex with love and matrimony. By the time I met Eileen I was well-versed in rejection. The handful of women I’d bedded had been horrified by my gushing adoration and desire to wed after a single night together. I, in turn, was horrified by their flight from me. If they hadn’t loved me, why did they sleep with me? I suppose my reptilian brain was (and still is) locked on the adage that possession is nine-tenths of the law. Although I tried to tame this unsightly impulse, women continued to sense the inordinate extravagance of my affection. Even new and improved, with my more overt displays of adoration kept in check, my longest relationship lasted only four months. Women sensed that I liked them too much, I suppose.

I began to withdraw into my video world. Masturbation is certainly a whole lot less stressful than real sex. Safer, too.

There’s a torque effect in isolation that results in an expression both wry and sullen, a physiognomy that took up permanent residence on my face as my barren years progressed. Human beings sour and rotten when left on the shelf too long.

That was the condition I was in when I met Eileen.

Technically, at Madison I wasn’t an administrative assistant or even a glorified male secretary, but a rater. There wasn’t much to it, since nine times out of ten it was an adjuster who told me the value of a particular property—often a month or so before its loss. Even for an insurance company, the place was pretty crooked.

When advised of a loss, I would drift over to the File Department to look up the client. And one day, it was Eileen who greeted me at the department counter.

I was crushed from the first moment. Instantly enamored, I just as quickly removed myself as a potential suitor. (I like the old word: I was “discountenanced”). Good looking? Yes. Good lover? So I’ve been told. Fit? More or less. Yet I had rammed nose-first into my second fatal flaw, the same one that had condemned me to an entry-level existence. A pathological lack of ambition.

You might call it a fear of failure. I would find it more acceptable if you amended it to a dread of responsibility. Of course, you would have been dead-on if you concluded I was just plain lazy. But I didn’t consider myself a slacker.

For a year I watched Eileen from afar, so to speak, although I saw her every day. She conducted a handfulof well-managed affairs, causing only a few raised eyebrows. Office romances were officially discouraged and unofficially condoned, if not actually encouraged. Even her well-known affair with the married supervisor of Claims Processing drew only a few chuckles.

It wasn’t as though she benefited from sleeping around. One year after her arrival, she was still stuck in Files. On the other hand, she got away with bureaucratic murder. She became famous for her slipshod filing. When her dour coworkers complained that she was chucking VAIP slips in the garbage, the consequences were nil. Madison didn’t do much in the way of car insurance, but it was enough to force the company into the state’s Assigned Risk program. The yellow VAIP slips Eileen so blithely deep-sixed were state documents indicating drivers who had undergone numerous vehicular misfortunes. In lieu of canceling them altogether, which Madison would have preferred, they were merely charged a steeper premium.

When the complaint went unheeded in the face of hard evidence, I formed several conclusions. One, the supervisors did not care, since the whole business was forced on them by the government, anyway. Two, she wasn’t the first clerk to, intentionally or otherwise, mislay files or their contents. Since Eileen was by now familiar with the system it was easier to keep her on than train a replacement. Or three, a conspiracy of supervisors had, in the hopes of one day sharing Eileen’s charms among themselves, decided to drop the matter. That, or someone higher up, a Board member perhaps, had found his way into her genes, and the supervisors were afraid to fire or reprimand her.

Hidden forces kept Eileen even further out of reach from me. Perversely, this encouraged amicable relations between us. I wouldn’t call it friendship. At least, it was nothing beyond common office bonding. Weather, traffic, local news—that was pretty much all we discussed. Little more than what anyone could get from a five-minute news break. Oh yes, and we naturally conversed about the affairs of our co-workers—though naturally enough, never her own. It amazed me how easily she mocked others who were doing no less nor more than herself. (Usually less. Rumors abounded that Eileen had once been caught in flagrant delecto with a junior executive on the boardroom conference table. A taboo subject if ever there was one.)

She was tempting fate because temptation was her fate

Loving. Falling. The analogy is apt. You can break your neck in a fall.

Eileen’s indifference to labor undercut my own limited work ethic. I realized the only point to remaining a bottom feeder was to behave like most of the other workers at my level. I had been a slavish fool, rating twice as many policies as my peers for the same minimal reward. The economy was sluggish, jobs were scarce, and I liked having a steady paycheck, no matter how minimal. Only gross negligence could get you fired  Eileen, as noted, being an exception. Yet there wasn’t a person at Madison who hadn’t noticed even the most loyal workers could be laid off on a moment’s notice. There seemed no point to breaking into a sweat. This was especially valid in my case, since I wasn’t seeking a promotion. I grew lax and almost jovial under Eileen’s tutelage.

Which was ironic, considering none of her alleged affairs had been with bottom feeders. She responded to the hustlers, the men who, long before reaching the legal drinking age, had had visions of being CEO’s dancing in their heads, when at the same age I, in my ignorance, would have figured a CEO was a toy train. She might not be planning a future with them, but she preferred men who at least had a future. As much as I began to relax and enjoy her company for its own sake, I realized she was behaving towards me as though I was just one of the girls. I accepted it, because I enjoyed looking at her up close, and because by that time my sex life was so insignificant that I was practically gender-free.

More than once Eileen expressed disbelief. “A cute guy like you should be knocking the girls dead.” And I, more than once, shoved my desire to the surface in half-joking bids for a date with her. She always turned me down in a friendly manner. I told myself that, of course, she sensed the emptiness in me, my flabby spirit, my dishwater sense of self-identity. All women saw through me, usually sooner rather than later. I think they’re more likely to spot and avoid a dull and vacuous man from a mile off than recognize a serial killer who shares their bed.

It was after the Christmas holiday that one of Eileen’s affairs went bust in a big way. I knew it was bad by the number of details that became public. Office affairs that run their course happily (or at least smoothly) usually remain murky and unfocused to outside eyes. But if it blows up, you might as well make home movies of all the screaming and shouting, and post the viewing schedule on the lunch room bulletin board.

The wife of Eileen’s current fling found out about her husband’s shenanigans and threatened a divorce so expensive he’d be lucky to keep his jockey shorts. Suddenly seeing the error of his ways, the Board member was promptly withdrawn and returned where it belonged.

I didn’t know what, if any, promises had been made, but Eileen took on the dark, glowering look of someone betrayed. Beyond that, and the fact that nowadays, for her, the weather was more unfavorable, the traffic denser, and the general run of humanity seemed deservedly destined for the gas chamber, one would never have suspected anything amiss.

Yet there was no question her self-esteem had taken a beating. Betty Davis had never been dumped in this fashion, not in her prime. Even if she had been, she would have found a way to stick it to the bastard who had humiliated her.

At first, I thought the affection that suddenly warmed her words was just friction caused by being on the rebound. It was only later that it occurred to me she might be trying to score points against the man upstairs. I would be proof that she thought no more of a Board member than of a lowly rating clerk. There were other things involved (it was quite possible she really liked me), but the broken affair was the trigger. We started going out to lunch daily. We began to exchange confidences, though while mine specified situations, remorse and regret, even names, she provided me only with a general emotional schematic. At key moments she held my hand, and I wondered which onlooker she suspected would relay the scene to her former lover. It was a dreadful emphasis of my expediency. Good looking, enamored of her, and conveniently at hand, I was above all unattached. We could create a public spectacle, and no inconvenient, distraught spouse would descend to once more discomfit and embarrass Eileen. I’m sure that I was boring, in part, because I was so available.

Eventually, to add verisimilitude to the charade, Eileen must have felt compelled to give in to my very mild blandishments. Of course, to my thinking, the charade became reality.

She must have enjoyed our little liaison, because she joined me often for trysts in my apartment after work. In bed, I looked for signs of satisfaction and found her looking pleased. I had to admit, though, as often as not, her sexual gratification appeared too generously mingled with the look of someone satisfied by their own good deed.

Otherwise, our relationship went…well, smoothly. I somehow refrained from making any catastrophic avowals of love, a reticence no doubt appreciated. For the first few months she seemed fairly content.

When she told me she was pregnant I instantly offered to marry her. Hell, that was what I most desired. But the grimace of dismay that poignantly exposed her gums suggested I was on the wrong tack. Immediately I revised my offer from marriage to aiding her in getting an abortion.

I thought a woman so lax with basic birth control would accept the suggestion in the spirit it was given. In my case, the spirit was love. If I couldn’t possess her by having a baby with her, I’d try by helping her get rid of one. What an oaf.

In a strikingly whiny voice she told me she hadn’t used the pill with me or anyone else because she had thought she was barren. Her tone inferred she had accumulated data for this conclusion via vast experience.

“An abortion?” she had said in a kind of whimpering whine. “I couldn’t even think about it! When I thought I was barren…you know how much I fantasized about having a baby.”

“Really? Then…” I paused, crafting my next words with desperate care. “We don’t have to get married. We can live together, and I’ll help you raise it.”

I think her attempt to appear grateful was sincere, but more honest was the silent dismay that seemed to reach into the hollow of my soul to find something to strangle.

What followed were the most agonizing days of my life prior to meeting the Mandarin. Eileen was suddenly too busy to see me. At work, where she couldn’t avoid me, she handed over the files I requested with all the coldness of an automat dispensing bologna sandwiches. And then I began to hear rumors. The cats of the company, both male and female, began positioning themselves within earshot of me to discuss Eileen, the rampant sexual predator. With the clock ticking fast before the pregnancy began to show, she was seducing every man in sight in her search for a more suitable mate. Even I, who had no sense of judgment of character worthy of the name, including and especially myself, found her behavior appalling. She must have had profound trust in me, at least. Had she snared a husband from the local crop, she was counting on me to not divulge the secret of the baby’s origin. Either that, or she felt she could easily talk herself past any revelations I might have made.

But she did not snare a husband. For once, I saw someone as openly desperate as myself. She was the would-be trapper, yet her expression was one of someone trapped. Once she had played at being coy. Now men fled before her suspicious advances.

Until the day she greeted me dourly at the File Department counter with, “Remember what we talked about a while back? You know…about an arrangement?” And noting a slight bulge at what had previously been a smooth, flat waist, I knew ‘arrangement’ meant marriage, and that she was mine.

Oddly enough, my ecstasy endured. After our civil wedding, I was the happiest man alive. It was the sickness that attended my happiness that eventually handed me over to the Mandarin. Perhaps it was an indication of just how empty I was that my happiness could survive indifference, unjust recriminations, and openly flaunted infidelity. Not that these things didn’t bother me. The agony I experienced at every betrayal was real enough. Yet I always found myself trying to squeeze into her good graces, no matter what. Every kind look and gesture from her (scarce as they were) rekindled that sickly happiness to such a degree that I couldn’t refrain from falling at her feet, figuratively and literally.

She was never sharp with me. Whenever I confronted her, in the mildest of terms and tones, her response was not a show of remorse, but a kind of helpless misery. It’s dismaying how someone so selfish and greedy can put on airs of a world-weary Romantic defeated by life.

Soon after Barbara’s birth I noticed the slightest smile bared her gums completely. Just like her mother. And she, too, was a master of the tragic pose. Caught drawing on the wall, she would open her arms in the expectation her confession would win forgiveness. No doubt her blonde hair would turn dishwater, too. My daughter was not my natural-born ally.

A smiling grimace of a sickness—that was what I had. Even after striking my hellish deal with the Mandarin, nothing changed. Eileen continued to manipulate me with her sorrow. Joined to my other half, outside of the Work Zone, my weakness persisted. I slavishly adored her, buckled beneath her spirit (itself weak, but far more powerful than my own), and succumbed to her whims. I was as puny separate as I was whole. When I first met the Mandarin and he showed me myself, it was like a tortuous re-filming of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. Only I didn’t see my family as it might have been without me. I saw it in real time, and saw myself as a cringing, pathetic creature. Once, the Mandarin showed me walking alone down a sidewalk. “See how mere distance diminishes us,” he said as I drew away, as though I was really shrinking. But I did not need distance to shrivel me into a nutshell nonentity. I needed only a wife.

It would change once I had fulfilled my contract, I swore to myself. Once I had proved myself, things would be better.

But now that contract had been extended by yet another long year.

THREE

 

After noting the article in the Metro section about the odd disturbance at the Federal Reserve, I pecked Eileen and Barb goodbye (a more meaningful show of affection in the morning was frowned upon by both parties), and went out the door.

As I walked into the garage I was brought up short by the sight of a row of bullet holes ranked along my driver door. Had a target followed me home? It wasn’t impossible. As you know by now, not all of our jobs went smoothly, or successfully. I could easily imagine a would-be target taking the law into his own hand and coming after his would-be executioner. Instead of killing me, he was letting me off with a warning, riddling my car with the same type of .38 caliber slugs I had tried to use against him.

But when I looked more closely, I was nonplussed to discover these were not bullet holes, but realistic decals. My first reaction was to wonder who in the world would manufacture phony bullet holes, even as a prank item. I had had a similar response when I saw a tipped beer can with fake plastic suds glued to its mouth.

Who would put decals like this on my car? It could not have been my double, since my post-merge memory would have exposed the joke. I felt a little thrill of horror at the possibility that I had been tripled. Could there be a third ‘me’ on the loose, leaving behind visual, sarcastic comments on my shenanigans? A third me who played the role of my conscience?

Such a trick would not have been beyond the Mandarin’s ability, but I doubted that was the case. For one thing, the Mandarin would have been unable to pass up the opportunity to torment us with the knowledge of unknown thirds roaming the streets at will, unmerged.

I decided the Mandarin himself was responsible. I took out the razor that I used to remove expired inspection stickers and gently separated the decals from the paintwork. I would use Goo Gone to remove the sticky residue later that evening.

 

*****

Once we were handcuffed and dragged off of Federal property, Mai Ling found the numbers more manageable. On the way back to precinct headquarters she planted the idea in the driver’s mind to make a detour and take us to the VW van we’d parked near the Coliseum. The driver and guard smiled quizzically as they opened the wagon’s panel doors, helped us out, and removed our handcuffs. They would catch hell and headlines when they arrived at the precinct station sans prisoners and explanations. Mai Ling wept at the undeserved shame she had inflicted upon them.

“You had this kind of power before you ever met the Mandarin?” I’d asked for the hundredth time.

“All my life.”

“Then why do you need to be here? With us? You could get ahead in spades without outside help. You could be president of…. You could be President.”

Shaking her head, she continued to weep, her hair draping downward as she doubled over like someone suffering from cramps. Dead Eye had never seen her, or for that matter had never seen a weeping willow, yet he had picked the perfect moniker for her.

“I told you before. There’s a cost. Payback. Whatever you want to call it.”

“But what cost?” I persisted, wondering if psychic gifts were the result of compacts more awful and soul-searing than those formed with the Mandarin.

She would not say further. We’d only known each other a few years. Maybe she would elaborate once she told me her real name.

Both she and I knew Dead Eye’s real name. We always dropped him off at his apartment after a job. ‘P. Franklin’ was on the mailbox that matched his room number in the hallway.

“Paul.”

“Perry.”

“Peter.”

“Phil…”

That was one of our foolish pastimes to help ward off the tension while waiting to ambush a target—trying to guess Dead Eye’s first name. He was annoyed, and I couldn’t blame him. Up to now, Mai Ling and I had maintained our anonymity, revealing little about our lives to each other, including our names. Neither Mai Ling nor I had ever told the other where we lived.

“We’re strangers on an alternate plane of existence.” This was one of Mai Ling’s rare quips. The Hitchkockian reference caused me to wonder if she was a film major. I placed her age at between 25 and 30, though it was hard to say with certainty. Chinese-Americans (she had no accent, so I made an assumption) have always seemed eternally youthful to me.

There were several ways Mai Ling could have tracked me down. She was already familiar with my neighborhood, since she usually picked me up a few blocks from my house on her way to Dead Eye’s apartment. If she had Caller ID she could have performed a reverse phone number search on the Net that would have given her my name and address. In any event, she used a cell phone, as I could tell by the way her signal sometimes broke up when I called her. It was likely, then, that she was the only truly anonymous member of our crew.

We did not want anyone to see who our own personal target was, the individual who would be eliminated by another crew in order to advance us in life. It would be too revealing of our own failures and weaknesses if someone saw the one person we felt was blocking our progress, and whom we would be willing to betray or kill to get on. Our opponents describe our selves. The ones who would suffer as a result of our desires might, in the end, seem so weak and ineffectual themselves that it would only make us look worse.

That was one—perhaps the major—reason why Mai Ling and I never met each other at our homes or at work. But there was also the risk that we would see each others’ ‘originals’, those milquetoasts who had gotten us into this fix in the first place. Doubled, we were empowered. Single, we presented pitiful spectacles. I did not want Mai Ling to see me cringing before one of Eileen’s anxiety attacks. Nor, no doubt, did she want me to see her bowing under an overbearing husband, or flinching beneath the stark gaze of a xenophobic boss, or any of the other possible situations that had made her a candidate for a Mandarin crew.

Beginning my turn into the entrance to the parking deck near my office, I was cut off by a metallic blue Mercedes. My oath became a grim smirk when I realized who the driver was. This was the man who would fail, or die, once I had honored my side of the contract.

A short walk separated the parking deck from the Commonwealth Building. I used the opportunity, as I did every morning and evening, to discreetly ogle (if such a thing was possible) the women on the sidewalk. As much as I loved Eileen (or was addicted to her), I remained adolescently inclined to aggressive fantasies. A trim figure in an interlock suit from Land’s End or sleeked-to-kill turtleneck and ribbed skirt from the Banana Republic or even some concoction from Goodwill (it didn’t matter—there was a certain type of woman who could make rags look classy) signaled, in my mind, the dominant female persona. Those gleaming legs, their crisp, heel-snapping stride, were streamlined for success in the business world. Mobile missiles of sex and capitalism. Sex aside, though, they also represented the kind of clarity of purpose that I utterly lacked. Who was to say I wanted my personal target eliminated because I wanted his job—or because I just didn’t like him?

In my mind, I ravished them all, these icons of pure economic supremacy. Every simple stroll down the sidewalk became an unseen sexual rampage. Naturally, after their initial shock, the women who were incorporated into my fantasies were dismayed to discover how much they enjoyed being raped on whatever street-side props were available—walls, meters, pavements, but preferably on the expansive hood of the fire-engine red Lexus that was always parked out front.

And yet even in my daydreams, the man on top (me) often found himself upended into the man on the bottom (me) while a woman in a three-piece wardrober braced her silky knees to either side of the hood ornament and pressed herself down on my helpless, jutting member. I couldn’t win for losing. The inference was ominous. Psychiatrists and sociologists tell us rape is not about sex, but power. Obviously, my private porn festival suggested a desire for power I was constitutionally unable to achieve.

I was seeking to become something better than a rating clerk. What would I do once I became an adjuster? Would I still be kissing ass? Of course. How far up did one have to go before butt-wiping ceased to be part of the job description? And if I ever reached that theoretical office, would I still, secretly, want to submit?

Before entering the Commonwealth Building I noticed an old woman with a two-wheeled shopping cart hovering aimlessly in the middle of the intersection. She seemed to be profoundly confused. The map in our head rarely matches the terrain of reality. Well, being lost is a great incentive to exercise. If she wasn’t walking, she’d be rotting in bed.

I had never wanted to oppress anyone, I mentally told myself as I meekly waited for an opening at one of the elevators. Since none were forthcoming without some pro-active stiff-arming, I turned to the stairwell, thinking what wonders ten flights would do for my circulation.

It was a real problem, giving way like this on so many things. In traffic I always obeyed legal formalities and observed the rule of courtesy, to Eileen’s intense dismay. She accused me of driving like someone’s old uncle.

“I’m a model driver,” I protested.

“Right, a Model T!”

Cut off, dissed and honked upon (those behind always wrathful whenever I let anyone ahead), I would have been a classic late-arriver had not everyone else, for all their hurrying, arrived late, too. Even when I was doubled, on a job with Mai Ling and Dead Eye, I tended to be an over-cautious, over-polite navigator on those rare occasions when for one reason or another Mai Ling surrendered the driver seat. And of course, if time was growing short, Mai Ling would insist on re-taking the wheel. And why not, considering it was her van that we used whenever we entered the Work Zone?

Un. Non. Zero. Null. I was a less-than-sterling example of self-esteem. And I would have been comfortable with that, had it not been for all the dreadful comparisons daily flung in my face. I was a cave dweller thrust into the social light of daily bread-gathering. Whatever happiness I might have enjoyed was destroyed by the common infrastructure of life.

Reaching the tenth floor, I paused on the landing to get some control over my unharmonious gasps. You’d have thought all the cloak-and-dagger calisthenics of my double would have put me in better shape.

“It doesn’t work that way.”

‘Leaping out of one’s skin’ was an uncomfortable analogy for me in those days, but it was pretty apt for my reaction at that instant. Whirling, I saw a woman on the half-landing between the 9th and 10th floors. She was bent over, her hands braced on her thighs in classic sprinter repose. Encased in Spandex, I could see down the plane of her heaving breastbone. Her hair was bunched behind her head in a ragged ponytail.

There was no way to recognize the Mandarin in his many guises. You had to rely on the inappropriateness of the scene and moment, the ambience, or a flat-out confession from him as to his identity. I didn’t think the Mandarin could read my mind, but he was exceptionally adept at drawing inferences. I pretended the jogger was who she appeared to be and asked, “What do you mean by that?”

“You were thinking of the strength and endurance you have when you’re doubled, and wondering why that doesn’t translate into your normal life.”

The Mandarin. A momentary nausea sifted through me. Turning, I saw myself walking through the stairway door. I had been doubled.

“Another job already?” I asked.

“Oh no, I just needed a couple secs of your time.”

“No job? But…” I was appalled. If the Mandarin contacted me at work regarding a job, it was usually at a discreet location (like this stair landing) where there was little chance of someone seeing two of me standing side by side. Now he was presenting me with the problem of returning to my desk, where at least a dozen people would have the opportunity of seeing me merge.

“What am I supposed to do? Wander around all day until my primary leaves work?”

The Mandarin was Mystery, and Mystery is secret knowledge. I resent the power of knowledge. I’m not just talking about the CIA’s hidden agenda or the Einsteinian revolution. Everyday power goads me. The accountant who knows how to re-open a mortgage, craftsmen of all persuasions, the ever-famous car mechanics—they all possess everyday, pungent, non-theoretical, collar-grabbing power. A plumber can take lunch at 10, leave you high and dry (or low and wet) until nightfall, and gouge your pockets clean with the result. If the Mandarin one day showed up carrying a pipe wrench and plumbers putty, I would have had no doubt he had reached the pinnacle of god-dom.

The Mandarin shrugged his lovely strong shoulders. I wondered why he had chosen this particular form in which to greet me this morning. Had he somehow tapped into my fantasies as I walked down the street? His rocket-spurt nipples were formidably provocative.

“You’re a pervert,” I told him.

"I prefer...polymorphous." He stood back and gave me a real show of adjusting the dainty, pale blue weights on her wrists, then arching back as she raised both arms behind her head to undo her ponytail. His little pants of pleasure suggested jogging was another form of pre-coital foreplay. I was annoyed to find my 10% polyester pants bulging over an involuntary erection. Well, why not? For all I knew, the Mandarin was a woman. If not an out and out it. From his (or her) angle, my reaction could not be missed.

Now who’s a pervert?” He began some fancy filly-hopping up the steps, slipped, and banged his knee hard on a cement step. He let go the kind of breathless gasp that comes when you know the pain will be even worse the next second. Wimp though I was, I resisted the urge to slavishly lend a hand. Helping him out was not in my contract. Considering what he put me through just to get what most people earned in the general scheme of things, he didn’t deserve my sympathy—even as a skimpily-clad damsel in distress.

He rolled sideways, his comely rump thumping hard as he dropped another step and braced against the wall under the handrail.

“You owe me one more year!” the Mandarin hissed maliciously, scarcely able to hide his pain. “You and your whole crew!”

“You put us in an impossible situation. There were guards, hundreds of witnesses. Why couldn’t you have rearranged the clues? We could have intercepted him at home—”

“I don’t have anything to do with the clues!” He grimaced and leaned forward, holding his knee.

“You never said anything about impossible odds—”

“I don’t care if the target’s guarded by the U.S. Marine Corps! You knew the terms when you agreed to the contract. One more year, you got that? On more…”

He was rocking back and forth, trying to massage the pain out of his knee. “I think I broke something. Shit! Shit!”

I was startled by his tears of pain, and quite a bit more surprised when, rolling back even further, he dropped back to the wall—and kept on going. I had the brief impression of his head and upper torso vanishing, as though he was falling backwards through a bead curtain. Then the shapely, firm legs tilted up (did those pale blue calf-warmers really accomplish anything?) and began to squirm out of sight. I caught a glimpse of the damaged knee, red and visibly swelling. The Nike’s Nikes tipped up and out. Suddenly, I was alone in the stairwell.

This was a first. Never before had I actually witnessed the Mandarin making an exit. Always before, I would look away for an instant, or blink, and he would be gone. The banged-up knee must have caused him to forget all sense of supernatural propriety.

Whether through accident or design, I had been robbed of my opportunity to argue my case. Irate and disgusted, I flung back the stairwell door and emerged onto the tenth floor. It took only a double-take from Irene Schmidt, prancing down the hall in her stiletto heels, to realize how rash my anger had made me. Both of me were on my floor at work, and both had been sighted.

Irene paused, cocked her heavily-lined eyebrow, and smirked. I was mortified by a quick conclusion. She had passed my desk, where my original had furtively stared at her as she sashayed down the hall, and she was assuming I had rushed up the side aisle to verify the front looked as good as the back—as if I didn’t know already. Summoning as much cool as I could muster under the circumstances, I cocked my brow back at her. We might as well have had our guns drawn on a dusty street in Dry Gulch. She pulled her trigger first. The shot came in the form of an exasperated yet flattered burst of air, her mouth twisting wryly as she uncocked her eyebrow.

“Good morning again, Tom.”

“Hey,” I responded, knowing from much experience not to offer an excuse as to how I had ended up yet again in her path. She was the kind of woman who made me wish I wasn’t married—and the kind who made me glad I was.

I dared not retreat down the rear aisle. Too many of my coworkers would be headed for the coffee pot in the break room at the back of the building. Once Irene had sauntered off, I braved the wide main aisle leading through the double-banked elevators. I judged it was too late to try the stairs. By now, anyone I met coming up or in the mezzanine would be running late, and would certainly comment on my leaving when I should be arriving.

But I’d barely made it past the water cooler before I ran into Benton King, owner of the metallic blue Mercedes. Owner of a lot of things.

“Tom!”

The slap on my back was no less hydrodynamically disruptive of my aqueous humor when I was doubled than when I was in one piece. The perfect white teeth that adorned his porcelain smirk were as blinding as ever. He had a bad case of Listerine breath.

“I was just talking to Tim about you.”

“Oh?” Partial relief. Tim’s office was in the wing opposite the rating department, where I worked.

“Actually, we were talking about your lovely wife. We really miss having Eileen around. Opening a file just isn’t the same without her. You don’t suppose there’s any chance she’ll come back to work at Madison again some day, do you? Some day soon?”

All but saying that he was so horny that he could scarcely wait another hour.

I grimaced. Eileen had certainly brightened up the office. She certainly had. But I did not have time to concern myself with Benton’s solicitous smarm. Any instant my original might turn the corner. That was what he—I—did first thing every morning: retrieved the overnight claims from the fax machine next to the adjusters’ offices. As much pleasure as I might get from witnessing Benton’s jaw drop on seeing two of me, my contract might be fatally compromised. The Mandarin was playing games with me. He knew doubling me here could land me in this kind of predicament. Either he was being frivolously sadistic, or he’d had something else in mind for me before our interview was prematurely terminated by his injury.

I touched my elbow to my waist, seeking in vain the reassuring presence of my gun. Though the police had confiscated it the day before, Mai Ling had convinced them, in her own inimitable way, to give it back to me. But now it was hidden away in a shoe box on a high shelf in my garage. Had the Mandarin summoned me for a job, my double (that would be me) would have taken the bus home to retrieve it before meeting up with Mai Ling and Dead Eye. An intriguing prospect occurred to me. If I had the gun at that moment and shot Benton on the spot, how would that effect my contract? It would have made no sense career-wise, that much was certain. The whole point of entering the Mandarin’s world was to create as much distance as possible between conspirators and targets. No matter who saw my double at a crime scene, no matter how much evidence the police accumulated, my original would be seen by dozens of people at work at the time of the murder. My alibi would be secure.

Security that would be severely compromised if I showed up with an unexpected twin.

I’ve always felt my insertion into life was malformed. There must be a crucial chemical missing in me. You would think someone as unambitious as myself would be laid back in the extreme. My morbid disposition was due to a revelation I received, at about the age of fourteen or so, that there is nothing glorious about life, per se. This permanent deviance in my mood descended upon me as I read The Naked and the Dead. The ‘wonders of biological and human diversity’ is a cover for the small-change randomness of existence. All forms of life are sacred? Since when? Small change is chump change. Whatever made this stew doesn’t care if great glops of it spill over and get fried on the burner.

Nervous people mix their metaphors.

That was what I was: nervous. Nervous to a San Andreas fault.

Anxious people talk too much before their social and biochemical betters. Taking a shot at Benton’s chin to relieve the stress of not responding presented an attractive option as I stood before him. But if I opened my mouth, the blathering nonsense that would have emerged would have shamed a parrot.

“I…I don’t know,” I stuttered. “Maybe she’ll come back.”

From his commanding height, Benton vaguely perceived that I had responded to him. Usually, most of my words skittered and crashed at his feet, or with luck against his kneecaps. He was distantly amused by the fact that so lowly a creature could actually speak. Yet he leaned an attentive ear, because I might say something that would make his squalid pastime easier, would smooth the path between my wife’s elegant legs. Again.

But I couldn’t say more now. I didn’t have the time. And it was a good thing I didn’t have my gun. All the tension and anxiety swelling inside me could have found no other outlet than to blow his slick ass away.

“Gotta go,” I said hastily, turning. Benton stopped me with a grip that would have justified a sexual harassment suit had his diversion been inversion.

“Whoa! Where’s the fire? You can’t be concerned about management, can you?”

That was a joke. Ha-ha. That’s what I said. “Ha-ha.” Benton was management, or as high up as you could get without actually being a member of the Board.

“I wanted to talk to you about the Ramsey claim.”

A topic that would have dismayed me under any conditions, let alone now. Benton was pushing me to process a bogus claim. Ramsey was a Board member. Benton had underwritten a $75,000 policy on what Ramsey claimed was a state-of-the-art tobacco curing barn. From the blurry pictures that had been given me when I rated the property, it looked more like a dilapidated outhouse.

There were a lot of blurred photos in Madison’s Property/Casualty files.

The barn, of course, had burned down. Benton was pressing me to hustle the paperwork to Claims so they could process the loss. An awkward commingling of morality and resentment had caused me to drag my feet. Under the circumstances, though, I thought it best to acquiesce. Fast.

“I’ll push it through first thing this morning,” I told him.

Brought up short, Benton quizzed me with a puzzled smirk. “Good…good…”

“I mean, who am I? I just grind out the papers. It’s not for me to question a claim. That’s your job.”

“That’s right…” He took his hand from me, as though he could not understand why he had placed it upon so abject a creature. He had forgotten himself so far as to touch an untouchable. “That’s real good, Tom. So, you have the file at your desk, right? I could sign off on it. I’m not doing anything else at the moment.”

Horror was an inordinate reaction to Benton’s proposal, but that was what he saw from me. My various facial muscles stretched or drooped to involuntary extremes. Benton, gaping at me, did not know if to fight or flee.

“I don’t mean to push…”

A crock, of course. But at that instant his face screwed up. I turned, knowing full well what he was seeing.

My original was coming down the aisle. I saw myself catch the briefest of glimpses of my self—me, the double. With remarkable presence of mind, my original deftly pivoted out of sight between two tall partitions, as if that was where he had intended to go in the first place.

Somehow, I managed to recompose my features and turned an utterly bland face to Benton. Now that my original was aware that I had been doubled, he would keep his head down until we could re-join.

My sense that I had dodged disaster was helped by Benton’s uncertainty. I could almost hear his neck vertebrae crack as he jerked his eyes back to me to verify I was indeed the one standing before him.

“Well…maybe…”

“I think I returned it to Files,” I lied. “You know how they are about keeping their records out overnight.”

I was amazed by my ability to squeeze a joke out of the situation. By ‘they’ I meant Benton and his managerial ilk. And ‘they’ had no qualms about keeping files scattered about their offices as long as they liked. For all I knew, the Ramsey folder was on Benton’s desk at this very moment.

“When you get the chance, then.” Benton’s immaculately hairless nasal passages fluctuated as he briefly regained eye contact with me, then looked away. He retreated towards the Underwriting Department. I noted a patch of sweat forming on the back of his cotton shirt.

Well, two close calls, and the only fallout so far was a flicker of embarrassment.

I whipped down the aisle where I had last seen myself and nearly collided with two men who, with a mail cart between them, completely blocked the passageway.

Neil, the company mail clerk, was a talker deluxe. No one could open their mouth around him without prompting an extensive response on subjects one never suspected existed. For one thing, Neil knew why Easter bunnies laid eggs. That the mail was usually late was a non-issue. You didn’t complain about poor job performance to someone who had the face and physique of Mike Tyson.

Neil was pinching the air with his index finger and thumb, plucking hard facts out of the soft atmosphere. This was a gesture he had, for some reason, reserved for me. Which was appropriate, because at the moment it was me he was talking to.

“Y’see why, don’t you, Tom? You can’t sign your cards Merry Xmas. That’s pagan. You’re taking the little Christ child out of his rightful place. I see a card that says ‘Merry Xmas’, I just want to rip it up into a million pieces.”

My original was cowering before Neil’s powerful erudition. I wore a look of such woeful imbecility that I half expected myself to squat in place and excrete my vulgar ignorance.

I began to pull away from Neil and my original, but froze on hearing more voices approaching the junction. Neil and my original glanced my way at the same moment. My original winced as his worst fear was realized, while Neil….

At almost the instant he saw me his eyes dropped to the mail cart beside him. It was presented as a gesture of courtesy, as though he’d caught me with my fly open or with snot hanging off my nose, and he was giving me a bit of privacy while I put things right.

What I had was far worse than unguarded sex or a mucous moment, yet it would be crazy not to grasp the opportunity Neil was offering. My original had the same idea. He was me, after all. I held out my hand, and I reached out to take it. All it took was a touch.

When Neil raised his head he saw only one of me. The slight frown that had played over his face as he ran his massive hands over the empty hanging folders in the cart vanished.

“Like I was saying,” he continued, “only a pagan would put an X in Christmas…”

What a miracle of dumb humanity. Irene had merely drawn the wrong conclusion, but Benton and Neil had seen the two of me in the flesh, and had refused to acknowledge the evidence of their senses. Listening to Neil maunder on and on upon the abstruse technicalities of a holiday (sorry, holy day), I decided there was nothing mystical about it. We’ve all had the experience of encountering someone from work in a different setting and not recognizing them until they stood before us and said, “Hey, didn’t you see me?” The embarrassment can be extreme on these occasions, especially if you’ve overlooked your boss. His ragged jeans and sandals would not jibe with the Zino gabardine and Avanti Oxfords of the office. There’s even a touch of mortification, as though we’re meeting a general stripped of his command and all the trappings that went with it. You have the momentary vision of someone who has fallen from grace.

Usually, it’s an illusion. And who other than I should know better? After all, the Mandarin, so powerful, so omniscient, hardly seemed to be made of the stuff of supernatural demi-gods.

FOUR

 

To begin at the beginning would mean telling you about my nullity of a family and of the general uselessness of my life up to the day I first met the Mandarin. Since it is pointless to make a record of things that have never happened, or to map out the myriad paths never taken, you might as well consider it done. There was the dual blip of my marriage and mortgage. Otherwise, I’ve already sufficiently apprised you of the void that is my background.

The Mandarin did not introduce himself face to face. (Not that I know of. A demon of many guises, I might have met him on a street corner or in a grocery store checkout line without ever having been aware that he was at my elbow.) He began insinuating himself into my life via notes and cleverly conceived (if subtlety-free) signs.

“Bored with your job? Bored with your life? Bored shitless with existence in general?”

That was the email that appeared on my screen at work one day a number of years ago. It was accompanied by a hyperlink: http://www.themandarinspeakeasy. scumoftheuniverse.org. Fearful of importing a virus into the company intranet, I quickly deleted the unwanted message.

But spam from another dimension was not to be denied.

Not only were the company’s Information Systems people unable to stop the annoying messages—they claimed to be unable to even see them. A silly cyberjoke, I thought, as I pointed at the perfectly visible email on my monitor. No doubt about it. The IS boys were in on it. Floating in their haze of digital superiority, they occasionally betrayed their godhood by playing pranks on lowly cyber-idiots. It’s hard to believe there was a time when geeks were our social inferiors.

“You say there’s a link?”

“Yes. You must see it.”

“Have you clicked on it?”

“Of course not. I do read the memos you guys put out, you know.”

“Really? Now I know you’re pulling our legs.”

“You said don’t open any suspicious links or attachments.”

“Well, in this case…go ahead. Let’s see what happens.”

There were two of the tricksters in the cubicle with me that afternoon. There was no sly winking between them, or none that I caught. The only conspiracy I could detect was the usual stolid alliance of superior beings confronting the technologically illiterate. Pointing my curser at the hyperlink that they claimed they could not see, I clicked.

There was a blip, and for a moment I thought our server’s anti-virus was not going to allow the download.

Hello Tom!”

The voice bellowed out of my loudspeakers. I jumped for the speaker control, only to find it already switched off. I never turned it on, fearful as I was that someone might overhear me surfing the Net.

“That the hell—”

“What’s wrong?” one of the IS guys asked me.

“C’mon, I know you heard that.” I thumped on my partition and my neighbor lifted his head over the rim. “You just heard that, didn’t you? On my computer speakers? ‘Hello Tom’?”

Genuinely perplexed, my neighbor shook his head and ducked out of sight.

“OK, you’re all in on it, then.”

“In on what?” the second geek asked, looking a little alarmed.

“In on this!” I slapped the computer screen. “What do you see here?”

“Our intranet home page, Tom.”

The liars! Even as they denied seeing anything unusual a web page was trickling down the screen, as though creeping through cyberspace through some antique modem. Across the top, in bold red letters, was: The Mandarin Home Page – The Premier Site for Losers.

“OK, Tom, we don’t see anything wrong with your computer,” one of the geeks pronounced. “We thought this would be something we could fix on the fly. But if you think there’s something seriously wrong, fill out a work order and we’ll take a closer look. Until then…”

And they left.

Later, I would overhear them talking about me, a conversation in which the word ‘loon’ figured prominently. Considering what I saw and heard that afternoon, I wondered if they might be on the right track, after all.

As the Mandarin home page scrolled down to completion, I was treated to a cartoon image of a Fu Manchu-type character who bore a striking resemblance to Alfred E. Newman.

“Have you reached the plateau of philosophical equanimity? Have you succumbed to a life of dreary contentment? Are you comfortable in this dog-eat-dog world because you neither eat nor are eaten? So satisfactorily low that even scavengers pass you by? Are you one of those individuals who are elevated beyond the paltry schemes that drive ambition? Then you’re a jerk!”

Throughout all of this I was on the floor frantically unplugging wires. First the speakers, which did nothing to silence the irritating comic voice coming from them. I yanked out a few more colored jacks, including the one for the monitor. The voice continued, the Mandarin’s smirk persisted. Finally, I squeezed far enough under my desk to reach the power receptacle and pull the plug.

A swerve in the road can kill or save you. Love can grow over time, but (famously) it can also strike in a flash, and be just as enduring or ephemeral, depending on the variables of restraint, delusion, degree of consummation, and the tonal and atonal rhythms of biology. A minor misconception that is proven by certified authority to be wrong can shatter your self-esteem and outlook on life. (I was horrified when I learned tomatoes were fruit, contrary to what I had spent the first nine years of my life believing, being absolutely certain up to that point that they were vegetables.)

It doesn’t take much for the supernatural to permanently impose its belief system on you. I once had an elaborate dream of an accident, and the very next day I witnessed it on the street. I was stunned by how it matched my dream in every detail. For the next few years I fervently believed that under the poorly-sutured surface of visible reality lay a mystical climate of multidimensional energy, the true atmosphere of existence. Bedrocks were bogus. It seemed a lot more romantic, and lively, than the unpalatable fact that life is merely an engine to propagate strands of DNA. But when I tried to mentally document this belief, to paste it together in a form I could recognize, I found nothing but emptiness. I had no more premonitory dreams. Like ephemeral love, it faded, leaving only a viscous trail of regret that I had wasted so much time thinking about such moronic and (far worse) unprofitable things.

Then something like this—disconnecting a few wires to no effect—brings it all back with a smash. I had encountered something in the road and had swerved to avoid it. It remained to be seen if my maneuver had saved me, or sent me sailing into a gully to crash and burn.

It took only one pulled wire to attune me once again to the supernatural. And a handful of pulled wires to convince me that this time reality could not be repaired.

Which explains my surprise when, after a brief struggle to pry the power cord out of its socket, the computer went dead. I also experienced inordinate, wild relief. What had just happened might be spooky, but it looked as though even the paranormal was subject to certain physical necessities. Even spooks needed electricity to perform their little tricks.

That Mandarin. What a card. What a prankster.

Over the next several weeks I was subjected to a quirky Madison Avenue-style media blitz that prepped the way for the Mandarin’s bizarre product. It was reminiscent of those cryptic ad campaigns in which a symbol or phrase shows up everywhere, and it’s up to the prospective buyer to figure out what’s being sold.

In a town that had banned all cigarette advertising I drove past a billboard on which the Marlboro Man exhaled words of smoke etched on a blue Montana sky: “Try the forbidden for a change, putz.”

From my standard EZ Oldie station (hey, Led Zeppelin and the Stones are EZ Oldies now!) there emerged a weird rap-punk combo:

 

“Get with it, poof!

There’s no plan in the Plan!

There’s a hoof in the goof.

(That’s the Devil, Man!)

Tom, be a man,

Or be a mouse.

But in your case,

You’re just a louse!”

 

Between the laxative and acid reflux commercials during a break in 60 Minutes came a soothing voice accompanied by an equally soothing shot of a broad green pasture in the center of which sat an empty wheelchair: “Bored to the point of pain? Indifferent to your indifference? Do you have nothing to lose because you have nothing to lose? Then try the suppository with a difference. Bend over, insert one of our patented broomsticks, and rotate vigorously. You’ll immediately see (and feel!) the difference!”

On the way to work one morning I noticed the American flag had been replaced by one featuring the goofy Mandarin, only now he was dolled up as a Jolly Roger, his face taking the place of the usual skull overlapping the crossbones.

Needless to say, no one else saw any of this. I was cracking up. That was the only logical explanation. I would end up in St. Elizabeth’s, home of assassins and major modern poets. Esteemed company all.

I could see where this was leading, and braced myself for the fatal introduction. But nothing could have prepared me for the comedian/straight man/pratfall artist I finally encountered. Nor did I expect him to take his bow in public. Whether I was crazy or the object of supernatural whims, I thought I would meet the Mandarin in a lonely place. In my car, in the garage, in the bathroom, in our second bedroom. If the meeting came at home, it would be while Eileen was making one of her forays with Barb to the mall.

I never anticipated the introductory punctuation of the doorbell while my wife and daughter were in the kitchen.

The only visitors to our house who dropped by unannounced were Eileen’s friends. Being two at the time, Barb had not yet accumulated the customary flock of playmates.

Eileen’s impromptu kaffeeklatsches espoused the universal theme of spousal abuse/obtuseness/dullness, and while I had never raised a hand or loud word against my wife, I had little doubt I was featured prominently in the last two categories. So when the doorbell rang and I found myself closest to the front of the house, a sigh of disappointment was sucked out of me. I had spent the afternoon pruning a tree overhanging our back porch. The weather was perfect, but Eileen would not set up the crib outside until the remote risk of a branch falling on her precious Nougat was utterly eliminated. I was hoping to be rewarded for services rendered later that night. At least that was how I interpreted the vaguest of body language, which came in the form of a twitch between her nose and cheek. At the time, I had not seen the inside of my wife’s thighs for several months. Something about delayed post partum depression.

I had just performed a preliminary douche of my hands and face in preparation for our Sunday dinner, which was already in the microwave. A more thorough shower would come later, of course. I could scarcely glance at Eileen’s bared flesh, let alone her nether regions, without an aggressive surgical scrub beforehand. I was in a bit of a rush, because 60 Minutes was about to begin. I found any kind of news tedious, but Eileen was addicted to the show’s pharmaceutical commercials. Once again, I would suffer through the Viagra sales pitch (why do they choose young studs for so many of those ads?) while screaming to myself that there was no need for a hi-tech aphrodisiac when three months’ abstinence could turn you into a raging, throbbing rhino horn.

A horn that was happily if tentatively prominent in my pants when the doorbell sounded its death knell. Eileen had her eyes screwed to the microwave’s timer, which she had accused of ruining even her simplest zap meals. It must be broken! In which case, I would have to buy her another one, soon.

I was coming out of the downstairs bathroom, which placed me closest to the door. My manhood wilted as I traversed the hall to the foyer. It could be Sally or Becky or Tonya or Miriam or an entire witches coven. No matter how many and in what combination, my evening was doomed. After three or four hours’ worth of bitching to her friends, and being bitched to in return, Eileen would be too exhausted for affection, or just too plain disgusted to allow my hands near her golden hide. Her gums might be too prominent, but oh, that skin!

“All right,” I said irritably, my deflated self finding the doorknob exceptionally difficult to turn.

I found it nearly impossible to comprehend what confronted me when I finally managed to get the door open.

“Hey, Tom! I need help like you wouldn’t believe.”

The young man looked like a character out of The Adventures of Dobie Gillis. A burgundy and gray retro shirt (100% polyester), Johnny Suede pants (100% polyester, their name notwithstanding), and black and white wingtips (100% tacky). The lenses of his horn-rimmed glasses looked as though they had been cut out of the portal of an Apollo space capsule. He had the Eddie Haskell nasal tone down to a 'T'.

“I think you’ve got the wrong house,” I stuttered.

“Haw, c’mon, how many ‘Toms’ d’you think are in the phone book?” he snorted. Shifting a foot-thick pile of papers, notebooks and textbooks into one arm, he stuck out his hand. “Here y’go, Tom. Don’t be a stranger. It’s not as if I’ve arrive unannounced!” He sniffed broadly. “Oh, how rude of me. I’m interrupting your dinner?”

This? The Mandarin? I had imagined someone or something more grandiose. Yet the sophomoric goofiness fit in with the flippancy of the augers that had preceded his appearance. There was no question now but that I was seriously sick. I could only pray I wasn’t transposing my illusion on top of one of Eileen’s friends, who at that moment might be gaping at me in open-mouthed astonishment.

“Tom? What are you doing?” Eileen poked her head out of the kitchen.

“Just answering the door.”

“Really? I didn’t hear the bell.”

“Well…” I stood back to give her an unobstructed view of the young man on the stoop.

Eileen, no doubt carrying visions of Sally in her head, was already hopping down the hall. She stopped short. A puzzled frown flittered across her perfect complexion, then she compressed her lips. “Those kids again.”

What?”

“Usually it happens on weekdays, when you’re at work. It’s been going on almost a month now. Kids banging on the doorbell, then running off. I’ve thought of calling the police. It makes Sweetykins very nervous. They even woke her during her nap the other day. There’s no sense looking for them. They’re long gone by now. Come on, before your dinner gets cold.”

There was a crash. Whirling, I saw the young man scrambling to retrieve the books and papers he’d dropped across our oversized ‘Home Sweet Home’ door mat. Eileen had already turned her back on me. She’d neither heard…nor seen….

“You want to give me a hand, here?” the young man huffed as he labored like someone struggling through a snow drift. His glasses dropped off as he raised his head from the mess. “Aw…” he said mournfully as I slammed the door in his face.

I backed away from the door slowly, expecting whatever would happen next to adhere strictly to the uncivil code of clinical insanity. The apparition could begin leaning on the doorbell, or kicking at the panel, or simply float through the solid wall, as apparitions were inclined to do.

There was a faint rustling of paper. What was that? I glanced through the archway leading to the living room. The young man was seated on the floor, surrounded by his student paraphernalia. Glancing up from an open book, he said, “It’s not like I’m a vampire. I don’t need to be invited. Now…if you don’t mind…would you happen to know…” He squinted at the page open before him. “‘Which inconstant is the constant in the absolute proof of all transcendental numbers, where n tends to infinity and the particular can be disproved by the general and the general by the particular, and where the constant is not a root (excluding and absolving all roots of unity) of any algebraic formula with rational integer coefficients (or formulaic world theme with irrational inefficients), and where they all add up to less than the total deficit of rationals and integers combined, and’…blaaaahhhhh! Can you make heads or tails out of that?”

“I was expecting…”

“Stevie Nicks? In your dreams. Get serious, now. I haven’t come across a single dimension where math isn’t an absolute requirement for getting ahead. And there’s years of this stuff ahead, like the Riemann/Christoffel/Ricci/Levi-Civita/Lie/Einstein invariants. And I’ve barely made it to first base!”

“I have to eat,” announced and ducked into the kitchen. On the television on the counter a glum Morley Safer was trashing some foreign government over its human rights record.

“Hey! What’s this? I thought Morley only did fluff pieces.” The young man was standing next to the stove, scowling across the room at the television. Eileen did not hear him, but to my astonishment, Barb’s head snapped around on hearing the stranger’s voice. The young man noticed, too. He wiggled his fingers at my daughter. “Hello! Hey, you’re a cute little larva, aren’t you?”

Until I had some inkling that Eileen could see what I saw, I dared not respond to my visitor. In her eyes, I would be talking to myself. I would have been the butt of an old Topper episode. No, Topper himself.

“In six or seven months she’ll grow out of it.” When I raised a brow, he explained, “Up to a certain age, humans can see me, but as soon as they can describe what they see in any detail, they go blind, so to speak.”

“Why is that?”

“Beef stroganoff, can’t you tell?” said Eileen as she poured a lumpy brown substance from its microwaveable carton onto my plate. A resounding thud signaled the meal had scarcely defrosted, let alone cooked.

“Law of physics,” said the visitor, who had correctly heard my question. “The more closely you observe, the less you can determine.”

It sounded a lot more complicated than basic third-grade geometry, but I was in no position to ask him to elaborate. I was already astonished and dismayed at how easily my question to him had popped out of my mouth, in spite of Eileen’s presence. Seating myself at the table, I tried to banish the young man from my mind by focusing on my plate. Seeing the miniature sauce-berg in the center of my meal didn’t help. Eileen’s face drooped into pre-neurotic fit mode. Taking her cue from her mother, Barb twisted her pale face into a pout. How could I complain? Miss Manners would have been proud of the way Eileen had gone so far as to pour out the dinner from its original container so that I would not have to eat out of a box. And if I didn’t start eating soon, the stroganoff sauce, or the portion of it that had actually melted, would begin leaking through my paper plate.

I had reached the stage where I had begun to question the mechanics of Eileen’s self-doubt. There had been no evidence of it before our wedding. None of the thespian switches in personality I had seen when I knew her as a file clerk (flower child one day, an office ocelot the next, followed by a week of coy aloofness) matched the sour neurosis that came hard upon our marriage. I was beginning to wonder if it was genuine. From the outside, self-doubt strongly resembles self-pity, and self-pity looks a lot like selfishness, once you remove the benefit of the doubt. Had Eileen been merely bitchy, that would have been the end of it. I would have succumbed to permanent pussy-whipped-hood. On the other hand, self-doubt called for more of a response, and more concessions, on my part. Theoretically, a gift from me should have reinforced her sense of self-worth. But my own shopping bag of self-doubts could easily make my gifts worthless in her eyes. “He’s only trying to restructure his own worthlessness on top my own worthless self. Zero plus zero equals…” Leaving me with really only one option: to give her room to breathe. Of course, that also meant giving her space to screw around in. I supposed that was part of the package.

In the case of the unthawed frozen dinner, Eileen had decided she was, for once, not at fault. How she came to this conclusion I could not guess. I only needed to glance at the oven to see she had used ‘defrost’ instead of ‘microwave’. But to point this out to her would have smacked of criticism, something to be avoided at all cost. I looked enviously at the little dish she had prepared for Barb. Even Eileen couldn’t mangle Gerber’s Strained Beef.

The visitor had crossed the kitchen to the television and was staring at images of hundreds of bodies being disinterred.

“So Morley’s caved in to the anti-genocide crowd,” he clucked. “So a few million are massacred in Whogivesashitville. We’ve got mega-genocide going on all around us, all the time. You don’t think galaxies collide by accident, do you?”

I winced as my cold-sensitive teeth came into contact with fragments of ice. Eileen, pointedly ignoring me, reached over from her seat and popped a spoonful of goo into Barb’s mouth. I caught her giving me a trajectory look. Pinching a plate off the pile of spares that served as a centerpiece, I raised it just in time to intercept a flying dollop of spat Gerber aimed at my face.

The stranger moved behind Eileen, bracing his hands on the chair near each of her shoulders. “You know who I am, don’t you?”

I was not about to address his invisibility, although Barb felt no qualms about gawking and pointing at him. Seeing that I was not about to embarrass myself again, he shrugged.

“I am…” he bowed “…the Mandarin.”

I spooned another bite of stroganoff. Wait. Was this an insult to Eileen’s culinary aspirations? Shouldn’t I be using a fork?

“Have you ever wondered why you can’t get anywhere in life? Why you’re such a loser?”

My teeth gritted on a sliver of ice the size of a nickel. I suppressed a shout as pain shot up every nerve cell from my mouth to my brain. A cold finger curled around one of my psychological trigger buttons, a button raw from frequent use. There wasn’t a moment of the day that I did not pose to myself the Mandarin’s query. But now someone else had boldly reached into my mind to squeeze off a round from my mental armory of self-loathing. The sense of being unable to make a speck of an impact on this speck of a planet in this speck of a galaxy snowballs into an enormous weight that crushes every tenth ego on the block. But in the end we had to face the fact that we were being crushed…by nothing.

“Let me tell you a little about myself,” the Mandarin continued. “Wait. Hold that. You wouldn’t be able to comprehend it. OK, so let me give you an idea of where I come from. Uh…scratch that, too. Think of it as an indie alternate reality. OK, so let me tell you a little about the services I offer.”

And so, while I struggled manfully to finish my dinner while warding off missiles of pureed meat and vegetables from my daughter, I endured the Mandarin’s spiel.

All over the world (actually he said “All over the universe,” but he’s a big talker) there were people like me (“Yes, people just like you, God forbid.”) who had made a curious and often deadly investment in their future. Working alone or in crews of three to six, they sabotaged the lives of individuals who, through a variety of reasons but mainly through luck, had risen above their peers. None of the crews inflicted damage upon people with whom they were directly associated, so motive would never provide a clue to the earthly authorities. And as an added precaution, almost a necessity, each member of a Mandarin crew was doubled. To that was superadded the fact that each crew was assigned one operative of extraordinary ability. He or she could be a master forger, an Olympic-caliber athlete, a crack marksman. Crews whose main mischief was murder might have among them someone with profound psychic talent as added protection against getting caught. Another member of the crew would possess the ability to spot the clues that would lead us to our targets.

Very few people possessed all of these abilities, and even fewer were recruited into a Mandarin crew. After all, very few people with that much talent could qualify as losers. But there were a few. Out there. Alone. Committing the most heinous crimes in the name of redressing the unnatural imbalance created by that man-made monster, society. Created also, I learned, by manic demons of other worlds, other times, other dimensions, who got their kicks out of meddling with the three-dimensional rats in the maze called Earth.

“The ancient Greeks had an inkling…”

It was astounding how rapidly the Mandarin’s speech progressed. Eileen, a quick, nervous eater, had hardly begun finishing feeding herself and Barb when he reached his peroration.

“Here’s the deal…”

It was then that this fifth-rate Mephistopheles made his bid to buy the soul of a bargain-basement Faust. I’ve already told you the terms. I (or rather, my double) would agree to do his bidding for one year, in return for which another crew would eliminate the person I had determined was ruining my life. Failure to perform a task assigned to me would result in an automatic year’s extension of the contract for every member of the crew, although the Mandarin reassured me the failure rate among his crews was very low. Once my personal opponent had been eliminated one way or another (I had no say in the form that elimination would take), I could renew the contract in order to rise the next step up the ladder—if I so chose.

Terms of insanity, clearly laid out. The Mandarin’s nasal drone had put me in a stupor. I sensed my delusion would continue to pester me unless I accepted its proposal. So when he asked me if I agreed, I was only mildly astounded to find myself nodding.

“Great!” the Mandarin exclaimed enthusiastically. When he reached into his shirt pocket for a pen the entire plastic holder came out. There was a clatter like pick-up-sticks on the floor. I noticed Barb leaning sideways to see what was causing the fuss. Eileen remained oblivious as the Mandarin stretched his arm under her chair to catch a renegade Bic.

As he performed his painful-looking, one-man version of Twister, he chanted, “Great-fantastic-outstanding, great-fantastic-outstanding,” like some seedy CEO attaining nirvana. He stopped only when he was back on his feet and the penholder back in place. Drawing a small ringed notebook out of his back pocket, he carefully took out one pen and opened it with a crisp click. He spoke as he wrote. “On this day in the 56th Quirnum of Quintus, I, Thomasum Palaverer…” He paused and glanced up. “That’s your technical name in the Quadrennial Dunciad Bureau of Records for Eternal Dummies.”

I nodded with smug noncomprehension. The Greeks might have had an inkling, but it was all Greek to me. I didn’t have a clue, nor did I want one. Only a madman would couch such deadly business in this kind of buffoonery. And the Mandarin, I thought, was not the one going mad. But I couldn’t tell Eileen that I needed some serious psychiatric help. Knowing her mindset, she would think I was trying to compete against her.

Pressing pen to notebook, the Mandarin continued, “I, Thomasum Palaverer, agree to perform a wide spectrum of onerous tasks and scutwork for Mandarin, Inc. For imbursement for these services, at the end of the terrestrial year his wife of record, Eileenium Bitchin, will be snuffed—”

“No!”

Eileen and Barb jumped at my shout. But Barb kept her wits. She immediately used the opportunity presented by my defenseless dismay to launch an attack. I hardly noticed the glop of green that struck my temple and instantly began to dribble down the side of my face.

“Oh,” said Eileen, drawing another wrong conclusion. She handed me a paper napkin.

“No?” said the bemused Mandarin, drawing a visual line between my wife and me. He seemed nonplussed that I could be blind to something so obvious. “She’s not the one?”

I absently began plying the napkin over my gooey wound.

“You know…just to avoid any misunderstanding that might come back to haunt you…maybe we’d better do an impromptu tête-à-tête alfiasco. Tell your wife you have to go wash your face.”

Stunned into automated obedience, I said, “I have to go to the bathroom.”

Eileen shrugged and I left the table. At the door to the bathroom I was hit by an unsettling queasiness. The tension was making me sick. I turned the handle.

“Let’s step outside.” The Mandarin had gotten ahead of me in every sense. I tried to hold back. If Eileen came up the hall and saw I was not in the bathroom, uncomfortable queries might ensue, leading ultimately to my hallucinations.

But when I turned once again, I saw the bathroom door I had just opened being closed from the inside. There was a low hum as the light/fan combo was switched on.

“Come on,” the Mandarin hissed.

“But—”

“I’ll explain once we’re outside.”

As we passed the living room I glanced at the floor. The Mandarin’s textbooks and papers were gone. Well, at least he was neat.

We did not speak again until we reached the elm in my front yard. I held up my hand before he could open his mouth.

“I appreciate your concern. Really I do. But have you stopped to think that what you see is what I am? Maybe there are no gremlins throwing monkey wrenches in my life and holding me back. Maybe I’m just lazy. Maybe—”

“You’re just a loser,” the Mandarin shrugged. “Sure, we both see that. Anyone with 20/400 vision can see that. But look at you. You’re decent-looking, even handsome in an Andy-Garcia-without-the-macho way. Your body fat ratio could be improved, but so could just about everyone’s. You’re reasonably endowed.”

“How—?”

“In fact, you had a larger range of chicks to pick from than you realized. As for your brain, it’s not as bad as you think it is, and in fact is only as bad to the degree that you’ve squandered it.”

“Why am I listening to you?”

“Because you’re inherently courteous. I’m talking, so you’re listening. Losers make great listeners. Ask any girl. Listen…Tom…” He leaned forward, lowering his voice to a confidential tone. Damn, he was a salesman! Was that licorice on his breath? “Have you ever stopped to think that you only seem lazy, seem unambitious, seem uninspired, seem unimaginative, seem to be a numbnuts—”

“I get the drift.”

“Could it be that you instinctively know there’s no sense in putting yourself out? Now, it’s true an event in your past could have triggered this attitude. Maybe the girl you really wanted snubbed you, and you never approached her again. Or even further back. Maybe, when you were an infant, your mother’s titty was filled with sweet, warm milk, and that was all you really wanted, but all she offered was a cold bottle.”

“I can’t say I remember back that far.”

“It makes an impact nonetheless, my friend. OK, wouldn’t you agree most people don’t run for President because they know they’ll never make it?”

“Well, yeah, but—”

“An extreme example, I’ll admit. But I’m sure you’re not one of those who fall for that ‘fear of failure’ mumbo jumbo. Hell, Psychology Today is the leading cause of personal failure, at least in this dimension. Which doesn’t address off-world intervention.”

“That which the ancient Greeks had an inkling of.”

“Exactly. We’ll never know the greatest writers, poets, artists, diplomats, heroes of war and of peace. People so talented they couldn’t help but be great. And why?”

“They didn’t produce?”

“They produced by the shitload.”

“Then the gremlins got ‘em.”

“See? You do have a brain.”

If that was so, it wasn’t working very well at the moment. I tried to recall if my family tree harbored any history of mental illness. There was Uncle Dumas, who thought he was Thomas Jefferson, or a grapefruit. I couldn’t remember which. And there was Aunt Emma, named after a character from Oz and who lived in same.

Otherwise, there was no direct link between my family and this ludicrous monstrosity. Leaving open the most horrible and unlikely possibility: that the Mandarin was real.

In any event, no bargain struck between me and my hallucination could be binding, legally or morally. Which made it easy to cut short our dialogue.

“Why is it temptations are only offered to saints?” The hallucination expelled a breath of impatience. “What about the average guy? Well, in your case, that’s exactly what’s happening. And like any sane man, you shouldn’t have to think twice about taking hold of your main chance.”

“OK. If there’s anyone I want to see blown away, it’s Benton King, a claims manager at Madison Insurance.”

“Any particular…”

“He screwed my wife before we were married, after we were married, and possibly during our sorry excuse for a honeymoon.”

“That’s fine and dandy,” the Mandarin said far too flippantly, “but what I mean…you want his job, right? It’ll be a step up the corporate ladder, right? Right? Otherwise, what’s the point? You might just as well shoot him yourself. Or her. Or them both. Or yourself. Or all three of you.”

“I never thought about it. Does it matter?’

“‘Fraid so. Physics again. Murder is a negative. You need a positive to balance it out. In your case, a promotion.”

“I wouldn’t have thought a murder and a promotion could balance each other.”

“Ha! In this country? You’re lucky you don’t need two murders just to get from ditch digger to janitor. It’s true now that in some cases you need a few million souls to reach your goal, but Joe Stalins are fairly rare.”

“All right. I’ll take the promotion.”

“Great! Fantastic! Outstanding! That’s the loser spirit! A bit of advice here—better arm yourself, soon. I never know when a target opens. Could be a minute from now, next week, next month.”

“OK.”

“I mean a proper gun, now. Do Wyatt Earp proud.”

“I said OK! Now will you go away?” I added, taking several steps towards my front door.

“Whoa there! You need a little instructioneering first.”

“I’ll read the fine print later.”

“Not that. Your original is still in the can.”

“What?”

“I doubled you when you left the kitchen. Sort of a test drive.”

“What?”

“I mentioned it before, remember? ‘Doubling’. At this moment you’re the double. Or the original. Take your pick. Your original-or-double is washing his face and taking a whizz. You have to take care. It wouldn’t go down well if your wife saw the two of you at once, when she can’t stand just one of you.”

“Why do you say that?” I said, offended.

“You’re the one who told me she was bopping your coworker.”

In those days my doubt had not yet grown into a certainty. Angry at him for mistaking conjecture for fact, I started back into the house.

“I said wait!” There he was in front of me again, the nimble little rat. “This is your first doubling. Your original won’t know what’s happening.”

“That’s all right. I don’t believe you, anyway.”

“Let me at least introduce you.”

“Introduce me to myself? You’re really a card, and you know which one. Now don’t take this the wrong way, but fuck off.”

The Mandarin held up his hands as I stormed past him. “OK! OK! But whatever happens, and however you explain it to your better halves, we have a contract. Your word is as good as your blood. You’ll be hearing from me soon.”

I was in the house. I looked back. My tormenter was gone. A profound sense of relief swept over me. Perhaps that was what had been needed all along. Tell the blinking road signs, the coy computers, the talking guppies (I neglected to tell you about them)—tell the Mandarin him and/or itself—to rotate and screw themselves, and the hallucinations would disappear. Some things were as easy as pie.

I had never baked a pie.

As I sauntered down the short hall contemplating the key to mental health, I heard an unexpected sound. The bathroom door was opening.

I walked out.

How could that be me? I was here, on these two feet. And could I really look so dour after taking a dump? So pinched and puffy. But if that wasn’t me, that meant there was an intruder in the house. One so devious and dangerous he had chosen the most unexpected disguise he could lay his hands on. Me.

Sensing my presence practically at his elbow, he looped violently sideways, as though bumping into an invisible wall. He gaped, turned to run, and I could think of only one thing: Eileen seeing the two of us side by side.

I tackled him.

Fully expecting his body to cushion my fall, I was painfully startled when I smacked full-length onto the hardwood. I was alone on the floor.

“Tom?” Eileen called from the kitchen.

“It’s nothing,” I answered, my body shaking so hard my arms almost refused to cooperate as I pushed myself up. “I tripped.”

“Tripped on what?”

“Over my own foot,” I responded a moment later—and only then realizing with horror how true that was.

*****

This being the South, no great difficulty presented itself in getting a gun. I had no criminal record, and in any event the background check was as cursory as a summary of the Reader’s Digest edition of Love Story.

I was a complete novice when it came to handguns, and had only the vaguest notion of the difference between a semi-automatic and an old-fashioned six-shooter. When the clerk at the local gun shop slid a .38 Smith & Wesson across the counter (I thought of cough drops and cooking oil, and wondered briefly if there was a relationship), I did not know that this particular weapon was frowned down upon not only by anti-gun lobbyists, but also by connoisseurs of death (or, as they preferred, home-defense). My mental image of the snub-nose was derived from old movies starring Robert Taylor or Richard Widmark, in the days before the model was slandered by the epithet ‘Saturday Night Special’. The dealer was overstocked, and knew a chump when he saw one.

What I did not anticipate, and what those late 40’s film noir actors never implied when they hefted their revolvers, was the weight of the damn things. When I gingerly attempted to pick up the weapon as though plucking out a booger, the gun slid out from between my thumb and index finger and clattered loudly on the glass counter.

“Hey!” the dealer protested, checking for cracks in his display case. “That ain’t from Mattel.”

I grasped it more firmly for a closer inspection.

Are we weaker than our forefathers? Are our fingers more fragile than those of the cops and thugs of the past? I recalled seeing a documentary about the Crusades. Though he used both hands, the tele-historian could barely lift a sword used by one of the chivalric knights during the conquest of Jerusalem. Commenting on the fact that the broadsword had been wielded handily to lop off Muslim heads, he marveled at the sheer physical strength of medieval man.

I, too, marveled. Not at the man of five hundred years ago, but of fifty. It took a fair amount of muscle to keep my arm straight as I took aim at an imaginary target. I quivered under the dealer’s macho gaze.

“It’s not exactly a lady’s gun.”

The crisscross pattern of the stock felt rough against my palm, and I thought just holding it could give me blisters. I was bothered by its Black & Decker patina. I was not very good with power drills, and a slip-up with this promised to result in a lot more damage than merely a stripped screw. But the dealer knew his mark and market.

“A slug from that’ll knock down whatever it hits.”

I bought it and a small brown leather holster and hid it in my garage, like a boy storing away a precious Penthouse, or a mystified hiker who had discovered a meteor in the park, found it unnaturally and mesmerizingly heavy, but who was afraid to take it to the museum to verify its extraterrestrial origin for fear it might be confiscated.

 

FIVE

 

“You’re a real bastard, and you deserve to die.”

This was the third repetition I had made to the man I was assigned to kill, yet I could not bring myself to draw my gun. I was too mesmerized for murder, because the man had mistaken my threat for a compliment.

There are bastards everywhere. The world is a veritable bake sale of assholes. It’s one of those disheartening facts of life. High and low, near and far, there’s always someone around the corner ready and more than willing to throw their weight, spit in your eye, cut you off, ruin you to the bone.

Our latest clues had led us to a junkyard outside the city. I would never have believed the green light of envy could flash in so decrepit a corner of society. But the Mandarin had shown me that avarice was everywhere, as well as the resentment it bred, and the unsightly behavior that accompanied it. I once blew away a wino who lived under a bridge. Surveying his pathetic assets, the discards of a lower class neighborhood, I wondered who in God’s name wanted so badly to advance to this dreary makeshift hovel that they were willing to kill for it. How much lower on the food chain was the Mandarin’s client—to want this.

It’s all around us, a cloud of humanity surfeited with agendas, secrets, unexplained happiness and dark rage. And these wildly mingling yet hidden passions are in constant flux. A man who in five months might be on top of the world might today be coiled for murder. A woman smugly independent might twenty years from now push her old husband down the stairs. You are what you are only at a particular moment. Perfect consistency in a single individual is as rare as moondust at the bottom of the ocean. A rule of thumb that applies to all classes, from kings to bums under a bridge.

“You’re a real bastard, and you deserve to die.”

The man I was going to kill chuckled and gave me a good natured, lightweight clip on the chin. Minutes earlier we had emerged from the salvage lot trailer. A man on crutches was trying to lower himself next to the brick sidewalk that led to the parking lot. I had stooped forward to give him a hand. Crutches and leg braces aside, he seemed to be a very fit young man. Perhaps he was on some kind of medication, and it was making him dizzy.

“Naw, he doesn’t need any help. He does this all the time, don’t you, Freddie?”

The lot owner placed a hand on my shoulder to restrain my good-Samaritan reflex. I thought the gesture out of place, since I was posing as a customer looking for a taillight for a ’91 Neon. How did he know I wasn’t a homophobe?

The young man flopped hard on the ground and turned a tight grin our way. “Yeah, sure.”

“Don’t look so sour, Freddie boy. What happened to you, you did to yourself. You can’t claim work comp if you break the rules.”

“I didn’t…” Those two words seemed to exhaust Fred’s protest. I had the impression he had made his case many times before, and could not face another round of mortification.

“Oh, yes you did, and you’ve got the gimp to prove it.” The owner gave a sarcastic cock of his head. “The rules say to stand back at least fifteen feet when the compactor bucket is raised or lowered. Fred here ignored the rules and the bucket swung down and snapped both his shinbones like paper mache. Big ouch. Then the dummy comes boo hooing to us for work comp, benefits, and probably a baby bottle to boot.” He lowered his eyes to his employee as though seeing a mangy stray for the first time. “But, so long as you stay gainfully employed, I don’t have to pay you a single Commie-red cent in this great land of ours.”

“The warning bell didn’t go off like it was supposed to. I didn’t know the bucket…” And Fred’s argument faded away from its long, tired rote.

“Just keep pulling weeds out of the cracks. You don’t like it, you can find another job in this great land of ours.”

He had him pulling weeds in a junk yard! No doubt at or below minimum wage. The only thing good about it, I thought as I surveyed our surroundings, was that it was guaranteed lifetime employment. There were even weeds growing out of the junked cars themselves. It was at this point that I first delivered the tag line the Mandarin had given me to say just before I blew the owner away.

“You’re a real bastard, and you deserve to die.”

Overhearing this, Fred darted a wary look my way, then smirked and began prying weeds from between the bricks. Meantime the owner laughed loudly, like some third rate actor who had been told by a fan his latest performance deserved an Oscar. He was good, but even he didn’t think he was that good.

“It’s the only way to keep a business in the black.”

I think it was the blatancy of his callousness that transfixed me. Accustomed as I was to the refined turpitude of’ the world of white collars, I was thrown off balance by this rough blue terrain. Even in the lowly world of clerks, you rarely heard anyone call a spade a spade. You could get into trouble calling a secretary a secretary instead of an administrative assistant. I thought of how my secondary employer called himself the Mandarin, so exotic a moniker for someone who was in reality a half-assed salesman of alternate reality.

“We’ve got some banged up Neons near the front,” the owner said, basking in the glow of my death threat-cum-compliment. “I’m surprised you didn’t see them on the way in.”

“I’ve never visited a junkyard before.”

The owner admonished me with a raised finger. “A salvage yard. We’re reclamation specialists.”

“Oh. Well, you’re a real bastard, and you deserve to die.”

“Cut it out, will ya? You’re making me, blush. But you know…that would make a great ad campaign. ‘Go to Joe’s, a real bastard who deserves to die for the great deals he gives his customers and the grief he causes the competition.’ Love it. But naw, they’d never let me air it. Or would they? Maybe I could air it on one of’ those shows where everbody’s backside hangs out.”

I wondered if the poor guy whose legs were broken was the one we were doing the killing for. But we never knew who the third party was. The resourceful Mandarin kept us in the dark on that score, and I admit it was for the best. But it was no wonder that in this case I had a strong suspicion.

Why delay? As my astonishment wore off, I began to relish the prospect of snuffing this guy. Our target was a Grade-A jerk, and this was shaping up to be a pleasant assassination. Besides, Mai Ling and Dead Eye were no doubt wondering why I was procrastinating as they (or rather Mai Ling) watched from the van. The very locale urged me to action. The lot was huge. Rank after rank of smashed cars reached as far as I could see. From the starbursts on the majority of windshields, it was apparent none of these drivers knew what was coming. Buckle up! It’s the Law! A law mocked in form, substance and action, a law so amusing that ignoring it had added substantially to the world’s sorrow. The junk heap of the Present was a powerful indicator of Mankind’s decrepitude. Not a clue among these bad or unlucky drivers—so much like the yard’s owner, who had failed to restrain himself with even the most basic moral dictates of civilized behavior, and was now about to crash head on into the semi of righteous indignation and rectitude.

Or perhaps he knew exactly what he was doing. Maybe our existence could be summed up as one giant suicide.

I was incapable of this attitude, the dark secret of success. Push, push, push, knowing the possible consequences, that it could even (and often did) get you killed, yet relentlessly striving for that next inch, an inch that seemed as important as the end of the world. I couldn’t do it, even though I knew that there were others just as fearful as myself, yet who kept pushing because they felt that was how they had to behave in order to survive. And it was their duty to survive. There were others, of course (of whom the junkyard owner seemed a prime example), who took great glee in the race. Who oozed self certainty from every pore, and would not be denied their due. And there were the wiser ones, who knew when to push, and when to back down, all the while assuming they would one day be back at it again, pushing, pushing. No, I didn’t have that in me. I could be rude through ignorance (an American specialty), but could not consciously shove people out of the way, to do my best to tear out their hopes and cast their luck drained bodies out of my path. I guess in the softer part of my brain I’m of the ‘we’re all in this together’ kindergarten of philosophy. But what if I was not only wrong, but catastrophically out of whack with reality? What if being in the same boat did not mean we all have to pull together and treat each other decently in order to survive? What if it meant just the opposite? ‘We’re all in this together, so let me cut your throat. It’s best in the long run, what with you being a weakling and me being an ultra-stud-warrior-bread-winner. No one wants a world of wusses, not even you.’

I didn’t need a mirror to see I was a sheep in sheep’s clothing.

I would take it up with Mai Ling later. Right now, unless I wanted to extend the crew’s obligation to seven years, I had some serious murder to do.

“You’re a real bastard, and you deserve to die.”

“OK, Bud, a joke’s a joke, but—” Interrupting his stride to face me, he saw the .38 in my hand. “Oh fuck, now who’s the bastard?”

His reflexes would have been quick for a man of any size. Being large made his sudden charge all the more impressive. And after so many years of being behind a desk, my own reflexes felt as though they were weighted down by thick layers of gelatinous crud.

I’d scarcely begun to squeeze the trigger before the gun was knocked out of my hand. Then a powerful fist smashed into my chest and I fell backwards onto the graveled surface of the lot.

“Fucking little bastard, who put you up to this? Who would send a worm to kill a man?”

Later, I would replay the scene and find it striking that the owner assumed I was a hired assassin. Either the junk business was as crime-ridden as the Mafia, or he had deeply offended some people on a more personal level. In the end, though, there was no doubt someone would benefit by his death. Why else would I be there?

At the time, I was more preoccupied with dodging the oil-tanker foot that was coming directly at my ribs. I noticed his shoes were polished to a bright shine. Not junkyard shoes at all.

The foot stopped in mid-air and the man let out a howl, as if he’d kicked a brick wall. Which, in a way, he had. Mai Ling was at work.

It wasn’t the first time she’d saved my hide. I was not a very good killer. I’d never so much as touched a gun before I met the Mandarin. Because I was such a terrible shot, all of my assassinations had to be performed at close range. And on more than one occasion I’d fainted at the sight of the blood I had spilled.

The owner leapt towards the gun. As he leaned down it skittered a few yards away from him. He gaped, dumbfounded. I rolled onto my hands and knees and began crawling. The gun moved another few feet away from the owner, then made straight for me, leaving a truncated ‘V’ in the gravel. I grabbed it, pushed myself up onto my knees, and fired.

I wasn’t sure where the bullet struck, but his bellow of pain confirmed a hit.

No matter. He came at me.

Frantically I pulled the trigger, again, again, again. It was like a dream I once had of being in a war zone, the enemy charging, and as I lifted my gun to defend myself I discovered, way too late, that my gun was a toy, and the enemy was less than intimidated.

Even as he clamped bloody hands around my neck I heard the squeal of tires and knew help was at hand. I jerked free, rolled out of reach. The owner continued to stagger forward, bearing down on me like some Exxon Valdez gushing life fuel.

“Get in!”

Mai Ling had pulled up beside me. I yanked open the passenger door and fell inside.

“Run him down!” I gasped.

What?”

“I used all my bullets. Hit the gas!”

I managed to slam shut my door just as the junkman reached the van. He didn’t come to the passenger side, but whapped against the hood head-on, as if intent on a game of chicken. And at that moment, I felt he was winning. Blood flashed onto the hood and windshield. It seemed the van and its occupants were bleeding and not the man drilled with six holes at close range. I’d never encountered anything like it, and I’d killed…how many? Enough, I thought oddly, to fill a high school classroom. Or a gymnasium.

“There’s the target!” Dead Eye yelled from the back seat as the van rocked under the junkman’s weight.

“I know!”

“Then take him out!”

“I did!” I turned a ferocious eye on Mai Ling. “He’s right there! Do it!”

“That’s not my job!” she screeched so powerfully it was like a hairline crack in a jet engine. She was wrong, of course. Only Dead Eye had a firmly fixed job description within our crew, since he was the only one who could spot the clues and point out the targets. Mai Ling might be a psychic heavyweight, but to the extent that she abetted me she was just as much a murderer.

The junkman’s agony was all the more frightening for the venomous half-verbal, half-physical attack on the van. All that swearing and pushing might end up tipping us over, or so my fear advised me.

“Come out of there you fuckheads!” the junkman screamed, sloshing so much blood it blocked our view.

“He’ll bleed to death anyway!” Mai Ling sobbed. “Let’s go home!”

“We can’t take the chance.”

“It’s all your fault! If we’d gotten that man at the Federal Reserve—”

“You know better.”

“But there were others you skipped—”

“And you agreed on all of them.” I saw the man on crutches wobbling towards us as fast he could before the rubber tip of one crutch slipped on the gravel and he went sprawling. His attempt to help his boss looked earnest enough. I could not recall a single instance where I had assassinated anyone within sight of the client, so it was probable Fred knew nothing about the Mandarin. Certainly, he did not look capable of assisting a murderer, let alone actually committing the deed himself—which he would have been obliged to do had he been one of the Mandarin’s customers. On the other hand, you only had to look at Dead Eye to know you could be handicapped and still be a member of a Mandarin crew.

Mai Ling’s face was stretched in terror. Nothing inscrutable here. She was being forced to confront her cheat. She had always tried to distance herself from the killing. Always before the triggerman had been the low man, the talentless man, the man whose scruples were born of weakness.

“What’s going on?” Dead Eye asked, his concern under tight control. “Why are we shaking?”

I let out a warning shout as Mai Ling shifted into reverse.

“I’m not a killer!” she yelled back defiantly.

“No, not that! It’s—”

She floored the gas. I reached over to stop her, but I was too late. Moments after the junkman slid off the hood there was a thump in the rear and the back rode up.

It was by no means our first case of collateral damage.

*****

A half hour later, after I had taken the wheel and roared hell-for-leather out of the lot, I pulled into an automated carwash. As the suds frothed red on the windows I tried to reason Mai Ling out of her catatonia. In part because my heart went out to her, but also because the cops were swarming throughout the entire city and surrounding counties and we needed her skills to escape.

“You were distraught. There was no way you could have seen that guy coming up behind us.” The poor schmuck, flattened, crutches and all, details of which there was no need to elaborate upon. She’d seen him for herself, finally—after running him down from rear to front axels. I looked closely to make sure she was still breathing. She was never much of a talker, but now she was invoking the silence of a corpse. Nor did Dead Eye, to whom I had described the events leading up to this moment, seem inclined to join this one-sided conversation. I saw our crew crumbling before my eyes. I sensed the overwhelming desire to escape by breaking the contract with the Mandarin. I foresaw the imminent arrival of Mr. Howdyhell.

I haven’t told you about him yet. There’s not much to say. I’d never met him, and prayed I never would.

It’s when you try to reason someone out of misery that you realize how little you know them. What I knew about Mai Ling I could have fit on a Post-it. There was nothing to grab hold of, no family that I knew of that I could use as a reference. But in this case that might not have mattered. Mai Ling was so rigid I doubted her pupils would have contracted had I shined a penlight on them.

“It seems to me…” Dead Eye cleared his throat. “Seems to me we just might be able to handle all this a little better if we got to know each other a bit more…intimately.”

I glanced over the seat at him. Was he another potential mind-reader? His preferred posture when seated was to lean a forward, his cane propped before him, rocking it gently back and forth between his knees like some geriatric joystick. But we had strapped him into the back seat as a precaution, in case we became involved in a high speed chase after the hit. Now the cane lay across his lap, his fingers playing up and down as though operating a flute. How well he must know the grain of that imitation wood.

“That’s a good idea, Dead Eye. I was beginning to think along those lines, myself.”

“My name is Percy Franklin. I believe you already know that. So if you please, from now on it’s ‘Percy’.”

‘Percy’. ‘Percival’? Neither Mai Ling nor I had come close, though of course we’d seen ‘Franklin’ on his mailbox.

“OK. I’m Tom…” I trailed off shyly, not willing to give my last name.

The horror we had just perpetrated was a replay and prelude of horrors past and future, yet here we were taking a stab at proper introductions like passengers settling down for a long journey on an ocean liner. Ludicrous, you might think, but I thought it the only way to survive this moment. Dead Eye Percy must have thought so, too.

There was a sloshy mechanical cranking outside as the carwash robotics shifted to the next cycle. Through the water cascading down the windshield I saw cherrytops flashing beyond the exit. So much for formalities.

“Mai Ling! We need you now!”

My momentary hope was dashed when I realized I had mistaken reflections of soapy water for a change in her expression. Shadows like pock marks formed across her face as the pipe overhead began to spit out polish.

“What’s her problem?” Percy asked in his reasonable voice. “Was she injured?”

“I told you.”

“Told me what? You took out two targets at one go. I, for one, am impressed.”

He could not see my look of incredulity, but he must have felt Mai Ling jerk in her seat.

Two?”

“Certainly. The single trail of clues led to a pair of targets. I assumed you knew that, since you put both down. Both target signals vanished.”

‘Recumbent targets’ was usually how Percy referred to a successful hit. Once they were dead, the mysterious light that that he saw would vanish from his ‘sight’.

I didn’t argue, because I was sure he was lying in a good cause. What prompted my sudden queasiness—aside from Mai Ling’s catatonic state and the cops waiting outside the carwash—was the question of whether or not we’d hit the right target. The junkyard owner had been standing just outside the door of the trailer talking to Fred when Percy ID’d the target from a distance. I didn’t notice Fred’s crutches until I approached. I had automatically assumed the man in full health was the intended victim, a conclusion reinforced by his behavior towards his employee. After all, who would have wanted to be in Fred’s position so badly he was willing to sell his soul for it?

But you never know. Maybe there was someone who looked enviously upon poor old Freddie, thinking that picking weeds all day under the hot sun a truly plum job.

Whether he was lying, or I’d gone after the wrong man, or the junk yard owner and Fred were both targets and we had accidentally and freakishly accomplished our job, Dead Eye Percy’s words succeeded in rousing Mai Ling from her stupor—but in a way I would never have predicted or asked for.

The final cycle was done. The robot arms retracted. Ahead, a misty curtain of water awaited our drive-through for the finishing rinse. The imitation traffic signal overhead and to the right bellowed green. Beyond the hissing of water I heard police radios.

Mai Ling screamed. A sound like none other. An engine made of flesh and blood torn off its rails. Somehow, via some psychic rhythm or through sheer surprise, her cry struck sympathetic chords in Percy and me and we both let go with long, shrill howls.

At least Percy did not have to witness what happened next.

The jets of water misting in front of the van suddenly compressed into a single, solid form. I would have sworn it had become a giant pane of glass, only it was so transparent it might as well have vanished. But the next instant it began to crack. The cracks were not broad, but more like scratches. No, as they coalesced into a formal pattern I realized it was more like etching, as though someone was using a diamond to trace out a portrait. Yes. There was a head. It remained an empty face-on oval while something like a torso appeared beneath it. Then the invisible artist raised his tool to fill in mouth, nose—and eyes. Two dreadful evening suns in a polluted sky darting sickly, wavering beams of reddish light.

That was what I thought I saw, a devil-stranger breaking a crystal leer, before the whole demonic canvas shattered and flared in a superheated rush of steam.

There was no telling what the police outside had seen, but their reaction conformed to what you would expect from men subjected to undefined terror.

The van was moving. But my hands were not on the wheel. My foot was off the gas. We were still in Park. Could it be an illusion caused by the carwash’s mechanical arms retracting? No, they had already pulled back.

A moment later we emerged from the carwash.

“Mai Ling?”

She did not answer.

“Something’s terribly wrong.”

“You can tell that, can you?” I responded bitterly to Percy, not taking my eyes off the police cars arrayed in front of us, the cops using trunks and hoods to prop their guns. Yet despite this unpromising scene, I found myself unwarrantably pleased that even ol’ Dead Eye was finally rattled.

“No…there’s clues. All over. Dozens of them. No. Not clues. The signals are too intense. They’re…targets.”

It was at that moment that I considered to taking up smoking.

“Maybe they’re someone else’s targets,” I reasoned feebly, horror coiling venomously through my gut. “Maybe they belong to another crew. All we need right now is to get the hell out of here. Do you hear me, Mai Ling? Dead Eye could be wrong. Even if he’s right, the Mandarin never said anything about this.”

But the Mandarin never gave details about specific targets. He would appear before me, in one form or another, and advise me to gather the crew together for a job. I would call Mai Ling, she would pick me up at a corner near my house, and together we would get Dead Eye Percy, who always came last because the first clue was always there waiting at his front door. That was the extent of the Mandarin’s assistance when it came to the finer points of our targets.

Forewarned or not, this seemed like an outrageous, malicious prank on the Mandarin’s part. Or some kind of bureaucratic screwup in the Mandarin’s universe. Yet the Mandarin’s claim that he had no role in the placement of the clues, that he merely alerted us to their presence, suggested a chilling possibility. Who was to say that clues and targets weren’t around us all the time? That chance inevitably brought them into our path even without supernatural notification? Was it our task to track down and eliminate all of the targets they would lead us to?

Not in my book. Besides, I’d always assumed my contract dealt with discreet, one-man targets. There had never before been any hint that the Mandarin might want us to commit mass murder.

But all those discreet targets had added up. I was already a mass murderer.

“But they can’t be targets!” Percy moaned. “There weren’t any clues! There have always been clues—”

Two police cruisers stood up on their tailpipes. It was a hopelessly horrifying and hypnotic sight, Wes Craven directing the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies. The cops crouched next to the vehicles were thrown to the parking lot pavement. Most were flat on their faces and did not see the cars crashing down upon them.

There was no explosion beyond the immense noise. Not yet. But gas was leaking out, pooling towards the carwash.

The cops were here in force. Instinctively they sensed we were the cause of the bizarre catastrophe. They responded the best way they knew how. There was a whizzing sound and the passenger window shattered.

“Mai Ling!”

She darted a look at me.

Not even a scratch.

“OK! You’re OK! Great! Now stop this! Get us the fuck out of here!”

The shooting stopped. I think she stopped it.

“Drive,” she said.

The cops watched in horrified confusion as I sped out of the lot.

But the evidence was there, smeared all over the pavement. No one could pretend this was all a bad dream.

SIX

 

 

“Montavani?” I asked, flipping through the old mono LP’s.

“So?” Percy demanded. “You were expecting Aretha Franklin? Puff Daddy? You can get four-for-a-dollar long-playing records at the Diversity Thrift.”

“Well, yes…” I went through some more. Ferrante & Teicher, 101 Strings, The New Christy Minstrels and (appropriately) Percy Faith. “I was just wondering, though…are all of your favorites decided by a tight budget?”

“The records I buy, yes. My favorites, no. I happen to like what an earlier generation called ‘elevator music’. Not that I’ve ever heard any type of music on an elevator. Have you?”

“Not lately. But they don’t even play this stuff at the supermarket. And you’re always humming or singing—”

“The blues is for when I’m nervous. I happen to find this stuff very soothing, even spiritually moving. By the way, if you intend playing any of those be careful of the needle. Your CD generation doesn’t understand how easily a diamond head can be damaged. And it’s very difficult to find replacements.”

“I can imagine.”

I had to be careful. I would never forget my 10th Grade experience of asking Joey Thouseman who his favorite classical composer was, and of laughing spontaneously when he answered, “Henry Mancini.” Joey being a head taller and shoulder wider than myself, I paid the price for my mockery. Snobbery can be as painful to give as to receive.

Dead Eye Percy might not belt me if I made fun of a smarmy rendition of Moon Over Miami, but such ill-mannered behavior on my part would certainly put a crimp in our purpose for being here.

In Percy’s apartment.

Mai Ling was, temporarily at least, putty in our hands, and we had dragged her along. With an apparent low tolerance for alcohol, she was already drunk on a single Miller Lite.

It was hard to believe that we could party after what he had just witnessed, but Percy and I agreed it was the only way to save our crew from complete moral disintegration. We also knew that any attempt on our part to spontaneously terminate our contract would result in a visit from Mr. Howdyhell.

We had been informed of this little codicil soon after we agreed (there was no physical signature) to our contracts. Visiting each of us separately, the Mandarin had said, “Oh, by the way, if at any moment you decide to bail, you’ll be contacted by Mr. Howdyhell, in person.”

That was it, dictation-wise. You had to hear the Mandarin say it to comprehend the ominous implications. Tremulo, bass, contralto, mezzo—all rolled into a sonic spectral spectrum that coiled around my spine and crept up into my brain, where it registered a firm zero on the Centigrade scale.

We were not told nor did we ask who or what Mr. Howdyhell was. He could have been the Mandarin’s keeper, boss, manager. Emperor of the universe, god of the damned, or the elected representative of the local inferno. Perhaps he was a sterner, more frightening manifestation of the Mandarin himself. It was enough to have experienced that tone to know we wanted nothing to do with him.

So it was party time. We’d just squashed four cops, and the best thing Dead Eye and I could think of was to get down. Not down and dirty, though. Perhaps there were Mandarin crews like that, drawing fatalistically together and using their doubles to break all the Commandments that would have remained intact had they been whole. But we were a sedate group, discreet, uninterested in doing anything but putting in our hours on the job, then racing home to our originals. And hell, you couldn’t really enjoy an orgy without booze or drugs to loosen moral constraints. This was strictly BYOB, and since we had not interrupted our beeline to Percy’s apartment, we were limited to the three lites left in his refrigerator. Mai Ling grabbed the first beer out of Percy’s hand with such thirsty desperation that we did not open our own, but silently surrendered them back to the fridge. After shooting greedy looks at us, she whipped out another can before we’d even closed the door. She went into the living room and dropped into a lotus imitation on the floor. No meditation here, though. She just popped open the can and began to gulp down more Miller. I refrained from asking her if she was thirsty.

An old couch and easy chair that looked as though they were from the same store where Percy had bought his record collection was the only furniture in the living room, which looked to be also the den, rec room and bedroom all rolled into one. From the heavily dimpled cushions and threadbare fabric, the couch appeared to double as Percy’s bed. I took the easy chair. There was a magazine rack filled with more LP’s within easy reach. Glancing through them, I inquired, “Do you have anything that would cheer us up?”

“I have Arthur Fiedler performing the marches of John Philip Sousa. That’s pretty cheery.”

To my amazement, this drew a faint but very real grin out of Mai Ling. When I smirked mock dismay, remembered Dead Eye could not see that smirk, then began a jocular protest, Mai Ling interceded.

“No! The Stars and Stripes Forever! Perfect!”

I found the record, put it on. To the strains of The Washington Post March we hunkered down, determined to bond.

“Shall I begin?” I spoke over the sousaphones.

“Begin? Ah… “ I’d never seen Dead Eye without his sunglasses. Nor, as a gesture of courtesy I suppose, did he remove them now. “Let’s not leap into this without setting out the basics, first. As I mentioned before, my name is Percy Franklin. I’m 43 years of age. My birthday was last week.”

“Congratulations.”

“Thank you. I’ve been blind since I was ten. Glaucoma. They tried a few things to jiggle my eyes into working condition. Goniotomy. Trabeculotomy. You might notice a few scars if I take off my glasses. Those were the days before Acetazolamide and Dorzolamide. No topical beta blockers or systemic carbonic anhydrase inhibitors for me. I work as a cashier at the cafeteria in the Ninth Street Office Building. Most of the customers are state government employees. I can feel the difference between bills of different denominations, although most customers insist on telling me what they’re putting into my hand. I’ve never been married, and have no children that know of. I’ve been told I’m a black man, whatever that means. My favorite thing in life is a sidewalk where there is no unexpected construction, no shoulder or head high obstructions that I can’t tap with my cane, and where people use their pooper scoopers religiously. I have two hands and ten fingers. I am noticeably blind to the seeing when I take off my glasses, although I have been told some children have mistaken the cloudiness in my eyes for Star Wars special effects. I like my Coke caffeine free and my beer light  like my music. My guilty pleasure is that I love cheap perfume, nor am I dismayed that so many women wear men’s cologne. Both of my parents are dead. I suppose that’s enough for just now. Next!”

Finishing off her second beer, Mai Ling marched to the fridge. A regular one-girl parade. I thought her mood must be improving already. Yet I also guessed she was running this errand in order to avoid the limelight. I took it as a signal that it was my turn.

“My name is Tom.”

“That’s it? Just ‘Tom’?”

“My name is Thomas…Lindsay…Coleman.”

TLC,” Percy smiled. “Thanks.”

“I’ll be 29 in November.”

“Congratulations. Scorpio?”

“Uh, thanks. And yes. I work in the Property/Casualty department of a modest sized insurance company. Officially I’m a rater, but in reality … “

“Ah, scum of the earth. Go on.”

“I’m married and have one child. A daughter.”

“Do you love them?” Mai Ling interrupted as she opened the last can.

I was glad when Percy raised a hand. “Intimate details later, don’t you think? We’re already proceeding at light speed, considering all the years we’ve already known  or not known each other.”

With an insouciant shrug Mai Ling tossed back another gulp and resumed her bogus lotus.

“I took one year of college. I love reading and learning, but I couldn’t handle the tight schedule.”

“You want to do what you want to do on your own terms and at your own pace.”

“I guess so. I have a mortgage. I have one used car fully paid for and one new one. The usual bills. I guess I’m middle middle class, but my heart belongs in Greenwich Village.”

“Not the Greenwich Village of today, I presume.”

“No. I guess what I mean is that I’m a bohemian at heart. But I also like financial security. Of course, being middle class means having less financial security than if I owned nothing but a hot plate and an old black and white television. I guess you don’t have many bills.”

“Oh yes, absent the luxury of cable, I certainly belong on Skid Row.”

“No, I didn’t mean  “

“That’s all right. Go on.”

“My parents are still alive. I see them every so often.”

“They live in town?”

“No. In Fairfax. They’re not very happy together, but I think they’re too scared to live apart to even think of divorce.”

“Solid grounds for mutual loathing,” Mai Ling murmured.

“We’ll get to the issue as to whether you are happily married later.”

“The self-appointed moderator commands,” Mai Ling protested. The positive mood swing I had hoped for swung suddenly south. She leaned sideways, digging through first one and then the other pocket of her jeans. “Damn, I forgot. I don’t have my wallet.”

“You want to show us pictures of your family?”

“I want more beer.”

“Really,” Dead Eye Percy began, “don’t you think—”

“You want me to talk, right? Don’t worry. No matter how much I drink, I can sober myself up in two seconds. It’s one of my many talents.”

“I think I have a twenty…” I pulled out my wallet.

“What is that man doing?” Percy demanded in a harsh voice.

“He’s taking out his wallet!” Mai Ling answered incredulously.

“All these years, and you carry your wallet on a job!”

“Uh…” I was stumped by my own stupidity. Still, I was unconvinced that it was drastic enough to draw dropped jaws from Percy and Mai Ling. “Oh c’mon, even when we’ve been caught, Mai Ling made them forget—”

“Don’t depend on Mai Ling for everything.”

“Hey wait, who does nearly all the—”

Again, Percy raised his hand, an increasingly annoying and dictatorial gesture.

“I think from now on, you would be wise to leave your wallet and any other form of identification at home. Mai Ling, you want to take a break? There’s a 7/11 at the end of the block.”

I began to slip a twenty out of my wallet.

“Never mind,” she told me. “I don’t need money.” In a single hands-free movement that belied her alleged drunkenness she lifted herself off the floor and left.

“Mmm,” I ventured to my host. “What happened to that payback she’s so afraid of?”

“Say again?”

“I asked Mai Ling once why she didn’t just use her powers to get ahead in life. After what we saw today, it’s a wonder she hasn’t taken over the world. But she told me she was afraid of some kind of retribution if she took too much advantage of us poor ordinary non-psychic slobs. Still, she’s the last one you’d imagine signing up with a Mandarin crew.”

The first side of Sousa marches finished. The player’s arm rose and drifted back, pointing at me as it lowered onto its small pole.

“Do I hear a discouraging word about my primitive technology?”

“I didn’t say anything,” I said as I flipped the record over. But my tone prompted a philosophical response.

“Why is poetry dead?” said Dead Eye rhetorically. “Why are the great thoughts no longer spoken of at the salons? Why are there no more salons? Because we have accomplished the great feat of combining with our technology. A successful technology is poetry unto itself. Discourse is encrypted into our communications. Why talk about Plato, why even remember his name, when it’s enough to know we can pull up every jot by him and every iota about him at the press of a button? When we are doubled, we are actually being thrown back in time, to those wasteful labor-intensive days when people dreamed of having an extra pair of hands. What we’re doing is actually very primitive.”

A door slammed downstairs. Hearing the rattle of what sounded like a paper bag, I assumed it was Mai Ling. “That was quick. Maybe she flies a broomstick, too.”

Percy shook his head. “I hear a cane tapping.”

It took a moment for me to realize what he was saying. “Your original!” I cried, leaping up from the chair.

“Calm yourself. I live alone, remember? No unauthorized witnesses to the merge. Really, the convenience is irreplaceable. While I’m out gallivanting with you two, my original is out grocery shopping. It’s too bad I didn’t know you were coming. I would have planned on buying more beer before I doubled. I can usually tell when I’ve doubled, by the way.”

“Really?”

“Unless something happened and my original changed his mind, all I’ve bought are sardines, sodas and Fritos. My sister used to call them ‘free toes’. She probably still does. The family comic.” He released a philosophical sigh. “A good girl, though. I trust her. As society becomes more aggressive, the go-getters take more and more advantage of an increasingly smaller pool of people who still trust, and who can thus be trusted. It’s no mystery where the carnivores will get their meals once all the herbivores are gone. But I have at least two people I can trust absolutely. My sister and my self.”

I would have asked him why he had not mentioned his sister in his oral biography, but I was too busy marveling at the complete absence of anxiety in his demeanor. Whenever I was about to merge with my original I experienced anticipatory dread, not knowing what new memories of the day’s events would be added to the bloody work fresh in my mind. Had work resolved into its usual haze of blandness, or had I been reprimanded for something, humiliated yet again by Benton and his cronies, or betrayed? Yet even that was preferable to the sudden shock of an unannounced merger, stunning to both double and original, when two memories suddenly took the place of one and I was forced to take hold of anything close at hand in order to control my vertigo. I always tried to warn my original that I was arriving, even if it was only a fleeting whisper into his ear. But that wasn’t always possible.

Percy had somehow found equanimity. Did being blind help? It didn’t seem possible. On the other hand, how did he even find himself in order to merge? Did he see himself in the same way that he saw clues?

One thing, though. I envied his blindness when it came to seeing what I had seen at the carwash that afternoon.

There was a loud conflation of rattles at the door as Percy’s original struggled to manage key, bag and cane all at once. I had re-seated myself. When I rose again to help, Dead Eye said:

“No, you can stay put. He can handle it himself. And he needs the practice.”

Well, no one would know himself better than himself, I thought, and eased back down.

“Percy?” came the original’s inquiring voice as the door swung in.

“Here, Percy.”

“Doubled again?” the original harrumphed as he tottered inside and closed the door shut. “I thought so. That’s twice this week. We should be working on commission.”

“That’s not the half of it.”

“So it was bad today?”

“You’ll know soon enough.”

I had assumed my fellow crew members would want to merge the moment a job was done. But as Percy’s original went into the kitchenette, while his double (or vice versa) remained comfortably seated on the couch, the advantages of two-for-one finally struck me. The Mandarin had made it clear we could not remain doubled indefinitely after a job. His unspecific tenet seemed to leave the time frame open. Could we remain doubled for hours? Days?

“We have a visitor.” The original sniffed the air. “Why, hello Mai Ling.”

“She went out for some beer, but Tom’s here.”

“Tom?”

“Sorry. Bongo.”

“You’re giving out your real names?” Percy’s original shook his head in wonder. “I can’t wait to find out what’s going on.”

I began to push up from the chair to lend a hand.

“No need to get up,” they said in unison. “I need the practice.”

“That’s right,” Percy’s double continued. “Every day is practice for me. I need to know where I put things so I know where to pick them up.” He paused. “You’re very helpful, you know, Tom.” It didn’t sound like a compliment.

“Your apartment is very neat,” I said with agreeable truthfulness.

“I believe ‘Spartan’ would be more accurate.”

The banter that ensued between the two Percys as the original performed various chores amazed me. It had never occurred to me to literally carry on an extended conversation with myself while doubled, and I found the very thought of it excruciating. Yet Percy and Percy seemed to think it perfectly normal, as though they were identical twins arriving home after a hard day’s work. They even took the opportunity to take swipes at each other, calling one another blind fools, damn idiots, and worse. It was an extreme form of self-analysis, with the original going so far as to accuse the double of being a complete moron for hooking up with the likes of the Mandarin.

There was a knock at the door.

“I’ll get it,” three voices rang out, including my own.

The two Percys turned their heads vaguely in each others’ direction.

“Perhaps, to avoid confusion, Tom should get it.”

“You read my mind.”

I got up and let Mai Ling in. She saw the two Percys and frowned.

“Mai Ling,” said the seated Percy, “may I introduce you to my double.”

“Excuse me, but he’s the double. I’m the original.”

“Very droll,” Mai Ling said. “Does the double know what happened today? No? Don’t you think it’s rude to leave him in the dark…sorry, so to speak.”

Concern deepened the expressions of both Percys. Having impeccable manners, he found it painful to be accused of incivility. I don’t think he considered it possible to be rude to himself, but remaining doubled in front of guests would probably not have been acceptable in Miss Manners’ book of etiquette.

“You’re on the couch?” the Percy in the kitchenette inquired.

“As usual.”

Mai Ling and I moved a little closer. We were seeing for the first time the actual process of merging. We never saw ourselves side by side becoming one. In my case at least there was only the look of recognition from my original as we approached each other like lovers about to embrace, or the view of my original’s back if I was forced by circumstances to sneak up on him, then the brief, vertiginous coupling of memories.

Judging from her breathless interest, Mai Ling’s fascination matched my own. She shifted her case of beer from one hand to another, but otherwise remained intent on Percy and Percy. After giving a moment of concern to her parcel (I didn’t trust a cardboard handle to hold that much weight), I lifted my eyes back to the room.

There wasn’t much to it in the end. Not really. Not at first glance. A Hollywood version would have been more convincing. The standing Percy reached out for the seated Percy, finding his shoulder after a moment’s expert groping. Then suddenly, like an old movie that had jumped a frame, they were superimposed. It would have been anticlimactic, except for….that first fraction of a second.

Even hidden by sunglasses, we could clearly discern Dead Eye’s original’s shock of discovery, wonder, confusion, dismay. And also, in struggle, in rebellion. And, in a form I found oddly sickening, submission. Glancing at Mai Ling, I saw my own fear and disgust reflected in her tight expression, a facial constriction that suggested nausea.

I think we both understood what was happening, although we never discussed it. It was too painful. It was what happened to all of us whenever we merged.

In the few hours that Percy spent doubled, either the original or the double had, through sheer experience, become dominant over the other. Perhaps the original Percy had become dominant because he had made it through another day in the school of hard knocks for the blind. Or, in a single, violent afternoon, the double’s personality had been strengthened by the unnatural events he had witnessed and survived by dint, in part, of his own efforts. Whatever the case, no matter how marginal the difference, one party had forcibly subsumed the other in the most visceral sense, a discovery made by the weaker party only at the last instant, when it was too late to do anything but finish the merge.

None of us remembered those brief struggles. But now Mai Ling and I knew that every time this happened to one of us, a delicate, ineffable part of us died.

Percy, now whole, let out a mock cheer. “Yeah! It’s done. How was the show?”

“Nothing special,” I said after a pause.

“Sorry,” Mai Ling concurred. “No fireworks.”

“And I thought I’d found my fifteen minutes of fame,” Percy shrugged.

Mai Ling hefted the beer into the kitchen and returned with three cans. “Plenty for everyone.”

I slumped into the wheezy easy chair and took the can she held out to me. She took a pack of Marlboros out of her shirt pocket and tossed them to me, following it with a book of paper matches.

“You said you were going to take up smoking. Those are lights. I don’t know anything about the habit, but I figured you should start slow.”

There was something wrong here, but as soon as I squeezed the pack and its comforting cellophane softness my craving wiped doubt from my mind. “You mind, Percy? I see some ash trays…”

“My chess partner stokes them in like a fiend, and he’s even worse when he’s losing—which is often.”

I lit up, dropping the spent match in an ash tray on a small fold-out serving tray next to the chair.

“One thing about not being doubled,” sighed Percy, cracking open his beer. “I don’t have to share this with anyone when I’m just my lonesome self.”

“That’s true,” I said. “Merging is a great way to economize.”

“One-for-two,” Mai Ling smirked.

“So Mai Ling, how much do you have to drink before you can tell us something about yourself?”

“I might have to make another trip to the 7/11.”

“Ah, then we’ll be here all night? At least give us your name, if you’d be so kind.”

“Mai Ling is my real name. It’s my name of record.”

“Mae is your first name and Ling is your last? That seems odd.”

She took a deep breath. “Mai Ling Smith.”

“Really? For some reason, that seems odder still. And by ‘name of record’, are you referring to your maiden name? Or to something else?”

“‘Smith’ is my legal name.”

She smacked the name with her tone so fiercely that Percy had no choice but to retreat. It appeared that for the moment he and I might as well have been the only ones in the room.

“Right,” Percy slapped his knees. “To the difficult part. Why did we sign on with the Mandarin?”

Since he was the one who brought it up, I waited for him to begin. I noticed a clock ticking, and thought it must sound extraordinarily loud to a blind man.

“So…Tom…”

“Oh! You didn’t want to…”

“We don’t want to be trapped into any kind of format. I began the first round. Perhaps you would be kind enough to begin the second.”

“A deadly trap,” Mai Ling chuckled viciously.

“Well, yes. You can’t pry the truth out with routine. You have to surprise it, take it unawares.”

“Huh!” said Mai Ling, subjecting us—or rather me, since Percy couldn’t see it—to a dropped jaw of incredulity. “Listen, Dead Eye, it’s perfectly obvious you don’t want to delve into embarrassingly intimate aspects of your life. None of us do. So why don’t we stop this and go home? Unless, that is, Tom here wants to volunteer his darkest secrets. What about it, Tom? Who do you want to have bumped off? Little wifey? So you’ll be free to marry Miss November?”

“No, it’s not my wife. It’s the man who’s—” I froze.

“Looks like there was a trap, after all,” Mai Ling murmured on seeing my lockjawed anguish.

“Are you suggesting any of us has a sterling motive for being part of a crew?” Percy interjected sharply. “Now come, Mai Ling, a biographical sketch really is in order. The simplest outline. Intended or not, Tom has taken a heroic step. He deserves a little more from you.”

She retrieved another beer. “I can’t really tell you about my past. Not the truth. I can give you the official version. But not…no.”

“What are you, in the witness protection program?” I fumed.

“Witness protection program,” Percy nodded, amused.

“You know, in a way, it does sound a lot like that. Maybe it is. There are things you can’t imagine—”

“I think we can imagine some of those things, by now.”

“My family…”

“Yes?” Percy prodded gently, assuming the role of an analyst. “Your family…?”

“I’m human.”

“That’s good to know.”

“But not quite.”

“That sounds like a problem.”

“There’s a community…no, a group…a culture…a race…”

“Tom?”

Percy’s sudden attention took me by surprise. I gurgled a feeble acknowledgement.

“Tom, what color is Mai Ling?”

What did it matter? I had been turning more sour with every indecisive word that came out of Mai Ling’s mouth. I sensed she was going to avoid the ritual we’d set for ourselves, and would use any cockamamie excuse to squirm her way out of it.

“Mai Ling is telling us she’s of a different race,” Percy continued. “I think I have a somewhat vaguer notion of what that means than you do. ‘Mai Ling’ sounds Chinese to me. Is she Chinese? What color is she?”

The only light in the room came from a streetlamp out front that had clicked on over an hour ago. I rose from my seat and flicked the switch next to the door. Nothing happened.

“What are you doing?” Percy inquired.

“It’s a bit dark in here.”

“It’s night? Of course. I apologize. I forgot. I’m sorry to say there are no bulbs in any of the ceiling fixtures.”

And none tucked away in a drawer, I presumed. I wondered if his chess partner was also blind. And then it struck me that his chess partner was probably none other than himself.

“Judging from memory—”

“You’ve been with me nearly all day, in full sun,” Mai Ling groused. “Not to mention all the years we’ve been working together.”

“But I wasn’t staring at you all day.” In fact, I rarely looked into the faces of my fellow crew members, partly out of deferential courtesy, partly out of fear of becoming too attached to them. Up to this moment I had not wanted to know my partners well. I still had qualms about being here at all. This was Percy’s show, although I had to admit I saw the logic behind it.

You might think it odd that I could not bring myself to look Percy directly in the eyes, or rather sunglasses. I had a suspicion that bordered on superstition that he would be able to sense me staring at him and call me to account for being rude. But there was another possibility. What if his blindness was a ruse? Middle class skepticism had made me unkind. Actually, it was quite possible I did not have a single bohemian bone in my body. My antagonism towards those who unfairly collected benefits at taxpayer expense was visceral. I would have let the poor and afflicted go hungry rather than risk footing the grocery bill for someone more lazy than lame. A hidden part of me was a right-wing fascist created by a second-hand perception of unfairness. (It wasn’t as though I actually lived among the poor in order to confirm or disprove their sufferings.) Perhaps it was that dour inclination that had made it so easy for the Mandarin to recruit me.

Mai Ling was a different story. Initially put off by her stern demeanor, I had gradually recognized she was quite attractive, in a diminutive, Asian-artifact sort of way. Her philosophical depressions, her genuine woe before the human condition, had alerted me to a spirit that was sympathetic, if occasionally too soft. I had even once fantasized about her, and considered taking advantage of the opportunity doubling gave me to make an attempt to better know her body as well as her mind. But the grinding, horrific work we shared soon effaced that particular desire. Still, there remained an alluring afterimage of what could have been. If I could not love her, I could not hate her.

But I could certainly be frustrated by her.

“Would you say that you’re yellow?” I asked her.

“As in ‘yellow peril’?”

She was in her bitter mode, which gave her an obstinate strength. It was too bad she didn’t have a knob on her nose, one that I could switch from ‘mule-stubborn’ to ‘wimp-compliant.’

“If you exclude Native Americans,” I decided, “she doesn’t look like a native-born American.”

“I don’t detect anything but pure American in her accent,” said Percy thoughtfully. “Are you saying she’s an Indian?”

“Oh, no. She looks Oriental enough. There’s a certain tanned aspect to her skin. And those slanted eyes, sort of Mongolian, who of course were the ancestors of the Indians, are a dead giveaway.”

That broke her, but Percy sternly interrupted her spate of swear words.

“You’re the one who brought up the subject of race, Mai Ling. Tom might be a little crude—all right, very crude—but he’s only trying to help me understand where you’re coming from.”

“Where I’m coming from? You’re that interested? Then I’ll tell you. All around you, on this planet, in this very dimension, there’s an entire civilization that you can’t see or imagine. We call ourselves—”

“There’s something in the hall outside.”

Percy’s choice of description, some-thing, only mildly surprised Mai Ling. “Damn, they’re quick.”

“Who’s quick?” I demanded. “And who’s in the hall? I don’t hear anything.”

“You can get an idea if you turn your attention to the blood-soaked wall this side of the hallway.” Mai Ling’s bland pronouncement was laced with fatalistic resignation. I turned my head.

Something red was dripping down the wall. She called it blood. It probably was.

“What’s this?” Percy cried in a tight voice. He drew his feet under him and held out his cane. “There’s something—I think I can see it!”

I had the sense of something rolling slowly towards us, as if a giant plough was scooping a huge lozenge of snow on top of us. Invisible, yet I could somehow feel its massive, frigid presence.

We all did. There was a moan from Percy, a moan from Mai Ling, unquestionably a loud moan from me, and a fourth, as though the room itself was crying out for mercy. Percy sank further on the couch, forcibly pressed down into a near-fetal position. I could feel the easy chair cushion give way under me as the cold weight fell evenly across my head and shoulders and then, as I slumped forward, on my back. I had the very definite impression that I was being held in place. My last glimpse of Mai Ling showed her still seated on the floor, her eyes closed. I thought that was a good idea, and closed mine, too.

For what seemed a long time the only sound was of wood creaking as the furniture and floor protested the supernatural burden. Then all fell silent.

I was too busy trying not to freeze to death to pay much attention, at first. There was not enough light to determine if my hands were turning blue, but from the numbness that assailed me I guessed they must look like artificially-colored peppermint Popsicles. I squeezed them under my thighs.

What was that new noise? Bones rattling? No, teeth chattering.

But there was something else. Whispers so cold they seemed to blister my ears. The words were indistinct, blurred, although I thought I heard Mai Ling’s soft voice raised to bitter sharpness.

Yet I could almost feel that sharpness being blunted by the omnipresent hiss of other voices. Then came two words from Mai Ling that were spoken so meekly I was surprised I could make them out.

“All right.”

With that the weight was gone.

I raised my head and glanced at the wall, which was as impeccably bare as when I’d first entered the apartment. I turned towards Percy. His glasses had fallen off. He was blind, all right. Anyone could see that. Well, anyone but Dead Eye.

“Can you still see it?”

“No,” he answered hesitantly. “No. Which is not to say it’s gone. But I think it is. It was like seeing one of the clues. Only much larger than any I’ve seen before. And alive.”

“The Mandarin. What else? Who else? But why didn’t he say anything to us? Why come, anyway? We did our job today. Plus.”

“Maybe that ‘plus’ is a problem.”

“It wasn’t the Mandarin.” Mai Ling opened her eyes. “Don’t worry yourselves on that score. Don’t worry at all. It had nothing to do with either of you.”

I gaped at her, while Percy lost his accustomed reserve.

“You can’t get off that easily, Mai Ling. You may not want to tell us about the peculiar folks you come from, but this—”

“OK! It was just a…cop. OK? Nothing more. Just a cop.”

“Nothing more? I beg to differ.”

“Differ all you want. There’s nothing to it. It was only a cop. And…” She released a slow, sad sigh. “He let me off with a warning.”

SEVEN

 

She wore the kind of silky, flowing dress that could go to your head even if it was on a limbless mannequin. My brain told me it was inappropriate for work, but the rest of me wasn’t complaining, because she was headed for my building, my floor, my very department.

It wasn’t often that I got to see Irene the Office Siren in the wild, so to speak. In this case, the wild was the sidewalk leading to the Commonwealth Building where I twice daily allowed my fantasies to run rampant. Usually, Irene (when she was on the dot, by her definition of the dot) arrived at work anywhere from sixty to ninety minutes late, if she arrived at all. The exceptions were those days when she went out of her way to make herself so seductive that even stray tomcats chased her down the street.

I shared Dead Eye Percy’s appreciation for cheap perfume. Of course, there was something to be said for fragrances so subtle you had to study a woman’s pores to catch a whiff. But if that wasn’t an option, long-range olfactory foreplay, sans play and afterplay, was a reasonable substitute.

There’s nothing quite like the agony of lusting after another woman when you’re in love with your wife to the point of sickness.

Irene might not have noticed me watching her sashay down the sidewalk, the best place from which to watch the slit in her dress slide open and shut, but I doubted it. I bet every nerve of her spider web tingled at the long and longing looks she captured. Not all those prolonged, drooling glances belonged to me. And as I discovered the next moment, not all of them belonged to humans, either.

“I bet she could skin a man’s head in two seconds flat with those legs.”

For a complete stranger to come up and say something like that to me could only mean one thing: the stranger was no stranger.

“Why is it girls like that never become Miss America?” The Mandarin, dressed in a plaid sports jacket and dark blue slacks, carried a leather briefcase. “Can you tell me that? Why? Miss America makes you cream in your jeans. So does a slut. Miss America wants world peace. A slut wants a piece. Miss America blows a flute. A slut blows a john. Why can’t Miss America be Slut America? Why can’t Miss America be a slut? This is strictly a sociological inquiry.”

Faking a loose shoelace, I crouched over my foot and murmured, “If you’re going to double me, why didn’t you do it back in the parking deck?”

“What, you don’t think I’d double you on a busy public sidewalk, do you? And have two of you gawking at Miss Gam in broad daylight? I don’t think so.” Resting his briefcase on the hood of a parked car, he slipped it open and pulled out a folder. “See if you can help me with this. In the centromeric scheme of the eukaryotic universe, where tomatoes have 12 chromosome pairs and humans have 23, are dogs, with 39 pairs, more advanced than humans?”

I stood and stared at him openly. When my attitude caught the looks of other pedestrians, I turned my attention to a pair of mating pigeons and sighed, “Ah, Mother Nature.”

A comment that on nearly every downtown business district sidewalk was certain to draw inferences of insanity. So rather than because I was seemingly talking to myself, onlookers would consider me crazy for watching birds in feathered coitus. I could only hope no one from work overheard.

“Such a class act,” the Mandarin shook his head. “But apropos to the theory that life is simply DNA adapting to different environments. Birds. Look at them! They might as well be virgins, the way they do it. Even DNA can’t get much fun hopping on and off like that. Which brings me to my problem. I really need some help here if I’m ever going to earn my certificate in Biomass Law and Thermodynamics.”

BLT? Please.”

“I prefer BLAT. So what do you say? Are you going to look over these papers or not?”

He followed me back up the street to the parking deck stairwell.

“Why are you here?” I whirled on him. “If there’s a job, double me and get on with it. There’s nothing in our contract that says you can torture me like this.”

“Oh Bongo, life is a torture. You of all people should know that. Shit of the purest shit. Hell on earth, especially for someone like you. When life began on earth there was a multicellular critter called the Infusorial Mitoparascum. There’s nothing left of its ancestors in the fossil record because it didn’t have a spine, either. It would be swimming along, then find a speck of shit and say, “Lunch!” As soon as it ate the shit it shit it out. It would swim along another inch or so, find another speck of shit, and eat and shit it out. The funny thing is, the Infusoria swam in circles. It’s the only multicellular life form known to live forever off nothing but its own shit. Sounds like a living hell for sure, doesn’t it? Although for all I know the little bug is still happily chasing its own anus around all the livelong day.”
“There’s no comparison. Now could you leave? I have to go to work.”

“Score ‘one’ for the Mandarin.” he crooked his forefinger. “Need more evidence? Come this way.”

“I’ll be late.”

“Ha-ha! You’re killing me! Who’dve thought the Infusorial Mitoparascum would make such a great straight man! But seriously, if you’d come to the top deck with me…I really need some help on this DNA business.”

I punched the parking deck elevator button. Why? Simple enough. The Mandarin was as mysterious as ever to me, even after all these years. Nowadays, whenever he offered me snippets of his free time (which seemed infinite, but which he claimed were as precious as Martian cadmoplatinum plates, whatever those were), I was more inclined than not to indulge his whims. Perhaps, out of all the nonsense, I would be able to throw a penlight beam onto a small particle of his reality. Add to that the necessity for privacy, if I was going to hold any sort of extended conversation with him.

Open to the elements, the parking spaces of the top deck were highly unpopular. Even on clear, sunny days like this, very few drivers made their way up this far because they would be caught at the end of the logjam at the exits when five o’clock rolled around.

In an attempt, I supposed, to lure customers to the top, small trees and shrubs had been wedged along the wall. But the botanical apparitions were robbed of their charm by the severe concrete troughs in which they were planted, which gave them the appearance of being the last gasp of green on earth. Looking out over the handful of cars, even the blue sky seemed desolate, mocking the storm clouds in my soul. An overwrought figure of speech, to be sure. But it’s an accurate reflection of my mood at that moment. A mood that wasn’t improved when the Mandarin declared:

“Mmmm-mmm, ham and eggs on the skittle!”

I took the observation literally and wondered if a restaurant kitchen fan was shooting its Southern fried exhaust fumes across the upper deck. Then it struck me that all the restaurants on this block were at street level. And besides, I didn’t smell anything beyond the usual hint of oil that had dribbled past failing gaskets, an odor that would grow stronger when the dark patches on the cement began to sizzle under the noonday sun.

Those with no plans have chance plan for them. Even for an unambitious barnacle like myself, little events can trigger cataclysmic changes. The inconceivable catastrophe of adolescence had put me on notice that one day I would have to earn a living, when up to then I had been perfectly satisfied to mooch off my parents.

There had been no thought beyond that.

Eight years ago a single month’s drop in sales had cost me my job as a stock clerk at a department store, a position with which I was perfectly content and had expected to continue in the rest of my life.

There had been no thought beyond that.

I became a Kelly boy, a temporary contract worker who was bounced from place to place, content to exist without corporate loyalty (not that there’s much of that, these days), and young enough to ignore the absence of health benefits.

There had been no thought beyond that.

When I was hired out to Madison and management discovered I had a knack for processing ream after ream of mind-numbing statistics, I was hired full time into my current non-existence. Had I not encountered Eileen I would have had no thought beyond that.

In short, I was one of those individuals so lacking a vision of a personal future that you could not distinguish between my free will and Brownian movement. It took very little to change my direction. So anything truly dramatic, such as what I was about to see, was bound to have an effect out of all proportion to the cause. And yet, in this case, I would not notice the change until long after. Very long after.

Ham and eggs, dummy,” the Mandarin poked me in the arm. “Not ham ‘n eggs!”

“What was so important that you had to drag me all the way up here?” I demanded, still ignorant.

DNA! RNA! Activator proteins! Mitochondrial mothers! The cytoplasmic coital mingling of the double helixes! Hark!” He struck a Byron-esque pose, cupping a hand to his ear. “Listen to the birds a-trilling! Blissful morology!”

The birds. Oh boy. I’d never heard a bird moan like that before. I’d never heard a bird moan at all.

“What strikes you as odd about this parking deck?”

I gave him a puzzled look.

“All right then, Herr Einstein, what strikes you as odd about who is parked on this deck?”

I got it right away. The metallic blue Mercedes. But it didn’t make sense. Benton King had somehow finagled a reserved corporate spot on the first level long ago, a privilege that had caused some contention among the uppity-ups at the company. Yet there it was, on the top deck. While the interior of the car was hidden behind a cement planter and bush that extended from the trough, I knew there was someone inside, because the car was moving. Not forward or backward. Up and down. The shocks were getting a real workout.

For years now I’d known about Benton and Eileen, but all of my evidence had been comfortably amorphous. Winks, nods, the scent of Old Spice where it didn’t belong. Plus past history. Sometimes, when I looked at my slug of a daughter a certain way, I wondered if that blue-eyed glint of hers hinted at a fourth non-nuclear member of our little family.

But I’d never actually seen anything. Nor had I ever gone out of my way to discover more visceral details.

“If the tall pea plant screws the dwarf pea plant the dominant stud pea masks the recessive cuckold pea. Gregor Mendel the Mad Monk discovered that, in lieu of having a sex life of his own.”

That was her. Eileen. My wife. Moaning. Practically screaming. It was so prolonged. Was she straddling the stick shift? I doubted it.

“Come…” The Mandarin lowered his voice to a stage whisper. “If we tread lightly, we might be able to observe the rare Anterior Mercedium Cooch in the act of mating—in the wild!”

“What would happen if I shot you?”

“Nothing. Come! Even if you don’t need to have your worst fears confirmed, it’s got to be a great show!”

“But it’s not her.”

“What? You don’t recognize that voice?”

Yes and no, I thought. I’d never heard her in such throes of ecstasy. Which meant, in a way, that I’d never heard her.

“She can’t be here. She was still at home when I left. Besides, she hates having sex in the morning.”

It was then that I learned even the Mandarin could impose limits to his sophomoric cruelty. He opened his mouth and I saw but did not hear the words “And afternoon” come out. He opened his mouth again and I saw but did not hear the words “And evening” come out. Why…he was being considerate towards my feelings! Which didn’t change the fact that I still wanted to shoot him, to deadly effect.

The sound had a hypnotic quality, the way second-hand sex often has, and I could not help but follow. Like the sleazy spies we were, we stealthily crossed the lot, crouched behind the cement planter next to the Mercedes, and examined the bushes for gaps.

Off the cuff, I would say there are two types of orgasms, although science no doubt asserts there are either thousands, or that there are none at all and it’s all in our heads. I’m dealing, I suppose, with the basics. A woman might grunt and strain and mimic the contortions of the damned before reaching a climax which owes as much to her own efforts as to those of her partner. Or she can react the way Eileen appeared to be doing at that moment—hitting the high notes from the get-go. Judging from the raucous mayhem on the other side of the shrubbery, it was Oh God and Oh Benton and Oh You’re Driving Me Crazy all the way, with no trace of grim hesitancy. There was no comparison to the concentration and labor of our increasingly rare couplings. With Benton, her orgasm was born instantaneously, fully mature, whereas I usually required the whole nine yards, and was lucky to be rewarded with a tiny peep of satisfaction.

I had not yet seen the acrobatic stars of this performance. The Mandarin had hogged the only clear view through the bushes, and I was not about to expose myself by sticking my head over the top.

He pulled back and fanned himself with his free hand. “I’m so turned on I could screw a puppy.”

I took his place.

Not only had the Mandarin arranged this voyeuristic interlude, he seemed to have fine-tuned the physics. The intense morning sun should have reflected off the car’s windows, making the interior all but invisible. Instead, it was as clearly lit as a Broadway stage set for the opening scene of Oklahoma! O what a beautiful morning. And if my imagination wasn’t playing tricks on me (and it very probably was), the occupants of the back seat were slightly magnified, as though exhibitionist optics had become standard in the new line from Mercedes-Benz.

All I could see of Benton was his head, thrown back so far his tousled hair brushed the rear window. I thought someone being murdered would wear the same expression. One way or another, consummated or not, sex is a torture.

Eileen had on, or half on, the V-neck blouse I’d seen her wearing when I left for work. I could only assume she still wore the red skirt. Of course, considering how brazen her behavior was already, there was every reason to believe she had cast it aside.

I had noticed the blouse because it had struck me that she was not wearing a bra underneath. I had noticed the skirt because she usually wore cut-off jeans around the house in summer. Now I understood. She had made herself handicap accessible for the contortions required for sex in a car.

The V had been pulled down, releasing her breasts, which I had always considered among her more pleasing assets. Of moderate size, they had that piquant quality that would have caused others to take notice even in a crowded nudist colony.

They had that ineffable ability to look truly naked compared to other bared breasts. Perhaps it was simple pertness. They were lively creatures whose daily agenda seemed altogether separate from that of their owner.

“Alvin…Alvin…oh Alvin!”

There was a comical pause, and I heard Benton gasp distinctly, “Who’s Alvin?”

“Oh! No one. Oh God, Benton, ram it into me. You drive me crazy! I can’t think!”

“Who the hell is Alvin?” I whispered, pulling back for a moment. The Mandarin shrugged. I returned to my botanical peephole to study the most important feature of all: her face.

It was, in a strange way, as though Benton’s face had been transposed onto hers in female form. She looked like a religious convert fanatically convinced that she had discovered God in her groin. She was gasping, in a true agony of ecstasy. When her mouth slackened for a howl her unsightly gums were fully exposed. Worst of all, though, was her weeping. She was like one of those dolls that sprout tapwater tears when you pump their stomachs. Only these tears were all too real. She was weeping before (or rather on top of) Benton’s mighty icon. I could scarcely comprehend the holiness of what I was seeing.

I assumed the manhood of any other husband who witnessed a scene like this would have wilted and dropped off. My case was contrary. I had become so stiff I was on the verge of impregnating the cement planter.

“Almost better than doing it yourself,” the Mandarin chortled wickedly.

How would he know? He wasn’t even human. Did his kind have sex? If I yanked down his pants, would I find a penis, or a void?

How long had they been in the back seat like this? Obviously long enough to prove Benton was a champion swordsman. But wasn’t there more to it than just…that? Or was I deluding myself?

“Why are you doing this? Why did you bring me here?”

In an instant the Freshman Follies expression dropped from the Mandarin’s face and he eyed me with dead earnestness. “To remind you of one of the reasons you want Benton King eliminated.”

“I don’t need to be reminded!” I hissed, thinking how ludicrous it was to be conversing with a possibly alien life form while my wife was heaving herself up and down on her lover’s lap three yards from me.

“Of course you do. You screwed up big time the other day.”

“On the last job? That man in the junkyard? What are you talking about? Sure, there was collateral damage, but that’s never bothered you before.”

“You had all those targets in front of you, and you stopped before you were even halfway done.”

“You mean all those policemen?” The shock shrank my involuntary erection.

“Oh Benton. Oh God. Oh Benton!”

“Are you insane! You wanted us to massacre all those innocent people?”

“I want you to go where the clues take you.”

“God, oh God. Don’t stop!”

“But I thought I heard—” Benton gasped.

“Don’t stop! Yes! Yes!”

“I was born three million years too early.” The Mandarin gave a sad shake of his head. “Those men of the future—they’re actually competent!”

I was torn between two horrors. Drawn irresistibly back to the gap in the bushes, I saw that Eileen had pulled Benton’s head up to her breasts. If he heard my protest to the Mandarin, he forgot it completely as he took near-carnivorous delight in my wife’s nipples, which even from here I could see had peaked to a hardness I’d never seen before. Then I caught a glimpse of movement beyond the Mercedes.

Eileen’s Vigor was parked next to Benton’s car. She must have roared out of our driveway the instant after I left for work. She would have easily beat me to the parking deck, since unlike me she has a fierce NASCAR streak, not caring who she cut off as she sliced through traffic. Having come upon her in full coitus, I assumed she had immediately leaped from the driver seat of the Asian import into the back seat of the European import. Anyone else would have pulled a muscle.

Inside the Vigor, two small white palms were pressed to the glass on the front seat driver’s side. Between the thumbs I saw the face and deep blue eyes of my darling slug of a daughter. She looked highly amused, as well she might with her mother (and father?) behaving in this manner. It was certainly something to tell the other kids in her kindergarten class later today, to be sure.

I think if the Mandarin had not been beside me I would have stormed out to confront them. Or perhaps not. Or perhaps. But what he had just told me had sent so powerful a bolt through me I could not put it aside. I couldn’t confront them. Not for anything. I began walking towards the parking deck elevator.

“Hey, don’t you want to wait to the end of the show?” said the Mandarin, reasserting his glee in pornographic juvenilia. He hustled after me, a totally unnecessary expenditure of energy, since he could have had zipped into my path in an eyeblink.

“Eight more years!” he panted as I pressed the elevator button.

“You’re insane!” Without thinking, I swung my briefcase at his head. He parried with his own. There followed a short-lived, exquisitely clumsy duel, with the two of us using our briefcases as foils.

“On guard! Parry! Prime! Seconde! Octave! Riposte!”

He quickly got the better of me, if the blow to my temple was any indication. A ‘ping’ announced the arrival of the elevator. Keeping the Mandarin at bay with a couple of wild swings, I jumped inside and hit the ground floor button. As the door slid shut he held up his hand in a splayed-finger ‘bye-bye’. There was a mild thump as the elevator began its descent.

“One…two…three…four…five…”

Having employed his magical powers to join me in the elevator, the Mandarin paused as he tucked his briefcase under his arm and began counting on his other hand.

“Six…seven…eight…nine—”

“You said eight!”

“I’m including the others you bummed on.”

“Who would want to kill that many people?”

“Confidentiality…confidentiality…. Anyway, you’ve seen thousands killed all at once in your own lifetime.”

“Are you trying to tell me they were all done on contract?”

"Of course not. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Same with accidents. Combine the 'shit-happens' factor with human stupidity and you've got 90% of your fatal accidents accounted for. Then there's arson, manslaughter, murder--"

“Non-contract.”

“Naturally. Most of human history has been generated by humans, contrary opinion notwithstanding.”

“So the gods don’t tinker as often as you let on.”

“I’m beginning to think you feel I’ve led you astray. I wish you could understand. I’m as much an innocent party in all of this as you are.” Strangely, I got the impression he was telling the truth. Staring glumly at the elevator floor as he ran his thumb nervously over his briefcase handle, he continued, “I’m a middleman. A messenger.”

“For who? Mr. Howdyhell?”

“For one,” he shrugged. “It’s the old problem of infinite regression, my friend. Someone is watching the watcher who watches the watcher who watches the watcher, ad infinitum. But hey…” He rested his briefcase on the elevator floor, removed a finger from his hand, and stuck it up his nose. “Even us pawns gotta have fun!”

The elevator stopped and I got out. When I glanced back he was gone.

I was ten minutes late. I raced up the street and charged through the tall lobby of the Commonwealth Building. In this mood I wasn’t about to be crowded out of a spot on the elevator. I garnered several frowns as I made a space for myself. Why did they all scowl at me? They didn’t frown at each other that way whenever they thrust themselves into the packed mass. Or was I being paranoid? I glanced around furtively. I was quickly beaten down by the stares directed my way. Why did they look at me as though I’d just climbed out from under a manhole cover? Was I not one of them? Perhaps not. Perhaps I was the offspring of an alien roué who had passed through our solar system on his way to a really important planet. That would explain why the Mandarin—or whoever—had chosen me for one of his crews.

Tenth Floor. I cravenly smiled at Irene as she passed me. Her cheap perfume dissolved my mordant mood, but her sneer put me right back in.

I had not made it to my desk before Neil, the mail clerk, bulled around the corner, looked me up and down, and leaned confidentially my way. “Hey man,” he intoned, “you must’ve like spilled some jam off your English muffin this morning.”

I looked down. Holy Jesus Christ.

“Thanks.”

I walked rapidly to the bathroom, holding my briefcase before me. I struck a gold mine of luck when I found all the stalls empty. Sliding the briefcase between the partition and toilet, I pulled down my pants and sat.

It looked as though I had made a valiant attempt to ravish the cement planter, after all. How was it possible to ejaculate without knowing it? Even if I’m asleep when it happens I know it in my dream. But there it was, a fine mess of semen coating my underpants and trousers. A really gargantuan wad, as they say in the porn business. It had been months since I last slept with Eileen, and there had been no onanism to supplement the lack. Unrolling a handful of toilet paper, I scooped out all the seminal evidence that I could. It would take hours to dry. And that wouldn’t be enough. There would be a stain. And there was the signature bleach-y odor.

Tears welled up and blurred my vision, but I quickly took control of my wellspring of self-pity. The last thing I needed was something else to draw attention to myself.

Maneuvering like a guerilla in the Mekong Delta, taking advantage of any cranny and swooping down on the water fountain like a man clinically dying of thirst when fellow-rater Tomika Thomas approached me in the hallway, I slowly worked my way to my desk. Relief swept over me as I dove into my cubicle and spotted my cardigan draped over the back of my chair. I kept it at my desk for those days when the building’s AC worked itself into a frenzy and froze everyone’s hand to their mousepads. I wrapped it around my waist—and not a moment too soon. Phil Walker—affectionately known as PW to some and not so affectionately called Mr. Pussy Whipped (a moniker I prayed I had so far dodged) by others—stormed into my sanctuary.

“You’re late!”

“I know.” I sat and reached down to turn on my computer.

“You were supposed to have the Sykes log ready first thing this morning! I’ve got Claims Processing chowing down on my ass because you’re not here to chow down on.”

Sykes…. Sykes…. Right. The Claims Department had wanted every scrap of paper and every computer record for a loss that had taken place over a year ago. By the tone of the request I suspected the Bureau of Insurance was investigating it, a natural enough procedure when ten thousand dollars was paid out on a livestock claim—especially when the livestock in question (a cow struck by lightning) was promptly barbecued at a big hoedown in celebration of Sykes’ 60th birthday. In a city that dotes on big business, it’s rare to attract enough notice to warrant investigation.

“I got the request late yesterday. I even wrote back.” I opened the company’s GroupWise. The ‘Sent Messages’ log came up and I clicked open my last outgoing email of the day before. I quoted myself: “‘I’ll have the Sykes info ready for you by ten o’clock Friday morning.’”

Today’s Friday.”

“Look at when I sent it. 5:00 yesterday evening. It’s only 8:30 now.”

“I think you’d better check your in-box.”

I did. There was a message waiting for me. From Benton. I clicked it open.

‘RE: Sykes. 10 not good enough. Need now.’

“See?” Percy confirmed smugly.

“But look when it came in!” I protested. “Seven after five by the GroupWise clock.”

“Does it matter? Benton’s going to have a hard-on for you as soon as he gets in.”

Why not? He had a hard-on for my wife. Why not chuck me into the bargain. More seriously, had Benton been expecting me to work overtime last night? Had his original tryst with Eileen been scheduled for the previous evening? Had my missing his note by minutes delayed their little tête-à-tête a full fourteen hours? Poor kids.

But the request was real. Perhaps that was the key to Benton’s success, taking advantage of opportunities as they popped up (quickly spotting those opportunities is a talent in itself) and neatly dovetailing them in his extracurricular activities. And hell, him being a bachelor, all of his activities were extracurricular. It was too bad. Had he been married, I might have found a natural ally in the true friend of all cuckolds: the wife of the cheating spouse.

“Benton’s going to ream you good for this,” Phil huffed self-righteously as he redirected all the aggression that had been redirected at him that morning. And how right he was. It was Benton’s morning for reaming. I’m sure it said so right there in his day-timer.

At the rate things were going I doubted I would have the Sykes information ready as early as ten, which was already proving to be inadequate. Phil made a dismissive gesture that was an adult version of tag, you’re it, and left me to my own sorry devices. I had a sudden sensation that I was an unfortunate creature trapped in a world full of humans and, to my misfortune, I was one of them. A chilling moment similar to those I experience when I see a face in a floor tile pattern or on a waterstained wall, usually alien-looking, and I’m reminded that there are miniature portraits like this all over, only these are alive, in inconceivable nooks and crannies, and they’re all watching me.

Cinching the sleeves of the cardigan at my beltline, I raced down the hall to Files. Claims might be demanding the computer records, but I knew what they were really interested in were pictures. Or blurs. Jackson Pollock was more comprehensible than some of the pre-loss photos of property snapped by salesmen in the field. They certainly roused the suspicions of investigators, but they were a damn sight preferable to crisp Kodak images of an outhouse whose worth had been estimated at $20,000 because it was a “detached waste management facility”. None of which was my problem. I was just a clerk, after all. My job at the moment was simply to gather all the relevant information into a pile. What Claims did with that pile was its business. Yet I could not expel my qualms. My fingerprints were all over those files. The pertinent data on the computer was encrypted with my identity. I might be only a penpusher, but I’d seen the evidence. I knew.

Any other day I would have been creamy with delight over the prospect of a legitimate close encounter with Irene. There she was, leaning against the File Department counter, the slit up her short skirt so pronounced that you might suspect she had barely survived an attempted rape on her way to work. The plunging neckline and bared legs suggested more dis than habille. My flabby muscle of hope quivered as it pushed aside the heavy scorn with which she had greeted me in the hall earlier and raised a lightweight, cocky grin.

“Irene! Beat me to the punch, eh?”

There were four file clerks, not a single one of whom was in sight.

“There’s a Board meeting this afternoon.”

No more explanation was required. The powers that be were going to micromanage some outstanding claims, the files for which the clerks were now busily retrieving. It would dismay the average policyholder to know how whimsically their claims are sometimes handled, law and morality be damned—and frequently were. Claims that would have been settled as an afterthought one week would be disputed the next with all the considerable legal resources at the company’s disposal. There was rarely any rhyme or reason beyond giving the Board a semblance of decision-making importance.

But bogus claims and bureaucratic quackery were banished from my mind by the sight and smell of Irene as she shimmied sideways and rested her back against the counter, her elbows braced on the Formica surface, her breasts exhaling enormous plumes of overpowering perfume that charged the atmosphere with olfactory rutting. It seemed like the kind of provocative pose she would have presented to the unattached (and overly-attached) males in a Shockhoe Bottom nightclub. Inviting. Yet also threatening. She was displaying her weaponry. Was it all show or was she really simply relaxing? With someone as oozingly sexy as Irene it was hard to tell. She could be wearing a burlap bag and be picking her nose and a guy would be hard pressed to know if she was coming on to him.

“What are you here for?”

“The Sykes file. You know?”

“Of course I know.” Through a kind of sensual osmosis Irene absorbed all facts of importance at Madison Insurance. That was what I figured, at least. She never broke a sweat—not in the office. This was the closest I ever saw her doing actual company work.

An ever-so-slight lifting of the leg was enough to expose her to the hip.

“That dress should be illegal,” I commented, hating the throat-catching quiver in my voice.

“It conforms to the company dress code,” she scowled. “Unlike that sweater you’re wearing.”

That was not strictly true, but I could think of no male in the vicinity who would go out of his way to contradict her. And she was right about the cardigan around the waist. Although the dress code was not rigidly formal, it discouraged anything that might be perceived as lax. Irene being one of the exceptions, of course. Just as Eileen had been.

Had she seen the stain on my crotch as she came up the hall? Please God say no. On the other hand, could she smell me at that moment through her cosmetic force field? If anyone was familiar with every imaginable Baskins & Robbins variety of semen, I assumed it would be her. I tried to spare myself the humiliation by ignoring the possibility.

“That’s not what I meant,” I coughed. “I mean, I was just joking.”

“Yeah. Right. I know that.”

She seemed in a sour enough mood, and I should have minded my p’s and q’s. Yet she did not retract her French chanteuse siren pose. She had to know the effect of what she was doing. Was it possible that I could get some of my own back against Benton? If uncertainty adds spice to a marriage, the inevitable certainty sours it almost beyond redemption. Eileen and I could trade doubts, like a pair of gunslingers on the main thoroughfare of Dry Gulch. We might be poor shots, but eventually a bullet might find its way into someone’s heart. Yet it would be pointless to use uncertainty as a weapon unless there was substance behind it. There’s no danger in playing with an unloaded gun. I leered at Irene, as though I could lure her firepower into my camp. She glanced over her shoulder, saw no clerks within earshot, and said abruptly, “Why are you such a wimp?”

I made a sound something like “Wuuu…” Then I said, “I…” Had I been doubled at that moment I would have been gaping at myself. The proof was in the stutter.

“I mean, you’re cute, kinda, and I hear you’re not half so bad…you know.”

No, I didn’t know. Not at first. Then I did. I was appalled. There was only one source for information regarding that. “Wuuu…I…”

“You’re still young, sort of. You’ve got some college under your belt. Don’t you? Why don’t you make something of yourself? You’re always letting the creeps upstairs walk all over you. Why are you such a wimp?”

She turned to face me as she spoke, a gesture that thoroughly confused me. It could have been an attempt to convey earnestness. On the other hand her flouted breasts, scarcely concealed by the delicate flounces of her V, might be signaling seduction. Of course, she would have presented the same spectacle to anyone she faced, including her mother.

Wimp. Me. A man who had already surpassed the scorecards of some of the most notorious murderers of the century. A wimp? In some books being a killer was a great come-on. Witness all the gals who find the love of their life on Death Row. I doubted Irene was in this league. She probably liked bad boys, but not that bad.

“How’s Eileen doing?”

Irene had joined the company three years after Eileen left. She’d encountered her at a couple of office Christmas parties, brief passages during which mutual smirks were fired off between them, followed by hasty withdrawals. Yet Irene had the unsettling habit of behaving as though she had intimately known my wife for years. The motivation for this was a mystery unless, in a roundabout way, it was true. The common denominator would be Benton. I would be the last person to be surprised to find out he and Irene were more than just coworkers. But there was a worse prospect than the two of them being lovers. What if they were…chums? Shades of Dangerous Liaisons. They might very well spend their evenings together, chuckling over their respective conquests. So if I blandly told Irene that my wife was doing fine, that she was home baking cookies for her little hubby, and Irene found out later she had actually been sizzling Benton’s sausage while giving our daughter a sex ed version of Hooked On Phonics, I would appear in her eyes like the hapless cuckold I really was. A wimp deluxe.

“She’s fine.” There was nothing else to say.

“What’s she up to these days?”

“Up to? Not much. Just screwing around.”

Was that an ember of sympathy in her eyes? Or a spark of seductiveness?

I craved a reward for suffering silently a morning that threatened to pile misery upon misery on top of its horrendous beginning. A touch, perhaps. Just a little one.

“Well, Irene…” I placed the tip of my index finger on her forearm. “To tell you the truth—”

WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING!”

She could not have been too shocked, because she did not so much as flinch. On the other hand, I leapt back at least a full yard. Her imperious voice was like a whip, the lash drawing a fierce blush to my cheeks.

Remaining in place, with little trace of real wrath in her expression, she barked, “You aren’t trying to harass me, are you, you little pervert?”

If this was a setup, it was timed beautifully. All four clerks were standing behind the counter, gawking at us.

Why should she set me up for this humiliation? Probably there was no other reason than that was what you did to those at the bottom of the pecking order. Besides, I had violated the unseen border between classes. At work we were pretty much level with each other. She was a secretary, I was a rater. But on the social scale she left me far, far behind.

“Did you see what he did?” Irene was summoning the clerks as witnesses. “You all saw, right?”

Miraculously, I was granted a momentary triumph. The clerks stood stupefied, neither shaking nor nodding their heads. They had seen nothing, or if they had they were not sufficiently endowed with public spirit to give a damn. Irene had just given them an onerous chore, as evidenced by the heavy piles of folders in their arms. Get involved in a sexual harassment case for her sake? From their noncommittal expressions I suspected they would rather piss on her head.

Still, I was mortified, and was busy backpedaling when a thump and a “Hey!” stopped me in my tracks.

Benton was looking down upon me. No, that wasn’t possible. We were the same height. It only seemed he was looking down upon me, when all he was really doing was looking down his nose at me. It’s an art, or an attitude, or both, that ability to make others feel small.

My eyes flashed briefly down to his crotch. After what I had witnessed, you’d have thought he would be slathered in vaginal foam. Yet only the slightest, unstained rumple hinted at the romp in his back seat. Slimeballs are masters had hiding their gooey trails. Whereas I, apparently a sexual ninny, was forced to wrap myself in a cardigan to hide the evidence of having seen the truth.

The world was full of immoral and untrustworthy people. That was what Irene’s dark eyes hinted as she shifted her glance from me to the still-silent clerks. With only two gorgeous legs to stand on, she chose not to pursue her mortification of me, let alone an actual lawsuit. Although I was practically standing in Benton’s arms, she somehow managed to brush against his arm while leaving me untouched by anything but her perfume as the huffed out of Files.

“You here for the Sykes folder?” His voice was heavy with menace, as though I’d been caught sleeping on guard duty deep in enemy territory. “I expected it and the computer logs to be on my desk first thing this morning.”

The clerks were in a quandary, walking in circles because Irene had neglected to take any of the numerous files she had ordered. Finally, they dumped their loads into a wire basket and proceeded to try to look invisible. One of the computers on the long table running beneath the counter beeped, a solemn call for them to resume whatever game Irene had interrupted.

Benton drew up to the counter. “Didn’t you hear? I need the Sykes file!”

The four showed symptoms of delayed reaction syndrome. Then the one at the bottom of the File Department pecking order made a face and returned to the deep caverns of filing shelves. She seemed like the perfect candidate for a Mandarin crew. Perhaps the Mandarin had already contacted her. Perhaps at that very moment her small, pale, plain double was setting up someone for the kill. I wondered which of her fellow dweebs would be her contractual target. Probably none. That would have involved a lateral transfer, so to speak. No use at all.

Benton stretched and gave a small moan of discomfort or pleasure. “Was out on the driving range yesterday,” he said, noting my look. “Must’ve pulled a muscle. You know, Tom, you should get out and do more, you now, physical activities. Sports. Build yourself up some.”

I couldn’t tell if this was friendly advice or an insult. That would be good for a laugh between Eileen and him. Ol’ Tom sweating it out at Family Fitness while the two of them were perspiring Old Spice and Avon into each others’ pores. More intriguing was the macho impulse to improve a rival, if I may be so bold as to endow myself with that honorific. I’d never presented much in the way of competition, and I doubted he thought in those terms. He simply took whatever dropped into his lap. But why would he care if I was out of shape? Was he really concerned for me? Or was he tired of having a worm underfoot?

“I hunt,” I said suddenly, without thinking ahead.

You?”

What a bounty of scorn dripped from that single pronoun. He might have seen a dog dropping on the sidewalk and in the same tone announced, “Shit!”

But having killed dozens of people, a certain conviction and hardness had entered my voice whenever I told the truth. Far less self-doubt. When I responded, “Yes,” Benton raised his brow in surprised admiration.

“Of course,” he added, “that’s no way to get into shape. Slaughtering defenseless animals won’t improve your fat/muscle ratio.”

I thought then that you simply have to kill some individuals before you can impress them.

“Finally,” Benton fumed as the mousy clerk emerged bearing the Sykes file. It was so thick it had been granted the privilege of being placed in an accordion folder, something usually reserved for the companies we insured.

“You’ve got the disks, right?” he said as I followed him up the hall.

“The computer log? I only just got—”

“You haven’t even begun?” I bumped into him as he stopped suddenly. “What the hell have you been doing all morning? Jerking off?”

Was Neil spreading stories about me already? Could they really have spread so fast? Benton himself must have stepped into the building only minutes earlier. But that obviously was not the issue.

“You’d better hustle your ass back and get those logs onto disk and in my office by 9:45.”

“What happened to ten?”

“The meeting starts at ten, brainfart. I’ll have to get it all together before then.”

“You won’t need disks,” I protested bravely, wondering what fate the Mandarin had in store for him. A simple shooting would be too good. Then again, the way the years were piling up no one in my crew would ever see the professional or literal demise of any of their intended victims. I continued, “There aren’t any computers in the boardroom.”

“Not until we all carry our laptops in,” Benton sneered as he poked through the folder and pulled out a 9 × 12 manila envelope. “Do you think we’re in the Dark Ages around here? And I would appreciate printouts of the logs. Ten copies. Make that fifteen. And—what the hell?”

While holding the accordion folder under one arm, Benton slid photos out of the envelope. A show of incredulity spread across his features. “What kind of crap is this?”

I’d never thought of crap as having variety. Crap was crap, the metaphorical kin of sterile manure. In this case, the portion of crap that Benton had lifted from the universal pile of shit was one of the blurred images so typical of what passed at Madison for evidence of property.

“It’s a stable. I think.”

“What do you mean, you ‘think’?”

Cocking my head sideways, I read the note paperclipped to the photograph. “‘Sykes stable—#3 of 8’. It’s a stable.”

“And all I see is horse shit.” He pulled out some more pictures. “They’re all like this.”

“They were approved.”

“By who?”

“The certificate of verification—”

“Do you see any signatures on the pictures?”

My heart was slowing to a cold hard stop. It was obvious where this was leading. At the moment, my only defense was pretence. “That’s never been a requirement.” I opened my eyes wide in startled innocence.

“Jesus, Tom, you let something like this pass?” He held a fistful of pictures under my nose, as though fully expecting me to be repelled by their stench.

I could not recall the moment I was handed the Sykes file for processing and coding. There was nothing unusual. Insuring one of the rich bluebloods that thrived in the Blue Ridge foothills was commonplace. The blurred Sykes photos mingled in the blur of hundreds of other equally incomprehensible estates. The pictures were date- stamped six months ago. It was possible Benton had not handed it to me directly or forwarded it to me. I received files from dozens of people. But usually, whenever the accompanying photos looked as though they had been taken from a speeding Ferrari, Benton was involved somewhere down the line.

“You’re not trying to say I would let something like this get through, are you?” Benton said in an amazed voice.

Not knowing what to say, I for once said nothing. The criminal fraud people from the Bureau of Insurance must be shoving the mouth of a legal flamethrower under his shirt collar. There had been too many questionable practices, too many reasons to investigate. Maybe the investigators felt Sykes was the key to closing this circus of rotten claims.

“We’re going to see you about this, mark me. Don’t think you can slip crap like this through without us finding out.”

“I really don’t think you can talk to me like—”

“Can’t I? You fucking little shit, you accuse me of fraud—”

“I didn’t—”

“And then you have the nerve to tell me I have to talk to you like Dick and Jane? OK. See the little fucking dick. See the fucking little pervert with the cum all over his pants.”

I looked down. Oh God. There was a limp wool pile at my feet. “I dropped jam off my English muffin this morning,” I murmured, reaching down to retrieve the cardigan. Why? Why had I quoted Neil verbatim? As soon as Benton repeated my words and they got back to our mail clerk my lie would be exposed.

“That’s right, pull your skirt back up. I advise you to make yourself decent. You’ll be hauled upstairs, if not today then some day soon. Now get me the goddamn disks and printouts.” He took a deep breath. Screwing my wife had winded him. “Get me the goddamn disks and printouts! Have them on my desk by a quarter after! Then you can go back to your desk and whack off, since that seems to be the only thing you’re good at.”

As he stormed away with the impressive finesse of a thunderclap on an otherwise sunny day I saw a dozen heads whisk out of sight behind the long row up partitions. I found my way back to my cubicle by the most unobtrusive way possible. One of the kinder instincts of adult humans is to shun anyone who has just been publicly humiliated.

Benton had shaved off a quarter of an hour with every command to have the computer logs ready. I had not a single moment to dwell on the tragedies of the morning. The snarl that greeted me when, at 9:15, I presented Benton with the logs on disk as well as twenty copies of the printout told me no degree of efficiency could have backed me out of the doghouse.

Sometimes the weight of the first hour never lifts, but lays there on top of you the whole day, a crushing reminder that things ill-begun don’t always have a remedy. The damp patches on my beige trousers eventually dried, but left a dribble-shaped stain like a scab on a wound that forced me to keep the cardigan draped around my waist like a bandage, or a homemade chastity belt. A trip home to change would have taken 35 minutes. Five minutes to change pants and perhaps exchange a word with Eileen. Then another 35 minutes back, if I hit all the green lights. My immediate supervisor had already jumped down my throat for being late. Asking to add fifteen minutes (probably more) to my lunch would no doubt have resulted in something resembling the removal of my large intestine via my mouth.

It soon became apparent that Neil had been working his mouth, but after the verbal thrashing I had taken in Files I doubted it much mattered. There were more eye-and-ear-witnesses than hearsay could reach, if you excluded all the times the story would be repeated to family members, friends and fellow parishioners—not to mention the as-yet unborn. I felt the flaws of the day were of epic dimensions, and that my disgrace would become the subject of beerhall bards down through the ages. Any self-respecting individual would have committed seppuku. In a way, having signed my life over to the Mandarin, I already had.

Ominous rumblings from the boardroom signaled recriminations, power-shifts and, ultimately, the search for a scapegoat. I could almost feel the heat of the sacrificial blade at my throat. Which did nothing to improve the remainder of the day, stretching so far ahead that five o’clock seemed like a distant speck at the end of history’s timeline.

I did my best to avoid Benton and Irene. This resulted in taking detours through VP territory, where even Benton appeared by invitation only. On one of these trips I was trapped near the water cooler as Rosanna Hanford-Jenkins imparted her business philosophy to one of her peers while she swilled spring water from the hallway cooler. The man to whom she was talking must have been her business and social equal. Both of them had leers of corresponding status smeared across their facelifts.

“Can you believe it? She was upset because I let the door shut behind me. I mean really, did she expect me to hold the fucking thing open for her?”

“She did get a bloody nose,” the man chuckled.

“Sue me, sue my company, lose your job. I mean please, what was she thinking? Really.”

“Well, you have to show a little consideration. She was operating on animal instinct.”

“Ha-ha-ha-ha!”

I found the delicate way she shifted her weight from one white-stockinged foot to the other as she hooted visually delicious. She must have been a real filly in her youth. I had the irrepressible (and utterly imagined) impression that she wore a pink garter on one of those hidden thighs. Her hair was completely white, but without the sternness that often accompanies aging. Bangs brushed to a fern-like softness caressed the padded shoulders of her burgundy jacket.

She did not, in short, try to look mean. But there were very few at Madison who did not slither down a side aisle whenever they saw her coming. She was one of those marvels of unproductivity who hopped from corporate stone to corporate stone on the strength of a reputation that was awesome without being sterling. Her gray eyes lit up in scornful cheer.

“It’s a real problem in this country.”

“What’s that?” asked the straight man.

“People not knowing their place.”

“Ouch.” The man singed his fingers on an invisible burner.

“No, really. What would happen if the clerks took over? We’d be neck-high in shit in no time. The problem with people without brains is that they don’t have enough brains to know it.”

“Double ouch,” the man laughed.

Wow, let them eat cake.

That was it. I was Canon-fodder, a paper-pusher whose self-esteem matched the zero-sum respect I had earned from the non-watching world, and which was no better than I deserved. Founding Clerks Anonymous would have been redundant in the extreme. I scurried away unseen, like the little sand crab I was.

During lunch I considered spilling a soft drink on my lap, hiding one stain with another. But knowledge of my shame was so widespread I would simply have been rubbing sodium-free soda into my wound.

Benton was too clever to put any of his abuse into writing via emails. He would track me down in person in order to add further verbal smacks. But as the day wore on (and it was truly wearying) there was a noticeable slackening of insults that could not be entirely explained by my long detours upstairs. Why? No great mystery there. As a patsy, I would have slid through the company’s internal organs as easily as prunes laced with Ex-lax. But if I was let go, the economy being what it was, I might end up spending quite a lot of time at home. Assignations with Eileen could prove far more problematic. Why that should matter I couldn’t comprehend. Benton would have had plenty of women to console him for the loss. Unquestionably a man who liked variety in his sex life, perhaps he was loath to forgo Eileen’s particular flavor.

Yet the burden on me remained onerous well into late afternoon. The real or perceived sniggering, the glances of scorn and disgust, and the realization that I was now and forever more an outcast in this civil office setting, weighed down until I could scarcely raise my head level with my desktop. I waited for the Mandarin to appear on my computer to sneer at me, which he occasionally did. But he didn’t say boo.

I delayed leaving until ten minutes after five in the hope of avoiding the mad exodus for the parking decks. Since the main five o’clock rush usually took place around four-thirty, I should have been all but guaranteed some post-work privacy. I had not counted on the lingerers.

As I entered Deck 6, I spotted Benton and Irene in intimate conversation. It was hard to say if their hips were pressed against Irene’s Jag or each other. They chuckled as she removed lint from his shirt while he checked for a speck of dirt in her eye. Classic stuff. Sex is like money. The more you have, the more you can make.

To reach my car I had no choice but to walk past them. A comic interlude ensued when they saw me. They did not care that I had caught them playing doctor and seamstress. But they didn’t know if they should scowl, jeer, laugh, call out, remain silent, or just go on doing what they were doing. In the end, they chose to emphasize my status as a nonentity…and locked lips.

Eight minutes later I was trapped in traffic on the Downtown Expressway. This was where all the losers flocked at the end of the day, the winners having either gone home already or stayed behind to play. Denizens of the megapolises mock our jams, finding them laughably diffuse and ephemeral. But to a suburban boy subliminally attuned to the wide open spaces, it seemed a gross perversion of domestic transit. The culprit was not so much the number of vehicles but the toll plaza that funneled them into a seething, fume-choked mass. After tossing my change into the basket, I tremulously merged with the herd stampeding out of the booths. It was the fate of my character for my sense of road courtesy to trigger numerous near-accidents. Drivers were stalled behind me while I gingerly nudged into the proper lane, then roared out to either side to outflank me, almost sideswiping the very cars I was, with mind-numbing civility, trying to allow ahead. Then came what I thought of as the speedway, where lead-footed motorists tried to make up for time lost at the toll booths, a flat-out race against a clock that had already left them far behind.

Cruelty, greed, egocentricity and negative behavior patters too numerous to list are a part of our genetic inheritance. It’s all well and fine to be courteous, but at rush hour that all goes by the board. Can you imagine what would happen if everyone stopped to let everyone else go first?

No one who was concerned about causing accidents dared go the speed limit, but joined the frantic bustle of people who felt they had spent too long aging uselessly in line. Prudence and civility ran down the law at speeds of 80 and 90 miles an hour in a zone hilariously posted as 55.

Fwap!

I had only the briefest glimpse of the bird as it barreled off my windshield. I’d barely finished my gasp of dismay before another, perhaps the first one’s mate, slapped off the front of my car and bounced away in an agonized, twisting cloudlet of loose feathers and broken flesh. Looking in my rearview mirror, I saw the little puff of life drop onto the pavement and try desperately to flutter out of the path of the cars behind me.

Thump!

I had just looked forward again when the yellow cat darted out, and I had no chance to brake or swerve before my bumper flung it against the low barrier lining the expressway.

The reaction of the drivers around me when I, without forethought, pulled into the emergency lane was electric. You would have thought stopping for an injured animal was a criminal office—and under the circumstances, it probably was.

In this stretch of premium downtown real estate the road contractors had kept the emergency essentials to a minimum. A Winnebago would have stuck out dangerously beyond the narrow lane. There was no room for error as I opened the driver door.

I let out a shout of horror when the cat saw me approach and tried to crawl away. I reached the tabby just as it was about to drag itself under an oncoming semi. You don’t realize how nerve-shattering those diesels’ horns are until you stand in the open and the sound explodes two feet from you. Taking the cat in both hands, I wrenched back against the barrier.

Beyond its pitiful attempt at flight, the cat put up no resistance. It was a dead weight, a sure indication that something vital had snapped inside. But there was no blood. Only a small dribble of urine. I laid it in the back seat, not caring what stains it made.

“You were chasing those birds, weren’t you?” I said after crawling over the passenger seat to the driver side. “I know this is partly my fault, but you should’ve been more careful.”

Miraculously, after a mere five minutes I saw a break in the post-toll plaza rush and pulled out of the emergency lane. Reaching the animal hospital, I gingerly placed the cat on the receptionist’s counter. The high school girls behind the counter, for whom this job must have been a summer lark, grimaced, exposing dense brace networks that made them look like muzzled puppies.

“Couldn’t you, like, have brought it in a pet carrier or something?”

“He was hit by a car. I picked him up off the road.”

“Well, sir, Dr. Singh might be available in a few minutes, but you’re going to have to find someplace else for your pet.”

I was so fuddled I at first thought she was telling me the vet would see me if I went away. I stood stupidly for a minute. Then I said “Oh.” Then I found a seat in the waiting room and draped the cat over my knees. Other clients looked upon me with dismay as shit dribbled out of the cat onto the floor. Maybe the expression on my face kept them from saying anything.

The door at the back of the room opened and another teenage girl in a white hospital smock beckoned to me. There were some murmurs from clients who had been waiting over an hour, but I was sure most of them were glad to see me quickly gone.

The assistant clucked with synthetic sympathy as I laid the yellow cat on the bare zinc examination table. It was breathing rapidly, in fear and pain. From the poor condition of its fur and skin I guessed it was a neglected stray.

I had finally removed the cardigan from around my waist when I got into my car that evening. Now the excretions of a dying animal overlay the slanderous stains of semen. The smears of life and death conveniently clustered around my zipper, I thought a little pompously.

Dr. Singh entered, palpated the cat, and announced, “It’s spine is broken. We shall have to euthanize.”

I had assumed as much, but I had needed the deadly pronouncement of a professional to acquiesce to the inevitable. My life is defined by such pronouncements. Some are inferred—Benton did not need a marquee with bold letters to announce I was a fool and cuckold. The finality of a broken spinal cord was merely fate written more legibly.

“You don’t have to stay,” said the vet as he prepared a hypodermic.

My answer was to stay put. I folded my hand over the cat’s head, feeling the soft warmth and frantic heaving. It might not have comprehended death, but it knew pain. The cat could still move its front legs, as proven then it tried to escape from me on the highway. As the needle went in, it stretched out one paw to my wrist, an almost certain grasp for a last chance, or sympathy. It was an achingly human gesture.

I burst into tears.

The vet glanced up. “It doesn’t feel anything.”

“I know,” I sobbed. Why was I so upset over a stupid cat?

“This is for the best.” Dr. Singh placed a stethoscope on the animal and listened a moment. “It’s gone.”

Unable to speak, I nodded.

“Do you want to take it with you, or shall we dispose of the remains?”

“I…you…”

I did not want to pass back through the waiting room and be seen boo-hooing by waiting clients and the kids on summer break. I stood outside the examination room for several minutes, trying to pull myself together. But when I emerged, everyone looked away, and I knew grief still stained my face.

“Sir!” one of the brace-muzzled yup-pups called out from the counter as I began to go out the front door. I turned back.

“Yes?”

She slid a paper across the countertop. My vision was blurred. “I’m sorry, I can’t…”

“Oh.” The girl gave a sympathetic clank of her retainer. “That will be $214.97, including disposal of the pet and tax.”

“I…”

“I see you’re real upset, sir, and that’s real understandable. You don’t have to pay right now. All we need is some billing information from you.”

“He wasn’t mine.”

“But sir, you assumed responsibility for the animal when you brought it in.”

What a tart little metallic tongue the child had, acquiring a legal cleverness for the occasion that belied her generic inanity. I imagined Eileen’s explosive indignation on receiving the bill in the mail, and the prolonged argument that would result when she refused to allow me to pay it. Better, I thought, to present her with a fait accompli. I took out my charge card.

I stayed off the highway on the way home, taking the long, pattern-less side-street route that normally would have added a half hour to my return, but because I drove so slowly became a saga of sixty minutes. I kept my window open until I pulled up in the driveway, so the fecal traces of the cat’s final misery remained tolerable. But when I switched off the ignition and rolled up the window the stench hit me full force. I fell gasping out of the car and raced to the front door.

Inside, I heard television kidspeak and peeked into the den. My alleged daughter was in her usual larval trance before the tube. A purple monster was telling her how everyone should love everyone. I could think of few things more perverse than having a deadly carnivore teach children about human affections.

I froze in dread when I discerned, overhead, the distinctive, rhythmic, mushy squelch of bedsprings. Benton? Here?

Pulling back slowly so that my movement wouldn’t catch Barb’s attention, I retreated up the hallway and paused at the bottom of the stairs. A few grunts tumbled softly down the carpeted steps. Otherwise, the only sign of activity upstairs was the creak and grind of an abused piece of furniture. Considering Eileen’s earlier behavior in a place far more public, her orgasm hardly distinguishable from thrombosis, this coupling was remarkably sedate. Obviously, they weren’t keeping things quiet for Barb’s sake, since Eileen had given our daughter a front row seat to carnal knowledge prior to dropping her off at kindergarten that morning.

I tiptoed up.

Through a crack in the master bedroom door I saw my wife’s face. She would have seen mine, too, had her eyes been open. She wore a grimace all too familiar to me, an almost hopeless straining for physical satisfaction—or desperate annoyance with a repulsive duty. But I had to give her credit for trying to reach the plateau that would have given her partner as much pleasure as herself. Because lying on top of her, pumping assiduously away with as much desire, love and lust as any male in love with his mate, his face stretched into almost comical anxiety to please…

…was me.

EIGHT

It took some months and frequent handling for my .38 to become less a stranger to me. The blinking fear that darted up my gut whenever I pulled the trigger became duller, and I began to have friendly feelings towards it, probably much the same way that a carpenter is charmed by a particularly useful and familiar skill saw. I won’t say I went so far as to give it a name, but I couldn’t deny it had personality.

Guns. Like love and sin, our literature would be a lot poorer without them. Sheer usage and a bit of research put me on more intimate terms with my S&W. The more I learned about it, the heavier I became in knowledge (so to speak), the lighter the gun itself became. Until one day, without realizing it, its presence and action was no more than an extra limb with its own set of involuntary reflexes.

When the dealer first introduced me to my better half (or fraction thereof), I chose Magsafe ammunition, a selection probably prompted by the second syllable of the brand name, as though I subconsciously desired a guarantee against misjudgments. Perhaps, if I took aim at the wrong target, the gun would not go off when I pulled the trigger. It was one of those hopeless subliminal fallacies that kept me going, like ignoring the fact that sooner or later we all die, or worse, that most of us grow old and decrepit.

On the day I bought the gun, the matchmaker/dealer offered me a choice between 150-grain round nose bullets and 110-grain semi-jacketed controlled-expansion rounds—“Hollowpoints,” he elaborated with a smile. I later learned that studies with artificial media and animal tissue showed that using the round nose resulted in more “through-and-through” wounds, but that victims had a better chance of surviving if medical treatment was prompt. Overall, however, modifications in wounding patterns aside, there was little difference in their lethal potential. I selected the hollowpoints because they sounded less deadly. I didn’t really want to hurt anyone.

As I became familiar with its stoic anatomy (stock, cylinder, hammer, cylinder release, ejector plunger—oh yes, and the trigger), the revolver began to feel lighter in my hand. As my sense of efficiency overcame my deficient morality, the smell of gun oil on my hand became ominously pleasing.

But not all of the jobs assigned to the various Mandarin crews involved actually putting a gun to the heads of our targets. Although assassination seemed to be our specialty, our crew occasionally employed other methods to bring down our prey, not all of which necessarily ended in death. Blackmail, extortion, bunko, subordination, malicious mischief, mayhem, fraud, double-dealing, finking, grifting, bilking, trespassing, wilding, forgery, defamation, graft and straightforward trash talk were all weapons we had employed at one time or another. And more than one femme fatale who had lured some poor putz into destroying his family and prospects was in fact (I had no doubt) a leading lady of a Mandarin crew.

Some of our weapons were remarkably mundane. Occasionally, we simply exposed the tawdry truth to the light of day. For all this, though, it seemed our crew’s specialty was death.

 

*****

 

The girl was as stunning as any I’d ever seen close up in the flesh. The Mandarin knew of my weakness for physical beauty. Perhaps he understood this was one target on which I could not possibly pull the trigger. I had already toted up so many penalty years that for the time being I was virtually his prisoner. So to get this particular job done, he’d chosen a different method of execution.

After two weeks of snooping on the girl’s fiancé, our little crew had shown up at the door of her high-rise condo in Tobacco Row. I pressed her doorbell. We waited.

“She’s calling Security,” said Mai Ling.

“Maybe we should have buzzed her from the lobby,” Dead Eye commented. He sniffed. “This place smells rich.”

“You put her phone out of order?” I asked.

“Of course,” came Mai Ling’s peevish response. “She’s coming to the door.”

The peephole darkened.

“Who are you?” came the woman’s muffled voice.

“I’m a private detective, ma’am. These are my associates. We’re here on a matter of some personal interest to you.” I unfolded a notepad-size piece of paper and slid it under the door. “You might recognize this handwriting.”

“What kind of assholes are you?”

I found the question intriguing. Up to that moment, I had thought assholes only came in a single flavor. Like Benton’s 57 varieties of crap.

“How did you get into this building?”

“If you’ll just look—”

“I’m not looking at anything. I’m calling the police.”

She was doing nothing of the kind, thanks to Mai Ling. We waited out her bluff. A few minutes later we distinctly heard the crumpling of paper.

“This isn’t funny. Tell whoever sent you this is bullshit in the first degree. Now leave.”

“You might also want to take a look at this.” I held a photograph in front of the peephole.

A moment later there was a gasp, followed quickly by denial. “You can do anything with pictures these days. That’s digital. With a computer—”

“We have a video, too.”

What? Who are you people?”

“We were hired by the other injured party.” I flipped the picture over and scrutinized it closely. “Of course, it doesn’t really look like she’s being injured, exactly.”

With a shout of wrath she began to whip open the door. Then came a yelp of pain as the forgotten door chain rattled to its length and snatched the knob out of her hand.

“You bastards! I broke a nail! Two nails!”

There was nothing to apologize for. She’d done it to herself. There was a low whimper from our side of the door. A north-to-south misery squeezed Mai Ling’s face. And then the door swung open and I saw the girl and I too released a sorrowful moan. Sometimes murder is a crime, even when it’s done indirectly. What a horrible waste. What a shame. It would be like taking a hammer to a Ming Dynasty vase. And it was too late to back out. She’d already seen enough evidence to push her over the edge.

She was dressed to go out. She was dressed for attention. She certainly had my attention. In heels she was taller than me.

She snatched the photo out of my hand and burned two holes into it with her neutron-star eyes.

“We were hired by the woman in the picture. You probably don’t know her.”

“Don’t know her! What kind of detectives are you? She’s my fucking sister!”

I couldn’t tell her she was right, that we were very poor detectives because we weren’t detectives at all. We stood in dumb silence, a trio of morons. We must have looked as though our closest brush with the gumshoe world was as the disreputable crew responsible for cleaning up Phillip Marlow’s perpetually dingy office.

I held out more pictures.

“You don’t think one’s enough?” the girl snapped, but she took them, flipping through the prints with the efficient skepticism of a pawnbroker who had just been handed a tray of flawed diamonds. Dead Eye inhaled appreciatively, and I nodded to myself. Who would have thought such a gorgeous woman in such classy digs would ever wear such wonderfully cheap perfume?

“You said you have a video.”

I held up a padded envelope, thinking: “It’s the sister. She’s the client. She wants this sister dead so she can have the boyfriend, who looked and behaved like a first-rate Benton clone.” I could have been (and probably was) wrong. We can rarely imagine who is envious of us to the point of wanting us ruined, or killed. Most of us are so un-envious of our own plight on this ill-starred planet that we can scarcely recall a day when we did not, for a moment at least, wish we were someone else. But who would want to take my place?

Then I remembered the wino I had killed under a bridge. The other man’s unsalted grass might actually be worth eating.

I could imagine a slew of people who might want our current target out of the way. But in this case I guessed the girl in the pictures getting a temporary penile implant was the culprit.

“How in God’s name did you perverts manage this?” she asked sharply as she slid the tape into her DVD/Video combo.

“Excuse me, miss,” Dead Eye corrected. “I didn’t see a thing.”

“Can you hear?”

“Of course.”

“Did you hear this?”

“Well…yes.”

“Then you’re a pervert.”

How I wished Dead Eye could have seen my grin. But a moment’s levity could not banish the gravity of our assignment.

“We used a miniature wireless cam. Anyone can buy them now. Ads for them are all over the Web.” I did not add that the pop-ups for the mini-cam comprised the peskiest spam I had ever seen, nor that these ads usually featured half-naked women who presumably did not know they were being taped by the video recorder wirelessly linked to the camera tucked away in the ceiling corner. I had been wanting to buy one for a long time.

She watched the video as intently as she had studied the pictures. Forty-seven minutes of non-stop action—which is what I would have put on the cover, had I been bold enough to supply a blurb. Observing and recording the lusty pair the day before had been a torture while in the next room with Mai Ling and Dead Eye, a sensation that did not improve when the target was present, sitting on the edge of her divan in front of the television. A stag film is no fun in mixed company. Just the reverse. Mai Ling shrank into the corner of the living room, while Dead Eye sat and fiddled with the worn plastic handle of his cane in rather dubious phallic delectation.

What was she looking for? She was right in thinking this could be a trick, with familiar faces digitally pasted on top of a commonplace porn flick. Perhaps she was seeking a false step—or rather thrust—that would betray the artifice. But while the visual and audio could have been doctored, nuances of behavior and personality were unmistakable signatures of identity.

Discovering that even under these circumstances I had acquired an increasingly noticeable erection, and keeping in mind my (or my double’s) humiliation on the day I saw Eileen and Benton in the back seat of his Mercedes, I took a discreet stroll away from the sexual mayhem to the picture window overlooking the James.

The city was awash in history. Indians, explorers, pirates and Union gunships had all passed this way. I could even see the spot where Lincoln stepped out of the boat to visit the former capital of the secessionist government. Our forefathers. How many of them had been visited by the Mandarin, who for all I knew was immortal? Captain John Smith had been here. Even planted a cross near this spot, the cagey ol’ fox. The margin by which he had saved the English colony at Jamestown was so narrow it approached the miraculous. To do what he had done one would almost have thought there were two of him. That unlikely tale about Pocahontas could in fact have been the Mandarin’s Renaissance footprint. “Oh Pa, don’t kill this poor lil’ white boy. And Mr. Smith, while we’ve got you down here, let’s make a deal. For just one year out of your measly life, in return for bumping off a bunch of backwater lowlifes, we’ll eliminate the enemy of your choice, with no risk to you.” And that Virginia jungle despot Smith, who after all was a soldier who had fought all over the world, would probably have agreed wholeheartedly to the unexpected contract.

How much of history was tainted in this way?

I watched as a heron landed in the rapids below. I found myself wondering if the Mandarin limited his crews to humans. I briefly fantasized him assuming a bird brain, approaching one of the herons dipping its long beak into the river, and chirping or cawing, “Aren’t you tired of being at the bottom of the pecking order?”

I heard a faint noise and turned. The girl was uncrumpling the letter I had intercepted between her fiancée and her sister, in which he in effect wrote that she (the girl not in the pictures or on the video) could not hold a candle to her (the one in the pictures and on the video), in or out of the sack. The girl looked up from the letter and squinted at the television, as though drawing a visible correlation between the handwriting and the scene, which was understandable enough when your closest friends, your family and your lover turn out to be total strangers.

And still, no tears. Scarcely a trace of emotion after her initial curses had scorched her lips. I was becoming concerned that our plot was not thickening properly. I caught sight of Mai Ling moving from the back of the room and was alarmed by the sympathy softening her oriental features. I held up a hand to warn her off. It proved unnecessary. The girl’s cold, analytical expression killed the kind words Mai Ling had prepared before they were even spoken. But having geared herself up to speak, she began, “How can you watch that all the way through without…”

The girl shot her a glance. “Go away, mouse detective,” she said. “Go away.”

The gasping and moaning and heat-of-the-moment endearments finished and the video segued into the blue field of blank yearning. The girl ejected the cartridge, slipped it into its box, the box into the padded envelope. Tapping the overkill photographs with her fingertips into a neat pile, she slid them and the letter in with the video.

“You’re saying my sister hired you to do this?”

I grunted a yes.

“You’re lying. She could have made the video, taken the pictures and produced the letter all on her own. She wouldn’t have needed help. She’s like me that way. We’re both very independent. And obviously we both are attracted to the same type of man. Whoever you are, and why ever you did this, you’ve made your point. Go. Now.”

I had noticed while gazing out at the river that the window was hermetically sealed to prevent the natural weather outside from getting in and the artificial cold and warm fronts inside from getting out. Besides, six stories might not be enough, although we could have probably counted it a success if she was crippled for life instead of being killed. That, though, would have been akin to cultural murder, like knocking the arms and legs off the Venus de Milo.

Wait. Wasn’t she already headless?

There was no point, then, in staying. The Mandarin had made the inexplicable claim that the girl had great potential to be a jumper.

“How do you know that?” I had asked when he took the unorthodox step of meeting us after we began to follow the clues to our victim. “You said you didn’t know anything about our targets.”

“I said I didn’t know anything about the clues.”

“You’re not a master of consistency, are you?”

“No-brainer, Bongo. Having life evolve from dead rocks caused a big flap at the Bureau of Consistency. All the rules went out the window. Which is just about what I was to suggest regarding your latest target…”

But even had she wanted to, she could not make her jump past those hermetically sealed windows.

“All right,” I told her, at that moment thinking that the Mandarin’s analysis of her character was off the mark. Maybe, from his distant perspective, all humans looked like potential jumpers. “We’ve done our job. What happens now is up to you.”

The girl remained seated, the envelope held in the steely grip of her dry-eyed gaze. We had to see ourselves out.

“I used to think one act of evil made you evil for life,” Mai Ling mused as we waited down the hallway. “You could never cleanse yourself of it.”

“And now?”

“I think it adds up. That you accumulate more evil with every evil thing you do.”

She was unknowingly (or so I hoped) following through on my thought about assholes. There were small assholes, and there were grand ones. Shades of gray admitted shades of good and evil. A woman could never be “just a little bit pregnant”. It was, so to speak, the how and why she got pregnant, plus what she did about it, that made the difference. Mai Ling’s theory was that we were not just tainted by evil, we were in an Olympic-size pool of ever-deepening wickedness. I won’t say we were trapped in that pool, because that implied an element of inevitability, when in fact we were every one of us volunteers. That we were now committed to years of involuntary servitude was more an indication of slipshod management of our personal lives than a measure of moral incarceration.

“I don’t know much about computers…” Dead Eye began.

“What’s that got to do with our job?”

“Well, I would say our Pal Joey Mandarin’s target database is a tad shaky.”

“I was just thinking that,” I said, unsettled. “Not the Joey part, but…” Then I stopped, realizing the invented name was merely an ornament for Dead Eye’s self-effacing confession. In some circles, computer illiterates are considered just that, illiterates, with all the consequent social embarrassment.

Mai Ling, unexpectedly shaken from her moral introspection, gave him a startled look. “Why do you say that?”

“And why do you assume he uses computers?” I added.

“Call it what you will. Call it his ledger sheet. He says he doesn’t know much about our targets, and what he does know seems to be woefully out of sync with reality.”

“No kidding,” Mai Ling snorted.

“How can he claim this girl is a jumper after all his moaning about not knowing our targets?”

“I was just thinking that,” I repeated uncomfortably.

“I believe this young lady is no jumper at all, but exactly what she seems: a hard-headed filly who brooks no foolishness.”

“I was just thinking—”

“She’s coming,” Mai Ling announced.

Taking hold of Dead Eye’s shoulder, I pulled him back against the wall as the girl came out of her apartment.

“That’s right, bitch,” she said coldly into her cell phone as she locked the door after her—the habit of security pickled in her very being (beauty, serene and confident in appearance, is always vulnerable), no matter how distracted she became. “It’s me, your adoring sister. He’s there now, isn’t he? Don’t bother bringing him to the phone. I don’t need to talk to him. Listen, you little bitch whore, as usual you went after something that was mine, and as usual you got it.”

Mai Ling and I took Dead Eye by the arms and we set out after the girl as she turned up the stairs, too impatient to wait for the elevator, which in any event did not go to the roof. There was the additional risk, I supposed, that entering the elevator might cut off the satellite signal to her sister, a connection she apparently did not want to lose. As we struggled up the stairs behind her, her words rained down on us like chilled acid, punctuated by the echo-staccato of Dead Eye’s cane after he shrugged us off and dropped behind.

“I’ve been a gold mine for you all our lives, haven’t I? Even when we were kids you stole my Barbie doll. You waited, and now you’ve got Ken, too. Well no more, never again, no thanks, fuck you.”

This was freakish. She was going to end her life because of an overblown case of sibling rivalry? Being an only child, I had only the vaguest notion of the extent to which a brother or sister could try your nerves. But this made no sense. This girl, this woman, was lusciously ripe with potential. It was odd enough imagining her killing herself over a worthless beau. But because she was mad at her sister?

For all her psychic ability and presumed female intuition, Mai Ling had not caught on. Until I paused and held my index finger to my lips, she continued to hiss, “No man is worth this, no man is worth this…”

Murder was one thing, but there was something horrendously creepy about driving someone to self-destruction. Anybody’s life could be turned into an argument against life. This young woman could reason, with far more justification, that I was really the one who should be plunging off a rooftop.

And there was the added element of using mere words to push someone into suicide, like shooting a target with invisible, deadly rays. We had also used graphic images, of course, but these had been translated into words inside her head. Words that were now being transcribed into action. The poor man’s Einstein, verbal energy into lethal mass. In the beginning was the Word. In the end, too.

The harshly cold voice and clicking of heels overhead ceased. There was a low curse.

“The door to the roof must be locked,” I whispered to Mai Ling.

“I know.”

“Well…?”

There was a loud metallic click.

“Ah, got it,” came the woman’s voice. I no longer thought of her in the diminutive, merely a girl, as though taking responsibility for her own suicide was a sign of maturity. “I mean, I got the door to the roof open, you stupid rat bitch,” she continued to her sister on the cell phone.

Grumpy murmurs from below. Dead Eye had become disorientated, which I found puzzling, the stairway being straightforward geometric terrain that was simple and clear of the mutable obstructions that would have confronted him on a city sidewalk. Mai Ling dropped back to lend him a hand.

The roof door clanged shut. I bounded up the remaining half-flight and eased down cautiously on the crash bar. Through the gap I saw the woman marching unhesitatingly past a central air unit towards the short wall demarking the edge of the roof of the converted tobacco warehouse. Tobacco being so much out of fashion, it was nice to see the building could now be used for more salutary pastimes. I held the door open and Mai Ling again took hold of Dead Eye’s arm and guided him through. He balked when he felt the porous gravel at his feet and the sun on his face.

“The roof?” he asked in a weak voice.

“Of course. That was the whole idea.”

“No, you said the apartment was high enough.”

“The windows don’t open. What’s wrong with you?”

Mai Ling made a sound of frustration and let go of him.

“Acro—acrophobia.”

“What? How can you be afraid of heights? You can’t even see! For all you know, we’re down in the street.”

“Are you saying I’m so deficient in sense that I can’t have a normal phobia?”

I felt the punch of PC between my eyes. To dislike the blind seemed about the most despicable prejudice imaginable. Even worse than hating little babies.

“You’ve been higher than this before. Think of the Federal Building.”

“But that was inside.”

“Inside, outside, how can it matter to you? OK. Sorry. Just wait here while I—”

“No!” He began waving his cane wildly. “Don’t leave me!”

“Calm down! I have to make sure the target jumps. It’ll just take a second.”

“I said no!” I ducked as he whiffled the cane near my head. “I can’t breath! Hold on to me! Jesus, Bongo, don’t leave me here alone like this!”

It was interesting how we had reverted to our nomme de guerres the day after we’d revealed out names to each other. Bongo and Dead Eye. And Mai Ling Smith? Our real names did not sound real to us.

I jumped inside the arc of the cane’s trajectory and grabbed Dead Eye’s arm. “All right, come on. But we’ll be going near the edge. There’s a low wall. Make sure not to lean over it. Or trip anywhere near it.”

“Right,” Dead Eye gasped. He was shaking all over. Even the blind could be troubled by overactive imaginations, perhaps more so than those of us with healthy peepers. Dead Eye’s vertigo might be in his mind, but the long, downward void he envisioned might be far greater than what I could have conjured even looking down from a cliff-top. What he could not see could kill him, and what he could not see was the world.

Where was Mai Ling? Damn. Leading Dead Eye around the huge gray metal cube of the air unit, I spotted our target perched on the low brick barrier, her cell phone still pressed to her ear. Mai Ling was standing below her, holding a beseeching pose.

“No! Don’t jump! No one is worth killing yourself over!”

The woman covered the mouthpiece. “Can’t you see I’m in the middle of a conversation? Now scat!”

Her attitude was so distant from what I would expect of a potential suicide that even now I had doubts we could pull this off. She seemed gloriously alive, and while her spiked heels looked precarious in the extreme, balanced on the narrow brickwork, they were also extremely becoming. Whether as targets or simply through chance encounters on the street, I’d never seen so many beautiful women as I had after meeting the Mandarin. It was strange. It wasn’t as though I had only begun to notice after joining the crew. Was it possible there were simply more beautiful women around these days? Could it be that, without planning or prodding, the world had become a better place? Wouldn’t you know, it would happen so soon after I had sold my soul. Timing is everything.

But if she had glamour to spare, what came out of the woman’s mouth forfeited any bid to class.

“This isn’t the first time you’ve laid out your raggedy-ass pussy on my property. I know about John. And Ed. Oh, shut up. Don’t be such a fart-head. You want to take after Mom, you want to be a whore, that’s fine. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m out of it, I’m gone, I’m jumping.”

“No! No!” Mai Ling leaped forward and clutched her filmy skirt.

“Oh, you shut up, too. And let go!” The target shook her leg in an attempt to loosen Mai Ling’s hold.

“But you don’t understand. This isn’t natural. We were sent by someone… someone you don’t know. Who you never even heard of. This isn’t natural! This isn’t real!”

The woman stared at her briefly, squinched her nose, and said, "That's not even a halfway decent try." She raised the cell phone. "You bitch, I'm still here. Tell Mom to shove it, Dad to screw himself, and as for you-- Let go!”

She almost lost her footing as she broke free of Mai Ling’s grasp. When Mai Ling lunged to regain her hold, I let go of Dead Eye to stop her.

“Let her alone! My God, are you trying to save her?”

The mistake was in my tone. I’d struck a conspiratorial chord. It was obvious we were actually seeking her death. Doubt crossed the woman’s face.

“There’s a bunch of odd characters here…” She shook her head. “I know what I saw, those pictures, that video, but something is screwy—”

Bongo!”

Flashing his cane in a wild display of panic, Dead Eye inadvertently whipped the target across her face.

And there, with a small squeak of a scream, she went.

Mai Ling gasped. I had just enough presence of mind to catch Dead Eye before he stumbled over the barrier, and to deliver the mandatory tag line:

“Bad things come to those who wait!”

NINE

 

The police had already arrived when we reached the courtyard. Whether this reflected upon their efficiency or our tardiness was open to question. I had been forced to all but drag Dead Eye and Mai Ling (who was in a state of near-shock) down the roof stairs to the top floor elevator bank, then through the crowded lobby. Mai Ling appeared to be out of commission, because I had to smarm my way past the security guard, who was fortuitously preoccupied with the commotion surrounding the jumper.

Something whiffled through the air. Dead Eye yelled and doubled over. “Something hit me!”

I had no doubt, because I’d heard the thud. There was a smooth flat stone at his feet. “Who threw that?” I demanded of Mai Ling. She didn’t answer. Still out to lunch.

There were so many people swirling around the flanks of the building you’d have thought it was on fire. I only found out later that this was Church Hill Pride Day, and that the ghouls racing for a glance at the corpse had been attending a civic parade.

Pulling and poking, I got my fellow crew members up the driveway and onto Main Street. We had parked close by. We had not expected trouble from the police because the only suspect in a suicide is the suicide.

Like a two-legged seeing eye dog I checked the traffic, then guided my charges across the street to the parking lot of a new grocery store that catered to the neighborhood yuppies. We had just crossed the flimsy border of grass separating the lot from the street when I saw very clearly a can rise up out of a woman’s shopping cart while her back was turned to it and rocket straight at me. I dodged quickly enough to avoid a head shot, taking it in the shoulder, instead. I couldn’t help but let go of Mai Ling and Dead Eye. After letting a few curses rip out from my lips, I leaned down painfully to retrieve the can of Del Monte French Cut Green Beans.

“Mai Ling!” I said harshly, “stop pretending you’re catatonic. You did this! And the rock that hit Dead Eye, too!”

Before she could answer, if she intended to answer, the branch of a decorative forsythia bush whipped up and lashed her face. She yelped, but did not move.

“Is this that psychic cop you were telling us about?” I inquired, recalling the invisible presence we’d encountered in Dead Eye’s apartment.

Slowly, she raised her hand to the welt on her cheek, already fiercely red, and gave a tiny shake of her head.

“Then it is you.”

“It’s her what?” Dead Eye asked querulously, rubbing his bruise.

“She’s punishing us. And herself. I suspect if she doesn’t get her guilty conscience under control soon we’ll get our brains bashed in, all of us. Am I right?”

Mai Ling gave me a stark look.

“What’d she say?”

“‘Yes’.”

“Damn.” Dead Eye clocked his cane before him, as though trying to root out a hiding place. “I thought her psychic zapper couldn’t effect us when we’re doubled.”

“So did I. Looks like we were wrong.” I wanted to get the hell out of there, but adding Mai Ling’s lethal conscience to the weight of a van would be like driving a Scud down Main Street. Yet standing here, we were open to any petty missile her mind could grasp and throw.

That was my last thought before I opened my eyes and saw the bare metal ceiling of the back of the van overheard. A series of bumps and a vague rocking told me we were moving.

“Bongo? You awake?”

A blowtorch flamed to life in my head as I turned. Dead Eye was sitting next to me, his cane propped in the V of his crossed feet. I reached up and found the source of pain, a prominent knot at the hairline of my temple.

“Bongo?”

“I’m awake.”

“Mai Ling said you conked yourself out with a can of beans. Why’d you do that?”

“I didn’t.” Raising myself on one elbow, I stared at the empty driver seat before switching over to Mai Ling on the passenger side. “What’s driving and where is it taking us?”

She met my expectation by not saying anything. But when she threw up her hands and shook her head, I thought that at least my getting knocked unconscious had lured her out of her dazed state of complete moral mortification. I would ask later how she and Dead Eye had gotten me into the van.

I fought off a wave of nausea and managed to work myself up into a crouch before a sharp turn slammed me back down on top of Dead Eye. The fall knocked off his glasses, and as I squirmed in his arms I went nose-to-nose with a pair of eyes that showed remarkable wrath for being sightless. I figured under the circumstances a simple sorry wouldn’t cut the mustard, so I limited myself to a few grunts as I struggled to get off him.

Climbing into the driver seat, I gingerly rested my hands on the wheel, then gently applied pressure, followed by a hard jerk.

“I can’t budge it.” I glanced at poker-faced Mai Ling, then craned my head back. “Hold on to anything you can find.”

“All I’ve got is my cane and my crotch,” Dead Eye complained.

“Lie down, then. There’s no telling where we’ll end up.” I reached across Mai Ling and pulled the passenger shoulder harness from its crook, stretching is across her chest with a touch of wanton wrath before clicking it into its slot. Then I fastened my own.

For an entity that had no physical eyes or hands or legs, Mai Ling’s sub-conscience or un-conscience or surface conscience proved a remarkably astute driver. I frequently tried to maneuver the steering wheel and more than once pounded my foot on the brakes. But these were empty reflexes. It seemed as though, so long as we remained downtown, neither we nor anyone else on the street was in danger.

“When I was small I saw a news clip about Australian sheep farmers. The price of wool had dropped and the farmers cut their losses by killing the sheep. I saw their bodies being thrown into a huge pit. Thousands of them. Tens of thousands. It was horrible. It was then I realized how awful life is.”

Neither I nor Dead Eye said anything. Unprompted, Mai Ling was giving us a glimpse into her psyche.

“When I think of how we survive…. Have you ever seen those documentaries about chicken and hog farms? And what we do to cows?”

I didn’t know if I’d seen what she was talking about, but the oceanic cesspits of North Carolina were common knowledge. We weren’t only drowning in our own shit, but also the shit of the animals we consumed. “I guess you’re a vegetarian, then.”

I let go a yelp when Dead Eye zeroed in on my voice and poked me with his cane, unintentionally hitting the throbbing knot on my head. He was right, of course. I should have had more sense than to say anything that would uncouple her train of thought, no matter how glib or innocuous.

“Why were we created this way? It’s not just chance. Look at the Mandarin. Look at the…people like me. There aren’t unseen forces at work. There are unseen personalities.”

The Greek gods, I thought.

“You don’t associate with people you don’t like, do you? You wouldn’t sit down to dinner with a dictator or a murderer—” She gave her thigh a slap that sounded painful. She didn’t like sitting down to dinner with herself, that much was obvious. “Why should we take part in any of this? Just by going to McDonald’s we’re murderers. Sadistic murderers. If people just spent an hour at a slaughterhouse…” Tears. Again. “There was no need to create life like this. We could have subsisted on something pure. Like light.”

But we lived on and through and in light, I thought, one aspect being photosynthesis. Light was the prime ingredient of the energy-becoming-material-reality scenario. The problem was that the light became refracted, tarnished, perverted by the very life it enabled. We were light, in need of some serious polishing.

“We cause pain just by existing. We’re cruel just by existing. We destroy the earth just by existing.”

Mai Ling was now sobbing wholeheartedly. I cast a nervous forward glance through the windshield. At what point would the surface disturbances of her mind roil her subconscious depths and interfere with her hands-free driving? In fact, the precise and meticulously legal (if aimless) way that the van weaved through the streets began to raise doubts that Mai Ling was the one maneuvering the vehicle.

“Mai Ling,” Dead Eye said, “I find it very difficult to conceive of the idea of ‘eating light’.”

A nice if unfair bit of dialectic from a man who did not even know how ugly raw sausage could be, or comprehend the bizarre beauty of cooked shrimp. The form, yes. But the way restaurant fluorescents glimmered off the pink shell that became miraculously transparent when you peeled it off—never. Personally, I wanted to say something more emphatic. In most of the world religions, ‘light’ is synonymous with ‘truth.’ From the cynicism born of being a member of a Mandarin crew free of retribution sprang disgust at the very word, ‘truth.’ Right. What a farce, this idea that we’re living lies and need to change. We’ll always live a lie. All the switches, all the new lovers, all the new careers will never make our lives any ‘truer.’ The bottom line is, you’ll never be able to see (let alone talk about) a truth that is unknowable in the first place. Besides, do we really want to know? Do we really want to know that the universe is expanding into an eternal abyss, or that we’re trapped in an infinite cycle of contraction and Big Bangs (take your pick)? Did most of us want to know that Rock Hudson was married to a guy? That Federal regulations allow rat feces in our soup? That the asteroid that will wipe us out is already set on its final trajectory? And what awful revelations await when we learn what came first, the chicken or the egg?

As Mai Ling’s tears subsided, she softly groaned, “And there’s the final proof. In a world that’s made, why should anyone respect the maker who creates someone blind?”

A question as old as Job. The ensuing silence was familiar. We were born killers. The proof was in the canines we so prominently display for our oral hygienists. Dental artifacts of our raw-meat past. The ability to kill and get away with it was the purest form of power available to the average Joe without a supernatural prescription. Only the Mandarin, who might very well have been immortal, surpassed it. But the need to kill was a necessity common to everyone. Even a dedicated vegetarian has to kill a soybean plant (a life form that shares at least a few strands of DNA with humans) every once and a while. If all property is theft, all life is murder.

“I’m not asking for pity, here,” Dead Eye barked, annoyed by our silence.

“Of course not.”

“On the other hand, I would like to know where the hell we’re going.”

I looked at Mai Ling. “Any idea?”

“I’m a lesbian,” she said.

“That’s fine,” I responded.

“No, I’m not a lesbian. But I’m a cannibal.”

“That’s all right.”

“No, I’m not a cannibal. But I torture small animals.”

“OK.”

“No, I don’t torture small animals.” She shot me with a glare. “Isn’t there any type of behavior that you find unacceptable?”
“Chewing gum and smoking at the same time.”

“No one is answering my question,” Dead Eye reiterated woefully from the back of the van.

“We don’t know!”

We had spoken in unison, Mai Ling and I, and we could not help laughing. Then our eyes met—something that had never happened before. I leaned across and kissed her briefly on the lips.

“Why did you do that?” she asked, more puzzled than angry.

“Do what?” Dead Eye demanded. “What did he do?”

“I don’t know why I did that,” I said, as bewildered as my crewmate. “I guess you remind me of what we should be.”

“Of how useless people like us are.”

“No. Of what we should be.”

Dead Eye, catching on to some extent, said, “Have you ever considered that, being doubled like this…that we’re virgins?”

Nonsense, of course. For one thing, we could never tell who was the double and who the original. And we were identical in every way to our other selves. Yet there was an intriguing nuance to Dead Eye’s observation. If my copy-or-original was a (by now inveterate) murderer, the copy-or-original was also innocent of intimate physical relationships. Or so Dead Eye assumed.

In my case, at least, all that had changed.

“You’re making fun of me,” Mai Ling complained sullenly. “Both of you. You probably weren’t even listening to what I was saying.”

“Oh yes I was,” Dead Eye said gently. “Alas, I know all too well that the tainted blood of carnivorous bottom feeders runs in my veins.”

“You are making fun of me. Anyway, bottom feeders only eat what’s already dead.”

“And so do I,” Dead Eye responded. “The beef taco I had the other night was dead long before I ever encountered it. Taking into consideration processing and freezing. As you said, we’re all bottom feeders, one way or another. We didn’t make the rules. You can pray to the Maker or diss him all you want, it won’t make any difference. I suspect there’s more clumsy innocence than evil intent in the master plan. I, for one, have a different take on evil. But right now I need to report on the fact that we’re picking up speed at a prodigious rate.”

I turned. We were ascending the on-ramp to the expressway. “Looks like we’re leaving town.”

And at an increasingly rapid pace, too. As we closed on 100 miles per hour I revived my original idea that Mai Ling’s guilty conscience was leading us to our destruction. We doodled dangerously through traffic like a waterbug in a flooded creek. Once more I wondered what would happen to our originals or copies if we died while doubled. Would the Bongo behind his desk at work know the instant I became a smear on the pavement? And how could reality be reconciled when a cop showed up on my doorstep to inform Eileen of my demise, only to have me answer the bell? It didn’t seem the Mandarin would allow such a contradiction. But that was not a chance I was willing to take. I chewed over my fragment of pop psychology in preparation of talking Mai Ling out of her depression. Before I could speak, we heard a siren. I prayed that the grating sound would trigger Mai Ling’s superego. Being a murderess did not necessarily preclude her from being a good citizen. Or so I hoped.

And damn if we didn’t slow down.

Dead Eye heard my sigh as we pulled off into the emergency lane and joined in with one of his own. A duet of relief.

There was something odd about the siren. Quirky. Old-fashion. As though Broderick Crawford was chasing us.

“It’s him,” said Mai Ling.

There was only one man known to all three of us. “The Mandarin? How can you tell?”

“I can’t read his mind, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

That was a pleasant revelation. She couldn’t read my mind, either, or so she insisted.

“Take a look in your rearview mirror,” she continued. “You’ll see.”

The cop was on a motorcycle. Although he was pulling out of view behind the van, I saw enough to suggest something out of the ordinary. For one thing, he wasn’t wearing a crash helmet, an essential accessory in cycle-cop couture.

“We’ve never been together…” Dead Eye left the sentence hanging like a dead hand clinging to barbed wire. The Mandarin had never confronted us all at once, in the same place. Had he been controlling the van’s peregrinations? That too would be unprecedented. His usual practice was to set us in motion by alerting us to the presence of clues, then leave us to our own devices.

A head appeared at the driver window as the motorcycle cop leaned down.

“Howdy, pardners! Where’s the fire? Did the Injuns kidnap your daughter? Who’s having a baby?”

He looked as goofy as the state troopers in Another Thin Man. His hat looked like an inverted disposable diaper bag with a visor, cinched under his chin with a dainty leather strap.

“I hear you folks’ve been infected by a moral dilemma. Usually that calls for strict quarantine.”

Final confirmation, if any was needed, that this was indeed the Mandarin. I rolled down my window.

“Mind showing me some ID? Oh, yeah, and your vehicle registration?”

I threw up my empty hands.

“Not good,” he clucked. Pulling out a notepad, he asked, “Is it true tachyons are faster than tacky lights, and does that mean Christmas is eternal?”

“Uh…” I glanced at Mai Ling. Still under a cloud, her negative shrug was like a flash of lightning.

“How ‘bout in back? Any clues?”

“No,” said Dead Eye. “But it sounds intriguing. Let me know when you find an answer, and then be kind enough to explain that answer to me.”

“You people aren’t very bright, are you?”

“You should know. You’re the one who hired us.”

The Mandarin swiped his pen grimly across a blank page. “The universe is governed by laws. Not your laws, of course. I mean the laws of infinite reality. You can’t get ahead in life without knowledge of the laws, and that’s a fact.”

“I’d put it right up there with French and cursive handwriting.”

“Mockery from a sadistic killer.” When the Mandarin grinned I noted a rumpled wedge of chewing gum between his teeth. He flicked off his sunglasses. Non-reflective, old-fashioned. Was this, and the outdated uniform, a clue to his origin? No, I’m not speaking about the old SF ploy of dressing up an alien in medieval costume when he visited Earth because that was how long it took light to travel to his observation post on his home planet and he dressed according to this reference point before departure. He was merely being perversely out of fashion. I suspected the Mandarin, whether an alien from another planet or another dimension, saw time as we experience it in a single lump, similar to the way the old church scholastics described the way God saw it. And if this was true, the Mandarin knew where all of this was leading us. Knew, already, how many years we would be slaves to his demands. On the other hand, if he was, as he had claimed, just a kind of otherworldly middleman, someone else surely knew. Mr. Howdyhell, perhaps.

“Listen, folks,” he pontificated, leaning his arm on the open window, the sunglasses dangling from his fingertips. “Without culture or instinct, you’d be just a bunch of amoebas. One way or another, you’re nothing but half-assed bio-genetic junk mail. So get on the stick. Fill your brains with something. Now…” He returned the notepad to his back pocket and rested his other elbow next to its mate on the window ledge. “I want to congratulate you on driving that particularly gorgeous creature into a useless suicide. A grateful nation applauds. Her mother thanks you, her father thanks you, her ex thanks you, and her sister wants to bear your children, once her first brood’s out of the way. You sadistic bastards have a real knack for this line of work.”

Mai Ling, who had gone to great effort to get herself under control, again burst into tears.

“Now see what you’ve done,” I remonstrated.

Moi?” He popped the sunglasses back on. Could it be possible he was hiding embarrassment? Not hardly likely. He appeared oblivious to the heavy traffic only a couple of yards from his jutting ass. I was curious what would happen if a semi knocked him out of his tall boots. You heard about state troopers getting hit on the roadside all the time, as though drivers were magnetically attracted to the crisp fault-line seams of their striped trousers. If that was the case, the Mandarin need not be worried. His pants were as loose and informal as his diaper-bag hat.

“What can we help you with?” I asked reasonably, trying to hide my concern and wondering if he had lined up an urgent job for us. Not that there was anything like a chain of command (none that I was aware of, at least), but to stop us just as we were leaving a job, while we were still in a group, was really of the ordinary. “If this is going to take long, we should find a more comfortable spot.” I wanted to say ‘safer’. I don’t know why I changed it at the last instant. “There’s a truck stop up the road with a halfway decent restaurant.”

“It’s come to my attention,” he said, ignoring my suggestion, “that a member of one of the crews had the effrontery to voluntarily extend his contract.”

I supposed he meant as opposed to the involuntary extensions that had resulted from our numerous fuckups.

“I don’t see anything wrong with that,” I said. “Doesn’t that save you from having to hunt for a replacement? Besides, you’ve encouraged us to ‘re-enlist’ after our first target is eliminated so that we can…well, advance ourselves some more.”

“Certainly, certainly…” He snapped his gum. “What this dipwit did, though, was to try and make me his next target.”

A possibility that had already crossed my mind, and been dismissed. The Mandarin had made it clear that one could not jump to the top of the social or sexual ladder (in my case, a mingling of both) in a single bound. The climb was incremental, and could not result in an increase of status that was much more than would have resulted with someone of normal luck and ambition. Peasants couldn’t become presidents without a lot of blood being shed, whether or not it was done under the Mandarin’s aegis. I figured I was so far below the Mandarin’s status it would take as long as humanity had existed to reach his plateau. But a crewmember had tried to arrange to have another crew bump him off (I couldn’t imagine any other recourse of action), and that ambitious crewmember could only be the most powerful man on earth. The very fact that someone felt he was in a position to consider it made the Mandarin seem more vulnerable. Even—almost—perhaps—human. There you go. The Greek gods again.

“No one else can have my job. What’s more, no one else would want my job.”

Which begged the question. By his own admission, someone wanted it. Did the Mandarin have an official title? A job description? A personnel record in some clogged ethereal file cabinet? I seriously doubted my meager talents would have earned as much as a footnote in his employee work profile.

Dead Eye was thumping the tip of his cane on the van floor. “Pardon me, I just wanted to assure my fellow crewmembers that I’m not the party in question. I sure as hell don’t want your job. What I want out of my contract with you is something human.”

Although none of us doubted the Mandarin was not in the least human, so far as I knew none of us had said so to his face. I tried to peer through his sunglasses to discern a reaction.

“And what makes you think I’m not human? I could be merely a human with a lot of mechanical toys and tricks at his disposal. Or dare I suggest that I might be a superior human?”

“Simple,” Dead Eye shot back. “I can’t see humans.”

“You see me? Remarkable. And what do I look like?”

“A clue.”

“A clue!” The Mandarin leaned back and held open his hand, as though to display Dead Eye’s foolishness on his palm. “What does a clue look like, pray tell? A partial license plate number? A cigarette butt? A gum wrapper? If I recall correctly, I believe one of the clues that you used to locate a target was a set of false teeth. A clue can look—can be—anything.”

“And that’s what you look like. Anything.”

I didn’t know if the Mandarin had a swelled ego, or if he had an ego at all. Appearances notwithstanding, he was undeniably a superior being, and I had always imagined superior beings as being free from any form of psychology, abnormal or otherwise, as well as being on the sexless side, like the G-rated alien in Close Encounters. But I’d also always thought that they would have about as much personality as a grapefruit, and the Mandarin was a real character. When he refused to be drawn out by Dead Eye’s inference that he was no more than an anonymous glowing blob, I wondered if he was donning a poker face. Maybe the universe (and its representatives) was in reality frantically, apoplectically insane.

“Be that as it may,” the Mandarin responded slowly in a distinctly ‘fuck-you-to-hell’ tone, “every so often I find it incumbent upon me to remind my crews that contracts are limited to living human beings only.”

A tacit admission, then, that he was not exactly flesh and blood of the homo sapiens variety. Why had he included the stipulation that the human had to be ‘living’. Perhaps someone had tried a retroactive option, bringing the heyday of some powerful potentate or lover of the past to the present. It sounded screwy, but a few years working in insurance had taught me people will try anything to get around rules, any rules.

The Mandarin seemed to be watching Mai Ling closely, though it was hard to tell what was going on behind his shades. Also, I was not keen to stare into his eyes, which were as close to mine as they had ever been. A fleeting glimpse was suggestive of blinking walnuts that had somehow become bleached and soggy.

“Now, now, hush,” he said in a voice so remarkably gentle it seemed to be coming from a different persona entirely.

He may have made the leap from psycho cop to cop psychiatrist, but Mai Ling was having none of it. The tears stopped and she flung two blood-dagger eyes into the dark void of his sunglasses. “Have you finished? Then let us go home. We’re tired. It’s been a long day.”

“And only a few minutes after ten,” the Mandarin sighed, glancing at a wristwatch whose face I only then noticed was opaque and featureless. “I can understand the stress you’re under. It’s also come to my attention that you had a visitor a couple weeks ago.” He unfocused his attention from Mai Ling. “I guess she’s told you about the gap between your people and her people. Oh, why be coy? You’re not much more than orangutans on crutches compared to her.”

But listen, sugar, don’t let that enforcer strong-arm you into giving up your freedom.”

If he hoped to add to my burden of inferiority, he was sadly misguided. Since I already felt I was pond scum compared to the vast majority of mankind, to find I was also inferior to an arcane group of psychic demigods fell as lightly as a feather.

Freedom!” Mai Ling exclaimed.

“Freedom,” the Mandarin reiterated. “Sure. If you think the freedom to be a loser is inconsequential, you’d better take a good look around you, young missy. Freedom only existed before the Big Bang. After that, any neonate from paramicium to chordate faced a losing proposition. Everything living croaks. But let’s say you’re unlucky enough to be one of the so-called higher beings. Everything you think or do is the result of instinct or culture. Take away those two little items, and you’re zilch. What I offer is a little break from the inevitable. Not freedom exactly. Call it low-cal freedom. Salt-free, sugar-free, caffeine-free, fat-free, taste-free. But better than nothing.”

“Why are you bothering us?” Mai Ling asked in a voice that seemed to dredge sorrow from deep in her chest.

“Hell, miss, I didn’t bring you out to this godforsaken stretch of asphalt. That was your doing, whether you know it or not. That’s why I’m here. When your subconscious starts behaving like consciousness, I begin to wonder if you’re still good for the term of the contract. And…uh…its codicils, so to speak.”

How did I know he wasn’t lying? I’d come to the same conclusion, but that didn’t mean I was right. Far from it. I also came to the conclusion that the Mandarin was misusing ‘codicil’. The additional years of servitude that we had piled up had nothing to do with revising our wills. There was the possibility, though, that what I perceived as his mistake might very well have been my own.

“You weren’t signing away your life when you agreed to our contract,” the Mandarin said reasonably. Sweat dripped down his face and there were streaks of perspiration on his uniform. His disguise was, as always, impeccable. He could have been anyone. Everyone could have been him.

“When you signed on for a crew, you were agreeing that life…” He paused, directing a dark, enigmatic glance at Mai Ling. “Life, and death, are inherently unfair, that unfairness was built into the system from quarks to cosmos. You admitted that to redress that innate wrong, at least in part, you had to step outside the given reality and take back some of what consciousness had robbed you of. You know what that means. The very first word out of your mouth was a lie, because ‘dadda’ was only a conglomeration of atoms that thought it was aware of its surroundings. And, an even bigger joke, thought it was self aware. And then there was that first smack of morality. Hell, why shouldn’t you be allowed to run around naked and poop on the floor? There’s only one place where one set of atoms has a right to tell another set of atoms what to do, and that’s inside a supernova. Once the elements are formed, the only boss should be some basic laws of physics and chance. Really, is it fair that a little fragment of the periodic table should have come together to create your bully of a pa? Not to mention your dear hubby?”

“Stop talking about them.”

It was only natural that the Mandarin knew something about our pasts, if for no other reason than the basic prudence of an employer ascertaining the background and qualifications of his workers. Such as, “Is he really fucked up enough to do this job?” Since he had always confronted us separately before, I had thought our personal lives were protected under some kind of right to privacy act. By harping on Mai Ling’s father and husband this way, he was coming perilously close to exposing a family secret. Obviously, this was a sore topic with her. I squirmed uncomfortably in the driver seat. Had the Mandarin blabbed details of my own sorry life to my fellow crewmembers?

“I’m only using them as an example.” The Mandarin nodded like a logical duck. “Off the top of my head, as the analogy goes. That’s not the point. Can you go on with this? Are you thinking of breaking our contract?”

“Would that mean a visit from Mr. Howdyhell?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Then breaking the contract doesn’t seem very feasible, does it?”

“No, it doesn’t.”

“So much for your ‘freedom’.”

“Well, miss, even freedom has its commitments. A great many—”

Freeze!”

Even through the sunglasses the Mandarin’s surprise and sudden fear were obvious. When he jumped back from the window the stentorian voice reverberated with anger.

“I said freeze, you fucking asshole! And you lower your hand a hair more, I’ll drop you right here!”

The Mandarin’s mock cop wore a convincing sidearm, if the shiny wooden stock jutting out of his enormous holster was any indication. The real cop who had approached unnoticed by any of us naturally focused on this item.

“Unbuckle it,” he commanded.

“Unbuckle…”

“The holster! Do it! Slooooowly!”

Catching a glimpse of the real cop in the rearview, I mentally commented on how far Americans had come in looking officious, and deadly. Although the gun he held on the Mandarin was smaller than the weapon in the false cop’s holster, its very petite-ness leant it an air of mortal efficiency, as though the force needed to kill a man had been more accurately calculated since the days when raw power was the only criteria

Sometimes the Mandarin could be goofy, at others he was the definition of cool. Usually, he would present an unsettling combination of both. It was as if an M1 tank had pulled up in front of you and as you trembled in fear a clown popped out of the hatch. Rarely was he able to regain his poise whenever his disguise was punctured or one of his personas rattled, and today was no exception. He responded to the officer’s instructions like an incompletely hypnotized volunteer at a carnival sideshow, making little choking sounds as his protests were throttled by a terror-constricted throat. Fumbling at his Sam Browne, his diaper bag hat slipped down over his eyes as his head bobbed violently up and down. He was trying to let the cop know he fully understood what was wanted of him and that he was hastening to obey.

He could not deal with the unexpected, the unplanned, the indeterminacy of everyday accidents. I thought it possible his science was new and uncertain. Projected from a distant realm, with hints also of a different time, it seemed possible his manifestations were destabilized by some weakness or malfunction at the ‘other end’. What I saw as collapsed dignity might actually be born in corrupted physics. He was never more flummoxed than at this moment. By meeting all three of us at once, he might have stretched his multidimensional legerdemain beyond its limit.

The Sam Browne thudded on the pavement and a moment later the Mandarin was face-down on the blistering hot tarmac while the cop humped him with a pair of handcuffs. From our angle it looked like an adult punishing a child for soaping his picture window on Halloween. The Mandarin squirmed violently when the cop stood up. No wonder. He was getting third-degree burns wherever he touched the sizzling pavement. Under any other circumstances I would have documented this as a case of police brutality. There seemed little doubt that someone captured while masquerading as a cop brought out the best in real-cop humor.

I know I laughed.

The Mandarin was moaning and crying. Dead Eye cupped a hand to his ear and declared, “I hear sweet music. Even better than Montavani.”

TEN

More children are killed by handguns than by drugs, diseases or car crashes, yet the hapless teddy bear is more strictly regulated. Last year, toys were linked to the deaths of twenty-one children. Last year, 40,000 Americans were killed by guns. It doesn’t take a genius. This was one reason I kept my .38 hidden out of reach of my daughter. It was also one reason I was tempted to put it under her pillow. I wondered if there was a Sesame Street groupthink manual for the pre-Columbine set.

While it’s illegal to import a wide variety of handguns, there is no lack of lethal enterprise within out own borders. Eighty percent of Saturday Night Specials are manufactured within a forty-five mile wide bull’s-eye in Southern California dubbed the ‘Ring of Fire,’ a moniker that I found esthetically gratifying, like a pocketful of posies. Less pleasing was that fact that many of these products were referred to as ‘junk guns’ because of their poor quality. Some states have imposed bans on them not because of their use in perpetuating felonious mayhem, but because of their lack of adequate safety features, and because an alarming percentage of them tend to explode when fired. The criterion used by these states is based on the melting point of the materials used in making the guns.

Frequent use convinced me I had purchased neither an inferior model nor a cheap S&W knockoff. In preparation for cleaning my weapon, I pushed in the locking block plunger, simultaneously nudging the barrel forward. I lifted the stubby block and barrel assembly out of the slide, squinted down the two-inch barrel, and saw only a perfect hole of light at the other end. I worked oil into the metal like some novice masseuse practicing on a doll. The dealer had cautioned me against flipping open the cylinder the way they did in old movies, since this could bend the crane and throw the chambers out of alignment. As a result of this warning, I treated my .38 as gently as though it was a beloved pet rodent.

Whatever its faults might have been, be it a real Smith & Wesson model or a furtive imitation, the gun was, in the end, wonderfully effective. And since a man was only as good as his tool, so to speak, I became a part of its deadly cachet. People don’t kill people. People with guns who want to kill people kill people. Instead of the S&W absorbing my personality, I took on the spunky charisma of my weapon and its marvelously elaborate history. I was like a baseball player reduced to a column of statistics at the back of the Sports section. And yet those numbers meant something. The stats added up to status.

It doesn’t always work that way. For some reason, we shudder at the name of Hitler more than Stalin or Mao, even though the latter two killed far more people. There’s an additional element. Call it negative magnetism. Jack the Ripper butchered a few prostitutes and became immortal. The Green River killer slay God knew how many, and though he was captured and went to trial…what the hell is his name? So it’s not just sheer numbers that make the man. A kind of mystical spice is needed to complete the recipe for fame and/or infamy.

To me, guns had been objects of supernatural dread long before I met the Mandarin. They were a cheater’s way to beat the natural order. The weak could subdue the strong; the wicked could surprise the unwary. Under one set of circumstances, the rich could suppress the poor. But on a dark street, the poor could terrorize the rich.

And now, my paltry little snub-nose, so puny in the vast arsenal of the Mandarin universe, was shown to be a physical coupling between my feeble corporeal self and the mighty realm of things unknown. Because without it, I would not have been able to perform my job. I certainly could not have ended so many lives if I had been limited to using a steak knife.

*****

“It’s a proven fact that over half the people murdered in this country deserve to die.”

“No! How can you do this? I don’t even now you!”

“It’s a proven fact that over half the people murdered in this country deserve to die.”

“OK! OK! I’m sorry about… Where do you want me to begin? I’m sorry about the mistress. OK, the mistresses. And the hookers. How do you know all of this? Was she having me followed?”

“It’s a proven fact that over half the people murdered in this country deserve to die.”

“Why do you keep saying that? Put the gun down, will ya? You want me to admit to the embezzlement? OK, I’ll confess. I’ll sign anything you want. Anything you ask. Money? I’ve got…I’ve got… You want to be a millionaire? I can line you up with some of the most beautiful women in the world. I’ve got connections. You swing the other way? I know a few guys. Put that away, will ya! That little girl? I never touched her. OK, I touched her. But I never—”

“It’s a proven fact that over half the people murdered in this country deserve to die.”

"Oh God! No! Help me! Someone help me! I-- Oh! Oh!"

 

*****

 

Many of the pre-murder tag lines I delivered for the Mandarin made no sense to me whatsoever. I presumed they would mean something to the victims, although from their looks of surprise they seemed just as bewildered as I was.

“Believe the king when he says he is in deadly earnest.”

"Listen, you putz. I'm going to-- Oh! Oh God! Oh!"

Screenplays notwithstanding, there is a dearth of cleverness from people whom death takes by surprise.

 

*****

 

 

“Wretched are the weak, and dead are the mighty.”

“What? No! Oh!”

 

*****

 

“Come hither, die Heather.”

"How did you-- Oh God!"

 

*****

 

“The race is not always to the swift, and sometimes the swift place dead last.”

“Who the hell—? Help!”

 

*****

 

“You disrespectin’ me?”

“Hey, muthafuck, you disrespectin’ me ? I'll-- Oh fuck!"

 

*****

 

“Can Polly come out and die?”

"What in the world are you-- Oh no!"

 

*****

 

“Do you know the way to San Pandemonio?”

"I think you're in the wrong fuckin'-- No! No!"

 

*****

 

“Can’t you read? This is a No Living Zone.”

“What the hell are you talking about? Who the hell are you? What the hell are you doing? Ah!”

 

*****

 

“Murder makes the heart grow fonder.”

“Excuse me? Awwwwg!”

 

*****

 

“I didn’t know shit piled so high.”

"I'll show you-- Oh shit!"

 

*****

 

“Into every life a little rain must fall.”

“Help! Help! Help! Help! Help! Help! Help! Help!”

 

*****

 

On rare occasions I confronted targets who accepted imminent death with relative and even complete equanimity. One woman spread her arms and smiled beatifically. One tough guy shrugged and said, “Go ahead, don’t keep me waiting all day.” Another asked for five extra minutes of life so earnestly that I granted it to him. He used his final moments to dig out a small library of porno films hidden in a closet and toss them in a dumpster out back. “I don’t want my wife to find these.”

Sometimes I dreamed about these fatal final moments, but not as often as you’d think. None were what you would consider nightmares, or caused gut-wrenching night-pain like the explicit dreams I had about Eileen and Benton. Distorted playbacks, a few faces stretched in miasmatic dread—that was all. Which was enough. Being awake, being doubled, doing what I was doing, was nightmare aplenty.

Or was it? This was a question I posed to myself with literal and increasing frequency. Let me begin by saying my relationship with my wife began to improve by humps and bounds.

I got the idea when I saw myself in bed with her. The experience of that morning, witnessing her throes of ecstasy in Benton’s back seat, had suggested unhappiness on the conjugal mattress was not Eileen’s only gripe. Her cheap exhibitionism might be linked to a need for adventurous sex. If that was the case, I was in a position to oblige her.

That evening, while watching my wife and my self through the cracked door, I experienced a boisterous erection that strongly advised me what to do next. Even as Barney sang to my daughter in the den about how everybody should love everyone, I began to undress. Stripped and ready, I eased the door open. My original saw me. His/my consternation provided a quick lesson on how we can become estranged from our selves. My original’s reaction, that I/himself was a lunatic behaving in a lunatic manner, told me our ten hours of separation had all but made strangers of us. Trying to maintain his rhythm in the saddle, he lifted a hand. When I shook my head he looked down in horror, fearful that Eileen had already seen me. But her eyes remained closed as she concentrated on achieving whatever modest orgasm was possible in this, one of our rare couplings. I had to give her credit for at least trying (once the calisthenics had begun) to enjoy herself in my presence, instead of crushing my desire under a deadweight of indifference. Of course, it might also have been simple greed on her part. Picking at the crumbs.

I was stunned by the obtuseness of my double as I tried to convey in sign language that I wanted to avoid touching him, and our subsequent merge. He did not know what had happened that morning, of the graphic verification of Eileen’s affair with Benton—with little Barb looking on. At the time I did not know I had been doubled, the revelation of which was reserved for the moment I saw my wife cheating on me with myself. Untrue, naturally, but my gut reaction had been almost as severe as when I crouched behind the cement planter while Eileen and Benton moaned on the upper deck like a pair of overheated minks. Even without merging I had a pretty good idea what I was thinking. Unquestionably, my original thought he was discovering a streak of kinkiness that he had heretofore been unaware of in him/myself, a perversion he was appalled his double would be crass enough to reveal. Besides, seeing himself naked was far more unsettling than watching myself/himself stroll awkwardly down a city sidewalk. Seeing yourself fully, as a separate individual, a double, and with a roaring erection to boot, made me aware of what a strange animal I truly was. I’m sure nearly every religion and philosophy ever devised by man could have been nipped in the bud by a moment like this. I felt like someone who had traveled outside a fanatical religious community who would never be eyed with the same degree of trust once I had returned from a trip to Sodom.

But I knew what tricks of expression and gesture were most likely to succeed. My original pulled back his hand. Amazingly, throughout all of this, he continued his coital hoeing and plowing at such a steady pace that Eileen had not noticed anything amiss. I had to admire my stamina.

I looked at my wife’s face. Though her grimace showed determination, I suspected she was just at the point where a climax would elude her. Her gums were not showing.

I leaned down and pierced the delicate petal of her ear with the tip of my tongue, at the same time arching my arm to indicate to my original that he should come forward to the other side. Eileen’s frown deepened as my original adjusted himself upwards. She was, perhaps, subconsciously perplexed as to how he could have already reached one of her favorite erogenous zones without varying his rut. Shooting me a quizzical look, yet unable to deny the libidinous thump in the prospect of a threesome, he pressed his stomach against Eileen’s and lanced his tongue into her ear.

Eileen gave a little grunt as he broke the rhythm of his thrusts, then a mewl of pleasure as we sucked both of her ears at once. And then the presumed impossibility of what was happening hit her and her eyes flew open.

“What…!”

Her head twitched left and confronted me. She jerked right, and there was me, too.

“You’re dreaming,” I said. My original, obviously frightened that she had seen both of us at once, quickly latched onto the bogus explanation and repeated, “You’re dreaming.”

When I was a boy and saw a UFO land in our back yard, my midnight howl of discovery was greeted with instant parental skepticism. They saw the sleepy-eyed, disheveled boy, the tossed salad of blankets on my bed, and the vacant lawn.

“You were dreaming.”

That the vision had been immaculately realistic, that the flying saucer had split open like a pea pod, that a limbless alien so ugly it almost made me physically ill floated out and tweaked my cheek through the window, meant nothing at all to the dull-eyed aliens who were my parents.

And rightly so. I think.

And there wasn’t a day in the last five years when I didn’t wonder (if I didn’t outright disbelieve any of it was happening) if my Mandarin scenario wasn’t the most elaborate allegorical dream since De Quincey shot up in his book-lined study. So it wasn’t all that farfetched that, confronted with the impossible, Eileen converted what she was seeing into a possible dream. And yes, it seemed so real.

What ensued was about as awkward an orgy as any in the Bible, at least as they had been presented to me in the few Sunday school classes I had attended. Not only did I want to avoid merging accidentally with my original, but my natural homophobia occasionally paralyzed my movements as we came perilously close to touching. Yet the perversion was perfectly satisfactory, in the end. I/we exploited orifices I had up to then never approached, though more out of fear of rejection than any lack of imagination.

Eileen succumbed to her supposed dream with gratifying enthusiasm, although more than once she gasped, “I can’t believe this, I can’t believe this.” But we all occasionally stumble upon the secret omniscient narrator of our dreams who, taken by surprise, admits that he is actually our self, that what the dreamer was seeing really is just a dream (with first-rate production values), and while it was all elating or frightening or just plain cool, it doesn’t really amount to anything. The little narrator in Eileen’s brain pan, coming awake when she should have been asleep, asserted that she indeed was making love to two fantasy husbands, and falsely assured her all was fine and inconsequential even while advising her to lay back and enjoy the ride. At the critical moment, as my original reached the point of no return, I reached across Eileen’s body and touched him, producing an indescribable climax, a sort of three-way merge, inside of my wife. Eileen, caught in the vortex of sexual synergy, rushed into such a frenzy that it took all my strength to keep her from throwing me off.

Afterwards, as she and I struggled to regain our breath, I mildly berated her for falling asleep as we made love, a lie directed at her mental narrator, and intended to advise her she was now officially awake.

“I did?” she said, surprised she could feel so dreamy now that she had outside verification that her dream fantasy was over. “I’m sorry.”

For her to apologize to me on a matter of intimacy signaled a huge leap forward in the health of our marriage.

And so began our strange ménage a trois.

Of course, it was a little disturbing that I had to go out and kill someone in order to enjoy sex with my wife. But there was no way around it. The twofold, supernatural reflex occurred only when my crew was assigned a job. And for reasons the Mandarin never revealed, saying only that that would have been a waste of resources, we could not remain permanently doubled. Also, refusal to merge after a job within a reasonable time-frame could result in a visit from Mr. Howdyhell.

The situation was made all the more awkward because I never knew when I would be doubled, and I did not always know I was doubled when in fact I was, which left me in the permanently-suspenseful state of expecting to see myself at any moment.

With short-term satiation came long-term greed. The tables were turned as I became more aloof even as Eileen began prowling after me, attiring herself in a previously-unsuspected wardrobe (the entirety of which could have fit in a change purse) off the hard-core rack at Kiss and Make Up. All these peekaboos, negligees, fishnets, thongs, teddies and chemises had their intended effect upon me, but I dared not succumb until my double alerted me that he was in the vicinity and ready for action. Before, after eliminating a target, I had come home tired and depressed. Now I was quite spry.

The erratic sexual calendar could be more than just a little discomfiting. Often, after giving up hope of coital activity, Eileen would become surly as she switched into unrevealing flannel pajamas. To prevent this and to ward off any fantasies that might drift Benton’s way, I tried a few times to go it alone—encounters that proved unsatisfactory to both of us.

But our timing jibed enough times to cause a frown beyond treasure in Benton’s forehead whenever we ran across each other at work. It was like a Viagra commercial. He saw something different about me that he (who of all people should have known) could not quite place. Either that, or Eileen was paying him fewer visits in the AM and he couldn’t guess why. Certainly, he must have thought it could have nothing to do with me. Maybe Alvin was back in the picture…whoever he was.

An unexpected consequence of my suddenly-active sex life was that I began to get acquainted with myself.

People who mock the squabbling among those at the top, those who have in one way or another achieved some success in life, turn a blind eye to the vicious, the nearly insane, and the truly insane venom (and even death) spewed by the ones sharing the bottom with them. When you fail totally, utterly and permanently, and you lash out in response, most often the only others in range of your blows are your fellow losers. So I can’t say coming nose-to-nose with myself was always pleasing or salubrious, as any crewmember who experimented with this peculiar form of self-awareness could attest. In my case, of course, I was meeting with the biggest loser I knew. And while Dead Eye appeared to have frequent conversations with his double, I seriously doubted they were all as amiable as the one I had witnessed that evening in his apartment.

These tête-à-têtes took place whenever circumstances precluded an immediate leap into the sack with Eileen. I was surprised how shy we could be when alone in each others’ company. More diffident, even, than when we stripped in Eileen’s presence, when we at least had a specific physical goal to keep us preoccupied. Our initial greeting never went beyond minimalist yokel dialect.

“Hey.”

“Hey.”

At such a moment the only thing we had in common was our blush. Because one of us would have undergone a traumatic experience the original was as of yet unaware of, we were in effect separate personalities. Astonishingly, in the stretch of a single day, even our politics could diverge.

My double was irate when, on Election Day, he came home to find I had voted Republican.

“Those crooks! Those family-destroyers! Those baby-killers!”

I’d never imagined myself getting so worked up over the political process. I looked ridiculous in debate, like someone in a talk show audience. I found the idea of merging with this fool repugnant because I knew it was more than likely I would be absorbed into my double’s liberal realm than that he would return to my innate conservatism. We were, at that moment, biding our time until Eileen became available (she was cooking an elaborate dinner for me, another new development in our relationship) so that we could indulge in another bout of semi-unconventional sex, a kinkiness that would never have occurred to me if not for the influence of my double. It was nearly always the double’s personality that dominated after we merged. New, improved, degraded.

“What is your problem? I’ve always voted Republican.”

“But why? They’re buffoons! Illiterates! Mental defectives!”

Was my rhetoric always so mind-numbingly moronic? I knew, and my double certainly knew, that insults and logical discourse were incompatible—which was why I rarely discussed politics with anyone at home or at work, or with any of Eileen’s friends. My friends, then? Never had any. Anathema. I despise the village mentality that made civilization possible. I much prefer our current molecularized society, uncouth savages ensconced in our cyberhuts. No “us” but “I”. But of course, now “I” was “we”.

This might provide an explanation as to why I could not discuss politics in a reasonable manner. Nor anything else, for that matter.

What could have happened on the Mandarin job that caused my double to become an about-face raging liberal? It scarcely mattered. I would probably become a liberal, too, once we merged. And tomorrow, or next week, when we again faced each other, I might be equally appalled to confront a frothing reactionary. Yet my sense of self-defense goaded me into defending my stance, however temporary it might be. “At least Republicans believe a person should take responsibility for his actions.”

“Corporate America speaks! While you’re playing with your conscience they’re running off with the teller. And you’re a fine one to talk about taking responsibility. Why did you become a member of a crew? I’ll bet nine-tenths of Corporate America has a contract with the Mandarin.”

“But we’ll pay.”

“What? How? When?”

I thought of Mai Ling and her unwillingness to use her psychic powers to advance herself with ridiculous ease in the downward spiral of average humanity.

“I don’t know,” I said, mimicking our crew’s resident psychic. “I just know.”

But political agendas were not nearly as unsettling as when he descended to a more personal level. Often, while relating the day’s events to each other (a ridiculous pastime, since we would both know of those events in intimate detail the moment the conversation ended and we merged), my double mentioned almost in passing that he/we had wiped out an entire family. Hubby, wifey, three kiddies.

“How could you?” I gasped. Of course, I was asking myself the same question. And I knew, when I sensed a distance growing, from whom it was that I was growing remote. I heard the tiny cowbells tinkle on Eileen’s flimsy cowgirl nightie of many slits. As my sex life improved, I grew more alienated from the one who really mattered.

“I don’t know you.”

“I don’t know you, either. But you’ll know in a minute.”

“Will we?”

My wife complained that I was grinding my teeth loudly in my sleep and that I was spending too much time on the toilet. It was a very mild complaint, voiced in almost a whisper. Now that things were so swell, I suspected she did not want to alienate me.

ELEVEN

For a period of about a month I grew bored with killing. Not that I had ever enjoyed it. And I had to admit, bumping off complete strangers was not without interest. For a while, though, I abstained from caginess, subtlety, and tact, dispatching my targets with curt brutishness, scarcely bothering to enunciate the Mandarin’s tag lines, so that more often than not the target heard only a few slurred words before dying.

You might think that during this period I found it hard to live with myself. On the contrary. I thought I was a great guy. So what if my life was tainted by boredom? It was the boredom of professionalism. Been there, done that, could kill with my eyes closed. The point is that uncertainty was banished. My macho stuffing was busting at the seams. I could have joined the Marine Corps or a bowling league.

It didn't last long, this mood, but it left its mark. Although the old doubts and qualms eventually returned, for a while I found myself invigorated by the kind of lackadaisical self-respect that I had last felt when I got a B+ on a geography test in third grade.

During that phase, however, my brusque methodology drew grief and criticism from my fellow crewmembers.

 

*****

 

We were walking up a suburban sidewalk in a pleasant office park a few miles north of the city when Dead Eye homed in on a target. Where he saw a single glowing object I perceived three women in jogging outfits eating a power walk instead of lunch. Though they did not break stride, I sensed their hesitation when they finally took note of us coming from the opposite direction. The hands that had been punctuating their animated conversation as though that was part of their aerobics routine fell to their sides. There was no concern about me, the killer. Their focus was on the man who could see only one of them, who was black, wore dark glasses, and would have been a hands-down winner of the Handicap Parking Sticker Sweepstakes if he could only drive. Dead Eye obviously did not fit in with their vision of the American Dream, something that deeply disturbed the patriotic trio. One woman wore red, the other white, the third blue. I’m serious. Each wore a different color of Old Glory. Can you imagine? I seriously considered the possibility of inflicting a little collateral damage. Patriotism is the Number One target of cynicism.

“Which one is the target?”

“Say what?”

“There’s three of them. Three women.”

“How am I supposed to tell?” Dead Eye snapped. There had been a lot more tension than usual within our group of late. Perhaps the average lifespan of a Mandarin crew was no longer than that of a typical rock band. I thought it very possible that my impatience would trigger a falling out. The Mandarin had never mentioned anything about switching crews. Was it an option?

“We’ll do what we usually do,” Mai Ling said in a small voice, afraid of my mood. She could have wiped out half the state with a single angry thought, and she was fearful of my mood. I couldn’t credit it. I was sure she was humoring me.

“Remember what we decided after the Federal Building screwup?” Dead Eye said. “If we can’t tell the targets from innocent bystanders, we wait until they separate—”

“If possible,” I amended cruelly, thinking of all the dead bystanders that had resulted from our miscues since then.

“Bongo—”

“I don’t have time for this shit.” The very idea of moral imperatives sent a bitter tingle across my forehead so severe I thought my skin would flake off. Besides, these sleek mannequins of national righteousness made our own threesome look shabby and useless. I needed to show them who was in charge. “Freeze them,” I told Mai Ling.

“Are you insane? Dead Eye’s right. We have to pull back before it’s too late.”

But it was already too late. The women had felt the prickly touch of danger and were slowing down. The one in blue had a Velcro-backed cell phone on her hip. Her hand drifted downward. Then I raised a hand. Their over-exposed yet somehow prissy haunches quivered out of sync as they lost forward thrust.

“Goddammit!” I hissed out the side of my mouth. “Freeze them!”

In their eyes we could still be a harmless if eccentric collection of transients. I felt they were more concerned that we might be panhandlers than a physical threat. But beggars being so rare this far out in the county, that would give them reason enough to bolt. I broke away from my two partners and closed the distance.

“Excuse me. I wondered if you could help…”

So many crimes begin with a smile. Even in times like these a stranger can lull the most cautious pedestrian into allowing an incautious approach. All it takes is a safe-looking public venue, a semi-plausible appearance…and a smile.

But sometimes a smile can only get you so far. The women hesitated, but not long enough for me to get within striking distance. I heaved a sigh of exhaustion when they began to backpedal. They were in far better shape to handle the muggy weather and I doubted I could catch up if they began to run. I needed a touch of friendly lunacy. So I began to sing.

“‘O say can you see

by the dawn’s early light,

what so proudly we hail

as the twilight’s last gleaming…’”

That tickled their vanity. They’d gone to the trouble to coordinate their outfits and could not help but be pleased that someone noticed. Vanity and patriotism can be a lethal mix.

They smiled uncertainly. I was approaching with too much apparent intent. I was close enough to smell their little flags of sweat.

“You guys sure look swell.”

I darted the last few feet and went for the girl in the middle. Her scream was cut short as I yanked her forward, then caught her neck in the crook of my elbow.

“This one?” I shouted.

I was being pummeled from both sides. My captive’s friends knew some powerful moves. I used her body to block any they might direct at my crotch. She struggled, even though it meant choking herself with every violent contortion. Hey, I thought hopefully, maybe she really wants to die. That would certainly make my task a lot easier, so long as she was the intended target.

I got the hiccups.

“Jesus” hic! “Dead Eye” hic! “Is this the one?”

After a long moment’s hesitation Mai Ling began hustling him forward.

Whap!

Oh. That hurt. Each side of my head was being peppered by some serious suburban Tae Kwon Do. I thought that if I really looked dangerous they wouldn’t be treating me this way. As they kicked and bit and lashed and screamed I loudly cursed Mai Ling. She’d frozen targets before, though not often enough to satisfy me. As long as she did not supply any lethal blows, she apparently stayed within the legal bounds set by her psychic legislature. The problem was that her heart wasn’t set on stun, let alone kill. But plenty of people hate their jobs. And there never was a coworker who enjoyed having extra duties dumped on him by the slackers around him.

I tasted blood. I’d been injured on jobs before, but the bruises and nicks disappeared the instant I merged. Before merging this evening, I hoped to spend an intimate hour with my wife and a certain handsome third party. It might put a damper on our fun if I showed up looking like an aubergine that had fallen out the back of a pickup.

I dragged my prisoner forward in an attempt to separate her from her defenders and make her distinguishable to Dead Eye.

“Dead Eye!” Hic!

“I can’t…I can’t tell…”

I was losing my grip. Once she slipped away, I would be trampled beneath a stampede of Nikes. I would have to force Mai Ling’s hand.

I threw my captive to the sidewalk and jumped back. It was beautifully timed. The two roundhouse kicks aimed at me hit empty air, then each other. The defenders howled as they discovered just how well they had been trained in the martial arts, catching each other in the hip and falling down.

I pulled out my gun. “If you don’t freeze them I’ll pop them all!”

The women’s wrath at my assault gave way to stark fear. I heard footsteps coming up from behind. You couldn’t do what I was doing in the middle of a modern office park without drawing some attention. Seeing the situation, seeing more would-be rescuers racing towards us, seeing my bad temper, and hearing sirens in the distance was enough to overcome Mai Ling’s misgivings with a vengeance. She froze everyone in sight, her fellow crewmembers excepted.

“Thanks”—hic!

It had been only a few months since I learned Mai Ling was capable of this kind of anti-reality trick. It would have saved us an enormous amount of trouble on some of our earlier jobs (the Federal Building fiasco comes to mind), and even now it was a talent that worked only intermittently. She claimed her ability was dependent upon weather conditions in the ‘psi plasma’, as she called it. I thought the more likely culprits were her mood swings and her enjoyment in seeing me bust my ass.

I can’t say I liked seeing things frozen this way. It was like transferring the sun to the ghostliest midnight imaginable. I guess ‘frozen’ is a misnomer. Turning, I saw no less than five men standing immobilized, yet their hair fluttered in the breeze and a varying gleam in their eyes indicated they saw what was happening even if they didn’t know what was happening. I turned back to the three women, caught at awkward angles as they rose from the sidewalk. Their eyes worked like loose sprockets as they tried to comprehend their inexplicable paralysis. Trapped, contorted, they were pictures of health and terror. Their chests heaved as they forced their lungs against the invisible psychic compression and the natural humidity. I wanted to press my hand against the bare belly of the woman I had tackled to get a tactile impression of her sculpted abdominal muscles.

Where was my pity? One of these attractive ladies was about to die by my hand. Where was my sorrow? My bond to humankind had become so tenuous I might as well have been a sponge at the bottom of the Sargasso Sea. I might have doled out some sympathy from the great slopping bucket of self-pity that had once been my primary emotion, yet there was none left to spare because the bucket had gone almost completely dry, leaving a sour filtrate at the bottom. My soul was coarse and stingy. Even the sex I so looked forward to at the end of the day exposed only a trace of affection for my wife. I was all rut and ambition during that dismal transitional phase.

Yes, transition. True, between a fatalistic acceptance of being a crewmember, which was not much different from my doleful pre-Mandarin existence and my final enlightenment, lay a brief month of sadistic wrath, unreasoning rage. But it wasn’t dementia. I like to think of it as an adult version of the Terrible Twos.

“Bongo…”

I looked up at Mai Ling, now just a few feet beyond the joggers, her arm crooked around Dead Eye’s.

“Bongo, the whole point of the Mandarin crews is discretion.”

“Oh, yes,” I snorted. “We’ve been very—” hic!—“discrete.”

“Point taken. Let’s say it’s a matter of degree.”

I was startled by her calm voice, her tear-free eyes. She’d seen something in me that disturbed her even more than imminent murder. I would understand later that she thought that in addition to my soul (such as it was, whatever it was), I was losing my mind. I was turning into the opposite of the ether-cum-spirit world of the Mandarin and the warm mammalian vestiture of humanity. I was a mere conglomeration of chemicals and minerals. Man the Machine in spades. The Two-Bit Man. Roboputz. The doggy bag of humanity.

I could, of course, go on.

But another take on Mai Ling’s comment could be that we were supposed to be professionals, by experience if not training. I could handle that. Steam-pressing my composure into a semblance of rigorous proficiency, I calmly said, “Dead Eye, touch your cane to the target so I can do the job and we can get out of here.”

Aside from the fact that Dead Eye could not see his cane and would have had no referential coordinate to know if he was pressing the tip to the target or something else, my request was poorly managed. We might occasionally have to stick his nose on or in a clue for clarification, but we had always maintained a safe distance between him and actual targets. We did so instinctively, as if we needed to keep at least one of us morally pure. The time he knocked a target off a roof bore the sanctification of accident. Mai Ling usually kept her distance, as well, but she could see what was happening. She was tainted by the images that fell upon her mental template. Relatively speaking, Dead Eye was our resident saint, a holiness that would be irretrievably cast aside once he was compelled to touch someone and say, or infer, “Here, this is the one we were sent to kill.”

Jesus had done pretty much the same. Think of the blasted tree. Think of the accursed swine. But he had better credentials.

“Tom…”

The innocuous moniker I’d chosen for myself, ‘Bongo’, was not weighty enough for the circumstances. By summoning my given name, Mai Ling was conjuring me back to reality. We could not risk Dead Eye’s sanctity. It was almost all we had left of our innocence.

“Tell me when the target disappears,” I said.

It. The target. Like any decent serial killer (not to mention our armed forces), we made it a point of denuding targets of their humanity. I walked between Dead Eye and the three women. He said nothing.

“Dead Eye…”

“All right.”

I repeated my little march. As I passed the petite brunette at the end (not the one I had tackled) and blocked her from Dead Eye’s view, he said, “There.”

I shot her in the head. Hic!

I think my unreasoning anger began to break at that moment. If I was in despair because of my predicament, if I was transferring my loathing of myself to everyone around me, if the biopsy of my life had revealed a terminal growth that had been seeded the instant my toxic sperm miraculously found itself alone with the egg in my mother’s ovum, I had plenty of excuses—but no moral standing. Up to the previous moment, my latest target had been a pert vessel of life. The touch of conceit I had eliminated from her visage had been her due as a human being. Everyone has the right to ignore the meaninglessness of their existence—although there was someone else (one of her power-walk buddies?) who had decided her life had so much meaning that she needed to be eliminated. I think my anger began to ebb because I realized I was taking my contract too seriously. I needed to subside into the dreariness of my dead-end job, to put in my hours and then go home. To comfort myself in mind-numbing monotony. The targets should be objects of neither pity nor or hatred.

Still caught by the psychic freeze, the woman I’d shot made me think of a news clip I’d seen of a manatee struck by a speedboat, its body floating gently back before its shattered head bobbed up in the boat’s violent wake. I flinched under the horrified gazes of the target’s friends. It wasn’t often that witnesses could linger over my face like this. They didn’t have any choice. Perhaps freezing a victim in public wasn’t such a good idea, after all.

Almost physically shoved backwards by their stares, I sought the quickest way to return to the van. I stepped into the road. Crossing here, we could catercorner past the manmade lake to the satellite parking lot.

The freeze broke.

The two women and the corpse of the third collapsed onto the sidewalk. I heard the roar of an engine. Whirling about, I caught a brief glimpse of a determined face behind a driver’s wheel. His resolve to rescue the women had been snared in stasis. Coming out of the freeze, seeing me in front of him, he floored the gas pedal. The SUV hit me head-on.

The perfect cure for hiccups.

*****

My death dream was unsettling, and so crowded that I wondered if the life flashing before my eyes was plural. My original and my double, not on split-screen, but superimposed in chaotic images that neither could dominate. This went on for quite a while, which in dream-time seems like eternity—and who was to say it wasn’t? If sleep is without form, is free of little fragments like minutes, seconds, nanoseconds, who could say it wasn’t a little side trip into eternity? These were glimpses of what it was like to have no brain at all. And without something you don’t know there’s nothing. This is the kind of profound thought one has in one’s dreams.

Finally, the view settled into a single frieze, the way your eyes adjust to a new prescription when you get a pair of glasses. Sometimes, I was the star of the dream. Sometimes, it was my double. (Which was which? I didn't have a clue. Reality and unreality were identical in that way.) Frequently other people appeared. I recognized targets among them, both pre- and post-assassination. I made love to the woman Dead Eye had whipped off the condo rooftop (best sex I ever had), watched a worm wearing my face wriggle out of a gaping gunshot wound, and looked on while Benton, completely naked, laid himself back on his executive desk and prepared a missionary reception for someone who was just emerging from behind a curtain when the scene shifted him into anonymity. In short, death-dream nonsense was a lot like normal-dream, brain-dipped-in-salsa nonsense.

“Death is a feather coated with chocolate or maybe butterscotch and tastes good until you tickle the back of your throat and the inevitable acid backwash mouthwashes you on a Wednesday afternoon which is sometimes called ‘hump day’ but everywhere else in the universe is known as ‘Laundry and Nova Day’.”

It would not have been a legitimate death-dream had the Mandarin not put in numerous appearances. Always in disguise, always mugging for the dream-camera, frequently stealing the identities of people I knew. Perhaps it was him and not Benton getting ready for a royal rogering in the executive suite. Either way, they both got ahead in their respective careers. Nor did the price seem to bother them very much. They anticipated losing their anterior virginity with as much synthetic indifference as a balloon about to be popped.

But don’t think my dreams had no personalities. There were plenty of them. The most striking being Eileen and Barb. My wife was wearing a cheerleading outfit, my daughter a miniature of the same. Next to each of them stood their double, dressed identically.

They were behaving in a manner appropriate to their costumes, jumping, yelling, breast-feeding their pompoms at intervals, breast-beating at others—in short, cheerleading. Barb was a natural, as befitted the daughter of a former high school hooter. But there was something in her shouting that sounded disturbingly…well, nasty. I mean aside from the content of her cheer:

“Yeah! Hang the bastard! Rah-rah-raw! Squeeze him ‘til he piddles, squirt out his guts!”

Not very endearing of my daughter, since these words were directed at her theoretical papa. They were the identical words used by her mother and her mother’s double. Indeed, it seemed as if the entire city had turned out to egg me towards the raised platform at the end of a dusty street. Actually, two cities, because everyone was accompanied by their double, or their double by their original, or…whatever. The mayors, their black faces beaming as they taunted me, their double chins doubling their usual obnoxiousness. The local Masons whirled about in their parade-day mini-cars, their drill all the more impressive as each man and his double formed a team that worked in tandem. Doubled pimps hawked their two-for-one mamsels, doubled bums spat double-shots of phlegm, doubled bureaucrats spun out duplicate reams of verbiage carefully crafted to fine points of unintelligibility. A garbage man and his twin hefted a sand bucket to the rim of a garbage truck compactor, a hockey player and his duplicate buddy took aim at a puck, missed, and thwacked each other upside each others’ head. A street vendor laid out a foot-long as though placing a rat in a miniature coffin, while his mirror image stoked the bun with spicy mustard. Everyone and everyone’s other was there. I would have thought seeing everybody doubled would have increased my sense of recognition, that the fireman leading one cheering section would have become more pronounced in my mind, would have been a more vivid character, when seen twice, side by side. But the doubles somehow cheapened identity. These were not Doublemint Twins, made memorable by a nifty jingle and their relative exceptionality. They were not parodies of themselves or shrewd Hirschfeldian caricatures that exaggerated some truth about their personalities. It was mere mass production in body, and in attitude. Because they were all, doubles and originals alike, in agreement that I should hustle my ass to the hangman’s noose.

Yet there were two ropes dangling from the gallows ahead of me. That could mean only one thing. I turned. And there I was, looking bemused, befuddled, out of my depth, doubled within an inch of my life.

“If I die now, would I collect double indemnity?”

“I would never make such a stupid joke.”

“You just did.”

In this wild west world of my death-dream the brass fact was that everyone was doubled, that the Mandarin crews were simply parables for a universal reality. Yet the split didn’t follow a mythical perforation between our good and evil halves. The doubles carried all the impulses of the originals, for good and for ill. The emotional Samsonite of each was not half-full or half-empty, but brimming with all the euphoria, narcissism, complexes, moral righteousness (and moral transgressions), and general dismal humanity of their counterpart. We could have been divided a thousand times over and the result would have been the same. At what cellular or spiritual level could we distinguish the self that is our self? Well, there’s nothing like nothing for fidelity to the soul. Signing up with the Mandarin had tainted the nonentity of my eternal essence, so to speak.

Dust caught in my throat. I coughed. My double coughed. I twisted my lip, and so did he. I thought about nematodes, and so did he. I contemplated the wanton plagiarism of existence, and so did he. Life’s meaning? He considered it, too.

“What stupid shits we are,” I said.

“What a stupid shit I am,” said I.

As were we all, the world, myself and I. The doubled mob thronged to either side of me, leaving only a narrow lane that closed behind me with each step I took towards the place of execution.

Part of me—part of both of me—assured myself this was a dream, proof of which was supplied when the two Bentons flashed me with a python-caliber poker that sprang out and flopped in the dust when he unzipped his pants. But was this really a physical impossibility? And even if it was real, wouldn’t anatomy that gross be more a hindrance, even a handicap, than something more modest? Was Benton also to be pitied? After all, this vicious audience wanted nothing more than to see me well-hung.

“Hang, Daddy, rah!” cheered the first Barb.

“Hang, Daddy, rah!” the other Barb echoed.

Were they singing a revised version of ‘Go Daddy Go’? Cool, man. Hot, man. Baaad…. That was my daughter. At what age had she first doubled? Evil being a relative quotient, like different flavors of ice cream, there was no time in her life that I could point to and say, “Ah, that was when wickedness entered her heart.” When she crayoned a carnival on the living room wall after being admonished not to, she was merely testing the boundaries of the social construct into which she, an innocent, had been innocently born. And now she was wearing lipstick. A regular little beauty queen.

Bright red lipstick.

I should amend my diagnosis. I was floating in a death-dream-reality.

Well, not exactly floating. The mob was stirring up a great cloud of dust, trampling the few fragments of greenery into nonexistence, although here and there moisture from my foaming mouth fell upon the desert-like landscape, giving hope for the future.

“Hang, Daddy, rah!”

Or was it “Hang Daddy raw?”

But I go on. As they went on. That’s what egos do when the superego fragments and falls apart and the new anti-society becomes a war of all against all. Your only defense is a robust offense. So on and on the egos go, their whole raison d’être being to get others to do the crap-work, or destroy those who refused. Egos large and egos small, it didn’t matter. L’go my ego. We were all caught in the putrid whirlpool of being forced to kiss ass or forcing others to kiss ours. On and on. Why, oh why, had I joined a Mandarin crew? It would only change my level in the same scheme. And there were no guarantees that I would not fall back once I reached the agreed-upon plateau. I would be the same person once Benton was out of the way, with the same faults and fallacies. How many crewmembers ended up where they had begun before signing their contract? Like those Lotto millionaires who end up broke within a few years of hitting the jackpot. This was a statistic the Mandarin had never volunteered.

The sky was a wretched hue of vomit. Only an assumption on my part, what with the dust rising and curses falling thick as hail. It seemed like a reasonable assumption, though. The sky just had to look like puke. To assume ugliness is always reasonable. Ugly skies, ugly souls. To suspect there might be, or might have been, a purely good soul at one time in history is a torture, like drinking too much water after being stranded for weeks in the Sahara. That’s why there is so often a negative response to You-Know-Who (insert belief system here). And why so many of us assume that all those You-Know-Whos (insert belief system here), if they were truly pure from start to finish, were undoubtedly complete idiots. On the other hand, you didn’t need to be a saint to be an idiot.

The idiot mob was choking me. Death was preferable to putting up with this. Imagine a hundred-yard dash up that notorious Heartbreak Hill, Golgotha, just to get away from the jabbering, jeering, rock-and-dung flinging, spit-wadding mob. Just to get it over with.

I picked up the pace which, following the interior logic of this particular dream, was sluggish at best. I turned again to my double. “Can’t you go any faster?”

“Can’t you go any slower?” he shot back. “You’re not eager to be hanged, are you?”

Once again, I was surprised to find we were not on the same wavelength. Although we had both trodden the same path, something had happened to make his thoughts more life-affirming. Perhaps he had discerned a kind face somewhere within the throng. Was I really so easily swayed? Could my entire outlook be determined by what side of the bed I got out on? That must be the fate of people who have no real outlook at all.

Someone was tugging at my shoulder. I looked down. It was a little girl. Her face was remarkably pig-like.

“Mister! Can you give me a piggyback ride?”

“I would, but I don’t like the way you look.” It wasn’t very kind of me, but at least it was an outlook. Suddenly alarmed by a suspicion, I glanced back and saw my double had taken the porcine girl’s double onto his shoulders.

“Weeeeee!” they both exclaimed.

The look of joy on my double’s face was final proof of how unreal all this was.

The sour look on my double’s face was final proof on how unreal all this was. What was wrong with him? Why was he trying to hustle us to the hangmen? Why doesn’t he try to show some good will. With luck, we could convince these lunatics that I’m not so bad. Scan the crowd for a kind face. There had been one before, standing near Eileen. An elderly man who visibly agreed with his double that this tumult was uncalled for, and evinced an unanticipated degree of sympathy for me. Who was he? Were most in this crowd strangers, or were they people who had chanced across my path during my lifetime? Was it possible these were the human ebbs and eddies that had funneled me to this dreadful finis?

Recognition hit suddenly. Yes, that was Earl, our milkman—one of the last of his kind. When my mother stingily left chocolate milk off the order list compressed between the metal lips of the milk box on the front porch, the milkman would give me a wink. “She forgot again, didn’t she?” he would say slyly as he slid a half gallon carton into the box. It was pure salesmanship, obviously. The chocolate milk didn’t come free, since he always checked off the added item on the order slip and it was included in the monthly bill. But it was such a minor bit of change for him that he could have just as well forgone it. He did it, I was sure, because he liked me. Already old when I knew him as a boy, he must have been dead for years, yet here he was, back from the grave, offering a glimmer of solace. There could be more of them, empathetic souls who saw the inherent unfairness of what was being done to me. We were all in the same kettle, the temperature always rising, getting nicely parboiled before the water of life boiled off completely.

The girl on my shoulders kicked and I let her down.

“I would ride all the way, but I don’t want to get hanged by accident.”

“I understand.” I forced myself to smile. Glancing up, I met my double’s glower of disapproval, as though I had been caught fraternizing with the enemy. How could he behave so foolishly with our life on the line? Then it occurred to me that his glum resignation must be the result of bone-dreary hopelessness. He had not seen our old milkman’s kindly eyes.

God, people stink when their hatred is being broiled under a vicious sun. I supposed I stank, too. Of fear. The gallows was my proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. That would be my last awareness before I crossed over, under, through or, more likely, simply winked out of existence. I assumed my body was heaped on the neatly trimmed verge of the business park while my brain freed itself synapse by synapse from its physical bond. The tricks would keep coming with malicious intensity right up to the end, with me dying a double death after death, while the mob howled for blood already spilled.

“Welcome, my sons…”

The preacher had detached himself from the clump of rioters closest to the gallows and fell into step with us. It had to be the Mandarin. He was the only one not doubled.

“What do you want?” my double and I asked simultaneously, although I detected a shade less sarcasm in his tone.

The Mandarin orated: “I came, I experienced a vague sense of wonder, I left in a state of total confusion.”

“What do you think you’re doing. I’m—we’re—about to be hanged.”

“And it focuses the mind remarkably well, does it not?”

“Apologies to Dr. Johnson.”

Now that was remarkable. I had not been able to pinpoint the Mandarin’s paraphrase, but it had tripped off my double’s tongue as though it had been waiting there for years. My double must have received an impression that made his mind more supple. But if his memory was better, his behavior continued to be less than satisfactory. How could he have let that girl ride on his shoulders? Didn’t he comprehend the hateful deceit all around us? I didn’t know myself.

“A well-rounded entity must have faith and philosophy to complete his education,” the Mandarin continued, tapping his white clerical collar. “You may call me Dr. Padre, by the way.”

“Well, if you’re here to console the condemned, you missed the boat. I just got creamed by a gas guzzler at 60 miles per hour.”

“It’s a twofer, philosophical consolation for the material corpus, and God’s consolation for the soul. You missed out on number one. And it’s Dr. Padre to you, my son.”

“‘Dr. Padre’ my ass.”

“Do you want to go to hell or something?”

That ‘or something’ really bothered me. And I couldn’t afford to take any chances at this stage. “No, Dr. Padre.”

“Ah. That’s better. My feathers are soothed.” He straightened his collar, although I had not noticed it being crooked. “Think of this dream as being your final lesson. When your final exams will take place us anybody’s guess. Now the first obvious fact of this scene is that everyone here is doubled, the one and only me being the glaring exception. What may not be apparent—what isn’t apparent—is that all the doubles are doubled, and all of those doubles are doubled, and et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum.”

“Parallel universes?”

“Let’s stick to one universe at a time. I’m talking about ordinary humans. You see, every time you commit an act deserving of grace, which is good, you satisfy the selfish ego within yourself, which is bad. See? By saving someone you’re murdering someone, by murdering someone you’re donating organs for transplant, by donating organs for transplant you rescue your soul, but rescuing your soul you enable a scumbag…get my drift?”

“I get a drift,” said my double. “You’re saying…suggesting…that for every moral action there’s an opposite and equal reaction.”

“How prosaic. Not at all.”

“Oh, well, then…the road to hell is paved with good—”

“Don’t make me laugh. Oh. Too late. I laughed.”

My double frowned. “Then you’re a saying good and evil—”

“Good and evil! Chortle, yuck, barf.”

“Then you’re saying we know nothing.”

“Close. You’ve won half a cigar. I think I’ve got one buried in my robe here…”

“But—”

“I’ve always been fond of that common science fiction plot in which humanity is no more than a bunch of molecules created by an advanced civilization with nanotechnology capability and that the end result of all your efforts here on earth will be to build a better mousetrap. I bring this up because you were about to say that mankind can now fly, that there’s no denying man’s ability to advance.”

“Are you saying all we’re doing here is building a better mousetrap?”

“That’s just a possibility,” Dr. Padre shrugged. “How would I know? Do I look like a geno-technologically advanced molecule?”

“What are you, then?”

“A polymorphous archetype. I think what I’ve really been trying to say is that, on the molecular level—and leaving aside existence itself, which is beyond my purview—the inherent ability to organize is what matters. Molecules themselves are organized atoms, atoms are organized subatomic particles.”

“I’m about to hang, here.”

“But for our purpose, the molecule will suffice. Due solely to their structure—their shape, if you will—molecules organize into elements, elements into inorganic sludge, inorganic sludge into organic sludge. That’s Man, in case you missed my meaning. Man is organization. Advanced democracy is organization in decay, because individuals begin to think they’re the most important thing on God’s green earth.”

“I can almost feel the noose around my neck.”

“Organization piles on organization. Of course the entities I represent are throwbacks. They get their kicks out of watching the fragments of society destroy each other.”

“I thought you said you were righting the wrongs of—forget it. So you’re saying the whole point of existence is organization?”

“Yup. Actually, that sounds pretty dreary, doesn’t it? But as you can see, it can lead to some interesting consequences.”

“This is all the result of organization?”

“Top of the line in creative bookkeeping. Now, my sons, enough of this. I hear you’re in need of some kind words, pats on the back, commiseration, smelling salts, low-swinging chariots, cigarettes, last rites and frozen custard.”

“Frozen custard?”

“Last supper. All I could arrange at such short notice. You really shouldn’t have jumped out in front of an SUV like that. Almost looks like you did it on purpose, to break your contract with me.”

“But we were in stasis. It was Mai Ling—”

“Personal responsibility is key to the Mandarin ethos.”

“Since when—?”

“You knew the freeze could end at any second.”

“Yeah, but—”

“By the way, you wouldn’t happen to be familiar with the transcendental and epistemological refutations of the vorgestellt speculation of the Prolegomena, by that infamously onomatopoeic human philosopher, Kant, would you? I don’t know why they have him in the curriculum, but there he is, the Teutonic twit. Hey, you look a little fuzzy. Oh get off it—you’ve heard of Kant, right?”

“Heard.”

“Jeez, what kind of educational system do they have around here, anyway? At least you know when this universe is going to end, right? Right? Should I make it easy? Say, by using sidereal time?”

The crowd seemed to swell like red congested lungs. I recognized more people the closer I drew to the gallows. Perhaps the front rows were reserved for immediate family and more distant relatives. Why, was that Mom? Both of her?

“Thomas, you’ve been doing that nasty thing on the bedsheets again. Do you realize that what you do leaves stains?”

Mom all right. And—oh yes—Dad.

“Tom…”

He’d never had much to say to me.

I paused at the foot of the gallows.

“Where’s our frozen custard?”

“Melted.”

We mounted the steps. At the top a doubled hangman awaited us. As the coarse hemp was placed over my head my double murmured, “You could have done better.”

“What about you?” I shot back.

“Are those your final words?” the Mandarin, standing between us, flipped through a volume bound in black leather. “I now quote from the Scriptures: ‘Then he lifted up her short skirt and placed his face against her nether regions…’”

Not wanting to see how frazzled I had become, I had not looked directly at my double since the Mandarin had first appeared. Now I raised my eyes to him and saw I was carrying off my second death pretty well. If my double was any indication, he/I wore a calm demeanor. We carried ourselves with unsuspected flair. I think my debonair selves impressed the crowd. The abrupt silence (relative to the babies wailing in tandem) had a sorrowful hue, as if a general sense of regret was beginning to spread outward from the base of the gallows.

“So you hope,” my double smirked at me on reading my expression.

“Eh?” inquired the Mandarin, glancing up from the holy text. Looking from me to my double, a shade of doubt drew down over his face. “Reading each others’ minds? There could be some vestigial ESP resulting from the reflective aftereffects of the doubling process. You realize, of course, that one of you is just a shell that’s possessed by the other. My employers could just as easily have planted you in another body altogether.”

That didn’t exactly jibe with what he had told me earlier. That was all right.

His mumbo jumbo, as well as his bemusement and his version of holy writ, alleviated the gravity of the moment. But my main consolation was not only knowing this was a dream, but sensing the chance that this was a dream within a dream. I suddenly felt there was a real possibility I would wake up to a pre-Mandarin existence and find I had been dreaming all along, from the first hoary hint lurking in the background to the final doubling. Perhaps my unconscious was working out the problems in my marriage. I would open my eyes, find Eileen lying next to me in bed, and somehow see the solution to winning back her love. OK, to getting her to love me in the first place. Same result. No. Far sweeter.

But the silence was not sympathy. The Mandarin, too, was strangely quiescent. Having drifted away from his text for the day, he looked out over the collective head of the crowd and the handful of decrepit buildings that lined the street. I was reminded of a scene in Gunsmoke I’d seen as a kid. A notorious gunslinger known for killing everything from mayors to cockroaches was coming to town and everyone held their breath in anticipation of his arrival.

How apropos this analogy was I learned the next moment.

“Mr. Howdyhell…”

A thrill of horror. “Where?”

“Just over there.” The Mandarin shot a cautionary glance at my double and myself. “Listen, be careful.”

“I must have wax in my ears. What did you say?”

“Howdyhell lives by sucking the energy of negative emotions from unsuspecting victims.”

“You got that from Star Trek.”

“OK, he eats raw human meat.”

“War of the Worlds, among others.”

“OK, he sucks out brains.”

“Starship Troopers.”

“Lays eggs in the bodies—”

“Alien One, Two, whatever.”

“Wants to enslave the human race.”

“V.”

“Is out to destroy your world.”

“Too numerous to count. I get your drift. Mr. Howdyhell is someone I wouldn’t want to meet in my worst nightmare.”

“Nightmare on Elm Street,” the Mandarin mocked back. “You, both of you, have had your last word, had your last rites, and had your last look at the world. Now I’m hauling ass.”

“What about my frozen custard?”

But he was gone. At least I thought he was gone. The Mandarin often had a peculiar way of disappearing, very much in keeping with his personality. It wasn’t as though he faded, or fluctuated, or became transparent. He was simply somehow there—and not. The confusion must have originated in my own mind, rather than anything he did. Or not. It was like one of those subliminal messages that had once outraged the moviegoing public. You knew something beyond normal craving was giving you a yen for popcorn and soda, but the source of the appetite was beyond average comprehension. Only later did we learn of the sinister splices in the films we were watching. So the Mandarin was there, up to his old slight-of-hand. But could I reach out and poke him in the eye? Not hardly.

I couldn’t poke anyone in the eye once the noose was dropped over my head and cinched at my neck. This all might be a harmless if barbarous concoction from another dimension, but it seemed all too real. I glanced at my double.

“We’ll wake up soon.”

“Sure I will.”

Neither of us looked convinced.

I waited for the crowd to part to make way for Mr. Howdyhell, or even flee before his approach. Ah, but they were looking up. By air, then.

The rope cut into my skin. Coarse, fibrous. From the musky smell, I concluded it must be freshly ripped off the hemp tree. An insect zinged past my ear. Arching my head sideways, I asked the executioner how long I had to wait. “It’s hot, I’m thirsty, and I don’t want to get stung before I’m hanged.”

The executioner and his double were hooded like medieval axmen. No one hid their face in the wild west. Unlike those primitive Europeans, Americans weren’t ashamed of slaughtering the guilty, or those who might as well have been guilty. Like me.

But why was I chosen? Everyone here was doubled, which meant everyone here was a crewmember, which meant everyone here was a murderer. Why weren’t they all up here on the raised platform alongside me?

“Maybe they will be, one day,” my double observed.

“Howdyhell will give the signal,” the executioner answered my question.

“Don’t I know you?” The voice had finally registered.

“You know everyone here.”

“Yes, but—”

“They’re not the same height.”

My neck wrenched painfully as I turned to my double. In effect, he was telling me the executioner was not doubled like everyone else here except the Mandarin. The executioners had only seemed so from the base of the platform as I withered under the sight of their anonymous axman uniforms.

The axman on my side turned to face me. I saw the very prominent whites of his eyes. Whites were all he had.

“Dead Eye!”

He removed his hood, exposing his Louise Armstrong physiognomy.

“But you can’t see!”

“All I have to do is hang you. Noose over the head, pull the lever…what’s there to see?”

“Mai Ling!” I heard my double exclaim.

“The Mandarin was kind enough to let us in on your execution, seeing that your death has put us back three additional years,” Dead Eye explained.

“Three years?”

“That was made clear in the nanoscript.”

It seemed as if everything in existence (as opposed those things not in existence) was in writing somewhere or other. Everything. Which only made sense, since in the Beginning was the Word. And lawyers had been extrapolating from that word ever since it was spoken, winkling out justifications and anti-justifications to the limits of nuance.

“We were part of a team,” I protested.

“Any death within a crew that occurs as a consequence of gross negligence, lack of due care, willful misconduct, misplaced morality, or plain dumbness will result in three solar years being added to the terms of the remaining crew members.”

“Did you know about that before?”

“The Braille was a little too fine for me. But unlike you, I’ve never actually killed anyone.”

“Do I hear a bit of responsibility-avoidance?”

Reaching out, Dead Eye found the release lever of the trap door, giving it the same kind of phallic stroke he usually reserved for his cane.

“You know, Dead Eye, to someone who can see, that gesture looks kind of…out of place in public.”

“Oh? Oh! Oh dear.” He jerked his hand away from the lever. “It never dawned on me. How embarrassing.”

“And there’s a few other things you do in public that are pretty vulgar.”

“Really?”

“I’d be glad to tell you more if you hold off yanking on that lever. You don’t hate me all that much, do you?”

“You’ve condemned me to a lifetime of purgatory on earth.”

“Oh? Oh. I never thought about it in that way.”

I wondered how my double was fairing with his executioner. As I fought the weight of the rope to switch direction, I noticed the crowd, still silent, was no longer staring into the air, but at the gallows.

“Where’s Howdyhell?”

As I finished my question my eyes fell on Mai Ling.

“Why, he’s right here,” she leered with a satisfaction that bordered on the sadistic. I tried to dig up a buried cornerstone of conscience that would belay her hand in the same way I had made Dead Eye pause. But I still knew little about her. The genetic Oriental enhancement, the strange psychic league to which she belonged, and the implacable opaqueness of her motivation gave me no clue on how I might jam her inner clockwork. There was an intensity in her joy at seeing me in this predicament that went beyond seeing me with a rope around my neck. I lifted my eyes to my double.

There it was, finally—something that could make me scream. The trap under my double had already been sprung. I could see myself from the waist up, twitching like a malformed puppet. But far worse than seeing the very life strangled out of me was watching the elemental transformation into it.

What remained of my double was being quickly hardened or deliquesced into stones and chemicals in liquid form. While my cheeks melted, leaving a foul waxlike streaks on my disintegrating shirt and exposing resinous cheekbones, my eyes brightened into artificial gemstones, or perhaps marble. I saw the last glimmer of eyes dilated in terror before my pupils became the centerpoint of adamantine black and white striations radiating round the uncovered circumference of my eyeballs. They reminded me of the old test patterns that flickered on screens in the early morning or late at night in the days before most stations went 24/7. My teeth tilted and dropped out of their sockets as my gums grew brittle and crumbled off the shelf of my jaw. My shirt fell apart like a camper’s toilet paper after being caught in a downpour, revealing a thrashing torso of bone and gristle that, in places, became powder and was tossed up in fine sheets on the hot breeze.

“Mr. Howdyhell is quite a pinchpenny.” Mai Ling’s words barely penetrated the din of terror in my mind. “As soon as his biological appurtenances stop functioning, he insists they return to the elemental state for prompt recycling.”

“Howdyhell? Where?”

“All ‘round you. Don’t you see?”

“No. Mai Ling, why do you hate me so much?”

“You mean aside from your having condemned us to a life of hell on earth, as Dead Eye pointed out? Actually, I don’t hate you at all. I hate me. I don’t have courage at all. Unlike you, self-destruction would not result in a simple, honest blank. There’s a lot more involved when you’re one of my kind. There are penalties you can’t imagine. You’re lucky. Once you’re gone, you’re gone for good, whether it’s a result of suicide or through your own stupidity. But under the circumstances, I can’t kill myself. You’re my proxy. You can die for me, Bongo.”

“You set me up. You broke the freeze the instant I stepped in front of that SUV.”

“That’s not true,” she protested, though doubt trickled across her face. “You knew the stasis was uncertain. I can never predict how long it will last.”

“You couldn’t keep it up, is that it?” I snorted nastily.

She looked at me hard and thoughtfully. “Maybe it is you that I hate.”

The whizzing insect sound returned, strafing my ear before taking position behind me.

“Dead Eye! Can you smack that thing away? Just this one favor. Just—”

“I can’t see it,” Dead Eye complained in a fretful voice.

“But you can hear it. All you have to do is—”

“You’re asking the impossible,” Mai Ling intruded smugly. “Dead Eye can’t swat Mr. Howdyhell. It’s a physical impossibility.”

Before my incredulity could reach expression I was paralyzed by a horrifically agonizing sting at the back of my neck, like someone plunging a hot needle down the length of my spine. Fulsome murder, overdone, over-exaggerated, stretched out in a ludicrous and unnecessary crucifixion. A murder this dire and extravagant must have a point. Not for me, since I was a goner, but for onlookers. Mr. Howdyhell was telling that portion of humanity which was doubled (which from my vantage point appeared to be all of humanity) that this was the condign punishment for those who witlessly violated their contracts.

I felt myself turn into a misery of boiling wax and volcanic stone. The muscles under my jaw seemed to become steel cables pulled from two directions by unearthly forces, and when they snapped the pain was so great my mind felt as though it was exploding, but I could not scream. My toes became calcified barnacles that curled down, back and up, until fragments of toenails pierced the bottom of my forefoot, a sensation made all the more appalling by the fact that my soles had been scorched to hypersensitive tenderness, like grilled meat on the verge of turning black. My vision fragmented into a chaotic prism and I knew my eyes were taking on the same shocking test pattern I had seen in myself. My double. No. My self. No, not my original. Nor my double. I had seen it in a dream about someone else.

What poor comfort that was as I saw my appendages, my organs, and my quivering, leaking cerebellum cascade in sizzling bits that hardened and shattered on the gallows floor. My eyes fell out and the death dream world went topsy turvy.

“Rare or well-done?”

Overcooked eels that had been my brain slopped and slid in and out of sight. Overdone to a fault, I thought.

“What kind of cooking instruction is that? Let’s not get metaphysical here, Bongo. Do you want it dripping red, or do you prefer a hockey puck?”

I could no longer see anything. That made sense. My eyes were no longer connected to my cerebral cortex. Disjointed would have been putting it mildly. The impulse to open my eyelids was entirely phantasmal. My blinkers had long since become tiny flags of charred flesh and had floated away like burnt paper from a bonfire. That I could think of all was nothing short of miraculous. I wondered when consciousness would cease. Then I reminded myself I was already unconscious. More bluntly, dead. This elaborate folderol was simply part of my big exit scene, my version of the light at the end of the tunnel.

“Don’t be stupid. Open your eyes.”

I did.

About twenty yards away a pleasant bevy of young women in string bikinis was frolicking about a volleyball net. Others lay nearby, stretched out on beach blankets, cultivating already-perfect tans. My God, I thought, the Muslims had been right after all. Heaven really was heaven. On the other hand, it was hard to think of these nubile beauties as being exactly virginal.

“Hey, the food’s over here. I know you’ve got to be hungry. Near-death experiences always work up an appetite.”

As I rolled over a restraining hand dropped onto my shoulder.

“You don’t want to fall. Try sitting up.”

My joints popped like old lead pipes as I forced myself into a sit, with some help from a gruff hand pressing against my back. Even if I had not heard Mai Ling speak, I would have known it was her.

Dazed, about as inwardly coherent as a bear rousing itself from hibernation following a stint as road kill, I tried to comprehend my surroundings. Mai Ling was standing a short distance away from me. Since it was her voice I had heard behind me, I realized right away she was doubled. So was Dead Eye, both of him seated across from each other at a picnic table identical to the one on which I found myself perched like a patient rising from rustic surgery.

And there was me, seated next to one of the Dead Eyes. He nodded almost shyly at me, a greeting I usually reserved for strangers on the sidewalk on whose eyes I had accidentally locked.

Smoke billowed from a park barbecue range bolted atop a squat metal pole. Over the cloudy gridiron hovered the Mandarin in full lawn-chef getup, wielding a long-handled spatula with more than a touch of uncertainty. From the color of the meat and the intensity of the heat waves waffling off the raised pit, I doubted there was a rare burger in the batch, medium or otherwise.

We were in a small midtown park that I passed every weekday on my way to work, a two-acre patch of indeterminate geometric design, with a fair number of trees, a mowed lawn, and a large gazebo that a brigade of homeless had rescued from respectability. The park was bordered on three sides by the state university, which explained the girls flouting their flesh but left me wondering how the cathedral on the corner figured into the equation.

“How are your hiccups?” Dead Eye inquired politely.

“I found a sure cure: a bumper up the gut.”

“Must’ve been colorful.”

“Must’ve,” I conceded. As soon as I hopped off the table I regretted my fettle. I leaned back dizzily against the jutting planks of the tabletop and tried to work up a mental breast stroke against the waves of nausea that assailed me. I became much more alert when something buzzed past my ear. “Howdyhell!” I cried.

“Yellow jacket,” the Mandarin corrected, waving a bee off a ketchup bottle.

“What’s a picnic without pests?” Dead Eye quipped amiably.

“Or a hanging,” I added ruefully.

“Ah, the old ‘hanging-decomposition-rotting brain death dream’,” the Mandarin nodded appreciatively. “Mr. Howdyhell really knows how to put on a show. Wretched of the earth, short-circuited synapses, galaxies in collision—you name it.”

I was offended by his been-there-done-that attitude but too discombobulated to bring off a riposte.

“Why are we all here?”

Mai Ling joined her double, keeping enough distance between them to avoid an accidental merge.

“Why am I not dead?”

“Who says you aren’t?”

Good point. “I think…”

“Which proves nothing.”

“OK, are you alive?”

She did not answer.

“I am,” Dead Eye chimed rosily.

“Then I’ll go on the assumption that I am, too, since we’re holding a conversation.”

“Good enough. The Mandarin decided we needed to hold a conference on crew safety.”

“What, like OSHA? You’re kidding. No. You’re not.”

“As for why you’re apparently alive…” Tears blossomed in Mai Ling’s eyes. “I don’t know. You were dead when we put you in the back of the van.”

“You and Dead Eye?”

But the improbable was made probable by the very fact that I was here and not lying in the tender gutter of the office park. Mai Ling was sobbing buckets by now. Was this a show of pity for me and what I had gone through, or the undirected release of accumulated stress? I was numb enough emotionally that I could not say which I would have preferred. Thinking of the sheer joy she had displayed during my grisly execution, I supposed she was just bailing all the negative chemicals that had swamped her nervous system. But that had been a dream-Mai Ling, the invention of my own mind, or of the Mandarin. She should not be held accountable for what others thought of her. Or should she? Should any of us?

“Then you weren’t in…I guess you’d call it my dream.”

I thought the Mandarin shrugged, though it was hard to say through all the smoke.

“You dreamed about me?” Mai Ling’s tears (marvelous to behold) somehow stopped instantly as her voice notched into a disapproving tone.

“It wasn’t what you think.” I lifted my arms to paraphrase my body.

“Then it was you who…”

“Brought you back to life? Not me. Raising the dead is a big no-no with my people. It had to be him.” She wrinkled her nose. “After picking you up we were covered in blood—”

“An unpleasant smell,” Dead Eye interjected flatly. “Slightly metallic.”

“But when we got out of the van here…as you see. Perfectly clean.”

Why should she sound miffed about my recovery and a spiffy bit of supernatural dry cleaning? The instant cessation of waterworks must have meant she did not relish being in my head, even by remote proxy. It was as if she had visited a dark, damp place. Otherwise known as a sewer.

The ripples of a frown appeared above Dead Eye’s dark glasses. “I smell something burning.”

“My pièce de résistance!” the Mandarin happily expostulated.

“I think it smells more like a piece of you.”

Indeed, the Mandarin’s apron was on fire. None of us lifted a finger to help. We figured nothing could really hurt him, not permanently. But his pain seemed genuine enough. Yelping like a kicked Chihuahua, the Mandarin ran down the path to the park’s central fountain. It was dry as a bone. The city had thoughtfully drained it so that the virtuous public would not be subjected to the sight of homeless people bathing out in the open. With a screech of dismay, the Mandarin made do with rolling in the grass.

Even had he been human, the injury would have been nowhere as severe as the embarrassment. When he returned, we noted the flames had scorched only a fist-sized hole in his apron at the level of his prominent belly—‘portly-and-jolly lawn chef’ being his current disguise.

“Don’t you people have any sense of civic responsibility?” he groused. “I could’ve become a human torch.”

“Well, some kind of torch.”

“You could have at least turned the burgers over,” he grunted, wafting away a small swarm of floating pieces of burnt apron fabric that had lingered over the grill. The hamburgers resembled the charcoal briquettes over which they simmered.

Even Dead Eye must have known that the meat had become inedible well before the Mandarin tried roasting himself. Neither he nor his double nor any of the rest of us said anything. We were carefully absorbing our lesson in crew safety. A comment on the need for notebooks and microcassettes poised on my lips. Then I recalled I had just returned from the dead and my flippancy was punctured.

“There’s a Hardee’s around the corner,” the Mandarin acquiesced to the obvious loss of his home-cooked lunch.

“I’m good,” I said. The Mandarin’s assertion notwithstanding, death had not sharpened my appetite. Mai Ling, Dead Eye and all our doubles concurred. In anger and frustration, the Mandarin tried to whip off his Kiss the Chef apron in a single sweeping gesture of contempt and succeeded in entangling himself in the string and collar loop. We watched in stolid bemusement until he had freed himself. Sometimes, watching the Mandarin seemed like little more than viewing a cable station dedicated twenty-four hours a day to old episodes of the Amateur Hour. He provided a frightening lesson in the unintended slapstick so abundantly provided by the universe.

In a fit of pique he threw the apron onto the grill. As he watched it catch fire, he said, “Bongo has been through what I call the azimuth and zenith of pre-finalized somato/ spiritual/bozo extinction à la son et lumière. Now sometimes this can be Grand Guignol on an epic scale. Sometimes it’s hardly a phffft. It sounds like Bongo was treated to a full-scale dress rehearsal.”

“My life flashing before my eyes?”

“Not exactly. As far as your life goes, you’re only a minor co-author. I expect you to share your experience with your fellow crewmembers as a warning of what happens whenever you try to break your contract—”

“But I didn’t—”

“Or fail to practice due care while on assignment.”

This from a fully grown superior being who had nearly strangled himself on an apron string after barbecuing his own potbelly. All eyes turned to me, including those of my original-or-double, whose expression showed more than a trace of dread. Which raised an interesting question about doubling. I had already gone through Mr. Howdyhell’s death charade. When we merged, it would not be as though my double would experience it all over again. He would know everything I’d seen and felt, just as I would recall another resoundingly dreary day at the office. But he (I suppose you could think of him as my original, although I couldn’t see it that way) had apparently watched as I was laid out on the picnic table funeral bier, to all appearances finito, although by then my corpus had been mended back into a single piece. He knew I’d undergone an excruciatingly unpleasant ordeal. And he, understandably enough, wanted nothing to do with sharing it. He wanted to keep his innocence of his own death. I could imagine him running away from me as I approached him to merge.

“You can save your horror story for your next soirée at Dead Eye’s apartment.” Satisfied by the growing plume of smoke coming from his grilled apron, the Mandarin went over and sat on the picnic bench next to one of the Mai Lings. “Let me try to explain the concept of organized chaos to you. Incidentally, also known as original sin. Now, everything around you is chaos condensed to the barest terms of comprehension.” Even as he crooked his finger at the Mai Ling next to me, inviting her to join him on the bench, Mai Ling’s original began to slide away, at the risk of catching a few awkward splinters in her anatomy. “Please,” he coaxed in a repulsively blubbery tone. “I’m not asking you to sit on my lap. I’m not your daddy or hubby, after all.”

“You—”

“I want to make a point, that’s all. Now please, be my little Oriental bookends, just for a moment.”

Reluctantly, the two Mai Lings did as they were asked, though I noticed with amusement that they both kept precisely one foot between them and the Mandarin’s chubby thighs. If she was hoping to avoid physical contact, it was not far enough. Both of her gave a squeak as he clamped his meaty hands on her legs and pressed down as though bracing himself on parallel bars.

It was at this point I wondered if I’d really awakened from my nightmare.

Instantly, we found ourselves in the center of an infinite arena of Mai Lings, each seemingly alive to what was happening.

“I realize this looks as if I am connecting two opposites of a genotypical circuit. But as you are well aware, a double is not identical to the original, but is the original.” The original was poured into an identical pastry shell, so to speak. Mai Ling was too amazed by her infinite reflection to notice him squeezing her bare thighs, leering for all the world like the editor of a porn magazine at the prospect of baring a brace of comely twins. “In short, welcome to the world of fractal reality. Unlike that paltry mathematical-model world that poses multiple universes coexisting ‘side by side’ (which could be true, but hey, what do I know?), the fractured world is here and now, which in Mandarin-speak includes roughly a million years before and after this moment as you perceive it. Farcical world is everything you were, are and ever will be, and it’s all here, right here, right now. You can see Mai Ling is deep.” He lowered his voice comically. “So deep. Very deep. Profoundly—” He coughed. “Anyway, there’s a lot to her.”

“I can see that for myself,” Dead Eye declared sarcastically, his double laughing concurrence.

What Dead Eye could not see was appallingly obvious to me, my double, and the two Mai Lings.

My double stood from his spot next to the first Mai Ling and entered the empty focus of the arena, a patch of worn grass between the picnic tables. Having recovered my balance (and after almost having lost it again on seeing the infinite circus of Mai Lings rising around me), I walked to within a few feet of my other true self and joined him in gaping at the spectacle.

It would have taken a thousand years or more to pick out each face and accompanying expression, and in the end that would have been all I comprehended: a myriad of surface impressions that scarcely defined the individual. I noticed, however, that the further my eyes traveled from the front row, the less like the originals they became. The differences were most striking at the limit of vision, but by the same token they were so far away it was hard to determine if any of the variations were truly grotesque. There were old Mai Lings, young Mai Lings, infants, even skeletons. Some grinned widely in amusement at the unexpected entertainment they had become a part of, while others evinced sheer terror. It appeared as if a solid percentage of Mai Lings were contemplating the philosophical implications of what was happening. An equal portion, it seemed, gibbered in moronic confusion.

About half were silent. The rest made up for it.

“I see myself for what I am, and I am at peace,” said one.

“Fuck you, asshole,” another responded.

“Dead Eye! Bongo! Up here! It’s me! I luuuuuv you guys!”

“Hey look, it’s Dead Eye and Bongo. The sap’s running thick!”

“Bongo! Have you sorted things out with your wife?”

“Bongo! The cuckold shitwit! If you didn’t jerk off so much you’d be half a man!”

I could make out few more full sentences in the din. I imagined Dead Eye, hyper-attuned to sounds and to parsing meaning out of them, heard a lot more. But the Mai Lings to either side of the Mandarin were only a few yards away, and their protests came through loud and clear.

“No! No!” Mai Ling cried. “This is a trick!”

“Of course!” the other Mai Ling chimed in frantically, pounding her chest. “This is me! I know me!”

The irony of having two Mai Lings claiming to be the sole caretaker of Mai Ling’s identity was lost in the sea of Mai Lings around us.

“Gong!” the Mandarin chuckled. “Wrong! User illusion. You don’t know yourself because there’s nothing to know. You humans are not much better than rocks with primitive sensory apparatuses…apparati…app…” He pouted out his lower lip and blew air on himself. “The only difference really is that you eat and dump and pretend to have consciousness. But don’t fret. You should be flattered that you live such a rich and varied extra-spectral existence. Of course, if you use this as a basis for self-analysis, it could become self-defeating, not to mention boring as—”

A shout of outrage. The instant before, to fight off the vertigo caused by staring at the infinite Mai Lings, I had lowered my eyes, only to see the Mandarin infiltrating his fat knuckles under the tastefully frayed fringes of the cut-off jeans to either side of him. A woman who brooked no pawing nonsense, both Mai Lings leaped up and slapped the Mandarin hard, a double whammy to both cheeks. The only impact was to prompt another round of puttering laughter from her assailant.

“Oh come on,” he pointed at his stomach. “After all, it does say Kiss the—”

His grin became a scowl when he found a circular brown bullseye where his apron had nearly burned through to his shirt. His pseudo-technical explanation notwithstanding, he must have been closing some kind of circuit, which broke when the Mai Lings jumped away from him, because the arena and its innumerable denizens abruptly vanished.

“Each crew has its own ‘personality’, each crew strikes a balance on the fine line between perception and deception. And each component of a crew—that’s you, the crewmembers—plays a vital function in that balance. This particular crew is tripartite. Who would have guessed that this poor, sad, silent girl, so demure, so discreet—”

Mai Ling picked up the Igloo in which the Mandarin had brought the burger patties and a six-pack of Mountain Dew and threw it at him. There was a loud clatter as it hit him in the chest and the ice cubes flew out.

“Hey!” the Mandarin protested. Unlike the slaps Mai Ling had delivered to his cheeks, the edge of the Igloo and the piercing points of ice succeeded in causing pain. Interesting. I wondered if we could not injure him directly because he was not real. The uncomfortable obverse being that we couldn’t hurt him because we weren’t real. Since an inanimate object could inflict pain, but not our fists, the latter seemed an unsettling possibility. Wiping water and sweat from his face, he turned a threatening glance on us. “Causing me bodily harm might be construed as a violation of your contract.”

“Better yet,” Mai Ling shot back, taking up a loose cube and throwing it at him.

“As I was about to point out, this darling of the anti-socialites is, incredible to say, your strongest link to the human family. And she’s not even strictly human, per se.” With a mysterious wink he added, “In more ways than one. But you saw for yourselves all the permutations of her personality. Believe it or not,” he concluded, rubbing his bruised breastbone, “this sweet thing has more points of contact for social empathy than you’ll find in the whole city population. A fact of which she is entirely and obviously unconscious. Which is just as well, since her job is to kill people.”

“I’m confused. You’re saying her empathy helps us to function as a crew?”

Rising with the profound reluctance of someone who was habitually couch-bound, the Mandarin went around to the other side of the picnic table and sat between the two Dead Eyes. Awaiting a revelatory scene on a par with Mai Ling’s million personalities, we were surprised when nothing happened as the Mandarin rested a hand on each of his knees.

“If Mai Ling is the conscience of society, Dead Eye is justice. After all, he’s the one who picks out the deserving dead from the innocent quick. You can’t see what he sees, which is why there are no fireworks for your amusement and edification. That being said, none of you would be here unless you weren’t royally screwed up one way or another. Justice is fine and dandy, but it goes hand-in-hand with envy, which in turn has its greedy tentacles in all sorts of things.”

“Justice? Envy?”

“Sure. Show me a law that doesn’t shaft someone in some way and I’ll eat my Blackstone.”

“But if he’s fair—”

“Read a few books, why don’t you? Justice and fairness are diametrically opposed to each other. Just by being here you’re unfair to all those millions of spermatozoa you beat to the ovum—mostly by sheer chance, I might add. You’d be struck into catatonia if you realized how much depends on who came first, from the original hydrogen atom right through. The Big Bang has it all over the final collapse just by coming first. Bill Gates was just a nip and tuck ahead of a hundred others, but it was all the edge he needed to crush the competition. From my own personal experience, I know if something holds me up on the way to the barber, I might as well bring War and Peace to pass the time I’ll have to wait for all those in front of me to finish.”

In his current incarnation, the Mandarin was bald as a cucumber.

“The only thing unequivocally fair is nonexistence,” he continued his Mai Ling-esque line of thought. “Note, now, the smug look of pleasure on your friend here. The supreme justice of your crew. And one of the most evil critters I’ve ever run across.”

This snapped Mai Ling out of her grim silence. “You’re crazy. Dead Eye’s the nicest, kindest person in our group.” She shot me a look. “By far.”

“Without a doubt. He’s also…” The Mandarin threw up his hands. “But there’s another side to his personal equation. Far be for me to spill the beans. Now if he wants to make a voluntary confession…admission…”

Dead Eye, however, was in no mood for confession and/or admission. Maintained within the equilibrium of the Mandarin’s conductivity, he seemed blissfully content before his invisible theater. I asked him what it was he was seeing. He responded, “I don’t know. But I see. At least I think I see. Whatever it is, it’s very…very …interesting.”

A far cry from wonderful, in my estimation. For all I knew, Dead Eye was looking upon mile after mile of road kill. Which would at least be colorful. What the blind see is as much a mystery to the sighted as what we see is to the blind. More so, since we can’t get a tactile impression of what they’re ‘looking at’. A dream world or reality? Tough call.

The Mandarin removed his hands from the two Dead Eyes and the beatific vision sighed away.

“Well,” Dead Eye nodded with more than a trace of sadness, “it would be very…nice.”

The Mandarin turned to me and my double, standing dumbly between the tables.

“No,” I said.

“We don’t care to see,” my double agreed, roughly on the same wavelength, thank God.

“But guys, don’t you think that’s unfair?”

“Didn’t you just break Mai Ling’s trust? We weren’t supposed to see…all of that.” Whatever that had been. “And it’s guy.”

My double gave me a thumbs up. We were a team. An army of one.

“Morally or legally?” grunted the Mandarin as he rose to his feet. “Morally, what can I say? I’m the bagman who’s hired you to kill innocent citizens of this great republic by the truckload. No room for me to speak there. Legally, I’m copasetic. There can’t be a contract unless both parties are aware of the terms. What you saw was outside the agreement because she didn’t even know it existed. No, her life is still her private business. I showed you her lives. The stuff that belongs in the public domain. Read the newspapers. ‘Deadliest Serial Killers in Tri-City’s History’. They might not know who you are, but you’re stars. And stars forfeit the right to jerk off in secret.”

With that, the Mandarin performed one of his rare feats of magic outside the doubling of his crews and bringing me back to life. Standing between the tables, already contemplating a swift merge with my double to preclude any unwanted demonstrations, I felt a breeze on my cheek—and suddenly found myself sitting next to the re-seated Mandarin on one of the picnic table benches. On the other side of his portly form was my double, who leaned forward and caught my eye. We both opened our mouths to speak at the very moment the Mandarin lowered his hands onto our knees.

The next instant I was confronted by a landscape so bleak I might as well have been on the flattest windswept plain of Mars.

“Strip away instinct and culture and what is left? What is you? You see, you’re so much closer to reality because your ego is a joke. You have a tad more culture than average, but nothing extraordinary. Petite bourgeois trash Americana kind of stuff. Your instincts are pretty basic. Actually, they’re on the flabby side. A real man would’ve snuffed your obnoxious wife and her boyfriend long ago. I guess your reaction is what they call ‘civilized’. By the way, you can tell a society is decadent when they replace justifiable homicide of a wife and her lover with group therapy and threesomes. Anyway, you have a lot less mental baggage to throw overboard. Your ego is so pitifully small, you’re almost the perfect man.”

“You mean perfect candidate for one of your crews,” came Mai Ling’s voice from beyond my vision.

“You see before you the essential element without which none of my crews could function. The perfect fuel: an utterly desolate soul. A personality so fragmented it’s reduced to dust. A will so weak it would take decades to find its worm hole. A faith so feeble life withers in its sparse atmosphere. Senses so encrusted by banality the very earth becomes a scab. So deficient in wit, hope, trust, loyalty, affection, good will—”

“I can see all that for myself,” my double barked, beating me to the punch.

“But I’m on a roll! So deficient in…all that stuff I said, that buzzards starve and the gods grow constipated. What a bleak scenic view of utter emptiness. Without moisture, without vegetation. Without another living soul—”

“Then what’s that?” my doubled interrupted.

At the extreme limit of our vision of the desiccated terrain, like a ship at the tip of the horizon, moved a dot that seemed to have human appendages, with one striking exception: it had three legs.

“I don’t know,” the Mandarin harrumphed. “Maybe that microscopic speck represents your ego. A quite overblown representation, in my opinion.”

Calling upon Mai Ling’s extrasensory power, I asked if she knew if it was a living thing or an optical illusion.

“I can’t see what you’re seeing,” she and her double answered.

“But I saw your vision,” I protested.

“And you’re not blind,” my double elaborated.

“Maybe the fire’s interfering with my ability.”

Fire? True, I did smell smoke. Otherwise, only alien desert—complete, apparently, with alien. It was too bad being doubled did not provide me with a parallax view. The creature seemed to be painted in chrome that reflected the harsh, uncompromising light that worried out any hint of a shadow from the dusty terrain. It moved very fast, not like an animal or man, but in an unnatural manner that appeared to carry it hundreds of yards with each tiny step. And the closer it drew, the more I became convinced that its radiance was not reflective. Perhaps it was coated in radium, or was a bioluminescent being that emitted its own light.

“Can you make sense of it?” I asked, leaning forward to look at my double.

“It’s a man.”

How did he/I know that? If we were seeing the same thing, and were the same person, shouldn’t we come to the same conclusion, or lack thereof? Squinting at the approaching form, it took me a full minute before I could determine that it was, in all probability, a man. The third leg could have been a salacious extension, except it seemed more like a horizontal antenna than anything phallic. Back and forth it went, like some mutated ant that had a sure bet on a sugar cube.

“That almost looks as if it could be—”

“Yes.”

The Mandarin was disoriented, a fact conveyed by the hand twitching on my knee. Was it possible that what I was seeing was a visual lie, that he had taken a desolate corner of my personality and expanded it into this exaggerated how-dead-was-my-valley? So who was the strange, glowing man? Was he an imperfection on a fictional canvas?

The man covered the last hundred yards in a couple of steps. For a moment I thought he was going to walk right through us, then he stopped in front of the Mandarin. There were no discernible features beyond his outline of light. But when he spoke, we knew exactly who we were dealing with.

“Well, can you imagine?”

The Mandarin drew back as the third leg was lifted, pointed directly at his chest.

“I didn’t realize we were on a job.”

The weight of the Mandarin’s hand vanished as he dodged the leg. Which was no leg, but Dead Eye’s cane, which I saw clearly when the plain of desolation vanished in a wink, replaced in the same instant by the reality (or so I hoped) of the park, of Dead Eye thwacking his cane at the Mandarin’s chest, and most striking of all, the fire that had jumped from the grill to the surrounding grass.

“You idiot, this is me!” the Mandarin bellowed at Dead Eye, knocking the cane away, only to have it swing back in his direction like a magnetized dousing rod.

“I know a target when I see one,” Dead Eye persisted.

A frightening thought struck me. How could we be certain this was indeed the Mandarin? He’d never looked the same twice. An imposter would find it easy enough to trick us. Hell, for that matter, maybe the Mandarin was not a single being, but a club of super beings, each taking his/her/its turn at observing the gullible humans from close up. If anyone could distinguish them apart it would be Dead Eye, for whom the myriad disguises (if that was what they were) would be unseen and meaningless. How he could distinguish a clue from a target was a mystery. How he could see anything at all was a mystery. But somehow I had faith in his perception, be they visual or neural. I looked at our slave master with new eyes. The Mandarin? A target? What a delightful prospect. And me without my gun, which I presumed was in the van.

Feeling himself caught in our eyeballing crossfire, the Mandarin took hold of his gut and gasped to his feet. Gruffly pushing Dead Eye aside, he whirled upon me and my double.

“Don’t look at me like that! Wipe those smirks off your faces! What he sees is only an artifact. So many people have wished me dead that it sometimes leaves…an imprint. I told you before, this is strictly species on species. Only humans can be targets.”

“How do we know that’s true?” asked my double.

“We only have your word on it,” I agreed, turning to Dead Eye. “You’re sure about this?”

“Are you talking to me?”

“And your double.”

“Well, how would I know? As for this…” He again poked the Mandarin with his cane. “It’s a target. There’s no mistaking it. Strikingly different from a clue, which is what he usually looks like. So, it’s the Mandarin himself? Remarkable.”

The two Mai Lings approached the picnic table and slid like dual serpents onto the bench across from me and my double, facing the Mandarin. The deadly coyness of her demeanor astonished me because it was the closest I’d ever seen her to achieving a genuine smile.

“Now Mai Ling, don’t try any of your tricks with me. I’m perfectly immune to fwop glick gugger pole.” He clenched his teeth against the sudden onset of nonsense.

Who needed a gun when you had Mai Ling?

The Mandarin raised a warning finger at the Mai Ling doubles, only to see it quiver like a wet paper match before suddenly finding its way up his nose.

“I could stuff a green pepper with the Mandarin,” one Mai Ling said in wonder. “It never occurred to me before.”

“What would your psychic policeman say about that?” the Dead Eye standing nearest to her asked, the twin of the third leg lowering like a teacher’s pointer as he prepared to skewer a student’s maladroit answer.

Like two identical mimes trained in tandem, the Mai Ling original and her double broadcasted a series of expressions that ranged from dread to resignation. In the process she must have released the Mandarin from her psychic grip, because he suddenly became coherent again.

But not for long. He’d barely managed the first few words of his reprimand (“You stupid girl, don’t you realize—?”) when he was stopped by a fit of coughing.

We were all coughing.

“This fire has become a two-alarm blaze,” Dead Eye judged between hacks.

A glowing fragment from the Mandarin’s apron must have floated beyond the barbecue pit, igniting the grass. The result was a steadily growing circle of flames. Discounting the violation of the local pollution ordinance, there seemed as of yet no problem. It didn’t seem possible for the entire lawn to catch on fire. Then again, a lot of implausible things had become commonplace over the last few years. And I was concerned the flames might nip a low-hanging branch on one of the decorative trees and touch off a chain reaction.

It was not something that could be ignored. Nor was it. Through the smoke I spotted two uniforms racing our way. Knowing of the Mandarin’s aversion to militant human authority, I took some smoke-filled glee in watching him panic before another wave of smoke billowed up and obscured both him and the policemen from my view. Since the Mandarin was only a few yards away from me, this was a sure indication the accident was fast becoming an emergency.

“I’ll get this one, you get that one!” I shouted at Mai Ling, both of whom had already taken hold of one of the Dead Eyes in tow and were guiding him out of danger. Both of me took hold of the Dead Eye on our side of the table. He was shaking so hard he almost slipped our grasp. I realized then that burning to death must be the fate most feared by the blind.

We were just catching up to Mai Ling when a third cop began to intersect us from the other side of the park.

“Where’s the Mandarin?”

“Phfffft!” was Mai Ling’s answer.

“Hold it right there!” the cop yelled, his hand dropping to his pistol butt. Then, as he came up, the hand drifted away from his holster, and not only because we looked so innocuous. “What the hell, this a twin convention?” Then he glanced at his partners trying to deal with the fire as they spoke into their radios and remembered we were potential felons. “All right, I want you all to—”

This time there was no halfhearted pause as he went for his gun. After all, pushing Dead Eye into his double was a sudden and possibly dangerously aggressive movement.

“Merge!” I shouted at Mai Ling, then reached towards my double.

“You think that’s a good idea—” was all my other self managed before we unified and came to a complete understanding.

The miraculous subtraction had its intended effect on the cop, who leaned to the side to see if our twins were hiding behind us, then wondered about his eyesight, then wondered about his mind. I chose that moment to marvel at our wondrous ability to do an instantaneous self-diagnostic. Of course, none of the cop’s software was designed to deal with a Mandarin crew. His only defense was that old bugaboo, instinctive self-preservation. The gun was drawn and pointed at us. A pretty pitiful response when you considered we had Mai Ling in our arsenal. She threw out a psychic tripwire. The cop fell flat on his face. He wasn’t moving, but he managed to trip. Now his diagnostic tools would have to deal with why he was suddenly so spastic. Sad and comical.

A cloud of inordinately thick smoke screened our retreat into the van.

TWELVE

To avoid the punctual insults of Benton and the knowing glance-aways of my coworkers in Underwriting/Rating, I took the risk of being subjected to even greater humiliation by frequently detouring through VP country, that land of compulsory snobbery and un-subdued power, of executive suites, real wood, and a lake-sized boardroom conference table polished to a high purple. There was no question that men dominated this rarefied atmosphere. These executive boulders crashed through the hallways with impervious ease, scattering clerks and adjusters before them and occasionally leaving tearful secretaries in their wakes. I must have had a sixth sense that forewarned me of these serge avalanches, because I rarely encountered any of the glowering boardroom demons. Unfortunately, the same could not be said about Rosanna Hanford-Jenkins. Although it was unusual for me to approach her head-on, the frequency with which she spotted me skulking through this forbidding terrain broke all rules of probability. Being a woman, her status was nothing to boast about. But just being a Board member was enough to give her godlike powers before which I could only quail with the abject terror of the utterly subjugated. I should have used her as an object lesson. After all, since she must secretly cringe beneath the managerial lash of the more daunting male Board members (and never forget, at Madison, only those with members could truly be considered titans of the Board), she had little emotional outlet beyond playing the ancient hen-yard game, redirecting her aggression upon those lower in the pecking order. A person’s status is dictated by the status of those he or she tramples upon, and while Rosanna Hanford-Jenkins’ targets were lowly underwriters, claims adjusters and a host of clerks, she made up in quantity what we lacked in quality. I wasn’t the only one to scurry out of sight at her approach. But no matter how fleet we lowlifes were, she always seemed able to winkle some hapless victim out of his hole.

And most of her victims were male, no mistake about that. This made sense, considering most of the crap that had to be redirected had been heaped upon Rosanna Hanford-Jenkins by men. Someone like me would have made the perfect receptacle for her estrogenic dump. Which was why I should have learned from her. Redirection is the heart and soul of human relations. For my own sanity, I should have browbeaten my biological and social inferiors. They existed, of course. They always do. File clerks, for example. But since I had married one, I was reluctant to spew any venom in that direction. Then there was Blind Eye. But can you see me knocking the cane out from beneath a blind man? Shoot a blind man, sure. I had done it. But verbally abuse one?

Joining a Mandarin crew might have been considered the ultimate form of redirection. But there was my dilemma. In essence, I only wanted to be left alone, to enjoy my wife and Monday Night Football in peace. It never happens, though. Being left alone. Life is an active principle. Life is wear and tear. Life is anything but still. And things that are not still bump against each other, sometimes with loving softness, sometimes so violently that the result is utter devastation. Life…is bumping. Lots of bumping. And really not much of anything else.

So bumping into a minor deity in a setting crowded with flesh-and-blood demigods great and small was only to be expected. That was life.

“Excuse me!” came Rosanna Hanford-Jenkins’ preemptory voice when she saw me dodging up a side aisle. My heart sank. I was so sure I had managed to elude her, slipping past the huge ‘We Work For You 24/7’ banner running beneath the counter in front of the executive secretary’s desk—a post already abandoned by the radar-eared Monica Combustion, whose tramp-chic good looks always drew the ire of the older woman.

I thought I had caught sight of Rosanna Hanford-Jenkins hemline flickering around the corner in the nick of time. We all appreciated the fact that she favored flowing skirts, a successful bid to mask her age-plumped hips. Appropriating the sprightly cadence of a twenty-year-old, the click of her heels warned underlings of her approach. When verification was supplied by the first glimpse of pleated cotton and polyester preceding her around a turn, we were all ready on our marks for the mad dash out of sight and sound.

Somehow, one afternoon, I was caught leaning the wrong way, or else the only thing Rosanna Hanford-Jenkins would have detected of me was a hint of aftershave all but drowned in the backwash of Monica’s redneck eau de flea market.

“You! Hey, you!”

Her yell probably would not have cut so sharply had my escape attempt been less obvious. Compounding the error of my way, I pretended not to hear her. Right. Not hear a foghorn like that?

“I said you! You want to hold up a minute?”

The next corner was only a couple of feet away. I had not looked at her yet, had not made the fatal error of making eye contact. If she had any charity in her imagination, she might convince herself that I did not think she was talking to me before I was safely out of sight.

An enormous shadow loomed on a partition. Too late to shift gears or reach for the brake.

Rosanna Hanford-Jenkins was quite a little fish compared to the whopper that rounded the corner and practically fell over me. But they were both descended from the same school of sharks.

He reacted as though I was a purse snatcher and grabbed me by the collar.

“Hey!” I cried out. This was America, not Texas, as Rosanna Hanford-Jenkins herself might have told me. Even a Madison Board member could not manhandle an employee this way.

I could tell by the blank anger in his eyes that he didn’t recognize me. I knew him, of course, seeing as he gave a warm speech brimming with Yuletide smarm to all of his ‘team players’ every Christmas. He nodded his head from side to side, as though looking for stolen goods. Big thieves never like little thieves. They’re a blot on their esteemed profession. I didn’t know his first name. To me and everyone else on the floors below he was Mr. Morgan.

“What’s he got?” he called out to Rosanna Hanford-Jenkins.

“Nothing,” said Rosanna Hanford-Jenkins, prancing up to us, then amended, “Nothing that I know about. I just wanted to talk to him and he began to run away.”

“Huh?” Mr. Morgan, whose blockhouse physiognomy resembled that of Neil, our Mike Tyson-wannabe mail clerk, decided it would be legally prudent to let go of me—but not before positioning himself across my escape path. “Running?”

Rosanna Hanford-Jenkins looked at me closely. I had to admit she was attractive, in gray sort of way. She was forty-fiftyish, and while her hair had already completely turned, she’d put senescence to good effect. From the end of the long hallway, any heterosexual male would have looked twice. But up close and personal was too close and dangerous for anyone who did not share her corporate status.

Sheer mass of persona forced my attention to Mr. Morgan, who was assaulted by the kind of confusion that as often as not led to rage.

“Running? Why were you running? This isn’t a college dorm.”

Did this reflect on Rosanna Hanford-Jenkins coveted Degree in Business from Bryn Mawr? Whatever the case, she felt it necessary to take down the analogy a notch or two. “Or an elementary school playground.”

“Yes,” said Mr. Morgan with high deference. “That’s what I mean. This isn’t kindergarten.”

Rosanna Hanford-Jenkins risked a slight mocking frown. She never was, nor ever could become, Chairman of this patriarchy on the James. Her curricula vitae of ambition must have been spinning in a dozen HR departments, and I had little doubt she would soon find another position of corporate renown and uselessness.

I quailed, quivered and quaked. This wasn’t about office decorum, and they knew it. It was moral rape. And, like the sociologists say, rape is not about sex, but power (although I never imagined it that way). A trickle of sweat traipsed down my nose.

Either we’re looking down our noses out of neurotic deference, or we’re looking down our noses from the unquestioned height of superiority. The proboscises to either side of me were veritable ski slopes of contempt. The male nose flared with sharp bristles, like one of those parodies of quill-backed bank presidents you see in old movies like ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’. In contrast, Rosanna Hanford-Jenkins’s immaculately groomed nostrils had a wonderful talcum sheen and looked too refined for the harsh vibrato they were regularly subjected to. Not a single vein showed on that nose. Above it, Rosanna Hanford-Jenkins eyes were strikingly gray. Even bloodlessness can be sexy.

“What were you running from? Certainly not from me.” The tigress suggests to the lamb that she is just another of God’s harmless, innocent creatures. She continued, “Unless you’re the same clerk they were talking about in the meeting the other day. It is you, isn’t it? The one who rated the Sykes application.”

Count on her to remember the file and not the name of the man who processed it.

“That was a nice little trick, to try and pin the tail on Benton like that. How much did Sykes pay—”

Mr. Morgan, whose wit was so dull I could not imagine why he hadn’t become a Board member by age ten, was at least perceptive enough to catch a negative glimmer from the hauntingly gray eyes of Rosanna Hanford-Jenkins. “Obtuseness sans luck” pretty much describes my genetic and social background. I was every bit as dense as the esteemed Vice Chairman, but had neither the family strings nor testosterone to meet him on a level social/biochemical playing field. Like him, though, I had just enough acumen to see the cautionary signal. I had suspected my name would crop up during the Sykes investigation, but I thought Benton’s pose as an outraged innocent mostly bluff.

There are few revelations as shocking to the nervous system as when the worst-case scenario proves not only true, but worse than we thought. Benton had smeared me before the Board, and the Board had taken his accusations seriously because, after all, proving me corrupt would get them all off the hook. That their fervid little minds were plotting wondrous horrors against me was confirmed by Rosanna Hanford-Jenkins’ cocked-brow admonition to Mr. Morgan to zip his lip before the giving the game away to the prime scapegoat.

Among the less refined small-city overlords of industry, poker faces are rarely as perfectly bland as those presented in Northern latitudes. These two would have never made it onto Dun & Bradstreet’s list of corporate deities. To people like this, power was meaningless unless it could be shoved down someone’s throat. One day soon, no doubt, I would feel the full force of their celestial malice. Due to current circumstances, however, their opinion of me and my fate coalesced in a pair of prim, knowing smirks.

The social history of smirks is full of misjudgments. One person smirks. If the other person does not smirk back, the silent battle quickly abates. The attacker has inferred that he is in possession of secret knowledge that could destroy his adversary, and is bold enough to let it be known that his push could come to shove. The loser accedes this and retreats to his favorite bolt hole. It’s either that, or he is too smart to show his hand by smirking back. First-rate brainpower being so scarce in this neck of the woods, it’s usually the former case.

Mr. Morgan and Rosanna Hanford-Jenkins were telling me they knew where the hatchet was buried, and they were ready to dig it up at some future date.

Why not smirk back at them? For one thing, they would see it as the empty posturing of a desperate man. But there’s an aspect about power-playing that’s too often ignored or forgotten by its practitioners, and that’s the foundation of their power. Power doesn’t come out of thin air.

Two men in a cave. One is stronger than the other. Boom. One becomes master, the other becomes his slave. One gets all the chicks, the other jerks off on the doormat. But the power-base (in this case, muscle) shifts. The strong get old and weak. Boom.

But things got more complicated as the centuries rolled on. Muscle became passé. Puny, white, malnourished Europeans enslaved brawny Africans. Hard to imagine, isn’t it? We see Mike Tyson beating the crap out of every paleface within his reach and think, “We enslaved guys like him? How was it possible?” The picture is askew because that elusive thing called culture has become a power unto itself.

The two Boardmasters now confronting me represented the culture of money. Their paychecks made mine look like unscented Charmin, which made them part and parcel of the dominant species. They were aware of how slippery power can be, but only so far as it was reflected by their income. They didn’t have a clue that their pedestal had been knocked right out from under them. Money? Muscle? Forget it. This was the Mandarin universe, of which I was a dues-paying member. They would have been shaken to their corporate bones to learn that luck had mutated into contracts between nobodies and the Unknown. No peasant uprising, no equalizing socialism, no call for universal health care would have frightened them more.

Oh yes, I could have smirked back with a vengeance. And what would have been the result? Three grown adults with stupid smirks on their faces. And not only that, but smirking back would have been a declaration of war. In the end, everyone has to show their hand. The Mandarin’s world could not be invoked on demand. Once the bell rang and I was found to be the only one without a knife in his hand, my smirk would become shit-eating without the grin.

Benton excepted, I could not think of two more appropriate targets for a Mandarin crew. But having chosen my personal target, I could only hope that someone else had Mr. Morgan and/or Rosanna Hanford-Jenkins in his sights.

A smirk prepared itself around the edges of my mouth. My two antagonists leaned forward ever so slightly, as though preparing to leap upon any hint of rebuttal or rebellion.

I looked down.

“So…” Mr. Morgan frowned. He seemed embarrassed. “What was this all about, again?”

“Running. He was running away.”

“Running!” A refreshed wind of anger blew out of him, as though he was hearing the accusation for the first time. “Why were you—”

“Smoke!”

I darted a glance at Rosanna Hanford-Jenkins. Her impeccable nostrils were flared in alarm. I took a whiff of the office’s air-condition-saturated atmosphere. She was right. There was unquestionably a hint of smoke in the air. Cigarette smoke.

It was well known that there were only two places where one could smoke at Madison, a non-smoking company. One was in Mr. Morgan’s office, where he frequently chomped down on Jamaican cigars (he thought the Havana brands not only overrated, but unpatriotic). The other place was in the boardroom, where the Chairman and Vice Chairman gave themselves free reign to fumigate their fellow Board members. Anyone else who smoked on the premises was subject to immediate dismissal. Fairness is as foreign to the American psyche as eating raw goat meat is to its palate.

The two board members sprang from one outrage to another. This was a flagrant smack in the face of authority. Their authority.

“Goddamn, I can’t believe it!” Mr. Morgan sniffed, snorted, bellowed. “And it’s a cheap-shit generic brand, too!”

I was not forgotten, but shelved—for the time being. Heads popped out of cubicles in response to Mr. Morgan’s roar. From the tentative shifting of these heads, it was apparent their owners feared losing them.

“Who the hell is smoking in here!”

There was a clatter of chairs and downed coffee mugs as dozens of office workers bolted out of their hutches and raced into the aisles in search of the malevolent tobacco fiend. Their smoke-free environment had been violated, and their virginal lungs gasped with indignation.

How mores could have changed so quickly, how something as commonplace and commonly accepted as cigarette smoke could have become as immaculately vile as incest in the social scheme within a few short years was a mystery—and a marvel. The smoke brought out the herd instinct in spades, and a veritable stampede ensued. In a way, their reaction was a great equalizer. Accountants, clerks, Board members, and every other social stratum was represented in the chaos that followed Mr. Morgan’s howl. Who’s smoking? Where? It’s coming from over there! No, over there!

Mr. Morgan, dismissing me completely from his incomplete thoughts, took charge of a small group and stormed away blindly, his little troupe blindly following.

The only calm in the middle of this storm resided in the gray eyes of Rosanna Hanford-Jenkins. She could see no sense in dashing off before determining what direction the smoke was coming from. This alone told me she had it all over the Vice Chairman in the cranial department. Lazy people are astonishingly smart.

Her pleated skirt flowed in accordion-like pulses as she made little turns left and right. Her keen gray eyes were filled with wonder and a hint of trepidation. In theory, anyone lighting up at Madison should have had the good sense to do so in the bathroom or, better yet, a utility closet. But they had outlandishly chosen the riskiest venue possible. Why, the Chairman’s office was just down the hall. This was a bold strike at the seat of power. As she strove to peer past a column, Rosanna Hanford-Jenkins rocked forward slightly, bringing her left foot up on her toe. It was an evocative gesture. She was like a Greek goddess poised for the hunt. The kill. Something unnatural stirred within me.

I had to warn myself against falling into fantasy mode. I could not allow my phantom hand to travel up her rather fetching white stockings. She belonged to the cabal that was going to destroy my puny professional career. Don’t sleep with the enemy, not even in your daydreams.

She wanted answers. At the moment, the only individual available for even wild speculation stood before her.

Where had I been headed when I came up here? My destination had completely slipped my mind. No matter. Any direction would do, so long as I could avoid another round with the mistress of the plantation. No doubt plenty of slaves had fantasized about bedding those forbidden belles, and no doubt more than a few had gone beyond that theoretical point. There are plenty of old Southern saws on that topic, all of which are unrepeatable. But in this new age the masters are color blind, and we equal-opportunity wage slaves dare not push social barriers too far. No, I would not have been strung up and roasted, like in the old days. We’re too civilized for that. Jobless starvation would have been my punishment.

I put my white-stockinged fantasy in my pocket and began to shift away.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“Oh…I was just going to look…to help.”

“Like you give a shit.”

Young or old, I always found it disheartening to hear swear words pass through lips that at least looked refined.

“How may I help you?” Christ, that was how I answered the phone at my desk.

Her brief laugh punched like a poodle’s yapping. A poodle on steroids.

“You can cut the crap, that’s how you can help. I’ve seen your resume. Yeah, I know your name. Why aren’t you selling popcorn, somewhere? Or dredging the sewers? You sure as hell don’t belong at Madison.”

“I always thought I did my job well.”

“Get real. There’s a big difference between doing a job well, and doing it right.”

She couldn’t be complaining that I was too righteous. Without so much as a peep, I had rated every questionable property Benton had ever given me. Maybe she was inferring that I should take being a worm like a man.

Rosanna Hanford-Jenkins approached me. She was in top form. Her status as a woman on a male-dominated Board might suck, but she was a queen, nonetheless. And in her eyes I saw an ax. No, not the ax. I wasn’t about to be fired. Not yet. They would keep me on a tether like the good scapegoat I was, waiting for the right moment to toss me to the government carnivores. Still, ‘off with his head’ was ready on her lips, and she wouldn’t mean at the neck.

And you know what? At that moment, I wanted to hump her in the worst way imaginable. And I doubted it had anything to do with power.

“Something Wicca this way comes.”

I know the melody, if not all the words. The girl who came around the corner was startled when I dropped to the floor. Rosanna Hanford-Jenkins was surprised, too, but not for the same reason.

The girl seemed harmless enough. Frumpy, overweight, black. Obviously a denizen of the clerical depths. But I knew she was no Madison employee. That would have defeated the purpose of her crew.

Rosanna Hanford-Jenkins was alarmed by my goofy behavior, not by her imminent demise.

No gunshots. I twisted my head up. The girl had not drawn a weapon. Her abundant buttocks jiggled in pants far too tight for her. Her breasts threatened to explode through her overstretched cotton shirt as she trundled up to her target.

Finally sensing an unwarranted intrusion in her personal space, Rosanna Hanford-Jenkins turned her full attention to the girl. “What did you say?”

“I said,” the girl harrumphed like a state employee asked to step an inch out of her job description, “‘something Wicca this way comes’, you stupid white bitch.”

With that, her chubby arm shot out at Rosanna Hanford-Jenkins’ neck.

The snap was palpable. I wondered at the bleak angle at which Rosanna Hanford-Jenkins’ head rocked. I thought I saw a glint of horrified surprise in those wonderful gray eyes as she was transformed from Rosanna Hanford-Jenkins into a thing. A thing—in a strange, flowing, pleated way—of beauty. But beauty yanked abruptly off life support can weigh a ton. Ample proof of this was supplied when the five feet and five inches of womanly corpse toppled with a loud thud onto the sound-muffling carpet.

“Hmmphh,” said the girl mockingly, rubbing her knuckles. “Must not’ve put enough milk of human kindness on my Wheaties this morning.”

It sounded like a Mandarin tagline.

“That was a great diversion,” I said. “The smoke.”

I doubted I sounded glib, my off-the-cuff analysis of her tactics notwithstanding.

The girl shifted her stance. Was she intending to attack me? She did not seem the type to mind inflicting collateral damage. But the way I had dropped to the floor on hearing her tagline had raised doubts in her mind. By now, I should be screaming bloody murder or running for my life. Instead, I was shakily rising to my feet and talking methodology.

“Back off, fool,” she said uncertainly.

“So, how many do you have in your crew?”

“Naw…!” Her jaw slacked open. “I never met another…”

“Who reads your clues for you? We’ve got a blind man, if you can believe it.”

She gave a curt nod, scanned the hallway in both directions, and began to back away. “I don’t think we should be talkin’ to each other. He might not like it.”

“You mean the Mandarin?”

“We shouldn’t be talkin’. Just…just…” She made a brush-away motion with her deadly hands. “Just go on about your own business. We’ve got to get out of here.”

We? Of course. She was referring to her crew. She turned abruptly and hustled away as fast as her chunky legs could carry her. Which wasn’t very fast. Employing no more than a casual saunter, I was easily able to keep pace with her.

“What’re you doin’ followin’ me, fool? Back off! There’s nothing says I can’t knock you in the head, too.”

I continued to dog the girl, confident that I could outrun her if she turned on me. I couldn’t resist watching another Mandarin crew in action. Were they more efficient? Did they behave like family, or were they as dysfunctional as our group? How many were in her crew? Two, at least. Herself and the accomplice with the cigarette. A diversion to admire and emulate.

When the girl reached the elevator bank, she hit the Down button, then aimed her fist in my direction. I stopped and drew back a little.

“Stop spyin’ on us!” she fumed. “You think the Madman would appreciate you scopin’ us like this?”
“There’s no law against me watching you. Not that I know of.”

“There is a law. It’s called the law against pluckin’ my nerves!”

One of the elevator doors rang open. She entered. For a moment, I wondered if her smoking accomplice had already departed the scene. When the door began to close, however, the girl pushed it back open. She grimaced as a flock of smoke-hunters raced past us. No one paid any attention to her. But when the elevator bumped against the girl’s outstretched arm, an electronic voice protested, “Please allow the door to close. Please allow the door to close.” Bump. “Please allow the door to close. Please allow the door to close.”

Another office flock ran in from the opposite wing. A few glances were thrown in the direction of the girl, but more in reaction to the elevator Nazi’s loud demand than to the presence of the trespasser blocking the door. Had no one seen the body, yet? Did no one suspect there was a killer in their midst?

There was a distant scream. The flock disappeared.

“Is your entire crew up here, or did you leave someone down in the street?”

“Shut the fuck up, fool.”

From down the hall strode, or rather strolled, a tall, lean man immaculately armored in a Brooks Brothers suit, looking every inch a confidant CEO. So confidant, in fact, that he felt no compunction about dragging deeply upon the cigarette poised between his long, elegant fingers. Mr. Morgan had to be wrong. This guy was not the type to smoke cheapos.

“Will you get your goddamn butt in gear!” the girl hissed loudly.

As he drew closer, I saw his brow cocked in mute disdain. He would not hurry for anyone, his attitude clearly said. Could he be a disowned English lord? He would not have looked out of place wearing a deerstalker.

“Cm’on, you white-assed dummy!” When the girl saw him give me a look askance, she added, “Don’t mind this fool. He’s under contract, too.”

“Ohhhh…?” the man leered as he paused by the elevator, taking the opportunity to grind the finished cigarette into the carpet with his tony heel. “I don’t believe we’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting someone from another crew before.” He reached out to shake my hand. The girl knocked down his arm with a sharp smack. It sounded painful, but the man’s equanimity remained unbroken. I wasn’t sure I could say the same about his wrist, which he massaged even as he smiled. The pungent smell of scorched tobacco and rayon rose up from the carpet.

“Don’t be uncivil, Rosy. We might never get this opportunity again.”

“Opportunity for what? You want to mingle at a time like this? You want to serve tea? I just chopped a big-top executive. We have to haul ass!”

“Ah, but the Mandarin would never allow us to suffer the consequences of our crime.”

“So say you. I don’t trust that bastard! Will you—”

“Please allow the door to close.”

The elevator voice seemed to make more of an impact on the man than his partner’s complaints. It was as though he suddenly realized he was being rude to a machine. After all, the elevator had said ‘Please’.

Tossing me a rueful smile, he slid past the girl’s arm. As the door finally slid shut, she glared at me darkly. “Get lost, dumb ass.”

Slowly, I made my way back to the hall outside the boardroom. As was to be expected, a crowd had gathered around the body of the Board member. A hand pointed my way and several people ran towards me. How ironic, I thought. I would be accused of a murder committed by another Mandarin crew. I had been alone with the victim—was the last to see her alive, other than the killer. And what if that killer was me? Mr. Morgan would no doubt attest that I had every reason to do her in.

“You chased her! Where did she go? Is she still up here?”

So, there had been a witness, or witnesses, to the murder. I was something of a hero for striking out after the assassin. I stared at the inquiring faces surrounding me. Through a gap in the crowd I glimpsed a shapely, female hip, its sashay forever stilled. Oh, I thought. She might have been a bitch, but she had had her own kind of charm.

Cold horror shot through my limbs. So this was what it was like to be on the receiving end of a Mandarin action, to become, suddenly, an unwilling spectator to violent, inexplicable death. My delayed reaction was no less than if I’d fainted the instant the woman fell dead. The world spun sickeningly around me. I sensed I was about to fall. I took the precaution of sitting down on the floor.

What happened next, I could neither explain nor prevent. I sobbed.

Onlookers marveled. I wasn’t the only one crying in grief or shock. But none of my coworkers had ever suspected my depth of feeling for the deceased.

Had we been having an affair?

THIRTEEN

 

The absence of punishment became the punishment. That was how I began to feel over the ensuing weeks and months on hearing nothing from the Mandarin. You might say my becoming a murderer was not strictly punishment, but the fulfillment of a contract. Strictly business. Yet there was no denying the sense of corporal punishment that accompanied each job. You would have thought murder would compensate me for the thick crust of moral quicklime that daily threatened to reduce me to my slimy components. A killer had power. I’m not talking about those who kill for money or vengeance or love, all of those being the dismal signposts of abject weakness. Nor would I categorize my murderous avocation with those who kill for the simple enjoyment of seeing life subjected to instant decay, like kids breaking lightbulbs, one of those curious aberrations that expose a common fantasy. On the other hand, as often as I was sickened by the act of murder, especially when the target seemed undeserving of violent death, the power rush was undeniable. The moment I pulled the trigger, or planted deadly incriminating evidence Othello-wise, or logically reasoned someone out of living, I was for once fully in charge. Calling the shots, a cliché so appropriate that calling it appropriate was a cliché in itself. Death should have enlivened my life, empowered me to a degree known to few, since few killers in the past or present were guaranteed such freedom from retribution, unless they too were members of a Mandarin crew or had a potent ally like Mai Ling.

Yet the instant I deviated from the prescribed course, I was subject to punishment, and all my so-called puissance became a lie. I was stuck in a rut. Considering all the targets I had failed or would fail to terminate, I would have to live forever to….

It wasn’t the first time the idea had occurred to me.

Kinky sex with my wife became, after the first half year, something of a side-benefit of remaining doubled long after a job was finished. I began to find it more interesting (if still somewhat unsettling) to spend hour after hour talking to myself. One day, I expressed the notion that what we experienced was akin to schizophrenia.

“I don’t think so,” my double responded after some thought. “I mean, that’s two or more personalities trapped in a single person. We’re the same person split into two wholes. If I was schizophrenic, there would be two schizophrenics when I doubled.”

“Why didn’t I think of that?”

“You did.”

“But why didn’t I have the same answer at the same moment you did? Until we merge, we’re two different people. We ought to be Yang and Yang, but we’re Yin and Yang. And look at how fast the separation happens. It’s almost as thought the instant we double—”

“Sometimes, I don’t feel like merging.” My double, who could look surprisingly cerebral in this mood, twisted a grin my way. “I have my own identity. I hate to give it up.”

“I know exactly how you feel.”

“For once!”

“Then has this occurred to you: if we screw up enough, we’ll live forever.”

“Of course. I thought about it while I was merged.”

“That’s right…”

I speculated upon this. We speculated upon this. If we didn’t kill, if we didn’t do the thing that occasionally made our gorge rise, if we didn’t perform the task that, when we thought about it, really provided very little in the way of empowerment, we could, by dint of neglecting the Mandarin’s contract, live until the end of time. It strongly hinted of being a no-brainer.

“Someone else must’ve thought about this before,” I said. “I mean, looked at this way, the penalty is the reward.”

“There’s probably a catch.”

“A safeguard. A codicil.”

I was miffed. ‘Catch’ sufficed. Why elaborate? In our brief time apart, even the way we spoke showed signs of divergence.

We speculated, proposed, counter-proposed. I was amazed at my double’s ability to play the devil’s advocate, and even more startled by my own willingness to occasionally assume that role. We rarely discussed targets, unless to decry a particularly onerous death at our hands. A lovely girl, a meek bureaucrat, a wino, a stenographer, a plumber, others too numerous to list. We were surprised and mortified by our inclination to identify people by their addictions, habits or professions. What were we? I? A clerk. Not very glamorous. Addictions? I had taken up smoking. Not very distinctive. Naughty habits? Looking at women on the street, looking at women on the internet, looking at women in magazines. Really profound stuff. When my double said this to me out loud, I blushed deeply. No one can embarrass us so completely as our selves.

Yet there was no denying the addiction that talking to myself had become for me. It could have been the most amazing tool for self-analysis ever devised. In fact, though, we played down the analytical aspect, since both of my selves came to the same conclusion: that there was little to pull apart and inspect that wasn’t banal, common and uninteresting. No, what I found most spellbinding was my actuality. I, who loathed myself so completely that I could barely look at myself in the mirror, had through the Mandarin’s magic become my closest friend. I wasn’t half so bad, once I got to know myself. OK, so I was a killer. Yet the experience was irreplaceable. I could see myself without feeling the weight of my body, the nervous flux of my nerves, the pull and suck of membranes or the ratchet of fear that ran like a boy rattling a stick against a picket fence in the back of my mind all day long. True, it was a little annoying that I found it difficult to meet my own eyes. But that was nothing next to the opportunity of viewing myself in living flesh. My metaphorical warts weren’t as extreme as I had thought. I was handsome, in a sub-par junior executive sort of way. And seeing me plunge into my wife when her desire was roused to a delirious pitch, did wonders for my sexual self-esteem. Perversely, being doubled also gave me the courage to be more self-critical. I don’t mean to bemoan my lowly worth, but to make productive observations about myself to improve my appearance and attitude. I pointed out to myself that I had a tendency to slouch, which made me look small and defeated. It was a defect I quickly corrected, becoming as conscious of my posture as I was of long, bare feminine legs on the sidewalks. More problematic was a twitch that plagued my left eye, something of which I had previously been oblivious. My double and I broke into fits of laughter when we stared into each others’ faces and tried to bring the twitch under control. We noticed that the twitching stopped whenever we laughed.

I missed moments like this during the long dry spell that followed my death and the ensuing picnic. And my secondary concern, my wife, became primary once again when the doubling stopped. Eileen began casting accusatory glances my way. Her little bedroom moues of invitation turned increasingly sour as time passed and my mystical twin failed to appear. She grew haggard, like someone who had missed much sleep. I could not decide if she was convinced her sex life was being interrupted by me or insomnia, my double and myself having done such a splendid job of persuading her that our ménages belonged to her dreams. Or had we? Why would she view me so critically if she thought her venereal drought was due to her own sleep deprivation? And why would she try to seduce me, her husband of the waking moment, if she only found satisfaction in REM? Was she, in fact, a willing participant in the Mandarin scheme? Could she have somehow guessed I was no longer conjuncting with the stars, but a wholly different reality? Or perhaps she thought she had gone mad, and found it so pleasant she conspired against sanity.

Whatever the cause, during this hiatus in wetwork, the few occasions when I ventured to satisfy Eileen as a solitary man fell woefully short of her orgasmic ideal.

I wondered if Mai Ling and Dead Eye were having similar problems. If they felt the withdrawal as severely as I did, it was a severe price to pay for accusing the Mandarin of being a target.

Work at Madison once again became a slimy den from which there seem no escape. Not that things had ever really improved, but knowing that, somewhere, there was another me doing something, being somebody, even getting somewhere (slowly but surely I was stretching towards the goal line—the elimination of Benton) somehow made my slug-like existence more bearable. However cruel, heartless and distasteful murder can be, it’s amazing the spiritual lift you get when you begin viewing the assholes and cretins around you as potential targets.

For a month or so, my coworkers brought me into their conversations to pry out more details of the murder of Rosanna Hanford-Jenkins. Unfortunately, this slice of notoriety did not translate into an effective macho image at the office. As ever, Benton continued to plaster me with doubtful claims, onerous busywork and ludicrously transparent camaraderie. The trickle of doubt that I had detected when Eileen withdrew her sexual favors from him (or so I presumed) in preference for the new-found joys of threesomes had quickly dried up. Never one to lack confidence, his ego was buffed and shined in the presence of the ever-delectable Irene, who coincidentally earned a raise during this period. Secure in his squalid ego, Benton still took the time to occasionally ask me how my wife was doing.

“Haven’t seen hide nor hair of her lately.”

Very funny. My laughter was so hollow the echoes reached to the far ends of the universe. Well, of this universe, at least.

In spite of what I suspected—OK, knew—about her, my eyes were riveted to Irene whenever she was in sight. I took up the fantasy of doubling in upon the luscious siren, of bracing her between me for some bumptious discourse in her impeccable grooves. It could be arranged, I thought, as I finished work one day and trudged uphill to the parking deck, all the while observing Irene’s sensational tread from behind. Most women lose the thread of glamour when they ascend a steep slope, their muscles bunching in unsightly packets as their dresses rucked at their midriffs. But Irene proved that muscles need not bulge in the perfectly honed female form, nor apparel twist at awkward angles when under strain. She looked, in fact, as though she was strutting for the benefit of the hill, seducing it, forcing geography to succumb to a brilliant feat of human bio-engineering.

My mind was still a kaleidoscope of leggy visions as I pulled out of the parking deck and joined the frantic race to beat the three traffic lights between the parking facility and the ramp to the Downtown Expressway.

I beat all the lights, but never made it to the ramp. Because, slanting away from the ramp, headed towards the vicinity of the state university, was a van I knew all too well. It was not unusual to see Mai Ling’s VW in this area. After all, she lived in the Fan (or so she once hinted, though she never specified exactly where in the Fan, and she may have been lying in any case), and the Fan was barely a quarter mile from Dead Eye, who resided in a rooming house on Grace. Neither was far from the downtown bank and government districts, who along with the hospital were the city’s only real employees. What was out of the ordinary was seeing Mai Ling outside the structure of our crew. The only two I had seen objectively were Dead Eye, in his apartment, and my self, strolling down the street fully aware that at that instant I might be doubled, though never suspecting until we merged that I might play the spy on my own ill-judging person.

I couldn’t see Mai Ling, but over the last few years I had gotten to know her vehicular mode of transportation like the light at the end of the tunnel. When you want to get out fast, you know every nuance of your escape pod, from the putter of its air-cooled engine down to the L-shaped rust spot on the rear door panel and the faded ‘I Brake for Hallucinations’ bumper sticker.

Was that why I took the right-hand lane that led away from the highway? By now I was so hyperaware of my tics, physical extensions and mental state that I could usually (though not always) tell when I was doubled. I was pretty sure that at this moment there was only one of me on the city streets. So I did not think my double was also in the van, and that I was seeing my crew en route to or returning from a job. The lure of Mai Ling’s van was a knee-jerk reflex, a sense that I had done something wrong and needed to elude capture. The van had never failed to deliver me from a job, uneventfully or otherwise. It was a kind of perverse omen of safety.

Also, of course, I was curious. Every member of our crew had a regular life, but of Mai Ling I knew next to nothing. She might belong to a bizarre race of extra-exceptional psychic beings, but what was the veneer of her normal, everyday life like? What part of her was human? Even vampires could behave like everyone else, on occasion. They slept away their lazy afternoons, just like Dagwood.

As I fell in behind the van, I should have reminded myself that Dracula and Blondie were alike in one more vital way: they didn’t exist.

It did not take long for me to conclude Mai Ling was headed for Dead Eye’s apartment, nor to decide they were not returning from a job. No matter how potent Mai Ling’s psychic power, she always drove like a bat out of hell whenever fleeing the scene, like any common bank robber. I found it easy to follow her calm, judicial course through the evening traffic, even when several cars interposed themselves between us. Was this intentional? Had she caught a whiff of my thoughts? Did psychics sense brain waves as air-free scents? Was I Spring Potpourri, Mennen, or eau de Old Goat? If she did know I was behind her, her acquiescence came in the form of her sedate style of driving. She made no attempt to dart away. On the contrary, every so often she seemed to slow down in order not to lose me.

I was only a third of a block behind the van when she stopped in front of Dead Eye’s rooming house. I pulled over and watched as Mai Ling emerged from the van and circled around. Before reaching the passenger side the door sprang open and Dead Eye tumbled out. He reacted violently when Mai Ling brushed a helping hand against his shoulder, forcing her to dodge a wide swipe of his cane. For an instant I wondered if I, too, possessed some form of psychic talent. The air seemed red with Dead Eye’s wrath, a pulsing retrograde of corpuscular heat that intensified as he fought off an invisible force, crossed the sidewalk, and took hold of the steps’ battered railing. I could read the imploring tone of Mai Ling’s words from her agonized expression. She almost looked like a lover pleading her case, although I suspect a real estate agent pushing the sale of a lifetime would have been as ardent. While I had had a few brief fantasy flings with Mai Ling, the possibility of consummation, of even broaching the topic, was as remote to me as the idea of her and Dead Eye being lovers. Was it possible? Of course. People mated in all sorts of ridiculous combinations. That was why I experienced a twinge of jealousy. Tempered, thankfully, by the improbability of the match. Mai Ling and Dead Eye did not seem to like each other very much, never mind summoning the wherewithal for love or even basic physical consolation.

As Dead Eye pounded up the steps, using his cane like a wobbly pile driver to speed his way, I waited for Mai Ling to glance in my direction, to raise her chin dismissively, to throw me the bird—anything that would betray her knowledge of my presence. Which was ridiculous. I knew full well she did not need to look at me to see me.

Dead Eye stepped inside. Mai Ling did not move for several minutes, as if she was silently praying he would come back out. Maybe she thought it would be impossible to reason with him inside his lair, where habit and knowledge of the layout would add to his strength against her words. Finally, still giving no hint of awareness of any human existence beyond her and Dead Eye, she retreated into her van and drove away. I shifted and followed.

She cut through the Fan and turned right on Patterson. I expected her to pull up in front of one of the more fashionable turn-of-the-century townhouses along the avenue. For all the decrepitude of her van, and the extreme casualness of her cut-off dusty jeans and threadbare shirts, she had about her an upper middle class air. I was sure she was wrapped in invisible sheepskins. But she drove straight past the professor-laden houses, bypassed even the more humble blue-collar single-stories further out, and entered the matrix of malls and suburban developments that gave out onto the spotty pastures preceding the rolling fields of the countryside. Did she live on a farm? That, too, would have been fashionable. Growing your own rutabaga to the accompaniment of moos and clucking was all the rage, if Town & Country had it right.

Patterson lost its name and became a route number, which to me was the ultimate sign that bucolic vistas threatened. I don’t like the countryside because I dread its emptiness. City and suburban life, well-fueled, fed and electrified, provide the noise we need to fill the gaps in our souls.

She began to slow down as we neared a miniature theme park. All those giant caterpillar slides, lady bug tunnels and mayfly tilt-a-whirls looked odd sitting in the middle of nowhere. Doubly odd, because across the highway from it lay a vast, modern cemetery. Children sliding down colorful Jurassic-size insects had an unhindered view of what awaited them when the longest slide was done. I found myself wondering if Mai Ling had children, and was going to pick them up after a day in the park. But she cruised by the land of the truly innocent, making a left onto a road that circled behind the cemetery.

There was no hiding in traffic now. The farce was over. Even if Mai Ling could not psychically smell me, hear my mental signature tune, or feel my thoughts, she could not miss the mustard-colored car in her rearview mirror that she had no doubt caught glimpses of over the last twenty miles. But to give my impromptu sleuthing the weight of purpose, I had to maintain the pretence. I slowed down until she was well ahead of me before turning the corner where I had last seen her.

She was still out of sight. Well, it was a curvy country road, after all. I tried not to panic, took the next curve. And the next. After a mile of twists and turns I came to a End of State Maintenance sign that introduced me to a rough and tumble, heavily rutted logging road.

Long shadows informed me that nightfall sans streetlights would soon enfold me in its claustrophobic embrace. I wanted none of that. Finding a trash-strewn clearing, I turned around and drove slowly back along the paved road, searching for turn-offs I might have missed.

There. A maintenance road that led to the cemetery. I knew this because a sign at the entrance told me so. I must have scanned and ignored it without thinking as I passed from the opposite direction. Why would Mai Ling come here? But it was either this or the logging road, and a visit to a loved one’s grave seemed more likely. She certainly seemed like the kind of morbid individual who visited the dead on a regular basis.

There was no gate or other barrier. I turned onto the lane.

I went only a short distance before the lane opened onto the rear of the cemetery, a broad treeless desert of single-tone grass and gravestones flattened for the convenience of lawnmowers. Death on the cheap, economical, virtually maintenance-free, and desolate. I stopped in front of a large, though low, brick garage. Next to it were stacked two-legged metal signs that announced ‘Artificial Flowers Only’ and ‘Decorations must be removed within two weeks’. Memorials on a time clock. It spooked me to think of how inconvenient I would become once I died, and of the numerous dead encumbrances I had created as a member of a Mandarin crew.

The vale of dried tears was so flat I could clearly see there were no other cars in the cemetery. I had an unobstructed view of the kiddy park across the highway, chock-full of pre-casket children screaming in fun and fear. The dual icons of death and delight contrasted with killing irony under a paring-knife moon that rose sharply against the dull sun. And no one here but us chickens.

There was no need to go further. Skirting a pair of Bobcats and a backhoe that bore a Japanese logo, I turned around in the maintenance area parking lot and headed for the workers’ exit.

The van was hidden to anyone entering the cemetery via the maintenance road, but anyone leaving would see it parked on the short dirt lane that slanted off into the woods. Tangled roots ribbed the lane like fossilized pythons. Combined with the mud-filled potholes, it promised dire mechanical cruelty to my shocks and undercarriage. The maintenance road was I-95 in comparison, but was so narrow that parking on it meant blocking traffic, a sure way to draw suspicion. But since presently there was no traffic or any likelihood of any this late in the day, I stopped where I was and got out.

Dodging holes and hopping over roots, I approached Mai Ling’s van. My rising dread was inexplicable. Naturally, whether or not she already knew of my presence, she would be offended by my trailing her like some third rate flatfoot. But she had been upset with me any number of times, for many different reasons. By now I should have been inured to her temper.

While the cemetery was treeless, the area surrounding it was heavily forested. Under the artificial dusk of the thick botanical canopy the van appeared like an oversized larva on the verge of springing a monstrous insect. That was one reason to feel uneasy. I also had a profound aversion to bees. The little clearing was used to dump the remains of trees recently chainsawed, and the sap and sawdust attracted hordes of yellowjackets. The hair on my legs prickled as I imagined the little beasties swarming up inside my pants.

“Mai Ling!” I prepared and delivered a nervous quip. “I just happened to be in the neighborhood, and I couldn’t help but notice your van…”

There was no one in the driver seat. Squeezing between the front end and a tree stump, I peered through the windshield. I should have considered beforehand the possibility that Mai Ling could be in the back with a lover and catch me in a voyeuristic pose. Luckily, that was not the case. The van was empty.

I had not seen her in the cemetery. That left the woods. OK, perhaps her and a lover were frolicking in the bushes. I sharpened my ears. The whiffling of a breeze overhead. A daunting birdcall that sounded more like a territorial menace than a welcoming warble. I was certain I would have detected any lusty breathing in the underbrush. The stillness of the spot was unimpaired by the squeals of children in the park, or the cars on the equally-distant highway. You can find places like this in desert canyons or back street alleys, self-contained orbits where sound dropped dead down an acoustical gravity well and any physical movement belonged to no sequence, had no beginning or end, and imprinted the terrain on a dull bovine mentality. The perfect place in which to die of thirst, hunger, exposure or ennui. The perfect cosmic fishbowl for someone like Mai Ling.

Not for me, though. Even a graveyard seemed cheerier than this. Wincing at every bee flyby, each sounding like the Mr. Howdyhell of my near-death, I retraced my path out of the clearing and walked the short distance to the cemetery. The flat gravestones were like fallen dominoes that had been serrated into neat ranks by a compulsive gamesman. I begged silently for foliage, monuments, the occasional vandalized tombstone. On second glance I found there were indeed little bulges on the ground that could be taken for memorials, or at least memorabilia. But it was too little, and way too late. The few tiny crosses I saw would have been more appropriate for the graves of Alvin, Theodore and Simon.

There seemed no point in staying. I don’t know why I clung to my little terminal patch at the edge of the cemetery, especially as dusk took a serious turn into darkness. Yet I experienced something I had not felt in a long time. I sensed I was needed here. But why? Could I raise the dead? Perform an impromptu service that would approximate sincerity? Well, I could at least frighten off the scavengers intent on digging up the deceased. Like some sort of scare-vulture. I liked the idea. I could guard the non-living—some of whom, I knew for a fact, I had put here myself. True, that would not provide much in the way of consolation for them, or for the bereaved who had been left behind in the land of the living. But appearance, like possession, is nine-tenths of both the law and of morality.

Wait…

What the hell was that? Dark, twice the size of a football, something traversed the lawn near the maintenance building. A cat? Jesus, a raccoon! Nightfall had become nightfallen. Had it not been for a motion spotlight bracketed on the edge of the building, I would never have seen the animal coming my way. Forget bee stings. Raccoons carried rabies. It was one of those wretched conundrums nature loved to inflict upon us with sadistic glee. The friendlier the beast, the more pronounced the alarm. The raccoon seemed completely unfazed by my presence as it trundled closer. It couldn’t be unaware of me. This was, after all, one of those miracles of creation the PBS nature shows blathered on and on about. Wild beasts could sense the approach of violent storms, detect earthquakes far in advance of their occurrence, see magnetic fields and spectral images invisible to the human eye. Certainly, they would know if a grown man was standing right in front of them. So either the raccoon was utterly oblivious, which I thought unlikely, or it carried a deadly virus. If I became infected, one of my worst childhood fears would become a reality: abdominal injections. I recalled an article I had read years ago about animal IQ. Raccoons ranked at the top of the list among land mammals. This not-so-little critter knew exactly what it was up to.

When I took a step backward the raccoon froze, the alarm palpable on its masked face. You don’t need a host of facial muscles to express fear. Why hadn’t it seen me before now? Was I such a nonentity that even an animal’s senses, highly attuned to its surroundings, did not spot me until it was ten yards away? That was practically in-your-face, raccoon-wise.

My dread became relief, and then humor, as the raccoon began to back away in slow motion. It looked like a camera trick, a video in reverse.

“That’s right,” I said, jutting my chest forward. “Don’t mess with me. I’m a killer. I eat hairy punks like you for lunch. I’m glad to see you’ve got some smarts, after all. Never tangle with your evolutionary superiors.”

The raccoon halted it’s comical backward motion, performed a half-turn, and made a run for the trees behind the building. If only I could have instilled such terror in Benton. Then again, one day, by proxy, I would. I couldn’t imagine anything but a grisly death as a Mandarin option in his case. No fall from grace, but a fall from life was the only fit punishment for the man who was the reason behind so much killing.

The raccoon must have realized the motion spot presented as much a threat as I was, and tried to detour out of the light. I followed its awkward arc, a bit wary that in its confusion it might turn back towards me. My concern grew when the spotlight clicked off. I could still make out the hustling ball of fur, but only just. I swiveled slowly, confirming the path of its escape—

“Jesus!”

I jumped sideways and tripped over my foot, sprawling onto the manicured lawn and rattling my teeth on a ground-level marker. Ignoring the pain, I rolled onto my back and gasped, “Mai Ling! Why the hell’d you sneak up on me like that!”

“It only seemed fair after you followed me all the way from the city.”

She sounded strange. All I could see was her dark outline, the bottom tip of the crescent moon pricking the side of her shadowed head.

“You knew from the beginning,” I protested flatly as I sat up.

“Yes.”

“If it bothered you so much, you could’ve stopped and told me to bug off.”

“Who said I minded?”

Her sepulchral tone seemed all too appropriate to the surroundings. I was suddenly sorry I had put myself into this situation. I also wondered where the raccoon had gone. I hoped it would pass the maintenance building and trigger the motion detector on the spotlight. Mai Ling in the dark was enormously unsettling.

“You wanted to find out where I live.” Her darkened shoulders lifted in a shrug. She made no move to help me up. I didn’t expect her to. I was a foot and a half taller than her and at least seventy pounds heavier. She continued, “That’s only natural. I realize I’ve been remiss. We’ve been in the same crew for a long time, and I haven’t really told you anything about myself.”

“You said you lived in the Fan.”

“Did I? I don’t remember. It’s true, I used to live in the Fan. That’s where I raised my two children.”

Children. Two of them. And she looked so young. Of course, she seemed the physical type who would look young at fifty. Which meant—hell, maybe she was fifty.

“You’ve always wanted to know why I joined a Mandarin crew.”

“Also normal. I mean, you seem to have everything going for you. Plus. Anyone who can knock down mountains just by thinking about them shouldn’t have any problem with self-esteem.”

I grimaced inwardly as soon as the words were out. It was all right to voluntarily reveal a part of your soul, but I hated when it slipped out on a psychic banana peel. There I sat, my pitiful neurosis fully exposed in the dark.

“Yes. I suppose the typical Mandarin crew might have a low ratio of self-esteem. But you could look at it the other way. Maybe crew members have too much self-esteem. So much, in fact, that they’re willing to kill complete strangers in order to satisfy their demand.”

“Is that the case with you?” I leapt up when I felt moisture seeping through my pants seat. It had been nearly a week since the last rainfall. Apparently the dead were slow absorbers. Mai Ling pulled back a short distance. If she could read my mind, she would have known I wasn’t thinking of attacking her. Once again, I swayed between believing she comprehended everything in omniscient detail, and thinking she knew no more than the average person.

“I have no demands for myself.”

“What?” I brushed off my pants. “There’s no point in joining a crew if you don’t have any demands. Now that I think about it, I don’t even know what Dead Eye wants out of all this. I mean, I’m in it for a promotion at work.”

“How profound.”

Her sarcasm hit the mark. Put into words, my reason for becoming a mass murderer sounded obscenely prosaic. Like a child chopping his sister to death for her lollipop. It wasn’t that way at all, in my view. I was trying to save the battered icon of my marriage. In some circles, matrimony remained an institution worth dying (or killing) for. Or so my sanctimonious thoughts ran at that moment.

Mai Ling’s comment also suggested that her reason for signing up with a crew had far more substance than my own.

“Are you saying you’re doing this for someone else? Maybe you want your daughter on the cheerleading squad?”

“This isn’t Texas, and I’m not a Texan.”

Her words lacked that visceral quality that would have given them punch. They came like little breathless puffs of reason, dependent more on gist than weight to make their impact. Which was not very great, because I was becoming preoccupied with a fetid stench suddenly filling the air. Oh Christ, what had I fallen on? I imagined some oozy, pestilent slime had leeched out of the ground, forming a grotesque puddle on top of the grave on which I had fallen. I sniffed at my hands, felt my seat, sniffed again, for all the world like a bitch unsure of who had mounted it.

“I’m going to tell you some things about myself. But before you judge me, you need to know that no one in our crew, not even you, is more evil than Dead Eye.”

Her assertion was so unexpected and unwarranted that for an instant I forgot about the reek of death around me. I had thought of Dead Eye as our resident wise and/or holy man. But before I could formulate a protest it struck me that he had never hinted what his ultimate goal was. He was the only one to invite his fellow crewmembers into his home, yet he had somehow avoided revealing very much about himself. Who was his intended target? Who would fail or die in his name?

“Is that what you were seeing him about? He looked pretty pissed when you dropped him off.”

“No one likes having the truth rammed down their throat.”

No, it didn’t sound very tasty. I wondered if that was what she had planned for me. With this funk as a condiment, it was bound to be unpleasant.

“I’ll let him tell you for himself.” Mai Ling’s shadow was unnaturally still. This wasn’t like her at all. Even when she was depressed, which was most of the time, she had all the jittery mannerisms small people are prone to. If anyone was spooked and spastic at that moment it was me. I flinched at the approach of a moth, ducked under the whine of a mosquito, and generally fidgeted like a marmoset on speed. I found my hands macabre and irresistible, and could not refrain from repeatedly sniffing them, although by now I was sure neither they nor my soaked pants were the source of the mephitic rankness.

“The Mandarin doesn’t seem to mind airing our dirty laundry for us,” Mai Ling continued, “but it’s no sin to tell on ourselves.”

“You know Dead Eye’s secret, then.”

“Actually, I guessed.”

“You didn’t read his—”

“It should be obvious even to you, if you think about it. I only told him my guess. As you saw, he didn’t take it very well.”

“Right. Listen, you want to go somewhere else to talk? I’m not feeling very comfortable here.”

“You mean go to my place?” Was that amusement in her voice? “You want me to introduce you to my children?”

Not ‘family’. Not ‘husband and children’. Just ‘children’. Even Mai Ling was capable of a slip. “There’s a Chick-Filet a few miles up the road.”

“I’m not hungry. Listen, Bongo, I don’t have all night, so I’ll get to the point. You’ve been playing with fire. You’ve either screwed up or passed on so many targets, and we’ve incurred so many penalties, that I sometimes wonder if you think you can trick the Mandarin into letting you live forever.”

“That’s crazy,” I said uncomfortably.

“By my last count, you purposefully botched or just plain skipped twenty jobs. That’s twenty years in penalties.”

“No!” I exclaimed in horrified confusion. I mentally counted my fingers. “I was sure it was ten.”

“And if you refuse to kill a hundred more,” she continued obliviously, “that’s a hundred more years in penalties. You see what I mean? Do you think the Mandarin would let you live forever on that basis? Do you think he could? You didn’t have a single white hair when we first met, Bongo. Now you’re all salt and pepper. At what point do you think aging will stop so you can keep doing your half-assed jobs? Do you think you can still keep up when you’re eighty? Ninety? Two hundred? Have you forgotten about Mr. Howdyhell?”

Why. Yes. I had. Somehow. I’d even been introduced to him in my death trance. Yet the logic and allure of immortality had pushed him to the back of my mind. How stupid we become when our hopes outweigh our fears.

“There’s nothing wrong with wanting to live forever,” Mai Ling continued. “But there’s nothing right about your way of trying it. We’ve all sold our souls to create an opening for ourselves—”

“Or someone else,” I interjected nastily. “Don’t forget your sainthood.”

“And you’re only making it worse. The longer you delay, the more people we’ll have to kill in the long run.”

This was odd. Extremely odd. Always before, whenever she broached this subject, she had sobbed buckets. Now she sounded as tearless as her shadow.

“As for being a saint…” A thoughtful, human pause. “I would be a monster if I didn’t care for the welfare of my children—who, thanks to your behavior, will now be fully grown adults by the time our contract matures.”

“Then why don’t you start pulling the trigger?”

“Oh, I’m a hypocrite. There’s no denying it even now. Even now. But do you realize that on the very first target that you skipped, my whole purpose for joining the crew was destroyed? There was a certain urgency in my predicament. And now there’s no point. No point whatsoever. Beyond revenge, that is, if you consider that a point.”

So her daughter didn’t make the cheerleading squad. That was how I frivolously summed up her situation in my thoughts. A mental jest that went awry when the implications tumbled through my brain.

The theme park had closed. Being a petite version of Kings Dominion and Busch Gardens, it depended upon sunlight to stay open, as though the children who frolicked there were exotic seedlings that needed much more than humble fluorescents to thrive happily. More ominously, there was no sound of traffic from the road, a fact so improbable this early in the evening that it was virtually impossible. Sounds were not simply muffled. They were gone. Including the crickets. We were shut off entirely inside an eidolon dome.

Then I knew. I had not followed Mai Ling here. I had been lured.

We were not on a job. We were not in the Work Zone. I had no occupational immunity. I was a sitting duck for Mai Ling’s psychic arsenal. Thinking of the hapless cops at the car wash, I resigned myself to a grim fate. I did not know what repercussions might befall someone who murdered a fellow crewmember, but Mai Ling was in a state of mind where a visit from Mr. Howdyhell would not matter in the least.

“I had an abusive husband.”

“You’re…divorced…”

“You might say that. Things went so well during the first years of our marriage. My children, a boy and a girl, were so beautiful… I could hardly believe my luck. Of course, I was mocked by my people for marrying a ‘norm’. Someone without psychic talents would be a simplistic definition. I was mocked even more for not properly defending myself—and my children.”

“He beat you? And the kids? And you didn’t zap him?”

“You of all people must understand what lengths someone will go to when they’re in love.”

There was no need for that to sink in. It was already in my bones. I could not honestly say that I wanted Benton’s job. I wanted my wife back, and the only way to put her lover permanently out of the picture was to have him eliminated, one way or another. Promotion was more a consequence than a desire. With the comparison, Mai Ling was telling me she had dropped her guard. Completely.

“Well,” I said stupidly, “at least he doesn’t hit you in the face. I’ve never noticed any bruises.”

“Face, stomach, arms, legs…anywhere he could punch or kick. After I confronted him for abusing my children—both of them!—there was no end to it. No limit.”

“Hell, Mai Ling,” I said, the enormity of her revelation finally hitting me. “I’m really sorry.”

“I wanted him dead. I can’t tell you how badly. I could have stabbed him while he slept. It would have meant life imprisonment.”

“You could’ve broken out easily enough.”

“If I had the desire to. I would have stayed in jail because that would be where I belonged. And my children would come on visiting day to see their jailbird mother.”

“Why stab him? You could have—”

“Used my psi talent? Then my punishment would have been worse. Eternal. And inescapable.”

I recalled the invisible psychic cop who had dropped in on us at Dead Eye’s apartment. And with that memory I realized what was happening to us at that very moment. The weird silence, the growing weight of the atmosphere, the sudden sense that the ground was shifting downward, cannily seismic….

He was here, or soon would be. Mai Ling was once again approaching perilous, forbidden territory. Did the enforcer know she was about to kill me? Would he intercede, or be satisfied with punishing the murderess once the deed was done?

“You could have left him—your husband,” I said weakly. Even near death, I didn’t like the idea of wives bolting on their husbands.

“I did. I tried.”

“Yes?”

“He caught me. He beat me. My psi instincts failed me. I still loved him. He caught me. I must have wanted to die. He beat me. He found my son’s baseball bat. He caught me. He beat me to death.”

I lost my breath.

This must have been a secret Mai Ling’s people could not bear to have exposed to a simpleton like me. The psychic cop was upon us. The ground roiled. I heard the suck and crack of caskets bursting open. All the movement triggered the motion detector on the maintenance building and the light came on. I saw Mai Ling.

I screamed.

FOURTEEN

 

“Dead Eye…?”

“Yes?”

“This is a pile of dog shit.”

“I thought I detected a malodorous effusion.”

“You can’t expect us to sift through a pile of dog shit searching for clues.”

“I can’t help what it is. That’s the indicator. Hey, don’t shoot the messenger.”

There were several reason why I was not entirely pleased to be on the job again, and this was only a relatively minor one. As Mai Ling wrinkled her nose at the smelly poop, I recalled the ghastly apparition she had presented me the month before.

That was how much longer the Mandarin drought (Mandarin drought, Mandarin crew, Mandarin cola—why not?) had lasted. But instead of being relieved when I was contacted and doubled, I returned to my crew with a sense of hopeless dread. When Mai Ling picked me up in her van I could not meet her eyes, knowing as I now did that the real Mai Ling no longer had them—nor much else beyond the putrid skeletal framework and tattered organic fabric of what had once been a neighborhood housewife. My vision of her in the graveyard had been cut short by the psychic cop, who threw a blanket of dark silence over the scene. When the oppressive dome lifted I stood motionless in my suit of nervous sweat, until my eyes grew accustomed to the sliver of moonlight. I was definitely alone, unvisited by either the living or the dead.

When I saw her again, her disguise of a living, breathing human could not erase from my memory the festering anatomy lesson she had presented to me that night in the cemetery. I knew now how truly tiny her bony hands were. And that the Mandarin could perform the ultimate feat of corporeal prestidigitation.

I had yet to query Dead Eye on the topic Mai Ling (and, apparently, the Mandarin) found so fraught with evil: his reason for joining the crew. It was hard to conceive of anything more iniquitous than raising the dead. But scrutinizing dog shit ran a close second.

We were in Bryan Park, a generous land endowment from one of the area’s bluebloods, and granted to a city that, over the last hundred years, had forgotten what to do with it. Midway across the park, what had once been a riding pasture had given way to an agronomic research project. When all the experimental crops failed, it was converted into a checkerboard of soccer fields that were full on Sunday mornings, but on weekdays lay deserted. At the far end were narrow lanes circulating through a series of picnic shelters that had become notorious for homosexual assignations, and if the newspaper articles were remotely accurate, the park had become a San Franciscan bathhouse al fresco that shocked the parents who brought their children to feed the ducks and geese in the adjoining lake.

We were tramping through a more secluded area, where the original lush gardens had been allowed to go to seed. At the edge of one garden stood a small bulletin board. A faded itinerary of ‘What’s Happening’ flapped listlessly on a sheet of typing paper tacked to the corkboard, the latest event listed having taken place almost ten years ago. Next to it was posted a note from one Mrs. Ida Somebody (rain had blurred the ink over her last name) that encapsulated a brief history of the azalea garden, and needlessly informed the reader that it had fallen into a state of disrepair.

“‘I have been trying to maintain the garden by myself for lo these many years, but I’m 80 now and find it difficult to perform all the chores necessary to keep it beautiful. Wouldn’t you like to help? Come on, all of you green thumbs! Just tear off one of the strips below with my telephone number and give me a call!’”

At the bottom of the announcement the paper had been segmented student-style into tiny detachable flags. The note was dated around the same time as the ‘What’s Happening’ agenda, which meant Ida was pressing ninety, if she was still alive at all. Perhaps she was in an old folks home, her green thumbs vegetating around the edge of the coverlet a nurse had tossed onto her wheelchair, still waiting for the phone to ring. Only one of the strips had been torn off. Judging from the state of the garden, it must have been taken by someone intent on placing a crank call.

“‘Hey Ida! Saw your note. I buried my dead dog in your garden. At least I think it was dead. First-rate fertilizer, huh?’”

But the area was still popular with joggers and (obviously) dog-walkers. Social fitness had been supplanted by the health of the individual. Nearly all of the men and women I saw running the old lanes that morning could have been models. The world was going to hell, but my, don’t we look good?

A fecal analogy was appropriate. And lucky us—we had one at hand. Or rather, at foot. A plump dark stool still moist from its creation. I noticed some yellow streaks and asked Mai Ling if she thought they meant anything.

“I’ve never had a pet,” I continued. “Did you have a dog when you were alive?”

She shot me a look that could have melted the Ross Ice Shelf. But we were back on the job, with my double safely tucked away at his dead-end job. Staying focused in the Work Zone gave me all the protection I needed. And in case Mai Ling planned on getting back at me once we merged…well, I was savvy enough now to avoid meeting her outside the Work Zone. Of course, there were some questions I would have liked clarified for me during our downtime. If the Mandarin could indeed raise the dead, why didn’t Mai Ling look like a corpse when she was doubled? Or was this perfect imitation of life a talent she shared with others of her mysterious species?

“What do you mean by that?” Dead Eye turned in Mai Ling’s general direction. “What does he mean, ‘when you were alive’?”

“I can’t imagine. Tell us, Bongo. What do you mean?”

“I meant…” OK, what did I mean? Meaning, what was my intention? I had blurted the truth, but the subtext indicated that I was being a troublemaker. That there should be dissension in our group was not surprising. We had been together far longer than the average rock band. But that I should be the one to instigate dissent came as a surprise even to myself. I did not think of myself as a subversive force, even when I flooded over with wisecracks. My employment as a mass killer had come in the form of a temp job, something that would end at the project’s conclusion. Gray flannel suit stuff. Nothing out of the ordinary. People might not be able to bring themselves to believe the man killing them by the score was in reality as dull as ditchwater, but that was their misconception, their problem. I would have thought the difference between being murdered by a notorious felon and a nonentity to be a non-issue.

But what about those who knew me intimately, my fellow crewmembers? Mai Ling had power that reached beyond the grave. Dead Eye possessed the ability not only to locate clues and targets, a potent talent, but held a secret so dire that Mai Ling considered him worse than even her own dead self.

Maybe that was the rub. There’s a perverse streak in most of us that admires true evil, unadulterated by faux theories of relativism. Novelists have recognized it as long as there have been publishers, and if Benton had taught me anything, it was that women really do prefer the proverbial bad boys. (In his case, ‘up and coming’ says it all.) Mai Ling’s claim of Dead Eye’s wicked nature raised my feeble competitive hackles. That this bland, blind old man could be more fraught with sin than myself, slayer of dozens if not hundreds, punctured what little self-esteem I had cultivated within the crew. Essence of inconsequentiality was a distinctly unsavory aroma. Maybe triggermen were dumb pawns in the criminal scheme of things, Mafia gofers and two-bit hoods and all that, but a thug was not someone you could simply ignore. True, the gun had more character than I did. I walk past, people scarcely notice. But pull a gun, and they can’t help but take note. Why did my partners refuse to recognize my hard-earned status? Hey, Bongo, you’re the man, you’re the hunk killer.

But did I really want these two as groupies? Picture a cumulus-eyed old fart gushing my praises. Picture a corpse swooning at my feet. Was that what I wanted?

I sighed.

“I just meant Mai Ling acts as though she’s dead, sometimes. A mood thing.”

Dead Eye had such contempt for me (possibly unconscious) that he accepted this flimsy notion at face value. I didn’t have the guts or mental wherewithal to have something to hide.

I took a stick and poked through the dog feces. Maybe the mutt had swallowed a clue that had come out in its stool, the way pearls used to come out in the king’s precious fecal excretions. But what would a dog eat that could reveal its master? I asked myself as I prodded the mess. Hopefully, not his homework. The pile seemed large enough to contain a semi-digested cover page and footnotes. Considering all the unfolding and in-depth deciphering it would have entailed, you can imagine my relief when I found only unadulterated crap.

“I never had a dog,” said Mai Ling. “I would presume the yellow streaks have something to do with its diet.”

“Or it might be sick.”

“You think we’re looking for a sick puppy?”

I rose from my crouch and surveyed the broad patch of barren azaleas. Their flowerless and nearly leafless branches hid nothing, nor was there anything to hide. A couple of joggers humped with a martial demeanor down the return loop of the park lane, but Dead Eye gave no indication that either was the target. I began pushing my way out of the densely packed bushes.

“You haven’t finished examining the poop,” Mai Ling protested.

“I forgot to bring my lab kit. You can take a closer look, if you want, but I don’t think we can learn anything else from it.”

“Have you tried sniffing it? You might be able to tell something from the smell.”

“Do I look like a dog?” I growled, my anger whipped into high gear by a branch that flipped back and lashed my face. She was being catty. We couldn’t avoid smelling the stool, especially after stirring it up like that.

My own analogy stung me. A dog. That was me. A dog. Dirt. Dog dirt. Shit, would I ever amount to anything? I had been given a golden opportunity to be a first-class killer. Dropped into my lap. Here. Kill. Easy as pie. And you’ll never get caught. Yet I’d blown it royally. I should have been one of the greatest slaughterers in history, by now. No. Wait. If I’d done what I was supposed to do, abided to the letter the Mandarin contract, Benton would have been long gone. Years ago. Given the number of jobs assigned to us within the first year, I should have snuffed out only a dozen or so targets. Well, that would have landed me in the record books, too, if there had been any way to identify me as the perpetrator, if Mai Ling had not erased every visual trace, every thumbprint, every memory. That was what I wanted, right? Anonymity. Let’s face it, in the normal world, the kind of notoriety caused by my murderous activity would have gotten me killed in a jiffy.

What did I want? What did I want? What did I want?

My mind fell over its mental tongue as it twisted around the question. In pre-Mandarin days I had never honestly posed it to myself. My limitations silenced me. I had wanted Eileen, and got her, but under circumstances only a half-witted cuckold would accept, let alone desire. I had never wanted anything or anyone else as much, though, and the fact that I had shared her elusive charms with others was better than nothing at all. I suppose.

Not true. I wanted Benton dead. I wanted unlimited Big Macs and cool weather and good health and the usual domestic comforts and Benton spread out on the office floor as dead as a can of Spam. Yes, that was an image I could really appreciate.

The encounter with Mai Ling out of disguise drove home in the most frightening and nauseating way possible that our crew was not a healthy one, and that getting out of it should be my prime objective. And there was no other way out than to finish out the term of the contract, as quickly as possible. Dog shit or not, I was now determined to see it through. With gusto.

I emerged from the main azalea patch and checked my revolver.

“You think you could give me a hand?”

Mai Ling had been trying to guide Dead Eye out of the dense bramble-like azaleas, but he appeared reluctant to allow her a firm grip on his elbow. He must have still been resentful of the comments she’d made to him the same day she revealed her Gray’s Anatomy to me in the cemetery. Dead Eye’s cane was almost useless in that virtual field of canes. Every time he raised it he found himself in combat with the surrounding branches, raising a din and forcing Mai Ling to let go and step back to avoid being swatted. The scraggly bushes were chest-high. From my angle at the edge of the patch he looked like an explorer hacking out a path with his machete.

Mr. Troublemaker—in reality the rampant toad of my tongue—leaped out of my mouth.

“What’s the problem, Dead Eye? Why don’t you let her help? What did she say that riled you so much?”

He halted his aimless thrashing and turned his head towards my voice. Even for someone as obviously out of shape as he was, his breathing was harsh, too demanding of his frail body. A symptom of something more than just inadequate exercise?

“What did she say, Bongo? What did she tell you?”

“Doesn’t matter to me.” Mai Ling’s announcement was like a preemptive strike of indifference to anything I might say. The tone belied the content. Her face was twisted in the fretful pose that usually presaged weeping and wailing. Why should the dead cry? I wondered. They’re out of it. ‘It’ being this vale of tears. And why should they weep for us? We’ll be out of it, too, soon enough. The obvious exception being if the Mandarin puts in an appearance at our graveside and holds out a contract to our cold dead hands.

I was also puzzled as to why she sometimes (like right now) seemed so helpless. I could easily imagine her using her mental muscle to lift Dead Eye out of the pernicious azaleas and planting him lightly in the nearest clearing. Why be so coy? Why hide her ability? We’d seen her smash a good percentage of the city’s finest, after all. Certainly, her psychic cop wouldn’t protest over a little thing like levitation. Yet at this moment she looked as clumpy and inefficient as any human dweeb.

Mr. Toad was tuning up. He croaked past my throat and lips.

“Mai Ling seems to think you’re the worst of our bad lot. That you’re evil incarnate, or something. Why would she make a claim like that? Why would she say—”

Bitch!” Dead Eye swung wildly, hoping to clip Mai Ling, but succeeding only in ensnaring himself further in the branches.

“That’s right. If we hate each other enough, we’ll get the job done that much faster, just so we can be rid of the crew.”

Dead Eye’s wrath, so uncharacteristic, appeared to wither away in his limbs. Dropping his arms, he turned his blank gaze in my direction. “Is that what you’re doing, Bongo? Making yourself hate us? Trying to make us hate one another? Why put yourself out? There’s never been much amity in this crew. If Mai Ling and I had had our way, we would have finished the job long ago. You’re the one holding us up. Do you enjoy killing? Do you hate it? I’ve never been able to tell.”

“Same with you.” I had to raise my voice to carry my words clearly twenty yards into the moribund azaleas. After calling out that way, it dawned on me that some joggers might overhear. Would they consider us threatening? Perverted? Or moronic? “I can’t say I’ve heard all that much criticism from either of you. Some, but not much, considering all the years we’ve worked together. And neither of you has ever helped much with the actual killing. I mean, do we have any other volunteers here? If you want to work off the contract so badly, why don’t you lend a hand?”

“Right,” Dead Eye snorted, tapping his glasses. “You stand me in front of a target, put a gun in my hand, aim it for me, and I’ll pull the trigger. But what target will stand still long enough for that? Huh?”

“But you can see targets.”

“Can I see where the gun’s pointed? Use your brain, Bongo.”

“Then Mai Ling—”

“Yes! What about it, my little Oriental puss?” The dark lenses of Dead Eye’s sunglasses seemed to pulse with life as he turned her way. “Who is this ‘psychic cop’ of yours, really?”

Startled by the unanticipated question, Mai Ling resorted to practicality. Stepping to Dead Eye’s side, she gently placed a hand on his shoulder. “Come on, let’s discuss this later. We don’t have time for it now.”

“You had time for a little heart-to-heart with Bongo, but not me?”

“That’s not true, and you know it.”

“Oh yes, there was that little drive around the city, when you took it upon yourself to insult my claim to being human.” Once again, Dead Eye had fallen out of character. He was behaving like a gamekeeper poking a captive animal through the bars. “That was a monologue, my dear. More tete than tête-à-tête. You guessed at my arrangement with the Mandarin, and you didn’t like it. Well whoa my Nelly, what about it? Maybe the person you want out of the way happens to be my best friend in the whole wide world. Not likely, but a theoretical possibility. Just because I wouldn’t like it doesn’t mean I’d renege on my responsibilities.”

It was all right to stir up trouble so long as I remained in charge and could gauge the damage. But I was no longer in control of this conversation, and perhaps had lost control the moment Mr. Toad jumped out of my mouth.

A spark of alarmed awareness ignited Mai Ling’s eyes, as though she comprehended what all this was leading up to. And what could that be? I hadn’t a clue. As I watched her reluctantly guide an equally reluctant Dead Eye into the clearing, I had the sickening sensation that our crew was going to fall apart in ways I could not imagine.

“I’m no slacker,” Mai Ling protested. “I’ve always done what was required of me, as far as I was allowed to.”

“You mean you went as far as your psychic cop allowed you to go.”

“Well…yes…”

“Baloney and hooey, is what I say,” Dead Eye harrumphed.

I wondered at Mai Ling’s determined neatness as she brushed off her shirt and cut-offs. Why should a corpse be concerned over a few dead leaves and petals?

“How so?” she asked, not looking at Dead Eye. Actually, she wore a distracted air, like someone doing their utmost to disregard present reality.

“Let’s have a guessing competition. You guessed something about me, so I’ll guess something about you. And my guess is that this big hairy invisible psychic cop is none other than your own self.”

I had a vision of an old sci-fi movie I had seen on television as a boy. It had starred that guy who became a comedian much later, in old age. And Anne Francis, who had the best legs of any woman I’d ever seen, and which had been more than mere ornaments for geeky voyeurs. Legs so good they were co-stars. What was the name of that production? Forbidden Planet. That was it. The monster that had been killing off the astronauts had originated in the mind of the Walter Pidgeon character, whose id had become a deadly manifestation.

“Is that true, Mai Ling? The psychic cop is really…”

She was somewhere else. That was what her distant gaze told me. Perhaps she was back in her grave, inspecting the satin lining and fine grain of her coffin.

“If you can’t say anything about yourself, what about Dead Eye? What was your guess? Why is he such a wicked, wicked man?”

“Oh? Him?” At least she was listening and responding. She used sarcasm to dig her way out of her funk. “Go ahead, tell Bongo what a swell human being you are.”

“I suggest we get the lead out,” Dead Eye asserted, rapping the air with his cane. “That dog crap smelled fresh, but not that fresh. The target could be a mile off by now.”

“Or coming back this way,” Mai Ling observed, abruptly dropping her attack. Maybe she’d thought better of it. Or her psychic cop had raised a warning hand. “Don’t forget, this road loops.”

But there were many exits for anyone on foot. Our only real chance was if the dog-walker came back this way.

“One more complication,” I said. “The dog’s not on a leash.”

“Why do you think that?”

“It pooped in the middle of the azaleas, away from the lane. It doesn’t look as if many people hike there. Maybe further down, but the bushes are too thick here.”

“So the dog might not even be with the target. The target might not even be in the park.”

“What good would that do us?” Dead Eye fumed. But there was no need to answer him. We all knew from experience how far afield a clue could take us. We had once driven all the way to New York, only to find another clue that sent us speeding back south. We slowly turned Dead Eye in his tracks, hoping to spot something else that would help us. Then we returned to the lane in the hope that the target would simply run up on us. We walked about fifty yards down the lane and stopped. We had encountered one jogger and two women walking their dogs, and Dead Eye had seen none of them as clues—or targets.

I kicked a plump pine cone into the weeds. Hearing the cone scuttle, Dead Eye followed the sound. He raised his cane. “What’s over there? Pine trees?”

“How did you know?”

“I can smell them.”

Of course. After the patchy azalea garden came a wide swath of pine trees that filled in the loop before bounding over the lane into the deeper and more varied woods that bordered the rear of the park. A recent tropical storm had bowled over a score of them, spilling copious pine sap from the wind-snapped trunks. The woods smelled like a well-mulched garden.

“What about it?”

“I thought I saw a clue.”

“Now you don’t?”

“No.”

“I don’t sense anyone in there,” said Mai Ling. She was able to do that, sometimes—pinpoint unseen people using her psychic radar. Once again, she was the first to admit the talent was not infallible—an imperfection shared by her other talents.

As often as not, our clues were in motion. A license plate on a moving car, a discarded CD floating down a muddy ditch—we had encountered both. Whatever Dead Eye had seen may have slipped out of view behind a tree. Under the circumstances (and we had been in worse), we had no choice but to again leave the lane.

Dead Eye had trouble with the soft pine duff of the woods. We could keep him from banging his nose against a tree trunk, but the finer nuances of foot-placing were more difficult. After a short distance, he slipped the strap of the cane over his forearm. This was an indicator of the difficulty of the terrain, and a signal that Mai Ling and I should each take an arm. Thanks to the thick, life-choking layer of pine needles underfoot, we were spared the necessity of hacking our way through thick undergrowth. Here and there, however, a tree root system would lay out a tripwire. Mai Ling and I stumbled more than once, and had we not been holding on to him at the same time, Dead Eye would certainly have fallen.

“Listen…”

We stopped. It seemed natural for Dead Eye to be the first to hear things beyond normal earshot, until I reminded myself of Mai Ling’s dual citizenship in both psychic society and the realm of the dead. I thought she must either be aware of everything that was going on around us or of nothing at all. There was nothing average about her, so why should her aural sense be weaker than Dead Eye’s? Then again, being dead, why should she hear anything at all? When she cocked her head, as though heeding Dead Eye’s warning, I wondered if she was striking a pose for my benefit. A pose that would, of course, make no impression on Dead Eye.

I heard it a moment later: a dog baying in the distance.

“Sounds like it slipped its leash.”

Was it the same dog that had left a clue in the azaleas? If so, and if the dog itself had not only provided a clue, but was a clue in and of itself, it could not have been what Dead Eye saw from the jogging lane. The dog could not have run as far away as it sounded now. As a matter of fact, the baying seemed to be coming from beyond the park boundary, unless it was howling inside a huge metal barrel with first-rate acoustics.

“I see…”

“It’s too far away.”

“Not the dog.”

I glanced around. There was nothing particularly ominous about the spot. There was no deadly silence. Birds twittered overhead. A boom box briefly whiffled the air from the direction of Hermitage Road, not a quarter mile away. The only thing abnormal around here was our crew. We had been together so long that we had grown accustomed to our mutual oddity. But our secrets now lay exposed like fish gasping on a beach. Although we had never been entirely comfortable in each others’ presence, we at least did not feel threatened. Now a powerful sense of allergy set in, as if we risked breaking out in a painful rash if we spent too much time in each others’ company.

“Come on,” I said irritably. “Do you see anything or not?”

“Don’t push him,” Mai Ling snapped.

“I just want to know what we’re doing here. The target must be on the jogging trail. We could miss him if we keep farting around in these trees like this.”

“But I see something.”

“And?”

Dead Eye’s brow became a rough surf of confusion, with furrows cresting in quick waves across his forehead. “I think everything around us…the clues are everywhere. Everything seems to be lit up.”

“‘Lit up’? How would you know if anything was lit up?”

“Cut it out, Bongo.”

“Why? Is your psychic cop going to come after me?”

Our spat subsided into concern for Dead Eye as his breathing became harsher, then broke into small, painful-sounding gasps.

“Try not to hyperventilate.”

“I can’t describe it. Clues. All over. The whole world.”

“Don’t exaggerate.”

“I know shapes when I feel them. All things that go bump in the night have bumps.” The forced jocular metaphor was accompanied by an equally artificial grin. “Squareness, roundness, things that are dull or pointed. But I can’t describe…. I think they’re small.”

What’s small?”

“But they could be far away. That’s called the phenomenon of perspective, I believe. I’m more familiar with the Doppler effect.”

“You know up and down, left and right. Can you be more specific?”

“Up and down, left and right.” He turned around. “Front and back.”

“Everything is a clue. Is that what you’re saying?” I glanced at Mai Ling. “Is that what he’s saying?”

“It sounds like sensory overload,” she said.

“If everything is a clue, he’d be seeing everything as lit up.”

“As far as you can guess.”

“I can close my eyes,” I insisted. “That’s blindness.”

“But you have a pattern of reference,” Mai Ling continued. “You can imagine a dog, because you’ve seen one.”

“You people are getting very theoretical,” Dead Eye complained. “I’m just telling you what I…see.”

“And we’re telling you what you don’t see.”

“The dog…”

The baying had continued unabated, and it was growing closer.

“If he’s running away, the owner might be chasing him.” Mai Ling tried to peer through the gaps between some of the tree trunks.

“See anyone?”

“No. But I don’t sense anyone, either, and I know there are some joggers out there. Hear?”

The quick pitter-patter of Nike-shod feet was clearly discernible on the paved lane. A moment later, I caught a glimpse of three runners appearing kinetically through the trees. Sometimes Mai Ling’s psychic eyesight was about as useful as a hole in the ground.

“Maybe what you’re seeing is blurred,” I said, seriously considering the possibility that the trees were somehow interfering with Dead Eye’s clue-finding ability. Since he could not offer an explanation for what he was seeing, he limited his response to a skeptical snort.

“I don’t like dogs,” I announced. “I especially don’t like dogs howling like that when I’m stuck in the middle of the woods.”

“You have a gun.”

“I don’t like dogs, but I don’t like the idea of shooting one, either. I ran over a cat once. I couldn’t sleep for three nights.”

“Why Bongo, I didn’t realize you were such a softie,” Mai Ling sneered. “Anyway, dogs go ‘woof-woof’, not ‘meow-meow’.”

“But it would be better to go back to the jogging lane, don’t you think? Like you said, that’s the most likely place to run into the dog’s owner.”

“That’s right. Human. Bam-bam. Not like poor doggie. I took a course in abnormal psychology once. Did you know most serial killers love animals? They really dote on their pets.”

“I guess that means, what with people being animals, most serial killers love mankind.”

Dead Eye took a break from his confusion to chuckle. He acquiesced meekly as we each took an arm and turned him towards the lane.

“I think the Hound from Hell is pressing us sorely, Watson.”

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle must be immortalized in Braille, I thought. That, or Dead Eye was a member of Books on Tape. Either way, I found the Baskerville analogy unsettling. I imagined the killer beast of the moors sounded precisely like this. And damn, if it wasn’t growing closer.

And damn, if it hadn’t arrived.

“Stop,” said Dead Eye. “Stop. I have a focus now.”

He must have meant the mutt, which had slipped out from between a brace of pines and halted in front of us. I’d seen bigger dogs, meaner dogs, dogs far more menacing even on the street where I lived. This four-legged clue was not foaming at the mouth or baring its fangs. The instant it spotted us it stopped its canine yammering and froze in its tracks, staring at us. That unnerved me, that stare. As though it was seeing something far more interesting than our trio of handicapped humans: one blind, one dead, one stupid. I wondered if it saw beyond Mai Ling’s disguise, smelled the rotting flesh calving off her skeleton.

“I guess we just wait for the owner to show up, now.”

“Or follow it to the target.”

Yep, stupid me. Even at a slow walk, we would not be able to keep up with the dog with Dead Eye between us, especially if it took off across the uneven ground under the trees.

The dog decided our next step for us.

“It’s moving closer,” said Dead Eye, which confirmed the dog as a clue, because it had indeed begun to approach us. There was no threat in its behavior. In fact, it wagged its tail so hard some pine needles were whipped into a mini-cyclone.

“He just wants to say ‘hi’,” Mai Ling suggested.

That was what I thought, at first. Then I wasn’t so sure. It was now looking directly at Dead Eye, as though we weren’t there standing to either side of him. A premonitory pain struck my breastbone.

A bird dog. That was my guess. The kind of dog you see on calendars, pointing at the pheasants darting out of the underbrush. A golden retriever, only slightly higher than my knees. It walked right up to Dead Eye, stopped, sniffed, and raised a paw.

“He wants to shake your hand.” Mai Ling was in rare form, meaning that she was amused. A dire situation had been transformed into an amiable meeting between species. There was no trace of doubt in her voice. Why was I so alarmed when she continued: “Go ahead, shake his paw.”

“I’ve never shaken hands with a clue before.”

“He looks friendly enough. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Maybe he wants to be your seeing eye dog. By the way, I meant to ask—why don’t you have one already?”

“I did. A pit bull killed her.” He reached out a tentative hand. “Listen…lady and gentleman…I’m confronted by quite a dilemma here.”

“Why? Look, he’s licking your hand!”

“Quite the Judas.”

Then I knew. Mai Ling began to laugh, which was suddenly broken by a little hiccup of horror. How appropriate it would have been if, at that instant, all the insect vermin that infested her real body spilled out of her eyes and mouth. But the dénouement lay with Dead Eye.

“Yes, my dear friends. As I reach out to our furry friend here a target glow enters my…field of vision. It’s my hand. There can be no doubt about it.”

The retriever nudged Dead Eye’s hand with its muzzle, gave a playful yip, then began romping in circles around us. I was tempted to take out my gun. No, not such an animal-lover, after all. Nor very sporting. After all, shooting the messenger would not be fair to the dog, nor very flattering to me.

Dead Eye. The target.

Feeling deflated, I took my hand from his shoulder and sat on a tree trunk knocked over by the storm. “Well, it won’t be the first time I passed on a job.”

“Ah…” Dead Eye’s head nodded forward. “Thank you. Thank you.”

Drawing away from him, Mai Ling came over and stood in front of me. Perplexed and frightened by this nasty turn of events, she could have been anyone but what she really was. “Why would the Mandarin want to kill a crewman?”

“He wouldn’t. He doesn’t choose the targets, remember? His clients do.”

“But who would want me out of the way?” Dead Eye lifted his arms midway, the lightweight cane dangling from his arm as he posed his conundrum to invisible parties. “Who would be better off if I was dead?”

It was a question we’d asked ourselves about many of our targets.

“More to the point, why is your agreement being voided this way?” Mai Ling gave the dog a pat on the head as it padded by. “He’s done everything required of him, and he’s still blind.”

I glanced up. What was that she’d said? What did Dead Eye’s blindness—

“It was my understanding that we’re immune from other Mandarin crews while still under contract.”

“Let alone terminations within a crew,” proffered Dead Eye nervously. I had just told him he was reprieved, yet he could not convince himself that I meant it. Which was understandable. Promises, sacred pacts, and legal agreements were broken all the time. We lived in a culture lousy with deceit.

The dog approached Dead Eye and began nudging him with its snout, almost as if it was urging us to get on with the job.

“If Dead Eye’s vulnerable, we’re all vulnerable.” Mai Ling’s despair was not the sharp outrage of someone disillusioned for the first time in her life, but the soft pain of having suffered yet another betrayal in a long list of betrayals, like a steak beaten into a precarious tenderness. How apt an analogy. “We can’t function if we can’t find clues.

This could destroy our crew! Why?”

It was true. Dead Eye’s talent was crucial—no, indispensable—to our performance as a killing team. But I found her first remark even more unsettling. No matter how critical our role was within the crew, we were all vulnerable.

“For this to happen now…”

“What’s worse about now?” Mai Ling asked in a distracted tone while her mind visibly raced through a minefield of permutations, questions, consequences, and forbidden, deadly truths.

“Didn’t we just decide we weren’t going to back off on any more jobs? This is a biggie, after all. If my calculations are right, adding up all the deficits, skipping this job will put us at—” I was about to say “at the decade mark.” Then I remember Mai Ling’s estimate had been twice my own. My inability to pinpoint the victim of fuzzy thinking was a good indicator of where that fuzzy thinking originated.

“But if it’s…” Mai Ling began to muse out loud. I verbally prodded her and she continued: “OK. Righteous retribution.”

“You mean he’s being set up for all his sins? Then why am I not a target, too?”

“Because you know what you want.”

“Do I, now?”

“You know who you want dead, don’t you?”

“Well, yes,” I said shifting uncomfortably on the rough bark.

“Mai Ling!” Dead Eye cried frantically.

“What’s—”

“What would be worse than murder?” Mai Ling placed a hand on her forehead. “Easy. The murder of a soul.”

No!” Dead Eye reached out in a futile attempt to stop her.

. Mai Ling took a deep breath. “Dead Eye doesn’t have a specific target in mind.”

“You’ve lost me.”

“When he agreed to the Mandarin contract, he left it open as to who would suffer when he met the terms.”

I thought for a moment. I wanted Benton dead. Mai Ling wanted her still-living husband dead. And Dead Eye?

“It could be anyone? Anyone at all? What’s the point of that?”

“Let me correct myself,” Mai Ling said, lowering her voice. “He left it up to the Mandarin to pick anyone who can see.”

“I…” I still didn’t get it. “What good would that do him? Unless…” I turned to Dead Eye with the true respect of horror. He was standing close to me, now, breathing hard, giving me a bit of a knock with his halitosis. “You’re getting revenge on people just because they have eyesight?”

“Do I seem that petty to you?” he barked abruptly. “You’ve known me all these years, and you can think that of me? I want to see, you dummy! There’s only one thing in this world that I would put myself through all of this for. Sight!”

I shook my head, then remembered, and said, “It doesn’t make any sense. How can killing someone who can see help you?” I addressed my words to both of them. After all, it was Mai Ling who had guessed Dead Eye’s secret. Being an authority on death, she might have more insight into the equally arcane world of the Mandarin.

“OK,” Dead Eye sighed with a grimace. “OK. He agreed to my terms, although he claimed it was highly unusual. And I had to make it clear the seeing person would also have to be otherwise healthy. I wouldn’t want to replace blindness with quadriplegia.”

“Replace?”

“Think of it this way: we…” Dead Eye pinched himself to demonstrate his somatic example. “We are shells. Containers. Artificial forms that the Mandarin infuses with our own mental essence so that we can perform our assigned tasks.”

“I never thought of it that way. Besides, the Mandarin said we were exactly the same as our originals. That we’re both originals, in effect.”

“And so we are. It’s the ultimate capitalist ideal, really. We’re simply made into portable, easily transferable property. Let’s say, for lack of a better word, it’s our souls that are made into commodities. Do you object to ‘soul’, Mai Ling? I can’t think of a good secular word for it. ‘Soul’ is convenient for those with religious propensities. But those who lack those sensibilities (I believe it’s the majority here) might find it objectionable.”

“Not entirely accurate, but acceptable,” Mai Ling responded flatly. Well, she should know.

From Forbidden Planet I segued into the small town of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. “You’re saying that instead of having your double enter an artificial shell that is identical to you—”

“I would enter a different person entirely. I made sure to specify to the Mandarin that the owner of the body would have to be evicted completely. I have enough complexes without piling on someone else’s phobias and what-have-you.”

The double-barreled smugness that greeted my stupefied expression was annoying in the extreme. This was all new to me. It sounded worse than murder.

“Transference is the key.” Mai Ling turned to me. “The Mandarin told you. Remember?”

This was not Freudian terminology. It was a part of the Mandarin world that soared beyond my comprehension. I once had wondered how many pedestrians I saw on the way to work were actually other Mandarin crews on a job. Now I was confronted with a new population. What percentage of people that I saw on the street were really someone else? How many of them had purchased transfer tickets on the Mandarin subway?

“I wish I’d known about this before.”

“Why? Would you want to become your target instead of eliminating him?”

Would I like to be Benton? There would have been no practical gain, like taking over a body in full health with 20/20 vision, since my GP asserted I had already achieved that goal naturally. Reasons for becoming Benton would be purely cosmetic and egotistical. To have women fall all over me at the mere twist of a sly grin, to have Irene, to possess Eileen, were consummations devoutly to be wished. And there were all those bonus features. An eminence among both men and women, enfolding him willy-nilly like a glowing mantle. The assurance—no, cockiness—that came with knowing one’s place on the Great Power Chainsaw of Corporate Being, doubt-free and doubtless superior. Fit, tall, tanned, well-laid, overlaid. I wanted to be everything about him but him. But if I put my mind in his body, who would be the result? A hybrid rarely flourishes as well as its progenitors. Benton’s body and my mind might not be so successful in sucking at the tit of worldly pleasures. No, I couldn’t say I would leap wholeheartedly into such a deal if the Mandarin offered it to me. Maybe I would pass completely.

“You ever think that,” I posed, “once you are able to see like a normal person, you won’t be able to see clues anymore?”

“And did you ever think I wanted to spend my whole life doing this?” His abrasive attitude hinted that he had completely forgotten about being a target. Perhaps it was time to remind him.

“Jesus, Dead Eye—”

“Percy,” he said harshly, already sensing my direction. And then, more contritely, “Remember? Percy Franklin.”

“No, don’t go there. We’ve never been friends. ‘Co-workers’ is the best you can do, and I wonder if that’s enough.”

Mai Ling gave every appearance of wanting to bolt. Was it guilt? Long before, she had guessed Dead Eye’s motives. By giving me a hint, she had joined hands with the Mandarin in planting doubts about my blind peer. And while she had not also planted the seed of murderous intent, there was something vicious behind what she had done. She’d behaved like that emotionally misshapen harpy: the common office backstabber. She could have kept her silence, as she had done about so many things. Yet it was as though she had foreseen the event without the consequences, because at the moment she looked more distraught than I had ever seen her, at least in living human form. The retriever came and sat next to her, leveraging its head under her hand. But it did not take its eyes off of Dead Eye. Could it be aware of what it was doing? No, I told myself. I doubted it was any more cognizant than the tobacco tin or the slope of a gutter or the hammer or any other clue we had encountered. But why, then, did it hang around this way? It had made its point. Unless it was exactly what it seemed, a stray in search of human company, human security. In which case it had made as sorry a choice as possible.

Except it had not chosen. It was fated to be here. Fated to intercept Dead Eye at this fatal moment.

And that sense of fate put a major strain on my trigger finger. That, and my own feeble sense of morality. I succumbed to a brief, philosophical fugue state. It’s amazingly apparent to anyone living in this capitalistic paradise that the weaker you are (physically, ethically, fiscally), the more self-righteous you become. Scruples are for losers, said the milkman’s son. So the fact that I found Dead Eye’s quest for eyesight at any cost repugnant and frightening fit my character to a T. Who was I? Insecure in my dominant role as the state’s worst mass murderer ever, who was I to censure Dead Eye? But I figured Mai Ling was right. His target could be anyone with eyesight. Anyone. Hell, even the Pope. (No, there was that Parkinson’s.) But anyone else with two good eyes would suffer. It was preposterous, so unmethodical, so random. Unlike myself, who had the evidence of the clues and the official approbation of the Mandarin to commit mayhem. When I stuck to what I was supposed to be doing, I was extremely punctilious. And, in a straight and narrow way, finically honorable, the picture of probity. I would never kill anyone I wasn’t supposed to kill, if you excepted all those collateral mishaps. And here was Dead Eye, ready to kill the Pope, but for that Parkinson’s thing. How could he justify such sloppy morality?

I looked at Mai Ling. I thought, for an instant, that she gave a little nod. I looked at the dog. It was smiling. I swear.

“Everyone’s being awfully quiet,” Dead Eye licked his lips. “I smell a whole lot of wood burning.”

“I’m thinking.”

“What’s there to think about?”

“Quite a bit, when you think about it.”

“There’s quite a bit to think about when you think about it!” Dead Eye laughed harshly. He began taking steps backwards. “You’re going to kill me, aren’t you? Just because I want to see.”

“Because you don’t care who dies.”

“You can’t come up with something less hypocritical?”

“It’s the randomness, Dead Eye. It bothers me. It bothers me a lot.”

“So? My target will be a stranger. Did you know any of the targets you hit? That would have defeated the purpose of joining the crew.”

He was backing over the only stretch of flat ground under the trees. It was possible he could turn and make a semi-genuine run for it. The dog seemed ready to help, leaving Mai Ling’s side and churning up clumps of pine needles as it ran over to him. But instead of nudging Dead Eye into the right direction, it outflanked him and presented its body broadside, catching him at the knees and sending him in a backward sprawl. As he lay gasping on the pine cones and needles, the dog began happily lapping his face.

I marveled at the obvious deviousness of the maneuver. A chill went through me. Was this really a dog? I’d never seen the Mandarin in animal form before—not that I knew of, at least—but being the supreme master of disguise that he was, I wouldn’t have put a golden retriever beyond him. After all, it was as inferior to us as we were to the Mandarin, evolution-wise. Yet the Mandarin had never been actually present when we were on a job, certainly not at the most critical moments.

Thrashing about blindly in fear and wrath, Dead Eye caught the retriever across the nose with his cane. Leaping back, looking more perplexed than injured, the dog looked from Dead Eye to Mai Ling to me, its eyes filled with human astonishment. Then came a howl, as though it was just then realizing it was in pain. It ran twenty yards away and cowered next to a tree stump. Its reaction seemed genuine enough. But the Mandarin could be such a convincing actor.

Dead Eye’s sunglasses had fallen off. In a fleeting fit of vanity, his hand darted out in search for them. He must have known how he looked to those who saw him uncovered. Perhaps, once, a child had screamed on seeing him. Certainly, a social gaffe. Then common sense returned and he concentrated on escaping. It was common sense from his point of view, at least. Perhaps he thought he could lose us in his land of unlimited dark horizons. But the more dimensions you have at your disposal, the more ludicrous the sense-deprived look. That was how I felt as my anger rose. Not an iota of sympathy for the blind man struggling to find his feet on the slippery pine needles. Just a gut-scraping loathing of losers. Was this how the Mandarin felt about us? How many dimensions were available to him, putting him so far up that humans began to look like worms? I glanced at the dog.

Standing, I reached into my pocket, felt the butt of the gun—and froze. My tagline! I’d forgotten my tagline! The Mandarin had given it to me not an hour ago, when I doubled on the way out my front door. It was the official seal on any murder. Whether or not it made sense to me, the tagline had to be pronounced or the kill would not count. While this was not the first time I’d drawn a blank, it was by far the most painful emotionally. The reason for killing Dead Eye was already growing so vague in my mind I was wondering if it had ever existed. I was the aluminum pot calling the cast iron kettle black. My resolve was weakening by the second.

I replayed my meeting with the Mandarin that morning.

*****

“Louise Pasteur discovered that of two possible optical isomers, living tissue only uses one? Did you know that? What does that suggest to you? I mean, if you exchange humans for plant mold growing in racemic acid, you’ve got a species that’s half blind from Day One. Actually, compared to any advanced element-based ethereal life form, you’re no better than moles that have never seen sunlight.”

I assumed he was trying to ingratiate himself with me after the fiasco in the park. Why else would he appear in the guise of a drop-dead gorgeous brunette who was obviously wearing nothing beneath her lab coat? I couldn’t take my eyes off his/her prominent nipples trying to poke their way through the cotton fabric. I wondered what it would be like to rape him.

“That’s where Dead Eye made his mistake,” she said, cocking back a bit to reveal a flicker of thigh. Outside of Penthouse scenarios, since when did lab assistants wear stiletto heels? “It’s quite simple. Even a dumb blonde like me can understand it.”

“You’re a brunette.”

“Oh?” The Mandarin took a lock of hair between her fingers, stared at it, frowned, then inserted the strand between her teeth, nibbling as she spoke. It was sort of fetching. In another mood, though, I would have found it repulsive. But I was so happy to see him again he could have appeared as a troll and I would have still been tempted to embrace him. I was doubled. I would be able to make Eileen happy.

“Dead Eye did see something, but it was the wrong polarity. Understand?”

It didn’t sound very convincing. I nodded amiably.

“What’s not so easy to get a hold of are the quantum formulas of Fate. You know, I hate to pester you after having been away for so long, but if you could supply me with a little tutorial advice…” She brushed my arm as we entered the garage. My double caught a glimpse of me as he backed out past us. Although once in the driveway it was hard to penetrate the reflection on the windshield, I thought I saw a grim smile. I wondered if he too had a hard-on at that moment. Probably not. The Mandarin rarely appeared before both of me simultaneously, the picnic at the city park being a major exception. On the other hand, my original might be aroused by the prospect of the first job in what seemed like ages. Once again, murder was on the agenda. But I hoped I wasn’t that crass. I was a serial killer, not a serial nut case.

“The only thing about fate is that I met you.”

“Why you sweet silly thing.” She sent a sensuous, joshing stroke down my arm. “You really aren’t that simple-minded. It wasn’t fate that led me to you. You were chosen after careful research.”

“Wasn’t it fate that you chose me out of millions to do research on?”

The usual foot-stomping paroxysm that accompanied my inability to assist the Mandarin in an academic enterprise was not forthcoming. As I reached into the cardboard box where I kept the gun, she gave my behind an erotic bump.

“If I could be sure that you were really a woman…”

“But Bongo, I’m all woman, as you can see…and feel.”

“I mean all woman all the time.” Hell, for all I knew the Mandarin might have originated from a species of cow. Hopefully, he came from something more elevated. I could handle sex with some form of pure energy, even if only in fantasy. Coitus with a non-physical entity might smack of masturbation, but that was preferable by far to bestiality. “I didn’t realize you missed me so much,” I said, flattered by the flirtation in spite of my better judgment.

“The Mandarin crews are my whole reason for being,” she declaimed in a sultry voice. “I’m a good employer, too. I really am. I like to see my workers happy.” She pressed closer.

*****

It was not only the tagline I had forgotten. I suddenly realized I could not remember the thirty or so minutes from that key moment in the garage to when Mai Ling picked me up in her van several blocks away. I was in one hell of a fix if (which seemed likely) within that half hour the Mandarin had given me the execution line.

Dead Eye must have heard my sharp intake of breath when amnesia took me by surprise. Having regained his feet, he focused momentarily in my direction, then turned and resumed his escape attempt. Appalled by my lapse, I looked to Mai Ling for help.

“Did the Mandarin tell you the tagline?”

She had squeezed herself under a low bough, not quite crouching, not quite standing, but strikingly fetal all the same. In fact, her demeanor bore a strong resemblance to the clue-dog still cowering by the tree stump.

“You can’t remember can you?” she said in a low voice. Surprised by her comprehension of my problem, I nodded dumbly. “You don’t remember at all?” I nodded dumbly again. She pressed her hand to her forehead. “Oh…that’s my fault.”

What? Had she been messing with my head? This was something I did not appreciate in the least.

“What have you done? And why?”

She gave a little sob—and with that the blank was blown from my mind with the precision of a smart bomb.

*****

The Mandarin. And me. Both of us in the garage. A hand fumbling at my zipper. The hand was not my own, and in a weird way it seemed disassociated from the seductive Mandarin form that was groping at me. But when I looked down I saw the red-nailed hand emerging from the sleeve of the lab coat was indeed connected to the woman who was barely concealed by that coat.

“What about a threesome?” she said.

“Wha-ha?” I stuttered as her hand clamped onto my stiffness.

“You. Me. And that wife of yours—right there, on the other side of this very wall. She’s kind of sexy, in her own way. Those gums of hers must come in real handy when you need a wax and polish.”

She was talking about Eileen’s prominent gums, which might have been unattractive to someone not in love with her. I had to remind myself that the woman fondling me so expertly was the Mandarin. Was this a commentary on the tripartite trysts I’d been having with Eileen and my double? Her proposal had a lot going for it, I admitted to myself. The Mandarin, in this form, frolicking with me and my adored one.

It must have been an idle suggestion, because the hand working me over would finish me off in short order. But just as my lungs were about to burst in a song of ejaculation, the lab assistant gave a professional twist that constrained my climax. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. My vision went white in a kind of snow blindness of ecstasy.

“Dying is the only way to see the big picture.”

Oh…oh…oh…. Oh, that was the tagline. What a peculiar way to tell me.

“Quantum packets delineate sight and fate.”

Huh? Maybe that was the tagline. If not, who cared? My prostate curled tight into a compressed Slinky, began to spring, and was again restrained at the last possible instant. I was coming without coming. My knees would have buckled had not the grip been so…gripping. I tried to clear my eyes, and was mildly dismayed to be blinded by the light of orgasmic revelation.

“How come…” I gasped. “Come…”

“How come ‘come’?” came the Mandarin’s smelting voice through the haze. “Why Bongo, that’s the most profound question I think I’ve ever heard from you. Actually, almost the only one. ‘How come come’? Why this urge to procreate, re-create, to double ourselves in our progeny? What’s the point of it? Do you think we could have a child together, Bongo? Would you like to inseminate a superior being?”

It sounded fine to me, only she would have to let go of me before I could reciprocate the foreplay. I was disconcerted by a sudden chill being emitted by the fingers manipulating me. Was the Mandarin losing interest, her coital proposal notwithstanding? My eyes were wide open, but I still saw no more than blurred white patches, like hominy floating on a clear broth.

A clear cold broth. Damned if I didn’t have a human ice pack wrapped around my Mr. Sunshine. I had to clear my throat before commenting on it.

“Hey…I was wondering if…”

But the jaw-dropping excitement was still locking my words in. I’d have thought the frigid digits would freeze the fluid roiling in my personal reservoir, but I was right there, at the impossible instant of release.

Like a barfly who’d drunk his way to clarity, the bobbing blobs in front of me suddenly coalesced into a clear image.

“Oh!” I shouted as I came.

“No!” Mai Ling cried as she wrenched her hand away. As the jet splashed her forearm she passed her other hand before my face, like a teacher striking out a line on a chalkboard. Which was pretty much what happened. From that moment until this, I had forgotten everything.

*****

“It was impulse,” she murmured. “I couldn’t help it. That was such a nasty trick. It was unspeakable.”

“I didn’t—”

“Of course not. It was the Mandarin’s doing. He was showing us how easily we can be fooled. Even me.”

Even the dead. I thought of the harsh gravestone-hand squeeze, my jism shooting through sterile space onto a dead body. Necrophilia in a nutshell. But why had the Mandarin bothered? We knew what he was capable of. Or did we? After all, it was only a few minutes ago that I was reminded of the Mandarin option to transfer one mind into someone else’s body. Our boss was putting on a show for our benefit. It was as though he knew the target of this job, or had suspected. Knowing how unwilling we would be to eliminate a peer, he had put on the crunch. How ironic, considering it was Dead Eye’s own revelation, and not the imposition of supernatural power, that had finally convinced me he was a legitimate target.

Whatever mortification I felt at that instant (and it was substantial) had to be cast aside. The hand job was inconsequential next to the job at hand. Dead Eye had not made it very far. It was obvious he was headed for the sound of traffic in the hope of flagging down a Good Samaritan. Unfortunately for him, a number of trees, a ravine, hedges, chuckholes, and a variety of other impediments that would have been minor to me or anyone else with 20/20 lay between him and the fantasy of safety. He skittered on some slick needles, appeared to catch himself, then caught his heel on a pine cone and slipped down. He was close to the dog, now, and must have heard its strained panting. In his terror, thinking the dog that had betrayed him might now for some reason help, Dead Eye stretched out in its direction. I anthropomorphized a slew of human-like reactions, from a scowl to a leer to a sound like laughter, before the dog rose and padded out of sight in the direction of the soccer fields.

“Come back!” Dead Eye pleaded in a frantic whisper, as though afraid I would overhear him. He had only made it back to his knees when I reached him.

“‘Dying is the only way to see the big picture,’” I said, raising the gun.

“No! No! No!” he cried, repeating the least creative cry of those we had terminated in the past. Then he stopped and struck a pose that was somehow indignantly thoughtful. Leaning forward, his hand braced midway up his cane, the tip of which was buried in the thick coat of pine needles, he said, “That’s my tagline? You must be kidding. The Mandarin must be joking. It can’t be serious, Bongo. Not with a line like that.”

“I’ve heard worse,” I answered, and shot him.

I no longer had a crew.

FIFTEEN

I think it was the poor showing of the economy that convinced me no form of government, or indeed any society, could redeem the inherent loathsomeness of mankind. Naturally, history is replete with examples of this: historic squabbles, atrocities, and that ever-reliable standby, genocide. No more evidence was needed, although the liberal sprinkling of high-achieving assholes in our midst gives proof every day of our lives.

But it was that poor economy, and the consequent layoffs, that did it for me. We’d seen worse depressions, worse recessions, but there was nothing like that last round to vindicate the naysayers among us. That soft, killing sound: “You’re fired.” Said with sincere, professional pleasantry, almost as if the manager/owner/director/God was inquiring after the unfortunate individual’s health. The last great refuge for a fragmented society, the workplace, was shown up to be a farcical chimera when it came to societal bonding. Men or women who had worked with each other for years found it unspeakably easy to disown the pals who’d shared their cubicle and (perhaps too often) their bed. Those omnipresent icons of familiarity among coworkers, company softball leagues, became interoffice strike teams involved in killing matches that left millions financially dead or dying. How easy it was to learn that we were each others’ mortal enemies. Or worse, to reach the conclusion that we had been inconsequential strangers, all along.

Could I say the same about Dead Eye? Had he been disposable? True, our crew was irredeemably wrecked. But had there been no emotional strings, even those as flimsy as casual friendship? We’d shared plenty of adventures. Was that not considered a form of bonding?

And what about Mai Ling?

We rode to my drop-off in silence. Our embarrassing sexual encounter was no more than a blip compared to our new-found awareness that each was a potential target of the other. But there was the rub. How would we be able to tell without the vital clues only Dead Eye had been able to identify?

“I wonder if the Mandarin is going to bring in a replacement?” I ventured as I stepped out of the van.

Mai Ling was in no condition to speculate, speak, or hold forth in any form of discourse. Not with me, at least. I nodded, shut the door, and turned my back as the van sputtered away.

I felt hollow and sick. My legs trembled as I walked the two blocks to my house, skirted around Eileen’s car in the garage, and hid my gun in its usual place.

I was startled by tapping on the garage window, and was even more surprised to see me signaling through the pane. I went out and circled to the side of the house.

“Perfect!” my double exclaimed. He waved me back when I reached out to him. “Are you crazy! Eileen’s in bed, in her blue nightie. Her blue nightie! My God, she’s hot for it! The kid’s visiting a friend. We’ve got two whole hours. Come on!” He moved towards the back of the house, expelling an expletive of frustration when he turned and saw I was not following. “What the hell’s wrong with you? You had a bad day? It’s always a bad day! Doesn’t matter if it’s at work or with the crew. It’s always shit. But this is one day we can fix!”

“Eileen is in bed already? It’s only—”

“What the fuck does it matter what time it is? She’s foaming for it. For us!”

I found myself mentally willing but physically uncertain. Having been jacked off inside the hand of a dead woman had not only drained me temporarily, but left me with a noticeable deficit of desire. Still, the thought of Eileen in her pale blue nightie, so cleverly tailored, so erotically removable, was enough to tweak my lust.

Yet I was dismayed by the gawky eagerness of my double. Did I always look so buffoonish when it came to things sexual? To some degree, I suppose we all look a little silly when lust is in the air. But I’d seen teenagers who had more poise than my self at that moment. And there was something else that bothered me.

“What are you doing home so early?” I asked. The original (or double) on the Mandarin job was always the one who waited in the bushes until the original (or double) arrived home to merge, or dally with Eileen for awhile. “And where’s our car?”

“I left the car in the shop. It was acting up. Eileen came and got me. I had my hand between her legs all the way home. Just like the old days, partner. She’s more than ready and willing.”

“You took the day off!” I was appalled. Benton always tormented me whenever I took an unscheduled holiday, heaping upon me accusations of being a slouch, a slug, and a generally unproductive misfit before dumping an extra load of busywork on my desk.

“What’s your problem?” my double demanded of me. “So it’s been bad, your day. That’s never stopped us before.” He shook his head. “Somewhere down the loin you lost your way.”

“‘Loin?’ Did you say ‘loin?’”

It was obvious he wanted to reach out and drag me after him. But a single touch, and we would merge, shooting down the threesome he so eagerly anticipated. Should I tell him now? About Dead Eye? About the possible—no, probable—demise of our crew? But why ruin an afternoon’s entertainment? This would no doubt be the last chance we got to whip Eileen into a frenzy. After that, once we were permanently merged, she would never again give me a second glance. Not in that way.

“OK,” I agreed. “Lead on.”

“That’s the spirit!” my double clapped gleefully. As I followed him around the bulk of the garage, he reveled aloud at the prospect. “I’ve never seen her so hot for it. I’m ready to pop my cork just thinking about it.”

“Calm down.”

“Calm down! I feel like a kid again, Bongo. Everything has a glow. The Mandarin was right. The whole world is a clue.”

I stopped, petrified. That wasn’t me speaking.

My double pranced a few steps further—then also froze.

“Hey!” he shouted. “I told you not to go near the windows!”

I looked beyond him. There was Eileen, staring out the kitchen window. I only saw her only from the chest up, but could tell she was not wearing her smashing blue nightie. No, that was her white house dress. Her expression was beyond deciphering. Horror and humor were broken down by emotional reagents of pensiveness, awareness, guilt, and glee.

My double whirled. He was nervous. His eyes widened. He saw something behind me, gave the vaguest of nods, and dropped to the scraggly lawn I had failed to keep uniformly green.

I was slammed from behind.

No word from me. No curse. Only a fleeting gasp of surprise, and then I was eating half-dead grass.

“Give me an excuse, doodlewit!” came a loud, gruff voice in my ear. From the way my arm was being twisted, I assumed the stranger was looking for an excuse to break it.

“Watch your language,” came another stranger’s voice. “We want to make sure this arrest sticks.”

If someone was concerned with legal niceties, I would have thought he’d be more worried about the murderous intent of my assailant.

“Don’t come out!”

That was my voice. Propping my chin on the ground, I saw myself restraining Eileen at the back door. Her face remained profoundly enigmatic. Did she want to try to rescue me? Or spit on me?

My other arm was pinned behind my back. I heard the jangle of handcuffs. A pair of legs came around and blocked my view. I could no longer see my wife and my double. The creases on the trousers in front of me looked sharp enough to cut.

“Got him? Then get him up.”

I was pulled up and backwards onto my knees. When I swiveled my head, I realized how serious my situation was. I estimated there to be at least a hundred cops on my lawn, most of them with their guns drawn. They must have been hiding in my neighbors’ houses. And my own. It seemed every branch of law enforcement was represented. Undercover, out-of-cover, State Troopers, city cops, county Mounties, SWAT teams, K-9’s. I was the center of law enforcement heaven. Several helicopters swooped down to stamp the scene with their angelic fiat. I decided it was the State Troopers who were the high priests of all this stiff-arming, being the tallest, handsomest, and nattiest of the lot. They had that air about them of powerful lost souls who had found their unquestioned purpose in life, and they had lucked out big time by finding me, their holy grail of evil.

I waited for someone to note the resemblance between me and my double/original. But no one seemed to notice. You would have thought it would be striking. We were even dressed alike.

A trooper stood in front of me. He was black. He looked very similar to the guy whose picture was slathered on every ‘No Pay—No License’ gas pump sticker in the state. He began to speak. I would have sworn it was Chinese. Mandarin, perhaps, although I was not knowledgeable enough to be precise.

“What?” I said when he finished.

“What are you, some kind of dummy?”

“Sergeant…”

“Speaky you no English?”

“Of course.”

With my arms locked painfully against my spine, I watched as the officer in front of me again regaled me with his Oriental patter. I cocked my head sideways so I could look at the commander. “Do you—does anyone—understand what he’s saying?”

“This is no joking matter, asshole.” These words came from the commanding officer who had admonished the black trooper to mind his juridical p’s and q’s. My moral stock was so low that even the authority in charge of the authorities was losing his legalistic grip, no matter how many witnesses saw it.

“Do you understand?” I repeated.

I’d seen enough movies to know when my rights were being given me. And on several occasions, when inconveniently intercepted during a Mandarin job, we were in custody long enough to hear the Miranda litany before Mai Ling used her talent to spring us free. So I acquiesced to the charade, gave a grunt, nodded.

“We’ll take that as a yes.”

I got one last look at my double and wife holding onto each other in the kitchen doorway before I was whirled around and sent marching out front, where a fleet of city, state and county vehicles had miraculously gathered. Two guards shoved me into the back of a paddy wagon, where additional cuffs and chains were brought forth. As the links rattled through the bolts on the wagon walls, I took a final glance in the direction of my house. All I could see over the top of the vans and squad cars was the roof over my mortgage. As I lowered my eyes, I glimpsed Mai Ling in the gathering crowd of spectators. I did not want to implicate her by shouting her name or otherwise acknowledging her as an acquaintance. A ludicrous precaution, seeing as she could have inflicted wholesale amnesia on the entire mob around her. I bunched my leg muscles, anticipating the moment when the cuffs and chains succumbed to her mental swat and fell into a useless heap at my feet.

“You aren’t thinking of bolting, are you, chum?”

The black trooper clamped a hand on my shoulder and slammed me onto one of the cold metal benches that ran across the back of the wagon. The doors were slammed shut. The paddy wagon siren woke the dead.

I tried to interpret what I had just seen: the winsome expression of triumph on Mai Ling’s face. I had thought she was smirking at the chaos that would ensue after she freed me. Obviously, this was a theory in need of serious revision.

The two guards studied the wire mesh of the rear windows with such unnatural intensity they did not see or hear the black trooper spewing abuse from the bench across the narrow aisle.

“You lousy termite, you thought you could get away with it forever, didn’t you?”

Never, to my knowledge, had a trooper used this kind of language on a prisoner. It may have been relatively mild. And I was certain he meant ‘maggot’ instead of ‘termite’. But the intent was there. Sure, maltreatment was almost expected of crooked city cops and dimwitted county deputies, a form of misbehavior that was practically copyrighted under the rubric of American Culture. But State Troopers didn’t spit in your face or mock you when you were down. It went against their image. I turned pleading eyes to the guards. They were so oblivious to me I might as well have been a chicken in a barn. Less. I might as well have not been there at all.

“Don’t look to them for help. You wiped out four good cops at that carwash. I could skewer you like a shish kebab and they wouldn’t care. “

“That wasn’t me who—”

“Shut your trap, you rotting lump of excrement. You overturned bucket of manure. You…” He paused. A goofy kind of dismay invaded his expression. A sick feeling filliped my gut.

“Hey,” I began.

He stopped me with a raised finger. “Hold on, I’m accessing my thesaurus of abusive slang.” He seemed to listen, then grinned. “Ah…you shtoonk, you drizzlepuss, you momzer, you double-clutcher, you zod, you chum, you poove, you Melvin, you outz, you dolf, you passive participant…”

He continued like this for a full minute, leaving me aghast at my ignorance of offensive language. I hardly understood a word he said, although ‘drizzlepuss’ sounded particularly nasty. And I found ‘passive participant’ inexplicably odious and disturbing.

“Ooh!” he concluded ecstatically. “I wondered why I haven’t played a cop before.”

“But you have!” I exclaimed, not caring if the guards heard—not that they appeared to notice anything but the road unscrolling behind the wagon. “You’re the Mandarin!”

“You in a heap of trouble, bo-ah.” The trooper gave me a thump on the knee. “You in deep doodoo. You goin’ to meet Mista Howdyhell hisself.”

“Dead Eye was a legitimate target! He admitted it himself!”

“He used the word ‘legit’? I don’t recollect hearin’ that.”

He’d witnessed the scene under the pine trees. The dog….

“Want a free homily?”

“No.”

“Sometimes, folks get away with murder. And, sometimes, they don’t.”

The nugatory value of this inane comment made even free seem too expensive. But I couldn’t appear ungrateful. My redeemer was here.

“Dead Eye’s dead, as you well know. Mai Ling’s useless, as you may or may not know. And as you can see, I’m in a hell of a fix.”

“So?”

“So? So get me out of here!”

“No can do, hoss.” He shifted uncomfortably and scratched his crotch. “You know how painful micturition is when your pants are too tight and a gun belt’s pressing your bladder?”

Stop it!” I yanked wildly against the chains. “Stop all of it! Stop this! Or are you planning to violate our contract?”

The trooper’s eyes slid into a mean look. “I never took an oath I didn’t keep. You think I don’t take this uniform seriously? You’re in enough trouble. Don’t add slander to your list.”

“Listen to him!” I shouted at the guards. “He’s insane!”

“Keep your hell to yourself,” the trooper berated me. “Don’t you have any manners?”

When the guards did not look my way, did not so much as move, I demanded, “Are you two even alive?”

“Well…actually,” the trooper answered sheepishly for them, “right at this moment, no. Just a temporary glitch in their life cycle. Now, Bongo, I think you’d better get your priorities straight and start thinking about a lawyer. You’ll need a good one. OK, so you can’t afford that. At least get one who’s half decent. Actually, a real shyster.”

“Why would I need a lawyer? Why can’t you get me out of here?”

“But I’m a welsher, remember? You wouldn’t want to put your life in the hands of someone so untrustworthy.” He gave me a thoughtful look. “You really think I would back out on our agreement? Is your opinion so low of me after all we’ve been to each other?”

“Don’t pretend your feelings are hurt.”

“But I have feelings. Every sentient and semi-sentient being has feelings. You don’t realize how I was cut to the quick when Dead Eye mistook me for a target.”

Something inside me went still with dread. “What did you do, set him up as revenge?”

“You mean did I make him my personal target? Pshaw, Bongo, it doesn’t work that way. I’m not allowed to have targets.”

“Who doesn’t allow it? Mr. Howdyhell?”

“Him? Oh no.” He cleared his throat, as though momentarily embarrassed. “On that score, he’s a non-issue. Some things just aren’t possible, that’s all. The state of your current physics is primitive, but your scientists have one thing right: there are limits.”

“You brought Mai Ling back to life.”

“That? Small potatoes. Besides, just take a look at her. You call that living? Let’s just say the Better Business Bureau frowns upon middlemen setting up their own targets. Conflict of interest and all that.”

Over the years I’d grown accustomed to outrageous unknowables, to things so beyond description that it would take a million more years just to evolve questions for them. That I could not believe what was happening to me now was merely a deviation from one sense of unreality to another that was equally implausible.

“Ah,” said the Mandarin, seeing beyond the walls of the paddy wagon. “They’ve found your gun.”

“If you can see that, you can see a way out of here.”

“I see a million ways out of here.”

Was he rubbing it in? I didn’t think so. Just stating the facts. And the fact was that my gun was being confiscated. It would be tossed into the mass anonymity of the Weed and Seed evidence room. My gun was no longer an individual, no longer a part of my personality, nor I a part of its.

I suddenly felt that extreme embarrassment I always suffered when in the presence of authority imposing its outlandishly disproportionate willfulness. As excruciating as moments like this could be with Benton, they now seemed minor compared to the Mandarin’s massive unhelpfulness. The true power of power is the withholding of it. I was not being asked to perform useless or questionable tasks, I was not being humiliated by my wife’s lover. I was, instead, being splashed by authority washing its hands of me. As miserable as Benton had made me, there had always been something substantial about his negative presence. Confronted by this negative absence, I sensed desolation not only outside, but also within me. We never know how useful our adversaries can be until they’re gone.

Gone for good, it seemed. The Mandarin withdrew into a strange, unjustified sulk, as though pursuing his charade. He was an immaculately moral being who could not hide his disgust at being forced to breathe air tainted by my loathsome effusions. It was useless to protest, especially as the rest of my audience remained deaf and dumb at the rear panel doors.

There was a growing rumble, as if we were approaching a waterfall. The artificially stupefied pair in the back abruptly jerked back into life.

“Uh-oh,” one of them said, his face flattened against the bullet-proof glass. “Looks like word got out.”

“The ghouls of the fourth estate,” said the Mandarin with all the moral weight of an upstanding citizen confronted by an unseemly mob. “We’d better hold off until they clear a path.”

“Sure.” The guard who answered turned a jaundiced eye on me. “Get ready for your fifteen minutes of fame, asshole.”

We stopped outside the Safety Building and waited, engine idling, as several ranks of uniformed cops convinced the crowd to unblock the ramp leading to the underground parking lot. Then the van moved. I slid down sideways a little as we descended, once again the victim of a natural force. Gravity.

SIXTEEN

 

The Mandarin was not only present throughout my booking, he took the leading role in the process. This being a city facility, and he posing as a state employee, the manipulation was so obvious that I was the only one to notice it. It was the Mandarin who sat me put me through the bureaucratic wringer.

“Name?”

“But you’re not supposed—”

“Shut up, Bean Head. Routine booking exception. Address?”

“You have no right—”

“Pennsylvania vs. Muniz, Mr. Lick-me-clean. Biographical data necessary to complete the booking or pretrial serves are permissible. Height? Weight? Eye color? Date of birth? Age? Favorite color?”

None of the city employees saw anything unusual about this. In fact, clerks and officers shuffled behind the Mandarin like a bevy of star-struck tyros, behaving as though they could not wait for the day they could play this game, too.

It was the Mandarin who took my mug shots. The camera seemed as potent as a power wash, so much so that I sensed a slight concussive effect as I was pummeled by its intense flash. The Mandarin, ever the jokester, made at least fifty exposures as he ordered me to turn left, right and frontward, even going so far as to take a few pictures of the back of my head. I half expected him to tell me to stand on my head. When he was done, he collected the instantly-developed photos into his large fist and began sorting through them.

“Naw…naw…naw…crap. Ah! No, looks too victim-ish.” He tossed the rejects into the air, leaving his adoring entourage to scramble madly after the priceless souvenirs. Paring the selection down to three, the Mandarin walked over to me. After scrutinizing them a final time, he held them up for me to see. “I think these are keepers.”

I stared.

“You want to tell me that these aren’t pictures of you, right? Is that what you want to tell me?”

Yesssss!”

“Yeah, you think I’m the type to play tricks.”

My chains rattled as I tried to point. I had to be satisfied with nodding in the direction of the mob of city officials squabbling over the discarded pictures. “What do you call that? Look at them! You’ve scrambled their brains. And you…you shouldn’t even be here. You’re a state trooper. Which is, of course, just another trick.”

The Mandarin seemed to give this serious consideration, then nodded. “Fair enough. But I’ve never played tricks on my crew members.”

“Liar! What do you call these pictures?”

“Why, evidence of a job well done. Still not convinced?” He took me by the elbow and guided me to a full-length mirror at the end of the photo lab.

I glanced up from the reflection of my chains. I bellowed in rage and terror.

“There, now, don’t be so upset. You got what you wanted.”

This?”

Releasing a sigh of exasperation, the Mandarin signaled to some policemen. “You want to take this scumsatchel to the holding cell? I’m finished with him.”

A dozen cops fell over themselves in a fit of volunteerism. To the winners went my arms, which were nearly yanked out of their sockets as they were pulled from opposite directions.

“Wait!” I called out as the Mandarin began walking away.

“Wait?” He paused. “Why? You still don’t get it? Is that it? But it’s as plain as the nose on your face. OK. Mai Ling wanted her husband done in. Done. Dead Eye wanted to see. Done. And you wanted Benton out of the picture. And believe you me, he’s so far out of the picture there isn’t a frame in or out of existence that could include him.”

The policemen were beginning to drag me down the corridor.

“So that’s it? Now they’re taking me to see Mr. Howdyhell?”

“Oh, him. You already know him. You’ve known him for years. Y’see, there was a bit of a scandal when Mai Ling died. It was murder, of course. The cops knew her husband was responsible, but couldn’t pin anything on him. The bastard had taken the precaution of putting her in a car and driving it over a ledge on Skyline Drive. Not much the forensic boys could do with that. Still, just to put some distance between himself and those pesky inferential headlines, her hubby changed his last name.”

He looked at me closely.

“I see,” he smiled. “And you see. No need for me to hang around here any longer. Right? I’ve got so many crews to look after. All over the world. All over the universe. All over anti-creation. My dear, clueless flocks.”

The Mandarin turned as the guards twisted me away. We were like riders on a Tilt-a-Whirl. Only we would not be returning to our starting point.

I would never see the Mandarin again.

He was right. I had seen. I saw. Transference was the key.

At this instant, I was embracing Eileen, reassuring her that everything was all right, that the Benton business was forgiven, especially now that she realized how mistaken she had been about him. Sure, he was bad. That was what she had liked about him, among other things. But she had never suspected he was this bad.

I was holding Eileen. My wife. I had never seen her this way, so vulnerable. Actually, I had never seen her at all. Because I no longer held the lease on my body. Dead Eye had found his 20/20.

Would Eileen ever know? Would she be able to tell? Would there be an improvement? Or a falling off? As for Dead Eye…would he see my daughter and mistake all children for little self-absorbed slugs? That was all right. He had never seen a slug before, either. Nor Barney. Nor beer foam. Nor my wife’s blue nightie. He was in for a world of glory.

The guards were held up at the jail entrance in the bowels of the Safety Building. This was no mechanical glitch of the shiny barred gate. No, another set of cops wanted to look me over. The worst killer in state history, in the flesh. I caught a glimmer of movement overhead and looked up. I found myself staring into one of those convex semi-globe mirrors used to prevent people from colliding with each other as they turned the corner of the corridor. There I was, dead center. Distorted, looking quite plump in a funhouse way. Only this was no funhouse, and there was no mistaking the identity of the man in the middle.

“Are the cameras off?” I heard someone say.

“Yep.”

The blow came to my midriff. The guards let go as I doubled over and dropped to my knees—a painful crack on the linoleum floor that I scarcely felt as my wind flittered away to a distant land, to be replaced by glaring, unsustaining light.

“Whoa!” The shout came from far down the hallway. Possibly a prisoner, though whether he was whooping in sympathy or simply egging the cops on was hard to say.

“Cameras are down all over the place.”

“Funny. Just like when this creep did all his killing.”

“Must be some kind of malfunction.”

“Must be.”

More blows rained down. I understood their wrath. I even sympathized.

A part of my brain worked. Wait—this is my brain, isn’t it? What had Dead Eye said? Complete eviction. He knew what he was talking about. There was no one else in this head. Only my own little self. Besides, if this wasn’t my brain, that would mean the Mandarin had violated our contract. And I knew for a fact that he had fulfilled its terms to the last iota. Fulfilled them in such a way that a corporate lawyer would have considered the culmination a thing of beauty.

Dead Eye could see, and Benton was gone. Long gone.

I found myself on my back. I felt numb. Had a vital nerve been severed? It would serve these gorillas right if they put me into such bad shape that I wouldn’t feel my execution. This state had by no means banned the death penalty. Nosirree Bob.

The mirror was still overhead. I was still the centerpiece. Brown- and blue-uniformed cop bellies billowed around me and the face that I knew so well. Oh, it was me, all right. Unmistakably me. The me of countless nightmares. Handsome, but for that blood bubbling out of my nose, making streaks across my right cheek. The me that was merged. Unified. Undoubled. The me who would be forever me until the day I died.

The me named Benton Howdyhell.


The Mandarin Crew

Chosen by an extra-dimensional entity, Bongo, Dead Eye and Mai Ling are brought together to form a team of assassins. In a twist on the old Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece, 'Strangers on a Train,' they are given the task of eliminating complete strangers. When they have fulfilled their side of the contract with the Mandarin, a 'target' of their own choosing will be taken out by another crew.

  • ISBN: 9781311608932
  • Author: J. Clayton Rogers
  • Published: 2015-10-18 22:20:29
  • Words: 100923
The Mandarin Crew The Mandarin Crew