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A Meek And Thankful Heart
A Phillip K. Marks Story
by Jeff Somers

Exhalation

urban fantasy short stories

The old man should have been cut off an hour ago, but he was obviously well known to the bartenders, as they continued to serve him gimlets despite his increasing inability to bring their contents successfully to his mouth. He was well-dressed and groomed, with an expensive suit and new shoes. Handsome, in the way old men get handsome sometimes, just from the dignity of their experience. He’d been a semi-regular and was popular with the female staff of Rue’s Morgue. One or two of the waitresses had flirted with him purposefully, but he’d gently turned them down. They all considered him a rich old man, lonely in his money, who came out to a young people’s bar a few times a month to hear some noise around him. He always drank gimlets, always complimented the bartender on her rare ability to make them, and always left a huge tip. He’d been coming to the Morgue for five years now, and every Christmas had given each of the staff a nice monetary gift. They liked him. They thought he added a bit of class to a place otherwise populated by predatory former frat boys and the squeaky women they attract.

This night, however, was different. Usually the old man (who told everyone to call him simply Juno) had at most two drinks, smoked a few cigarettes, and then bid farewell before the real crowd poured in. On rare occasions, he deigned to have dinner at the bar. He would chat amiably with the staff, flirt a little, and then go home with some kind words and a big tip. Tonight, he’d come to drink. He’d been drinking steadily since three in the afternoon and did not seem prepared to stop, had smoked three packs of cigarettes, and had not eaten a thing. His cheerful demeanor had been replaced by a grim monosyllabic personality which frightened the staff a little. They wondered if he was having a breakdown, if there was anyone they should call.

The other customers of the Morgue knew him and regarded him as a weirdo. They didn’t notice anything different about him aside from the fact that he was taking up valuable bar space he usually had the good sense to abandon.

“You feeling all right, Juno?”

The old man winked at the bartender, who was a thirty-three year-old blonde named Tracey. “Aye. I’m fine there, my dear. Getting better all the time, eh?” He laughed bitterly. “You always want to end it in a familiar place, eh? People go home to die. Want to be in their nests. This is as close to a home as I ever got.”

Tracey glanced over at her tending partner, her roommate Sharon. The two were attractive and single and had made careers of avoiding the roaming hands of various drunk men. That Juno had not once even been caught staring at their breasts had endeared the old man to them, and she was genuinely concerned. Sharon shrugged helplessly at her.

She turned back to Juno, who was draining his glass. “Maybe you ought to go on home, Juno. I’ll call you a cab, if you want.”

The old man shook his head and suddenly placed his hand on her arm. It was the first time he had ever touched her, she thought. His hand was warm and dry and pleasant. There was no force involved, and she realized that she’d placed her hand on his without thinking. “My dear,” he said with only a slight slur, “just let me be a few moments. It will be over soon.”

“Over?”


Juno pulled his hand from hers and patted her arm. “Don’t worry. You have other customers? When you have a chance, one more gimlet would be a blessing. And quit using so much lime juice. You can’t sober me up that way.”

Tracey smiled faintly; this was more like the old Juno she’d come to know. “Alright. One more. But then I’m calling you a cab whether you like it or not.”

Juno waved her off, his attention on his empty glass. His hands were shaking.

###

            Busy pouring shots for a group of softball teammates who kept singing “We Are the Champions” off-key at deafening volume, Tracey didn’t notice the guy until most of the rest of the place had. It wasn’t silence, really; the bar was as noisy as ever, but a shift in the shrillness of the voices caught her ear, made her look up. And there was this guy: a tall, pale man with hair so blonde it was practically white, dressed in black, his eyes a bright blue and his face contorted in a twitching smile that made him appear to be mumbling to himself constantly. Tracey couldn’t put her finger on what was wrong with him, but something was. He just wasn’t right.

She glanced over at Juno and found him staring at his glass, his eyes wide and unfocused, haunted. She wasn’t surprised when the newcomer took a seat at the bar next to Juno. By all appearances, neither was Juno. She served the shots, forgot to collect payment for them, and wandered closer to hear what the duo were talking about.

“—have known it would be you,” Juno was saying. “The Angel of Death himself.”

“Mikaline to my friends,” the pale man responded, grinning. Suddenly, he noticed Tracey hovering nearby. “Miss?” he said clearly through the noise. “A bourbon on the rocks, please. Maker’s.”

Without thinking, she turned to pour the drink. She could still hear the conversation, but found herself absorbed in the drink order, heart-pounding, desperate to complete the task in a satisfactory manner.

“Waste,” Juno muttered. “All of you, wasting.”

“Juno, be as bitter as you like. You could have stopped this any number of times. You were too stubborn, and now the Syndicate has voted. You’re out.”

Juno snorted. “Out. You have no idea what you’re doing. It’s open season, now. You’ll all kill yourselves in months.”

“Oh, I hope so.” Mikaline said in a voice that sent a shiver down Tracey’s spine, a shiver not altogether unpleasant. There was something about him…she concentrated on getting the proper proportion of ice in the glass for his drink. She took pride in her work, wanted to impress him, wanted to see his eyes again, wanted to please him with her skill.

He went on behind her. “I hope so, Juno. Survival of the fittest. I’m more than happy to trade body blows with the rest of the Syndicate.”

“Even Happling?” Juno asked quietly, drowned out by the noise of the crowd and yet Tracey heard it, somehow.

The silence behind her seemed to beat against her back with invisible wings. She imagined she felt anger and fear palpably. She poured the bourbon slowly, letting the ice cool it as she poured, measuring it professionally. She wanted him to know she was good at her job.

“Even the glorious Nathan Happling,” Mikaline said finally. “Even him. He voted for you, you know. Even I think you should know that. He tried to save you. But even he is just one vote.”

Juno blinked a few times, his sad, old face wracked with emotion for a second. “I am glad for that. Mikaline, such kindness doesn’t befit you.”

Mikaline shrugged as Tracey placed the tumbler carefully in front of him. “I am full of surprises, Juno. Thank you, madam. Has anyone ever told you that you have very lovely eyes?”

Juno glanced sharply at him. “Stop it, Mikaline. She is a friend of mine. Leave her be.”

Tracey felt blood rushing into her face. She smiled nervously and didn’t seem to know what to do with her hands. Such lovely eyes he had…she felt warm, yet shivery.

Mikaline chuckled. “Alright, Juno. Since I am busy, anyway. I suppose we should get business over with.” He looked from Tracey to Juno. “Any last words?”

As his eyes left her, Tracey seemed to lose strength and slumped suddenly. She was red-faced and sweating. She turned from the two men and almost collided with Sharon.

“Hey! You all right?”

Tracey put a hand on Sharon’s shoulder. “Be right back. Gotta go to the john. Cover me.”

###

            In the bathroom, Tracey ran the cold water and splashed it on her face until she thought her heart had slowed a little. Her body was tingling everywhere, and she was shaking slightly. She didn’t know what exactly had happened, but she knew that she would have those blue eyes in her head for quite some time. He had looked at her, and she had felt drawn to him, attracted, yes, but more. Drawn was the only word she could come up with. She knew somehow that at that moment she would have done anything for him. Or to him. Or to anyone else, for that matter, had he suggested it.

She studied her flushed face in the mirror for a few moments, feeling better but afraid to face him again.

###

            When she emerged, still feeling shaky but more like herself, the man named Mikaline was gone, and Juno was slumped over the bar, dead. No one else had noticed. Tracey screamed, once, high and piercing.

###

            The building was condemned, that much was obvious. It was a desiccated old apartment building standing amidst empty lots in the Greenville section of Jersey City. It had been tagged numerously with graffiti and sported no windows, just plywood boards. At one time, it might have been one of many handsome brownstones in the area, just four blocks away from the medical center and Montgomery Avenue and the National Guard Armory. Now it was just a shell of urban malaise.

Outside of it, eleven limousines were parked.

The characters who populated this neighborhood skulked around outside, curious as to who would be foolish enough to take a car service into this neighborhood and then just leave the cars and their lone drivers outside while they toured the wrecked buildings. The owners of the limos were not so foolish; the drivers, it was quickly discovered and spread around, were packing serious heat and looked like professional security personnel. No one wanted to test themselves against that kind of deterrent.

Inside the building, eight men and three women were gathered in one of the ancient apartments. In contrast to the dirt and disrepair around them, the broken furniture and graffiti, they were all expensively dressed and groomed. They varied in age from twenty-something to sixty-something. Among them stood Mikaline, pale and dark, smiling the same twitchy smile.

“Well, Mikaline, you called us here. What news?” asked a woman who looked to be in her fifties, silver hair done up in an intricate, high-fashion sort of way.

Mikaline glanced up from contemplation of his shoes. “Juno is dead, Petra, as we agreed.”

Petra Van Killehenner looked out one of the empty window frames to the city below them. She pursed her lips, but said nothing.

“Is that all you asked us here to say, Mikaline? This could have waited until our next meeting,” chided Rudolph Enneking. He was a frail old man, thin, delicate, shaking slightly with every movement. He was impeccably dressed. His voice was wavery but steady and hinted at a Germanic accent worn away by time, leaving a clipped, precise way of speaking.

“Waited?” Nathan Happling snorted, pushing away from the wall and flicking his cigarette away. He was the youngest, his red hair untouched by gray. “Juno has been one of the Twelve for thirty-seven years, Enneking. You think we should have just picked it up from the grapevine?”

The older man shook his head in response. “Nathan, you are still too young and too hotheaded. We knew Herr Juno was going to die. We voted. We assigned it to Herr Ambrose. Mikaline does not fail, not in these matters. We did not need the obvious underlined for us, this is what I am saying.”

Mikaline glared at Enneking, but said nothing.

Happling snarled. “Hotheaded, he calls me. Juno sponsored me, dammit. You and he were sponsored around the same time, Enneking. You don’t think he was owed some bit of respect?”

“Respect?” Enneking said with a slight grin, spreading his hands. “This has no more meaning for Juno, trust me, my younger Master. I believe in respecting the man who is living, while he lives. Once you are dead, such petty matters no longer concern you. Believe me.”

Happling looked around the room darkly. “Well, I am happy to have heard it this way. I wouldn’t have wanted to read about it in the papers.”

“Glad to have pleased you,” Mikaline said softly.

Happling glanced at him and then away. “I am sure you are, Ambrose.”

Van Killehenner perched herself on a dilapidated window sill. “Since we are here, though, perhaps the subject of who should take Juno’s place at the table is appropriate.”

Amin Dimser was a short, balding man who wore thick wire-rim glasses perched on his wide nose. He was sweating despite the chill in the air. He did not look up from the book he held in his hands, the title on the covers and spine carefully covered with black electrical tape. “There are four current candidates on file.”

Happling strode to the center of the room. “What? There is protocol for this, Petra. Juno should be honored with a small amount of courtesy, don’t you think? Perhaps let his seat cool before putting some neophyte in it?”

The silver-haired woman shrugged. “I have been a member of the Syndicate much longer than you, my young American friend. I understand protocol. I helped write the protocol. We are not making motions, holding hearings; we are just talking.”

Happling shook his head and searched himself for cigarettes.

“At our next meeting,” Enneking said, “if you would bring the names and dossiers, Amin, we might begin the process.”

Dimser nodded without glancing up.

“I, for one, am glad we have gathered here to hear of the execution,” said the man with the waxed mustache that curled upwards in a ridiculous manner, wearing a light pink overcoat. He seemed amused at the tension in the room. “It will be regarded as a turning point in our history, a return to more barbaric times for us. I think it is right that we have gathered here to mourn the passing of our pax syndicata.”

Enneking shook his head. “Yes, Renar, your opinions on this matter were heard when we voted on Juno’s punishment. We are aware of your gloomy attitude.”

“The fact remains,” Petra said crisply, “Juno broke one of our laws, and he had to be punished.”

“Punished, yes,” Renar said evenly. “Executed? No. And he was executed, my friends. We sent our dark little man Mikaline to kill him, for that is what Mikaline has made himself good at. But in so doing, we broke one of our own laws, to punish a lawbreaker. It will be our doom.”

“Cheerful,” Dimser said, still reading.

“We broke no laws,” Enneking said. “We did not kill a sitting member of the Syndicate.”

“Ah!” Renar snapped, raising his hands to the ceiling. “So! Our law that forbids us from harming another Syndicate member, it becomes inconvenient, so we railroad it. We do an end run around it. We remove the man from his seat and, thus, from its protection. Now, we have opened that door. Any one of us can walk through it.” He looked at Mikaline—watery, aged eyes into dark, youthful ones. “Or be pushed.”

“Is that an accusation, old man?” Mikaline said roughly.

“ENOUGH!” Mariana Sutrose snapped from her semi-hidden spot. She was a small, dark-haired woman in constant motion, hugging her arms around herself and rocking continuously. They all turned to look at her. “Arguing semantics and protocols will change nothing. Juno is dead. The first Syndicate member in five hundred years to be killed by another master. What’s done is done. We move on. Is there any other purpose to this meeting?”

Mikaline looked from face to face for a moment, then bowed with a mocking smile. “I apologize, my colleagues. I will be more careful in the future.”

“Very well, then,” Enneking said briskly. “I believe that concludes our business. We are scheduled for Las Vegas in three weeks, is that right? Mr. Saglimenni, I believe your offices are making the arrangements?”

Justin Saglimenni was a fortyish man, with broad, solid shoulders. Heavy eyes, which seemed to struggle to stay open, squinted as he grinned sourly, nodding to himself. He nodded, chins appearing and disappearing. “I will have my servants fax everyone the details within a few days.”

“Mr. Happling?” Enneking said, nodding. “Where will you be?”

Happling was studying the floor, smoking. “I don’t know, Rudolph.”

Enneking licked his lips. “I do wish you would grow out of this renegade phase, Mr. Happling, and settle down. You are wasting your time like this.”

Happling shrugged. “I don’t need anything. And I like being hard to find.” He looked up at Mikaline, who was studying his fingernails pointedly.

Enneking sighed. “Mr. Happling, please check in with someone as to the details of our next gathering. Final additions to the agenda must be at the hotel desk three days prior, as per usual. Be prepared to cast votes on our four candidates.”

“Five.”

Enneking glanced at Happling. “Excuse me?”

Happling looked up. “Five candidates. I’ll be sponsoring someone.”

Enneking stared for a second, then recovered himself. “Very well.” He looked around at everyone, pausing on the three members who had not spoken. “Is there further business?”

The three said nothing. Jude Moorehouse was a teenager, and his smile widened for a moment, then he looked down at the floor. He shifted his weight back and forth as if resisting the urge to run and jump around the space. Arianna Mercker was a beautiful black woman whose face revealed nothing of her inner thoughts. She stared impassively at Enneking. Per Orloff seemed to be talking to himself. His papery lips fluttered silently. His eyes wandered the room endlessly. His hands rubbed themselves.

Enneking sighed again. “Let us consider this unofficial gathering concluded, then. Until Las Vegas.”

None of them said anything else. Their security people were waiting for each of them as they exited the building. Ten climbed into limousines and sped off, eager to be gone. Happling lit another cigarette and began to walk, his sports jacket’s collar up against the wind. Two blocks away, he encountered three youths in hooded sweatshirts, who crowded around him.

“Yo, got the time?”

Happling exhaled smoke. “Call me sir.”

The youth hesitated. He blinked twice and then seemed to shudder slightly. “Got the time, sir?”

Happling grinned. There was nothing warm in it. “On your knees, you cocksucking motherfucker, and kiss my goddamn shoes.”

The trio struck heads trying to do so at once, and Happling laughed.

###

            Phillip K. Marks had seen hard times. He’d lived there for a while and spent far too long getting past it and now had the starved-dog look of trial and deprivation. He was in better times now, but some habits were too good to let drop. He still cruised by his front porch once before going in, his eyes anywhere but on his own front door. During hard times, this had served to predict and avoid a few beatings-in-the-making and to avoid bill collectors, old friends, and in many cases, new ones.

Sauntering by his brownstone from across the street, he observed an attractive young woman standing on the top step, wearing an office suit, the skirt just a shade longer than slutty, clutching a handbag before her like an old-fashioned woman who wouldn’t have been caught dead in fuck-me pumps like those.

He considered this as he wandered around the block. He wondered if she would still be there when he returned.

She was. He watched her carefully as he approached and then took his eyes off her as he mounted the steps. He could feel her watching him, but he ignored her until she cleared her throat.

“Mr. Marks?”

He glanced up, feigning surprise. “Yes?”

She was gorgeous, he thought. Mid-twenties or younger, with auburn hair done up in a loose pile, her face painfully pretty, her figure on obvious display in her outfit. He brought his eyes back up to her face and decided to keep them there. The tentative smile she was offering him, however, hinted that she didn’t mind the attention.

“Thank goodness. My name is Marjorie Adams, Mr. Marks. A man named Pete Timlin gave me your name. He told me you were known for investigating…odd cases.”

Marks lifted an eyebrow. “I’m not sure how I like that; I guess I’m getting a reputation. Well, come on in, Ms. Adams, and let’s hear it. How is Pete these days?”

###

            Upstairs, he busied himself mixing drinks and watched her glide around his dark apartment, his eyes mostly on her legs as she moved on those high heels. He wondered if she dressed like a wet dream on purpose.

“Gin and tonic okay?” he asked.

“More tonic than gin, please,” she replied.

He nodded. She’s got some sense, at least, he thought. Of course, if he were her, he wouldn’t touch a drop of anything he hadn’t witnessed the making of, but then again, she didn’t seem like the sort of girl who worried about such things.

He crossed the room and handed her a tall glass, which she didn’t sip. He gestured to the couch and he sat across from her, admiring her crossing legs but then keeping his eyes on hers.

“I work for Brickheour Consulting, Incorporated. We’re a small but very profitable consulting firm with clients both local and international. I’m not sure exactly what Mr. Juno does—did. You see, he’s dead.”

Marks nodded. “I see. You suspect foul play?”

She nodded emphatically, placing her untouched drink on the coffee table. “Yes! We were all informed that Mr. Juno’s business assets were being transferred over to a ‘partner’ of his, a Mr. Saglimenni. I’ve never heard of him, and I was Mr. Juno’s personal assistant. If he’d had a partner, I think I would have at least heard of him. But it all seems perfectly legal. We’re all still employed. It just seems odd.”

Marks nodded. “Sure, sounds a little fishy. But I’m a writer, not a cop, not even a PI. This sounds at best like a hostile takeover, murder for profit. Not exactly what I write about.”

Marjorie bit her lip attractively. “Can I speak to you in confidence?”

Marks leaned forward. “I make no guarantees, Ms. Adams.”

She sighed. “Well…Mr. Juno and I had a special sort of bond…”

Marks nodded. “I see.”

Her eyes widened. “Not that! Mr. Marks, Mr. Juno was always very kind to me, and we were friendly, but nothing inappropriate ever happened between us. No, I just meant that very often I felt as if—as if I could hear Mr. Juno’s thoughts.”

She said this very quietly and stared down at her shoes as she did so. “I know it sounds crazy, Mr. Marks, and to be honest, it only happened a few times, and most of them are hard for me to even recall distinctly, much less explain.” She looked up. “But last week, the night that Mr. Juno died, I swear I heard him, in my head. He was terrified. He was waiting for death to come find him. It terrified me. I was up all night, tossing and turning, and I had a business trip the next day to…to…” She frowned. “I had a six am flight to…to one of our clients.” she finished lamely, shaking her head. “When I heard that Mr. Juno had died, exactly at the moment I thought I felt him, I almost fainted in shock.”

Marks leaned back. This is interesting, he thought. Normally, not weird enough to make a story, but with a picture of the comely Ms. Adams as a sidebar, it might just make it. “You’re sure you felt this voice at the exact moment?”

“Yes,” she said firmly. “And I remember the exact feeling. He was waiting for death, Mr. Marks. He knew it was coming. He didn’t want to die, but he felt he couldn’t avoid it, even though there was nothing sudden about it. He was murdered, I think.”

Marks clucked his tongue. “What did the police have to say about it?”

She sank into the couch. “There’s the problem. Officially, Mr. Juno died of a brain aneurysm. The police are very sure of that. This was ruled a natural death. That’s why I had to find someone else to help me. You.”

Marks had seen plenty of pretty girls in his time. I am far too old to be swayed by big blue eyes and a short skirt. She seems so sincere, if not overly bright. While he didn’t doubt she believed her experience to be genuine, he also thought it possible she was simply distraught over the death of a well-liked boss—and possible lover.

He sighed, sipping his own drink. Boozing at three in the afternoon, he thought dimly. Oughta cut this out before I get a problem. “Alright, Ms. Adams, tell you what. Give me your number at work, and I’ll do some digging, see if anything weird pops out. If I don’t find much, I’m afraid I’ll have to move on to more fertile stories, but I’ll give you a few hours of my attention. Deal?”

She smiled, and he fought the urge to smile back. “Oh, thank you, Mr. Marks!” She pulled a card from her purse and handed it to him.

Marks stood up and saw her to the door, his amused eyes on her swaying hips. He wondered if he was turning into a dirty old man so soon. As he shut the door on her cheerful thanks, he sighed and decided it didn’t matter. He felt damned anyway, what was one more reason? He turned back to finish his drink and make some calls about Brickheour Consulting. He picked up the phone, sank into an easy chair, and dialed Pete Timlin’s number.

“Hello, Pete, it’s Phil…Yeah…Yeah, you too…She sure did…I’ll say! I didn’t think—huh? Really. Well, sure, I can do that. Five would be okay…Yeah, I know the place. Hey, you sound…Oh, okay. See you there.”

He hung up and looked around the room. “Well, Christ, that was strange.”

###

            Marks, a sly grin on his face and a bourbon in one hand, dropped into the seat across from Pete Timlin.

“Jesus, Phil, you scared the shit out of me,” Timlin said, his wrinkled and fleshy face twisting into a grin as they shook hands.

Marks winked. “What’s life without some excitement, Pete? How’s my favorite editor this side of the Mirror?”

“The Mirror! Why not just stab me with your butter knife, goddamn it. Phil, just because you’ve proven you can be bought by the highest bidder doesn’t mean you can take shots at those of us with our integrity intact.”

“Ho ho ho. It wasn’t the money, Pete, as you know. It was being buried on page six all the time. I like page two with occasional covers more.”

“Buried on page six. The arrogance.”

Both men chuckled. “So,” Marks said casually. “You wanted to tell me something about our mutual friend?”

Timlin nodded. “She’s a hooker,” he said just as casually.

Marks paused with his tumbler halfway to his lips. “Excuse me?”

Timlin shrugged. “She works for Brickheour Consulting. In other words, she’s a hooker. We were working on an exposé when the bastard croaked. We’re waiting to see what happens with the operation.”

“Wow.”

“Very high end, very hard to get an appointment, but yeah. Our girl Marjorie is a very popular employee.”

Marks leaned back and puffed out his cheeks. “Yikes.”

Timlin nodded and leaned forward. “There’s more.”

Marks raised an eyebrow.

“There’s something really odd about it. If I were forced to come up with an opinion, I’d have to say that the employees didn’t know they were hookers.”

“What?”

Timlin shook his head. “I can’t really explain it, Phil. We’ve been investigating them for a few months, you know, really titillating stuff: high class whores, high society cathouse, that sort of thing. Sells papers. I’ve gone after the staff every way I can think of, and they really seem genuinely to believe they’re just office girls. I’d swear that if we were to confront them with evidence of one of their encounters, they’d be mystified.”


“How do you explain that?”

Timlin shrugged. “I don’t, except to say that Juno Brickheour was an extraordinary man.”

Marks sipped his drink, then looked up over the rim. “You gonna explain that, Pete?”

Timlin sighed. “This is going to sound a little strange.”

Marks smiled. “Pete, look who you’re talking to. I wrote an article stating that vampires existed.” He blinked. “I was wrong on that one.”

Timlin shrugged again. “Juno Brickheour was reputed to be one of the most powerful men in the world. Worth billions. Had every senator’s private number on speed dial. No mob connections, no family money, yet he was reputed to be the man behind the scenes on any number of situations.”

“A guy like that running a whorehouse?”

“A whorehouse with girls like Marjorie, Phil, which serviced the upper end of the tax bracket. And was probably more than a whorehouse.”

Marks finished his drink and signaled an unseen waitress. “Pete, you’re getting positively mulish in your old age. Spit it out!”

“Brickheour had a staff of girls which rotated pretty quickly. As best we can tell, he sold them.”

Marks stared at him levelly. “Sold them?”

Timlin nodded.

Marks stared into his drink. “Pete, this girl, this Marjorie, she was no Mensa candidate, but Christ, she wasn’t,” he struggled for a word. “She wasn’t trash.”

Timlin nodded. “None of them were. But the pattern was always the same: they were on the payroll for a few months, a year at most, going on regular business trips to various clients, then they left the firm.”

Marks waited a beat. “So?”

“All of them. All of them, Phil, either married or went to work for a former Brickheour client. All of them.”

Marks nodded. “That’s weird. But hard to make anything out of.”

Timlin winked. “We never ran the story. We were waiting for something more.”

Marks swirled bourbon in his glass. “If I wanted to…”

Timlin laughed. “It’s yours, Phil. After Brickheour died, the firm was willed to Justin Saglimenni, an ‘investor’ based in Chicago. We haven’t gotten far looking into Mr. Saglimenni. He’s as slippery as Juno was. The story’s been killed around us. If you can do anything with it, feel free.”

Marks finished off his drink. “Thanks.” He winked. “You’ll regret it.”

 

Investigation

“Mr. Marks?”

Caught napping, the reporter glanced up sharply and blinked a few times, suddenly remembering where he was. The tasteful reception area was located in a large office building in midtown. The name of the company did not appear anywhere on the building’s directory, but the stark black stenciling on the glass doors read Brickheour Consulting. He’d been greeted by the soft, lovely young woman behind the desk with a flirtatious smile and offered coffee, and he’d asked for Marjorie Adams in high spirits.

The young woman holding out a hand to him was not Marjorie Adams. She was blonde and svelte and mannered and wore a business suit that was just barely long enough to qualify as appropriate. When she sat, he bet she had to be very, very careful. He didn’t think she could have been older than twenty. If I don’t meet someone my own age soon, I’m gonna start getting suspicious.

He stood and took her hand. It was smooth and soft and felt very good in his rough paw. “Yes?”

She smiled. “My name is Angela Miller. I was Marjorie’s manager here. I’m afraid Marjorie has accepted another position. Is there perhaps something I can help you with?”

Marks thought quickly. “I’m surprised Marjorie did not tell me she was leaving the company.”

Angela nodded. “It was a sudden decision that has left us somewhat overwhelmed as well, Mr. Marks. Perhaps you’d like to come back to my office and discuss what it was you were working on?”

“Sure.”

As he followed Ms. Miller’s swaying form past the receptionist, who kept a cheerfully cocked eye on him the whole time, Marks fought the urge to run the other way. He decided, quietly, that if he met one more beauty with a short skirt and a vacant smile, he’d scream.

Miller opened the door which led into the main offices, and he did almost scream.

The place was staffed entirely with women. Marks kept a straight face as he followed Miller through the bullpen towards the rear offices, but he didn’t think any of them were much over twenty. They were all dressed in similarly short skirts, made up to the nines, and all gave him the once-over as he followed his guide through. It gave him the chills. He knew that walking into a room filled with young beauties was supposed to warm a man’s heart, but something about the tableau bothered him.

It’s like a harem. They’re all just sitting around, waiting. Waiting for who?

He caught some of the glances thrown his way. Maybe me. He wasn’t excited at the prospect at all.

Angela led him to an office and held the door open, one hand waving him in. “Have a seat, Mr. Marks.”

He eyed the open door uneasily for a second and stepped inside as naturally as he could. He sat down in a comfortable leather chair and crossed his legs. He heard the door shut behind him and the silky swoosh of Ms. Miller’s stockings as she walked briskly around her desk and sat down, leaving a trail of pleasant perfume behind her.

“I couldn’t find you in Marjorie’s files, Mr. Marks. When did you two meet?”

“Recently. I’m afraid I may have confused everyone. We weren’t doing business together. I was hoping to take her out to lunch.” He affected a crestfallen demeanor. “Obviously, I made less of an impression on her than she did on me.”

Ms. Miller smiled. “I wouldn’t count on that, Mr. Marks.” She leaned back in her chair and Marks’ eyes traveled from a revealed knee back to her eyes of their own volition. “But I am sorry about the misunderstanding. Perhaps—”

There was a knock on the door, and it opened.

Marks twisted around and found two men in suits crowding the doorway. One was big, stuffed into an expensive suit and squinting into the room with puffy eyes that made him look sleepy. He was graying slightly but had an air of vitality that fairly hummed. Marks thought the even larger man behind him was standard, unimaginative muscle.

“Mr. Saglimenni! Come in!

Marks twisted back to look in amazement at Ms. Miller, whose previously ironic voice had turned into a girlish squeal. She was staring at the first man intently, unaware he was convinced, of Marks’ continued presence. A flush had entered her cheeks, and she seemed to have become breathless suddenly.

“Angie, let me have a moment with Mr. Marks, okay?”

“Of course!” She popped up from behind the desk as if on a spring and swayed her way out of the office, her eyes not leaving the hulking form of Saglimenni until his man shut the door behind her. Marks once again smelled her perfume in the air. He sat, stunned, contemplating the transformation. Belatedly, he turned his attention to Saglimenni, who lowered himself into the vacated chair behind the desk.

“Cut the bull, Mr. Marks. You’re a writer. I have several of your clippings. Why are you here?”

Marks tried not to be pleased that he was well known in the room. “I—”

Saglimenni leaned back and cocked his head, looking at Marks down his nose. “The truth, Mr. Marks. The truth, please.”

Marks opened his mouth and then paused, an odd feeling stealing over him. He felt lightheaded for a moment, as if he’d stood up too quickly, and then he felt disoriented, as if he’d taken a blow to the head. When everything snapped back into clarity, it all made sense, albeit a new kind of sense. He looked up at Mr. Saglimenni with respect and warmth. He was glad to be there. He was eager to be helpful.

“I was approached by Marjorie Adams about some weird goings-on concerning this company and the death of its previous owner, Juno Brickheour. I came here to see if she could answer some questions and get me access to files and other information,” he said steadily.

Saglimenni was breathing loudly through his nose, still looking down at Marks. “What ‘details’?”

Marks answered immediately. “I have been informed that this consulting firm was really a high-class and high-powered prostitution ring, that its girls have been sold on several occasions to wealthy individuals.”

Saglimenni nodded. “Okay, Marks, here’s how it’s gonna be. You listening?”

Marks leaned forward, eager to hear how it was gonna be.

###

            The phone was ringing.

Marks sat up suddenly in bed, panting, staring straight ahead. For a moment, he couldn’t make sense of the noise, then he seemed to suddenly focus, and he turned to look at the phone. He imagined he could see it vibrate just barely as it rang.

A soft noise next to him made him look down at himself. He was fully clothed, in a gray suit, white shirt, dark socks. There was scattered change on the mattress next to him, fallen from his pockets. His wallet was painful in one back pocket. Steeling himself, he turned his head the other way and noted with mild shock the obvious naked blonde woman in bed with him. She seemed…familiar.

The phone was still ringing.

Slowly, he reached over and picked up the receiver. “Hello?” he said. He jumped a little. His voice sounded rusty.

“Hello, Pete. What? Where?” He paused and glanced over his shoulder at the sleeping girl. “Pete, I think I’ll have to call you back.”

Without waiting to hear a response, he put the phone back down and swung his legs off the bed. He sat there for a moment, staring at the floor. He rubbed his face; three or four days of beard greeted him. He felt scratchy all over. He stood up and felt tight, weak, as if he’d been off his feet for a while.

Marks reached into his breast pocket and extracted a pack of cigarettes. Lighting one, he stood by the bed for a moment, sucking in smoke and fighting the urge to cough. He’d been through enough strangeness in his life to recognize strange when the reek was all around him. He looked around his sunlit bedroom and thought back to the last thing he remembered, which was walking home one afternoon, feeling bored, wondering when something interesting was going to cross his path. One moment, walking down the street, the next moment, in bed with a girl, fully clothed, feeling as if he’d been out of circulation for several days.

He wondered what day it was.

“Philly?”

His eyebrow went up, and he turned carefully to regard the blonde. For a moment, she was familiar again, a svelte blonde girl with an ironic face, smiling at him with the sheets wrapped around her. Then it faded, and he was facing a stranger.

“Yes?”

She blinked sleepily. “Come back to bed.”

Marks surprised himself by laughing. “Sister, I think it’s time you got going.”

She blinked again, squinting at him. “Huh?”

“I don’t know what’s going on, but I’d like to make my first order of business getting you the hell out of my apartment.”

She looked hurt. “But Philly—”

He reached across the bed, grabbed the sheets, and tore them from her grasp, knocking her onto the floor in an undignified flop. She let out a screech.

“I’m not some rube off the street, lady. I don’t know what’s happened here, but I’ve been through the freaking twilight zone often enough to know the aftertaste.”

She was up on her feet, and Marks momentarily regretted his attitude. She was a beautiful woman, very young. She was completely naked, and Marks found himself wishing fervently that he could remember something else about her.

“You ain’t no nice guy!” she hissed. “You’re a bastard, Phillip Marks! A drunk!”

He nodded, feeling some of his old self come bubbling up in response to her insults. “Okay, sure. Get dressed and get going.”

She started sniffling, searching the floor for her various garments. “You were so sweet to me.”

“The hell I was.” He growled. “I never met you before in my life. I don’t know what kind of scam you’re running here, but—”

“Scam!” She shouted, her tears turning angry. “You’re the scammer, you fuck!”

He watched her dress as passionlessly as he could manage. He worried over lost time. Walking down the street, looking forward to an afternoon cocktail then, bam! In bed with a beautiful girl he couldn’t even remember.

His gray eyes darted to the dresser on which a stylish black purse rested. He strode over to it in his scratchy clothes. Too late, she saw him going for it and dived across the bed in her stockings.

“Get your hands off my purse, you lying shit!” she screeched. “I’ll call the cops! I’ll have you—”

He wrestled it from her and tore it open. Inside, he found some wrinkled money, the usual makeup supplies, cigarettes, keys, an emergency tampon, two condoms, and a small wallet filled with business cards, various credit cards, and her IDs. He took her business card out and tossed the purse to her casually. She was sitting on the edge of the bed half-naked, crying softly.

“I thought you liked me, Philly,” she said miserably. “But you were just looking for a fuck, huh?”

“Like hell,” he said, examining her cards. The business card read simply:

 

Angela Miller

Executive Manager

Brickheour Consulting

 

There was a phone number across the bottom. He looked at her. She was still crying softly. He reached for the phone. Keeping his eyes on her, he dialed the number, listened, and nodded to himself.

“All right, Ms. Miller,” he said. “Get dressed. I’ll put on some coffee, and let’s see if we can get to the bottom of this.”

She kept crying, but slowly threaded her arm through a bra strap, and he left her there.

###

            After two more cigarettes, a cup of coffee, a listen to the radio to establish that he’d lost three days of his life, and a moment of solitude, Phillip K. Marks was feeling like his old self as he listened to the pretty blonde talk.

“I’d been in there a few times, but never met anyone,” she was saying miserably, not crying any more, but talking in a dull monotone that belied internal despair. “But last night, I was so depressed, felt so worthless,” she swallowed. “Anyway, I got very drunk. I was drinking martinis like there was no tomorrow, and when I drink, I get very high, very giddy. So when you came on to me, I was easy prey, I guess.” She snorted. “What an idiot! Here I thought you meant all those nice things.”

Marks snuffed out his cigarette. “Ms. Miller, I never met you before in my life.”

She was holding her coffee in both hands, like a little girl, he noted. She closed her eyes. “Why do you have to be so bizarrely mean? Why not just kick me out?”

Marks studied her. So far, he couldn’t see any indication that she was lying. “Let me ask you a question in turn, Ms. Miller. Why are you still here?”

She looked up at him with an intense flash of hatred, loathing even, and then frowned. “I don’t know.”

He nodded. “Ms. Miller—”

“Angela.”

“Ms. Miller,” he repeated purposefully, “there’s something going on here, can’t you see that? Where was this bar we met at?”

She opened her mouth and then shut it. A moment passed. “I—I don’t remember. I think I was too drunk.”

“You said you’d been there before.”

She studied the table with jittery eyes. “Yes. I mean, maybe I’m confused.”

He nodded patiently. “What was the place called?”

She shook her head. “I don’t remember.”

He nodded again. “How do you like your martinis?”

She looked up at him, her eyes red-rimmed and confused.

“Ms. Miller, what’s in a martini?”

She shook her head.

Marks sighed. “You see? Ms. Miller, I write for a living. I’m a syndicated columnist. I write about the strange and unusual, the overlooked and the neglected. I have been through my share of oddities. None of this adds up. I don’t go into bars and pick up girls who could almost be my daughter. I have never blacked out from drinking in my life, and I drink a lot, trust me. I can’t remember the last three days, but I don’t feel sick or otherwise impaired. I’m not hungover, and I usually get hit hard. You can’t remember a single detail. You hate me and feel mortified, but you’re sitting here sipping coffee as if leaving were the last thing on your mind. Doesn’t all this seem a little odd?”

She shook her head slightly, as if trying to clear it.

He slid her business card over to her. “The phone call that woke me up. It was my friend Pete Timlin. We go way back. He wanted to know if I’d found anything at Brickheour Consulting, where you apparently work. I’ve never heard of it.”

He let the words find their way into her. He stood up and freshened their coffee cups, played with the milk and the sugar, lit a new cigarette. He certainly felt like he hadn’t smoked in three days; the nicotine was going straight to his head. “Ms. Miller, I don’t know anything but this: I did not meet you drunk in a bar and seduce you. I’d wager I never had sex with you or even saw you prior to this morning.” The faint familiarity of her face flashed through him, and he shifted in his seat. “And I’d bet you know something about this.”

She looked up at him sharply.

“A very good acting job, but you’re still here. Why?”

“I don’t know,” she snapped angrily, “but I’m leaving!”

He watched her. She continued to glare at him.

“Now?” he finally asked.

“You’re damn right, you asshole!”

He watched her again. Glanced at his watch grandiosely. Raised an eyebrow. “Are you sure?”

She was trembling. He would have sworn she was vibrating, shaking with some internal struggle. He watched her carefully, looking for some clue as to what was happening.

“No,” she finally said. “I want to, but I…can’t.” She buried her face in her hands.

“Why not?”

I don’t know!” she shouted, looking up at him with such vehemence that he blinked. She started to cry again, and he leaned back, suddenly touched. He didn’t know what to do.

Christ, I’ve made so many fucking women cry in my life, and I still don’t know what to do about it. He scratched his beard. “All right,” he said suddenly. “Let’s get some breakfast. I don’t think I’ve eaten in three days.”

###

            “So, who are you?”

Marks was on his fourth cup of coffee, and after a stack of pancakes, he was feeling human again, which meant he was wondering if it was too early for a cocktail. More often these days, he was chucking his conventional wisdom of waiting until afternoon. Life was short, after all.

“A writer,” he answered easily. He was beginning to like Angela Miller just fine, and his suspicions were receding; he was pretty sure she was on the level, that they were both victims here. He intended to make absolutely sure, but in the meantime, he figured admitting to his high profile occupation wasn’t exactly giving away state secrets. “I’m a syndicated columnist. My column appears here in the city in the Times and in forty-seven newspapers nationwide.”

She stared. “Really?”

He nodded. “Yep. And you?”

“I’m a consultant.” She shrugged. “I meet with clients, they tell me their problems, and I suggest ways of solving them.”

“Sounds boring as hell.”

She shook her head. “No, it’s very exciting! I love my job!”

Marks stared at her, getting an uneasy feeling for the umpteenth time. Her cheerfulness seemed to flash on and off; one second, she was miserable and distressed at how her morning had begun. The next, she was apple-cheeked and flushed with excitement, eager to praise her job, her bosses, her clients—everyone. That, combined with his weird feeling of having met her before, made him nervous.

“Listen, Ms. Miller. Don’t get nervous, but I’ve invited a colleague of mine to breakfast with us.”

Her momentary excitement drained away. “What?”

“An old friend. A doctor. I’d like him to have a chat with you.”

Her voice grew very small. “Why?”

Marks sat forward. “Ms. Miller, I’ve seen a lot of shit in my time. Men strapping explosives to themselves. Revolutions in the making. Magic. Witchcraft. Conspiracies. Vampires. Everything. I’ve written about it, and if I haven’t convinced too many people, I haven’t been easily debunked, either. My Spidey-sense is telling me that we’ve both been fucked with here. I’d like to figure it out, and you’re my first link.”

She began gathering herself rapidly. “I don’t know, Ph—Mr. Marks. I have to get going.”

“Now you can leave?” He glanced over her shoulder. “Hello, Ivan.”

She jumped as the balding, middle-aged man in a worn tweed jacket and soft khakis seemed to appear from nowhere next to her, taking a seat which effectively blocked her into the booth. He reached over and shook Marks’ hand. “Phil. You’ve looked better. Been fucking the devil at midnight again, eh?”

“Don’t frighten our guest, Ivan. Ms. Angela Miller, Ivan McCallaugh. He’s a little brusque, but he’s a genius in some ways.”

“Some ways?” McCallaugh was easygoing, his clothes loose, his shoes casual, his face eternally cheerful behind thin, lightweight glasses. Marks suspected the glasses were just a prop. “Our Mr. Marks hardly ever likes to admit the strengths of others, you may have noticed. While his cognitive abilities remain sorely compromised by booze and loose living, he does retain a certain amount of flash from his youth, which was, I should tell you, remarkable. Too bad he wastes it writing about ghouls and goblins.”

“You weren’t complaining when I helped you with the Redmen.”

McCallaugh glanced sideways at Marks. “True enough, friend.”

Marks laughed. “Ms. Miller, don’t worry. Our friend Ivan here comes on strong because he is convinced the rest of humanity are morons and dolts. Don’t take it personally. Even if he really likes you, he’ll consider you a dolt. But he’s very, very talented. I’m forbidden by oath to reveal certain facts about his work and his life, but I can tell you that Ivan is one of the most accomplished hypnotists in the world. Will you let him get involved here?”

“Talented! That’s like calling Jupiter an above-average size planet!” Ivan protested jovially. “And hypnotist is such a middle-class term and wholly inaccurate, to boot.”

The blonde woman shook her head. “Involved how?”

“Mr. Marks wants me to hypnotize you and find out if you know anything you don’t realize you know,” McCallaugh said. “He doesn’t seem to trust you entirely.”

“I don’t know.”

Marks nodded. “Ms. Miller, I understand; you don’t know me, suspect me of all sorts of things, and are probably uncomfortable with Ivan. Most people are.” Ivan grinned widely. “But consider how strange this morning has been. Your inability to leave my apartment. Your inability to remember details. My own insistence that we’ve never met. We can do this right here, in public, where people can see you. I think you ought to consider it, but I won’t insist.”

“Unfortunate,” Ivan said cheerfully.

Angela looked from one face to another, biting her lip fetchingly. “All right, Mr. Marks.” She said. “All right. I’m so confused, so tired. Just do what you want.”

“Your charm is still potent, at least,” Ivan remarked, picking up a fork and spearing a fried potato from Marks’ plate. “You still wear people down with it. Made anyone cry lately, Phil?”

“Just her this morning.”

Ivan’s eyebrows lifted in amusement. “This true, miss?”

urban fantasy

She smiled fleetingly. “Yes, but this day has already been so weird.”

“Weird,” Ivan said with a laugh, “is how Phil lives, ma’am. It rains rats and dead bodies on the good days with him, you know?”

“Can we get this over with?” Marks growled.

Ivan winked at Angela. “People smarter than him make him antsy.”

###

            The diner looked different, somehow. She puzzled over it for a few seconds, then realized the light was different. It was later in the day.  The plates had been cleared, replaced by even more coffee cups. And Ivan was gone. Phillip Marks sat watching her, smoking an illegal cigarette.

“Feel okay?”

“What happened?”

He shrugged. “Ivan put you under.”

She waited a beat. “And?”

He smiled. It was a slow, gelatinous spreading of the lips that she didn’t like at all, leaving him grinning at her with yellow teeth and unshaven cheeks. “Weird shit, sister. Weird shit.”

“Just tell me!” she hissed.

He looked away, an odd expression she didn’t know what to do with on his face. “Ivan unlocked you,” he said quietly. “You can remember it all now. He didn’t want to. Thought it would be cruel. But I think you have a right to know.” He looked back at her, and his expression had hardened. “We all have a right to know what’s been done to us.”

“What do you mean?” she asked, rubbing at a headache buried beneath her skull.

He leaned forward, eyes on hers, and she didn’t feel she could look away. “Remember, Angela. It’ll come to you.”

She stared at him, for far too long. He stared back, waiting. She began to tremble again.

“I,” she started, swallowed thickly. “I was—”

Then she screamed.

###

            Ivan was leaning against someone’s car, smoking a pipe and smiling. Marks walked towards him slowly, feeling pretty good despite it all. He didn’t trust Ivan; the man was as amoral as they came and had enough fake identities to make even Marks, who had tracked down things that didn’t even have IDs, distrust him.

“What’d you say to her?” McCallaugh asked. “She ran out of there like a bat out of hell.”

“Not funny,” Marks replied grimly.

“Thanks for calling me,” Ivan said with a wink. “I haven’t had anything this juicy in a long time.”

“Unbelievable.”

“A poor college girl kidnapped by some sinister organization and brainwashed into being a hugely expensive whore? Not really. You read about it all the time.”

Marks snorted. “Maybe in the stuff you read.”

Ivan didn’t react. “Unbelievable conditioning, you know. I couldn’t have approached the level of complexity in the delusion loop if I’d had her for years. And from what I could tell, this was instantaneous conditioning. Took seconds. I couldn’t even undo it, you know. I had to backdoor her permanent memory. Over time, if she keeps remembering, her brain will flush out the conditioning, but for now, she’s basically vulnerable.” He sighed. “Actually Phil, from what I can tell, we’re all pretty vulnerable.”

Marks glanced up. “You sound almost frightened, Ivan.”

The balding man puffed for a moment. “Phil, you bet your ass, I am. From what I can tell, what was done to that girl was not accomplished through a traditional conditioning process, which would take months and involve drugs, electronics, and plenty of technique. Nope, this is like someone just…did it. As if someone has the power to make you think what they want. Permanently.” He spat. “Damn right, I’m scared of that.”

“If we hadn’t come along, she’d still be meeting ‘clients’ for hotel blowjobs.” Marks muttered.

“We didn’t come along, Phil. She was planted with you. To reinforce a sloppy false history they obviously didn’t take the time to plant in your brain, and to keep an eye on you, which is why she was prohibited from leaving you. My only question is, why didn’t they create a whole false history for you, too? They just blanked you and dumped you and relied on her to convince you of what happened.”

Marks shook his head. “Almost worked.”

“Almost, Phil,” Ivan said cheerfully, “only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. They were obviously in a rush, or else whoever did you was inexperienced.”

“Ivan, You keep saying ‘they’.”

“Isn’t it obvious? There’s organization. You said it yourself; this guy Brickheour willed his company to this guy Saglimenni, and Saglimenni’s apparently the one who Pushed you. Oh, it’s a ‘they’ all right, Phil.”

Marks shook out a cigarette. He wanted a stiff drink—and fast. “Christ. I didn’t remember anything before you opened me up, Ivan. Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it, Phil. You provide me with enough entertainment value to make it all worthwhile.”

“Why the girls, though? If you’re an organization that can literally control minds, make people do what you want with a thought, why waste your time running a brothel?”

Ivan began digging through his many stuffed pockets. “Who knows, Phil, who knows. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, right? Having never held it, I can’t tell you what it might do to your sanity, morals, or concept of what constitutes a ‘waste’ of time.” He produced a pad of paper and a pen. “I won’t waste your time with useless theories, however. Here’s the name and address of a friend, a real burnt former academic colleague who has since become a leading expert on mind control—not to mention, one of the most paranoid mothers in the universe. You think I’m underground? Phil, at least you know where I can be found. This fucker’s got paranoid stink-bottled. If he talks to you, he’ll be able to give you all sorts of info on mind control.”

Marks took the scrap of paper. He glanced at Ivan, who he’d known for six years. “Ivan, you remember how we met?”

Ivan shrugged. “I don’t even remember where we met now, Phil. Have a great day, and don’t let being conditioned get you down. Could’ve happened to anybody.” He hesitated. “Phil, one more thing. You think I’m a ‘hypnotist,’ and I’ve never disillusioned you. I’ve picked up some parlor tricks, and I was able to help today, sure, but remember one thing. What I did in there was the equivalent of fixing your carburetor with duct tape. The work I encountered in that poor girl’s mind was invasive, laser-point accurate, and breathtakingly complex. With time and resources and absolutely no conscience, I might be able to produce a similar effect, but I’d just as likely drive her mad, make her a vegetable. What you’re dealing with is amazing. And dark.” He sighed, smiling again. “My best advice is be afraid. They know who you are.”

He held out a hand, and Marks shook it. “Thanks, Ivan.”

“Don’t mention it,” Ivan said, walking away. “And I mean that!”

###

            Phillip K. Marks was well-known in Jerry’s Bar and Grill on Seventeenth Street. The bartender greeted him upon arrival and gave him his traditional table in the back, facing the door. On Jerry’s wall of fame behind the bar, several of Marks’ clippings were framed, although only the regulars knew that.

Jerry, a round and bald man in his sixties, came out from his office to sit down with Marks for a moment. He was eternally sunburnt and had owned the bar for thirty-seven years.

“Phil, how are you?”

Marks shook the meaty hand presented him. “Jer, I’ve been tested recently, but things are looking up. How’s business?”

“Okay. Getting a lot of rowdy bridge and tunnel assholes, scaring off my pension patrol.”

Marks smiled. “The BTA spend money, though.”

Jerry nodded ruefully. “Sure. And do drugs in my bathrooms, throw up on my sidewalk, and smash glasses like there’s no tomorrow. Give me the old men spending public assistance checks, thank you.”

Marks laughed. “Stick around. I’m meeting Pete Timlin.”

“Pete, that cocksucker!” Jerry laughed. “I got books to cook, Phil, but I’ll poke my head out and stop by for a hey.” He stood up ponderously.

“See you later, Jer.”

Marks ordered a double bourbon on ice from the nervously pretty waitress, lit a cigarette, and watched the people for a few minutes. The staff at Jerry’s always frowned at his cigarette but said nothing, knowing he had an Indulgence from the owner. When Pete Timlin showed up, Marks was sipping his drink purposefully and looking peaceful.

“Phil, for a day or so, I thought you might have been rubbed out.”

“Pete, you wouldn’t believe it if I told you.”

“I’ve believed half your articles, right? That in itself shows a dangerous inability to parse reality. Try me.”

Marks sighed. “Not now, Pete. I’m not quite sure what’s happened yet, and even I don’t really believe it.” He shrugged. “Let it lie; I’ll give you the full tale before it prints. Trust me.”

Timlin nodded, raising a hand to the waitress. “Fine, Phil. What did you find out?”

Marks reached inside his jacket and pulled out a sheaf of papers, placing them unfolded in front of him on the table. From his other pocket, he pulled out reading glasses and slipped them on with a glance around the room. “Pete, our man Brickheour was a lot more than a pimp. There’s something so weird going on at that company, it boggles my mind. I spent the afternoon at the library doing research on him and his business.

“Juno Brickheour was born poor in Sweden, and his youth was filled with minor arrests and suspensions from school. At the age of sixteen, he left home and disappeared for a while, then he suddenly surfaces in Miami, rich and married to Miss Budapest 1979.”

“Miss Budapest?” Timlin asked.

“Yep. Gorgeous girl. Five years older than him at the time. He was nineteen.”

“But rich, you said.”

“Yep. No record of how exactly he made his millions or how he met and wooed Miss Budapest, who dropped out of the pageant business to marry him. He lived in Miami for a while, spending tremendous amounts of money, partying, having a lot of affairs, which Miss Budapest didn’t seem to mind too much, and generally farting around. No record of how he made more money or anything else for that matter. For about five years, the only place Brickheour’s name appeared in print was the gossip pages in the Miami Herald. Then suddenly, in 1983, everything changed.”

“How so?”

Marks scanned his paperwork. “He dropped out of sight, stopped partying, stopped screwing around, and started to get involved in local politics.”

Timlin blew the head off a beer, paused, and raised an eyebrow. “Hmmm?”

Marks nodded, his eyes still on the sheets of paper. “Never ran for office, but started contributing money to causes, campaigns, et cetera. Became quite a player down there, behind the scenes. He was known for being able to talk people into whatever he wanted. I count at least six separate times he was reported to have had a closed-door meeting with opposition and come out with exactly what he wanted.”

“Wow.”

Marks nodded distractedly. “Yeah, wow. This went on for about five more years; he never seemed to reach past the city of Miami. He was still rich, and as time went on, he seemed to have a weakness for a cute skirt, but overall, it seems like he changed overnight from a spoiled rich kid fucking everything in sight to a man intent on changing if not the world, at least his adopted hometown.”

“What happened?”

“His wife committed suicide.” Marks looked up from his notes. “The story reported that she slit her wrists in the bathtub and wrote her suicide note on the mirror in lipstick. It read ‘You missed one thing, Juno’.”

Timlin blinked. “That was it?”

“That was it.”

“Wow.”

Marks looked back down. “Then, in 1988, everything changed again. That’s when he apparently met a man named Derrick Billings, an American. And that’s where the real Juno Brickheour story begins.”

“Who was Billings?”

“I have no idea. There are three records holding his name that I could find: a birth record in Dallas, Texas, dated 1911, a lawsuit filed against him in 1963, regarding a debt, settled one day after the filing, and a single newspaper article in the Miami Herald, mentioning his name briefly in connection with Brickheour’s. Juno met him at a local Democratic fundraiser, and went to work for him the next day.”

“The next day?”

“Sold his house, folded his tent, and became, get this, a ‘consultant’ at Billings Incorporated.”

“Spooky. Jesus, Phil. We didn’t get half this shit.”

“Your assistants probably did but discarded it because it really doesn’t add up to very much. Brickheour and Billings both disappear for a while. Billings dies in 1993. It wasn’t until I dug through some rather unconventional primary sources that I began to understand what was happening here.”

Timlin laughed. “Phil, you got me hooked. You could probably write this story now and win an award.”

Marks didn’t smile. “Nope. I could write the story, Pete, but no one would print it.”

Timlin laughed again and then frowned. “What do you mean?”

Marks refolded his notes. “Pete, whoever these guys are, they have a talent for keeping their names out of the press.  And I get the impression that it’s on purpose and well-organized.”

Timlin squinted. “Phil, I’m the news editor of a major—”

Marks put his hand up. “Pete, I’m not hinting at anything about you. But I am saying that I don’t believe anyone could get something printed about these guys.”

“Who are ‘these guys,’ Phil?”

Marks sighed. “I don’t know exactly, Pete. But I’m convinced that Juno Brickheour and this guy Saglimenni are members of some sort of organization, the nature of which I don’t know.”

“Conspiracy theories from you, Phil?”

“Just interpreting the few facts I have. Consider. Brickheour has a mysterious source of cash and a front company which doubles as a brothel. I looked into Saglimenni, and guess what? A similar background. Mystery money. Lots of women. Very flashy for a while, became something of a godfather in Cleveland. Then one day, he’s seen having dinner with a man named Rudolph Enneking, a German businessman, also very mysterious, and suddenly, Saglimenni quits his operations in Cleveland and takes a job in the security department of Enneking’s rather mysterious corporation. And when I look into Enneking, guess what?”

“The same story.”

Marks clinked ice in his empty glass, nodding. “Yep. The details change, but the story’s the same. And every name I looked into yielded another mysterious stranger, resulting in another mysterious life change.” He flipped his notes around and slid them towards Timlin. “I’ve got fifteen names. Eight of them are dead. The rest have no overt connection to each other. But I’d bet my life they’re all part of something.”

Timlin shook his head. “Phil, I got to hand it to you. I was looking into Brickheour for weeks and didn’t get half this much. You amaze me sometimes.”

“Good. Pete, I want you to do me a favor.”

“Shoot.”

“Don’t ask me too many questions about it, okay?”

Timlin looked up. “Okay.”

“I’m going to Detroit tomorrow. Marjorie Adams disappeared there a few days ago, and I’m going to look her up and see what I can find out. If I don’t come back in three days or call you or something, would you check up on me?”

“Dangerous, huh?” Timlin said quietly. “Sure, Phil. Of course.”

“And this is important and the part that might not make any sense. Just promise to do it, even if you don’t understand, okay?”

“Okay, Phil.”

“If I…forget…about all this, if I come back and don’t seem to remember any of it, if I seem different, somehow, walk me through it. Show me these notes. Tell me everything I just told you. Tell me about before that, too. Okay?”

Timlin studied Marks’ face for a second. “Okay, Phil. But you gotta promise me you’ll explain this sometime.”

Marks signaled the waitress. “Oh, I promise, Pete. If I get through this, I’ll be so happy to recount the whole story, you’ll probably get tired of hearing it.” He pounded the table. “Now, stick around and have a few drinks on me. Jerry wants to say hi when he gets the chance.”

Timlin shook his head. “I don’t know, Phil. You still drink like you’re a kid.”

Marks winked. “I am a kid.”

 

Suspension

          At two o’clock in the morning, Seventeenth Street wasn’t exactly empty, but it seemed that way, relatively free of people, as it was. Jerry’s closed at one o’clock, but he let people he liked stick around as long as they promised not to make too much noise. Phillip K. Marks was struggling to walk straight, when he emerged from the bar, cigarette dangling from his lips, hands in pockets, eyes half shut. He didn’t take note of the expensive-looking car idling a few buildings down.  He stood for a moment, searching for something in his pockets.

The car, unnoticed, rolled quietly up to him. The back window slid down soundlessly.

“Mr. Marks?”

Marks turned slowly and squinted at the pale face in the window. “Mmmn?”

“I’d like you to come with me.”

Marks smiled. “Oh no. Not at my age.”

“Mr. Marks, get in the car.”

Marks felt a wholly new and strangely familiar feeling spill over his mind. First, a wave or ripple went across his vision, and then, everything snapped back into crystal clarity. The door swung open, and it felt good to step forward and climb in.

He found himself sitting next to a red-haired man Marks judged to be in his thirties. He held out a hand to the reporter.

“Mr. Marks, my name is Nathan Happling, and I’m here to help you.”

Marks nodded amiably. “I believe you.”

Happling winked, signaling the driver. “I know you do.”

###

            “Chuck, take the river, okay?” Happling said quietly. “I’d like a long ride.”

“You got it, boss.”

Marks didn’t speak. It didn’t occur to him to try. Instead, he studied the young man sitting next to him. Nathan Happling was pale, almost milk-white, and so thin that Marks was sympathetically worried about him. He was lightly freckled. His hair was curly and reddish and too long. Altogether, Marks thought he would have looked about twelve years old if not for the overwhelming air of authority the man carried with him. Marks thought he could feel it, like heat, against his cheek.

“Phillip K. Marks,” Happling said without looking at him, looking instead out the window. “I read a piece you wrote for Esquire some years ago, about that writer John Telson who committed suicide. I didn’t really believe the supernatural stuff and didn’t care for your omniscient style, but obviously, I’m in the minority. Forty-seven papers nationwide, estimated three million readers. A book deal.” He looked down at his feet. “There’s no accounting for taste.”

Marks just watched him. Nothing else occurred to him.

“I’m saving your life, Mr. Marks. That idiot Saglimenni butchered this whole thing, and you’re supposed to pay the price for his lack of subtlety. I’m saving your life.” He looked at his feet. “I don’t have to do this.”

Marks still felt preternaturally calm. He did nothing. He believed, without a doubt, that there was no force in the universe that could compel Nathan Happling to save his life if he chose not to.

“Saglimenni. Fucking moron. Seventy goddamn years of peace and tranquility, and he and that fuckhead Ambrose flush it. And then he handles you like a goddamn amateur, a goddamn brute force Push. How he got sponsored, I’ll never know.” He sighed. “Mr. Marks, tell me everything you know.”

Immediately, Marks opened his mouth. “Four days ago, I was approached by a woman named Marjorie Adams.”

Happling listened quietly as Marks talked. He did not interrupt and waited for the tale to end.

“Completely fucking random chance,” he said, making it sound like one continuous curse. “Mikaline ought to be skinned for this disaster. Alright, Marks, keep quiet.”

They rode in silence. Marks found the back of the seat in front of him fascinating.

###

            “Come out, Marks.”

The reporter blinked. He realized with a start that he was staring rather unimaginatively at the back of the front seat. He glanced up at Happling and felt absolutely nothing. Calmly, he swung his legs out and stood up. They were at a hotel. Marks recognized it as the Algonquin; he’d stayed there himself once or twice. Without a second thought, he followed the red-haired man into the hotel.

They sailed through the lobby, two men in jackets and ties, overcoats; Marks thought they might have passed for business partners, old friends. No one seemed to mark their entrance into the building, and they made their way to the elevators without incident. Inside, Happling produced a key from his pocket and accessed the penthouse button. The doors slid shut, and the two men were enveloped in silence. Marks felt no desire to break it. He felt the floors click by as the elevator rushed upwards and waited patiently. When the elevator stopped, he stepped out of it without prompting.

The room was filled with people, men and women, who were standing around smoking cigarettes, sipping drinks, and talking. Marks had the impression of a paranoid cocktail party; everyone was still wearing a coat, as if they expected to have to move the party at any moment.

A tall, pale old man who shook slightly was watching them as they approached from the elevators. “Nathan, I’m glad to see you have finally deigned to arrive. Would you please explain this rather rude summons and who this disheveled man is?”

Happling began speaking sharply before the man was finished. “Rudolph, you’d be better served to ask that idiot over there,” he snapped, gesturing toward a thick-bodied man with heavy-lidded eyes. “He’s the goddamn butcher who bungled this Norm.”

“Watch yourself, Nathan,” a black woman said quietly from her place by the windows.

“Marianna, I am.” Happling said, without looking at her. “Justin, care to explain this asshole?”

The big man was leaning against a bookshelf across the room. “Eh? What about him? He came snooping around Juno’s old digs, so I took care of it.”

“Took care of it?” Happling hissed.

“Yeah, I took care of it. I got rid of anything sensitive in his mind and set him up on a false memory. SOP,” he chuckled. “Jesus, I was just running security.”

“You’re a fucking butcher, Saglimenni. I haven’t seen such fucking rough work in all my life. You just sliced three days out of him and left him with one of Juno’s fucking toys to convince him he’d been on a bender? Where the hell did you learn that, huh? I could’ve weaved a more subtle Push in my sleep.”

Saglimenni shrugged. “Hey, back off, Nathan. I got the job done.”

“You did, did you?” Happling seethed, stepping forward. Marks just watched, feeling nothing. “This asshole’s been doing research on us. He’s already got six names. Our names. He’s already guessed at some things. He was going to track down that Adams slut you sold to a client in Detroit. He was going to cause us all manner of trouble because you were too goddamn busy to do a real job on him. I knew you were a goddamn butcher surgeon, Saglimenni. I didn’t know you were so fucking stupid.”

“That’s enough, Nathan,” Rudolph Enneking said.

“The hell it is,” Happling said. “We killed Juno—”

”We killed Juno,” the tall pale man dressed in black said suddenly, his voice clear and dominating without much volume, “because the stupid old fuck was setting his whores free with full knowledge of what he’d done to them, what we were, what we’d allowed. It was the desperate move of a man who knew he was going to hell. He was purposefully working towards our destruction, Happling, and he had to be stopped and punished.” He walked forward steadily. “What Justin has done here constitutes stupidity, laziness, and—”

“And it threatens us as much as anything Juno did!” Happling shouted over him.

“—miscalculation, but it isn’t an intentional effort to ruin us.”

“Intentional? Who cares? If this is the kind of work he does on his own, he’s going to fuck us all eventually!” Happling shouted.

Marks examined the dark-haired one. He was all angles and edges, milk-skin and shadows. He imagined he felt a slight vibration against his skin as the young man walked near to stand toe-to-toe with Nathan Happling.

“I think you’ve crossed the line, Master Happling.”

Happling snorted, glancing at his shoes.

“This must be investigated,” a bald man who came up to Marks’ shoulders said, pacing back and forth. “This is a serious breach of our protocol, intentional or not.”

“We must proceed carefully, ladies and gentlemen,” Rudolph Enneking said in his dry, thin voice. “Just because protocol has been broken does not mean we should ignore it completely from now on. This is neither the time—”

Happling’s voice cut through them both.

“You’re trying to fuck us, aren’t you, Mikaline? This is all on purpose, isn’t it?”

Marks thought he might be the only one in the room in a position to see Mikaline’s pale, angular face, besides Happling, that he was the only one who saw the slow, sarcastic wink the tall man in black offered. What happened next Marks later could only describe as an invisible, silent, forceless explosion. The two men did not move, merely kept staring at each other, but Marks felt something brush him, and he stumbled backwards.

“Stop this at once!” Rudolph Enneking shouted. “Happling! Ambrose! Stop this! This is in violation of our laws and our protocol!”

The two men seemed to be statues. The air around them seemed to have frozen, and Marks thought he was looking at them from a long distance away, even though it was only a few feet. He blinked, looking around, confused for a moment, then suddenly able to act independently. He remembered the whole, strange trip from Jerry’s to the hotel. Whatever force had taken his will away had now departed, and he was completely under his own control in the middle of these strange people, at least one of whom had somehow been controlling him for the past few hours, telling him how to think, what to do, and how to do it.

Marks stood, blinking furiously, as if clearing his sight.

“Gentlemen!” Enneking shouted.

A young man, a teenager, came forward. He was wearing torn jeans and a T-shirt which read, IRON MAIDEN: KILLERS. He had the stringy long hair and bad complexion of any teenager, but he walked amongst these odd people with confidence and aplomb. Marks’ skin crawled, looking at him and the twitchy smile that flashed across his face.

“You can’t stop them, Rudy,” the kid said, his voice nasal and cocky. “Even if you were any match for Herr Happling. Let ’em fry each other. Be a better place around here if those two dorks fried out.”

Enneking seemed to be about to say something else, swelling with indignation and outrage, but then deflated curiously, looking old and worn. The rest of the room had begun making their way to the elevators, ignoring the two statues industriously. “I see. Fools,” Enneking spat. He looked around at his fellows. “Well, someone take charge of this fellow here,” he said crisply. “Amin, please. Escort this writer out of our lives. And for god’s sakes, do a better job on him than Justin did.”

The bald man paused on his way to the elevators and then turned back. “Very well. Happling, did you at least knot your loops on this guy?”

Happling, staring at Mikaline Ambrose, did not react. The hairs on Marks’ arms were standing on end. It felt like the whole room was buzzing with static electricity. When he realized that Enneking and Dimser were paying attention to him again, he stood still and tried to resume the empty grin he’d been sporting all night. He wondered if he could fool them.

Dimser sighed when Happling didn’t respond. He examined Marks’ still form for a moment. “Oh, stop faking it,” he said in an annoyed tone of voice. Marks felt a now familiar ripple go through him. “Let’s just walk for now, Mr. Marks, was it? To my car. First let’s get out of here, and then we’ll see about doing some real work on you.”

Raging and disappointed, Marks felt himself turning to follow the bald man, helpless. While still aware and independent enough to mentally struggle against his own body, he had no control. Dimser told him to come, and he came.

He hated them all. He had memorized the faces and caught some of the names, and he knew one thing: if he ever could, he would have his revenge.

Amin Dimser, holding the elevator for him, chuckled. “Well, we’ll see about that, Mr. Marks.”

###

            The buzzer next to the door emitted a faintly distasteful whine, and then a suspicious voice wafted from it. “Who is it?”

Phillip K. Marks scratched through his stiff, dirty hair for a moment, one eyebrow cocked at himself. “Ivan? It’s me. Phil Marks. I’ve got to see you.” He shrugged. “I don’t know why.”

There was a pause, then the buzzer whined again. This time, the lock on the door clicked open at the same time. Marks looked around, rubbed his beard, and pushed the door open and entered. He walked down a short hall, at the end of which another nondescript door waited. This door opened as he walked, and Ivan McCallaugh appeared framed in it. “Phil? Twice in one week. We’re getting positively chummy, aren’t we?”

“Ivan,” Phil said slowly. “I’ve got to see you.”

“Why? What’s up?”

“I don’t know.” Marks stopped in front of Ivan and put his hands in his pockets. “Ivan, I’ve got to see you.”

McCallaugh frowned. “Yeah, Phil I get that part. You don’t know why?”

Marks shook his head again. “Ivan, I’ve got to see you.”

McCallaugh’s eyes narrowed. He stepped aside. “Phil, come in.”

Marks nodded and stepped past Ivan into the room beyond. It was an office, with a Spartan setup—a desk, covered in paper and diskettes and soda cans, a huge humming computer system including three hard drives bolted to the floor and a mess of wires leading away into shadowed areas of the room, and boxes and piles of paper. There were two other doors leading to other rooms. Marks stopped in the middle of the room and looked around distractedly.

He looked at Ivan as the larger man returned from the front door. “Ivan,” he said, “I’ve got to see you.”

Ivan nodded, grabbing his chair from the desk and wheeling it over to Marks. “Phil, sit down.” Gently, he pushed the reporter into the seat. “I think you’ve done something dangerous to yourself, you fucking moron.”

“Ivan,”

“I know, I know, Phil. Listen to me, okay? Concentrate?”

Marks opened his mouth, and then with visible effort, he shut it and nodded, jerkily.

“Phil, a long time ago I told you about a little last-ditch defense against being hypnotized, do you remember? That last night waiting for the Redmen affair to peter out, having Chinese takeout in that old warehouse? You remember what we talked about? The Zen endgame trick I explained to you?”

Marks nodded slowly. “Ivan, I’ve got to see you.”

“Do you remember what it is, Phil? The ZET?”

Marks nodded again. “Ivan, I’ve got to see you.”

McCallaugh sat on the floor in front of Marks. “Right. The ZET was meant to be used when you were going to be hypnotized or otherwise conditioned. It’s a last ditch trick. The idea is, simply, to concentrate on a single phrase or image. Really concentrate. Put all your resources and will into that one phrase or image. The idea is that an echo of that phrase will remain in your head even after you’ve been conditioned. Remember?”

Marks nodded, but kept his mouth shut.

“Phil, I think you’ve done that to yourself.”

Marks nodded again, more strenuously.

“It’s very dangerous, Phil. The problem is, the ZET technique creates a bullet. A bullet is a loose end that a strong mind-controller misses. It rattles around in the psyche, not jibing with anything, getting more and more insistent and doing more and more damage, eventually driving the person insane. Got that?”

Marks stared.

“You get obsessed with a bullet. It eats at you. It takes up more and more of your attention, as you struggle to make this one bit of info jibe with your new perception of reality. That’s why the ZET can work. If you succeeded in carrying this bullet into your new perception, it starts to eat you alive, and you can’t help but pay attention to it. And maybe someone will notice and help you,” Ivan laughed. “It presumes you know people who might recognize it and be able to help.”

“Ivan, I’ve got to see you.”

“Phil,” McCallaugh sighed. “I’m not sure I can help you. In light of what I know you were involved in, I am pretty sure that’s what this is. That at the last moment, you remembered our conversation from six years ago and tried desperately, and successfully, to implement it on yourself. Bully for you. Now you’re going crazy, and you’ve come to someone who has already admitted he’s an amateur compared to these people for help. I might succeed in undoing their work. Might. I might also scramble you permanently. Got that?”

Marks nodded.

Ivan sighed. “Alright.” He glanced at his watch. “Christ.”

###

            Amin Dimser had a dark stretch limousine waiting on the street outside the hotel, driven by a dim shape in the darkened front seat, who neither complained nor commented on having to sit quietly in the dark, waiting. Marks was a little creeped out by the sight but was unable to do anything but climb into the comfortable interior of the limo and take a seat.

“Where do you live, Mr. Marks?” Amin Dimser said distractedly.

Marks gave him the address without hesitation.

“Take us there, but take your time. Give me about an hour.”

The driver, silent, nodded. Marks wondered if he were going through similar struggles.

“I feel compelled to apologize to you, Mr. Marks, despite the fact that in a little while you won’t recall any of this. But you have been roughly used by Mr. Saglimenni, and my ridiculous side wishes you to know that we are generally more talented and professional than Justin, who was successfully sponsored back in 1967 during a period of, um, uncertainty within our organization. We’ve all long suspected he was nothing more than a powerful butcher, but our governing rules forbid us from finding out the easy way. This seems to prove it. I am sure that Justin will find himself the subject of an Expulsion Motion before too long.”

Dimser sighed. “I was sponsored by the great Alastair Mooning himself, Mr. Marks. The Syndicate has sunk to a petty depth, I’m afraid. We have long guided world events, but the children who infest us now—Mikaline, Happling, Moorehouse—they have no interest, it seems, in our history, our great achievements. Those two idiots will fight each other up there in direct violation of our laws, and they’ll probably discover that neither is as strong as they think.” He clucked his tongue. “I will have to speak to Rudolph about them. Perhaps we should consider the last few years a bad job and begin anew.”

He glanced up at Marks suddenly, as if just remembering that the man was there. “At any rate, let’s see what we can do here. I won’t be able to give you back your lost days, I’m afraid; Saglimenni is uncomplicated and somewhat untalented, but he has brute strength, and he cuts with scalpel-like precision. Butchers are dislikable, but effective.” He stared at Marks for a moment. “Yes, yes, no ricochets or decaying loops, his technique is deplorable but complete. I suppose I could plug some archived memory into the missing time…must avoid duplicating errors. Shouldn’t be too difficult with your apparent level of recall clarity. Mr. Marks, I believe I can cure you. And you won’t be bothered by us any more, I should think.”

He said it in a distracted, not unkind tone of voice, but the words made Marks shiver internally, straining against whatever crossed wires in his head prevented him from doing anything. The matter-of-factness of it all terrified him, because he knew that this short, round little man could do whatever he wanted, make Marks think anything he wanted him to.

Marks began thinking quickly. He tried to remember every conversation he’d had with Ivan about hypnotism, mind control. Every panted, scary, paranoid word, whispered to him in tense conversations in the dark, waiting and watching, frightened and angry. Ivan telling him things he’d never revealed to anyone else, things he’d discovered through years of dangerous, costly investigation. Ivan—crazy, genius, and the only thing he’d had for entertainment for two weeks six years ago. He thought he could remember every word.

This time he searched his memories frantically for just one word: bullets.

###

Marks opened his eyes and immediately wished he hadn’t.

“Uuuunnnghh,” he moaned, sitting up. He shut one eye experimentally and shaded the other with one hand. “Oh my holy god, I will never drink whatever that was again.”

“You’re lucky you’re not dead.”

Marks’ eye swiveled until it found Ivan, sitting on the floor a few feet away reading a book which had, as far as Marks could tell, neither title nor author printed on the cover. “That’s a matter of perspective.”

Ivan closed the book. “Sorry about the headache, but it should fade. Drink?”

Marks nodded. “God, please.”

Ivan nodded and hauled himself to his feet clumsily. “Phil, you had more goddamned mental code written on your brain than I think I’ve ever imagined. This guy, this Amin Dimser, he makes the other one look like a child. This guy Saglimenni who went after you last time, he was nothing. And that was the best mind control I’d ever seen. This guy Dimser? He basically rewrote your fucking hard drive, Phil. If you hadn’t been scared witless and completely fixated on creating a bullet for yourself, you’d be back in your life right now, completely unaware.” He returned from the bar with a glass of whiskey, which he handed to Marks. The reporter’s hand shook as he sipped it.

“Unaware of what?” Marks asked, coughing.

“Relax, it’ll come. You almost drove yourself crazy, you know. If you hadn’t come here, I’d say in a day or so, you would have been incapable of doing anything but repeating that line about me over and over again.”

Marks nodded. “It started creeping on me this morning. It would slip out now and then. By the time I got here, I couldn’t open my mouth without saying it. And I often couldn’t stop myself from opening my mouth.”

Ivan nodded. “Bullets tend to bounce around inside your head until they dominate you. Usually, they’re the result of shoddy and invasive technique. I’m actually surprised this guy Dimser didn’t notice.”

Marks squinted, rolling the glass between his hands. “He was in a rush.”

Ivan’s eyes twinkled. “See? It’s coming back to you.”

Marks nodded. “Yeah.”

“I managed to counter his delusion loops and bring back a great deal of your memory. He didn’t destroy your memories this time, he just buried them. Over time, your subconscious would have flushed them, but he knows that deleted memory causes problems. Hell, you wouldn’t have been in his car that night if Saglimenni’s technique had been any good at all. Missing memories just drive people nuts; they get obsessed with figuring out what happened to them.” He shook his head. “Hell, compared to these guys, I’m a freaking newbie, Phil, and even I know better. This guy Dimser, he took a bunch of unassuming memories from your past and patched them over.”

“Sure,” Marks said. “That makes perfect sense.”

Ivan chuckled. “Your brain is kind of an immense, complex computer, Phil. When you remember something, it goes looking for tags that will bring the memory string to the fore. All this guy did was change the file names, you see? You tried to remember Wednesday night, but it gave you Wednesday night from three years ago, see? And since you got a memory, you never get obsessed, you never notice what’s been done.”

“Except I tricked them.”

“That you did. I’d say a prayer for your good fortune, Phil, and then I’d stay as far away from these people as you can.” He cleared his throat. “It, ah, wasn’t easy to fix you, Phil.” Ivan’s voice dipped low. “I could have scrambled you, driven you bonkers, maybe even flatlined you. This fucker was tricky. He left some firewalls up, against who I don’t know, but from what you told me while under, it sounds like there’s a turf war going on with these creeps. At any rate, Dimser didn’t want his work tampered with, and he was willing to dump you into an endless paranoia spiral to stop you from recovering those memories. It flared up out of nowhere. Things got dicey.”

“Ivan, thanks. I asked you to do this.”

“I know,” Ivan shrugged. “You should know how close you came. Stay away from these guys. Number one, I’m not sure you can survive one more deep-template like that. Number two, they may get tired of hypnotizing you, Phil, and just kill you.”

Marks shook his head. Draining his glass, he seemed to gain strength and stood up. “Not these guys, Ivan. They’re too used to saying ‘boo’ and watching us nobodies do a little jig. It will never occur to this fuck Dimser that I might have slipped the net. I guarantee it. He’s forgotten me already.”

“Good. Then forget him.”

Marks was staring into the dark areas of Ivan’s apartment. “The hell I will.”

The glass in his hand shattered, and they both jumped.

###

            The night was old and weary, turning purple at the edges when Phillip K. Marks walked up the front steps of his apartment. He was gray and pale all at once. His right hand was wrapped in white, bloodied bandages, and he walked with a stiff care usually reserved for the severely beaten. His neighbor on the first floor, a wizened old woman who had not left her apartment in three years, watched him from the darkened parlor, the blinds just barely pushed aside to afford her a view. She supposed he was drunk. More often these days, Mr. Marks was coming home late, inebriated, looking unhealthy, and she supposed it wouldn’t be long before he lost whatever job he had or fell down the stairs or something. She was resolved not to ever let him into her apartment; he looked so brutish.

He climbed the stairs to his apartment slowly, breathing hard, his head still pounding and his hand aching. He knew he would have to go to the emergency room the next day and make sure no glass was embedded in his hand. For the moment, however, he intended to have a few more stiff drinks, pass out, and hope things looked better in the morning.

He pushed his door closed behind him and tossed his keys onto the little table by the door. He took a few steps in, pulling off his overcoat, when something moved quickly behind him. Arms appeared on either side of him, then there was something cold and hard and pointy pressed into his neck.

A female voice breathed near one ear, “Stop. Don’t move.”

The voice shook almost as much as the hand holding the knife. He felt the blade quivering against his skin, and his head hurt more than before. He recognized the voice.

“Hello, Ms. Miller. Angela. I’d say I was glad to have you back, but…”

The knife fell away, and he felt her moving away. “It’s you. I wasn’t sure, in the dark.”

Marks continued taking his coat off and turned slowly. “Mind if I turn on the light?”

There was no response, so he leaned over and flicked the foyer light on. He studied the woman before him and compared her to the crisp, mini-skirted office minx he’d first met only a few days ago. Marks frowned, realizing he wasn’t sure how much time he’d been missing lately. The events were all jumbled, ruined by various invasions of his psyche.

Angela Miller was wearing a pair of faded jeans and a T-shirt. Her blonde hair was back in a ponytail, held in place by an elastic band. She looked completely normal. Her face was gaunt and haggard and shadowed in ways Marks couldn’t explain. She avoided looking at him. She stood with her arms crossed in front of her, watching the floor as if fearing it might lunge up at her. Her eyes were dark and puffy.

He looked away, swallowing hard. “Want a drink?”

She didn’t look up. “God, yes.”

“Sit down, please. You’re making me nervous.”

He moved into the kitchen area and watched her move off to the living room. He poured two tall glasses of whiskey and soda and brought them out to her without ceremony. He sat across from her and took a gulp. She tipped the glass back and took two huge swallows, coughed, and set the glass down.

“These past few days, I can’t drink enough,” she said. Her voice, Marks thought, was dry as ash.

“Another?”

“God, yes.”

He stood up and took her glass. She stared at the floor. He returned with a new glass, and she took a more moderate sip. He sat down again.

“Jesus,” she said hollowly. “I’ve been hiding here for hours. Now, I don’t know why I’m here.”

Marks didn’t say anything. He thought he could hear the dust hitting the floor.

She was crying, silently, tears just dripping off her face onto the floor, body shaking quietly. “Two years, Mr. Marks. Two years, I’ve been a whore. My whole life, gone. My family doesn’t know what happened to me. Friends forgot who I was. Two years. Two years going to that office—a puppet—dressing like a slut and giggling at everything. Two years, Mr. Marks.”

He swallowed. He gulped whiskey and tried to stay calm.

“Fucking,” she said, and from her, the word had a leaden weight that seemed to drag all the light from the room. “Different men, many men, all the same. I’d travel to their businesses, their hotels, their homes. Fuck them. Any way they wanted.” She shuddered. “I enjoyed it. I…I liked it, Mr. Marks. I had no choice. They treated me like meat, and I enjoyed it.”

She looked up suddenly, and Marks wanted desperately not to have to look into those eyes. They were just shadows on her face. Empty. He felt trapped, though, and couldn’t look away.

“Every memory I have,” she said slowly, “involved some bastard stuffing his erection into me while I giggled and cooed and gasped.”

He broke away from her stare, pinned his eyes to the floor. He couldn’t take it anymore.

“I did everything, Mr. Marks. I have no memory of ever refusing, of ever wanting to refuse. I wore what they wanted. I did what they wanted, with whoever they wanted. Other women. Other men. Anything. I wanted to. That was what Juno Brickheour did to me. What you made me remember.”

The sharp note of accusation made him glance up again, and he was caught by her eyes again.

“You made me remember, Mr. Marks. I lie awake at night and see all this in my head, a thousand porno films of which I am the mindless idiotic star, and you made it possible.”

He opened his mouth but had to swallow twice before words would come. She stared at him the whole time. “I’m sorry.”

She snorted, slowly, without humor. “I don’t understand. The leap from my sophomore year at school to this apartment seems sudden, disjointed. I don’t think I’ll ever put it to rest, inside me.” She drained her glass again. “But you owe me something, Mr. Marks. You owe me.”

Marks looked away again. “I am sorry,” he said. “I can’t—”

“No,” she said levelly, “you can’t.”

“What do you want, Ms. Miller? What can I do for you?”

She got up with her glass and crossed to the kitchen counter. She fixed a new drink.

“You can get me revenge, Mr. Marks.”

Marks stared into his glass. “These people are powerful, Ms. Miller. You know that. I’ve already been fucked with twice.” The moment the word was out of his mouth he regretted it, and a shiver of horror went through him. He recalled the thoughts he’d had about her just a few days before. Blood rushed to his cheeks. For a moment, he didn’t recognize the feeling that swamped him—shame. “My mind is so full of holes I don’t know what’s been real these past few days. I don’t think I can promise anything.”

She snorted around her drink. “That is what I’m asking, Mr. Marks.”

“I don’t owe you that.”

“No. You don’t.” She put her glass down. “But someone should. I can’t sleep, Mr. Marks. I have nightmares. I can’t bear to be near people; I’m afraid they might grab me. I get paranoid in public places, wondering if some passing businessman will recognize me. If you don’t get revenge for me, Mr. Marks, it will never happen. Those fucks will just get away with it.”

Marks sighed. “I want revenge, too, Ms. Miller.”

“Good,” she said and put her glass down on the counter. She moved towards the door, then suddenly stopped. “How can there be people like this in the world, Mr. Marks?”

The reporter smiled slightly. “This isn’t even the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen, Ms. Miller.”

“After these past few days, how can you be sure?”

He listened to her exit the apartment, but didn’t look up for a long time.

 

Incubation

                Marks glanced around the front gate from behind a pair of cheap sunglasses, a hazy pre-hangover feeling making it difficult for him to stop breathing hard. He’d had a few too many drinks before getting on the plane, followed by a few ten dollar bourbons in his seat. Now he wished he’d had a little more foresight. He wasn’t going to be in town for very long, and he needed to act quickly.

He checked the address against a slip of paper in his pocket. Then he stepped back from the gate and glanced up and down the block; the wall stretched down the street to the corner, was just a little too high for Marks to consider climbing and looked fairly imposing and unfriendly.

Shrugging, he stepped back to the gate and mashed his finger against the bell. It emitted a terrible squawking noise. A moment passed, and then the speaker crackled to life.

“Yes?”

“Yes, hello. I’m trying to get in touch with Marjorie Adams.”

There was a pause. “Who is speaking?”

“Her uncle.”

There was a longer pause. Then the gate buzzed. Marks surged forward and pushed it open.

Inside, it looked like a park. The grounds (the only word which seemed appropriate to Marks) were manicured and obviously expensive. He proceeded up the stone walkway leading to the ornate front doors, which opened for him when he was still five feet away. A large white man with a shaved head, wearing a loose and shiny running outfit, appeared and filled the doorway completely. The large man stood with his arms crossed, studying Marks like a curious child studies a bug.

“You the uncle?”

Marks nodded. “Yes.”

The big man looked Marks up and down. “You don’t look like her uncle to me.”

Marks pursed his lips. “Who are you?”

“The guy who’s asking you to leave.”

Marks sighed. “You fucking muscle-heads are all the same, you know that? I’ve been beaten up by some of the best in the business, and it’s like you share a brain or something.”

“Funny. Get lost.”

Marks nodded and began turning away, then suddenly whirled back and landed a solid kick directly at the big man’s groin, causing him to bug his eyes out comically and double over. Marks punched him in the nose, and he went down like a wet sack.

Primly, Marks stepped over the bigger man and entered the house. He was met almost immediately by a small, potbellied man in his fifties who wore nothing but a luxurious bathrobe. He stared at Marks from behind thick glasses. Marks thought he might weigh a hundred pounds after a big dinner.

“Take what you want!” he said in a quavery voice. “I don’t want trouble!”

“Mr. Wilson, I assume,” Marks said happily. The afternoon was going swimmingly, he thought. “Let’s talk about Marjorie Adams, eh?”

Wilson looked away. “Oh my God. Oh, God. Juno told me…I was promised…”

“Juno Brickheour’s dead,” Marks said calmly, looking around the richly appointed foyer. Behind him, he could hear the wet moaning which was the bodyguard. “Is she here?”

“Oh God, yes, yes. But, wait! You can’t see her now! Please!” Wilson was backing away unsteadily. “No, this is not—”

Marks advanced on him. “Mr. Wilson, let’s dispense with these theatrics, shall we? You purchased Marjorie Adams from Brickheour Consulting for a large sum of money. In return for your ducats, you were promised an obedient slave for a wife, a good-looking girl who would do anything you wanted. You were also promised that no one would ever look for her, that your secret was safe. Correct so far?”

“Please…can’t…”

“Mr. Wilson!” Marks snapped.

The old man stopped retreating and shut his mouth, looking up at Marks.

“Take me to her, okay?”

“Are you the police?”

“No, Mr. Wilson. I’m a friend.”

Marks watched the old man deflate, finding the sudden loss of energy amazing. “Oh, God,” Wilson moaned and then turned. “Follow me.”

Marks followed the stooped man cheerfully, up the grand staircase, past a few ornate doors. At the last door in the hall, the man stopped with his hand on the knob. He half-turned his head to Marks but stared at the floor.

“You were a friend of hers?”

“Perhaps the only one she had.”

“Please, please understand. I—I’m—”

Marks pushed him aside and thrust open the door. The old man stumbled away like a puppet denied strings.

The room beyond was a large bedroom. Several open windows afforded sunshine and breeze, white curtains swirling crazily. The room was otherwise filled with one piece of furniture: the biggest four-poster bed Marks had ever imagined. It was overflowing with sheets and spreads and pillows.

Sitting on the bed, kicking her feet which did not quite touch the floor, was Marjorie Adams, wearing what appeared to Marks to be a Girl Scout uniform, including green knee socks. Her hair was done in braids. If it weren’t for the alarming way she filled out the uniform, Marks supposed she could have passed for twelve. She was twirling her hair on one finger, looking up with wide eyes.

“Honey?” She called out. “Is this man buying cookies, too?”

From behind him, Marks heard Wilson start moaning again. “Oh my God.”

###

            “Five million dollars.”

Marks blinked, cigarette in one hand burning down to ash unnoticed. Wilson sat hunched over himself in a plush reading chair in one of the museum-like rooms of the house, face in hands. “Excuse me?”

“She cost me five million dollars.

“I don’t want to hear your pathetic excuses, old man,” Marks growled. “I want to hear about Juno Brickheour and any of his associates. How did you get in touch with Mr. Brickheour?”

Wilson suddenly raised his head. “Through her!” He shouted. “She came to me!”

Marks waited, watching Wilson silently.

“Oh, for God’s sakes,” the man moaned. “She came as a representative of Brickheour Consulting. Set up a meeting with me to discuss hiring Brickheour as a consulting firm.” He laughed bitterly. “Normally, I let my VPs handle that sort of thing, but,” his head went into his hands again, “when I saw her in that short little suit, I thought I’d take her to lunch, hear her pitch personally.” He shook his head. “Oh, Christ.”

“Calm down,” Marks said harshly. “I’m not going to the cops. They wouldn’t believe me, anyway.”

“Oh, fuck you, the cops. That’s not what I’m. Oh, just fuck you.”

Marks thought of the girl getting changed upstairs and figured he knew why Wilson was so wretched. And felt no sympathy for him.

“Her pitch was a blowjob in the men’s bathroom of the restaurant,” Wilson volunteered mournfully. “And then, she recited this prerecorded message from Brickheour. Explained the situation. I—I— ” Wilson shuddered and then sighed deeply. He looked up with wet eyes. “Mr. Marks, I am a pathetic old man.”

Marks leaned forward. “Brickheour. Saglimenni. What do you know?”

“Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. I never met Brickheour, only heard the other name in passing. I contacted them on a whim, really. At first, I thought it was just some bizarre way of getting me to hire them. I didn’t mind. I’ve had whores before. It intrigued me. I was constantly dealing with women. Everyone I dealt with was a young woman. They were fawning, flirtatious; I was flattered. They kept telling me everything Ms. Adams or any other Brickheour girl would do once I ‘owned’ them. In graphic detail. After a few days of this, I was mad to get the deal done.”

“Five million dollars,” Marks said quietly, almost sadly.

Wilson shrugged. “I have money, Mr. Marks.” He glanced away. “But I lacked other things.”

“Touching,” Marks snapped, flicking his cigarette into the fireplace. “Listen. She’s coming with me. Brickheour is dead. I’d suggest you leave it at that and cut your losses. Get me?”

Wilson opened his mouth.

“Get me?”

Dropping his eyes to the floor, Wilson nodded miserably.

Marks nodded once and then stood up. He left the old man where he was and didn’t spare him another thought.

###

      The offices at 895 Avenue of the Americas in New York City were not especially opulent. As a matter of fact, sixteen of the twenty-one floors were empty—just shells of loose wires, exposed wall posts, and unfinished floors. The owners of the building did not particularly care, since rent checks arrived duly every six months. They didn’t care what was done with the floors or not done, as long as the rent was paid. As far as the Unity Realty Corporation was concerned, JBQ Incorporated was the perfect tenant.

Of the five floors which were furnished and inhabited by JBQ, only two were open to the public, floors seventeen and eighteen. These were fairly normal-looking—an expected receptionist area with paintings on the walls, comfortable chairs on the floors, and plants in tasteful corners. The offices beyond were pre-fab cubicles. Nothing remarkable. As long as no one looked too closely, since JBQ Incorporated only employed four people, and row after row of cubicles sat empty and unused. Most of the phones were not even connected.

Jeanette Colon had been the receptionist at JBQ for five years and liked her job well enough. She was putting two kids through school with little help from an ex-husband who had married a girl half his age, but she was paid more than your average receptionist to do less than your average receptionist, and so she managed. She had found that there was really only one rule at JBQ:  Never, ever ask questions.

Certainly, she found it odd that the place was a tomb devoid of activity, and yet the four executives employed showed up every day, dressed professionally, carried sleek briefcases, stayed late, looked haggard. Sure, it was strange that the offices were clearly designed for a large workforce; they had rented the entire building, as well, and yet, no one was ever hired. She was slightly uncomfortable with having no idea what, in fact, JBQ did as a company. She expected the cops to break in at any moment and had often rehearsed her story for the investigating officers, just in case. And the fact that not only had she been instructed to never allow anyone but the employees up to the top floors, but she had been explicitly told that if she herself ever investigated them she would be summarily fired (with a dark implication that being fired would just be the beginning) bothered her, as had the mundane fact that she had almost no actual duties, aside from the occasional bike messenger who showed up, invariably lost, looking for some other building entirely.

But Jeanette couldn’t complain. She had a great health plan, a good salary, and managed to entertain herself for eight hours every day. She was terrified of her employer and thus never dreamed of taking advantage of her situation but figured she could do a lot worse. If her days were boring and her environment slightly ominous, well, she knew friends who had terrible jobs and counted herself lucky.

So when the elevator light blinked on, and Nathan Happling, the CEO and Owner of JBQ Inc. stepped out onto the seventeenth floor, Jeanette blinked once or twice before recognizing him. She hadn’t seen the boss in almost six months, and he looked beat up. Eyes shadowed and bruised. Nose swollen. Pale. He looked like he’d been mugged.

She swallowed a sudden flush of bile in her throat; Nathan Happling terrified her almost to muteness.

He glided through the glass doors with JBQ, Incorporated stenciled on them. He was dressed in a crisp, tailored suit.

“M—m—Mr. Hap—Hap—”

Happling never paused. “Get them. Get them all. CR1. Pronto.”

And then he was past her. She took a deep breath and jabbed the buttons on her phone. Clearing her throat, she tried to speak steadily. “Mr. Happling asks you to meet him in conference room one,” she said in an acceptably steady voice. “Now.”

No one replied. Jeanette hadn’t expected any. She tried to relax, but just knowing that Mr. Happling was in the office made her nervous, for some reason. When her intercom buzzed, she jumped.

“Yes?”

“Jeanette, are they coming?”

“Yes, Mr. Happling.”

“Good. You’re fired. Go home. Now. A severance check will be in the mail, and your medical is covered up to June of this year. Don’t come back to this office. Understood?”

“Uh—”

He hung up on her.

Without much hesitation, she gathered up her few personal possessions and was waiting for the elevator when the four executives marched past her former desk on their way to CR1.

If he just fired me, she wondered idly, what’ll he do to them?

As she stepped onto the elevator, a wave of relief powerful enough to weaken her knees swept through her. Without knowing why, she began to cry.

###

      When the members of the Syndicate arrived at 895 Avenue of the Americas later that day, they found the offices on the seventeenth and eighteenth floors completely deserted. They made their way to the private elevator in the back, found it open and unlocked, and took it up to the twenty-first floor, which was where Nathan Happling had his private office. It took up most of the floor.

Eight of the men and women had formed a loose group led by Rudolph Enneking. Mikaline Ambrose, sporting a patch over his left eye and his left arm in a sling, stood a few feet away, and glared at the floor the whole time.

A moment of silence hung in the air. Happling sat behind a huge oak desk which was completely clean and bare, its finish dulled by a thick layer of dust.

“Well?” Enneking finally barked, his thin voice struggling to find density and outrage.

“You first,” Happling said calmly.

Enneking reddened. “Very well, young pup.” He grated in agitation. “Justin Saglimenni is dead.”

Happling nodded and looked over at the lone figure on the left. “Mikaline?”

Ambrose glanced up, held Happling’s gaze, and nodded once, curtly.

“The Angel of Death!” Happling said gleefully and laughed heartily for a few moments, unable to speak. “Oh, Christ, you pathetic shit!”

Amin Dimser glanced up from his unmarked book. “The Syndicate had voted. It was—”

“Dimser,” Happling interrupted, holding up one hand, “please. Babbling about rules is amusing, but we have no time. I asked you to come here for one reason—to resign my membership.”

There was a palpable, outward wave of shock. “What?” Enneking breathed.

“I am resigning my membership in the Syndicate, Rudolph. I renege all bonds. I rebuke my oaths. Care to hear my reasons?”

Enneking’s face grew red again. He shook as he spoke. “Your reasons?”

“Look at you, bunch of fools.” Happling said, shaking his head. “You fucked it up.”

“Herr Happling!” Enneking shouted. “This organization has existed for three thousand years through war and peace and—”

And you fucked it up!” Happling roared, jumping to his feet. “You let a horny old man use us to front a prostitution ring, you allowed a mafia reject to rise to prominence despite having all the ability and training of a child, and you let that sick motherfucker break the one fucking law that made us possible!” Happling panted for a moment in eerie silence. “Rudolph, we swore—swore!—that we would not harm or cause to be harmed a sitting member of the Syndicate. That law had not been broken in three thousand years, through wars, peace, politics, and witch hunts. This little worm” he gestured disgustedly at Ambrose “comes up with a way to gut the spirit of that law without gutting the letter of it, and you let him!”

Unseen, Mikaline Ambrose smiled slightly to himself. Jude Moorehouse, all of seventeen, did likewise.

“Nathan,” Amin Dimser stuttered, his book suddenly forgotten, and dropped to the floor, “we did nothing against a sitting member—”

SITTING MEMBER!” Happling roared, bringing a fist down on the desktop. “Oh, Amin, you really are blind. You morons voted Juno out so you could kill him. His being a ‘sitting’ member meant nothing. So now it means nothing. You wanted Justin dead. You voted him out and sent this little bird of prey to kill him.” He smiled, far more teeth than necessary. “Don’t send your little bird against me, chickens, or I’ll break his wings this time.”

Unseen, Mikaline Ambrose winced. Jude Moorehouse still grinned.

“Our law means nothing. You allowed that to happen. You fucked it up. I resign. With luck, you will never hear of me again. For three thousand years, we and our predecessors have ruled this world in secret, when we cared to. We have caused wars, brought peace. Sculpted civilizations, erased whole cultures. We wrote history. And over a petty grievance, over false morality, and at the urging of Mikaline Ambrose, you FUCKED IT UP.” He sat down and stared at them steadily. “Get out. I have said all I wish to say. I wish to have no more contact with you. If you move against me, I will be forced to move against you. If you let me be, I will let you kill each other off one by one in peace.”

“Nathan—”

Happling held up one hand. “Rudolph. Go.”

A moment of pale quiet hung suspended, and suddenly, Mikaline Ambrose turned and walked from the room. He was slowly followed by the others, until only Rudolph Enneking and Amin Dimser remained. Happling stared at them steadily.

“Rudolph, we’ve known each other a long time, now,” Happling said quietly. “I know what you are thinking. I’d snuff you like a weak candle. Don’t attack me. I will destroy you, if pushed.”

Enneking made a sudden choked sound in his throat and whirled, storming from the room without another word.

Happling turned his gaze exclusively on Dimser.

The bald man raised his hands. “No threat poses here, Happling. Just a final bit of Syndicate business I think you ought to know about.”

Happling snorted suddenly, shaking his head. “Amin. I could almost like you, you know. What?”

“Marjorie Adams? Juno’s last sale?”

“I remember.”

“She’s been kidnapped.”

Happling blinked.

“By Phillip K. Marks. The reporter.”

“I thought—”

Dimser looked at his shoes. “I don’t know how he might have slipped through. I followed every protocol. I skipped nothing. He must have some skill.”

Happling laughed humorlessly. “Fine, Dimser.”

Dimser stood for a moment more, then shrugged and turned to exit the room.

###

      “I’m not going to like this, am I, Phil?”

Marks glanced around nervously and then returned his gaze to the single eye watching him from the slightly cracked open door. “C’mon, Ivan, in for a penny, in for a pound,” he growled.

Ivan’s eye moved from Marks to the young woman standing next to him. “Who’s the cupcake?”

Marks clenched his teeth. He’d tried to convince Marjorie to wear something a little more conservative, but the woman had a compulsion to wear short skirts and transparent blouses. She was striking, but at six in the morning at Ivan McCallaugh’s front door, Marks fought the urge to drape his jacket over her shoulders.

“Let’s call her my client, okay? She’s the one who got me into this in the first place.”

Ivan still didn’t open the door. “She looks like a whore, Phil.”

Marks bit back a curse. “Ivan, why are you stonewalling me?”

There was an audible sigh from the other side of the door. “Phil, I think I’ve already given you—”

“Fuck your antisocial tendencies, Ivan, and fuck your tender intellect. I’m in trouble here. My only hope is that she knows something buried in there and that you can find it.”

“Jesus,” Ivan moaned.

Marjorie frowned prettily. “What? When is Petey coming?” She was pouting.

Marks shook his head. “Your husband isn’t joining us, Ms. Adams.”

“Oh,” she continued to frown, struggling with the concept.

The door slid open. “Bring her in, Phil,” Ivan breathed. “But for the record, I am very unhappy.”

“Noted.”

Marks barely waited for the door to be opened before dragging Marjorie in with him. She did not resist, allowing herself to be pushed ahead of the reporter like a rag doll. She smiled shyly at Ivan, who just rolled his eyes and led them into his dark apartment.

“Do you ever open a window, Ivan?”

“Don’t push it, Marks.”

“Sorry,” the reporter sighed, pacing the living room with hands in pockets. “I can’t go to my place, I don’t think, and you’re the only person I know of. Ivan, you’re the only chance I’ve got.”

“I told you to walk away, Phil.”

“Yeah, well.” He paused to look at Ivan steadily. “Would you? Could you?”

Ivan paused. “No,” he finally admitted. “But that doesn’t change the fact that you’re a moron.” He shook his head. “Alright, alright. You’re here. In for a penny and all that, fine. Turn on the light, will you, Phil? Ms. Adams, was it? Attend to me, please.”

Marks flicked on the light switch, and the room became bright. It was a mess. Piles of magazines, most of which Marks didn’t recognize, were tied up everywhere. A thick layer of dust coated everything. Three computers were on and, apparently, actively processing tasks. Books were stacked on any available space, some open, some not, most apparently stolen from the public library. Marks let his gaze wander for a moment, then looked back to where Ivan was examining Marjorie Adams.

“What does it look like?”

Ivan raised a bushy eyebrow. “A cute twenty-year-old chick, Phil. I’m not psychic. I’ll have to put her under and muck about. This could take a long time.”

“I’ll put on some coffee, okay?”

Ivan nodded. “Yep. Then leave me the hell alone.”

Marks nodded. “Sure.”

###

      Marks discovered without much surprise that Ivan’s kitchen was much the same as his living room—cluttered with books, every available space covered with trash or cruft. He banged around until he located a coffeemaker, set a pot to brewing, and then sat down at the crowded kitchen table to burn some cigarettes.

He tried to put the past few days into order.

The smell of coffee filled the room, chasing away some of the dust and sweat Ivan had left in the air.

I’m terrified, Marks thought suddenly.

Good thing, too, he responded to himself. Otherwise I’d commit myself.

###

      “Phil?”

Marks glanced up from his coffee. He’d lost track of time in Ivan’s darkened apartment. All the windows were closed, and it was a perpetual twilight.

“Yeah?”

“Come here, please.”

Marks snuffed his cigarette and hauled himself to his feet. He felt tired, as if he hadn’t slept in weeks. Months, maybe. He walked back into Ivan’s living room slowly, feeling every muscle contract and relax, every joint grind. He wished he’d put whiskey in his coffee.

The living room had been rearranged somewhat. Seated in a plain wooden chair, Marjorie sat slackly, head down on her chest. She was wearing a pair of headphones and facing one of the computers, which displayed a confusing graphic of concentric circles which shifted in subtle ways. There was an odd smell in the air.

“Don’t stare at that screen too long, Phil.”

Marks turned to find Ivan seated on a window sill, arms crossed. “Huh?”

“It can’t put you under by itself, but you’ve been awake for a long time, and you’re not at your sharpest, so let’s not take chances, huh?”

Marks rubbed his eyes. “Is she under?”

“About as deep as I can manage, Phil. I’ve been probing. I’m terrified. I’m absolutely terrified.”

“So am I, Ivan.”

Ivan paused, studying his fingernails. “Basically, our Ms. Marjorie has had a personality transplant. I think I’ve identified some broad false memories in there, replacing actual recollections which have been completely removed.” He sighed. “It’s called sculpting. A butcher merely removes memories—what happened to you—and a good butcher can remove them and then shave off the loose ends that would otherwise make you wonder. If you just remove a day from someone’s brain, Phil, when they wake up, they’ll eventually get that nagging feeling; they’ll start to wonder where that day went. Might take some time, but the loose ends pile up. A really good butcher can file those loose ends down so your mind skips over them, and you never get enough momentum going to pursue a missing day, get me?”

Marks nodded dully. He thought he even might understand.

“A sculptor, though, is something better. They remove the memories, sure, but then they replace them with completely false ones. This takes a lot of effort, trust me, or at least, it does for those of us who must do it using drugs, subliminals, and hypnotic techniques. The bastards you’re dealing with may be able to do it in moments, with no effort at all.

“Sculpting is usually done to transform a personality, to sculpt someone’s persona into something else. Experience and memory are big factors in who we are. Scarring or disturbing memories will guide us away from behaviors; triumphs and rewards will guide us to them. Remove a scar, and we lose the reluctance to try something. For example, let’s say I had a bad memory of being bitten by a stray dog. In the future, I might avoid strays and have a general fear of dogs, and I would react badly to them, right? Now, remove that memory. Suddenly, I might find myself neutral towards dogs. Now, replace it with a memory of a pet—a big, shaggy dog licking my face, me happy, all that shit. Suddenly, I might like dogs.

“That’s sculpting. For someone like me, Phil, it’s largely theoretical.” He pointed at Marjorie. “If I had to guess, I’d say she’s about ninety percent sculpture. I’m guessing, but I doubt there’s much in there that’s really her, at this point.”

“Jesus,” Marks said. He didn’t feel well. The coffee was like brown acid in his stomach.

“In cases like this, I usually start recent and work back and try to determine where the false memories stop and the true ones begin. The assumption is that no one will bother rewriting her whole history just to cause one personality change. At some point, even if it’s very far back, there’s just no need to monkey with her memories.”

“How can you tell real from fake?” Marks grunted, swallowing his stomach.

Ivan sighed. “In trance, Phil, your memories usually have as much detail as a movie, as a book. Reams of detail—detail you don’t even realize you have stored in you. If I ask you to describe July 25th, 1979, Phil, you’ll have hours of details for me. You can’t even consciously remember that particular day, right? But in trance, you will. In complete, rich detail.

“A fake memory is flat, though. No one, not even these demigods, has the time to create that kind of detail and implant it. What the eyes and ears take in during a split second would take days to recite. So, the sculptor just sets the scene and lets the brain fill in the blanks. It ends up being a dull, vague memory. Consciously, we don’t notice the difference, and over time, we actually create more fake details to satisfy our need for them. So the fake memory seems more real as time goes on.

“Phil, I didn’t hit real memories on her until I regressed her to about the age of eight. The rest of her life seems to have been erased.”

Marks sat down next to Ivan and tried not to look at Marjorie. “Christ, why?”

Ivan took a moment before answering. “Phil, to make her a whore. Not just a whore, a happy whore. Whoever did this to her made her life one long, exciting sexual adventure. Her good times always involve sex. Her bad times involve the lack of it. She’s been sculpted into a submissive male toy. Based on her fake memories, she only finds happiness and fulfillment when men are sexualizing her.”

“Can we help her?”

Ivan shook his head. “All we could try would be to sculpt her in some other direction, but Phil, I’m not good enough to even try that. There’s worse news.”

Marks shook his head. “Christ, what?”

“I’m pretty sure I found what’s called a decaying loop in there.”

“What’s that?”

“Think of it as a meta-bullet. It’s slow. She’ll hang onto the basic notion that being sexualized by men is what validates her existence forever, but it’s got an addictive structure that I doubt was placed in there on purpose. It’ll take more extreme experiences to keep her validated. Right now, I think laying that old guy you found her with would be enough. In five years, I think she would have been fucking everything in sight just to feel okay. This would be in direct contrast to another sculpted compulsion: to be loyal to that prick she married. That was part of the deal, I guess. So she’d be there wanting to fuck every guy she met to get her hit of self-esteem, but she’d prevent herself from doing that due to the strong sense of loyalty she’s been instilled with.

“Over time, this wears down her mental structure and the very sculpting set in place. It decays. She’ll start to bounce between the two compulsions, faster and faster, and get more and more unbalanced. I don’t doubt her ‘husband’ would have found her semi-autistic and incommunicado one of these days, a vegetable.”

“Great. So what can we do for her?”

Ivan shrugged. “I don’t know yet, Phil. I’ve worked with her three hours just to find this out. Options have not yet been compiled. But she can’t help you with these Syndicate people. Her whole life, including Brickheour Consulting, has been cut out. She doesn’t have any memories to access, even in trance.”

Marks hung his head. “Fuck.” He kept still for a few moments, which passed by meekly. “Ivan, where did you learn all this?”

“Don’t ask, and that isn’t a request, Phil.”

They stood for a moment, silent. Marks looked at the girl, sitting slackly in the chair, staring. “Do you have to keep her like that?”

Ivan sighed. “It took me three hours to get past her mental firewalls. She’d also been insulated against mundane hypnotic techniques, just in case some therapist hack or someone like me tried to innocently delve into her. Wouldn’t do to have all that psychic surgery laid bare the first time anyone did some basic work with her. Now that I’ve got inside her head, so to speak, I might as well start trying to help her. I can’t bring her back, Phil. I can’t make her Marjorie Adams again, whoever that was. But if I can strip out some of that cruft in there, maybe we can start her over. Give her a chance at a normal life. I’ll have to replace what’s in there with something equally false, using some of the structure put in there by those people, but it’ll be better than being a fucktoy for the rest of your life. Right?”

Marks didn’t look away from her. “I guess.”

There was a knock on the door. Sudden, invasive, demanding. One knock, then nothing. The two men just froze.

“Expecting company?” Marks whispered.

“Are you kidding?” Ivan whispered back. “I don’t have friends.”

They stared at the door. Behind it, they could hear some scuffling noises, and then the door crashed inward with a blinding flood of afternoon light.

A tall man with short red hair walked in, followed by two large, burly men. The tall man was young and dressed in a dark blue overcoat, skintight leather gloves, and expensive-looking shoes.

“Nathan Happling,” Marks said flatly.

Happling’s flat eyes scanned them briefly and then settled on Marjorie Adams. “Take them,” he said, turning on one heel. “Bring all of them.”

Marks looked down at his shoes and listened to the two hulks moving gracelessly towards them. He tensed, waiting for the right moment, but was surprised to feel Ivan moving first. He looked up in surprise and found Ivan had somehow come up with a baseball bat, a big thirty-two-ouncer, solid wood.

“Come on then, you Illuminati freaks!” Ivan hissed. “Come get some.”

Marks blinked in shock and then remembered to look back at their attackers. The two men had stopped, apparently in shocked surprise. The reporter stood with an audible sigh.

“Well, Illuminati freaks,” he said almost tiredly, “come on.”

 

Immolation

Marks thought the smile was simply too much.

The ridiculous grin he found himself compelled to wear while he sat docilely next to Nathan Happling made him appear to be somewhat retarded, and he hated the vindictive bastard for forcing it upon him. Ivan sat next to him with a similar expression, but his eyes darted all over the place, a caged animal, and panic oozed off him in waves.

“Your friend perhaps understands better than you, having had some small experience with my art,” Happling said, his voice rich with arrogance and assurance. “You’ve managed some dirty tricks and may think you’ve got us beat, Mr. Marks. Your associate knows that given some time and the freedom to pay attention, I am more than capable of turning you into anything I wish.”

Marks wanted to rub his head; a bump had formed where one of the goons had gotten in a good shot. He sat still and smiled, not even turning his head.

“I could even just kill you. Or have you kill yourselves. But,” he sighed, “I am old-fashioned in some ways. And despite your best efforts, you really haven’t caused me too much difficulty. I suppose some mercy is in order.”

Marks’ skin crawled. He wanted nothing more than the simple ability to shrink away from the tall, thin man sitting so composedly next to him. The word mercy sounded cold and hard on Happling’s lips, as if the word had been cast out of metal and spat forth with distaste.

The car stopped, and Happling waited patiently for the driver to get out, walk around, and open the door for him. “Follow me,” he said shortly as he pulled himself from the limo. Marks obeyed without even realizing that he’d begun to move. Ivan was on his heels, moving with far more grace than Marks would have imagined him capable of.

This can’t happen, Marks thought.  I’ve got to concentrate, be smart about this. I’ve got to trick them again. But Ivan is here, too. Who’ll help me? Someone. Someone’ll help me. Someone will. Someone.

Happling led them through the parking garage to the elevators. His driver stayed with the car. Marks didn’t concern himself with what the poor soul who drove Happling around had to do with himself during the hours or days when Happling had no need of his services, for there was no doubt in the reporter’s mind that any and all of Happling’s servants were slaves. He was desperately feeling his way along the wall Happling had put between himself and his will, looking for cracks.

He could find none.

I’ve got to give myself a message, somehow, he thought. If I can’t count on anyone helping me, I’ve got to help myself. If I can concentrate on a message, somehow, something that I’ll have to investigate, something odd I’ll obsess over until I figure this out…

The elevator doors opened, and Happling strode into his penthouse apartment with the prisoners following meekly and automatically. Marks and Ivan both sat in comfortable leather chairs while Happling went to his desk, looked through some papers, and then shrugged off his coat, pulled up a smaller chair to sit before them both, and studied them each in turn.

“Nothing too complicated,” Happling said with a somewhat wry smile. “No offense. Nothing to do with your abilities, actually. First you, Mr. Amateur.”

Ivan’s eyes looked ready to pop out of his head.

“People like me who have talent and ability and the right to use it have always been plagued by idiots such as yourself—self-styled intellectuals who seek knowledge they can really do nothing with. A quick scan of your memories confirms that, despite your endless research and study, you have never been able to produce any kind of real result. Parlor tricks. And, of course, just enough knowledge to be able to tear apart the delicate weavings of your superiors, as you have in this case. My fellow masters, past and present, and I have worked too hard at our goals to let someone like you continue your ham-handed mischief. That is one rule of the Syndicate I will always adhere to: Duffers, such as yourself, must be eliminated.”

Ivan’s face reddened, but otherwise, he appeared calm and relaxed. Except for his eyes.

“Don’t worry, fat man,” Happling said dismissively. “I won’t kill you. I am not Mikaline Ambrose. Not so foolish, not so arrogant. You have to be curtailed, controlled, but I see no reason to waste you.”

Ivan did not seem to relax.

Marks felt rather than perceived Happling’s red gaze on him. He was still scrambling against the unseen mental wall, invisible fingers searching for imperfections. Got to think of something. Something remarkable. Something I won’t be able to ignore.

“Mr. Marks, I’m afraid you must be quieted. Since you’ve managed to slip past some not untalented Masters, I must assume you’ve got a trick up your sleeve. And that your goal is to write about us. While I could prevent publication of anything you wrote with just a few phone calls, just having a manuscript like that in existence could be damaging. We can’t allow you to write that. Therefore, we won’t allow you to write at all.”

Marks felt a distant, cold stab of fear.

“Listen to me,” Happling said absently, hands on his knees, looking like anything but the all-powerful individual he was. “Talking as if I was still sitting on the Syndicate. I can’t allow you to write at all, Mr. Marks. I hope you understand. Now, to work. First you, fat man. You dared to tamper with a master’s programming, and for that, I’m afraid you’ll have to be punished.”

Something, Marks thought hurriedly. Anything. Think about…about…think about…

The room grew still, but nothing outward seemed to happen. Happling seemed to merely be concentrating very hard on Ivan, who stared back at him calmly, smile in place.

Something, anything. Think about…

Marjorie, somewhere else by now, taken away. A shell. Happling had confirmed in annoyance that Ivan had managed to strip away all of Juno Brickheour’s elegant sculpting; she was just a central nervous system now and would have to be resculpted. Marks hadn’t liked the sound of that.

Something, anything. Think about…Pete Timlin.

Hope bloomed in Marks. Pete! He hadn’t been mentioned yet; no one knew he was involved, or so he hoped. If he could cue himself to seek out Pete, to look up his old friend, then maybe there was a chance. Maybe there would be a way to communicate to Pete, to himself, what had happened and how to get around it.

Pete. Pete Timlin. Marks thought to himself. Pete. Timlin. See Pete Timlin. See Pete Timlin.

He repeated it like a mantra in his head.

Next to him, the silence was rippled with the unseen tremors of Ivan McCallaugh, who was shaking imperceptibly.

###

      “How long has he been here?”

“Since last night. He passed out there, and I didn’t have the energy to move him, so I just locked up around him. I didn’t expect even he could sleep here all night. Thought he’d be up and about. I didn’t want to call the hospital yet. Since you’re only a few blocks away, I thought—”

Pete Timlin sighed. “You thought you’d avoid any bad publicity if I just got the soused writer out of here under his own power, huh, Jer?”

Jerry looked depressed and rubbed his hands together uncomfortably. “C’mon, Pete; I got sued two years ago when I didn’t cut that old coot off, and he killed some kid on the way home. It’s my fault now, if someone drinks themselves to death. Mine. You ever try telling Phil Marks he’s had enough? He’s mean, sometimes, when he’s got a bag on.”

Pete frowned. “Phil? He’s a fucking pussycat when he’s drunk, Jerry, and you know it.”

Jerry rubbed his head. “I guess. Ugh, I’ve got a headache. C’mon, Pete, you’re here; take him home for me?”

Pete sighed and leaned down. Phillip K. Marks was facedown at a table, a ring of glasses around his head. He smelled like old socks and was breathing rapidly. “Phil!” Pete said loudly, shaking the man. “C’mon, Phil. Sleep it off at home, okay?”

Marks resisted for a few minutes, then suddenly sat up, looking wildly around. “Pete! Pete Timlin! I’ve got to talk to Pete Timlin!”

“Whoa, whoa. Phil! I’m right here, buddy.”

Marks turned to face Pete and blinked rapidly. “Pete.”

“Yeah, Phil, what did you need me for?”

“What?”

“You woke up shouting that you needed to talk to me?”

Marks blinked. “I did?” He rubbed his eyes. “Christ, my head hurts.” He glanced up again, saw Jerry hovering in the background. “Jer, give me a bourbon, okay?”

“Phil, it’s eight in the morning.”

Marks frowned. “Just give me a fucking drink, goddammit!”

Jerry’s jovial face stiffened. “Pete, get him out of here, okay?”

Marks stood up, lost his balance, and almost broke his chair before righting himself. “Fuck both of you, then. There’re friendlier places to drink, right?”

“Christ, Phil,” Pete said, putting a hand on his shoulder, “what’s wrong?”

Marks stared at Pete as if he’d never seen him before. Then he pushed his hand away. “I need a drink. Christ, I need a drink.” He started walking and almost fell forward before righting himself.

“You’ve had enough, buddy,” Pete said, trying to grab Marks. The reporter eluded him.

“Fuck off, Pete. I need a drink.”

Pete raised his hands in defeat. “Fine, Phil, fine. Kill yourself. We’re just tryin’ to help, you know.”

Marks started moving slowly towards the door. “Christ,” he moaned. “Aw, Christ.”

Jerry and Pete watched him lurch out into the morning sun, where he squinted painfully and began a slow shamble down the street.

“What the hell happened to him?” Jerry asked.

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Pete shook his head. “I don’t know. He was working on some story,” he paused, looked around as if momentarily confused, and then shrugged. “Whatever. The bastard’s got quite an attitude, too. Fuck ’im, then. He’ll be all better in a few days and back to his usual self. Marksy can hold his liquor, eh?”

“Sure.”

They watched the reporter stumble and fall outside, snarling at the people who paused to help him, spittle flying from his wet mouth. The rest of the city bent away from him, looked past him, avoided him without effort.

###

      The man with the hangdog expression should have been cut off an hour ago, but he was obviously well known to the bartenders, as they continued to serve him gimlets despite his increasing inability to bring their contents successfully to his mouth. He was well-dressed but scruffy, ungroomed, a mid-price suit but new shoes. Handsome, in the way men get handsome sometimes, as they age, just the dignity of their experience.

He knocked a loose fist on the bar. The place was dark and empty, just a few sad souls drinking at nine in the morning. The sound of knuckles on wood was hollow and ringing and brought a few murmurs of protest from old men in the dark nursing hangovers.

The bartender was a bald man named Roscoe who was big and flabby and unsmiling. He had a Semper Fi tattoo on one shoulder and an AA card in his wallet. He strolled over to the familiar rumhead and recognized him, finally, as he arrived.

“Hey, you’ve been in here, usually at night, right? You’re a writer. Yeah, I’ve seen you in here. Seen you on TV, too.”

The man looked up and grinned slightly. “Used to be a writer, friend. Used to. Up ’til this morning. Now I’m a drinker. Another gimlet, if you please.”

Roscoe nodded. “Yeah, sure, on me. Name’s Roscoe. I used to work the ten to close shift here, ’til I dried out. Now it’s too much temptation. I remember you, though. Good tipper, nice guy. Drink’s on me.”

“Thanks. Name’s Phillip K. Marks, buddy.”

“Yeah, I remember. What brings you in here so early?”

Marks frowned. “I need to drink.” He looked back at Roscoe with an odd expression, which seemed to the bartender a mixture of pained innocence, ridiculous confusion, and ironic acceptance. He shrugged. “I don’t know why.”

 

THE END

©Jeff Somers
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Jeff Somers

Jeff Somers (JeffreySomers.com) was first sighted in Jersey City, New Jersey after the destruction of a classified government installation in the early 1970s; the area in question is still too radioactive to go near. When asked about this, he will only say that he regrets nothing. He is the author of Lifers, the Avery Cates series from Orbit Books, The Ustari Cycle from Pocket Books, and Chum, coming from Tyrus Books in Fall 2013. Jeff’s published over thirty short stories as well; his story “Sift, Almost Invisible, Through” appeared in the anthology Crimes by Moonlight, published by Berkley Hardcover and edited by Charlaine Harris and his story “Ringing the Changes” was selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2006. He survives on the nickels and quarters he regularly finds behind his ears, his guitar playing is a plague upon his household, and his lovely wife The Duchess is convinced he would wither and die if left to his own devices, but this is only half true.

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