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He assumed that when he had Become, then invulnerability and immortality would be the final gifts bestowed on him, signaling his Ascension to godhoodwhich made him eager to fulfill his mission.

Now leaving only a portion of his consciousness in his real body, he moved into the hobo on the night beach. From within that hulking figure, he gazed up at his house on the bluff. He saw his own na*ed body at the window staring down.

In Jewish folklore there was a creature called a golem. Made of mud in the shape of a man, endowed with a form of life, it was most often an instrument of vengeance.

Bryan could create an infinite variety of golems and through them stalk his prey, thin the herd, police the world. But he could not enter the bodies of real people and control their minds, which he would very much have enjoyed. Perhaps that power would be his, as well, when at last he had Become.

He withdrew his consciousness from the golem on the beach and, regarding it from his high window, caused it to change shape. It tripled in size, assumed a reptilian form, and developed immense membranous wings.

Sometimes an effect could spiral beyond what he intended, acquire a life of its own, and resist his efforts at containment. For that reason, he was always practicing, refining his techniques and exercising his power in order to strengthen it.

He had once created a golem inspired by the movie Alien, and used it to savage the vagrants in an encampment of ten homeless people under a Los Angeles freeway overpass. His intention had been to slaughter two of them, lightning quick, and leave the others with the memory of his power and merciless judgment. But then he became excited by their abject terror at the inexplicable manifestation of that movie monster.

He thrilled to the feel of his claws ripping through their flesh, the heat of spurting blood, the rank steaming gush of disembowelment, the crack of bones as fragile as chalk sticks in his monstrous hands. The screams of the dying were piercingly shrill at first but became weak, tremulous, erotic; they surdered their lives to him as lovers might have surrendered, so exhausted by the intensity of their passion that they succumbed only with sighs, whispers, shudders. For a few minutes he was the creature that he had created, all razored teeth and talons, spiked spine and lashing tail, having forgotten about his real body in which his mind actually reposed. When he regained his senses, he discovered he had killed all ten men beneath the overpass and stood in a charnel house of blood, eviscerated torsos, severed heads and limbs.

He hadn't been shocked or daunted by the degree of violence he'd wroughtnly that he'd killed them all in a mindless frenzy. Learning control was vital if he were to accomplish his mission and Become.

He had used the power of pyrokinesis to set the bodies afire, searing them with flames so intense that even bones were vaporized.

He always disposed of those on whom he practiced because he didn't want ordinary people to know that he walked among them, at least not until his power had been perfected and his vulnerability was nil.

That was also why for the time being he focused his attentions primarily on street people. If they were to report being tormented by a demon who could change shape at will, their complaints would be dismissed as the ravings of mentally deranged losers with drug and alcohol addictions. And when they vanished from the face of the earth, no one would care or attempt to discover what had happened to them.

Someday soon, however, he would be able to bring holy terror and divine judgment to people in all strata of society So he practiced.

Like a magician improving his dexterity.

Control. Control.

On the beach, the winged form leapt off the sand from which it had been born. It flapped into the night, like a truant gargoyle returning to a cathedral parapet. It hovered before his window, peering in with luminous yellow eyes.

Although it was a brainless thing until he projected part of himself into it, the pterodactyl was nevertheless an impressive creation. Its immense leathery wings fluidly fanned the air, and it easily remained aloft on the updrafts along the bluff.

Bryan was aware of the eyes in the jars behind him. Staring.

Watching him, astonished, admiring, adoring.

“Be gone,” he said to the pterodactyl, indulging in theatrics for his audience.

The winged reptile turned to sand and rained on the beach below.

Enough play. He had work to do.

Harry's Honda was parked near the municipal building, under a streetlamp.

Early spring moths, having come out in the wake of the rain, swooped close to the light. Their enormous, distorted shadows played over the car.

As she and Harry crossed the sidewalk toward the Honda, Connie said, “Same question. Now what?”

“I want to get into Ordegard's house and have a look around.”

“What for?”

"I don't have a clue. But it's the only other thing I can think to do.

Unless you've got an idea."

“Wish I did.”

As they approached the car, she saw something dangling from the rearview mirror, rectangular and softly gleaming beyond the moth shadows that swarmed over the windshield. As far as she could recall, there had been no airfreshener or ornament of any kind tied to the mirror.

She was the first into the car and got a close look at the silvery rectangle before Harry did. It was dangling on a red ribbon from the mirror shank. Initially she didn't realize what it was. She took hold of it, turned it so the light struck it more cleaM, and saw that it was a handcrafted belt buckle worked with Southwest motifs.

Harry got in behind the wheel, slammed his door, and saw what she held in her hand.

“Oh, Jesus,” Harry said. “Oh, Jesus, Ricky Estefan.”

Most of the roses had taken a beating from the rain, but a few blooms had come through the storm untouched. They bobbed gently in the night breeze. The petals caught the light spilling from the kitchen windows and seemed to magnify it, glowing as if radioactive.

Ricky sat at the kitchen table, from which his tools and current projects had been removed. He had finished dinner more than an hour ago and had been sipping port wine ever since. He wanted to get a buzz on.

Before being gutshot, he'd not been much of a drinker, but when he had wanted a drink, he'd been a tequila and beer man. A shot of Sauza and a bottle ofTecate were as sophisticated as he got. After all the abdominal surgeries he endured, however, a single jigger of Sauzar any other hard liquorgave him intense heartburn and a sour stomach that lasted the better part of a day. The same was true of beer.

He learned that he could handle liqueurs well enough, but getting drunk on Baileys Irish Cream or creme de menthe or Midori required the ingestion of so much sugar that his teeth would rot long before he did any damage to his liver. Regular wines did not go down well, either, but port proved to be just the thing, sweet enough to soothe his delicate gut but not so sweet as to induce diabetes.

Good port was his only indulgence. Well, good port and a little selfpity now and then.

Watching the roses nodding in the night, he sometimes pulled his gaze back to a closer point of focus and stared at his reflection in the window. It was an imperfect mirror, revealing to him a colorless transparent countenance like that of a haunting spirit; but perhaps it was an accurate reflection, after all, because he was a ghost of his former self and in some ways dead already A bottle of Taylor's stood on the table. He refilled his port glass and took a sip.

Sometimes, like now, it was difficult to believe that the face in the window was actually his. Before he'd been shot, he had been a happy man, seldom given to troubled introspection, never a brooder. Even during recuperation and rehabilitation, he had retained a sense of humor, an optimism about the future that no amount of pain could entirely darken.

His face had become the face in the window only after Anita left.

More than two years later, he still had difficulty believing that she was goner figuring out what to do about the loneliness that was destroying him more surely than bullets could have done.

Raising his drink, Ricky sensed something wrong just as he brought it to his mouth. Perhaps he subconsciously registered the lack of a portwine aromar the faint, foul smell of what had replaced it. He stopped as he was about to tilt the glass to his lips, and saw what it contained: two or three fat, moist, entwined earthworms, alive and oozing languorously around one another.

Startled, he cried out, and the glass slipped from his fingers.

Because it dropped only a couple of inches onto the table, it didn't shatter. But when it tipped over, the worms slithered onto the polished pine.

Ricky pushed his chair back, blinking furiouslyand the worms were gone.

Spilled wine shimmered on the table.

He halted halfway to his feet, his hands on the arms of his chair, staring in disbelief at the puddle of rubyre ort.

He was sure he had seen the worms. He wasn imagining things.

Wasn't drunk. Hell, he hadn't even begun to sample the port.

Easing back into his chair, he closed his ey . Waited a second, two.

Looked. The wine still glistened on the table.

Hesitantly he touched one index finger to the puddle. It was wet, real.

He rubbed his finger and thumb together preading the drop - of wine over his skin.

He checked the Taylor's to be sure that he hadn't drunk more than he'd realized. The bottle was dark, so he had to hold it up to the light to see the level of the liquid within. It was a new bottle and the line of the port was just below the neck. He had poured only the two glasses.

Rattled as much by his inability to come up with an explanation as by what had happened, Ricky went to the sink, opened the cabinet below it, and got the damp dishcloth from the rack on the back of the door. At the table again, he wiped up the spilled wine.

His hands were shaking.

He was angry at himself for being afraid, even though the source of the fear was understandable. He worried that e had suffered what the doctors would call a "small cerebra stroke of which the flickering hallucination of earthworms was the only sign. More than anything else during his long hospitalization, he had dreaded a stroke.

The development of blood clots in the legs and around the sutures in repaired veins and arteries was one especially dangerous potential sideeffect of major abdominal surgery of the extent that he had undergone and of the protracted bed rest that followed it. If one broke free and traveled to the heart, sudden death might ensue.

If it traveled instead to the brain, obstructing circulation, the result could be total or partial paralysis, blindness, loss of speech, and the horrifying destruction of intellectual capacity. His doctors had medicated him to inhibit clotting, and the nurses had put him through a program of passive exercise even when he had been required to remain flat on his back, but there hadn't been one day during his long recovery that he hadn't worried about suddenly finding himself unable to move or talk' unsure of where he was, unable to recognize his wife or his own name.

At least then he'd had the comfort of knowing, whatever happened, Anita would be there to take care of him. Now he had no one.

From now on, he would have to face adversity alone. If silenced and badly crippled by a stroke, he would be at the mercy of strangers.

Although his fear was understandable, he also realized that it was to some extent irrational. He was healed. He had his scars, sure. And his ordeal had left him diminished. But he was no more ill than the average man on the street and probably healthier than a lot of them.

More than two years had passed since his most recent surgery. His chances of suffering a cerebral embolism were now only average for a man his age. Thirtysix. Men that young rarely had debilitating strokes. Statistically, he was more likely to die in a traffic accident, from a heart attack, as the victim of violent crime, or perhaps even from being struck by lightning.

What he feared was not so much paralysis, aphasia, blindness, or any other physical ailment. What frightened him, really, was being alone, and the weirdness with the earthworms had impressed upon him just how alone he would be if anything untoward happened.

Determined not to be ruled by fear, Ricky put the portstained dishcloth aside and righted the overturned glass. He would sit down with another drink and think it through. The answer would be obvious when he thought about it. There was an explanation for the worms, maybe a trick of light that could be duplicated by holding the glass just so, turning it just so, recreating the precise circumstances of the illusion.

He picked up the bottle of Taylor's and tipped it toward the glass.

For an instant, though he had held it up to the light only a couple of minutes ago to check the level of the wine, he expected the bottle to disgorge oily knots of writhing earthworms. Only port poured forth.

He put down the bottle and raised the glass. As he brought it to his lips, he hesitated, repulsed by the thought of drinking out of a glass that had contained earthworms slick with whatever cold mucus they exuded.

His hand was shaking again, his brow was suddenly damp with perspiration, and he was furious with himself for being so damned silly about this. The wine slopped against the sides of the glass, glimmering like a liquid jewel.

He brought it to his lips, took a short sip. It tasted sweet and clean.

He took another sip. Delicious.

A soft and tremulous laugh escaped him. “Asshole,” he said, and felt better for making fun of himself.

Deciding that some nuts or crackers would go well with the port, he put his glass down and went to the kitchen cabinet where he kept cans of roasted almonds, mixed nuts, and packages of CheCri Cheese Crispies.

When he pulled the door open, the cabinet was alive with tarantulas.

Faster and more agile than he'd been in years, he backed away from the open cabinet, slamming into the counter behind him.

Six or eight of the huge spiders were climbing over cans of Blue Diamond almonds and Planters party mix, exploring the boxes of CheCri.

They were bigger even than tarantulas should have been, larger than halved cantaloupes, jittering denizens of some arachnophobe's worst nightmare.

Ricky squeezed his eyes shut. Opened them. The spiders were still there.

Above the' drumming of his own heart and his shallow noisy breathing, he could actually hear the hairy legs of the tarantulas brushing against the cellophane on the packages of cheese crackers.

The chitinous tickticktick of their feet or mandibles against the stacks of cans. Low evil hissing.

But then he realized he was misinterpreting the source of the sounds.

The noises were not coming from the open cabinet across the room but from the cabinets immediately above and behind him.

He looked over his shoulder, up at the pine doors, on the other side of which should have been nothing but plates and bowls, cups and saucers.

They were being forced outward by some expanding bulk, just a quarter of an inch ajar, then half an inch. Before Ricky could move, the cabinet doors flew open. An avalanche of snakes cauaded over his head and shoulders.