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“Not likely.”

“It’s true. We were tailing a dangerous man,” he said, figuring he sounded totally lame, like he was trying to impress her, which in fact he was. She was a pretty lady, and Skeet felt a certain stirring in his loins that he had not felt in a long time.

“Or was the whole thing fake? A setup for my benefit?”

“No setup. My chest and belly are sore as hell.”

“When you die in the matrix,” she said, “you die for real.”

“Hey, did you like that movie, too?”

“You die for real . . . unless you’re a machine.”

She was beginning to seem a little spooky to Skeet, and his intuition was confirmed when she drew a pistol from the white handbag that hung on straps from her left shoulder. It was fitted with what in the movies they called a silencer, but which he knew was more accurately called a sound suppressor.

“What’re you carrying under your sweater?” she demanded.

“Me? This sweater? Nothing.”

“Bullshit. Lift your sweater very slowly.”

“Oh, man,” he said with grave disappointment, because here he was screwing up again. “You’re professional security, aren’t you?”

“Are you with Keanu or against him?”

Skeet was certain that he hadn’t taken any drugs in the past three days, but this sure had the feel of episodes that had followed some of his more memorable chemical cocktails. “Well, I’m with him when he’s doing cool sci-fi stuff, you know, but I’m against him when he’s making crap like A Walk in the Clouds.”

“Why are they stopped so long on the ninth floor?” Dusty asked, frowning at the indicator board above the elevator that Skeet had boarded.

“Stairs?” Martie suggested again.

After lingering at the third floor, the elevator for which they were waiting suddenly moved to the second. “We might get past him this way.”

The machine pistol that she took from Skeet would not fit easily in her handbag. The butt of the extended magazine stuck out, but she didn’t seem to care.

Still covering him with her own pistol, she took the elevator off stop and pressed the button for the fourteenth floor. The cab started up at once.

“Aren’t sound suppressors illegal?” Skeet asked.

“Yes, of course.”

“But you can get one because you’re professional security?”

“Good God, no. I’m worth five hundred million dollars, and I can get anything I want.”

He couldn’t know if what she said was true or not. He didn’t suppose it mattered.

Although the woman was quite pretty, Skeet began to recognize something in her green eyes or in her attitude, or both, that scared him. They were passing the thirteenth floor, appropriately, when he realized why she put ice in his spine: She possessed an indefinable but undeniable quality that reminded him of his mother.

At that moment, as they arrived at the fourteenth floor, Skeet knew that he was a dead man walking.

When the elevator doors slid open, Martie immediately stepped inside and pressed 14.

Dusty followed, blocked two other men who tried to enter after them, and said, “Sorry, emergency. We’re expressing to fourteen.”

Martie had pressed close door immediately after pressing the floor number. She held her thumb on it.

One of the men blinked in surprise, and one of them started to object, but the doors closed before an argument could begin.

As they came out of the elevator alcove into the fourteenth-floor corridor, Skeet said, "Where are we going?”

“Don’t be so stupidly disingenuous. It’s annoying. You know perfectly well where we’re going. Now move.”

She seemed to want him to go to the left, so he did, not just because she had a gun, but because all his life he had gone where people told him to go. She followed him, jamming the muzzle of the sound suppressor into his back.

The long, carpeted corridor was quiet. The acoustic ceiling soaked up their voices. No sounds came from beyond the hallway walls. They might have been the last two people on the planet.

“What if I stop right here?” Skeet asked.

“Then I shoot you right here,” she assured him.

Skeet kept moving.

As he passed the doors to office suites on both sides of the hall, he read the names on the etched-brass wall plates beside them. Mostly, they were doctors, specialists of one kind or another— though two were attorneys. This was convenient, he decided. If he somehow survived the next few minutes, he would no doubt need a few good doctors and one attorney.

They arrived at a door where the name on the brass plate was DR. MARK AHRIMAN. Under the psychiatrist’s name, in smaller letters, Skeet read, A CALIFORNIA CORPORATION.

“Here?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said.

As Skeet pushed the door inward, the lady in pink shot him in the back. If the silenced pistol made any noise at all, he didn’t hear it, because the pain was so instantaneous and terrible that he wouldn’t have heard a marching band going past. He was focused entirely, intensely on the pain, and he was amazed that being shot could hurt so much worse when you weren’t wearing Kevlar. Even as the woman blew a hole in him, she shoved him hard through the door and into Dr. Ahriman’s reception lounge.


Ahriman’s computer announced an arrival, and the screen filled with a security-camera view of the reception lounge.

With more amazement than he had experienced in years, the doctor swiveled away from his contemplation of the blue bag and saw Skeet stagger into the lounge, the door to the corridor slowly falling shut behind him.

A large blot of blood stained the front of his yellow sweater, which certainly ought to have been the case after he had taken four rounds in the chest and gut at close range. Although this might have been the same sweater Skeet had been wearing yesterday, the camera angle wasn’t clear enough to allow Ahriman to see whether there were four bullet holes in the blood-stained fabric. Skeet clawed at the air as if for support, stumbled, and collapsed facedown on the floor.

The doctor had heard stories of dogs, accidentally separated from their masters when far from home, crossing hundreds and even thousands of miles of inhospitable terrain, through rain and snow and sleet and blazing sun, often with cut feet and worse injuries, and showing up weeks later on the very doorstep where they belonged, to the astonishment and tearful joy of their families. He had never heard even one story about a gut-shot man getting up from a beach, walking approximately six to eight miles over—he checked his watch— eighteen hours, through a densely populated area, ascending fourteen floors in an elevator, and staggering into the office of the man who had shot him, to point a finger of accusation, so he was convinced that there was more to this development than met the eye.

With his mouse, the doctor clicked on the security icon shaped like a gun. The metal detector indicated that Skeet was not carrying a firearm.

Lying flat on the floor, the would-be detective was not aligned with the roentgen tubes, so fluoroscopy wasn’t possible.

Jennifer came out from behind the receptionist’s window and stood over the fallen Skeet. She appeared to be screaming--although whether because the condition of this wounded man horrified her or because the sight of blood offended her vegetarian sensibilities, Ahriman couldn’t be sure.

The doctor activated the audio. Yes, she was screaming, though not loudly hardly more than wheezing, as though she couldn’t draw a breath deep enough to let go with a real window-rattler.

As Jennifer dropped to one knee beside Skeet to check for vital signs, Ahriman clicked on the nose icon, activating the trace-scent analyzer. Any sane person’s credulity would be stretched past the breaking point by the notion that this man, with four bullet wounds, had paused in his eighteen-hour trek to acquire explosives and build a bomb, which was now strapped to his chest. Nevertheless, reminding himself that attention to detail was important, the doctor waited for the system to report. Negative: no explosives.

Jennifer rose from the body and hurried out of camera range.

She no doubt intended to call the police and paramedics.

He buzzed her through the in-phone intercom. “Jennifer?”

“Doctor, oh, God, there’s—”

“Yes, I know. A man’s been shot. Do not call the police or the paramedics, Jennifer. I will do that. Do you understand?”

“But he’s bleeding badly. He’s—”

“Calm down, Jennifer. Call no one. I’m handling this.”

Less than a minute had passed since Skeet had staggered into the reception lounge. The doctor calculated that he had one more minute, at most two, before his delay in calling paramedics would alarm Jennifer into action.

What worried him and what he needed an answer to was this: If one man with four serious bullet wounds could show up eighteen hours later, why not two?

As highly imaginative as he was, the doctor was not able to conjure in his mind a credible picture of the wounded Skeet and his wounded pal staggering up the coast, their arms around each other’s shoulders, providing mutual support, like a pair of drunken pirates heading shipward after a long night of revelry ashore. Yet if one had shown up, there might be two, and the second could be lurking somewhere with bad intentions.

The worst delay was at the sixth floor. The elevator stopped and the doors opened, even though Martie kept pressing the close door button.

A stout, determined woman with iron-gray curls and the face of a longshoreman in drag insisted on boarding, though Dusty blocked her and claimed emergency privilege.

“What emergency?” She inserted a foot into the cab, triggering the safety mechanism and preventing the door from closing, regardless of how hard Martie leaned on the button. “I don’t see any emergency.”

“Heart attack. Fourteenth floor.”

“You’re not doctors,” she said suspiciously.

“It’s our day off.”

“Doctors don’t dress like you even on their day off. Anyway, I’m going all the way to fifteen.”

“Then get in, get in,” Dusty relented.

When she was safely inside, when the doors closed, the woman pressed the button for the twelfth floor and glared triumphantly.

Dusty was furious. “I love my brother, lady, and if anything happens to him now, I’ll track you down and gut you like a fish.”

She looked him up and down with undisguised contempt and said, “You?”

The doctor plucked the .380 Beretta off the desk and headed toward the door, but stopped when he remembered the blue bag. It still stood in the center of his desk blotter.

Whatever might happen next, eventually the police were going to arrive. If Skeet wasn’t already dead, Ahriman intended to finish him before the authorities got here. With a corpse lying in a pool of blood in the reception lounge, the cops were certain to have a lot of questions.

They would at the least take a casual look around the premises. If their suspicions were in any way aroused, they would station a man in the office while they got a warrant for a thorough search.

They were not permitted by law to inspect his patient files, so he was not concerned about anything they might find—except for his Beretta and the blue bag.

The pistol was unregistered, and while he would never go to jail for possessing it, he didn’t want to give them any reason whatsoever to wonder about him. Wondering, they might keep an eye on him in the days ahead, seriously cramping his style.

The bag of dog poop wasn’t incriminating, but it was... peculiar. Definitely peculiar. Finding it on his desk, they would surely ask why he had brought it to the office. As clever as he was, the doctor could not think of a single answer, on such short notice, that made sense. Again, they would wonder about him.

He returned quickly to the desk, pulled open a deep drawer, and dropped the bag into it. Then he realized that if they went so far as to obtain a search warrant, they would find the bag in the drawer— where it would seem no less strange than if found in plain sight. Indeed, wherever he put the bag in the office, even in the waste can, it would seem weird to them when they found it.

All of these considerations flashed through the doctor’s mind in mere seconds, since he was every bit as sharp as in the days when he’d been a child prodigy, but still he reminded himself that time was a maniac scattering dust. Hurry, hurry.

His intention was to get rid of the Beretta and the shoulder holster before the police arrived, so he might as well ditch the blue bag with the pistol. Which meant he had to take it with him now.

For several reasons, not the least being his sense of personal style, he didn’t want Jennifer to see him carrying the bag. Besides, it would hamper him if he were forced to deal with Skeet’s pal. What had Dusty called him? The Fig. Yes. The blue bag would hamper him if the Fig were lurking out there somewhere and had to be dealt with.

Hurry, hurry.

He started to slip the bag into an inside pocket of his coat, but the thought of it bursting and ruining this fine Zegna suit was too dreadful to bear. Instead, he carefully tucked it into his empty shoulder holster.

Pleased with his quick thinking, and sure that he had forgotten no detail that might destroy him, Ahriman went out to the reception lounge, holding the Beretta at his side, concealing it from Jennifer.

She was standing in the open door to the back work area, eyes wide, trembling. “He’s bleeding, Doctor, he’s bleeding.”

Any fool could see that Skeet was bleeding. Indeed, he could not have been losing blood at this rate for eighteen hours and still have made his way here.

The doctor dropped to one knee beside Skeet. Keeping both eyes on the door to the corridor, he felt for a pulse. The little dope fiend was still alive, but his pulse was not good. He would be easy to finish off.

First, the Fig. Or whoever else was out there.

The doctor went to the door, put an ear to it, listened.


Gingerly, he opened the door and peered into the corridor.

No one.

He stepped across the threshold, holding the door open, and looked left and right. No one was in sight for the entire length of the hail.

Clearly, Skeet had not been shot here, because gunfire would surely have attracted some attention. No one had even stirred from the office of the child psychologist across the hall—Dr. Moshlien, that insufferable boor and hopeless bonehead whose theories on the causes of youth violence were as improbable as his neckties.

The mystery of how Skeet had gotten here might remain a mystery, which would leave the doctor sleepless more than one night. The important thing now, however, was to clean up.

He would step back into the lounge and instruct Jennifer to call the police and the paramedics, after all. While she was occupied on the phone, he would stoop beside Skeet, ostensibly to assist as best he could, but actually to cover the man’s mouth and pinch his nose shut for about a minute and a half, which should be long enough to finish him, considering his desperate condition.