The headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation was located in a nondescript, monolithic concrete structure named after J. Edgar Hoover, its former director. The Washington, D.C., office block's only distinguishing characteristic was the row of American flags - one of each version the nation had ever used - flying from its face. Without the flags, there would have been no way to tell which side was the front.
It was early morning, the sun only beginning to disperse the night's chill, when the ghost of Dr. Graves approached the J. Edgar Hoover Building. He walked invisibly beside Clay, unnoticed by anyone outside and by the agents providing security just inside the front doors.
In a charcoal suit with a stylish blue and red tie, Clay looked dapper as hell. Graves had never seen him in a suit before. Then again, that was Clay's magic, wasn't it? As a shapeshifter, he knew instinctively how to blend into any situation. Dr. Graves had never learned that ability. In his era, it would have been impossible for a man of his race to blend in.
Now, though . . . well, it was a simple thing for a ghost to blend. He simply went unseen.
Under the name Joseph Boudreau, Clay found that he was expected. Special Agent Al Kovalik had put him on a list, but entry into the FBI headquarters obviously required identification. The shapeshifter had a great many identities and documents to prove he was all of those people. During his lifetime, Graves had only ever been himself, so it was somewhat disconcerting for him to be party to all of this deception.
But they were in.
The ghost shadowed Clay all through the building. Security had given "Joseph Boudreau" a plastic pass that he clipped to his lapel. Whatever information Kovalik had given about his visitor, Clay was allowed to continue on his own.
They rode the elevator with a collection of the most sober individuals Graves had ever encountered and two young agents, apparently partners, who were apparently sharing a private joke, given that they kept glancing at one another and snickering. The ghost enjoyed the moment with them. Whatever life existed in a wandering spirit always felt enhanced when in the presence of the pleasure of the living.
Clay caught him smiling and raised an eyebrow in surprise.
Then they were off the elevator and moving through the building again. People in severe suits strode the immaculate halls, but it surprised Graves to find that in large part it seemed an ordinary office environment. People laughed. A secretary had birthday balloons tied to her desk.
Graves paused to study the balloons. When he had first regained awareness after death, even before he truly understood that he had become a specter, certain things had the ability to fascinate him, to lull him into a strange blissful state. Orchestral music. Sleeping humans. Bunches of brightly colored balloons.
Clay coughed into his hand.
The ghost blinked and turned, remembering their purpose. Dr. Graves felt disoriented as he fell in once again behind Clay, moving in a pantomime of walking, though his feet never touched the ground. It disturbed him to learn that he could still drift in that way.
The occurrence remained on his mind as Clay chatted amiably with an attractive woman of Middle Eastern descent - Graves thought perhaps Pakistani - whose desk marked the entrance into Al Kovalik's particular kingdom.
"Yes, Mister Boudreau," the woman said. "Special Agent Kovalik has been expecting you. Just give me a moment."
She excused herself and slipped into Kovalik's office. Half a minute later she emerged, but left the door standing open.
"Go ahead in, sir. Can I get you anything? Coffee? A cold drink?"
"I'm all set, thanks."
The moment Clay went into her boss's office, he was forgotten. The ghost lingered and watched her a moment as she returned to her computer terminal and to her work. The phone rang, and she picked it up, nonsense business chatter, dates, and times followed.
The ghost of Dr. Graves strode past her desk. Clay had closed the door behind him but Graves passed right through it.
" - fantastic surprise to hear from you," a gray-haired man said as he embraced the man he knew as Joe Boudreau.
Clay stood back and held him at arm's length. "You're looking good, Al," he said, and he patted the man on the shoulder before taking a seat in front of the agent's desk.
Kovalik had thin, narrow features and reminded Graves of Jimmy Stewart. He had to be in his early seventies at the least, though only the lines in his face showed his age. His eyes were alight with sprightly intelligence, and he moved like a much younger man.
"And you, as always, look the same, Joe," Kovalik said. A ripple of uneasiness passed across his face. "I'll never get used to that."
Clay shrugged. "It's a gift."
With a laugh, Kovalik slid into his chair and splayed his hands on the desk in front of him. "How've you been keeping, Joe?"
"No complaints. You enjoying the new position?"
A shadow passed over Kovalik's face. He picked up a pen from his desk and idly tapped it against the wood. The smile that came as he shook his head was loaded with regret and cynicism.
"You know, if someone had told me fifty years ago that I would still be in the Bureau at this age, and that I'd be liaison with the CIA and NSA, doing due diligence on synergy to make Homeland Security watchdogs happy, I'd have told them they were nuts."
"No, you wouldn't have," Clay said.
Kovalik raised an eyebrow. "No?"
"You would have said, 'what the hell's synergy? Or due diligence? Who's Homeland Security?'"
The laugh that came out of Kovalik was half a cough and half a snort. "It's good to see you. I mean that. Whatever the hell you really are, Joe, it's good to see you."
Clay smiled. The ghost of Dr. Graves was surprised to find that he seemed to be genuinely fond of this old man. Once upon a time, Kovalik had been tangentially involved with a program that had brainwashed Clay and used him as an assassin, doing government dirty work. But it was obvious he didn't blame Kovalik.
Everyone deserved a second chance in life, or so Graves had always thought. Now he knew that sometimes the second chance came after life was over.
Again, Kovalik tapped his pen. "All right. So much for the mushy reunion. Why are you in D.C., Joe? What can I do for you?"
Clay sat forward in the chair, gazing intently at him. "You can tell me about Erasmus Zarin and the murder of Doctor Graves."
Hearing the words aloud, in a conversation that did not involve him, made the ghost shudder. Graves haunted the office, standing just beside the chair Clay sat in. Kovalik could not see him, but Clay glanced at him from time to time.
Graves watched closely, barely aware that the ectoplasm that comprised his spectral form had been altered. Unconsciously, he had manifested the phantom guns that he often wore. They hung now in holsters beneath his arms.
Kovalik tapped his pen, then dropped it onto the desk. "When you said you had some odd questions for me, I believed you. But that is an exceedingly odd request. May I ask why?" "Talk to me first, if you don't mind. Then I'll tell you why."
The aging FBI man, who must have had serious pull at the Bureau in order to still be active, but who must also have pissed off a great many people in his career to avoid being made at least deputy director by now, nodded curtly.
"All right." He slid deeper into his chair, hands on the armrests. "But there isn't much to tell, I'm afraid. For the first few years after I joined the Bureau, Zarin remained an enemy of the state. He was one of the most wanted men in America, a total anarchist. Today, we'd call him a terrorist, though he didn't have much of an ideology. At least not that I was aware of.
"This was about a decade after the murder of Leonard Graves, but even then there was a lot of talk about it. The agents I worked with . . . a lot of the older guys had either known Graves or at least known of him. The guy was a hero. A legend, really. The pulps had Doc Savage and the Shadow, but we had Leonard Graves. The fact he was black meant you were always going to have some asshole making racist comments. Racism was just the way things were back then. But I don't have to tell you that. You lived it. You know."
Graves narrowed his eyes. He moved around behind Kovalik, reached out a ghostly hand. and laid it upon the back of the man's neck.
When the ghost glanced up, he saw Clay staring at him.
"You'd have been surprised to hear, back in those days, the way they raved about Graves. Most of those guys, skin color didn't matter to them. Not when it came to Doctor Graves. I'd go so far as to say that his cases, his exploits, probably made a big difference in their attitudes."
The aging FBI man nodded as though in remembrance. "They certainly did for me."
"And Zarin?" Clay prodded.
"Like I said, not much to say. Graves was the first one to capture Zarin. After that, the lunatic went to prison for a while. He got out. Graves was murdered during a period when Zarin was on the street. Eventually they arrested him again, but this time it stuck. The evidence against him was extraordinary.
"An incident occurred in prison. Zarin attempted to escape, according to the files. He was crippled -"
For the first time that day, Clay's aura of calm was disrupted. He sat forward, narrowing his eyes as though unsure what he was seeing. "What? Are you sure?"
Kovalik shrugged. "Of course I'm sure. It's all in the file."
"The first I've heard of it, that's all. Sorry, go on."
Dr. Graves was barely listening. His mind raced, and the spectral stuff of his essence shuddered. Ghosts could not feel changes in temperature, but he shivered. This was the first he'd known of Zarin's injury. He caught Clay glancing at him and shook his head to indicate that this was news to him.
"I'm unclear on the details. I can pull the file and get back to you on it. Anyway, once he realized he was going to be in prison for the rest of his life and that even if he got out, he'd never walk again, Zarin gave a detailed account of his crimes to the Bureau. Everything. The details were sometimes hideous, as I recall." "But he didn't confess to murdering Doctor Graves," Clay said.
The gray-haired, stork of a man tilted his head. "That's right. There were two crimes that the Bureau had figured Zarin for that he absolutely refused to admit any culpability in. The way he almost embraced the rest of his sins created the consensus that he might have been telling the truth."
The ghost moved up beside Clay and leaned in.
"Ask what the other crime was, the other thing Zarin wouldn't admit to," he whispered.
Kovalik narrowed his eyes as though he had heard, and perhaps he had. Not the words, but something. Older people found it more difficult to hear the living, but some of them developed a greater ability to sense the dead as they neared their own final years.
"Another assassination. The murder of Roger Alton Bennett, who was the mayor of New York at the same time Graves was killed."
"I remember," Clay said. "He fell from the Empire State Building. That was a murder? I thought a suicide."
Kovalik smiled. "The Bureau. That's what you were supposed to think."
"That was only a few weeks after I was killed," the specter whispered to Clay.
Again, Kovalik frowned. "Did you hear something?"
"You never solved Bennett's murder either?" Clay asked, ignoring the question.
"Neither case was ever solved. The Bureau worked on both of them for years and came up with absolutely nothing. Zarin had tried some anarchy at the Empire State Building once before, the way I remember it, and Doctor Graves stopped him. They spent a lot of time on that connection, and you can see why. There's some logic there. But Zarin denied it, and no one could ever prove a thing.
"In the end, they gave up. They already had Zarin, so there seemed little point. If you want to know more, I can get you the file on Zarin, but it won't tell you anything more about the Graves murder."
The ghost moved nearer to the desk. Kovalik shivered, and for just a moment his gaze shifted from Clay to the place where Doctor Graves's ectoplasmic form shimmered in the air. Graves had not manifested. For all purposes he was still invisible. But Kovalik had noticed something, some disruption.
"What happened to Zarin?" Clay asked. "Where is he now?" Troubled, Kovalik forcibly returned his gaze to Clay.
"I can't tell you that, Joe."
Clay stiffened in his chair. All the friendliness went out of his face. He stared at Kovalik, and the old man met his intimidating gaze with steely resolve.
Clay sniffed dismissively. "You can do whatever you want, and you know that, Al. It's always a choice. You've kept your mouth shut about terrible things in the past, ugly things. I thought you promised yourself you'd never make that mistake again."
A look of utter remorse and grief passed across Kovalik's features. Graves had to turn to see what had caused this reaction, and he saw that Clay had altered his features. Where the dapper man with the salt and pepper hair and the well-tailored suit had been now sat a small blond girl with blue eyes and a red ribbon in her hair.
The girl - or Clay, wearing the form of the girl - spoke in Russian.
Graves was fluent.
"You could have saved me, just by speaking up," the little Russian girl said. "The bullet hit me in the throat, so I couldn't scream. The assassin wanted my daddy, but he had to make sure I didn't make scream. When Daddy was dead, I didn't matter anymore. He left me there to bleed to death. And you could have stopped it."
Dead these many years, Graves still flinched. In horror, he propelled himself away from Kovalik and the little girl. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, the girl was gone, and there was only Clay.
Clay, who had had so many lifetimes, trying to figure out what God had intended by leaving him here in this world, and who had been so badly used by so many.
"Jesus, Joe, you didn't have to -"
"Silence is not an option, Al."
Kovalik nodded. "All right. All right. Zarin's still alive, but he's not in prison anymore."
"He's . . . what?"
The FBI man waved the protest away. It was obvious he just wanted to get through the truth. "He's in his old hideaway in upstate New York. The guy's a cripple. He can't go anywhere. And he's more than a little crazy. He's surrounded by helpers he believes are his, I don't know, minions or lackeys, call them what you want. They're Bureau agents."
"Oh, for God's sake," Clay sighed, shaking his head. "Can't you people ever just leave well enough alone?"
The ghost listened in growing horror.
"He's dangerous as hell," Kovalik went on. "But his inventions have proven invaluable to this country. He thinks he's creating them for an international terrorist cell, to further his anarchist agenda, and his supposed assistants give him reports telling him all about his success, the effect he's having, but it's all bullshit. Like The Truman Show."
"I don't even know what that is," Clay said, his tone quiet and a bit sad.
Kovalik sighed. "You're going to rock the boat, aren't you, Joe? You're going to fuck that whole setup."
The FBI man closed his eyes and took a deep breath. After a moment, he chuckled softly and opened them again.
"I'd like to at least know why you care. Why try to solve Graves's murder now? The guy's been dead for more than sixty years."
A flash of anger went through Dr. Graves.
With an instant's focus, barely a thought, he manifested fully, there in the room, standing beside the chair where Clay sat.
"Because I need to know!" he said through gritted teeth.
"Jesus!" the old man said, pushing away from his desk, legs pistoning to drive his chair backward until it struck a bookshelf. A framed photo of Kovalik with his wife tipped and fell, glass cracking on impact.
Graves crossed his arms, glaring at the FBI man. The sunlight streaming through the window passed right through him, and he knew precisely the effect his appearance would have. One look at him, one look through him, and there was no denying what he was.
"I can't rest until I have an answer, Agent Kovalik. It haunts me, you understand? If the FBI can't solve my murder, then it's up to me, isn't it?" "Jesus," Kovalik said, whispering now.
His hands shook as he pointed at Graves, and his face had paled so much that the man himself looked almost like a phantom.
"You . . . you can't be . . ." Kovalik said, then glanced at Clay. "He can't be . . ."
Clay stood, brushing lint off of the sleeve of his suit jacket and straightening his stylish tie. "Al Kovalik, meet Doctor Leonard Graves. You should be honored, Al. Most people need a medium for this kind of introduction."
The FBI man just shook his head back and forth, staring first at Graves and then at Clay.
"Yes," the ghost said, gliding toward the man and passing right through his desk. "We'd like the file on Zarin, and whatever you have on my murder. And yes, sir, we will be paying Professor Zarin a visit. And while we're gone, there is one final favor we require of you."
Shaking, Kovalik glanced at Clay. "Joe?" he asked, expression as pleading as his tone.
"Listen to the vengeful ghost, Al, or he'll haunt you the rest of your life. Almost as much as the things you let them get away with all those years ago, the things you let them make me do."
Anguished, gaze heavy with shame, Kovalik turned toward the ghost again.
"Go to Connecticut, to my childhood home. Joe will give you the information you need. You're going to exhume my remains. As I understand it, technology has provided a great many new tools for autopsy since my time in the world."
Clay rapped on the desk to draw Kovalik's attention.
"We need a cause of death, Al."
The gray-haired man took a long breath, steadying himself, grasping at these words as the one solid thing he could hold on to.
"But, Joe, everyone knows the cause of death. He was . . ." he glanced nervously at the ghost. "Doctor Graves was shot in the back."
"No," Clay said. "No, I don't think so."
From the corner of his eye, Conan Doyle watched as Eve played with the fire on one of his Bunsen burners. The vampiress yawned lazily as she leaned on one of the workstations in his laboratory, turning the knob on the burner, making the blue flame larger. The morning sun was kept out of the lab by heavy shades. She ought to have been in bed, but she was too wired from the night to sleep just yet.
Instead, she was fidgeting.
Conan Doyle shot her an impatient look. "Don't play with that, please."
"Sorry," she said, shutting down the flame and turning her back to the table.
The Black Shuck lying at her feet began to growl. "Shut up," she snarled at it. "Why don't you go bother Squire or something?"
She stepped over it and headed toward Conan Doyle. Shuck rose to its feet and followed.
"It appears that you have yourself a new friend," Conan Doyle said, tapping some of the ashen remains found upon the bed at the Beacon Street apartment into a bubbling concoction in a container over another Bunsen burner.
"It won't leave me alone," she complained. "I tried to get some shut eye but it cried outside my door the whole time, and when Squire tried to take it downstairs, it practically bit his arm off."
Conan Doyle chuckled. "It likes you," he said, leafing through an ancient text to be certain he hadn't forgotten any of the ingredients.
"Yeah, and I love it like a garlic cocktail," she spat, looking down at the beast sitting by her side. "Don't I, you ugly son of a bitch?"
It yelped in response, whining pitifully, as if understanding the hurtful things she had said.
"So the ashes were definitely demonic in nature, now what?" Eve asked.
"From our informants within the police department, we've learned that the woman who was murdered - Mrs. Barbara Hoskins - lived in the Beacon Street apartment with her teenage son, Charlie, who had suffered extensive brain damage after a suicide attempt a little over three years ago."
"So her son was a demon?" she asked.
Conan Doyle nodded. "Yes - a changeling, I imagine."
"Like Danny," Eve said, and he could see that her thoughts were taking her into territory that he'd already visited a number of times since learning the origin of the burned remains. "You do realize that the kid's missing?"
"I'm aware," Conan Doyle said, satisfied with his preparations.
"You don't think there's any kind of connection, do you?" Eve asked.
He walked to the door of his lab and opened it. "Ceridwen?" he called into the solarium across the way. "If you would be so kind as to come here."
"I cannot be certain," he replied at last, then turned to kiss Ceridwen gently on the cheek as she came up behind him.
Taking Ceridwen's hand, he led her back to his bubbling preparation. "All I need is one drop," he told her, still holding onto her hand. Conan Doyle picked up a scalpel from the table, running the blade through the Bunsen burner flame to sterilize it before bringing it toward one of the Fey princess's fingers.
"I hope you realize how honored you should feel that I'm allowing you a sample of my blood," Ceridwen said, as Conan Doyle skillfully pricked her index finger with the scalpel's tip.
"I am honored every moment you allow me to remain in your presence," he said, giving her finger a squeeze to help form the bead of crimson that was crucial to his spell.
"All right, I'll bite," Eve said. "What is the Faerie blood needed for?"
Conan Doyle held Ceridwen's finger over the bubbling liquid, waiting for the bead of blood to drop. "This conjuration will allow me to see an image of the demon changeling's sire."
The drop of Ceridwen's blood finally fell into the roiling, brackish fluid.
"Thank you, my dear," he said, handing her an alcohol wipe to cleanse the wound.
A thick, swirling smoke started to form above the potion.
"So, you think the demon who killed those people and went around wearing that skin Squire and I found last night is this Charlie's sire? You think the kid's father is responsible for offing him?" Eve asked. "Why would he do that?"
"Please, Eve," Conan Doyle scolded. "I can't concentrate with you prattling on."
She threw up her hands in frustration as he intensified his focus on the swirling, gray fumes, willing them to reveal the answer.
Conan Doyle raised his hands, moving them toward the now much-larger cloud hanging over the boiling contents of the glass container. He prodded the amorphous mist with the tips of his fingers, crackling bolts of preternatural power leaping from him into the billowing mass, urging it to take shape.
The shuck began to bark as the mist seemed to come alive, moving in the air, morphing into a three-dimensional shape.
"Shut up!" Eve spat, her attentions also focused on what was forming in the air above Conan Doyle's workstation.
The smoke writhed, a face gradually taking the shape of a demon most foul. Conan Doyle studied the cruel eyes and horrible, jagged grin that looked as though it could still rip and tear the flesh from bones even though composed of smoke. He knew this face, confirming the most disturbing of suspicions.
"Damn it all," the mage cursed as the details on the smoke image became increasingly more precise.
"Is it as you feared?" Ceridwen asked him. "Is it Danny's sire?"
Eve flinched. "Danny's sire? I thought we were talking about the dead kid from Beacon Street."
Conan Doyle sighed, eyes affixed to the frightening visage of Baalphegor-Moabites floating in the air. "I'm afraid they are one and the same."
"You knew who Danny's dad was?" Eve asked, her voice raised in surprise, and perhaps a little annoyance. Shuck leapt to its feet, aroused by her excitement. Its tail of solid black wagged eagerly.
"It used to be a far simpler task to keep track of the comings and goings of demonic entities," Conan Doyle explained calmly.
"Why haven't you told him?" she asked. "Is this one of the little secrets you've kept for a rainy day? Something to use as leverage just in case?"
Conan Doyle felt a spark of anger toward the woman, but it went no further. He and Eve had been associates for many years, and in that time he'd done things that he was not proud of, but knew were completely necessary to achieve his goals, and thusly benefit all of humanity. Arthur Conan Doyle was no angel, but he liked to think that he fought on their side.
"His father is a monster most foul," he said, keeping his voice calm. "And what exactly would the boy take from that?"
Eve said nothing, crossing her arms, temporarily speechless, but it wouldn't last for long.
Conan Doyle was alerted to a sound outside the door.
It was Squire, arguing with somebody, telling whoever it was that he wasn't to be disturbed.
The door to his laboratory was forced open, and Julia Ferrick barged into the room, a befuddled Squire behind her.
"Sorry, boss," he apologized. "I tried to get her to leave but . . ."
"No worry, Squire," Conan Doyle said and then turned his attentions to Danny's mother. "What can I do for you, Julia?" he asked, waving his hands through the smoke, dispersing the demon's head. "You seem rather upset."
"You bet your ass I'm upset!" the woman yelled. "Where is he?" she demanded. "Where's Danny?"
Conan Doyle smiled calmly, walking over to stand beside her. "Danny is an adolescent, Julia," he explained. "Never mind the fact that he has certain preternatural abilities awakening as well. I'm sure there's nothing to worry about."
He glanced toward Eve, wondering if she would decide to hold her tongue.
"Yeah," Eve said. "I'm sure he's fine. Probably just got fed up with all the grown-up bullshit going on around here and decided to get some air."
Julia shook her head slowly. "He hasn't been right," she said sadly. "It's almost as if he's fighting something - on the inside." She touched the center of her chest. "And I think he might be losing the fight."
There were tears in the woman's eyes, and Conan Doyle put his arm around her shoulders. "We won't allow anything to happen to your son."
Ceridwen took Julia's hand. "Come, we'll go to the kitchen and brew ourselves a pot of tea."
Julia pulled a Kleenex from her pocket and noisily blew her nose. "I'd rather a drink of something a little stronger if you've got it."
"Fine then," Ceridwen said, leading her from the room. "A strong drink it is."
"Hey, Julia," Eve called to her, and Conan Doyle tensed.
The woman stopped, wiping at her nose with the tissue.
"Don't you worry about a thing," Eve assured her. "Squire and I are taking Shuck here out tonight - we'll find Danny and bring him home."
Conan Doyle breathed a sigh of relief.
The shuck moved to stand alongside Eve, and from the look on Julia's face it seemed to be the first time she had noticed the unusual beast.
"What the hell is that?" she asked, her face wrinkling up in disgust.
"This?" Eve said, looking down at the animal.
It looked up at her lovingly, tail wagging furiously.
"This is the ugly son of a bitch that's gonna help us find your son."
Clay did not need to sleep.
And Graves, of course, was dead.
They'd driven all day to reach Rochester, in upstate New York. The dismal Rochester weather seemed entrenched, the skies a kind of gray that Clay thought only existed in shadow dimensions and in old black and white movies set in London.
Kovalik had given them the address of the compound where Zarin lived, surrounded by FBI agents he thought were his loyal servants and suckups. The place was in the northern part of town, in sight of a massive factory, but set atop a hill among trees whose branches seemed almost bare enough for winter. The massive, sprawling house had a Victorian air, but its size was such that Clay felt certain it had once been a hospital, or perhaps a mental asylum.
"Are you sure you wouldn't rather try to sneak in?" Dr. Graves asked.
The ghost had taken up his familiar position in the passenger seat of the Cherokee.
"Trust me, Doc. This is what I do," Clay said as he drove up to the guard station at the gates of the old estate.
But as he pulled to a stop by the guardhouse and rolled down the window, it was not Joseph Clay who glanced out amiably at the guard who strode toward the Cherokee. It was Special Agent Al Kovalik, complete with silver hair and circles under his eyes. His suit was even rumpled and ill-fitting, the way that such clothes often fit on men in their seventies whose bodies had begun to diminish.
"Can I help you, sir?" the guard said.
Clay smiled. "Good. The politeness, I mean. It helps to keep up the appearance of a private residence. Wealthy people pay their employees to be polite. The government pays its employees to be wary and brusque."
The guard faltered. Clay studied him. Perhaps twenty-five years old, this was likely his first assignment with the FBI and he figured it was a shit detail. Stuck up here in Rochester, this handsome, dark-skinned kid with intense, intelligent eyes must have been bored out of his mind.
He put his right hand on the butt of the pistol that rested on his hip.
"Sir, I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you drive on. The center is not expecting any visitors."
Wearing Kovalik's face, Clay smiled. He glanced at the ghost of Dr. Graves - whom the guard, of course, could not see - and then looked back at the anxious young man.
"Kid, I'm reaching into my jacket pocket now for some I.D. Don't spook and shoot me in the head, okay? That would completely ruin my thus far positive impression of your job performance."
The guard narrowed his gaze suspiciously. Clay saw two impulses warring in him. He was not supposed to acknowledge that there was anything government-related going on at "the center," but the temptation to react to Clay's words was great.
"Sir, I have no idea what you're talking about. If you need directions -"
Clay nodded, but reached inside his jacket pocket.
The guard tensed, grabbing a small radio clipped to his jacket with his left hand and unsnapping the guard over his pistol with his right.
"Careful," the ghost said, the voice practically in Clay's ear.
With Kovalik's lips, Clay smiled. He drew out a wallet and slowly let it fall open in his fingers, extending it out the window.
"Special Agent Albert Kovalik. Check my clearance, kid. And then your pulse."
The guard kept his right hand where it was and snatched the ID wallet with his left. He retreated to the guard shack, watching them carefully the whole way.
"You did well, by the way," Clay/Kovalik called to him.
Less than three minutes later they were driving through the open iron gates. The guard had been even more polite once he'd realized who Kovalik was, and beamed under the man's praise and promises to put in a good word. Similarly, as Clay followed the winding drive up to the enormous house with its sprawling wings, they spotted agents on the grounds who watched the Cherokee intently but did not move to stop them.
The ghost shimmered in the gloom of the afternoon. Inside the Cherokee, Graves stared at Clay. "How did you get Kovalik's ID? You can't . . . that isn't part of your shapeshifting?"
Clay laughed. "Not hardly. Clothes I can do. Something like this requires more finesse. I lifted it from his pocket before we left."
"Is he going to be angry?" All the humor went out of Clay, then. "Probably more frustrated than angry. But angry would be fine with me. He could stand a little inconvenience now and then."
Graves did not ask him to elaborate, and Clay was glad. Now wasn't the time for talking about the things that haunted him. They were here about Graves, and his ghosts.
A pair of agents met Clay at the front door. Graves remained invisible to the mortal eye. They all politely pretended not to notice the snipers on the roof of the rambling Victorian asylum as they walked inside, the agents just as polite as the guard at the gate, now that they knew who they were dealing with. Or who they thought they were dealing with.
Kovalik might be old, but he was powerful and influential and had been involved in creating Zarin's fictional environment here in the first place. Yet if Clay understood the situation correctly, he had never visited. Until now, of course.
An icy blond woman with hard, angular features met them in the foyer, a vast room with high ceilings and a grand staircase at the back. There was a long counter at the front that might have been an admissions desk when the place still served its earlier function - whatever that had been. Now it was a kind of command center with rows of small monitors showing the video feed from dozens of security cameras. Two agents stood behind the counter, one of them paying attention to the cameras and the other quite obviously intrigued with the new arrivals.
The blonde was flanked by two younger agents, men who seemed eager to impress their visitor. The fortyish woman did not seem nearly so interested in sucking up.
"I'm Special Agent Munson. I'd like to say we're prepared for your visit, but since I received no notification that you would be coming -"
"As you know, Agent Munson, our business lends itself to things happening quickly and quietly. Had I been at leisure to call ahead and make an appointment, I would have done so."
"Well, let me give you the five-cent tour," she said, still obviously ticked off. "The west wing is used for sleeping quarters and common areas for the agents attending to this project. This main section is security, of course. And the east wing remains the province of our special guest and all of the work he does for us."
While Clay spoke to Agent Munson, the ghost of Dr. Graves floated around the foyer, inspecting the security command station, studying Munson and the other agents, and finally passing through the steel door that led into the east wing.
Clay wondered what he was up to, but could not speak to him, given that no one else could see him.
"I haven't come for the tour," he said, putting an edge on Kovalik's voice. "I need to see Zarin."
All five of the agents in the foyer stared at him. One of the men with Munson actually flinched. Munson narrowed her eyes and shook her head.
"I'm sorry, Special Agent Kovalik, but you know that's impossible. You helped set up the protocol for this project yourself. What kind of cover could we give you? What explanation could we provide to Professor Zarin to explain your presence here? And even if we were clever enough to do that, whatever you might want to learn from him might endanger the careful fiction we've created for him."
Clay crossed his arms, attempting to make Kovalik's thin, old-man body as imposing as possible. "Just the same, I've come to see Zarin. There are questions that must be answered. You'll have to trust me to be as circumspect as possible."
Now Munson grew angry. Her fair skin flushed deeply. "I can't allow that. His phone calls are created by us. The newspapers he sees are all fiction. He doesn't even know the Internet exists. Do you have any idea how much work has gone into this?" Clay walked over to the security desk and peered at the various monitors. In one of them he thought he saw a metal apparatus of some kind with a man's head thrust out of the top, but then the image went dark. The security guard had shut off the monitor.
He spun to stare at Munson. "You're actually asking me that question? Have you ever thought about how much this operation costs the United States government? It's all about value, Agent Munson. The benefits of having Zarin around, the things he's created for us, have outweighed the costs up until now.
"But understand what I'm saying to you. The conversation I'm about to have with the professor has benefits that far outweigh the costs of fucking up your op. If that wasn't true, I wouldn't be here. The powers that be have decided that we've squeezed most of the value out of Zarin anyway, and now we need him for something else. Maybe the last thing we'll ever need him for. And maybe that means all of you will get assignments where you're not sitting on your asses in this gray factory town all year.
"On the other hand, none of that matters. I say that all as a courtesy to you, Agent Munson. Or do I need to give you a lecture about command structure?"
Munson and her two silent lackeys looked confused. Then the woman scowled and shook her head. She reached up a hand and brushed her hair from her face.
"No, sir. You don't."
"Good," Clay said. Making Kovalik's face as stern as he could, he turned toward the two agents behind the security desk. "Now buzz me in."
"Sir, you shouldn't go in alone," Munson said.
"He's paralyzed, isn't he?"
"Yes. But you'll want to be careful. Past that door, he's living a life he's spent decades creating for himself. He's got his own security."
"Booby traps?" Clay asked, amused.
"More or less. I mean, they don't work. We put them in ourselves, and nobody was going to risk that. But don't forget who he was, fifty years ago. That's Professor Zarin in there, no matter how insane he is."
Clay strode over to the door to the east wing, the door Graves had ghosted through several minutes earlier.
"I haven't forgotten," he said as he grabbed the door handle. "Now, buzz me in."
The five agents stared at him. Munson gave a nod, and one of the men behind the counter touched a button. The door buzzed and clicked, unlocking. Clay pulled it open and stepped inside, pulling it tightly shut behind him. He heard the lock click.
Tempting as it was to shift back to his true appearance, or at least to the comfortable face of Joe Clay, he had to keep wearing Kovalik's face for the benefit of the security cameras. He didn't want Munson and her crew interfering before he and Graves got the information they needed.
The corridor had the antiseptic odor of a hospital, but there was something else there as well; something animal. The fluorescent lights cast a grim, morgue-like gloom along the hall, and the whole feel of the place reminded Clay of another era - an era he spent doing terrible things for terrible men and walking corridors much like this one. It was as though time, in this place, had stopped.
There were windows in the corridor, but he noticed that none of them provided a view of the front gates or the drive. If Zarin could make it this far, he'd never be able to see what was on the outside. But, of course, he couldn't make it this far. Clay frowned. Why bother, then, keeping this corridor looking so antiquated, and keeping the view limited?
A glance around gave him the answer.
Just as the security team in the foyer had cameras everywhere, Zarin must have his own surveillance cameras. Only they would only pick up what his federal babysitters allowed them to pick up. The video feed of the foyer and the front gate would show Professor Zarin only what Munson and her associates wanted him to see.
This corridor was little more than a movie set.
And here he was, a new addition to the cast.