He didn't move, and he didn't answer me. When I started toward him, however, he sidestepped. I cocked the .38, but it didn't grab his attention like it should have. He watched disinterestedly.

I walked forward again, and he moved again. I'd had the word from Bruno that a bring-him-back-alive clause was not a condition of my employment contract. In fact, the bear had implied that any display of mercy on my part would be met with all the savagery of a Hare Krishna panhandler on a megadose of PCP. Well, he hadn't put it quite that way, but I got the message. So I shot Graham Stone in the chest, pointblank, because I had no way of knowing what he might be able to do to me.

The bullet ripped through him, and he sagged, folded onto the desk, fell to the floor, and deflated. Inside of six seconds, he was nothing more than a pile of tissue paper painted to look like a man. A three-dimensional snakeskin that, shed, was still convincingly real. I examined the remains. No blood. No bones. Just ashes.

I looked at the Smith & Wesson. It was my familiar gun. Not a Disney .780 Death Hose. Which meant that this hadn't been the real Graham Stone but—something else, an amazing construct of some kind that was every bit as convincing as it was flimsy. Before I had too much time to think about that, I beat it back into the corridor. No one had heard the shot. The thrashmasters on the bandstand were doing a fair imitation of Megadeth—a bitchin' number from Youthanasia—and providing perfect cover.

Now what?

I cautiously checked the other two rooms that opened off the hallway, and I found Graham Stone in both. He crumpled between my fingers in the first room, as solid in appearance as any face on Mount Rushmore but was, in actuality, as insubstantial as any current politician's image. In the second room, I shredded him with a well-placed kick to the crotch.

By the time I reached the dance floor again, I was furious. When you blew a guy away, you expected him to go down like bricks and stay down. That was how the game was played. I didn't like this cheap trick.

In the washroom, I rapped on Bruno's stall door, and he came out with his hat still pulled way down and his collar still turned up. Face wrinkled in disgust, he said, "If you people don't bother flushing, why even put the lever on the toilet to begin with?"

"There's trouble," I said. I told him about the three extra Graham Stones and demanded some explanation.

"I didn't want to have to tell you this." He looked sheepish. "I was afraid it would scare you, affect your efficiency."

"What? Tell me what?" I asked.

He shrugged his burly shoulders. "Well, Graham Stone isn't a human being."

I almost laughed. "Neither are you."

He looked hurt, and I felt like a blockhead.

"I am a little bit human," he said. "Certain borrowed genetic material ... But forget that. What I should have said is that Graham Stone doesn't really come from any alternate Earth. He's an alien. From another star system."

I went to the sink and splashed a lot of cold water on my face. It didn't do much good.

"Tell me," I said.

"Not the whole story," he said. "That would take too much time. Stone is an alien. Humanoid except when you're close enough to see that he doesn't have any pores. And if you look closely at his hands, you'll see where he's had his sixth fingers amputated to pass for human."

"Sixth-finger-amputation scar—always a sure indicator of the alien among us," I said sarcastically.

"Yes, exactly. There was a shipload of these creatures that crashed on one of the probability lines seven months ago. We've never been able to communicate with them. They're extremely hostile and very strange. The general feeling is that we've met a species of megalomaniacs. All have been terminated except Graham Stone. He's escaped us thus far."

"If he's an alien, why the British-sounding name?"

"That's the first name he went by when he started to pass for human. There have been others since. Apparently even aliens seem to feel that being British has a certain connotation of class and style. It's also a constant on eighty percent of the time lines. Although there are a couple of realities wherein being from the island-nation of Tonga is the epitome of class."

"And what the hell has this alien done to deserve death?" I asked. "Maybe if a greater attempt was made to understand him—"

"An attempt was made. One morning, when the doctors arrived at the labs for a continuation of the study, they found the entire night crew dead. A spiderweb fungus was growing out of their mouths, nostrils, eye sockets .... You get the picture? He hasn't done it since. But we don't think he has lost the capacity."

I went back to the sink and looked at myself in the mirror. Someone came in to use the urinal, and Bruno leaped backward into the toilet stall and slammed the door. "Oh, yuck!" he growled, but the newcomer didn't seem to find anything strange about the bearish voice.

I had three minutes to study my precious kisser in the mirror until the head-banger left. Then Bruno came out again, grimacing worse than ever.

"Listen," I said, "suppose Stone was within twenty feet of me, back there in the offices while I was playing around with those paper decoys or whatever the hell they were. He could have tripped right out of this probability by now."

"No," Bruno said. "You're a receiver, not a transmitter. He'll have to locate someone with the reverse talent of yours before he can get out of this time line."

"Are there others?"

"I detect two within the city," Bruno said.

"We could just stake those two out and wait for him!"

"Hardly," the bruin said. "He would just as soon settle down here and take over a world line for himself. That would give him a better base with which to strike out against the other continuums."

"He has that kind of power?"

"I said he was dangerous."

"Let's move it," I said, turning to the steel door from the adjacent warehouse basement.

"You're marvelous," Bruno said.

I turned and looked at him, trying to find sarcasm in that crazy face of his. I couldn't tell what he was thinking. "Marvelous? I'm marvelous? Listen, one guy doesn't tell another guy he's marvelous—especially not when the two of them are in a bathroom."


"Never mind why," I said, starting to burn.

"Anyway, I'm not a guy. I'm a bear."

"You're a guy bear, aren't you?"

"Well, yes."

"So can it with this 'marvelous' crap."

"All I meant was, in the space of a few short hours, you have accepted the existence of probability worlds, an intelligent bear, and an alien from another world. And you don't seem shaken at all."

I set him straight: "Yesterday, I got good and drunk. I spent six active hours in bed with a great blonde named Sylvia. I ate two steaks, half a dozen eggs, and piles of fried potatoes. I sweated out every drop of tension from the last job I took on. I'm a purged man. I can take anything tonight. Nobody has ever thrown anything at me that I can't take, and it isn't going to start with this. Besides, I have three thousand bucks at stake—to say nothing about a little thing called `pride.' Now, let's get the hell out of here."

We went through the steel door and the wood door beyond it, into the basement of the abandoned warehouse.


WHEN WE GOT BACK ON THE STREET AGAIN, WE DISCOVERED THAT AN inch of snow had fallen since we'd gone into the warehouse and the storm had cranked up two notches. Hard snow whipped about us, pasted our clothes, stung our faces. I cursed but Bruno just accepted it and said nothing.

What seemed like a millennium later and some ten million miles from the metal bar where I had almost cornered Stone, using the color-changing disc as our guide, we found some of the shifty alien's handiwork. Five teenage boys were lying in an alleyway, all with a white, gossamer fungus growing out of their mouths, eyes, nostrils—even their rectums, for all I knew.

"I was afraid of this," Bruno said, genuine anguish in his voice.

"Don't sweat it," I said, bending to look more closely at the corpses. They weren't pretty. "They're thugs. Delinquents. Members of some street gang. They'd just as soon shoot your sister as eat a doughnut. It's a new gang to me. See the cobra each one has tattooed on his hand? They probably tried to mug Graham and had the old proverbial tables turned on them. For once, Graham did something worthwhile. They won't be snatching welfare money from old ladies and beating grandfathers up to steal pocket watches."

"Just the same," he said, "we have to dispose of the bodies. We can't allow these to be found. There'll be a lot of questions about what killed them, and this probability line is not yet ready to be taken into the world travel societies."

"Why's that?"

"Credit problems."

"So ... what do you propose?" I asked.

He took that strange pistol out of his pocket, changed the setting on the regulator dial on the butt, then ashed all the dead gang-bangers. He was right about the Disney .780 Death Hose—it was the mother of all ray guns.

As we stirred the gray residue around with our feet and let the wind blow it away, I didn't feel so good. I kept reminding myself about the three thousand bucks. And Sylvia. And the taste of good Scotch. And how I would lose all those things if I once let my nerve crack. Because, see, once a private richard backs down, his career is finished. Either his career or his life.

After the snowplows had passed, we walked in the middle of the street where we didn't have to fight the drifting snow. At first, the tracking disc was little more than amber, but it soon began to change to a brilliant orange. As redness crept in around its edges, our spirits rose again.

We eventually had to leave the street for the river park, where the untouched snow soaked my socks and trouser cuffs.

As the wafer in Bruno's hand grew brighter red than it had been all evening, we topped a knoll and saw Graham Stone. He was at the end of a pier at the yacht basin. He scrambled onto the deck of a sleek boat, ran for the wheelhouse door, swung up the steps, and disappeared inside. The running lights popped on along the length of the boat, and the engines coughed and stuttered to life.

I ran down the hill, my pistol in my right hand, while I thrust my other arm forward to break any fall I might make on the slippery ground.

Behind me, Bruno was shouting something. I didn't listen to it. He shouted it again, then started running after me. I could tell he was running, even without looking, for I could hear his big feet slamming the ground.

When I reached the end of the pier, Stone had reversed the boat and was taking it out into the dark river. As I ran the last few yards, I judged the distance to the deck of the receding craft at maybe twelve feet. I leaped, fell over the rail of the boat in a tangle of arms and legs, smacked the polished deck with my shoulder, and watched the pretty stars for a moment.

Behind me, I heard a bellow of frustration, then a huge splash.

Bruno hadn't made it.

From where I lay, I could look up into the wheelhouse windows. Graham Stone stood up there, staring down at me—maybe the real creature or maybe just another of his shed skins. I pushed to my feet, shook those stars out of my head, and looked for my gun.

It was gone.

I glanced back toward the pier. There was no sign of Bruno.

And somewhere in the intervening stretch of dark water, my .38 lay in river muck, useless.

I didn't feel so good. I wished that I had never left the Ace-Spot this morning, had never met Bruno. Then I shook off all the negative thoughts and started looking around for something I could use as a weapon.

If you start wishing things were different from what they are, the next step is depression, then inactivity, and finally vegetation. No matter what the state of the world, you have got to move. Move.

I found a length of pipe in a tool chest that was bolted to the deck against the far railing. I could cave in a skull very nicely if I put the proper swing behind it. I felt better.

Stone was still in the wheelhouse, still watching me. The blue eyes gleamed with the reflection of the ship lights. He seemed too confident as I walked along the deck to the steps. I swung inside, crouching low. I kept the pipe extended, and he didn't even bother to turn and look at me.

I approached carefully, using mincing little steps because I hated to commit myself to more than a few inches at a time. I kept thinking of the five young thugs lying back there with the cobweb fungus growing out of their bodies.

When I was close enough, I swung the pipe in a short, vicious arc. It slammed into his head—and on down through his neck and chest and stomach and thighs.

Another snakeskin. The lousy simulacrum collapsed, seemed to dissolve, and was a little pile of wrinkled useless tissue at my feet. Damn him!

Or should I say it?

When I looked through the bridge window, I could see that we were more than halfway across the river toward the West Shore district of the city. The boat was on automatic pilot. I couldn't make anything of the controls, and though I worked them at random, safeguards must have kept anything from changing. More wary than I had been, I left the wheelhouse in search of Stone.

I found him by the toolbox where I had found the piece of pipe. He gripped the railing with both hands and stared longingly at the approaching shore where we would surely run aground.

I sneaked up behind him, and I let him have it. Hard.

It was another tissue-paper construction.

I wished I knew how the bastard made those things. It was a handy talent.

We were two thirds of the way to shore now, and if I didn't find him soon, he might escape us again. And Bruno had explained that a few days in any one probability will dissipate the residual energy of cross-time travel-rendering the tracking disc useless.

Stone had to be below deck. I could see all of the planking above the waterline, and I knew the wheelhouse was empty. So I found the hatch and the stairs to the lower cabins. I went down like any good private richard learns to do—carefully.

In the galley was another simulacrum, which I heroically crumpled with my trusty pipe. I felt like an idiot, but I was not about to take it easy with one of them—and then discover that it was the real and deadly thing.

I found another paper demon in the first of the double-bunk sleeping quarters and dispatched him quickly. The second sleeping cabin was empty, containing neither a scarecrow Graham Stone nor the real one.

Which left the bathroom. The door was closed but not locked. I twisted the lever, yanked it open, and found him.