He no longer allowed himself to feel the pain in his side. The showdown was approaching, and he could not afford the luxury of pain. He had to live up to his reputation and become Hardshell Shaw, had to blank out everything that might distract him from dealing with Skagg.

He scanned the warehouse again.

Nothing moved, but all the shadows in the enormous room, wall to wall, seemed to shimmer darkly with pent-up energy, as if they were alive and, though unmoving now, were prepared to spring at him if he turned his back on them.

Lightning cast its nervous, dazzling reflection into the office behind Frank, and a bright reflection of the reflection flickered through the sliding glass doors onto the balcony. He realized that he was revealed by the sputtering, third-hand electric glow, but he did not move away from the railing to a less conspicuous position. He was not trying to hide from Karl Skagg. After all, the warehouse was their Samarra, and their appointment was drawing near.

However, Frank thought confidently, Skagg is sure going to be surprised to discover that the role of Death in this Samarra belongs not to him but to me.

Again lightning flashed, its image entering the warehouse not only by way of the offices behind Frank but through the narrow panes high in the eaves. Ghostly flurries of storm light fluttered across the curve of the metal ceiling, which was usually dark above the shaded security lamps. In those pulses of queer luminosity, Skagg was disclosed at the highest point of the ceiling, creeping along upside down, as if he were a spider with no need to be concerned about the law of gravity. Although Skagg was visible only briefly and not in much detail, he currently seemed to have cloaked himself in a form that was actually less like a spider than like a lizard.

Holding his .38 in both hands, Frank waited for the storm's next bright performance. During the dark intermission between acts, he estimated the distance Skagg would have traveled, slowly tracking the unseen enemy with his revolver. When again the eave windows glowed like lamps and the spectral light glimmered across the ceiling, his gunsights were aimed straight at the shapechanger. He fired three times and was certain that at least two rounds hit the target.

Jolted by the shots, Skagg shrieked, lost his grip, and fell off the ceiling. But he did not drop stone-swift to the warehouse floor. Instead, healing and undergoing metamorphosis even as he fell, he relinquished his spider-lizard form, reverted to his human shape, but sprouted batlike wings that carried him, with a cold leathery flapping sound, through the air, across the railing, and onto the metal-grid balcony only twenty feet from Frank. His clothes—even his shoes—having split at the seams during one change or another, had fallen away from him, and he was naked.

Now the wings transformed into arms, one of which Skagg raised to point at Frank. "You can't escape me."

"I know, I know," Frank said. "You're like a cocktail-party bore descended from a leech."

The fingers of Skagg's right hand abruptly telescoped out to a length of ten inches and hardened from flesh into solid bone. They tapered into knifelike points with edges as sharp as razor blades. At the base of each murderous fingertip was a barbed spur, the better to rip and tear.

Frank squeezed off the last three shots in the revolver.

Hit, Karl Skagg stumbled and fell backward on the balcony floor.

Frank reloaded. Even as he snapped shut the cylinder, he saw that Skagg already had risen.

With an ugly burst of maniacal laughter, Karl Skagg came forward. Both hands now terminated in long, bony, barbed claws. Apparently for the sheer pleasure of frightening his prey, Skagg exhibited the startling control he possessed over the form and function of his flesh. Five eyes opened at random points on his chest, and all fixed unblinking on Frank. A gaping mouth full of rapier teeth cracked open in Skagg's belly, and a disgusting yellowish fluid dripped from the points of the upper fangs.

Frank fired four shots that knocked Skagg down again, then fired the two remaining rounds into him as he lay on the balcony floor.

While Frank reloaded with his last cartridges, Skagg rose again and approached.

"Are you ready? Are you ready to die, you chickenshit cop?"

"Not really. I only have one more car payment to make, and for once I'd sure like to know what it's like to really own one of the damn things." ,

"In the end you'll bleed like all the others."

"Will I?"

"You'll scream like all the others."

"If it's always the same, don't you get tired of it? Wouldn't you like me to bleed and scream differently, just for some variety?"

Skagg scuttled forward.

Frank emptied the gun into him.

Skagg went down, got up, and spewed forth a noxious stream of shrill laughter.

Frank threw aside the empty revolver.

The eyes and mouth vanished from the shapechanger's chest and belly. In their place he sprouted four small, segmented, crablike arms with fingers that ended in pincers.

Retreating along the metal-grid balcony, past glass office doors that flared with reflected lightning, Frank said, "You know what your trouble is, Skagg? You're too flamboyant. You might be a lot more frightening if you were more subtle. All these changes, this frenzied discarding of one form after another—it's just too dazzling. The mind has difficulty comprehending, so the result is more awesome than terrifying. Know what I mean?"

If Skagg understood, he either disagreed or did not care, for he caused curved, bony spikes to burst forth from his chest, and he said, "I'll pull you close and impale you, then suck the eyes out of your skull." To fulfill the second half of his threat, he rearranged his face yet again, creating a protruding tubular orifice where his mouth had been; fine, sharp teeth rimmed the edge of it, and it made a disgustingly wet, vacuuming sound.

"That's exactly what I mean by flamboyant," Frank said as he backed up against the railing at the end of the balcony.

Skagg was only ten feet away now.

Regretting that the game was over, Frank released his body from the human pattern that he had imposed upon it. His bones dissolved. Fingernails, hair, internal organs, fat, muscle, and all other forms of tissue became as one, undifferentiated. His body was entirely amorphous. The darksome, jellied, throbbing mass flowed out of his suit through the bottoms of his sleeves.

With a rustle, his clothes collapsed in a soft heap on the metal-grid floor of the balcony.

Beside his empty suit, Frank reassumed his human form, standing na*ed before his would-be assailant. "That is the way to transform yourself without destroying your clothes in the process. Considering your impetuosity, I'm surprised you have any wardrobe left at all."

Shocked, Skagg abandoned his monstrous appearance and put on his human cloak. "You're one of my kind!"

"No," Frank said. "One of your species, but certainly not one of your demented kind. I live in peace with ordinary men, as most of our people have for thousands of years. You, on the other hand, are a repulsive degenerate, mad with your own power, driven by the insane need to dominate."

"Live in peace with them?" Skagg said scornfully. "But they're born to die, and we're immortal. They're weak, we're strong. They've no purpose but to provide us with pleasure of one kind or another, to titillate us with their death agonies."

"On the contrary," Frank said, "they're valuable because their lives are a continuing reminder to us that existence without self-control is only chaos. I spend nearly all of my time locked within this human form, and with but rare exception I force myself to suffer human pain, to endure both the anguish and joy of human existence."

"You're the one who's mad."

Frank shook his head. "Through police work I serve humankind, and therefore my existence has meaning. They so terribly need us to help them along, you see."

"Need us?"

As a roar of thunder was followed by a downpour more vigorous than at any previous moment of the storm, Frank searched for the words that might evoke understanding even in Skagg's diseased mind. "The human condition is unspeakably sad. Think of it: Their bodies are fragile; their lives are brief, each like the sputtering decline of a short candle; measured against the age of the earth itself, their deepest relationships with friends and family are of the most transitory nature, mere incandescent flashes of love and kindness that do nothing to light the great, endless, dark, flowing river of time. Yet they seldom surrender to the cruelty of their condition, seldom lose faith in themselves. Their hopes are rarely fulfilled, but they go on anyway, struggling against the darkness. Their determined striving in the face of their mortality is the very definition of courage, the essence of nobility."

Skagg stared at him in silence for a long moment, then let loose another peal of insane laughter. "They're prey, you fool. Toys for us to play with. Nothing more. What nonsense is this about our lives requiring purpose, struggle, self-control? Chaos isn't to be feared or disparaged. Chaos is to be embraced. Chaos, beautiful chaos, is the base condition of the universe, where the titanic forces of stars and galaxies clash without purpose or meaning."

"Chaos can't coexist with love," Frank said. "Love is a force for stability and order."

"Then what need is there for love?" Skagg asked, and he spoke the final word of that sentence in a particularly scornful tone.

Frank sighed. "Well, I have an appreciation of the need for love. I've been enlightened by my contact with the human species."

"Enlightened? `Corrupted' is the better word."

Nodding, Frank said, "Of course, you would see it that way. The sad thing is that for love, in the defense of love, I'll have to kill you."

Skagg was darkly amused. "Kill me? What sort of joke is this? You can't kill me any more than I can kill you. We're both immortal, you and I."

"You're young," Frank said. "Even by human standards, you're only a young man, and by our standards you're an infant. I'd say I'm at least three hundred years older than you."


"So there are talents we acquire only with great age."

"What talents?"

"Tonight I've watched you flaunt your genetic plasticity. I've seen you assume many fantastic forms. But I haven't seen you achieve the ultimate in cellular control."

"Which is?"

"The complete breakdown into an amorphous mass that in spite of utter shapelessness remains a coherent being. The feat I performed when I shucked off my clothes. It requires iron control, because it takes you to the brink of chaos, where you must retain your identity while on the trembling edge of dissolution. You haven't acquired that degree of control, for if total amorphousness had been in your power, you'd have tried to terrify me with an exhibition of it. But your shapechanging is so energetic that it's frenzied. You transform yourself at a whim, assuming whatever shape momentarily seizes your fancy, with a childish lack of discipline."

"So what?" Skagg remained unafraid, blissfully sure of himself, arrogant. "Your greater skill in no way changes the fact that I'm immortal, invincible. For me, all wounds heal regardless of how bad they may be. Poisons flush from my system without effect. No degree of heat, no arctic cold, no explosion less violent than a nuclear blast, no acid can shorten my life by so much as one second."

"But you're a living creature with a metabolic system," Frank said, "and by one means or another—by lungs in your human form, by other organs when in other forms—you must respire. You must have oxygen to maintain life."

Skagg stared at him, not comprehending the threat.

In an instant Frank surrendered human form, assumed a totally amorphous state, spread himself as if he were a giant manta ray in the depths of the sea, and flew forward, wrapping himself tightly around Skagg. His flesh conformed to every fold and crease, every concavity and convexity, of Skagg's body. He enveloped his startled adversary, sheathing every millimeter of Skagg, stoppering his nose and ears, coating every hair, denying him access to oxygen.

Within that jellied cocoon, Skagg sprouted claws and horns and bony, barbed spikes from various portions of his anatomy, attempting to gouge and tear through the suffocating tissue that bound him. But Frank's flesh couldn't be torn or punctured; even as his cells parted before a razor claw, they flowed together and knitted instantly in the wake of that cutting edge.

Skagg formed half a dozen mouths at various places on his body. Some were filled with needle-tipped fangs and some with double rows of shark's teeth, and all of them tore ravenously at his adversary's flesh. But Frank's amorphous tissue flowed into the orifices instead of retreating from them—This is my body; taste of it—clogging them to prevent biting and swallowing, coating the teeth and thus dulling the edges.

Skagg assumed a repulsive insectoid shape.

Frank conformed.

Skagg sprouted wings and sought escape in flight.

Frank conformed, weighed him down, and denied him the freedom of the air.

Outside, the night was ruled by the chaos of the storm. In the warehouse, where the aisles were neatly arranged, where the humidity and temperature of the air were controlled, order ruled everywhere except in the person of Karl Skagg. But Skagg's chaos was now firmly contained within the impenetrable envelope of Frank Shaw.

The inescapable embrace with which Frank enfolded Skagg was not merely that of an executioner but that of a brother and a priest; he was gently conveying Skagg out of this life, and he was doing so with some measure of the regret with which he watched ordinary men suffer and expire from accident and disease. Death was the unwelcome son of chaos in a universe woefully in need of order.

For the next hour, with diminishing energy, Skagg writhed and thrashed and struggled. A man could not have endured for so long without oxygen, but Skagg was not a man; he was both more and less than human.

Frank was patient. Hundreds of years of self-enforced adaptation to the limits of the human condition had taught him extreme patience. He held fast to Skagg a full half hour after the last detectable sign of life ebbed from the mad creature, and Skagg was as encapsulated as an object dipped in preserving bronze or eternally frozen in a cube of amber.

Then Frank returned to human form.

Karl Skagg's corpse was in human form as well, for that was the final metamorphosis that he had undergone in the last seconds of his agonizing suffocation. In death he looked as pathetic and fragile as any man.

When he had dressed, Frank carefully wrapped Skagg's body in a tarp that he found in a corner of the warehouse. This was one corpse that could not be permitted to fall into the hands of a pathologist, for the profound mysteries of its flesh would alert humankind to the existence of the secret race that lived among them. He carried the dead shapechanger outside, through the rainy night to his Chevy.