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March: Interludes

None of the astronauts ever walked on solid lunar rock, because everywhere they have gone there was "soil" underfoot. This powdery layer is present because the Moon has been bombarded by meteorites throughout geologic time. The unceasing barrage has so pulverized the surface that it has created a residual layer of rocky debris several meters thick.

Dr. John A. Wood, Smithsonian Institution


Fred Lauren made delicate adjustments to the telescope. It was a big instrument, a four-inch refractor on a heavy tripod. The apartment cost him too much money, but he had to have it for the location. His only furniture was a cheap couch, a few cushions on the floor, and the big telescope.

Fred watched a darkened window a quarter-mile away. She had to come home soon. She always did. What could she be doing? She'd left alone. No one had come for her. The thought frightened him, then made him sick. Suppose she had met a man somewhere? Had they gone for dinner, and then to his apartment? Even now he might be putting his filthy hands on her breasts. He would have hairy hands, rough, like a mechanic's, and they would be sliding downward, caressingly down across the flat curve of her belly.

No! She wasn't that kind. She wouldn't let anyone do that to her. She wouldn't.

But all women did. Even his mother. Fred Lauren shuddered. Unwanted, the memory came back, when he was just nine, when he'd gone in to ask his mother to say his prayers, and she'd been lying on the bed with the man he called Uncle Jack on top of her. She was moaning and writhing, and Uncle Jack had leaped from the bed.

"You little bastard, I'll cut your goddamn balls off! You want to watch? You'll sure to God watch? Stand there and if you say one word, I'll cut your prick off!"

He'd watched. And his mother had let that man—

The window came alight. She was home! Fred held his breath. Was she alone? Was she?

She was carrying a big bag of groceries, which she took to the kitchen. Now she'll have her drink, Fred thought. I wish she wouldn't drink so much. She looks tired. He watched as the girl mixed a martini. She carried the pitcher with her to the kitchen. Fred didn't follow with the telescope, although he could have. Instead he teased himself, waiting.

Her face was triangular, with high cheekbones and a small mouth and big dark eyes. Her long, flowing blond hair was tinted; her pubic hair was very dark. Fred had forgiven her that small deception, but he'd been shocked.

She came back with the pitcher and a glass spoon. There was a silver-handled martini spoon in the gift shop down the street, and Fred had often stared at it, trying to get up the nerve to buy it for her. Maybe she'd invite him to her apartment. Only she wouldn't until he'd given her gifts, and he couldn't do that because he knew what she liked and she'd want to know how he knew that. Fred Lauren reached out to touch her through the magic mirror of his telescope . . . but only in his mind, only in his hopeless yearning.

Now. Now she'd do it. She didn't have many dresses good enough to wear to work. She worked in a bank, and although the banks let the girls wear trousers and all the ugly things girls were wearing lately, she didn't. Not Colleen. He knew her name. He wanted to keep his money in her bank, but he didn't dare. She dressed well to win promotions, and she'd been promoted to New Accounts, and Fred couldn't talk to her there. He was proud of her promotion, but he wished she'd stayed a teller, because then he could come in and go to her window and . . .

She took off the blue frock and carefully hung it in the only closet. Her apartment was very small, only one room with a bathroom and kitchen alcove. She slept on the couch.

Her slip was frayed. He'd watched her mending the straps at night. Under the slip she wore lacy black underpants. He could see the color through the slip. Sometimes she wore pink ones with black stripes.

Soon she'd be taking her bath. Colleen took long baths; Fred could be knocking at her door before she finished. She'd open the door. She trusted people. Once she'd opened the door wearing nothing but a towel, and the man outside had been a telephone man, and another time it was the building superintendent, and Fred knew he could imitate the super's voice. He'd followed the super to a bar and listened to him. She would open the door . . .

But he couldn't do it. He knew what he'd do if she opened her door to him. He knew what would happen afterward. This would be his third time. Third sex offense. They'd lock him up with those men, those animals. Fred remembered what the caged men had called him and how they had used him; he whimpered, throttling the sound as if she might hear.

She put on her robe. Her dinner was in the oven, and she sat in the robe and turned on the TV set. Fred scurried across the room to turn on his own set and tune it to the same channel, then moved quickly back to the telescope. Now he could watch over her shoulder, watch her own TV, and hear the sound, and it was as if Fred and his girl were watching TV together.

It was a program about a comet.

* * *

The stocky man's hands were large and smooth, slender, stronger than they looked. They moved over Maureen, knowingly, cunningly. "Purr," said Maureen. She pulled him suddenly against her, and arched sideways, wrapping him in her long legs.

He gently pushed her away and continued to stroke her, playing her like . . . the attitude jets on a Lunar Lander. The bizarre image stuck in her mind, jarring. His lips moved against her breast, his tongue darting. Then it was time, and she could lose herself in him. She had no thought of technique now. But he had; he was always in control. He wouldn't be finished until she was, and she could depend on it, and now there was no time for thought, only the waves of shuddering feeling.

She came home from a long way away.

They lay together, breathing each other's breath. Finally he stirred against her. She caught a handful of curly hair and tilted his face up. Standing, he was just her height; astronauts are generally short. Lying above her, his head reached her throat. She lifted herself to kiss him, and sighed contentment.

But now her mind was turned on again. I wish I loved him, she said to herself. Why don't I? Because he's too invulnerable? "Johnny? Does your mind ever turn off?"

He thought it through before answering. "There's a story they tell about John Glenn . . ." He rolled onto an elbow. "The space medicine boys were trying to find out what we could go through and still function. They had John Glenn wired with widgets so they could watch his heartbeat and perspiration while he went through a program on the Gemini flight simulator. Right in the middle of it they dropped a shitload of scrap iron onto a tilted iron plate, right behind him. The whole room rang with it, and it went on and on. Glenn's heartbeat went blip!" Johnny's finger sketched a tepee shape. "He never even twitched. He went through the whole sequence, and then he said, "You sons of bitches . . ."

He watched her laugh, and then he said a bit sadly, "We can't get distracted." He sat up. "If we're going to watch your program we ought to be getting up."

"Yes. I suppose. You first."

"Right." He bent to kiss her again, then left the bed. She heard the shower running and thought of joining him. But he wouldn't be interested now. She'd said the wrong thing, and now he'd be remembering his ruined career; ruined not by any mistake of his, but by America's retreat from space.

She found his robe where he'd left it for her. Forethought. We can't get distracted. One thing at a time, and do that perfectly. Whether it was crawling along a ruined Skylab and repairing it in orbit, or conducting a love affair, he did it right. And he was never in a hurry.

When they met, Baker had been in the Astronaut Office in Houston and was assigned as liaison to Senator Jellison and party. Johnny Baker had a wife and two teenage kids, and had been a perfect gentleman, taking Maureen to dinner when the Senator was called away, keeping her company for the week the Senator was in Washington, taking her to the launch in Florida . . .

A perfect gentleman up to the time they'd had to go back to her motel room for her purse—and she still wasn't sure who had seduced whom. She didn't sleep with married men. She didn't like sleeping with men she didn't love, for that matter. But, love aside, he had something, and Maureen had no defense against it. He had a single goal and the ability to go after it no matter what.

And she was young and had been married once and had taken no vow of chastity and the hell with what you're thinking, girl! Maureen rolled off the bed fast and switched on the TV with a vicious click. Just to break the chain of thought.

But I am not a tramp.

His divorce is final next week, and I had nothing to do with that. Ann never knew. Ann doesn't know now. But maybe he wouldn't have let her go? If that's my fault, all right, but Ann never knew. We're still good friends.

"He's not the same anymore," Ann had told her. "Not since he flew the mission. Before that it was always tough here, he was on training missions all the time, and I had only a little part of him—but I had something. And then he got his chance, and everything worked fine, and my husband's a hero—and I don't have a husband anymore."

Ann couldn't understand it. I can, Maureen thought. It wasn't flying the mission, it was that there aren't any more missions, and if you're Johnny Baker and all your life you've worked and trained to do one thing, and nobody's ever going to do that again . . .

One goal in life. Tim Hamner had a touch of that. Johnny had it, and maybe she had tried to borrow a piece of it. And now look: Johnny had used up his one goal, and the most important thing in Maureen Jellison's life was a fight with a silly Washington hostess.

It still bothered her every time she thought of it.

Annabelle Cole was liberated. Six months ago it had been the threatened extinction of the snail skimmer; in six months more it might be the decline of artistic tradition among Australian blackfellahs. At the moment there was nothing for it but to blame men for everything bad that had ever happened. Nobody really minded. They didn't dare. No mean amount of the world's business was conducted at Annabelle's parties.

Maureen must have been edgy the night Annabelle braced her for her father's support. Annabelle wanted Congress to fund studies on artificial wombs, to free women from months of slavery to their suddenly altered bodies.

And I told her, Maureen thought. I told her that having babies was part of the sex act, and if she was willing to give up being pregnant she could give up fucking too. I said that! And I never had a baby in my life!

Dad might miss some important contacts through his daughter's exercise intact, but Maureen could handle that. In six months, when Annabelle found a new cause, Maureen would host a party and invite someone Annabelle had to meet. She had it all worked out. That was the problem: As if a fight with Annabelle Cole was the most important event in her life!

"I'll fix some drinks," Johnny called. "Best get your shower, the program's on in a minute."

"Yo," she answered, and she thought: Him? Marry the man. Promote him a new career. Get him to run for office, or write his memoirs. He'd be good at anything he tried . . . but why couldn't she find goals of her own?


The room was definitely a man's room, with books, and models of the fighter planes Johnny Baker had flown, and a Skylab, with broken wings; and a large framed picture of a bulky-suited man crawling in space along one of those wings, a faceless, alien shape, disconnected from the spacecraft, risking the loneliest death ever if he let go for even an instant. The NASA medal hung below the picture.

Mementos of times past. But only the past. There were no pictures of the Shuttle, delayed once more; no reminders of the Pentagon, Johnny's present assignment. Two pictures of the children, one with Ann in the background, short, browned, competent Ann, who already had a look of puzzled unhappiness in the photo.

His hand was wrapped around the glass, but he had forgotten glass and hand. Maureen could watch his face without his knowing it. Johnny Baker saw only the screen.

Parabolic orbits diagrammed against the concentric circular paths of the planets. Old photos of Halley's Comet and Brooks's Comet and Cunningham's Comet and others, culminating in a blurred pinpoint that was Hamner-Brown. A man with large insectile glasses lectured with fierce intensity:

"Oh, we'll get hit someday. It probably won't be an asteroid, either. The orbits are too nearly fixed. There must have been asteroids whose orbits intersected Earth's, but those have had four billion years to hit us, and most of them eventually did," said the lecturer. "They hit so long ago that even the craters are gone, weathered away, except for the biggest and the newest. But look at the Moon!

"The comets are different."

The lecturer's pointer traced a parabola drawn in chalk. "Some mass way out there beyond Pluto, maybe an undiscovered planet . . . we even have a name for it. Persephone.

Some mass disturbs the orbits of these great snowballs, and they come down on our heads in a wake of boiling chemicals. None of them have ever had a chance to hit the Earth until they get thrown down into the inner system. One day we'll be hit. We'd have about a year's warning. Maybe more, if we can learn enough about Hamner-Brown."

Then an antiseptic young woman proclaimed that she wasn't married to her house, and was told that was why Kalva Soap had invented a new disinfectant for her toilet bowl . . . and Johnny Baker came smiling back into the world. "He really makes his points, doesn't he?"

"It is well done. Did I tell you I met the man who put it together? I met Tim Hamner, too. At the same party with Harvey Randall. Hamner's a case. Manic. He'd just discovered his comet, and he couldn't wait to tell everyone."

Johnny Baker sipped his drink. Then, after a long pause, he said, "Some funny rumors in the Pentagon."


"Gus called. From Downey. Seems Rockwell's refurbishing an Apollo. And there's some mutters about diverting one of the Titan boosters from a Big Bird to something else. Know anything?"

She sipped her drink and felt a wave of sadness. Now she knew why Johnny Baker had called yesterday. After six weeks in the Pentagon, six weeks in Washington with no attempt to see her, and then . . .

And I was going to surprise him. Some surprise.

"Dad's trying to get Congress to fund a comet-study mission," Maureen said.

"This for real?" Johnny demanded.

"It's for real."

"But . . ." His hands were shaking. His hands never shook. John Baker had flown fighters over Hanoi, and his maneuvers were always perfect. The MIGs never had a chance. And once he'd taken splinters out of his crew chief when there wasn't time to get the medics. There was a splinter in the chief's chest and Baker had removed it and sliced deftly to expose the artery, clamped it together with steady fingers while the chief screamed and the Cong mortars thudded onto the field, and his hands had never shaken.

But they were shaking now. "Congress won't put up the money."

"They might. The Russians are planning a mission. Can't let them outdo us," Maureen said. "Peace depends on showing them we're still willing to compete if that's the way they want it. And if we compete, we win."

"I don't care if it's Martians we're competing with. I've got to go. I've got to." He drained his scotch His hands were suddenly steady.

Maureen watched in fascination. He's stopped shaking because he's got a mission. And I know what it is. Me. To get me to get him on that ship. A minute ago he might really have been in love with me. Not now.

"I'm sorry," he said abruptly. "We don't have all that much time together, and I'm laying this on you. But . . . you had me dead to rights. My mind doesn't turn off." He drank deeply of his ice-diluted scotch. His attention went back to the screen, and left Maureen wondering if she'd been imagining things. Just how clever was John Baker?

The commercial mercifully ended and the cameras zoomed in on the Jet Propulsion Laboratories.

* * *

Harry Newcombe hastily chewed the last of his sandwich while he drove the mail truck with one hand. The regulations gave him time off for lunch, but Harry never took it. He used the time for better purposes.

It was long past noon when he got to Silver Valley Ranch. As usual he stopped at the gate. There was a spot where he could look through a pass in the foothills to the majesty of the High Sierra to the east. Snow gleamed off their tops. To the west were more foothills, the sun not too far above them. Finally he got out to open the gate, drove through, and carefully closed the gate behind him. He ignored the large mailbox on its post beside the gate.

He stopped along the drive to pick a pomegranate from the grove that had started as one tree and was still, untended, propagating itself downhill toward the stream. Harry had seen it grow in the half-year he'd been on the route, and was guessing when the pomegranates would roll all the way downhill into the cocklebur patch. Would they choke out the burrs? He had no idea, really. Harry was a city boy.

Harry was an ex-city boy. Hah! And if he never saw a city again he'd be happy.

He was grinning as he shouldered his load and walked lopsided to the door. Rang. Set the bag down.

The dimly heard hurricane of a vacuum cleaner calmed. Mrs. Cox opened the door and smiled at the bulging bag beside Harry. "That day again? Hello, Harry."

"Hi. Happy Trash Day, Mrs. Cox!"

"And a Happy Trash Day to you too, Harry. Coffee?"

"Don't stay me. It's against guv'mint regulations."

"Fresh coffee. And new-baked rolls."

"Well . . . I can't resist that." He reached into the smaller pouch that still hung at his side. "Letter from your sister in Idaho. And something from the Senator." He handed her the letters, then shouldered the bag and wobbled in. "Anyplace special?"

"The dining table's big enough."

Harry spilled the contents of the larger bag across a polished table of lovely grain. It seemed to have been carved out of a slice of a single tree, and must have been fifty years old. They didn't make tables like that anymore. If there was furniture like that in the caretaker's home, what must it be like in the big house up the hill?

The wood grain was hidden under a deluge: begging letters from charities, from several political parties, from colleges. Offers to join lotteries by buying records, clothing, books, subscriptions to magazines. "YOU MAY ALREADY HAVE WON $100 A WEEK FOR LIFE!" Religious tracts. Political lessons. Single-tax literature. Free samples of soap, mouthwash, detergent, deodorant.

Alice Cox brought in the coffee. She was only eleven, but she was already beautiful. Long blonde hair. Blue eyes. A trusting girl, as Harry knew from seeing her when he was off duty. But she could be trusting here; nobody was going to bother her. Most of the men in Silver Valley kept rifles slung on racks in their pickups, and they damned well knew what to do with anybody who'd bother an eleven-year-old girl.

It was one of the things Harry liked about the valley. Not the threat of violence, because Harry hated violence; but that it was only a threat. The rifles came off their racks only for deer (in season or out, if the ranchers were hungry or the deer got into the crops).

Mrs. Cox brought in rolls. Half the people on Harry's route offered him coffee and eats, on days when he ignored regulations and brought the mail up to their houses. Mrs. Cox didn't make the best coffee on the route, but the cup was definitely the finest in the valley: thin bone china, much too good for a half-hippie mailman. The first time Harry had been to the house he'd drunk water from a tin cup and stood at the door. Now he sat at the fine table and drank coffee from bone china Another reason to stay out of cities.

He sipped hurriedly. There was another blonde girl, this one over eighteen and legal, and it would be Trash Day for her house, too. She'd be home. Donna Adams was always home for Harry. "Lot here for the Senator," Harry said.

"Yes. He's back in Washington," Mrs. Cox answered.

"But he's coming soon," Alice piped.

"Wish he'd hurry," Mrs. Cox said. "It's nice here when the Senator's in residence. People coming and going. Important people. The President stayed at the big house one night. Secret Service made a big fuss. Men wandering all over the ranch." She laughed, and Alice giggled. Harry looked puzzled. "As if anybody in this valley would harm the President of the United States," Mrs. Cox said.

"I still think your Senator Jellison's a myth," Harry said. "I've been on this route eight months, and I haven't seen him yet."

Mrs. Cox looked him up and down. He seemed a nice enough boy, although Mrs. Adams said her daughter paid him entirely too much attention. Harry's long, flowing, curly brown hair would have looked good on a girl. His beard was beautiful. The real masterpiece was the mustache. It came to long points which, on formal occasions, Harry could curl and wax into circles like small spectacles.

He can grow hair, Mrs. Cox thought, but he's little and skinny, not as big as I am. She wondered again what Donna Adams saw in him. Car, maybe. Harry had a sports car, and all the local boys drove pickups like their fathers.

"You'll likely meet the Senator soon enough," Mrs. Cox said. It was a sign of ultimate approval, although Harry didn't know that. Mrs. Cox was very careful about who the Senator met.

Alice had been sifting through the mound of multicolored paper on the table. "Lot of it this time. How much is this?"

"Two weeks," Harry said.

"Well, we do thank you, Harry," Mrs. Cox said.

"So do I," Alice added. "If you didn't bring it up to the house, I'd have to carry all of it."

Back in the truck, and down the long drive, with another stop to look at the High Sierra. Then on to the next ranch, a good half-mile away. The Senator kept a big spread, although a lot of it was dry pasture, shot through with ground-squirrel holes. It was good land, but there wasn't enough water to irrigate it.

At the next gate George Christopher was doing something incomprehensible in the orange groves. Probably setting up to smudge, Harry decided. Christopher came plodding up as Harry opened the gate. He was a bull of a man, Harry's height and two or three times Harry's width, with a thick neck. His head was bald and tanned, but Christopher couldn't be a lot over thirty. He wore a checkered flannel shirt and dark trousers, muddy boots.

Harry set the bag down and got out beside it. Christopher frowned. "Trash Day again, Harry?" He studied the long hair and extravagantly trimmed beard and the frown deepened.

Harry grinned in return. "Yup, Happy Trash Day, every two weeks, like clockwork. I'll take it up to the house for you."

"You don't have to."

"I like to." There wasn't a Mrs. Christopher, but George had a sister about Alice Cox's age, and she liked to talk to Harry. A very bright little girl, pleasant to talk to and full of news about Harry's valley.

"All right. Mind the dog."

"Sure will." Harry never worried about dogs.

"Ever wonder what the advertising industry would give for your head?" Christopher asked.

"I'll trade 'em question for question," Harry said. "Why does the government give them a lower rate so they can waste more of our time? And your taxes?"

Christopher's frown faded and he almost smiled. "Have at 'em, Harry. Lost causes are the only ones worth fighting for. And the taxpayer's cause is about as lost as they come. I'll close the gate behind you."


Day's end. Clockout time. Harry went into the sorting rooms behind the Post Office. There was a note pinned to his station.

"Hairy the Wolf wants to see you. Gina XXX"

Gina—tall, black, erect of posture and large of bone, the only black in the valley as far as Harry knew—was at the counter. Harry winked at her, then knocked at the supervisor's door.

When he entered, Mr. Wolfe regarded him coldly. "Harry. Happy Trash Day," Wolfe said.

Oops! But Harry smiled. "Thank you, and a Happy Trash Day to you, sir."

"Not funny, Harry. Why do you do it? Why do you separate out the commercial mail and reserve it for one day every two weeks?"

Harry shrugged. He could have explained: Sorting junk mail took so much of his time that he didn't have a chance to chat with his customers, so he'd started letting it pile up. It had begun that way, but it had become popular with his people. "Everybody's happy with it," Harry said defensively. "People can go through the stuff or just drop it in the fireplace."

"It is illegal to withhold a citizen's mail," Wolfe said.

"If someone has complained, I'll take him off the list," Harry said. "I like to keep my customers happy."

"Mrs. Adams," Wolfe said.

"Oh." Too bad. Without Trash Day he wouldn't have an excuse to go up to the Adams house and talk to Donna.

"You will deliver the commercial mail according to regulations," Wolfe was saying. "As it comes in. Not in batches Trash Day will cease."

"Yes, sir. Any other way I can be obliging?"

"Shave your beard. Cut your hair."

Harry shook his head. That part of the regulations he knew.

Wolfe sighed. "Harry, you just don't have the right attitude to be a mailman."

* * *

Eileen Susan Hancock's office was small and cramped, but it was an office; she had worked for years to get an office of her own, away from the area behind the counter. It proved that she was more than a secretary.

She was poking at the buttons on her calculator, frowning, when a sudden thought made her burst into rippling laughter. A moment later she realized that Joe Corrigan was standing in her doorway.

Corrigan came into the office. He had unbuttoned the top button of his trousers again, and it showed. His wife wouldn't let him buy larger sizes. She hadn't given up hope that he would reduce. He put his thumbs into the waistband and regarded her quizzically.

Eileen's laughter cut off. She went back to the calculator, and now she wasn't even smiling.

"Okay," Corrigan said. "What's the punch line?"

Eileen looked up with wide eyes. "What? Oh, no. I couldn't possibly tell you."

"If you drive me nuts, you think you can gain control of the company, right? Because it won't work. I've covered that." Corrigan liked to see her like this. Eileen was all-or-nothing: very serious and hard at work, or enjoying herself to the full. "Okay," Corrigan sighed. "I'll give away my secret for yours. I've had the decorators in. You see, Robin Geston signed up for the Marina deal."

"Oh? That's good."

"Yup. Means we'll need more help. As of the first, you're Assistant General Manager, if you want the job."

"Oh, I want it. Thank you." She smiled flickeringly (like a flashbulb, on and off almost before you saw it) and turned back to the desk calculator.

"I knew you would. That's why I had the decorators in. They're turning that room next to mine into a new office for you. I've told them to consult you after they do the preliminaries." Corrigan lowered his weight onto the corner of her desk. "There. I was keeping it for a surprise. Now what's your secret?"

"I've forgotten," Eileen said. "And I do have to get these estimates done so you can take them to Bakersfield with you."

"Okay," Corrigan said. He went back to his office, defeated.

If he knew, Eileen thought. She had an urge to giggle, but she held it back. She wasn't really trying to tease Corrigan. She had been thinking: Well, I did it. And Robin was nice. Not the world's greatest lover, but he didn't pretend to be either. The way he'd suggested a rematch: "Lovers need practice," he'd said. "The second time is always better than the first."

They'd left it vague. Maybe, just maybe, she'd take him up on it sometime; but probably not. He'd also told her definitely that he was married; she'd only suspected it before.

Never had there been any suggestion that business had anything to do with their private lives. But he'd signed up with Corrigan's Plumbing Supplies for a very large deal—and she felt funny about that, and wondered if she'd have been as careless about finding out Robin's marital status if the deal hadn't been pending. But he'd signed up.

So here she was, adding up numbers, pushing papers around, and suddenly she'd asked herself: What does this have to do with plumbing? I don't make pipe. I don't lay pipe. I don't ream it out, or tell people where to put it. What I do is push paper around.

It was an important job. Measure it by the chaos she could create with one random mistake or one malicious error: Thousands of tons of supplies might be sent to the ends of the Earth by a slip of her pen. But what she did had no more to do with creation, with making the things that held a civilization together, than income tax, or being the fireman on a diesel train.

Mr. Corrigan would probably spend the whole day wondering why she'd suddenly burst into sparkling laughter, and there was no way she could tell him. It had just come to her, unexpected and irresistible: What she had done with Robin Geston on the night before last was the closest she had ever come to any activity actually connected with plumbing.

* * *

The car wouldn't be reported stolen for hours. Alim Nassor was pretty sure of that, sure enough that he would sit in it for another ten minutes. Alim Nassor had been a great man. When he had made himself great again, he would have to hide what he was doing now.

Before he was great he had been George Washington Carver Davis. His mother had been proud of that name. She'd said the family was named for Jefferson Davis. That honky had been a tough dude, but it was a loser's name, no power in it. He'd had a lot of street names since. His mother hadn't liked those. When she threw him out he took his own.

Alim Nassor meant wise conqueror in both Arabic and Swahili. Not many knew what it meant, and so what? The name had power. Alim Nassor had a hell of a lot more power than George Washington Carver ever did. You could read about Alim Nassor in the newspapers. And he could still walk into City Hall and get in to see people. He'd been able to do that ever since he broke up a riot with his switchblade and the razor blades in his shoes and the chain he carried around his waist. There was all that Federal money around for a tough dude. The honkies shoveled out money. Anything for quiet in the black ghetto. It had been a damn good game, and too bad it was over.

He cursed quietly. Mayor Bentley Allen. Los Angeles had itself another black mayor and this goddam Tom had cut off the pipeline. New people in city council. And that stupid son of a bitch of a black congressman who couldn't be satisfied with the take, no, that asshole had to put all his relatives on the community payroll and the fucking TV reporters found out. A black man in politics needed a snow-white rep these days . . .

Well, the game was over, and he'd started another. Eleven jobs, each one worked fine. They'd taken . . . what? A quarter of a million dollars in loot in four years? Less than a hundred thousand after the fences went through it. Twenty thousand each for four men in four years. That wasn't even wages! Easy to say, now, that some of it should have been stashed for lawyers' fees, but at five thousand a year?

This would be the thirteenth. It wouldn't be long now. The store did a lot of business. Alim waited, always aware of the time. Two customers left, and nobody was coming down the street.

He wasn't happy about this job. He didn't like ripping off blood. Honkies were fair game, but you ought to leave brothers alone. He'd hammered that into his followers' heads, and what were they thinking of him now? But he was boxed in, he had to act fast.

The place was ripe, and he'd been saving it for an emergency, and this was one shitpot motherfucker of an emergency. His honky lawyer would probably beat this for him, but lawyers and bondsmen wanted bread, and now. It was crazy, robbing a store to pay a lawyer to get him off for robbing a store, Someday things would be different. Alim Nassor would make them different.

Almost time. Two minutes ago one of his brothers had got himself stopped for a traffic violation fourteen blocks away and that took one pigmobile off patrol. Twenty minutes ago another brother had a "family argument" and the sister called the station house, and there went the other fuzzwagon. There'd be only the two. Black areas didn't get patrolled the way honky business districts did. Blacks didn't have big insurance policies, or know how to kiss ass down at City Hall.

Sometimes he used as many as four diversions, with traffic jams thrown in; they only took spreading some bread among the kids to get them playing in the streets. Alim Nassor was a natural leader. He hadn't been busted since juvenile days, except for that last one where an off-duty cop had come out of a laundromat. Who'd have thought that brother was a pig? He still wondered if he should have shot it out. Anyway, he hadn't. He'd run into an alley and ditched the gun and the mask and the bag. Lawyers could take care of those. The only other evidence was the honky storekeeper's identification, and there were ways to talk him out of testifying . . .

Time. Alim got out of the car. The mask looked like a face from ten feet away you wouldn't know it was a mask at all. The gun was under his windbreaker. Windbreaker and mask would be gone five minutes after the job. Alim's mind closed down, shutting out past and future. He walked across at an intersection. No jaywalking, nothing to attract attention. The store was empty.

It went down nice. No problems. He had the money and was on the way out when the brother came in.

A man Alim had known for years. What was that bastard doing over in this part of town? Nobody from Boyle Heights ought to be here below Watts! Aw, shit. But that brother knew. Maybe from his walk, maybe anything, shit, he knew.

It took him a second to make up his mind. Then Alim turned, aimed and fired. A second shot to be certain. The man went down, and the old storekeeper's eyes were big with horror, and Alim fired three times more. One more robbery wouldn't have upset anyone, but the pigs worked hard on murder. Best leave no witnesses. Too bad, though.

He came out fast, and didn't go to the stolen car across the street. Instead he walked a fast half-block, went through an alleyway and came out on another street. His arm still tingled with that unique, atavistic thrill. Man was made to use a club. and a gun is the ultimate in clubs. Point and make a fist, and if the enemy is close enough to see his face, one blow will knock him over dead. Power! Alim knew people who had got hooked on that sensation.

His brother (mother's son, not just blood) waited for him in a car that wasn't hot. They drove off just at the speed limit, fast enough not to attract attention, slow enough not to get busted.

"Had to waste two," Alim said.

Harold winced, but his voice was cool. "Too bad. Who were they?"

"Nobody. Nobody important."

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