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"There are eighteen. One for every trespass."

Royce jolted and nearly upset his plastic cup of melted ice and vodka. They'd assigned him to a business-class window seat. The window was smooth and black. The rolled up blind rattled softly as the plane plowed ahead. He said, "Excuse me?"

"May I get that for you, sir?" A flight attendant leaned across a snoring man who'd fallen asleep with the overhead lamp on. The beam illuminated the sleeping man's slack face: Ted K., a computer monitor salesman from Cleveland. This was Ted's first trip to the Far East, could Royce imagine that? Fifty-seven years old come August and he'd never traveled outside the good old US of A. Thank God for adult education, huh? He'd talked animatedly at Royce for two hours, enthused about his prospects in the Asian market. He never got around to asking about Royce's business in Hong Kong before the Canadian Clubs did him in. Which was fine by Royce. He'd have only lied and claimed to be in marketing, anyway. Revealing to bored travel companions that your trade was a security consultant who specialized in countering industrial espionage tended to start conversations with no ending. How did you get into that line, anyway? Well, I discovered I was a natural in the spy game while stalking my estranged college girlfriend . . . .

The attendant was small and as perfectly detailed as a doll. Her lipstick was very red against her face. Her hand brushed Royce's knuckles. Her red nails and lips and precisely bobbed hair complemented the two-piece uniform all the attendants wore. The girls were a matched collection, extras in a period piece. "Another, please," he said, slurring, his tongue heavy from unconsciousness and disorientation, more so than the effects of the liquor. Flight drugged him as reliably as the copious quantities of alcohol and Dramamine he indulged in to combat motion sickness.


"May I have another of these?" He released the cup and smiled to allay her concerns. "Thank you, miss." She poured more vodka from the tiny bottles they always handed out on flights, and left. He turned in his chair and watched her push the service cart away. The gallery was dim as a nursery at night, its gloom interrupted by an occasional reading light, the emergency strips bracketing the aisle.

Royce finished his drink and shuffled papers from his carry-on briefcase, stared at them without really reading. In order to actually read he would've needed to find his glasses and no matter what style he'd tried, the effect was always unflattering. Anyway, his head ached and he already knew the report front to back. Thoroughness was his watchword. Let that be my epitaph—He was thorough. He unbuckled and gingerly squeezed past his comatose seatmate whose snoring hitched then resumed.

The fore restroom was occupied and two women waited for a turn. The older of the pair scowled at him with annoyance and suspicion. I must look like hell. Or smell like it. He decided to make the journey aft, chuckling about how uptight some people got when traveling. It had been a long, long flight. Almost everyone was asleep, and the few passengers who weren't didn't glance up from their laptops or their paperbacks, but persisted in these activities with glassy-eyed concentration. Most of the passengers were Americans, and wasn't it the modern way to fill every waking moment with some gesture to productivity, no matter how minor?

His own friends always vowed to avoid calling the office, or God help them, work on vacation, but they always did, to some degree, or worse, they eschewed the innocuous emails to the office and treated their tours like contests. The winner accomplished the most in the shortest period and the prize was bragging rights at some future cocktail party or barbeque where the participants compared notes and the victors counted coup on the losers. Skin-diving, white-water rafting, wine-tasting, a fifteen-mile hike on a nature preserve, tango lessons and the opera by ten pm, and that was only on the day we landed. How about you, Mildred? This obsessive-compulsive drive was a curiously American disease.

The rear facilities were vacant and he slipped inside and locked the door. He pissed, and as he zipped, the small fluorescent halo above the mirror sputtered and died. The cramped bathroom became black as a coffin. Royce hesitated, surprised and disoriented. He stepped back, feeling for the door handle which didn't seem to be in the right place. The light hummed and ticked and began to glow. Its elements ignited then failed in rapid succession and the ring pulsed within the surrounding blackness and swung like a pendulum. Its motion made him sick in the stomach. Between these staccato shutter clicks of light and dark, something happened in the tarnished mirror. He glimpsed a movement independent of his own obscured face, a momentary blur of alabaster like the belly of a large fish rolling on its back before it sank into abyssal night.

Certainly this entire sequence happened within the span of seconds. These seconds were elastic. They stretched to accommodate the flood of primeval darkness in his brain. His thoughts were jagged and fragmented; they swam against a tide. I've got to be hammered. How many did I have? Those idiots should've cut me off. Wait-wait, how many did I have, really? What the hell was that?

Normality was restored as the light brightened and illuminated the toilet in cold, sickly radiance. The shadows slipped back into their lairs. Royce blinked rapidly, weak from the adrenal rush. His face was green and gray in the mirror. He wiped away sweat with his sleeve and was in the act of passing his hands beneath the tap when he happened to glance down.

Holy Christ, somebody had an abortion in here! The plastic basin of a sink was splattered with black ooze; and not a little. He'd observed pro anglers fishing for sharks off the Barrier Reef, knew exactly what a bucket of chum looked like, and this was close, except for what might've been a hank of hair, maybe a whole scalp. He stepped back and almost tore the door off its hinges in his haste to escape.

"Whoa, Nelly!" Ted K. the salesman from Cleveland said as Royce collided with him. Royce gaped, at a loss as to where the man had come from so suddenly. Hadn't he left the guy dead drunk and sound asleep no more than two minutes ago? Ted K.'s doughy features were lumped in approximation of genial alarm as he clasped Royce's elbow to steady them before they stumbled over the stewardess who was only a few steps up the aisle giving someone a pillow.

"Hey, guy," Ted K. said, and his hands were all over Royce, which compounded his anxiety—he hated being touched unbidden, and especially by a stranger, a neurosis doubtless rooted in some childhood trauma. He'd even occasionally rebuked his lovers for putting their hands on him when he didn't expect it. The plump man smelled overripe as fruit fermenting in a dark, humid place. "Where's the fire?" his fellow passenger was saying, sounding concerned, yet half smiling. Maybe he was enjoying this.

"Sorry, sorry." Royce was repulsed by the man's marshmallow flesh against his, but he'd almost bowled the guy over hadn't he? Good lord, what if an air marshal popped out of his seat and slapped cuffs on him for making a scene aboard a plane? He suffered Ted K.'s groping and just repeated his apology until the stewardess turned around and asked if everything was all right. He pointed at the open restroom and assured her that in fact nothing was all right and she'd better have a look. The attendant's expression changed into the mask people in the service industry put on when confronted with the irrational and unpredictable passions of the public. Her mask said, I've lost most of my English and must confer with my colleagues.

Royce recognized that look and closed his mouth. He gave her a fake smile and gently extricated himself from Ted K. and returned to his seat without a backward glance, his heart thumping in his throat. Presently, the stewardess appeared at his side and asked if he wanted another drink. He laughed at the preposterous notion; the last possible thing on Earth he needed was another drop. On the heels of this, he realized he sounded borderline shrill, hysterical. He made conciliatory noises, thank you, but no thank you. As she began to retreat, he risked asking about the problem with the toilet. Her mechanical smile told him she thought he might be responsible for the mess. "Plumbing. No need to worry. All fixed. Okay?"

Plumbing. They jettison shit at cruising altitude, you know. It freezes into a block and plummets to earth. Or is that a myth? Blue ice? God, I remember something about blue ice. Strange to think of such an inane urban legend. Was that a piece of skull I saw? A chunk of jawbone? Royce started feeling cold and stopped thinking about the weird thing that had occurred in the bathroom. He preoccupied himself with football. He was a season ticket holder in Seattle despite the fact he seldom went, mostly passed his tickets to friends and associates. Nobody played football in Hong Kong. What did they play there? He had no idea whatsoever.

The plane was in its final descent when he realized Ted K. had never returned. Royce couldn't blame him, not after the whole incident. Regardless, the plane was filled to capacity and he briefly wondered where the guy had found another seat. Then the jet banked and the lights of the city were spread before him.


A large, impassive Chinese man in a black suit met him at the airport. Mr. Jen's face was crumpled and scarred as a piece of old, battered tin. He held a sign that read mr. hawthorne. The man wasn't tall, but as he carried the luggage Royce stared at his impressively broad shoulders and thought someone could probably project a film on his back. Mr. Jen put Royce in the backseat of a new Lexus and drove him directly to the offices of Coltech Ltd.

The office was an austere marble plaza of interlinked cubicles lighted by cozy lamps with woven shades. The grand Coltech seal, a lion rampant before crossed lightning bolts, loomed over all. Scores of stolid, crisply dressed employees conducted business with quiet determination; even the clattering keyboards and buzzing phones seemed muted in that cathedral vault. After checking with security he eventually located the right receptionist and waited while she unlocked a cabinet.

"Fruit basket?" He said.

She ignored the remark, muttering to herself as she rummaged through various folders. "Ah, there we go. Here is your Octopus card, Mr. Hawthorne. And the keys to your apartment." The secretary appeared to be North American, although she wore her beehive hair and heavy eye shadow and a bright yellow space-age dress in the popular retro fashion of young, cosmopolitan Asian women. She handed him an envelope containing a plastic card and three keys on a ring. She seemed impressed with his expensive suit, the Sicilian darkness of his tan. Her eyes flickered slightly. "Unfortunately, the apartment won't be ready until Sunday. Mr. James extends his apologies. However, he took the liberty of reserving a room for you at the Hyatt."

"An Octopus card?" Royce said, bemused. He eyed the Möbius strip configured to form a sideways eight.

"'Eight place pass' from the Cantonese. A smart card, sir. For the train and the bus service. I buy cigarettes with mine." She covered her mouth when she laughed.

"Ah." He slipped card and keys into his jacket pocket.

"Mr. Jen will drive you to the hotel, if you're ready. Oh, you have a three o' clock tomorrow with Mr. James and Mr. Shea at the Demeter Lounge."

"I see. Where—"

"Mr. Jen will get you there," she said with a dismissive smile. "Welcome aboard, sir."


The home office laid out the scenario when they originally brought him in. Coltech, a subsidiary of his employers at BelCorp, manufactured various technologies, including nuclear hydraulics systems and satellite components. They'd recently lost three territorial overseas managers to another firm; a much bigger fish on the international scene, and the deserting managers took most of their staff with them. Rumors surfaced regarding industrial sabotage, the sale of trade data, and an alleged network of moles piping corporate secrets directly to Asian competitors. Coltech got panicky and pulled a bunch of key personnel from domestic projects and sent them to China and Taiwan in a frantic attempt to secure operations.

The company drafted Royce to investigate two minor production facilities in Hong Kong—these factories were among the few that hadn't relocated to Mainland China. Circuit boards and electronic actuators were assembled at one plant; hydraulic sleeves and rotary process valves at the other. His cover as a quality assurance consultant afforded him access to personnel files, factory records, and juicy trade documents.

Martin Reardon James and Miguel Shea, president and vice president of local operations respectively, explained the specifics in painful detail upon his arrival. Shea, in his role as major-domo did most of the talking during that introductory meeting in the luxurious confines of an upscale restaurant with a view down the western slopes and their towers of blue glass, all the way to the China Sea. He referred to the enterprise as a snipe hunt. "But, hell, whatever makes the boys in Georgia happy . . ."

Royce understood he'd be flying solo on this one. Atlanta had warned him about these two and they proved to be exactly what he'd envisioned. The officers—hefty, florid men—relished the perks of scotch, women and leisurely afternoons on the golf course to the exclusion of all else and were most interested in maintaining the status quo.

"Shrink is to be expected," Shea said, lighting a cigar and taking a few moments to get it properly smoldering. "No damned way we've got enough fingers to plug the holes in the dike. Pick your battles, kid. Have a drink. There'll always be something for someone to steal."

Royce waited long enough to be polite, then showed them a headshot of a blond, tan man in his thirties. "This is the individual I'm looking at."

"You're here to look at a bunch of people," Mr. James said. He was a thick, older man stuffed into a hand-tailored suit. His shrewd, bloody eyes were drowsy in an illusion of complacency, of boredom.

Royce knew a shark when he met one and felt sorry for the poor bastards with the misfortune to fall under the man's tender mercies. "I am. But this one . . .Atlanta likes him for some of your breaches. He may be the architect, in fact."

"Who's that?" Mr. James said. He took the photograph and stared at it.

"Brendan Coyne," Mr. Shea said. Despite his debauched good-old-boy shtick, Royce figured he was the kind of guy who knew everything about everyone in the immediate company. Probably the kind of guy to have names for the rats.

"What's his department?" Mr. James said. He downed a huge gulp of whiskey and looked at his watch.

"Consultant, communications."

"Oh, yeah? Any good?"

"He's good. What do you think? You hired him."

"I don't hire schmucks, do I?"

"No, indeed not," Mr. Shea said.

"Neither does Atlanta," Royce said with a dry smile. "As I said, I'll be looking at Coyne. Among other people."

"We hope you'll keep us informed of developments."

"I report to Atlanta. Orders."

Mr. Shea scowled and waited to see if Royce was resolved on that point. "I see. Maybe you could, uh, do us a courtesy now and again."

"Courtesy, Mr. Shea?" Are you really thinking about bribing me? A small part of Royce hoped they were shady enough to grease his palm for such harmless information. He considered himself a clean operator by industry standards; he pushed the boundaries without actually stepping over the line. A tiny bit of graft for harmless favors was simply a perk of the trade. He wasn't being paid to investigate Shea or James, although they could hardly feel secure about precisely what Atlanta knew regarding their laundry list of petty indiscretions on the company dime. Nervous executives with deep pockets had done much to pay off his college loans and his mother's tenure at the retirement home and potentially catastrophic hospital stay. Less nobly, such paranoid largess had also subsidized his vintage Mustang, a powerboat and a beachfront condo in Florida. "Absolutely, I'll pass along anything I'm able. We sure do appreciate your cooperation regarding this unpleasant matter."

"Anything we can do to help," Mr. Shea said. "But I gotta say, Hawthorne. It sure feels like Atlanta doesn't trust us."

"Do they trust anyone?" Royce said. The tension exhausted him. He ordered another vodka, knowing full well he was at the top of a long downhill slide.

Mr. James grunted at the photograph. "Isn't he pretty. I never liked pretty boys. Can't trust some asshole who spends that much time on his hair."


The next day, Shea took him into a wasteland of industrial ruins and gave him a tour of the only working factories within a mile. These were a pair of massive, rusting boxes connected by numerous catwalks, outbuildings and trailers. The vice president introduced Royce around and showed him his office, which was little more than a janitor's closet tucked into the heart of the structure where they manufactured the hydraulic sleeves. The hallways were slotted in a maze of grillwork and pipes with oversized spigots and valve switches painted in bright reds and yellows.

Royce couldn't have imagined a more monotonous, soul-killing assignment. Techs in hardhats, white coats and protective earphones rushed helter-skelter; workers were basically chained at the soldering tables and assembly lines. The laborers toiled sixteen-hour shifts in heat and noise, suffering these conditions for a menial wage; they received few breaks and were subjected to verbal and physical abuse from native overseers Royce knew would shock the hell out of working stiffs in Detroit. He had to admit, the Chinese were the perfect workforce. They slaved away as if the Devil himself were standing over their shoulders.

When not pretending to perform as a Coltech functionary, Royce was ensconced in the Lord Raleigh Arms, a housing project on the outskirts of the moribund industrial district. Lord Raleigh Arms, or the LRA as its inhabitants referred to it in casual conversation, was an exclusive compound reserved for employees of several affiliated companies; the executives, researchers and engineers who made things tick. The area proved quite pleasant, defying his expectations. Ministry officials desired a good face on things; they installed an arboretum and a couple parks to screen the quarter from defunct factories and warehouses and miles of tract slums.

The compound consisted of concrete and glass wings configured as a rectangle with a hollow center. There were guards at the gates, closed-circuit monitors, and regular patrols by the municipal police. Corporations paid for the private security forces. Terrorist threats weren't entirely uncommon, nor plain old kidnapping plots. Some employees had drawn indefinite postings and brought families—protection details were a basic necessity. The bulk of Royce's neighbors were Americans, Brits and Germans. He retained Mr. Jen to chauffeur him through seedier parts of the city; should he require special services, his company's hosts delegated a native to attend his needs.

His apartment was an economy model: a bedroom/living room combination, a pocket bath and closet-sized kitchen, all done in monochrome green and yellow. Fortunately, he traveled light, because the closets were tiny and there wasn't much room to hide anything particularly sensitive. This was why as a first order of business he purchased a small fire safe to secure hard-copy documents and other important items he couldn't encrypt on his computers.

Every piece of futuristic, plasticized furniture, every stainless steel appliance, radiated an aura of sterile, passionless utility. The terrace overlooked a quadrangle occupied by a swimming pool. The tile deck was decorated with plastic lawn chairs, folding tables, and umbrellas. Even during the rainy season, it attracted gobs of raucous kids. Come warmer weather, a score of elderly denizens slithered out of hiding like worms after a storm. Many of them wore dust masks common in China and Japan because the smog was so bloody awful. They congregated under the umbrellas and smoked generic cigarettes and bitched about the weather, the pollution and the kids.

Friendly residents warned that despite evidence of extensive remodeling, such cosmetics masked a host of problems. Plumbing leaked and power came and went at inopportune moments. At such times, the elevators were out of service, and the air conditioning offline. Then, the population of the Lord Raleigh Arms endured the blackness of sweltering apartments and listened to cockroaches scrabble in the hollow spaces behind freshly painted gypsum. Sirens bugled in the city where its towers formed the corner posts of a skein of nictitating lights.


He'd scarcely unpacked when he overheard complaints about noise, especially in regard to loud music practiced by an amateur flautist in a nearby block; then there was the indelicate matter of bag people creeping around late at night. One of his fellow American neighbors, an engineer he'd met in passing, heard a noise in the hall, an odd knock at the door. When he checked through the peephole, an eyeball blinked at him. "The freak's face must've been squashed up against the door!" The engineer was an excitable fellow given to padding bare-chested in striped pajama bottoms around the foyer and community annex. He said he realized the "freak" was a woman when she stepped back and ran away, giving him a better look at her. "Scurried, I mean. Like a cockroach hit with a light. Moved pretty fast, too. All this blasted security and we can't keep bums out! Next thing you know, we'll be getting stabbed in our beds, or rolled up in a carpet and carted off for ransom." For their part, the security personnel did immediately capture vagrants who slipped in on occasion, but denied the existence of any permanent interlopers.

Similar stories ran through the block. Elvira, as the English-speaking residents referred to the haunt, in reference to her black dress and bone-white face, seemed the most popular object of speculation. Elvira didn't haunt alone, in any case. One of the janitors confided "little friends" followed her around.

"Kids?" Royce said, thinking of the brats shrieking through the hallways, wild as the painted savages who populated Golding's dark vision.

The janitor, a sunburned elder statesman in blue paper work clothes, shook his head emphatically and motioned near his hip. "No, no. Little friends." He glanced nervously over his shoulder, then back at Royce. He smiled with the obsequious reflex of a career servant, and pushed his squeaking cartload of mops and brooms down the hallway of doors toward the distant elevators.


The sweep proceeded routinely and monotonously—the life of an investigator was unglamorous and fraught with glacial tedium. Prior to his insertion, he'd been provided a list of "at risk" technologies and the names of persons associated with them. It would've been impossible to monitor the scores of individuals who might be involved in nefarious activity. Instead, he relied on the installation of state-of-the-art security software designed to track anomalous activity on the company network. He received authorization to order a couple dozen wiretaps of private residences. He outsourced the data collection to local specialists and quickly acquired potential informants with connections to the black market. Occasionally, he arranged casual social meetings with subjects on the list and recorded all conversations via a microwire and relayed details of these transactions to his handlers back in the States. The bulk of his work was as involving as watching paint dry.

Royce felt restlessness more keenly than usual. This wasn't a run-down burgh in Soviet Russia, or a backwater in the South of Italy. This was Hong Kong in all its glitz and glory, a great, seething den of LED-brilliant iniquity; and him marking the hours like a two-bit private eye who'd been paid to keep tabs on a cheating spouse at the local Dew Drop Inn.

Many of Royce's colleagues frequented a posh cocktail lounge a few blocks from the compound. The bar was called the Rover in honor of its itinerant patrons; a smoky, dim place with poker lamps on chains over the lacquered chestnut tables, and curtained booths; the kind where three sides rise six feet and one could practically jam a small dinner party inside. The help were strictly locals; cute-as-buttons Cantonese girls who might be high school sophomores or thirty-year-old mothers of three. A burly ex-fire chief from the Bronx ran the show. Jodie Samuels was quite the character; gods, he looked uncomfortable in a suit and tie. Something of a taskmaster; he didn't have a choice about Asian servers, but he'd only hire white bartenders and chefs; forced HR to ship in personnel from England and America.

Racist management notwithstanding, the lounge ran like a top. They'd tucked an exclusive billiards room in the back; a gentlemen's club. Billiards weren't popular with the regular crowd and most of the power players belonged to swankier, more prestigious clubs in the hip, upscale districts; however it served as a convenient niche to entertain guests and relax after a stressful day at the office.

Royce wormed his way into Samuels' good books because he received an outrageous per diem and wasn't shy about spending it. Samuels probably could've scored a new Cadillac from the tips Royce left him. Before long, Royce got the nod to enjoy the accommodations. A small group of businessmen made the place their home away from home and he became chummy with many of them. They smoked cigars and drank a lot of XO and swapped more lies than he cared to remember. All this in order to maneuver close to his quarry, the irrepressible Brendan Coyne.

It wasn't difficult to make the connection: he spilled a drink on Coyne's shirt, bought him another round and insisted on picking up the cleaning tab. Soon they were comparing their exploits as Americans at large and marveling how they lived a stone's throw apart. After that, they socialized at the Rover three or four evenings a week. He methodically compiled a list of Coyne's business associates and social acquaintances, flagging several of these as potential conspirators. Coyne possessed peripheral ties to the Hong Kong underworld and a onetime convicted CEO of an extinct American corporation. In itself, these casual associations proved little; Royce personally knew and consorted with a baker's dozen crooked lawyers, accountants and corporate officers, most of whom functioned quite efficiently within their various organizations; a bit of skullduggery, like the graft Royce loved so well, went with the territory. Nonetheless, this compounded the difficulty of ferreting the truth about Coyne's extracurricular activities.

He knew plenty about his subject's personal life at this point: Coyne's father, a career Army lieutenant, dropped dead of a heart attack at a formal dinner a couple years back, and Coyne summoned his aged mother to Hong Kong rather than abandon her in Seattle among cold-hearted relatives. During their frequent interactions, Royce applauded his associate's loyalty while secretly speculating about his ulterior motives. Royce had been forced to put his own mother in a home and he doubted a would-be playboy like Coyne had an altruistic bone in his body.

Coyne and his mother lived in an apartment across the quadrangle. Coyne was a hard partier who'd broken up with a longtime boyfriend and developed a neurosis about staying in shape. He munched on trail mix and lifted weights at the gym every other day, basted himself in a tanning booth with regularity, and did laps in the pool at night; he invited Royce to join him. Royce laughed. All the chlorine in China wouldn't have persuaded him to stick so much as his toe in that water. "The sauna in the executive washroom suits me fine, thank you," Royce said.

Royce kept him under constant surveillance. He purchased a small, high-powered telescope from a shop that catered to private detectives and suspicious spouses; the proprietor dealt in hidden cameras, thumbnail recorders, lowlight scopes, and other apparatuses. During the day, he positioned a video camera on his terrace in a bamboo blind, lens oriented at Coyne's apartment. At night, he killed the lights and watched through his telescope while Coyne moved from room to room. On Tuesday and Friday when his mother was away at the community center playing bingo, Coyne slowly undressed, habitually lingering at a panel mirror in the bedroom. Other nights mother and son shared dinner before the dizzy blue screen of their television. He frequently made innocuous calls on the landline to his brother in Seattle, other colleagues overseas, a stock advisor in Taiwan; nothing damning; nothing remotely interesting, in fact. Coyne observed these rituals until his clockwork emergence for two dozen laps in the pool. The mechanical repetition of the affair caused Royce to ponder his own patterns, the automated nature of humans in general.

Other days, he followed Coyne around the city, making note of his itinerary, the people he visited. There wouldn't be any momentous revelation, no potboiler twist. Ultimately, success in these matters boiled down to the inexorable compilation of data.

After nearly a month of monitoring Coyne, lassitude eroded Royce's patience. It was an inevitable consequence of prolonged field investigations. Hyper-sensitivity, too much liquor and caffeine, cigarettes and lack of sleep coupled paranoia and mania to birth a form of high-functioning schizophrenia. Before Hong Kong, he'd kicked smoking and reserved his drinking for infrequent social occasions; both habits had returned with a vengeance. Such were the hazards of his occupation; alongside venereal disease from liaisons with barflies and unscrupulous prostitutes, and death or imprisonment at the hands of disgruntled foreign interests.

Sometimes, during the grind, he allowed himself to daydream about his erstwhile college plans to become an engineer, to marry the cute orthodontist in training, Jenny Hodge. Paranoia had always been a problem, though. You never could buy the fact a babe like Jenny saw something in you, surely she was laughing behind your back, making time with the rugby stud in her dorm. When she discovered his love of telephoto lenses and hidden microphones, his paranoid fantasies came home to roost. She sobbed during their melodramatic breakup scene, said she figured he'd lied about everything, when the truth was he'd only lied about half and the half was harmless, mostly. Bye, bye, sweet Jenny, I loved thee well. Here I sit, fifteen years older and wiser in big bad Hong Kong trying to hang a guy by his testicles for corporate espionage. How much damage has he done? A hundred mil? Two hundred? Shit, I'm the poor man's James Bond. Eat your heart out, baby.

As his mind wandered, he tended to focus on peripheral subjects: the elegant young lady in a single bedroom diagonally opposite his unit who'd moved in after the apartment waited empty as a cave; the previous family departed within a day of Royce's arrival after setting the place afire due to a stovetop mishap. Each evening she paraded in the choreographed flood of track lights, nude, but for a shiny waist chain and a bead necklace. Then the blond European couple, apparently engaged in a ceaseless war punctuated by broken windows and routine police visits. And finally, a squat, gray-haired woman named Mrs. Ward who trundled onto her balcony after dark and played shrill, discordant tunes on various woodwinds, she being the flautist so reviled in certain quarters of the LRA.

Royce learned she was a chief organizer of senior activities—the chairperson of bingo tournaments and the Saturday evening mixer in the Governor White ballroom. Something in her corpulent stature, the pagan timbre of her horrid musical pretensions, riveted him. She resembled almost completely an aunt on his mother's side, Carole Joyce, a dowager widow with a place just outside San Francisco. Mom and Dad pawned him and his brother on her one summer. He didn't remember much about that, except the house was gloomy and full of dusty furniture, and his aunt filled him with loathing. Carole Joyce had been a large woman as well, and vaguely unwholesome in her appetites. Her fetishes hadn't diminished with age. She enjoyed erotic art and favored French Renaissance gowns the better to display her ample cleavage; she wore black eye shadow and ghastly white pancake makeup that didn't blend where it ended under her jaw. Aunt Carole Joyce slept in her makeup, seldom scraped it off, preferring to add a new layer every morning. She was a dilettante spiritualist who'd managed some travel and vacillated between Buddhism, Taoism and more esoteric systems according to whim. Aunt Carole Joyce was particularly fascinated with punishment and doom and she'd told a wide-eyed Royce numerous hair-raising parables about wretched boys in foreign cultures going to the thousandfold hells in a hand basket where they were inevitably certain to suffer the most exquisite torments imaginable. Be glad you're an American. We've got just the one hell.

A bloated creature in her sixties, she prowled the boardwalks for handsome, tanned young men, solicited them with cash and gifts to come up and swamp the scummy pool and to hack at a halfacre garden, which had been overgrown for some thirty years. Royce was nine or ten and didn't know much, but he figured from their behavior Aunt Carole Joyce gave them the creeps too. She certainly went through a number of the strapping lads in the three months Royce spent in captivity. He never discovered whether his aunt tossed them aside, or if they cut and ran of their own accord.

Whenever Royce caught sight of Agatha Ward, he instantly revisited that summer with Aunt CJ and shuddered, but couldn't look away. Indeed, Royce cultivated a morbid preoccupation not only with Mrs. Ward, but the whole tribe of female elders. Mrs. Tuttle and Mrs. Fox, the inseparable canasta partners; Erma Yarbro, an emaciated wasp from Yonkers who made no secret her dislike of the Far East and its inhabitants; Mrs. Grant, who'd lost her legs to diabetes and trolled the quadrangle in a motorized wheelchair; and solemn Mrs. Cardin, an inveterate smoker with a button in her trachea. He fixated upon their poolside klatches, knitting parties and weekly luncheons at the community annex.

These women brought to mind so many seniors he'd known over the years, familiar in the interchangeable way of babies; they were the ghosts of teachers, librarians and neighbors who'd populated his childhood, although they didn't behave in the torpid, desultory manner of other seniors. Their movements seemed vigorous, their interactions lively. Occasionally, he caught a strange sign pass among them as they played at cards, or reclined poolside, soaking up infrequent sun; an occulted ripple of intention, a shibboleth that spoke of subterranean things; and some late nights, he spied their movements in the courtyard as they formed in disorganized groups and filed out of the compound. He felt like an anthropologist stealthily documenting the customs of an alien culture; scientist and voyeur in one pathological bundle.

He recorded hours of footage of Mrs. Coyne doddering about the courtyard, kibitzing with her friends. Occasionally, he paid one of the teen criminals loitering at the bus terminal three hundred Hong Kong dollars and a carton of cigarettes to follow the ladies on their weekly excursion to the shopping mall. He gave the kid a belt buckle cam and told him to stick tight and note if Mrs. Coyne talked to anyone besides her associates or the vendors. Royce studied these films in the bleakest hours of night, chain-smoking while lumpen, blue-haired women clumped on subways and tour buses, soundlessly jittered through boutiques and gift shops and food courts and traded gossip like a covey of magpies.

Chu, his agent in this intrigue, revolted after the fifth mission. They'd rendezvoused at night on a train platform. Rain hammered the shell of the station's slanted, plastic roof, poured from the lip of the overhang. Mist absorbed the fluorescent glare, the shuffle and scrape of commuters knotted in small groups, heads down and listless as cattle.

"I don't like them," Chu said. The boy was tall and whip-lean with black, spiked hair and a nondescript face. He wore a Houston Rockets warm-up suit and numerous cheap, death's head rings and was rumored to be affiliated with the Tong.

When Royce handed Chu his money and asked why he was quitting, Chu stuffed the bills into his jacket and lighted a cigarette. If Royce closed his eyes, the kid's voice would've conjured an image of any of the chess club nerds he'd known in high school. But Chu was way past all that; he slumped against a lamp post, shoulders hunched, his posture that of a razor half-folded. He looked a lot like an exchange student Royce tangled with his sophomore year. A real hardcase who brought the mean streets of Seoul with him. The Korean had worn rings, too.

"You want more money," Royce said.

"No. I'm done."

"You're done. Why are you done? Because you don't like them? The old women?"

Chu spat. His teeth weren't pretty. He sucked on his cigarette, almost panting. "Yeah."

It was suddenly so clear to Royce. "You're scared of them . . .you probably get sick to your stomach from old folks' smell. That stink of urine and sweat. The way they smack their lips and quaver when they talk. Yeah, very unpleasant, I'm sure. So much for revering your elders."

"C'mon, Whitey don't count."

"I thought you were tough, Chu."

Chu laughed, squeaky and hoarse. "Stupid Yankee." He flicked his cigarette over Royce's left shoulder into the surrounding darkness.

Royce didn't give him the satisfaction of flinching. "Then you must do what's best for you. I'll give the job to one of your associates. They look hungry."

"Not as hungry as you think, Yankee-doodle. Good luck with . . .everything." Chu raised his hood and slunk away, giggling. He was certainly correct regarding his friends—they uniformly ignored Royce's efforts to recruit them; none even acknowledged his halting attempts at Cantonese, and he soon abandoned the effort. In the days to come, Chu disappeared from his usual haunts; one of the shopkeepers thought he'd been arrested, or dragged off by rival gangsters. In either case, the disgruntled merchant didn't much care. He spat and professed joy at the hoodlum's absence; gods grant it be a lengthy one.


Later that week of Chu's defection, Royce staggered into the Rover after an evening of crashing from one strobe-lit dance hall to another in the wake of James, Shea and an entourage of yes-men, call girls and assorted hangers-on, all in the name of entertaining a visiting dignitary who owned a piece of the company, or wanted to buy one, it was difficult to recall.

He slid into an empty seat, nodded greetings to Gerald, the late-shift barkeep, and ordered a whiskey sour to match his mood. He'd downed the first and started on the second when he noticed the woman who resided in the unit across from his own standing near the end of the crowded bar. He'd gotten her name from one of the guys at work and switched into spy mode.

He ran her name through his formidable network and soon amassed a dossier. Shelley Jackson recently signed on as a cultural attaché for Coltech, her specialty being an interpreter of several Chinese dialects. The job dispatched her to points hither and yon on frequent diplomatic junkets; it was highly implausible he'd ever run into her at either of the factories, her sphere being of another cosmic order altogether. Her parents were well-off. She'd graduated from Western with honors and routinely traveled abroad since high school. She was single, although she apparently took frequent lovers—older, affluent men as a rule. Royce figured her for a pleasure seeker, a woman who thrilled in the proximity of power, rather than possessed of any agenda so mundane as gold digging or career advancement.

Tonight, she wore severe business attire—a gray skirt and white blouse—and chatted with an older fellow in a loose, silk shirt and suspenders; tall and lean with unruly black hair to the waist of his baggy, linen pants in a manner Royce identified as pure Eastern Euro-trash; a Balkan gangster prince at least a decade too old to dress as he did. Manny Poe, Manicevic Poe, something similar. An investment banker who occasionally frequented the billiards room. He put his mouth close to Shelley Jackson's ear and she laughed.

Shelley Jackson's dark hair was cropped in androgynous affectation, a style his old girlfriend Jenny had adopted near the end of their stormy run, and when she briefly glanced at him, Royce's cheeks warmed from the sensuous quality of her appraisal, the carnal thrill of his secret knowledge of how she glistened beneath her buttoned-down exterior. She returned her attention to the executive and didn't glance back again; not even to acknowledge the drink Royce had Gerald set before her.

He ordered a revolver of bourbon and tracked down Coyne in the billiards room. The man lay sprawled across a leather divan, his hair tousled, shirt unbuttoned to the breast, shoes propped on an ottoman. He smoked a Cohiba cigarette and watched two other men playing a game of baccarat. Royce didn't recognize either of them, they were in the fog that enveloped the world two feet beyond his center of gravity. He flopped across from Coyne and steadily gulped his stein of booze.

Coyne whistled softly. "Well, there's a sight. You look like a tiger what's gotten free of its pen."

They made small talk, reminiscing about college and their families back in the States, and as each spiraled deeper into drunkenness, Royce deftly steered the discussion to mother Mary and her social ring. Coyne expressed annoyance regarding his mother's newfound hobbies. "The damned busybody crones," he said.


"That's what Mom calls them. There's about a dozen of them—a tea party club without the tea. I asked her, 'Mom, isn't that a bit derogatory, referring to them as crones?' and she says, 'Oh no, that's what they call themselves.' I guess one of the ladies, Agatha, is a hard-line feminist. Agatha goes on about patriarchal oppression, ageism—especially prejudice against old women—and similar natter. She convinces her elderly chums to take back the so-called epithets, like hag and crone and treat them as tools of empowerment." Mary spent a majority of her time with the ladies, which should've been a relief for Coyne, considering how worried he'd been to locate companionship for her in this new, alien environment; yet as the months had worn on, some indefinable element of their communal bonding disquieted him.

"Bingo and knitting," Royce said with boozy assurance. "I doubt it's anything to get stirred up about."

"I dunno. They resent my lifestyle choices; Mrs. Grant—you know, that wretched woman with the wheelchair—says it's a rejection of the female as partner and mate. Mom stays out till all hours—I caught her sneaking into the apartment around dawn last week. She acts like a rebellious teenager."

"Second childhood. Sounds like Agatha's reliving the Women's Movement and bringing your mom along for the ride."

"Maybe. Those friends of hers . . . I found out Agatha hired on with a company as a clerical administrator so she could move into the Arms—"

"You spied on your poor mother's friend? You devious fellow."

"She flew halfway across the world to live in this exact building. What the hell is up with that?"

Royce said, "I've seen them go out at night. Very late. Kind of odd, I thought."

"Oh, yeah. That's the procession. Crazy bitches."

"The what?"

"The Procession of the Black Sloth." Coyne puffed on his cigarette and exhaled toward the lazily revolving blades of the ceiling fan. "Agatha's a religious nutter; thinks of her group in spiritual terms. Mom says the sisterhood originates here in the East. A sort of passive-aggressive protest against centuries of male dominance, which seems rational enough, all things considered. Rebellion against foot-binding and the like. There's a concentration of true believers in this area come to make obeisance to a guru who lives in one of the slum tenements."

"Black sloth? I don't get it. Why a black sloth?"

"Jeez, Hawthorne, you should ask them. I don't even remember if it's a sloth. It might be a black weasel or a marmot."

"Yeah, never mind. I probably don't want to know anything about a black weasel," Royce said.

Coyne swished the ice in his whiskey, concentrating on the glass with utter melancholy. "Anyway, Agatha's into these late-night strolls. Moon goddess nonsense, or some such effing crap. I'm not much for religion."

"Me neither. Sunday school hangovers lasted a lifetime."

"Soon as I escaped parochial, I burned my boy's suit and never looked back. Mom was raised Catholic, see; she goes to mass at the cathedral on Bonham. This hoodoo isn't like her."

Mama's boy. Royce filed that away, too. "Don't worry. My own dear mum went through a New Age period. She wanted to commune with Atlanteans." Which was a convenient lie to put Coyne at ease, to cement their bonding moment. His mother had been an Easter and Christmas Lutheran and that was the extent of her spirituality. She'd been more interested in the PTA and the little wine and cheese parties her friends held while pretending to have a weekly reading circle. His dad referred to it as her weekly "get loaded and gossip" circle. "Before you know it, it'll be back to bunt cakes and macramé. Just this morning I saw a bunch of them huddled outside playing canasta."

"Yeah, maybe. Say, c'mon over for lunch with us tomorrow. I'm barbecuing. You like ribs, don't you? Mrs. Ward and a couple of her cronies will be there. You can meet my mom, see what I mean."

"Uh—" Royce hurriedly considered possible excuses.

"For the love of Baby Jesus, I'm begging you," Coyne said. "You can't leave me alone with them."

Royce grudgingly agreed, although he actually welcomed the opportunity to chat with Mary Coyne and Mrs. Ward. Perhaps some unexpected providence would result.

He fixed an Irish coffee and sipped it while sitting in the gloom of his kitchen. The kitchen was spotless except for his dinner plate in the sink, a segmented trail of cigarette ashes on the table, and a mussed edition of the I Ching he'd accidentally kicked under a chair. Its pages were coming unglued and he'd left thumbprints on them, but couldn't call to mind anything of substance. The symbols were pretty and meaningless. He'd bought a dozen similar works when he first arrived in the city; just went to the biggest chain bookstore he could find and swept them into his basket along with tourist pamphlets, cookbooks and a couple regional histories in hardback. Eastern philosophy wasn't his bag; he did it because that's how it went wherever he stayed for any real duration. Being the perfect social chameleon demanded attention to the minute.

Presently, the familiar, discordant strains of Mrs. Ward's flute filtered through the wall and drew him into the clammy, dank air. When he stepped through the sliding glass door, the awful piping ceased mid-note, as if to accentuate a dramatic pause. He stood on the balcony and regarded the spectral façades of the Raleigh Arms. The pool glowed dully, a cradle of stagnant phosphorescence like mother of pearl embedded in black mud on the sea bottom. The water reflected upon the surrounding tile, the iron slats of the courtyard gate and the abutting concrete walls. Across the way, Coyne's apartment lay dark. However, a dim lamp flickered in the Jackson woman's window, and he waited a long time in the damp smog to catch a glimpse of her. The light snuffed abruptly. He lingered a moment, then went unsteadily inside.


He dozed in his chair, flicking through the five hundred channels advertised in his digital cable package. Old war movies and serials from America, big-game hunting and sports fishing, talk shows, the regular junk. He waded through the weird local stuff shot in low def at raves, and incomprehensible talent shows that were a cross between performance art and improv. Then there was the Asian horror cinema, which was gaining popularity abroad, but left Royce cold. He lingered on one bizarre scene: A man in office clothes shuffled into a vast cavern and approached what soon resolved as a mountain of knife blades. The man raised his hands, fingers bent into claws, and threw his head back and wailed, an Asian Charlton Heston. The man fell to his knees, still wailing, and crawled to the mountain of knives. On all fours, he began to climb.

Royce really, really hated horror, and the Eastern garbage wasn't any better than the kind they served in Hollywood. He surfed to a game show. Everyone was Asian: the audience, the announcer, the contestants, except for an American, a white guy in his fifties who wore a ten-gallon hat, a bolo tie and a well-cut suit. He was the spitting image of a guy who'd operated a salvage yard in Royce's home town. The contestants were taking turns answering questions highlighted on large board. When somebody got a question right, a rabidly grinning hostess in a polka-dot summer dress hopped in place and waved her tiny hands in abject joy. The words on the board were Chinese characters. Royce found he could get the gist through body language and deduction. It was surreal to watch the American cowboy's mouth move and hear Chinese come out. The man answered enough questions correctly and lights flashed, klaxons blared and parti-colored streamers billowed down in a storm. The grinning hostess scurried to the American and pinned gaudy ribbons to his breast while the host leaned on his podium and gabbled frenetically. The curtains slowly raised to reveal a shiny new jet ski.

Royce thought he'd cheerfully kill anybody who drove a pin through his twelve-hundred-dollar suit. The cowboy looked down at his breast, apparently sharing Royce's sentiment. The cowboy grabbed the hostess by her ponytail and jerked her toward him. He began punching her head. It was a farce, it couldn't be real, not with the way her arms and legs flew around like a crash dummy pitched through a windshield.

The TV image wavered and shrank and the people were folded into themselves. The lights in the apartment went out. The air conditioner whined to a stop and the room lay as dark and silent as a vacuum. He dopily marveled at the feeling of being cast adrift. Little by little, his eyes adjusted and signs of life penetrated the blackout: disjointed voices echoing from afar, the dim thump of bodies moving in the apartments above his own, the sullen orange glow of the city skyline.

A series of malformed thuds rattled glasses in a cupboard. He lay there, groggily staring into the gloom, trying to shake the lethargy of booze and bone-weariness, the quicksand gravity of his recliner. There came another sound, a low, raspy warble: a frog calling from the dark. The little beasts often hopped in from the surrounding parks, the encroaching marshland, and made their homes in the wet shadows along the pool until housekeeping came along with nets and buckets and carried them away. This vocalization was much deeper, more resonant and suggestive of inordinate size. However, as the sound repeated, its utterance was more a croak than the glottal wheeze and gasp of some other creature; almost a moan.

Thud. Someone struck his door with a fist. He reached over and tried the lamp, but the switch clicked, dead, so he fumbled through the apartment, flipping other useless light switches as he went. The air pressed him, dank and smothering as a foul, wet blanket.

Royce navigated the minefield of his apartment without breaking anything and staggered into the door and almost opened it before he sobered enough to remember where he was and who might be on the other side: corrupt government agents; terrorists; bandits; any of a dozen kinds of riffraff who might mean him bodily harm. He knocked a shade from a lamp, gripped it in his left hand. He located the peephole by touch and screwed his eye against the opening, not expecting to see much, if anything. A trickle of yellow light suffused the hall, its origin probably the threshold of some open apartment door. Someone wept, their faint moans emanating from a hidden source. The sobs were muffled.

He unlocked the door and stuck his head out. One of his neighbors, the German software designer, a couple doors down and across the way, had indeed set a paper lantern on the mat in the hall and Royce guessed the man probably stumbled off to wake the superintendent. The German was a can-do sort, the sort to burn the midnight oil. He'd been around since Hong Kong went back to the Chinese and was a veteran of these all too frequent LRA adventures.

Precisely at the outer ring of lamp light, a big lumpy sack slid and bumped along the floor, disappearing into the dark. Slippers rasped against tile and the sob sounded again, farther away, descending into the depths of the building. A man on another floor shouted foreign curses that echoed down through the grates and vents; these were answered in kind in a groundswell of slamming doors and broom handles rapped against pipes, grievances kindled by the humidity and heat, the ungodliness of the hour.

"Elvira?" Even as Royce invoked the name, chills raced along his arms; he clenched the muscles of his buttocks. He tiptoed a few steps down the hallway, compelled against his better judgment. The passage seemed to expand and contract with his pulse, as if he were being squeezed through an artery. He stooped to retrieve a wig where it had fallen upon the dingy floor. The wig was lush and black in his hands and smelled of rank cologne and cigarettes. The unwholesome intimacy of touching it sent thrills through his already weak stomach.

He went to bed and was asleep in moments despite, or perhaps in response to, the bizarre and somewhat shocking encounters of the evening.

Shelley Jackson, warm and slick and hungry as death, slipped under the covers. She kissed him and worked her hand beneath the waistband of his pajamas. She rolled atop him. Her eyes were lidless stones. Her throat bulged, impossibly bulbous, a pearly sac. She croaked softly and her frigid tongue unspooled into his mouth before she brought a bag down to cover his head. When the rough burlap closed over Royce's face, he inhaled to scream and Coyne, who replaced Shelley Jackson somehow, put a sticky finger against his lips, a shushing gesture that communicated a world of terror. They were mashed together, their breaths humid in the suffocating enclosure, the tightening ring. Coyne's face was also sticky; it seeped and ran like syrup from the broken skin of a peach.

Shh, Coyne whispered. For God's sake.

Royce clawed at the bag, woke thrashing and half-crazed with terror.

The next morning Royce noticed odd smudges on the outer panel of his apartment door; distorted imprints, as if someone had stamped his or her muddy face against the wood. One was near the top of the frame; two more below his knees. He grabbed a camera and snapped a few shots, such was his disquiet. After, he rang the front desk and a custodian soon arrived with a bucket and a sponge to wipe the unseemly marks away. It took the man over an hour of diligent scrubbing. The marks were stubborn.


Royce visited Shea and mentioned he'd enjoy meeting Ms. Jackson. Shea guffawed and said she wasn't exactly hard to get, but here was an invitation to a company soiree, all the same. Jackson would be there to smooth the way with the Chinese, who, like men anywhere, were amenable to a pretty face and a flash of cleavage.

Meanwhile, lunch with the Coynes proved a bizarre affair. Royce arrived a few minutes early with a bottle of wine and a bouquet of cheap flowers he'd picked up at the grocery. He said hello to Mary Coyne, who answered the door in a bulky sweater and fleece pants. "I'm frightfully chilled in this climate," she said, indicating her attire, and indeed her hands were cold in his. "Bad circulation. Since I was a girl I've had bad circulation. Just terrible. A condition, you see. My, aren't you handsome today."

Royce wore a polo shirt and cargo pants. He'd taken time to get his mustache trimmed at the salon and spent several minutes rehearsing sincerity before the mirror. In his experience, elderly women were readily disarmed by young men who dressed and smelled nice. Polite, well-groomed lads were considered trustworthy. He also wore the wig he'd taken from the hall and was mystified by his compulsion to do so. His own hair was dark, and, yes, thinning a bit at the crown, yet not unattractive considering he kept in decent shape with light calisthenics, a few laps here and there on the treadmill at the gym.

God, it's started. Cuckoo time. Yeah, yeah—it's happened before. You really go bugshit on these missions, man. That job on the oil refinery. You wore the Slav's corduroy jacket for a month. And that one guy, the dude from Arkansas, you swiped his cowboy boots and the buckle with the razorback. Why do you do shit like that? It's the chameleon trip, isn't it? How did you score their personal belongs, by the way? They ran out on their jobs, just lit out without a goodbye or screw you. Funny how that works . . .Where do suppose this wig comes from? I'm sure it'll be a surprise.

It was hardly just the wig. Only last week he'd come across an expensive wristwatch and a class ring inside his safe and had no idea how they got there. When he worked out these items had belonged to Ted K., the boring guy who'd shared his flight into Hong Kong, he felt ill again, just like he'd been sick the previous night. He managed to resist the urge to wear the ring and the watch, and tossed them into a Dumpster instead. He considered, and not for the first time, it might be wise to visit a therapist and discuss whatever subconscious demons were eating him. The main reason he didn't was primarily because he already knew what the doctor would say—a man could hardly expect to live a double life without facing a few consequences.

Mary accepted the flowers, exclaiming it wasn't necessary. "We're only having lunch, for goodness sake!" She rushed into the kitchen to pare the stems and get them into a vase, calling out that Brendan was on the deck. Royce followed the odor of charcoal and sizzling beef to the terrace where Coyne turned fat slabs of beef on the grill with a big prong.

Coyne handed him a beer from the ice chest and waved at a patio chair. He squinted at Royce, and frowned. "Is that a wig?" And when Royce neither confirmed nor denied this, he frowned again and let the subject drop, although he shot odd glances for the remainder of the afternoon, his expression a mixture of petulance and fascination.

They sat and drank beer and smoked cigarettes and made small talk about the weather and work, until the rest of the lunch party arrived. Mrs. Ward slouched into the apartment in a red and gold mandarin gown that clung and cleaved to her bulging thighs, the rounded curve of her belly. Her rose-lipped mouth grimaced and gaped, and slightly crossed eyes twitched with astigmatism.

Royce carefully shook her fleshy hand and tried not to stare at the wattles of her neck or the wen on her chin.

"Mm-hrmm, my you are certainly a handsome one," Mrs. Ward said, and her voice slid forth, gravelly and low, descending to a murmur at the end of the sentence. She licked her lips and grinned with half her mouth, lending her the aspect of someone who'd suffered a minor stroke. "Lila, isn't he a handsome boy? A bit long in the tooth for a boy, but you take my meaning."

"Why, my stars, yes." Lila Tuttle emerged from Mrs. Ward's shadow, a moon orbiting its planet; frail and wrinkled and bent as a twig, she smiled ceaselessly and with vacuous conviction. She wore a shawl wrapped around her head and clutched an ancient handbag to her bony breast. "Lovely to meet you, Mr. Hawthorne. Lovely, lovely indeed." She pecked a lock of his hair with a long, hooked nail the color of a chicken's foot, and tittered.

The merry group retired to the kitchenette for plates of ribs and steins of Sapporo beer Coyne had imported from Japan. None of the elderly women was particularly fastidious in regards to tucking into the meal. Mrs. Ward gnawed at the bones with an almost sexual intensity that called to mind the hoary old painting of Saturn chewing his hapless children to bits. Mrs. Tuttle and Mrs. Coyne followed suit. This concordance of slurping and smacking in lieu of conversation turned his stomach.

"What are you reading today, Mrs. Coyne?" Royce said by way of distraction from the unsavory relish of the diners. He noted the Coynes kept many books on hand; dozens of paperbacks and magazines were scattered about the apartment; romances and travelogues on the main, and older, clothbound tomes stacked on a floor-to-ceiling rack in the living room beside the television. He recognized the faux mahogany shelf as the exact model he himself had purchased from an upscale department store.

Mrs. Coyne and Mrs. Tuttle twittered and tee-heed over some romantic claptrap they'd been perusing. Then, Mrs. Ward said, "I'm enjoying Journey to the West. Have you ever read that one, Mr. Hawthorne?"

"It sounds familiar."

"Mrmm-hmm, a classic, I daresay. My father was something of a bibliophile. He worked for the great museums in England and Germany. They sent him to the four corners after antique manuscripts. A few he kept for his library at home, and some of these he read aloud to me when I was a child. His copy of Journey to the West is exceedingly rare, perhaps an original. Father related it to me in Mandarin, no less."

Coyne snorted and Royce could tell the man was more than a touch drunk from all the Sapporo he'd been downing. "I find that difficult to swallow, Mrs. Ward. An extant copy of Journey to the West would fetch a fortune on the collectors' market. Surely you'd have cashed in by now."

"You speak Mandarin?" Royce said quickly. "And what else, I wonder."

Mrs. Ward shrugged and smiled into her napkin. "I dabble here and there; enough to get by in the country if I'm ever stranded on the mainland. Are you married, Mr. Hawthorne?"

"Divorced. The traveling life doesn't agree with everyone." Actually, Royce had lived with Jenny, the future orthodontist, for several years, but he'd never actually gone so far as marriage. He was interested to see her reaction. That, and when it came to his personal history, he was a habitual liar. "Why do you ask?"

"No reason, really. And children? You don't seem the type, but then who knows?"

"I hate children."

"Do tell. Don't we all, eh?" Mrs. Ward licked a bone; her tongue lolled overlong and came to a point. She probed and teased forth the marrow. Her face seemed a feeble mask slipped over the crude geometry of some atavistic visage. Her inflection remained neutral. "Not much call for children in this modern world, I suppose. Nor marriage. The need for fecundity has passed into twilight, yea."

"I have three daughters," Mrs. Tuttle said. She counted her crooked fingers: "and eight, wait, nine grandchildren. Angels, they are. Mary?"

"Only Brendan. He was quite enough, I assure you." Mrs. Coyne crinkled her cheeks to soften the barb. Royce thought he glimpsed a darker current beneath kindly seams and tender wrinkles, a flex of the iris like a shard of ice heeling over into the depths. It was not difficult to envision the source of her jovial bitterness; perhaps a deep, ragged cesarean scar, a white fissure ripped along the once-tanned axis of her bathing beauty abdomen. Baby Brendan would've consumed her best years; frightened away the pretty men, repaid her maternal generosity with shriveled breasts whence his greedy mouth had sucked dry all semblance of taut youth.

"Is that why you've journeyed to the East, Mrs. Ward? To free your sisters from the yoke of institutional patriarchy?" Royce said, averting his gaze from Mary Coyne's flaccid chest. He shuddered at the unbidden image of infant Brendan feasting there; a fat, red leech.

"Watch yourself, dear Brendan. This one's a tricky devil." Mrs. Ward patted Coyne's arm, although the man was so deep into his cups Royce doubted he understood the implicit warning.

Can she know? How in the hell could she? Royce gulped beer to cover his discomfort and confusion. "I'm hardly a devil, Mrs. Ward. A humble cog in the great machine and no more."

"We know our hell-dwellers, and you are certainly one. Girls?"

"Oh, yes," Mrs. Tuttle said and Mrs. Coyne echoed the sentiment. "A handsome white devil!"

"Don't worry, dear," Mrs. Ward said. "Nothing personal—all white men are devils here. Especially the British and the Canadians. You aren't a Canuck, thank heavens."

"Yeah, thank God for something," Royce said, relaxing slightly.

Lunch petered out after that. Coyne brooded and the old women nattered about cards, shopping and whose kids were doing what. Royce excused himself. Mrs. Ward took his elbow at the door. She said, "You should do more than window shop."

"Excuse me?" Royce said.

"Miss Jackson. The girl in 333. She's very charming. You should take a chance. I think the two of you have common interests. She's a bird watcher."

"I don't understand what you mean, Mrs. Ward." Royce kept smiling, kept playing it cool. What the hell is your game, lady?

"Don't you?" A shadow crossed her face. Her eyes congealed in their sockets. "Try to join us at one of our weeklies. Miss Jackson has promised to come make the acquaintance of my circle."

"Oh, um, sure. I'll have to drop by, then."

"Yes. Please do that." She released his arm and extended him a motherly pat on the cheek. Her thick, sharp thumbnail pressed lightly into the flesh under the hinge of his jaw and Royce's head swam with the childhood memory of a butcher shop, and the butcher in his ruddy apron sizing up the raw red meat, slapping it with his left hand, bringing the cleaver with the right, and whistling a wry, cheerless tune while customers waited in a line, batting the occasional circling fly with their newspapers, their parasols or panama hats.

Royce said goodbye, and as he escaped into the hall, Mrs. Ward leaned out and said, "Safe travels. Oh, and Mr. Hawthorne, do be careful about answering your door at night, hmm? In this place, you never know who might come calling." She shut the door on his answer.


He'd been combing his stacks of video and photographic material in a mindless evening ritual held over from one of his first cases, when he turned up a cartridge labeled CHU/6. Chu's series of surveillance tapes ended at number five. Royce scratched his head and ran the feed through his television so he could relax in his armchair with the lights turned down.

Right away, he decided he'd definitely made some odd labeling error.

This wasn't a surveillance tape, but rather a homemade documentary. The documentary was filmed on a handheld and the picture shook as the camera operator walked. An old, old heavyset Chinese woman in a nurse's pinafore was giving the unseen narrator a tour of what seemed to be an abandoned sanitarium. She carried a flashlight and swept its watery beam over ceilings that leaked plaster and stringers of wiring. Piles of debris littered the corridor. The corridor was notched by small white iron doors. She stopped at each door, pointed and muttered into the camera. Dubbing was poor and her mouth and the sound from her mouth moved at different speeds.

"Di Yu," the nurse said in a hoarse monotone. "Di Yu. Di Yu."

When the camera zoomed in on her pointing finger, one could resolve metal placards with lettering. 2: CHAMBER OF GRINDING, said one. 8: CHAMBER OF MOUNTAIN OF KNIVES, said another. "Di Yu. Di Yu," the nurse said. Her face was white and soft as dough, except for her eyes and mouth, which were black. "Di Yu. Di Yu." She came to a larger door set into a slab of masonry. The door was barred and heavily corroded by rust. Its placard read: BLACK SLOTH HELL.

"Aunt CJ." Royce was certain. That was his dearly departed Aunt Carole Joyce under the chalky paint. No, no, that wasn't right. It was Mrs. Ward, how could he have missed the malice in her eyes, her awkward gait?

A jumble of misaligned frames heralded a scene change, which slowly resolved as the interior of a room. Darkness prevailed except for a glass cube spotlighted against a black backdrop. The cube was a museum display on the order Royce recognized from childhood visits to the Met, the kind of massive box intended to house dinosaur exhibits. Shadow-figures assembled at the base of the display, dwarfed by its immensity, the sheer girth of the specimen preserved within. He'd seen the animal on a grade school field trip, had seen it since in a dozen evil dreams, this father of cold sweats and night terrors. The thing reared in excess of twenty-feet high; it might've snapped the back of an elephant, torn the tops from trees. Its pelt was oily and black. Its claws were also black and hooked like daggers. The metal tag on the exhibit said: Megatherium. S. America, ca Pleistocene epoch.

There was a difference from Royce's personal beast, however. This relic, this patent fabrication, a paleontologist's reconstruction with its artificial fur and sawdust stuffing, was a hybrid of the museum curiosity he'd seen in the tour group with all the other bored sixth graders. Vaguely toadlike, somehow obscene; its shape altered for the worse as shadows moved across its monstrous bulk.

The camera swooped in tight. Dozens of naked men and women pressed against the base, hands splayed and grasping. Their skins sagged and drooped from the relentless gravity of age. More ancients shuffled and crawled from the outer darkness to prostrate themselves before the idol, and in their eagerness to worship, they pressed the first rank and crushed them until blood shot against the glass. The petitioners moaned and their cries echoed the bestial croaks he'd heard in the night outside his door.

Mrs. Ward stood among the mewling throng, her white face and white pinafore shining. "Di Yu. Di Yu." The camera zoomed tighter, tighter, focused upon her mouth, and the tape ended.

Royce's skull felt like an anvil. He rose to make for the bathroom and almost tripped over a body. Before he could yell, lights came up, revealing the bald furnishings of a decrepit theater. The projector was still shuttering, splashing arcane symbols on the screen. A half-dozen filmgoers ignored him as they retrieved jackets and hats and squelched along the seedy aisles toward the exits.

He rushed to the lobby and accosted the girl sweeping popcorn from the carpet. She recoiled from his urgent demands for information. What theater was this? When had he arrived? Who'd brought him here? She spoke no English. Her manager didn't know much English either, was only able to relate the name of the theater—The Monsoon Gallery, which specialized in independent and art films. The man wrung his hands and implored Royce to leave in peace. There was no record of a ticket transaction; perhaps he'd been drinking and stumbled in through the side door, yes? Many fine bars were located nearby, much action! The manager's bewilderment and distress seemed genuine.

Royce gave up haranguing him and wandered into the street. It was nearly eleven pm. According to his watch, he'd misplaced about four hours. He caught a taxi and rode the twenty-odd blocks back to the compound. Unsurprisingly, the security at the gate had no record of his leaving the LRA that evening.

He locked himself in the apartment and searched for the tape. Two hours of ransacking his desk and file cabinets, the dozen or so cardboard boxes jammed in a closet, proved fruitless. In the end, he slumped at the kitchen table and covered his face with his hands. Television laughter came through the vents.


Ming Cho, chief liaison to a mainland conglomerate that contracted Coltech to manufacture jet navigational computers, had invited a bunch of management types to dinner at a Mandarin restaurant. They arrived late because of traffic. Tardiness was a major faux pas in China; fortunately, Ming proved extremely acclimated to Westerners' legendary indiscretions and he cut them some slack. He and his cadre of flunkies arranged an elaborate banquet: music, pretty dancing girls, karaoke.

Marty James climbed on the stage at one point, his three-hundred-dollar haircut mussed from the attentions of the party girls, his tie loosened so it drooped low across his considerable belly, and led the restaurant in a rousing chorus of "Camp Town Races" until he almost pitched head over heels into the front row of diners; Cho and Liu Zhu came to the rescue and dragged him back to the table, the trio red-faced and nearly bawling from exertion and hilarity. Zhu kept refilling his glass, any glass within reach, with rice wine, shouting, "Gombay! Gombay!" the Chinese equivalent of "Bottoms up!" The Americans who responded were dropping like flies. Royce managed a few half-shouted pleasantries with the lovely and alluring Ms. Jackson. Her handshake was warmer than her eyes or her impersonal smile. She'd arrived in a white dress cut down the center and slashed up the flanks and the men seemed to have trouble keeping their mouths shut.

There was an exception, however. About two-thirds of the way through the meal Royce noticed Bill Zander—Billy Zed, the resident Brits called him—staring at the crowd. They'd pulled two tables together and barely had enough room for the whole party. Bill was down at the end. Royce couldn't ask him who he was looking at without shouting. He ignored Bill for a while, but then the junior production manager made an awful expression. It reminded Royce of candid photos taken at amusement parks of people on the rides, some of which were classic studies in human terror and vulnerability.

Such was Bill's expression. His face sagged and his mouth did the same. For a second Royce thought Bill would begin to shriek right there in that packed restaurant.

Oh, God, how much has that silly s.o.b. had to drink? Royce craned his neck to see what the hell was going on. It seemed as if Bill was staring at a table full of Germans. Nothing odd about those people, except they were drunk and noisy, probably competing with the Coltech crowd. Gradually, he concluded Bill wasn't looking at the other table; he'd focused on a copse of rubber plants: big specimens in ornamental clay pots. The restaurant could've doubled as rainforest on a movie stage; yards of exotic plants, bamboo and hanging vines. Groupers and lobsters drifted in dim aquariums—one picked out one's own dinner and a guy with a net on a pole scooped it up and hustled it into the kitchen. He didn't spot anything particularly unusual and Bill eventually settled down, although he drank enough of the house whiskey to put an Irishman in a coma.

When the party finally staggered outside to load into cabs, he caught Bill's arm and asked if he felt all right. The man was so boozy, he'd gone cross-eyed. Bill clutched Royce's coat and pulled him close and whispered he'd seen something in the rubber plants. He slobbered gibberish on Royce's collar, whimpering about children, terrible little beasts. Bill's expression raised the hairs on the back of Royce's arms.

Shea privately informed him Bill had partaken earlier of some particularly potent Thai grass they'd gotten from a Cambodian in the Mount Victoria region. Allegedly, the stuff carried an LSD-class wallop with a plethora of nasty side effects—including total, all-consuming paranoia. Bill became incomprehensible and started singing pieces of the Chinese pop song he'd mangled during his turn at karaoke. Royce and Shea carried him to the curb. He puked all over his pants and they packed him into the cab. His luckless compatriots protested mightily and tried to pitch him back into the street. They might've succeeded, except Royce and Shea pressed their bodies against the door until the taxi rolled away into the bright scrum of traffic.

Royce offered to share a ride with Shelley Jackson. She raised a brow at the spittle on his collar and declined, joining forces with Shea, James and Cho as they went club-hopping in a company limousine.

Everybody forgot about him standing in the rain before the restaurant exit. There were no more taxis. He stuck his hands in his pockets and let the sidewalk crowd sweep him in the direction of home away from home.


Midnight found Royce and Coyne, a disconsolate pair, lounging poolside. Balmy drizzle cut through the smog, plastered their hair, their clothes, glittered in puddles in the dips of the tiles. Neither of them were particularly sober; however, as Coyne pointed out early on, he wasn't nearly as drunk as he'd have preferred. He'd returned from a black tie affair thrown by some Texas tycoon. The fellow who invited him, a foxy corporate lawyer, disappeared on the arm of some other guy. Aggrieved by this unceremonious treatment, Coyne did his best to decimate the open bar. After a couple loud arguments with better-dressed, better-connected guests, he got tossed into the street by a squad of bull-necked security people and ended up walking two miles back to the safety of the LRA. An ill-advised shortcut through the park resulted in his tripping over a bush and sliding on his ass down a small hill.

He sat with his head lowered, his white shirt splashed with mud, dinner jacket a sodden lump between his feet. He'd removed his shoes and socks and dipped his feet to the pants cuff into the pool water.

Water rolled in its shallow basin, scuffed by the rain and an occasional gust, and slopped over the rim onto the deck. Shelley Jackson's light blinked on and silhouettes moved against the drapes. He cursed, and wondered wherefrom this irrational jealousy.

"Behold!" Coyne said with a sarcastic flourish.

Figures emerged from the building, pale and wan and silent as ghosts. He recognized them: Mrs. Degive from 129, tall and hollow-eyed, her nightgown hung drenched as if she'd crawled from a shipwreck onto some night shore; Mrs. Yarbro and Mrs. Tuttle shuffling together like recently separated Siamese twins; and Mrs. Cardin, tapping with her cane, free hand to the hole in her throat. They gravitated toward the pool, shambling with empty determination (except for poor, crippled Mrs. Grant; she humped along the ground like a centipede): the women bore the witless expressions of sleepwalkers, their spectral forms lighted by undulating reflections from the shallows.

Agatha Ward coalesced near the dense shadows in the courtyard entrance and winded a brief, decadent trill on her panpipe. Her face was dark and convulsed; the face of a medieval goodwife transfixed in agonizing labor. At her side hunched a lean, pale youth, nude but for a pair of goggles on a strap around his neck, and a pair of immodestly snug swim trunks. He stood, eyes to the ground, awkwardly bowed at elbows and knees. His ankles and wrists were apparently bound. His head was shaved and it shone in the eerie light.

Agatha bared her teeth, glared blindly. She opened a service door inset between the entry arch and a shrub, and the women filed through into darkness. She went last, leading the youth by his wrist; the boy half hopped, half staggered. The door shut behind them, its edges vanishing neatly as the edges of a spider's trap.

"Oh my God." Royce blinked water from his lashes. "I've seen them down here a few times, but I never got a good look at . . .Was that the—what did you call it?"

"Yeah," Coyne said. "What've I been saying? The old broads are effing creepy."

"Who the hell was the kid with them?"

"I dunno about the kid. One of those kinky buggers from a sex club, I bet. The witches are gonna use him in a fertility rite. 'Course their snatches likely got cobwebs growing in 'em, so a lotta good it'll do."

"You're kidding. You mean they fuck him?"

"Who knows? Why not? This is the East, my friend. Freaky shit all around us, all the time."

Royce tasted acid. He found a cigarette and spent a few long moments lighting it in the rain. His hand shook. "My brother was a swimmer. Good body, like that kid."


"Yeah. Search and rescue diver for the Coast Guard." Royce nodded and dragged on his cigarette until the smoke scorched his lungs and he came up gasping. "He died. Good looking kid. Left a lot of girls crying." They sat like that for a while. Finally, Royce said, "God, that's too weird for me. Where'd they go?"

"Huh? Inside."

"I know they went inside. I thought they usually went out, into the community."

"What, you think the bus to the casino runs this late? Ask the schmucks at the gate if you wanna know." Coyne chuckled bitterly and splashed his foot. "Who cares, man? Who gives a shit, anyway? Aren't you sick of this place yet? A party every night. Rich slants with bad skin and worse teeth holding court. Buncha effing hyenas. Give a brother a drag?"

Royce handed him the cigarette. He immediately thought of long-lost Chu and the honking brays of laughter; of the mainland business partners who'd attended the dinner, the slyly insouciant glances they'd shot Shea and James, these latter worthies grown sleek and sanguine with food and wine, and complacency; wild pigs softened from their more vicious natures. "Hyenas and boars," he said. "And not a lion in sight."

Soon it grew cool and they were out of cigarettes. Each mumbled his farewells and tottered off to bed. Royce lay on his back, still dressed in his soaked clothes and shivering from a chill. In the twilight divide between waking and dreaming, he replayed the bizarre tableaux at the pool a hundred times. The boy looked over his shoulder and Royce met his brother's eyes, his frightened cow eyes . . .


The next Saturday mixer got started earlier than usual. Royce straggled in from a meeting with his local support crew and saw a crowd gathered near the entrance to the ballroom and community annex. He slipped through to his apartment and laid out some casual evening wear and then took a quick shower, contemplating the merits of making an appearance downstairs.

An email message from an unknown sender blinked in the inbox when he climbed from the shower; it had been piped through a secondary account known only to his handlers in Atlanta. He opened the message with a laptop reserved for correspondence that might compromise the sensitive documents on his primary computer. Encryptions were made to be broken; such was the axiom of a journeyman intelligence officer he'd interned under after college. Royce kept four computers on the premises, each with a specific backup or decoy function, each protected with the latest and greatest high-tech ciphers the lab boys could devise. Their hard drives could be wiped at the press of a key.

The message itself was blank with an attached video file. The label said: M.POE.; D. ANDREWS; J. STEVENS. CHAMBER OF MAGGOTS. His heart began to speed up. Royce clicked it, watched the video begin to load. He lighted a cigarette and went to the terrace. It was a calm evening. People continued to gather around buffet tables set up in the quadrangle. Electric light poured through the open doors of the community annex. Orchestra music from the ballroom and bits of conversation drifted past him, carried toward a surge of stars that blazed through breaks in the omnipresent smog. The Saturday mixer was generally a muted affair, an attraction for the geriatric set and a few young lonely singles. Agatha Ward had secured a sextet from the philharmonic and it had drawn this lively crowd of suits and dresses, among these an amazing number of couples who hadn't yet achieved the half-century mark.

He crushed out his cigarette, returned to the computer, sat patiently until the video loaded and a slightly unfocused image flickered on the monitor: black and white, interrupted by wavery lines and occasional fuzz; probably shot by a security camera.

A garbled voice intoned, "Those who perform crooked deeds and malpractice are thus served."

The location appeared to be a large, drab room; a storage area, perhaps. It possessed concrete walls and floor, a dangling bulb swollen with feeble light. The bulb swung gently, casting shadows at weird angles. A trio of figures stood in a loose triangle near the center of the room; Royce couldn't discern their genders because of the bad lighting and the individuals' voluminous garb. They wore heavy robes or dresses; their faces were obscured by cowls.

What the hell is this? He didn't like it for several reasons, not the least of which being the anonymity of the sender. This, and the footage with its isolated stage and motionless actors, the enigmatic intention of whoever lurked behind the camera, evoked a sense of creeping dread. Several minutes passed and the image remained static. Royce glanced at his watch, considered calling it quits and catching the tail end of the party. Agatha Ward had left an invitation suggesting Shelley Jackson would be in attendance. The prospect appealed to him despite the utter lack of encouragement Jackson had shown him thus far. He couldn't bear the idea of being alone with this eerie video. It reminded him too much of the last bizarre film he'd stumbled across, the one that precipitated, or was a product of, a delusional episode. He reached for the escape key.

The picture stuttered, shifted to a different camera angle, this one slightly off center and much closer to the figures. From this new, extreme perspective, he perceived minute twitches of hands and limbs, the abrupt shudder of a torso. Small chunks of something dislodged and fell. Straining to comprehend the bizarre nature of the image, a very bad thought occurred to him. He located his seldom used bifocals, unfolded them and slid them over his nose.

He trembled to realize from a telltale sliver of reflected light the figures were suspended from the ceiling by slender wires that terminated at their necks. He couldn't detect how these wires were attached.

A hangman's noose? A fishing hook in the spine? A film school prank? Their robes, their cowls, gray-white through the cheap lens, were not cloth at all, but rather colloidal masses of rice slathered to naked flesh. The rice squirmed upon them like a living, bloated thing. More gray-white pudding spread around the feet of the triad, flowing up from drains in the concrete floor. The closest figure raised an emaciated arm in a weak, swiping gesture at its face, and a charcoal-dark eye yawed wildly. The video ended.

M. Poe. Manichev Poe, the Balkan investment banker he'd seen at the Rover with Shelley Jackson. Manichev Poe of the open-collared shirts and long, black hair. He'd never heard of Andrews or Stevens. Doubtless they'd committed the sin of crooked deeds as well.

Royce swallowed hard and wondered briefly if he was going to be sick. He chewed on his knuckle. Once the fogs partially receded, he initiated the protocol to wipe the hard drive. Then he lifted the computer and carried it into the bathroom and smashed it repeatedly in the tub until only bits of circuit board and snags of wire remained.

The phone beeped for God knew how long before he shrugged off his daze and picked up. The line was dead by then and the display logged the caller as anonymous. He decided to fix a drink, but the scotch was gone and the last beer too; even the mini bottles of Christian Brothers he kept in the pantry, with the oatmeal, flour, and mouse traps.

Royce walked downstairs without recollection of forming the intent to leave his apartment. Full dark had come and the sodium lamps kicked on, masking the faces of the guests in shades of red and amber. He scooped several glasses of champagne from an unattended platter, retired to one of the small tables, and drank rapidly and with little pleasure.

Agatha Ward waded toward him, Shelley Jackson in tow. "Mr. Hawthorne! I presume you remember Miss Jackson. I'm thrilled you decided to join us."

"Everybody was having such a swell time, I couldn't resist." He rose unsteadily and nodded at Shelley Jackson. "A pleasure to see you again."

Shelley Jackson was dressed in a mohair sweater. She radiated ennui. "I'm sure. Well, Agatha, thanks for the party. I've an early flight to Beijing—"

"Why don't you dears visit a moment while I attend to some crashingly dull social niceties?" Mrs. Ward smiled with implicit cruelty at the younger woman, ducked and bobbed in pantomime, and retreated.

"Damn it," Shelley Jackson said. She snapped her fingers at a melancholy waiter in a tuxedo jacket and bade him fetch her a double bourbon, neat. She downed it without a wince, eyed Royce hatefully, and demanded the bottle. She said to Royce, "Where'd we meet, anyway?"

"At that Mandarin place, the other night—"

"Yeah, right. The guy threw up on you." She chuckled, low and nasty. "Nice. I've seen you around, haven't I?"

"I live right up there." He pointed, but she didn't follow his gesture, concentrated on her bottle. The champagne was hitting him hard now; his cheeks were numb and he had to carefully enunciate. He plunged recklessly ahead and killed another glass, pouring it down his throat to stifle the sense of misery and helplessness.

"Love your hair," she said.

"Thanks," Royce said. They stood shoulder to shoulder; close enough he smelled her bath oils, the sweet exhaust of gin on her breath. "Cigarette?"

"No. They ruin your teeth."

He lighted one for himself, suppressed the urge to fidget with his lighter. After the silence between them dragged out, he said, "A mushroom walks into a bar—"

"Oh, shit."

"A mushroom walks into a bar. Sees this gorgeous woman sitting by herself. So he buys her a drink and asks if she'd like to dance. The woman looks him up and down and finally says no thanks. And this mushroom is pretty deflated, so he asks why not. The woman says it's nothing personal, 'I don't dance with mushrooms.' And he says, 'Oh, c'mon, I'm a real fungi!'"

She delicately wiped her mouth on the sleeve of her sweater. "Can you?"

"Dance? Sure. I learned to tango at charm school."

"I meant in your condition. You're pretty shit-faced. Besides, the band's calling it a night."

She was correct; the sextet began to break down their instruments and pack them toward the gatehouse. Royce sighed. "Maybe next time. The Rover has live music on weekends. If you like jazz hits rendered by girls whose English consists of "hello, mister" and most of the words to most of the songs—"

"Here's a better idea: Why don't we nip off to your place and have a nightcap."

"I'm out of stock" he said, trying for a light touch.

"Or better yet, let's skip all the bullshit. I'll get down on my knees and suck your cock. Does that work for you?" She tilted her head to meet his eyes. Her face was smooth and white and luminous.

Royce floundered for an appropriate response; between the horror show of a video, the half-magnum of pink champagne, and the surrealistic conversation, it took several seconds to deduce she'd been toying with him. Heat rushed through his skull and he overcame the nearly overwhelming urge to crack her across the face, to grab her shoulders and shake her until she rattled. His gorge rose; he forced his fingers to unclench. He said, "I suppose you're good with your mouth. James and Shea know talent when they see it, right?"

She chuckled and flipped the bottle underhand. It splashed in the pool. "Nighty-night, sweet prince. Go sleep it off, hey? You stink like a rat."

Rat? There was a provocative choice of words. Shelley Jackson and Agatha Ward must've compared notes. Maybe they knew something, maybe he'd slipped along the line; his work was art, not a perfect science, and he was far from flawless — especially of late. He was up to his neck in mistakes. For the first time in an age, he wanted to go home, whatever that meant. He could take a vacation, look up some of his college buddies, an old girlfriend or two with whom he hadn't managed to burn every bridge.

"Screw you, bitch. You look like a boy, anyway." Shelley Jackson was too far away to hear, but the morose waiter gave him a pitying look as he came to retrieve the empties. The man used one of the deck chairs to snag the bottle floating in the pool.

Agatha Ward stood near doors to the ballroom in a tight circle, which included the building superintendent, an elegant gentleman named Bertram Harris; Mrs. Tuttle; and several geezers Royce vaguely recognized from around the complex. Mrs. Ward waved to him as he listed for the elevator. Her body rippled and became transparent, revealing her skeleton suspended in its jelly. The bones were too long, too sinuous for a woman of such enormous girth; her spine recoiled like a chain of knives as her skull swiveled to track him. The mirage fanned outward and the crowd was abruptly transfigured into a mobile of skeletal X-rays. For an instant the flesh of his own hand gave way to showcase his finger bones, the metacarpal with its scar and the pins from a long-ago biking mishap in the Pyrenees, the slender tube of forearm—

Royce collapsed into the lift. When the doors parted, he'd gone completely rubbery and had to slide along the wall to his door. Too much champagne. Or something more sinister. He'd heard the cautionary tales about Mickeys in the wine, the date rape drugs kidnapers preferred. Worst case scenario, in a few hours Atlanta would receive a call from a disembodied voice demanding X amount for Royce's safe return. Maybe they'd send Atlanta a finger or an ear first, just to set the ground rules. If he worked for the Germans, or the French, or the Italians, there'd be no question about whether they'd cough up the ransom. American companies were more unpredictable. Next time, he'd definitely go with the Italians, just to be on the safe side.

Too much champagne, I'm fine, everything is fine. Full speed ahead, Royce, old bean. Kick the door shut. There's a boy.

Finally, he made it to the bed and sprawled on his back. He pawed at the phone in his pants pocket, unaware of who he might call at this late hour, who might gallop to his rescue, if not the police, and he knew from a thousand dirty deals the police were never to be trusted, but all feeling leaked from his fingers and a few moments later he fell unconscious.


Somewhere in the void of night Shelley Jackson crept into his bed. He jerked awake and shoved her to the floor in a moment of stark terror, his brain confused as to whether this was another nightmare, a hallucination fueled by his earlier kamikaze excesses. Shelley Jackson laughed crazily. A tendril of blood leaked from her nostril. The blue and red running lights of a low-flying helicopter traveled across the room, briefly illuminating the wildness of her expression, her feral, inhuman beauty.

Royce froze in a half-crouch upon the edge of the bed, now very much convinced this was the real deal for once, not a fever dream. A hundred thoughts crashed into each other, among them, How the hell did she get in here? He didn't have much of a chance to analyze the situation. As the light from the chopper dwindled, Shelley Jackson was blurred in the shadows and she sprang upon him, knocked him supine, twisting in his arms, wiry and ferocious. She ravished him with sloppy kisses and nipped his lips, his tongue. She tasted of liquor and blood and darkness. Her skin was damp and hot against his. Her hair was matted and tangled and smelled of animal sweat. She tore his clothes away and licked his chest and belly. As her frantic mouth sealed his cock and her tongue began to circle in tight, efficient strokes, he wondered whose bed she'd recently crawled from before tumbling into his. He came then and the thought was obliterated as he turned inside out.

Later, she straddled him, her sleek, powerful thighs locked against his hips, and rocked slowly, muscles shuddering, her teeth gleaming in the dark as she panted. Royce lay flattened and nearly lifeless from absolute exhaustion, yet his cock profoundly engorged as she took him in until his balls were tight against her ass. She groaned in Cantonese. Her palms ground into his chest and he winced, thinking dimly of the bruises sure to come. His gasp was cut short as she leaned down and clamped her hand over his mouth and nose and shut off his air. He bucked in pseudo orgasms, his hands prying at her wrist and forearm. No way could she maintain her grip; he thought this as fire turned his lungs to ash and black tracers shot through his brain.

Above the thunder in his ears a raucous, eager croaking resounded from the darkness and grew close. Half-formed shapes gathered around the bed, witness to his pathetic struggles. He glimpsed lank hair fanned across elongated breasts, and round paunches rugose as elephant hides. Withered lips fastened to his nipples, the span of his inner thigh. Mouths, toothless as hagfish, slobbered on him. He was dimly mortified and repulsed as his erection intensified and he came again so powerfully he thought his back might break.

He went deaf and blind and spun in clockwise revolutions, faster and faster until he was plunged down the drain into insoluble night.


"Black Weasel."

"Huh?" Royce's eyes were glued shut. Dull, cold light pressed against his lids. His mouth was dry and chapped. He'd curled into the fetal position; his entire body felt like it had been beaten with a club.

Shelley Jackson said, "I don't think it's black sloth. I think it's black weasel hell. A Buddhist punishment."

He covered his face with his arm. "Oh, boy. What?"

"You were raving."

"Oh," he said, and stuck his aching head under a pillow.

Shelley Jackson wouldn't let up. She said, "What's the worst predicament you've ever been in? Me, I got lost in Bangkok; drunk, drunk, drunk, don't you know; separated from my friends who actually knew their way around the goddamned rat warren. Some guys started following me, chased me into a really slummy part of town. The whole city is slummy, but this took the cake. Very spooky."

"But you made it." He licked his blistered lips, tried to clear the rust from his throat. The previous evening was becoming as distant and mysterious as the depths of the oubliette he'd once seen at a tourist castle in the Loire Valley. He had to piss in the worst way, yet his cock was so sore he dreaded the slightest movement. "You escaped their clutches."

"Did I?" Shelley Jackson's voice was scratchy. She snuggled her warm, solid weight against him, one leg flopped across his own. "All's well that ends well. I could be living in a bamboo box giving head to faceless sonsofbitches who pay for that sort of thing. I'm a lucky girl, then."

"White slavery isn't the trend. They probably wanted your kidneys."

"Not these sorry bastards, they don't. You weren't kidding when you said you were dry. I looked everywhere and nada. I need a drink."

Metal snicked and cigarette smoke coiled into Royce's nose. He moaned and held out his hand until she stuck the cigarette into his mouth for a long drag. He coughed hard enough his guts churned, but the nicotine rush began to do its magic straight away. Eventually he said, "I thought you didn't smoke." When no answer was forthcoming, he continued, "I'll tell you what I need. Coffee."

"Me too. Get up and make some."

They had coffee on the terrace; she in a set of his boxers and a white dress shirt; he wrapped in a towel. It was raining again. Gray clouds erased the city beyond the walls of the compound.

"How come you trashed your TV?"

Royce had to think on that. His TV? It came back to him then, how he'd been trying to find the news, but every channel was filled with either black static, or the repeating image of a chamber filled with dozens of screaming people. The latter was filmed at some distance so the actors were indistinct miniatures. The people screamed because they were strapped to tables, or slung from poles, or trapped inside small baskets. Torturers were quartering them with winches and chains, stabbing them with barbed prongs, or slowly sawing them to pieces. And childlike figures cowered beneath the killing tables in the lakes of gore, bloated bellies like famine victims, and unnaturally slender necks—cranes' necks—and alabaster faces that shone with pure, ravenous horror. Channel after channel of this, and somewhere in the confusion the remote died and the images ran together, faster and faster, and the sounds—! He'd flown into a vicious rage and speared the monitor with one of the fancy plastic kitchen chairs. When was this? A week ago? Two? The little details kept slipping his mind.

Royce said, "Something on the news pissed me off."

"You crazy, Hawthorne? That's it, I bet." She eyed him over her cigarette. "And what the fuck is up with the wig? Ashamed of the ol' bald spot? Overkill."

"Guess I'm a diva at heart."

"Yeah, okay. So. What's yours?"

"My what?"

"Predicament. The worst fix you've ever been in."

"Most people would ask what's the worst thing you've ever done, or what's the worst thing that's ever happened to you . . ."

"Yeah, but I didn't. Pay attention, fool."

"I got locked in a trunk. Russian mobsters. A bunch of amateur slobs. They were just trying to scare me off a job at a munitions factory, but damn." Royce enjoyed the lie because it came so naturally and was so close to the ugly truth of his profession. He had worked at a Russian factory, and if they'd ever caught him spying he imagined they'd have done something drastic, probably far worse than scare him. Yet, even as the lie rolled from his tongue, the brutal peasant faces of his imaginary captors, the suffocating darkness of the trunk, his terror and panic and despair were solid as memories ever got. A black gulf opened in his mind's eye and he shivered and looked away.

"Holy crap. Did it work? They scare you off the job?"

"Hell yes." Royce dragged on the cigarette and blew a rolling cloud of smoke. "Hell, yes."

"That's good stuff, Hawthorne. I ain't ever met anybody who'd been kidnapped by Russkies. You spies live on the edge, doncha?"

There it was, game over. He wondered how it'd happened and discarded the thought. It didn't matter, did it? He turned his face to stone, ticking off the possibilities, the likely outcomes, the avenues of escape. "Excuse me?"

"Lighten up, boy. You've got telescopes and cameras up the wazoo . . .Either you're a perv, which I bet is incidental, or you're keeping tabs on somebody here at the LRA. Besides, I've done a little checking on you; you got a lot of free time for a QA."

"I'm a hobbyist," he said, his heart beating double time. "Majored in film back in the day. Been thinking of shooting a documentary about voyeurism."

"Bullshit. But it's okay if you've got secrets. It's sexy in a creepy way."

"Wow, thanks."

"No problem, eagle eyes. So, since you mentioned it, what's the worst thing you've ever done. And I don't mean spying on broads in their undies. I mean the worst."

"Be prepared for disappointment. I've lived a blameless, pedestrian life. Besides getting stuffed in the trunk, of course."

"Now you're boring me," she said. She stubbed her cigarette and hugged her knees as the wind came up and rattled the loose bars in the rail. "Wanna know why I decided to come over here? Wanna know what changed my mind?"

Royce shook his head. "Don't jinx it."

"But c'mon—be honest. Isn't all this a bit much? Isn't it kind of unreal? That's what I said when I woke up and saw you half-dead next to me. I said, 'Shell, what kind of freaky shit were you drinking last night, girl?' Admit it. You thought the same thing, except yours was probably more like, 'Fuck yeah! I'm the stallion!' Right?"

His mind filled with pink and black clouds. He said, "I better get dressed. Big day at the factory."


After Royce didn't see Shelley Jackson for a couple days he checked with his sources and discovered she'd gone to Beijing with James for a multinational trade conference and tour of manufacturing provinces, which meant a week or so of morning confabs and afternoons and evenings of drunken debauchery; fully comped, naturally.

Royce broke into her apartment in the middle of the afternoon when activity in the compound was at its ebb. He told himself the trespass wasn't premeditated—he'd come home from work early and paced around the kitchen with caged nervousness, his head throbbing from squinting through the telescope at the same humdrum activity that was a mirror of the past several months. That didn't wash, though; he'd lifted her keys while she snoozed after their second evening of anguished screwing and made copies with a key-mold he stashed in a locked drawer. On the other hand, he'd barely made the conscious decision to do the deed when he found himself before the door as if in a dream or nightmare wherein the sequence of events conforms to the need of the story. The scenes just merged.

You've gone round the bend, pal o' mine. For Chrissake, just walk away. This isn't the silly shit you pulled in college when you were young and dumb and a little obsessive-compulsive behavior was a forgivable side effect of hormones and a lack of judgment. What the fuck do you think you're doing?

The proceedings continued to unravel with the dreamlike quality. He couldn't shake the stupor that descended upon him, that rendered him a helpless observer to his moving hands.

In this dream that was not a dream, Royce peeled yellow caution tape from the threshold; the tape had gone waxy and brittle with age. How could her unit be sealed when he saw her moving around in there so many nights over the recent months? He hesitated to turn the knob, nearly paralyzed by the utter certainty he'd be sorry in the end for this ill-conceived intrusion. Maybe Jenny was right—you're nothing more than a stalker, justify it anyway you want. His hands followed their own agenda and pushed open the door. You'll regret it. Wait and see! Your dick gets you in trouble every time. But it was too late, he'd ignored the appeals of his better angels and set the machinery in motion. He'd succumbed to curiosity, jealousy and let the dream be his insulation from blame.

It was worse than he'd imagined. Shelley Jackson's unit reeked of carpet vinyl burned to slag, and a richer, headier undercurrent of cooked blood. The apartment was a series of connected boxes, each charred and ruined. A futile cascade of the sprinkler system had burst plumbing and devastated the enclosure beyond even the scope of the fire. Bits of plaster and melted wiring dangled from the ruptured ceilings; water dripped from exposed pipes. He gaped dumbfounded at a half-dozen sides of beef suspended by thick ropes. The slaughtered meat was wrapped in translucent plastic that mitigated the rank decay, muffled the buzz and whine of flies at work. Blood had dripped until it formed a small lake of black pudding. A partially skinned cow head remained attached to one carcass, a grotesquerie of flattened muzzle and bulging eye. Royce tapped the bovine eyeball through its plastic shroud, found it to be as unyielding as a knot of hard leather.

I was in a slaughterhouse once. When was that? Was I really? Oh, yes. You were thirteen, remember? Cousin Tobe's farm; he showed you the old barn where they killed the cows. Tobe's family hadn't used it, not in years. Didn't matter, you held the hammer, saw the chains and the hooks, you practically heard those cow ghosts bawling as they were strung up. What an imagination you've got there, son.

Royce fumbled for the tiny camera he'd dropped into his pocket and clicked an entire memory card of photographic evidence. He poked about the room, snapping his shots and wondering at the absurdity of it all. The dreamlike flow of continuity compelled him to open a cabinet wherein he found a metal box with the paint stripped from intense heat. Inside were a number of half-melted identification cards and blackened passports, each bearing Shelly Jackson's face, but with radically different names and hairstyles. The pictures and passports went into his jacket after a bit.

Someone grunted in another room, followed by a drawn out ripping sound and he almost jumped from his skin. Slivers and shards of imploded light bulbs gleamed amid the crystallized lumps of linoleum, the heaps of scorched furniture. The floor creaked uneasily beneath his cautious tread. The curtains of plastic broke the fading light into fragments and did nothing to illuminate the dim corners, the gaping holes in sheetrock that burrowed into deeper darkness.

He peeked around the doorjamb into the shelled remnants of the bedroom, driven by the sickly fascination of a child spying for the first time upon his parents coupling. The bed was destroyed except for its brass frame. Mrs. Ward squatted inside the frame. She was naked as a fish. Her blubber seemed magnified in the bluish-tinted light, a crippling excess. Yet beneath this excess were sheets of muscle that belied terrible strength and contributed to the overall impression of unnaturalness and perversion. A grimy burlap sack rested at her feet. It was easily the length of a sleeping bag, only wider, and if Saint Nick had butchered reindeer this was exactly the kind of bag he'd carry.

Mrs. Tuttle, Mrs. Yarbro and Mrs. Coyne sat around her in lotus fashion, and they too were naked. They gleamed like ivory totems and in contrast to the inimitable Mrs. Ward, each seemed absolutely cadaverous with sunken chests and exposed ribs, the skeletal grimaces of cancer patients on the last leg of the journey. The women feasted on the leathery remains of a haunch of cow. Their hollow faces were caked in old blood. Gnawed bones lay heaped all about the room. Mrs. Tuttle gouged a hunk of meat free with long and tapered fingers and tenderly fed Mrs. Ward. Mrs. Yarbro and Mrs. Coyne rocked wildly and uttered joyful croaks that were far removed from humanity.

Royce swayed in place as the world splintered beneath his feet. As one, the four women raised their bloody faces to regard him and he thought of primates, of the hominids in their caves, an awful feast spread across rocks and dirt. Mrs. Ward's mouth yawned in evident pleasure at his appearance. She made a glottal exclamation and raised her hand to point. Mrs. Coyne, Tuttle and Yarbro cackled and scattered. Mrs. Coyne hesitated in the wreckage of the wall of the bathroom to titter at Royce. She leaped straight up into a crack in the ceiling and vanished.

Mrs. Ward patted the filthy, lumpy sack without looking away from him. "Some of your friends are waiting." She levered herself into a crouch, oriented as if to spring. Her neck swelled.

Pitch flowed across the windows, like heavy satin curtains dropping on an opera stage, and all light was extinguished. Royce fell sideways, capsized in the blackness and struck his hip and shoulder on the door jamb, drove a jag of glass into his calf. He threw his hands before his face in an instinctive gesture and the darkness peeled from the windows, revealed the burned room. Mrs. Ward was gone. He was alone, kneeling amid the ashes, an unwilling supplicant.

His perception of the known world, which had taken a number of blows lately, slid a little further into terra incognita. He approached the day manager and asked how the LRA could let a burned out unit to someone. The guy looked at him quizzically and said the appropriate repairs had been affected and approved by the building authorities, but if the kind sir was concerned regarding the issue he might broach the matter with Superintendent Harris. Royce was left with soot smudges on his fingers, the acrid cloy of cinders in his hair and a deepening sense of dislocation. He fled to the Rover, hungry for the presence of familiar surroundings, the comfort of a crowd. He drank himself senseless and someone called Coyne who came and dragged him home.

Royce emerged from his coma the following afternoon. His skull was filled with the familiar pink and black cloud and he told himself his visit to Shelley Jackson's apartment had been a dream, the worst kind. Deciding it had been a dream instantly made him feel one hundred percent better. He thought about going back over, just to verify that the universe was whole and sane. Instead he poured himself a tall glass of XO and watched his neighbors walk around the quadrangle, flitter like shadows behind the windows of their apartments.


Mr. Shea flagged down Royce as he left the office on a Friday evening and invited him to a private get-together he was throwing the next afternoon. The occasion was informal; there'd be free food and liquor. "We'll probably bore the shit out of you. You look mopey, is all," Mr. Shea said. "I hope you aren't letting some broad get you down."

Royce laughed, but there was no question he'd been mooning like a lovesick teenager. His productivity at the cover job was taking a hit; on the spy front he'd all but abandoned his mission, preferring to vegetate on his couch waiting for the girl to return. Two weeks and no sign of Shelley Jackson. It was like the old line: she doesn't call, she doesn't write, oy . . .

In fairness, she might've called once, at about four am. The connection was full of static and her voice sounded like it was coming through crumpling paper. I fucked you because you look exactly like a guy I knew in college. I worked in a hospice and this younger dude was dying of cancer or something, he was mostly gone. A sack of bones; smelled like he was rotting. Couldn't talk much, in and out of reality, but really nice. His mom left some photos on the dresser. Him and his family. Him playing catch with a dog. Him and his girlfriend at the prom. He'd been a handsome guy. I couldn't get over how much his girlfriend and I looked alike, either; we could've been sisters. It was weird. At least I thought so until I met you and it sank in who you reminded me of—crap, that's pretty twisted, I know. Anyway, I'll show you the prom picture when I get back. Yeah, yeah, I stole it when the kid died. Dunno why. Nobody ever said anything. Later!

Royce had shouted into the phone, tried to interrupt her rambling monologue. She couldn't hear him and just kept talking about this dying kid and his high school sweetheart and then static swept her voice away. He couldn't be certain what was real. There was no record of the call on his line and in the light of day the conversation seemed increasingly implausible. She's on vacation. Traveling, I dunno where, according to an increasingly bellicose Mr. James when hectored on the matter. Royce, clinging to some tiny shred of pride, swallowed his frustration and obsessed in private. He couldn't fathom his overwhelming compulsion to rut with her, a need so singularly powerful stray memories of her breasts as they gleamed with perspiration, the wicked O of her mouth as she teased the head of his cock, caused him to stiffen at the most awkward moments at work. He made certain to carry a clipboard at all times for strategic positioning. Good God, it was life at fourteen all over again.

Mr. Shea said, "Be there, two pm. Bring that Coyne fellow. You haven't given up on him, have you? Good, bring him along. Maybe he'll loosen up a bit."

Royce reluctantly agreed to the daytrip, despite the fact he'd have been happy to spend the weekend as a shut-in. He arranged for Mr. Jen to swing by the LRA and squire Coyne and himself to the rendezvous—a seaside resort at the edge of the New Territories. It proved to be a gloomy ride. Coyne, who at the outset seemed overjoyed by the opportunity to schmooze with the fat cats, became absorbed with his handheld computer and cell phone. Mr. Jen drove in stoic silence for the entire forty-minute ride. He didn't even utter a word when a flatbed truck loaded with lumber cut them off on a sharp curve, forcing him to pump the breaks and twist the wheel hard to slide their vehicle between two cars in the slow lane. Royce clung to his armrest, wondering how the driver could wedge them in the crease so tightly without trading paint. Coyne retrieved his phone from the floorboard and laughed at Royce and patted his leg before resuming conversation with whomever was on the other end.

Mr. Jen's eyes were flat and black in the rearview mirror.

Once they passed the city outskirts and climbed through densely wooded hills, traffic thinned. They shared the winding highway with tractor trailers, buses and a very few private vehicles. Eventually the road descended and paralleled the water. The mountains rose green and mysterious on the right. Mangroves spread across the wetlands far out to the distant tidal flats.

The resort wasn't much—a batch of outdated brown and white buildings atop a low bluff overlooking a rough beach. It appeared to be the off season, not that Royce could be certain; he seldom surfaced from the microcosm of his secret world to mark the seasons, the holidays, or nearly anything related to real life. Placid tourists in garish flower-print shirts wandered the grounds in singles and pairs. There was a collection of architecturally uninspired fountains, rock gardens and topiary quartered by gravel paths. A lone souvenir shop remained open. Most of the other windows were dark.

Mr. Jen parked alongside a nondescript sedan near the hub. The hub was the largest of the buildings, a former western-style house remodeled as a hotel. Its cantilever roofs were covered in moss, its many terraces dripped red and green and blotches of yellow and violet. The big man silently escorted Royce and Coyne into the foyer. The concierge was young and thin and supremely diffident. Upon their arrival, the man exchanged words with Jen in a dialect peculiar to Royce's ear. The concierge barked over his shoulder and clapped impatiently. A pale girl in the brown and white resort uniform emerged from a back room. She bowed and beckoned. She led them through an arch flanked by bronzes of regal mandarins and down a hall into a kind of ovular lounge encircled by bay windows. A rain squall tapped the skylights.

Twenty or so men congregated in small groups about the lounge, smoking and sipping expensive liquor and chatting in a loud, bluff manner that suggested most of them were well into the sauce. Royce recognized a few from the central office, a couple more from the management at the factories. The rest were strangers. He got the impression from snippets of conversation a lot of them had flown in from parts unknown and were taking a pit stop to enjoy the hospitality of their fellow overseers. The guests were uniformly white and male; it was the unwritten code these types of parties were part of the grand old gentleman's tradition. Women and minorities might be invited as curiosities, but such was rare. His collar felt tight and he'd started sweating. He always forgot how sick he was of these affairs until the latest one rolled around.

Mr. James and Mr. Shea waited, drinks in hand at the wet bar. An ornate floor lamp glowed ruddily several feet away near a coffee table loaded with sandwiches, the kind sliced into neat triangles transfixed by a toothpick, and gourmet crackers and a tea service. Large pieces of mismatched furniture had been cast about the room, legacy of the vision of multiple designers, each making additions without heed for style or continuity. It hurt Royce's eyes. He put on a jovial smile and shook hands and accepted a generous scotch dealt by a dour bartender who might've been the elder brother of the concierge.

Mr. Shea grinned affably at Royce. "Glad you made the scene, old man. I wasn't sure I could snap you out of your little funk."

Mr. James said, "It's damned silly to pine over a broad! Who needs them, says I, three divorces later. We're like four amigos; us against the world, eh?" His broad, heavy face was red as brick from drinking. He behaved as a man who'd become so accustomed to perpetual intoxication he'd developed immunity to its lesser effects, a snake handler's tolerance for venom.

"We're like pigs in a blanket," Mr. Shea said. "We're positively cozy. Hit me again, Wang." He traded his empty to the bartender for a fresh glass. "Except for that fellow. Who's he?" He pointed to Mr. Jen. Mr. Jen stood implacably near the door. "I don't like him, I fear."

"That's Mr. Jen. He's my driver," Royce said.

"Ease up on the booze, man," Mr. James said. "He's Hawthorne's driver. Personnel gives all our main men drivers."

"They do? What a cash sink. You're practically stealing our money then, aren't you, Hawthorne?"

"Shut it, Miguel. You want these guys to drive themselves?"

"Go on, Mr. Jen. Shoo, shoo!" Mr. Shea flapped his hand until Mr. Jen wheeled and silently stepped out of the room. "All right. I feel much better. Oh, Wang, you get lost too, yeah? Just leave the bottle handy, will you?"

The bartender grimaced and flung his apron on the counter. He gave them a wondering look and stomped after Mr. Jen.

"Hungry? Let's eat!" Mr. Shea went for the sandwiches and Mr. James magnanimously waived Coyne and Royce to the table ahead of himself. "Bloody excellent, I must say. Bloody excellent," Mr. Shea said before he wiped his fingers on one of the fancy cloth napkins.

"It's great," Coyne said. His head was on a swivel, taking in the sights and sounds. He seemed in his element.

"Hip-hip-hooray," Mr. James intoned. He laughed at his own impression and ate another sandwich. "Miguel, we need to hire the bugger who catered this. These bloody things are bloody divine!"

Royce watched Coyne from the corner of his eye. His own stomach was tied in knots. None of the other guests, the blowhard captains of industry, intruded upon them. It was like an invisible barrier had sprung up. The executives continued to drink and exchange their coarse inanities, dutifully blind. He also noticed two hard-looking men in pea coats had melted into the room, casually situated between everyone and the door to the foyer. They waited patiently, a pair of hunting dogs on the leash. His picture of Mr. James and Mr. Shea underwent an unwelcome sea change in that instant. He took another drink. The crumbling façade was a palpable thing.

Why are we here? In his guts, he knew the answer. Mr. James and Mr. Shea managed to get the goods on Coyne and intended to announce the truth. Coyne would be apprehended and Royce informed his services were no longer required, and so on. His performance had been so sloppy, so inarguably negligent, he stood to receive a reprimand from Atlanta when they finally discovered the facts of this debacle. You'll never work in this town again! If this had been that insane game show with the lunatic cowboy, all the bells and lights and streamers would've announced his most telling deduction. So what's the prize?

"Grab your drinks, boys. I'll give you the tour. You've got to see the cavaedium . . ." Mr. James heaved to his feet and beckoned them as he headed for one of the side passages.

"Oh, goodie!" Coyne said with only a modicum of sarcasm, which Royce had learned was a benign affectation intended to impress superiors and potential lovers.

Mr. Shea half covered his mouth and said to Royce sotto voce, "Don't act too impressed. It's just an atrium and it's roughly as shitty as the rest of this place."

Royce lighted a cigarette, unsure whether to be depressed or relieved that this assignment was about to enter the books in the loss column. He handed the cigarette to Coyne and lighted another for himself, then rose to follow Mr. James and Mr. Shea. The group meandered through a series of dim, unrefined corridors decorated with ubiquitous potted ferns and bland still-life prints and lifeless seascapes. Anonymous doors shut off what Royce guessed to be dark, empty spaces.

The atrium was mundane as Mr. Shea promised. Rain sizzled on cracked and worn tiles of the concave floor and collected in a puddle. Gnats hummed in Royce's ears, bit his neck. He tried to stay dry by standing in the shadows of the marble columns.

Mr. James said to Coyne, "This land was once owned by a Canadian whose family did quite well in textiles. A Japanese consortium acquired the facilities in, what was it? Ninety-five, ninety-six—?"

"Ninety-six," Mr. Shea said. "The Yakuza bought the deed. God knows what went on in the back rooms, eh?" He made slicing motions with his hand.

"It was not the fucking Yakuza," Mr. James said. "The Yakuza operate in Japan, anyway. It was a group of Japs from Okinawa."

"This looks like a nice place for second tier entertaining," Coyne said.

"Exactly!" Mr. James jabbed with his cigar. "One of our clients gets rowdy, it cleans up easy enough—"

"And nobody stays in the hotel in the winter, so you could scream your lungs out if you wanted," Mr. Shea said.

Mr. James led them past the atrium and along a covered walk. The walk let into a garden. The garden contained a sand pit and shrubbery, a Koi pond and some marble benches. Wood slats bobbed in the pond and Royce thought it must be a fish trap for the Koi. Bamboo closed off three sides of the area, and beyond that were dim contours of a wall. The group halted at the edge of the garden under an eave.

"Hawthorne, I want to commend you," Mr. James said. "I'd been under the impression you were squandering our time and money on this snipe hunt of yours—"

"Yeah, we thought you came for the whores and the liquor and free rent!" Mr. Shea said, and laughed. "Sorry, pal. Don't hold it against us, we get freeloaders and bums galore in this biz. I'm sure you understand."

Royce wasn't certain he understood anything. He glanced at Coyne, couldn't gauge the man's reaction. "Right," he said.

"But look, Hawthorne. Pointing us to the woman . . .that was brilliant. And subtle," Mr. Shea said.

"Almost too subtle," Mr. James said.

"Yes, almost too subtle," Mr. Shea said. "You could've been a bit more direct. Nonetheless, who are we to question the methods of a consummate professional such as yourself?"

"Quite right." Mr. James tossed his empty glass into the bushes.

Coyne looked from face to face. His was the expression of a man who'd missed the punch line of a joke. "Royce, what's this he's saying?"

"Don't worry about it," Royce said. His smile was a blank as he tried to get a handle on what the hell was happening here. He automatically stepped slightly away from Mr. James and Mr. Shea and tried to locate the goons lurking somewhere behind them.

"What's that?" Coyne stepped into the garden and focused on the pond. Slapping and snorting came from the water and the pieces of wood wobbled side to side.

"You are one smooth operator," Mr. Shea said to Royce. "We haven't figured out how the CIA let her sneak off the reservation—"

"Oh, but we will," Mr. James said. "And we're going to see who's been feeding her information." He glanced meaningfully at Coyne's back. Coyne had walked to the pond and was standing at the edge, staring into the water. "She's just the mule. We still need the traitor who ripped us off in the first place."

"Look at this bullshit." Mr. Shea passed Royce a handful of government-issue identification cards. The cards were partially melted, their lettering and photographic portraits distorted by bubbling and scorch marks. Royce instantly knew them. "The broad's like Lon Chaney. She's got a name and look for every occasion. CIA cut her loose six years ago and she's been freelancing ever since, near as we can figure. She went to the dark side."

"One of our people in Taiwan was able to put the finger on her, too. Treacherous bitch." Mr. James' bloody eyes seemed to distend with the force of his anger.

Royce pretended to study the pictures on the cards and tried to compute, to wrestle the implications. He felt strangely weightless after only the one drink. The pink and black fog seeped into his thoughts. It was never far away these days.

They were in a little metal box nearly ruined by fire. Where did I put the box? In the safe. Are you sure? Yeah, I'm sure. For the life of him, for the sake of his sanity, he couldn't dredge up any recollection of handing the evidence, such as it was, over to Mr. Shea or Mr. James. Get a grip, Hawthorne—you think you've got a split personality? You think your evil twin dropped the dime on her and left you in the dark? You aren't the Manchurian Candidate. They broke into your place and heisted the box. There's your answer to the mystery. When's the last time you even checked? But he'd checked last night, hadn't he? He'd awakened from tossing and dreaming of Shelley Jackson's supple body opening for him, and retrieved the sooty box from his safe and spread all her pieces of false ID on his bed. How long had he feverishly arranged and rearranged those cards, trying to assemble the puzzle? Nobody had stolen into his room. Nothing so simple was at play here. Is this how it feels to go off the deep end? Ah, come off it—you've been total whack for a while.

Coyne screamed and startled everyone. He lurched from the pool, cast a terrified look at Royce and ran headlong into the bushes. Saplings whapped and shook with his passage. He clambered over the wall and was gone.

"Where does he think he's going?" Mr. James said to Mr. Shea.

Mr. Shea shrugged and sipped his drink. "Boy's got a guilty conscience."

The cards dropped from Royce's fingers. He walked along the path to the Koi pond and its ominous splashing; the commotion of too many fish in a confined space. There were no Koi in the shallow pond, but instead a rectangular cage of woven bamboo. A body trapped in the coffin-shaped cage was completely submerged except for an oval of mouth and nose. The splashes were caused by the person struggling to arch his or her back in order to keep breathing. The person's skin was withered and gray and beginning to slough, rendering their features unrecognizable.

"She'll tell all," Mr. Shea called with raucous good humor.

Royce wanted to sit. He tried to speak, to formulate a question, a protest, anything. Bubbles foamed over the person's face as they gasped and thrashed.

"You should lie down," Mr. Shea said in his ear.

"Rest a while. You're nearly finished," Mr. James said in his other ear.

How can anybody move so fast? Royce began to turn and then they pulled a hood over his eyes.


Rain clouds rolled back as daylight ebbed. Royce didn't know how long he'd been staring out the window at the panoptic expanse of twilit countryside. The car purred, leaving the ocean and the mangrove thickets below, following the road into the foothills, returning to the distant city. Highway lights flickered to life.

Mr. Jen drove. His black suit and sallow flesh were grainy-blue with shadow. He watched Royce in the rearview mirror more than he appeared to watch the road.

"You in on it?" Royce said, resting his cheek against the window. The ocean slid away while the subtropical forest closed, its green wall holding back a great darkness. "You in it, Jen? You in on it?" He didn't really care if Mr. Jen was in on the vast conspiracy against the sanity of one Royce Hawthorne.

Mr. Jen stared at Royce. He didn't glance from the mirror even as the car tracked around a sharp corner and a truck rushed past them in the opposite lane with a horn blare and the clang of a trailer jouncing on pavement.

Royce laughed and hunted in his pockets until he recovered his cigarettes. He lighted the last one. "Yeah, you're in on it, all right."

Chu said, "Stupid Yankee." He'd come from nowhere to share the backseat. "Do you have any idea how long it lasts?" He cuffed Royce. "Do you have any idea?"

"No," Royce said, shrinking away.

"Idiot. Fool. That's why they call it the Drink of Forgetfulness. Still, the wheel goes round and round, my Yankee friend. Forgetfulness wears thin and atonement must follow. They've a chamber for every trespass, you see."

"Eighteen," Royce said. "Eighteen."

"I was in the Chamber of Wind and Thunder for seven lifetimes. And now I'm here and I can't say which is worse—the injury or the insult."

"I'm dead." There was the answer, elegant in its simplicity. Royce drew on his cigarette and nodded in morbid celebration. "Or I'm comatose in a country hospital and this is a hallucination. You aren't even real, Chu."

Chu cackled and the fine bones of his face lent him an aspect of profound cruelty. There was a stiletto in his hand like magic and he stabbed Royce in the arm. "Do you feel dead, you fucking moron?" He said to Royce's cry of anguish. "Don't you get it? Everybody lives in hell."

Royce clutched his arm, knew even as the blood seeped into the crook ofhis elbow, the wound was minor, which helped, although not much. Chu seemed happy enough with the result. He made the knife disappear and looked away, out the window into the forest.

Just ahead, a steep grade carried the road into the mouth of a tunnel. The car zoomed in and the world went black. The only illumination was the red glow from Royce's cigarette where it warmed the window glass. The car stopped without braking, without any sense of deceleration whatsoever, and hung in weightless space.

And he was in his apartment, seated before the destroyed TV with the blue light of evening coming through the window, soft as a cloud. The power was down and it would be dark soon.

He finished his cigarette, took his sweet time, and when it was done he went into the silent hall and walked down the stairs and crossed the quadrangle. A group of kids ran in circles at the opposite end, shrieking and laughing and rehearsing their eventual death scenes. The pool man leaned over the water, fishing for leaves and dung with his net. He watched Royce go. There were more children in the far stairwell; they hid in the corners and the space beneath the stairs and their overlarge heads wagged on straw necks and they clutched bellies swollen with hunger. He knew the ravenous ghosts had no business with him and ignored the croaks and groans, the restless snick of claws on cement, the strangled click of saliva in constricted throats.

Coyne's door was open.

"Hello, Aunt CJ," Royce said, standing at the threshold. He dug his fingers into the frame, half-expecting the world to tilt and drop him into an abyss of starry sky.

"Is that who you see when you gaze upon me?" Mrs. Ward said. "How tragically ordinary." She swung her bone-white face back to Coyne's body, which lay supine and still, and continued to roll him into a ball and stuff him into her filthy burlap sack. Coyne seemed rubbery, deflated, little more than a sack himself. But his mouth worked soundlessly, his eyes were wet and it was possible he saw Royce there in the doorway.

"Who are you?" Royce said, so quietly it was almost a thought.

"I'm your Aunt Carole Joyce, dear."

"The hell you say."

She wheezed and shoved the top of Coyne's head until he disappeared completely into the sack. She bound the neck of the sack in barbed wire and grinned up at Royce, licking her bloody fingers. Darkness filled the room and her white face seemed to float. "We're caretakers. Who are you, love?"

He wiped tears from his cheeks, unable to meet her gaze. Her cold hand caressed his shoulder, guided him into the hall. The white iron doors were there: the Chamber of Pounding; the Chamber of Fire; the Chamber of Blood; and the rest. When they came to his door he saw what the doorplate said, the judgment rendered of him, and hung his head. Mr. Jen stepped out of a recess in the wall and held the door. His eyes glittered like the carapace of a beetle.

Mrs. Ward squeezed Royce's shoulder. "There are far worse. The Chamber of Black Sloth, for one. Have courage. Everyone comes to this house."

Royce saw flashes of the beast in its cube, the man climbing the mountain of knives, the sawing and the blood, a mob of children with thin necks and fat bellies crawling along the shore of bubbling lakes of tar, and wept.

His chamber was circular and windowless. Tiers of benches ascended in the architectural style of an amphitheater. A large projection screen was centered upon the far wall. Mrs. Ward helped him to his seat of honor and her hand fell from his shoulder as she rejoined the rising darkness. The last of the light drained away and it grew cold.

Whispers and small rustlings circulated as the screen glowed faintly and reflected the patina of a scarred lens. Numbers reversed toward the beginning. So many numbers, so many beginnings, his heart became wooden in his chest.

From nearby, Shelley Jackson said, "These are your lives, Royce Hawthorne."

Royce tried to smile through tears, but it cracked to pieces and he shook as grief and sorrow claimed him. The images on the screen blurred, became incomprehensible, and that was a small blessing. "I understand now," he said. He inhaled and pushed his thumbs deep into the corners of his eyes, and pulled.


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