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Satan's Children

A beginning is the end of something, always.

Zaccur Bishop saw the murder clearly, watched it happen—although he was not to realize it for over an hour.

He might not have noticed it at all, had it happened anywhere but at the Scorpio. The victim himself did not realize that he had been murdered for nearly ten minutes, and when he did he made no outcry. It would have been pointless: there was no way to demonstrate that he was dead, let alone that he had been killed, nor anything whatever to be done about it. If the police had been informed—and somehow convinced—of all the facts, they would have done their level best to forget them. The killer was perhaps as far from the compulsive-confessor type as it is possible to be: indeed, that was precisely his motive. It is difficult to imagine another crime at once so public and so clandestine. In any other club in the world it would have been perfect. But since it happened at the Scorpio, it brought the world down like a house of cards.

The Scorpio was one of those clubs that God sends every once in a while to sustain the faithful. Benched from the folkie-circuit for reasons he refused to discuss, a musician named Ed Finnegan somehow convinced the owners of a Chinese restaurant near Dalhousie University to let him have their basement and an unreasonable sum of money. (Finnegan used to claim that when he vacationed in Ireland, the Blarney Stone tried to kiss him.) He found that the basement comprised two large windowless rooms. The one just inside the front door he made into a rather conventional bar—save that it was not conventionally overdecorated. The second room, a much larger one which had once held the oil furnace (the building predated solar heat), he painted jet black and ceilinged with acoustic tile. He went then to the University, and to other universities in Halifax, prowling halls and coffeehouses, bars, and dormitories, listening to every musician he heard. To a selected few he introduced himself, and explained that he was opening a club called Scorpio. It would include, he said, a large music room with a proper stage and spotlight. Within this music room, normal human speech would be forbidden to all save the performers. Anyone wishing food or drink could raise their hand and, when the waitress responded, point to their order on the menu silk-screened into the tablecloth. The door to this room, Finnegan added, would be unlocked only between songs. The PA system was his own: six Shure mikes with boomstands, two Teac mixers, a pair of 600-watt Toyota amps, two speaker columns, four wall speakers, and a dependable stage monitor. Wednesday and Thursday were Open Mike Nights, with a thirty-minute-per-act limit, and all other nights were paying gigs. Finnegan apologized for the meagerness of the pay: little more than the traditional all-you-can-drink and hat privileges. The house piano, he added, was in tune.

Within a month the Scorpio was legend, and the Chinese restaurant upstairs had to close at sunset—for lack of parking. There have always been more good serious musicians than there were places for them to play; not a vein for the tapping but an artery. Any serious musician will sell his or her soul for an intelligent, sensitive, listening audience. No other kind would put up with Finnegan's house rules, and any other kind was ejected—at least as far as the bar, which featured a free juke box, Irish coffee, and Löwenbräu draft.

It was only because the house rules were so rigidly enforced that Zack happened to notice even that most inconspicuous of murders.

It happened in the spring of his twenty-fourth year. He was about to do the last song in his midevening solo set; Jill sat at a stageside table nursing a plain orange juice and helping him with her wide brown eyes. The set had gone well so far, his guitar playing less sloppy than usual, his voice doing what he wanted it to, his audience responding well. But they were getting restive: time to bottle it up and bring Jill back onstage. While his subconscious searched its files for the right song, he kept the patter flowing.

"No, really, it's true, genties and ladlemen of the audio radiance, I nearly had a contract with Chess Records once. Fella named King came to see me from Chess, but I could see he just wanted old Zack Bishop for his pawn. He was a screaming queen, and he spent a whole knight tryin' to rook me, but finally I says, `Come back when you can show me a check, mate.' " The crowd groaned dutifully, and Jill held her nose. Lifting her chin to do so exposed the delicate beauty of her throat, the soft grace of the place where it joined her shoulders, and his closing song was chosen.

"No, but frivolously, folks," he said soberly, "it's nearly time to bring Jill on back up here and have her sing a few—but I've got one last spasm in me first. I guess you could say that this song was the proximate cause of Jill and me getting together in the first place. See, I met this lady and all of a sudden it seemed like there was a whole lot of things we wanted to say to each other, and the only ones I could get out of my mouth had to do with, like, meaningful relationships, and emotional commitments, and how our personalities complemented each other and like that." He began to pick a simple C-Em-Am-G cycle in medium slow tempo, the ancient Gibson ringing richly, and Jill smiled. "But I knew that the main thing I wanted to say had nothing to do with that stuff. I knew I wasn't being totally honest. And so I had to write this song." And he sang:


Come to my bedside and let there be sharing
Uncounterfeitable sign of your caring
Take off the clothes of your body and mind
Bring me your nakedness . . . help me in mine . . .

Help me believe that I'm worthy of trust
Bring me a love that includes honest lust
Warmth is for fire; fire is for burning . . .
Love is for bringing an ending . . . to yearning
For I love you in a hundred ways
And not for this alone
But your lovin' is the sweetest lovin'
I have ever known 


He was singing directly to Jill, he always sang this song directly to Jill, and although in any other bar or coffeehouse in the world an open fistfight would not have distracted his attention from her, his eye was caught now by a tall, massively bearded man in black leather who was insensitive enough to pick this moment to change seats. The man picked a stageside table at which one other man was already seated, and in the split second glance that Zack gave him, the bearded man met his eyes with a bold, almost challenging manner.

Back to Jill.


Come to my bedside and let there be giving
Licking and laughing and loving and living
Sing me a song that has never been sung
Dance at the end of my fingers and tongue

Take me inside you and bring up your knees.
Wrap me up tight in your thighs and then squeeze
Or if you feel like it you get on top
Love me however you please, but please . . . don't stop

For I love you in a hundred ways
And not for this alone
But your lovin' is the sweetest lovin'
I have ever known 


The obnoxious man was now trying to talk to the man he had joined, a rather elderly gentleman with shaggy white hair and ferocious mustaches. It was apparent that they were acquainted. Zack could see the old man try to shush his new tablemate, and he could see that the bearded man was unwilling to be shushed. Others in the audience were also having their attention distracted, and resenting it. Mentally gritting his teeth, Zack forced his eyes away and threw himself into the bridge of the song.


I know just what you're thinking of
There's more to love than making love
There's much more to the flower than the bloom
But every time we meet in bed
I find myself inside your head
Even as I'm entering your womb 


The Shadow appeared as if by magic, and the Shadow was large and wide and dark black and he plainly had sand. None too gently he kicked the bearded man's chair and, when the latter turned, held a finger to his lips. They glared at each other for a few seconds, and then the bearded man turned around again. He gave up trying to talk to the white-haired man, but Zack had the funny idea that his look of disappointment was counterfeit—he seemed underneath it to be somehow satisfied at being silenced. Taking the old man's left hand in his own, he produced a felt-tip pen and began writing on the other's palm. Quite angry now, Zack yanked his attention back to his song, wishing fiercely that he and Jill were alone.


So come to my bedside and let there be
Twisting and moaning and thrusting and
I will be gentle—you know that I can
For you I will be quite a singular man . . .

Here's my identity, stamped on my genes
Take this my offering, know what it means
Let us become what we started to be
On that long ago night when you first came
with me

Oh lady, I love you in a hundred ways
And not for this alone
But your lovin' is the sweetest lovin'
I have ever known 


The applause was louder than usual, sympathy for a delicate song shamefully treated. Zack smiled half-ruefully at Jill, took a deep draught from the Löwenbräu on the empty chair beside him, and turned to deliver a stinging rebuke to the bearded man. But he was gone, must have left the instant the song ended—Shadow was just closing the door behind him. The old man with the absurd mustaches sat alone, staring at the writing on his palm with a look of total puzzlement. Neither of them knew that he was dead. The old man too rose and left the room as the applause trailed away.

To hell with him, Zack decided. He put the beer down at his feet and waved Jill up onto the stage. "Thank you folks, now we'll bring Jill back up here so she and I can do a medley of our hit . . ."

The set went on.

* * *

The reason so many musicians seem to go a little nutty when they achieve success, demanding absurd luxuries and royal treatment, is that prior to that time they have been customarily treated like pigs. In no other branch of the arts is the artist permitted so little dignity by his merchandisers and his audience, given so little respect or courtesy. Ed Finnegan was a musician himself, and he understood. He knew, for instance, that a soundproof dressing room is a pearl without price to a musician, and so he figured out a cheap way to provide one. He simply erected a single soundproof wall, parallel to the music room's east wall and about five feet from it. The resulting corridor was wide enough to allow two men with guitars to pass each other safely, long enough to pace nervously, and silent enough to tune up or rehearse in.

And it was peaceful enough to be an ideal place to linger after the last set, to recover from the enormous expenditure of energy, to enjoy the first tasted drink of the night, to hide from those dozens of eyes half-seen through the spotlight glare, to take off the sweat-soaked image and lounge around in one's psychic underwear. The north door led to the parking lot and was always locked to the outside; the south door opened onto stage right, and had a large sign on its other side that said clearly, "If the performers wish to chat, sign autographs, accept drinks or tokes or negotiate for your daughter's wedding gig, they will have left this door open and you won't be reading this. PLEASE DO NOT ENTER. DON'T KNOCK IF YOU CAN HELP IT. RESPECT US AND WE'LL MAKE BETTER MUSIC. Thank you—Finnegan."

It was sanctuary.

Zack customarily came offstage utterly exhausted, while Jill always finished a gig boiling over with nervous energy. Happily, this could be counterbalanced by their differing metabolic reactions to marijuana: it always gave Zack energy and mellowed Jill. The after-gig toke was becoming a ritual with them, one they looked forward to unconsciously. Tonight's toke was a little unusual. They were smoking a literal cigar of grass, GMI's newest marketing innovation, and assessing the validity of the product's advertising slogan: "It doesn't get you any higher—but it's more fun!"

Zack lay on his back on the rug, watching excess smoke drift lazily up from his mouth toward the high ceiling. An internal timer went off and he exhaled, considered his head. "Let me see that pack," he said, raising up on one elbow. Jill, just finishing her own toke, nodded and passed over both cigar and pack.

Zack turned the pack over, scanned it and nodded. "Brilliant," he said. He was beginning to come out of his postperformance torpor. He toked, and croaked "Fucking brilliant," again.

Jill managed to look a question while suppressing a cough.

He exhaled. "Look," he said. " `Guaranteed one hundred percent pure marijuana.' See what that means?"

"It means I'm not crazy, I really am stoned."

"No, no, the whole cigar business. Remember the weather we had last spring? Half the GMI dope fields got pasted with like thirty-two straight days of rain, which is terrific for growing rope and rotten for growing smoke. Stalks like bamboo, leaves like tiny and worth squat, dope so pisspoor you'd have to smoke a cigar-full of it to get off. So what did they do?" He grinned wolfishly. "They made cigars. They bluffed it out, just made like they planned it and made cigars. They're pure grass, all right—but you'd have to be an idiot to smoke a whole cigar of good grass. And by Christ I'll bet they pick up a big share of the market. These things are more fun."

"What do you think that is?" Jill asked. "Why is it more fun? Is it just the exaggerated oral trip?"

"Partly that," he admitted. "Oh hell, back when I smoked tobacco I knew that cigars were stronger, cooler, and tastier—I just couldn't afford 'em. But these aren't much more expensive than joints. Breaks down to about a dime a hit. Why, don't you like 'em?"

She took another long toke, her expression going blank while she considered. Suddenly her eyes focused, on him. "Does it turn you on to watch me smoke it?" she asked suddenly.

He blushed to his hairline and stammered.

"Honesty, remember? Like you said when you sang our song tonight. Trust me enough to be honest."

"Well," he equivocated, "I hadn't thought about . . ." He trailed off, and they both said "bullshit" simultaneously and broke up. "Yeah, it turns me on," he admitted.

She regarded the cigar carefully, took a most sensuous toke. "Then I shall chain smoke 'em all the way home," she said. "Here." She handed him the stogie, then began changing out of her stage clothes, making a small production out of it for him.

Eight months we've been living together, Zack thought, and she hasn't lost that mischievous enthusiasm for making me horny. What a lady! He put the cigar in his teeth, waggled it and rolled his eyes. "Why wait 'til we get home?" he leered.

"I predict another Groucho Marx revival if those things catch on." Her bra landed on top of the blouse.

"I like a gal with a strong will," he quoted, "Or at least a weak won't." He rose and headed for her. She did not shrink away—but neither did she come alive in his arms.

"Not here, Zack."

"Why not? It was fun in that elevator, wasn't it?"

"That was different. Someone could come in."

"Come on, the place is closed, Finnegan and the Shadow are mopping up beer and counting the take, nobody's gonna fuck a duck." 

Startled, she pulled away and followed his gaze. A shining figure stood in the open doorway.

She was by now wearing only ankle-length skirt and panties, and Zack had the skirt halfway down her hips, but she, and he, stood quite still, staring at the apparition. It was several moments after they began wishing for the power of motion that they recalled that they possessed it; moments more before they used it.

"It was true," the old man said.

He seemed to shine. He shimmered, he crackled with an energy only barely visible, only just intangible. His skin and clothes gave the impression of being on the verge of bursting spontaneously into flame. He shone as the Christ must have shone, as the Buddha must have shone, and a Kirlian photograph of him at that moment would have been a nova-blur.

Zack had a sudden, inexplicable and quite vivid recollection of the afternoon of his mother's funeral, five years past. He remembered suddenly the way friends and relatives had regarded him as strangers, a little awed, as though he possessed some terrible new power. He remembered feeling at the time that they were correct—that by virtue of his grief and loss he was somehow charged with a strange kind of energy. Intuitively he had known that on this day of all days he could simply scream at the most determined and desperate mugger and frighten him away, on this day he could violate traffic laws with impunity, on this day he could stare down any man or woman alive. Coming in close personal contact with death had made him, for a time, a kind of temporary shaman.

And the old man was quite dead, and knew it.

"Your song, I mean. It was true. I was half afraid I'd find you two bickering, that all that affection was just a part of the act. Oh thank God." 

Zack had never seen anyone quite so utterly relieved. The old man was of medium height and appeared to be in robust health. Even his huge ungainly mustaches could not completely hide the lines of over half a century of laughter and smiles. His complexion was ruddy, his features weatherbeaten, and his eyes were infinitely kindly. His clothes were of a style which had not even been revived in years: bell-bottom jeans, multicolored paisley shirt with purple predominating, a double strand of beads and an Acadian scarf-cap sloppily tied. He wore no jewelry other than the beads and no make-up.

A kind of Hippie Gepetto, Zack decided. So why am I paralyzed?  

"Come in," Jill said, and Zack glanced sharply at her, then quickly back. The old man stepped into the room, leaving the door ajar. He stared from Zack to Jill, and back again, from one pair of eyes to the other, and his own kindly eyes seemed to peel away onion-layers of self until he gazed at their naked hearts. Zack suddenly wanted to cry, and that made him angry enough to throw off his trance.

"It is the custom of the profession," he said coldly, "to knock and shout, `Are you decent?' Or didn't you see the sign there on the door?"

"Both of you are decent," the old man said positively. Then he seemed to snap out of a trance of his own: his eyes widened and he saw Jill's half-nakedness for the first time. "Oh," he said explosively, and then his smile returned. "Now I'm supposed to apologize," he twinkled, "but it wouldn't be true. Oh, I'm sorry if I've upset you—but that's the last look I'll ever get, and you're lovely." He stared at Jill's bare breasts for a long moment, watched their nipples harden, and Zack marvelled at his own inability to muster outrage. Jill just stood there . . .

The old man pulled his eyes away. "Thank you both. Please sit down, now, I have to say some preposterous things and I haven't much time. Please hear me out before you ask questions, and please—please!—believe me."

Jill put on the new blouse and jeans, while Zack seated himself from long habit on the camel-saddle edge of his guitar case. He was startled to discover the cigar still burning in his hand, stunned to see only a quarter-inch of ash on the end. He started to offer it to the old man; changed his mind; started to offer it to Jill; changed his mind; dropped the thing on the carpet and stepped on it.

"My name is Wesley George," the old man began.

"Right," Zack said automatically.

The old man sighed deeply. "I haven't much time," he repeated.

"What" the hell would Wesley George be doing in Halifax? Zack started to say, but Jill cut him off sharply with "He's Wesley George and he doesn't have much time" and before the intensity in her voice he subsided.

"Thank you," George said to Jill. "You perceive very well. I wonder how much you know already."

"Almost nothing," Jill said flatly, "but I know what I know."

He nodded. "Obviously you've both heard of me; Christ knows I'm notorious enough. But how much of it stuck? Given my name, how much do you know of me?"

"You're the last great dope wizard," Zack said, "and you were one of the first. You used to work for one of the `ethical' drug outfits and you split. You synthesized DMT, and didn't get credit for it. You developed Mellow Yellow. You made STP safe and dependable. You develop new psychedelics and sell 'em cheap, sometimes you give 'em away, and some say you're stone nuts and some say you're the Holy Goof himself. You followed in the footsteps of Owsley Stanley, and you've never been successfully busted, and you're supposed to be richer than hell. A dealer friend of mine says you make molecules talk."

"You helped buy the first federal decrim bill on grass," Jill said, "and blocked the cocaine bill—both from behind the scenes. You founded the Continent Continent movement and gave away five million TM pills in a single day in New York."

"Some people say you don't exist," Zack added.

"As of now, they're right," George said. "I've been murdered."

Jill gasped; Zack just stared.

"In fact, you may have noticed it done," Wesley said to Zack. "You remember Sziller, the bearded man who spoiled your last solo? Did you see him write this?"

George held his left hand up, palm out. A black felt-tip pen had written a telephone number there, precisely along his lifeline.

"Yeah," Zack agreed. "So what?"

"I dialed it a half hour ago. David Steinberg answered. He said that once he had a skull injury, and the hospital was so cheap they put a paper plate in his head. He said the only side effect was that every sunny day he had to go on a picnic. I hung up the phone and I knew I was dead."

"Dial-a-Joke," Jill said wonderingly.

"I don't get it," said Zack.

"I was supposed to meet Sziller here tonight—in the bar, after your set. I couldn't understand why he came into the music room and tried to talk to me there. He knew better. He wanted to be shushed, so he'd have to write his urgent message on my hand. And the urgent message was literally a joke. So what he really wanted was to write on my hand with a felt-tip pen."

"Jesus," Zack breathed, and Jill's face went featureless.

"In the next ten or fifteen minutes," George said conversationally, "I will have a fatal heart attack. It's an old CIA trick. A really first-rate autopsy might pick up some traces of a phosphoric acid ester—but I imagine Sziller and his people will be able to prevent that easily enough. They've got the building surrounded; I can't get as far as my car. You two are my last hope."

Zack's brain throbbed, and his eyelids felt packed with sand. George's utter detachment was scary. It said that Wesley George was possessed by something that made his own death unimportant—and it might be catching. His words implied that it was, and that he proposed to infect Zack and Jill. Zack had seen North By Northwest, and had no intention of letting other people's realities hang him out on Mount Rushmore if there were any even dishonorable way to dodge.

But he could perceive pretty well himself, and he knew that whatever the old man had was a burden, a burden that would crush him even in death unless he could discharge it. Everything that was good in Zack yearned to answer the call in those kindly eyes; and the internal conflict—almost entirely subconscious—nearly tore him apart.

There was an alternative. It would be easy to simply disbelieve the old man's every word. Was it plausible that this glowing, healthy man could spontaneously die, killed by a bad joke? Zack told himself that Hitler and Rasputin had used just such charisma to sell the most palpable idiocies, that this shining old man with the presence of a Buddha was only a compelling madman with paranoid delusions. Zack had never seen a picture of Wesley George. He remembered the fake Abby Hoffman who had snarled up the feds for so long. He pulled scepticism around himself like a scaly cloak, and he looked at those eyes again, and louder and more insistent even than Jill's voice had been, they said that the old man was Wesley George and that he didn't have much time.

Zack swallowed something foul. "Tell us," he said, and was proud that his voice came out firm.

"You understand that I may get you both dipped in soft shit, maybe killed?"

Zack and Jill said, "Yes," together, and glanced at each other. This was a big step for both of them: there is all the difference in the world between agreeing to live together and agreeing to die together. Zack knew that whatever came afterward, they were married as of now, and he desperately wanted to think that through, but there was no time, no time. What's more important than death and marriage? he thought, and saw the same question on Jill's face, and then they turned back as one to Wesley George.

"Answer me a question first," the old man said. Both nodded. "Does the end justify the means?"

Zack thought hard and answered honestly. Much, he was sure, depended on this.

"I don't know," he said.

"Depends on the end," Jill said. "And the means."

George nodded, content. "People with a knee-jerk answer either way make me nervous," he said. "All right, children, into your hands I place the fate of modern civilization. I bring you Truth, and I think that the truth shall make you flee."

He glanced at his watch, displayed no visible reaction. But he took a pack of tobacco cigarettes from his shirt, lit one, and plainly gave his full attention to savoring the first toke. Then he spoke, and for the first time Zack noticed that the old man's voice was a pipe organ with a double bass register, a great resonant baritone that Disraeli or Geronimo might have been proud to own.

"I am a chemist. I have devoted my life to studying chemical aspects of consciousness and perception. My primary motivation has been the advancement of knowledge; my secondary motive has been to get people high—as many people, as many ways as possible. I think the biggest single problem in the world, for almost the last two decades, has been morale. Despairing people solve no problems. So I have pursued better living through chemistry, and I've made my share of mistakes, but in the main I think the world has profited from my existence as much as I have from its. And now I find that I am become Prometheus, and that my friends want me dead just as badly as my enemies.

"I have synthesized truth.

"I have synthesized truth in my laboratory. I have distilled it into chemical substance. I have measured it in micrograms, prepared a dozen vectors for its use. It is not that hard to make. And I believe that if its seeds are once sown on this planet, the changes it will make will be the biggest in human history.

"Everything in the world that is founded on lies may die."

Zack groped for words, came up empty. He became aware that Jill's hand was clutching his tightly.

" `What is truth?' asked jesting Pilate, and would not stay for answer. Neither will I, I'm afraid—but I ought to at least clarify the question. I cannot claim to have objective truth. I have no assurance that there is such a thing. But I have subjective truth, and I know that exists. I knew a preacher once who got remarkable results by looking people square in the eye and saying, `You do too know what I mean.' "

A spasm crossed the old man's face and his glowing aura flickered. Zack and Jill moved toward him as one, and he waved them away impatiently.

"Even those of us who pay only lip service to the truth know what it is, deep down in our hearts. And we all believe in it, and know it when we see it. Even the best rationalization can fool only the surface mind that manufactures it; there is something beneath, call it the heart or the conscience, that knows better. It tenses up like a stiff neck muscle when you lie, in proportion to the size of the lie, and if it stiffens enough it can kill you for revenge. Ask Richard Corey. Most people seem to me, in my cynical moments, to keep things stabilized at about the discomfort of a dislocated shoulder or a tooth about to abscess. They trade honesty off in small chunks for pleasure, and wonder that their lives hold so little joy. Joy is incompatible with tensed shoulders and a stiff neck. You become uneasy with people in direct proportion to how many lies you have to keep track of in their presence.

"I have stumbled across a psychic muscle relaxant."

"Truth serum's been around a long time," Zack said.

"This is no more Pentothal than acid is grass!" George thundered, an Old Testament prophet enraged. He caught himself at once—in a single frantic instant he seemed to extrude his anger, stare at it critically, tie it off, and amputate it, in deliberate steps. "Sorry—rushed. Look: Pentothal will—sometimes—get you a truthful answer to a direct question. My drug imbues you with a strong desire to get straight with all the people you've been lying to regardless of the consequences. Side effects include the usual accompaniments of confession—cathartic relief, euphoria to the point of exaltation and a tendency to babble—and a new one: visual color effects extremely reminiscent of organic mescaline."

He winced again, clamped his jaw for a moment, then continued.

"That alone might have been enough to stand the world on its ear—but the gods are jollier than that. The stuff is water-soluble—damn near anything-soluble—and skin-permeable and as concentrated as hell. Worse than acid for dosage, and it can be taken into the body just about every way there is. For Pentothal you have to actually shoot up the subject, and you have to hit the vein. My stuff—Christ, you could let a drop of candle wax harden on your palm, put a pinpoint's worth on the wax, shake hands with a man and dose him six or seven hours' worth. You could put it on a spitball and shoot it through a straw. You could add it to nail polish or inject it into a toothpaste tube or roll it up in a joint or simply spray it from an atomizer. Put enough of it into a joint, in a small room, and even the nonsmokers will get off. The method Sziller has used to assassinate me would work splendidly. There may be some kind of way to guard against it—some antidote or immunization—but I haven't found it yet. You see the implications, of course."

At some point during George's speech Zack had reached the subconscious decision to believe him implicitly. With doubt had gone the last of his paralysis, and now his mind was racing faster than usual to catch up. "Give me a week and a barrel of hot coffee and I think I could reason out most of the major implications. All I get now is that you can make people be truthful against their will." His expression was dark.

"Zack, I know this sounds like sophistry, but that's a matter of definition. Whoa!" He held up his hands. "I know, son, I know. The Second Commandment of Leary: `Thou shalt not alter thy brother's consciousness without his consent.' So how about retroactive consent?"

"Say again."

"The aftereffects. I've administered the drug to blind volunteers. They knew only that they were sampling a new psychedelic of unknown effect. In each case I gave a preliminary `attitude survey' questionnaire with a few buried questions. In fourteen cases I satisfied myself that the subject would probably not have taken the drug if he or she had known its effect. In about three-quarters of them I damn well knew it.

"The effects were the same for all but one. All fourteen of them experienced major life upheaval—usually irreversible and quite against their will—while under the effects of the drug. They all became violently angry at me after they came down. Then all fourteen stormed off to try and put their lives back together. Thirteen of them were back within a week, asking me to lay another hit on them."

Zack's eyes widened. "Addictive on a single hit. Jesus."

"No, no!" George said exasperatedly. "It's not the drug that's addictive, dammit. It's the truth that's addictive. Every one of those people came back for, like, three-four hits, and then they stopped coming by. I checked up on the ones I was in a position to. They had just simply rearranged their lives on solid principles of truth and honesty and begun to live that way all the time. They didn't need the drug anymore. Every damn one of them thanked me. One of them fucked me, sweetly and lovingly—at my age.

"I was worried myself that the damned stuff might be addictive. So I had at least as many subjects who would probably have taken the drug knowingly, and all of them asked for more and I told them no. Better than three-fourths of them have made similar life adjustments on their own, without any further chemical aid.

"Zack, living in truth feels good. And it sticks in your memory. Like, it's a truism with acid heads that you can never truly remember what tripping feels like. You think you do, but every time you trip it's like waking up all over again, you recognize the head coming on and you dig that your memories of it were shadows. But this stuff you remember! You're left with a vivid set of memories of just exactly how good it felt to not have any psychic muscles bunched up for the first time since you were two years old. You remember joy; and you realize that you can recreate it just by not ever lying any more. That's goddamn hard, so you look for any help you can get, and if you can't get any you just take your best shot.

"Those people ended up happier, Zack.

"Zack, Jill . . . a long long time ago a doctor named Watt slapped me on the ass and forced me to live. It was very much against my will; I cried like hell and family legend says I tried to bite him. Now my days are ended, and taking it all together I'm very glad he went to the trouble. He had my retroactive consent. It wasn't his fault anyhow: my parents had already forced me to exist, before I had a will for it to be against—and they have my retroactive consent. Many times in my life, good friends and even strangers have kicked my ass where it needed kicking; at least twice women have gently and compassionately kicked me out—all against my will, and they all have my retroactive consent, God bless 'em. Can it be immoral to dose folks if you get no complaints?"

"What about the fourteenth person?" Jill asked.

George grimaced. "Touché."

"Beg pardon?"

"Nothing's perfect. The fourteenth man killed me."


The temperature in the room was moderate, but George was drenched with sweat; his ruddy complexion was paling rapidly.

"Look, you two make up your own minds. You can help them haul me out to the ambulance in a few minutes and then walk away and forget you ever met me, if that's what you want. But I have to ask you: please, take over this karma for me. Someone has to, one way or the other: I seriously doubt that the drug will ever be found again."

"Is there like a set of instructions for the stuff?" Zack asked. Involved, his head told him. "Notes, molecule diagrams—" Somebody's getting infuckingvolved . . .

"Complete instructions for synthesis, and about ten liters of the goods, in various forms. That's about enough to give everything on earth with two legs a couple of hits apiece. I tell you, it's easy to make. And it's fucking hard to stumble across. If I die, it dies with me, maybe forever. Blind luck I found it, just blind—"

"Where?" Zack and Jill interrupted simultaneously.

"Wait a minute, you've got to understand. It's in a very public place—I thought that was a good idea at the time, but . . . never mind. The point is, from the moment you pick up the stuff, you must be very very careful. They don't have to physically touch you—try not to let anyone come near you if you can help it, anyone at all—"

"I'll know a fed when I see one," Zack said grimly, "north or south."

"No, NO, not feds, not any kind of feds! Think that way and you're dead. It wasn't feds that killed me."

"Who then?" Jill asked.

"In my line of work, I customarily do business with a loosely affiliated organization of non-Syndicate drug dealers. It has no name. It is international in scope, and if it ever held a meeting, a substantial fraction of the world's wealth would sit in one room. I offered them this drug for distribution, before I really understood what I had. Sziller is one of the principals of the group."

"Jesus God," Zack breathed. "Dealers had Wesley George snuffed? That's like the apostles offing Jesus."

"One of them did," George pointed out sadly. "Think it through, son: dope dealers can't afford honesty."


"Suppose the feds did get hold of the stuff," Jill suggested.


"Or the Syndicate," George agreed. "Or their own customers, or—"

"What's the drug called?" Jill asked.

"The chemical name wouldn't mean a thing to some of the brightest chemists in the world, and I never planned to market it under that. Up until I knew what it was I called it The New Batch, and since then I've taken to calling it TWT. The Whole Truth." Suddenly urgency overtook him and he was angry again. "Listen, fuck this," he blazed, "I mean fuck all this garbage. OK? I haven't got time to waste on trivia. Will you do it is the important thing; will you take on the karma I've brought you? Will you turn Truth loose on the world for me? Please, you aaaAAAAAAHHH-EE shit." He clutched at his right arm, screamed again in awful pain and fell to the floor.

"We promise, we promise," Jill was screaming, and Zack was thundering "Where, where? Where, dammit?" and Jill had George's head on her lap and Zack had his hands and they clutched like steel and "Where?" he shouted again, and George was bucking in agony, breathing in with great whooping gargles and breathing out with sprays of saliva, jaw muscles like bulging biceps on his face, and "Hitch" he managed through his teeth, and Zack tried, "Hitch. Hitchhike, a locker at the hitching depot" very fast and then added "Key in your pocket?" and George borrowed energy from his death struggle to nod twice, "Okay, right Wesley, it's covered, man," and George relaxed all over at once and shat his pants. They thought he was dead, then, but the blue-grey eyelids rolled heavily up one last time and he saw Jill's face over his, raining tears. "Nice tits . . ." he said ". . . Thanks . . . children . . . thanks . . . sorry," and in the middle of the last word he did die, and his glowing aura died with him.

The Shadow was standing in the doorway, filling it full, breathing hard. "I heard the sound, man, what—oh holy shit, man. What the fuck happenin' here?"

Zack's voice was perfect, his delivery impeccable, startled but not involved. "What can I tell ya, Shadow? The old guy comes back to talk blues and like that and his pump quits. Call the croaker, will ya? And pour me a triple."

"Shee-it," the Shadow rumbled. "Nev' a dull night aroun' this fuckin' joint. Hey, Finnegan! Finnegan, God damn it." The big black bouncer left to find his boss.

Zack found a numbered key in George's pants, and turned to Jill. Their eyes met and locked. "Yes," Jill said finally, and they both nodded. And then together they pried Zack's right hand from the clutching fingers of the dead dope wizard, and together they made him comfortable on the floor, and then they began packing up their instruments and gear.

* * *

Zack and Jill held a hasty war council in the flimsy balcony of their second-floor apartment. It overlooked a yard so small it would have been hard put not to, as Zack loved to say, and offered a splendid view of the enormous oil refining facility across the street. The view of Halifax Harbour which the architect had planned was forever hidden now behind it, but the cooling breezes still came at night, salt-scented and rich. Even at two A.M. the city was noisy, like a dormitory after lights out, but all the houses on this block were dark and still.

"I think we should pack our bags," Zack said, sipping coffee.

"And do what?"

"The dealers must know that Wesley brought a large amount of Truth with him—he intended to turn it over to them for distribution. They don't know where it's stashed, and they must be shitting a brick wondering who else does. We're suspect because we're known to have spoken with him, and a hitching depot is a natural stash—so we don't go near the stuff."

"But we've got to—"

"We will. Look, tomorrow we're supposed to go on tour, right?"

"Screw the tour."

"No, hon, look! This is the smart way. We do just exactly what we would have done if we'd never met Wesley George. We act natural, do the tour as planned—we pack our bags and go down to the hitching depot and take off. But some friend of ours—say, John—goes in just ahead of us and scores the bag. Then we show up and ignore him, and by and by the three of us make up a full car for somebody, and after we're out of the terminal and about to board, out of the public eye, John changes his mind and fades and we take over the bag. Zippo bang, off on tour."

"I'll say it again. Screw the tour. We've got more important things to do."

"Like what?"


"What do you wanna do with the stuff? Call the reporters? Stand on Barrington Street and give away samples? Call the heat? Look. We're proposing to unleash truth on the world. I'm willing to take a crack at that, but I'd like to live to see what happens. So I don't want to be connected with it publicly in any way if I can help it. We keep our cover and do our tour—and we sprinkle fairy dust as we go."

"Dose people, you mean?"

"Dose the most visible people we can find, and make damn sure we don't get caught at it. We're supposed to hit nineteen cities in twenty-eight days, in a random pattern that even a computer couldn't figure out. I intend to leave behind us the God-damnedest trail of headlines in history."

"Zack, I don't follow your thinking."

"Okay." He paused, took a deep breath, slowed himself visibly. "Okay . . . considering what we've got here, it behooves me to be honest. I have doubts about this. Heavy doubts. The decision we're making is incredibly arrogant. We're talking about destroying the world, as we know it."

"To hell with the world as we know it, Zack, it stinks. A world of truth has to be better."

"Okay, in my gut something agrees with you. But I'm still not sure. A world of truth may be better—but the period of turmoil while the old world collapses is sure going to squash a lot of people. Nice people. Good people. Jill, something else in my gut suspects that maybe even good people need lies sometimes. 

"So I want to hedge my bets. I want to experiment first and see what happens. To do that I have to make another arrogant decision: to dose selected individuals, cold-bloodedly and without giving them a chance, let alone a vote. Wesley experimented himself, with a lab and volunteers and procedure and tests, until he proved to his satisfaction that it was okay to turn this stuff loose. Well, I haven't got any of that—but I have to establish to my satisfaction that it's cool."

"Do you doubt his results?" Jill asked indignantly.

"To my satisfaction. Not Wesley's, or even yours, my darling, or anyone else's. And yes, frankly, I have some doubts about his results."

Jill clouded up. "How can you—"

"Baby, listen to me. I believe that every word Wesley George said to us was the absolute unbiased truth as he knew it. But he himself had taken the drug. That makes him suspect."

Jill dropped her eyes. "That retroactive consent business bothered me a little too."

Zack nodded. "Yeah. If everybody comes out of prefrontal lobotomy with a smile on his face, what does that prove? If you kidnapped somebody and put a droud in their head, made 'em a wirehead, they'd thank you on their way out—but so what? Things like that are like scooping out somebody's self and replacing it with a new one. The new one says thanks—but the old one was murdered. I want to make sure that Homo veritas is a good thing—in the opinion of Homo sapiens. 

"So I propose that neither of us take the drug. I propose that we abstain, and take careful precautions not to accidentally contaminate ourselves while we're using it. We'll dose others but not ourselves, and then when the tour is over—or sooner if it feels right—we'll sit down and look over what we've done and how it turned out. Then if we're still agreed, we'll take a couple of hits together and call CBC News. By then there'll be so much evidence they'll have to believe us, and then . . . then the word will be out. Too far out for the dealers to have it squashed or discredited. Or the government."

"And then the world will end."

"And a new one will begin . . . but first we've got to know. Am I crazy or does that make sense to you?"

Jill was silent a long time. Her face got the blank look that meant she was thinking hard. After a few minutes she got up and began pacing the apartment. "It's risky, Zack. Once the headlines start coming they'll figure out what happened and come after us."

"And the only people who know our schedule are Fat Jack and the Agency. We'll tell 'em there's a skip tracer after us and they'll both keep shut—"


"Jill, this ain't the feds after us—it's a bunch of dealers who dasn't let anybody know they exist. They can't have the resources they'd need to trace us, even if they did know what city we were in."

"They might. A dealers' union'd have to be international. That's a lot of weight, Zack, a lot of money."

"Darlin'—if all you got is pisspoor dope . . ." He broke off and shrugged.

Jill grinned suddenly. "You make cigars. Let's get packed. More coffee?"

They took little time in packing and preparing their apartment for a long absence. This would be their third tour together; by now it was routine. At last everything that needed doing was done, the lights were out save for the bedside lamp, and they were ready for bed. They undressed quickly and silently, with no flirting byplay, and slid under the covers. They snuggled together spoon fashion for a few silent minutes, and then Zack began rubbing her neck and shoulders with his free hand, kneading with guitarist's fingers and lover's knowledge. They had not yet spoken a word of the change that the events of the evening had brought to their relationship, and both knew it, and the tension in the room was thick enough to smell. Zack thought of a hundred things to say, and each one sounded stupider than the last.



"We're probably going to die, aren't we?"

"We're positively going to die." She stiffened almost imperceptibly under his fingers. "But I could have told you that yesterday, or last week." She relaxed again. "Difference is, yesterday I couldn't have told you positively that we'd die together."

Zack would have sworn they were inextricably entwined, but somehow she rolled round into his arms in one fluid motion, then pulled him on top of her with another. Their embrace was eight-legged and whole-hearted and completely nonsexual, and about a minute of it was all their muscles would tolerate. Then they drew apart just far enough to meet each other's eyes. They shared that, too, for a long minute, and then Zack smiled.

"Have you ever noticed that there is no position or combination of positions in which we do not fit together like nesting cups?"

She giggled, and in the middle of the giggle tears leaked from her laughing eyes. "Oh, Zack," she cried, and hugged him again. "I love you so much."

"I know, baby, I know," he murmured in her ear, stroking her hair. "It's not every day that you find something worth dying for—and something worth living for. Both at the same time. Christ, I love you."

They both discovered his rigid erection at the same instant, and an instant later they discovered her sopping wetness, and for the first time in their relationship their loins joined without manual aid from either of them. Together they sucked air slowly through their teeth, and then he began to pull his head back to meet her eyes and she stopped him, grabbing his head with her hands and pushing her tongue into his ear. His hips arched reflexively, his hands clutched her shoulders, her legs locked round his, and the oldest dance began again. It was eleven A.M. before they finally slept, and by that time they were in someone else's car, heading, ironically enough, north by northwest.

It's the best way out of Halifax.

* * *

The reader wishing a detailed account of Zack and Jill's activities over the next month can find it at any library with a good newstape and newspaper morgue. The reader is advised to bring a lunch. At any time of the year the individual stories that the two folksingers sowed behind them like depth charges would have been hot copy—but God had ordained that Wesley George drop dead in August, smack in the middle of Silly Season. The news media of the entire North American Confederation went into grateful orgasmic convulsions.

Not all the stories made the news. The events involving the Rev. Schwartz in Montreal, for instance, were entirely suppressed at the time, by the husbands involved, and have only recently come to light. When militant radical leader Mtu Zanje, the notorious "White Mau Mau," was found in Harlem with bullets from sixteen different unregistered guns in him, there was at that time nothing to connect it with the other stories, and it got three inches on page forty-three.

Indeed, the most incredible thing in retrospect is that no one, at the time, connected any of the stories. Though each new uproar was dutifully covered in detail, not one journalist, commentator or observer divined any common denominator in them until the month was nearly up. Confronted with the naked truth, the people of North America did not recognize it.

But certainly every one of them saw it or heard about it, in living color stereo and thirty-six point type and four-channel FM, in weekly news magazines and on documentary shows, in gossip columns and radio talk shows, in political cartoons and in comedians' routines. Zack and Jill strongly preferred to examine their results from a distance, and so they tended to be splashy.

In St. John, New Brunswick, they hit an elderly and prominent judge who had more wrinkles than a William Goldman novel, while he was sitting in open court on a controversial treason case. After an astonishing twenty-seven-minute monologue, the aged barrister died in a successful attempt to cover, with the sidearm he had snatched from his bailiff, the defendant's escape. Zack and Jill, sitting in the audience, were considerably startled, but they had to agree that only once had they seen a man die happier: the judge's dead face was as smooth as a baby's.

In Montreal (in addition to the Rev. Schwartz), they managed to catch a Conservative MP on his way into a TV studio and shake his hand. The program's producer turned out to have seen the old movie Network—he kept the politician on the air, physically knocking down the programming director when that became necessary. The MP had been—er—liberally dosed; after forty-five minutes of emotional confession he began specifically outlining the secret dreams he had had ever since he first took office, the really good programs he had constructed in his imagination but never dared speak aloud, knowing they could never be implemented in the real world of power blocs and interest groups. He went home that night a broken but resigned man, and woke up the next morning to confront a landslide of favorable response, an overwhelming mandate to implement his dreams. To be sure, very very few of the people who had voted for him in the last election ever did so again. But in the next election (and every subsequent election involving him) the ninety percent of the electorate who traditionally never vote turned out almost to a person. The producer is now his chief aide.

In Ottawa they tried for the Prime Minister, but they could not get near him or near anything that could get near him. But they did get the aging Peter Gzowski on 90 Minutes Live. He too chanced to have seen Network, and he had much more survival instinct than its protagonist: the first thing he did upon leaving the studio was to make an extensive tape recording and mail several dubs thereof to friends with instructions for their disposal in the event of his sudden death. Accordingly he is still alive and broadcasting today, and there are very few lids left for him to tear off these days.

Outside Toronto Zack and Jill made their most spectacular single raid, at the Universal Light and Truth Convocation. It was a kind of week-long spiritual olympics: over a dozen famous gurus, swamis, reverends, Zen masters, Sufis, priests, priestesses and assorted spiritual teachers had gathered with thousands of their followers on a donated hundred-acre pasture to debate theology and sell each other incense, with full media coverage. Zack and Jill walked through the Showdown of the Shamen and between them missed not a one. One committed suicide. One went mad. Four denounced themselves to their followers and fled. Seven denounced themselves to their followers and stayed. Four wept too hard to speak, the one the others called The Fat Boy (although he was middle-aged) bit off his tongue, and exactly one teacher—the old man who had brought few followers and nothing for sale—exhibited no change whatsoever in his manner or behavior but went home very thoughtfully to Tennessee. It is now known that he could have blown the story then and there, for he was a telepath, but he chose not to. The single suicide bothered Jill deeply; but only because she happened to know of and blackly despise that particular holy man, and was dismayed by the pleasure she felt at his death. But Zack challenged her to name one way in which his demise either diminished the world or personally benefited her, and she came tentatively to accept that her pleasure might be legitimate.

They happened to arrive in Detroit just before the annual meeting of the Board of Directors of General Motors. Madame President absentmindedly pocketed the cigar she found on the back seat of her Rolls that morning, though it was not her brand, and it had been saturated with enough odorless, tasteless TWT to dose Madison Square Garden. It is of course impossible to ever know exactly what transpired that day in that most sacrosanct and guarded and unpublic of rooms—but we have the text of the press release that ensued, and we do know that all GM products subsequent to 1994 burn alcohol instead of gasoline, and exhibit a sharp upward curve in safety and reliability.

In Chicago Zack and Jill got a prominent and wealthy realtor-developer and all his tame engineers, ecologists, lawyers and other promotion experts in the middle of a public debate over a massive rezoning proposal. There are no more slums in Chicago, and the developer is, of course, its present mayor.

In Cleveland they got a used car salesman, a TV repairman, a plumber, an auto mechanic, and a Doctor of Philosophy in one glorious afternoon.

In New York they got Mtu Zanje, quite by accident. The renegade white led a force of sixteen New Black Panthers in a smash-and-grab raid on the downtown club where Zack and Jill were playing. Mtu Zanje personally took Jill's purse, and smoked a cigar which he found therein on his way back uptown. Zack and Jill never learned of his death or their role in it, but it is doubtful that they would have mourned.

In Boston they concentrated on policemen, as many as they could reach in two mornings and afternoons, and by the time they left that town it was rocking on its metaphorical foundations. Interesting things came boiling up out of the cracks, and most of them have since decomposed in the presence of air and sunlight.

In Portland, Maine, Zack figured a way to plant a timed-release canister in the air-conditioning system of that city's largest Welfare Center. A great many people voluntarily left the welfare roll over the ensuing month, and none have yet returned—or starved. There are, of course, a lot of unemployed caseworkers . . .

And then they were on their way home to Halifax.

But this is a listing only of the headlines that Zack and Jill left behind them—not of everything that happened on that trip. Not even of everything important; at least, not to Zack and Jill.

In Quebec a laundry van just missed killing them both, then roared away.

In Ottawa they went out for a late night walk just before a tremendous explosion partially destroyed their motel. It had apparently originated in the room next to theirs, which was unoccupied.

In Toronto they were attacked on the streets by what might have been a pair of honest muggers, but by then they were going armed and they got one apiece.

In Detroit the driver of the cab they had taken (at ruinous expense) to eliminate a suspected tail apparently went mad and deliberately jumped a divider into high-speed oncoming traffic. In any car crash, the Law of Chaos prevails, and in this instance it killed the driver and left Zack and Jill bruised and shaken but otherwise unharmed.

They knew enemy action when they saw it, and so they did the most confusing thing they could think of: stopped showing up for their scheduled gigs, but kept on following the itinerary. They also adopted reasonably ingenious disguises and, with some trepidation, stopped travelling together. Apparently the combination worked; they were not molested again until they showed up for the New York gig to break the pattern, and then only by Mtu Zanje, which they agreed was coincidence. But it made them thoughtful, and they rented several hours of complete privacy in a videotape studio before leaving town.

And on the road to Boston they each combed their memory for friends remembered as One Of The Nice Ones, people they could trust, and in that city they met in the Tremont Street Post Office and spent an hour addressing and mailing VidCaset Mailer packs. Each pack contained within it, in addition to its program material, a twenty-second trailer holding five hundred hits of TWT in blotter form—a smuggling innovation of which Zack was sinfully proud.

They had not yet taken TWT themselves, but their decision was made. They agreed at the end of that day to take it together when they got back to Halifax. They would do it in the Scorpio, alone together, in the dressing room where Wesley George had died.

They waited until well after closing, after Finnegan and the Shadow had locked up behind them and driven away the last two cars in the parking lot. Then they waited another hour to be sure.

The night was chill and still, save for the occasional distant street sounds from more active parts of town. There was no moon and the sky was lightly overcast; darkness was total. They waited in the black together, waiting not for any particular event or signal but only until it felt right, and they both knew that time without words. They were more married already than most couples get to be in a lifetime, and they were no longer in any hurry at all.

When it was time they rose from their cramped positions behind the building's trash compactor and walked stealthily around to the front of the building to the descending stairway that led to the outer door of the dressing room. Like all of Finnegan's regulars they knew how to slip its lock, and did so with minimal noise.

As soon as the door clicked shut behind them, Jill heaved a great sigh, compounded of relief and fatigue and déjà vu. "This is where it all started," she breathed. "The tour is over. Full circle."

Zack looked around at pitch blackness. "From the smell in here, I would guess that it was Starship Earth played here tonight."

Jill giggled. "Still living on soybeans, too. Zack, can we put the light on, do you think?"

`'Hmmm. No windows, but this door isn't really tight. I don't think it'd be smart, hon."

"How about a candle?"

"Sold. Let me see—ouch!—if the Starship left the—yeah, here's a couple." He struck the light, and started both candles. The room sprang into being around them, as though painted at once in broad strokes of butter and chocolate. It was, after a solid month of perpetually new surroundings, breathtakingly familiar and comfortable. It lifted their hearts, even though both found their eyes going at once to the spot on which Wesley George had fallen.

"If your ghost is here, Wesley, rest easy, man," Zack said quietly. "It got covered. And we're both back to do truth ourselves. They killed you, man, but they didn't stop you."

After a pause, Jill said, `'Thank you, Wesley," just as quietly. Then she turned to Zack. "You know, I don't even feel like we need to take the stuff, in a place."

"I know, hon, I know. We've been more and more honest with each other, opened up more every day, like the truth was gonna come sooner or later so we might as well get straight now. I guess I know you better than I've ever known any human, let alone any woman. But if fair is fair and right is right we've got to take the stuff. I wouldn't have the balls not to."

"Sure. Come on—Wesley's waiting."

Together they walked hand in hand, past the cigar-burn in the rug, to Wesley's dying place. The whisper of their boots on the rug echoed oddly in the soundproof room, then faded to silence.

"The door was open that night," Jill whispered.

"Yeah," Zack agreed. He turned the knob, eased the door open and yelped in surprise and fright. A bulky figure sat on the stage ten feet away, half-propped against an amp, ankles crossed before it. It was in deep shadow, but Zack would have known that silhouette in a coal cellar. He pushed the door open wider, and the candlelight fell on the figure, confirming his guess.

"Finnegan!" he cried in relief and astonishment. "Jesus Christ, man, you scared me. I swear I saw you leave an hour ago."

"Nope," said the barkeep. He was of medium height and stocky, bald as a grape but with fuzzy brown hair all over his face and neck. It was the kind of face within which the unbroken nose was incongruous. He scratched his crinkly chin with a left hand multiply callused from twenty years of guitar and dobro and mandolin and fiddle, and grinned what his dentist referred to as the Thousand Dollar Grin. "You just thought you did."

"Well shit, yeah, so it seems. Look, we're just sort of into a little head thing here if that's cool, meant to tell you later . . ."


A noise came from behind Zack, and he turned quickly to Jill. "Look, baby, it's Finn—"

Jill had not made the noise, nor did she make one now. Sziller had made the noise as he slipped the lock on the outside door, and he made another one as he snapped the hammer back on the silenced Colt. It echoed in the dressing room. Zack spun back to Finnegan, and the barkeep's right hand was up out of his lap now and there was a .357 Magnum in it.

Too tired, Zack thought wearily, too frigging tired. I wasn't cautious enough and so it ends here. 

"I'm sorry, Jill," he said aloud, still facing Finnegan.

"I," Finnegan said clearly and precisely, "am a bi-federal agent, authorized to act in either the American or the Canadian sector. Narcotics has been my main turf for years now."

"Sure," Zack agreed. "What better cover for a narc than a musician?"

"This one," Finnegan said complacently. "I always hated being on the road. Halifax has always been a smuggler's port—why not just sit here and let the stuff come to me? All the beer I can drink—"

Sziller was going through the knapsack Jill had left by the door, without taking his eyes or his gun off them for an instant.

"So how come you're in bed with Sziller?" Zack demanded. Sziller looked up and grinned, arraying his massive beard like a peacock's tail.

"George blew my cover," Finnegan said cheerfully. "He knew me from back when and spilled the soybeans. If he'd known you two were regulars here he'd likely have warned you. So after Sziller did him in and then . . . found out he had not adequately secured the goods . . . he naturally came straight to me."

"Finnegan's got a better organization than we do," Sziller chuckled. His voice was like a lizard's would sound if lizards could talk. "More manpower, more resources, more protection."

"And Sziller knew that TWT would mean the end of me too if it got out. He figured that our interest coincided for once—in a world of truth, what use is a narc? How can he work?"

Much too goddam tired, Zack told himself. I'm hallucinating. Finnegan appeared to be winking at him. Zack glanced to see if Jill were reacting to it, but her eyes were locked on Sziller, whose eyes were locked on her. Zack glanced swiftly back, and Finnegan still appeared to be winking, and now he was waving Zack toward him. Zack stood still; he preferred to die in the dressing room.

"He took a gamble," Finnegan went on, "a gamble that I would go just as far as he would to see that drug destroyed. Well, we missed you in Quebec and Ottawa and Toronto, and you fooled us when you went to Portland instead of your gig in Bangor, but I guess we've got you now."

"You're wrong," Jill said, turning to glare at Finnegan. "It's too late. You're both too late. You can kill us, but you can never recall the truth now."

"People forget headlines," Sziller sneered confidently. "Even a month of headlines. Nothing."

"You're still wrong," Zack said, staring in confusion from Sziller to Jill to the gesticulating Finnegan. "We put about thirty tapes and TWT samples in the mail—"

"Jerks," Sziller said, shaking his head. "Outthought every step of the way. Look, sonny, if you want to move a lot of dope with minimum risk, where do you get a job?" He paused and grinned again. "The Post Office, dummy."

"No," Zack and Jill said together, and Finnegan barked "Yes," quite sharply. They both turned to look at him.

"You can bug any room with a window in it, children," he said wearily. "And that dressing room, of course, has always been bugged. Oh, look, dammit."

He held up a VidCaset Mailer pack with broken seals, and at last they both started forward involuntarily toward it, and as he cleared the dressing room doorway Zack finally caught on, and he reached behind him and an incredible thing happened.

It must be borne in mind that both Zack and Jill had, as they had earlier recognized, been steadily raising the truth level between them for over a month, unconsciously attempting to soften the blow of their first TWT experience. The Tennessee preacher earlier noted had once said publicly that all people are born potentially telepathic—but that if we're ever going to get any message-traffic capacity, we must first shovel the shit out of the Communications Room. This room, he said, was called by some the subconscious mind. Zack and Jill had almost certainly been exposed to at least threshold contamination with TWT, and they were, as it happens, the first subjects to be a couple and very much in love. They had lived together through a month that could have killed them at any time, and they were already beginning to display minor telepathic rapport.

Whatever the reasons, for one fractionated instant their hands touched, glancingly, and—Jill who had seen none of Finnegan's winking and almost nothing of his urgent gestures—knew all at once exactly what was about to happen and what to do, and Zack knew that she knew and that he didn't have to worry about her. Sziller was close behind them; there was no time even for one last flickerglance at each other. They grinned and winked together at Finnegan and Zack dove left and Jill dove right and Sziller came into the doorway with the Colt extended, wondering why Finnegan hadn't fired already, and there was just time for his face to register of course, he has no silencer before Finnegan shot him.

A .357 Magnum throwing a 120-grain Supervel hollow-point can kill you if it hits you in the foot, from hydrostatic shock to the brain. Sziller took it in the solar plexus and slammed back into the dressing room to land with a wet, meaty thud.

The echoes roared and crackled away like the treble thunder that comes sometimes with heat lightning.

"I'm kind of more than your garden variety narc," Finnegan said calmly. "Maybe you guessed."

"Yes," Jill said for both of them. "A few seconds ago. To arrange that many convincingly bungled hits, you've got to be big. But you took a big chance with that cab driver."

"Hell, he wasn't mine. The guy just happened to flip—happens all the time."

"I believe you," she said, again for the two of them.

"People will have heard that shot," Zack suggested diffidently.

"Nobody who wasn't expecting it, son," Finnegan said, and sighed. "Nobody who wasn't expecting it."

Zack nodded. "Question?"


"How come you're still holding that gun out?"

"Because both of you still have yours," the government man said softly.

No one moved for a long frozen moment. Zack was caught with his right hand under him; in attempting to conceal the gun he had lost the use of it. Jill's was behind a crouching leg, but she left it there.

"We don't figure you, Ed," she said softly. "That's all. You see that, don't you?"

"Of course," he said. "So lighten up on the iron and by and by we'll all go get ham and eggs at my place. I'll teach you that song about Bad-Eye Bill and the Eskimo gal."

"You're not relaxing us worth a shit, Finnegan," Zack grated. "Talk. How big are you?"

Finnegan pursed his lips, blew a tiny bubble between them. "Big. Bigger than narcotics. Bifederality leaves a lot of gaps. I guess you could say I'm The Man, Zaccur old son. For our purposes, anyway. Oh, I have superiors, including the President and the Prime Minister. I'm so clever and nimble none of them is even afraid of me. I think the PM rather likes me. It's important that you know how heavy I am—it'll help you believe the rest."

He paused there, and Zack said "Try us," in a gentler tone of voice.

Finnegan looked around him at the darkened music room, at shadowy formica-toadstool tables bristling with chair legs, at the great hovering-buzzard blot that was the high spotlight, at a stage full of amplifiers and a piano like stolid dwarves and a troll come to sit in judgment on him, at the mocking red glow of the sign over the door that claimed it was an exit. He took a deep breath, and spoke very carefully.

"Did you ever wonder why a man takes on a job like mine?" He wet his lips. "He takes it on because it's a job that someone has to do, and he sees that the man doing it is a bloody bungling butcher playing James Bond with the fate of the world. Can you see that? I hated his job as much as I hated him, but I understood that in a world like this one, somebody has to do that job. Somebody just plain has to do that job, and I decided that no one in sight could do a better job than me. So I forced him to retire and I took his job. It is a filthy pig fucker of a job, and it has damaged me to do it—but somebody had to. Look, I have done things that horrify me, things that diminish me, but I did good things, too, and I have been striving every minute toward a world in which my job didn't exist, in which nobody had to shoulder that load. I've been working to put myself out of a job, without the faintest shred of hope, for over ten years—and now it's Christmas and I'm free, I'm fucking FREE. That makes me so happy that I could go down to the cemetery and dig up Wes and kiss him on the mouldy lips, so happy I'll feel just terrible if I can't talk you two out of killing me.

"My job is finished, now—nobody knows it but you and me, but it's all over but the shouting. And in gratitude to you and Wes I intend to use my last gasp of power and influence to try and keep you two alive when the shit hits the fan."


"I kind of liked your idea, so I let your VidCaset packs go through. But first I erased 'em and rerecorded. Audio only, voice out of a voder, nothing identifying you two. That won't fool a computer for long, they're all friends of yours, but it buys us time."

"For what?" Jill asked.

"Time to get you two underground, of course. How would you like to be, oh, say, a writer and her husband in Colorado for six months or so? You'd look good as a blond."

"Finnegan," Zack said with great weariness, "this all has a certain compelling inner consistency to it, but you surely understand our position. Unless you can prove any of this, we're going to have to shoot it out."

"Why you damned fools," Finnegan blazed, "what're you wasting time for? You've got some of the stuff with you—give me a taste." 

There was a pause while the pair thought that over. "How do we do this?" Jill asked at last.

"Put your guns on me," Finnegan said.

They stared.

"Come on, dammit. For now that's the only way we can trust each other. Just like the world out there—guns at each other's heads because we fear lies and treachery, the sneak attack. Put your fucking guns on me, and in an hour that world will be on its way out. Come on!" he roared.

Hesitantly, the two brought up their guns, until all three weapons threatened life. Jill's other hand brought a tiny stoppered vial from her pants. Slowly, carefully, she advanced toward Finnegan, holding out the truth, and when she was three feet away she saw Finnegan grin and heard Zack chuckle, and then she was giggling helplessly at the thought of three solemn faces above pistol sights, and all at once all three of them were convulsed with great racking whoops of laughter at themselves, and they threw away their guns as one. They held their sides and roared and roared with laughter until all three had fallen to the floor, and then they pounded weakly on the floor and laughed some more.

There was a pause for panting and catching of breath and a few tapering giggles, and then Jill unstoppered the vial and upended it against each proffered fingertip and her own. Each licked their finger eagerly, and from about that time on everything began to be all right. Literally.

An ending is the beginning of something, always.


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