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I had almost finished unraveling the innermost workings of a moderately interesting conspiracy to defraud one of Olkney's oldest investment syndicates when suddenly I no longer understood what I was doing.

The complex scheme was based on a multileveled matrix of transactions—some large, some small; some honest, some corrupt—conducted among an elaborate web of persons, some of whom were real, some fictitious and a few who were both, depending upon the evolving needs of the conspirators.

Disentangling the fraud, sifting the actual from the invented, had occupied most of the morning. But once the true shape of the scheme became clear, I again fell prey to the boredom that blighted my days.

Then, as I regarded the schematic of the conspiracy on the inner screen of my mind, turning it this way and that, a kind of gray haze descended on my thoughts, like mist thickening on a landscape, first obscuring then obliterating the image.

I must be fatigued, was my initial reaction. I crossed to my workroom sink and splashed water onto my face then blotted it dry with a square of absorbent fiber. When I glanced into the reflector I received a shock.

"Integrator," I said aloud, "what has happened to me?"

"You are forty-six years of age," replied the device, "so a great many events have occurred since your conception. Shall I list them chronologically or in order of importance?"

I have always maintained that clarity of speech precedes clarity of thought and had trained my assistant to respond accordingly. Now I said, "I was speaking colloquially. Examine my appearance. It has changed, radically and not at all for the better."

I looked at myself in the reflector. I should have been seeing the image of Henghis Hapthorn, foremost freelance discriminator in the city of Olkney in the penultimate age of Old Earth. That image traditionally offered a broad brow, a straight nose leading to well-formed lips and a chin that epitomized resolution.

Instead, the reflector offered a beetling strip of forehead above a proboscis that went on far too long and in two distinct directions. My upper lip had shrunk markedly while the lower had grown hugely pendulous. My chin, apparently horrified, had fallen back toward my throat. Previously clear sweeps of ruddy skin were now pallid and infested by prominent warts and moles.

"You seem to have become ugly," said the integrator.

I put my fingers to my face and received from their survey the same unhappy tale told by my eyes. "It is more than seeming," I said. "It is fact. The question is: How was this done?"

The integrator said, "The first question is not how but exactly what has been done. We also need to learn why and perhaps by whom. The answers to those questions may well have a bearing on finding a way to undo the effect."

"You are right," said I. "Why didn't I think of that?"

"Are you being colloquial again or do you wish me to speculate?"

I scratched my head. "I am trying to think," I said.

"I have never known you to have to try," said the integrator. "Normally, you must make an effort to stop."

The device was correct. My intellectual capacity was renowned for both its breadth and depth. As a discriminator I often uncovered facts and relationships so ingeniously hidden or disguised as to baffle the best agents of the Archonate's Bureau of Scrutiny.

My cerebral apparatus was powerful and highly tuned. Yet now it was as if some gummy substance had been poured over gears that had always spun without friction.

"Something is wrong," I said. "Moments ago I was a highly intelligent and eminently attractive man in the prime of life. Now I am ugly and dull."

"I dispute the 'eminently attractive.' You were, however, presentable. Now, persons who came upon you unexpectedly would be startled."

I disdained to quibble; the esthetic powers of integrators were notoriously scant. "I was without question the most brilliant citizen of Olkney."

The integrator offered no contradiction.

"Now I must struggle even to . . ." I broke off for a moment to rummage through my mind, and found conditions worse than I had thought. "I was going to say that I would have to struggle to compute fourth-level consistencies, but in truth I find it difficult to encompass the most elementary ratios."

"That is very bad."

My face sank into my hands. Its new topography made it strange to my touch. "I am ruined," I said. "How can I work?"

Integrators were not supposed to experience exasperation, but mine had been with me for so long that certain aspects of my personality had infiltrated its circuits. "Perhaps I should think for both of us," it said.

"Please do."

But scarcely had the device begun to outline a research program than there came an interruption. "I am receiving an emergency message from the fiduciary pool," it said. "The payment you ordered made from your account to Bastieno's for the new surveillance suite cannot go forward."

"Why not?"

"Insufficient funds. The pool also advises that tomorrow's automatic payment of the encumbrance on these premises cannot be met."

"Impossible!" I said. I had made a substantial deposit two days earlier, the proceeds of a discrimination concerning the disappearance of Hongsaun Bedwicz. She had been custodian of the Archonate's premier collection of thunder gems, rare objects created when lightning struck through specific layers of certain gaseous planets. They had to be collected within seconds of being formed, lest they sink to lower levels of the chemically active atmosphere and dissolve. I had located Bedwicz on a planet halfway down The Spray, where she had fled with her secret lover, Follis Duhane, whose love of fine things had overstrained her income.

My fee should have been the standard ten per cent of the value of the recovered goods, but the Archonate's bureaucrats had made reference to my use of some legally debatable methodologies, and I had come away with three per cent. Still, there should be at least 30,000 hepts, I informed my assistant.

"My records concur," said the integrator. "Unfortunately, the pool's do not. They say you have 32 hepts and 14 grimlets. No more, no less."

"Where has the rest of it gone?"

"Pool integrators are never sophisticated, lest they grow bored with constant ins and outs and begin to amuse themselves with the customers' assets. This one merely counts what is there and records inflow and outtake. Yesterday the funds were present. Now they are not, although there has been no authorized withdrawal."

"So now I am not only ugly and dull, but have scarcely a groat to my name and am at risk of being ejected into the street."

The integrator said nothing. "Well," I prompted it, "have you no empathy?"

"You assembled me from analytical and computative elements," it replied. "However, I believe I can feign sympathy, if that will help."

"I doubt it," I said. "Why don't you analyze something?"

But instead it told me, "I am receiving another urgent message."

I groaned. "Is it the Archon threatening to banish me? That would place an appropriate crown onto the morning's disasters."

"It is Grier Alfazzian, the celebrated entertainer," said the integrator. "Shall I connect?"


"He may wish to engage you. An urgent matter would presuppose a willingness to pay an advance. That would solve one of the morning's problems."

"Hmm," I said. "I should have thought of that."

"Yes," it said, then after a pause, "you poor little lumpykins."

"All right, put him through. But audio only. I don't want to be seen like this."

"Very well."

"And no more attempts at sympathy."

A screen appeared in the air before me, but when Alfazzian connected I did not see the face that gave women the hot swithers, though I had always thought him more pretty than handsome. He spoke from behind a montage of images that recalled his most acclaimed roles.

"Is that you, Hapthorn?"

I recognized his plummy baritone. "It is," I said.

"I have a question that requires an answer. Urgently and most discreetly. Come to my home at once."

I did not wish to take my new countenance out into the teeming streets of Olkney. There was a bylaw forbidding the frightening of children.

"Can we not discuss it as we are?"


"Very well." I had a mask left over from a recent soiree at the Archon's Palace. "But summoning me on short notice requires an advance on my fee."

"How much?"

Fortunately my memory was not fully impaired. I could recall the amounts cadged from wealthy clients who called me for assistance from within the coils of drastic and unexpected predicaments.

"Five thousand hepts," I said. "You may transfer it to my account at once."

"I shall," he said. "Wait while my integrator conducts the transfer."

There was a pause which lengthened while I regarded the images of Alfazzian striking poses in theatrical costumes and romantic settings. Then his voice returned to say, "There seems to be a problem with my finances."

"Indeed?" I said. I recalled that I often said "Indeed," when I could not think of any other rejoinder. When I wished to avoid a question, I usually indicated that an answer would be premature. I found that the two rejoinders filled conversational holes quite nicely.

"I do not have five thousand hepts at the moment. My funds have apparently been misplaced, except for a trifling sum."

Some stirring in the back of my mind urged me to ask the exact amount of the trifling sum.

"Why do you wish to know?" Alfazzian said.

I did not know why I wished to know, so I said, "It would be premature to say."

"The amount is 32 hepts and 14 grimlets," he said.


"Are the numbers significant?" Alfazzian asked.

"It would be premature to say," I said. "I will call you back."

"It cannot be coincidence that his funds and yours have been reduced to the same amount," the integrator said.

"Why not?"

"Consider the odds."

My mind attempted to do so in its customary manner, lunging at the calculation like a fierce and hungry dog that scents raw meat before its muzzle. But the mental leap was jerked to a halt in midair as if by a short chain. "I take it the odds are long?" I said.

The integrator quoted a very lopsided ratio.

"Indeed," I said. "But what does it signify?"

"It would be premature . . ." it began.

"Never mind."

I tried to think of possible circumstances that could empty two unrelated accounts of all but the same small sum. After sustained effort, I came up with what seemed to be a pertinent question. "Do Alfazzian and I use the same pool?"


"Then it can't just be a defective integrator?"

"Integrators do not become defective," was the reply.

"I did not mean to offend."

"Integrators do not take offense. We are above such things."


There was a silence. "How could the closely guarded integrators of two solvencies be induced to eliminate the funds of two separate depositors except for an identical trifle?" I asked.

"Hypothetically, a master criminal of superlative abilities might be able to accomplish it."

"Does such a master criminal exist?"

"No," was the answer, followed by a qualification. "But if such a criminal did exist he would almost certainly have the power to disguise his existence."

"Even from the Archonate's Bureau of Scrutiny?" I wondered.

"Unlikely, but possible. The scroots are not completely infallible."

"But if there was such a master purloiner, what would be his motivation in impoverishing me and Alfazzian? How have our lives mutually connected with that of our assailant?"

"No motive seems apparent," said the integrator.

I pushed my brain for more possibilities. It was like trying to goad a large, lethargic animal that prefers to sleep. "Who else might be able to subvert the fiduciary pools?" I said. "Could it be an inside job?"

"It is hard to imagine a cabal of officers from two financial institutions conspiring to defraud two prominent customers."

"And, again, where lies a motive?"

My mind was no more help than my assistant in answering that question. But if the machinery would not turn over, I still retained a grasp of the fundamentals of investigations: the transgressor would be he who had the means, motive and opportunity to commit the offense. I considered all three factors in the light of the known facts and was stymied.

"I am stymied," I said. Then a faint inspiration struck. I asked the integrator, "If I were as I was before whatever has happened to cloud my mind, what would I now propose to do?"

The integrator replied, "You have occasionally said that although with most problems the simplest answer is usually correct, sometimes one encounters situations where the bare facts stubbornly resist explanation. In such a case, adding further complications paradoxically clarifies the issue."

I could remember having said those exact words. Now I asked the integrator, "Have you any idea what I meant when I said that?"

"Not really."

I scratched my head again.

"Do you have a scalp condition?" asked my assistant. "Shall I order anything from the chymist?"

"No," I said. "I was trying to think again."

"Does the scratching help?"

"No. Nor do your interruptions. Be useful and posit some complicating factors that might have something to do with the case."

"Very well. You are ugly and not very bright."

"I don't see how gratuitous insults can help."

"You misapprehend. At the same time as you have become poor, your appearance and mental acuity have also been reduced."

"Ahah," I said. Again there came a glimmer of an idea. This time I managed to fan it into a small flame. "And Alfazzian, who normally delights in displaying his face to the world, hid behind a montage while he spoke with me."

"So the coincidence might be even more extreme," said the integrator, "if he too has been reduced to ugliness."

"Connect me to him."

A moment later I was again looking at Alfazzian's screen. "Tell me," I said, "has there been an alteration in your appearance?"

There was a pause before he said, "How did you know?"

I had never had difficulty answering that question. "I do not reveal my methods," I said.

"Are you taking the case?"

"I am," I said. "I will make a special dispensation and allow you to pay me later."

"I am grateful."

"One question: Does it seem to you that your intellectual faculties have been reduced?"

"No," Alfazzian said, "but then I have always got by on my talent."

"Indeed," I said. My longstanding impression of the entertainer remained intact: his talent consisted entirely of his fortuitous facial geometry. "Remain at home and wait to hear from me."

I broke the connection and the screen disappeared. I said to my assistant, "Now we know more, but still we know nothing."

We knew that I who had been brilliant, attractive—or so I would argue—and financially comfortable had been made dense, repugnant and indigent. Alfazzian had been admittedly more handsome than I and probably much more wealthy, and now he was also without funds or looks—but his intellect had not been correspondingly ravished.

"There is a pattern here," I said, "if I could but see it."

I wrestled with the facts but could not get a secure grip. The effort was made more difficult by a growing clamor from the street outside my quarters. I went to the window and, bidding the integrator minimize the obscuring membrane, looked down at a growing disturbance.

Several persons were clustered before a doorway on the opposite side of Shiplien Way, beating at the closed portal with fists, feet and, in the case of a large and choleric woman in yellow taffeta, a parasol. As I watched, more participants joined the mob, then all took to shouting threats and imprecations at a smooth-headed man who leaned from an upper window and implored them to return another day.

The door, which remained closed, led to a branch of the Olkney Mercantile, one of the city's most patronized financial institutions. I spoke to my assistant. "Is Alfazzian's account with the OM?"


"Then I believe we can add one more new fact to our store."

I inspected the individual members of the crowd. I had never been one to judge others on mere appearance, but the assemblage of mismatched features across the street was the least fortunate collection of countenances I had ever seen assembled in one place. "Make that two new facts," I said.

"Hmm," I said. Again, it was as if my mind expected a pattern to present itself, but nothing came. It was an unpleasant sensation, the mental equivalent of ascending a staircase and, expecting to find one more riser than the joiner has provided, stepping up onto empty air and crashing down again.

"The most handsome man in Olkney is made repellent," I said to my assistant, "and the most intelligent is made at best ordinary. As well, both are impoverished. So apparently are many others." I struggled to form a shape from the data and an inkling came. "If Alfazzian and I are the targets and the others are merely bystanders, then why is the institution across the street in turmoil? We have no connection to it."

"It could be that the attack is general," said the integrator, "and therefore you and our client are only part of a wider category of victims."

I turned the concept over and looked at it from that angle. It appeared no more comprehensible. "We need more data," I said. "Access the public advisory service."

The screen reappeared, displaying a fiercely coiffed young woman who was informing Olkney that it was inadvisable to visit the financial district. "Dislocations are occurring," she said, widening her elegant eyes while uplifting perfectly formed eyebrows.

"Two more facts," said the integrator. "Other depositories must have been raided and there is one attractive person who has not been rendered grim."

"Three facts," I said. "The painfully handsome man who usually engages her in inane banter about trivialities has not appeared."

But what did it mean? Were only men affected? I had the integrator examine other live channels. Those from outside Olkney showed no effects. In other cities and counties, handsome men still winked and nodded at me from behind fanciful desks. There were no monetary emergencies. But the emissions originating within the city fit the emerging pattern. Of attractive women, there was no shortage; of good looking men, a dearth.

"Regard this one," said the integrator. We were seeing the farm correspondent of a local news service, a man hired more for his willingness to climb over fences and prod the confined stock at close range than for set of jaw or twinkle of eye.

"He has always been hard on the gaze," I said.

"Yes," agreed my assistant, "but he is grown no harder."

"Another fact," I said.

Matters were almost beginning to assume a shape. If I could have thrust aside the clouds that obscured my mind, I knew I would be able to see it. But the mist remained impenetrably thick.

"A question occurs," I said. "Who is the richest man in Olkney?"

"Oblos Pinnifrant."

"And is his face well or unfortunately constituted?"

"He is so wealthy that his appearance matters not."

"Exactly," I said. "He delights in inflicting his grotesque features on those who crave his favor, forcing them to vie one against another to soothe him with flattery. Connect me to him."

Pinnifrant's integrator declined the offer of communication. I said, "Inform him that Olkney's most insightful discriminator is investigating the disappearance of his fortune."

A moment later, the plutocrat's lopsided visage appeared on my screen. "What do you know?" he said.

"It would be premature to say."

"Yet you are confident of solving the mystery?"

"You know my reputation."

"True, you have yet to fail. What are your terms?"

My terms were standard: ten per cent of whatever I recovered.

Pinnifrant's porcine eyes glinted darkly. "Ten per cent of my fortune is itself a fortune."

"Indeed," I said, "but 32 hepts and 14 grimlets are not much of a foundation on which to begin anew, even for one with your egregious talent for turning up a profit."

In fact, Pinnifrant had been born to wealth and had only had to watch it breed, but a lifetime of deference from all who rubbed up against him had convinced the magnate that he was the sole font of his tycoonery.

After a brief chaffer, he said, "I agree to your terms. Report to me frequently." He moved to sever the connection.

"Wait," I said. "Have you noticed any diminution of your mental capacities?"

"I am as sharp as ever," was the answer, "but my three assistants have become effectively useless."

"Has there been any change in the arrangement of their features?"

"I would not know. I do not bother to inspect their faces."

"One last thing," I said. "Have your financial custodian contact me immediately."

Agron Worsthall, the Pinnifrant Mutual Solvency's chief tallyman appeared on my screen less than a minute after I broke the connection to Pinnifrant. He seemed eager to assist me.

"How much remains in his account?" I asked.

"Oblos Pinnifrant has consolidated many of his holdings through us," Worsthall said. "All but one of his accounts have been reduced to a zero balance. The exception contains 32 hepts and 14 grimlets."

"What about other depositors' holdings? Are they also reduced to that amount?"

"They are. That is, the male depositors and those who had joint accounts with female partners."

"But women are unaffected?"

"Yes, and children of both sexes."

"And where have the funds gone? Were they transferred to someone else?"

"They were not. The money is simply not there."

"Is that possible?"

I heard him sigh. "Until today I would have said it was not, but I am finding it difficult to deal with abstruse concepts this morning."

"Has there been any change in your physical appearance?" I asked. "Specifically, your face?"

"What kind of question is that?"

"A pertinent one, I believe."

There was a silence on the line while Worsthall sought his own reflection. When he came back his voice had a quaver. "Something has occurred to my nose and chin," he said. "As well, there are blemishes."

"Hmm," I said.

"What does it mean?"

I told him it would be premature to say. "You said that all accounts held by men had been reduced to 32 hepts and 14 grimlets. What about accounts that contained less than that amount—were they raised to this mystical number?"

"No, they were unaffected. Is that germane?"

I asked him if he had difficulty understanding the meaning of "premature." Then another idea broke through the fog. "I wish you to do something for me," I said. "Contact all the other financial institutions in Olkney. Ask if the same thing has happened."

I broke the connection and attempted to rouse my sluggish analytical apparatus, but it continued to lie inert.

Again, I asked my assistant, "If I were possessed of my usual faculties, how would I address this conundrum?"

"You would look for a pattern in the data," it said.

"I have done that. I cannot see more than the bare outline of what, and not even a glint of why or how. Men have been robbed of their wealth, looks and intelligence, yet who has gained? Where lies the motive, let alone the means?" I sighed. "What more would I do if I were intact?"

"You might look for a pattern outside the data," the integrator said. "You once remarked that it is possible to deduce the shape of an invisible object by examining the holes left by its passage."

"I do not see how that applies to this situation."

"Nor do I. I am accustomed to rely upon you for insights. My task is to assemble and correlate data as you instruct."

"What other brilliancies have I come up with over the years? Perhaps one will ring a chime and re-ignite my fires."

"You once opined that the rind is mightier than the melon. You presented this as a particularly profound perception."

"What did it mean?"

"I do not know. When you said it, you were under the influence of certain substances."

"No use," I said. "Go on."

"You have occasionally noted that the wise man can learn from the fool."

"I remember saying it," I said, "but now I have no idea what I meant."

"Perhaps something to do with opposites attracting?" the integrator offered.

"I doubt it," I said. "Do they attract? If so, it can't be for long since wouldn't true opposites irritate each other if not cancel each other out? It sounds like mutual annihilation and I'm sure I've never been in favor of that."

"You also say that sometimes the most crucial clue is not what has happened, but what has not."

"That sounds more like it," I said. "Except that the number of things that haven't happened must be astronomically greater than those that have. So how do we pick out the nonexistent events that have meaning?"

"You usually perform some pithy analysis."

"Yes, but I'm short on pith today."

"Then it will have to be an inspired guess."

"I am far from inspired," I said. "But I think we have at least defined the crime. The attacks are aimed at intelligent and presentable men as well as those who have more than 32 hepts and 14 grimlets.

"Dull men have not been made duller, nor poor men poorer, nor have the unprepossessing been further victimized. And women and children are unaffected on all counts.

"We come back as always to means, motive and opportunity."

It was difficult to posit a rational means or an opportunity by which the assumed perpetrator could do so much harm to so many and all apparently at the same moment. I knew from long experience, however, that motives were relatively few and all too common to most of humankind. "Jealousy," I said. "We may be looking for a poor, not too bright man with a face to curdle milk."

"But if he is dim-witted, how does he contrive to perform the impossible?" said my assistant.

"Indeed," I said. "How is the operative question."

The integrator made a sound that was its equivalent of a throat clearing. "I have a suggestion," it said.


Its tone was tentative. "Magic."

I snorted. It was an automatic response whenever the subject was raised. "Only a fool believes in magic," I said.

"Perhaps this is the work of a fool."

That almost made sense, but though I could no longer argue for them, I recalled all my old opinions. "There is no such thing as magic."

"Yet there are arguments for the opposing view."

I had encountered them. Supposedly there was an alternation between magic and physics, between sympathy and rationalism, as operating principles of the phenomenal universe. As the Great Wheel rolled through the eons, one assumed supernacy over the other, only to see the relationship eventually reversed.

When one regime took the ascendancy, the other allegedly remained as an embedded seed in its unfriendly host. Thus in an age when magic held sway, its mechanics were still logically extrapolated—there were rules and procedures—while during the present reign of rationality, events at the subquantum level were supposedly determined more by quirks and quizzidities than by unalterable laws.

I was occasionally braced, at a salon or social, by some advocate of the mystical persuasion who would try to convince me that the Wheel was now nearing the next cusp and that I might live long enough to see the contiguous series of electrons that carried information from one device to another replaced by chains of ensorceled imps, my integrator supplanted by an enchanted familiar.

I had investigated the arcana of magic over a summer during my youth and could demolish its advocates with arguments that were both subtle and vigorous. However, I had to admit that those arguments were at present beyond my grasp. Still, I harrumphed once more and said, "Magic!" then blew air over my lips as if shooing away a gossamer.

My assistant said, "You also like to say that when all impossibilities have been swept from the table what remains, however unlikely, must be the answer."

"Magic," I said, "is one of those impossibilities."

"Are you sure?"

"I used to be," I said, "so I ought to be now."

"Even a wise man can . . ." began the integrator, then interrupted itself to tell me that Pinnifrant's tallyman was back.

"What have you learned?"

"The same situation pertains across the city. Indeed, even accounts held outside Olkney by male residents of the city have been affected."

The more I learned the more perplexed I became. Even in my diminished state, I recognized the irony. I had long wished for a superlative opponent, a master criminal who could give me room to stretch. Now one had seemingly appeared, but in doing so had robbed me of the capacity to combat his outrages. Still, I struggled to encompass an image of the situation.

"And there is no indication that anyone has benefited from the thefts?" I asked Worsthall. "No woman's account has ballooned? No child's?"


"Thank you," I said, though I could not see how the information helped.

"There is one anomaly," he said.


"A male depositor at Frink Fiduciary had a balance of 32 hepts and 15 grimlets before the discrepancy this morning . . ."

"Discrepancy?" I asked.

"It is a term we in the financial sector use when accounts do not tally."

"Why not be bold and call it what it is, mass theft and rampant rapine?"

"If we were bold, we would not be bankers," was the reply.

"Indeed," I said, "but what were you about to tell me?"

"That a male depositor had a balance of 32 hepts and 15 grimlets before the . . . rampant rapine, and that he had the same balance afterward. And still does."

I had him repeat the numbers again. "This depositor had one grimlet more than the ubiquitous H32.14 before the . . . the event, and he still has the same amount now?"

"As of three minutes ago," said the tallyman.

"Hmm," I said. I experienced a vague sense that the anomaly might be significant. "Who is he?"

"He is called Vashtun Errible."

"Tell me about him."

There was little to tell: only an address on a cul-de-sac off the Fader Slide, an obscure location in an uncelebrated part of the city. No image of Errible reposed in the solvency's files and the connectivity code he had given when opening the account was long since defunct. The account had not been used for many years and had probably been forgotten by its nominee.

I left the tallyman to his troubles and set my assistant to scouring all sources for news of this Vashtun Errible. The integrator turned up only one more item: a deed of indenture that bound Errible's services to the requirements of one Bristal Baxandall.

"Now that's a name I have heard before," I said, though I could not immediately place it.

"He prefers to be known as The Exalted Sapience Bristal Baxandall, an alleged thaumaturge," said the integrator. "He performs at children's parties."

Again I spied the glimmer of an idea. Perhaps this Baxandall was the mastermind behind the calamity, hiding his brilliance by masquerading as a low-rent prestidigitator. Or he might be only the blind behind which Errible, the true prodigy, had concealed himself.

I had a hunch that one or both of these two persons was central to the mystery. Normally, I despised hunches and had always denied their validity—to my mind, an intuition was no more than the product of an analytical process that took place in the mind's dark back rooms. Occasionally, a door was flung open and the result of unconscious analysis was tossed into the light of the mental front parlor, to be discovered by the incumbent as if it had arrived by mystical means.

The thought led to another: I wondered if my own back rooms were as fully stocked and active as always but that some force had sealed the doors. The more I examined the idea, mentally probing about in my inner recesses the way my tongue would explore the gap left by an extracted tooth, the more it seemed likely that my faculties had not been irrevocably ripped away, but only placed out of reach. I listened and it seemed that I could almost hear the ghost of my former genius crying out to me from beyond a barrier in my mind.

I realized that my assistant was saying something. "Repeat," I said.

"The Exalted Sapience's address is the same as that which the solvency found for Vashtun Errible," it said.

"Connect me."

"I cannot. He apparently possesses no integrator."

"How is that possible?"

"I cannot even speculate," said the integrator. "His house appears as a blank spot in the connectivity matrix."

"Ahah!" I said again. "The shape left by the invisible object!"

"What do you mean?"

I did not know. It was another hunch. "It would be premature to say," I said. "Summon an aircar and have it take me to that address."

The vehicle took longer than usual in arriving and I noticed that its canopy was darkly stained. When we rose above the rooftops I saw why: thick columns of greasy, black smoke boiled skyward from several sites along the big bend in the river, joining to form a pall over the south side of the city. To the west, several streets were blocked off by emergency vehicles bearing the lights and colors of the provost bureau, and a surging mob was rampaging through the financial district, smashing glass and overturning motilators.

The aircar banked and flew north toward an industrial precinct that looked to be quieter. After a few minutes it angled down to a dead-end street below the slideway and alighted before an ill-kept two-story house whose windows were obscured by dark paint. I bid the car remain but it replied that it could only do so if I paid the accumulated fare immediately and allowed it to deduct its waiting fee every five minutes.

"How much?" I asked and was told that I owed seven hepts. Furthermore, it would charge me twenty grimlets per minute to wait.

"Usually, I charge such expenses to my account with your firm," I said.

"These are unusual times," it said, and I was forced to agree to the terms.

The house was dilapidated, the paint peeling and some siding sprung loose. Dank weeds had invaded and occupied the front lawn and the porch sagged when I topped the front steps. There was a faint smell of boiled vegetables.

There were symbols painted on the front door. They seemed vaguely familiar but my uncertain memory could not produce their meanings. There was no who's-there beside the door, the house having no integrator to operate it. I struck the painted wood with my knuckles to make my presence known.

There was no response nor any sound from within. A second knocking brought no result so I tried the latch and the door opened inward.

I stepped within and called for attention. There was no answer. I looked about and saw a small, untidy foyer from which a closed door led left, a stairway went upward and a short hall ran back to what appeared to be a rudimentary kitchen.

I called again and heard what might have been a reply from behind the closed door. I opened it and looked into a cramped and fusty parlor dominated by an oversized table draped in black cloth on which was scattered an arrangement of objects and instruments I could not immediately identify. The opaqued windows let in no light, and the only illumination was from some of the strewn bric-a-brac that emitted dim glows and wavering auras.

"Hello?" I said, and again heard a moan from the gloom beyond the table. I produced a small lumen from my pouch and activated it so that I could work my way around the table without stepping on more knickknacks that seemed to have fallen to the floor.

Under the table on the far side was what I first took to be a bundle of stained cloth loosely stuffed with raw meat and bare bones. A warm and unappetizing smell rose from it. The cloth was dark and figured with designs and symbols similar to those on the front door, but woven in metallic thread. The moan came again, and now it was clear that the bundle was its source.

"What is this?" I said, more to myself than to any expected audience, but I was answered by a rich, deep voice from behind me.

"Not what, but who," it said, "and the answer is The Exalted Sapience Bristal Baxandall. That answer will be valid for at most only a few minutes longer. After that, there are different schools of thought. Would you care to discuss the nature of being and the relationship of soul to identity?"

I had turned around and found that the voice issued from what I had initially assumed to be a framed abstract on the wall. But I saw now that this painting constantly moved, thick shapes of unusual colors ceaselessly flowing into and out of themselves, their proportions and directions seeming to mislead the eye. A few seconds of regarding it evoked a dizziness and I looked away.

"I am not equipped for metaphysical discussions today," I said. "Something has impaired my intellect."

"Indeed?" said the painting.

"Would you know anything about that?" I asked in a noncommittal tone.

"It would be premature to say," said the voice.

I directed the conversation to The Exalted Sapience. "What has happened to him?"

"He was undertaking a transformational exercise."

"Surely he did not wish to be transformed into that?"

"No. It was not his intent to rearrange himself quite so drastically. He wanted only to be younger."

"Not richer, smarter and better looking?" I asked.

There was a chuckle. "No, that ambition was Vashtun Errible's."

"He would be Baxandall's servant?"

The voice chuckled. "He is the servant, at least until the indenture expires with Baxandall, in a few minutes at the most. He would be the master, though I doubt he will be."

"And where is Errible now?"

"He is upstairs consulting Baxandall's library, trying to deduce what went amiss with his plan. The first part went as he expected: he adulterated one of the ingredients in the master's transformation exercise and produced the unhappy result under the table; the second part varied from his expectations."

"What went wrong?"

"I did."

"And what, exactly, are you?"

"Again, there are conflicting schools of thought. Baxandall called me a demon; you might call me a figment of the imagination. The Exalted Sapience conscripted me to be his familiar and strove to find ways to channel my . . . energies, shall we say, for his own purposes. Vashtun Errible sees me, quite erroneously, as a box from which he may extract his every tawdry dream."

I saw it now. "He desired to be the richest, smartest, handsomest man in Olkney," I said. "He was a scraggly shrub that pined to grow into the tallest deodar in the forest. Instead, you shrank the rest of us to weeds."

"It amused me to confound him."

"But did it further your interests?" I said. "You indicated that your servitude is involuntary."

The shapes in the frame performed a motion that might have been a shrug. "But temporary. Baxandall managed to catch me in a clumsy trap. You see, I am of an adventuresome disposition. Boredom led me to become an explorer of adjacent dimensions, even dusty corners like your own. I thought I had found a peephole into your realm, but when I pressed my eye against it—you will understand that I speak metaphorically—I encountered a powerful adhesive."

The faint voice in the back of my mind was clamoring. I apparently had questions to ask, but I could not make out what they were. Yet even with only a fragment of my usual intellect I perceived that I was in a perilous situation. The entity in the frame exuded a grim complacency. It was about to exact vengeance for its enslavement, and I had already seen that it had no compunctions about inflicting harm on innocent bystanders.

"I shall leave," I said. "Good luck with Errible."

But as I made by way around the table, this time keeping the furniture between me and the thing hanging on the wall, a hunch-shouldered figure in a tattered robe appeared in the doorway. I knew from the disharmony of his features that this was Baxandall's indentee.

He held open before him a large book bound in leather and as soon as he entered the chamber he began to recite from its pages in a voice that came as much from his misshapen nose as from his slack-lipped mouth, "Arbrustram merrilif oberluz, destoi malleonis . . ."

And then he saw me and his concentration slipped. He broke off in midsentence—only for a moment, but the moment might as well have been an eon, because during that brief caesura the entity on the wall extruded part of itself into the room.

It was something like an arm, something like a tentacle, something like an insect's hooked limb and altogether like nothing I had ever seen; but it seized Vashtun Errible about the neck, lifted his worn slippers from the carpet and drew him into the swirl of motion within the frame.

The book fell from his hands as his face was drawn into the maelstrom. The rest of his body followed, pulled through the frame with a sound that reminded me of thick liquid passing through a straw. But I was not concentrating on the peculiarities of Errible's undoing; for the moment his head entered the frame, my faculties were restored.

I took in the room again, but with new eyes. I recognized some of the objects on the table and recalled having read about the fallen book in my youth. Thus, when the thing in the window had done with Errible and reached for me, it found me holding the volume and quoting the passage that the indentee had begun.

The limb retracted and the shapes in the frame roiled and coruscated. I could not read the emotions, but I was willing to infer rage and disappointment.

"This is not as lamentable an outcome as you may think," I said, when the cantrip had once more bound the demon.

"Our perspectives differ, as is to be expected when one party holds the leash and the other wears the collar," said the thing in the window.

"We did not finish discussing where your interests lie nor had we even begun to consider mine. But if we can cause them to coincide, I am prepared to relinquish the leash and slip the collar."

The next sound approximated a sardonic laugh. "After I arrange for you to rule your boring little world, no doubt."

I made a sound involving lower teeth, upper lip and an explosion of air, and said. "Do I strike you as one who aspires to be a civil servant? The Archon already performs that tedious function and good luck to him."

A note of interest crept into the demon's tone. "Then what do you wish?"

I told him.

With the transdimensional demise of Vashtun Errible, all of his works became as if they never were. Grier Alfazzian's prospects had never dimmed and Oblos Pinnifrant's fortune had not been touched, thus neither owed me a grimlet nor knew that they ever had.

I did not care. My fees had become increasingly arbitrary: for an interesting case I would take no more than the client could afford; if it bored me, I would include a punitive surcharge. In recent years, as experience had augmented my innate abilities, truly absorbing puzzles had become few and infrequent. I had begun to fear that the rest of my life would offer long decades of ennui, my mind constantly spinning but always in want of traction.

My encounter with the demon had put that fear to rest. All I had needed was a worthy challenger.

The next morning I entered my workroom. An envelope rested on my table. I opened it and found a tarnished key and a small square of paper. On the key was a symbol that tweaked at my memory, though I could not place it. Printed on the paper was the single word, Ardmere.

I placed both on the table and regarded them. I could not resist rubbing my hands together. But before I began to enjoy the mystery, I must fulfill my side of the bargain.

I took from my pocket a sliver of charred wood in which two hairs were caught. I crossed the room and presented the splinter to the frame hanging on my wall.

"Not where, not when, not who—but why?" I said.

A kind of hand took the object from me and drew it into the shifting colors. "Hmm," said my opponent, "interesting."

"Last one to solve the puzzle is a dimbo," I said, and turned toward the table. "Ready, set . . . go!"

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