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Clarkesworld Magazin: Complete Fiction (2006-2016)

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Collected Fiction: Volume 2 (2017 edition)

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  STEVEN CHARLES GOULD was born in Fort Huachuca, Arizona on February 7, 1955 to James Alan and Carita Louise Gould. His father was an Army officer; when Gould was in junior high his father was stationed at Fort Shafter in Hawaii for three years. The whole family learned to scuba dive there and Gould went diving frequently. That hobby later informed scenes in his novels Greenwar and Blind Waves.


  Steven attended Texas A&M University and has set much of his writing in Texas. AggieCon, which is held in College Station on the Texas A&M campus, was the first science fiction convention Gould attended, and he was chair of AggieCon V in 1975.


  Steven submitted the first short story he wrote to Analog; it was rejected with a personal note from then-editor Ben Bova, who encouraged Gould to let him see his future work. The second story Gould wrote, “The Touch of Their Eyes,” was read aloud by Theodore Sturgeon at a writing workshop at AggieCon in 1979. Sturgeon made one correction (“Calvary and Cavalry are two different things”) and suggested that Gould submit it to Stan Schmidt, who had become editor at Analog in late 1978. Gould did, and the story was published by Analog in 1980.


  Steven Gould is the New York Times best-selling author of Jumper, Wildside, Helm, Blind Waves, Reflex, Jumper: Griffin’s Story, and 7th Sigma, as well as several short stories published in Analog, Asimov’s, and Amazing, and other magazines and anthologies.


  He is the recipient of the Hal Clement Young Adult Award for Science Fiction and has been on the Hugo ballot twice and the Nebula ballot once for his short fiction, but his favorite distinction was being on the American Library Association’s Top 100 Banned Books list 1990-1999.“Jumper was right there at #94 between Steven King’s Christine and a non-fiction book on sex education. Then that Rowling woman came along and bumped us off the bottom of the list.”


  Steven was director of the south/central region of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America from ; 1986–1989.


  In 1989 he married Laura J. Mixon and moved with her to New York City, where her job supported them while he finished Jumper. He was also a guest lecturer at Texas A&M in 1990.


  Steven practices and teaches aikido, which was featured in his most recent book, 7th Sigma. The young protagonist becomes an Uchideshi (“inside student”), as the first step toward his coming-of-age and other adventures.


  Steve lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico with his wife, writer Laura J. Mixon (aka Morgan J. Locke), and their two daughters.


  BIBLIOGRAPHY


  Novels


  Jumper (April 1992)


  Wildside (April 1996)


  Greenwar (June 1997)


  Helm (April 1998)


  Blind Waves (February 2000)


  Reflex (November 2004)


  Jumper: Griffin’s Story (August 2007)


  7th Sigma (July 2011)


  Impulse (January 2013)


  Exo (September 2014)


  Short Fiction


  The Touch of Their Eyes, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, September 1980


  Wind Instrument, Asimov’s Science Fiction, June 8, 1981


  Gift of Fire, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, August 17, 1981


  Rory, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, April 1984


  Mental Blocks, Amazing Stories, July 1985


  The No License Needed, Fun to Drive, Built Easily with Ordinary Tools, Revolutionary, Guaranteed, Lawnmower Engine Powered, Low Cost, Compact, and Dependable Mail Order Device, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, April 1986


  Poppa Was a Catcher, New Destinies II, Fall 1987


  Peaches for Mad Molly, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, February 1988


  Simulation Six, Asimov’s Science Fiction, March 1990


  The Session, The Armless Maiden and Other Tales for Childhood’s Survivors, 1995


  Leonardo’s Hands, RevolutionSF.com, August 2005


  Shade, Tor.com, August 28, 2008


  Bugs in the Arroyo, Tor.com, April 17 2009


  A Story with Beans, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, May 2009


  Tameshigiri, The Living Dead 2, September, 2010


  Rust with Wings, After, October 2012


  Omnibus


  Jumpers (2012)


  Chapbooks


  Shade (2010)


  Bugs in the Arroyo (2011)


  Fiction Series


  7th Sigma


  7th Sigma [N]


  Bugs in the Arroyo [SF]


  A Story, with Beans [SF]


  My escape was (and always has been) reading. That’s why Davy ends up in a library the first time he ever jumped.


  —Steven Gould, January 2013


  [image: ]


  Jerry eBooks


  No copyright [image: ] 2016 by Jerry eBooks


  No rights reserved. All parts of this book may be reproduced in any form and by any means for any purpose without any prior written consent of anyone.


  THE TOUCH IN THEIR EYES


  Any talent is potentially valuable—but not necessarily to its owner.


  The classroom is small. The child is nine.


  His classmates, aged ten, resent him. His teacher, aged fifty, adores him. He is the brightest of his class and, in his youth, flaunts it. On his chest flies the invisible order of “Teacher’s Pet” with double oak leaf clusters. He hands his homework in early and it’s never wrong. He answers every question correctly when called on. He is always first to finish the weekly exam.


  He uses five syllable words.


  So he was punished.


  “Who can list the bones of the leg?” Miss Griggs (oh, how perfect a name, so stringy and wrinkled and humorless) was casting her hook into bored and sullen waters. The child, who had answered every question thus far, showed rare tact and remained silent. Or perhaps his throat hurt. Still, as the silence grew oppressive and Miss Griggs’ eyes settled on him, he scraped back his chair yet again and stood to answer.


  (There is a phrase common to westerns and spy thrillers. It goes, “Do you get the feeling we’re being watched?”) A sensation never felt before crawled up the child’s spine and gathered in a tight knot at the base of his skull. His mouth hung open and goose bumps covered his body. His answer and Miss Griggs’ question vanished from conscious consideration.


  They were watching him. As intensely as pinpricks, he felt each set of eyes upon him.


  Miss Griggs prompted him. “The bones, Johnny?”


  He didn’t hear her. He didn’t see her. The air moving across his skin went unheeded and the ever-present smell of chalk dust and disinfectant went unregistered by any part of his mind. All customary sensory impressions were drowned in the flood of this overpowering new sensation. Nothing but the acute awareness of other beings perceiving him reached his beleaguered brain.


  “Johnny? Are you all right?”


  The sensation increased as Miss Griggs’ sharpened voice directed more of the class’s attention at Johnny. Pinprick intensity became hypodermics stabbing deep. His knees buckled and he fell. When his head bounced off the desk edge, a lancing pain brought the most temporary of reliefs. Then, that welcome normality was smothered as the novelty of his collapse further increased his classmates attention.


  He curled into a foetal tuck and started pounding his small fists against his head—anything to distract the intensity of their perception from his mind. And although he drew blood, he barely felt the blows.


  His mind couldn’t take it.


  His mind wouldn’t take it.


  They carried him out on a stretcher still curled in a ball. A small, catatonic ball.


  The classroom was small.


  The child was me.


  Out in the basin a trail of dust wound its way up the old ranch road. At each switchback a windshield flung the morning sun up into the foothills at me. I shifted under the rock overhang and plucked an inconvenient pebble from under my leg. Limestone—upper Permian. I set it softly to the side.


  The dust cloud resolved itself into a pair of Chevy Blazers. I cocked my head to one side and listened, but they weren’t quite . . . no, there it was, a growl of low-geared effort coming up the last grade. I stood and moved quietly (always quietly) down the ridge to the end of the road.


  Desolation is the face of the moon, the bottom of the Tonga Trench, the heights of the Greenland Ice Cap, and (in the minds of many mistaken people) a desert. Here I stood in the western foothills of the Delaware Mountains, a minor range of twisted rock running north-south in West Texas. It is also part of the North Chihuahuan Desert, a region whose major export is heat transported from its peaks and arroyos by constantly shifting winds.


  I love it here.


  My Toyota Land Cruiser had a Blazer parked to each side of it, I noted as I neared the flat stretch of gravel at the end of the road. I was stringing my way through a stand of mesquite, not trying to hide, but not stomping my feet either. Voices carried clearly from a group of people stretching the road-worn aches from their bodies.


  “My God, what a horrible road!”


  “Somebody give me a drink.”


  “I suppose this is our expert’s car. Where is our expert?”


  When I strode from the mesquite they were looking into the hills, down the dry stream bed, or at each other. None of them saw me walk up and lean against my Toyota.


  In the sense of “we shall be three for dinner,” they were six—four men and two women. They were dressed sensibly in boots, khaki, and denim. I hoped they all had hats.


  One of the women pointed west. “What is that range over there?” Before the man beside her could unroll his map I spoke.


  “Those are the Sierra Diablo, the Devil Mountains.”


  I didn’t mean to startle them. Five of them whirled as if I’d lit a firecracker and the sixth one sprayed Coke across the ground.


  “Speak of the devil, you must be Mr. Galighty.” The eldest of them, a man of strong grip and greying hair, stepped forward and took my outstretched hand. “I’m Larry Narowitz, the head of this little group.”


  I recovered my fingers and smiled.


  “Glad you found the place.”


  “So are we. This is Tom Gamble, our geophysicist.” A man of about thirty with blond hair and many laugh lines shook my hand. “And this is Robert Stahl, our seismic analyst.” Another handshake, with a man about twenty-five. “Leslie Marshall, our interpreter, and Joe Lindquist, our bang man.” Leslie had hair darker than a raven’s wing, with the same iridescence in the sunlight. Lindquist was nondescript, somewhere between twenty-one and forty-one. Narowitz continued, “And this is Georgette whom everybody calls George Novosad.”


  “What do you do?”


  She answered seriously. “What everyone else won’t.”


  Chuckles all around.


  “She’s really our electronics tech,” Narowitz explained. “But we made her leave her soldering iron behind.”


  “Good, I didn’t bring any solder.” I indicated a very large pile of trucksized boulders up the hill. “Over there is a great deal of shade. If you’ll carry your gear up that little trail, we can get started.” I looked at the climbing sun. We would all be happier in the shade.


  It wasn’t as bad as I’d thought it would be. Like insects crawling over one’s skin. A ladybug or two crawling down one’s arm is distracting, but it is neither painful nor spellbinding. When they looked at me I knew it, but the knowing didn’t disable me as once it would have. I might yet become a social animal.


  Why did Lindquist spend so much time watching me while trying not to show it? I was not imagining the intensity with which he watched. Both women also focused strongly on me. They didn’t try to hide it though. Maybe they were interested in me? Maybe Lindquist was gay? Maybe half the rocks in the Chihuahuan Desert belonged in my head.


  “I am here because Danforth Geosource has been contracted to do oil exploration in remote regions of three North African nations. You’re here because Danforth feels it’s cheaper to keep a trained employee alive than it is to train his replacement. We have three full days to refine and test your desert survival skills.”


  “I thought you would be teaching us those skills,” said Gamble, the geophysicist.


  “Not in the sense of spoon-feeding. You will be learning by doing. Did you all read this?” I held up a medium-sized paperback, The Hidden Water: A Guide to Coping In the Desert by J. E. Galighty.


  Nods from everyone.


  “Good. As a literary effort it ranks just ahead of the Bobbsey Twins, but it will help keep you alive if you keep your head.” I reached into a box and pulled out six small bags. “Take these and open them. The cup is graduated in milliliters. You’ll find three pens in the notebook. Two of these aren’t pens.” I snapped open one of the plastic cases and showed them the glass rod inside. “They’re thermometers. One’s for ambient air and the other is for body temperature. If you look at the notebook, you’ll see that the pages are set up for the hourly recording of both temperatures and the quantity of water consumed in that period. We’ll also be weighed twice a day with a pair of scales I have in my Land Cruiser.


  “There are two excellent reasons for all this rigamarole. First, it will give you an objective measurement of your body’s reaction to dehydration and/or sodium depletion. Second, and most important, it will be good data for my next publication, tentatively entitled, Dehydration: New Directions in Sadism. This is the first time I’ve been paid by my subjects to experiment on them.”


  “Okay, Leslie, you’re dying of thirst. The truck broke down three days ago and the radio is on the fritz. You haven’t had a drop to drink since yesterday. Find some water.”


  It was the evening of the second day. An achingly beautiful sunset was smeared across half the sky, but I was the only one watching it. Leslie was marching determinedly up a gulley and the other five were right behind her. I stifled an urge to make them sit through the sunset and followed them up the old creekbed.


  “Here,” Leslie pointed at the lower edge of a bend in the stream where water would pool when it rained. Stahl and Gamble started digging with collapsible shovels. A meter down, the earth started getting damp.


  They climbed out of the hole and George stepped forward with a rolled piece of plastic tubing and a large tin can. She seated the can in the dirt at the bottom of the hole and ran the plastic tubing from the can up the side of the hole and out. Then Leslie and Narowitz spread a two-meter square sheet of plastic over the hole and anchored its edges with dirt. Lindquist waited until they had both backed away before he set a small rock in the center of the plastic. It caused the sheet to dip sharply, forming an inverted cone over the can.


  “See, condensation is forming already!” Leslie pointed to the beads of moisture forming on the underside of the plastic. After a minute, water started trickling down the cone and dripped slowly into the can.


  I knelt beside the solar still and put the tube between my lips. I sucked gently and was rewarded by a slurping sound from the bottom of the hole. “Not bad. If you stuck to the same place, stayed out of the sun, and didn’t exert yourself, two of these would keep one of you alive.” I looked at them watching me with solemn faces. “Barely alive.” They took in every word just as if I knew what I was talking about. I felt younger than my twenty-three years and pompous to boot.


  Linquist was still a constant pressure on my turned back.


  By my watch, the dawn was still three hours away. I counted bodies—six light sleeping bags spaced around a dying fire. Scorpio arched across the heavens and his earthly brothers slept under the warmest rock—or body—they could find. My pupils knew to check their boots in the morning.


  Lindquist was finally asleep and so, it seemed, were the others. At least none of them was paying any attention to me.


  Now if I could just say the same about the watcher on the hill.


  He had been there since early afternoon and not always alone. I placed him near my resting place of the first day, where I’d watched Narowitz’s party drive across the basin. His presence was a puzzlement.


  The watcher’s attention wandered. Every seven minutes or so, the pressure would go away to return shortly thereafter. I pulled my backpack closer and waited. After the next lull, I was putting my boots on in the mesquite while the watcher viewed my blanket-covered backpack.


  I learned long ago, from a harsh and cruel necessity, to avoid the eyes of man. I drifted as a ghost would drift—unheard and unseen. (And who would know, better than I?) I stood on the ridge and looked down on them.


  They were two. One slept beneath a tarp while the other looked into the bright green eyepiece of a starlight scope. Briefly, I considered a ghostly visitation, but dropped the idea quickly. Startled men do dangerous things.


  Twenty minutes later I slipped undetected back into my bed. Sleep followed reluctantly.


  “The other reason I say this trip is to polish your survival skills instead of to instill them, is because survival under any conditions is an art, not a science. The techniques one of you develops may differ markedly from another’s without being any less effective.


  “Still, there are definite parameters one must stay within. Avoid sunburn; it will incapacitate you as well as cause badly needed water to concentrate in the burned areas. Replenishing extracellular water and sodium is vital. If you lose too much salt due to sweat, your blood pressure will drop dangerously.”


  “Why?” Leslie was listening attentively. Everyone else seemed somewhere between polite attention and utter boredom.


  “Okay, the salinity, actually the level of free ions in your intra- and extracellular fluids is always maintained at the same level. When the salinity on one side of a cell membrane increases, water is osmotically transferred from the low salinity side to the high side. When your blood plasma and other extracellular fluid is less salty than the cell interiors, water flows into the cells. Hence, blood pressure drops and you get dizzy, weak, or pass out. Carried far enough, your bodily functions can’t make it and you die. This can happen with all the salt-free water in the world at your command.”


  Leslie nodded brightly. Everyone else nodded off. A snore came from Gamble’s direction. I pushed on.


  “The opposite occurs when you lose water, but not salt. The salinity in your blood plasma increases and the water starts leaving your cells and enters your plasma, lymphatic fluids, etcetera. In this case, blood pressure is maintained, but the cells start dying.”


  Leslie looked troubled. Everyone else looked asleep. I laughed.


  “Consider that pre-Columbian Indians of this part of Texas enjoyed three times the leisure time of their brethren in water-rich East Texas. They not only found it possible to survive here, they found it easier!”


  Although I once might have been classed as a mad dog, nobody ever said I was English. I sat under a tilted boulder, out of the noonday sun. Twelve meters away, under another rock, Lindquist pretended to sleep with his head pillowed on a pack. That he wasn’t asleep was the reason I dozed fitfully. Try sleeping with a pair of cockroaches crawling up your side. The sensation isn’t even similar, but the level of distraction is equivalent.


  More eyes upon me and the crunch of rock from my right alerted me to Leslie’s approach. I moved over to make room for her in the shade.


  “Good day,” said I.


  “Good day,” said she.


  “Kipling had something to say about going out in the noonday sun.”


  “I have a question to ask, Mr. Galighty.”


  “As the youngest of any of you, I’d rather be called John.”


  “John, then, did you serve in Viet Nam?”


  “No, I was too young and would’ve been 4-F. Why?”


  “My brother was a Green Beret. When he wanted to, he could walk quieter than a cat. You walk that way all the time.”


  “And I don’t even carry a big stick.” A flicker of annoyance crossed over her face and I got the feeling I wasn’t taking her as seriously as she wanted.


  “And who will you rescue today, Johnny Go Lightly?”


  I winced. “You read the wrong newspapers, girl.”


  “I wondered where I’d heard your name before. It came to me just a few minutes ago. You located the Randolf family after no one else could find their wrecked plane. That’s not so special. What got you all that attention was your reluctance to be interviewed or photographed. The Houston Post finally came up with that nickname after you’d lost their reporter for the twelfth time. What was that headline? Oh yes—‘Who Was That Masked Man?’ ”


  “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I wasn’t in Texas, and nobody saw me.” I scrunched down and slipped my hat over my face. “The Cessna would’ve been found eventually, but much too late.”


  “How’d you do it?”


  I told her the strict truth. “I climbed the highest peak in the area and set off a smoke bomb. When they saw it, I knew where they were.”


  “Huh?”


  “Never mind. Just dumb luck.” In a not very subtle effort to change the subject, I pointed out into the basin. “The Apache came through there on their raids from Mexico.” I raised the hat some. “I once guided an archeologist into the hills behind us and he asked me this question one night: Who do you think were the best light cavalry this planet has ever known?”


  She looked thoughtful. “I would say the Mongols or the Georgian Cossacks.”


  “I suggested the Bengal Lancers, myself. I was wrong, too.”


  “Who were then?”


  “The Commanche. If not for the advent of repeating firearms, they would have chased the white man out of Texas just like they did the Apache and Kiowa.”


  “The subject seems a far cry from oil prospecting.”


  “It depends on your perspective. When you see the Sahara, just try not thinking of Khartoum or Thomas Edward Lawrence.”


  “Who?”


  “You know, Larry of Arabia.” I scratched my nose. “How long have you known the rest of the group?”


  “We’ve been training for two months now, except Joe. The explosives man we had was transferred to the east coast two weeks ago for another company project. New hope for the Baltimore Canyon.”


  Two weeks ago I’d accepted Geosource’s offer for this little exercise. “Why were you 4-F?”


  So much for subject changes. “Do you really want to know?”


  “Yes.”


  “I spent seven years of my life in the Brentwood Hospital for the Insane. I was committed as a paranoid schizophrenic with little chance of recovery. After my release, I was a regular outpatient for two more years. I don’t think the Army would have taken me.” Because eyes have such an effect on me I tend to notice expressions in terms of their movements. Leslie’s grew large and she drew away from me. This hurt, so I laughed, “Don’t worry, the only person that ever had to be protected from my tiny little arms was me.”


  “But how did you get your degree?”


  “What degree?”


  “I thought you at least had a masters in physiology or desert ecology. You publish in scientific journals, even Scientific American! You’re one of the most literate persons I’ve ever talked to.”


  “Literate? Now there’s the key. In England they don’t ask you what you majored in at the university. They ask you what you read at the university. I was literate already at nine years old. Institutions are unpleasent even to the insane. Books are wonderful hiding places.” I smiled. “I’ve received invitations to lecture at various colleges, but I’ve never attended one.”


  “I see,” she said, though it was plain she didn’t. “I better get some rest.”


  “Do that.”


  She went off to her place in the shade and I tried to get back to sleep, but the two imaginary cockroaches were still tap dancing up and down my side.


  “ ’Twas morning of the last day and trouble on the way. The watcher on the hill stopped watching and the wind came out of the northwest. Both were bad signs. The wind started at dawn and picked up velocity steadily. I put it at fifty-five kilometers per hour and rising. There was a darkening to the north and the topsoil took flight. I issued goggles and worried about flash floods.


  I was getting nervous. Where were the watchers? Who were the watchers? My best guess put them as watchdogs sent by Geosource to insure the safety of their employees. While I was an established authority due to my publications, they knew nothing about my personal reliability. Still, I sounded weaker than sphaghetti under stress and I was entertaining other notions.


  “Mr. Narowitz?” I spoke loudly. The wind was howling through the boulders and I had to repeat myself before he heard me. He finished a lashing on his improvised shelter and joined me by mine.


  “Yes, Johnny?” They all called me Johnny since Leslie had told them of the plane crash and rescue.


  “This may seem an odd or awkward question, but is there anything secret about your prospecting techniques or equipment? Say, something another company or country might be tempted to kidnap you or one of your technicians to get?”


  “That is a strange question. Thinking of kidnapping one of us? Say Leslie?” He smiled.


  “For the last two days, two men have been keeping track of us from that ridge up there. Even to the extent of using a starlight scope at night.”


  He looked convincingly startled. “Are you sure?”


  “Beyond a doubt. I took a good look the first night they showed up.” I tried my next question. “Are they connected with Lindquist?”


  “How the hell should I know?” He looked bemused. “I really wouldn’t be surprised. Are they still watching?”


  “No, they quit about thirty minutes ago. Maybe to go away, maybe to do something else.” I jumped up suddenly. “Hey, no more cockroaches!”


  “What?” Narowitz regarded me with sudden distrust. Maybe he’d heard about Brentwood.


  “Where’s Lindquist?” I scrambled atop the nearest boulder and straddled its crest. I saw nothing but a hillside covered with shale, mesquite, and lecheguia—that infamous succulent known as the punji stake of the southwest. That’s all I saw, something else saw more. I felt my right side crawl with the perceptions of several persons. I faced that way, uphill. There had to be seven persons out there, hidden in the brush and rocks and looking at me. I turned and felt two more examining me from down the hill.


  “I miscounted,” I told Narowitz as I slid down the boulder and out of that dreadful crossfire of stares. “We’ve got lots of company. Get the others!” Blessed are those who ask no questions. He called them to him. As I’d already noted. Lindquist was gone.


  “Grab water and follow me. This is not a test or an exercise.” Their expressions varied from amusement to shock, mostly reactions to the look on my face.


  “There are at least nine men converging on us. I haven’t the slightest idea why, and I’d just as soon not find out.” Scooping, up canteens and hats, I led them at a careful jog through the boulder maze. In the rising wind, keeping quiet was not a problem. I stopped on the north edge of the boulders. In front of me was a stand of mesquite running across the hillside to a dry stream bed. I closed my eyes and concentrated, but felt nothing but the partial attention of those with me. We crouched and I put my hand on Gamble’s shoulder.


  “To the gulley and then up it, up the hill.”


  He nodded and I slapped him on the back. He scrambled into the brush keeping low and watching his footing. I sent George and Stahl after him. They passed from sight.


  Leslie and Narowitz moved up beside me. Narowitz was badly winded and he held his right hand over his calf. “What happened?”


  He uncovered a ragged tear in his pants leg. Blood oozed from a small puncture.


  “Lecheguia?”


  He nodded.


  “You’ll do fine. When you get to the top of the ridge, try circling around to the cars. Be wary of a guard.”


  “What will you do?” Leslie asked.


  “I shall become very biblical and lead them into the desert.”


  Leslie protested. “That’s stupid. Johnny. You could get killed! I’m going with you.” All in one breath.


  As the gods of logic didn’t strike her dumb, I shook my head violently. “No, you aren’t, because you’ll be much too busy helping your boss up the hill.” I looked her hard in the face and her eyes flinched. “You said it yourself. They call me Johnny Go Lightly and you’d only weigh me down!” I pointed out into the mesquite. “See?”


  They both turned their heads and, swift like the wind, I was gone.


  I exposed myself on the downhill side of the boulders. A long slope of shale extended down the ridge to an area of twisting arroyos carved by centuries of wind and water. I slid down it carefully, avoiding the Spanish dagger, prickly pear, and lecheguia scattered across the hill. Halfway down goose bumps danced up my back. I kept going.


  An extra strong gust of wind made me look out into the basin. The Sierra Diablo were hidden behind a curtain of black, boiling clouds marching across the desert floor like a mountain looking for Mohammed. Lightning flashed across its face in jagged sheets. I thanked God for the goggles I had on and wondered if my pursuers wore them too.


  At the first arroyo I turned and looked up the hill. Four men were scrambling down the slope after me. Three more stood at the top and watched with binoculars. They were all wearing fatigues. As I watched, one of the men slipped on the shale and slid in a violent The Touch of Their Eyes tumble of flailing arms into a patch of lecheguia. I heard a sharp scream above the wind.


  I winced. That was one man I didn’t have to worry about. I dropped over the edge and into the arroyo.


  Something slapped into my forehead. I felt the skin and brought my hand away wet. Soon, more fat, sandy drops of water fell. And the men behind me didn’t have goggles. I sprinted hard down the arroyo.


  The norther turned the sky black and made the ground walk. Gusts topping eighty klicks an hour flung mesquite trees through the air. The rain still fell sporadically, but I knew that tons of water were pouring on the peaks. Soon the floods would start.


  I tried to edge further back into the hole I’d found on a raised hummock in the basin. The rain kept dripping on my legs.


  Twice more, after I’d taken to the arroyos, I let them see me. Each time I led them further away from the hills. Then, I lost them thoroughly and looked for high ground. I hoped Leslie and the others were out of any water paths.


  Well, what now, Johnny? Do you head for Ignacio’s sheep ranch to the south and radio for help? Or do you carry the battle to the enemy? Who was the enemy?


  One thing was certain. I wasn’t doing anything until the storm abated.


  Like Moses I had led them into the desert and, like Moses, I now left them and went to the mountain.


  They were easy to avoid. I found myself able to tell when they were looking in my direction whether they saw me or not. There were now seven of them out in the basin and at least one more in the hills with binoculars.


  It was late afternoon when I climbed back to the boulder maze. The clouds were gone and the sun strove to make up lost time. The rocks shimmered in the haze, dancing in the heat. I crouched under a rock and rationed myself a lovely swallow of water. In the sun, a meter long chunk of limestone seemed to blaze in the sun like the mantle of a gas lamp—white hot.


  “Hmph,” I muttered. “I’d like to see Moses get water out of that rock.” I moved on toward the cars.


  Five vehicles now sat in the wide gravel clearing. The two new arrivals were unmarked panel trucks with radio antennas. An awning had been stretched between them and canvas chairs set up in the shade.


  The entire Danforth Geosource crew sat unguarded under the awning sipping canned soft drinks.


  I moved closer through the mesquite thicket.


  Lindquist looked into the opened door of one of the trucks and asked, “Any sign yet?”


  A man wearing headphones loosely around his neck stepped into the doorway. “No, but they’ve lost another man to the heat. They put the two guys with the messed up eyes with him and left some water.”


  “Hell! Why didn’t anyone think to bring goggles? Hadn’t anybody heard of sandstorms?”


  Narowitz and Stahl laughed out loud. George and Gamble smiled. Leslie just glared. “Why don’t you call it off? You’ve found out what you want to know. Do you want to kill one of your own men trying to catch something that can’t be caught?”


  You tell ’em, Leslie.


  Lindquist looked thoughtful. “How about it, Doc?” He called into the truck. A tall, red-haired man with thick glasses and a balding head stepped out of the truck and joined them. His name was Tom Case and he was the last person I ever expected to see in the North Chihuahuan Desert.


  “I would love to call it off,” said Case. “Who though, is going to tell Johnny?”


  “Use a megaphone. Let me tell him!” Leslie on a rampage was impressive. “You don’t need to capture him to communicate with him!”


  “Oh? All the Houston Post wanted was a photograph and they got mad and spent much more time than the story was worth trying to get it. I have the feeling it will take capturing to talk with Johnny.”


  I circled until one of the trucks was between me and the awning. There was a window facing me, but nobody looked out of it. Quietly striding across the gravel, I slipped up beside the truck. Narowitz’s voice came from around the corner.


  “I knew Danforth carried many government contracts, but I didn’t realize you wielded this much influence.”


  “Mr. Narowitz, we simply pointed out the advantages of survival training. At the same time, the Agency let Geosource know of our interest in Mr. Galighty . . . as a consultant, of course. I think it was quite kind of them to arrange my insertion into your crew.”


  Lindquist sounded more confident than Joe, the explosives man.


  “You didn’t fool me one minute,” replied Narowitz. “Your explosive techniques were more suited to demolition than to seismic signaling. I thought you were placed with us for intelligence work in North Africa.”


  “It wasn’t a very long-term cover.”


  “No,” I agreed, stepping around the comer of the truck. “It was a lousy cover.”


  This time I meant to startle. I was quite successful.


  Lindquist, his chair already tilted back, went the rest of the way with a crash. Tom Case jerked back against the truck. Narowitz dropped his Coke and Gamble started coughing violently from inhaled Sprite.


  “Mother of God!” exclaimed George as she sketched a hasty cross. Narowitz began pounding Gamble on the back and Case helped a red-faced Lindquist to his feet.


  Leslie sat back in her chair and laughed and laughed.


  “Did someone treat your leg?” I asked Narowitz as Leslie’s peals of laughter died to suppressed giggles. Lindquist had vanished into a truck to recall his wandering warriors.


  Narowitz smiled slowly. “I guess I forgot about it.”


  I knelt and peeled back the ragged flap of cloth. “Soak it in warm, soapy water. I trust you’ve had a tetanus booster lately?”


  “Yes.”


  “Good.” I stood and faced Case. “Tom, let’s take a walk.”


  Memories from the halls of madness: memories of the man—Tom Case.


  He was a graduate student doing thesis work at Brentwood. There were several of them puttering about, giving tests to the patients and trying to make it with the nurses. The staff doctors regarded them as something to be endured and took delight in puncturing their tender egos. The staff particularly disliked Case.


  We played chess once a week and, although we were evenly matched, I won a majority of the games.


  “Why do I lose so much?” he once asked, more to himself than to me.


  I started to set the board up for another game. “The reason you lose is simple. You pay too much attention to me and not enough to my pieces.”


  “I’m a psychologist, damnit! I pay attention to people.”


  “And you lose chess games you shouldn’t.”


  He opened with the Ruy Lopez. “How do I stop it? If I knew when my attention was wandering, I’d be able to stop it. Obviously, I don’t notice.”


  “Have you tried tying a string around your thumb? Who’s the patient around here anyway?”


  Halfway through the pawn exchange I said, “You’re doing it again.”


  He froze with his hand halfway to the board. “You’re right, but how’d you know?”


  “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. Read my file.” I put his queen in jeopardy. “Quit staring. It hurts and is going to lose you another game.”


  The next day he arrived in my room with a deck of cards and score sheet. The cards were divided into circles, squares, stars, triangles, and wavy lines. It was a test of my paranormal sensory abilities. I failed miserably.


  “You’re wasting your time, Mr. Case. I’m just another paranoid who thinks he knows when people are watching him. What you need is another Edgar Cayce.”


  He came back a half hour later. “Put this blindfold on for me, Johnny.”


  I eyed it with distrust. “Why?”


  “Don’t be such a cynic. Put it on.” He checked the edges. “What do you feel?”


  “What do you mean?”


  “Like . . . how many people are watching you?”


  I said without hesitation, “Three. You, someone on the other side of the inspection panel, and someone out the window.” I tore the blindfold off. “Do you get your jollies from playing with the mentally disturbed? Please get out of my room before I call one of the staff and complain.”


  “Take it easy, Johnny.”


  “Stuff it. I’ve managed to build a secure and private nest in this hellhole and you’re messing it up. I don’t like people who stare! Get out!”


  He left my room. Two days later, after a violent argument with the staff, he left Brentwood. He didn’t come back.


  In the shade of a tilted slab of rock we sat and watched the old creekbed dry up once again. I wondered how many times a year it guided water to the basin.


  “So, Tom, when did you get your doctorate?”


  “Last May.”


  “Amazing. I didn’t know they awarded doctorates in bumbling.”


  He sighed and declined comment.


  “How on earth did you get the C. I. A. to authorize this stupid jaunt?” I crossed my arms in front of me.


  He laughed. “You’d be surprised what the Agency will authorize if the project is cheap enough.”


  “Cheap? The manpower you’ve tied up must be enormous.”


  “Not really. The assault team just graduated and were going on a field test anyway. We just shifted the site.”


  “They don’t know much about the desert, do they.”


  “I guess not. Lindquist is permanently attached to my department and from what I’d heard. Geosource got their money’s worth.”


  “Okay, that’s how. Now, tell me why? Why do you want to trouble my sleep any more than it already is?”


  His eyes stared through me, but the brain behind them was elsewhere. I think he was considering what approach to take with me.


  “First, will you listen and let me finish before making any decisions?”


  I nodded. “Within reason. I’ll give you five minutes.”


  “I work for an obscure little department the Agency has named Dark Hunter. We locate wild talents and identify, study, and come up with ways to utilize them. For example, we have a girl with the gift of sight. This may not sound like a big deal, but she lost both her eyes six years ago. She can describe the contents of a sealed safe at three hundred meters.


  “She’s our prize, the one we show visiting VIPs, but since I’ve worked with the section, I’ve located three probable telepaths, one possible tele-kinetic, two erratic precognates, and a person who knows for a fact when people are looking at him.” He paused and sat back.


  “You never belonged in Brentwood. Their diagnosis was completely wrong. I shudder when I think of the wasted years of your life.”


  “Don’t bother. Electroshock therapy is a blast. I recommend it to all my friends.”


  “You don’t have any friends.”


  “Oh, shut up.”


  Case went on with his pitch. “I was going to make you my doctoral thesis, Johnny, but something else came up. Still, Dark Hunter needs you. We wanted to test you.”


  “The last I heard, my telephone number is still in the book. Why didn’t you just ask?” I was getting fed up and my voice was showing it.


  “Did Johnny Go Lightly let a Houston reporter do something as harmless as take his picture? I’ll bet you had your fill of tests and labs at Brentwood.


  “Then there’s another factor Dark Hunter has discovered. We have discovered several subjects that perform well in the lab, but fall apart under field conditions. They become useless for intelligence gathering purposes. By testing you this way, we’ve certified the effectiveness of your talent under stress.


  “Whoopee.”


  “Good grief, man! You are the covert agent’s dream. You’ve got eyes in the middle of your back and you can’t be tailed. Here we set nine trained men on your trail and you lose them in the blink of an eye. We need you!”


  “Are you through?”


  “Except to say the pay is good and you travel well.”


  I looked up at a red-tailed hawk riding the thermals above us. He looked content in his comer of the sky. I wondered if I would ever find mine.


  “Tom, let me tell you about my recurring nightmare. It goes as follows. It’s dark and I’m tied to a chair and I can’t get free. Still, I struggle, because I know that if I don’t break loose something terrible is going to happen. Then the lights come on and I’m sitting in the middle of the Houston Astrodome. I usually wake up before all the seats are full, but I’m usually screaming.” I shivered involuntarily. “I will not work for you, I might find myself waking up in that chair.”


  I got up and walked down the hill. “I want to see you again.”


  “I was afraid of that.”


  “Am I so repulsive?”


  “You know better.”


  Leslie, with an inch of vibram soles, came up to my chin. She looked up at me with great soulful eyes. The intensity of her gaze gave me shivers that were not altogether unpleasant. The Danforth Geosource team waited impatiently by their cars, and the battered assault team was struggling up the ridge.


  Leslie brushed back a strand of hair. “Why are you afraid of me?”


  “Did they tell you anything about me?”


  “A little. You know when people are looking at you.”


  “Or hearing, smelling, touching, tasting, or perceiving me in any fashion whatsoever. And the stronger they perceive, the more I feel it.” I felt an overwhelming loneliness steal over me and the pesky wind was making my eyes water. At least a tear slid down my dusty cheek. “You are taken with me—I can feel it. You focus your attention on me as the lens focuses light. I’m like a plant. I need the sun, but when you focus it on me, I bum. I find extreme attention very distracting and even painful.”


  She lifted a wondering hand to the streak of water on my face. My heart nearly stopped.


  “Will you ever be able to take it?”


  “I’m getting better all the time.” She dropped her hand. “My tour in Africa is over in seven months.” Without another word she turned and walked back to the Geosource group.


  I climbed shakily into the Toyota Land Cruiser and hastily started the engine. Leslie was only halfway to the Blazers as I drove down the road and mercifully out of sight of everyone behind me. A great load eased off my shoulders and I began conditioning myself to being alone again.


  Out across the basin, the sun dropped below the Sierra Diablo. Cursing softly to myself, I drove off into the sunset . . . dammit!


  LEONARDO’S HANDS


  Leaves of a dozen vivid colors swept across the road, eagerly crunching under the tires of the dove-gray Mercedes that Mark piloted through the crisp Massachusetts afternoon.


  The patched blacktop meandered through sunlight and gradually deepening shadow, occasional tributaries vanishing into the deep woods on each side. Every half mile or so, the car passed well-kept houses set decorously back from the roadway, semi-hidden behind sugar maple and American elm.


  Mark drove with one hand, the other resting casually on Vicki’s bare knee. She turned the page of the text on modern sculpture that rested in her lap, then returned her hand to cover his. Her short, square-cut fingernails lightly scratched his wrist.


  Mark shivered in pleasure and hoped desperately that she liked the house.


  They came to it, not much different from the others, a white brick bungalow with a sweeping driveway connected to the front door by a granite walkway. As he turned off the main road she closed the book and looked around her for the first time in an hour.


  “Oh, Mark! This is scrumptious!” She brought his hand to her mouth and absentmindedly took his thumb in her mouth and sucked on it while she surveyed the scene. She nibbled delicately. Mark shivered again.


  Water reflected the sun in ivory and saffron through the trees behind the house.


  She put his hand back on her knee. “It’s on the lake. Wonderful!”


  “There’s a private pier, even, if we want to get a boat. The season is almost over,” he said. “We can get it for an extra week or two if we want.”


  “It’s just perfect. Better than I imagined.”


  She kissed him on the back of the neck while he was struggling to get the suitcases out of the trunk. She picked up a couple of the smaller pieces and led the way up the sidewalk.


  Halfway to the door, she looked away from the woods and scrutinized the house for the first time since they’d entered the private driveway. She crowed with delight and dropped her luggage.


  “Oh, this is wonderful!” she cried. She departed from the walkway and streaked toward one of the windows. She forced her way between the bushes that concealed the lower half of the house.


  “Burglar bars! Wow!”


  Mark smiled fatuously. “Uh-huh. The rental man was real proud of them. Got ‘em on every single window. Even the bathroom window.”


  Vikki grasped one of the wrought-iron bars covering the window and yanked on it. It stayed resolutely in place. She laughed again.


  “Look at this!” Mark said. He strode to the front door, put down the luggage, and rapped sharply on the front door. “Solid core front and back doors. Oak.”


  He held up a keychain with a paper tag hanging from it. He opened the front door, using two keys. “Doorknob lock and stainless steel deadbolt. Both with Wilson Special mechanisms.” He looked at Vicki, completely deadpan. “He assured me the house is absolutely burglar-proof.”


  Vikki managed to master her amusement. “Yes. I imagine it would keep out the most determined felons.”


  “It certainly would. It’s a regular fortress.”


  They broke out laughing again and entered the summer-house.


  A hunter’s moon rose over the far side of the lake. Mark and Vikki lounged in wicker chairs on the end of the pier, watching the water ripple erratically on the lake. A boom box behind them played mellow rock. Each held a wineglass. In front of them Mark had set up a small table that now held a half-empty bottle of wine and a tray covered with miscellaneous nibbled-upon snacks. Mark bent forward lazily and cut himself a slice of cheese on the tray. They had napped away the early part of the evening. For the past hour, they had idled silently together in their chairs, listening to the insects and frogs sing of love, watching the vee formations cross the sky as the Canadian mallards began the first stage of their invasion.


  Mark smiled as she looked at her watch. Without touching her, he had been able to sense a few minutes ago when her motor began to rev up.


  She looked up to see him watching her and grinned. “Two o’clock. It’s showtime, pardner!” She jumped up and did a little softshoe. Slowly, Mark stood. She bounced into his arms, pulled his head down into the valley between her breasts.


  “Ummm, good,” she sighed. His pulse began to accelerate until it thrummed in time with hers. She urged his head upward again until it was placed so that she could nip his earlobe. Then she was gone, racing through the woods to the house.


  He gathered up the wine bottle and the snack tray.


  As he cleaned up in the kitchen, Vicki called to him from the bedroom. “What do you think we should wear tonight, dear?”


  “Oh, something black, I suppose.”


  When he finished, he joined her. She smiled as she laid their outfits on the bed. He went to the closet, dragged out the most special suitcase, laid it on the bed beside her, and popped the lid.


  She reached inside, pulled forth a canvas bundle, and unrolled it on the bed. It held an extensive array of matte black tools, including several sophisticated electronic devices and one very basic-looking pry-bar.


  “I hope this one isn’t a washout,” she said. “Like the last one Frankie lined us up for.”


  The moon had set now, and the only light in the woods was thrown in front of the car by its twin mercury lamps. “No way. He has it on very good authority.”


  “He did last time, too.”


  Mark sighed. When he’d teamed with her a year and a half ago, she had been much less critical. But the new had worn off. It worried him.


  “Cowden’s last piece went for eighteen thousand at Sotheby’s. He kicks out a couple of pieces a month. And Tang dynasty jade turns him on. Frankie says he can handle all the jade we get. Matter of fact, he says he’d like some of Cowden’s sculpture, too. We can’t miss.”


  Vikki snuggled up to him and batted her eyes coquettishly.


  “Whatever you say, dear. You’re the man.”


  “Oh. Right. I forget sometimes.”


  She dug her fingernails into his bicep.


  A long, twelve-foot high concrete wall slipped past them on the right, broken only by a heavy, ornately wrought iron gate.


  “That’s Cowden’s discouragement wall,” Mark said. “Let’s find a place to park.”


  “Yes, dear.”


  A few hundred feet further along, a smaller road diverged. Mark nosed into it and began to pull over to the side.


  “No, not here,” Vicki said. “Up ahead, behind the bushes.”


  “Yes, dear.”


  The electronic alarm system was good enough to defeat ninety-nine percent of those who might challenge it. The laser beams paralleling the top of the wall, the infrared motion detectors that covered the grounds, and the pressure-sensitive pads buried in the garden paths all conspired to slow Mark and Vicki to a walk.


  The house itself, of course, was so well protected that it had practically no internal systems at all.


  A single low-wattage light from the kitchen shone into the room. Mark casually scored the glass, fiddled around for a moment with his sticky things, then popped a six inch circle loose. He reached in through the hole and fastened jumper clips to a wire painted to match the wood, bypassing the window reed switch.


  He twisted open the catch on the window, pulled upward, and vaulted inside.


  He turned to help Vicki slither across the sill, then recoiled and gasped. On the table beside the window rested the blood-red bust of a deformed, snarling animal that had never lived outside a nightmare. Vicki looked at it briefly and rolled her eyes. She held her finger to her lips.


  The pinpoint flashlights revealed a cozy living room, like many others they’d invaded late at night. Except that, scattered randomly among the normal furnishings, on the floor or on other small tables, reposed a dozen sculptures of the most hideous sensibility.


  Most were frozen in screams of rage or pain. Most were animals. Some were so grotesque as to be unidentifiable. All made Mark want to shudder and turn away.


  Vicki approached the smallest, a toad-like monstrosity carved from a dark-grained, highly polished wood. It leered at her, its broad, wet tongue curled around a crushed egg from which a thing even more nauseous struggled to escape.


  She pulled a padded cloth from her bag, wrapped the carving in it, and put it in the bag.


  Mark shook his head. He’d seen pictures of Cowden’s works in the catalogs Frankie provided. Most had been bizarre, but none had been as malign as any in this room.


  He swung his light around until it passed over an open door. Quietly, he crept to it and lay down. He peeped around the corner at floor level, then relaxed and stood.


  A few feet down the hallway, on the opposite side, he had made out the outlines of a kitchen through another open door. The heavily carpeted hallway ran past the bottom of a stairway before disappearing around a corner.


  They moved ghostly through the hallway. As they passed the stairway, Vicki gestured toward it and upward. Mark shook his head and pointed forward.


  They turned the corner and came to closed doors across from each other. He opened the one on the left, while she took the one on the right. His room was absolutely bare and clean, except for the deep gouges that criss-crossed the wall paneling. The scars began at shoulder height and reached to the ceiling.


  Vicki tapped him on the shoulder. Her thumb and forefinger made a circle.


  They entered, leaving the door slightly ajar so that they might continue to hear the rest of the house. The room was filled with objets d’art, most as grotesque as those they’d encountered already, but larger. Three locked glass cases lined half of one wall. They displayed on black velvet dozens of jade figurines.


  Mark began to relax. The job was half over.


  He looked around the room, dimly illuminated by the light from the hallway. The potter’s wheel in the corner, the unfinished lumps under sheets, the odd pieces of metal and stone that lay scattered about, all said that this must be Cowden’s workshop. Incongruously, a huge, half-built model airplane covered a crude table that held the center of the room. The finished sculptures, several as tall as a man, made his stomach twist.


  Vicki brought her lips to his ear. “Cowden must be very weird.”


  Mark looked at the large malachite cobra that twined up the legs of the display case nearest to them and nodded.


  Then they set to work. Mark deposited his black bag in front of the case, pulled a few small instruments forth, and bent to quietly convince the lock to be his friend.


  Vikki patted him on the shoulder and then wandered about the room with her bag, looking for more goodies. She fingered small pieces, putting most back down, wrapping and taking some, simply looking appraisingly at others.


  She returned to watch Mark finish up on the last display case. Beside the case, mounted on the wall, a shelf supported a jumble of oddly-shaped tools and half a dozen old books. As Mark pulled up the top of the case, Vicki reached in among the tools and carefully extracted a small jade bottle, perhaps four inches high. Curving lines had been delicately incised into the body of the bottle. Eerily, the lines reminded Mark of the clawed panelling. Thick black wax sealed the stopple of the bottle.


  As he unrolled a small blanket and began placing figurines in pockets sewn to it, he watched Vikki examine more closely the small objects on the shelf, keeping several, among them a couple of small distorted cylinders of silver that Mark finally admitted to himself had been fashioned in the form of broken human fingers. Last of all she opened a small leather bag and pulled out a finely crafted silver dagger. She smiled as she tested its point against the ball of her thumb.


  She had set the jade bottle on the velvet while she poked around on the shelf. He picked it up and placed it inside a pocket, then rolled up the blanket and stuffed it inside his bag.


  The stairway around the corner creaked faintly.


  A few seconds later, a shadow dimmed the light from the hallway, then the door swung more fully open. A handsome man in his sixties stepped alertly into the room, dressed in pajamas and carrying a revolver of indistinguishable pedigree.


  He grunted in dismay and took a few steps forward. His attention was focused not on the cases that held the jade figurines, but on the shelf to the side.


  Behind him, Mark motioned to Vicki that it was time for them to quietly, invisibly slip away. Instead, she glided up behind Cowden and with great sincerity popped him on the head with the pry bar. Cowden fell forward bonelessly.


  Vikki stood over him for a moment, her face lit with a beatific smile. She bent and retrieved Cowden’s revolver. She weighed it in her hand and looked thoughtfully at Cowden’s still form. Then she pointed the revolver at the back of his skull.


  Mark jerked her arm back. “Dammit, let’s get out of here!”


  She nodded reluctantly.


  Neither of them spoke on the drive back to the lake house.


  Vikki seated herself on the couch. Mark put his bag on the coffee table in front of her, then collapsed into the chair across from the couch.


  Vikki opened the bag and began to spread the loot on the coffee table


  “I wonder if he’s dead,” Mark said.


  “We’ll read about it in the papers.”


  “You hit him pretty hard.”


  Vicki shrugged. “Hard enough.”


  She held up a couple of the jade figurines and turned them in the light. “Good stuff. I bet Frankie’ll just eat it up.”


  “You liked knocking him over, didn’t you? You didn’t have to hit him.”


  “You’d rather be in jail right now?” She pulled Cowden’s revolver out of the bag. “Or maybe you’d rather he shot us?”


  “No.”


  “Then quit griping. I didn’t have any choice.”


  “We could have gotten away from him. You know that.”


  “Oh, for Christ’s sake. Okay. I’m sorry. All right? I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hit him so hard.”


  “No more rough stuff on the job.”


  Vicki sat the gun on the table and stared at him. “You can always work without me, you know. Is that what you want?”


  Mark rubbed his forehead and sighed.


  “If you don’t want me around, we can just end it now,” she insisted.


  “No, that’s not what I want.”


  She picked up the gun and pointed it at him. His eyes widened. She grinned. “That was the right answer.”


  Mark got up and headed for the kitchen while Vikki finished lining up the loot in front of her.


  When he got back with beers for both of them and a sandwich for himself, she had placed a small bottle in front of her. It wasn’t the same shape as the one they took from the shelf at Cowden’s place, but it was the same color and general size and had a mouth and lid the same shape.


  She looked at him, puzzled. “Did you get this?”


  Mark shrugged.


  She fingered the bottle, then rolled it between her hands. “The other one isn’t here.”


  “Hmmm.” He bit into the sandwich, then held it out to her. “You want some?”


  “No, thanks.”


  “I don’t know why, but I’m always hungry after a job.”


  She laughed while she tried to score the sealing wax with a fingernail. “And before a job. And during a job. The only time you won’t be hungry is when you’re dead.” The wax was hard enough to turn the edge of her fingernail.


  Vikki traced her fingers over the outside of the bottle, then tried to open it. She picked up the silver dagger and chipped away at the black wax. Then she grasped the top and body again and pulled hard.


  The top came off with startling ease and her elbow knocked over her beer, which dropped off the edge of the table and onto the carpet.


  “Wonderful, wonderful,” she muttered.


  She quickly set the jade bottle and top down and scrambled to pick up the beer bottle. She looked back toward the kitchen and nodded to Mark.


  “Get me a towel?”


  When he returned from the kitchen, Vikki still held the beer bottle gingerly. She set it down on the coffee table and caught the dish-towel that he tossed to her.


  As she dried her hands, a glowing, sparkling blue mist foamed out of the top of the bottle.


  They both watched it flow, slowly, liquidly, into a pool on the surface of the coffee table, then gradually sink into the wood and vanish, leaving no trace of its existence. They watched the table in silence for a few more seconds, waiting for something further to occur. Nothing did.


  Vicki looked under the coffee table. “It’s gone.”


  “That was. . . unusual.”


  Vikki made an exaggeratedly surprised face. “Weee-oooooh.” She touched the bottle tentatively, then turned it upside down.


  It was empty.


  They went to bed an hour later. Mark thought Vicki would be unresponsive after the events of the night. He was wrong.


  Halfway through, he looked over his shoulder at her dim outline, crouched above his body. She clawed his back lightly.


  “Love me?” she murmured.


  He nodded. She spread his legs further apart and moved between them.


  “Think I love you?” she asked.


  He shook his head.


  “You’re so wrong, sweetheart. If I didn’t love you. . . .” She reached to the foot of the bed and picked up the small leather bag. She undid the drawstring and pulled out the silver dagger. She held it up.


  He flinched and she laid her hand in the small of his back to still him.


  “If I didn’t love you, would I be so nice to you?”


  He moaned when the point traced fire along his flesh.


  She bent forward to kiss away the new blood.


  “Up on your knees, now, lover.” She reversed the dagger, revealing the knob-tipped haft.


  “Yes, dear.”


  The sound of wood groaning brought him from deep sleep to near-consciousness. He shifted to turn over as his eyes opened drowsily. His eyes widened. He grunted and convulsively shoved himself and Vicki off opposite sides of the bed.


  He caught in the sheets, and by the time he managed to struggle upright and look across the bed, Vicki had bounced into a tensely aggressive kokutsu-dachi, wearing only a loose pajama top.


  Mark turned on the lamp beside him and staring horrified at the bed. It hadn’t been a dream.


  Vicki moved back two steps involuntarily. The heavy oaken headboard had contorted fantastically. Two motionless, huge taloned hands, protruded seamlessly from it. The hands were curving downward, as if to enclose whoever was in the bed. A light blue glow faded from the hands as they watched.


  “My god,” Vicki said slowly. “What the hell is that?”


  “I don’t know. I heard something. When I opened my eyes they were there.”


  Mark picked up a shoe and tapped the heel against one of the wooden hands. Nothing happened. Gingerly, he looked behind the headboard. Shook his head when he didn’t see anything. He dropped the shoe and examined the juncture of headboard and hands.


  “It’s like it grew out of the wood.”


  Vikki tentatively rapped the other hand with her knuckles. She withdrew her hand rapidly, as if the feel of the wood bothered her.


  “Time for the gun,” she said.


  They went to the closet and opened it warily, still also keeping an eye on the headboard. Nothing leaped out at them. Mark pulled the black bag from the closet and removed the gun. He held it awkwardly. He’d stayed away from weapons all his life. He’d always thought weapons and violence were for the weak of mind and slow of foot.


  Vikki extended her hand. “Give it to me.”


  It looked large in her hand. Reflexively, she snapped the cylinder open to make sure it was loaded, then clicked it in place again and cocked the hammer.


  “Somebody’s playing a game with us,” she said.


  “Cowden?”


  “It looks like his sculpture, doesn’t it? But. . . .”


  “Let’s find a nice hotel where the beds don’t mutate.”


  “Right. In another state.”


  While Vicki stood ready with the gun, Mark hurriedly dressed. Then, while he held the gun nervously, she changed as well. When she was almost finished, Mark heard groaning wood, somewhere in another room of the house.


  He started and pointed the gun at the door. “What was that?”


  Vicki finished buttoning her blouse and took the gun from him. “With a little luck, we’ll never know. Luggage?”


  “Just the tools and the good ol’ loot. We can replace everything else. Let’s move.”


  Each threw a last glance at the headboard when they left the room. The hands still hadn’t moved.


  They passed through the darkened living room, walking fast. Vicki led the way with the gun. The sound of groaning wood seemed to have shifted location. It was louder.


  “You’ve got the keys?” Vicki asked.


  Mark fumbled in a pocket, pulled forth his keychain. “Yeah. Here.”


  “Then let’s find the egress and eeg outta here.”


  The entrance hallway was so dim that Mark could barely make out the outlines of the walls on either side. He thought briefly about turning on a light, then considered the possibility that it might bring someone—or something—down on them.


  Vicki stepped aside, gun-barrel pointed at the ceiling as he moved past her to the door. She took up station behind him, guarding their rear. Mark twisted the knob and pulled. The door didn’t budge. He grunted and pulled harder. Vikki reached up beside him and flipped the hall light switch.


  Mark dropped the keys. All around the door’s edge small taloned hands, not unlike those coming out of the head board, protruded, curving over the edge of the door and sinking, talons embedded, into the surrounding wall. White metal hands flowed from the doorjamb, alternating with the oaken ones.


  Mark regained his breath and picked up the keys. “I like the back door, myself.” Don’t admit that this is serious, he thought. Don’t even admit that it’s real.


  They walked and ran to the kitchen, where they saw that the same thing had happened to the back door.


  Mark didn’t remember how they got back to the living room. Everything, including he and Vicki, seemed to be moving too fast. He’d been in nervous situations when pulling a job before. He’d always stayed in control, but this was different. They should have been safe here. And how did Cowden, or whomever it was, make wood and metal flow like that?


  He looked wildly around for escape. “The window!” he exclaimed.


  “Good idea,” Vicki said. “I’ll cover.” If she’d been breathing any faster, she might have been in danger of hyperventilating. She rocked back and forth on her toes, swinging the gun in wide arcs around the room.


  The room was illuminated just enough to turn the window into a dark mirror. Mark picked up a large ashtray from an end table and threw it overhand. The window shattered in a glittering cascade of glass, revealing the burglar bars without.


  Mark reached into the black bag hanging from his shoulder and brought out the pry bar she’d used to clobber Cowden. He stepped up to the window and carelessly knocked out the glass teeth that remained around the rim.


  He angled the tool outside and began to pry at one of the places the bars were bolted to the outside of the house. Child’s play. He struck the curved end three times to force the edge under the bars, then pulled hard. He was rewarded by a slight loosening of the bar. He reinserted the bar and was about to heave again when agony lanced up his leg.


  Spastically, his fingers lost their grip on the bar. It fell, caromed off the edge of the windowsill, and dropped between the bars to the outside.


  Mark looked down. Small hands, taloned like the hands coming out of the headboard, had grown out of the wooden floor and over his shoes. Between his feet, a forearm perhaps a foot long terminated in a hand that held a triangle of window glass. Blood from Mark’s calf dripped down the glass and onto the hand. The whole arm glowed blue, and for only a second, Mark could have sworn that it moved slightly. The glass cut into him again.


  He barely noticed as Vicki beside him staggered back a few steps and pointed the gun at the hand holding the glass. He leaned sideways frantically to get away from the sharp edge. His shoes were affixed to the floor. The hand wavered again, bringing the shard closer. He wrenched one foot out of a shoe, then the other.


  He fell sideways to the floor and scrambled away crab-like, moaning without realizing it, still facing the hands and glass. The glow on the arm slid down to the floor and pooled briefly before vanishing.


  Mark kept crabbing backwards until he smashed into a wall. He stood jerkily, eyes still fixed on his shoes and the arm between them. Vicki backed away from the window until she stood next to him.


  “That blue glow,” Mark said. “It’s caused by whatever came from the bottle. Like a genie or something.”


  “Great. Tell me how that gets us out of here?”


  Mark paced a few steps closer to the window. “This isn’t a joke any more. I think it wants to kill us.”


  “Let’s get the hell out of here, then.”


  Mark’s breathing had returned almost to normal. “Calm down. You saw how slow it was. We’ll get past it.”


  “Calm down! We’re trapped in here with some kind of goddam monster that changes things!”


  “It must belong to Cowden. He has to have a way to control it.” Suddenly, realization dawned. “My god. It does his sculptures for him. What a racket! It does the work, he gets the credit.”


  “Screw this,” Vicki said. She strode over to the fireplace and picked up a two-foot long axe from among the other tools. “Let’s chop the door open and leave.”


  Mark sighed. One of the reasons he loved Vicki. She was such a direct sort of person. But, what if they could find some way to harness the monster, use it themselves. . . . Oh, well. Not tonight.


  “Here. Let me apply my great masculine upper-body strength on that baby.”


  The door wasn’t a door anymore. In its place was a swirling mixture of the darker wood and the lighter wall that had been sucked into it. In the center of the chaos a huge face had formed. It glowed intensely blue. They watched, hypnotized, as the mouth languidly opened and multiple rows of teeth began forming inside a maniacal, twisted grin.


  Vikki snarled, stepped forward and raised the revolver.


  “Eat this, you bastard!”


  The bullet entered right in the center of the mouth, blasting splinters of wood away. The glow remained and the splintered edges of the hole slowly healed. The mouth opened wider and a tongue grew out. The flattened bullet rested on the tongue.


  “Jesus!” Mark said.


  “Tear the son of a bitch apart!” Vicki said.


  Mark attacked with the ax, hacking the tongue off first, sending it spinning into a corner. In a few seconds he could see the darkness on the other side of the door.


  He redoubled his efforts, chopping hysterically. When the hole had almost reached a size that they could wiggle through, the ax caught in the grain, jammed in a cut. Mark yanked on it. It began to loosen.


  The glow suddenly surfaced on the door and swarmed up the ax toward his hands. The glow burned when it touched him. With a yell, he let go and jumped back.


  The end of the ax handle split lengthwise and grew teeth like an alligator’s snout. Above the ax, the hole’s edges flowed gelatinously together.


  They retreated from the hallway. Vicki looked into the kitchen, then led Mark into it.


  “Why are we going into the kitchen?” he asked.


  “Nothing’s changed in here. Maybe its safe?”


  She handed him the black bag and crossed her arms and hunched her shoulders in.


  Mark looked around. The kitchen did look reassuringly normal.


  “Cowden must control it somehow,” Vicki said.


  Behind her, the refrigerator began to glow, then distort horribly. Vicki looked over her shoulder, saw it starting to change. She pushed Mark out of the kitchen and they ran.


  They stopped in the living room once again, for want of a better place to be. At least they could see everything around them clearly.


  “It’s just playing with us, isn’t it?” Vicki panted.


  Mark thought she was right, but he made himself disagree. “No. If it could have killed us, it would have. But it’s slow. It has to wear us down, make us panic.”


  She took the bag off her shoulder and shoved it forward with her foot. “Here it is! All the stuff we stole!” she shouted. She turned slowly in a circle, looking for some sign of blue. “Is this what you want? Take it! We give up! We’re sorry.” She began to sob. “Just—Let us go! Please!”


  She rushed to Mark’s arms. While he held her, he watched the bag. Nothing moved in the room for a long few minutes. Nothing happened to the bag.


  Finally, she dried her eyes on his lapel. “It’s not going to let us off, is it?”


  “I don’t think so.”


  She strode over and grabbed up the bag. “Well, fuck the monster, then.” She yanked open the bag. “Find something heavy. We’re gonna smash everything in here to pieces. Then we’ll put the pieces in the fireplace and burn ‘em. You hear that, monster! Fuck you! Fuck Cowden! I hope I killed him!”


  Hope shot through Mark’s mind. “That’s it!” he exclaimed. “That’s how we’ll beat it.”


  “Huh?”


  “Burn our way out.”


  Vicki smiled.


  Several boxes of matches reposed on the mantel. Mark and Vicki searched around the fireplace, but found no starter fluid. They couldn’t just throw matches at the door, and Mark doubted the monster would let them carefully build a fire using the newspaper and small pieces of wood next to the grating.


  He did hand Vicki the poker, though. He kept the ash shovel himself.


  He turned to her. “We’re gonna have to go back into the kitchen. Look under the sink and in the cabinets.”


  They searched thoroughly. They moved carefully, in case anything started to alter around them. The monster seemed content to let them ransack. Nothing. No flammable cleaners, no half-empty bottles of liquor left behind. Mark began to wonder just how bad their luck could be.


  One last place to try.


  In the bathroom, the window above the bathtub had been transformed into a giant eye, the lids of which were three quarters closed. The floor was a bed of nails. The bathtub had changed into a huge plant-like mouth, razor teeth protruding. The faucets on the sink had become eagle claws reaching up and out. The whole room glowed infernally.


  As they began to back out, the glow sank into the ceiling and vanished.


  Mark set the bag down, opened it, and pulled out a screwdriver and small hammer with a rubber-covered head.


  He opened the door across from the bathroom, revealing a small closet with shelving heaped high with linens. A few vigorous blows with the hammer against the head of the screwdriver, and the pins popped out of the door’s hinges.


  “C’mon. Help me with this.”


  “Okay. What are you planning?”


  He nodded toward the bathroom. “Going nail-surfing.”


  “No. We don’t know if it’s still in there.”


  “We do know it’s in the house and this is the next thing I need to do to try to get us away from it.”


  They set the door on the nails.


  Mark scrambled across it and tore the open the towel-closet and, simultaneously, the medicine cabinet. He peered inside both. Lucky twice. He reached inside each and tossed four plastic bottles and three spray cans to Vicki, then leaped out into the hallway as the door began to undulate beneath him.


  Back in the living room, they made their plans.


  “Okay,” Mark said. “We know it can control inanimate matter. Probably can’t enter anything living, or it would have simply absorbed us in our sleep. But how about fire? Even if it can do something with fire, it acts as though it can’t be in more than one place at once. It can’t be too damn smart, or it would have gotten us while we were still in shock. So, we set at least three fires. Front door and back. And one in the kitchen, first of all, to distract it.”


  “You’re so decisive,” Vicki said. She had regained her confidence now that they had a plan.


  “Yes,” Mark agreed. “That’s because I’m the man.”


  “Right.”


  They split up. Vicki headed for the front hallway. Mark took half of the matches, two of the plastic bottles half-full of rubbing alcohol, and one almost-empty can of hair spray.


  He unzipped the black bag’s top about a foot and tucked the bottles and can in, while he held the matches in one hand and the ash shovel in the other.


  The monster stayed out of sight.


  “Ready?” he called.


  “Ready!”


  “Starting now!” He uncapped the first plastic bottle and slashed it empty across the cabinets and then ran to the rear door and did the same to it with the other bottle. He pulled out the spray can and tossed its top away. A lit match in front of its depressed nozzle produced a satisfying spout of fire. He played it across the cabinet, igniting the alcohol.


  “Okay, start your door!” he yelled.


  He pointed the fire-spraying can off to his side as he raced to the back door. He skidded to a halt and used the can again. The door whooshed into flame, just as the can emptied and began to hiss propellant weakly.


  He sprinted back to the cabinet fire and exulted to see that the polished wood had caught and the blaze had begun to spread. Below, the sink, metal shrieked. He could see the back door burning merrily, too. He prepared to use his ash shovel to bash through the door when the fire had eaten sufficiently at it.


  He hopped from foot to foot, anxiously watching first one fire, then another.


  The sink nozzle curled upward, and shot a fierce jet of water at the flames above it. Mark backed away, began to edge toward the back door.


  “I knocked a hole in mine!” Vicki yelled. “It was thinner than we thought! Let’s go!”


  “Great! I’m on my way.”


  As he jumped through the doorway to the living room, the floor collapsed under his foot and pitched him forward. His ankle snapped. Mark’s forehead thumped into the floor hard enough to stun him. The bag flew from his hand and tumbled across the living room floor.


  The glow dripped from the door’s archway hand and misted across the floor at him. A circle of floor around him began to glow and ripple.


  He rolled onto his side, sending pain lancing up his leg. The monster had eaten away the floor, weakening it to set a trap for him! He shook his head groggily and tried to sit up, but his clothes seemed to be sticking to the floor. He pulled harder.


  Mark twisted enough to see blurrily that hundreds of tiny fish-hooks had pierced his clothing, then curved back toward the floor. Larger hands started to grow out of the floor to better grip his arms and legs.


  “Come on!” Vicki called from the end of the hallway.


  He shook his head again and his vision cleared.


  Vicki ran into the living room and cried out when she saw him. Some of the fish-hooks straightened and punctured his flesh. On both sides of his head, grinning mouths rose from the floor. Whining, Vikki dropped to his side and began to rip buttons off his shirt. She’d undone four out of seven when she screamed and lunged away, landing awkwardly on her shoulder. Her movement revealed two hands that had tried to trap her leg at the knee.


  One hand held a piece of her pants that it had torn loose. It slowly clenched shut on the piece.


  “Get out of here!” Mark screamed. The hands around him had captured his legs and upper arms. “It’s got me! Get away!”


  Vicki didn’t seem to hear him. She looked around frantically.


  A featureless sheet of wood peeled from the floor above Mark’s head. It swayed forward until his face was in shadow.


  She dived for the bag, which had come to a rest against one of the feet of the couch. Whining again, she turned it upside down, spilling the contents on the floor.


  The dagger came out of its leather bag as it fell and bounced on the floor. Her outstretched fingertips hit it and sent it sliding across the floor away from her.


  Above Mark’s face, the sheet of wood began to undulate. His eyes widened as he realized what it was becoming. The mouths on both sides of him were now close enough to begin biting his shoulders.


  Vicki grabbed the dagger and crawled back to Mark.


  The sheet of wood had fully formed into a perfect contour mask of his face.


  He couldn’t take his eyes away as it descended upon him. “Get away!” he screamed again, whether at Vicki or the mask, he didn’t know. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her loom over him and raise the dagger.


  She must love me, after all, he thought. She’s staying here.


  Then the mask cut off his vision. It fit snugly. So snugly that he couldn’t breathe under it. His skin crawled as it adjusted on his face, tightening further.


  He felt the impact of the dagger. Behind his eyes, blue flared brilliantly, then flashed to white.


  Cowden drove slowly. He examined closely each house that he passed. The thick bandages covering the back of his head didn’t alter his aura of deadpan seriousness.


  Eventually, he came to the lakehouse, still dewy with morning. The windows of the house looked as if they’d been pinched shut. Cowden nodded to himself and turned into the circular driveway. His car pulled to a stop behind Mark and Vicki’s. Cowden turned off his engine and sat quietly a moment before climbing out. He pulled a knee-length wool coat from the back seat and shrugged it on. He opened the trunk and lifted out a gasoline-powered chainsaw. It looked incongruously huge and crude in his hands.


  The door still looked much like a door, except for the edges that had flowed together. There was no face in the middle of it, and no sign of the hole that Mark had chopped.


  Cowden pushed the electric starter button on the chainsaw. The snarling chain bit through the door easily. With neat strokes, Cowden cut a doorway about six inches smaller than the original. He turned off the chainsaw and set it down on the porch, then walked inside the house. He frowned.


  The walls of the hallway were bloated with figures demonic, angelic, or simply monstrous. Some of them erupted from the floor, others from the ceiling.


  He stepped carefully among them to the living room.


  Straining hands still gripped Mark’s shoes. The window had become a closed mouth, with a dark stain bubbling from between the lips. The white walls were covered with scores of faces.


  All the faces were Mark’s and Vikki’s. They were in hell.


  Cowden examined them impassively.


  In the kitchen, an enormous arm grew vertically out of the floor to the height of Cowden’s waist. Its hand balanced a tray, two and a half feet in diameter. Needled claws grew from the fingertips to pierce the edges of the tray, the sharp points sticking six inches above its surface. Another, smaller hand grew in a corner of the tray. Its fingers curled as if to hold a stick upright. In the center of the tray sat the jade bottle, its cap, and the silver dagger, peeking half out of its leather bag.


  At the base of the arm rested Mark and Vicki’s black bag, mouth open.


  Cowden rolled his eyes and sighed tiredly. He poked around in the black bag for a moment, then pulled a foot-long black candle from the pocket of his coat. He wedged the candle firmly into the small hand on the tray.


  From the same pocket, he brought forth a box of strike-anywhere matches, removed one, and struck it on the knuckles of the hand holding the candle. He lit the candle, then shook the match out and placed it on the tray. He slid the silver dagger free of its bag.


  Holding the dagger by the blade, he tapped the bottle twice with the knobbed end of the haft. A smooth ringing sound swelled and filled the room for a moment before fading. He set the dagger down. Somewhere in the house, wood groaned.


  The blue glow twined upward along the thick muscles of the arm. Eventually, it surfaced on the tray and puddled, steaming gently. Frowning again, Cowden picked up the dagger and tapped the bottle once more. Reluctantly, the mist flowed up the sides of the bottle and vanished inside.


  Cowden picked up the top and placed it in the mouth of the bottle. Then he removed the candle from the hand that held it and dripped thick black wax all around the lid. He put the candle back in its holder and slipped the dagger and bottle into the black bag.


  He picked up the bag and walked out of the kitchen.


  Behind him, the candle flame leaped high.


  In the living room, he bent and picked up from the bare floor an exquisitely detailed sculpture carved from a chunk of some gleaming alabaster stone. A foot and a half in length, two nude figures intertwined. Both screamed as the woman plunged a dagger into the man’s chest.


  After putting everything into his trunk and shutting it, Cowden started the engine. His hands trembled on the steering wheel. He looked down the sidewalk and saw through the doorway as the first of the flames entered the hallway.


  Taking a deep breath, he engaged the gears and drove away.


  SHADE


  Xareed had been waiting for the water truck for two days, seated in the dirt at the edge of the camp, his family’s plastic ten-liter water-jug tied to his ankle.


  He didn’t like being on the edge of the camp. Except for the piece of cardboard he carried impaled on a stick there was no shade. The poet Sayyid had said, “God’s Blessing are more numerous than those growing trees,” and Xareed hoped so, for there were no trees in the camp or outside. So the blessings had better be more numerous, not less.


  Being on the edge of the camp, especially on this side, was also bad because rebels would occasionally fire into the tents from the far side of the old lakebed, or set up mortars among the folds and gullies in the bottom.


  Bad enough, but when the government troops came in response, the rebels would be long gone, and the troops would say they were hiding in the camp and there would be searches and arrests and summary executions.


  It was safer deep inside the camp where Xareed lived with his mother and grandfather and sisters. Back when they’d come here, after the rebels had killed his father and burned their farm, there’d still been a little water in the lake and a lot of mud, so his family actually had a house, just a one-room building, but made of thick sun-dried bricks that kept the family cool in the heat and which had, on more than one occasion, stopped stray bullets and shrapnel that tore through the tents that most of the refugees lived in.


  It had been Xareed’s idea, one of the few things he’d gotten from school that meant anything here. That, and enough English to talk to the foreigners who helped at the camps.


  But Xareed really missed the shade of trees. His last memory of their farm, as they fled, was not the burning house and fields, but the flames consuming the wide canopy of their umbrella thorn acacia tree.


  When the strangers showed up at the clinic tent, rumors and questions flew up and down the water line.


  “How did they get here?”


  “I don’t know. Maybe a truck on the far side of the camp?”


  “Maybe they came on a water truck?”


  This was nonsense since the entire camp knew within minutes when the water truck had been sighted.


  “Could it be a new supplies convoy?”


  “Maybe a new drilling machine?”


  The camp’s three wells, drilled two years before, had dried up in the previous month. There was still some water in the clinic’s tanks but it was being strictly rationed. One of the NGOs had sent a new drilling rig but it had been confiscated by the government and sent south.


  Everyone was dry-mouthed and angry and all the young ones kept saying “Waan domonahay” (I’m thirsty) over and over again. Many had woken to find their water bottles stolen and accusations had flown, followed by fists.


  “Maybe there was a helicopter?”


  Sometimes the IRC got copters in with medical supplies.


  “I heard they walked.”


  Xareed peered across the baked earth toward the nurse’s station. The strangers were a white man and woman, wearing practical khakis and baseball caps. They didn’t look like they’d walked. It was possible, but it was thirty dry kilometers to the next village. These people looked fresh, almost moist, like the reeds that grew by the stream in his old village.


  “It’s like they sprouted from the ground.”


  There was laughter at this, but only quiet laughter. Everyone was too hot and thirsty to laugh loudly.


  “Xareed,” one of his friends said, “you go ask.”


  Xareed translated to English for anyone. “They could be French or German or Norwegian. You go ask. Nurse will know.”


  A boy further down the line saw the tanker truck first, by the dust it threw up, while it was still kilometers away. It was coming by the lake road, winding along the old shoreline. Some of the newer refugees surged to their feet, but the old hands sat stoically. Time enough to stand when you could hear the diesel motor, hear the creaks of the springs as it bounced in and out of the road’s potholes. Even then there would be some delay as they put the dispenser hose on the tank and filled the clinic’s tanks first.


  Xareed shifted his cardboard parasol as the sun tracked across the sky. It was one of the few things he owned and he had to watch it carefully. As shade it was valuable enough but during the cold nights any number of his campmates would steal it to burn. Fuel was not quite as rare as water. You could get it by walking far enough from the camp but the rebels or government troops might find you and that never ended well.


  The sound of grinding gears was plainly audible and he had untied the string around his ankle and was thinking of standing when the truck hit the mine.


  He jumped to his feet, his mouth open in dismay. The rebels must’ve planted it in the last two days. This same truck had used the same route the week before with no problem. The diesel was burning and he was pretty sure he’d seen water spray from a tank rupture before the swirling dust had engulfed the vehicle.


  He was running, sprinting forward, almost without thought. The water. Even ruptured, the tanker could take some time to drain, if he could get to it in time—


  It was at least six hundred meters to the truck and he slowed almost immediately to a steady jog. While speed was of the essence, it would do no good if he collapsed on the way to the truck or was too weak to carry his filled water can back.


  Or if I step on a mine, he thought, and shifted his course off the dirt road.


  If he could just fill his can. His sisters complained all day long about the thirst but his grandfather, who never complained, was weak and feverish.


  He glanced behind. He’d clearly had the element of surprise but now a general rush was on, other boys and men and a few girls, enough that dust was rising into the air from their passage. Ignore them, he told himself.


  A tall thin boy sprinted past Xareed, running for all he was worth, a twenty-five liter can in each hand and two more slung over one shoulder, banging against his back and chest.


  For an instant Xareed was tempted to match his speed, to sprint as he did, but he kept himself to the steady jog. His resolve was tested as two more men dashed past. He was over halfway now, but the truck still seemed small in the distance, shrouded in dust and dark smoke, and the tall, skinny sprinter seemed almost there, but that had to be an illusion.


  He hoped it was an illusion.


  It was. The tall sprinter collapsed a hundred meters short of the truck and the other fast men were reduced to a staggering walk. They were bent over, gasping for air as Xareed jogged past them.


  Xareed was also gasping for air by the time he reached the truck. He circled wide around the front where the fuel tank, behind and below the driver’s side, had been ruptured by the mine and a puddle of diesel burned, flames licking up the driver’s door. Even from eight meters away the waves of heat were painful and he held his cardboard parasol out to keep the worst of it off his face.


  He glanced back. The rest of the crowd was still coming and the cloud of dust had grown but he still had a fifty-meter lead over the closest. As he got around to the passenger side his eyes were on the water pouring out of the rents in the tank and he dropped the parasol and began fumbling with the screw cap on his jug.


  And that’s when he heard the cries.


  Someone was still alive in the truck cab.


  The water was already slowing as it poured out of the ruptured tank and the others were so close. With a curse, he dropped the water jug and scrambled up on the step and clawed for the door handle.


  The door came open about six inches and jammed. He braced his foot against the side of the truck and pulled and it creaked, then gave way suddenly and he fell to the ground, but he was back up on the truck step without thinking about it.


  On the far side the driver was clearly dead, his clothes aflame, but there was a woman in the passenger seat moaning and staring about with wide eyes. Her face was bloody and her clothes too, but he couldn’t tell if it was her blood or the driver’s. She was fumbling with her right hand, reaching across her body, trying to reach her seat belt release. Her other arm was hanging, apparently useless, and her shirtsleeve was starting to smoke.


  Xareed reached for the buckle and screamed as it burned him. He reached again, and instead of grabbing it, punched two fingers into the release button. The tab slid out and he pulled her, by her good arm, and, toppled back down onto the ground, her weight pinning him to the ground.


  “Christ, she’s on fire.”


  The weight came off of him and he saw the stranger, the white man, stripping off his shirt and smothering the flames that had started on the passenger’s sleeve. Then the other stranger, the woman, was there suddenly. Xareed thought he must’ve passed out; for one moment she wasn’t there and then she was. She looked angry and scared.


  “You’re going to get yourself killed!” she said fiercely, but then added, “She better go straight to hospital. One with a good burn unit.”


  Xareed blinked. What were they talking about? The nearest hospital was over three hundred kilometers away. Even if they could get a helicopter in, the chances of it being shot down were high.


  The man nodded. “Right. I’ll take her. Check on him, okay?” He jerked his chin toward Xareed. “He pulled her out.”


  The heat from the burning cab was increasing and the white woman pulled him further away.


  There was shouting from the end of the truck. The ruptured tank was empty now and they were trying to get the other compartments open but it was crowded. Xareed looked around for his jug but it was gone. Someone in the crowd had snatched it up.


  He tried to scramble to his feet but the woman pressed him down. The man and the injured passenger were gone. He must’ve carried her around the end of the truck and back to the camp.


  “My water can!” Xareed said, struggling against her. “My can she is gone!”


  “Ah, good. You have some English,” the woman said, clearly relieved. She still kept her hand on his shoulder, though.


  “I must find my can! My family needs water!”


  She nodded. “Water is important. I’ll get you some water but let me see if you’re hurt.”


  Xareed looked at her. “Are you crazy! They will take all the water. There isn’t enough.” He tried to get up again but his six-hundred-meter run, the heat, the lack of water, the fire, his burnt hand—it was all too much. She was able to hold him down easily.


  “Shhhh. I promise I’ll get you some water. What’s wrong with your hand?”


  Xareed was cradling his right hand. “I, uh, fire, uh hot, it. On the belt seat.”


  “Ohhh. Burned? When you got her out? That was very brave of you. Let me see.” She held his hand lightly by the wrist and looked closely without touching it. “Ow. Looks like you’ll blister. Wait here.”


  She stepped back around the front of the truck, where the smoke still billowed. Xareed tried to get up again but he was suddenly overwhelmed by it all. They were pushing and shoving at the other end of the truck. His hand hurt. The water jug was gone and his mother and grandfather and sisters would go thirsty.


  The woman stepped back around the front of the truck. She had a cloth in her hand wrapped around something. She crouched again, beside him, and said, “Put this against your fingers—it will help.”


  He held out his burnt hand, cautiously. He thought maybe she had some salve, some ointment, but she gently pressed the entire cloth against his hand.


  The relief was sudden and shocking. It was ice, like they used to have at his old school, like the tops of distant mountains. She opened the cloth a little and took a chunk, a cube, from inside and mimed putting it in his mouth.


  He did. So cold. So good. He sucked greedily at it.


  “Rest here a few minutes. I’ll go get your water.”


  She brought him back a jerrican, plastic, with “5 gal” embossed on the side. It was full. More shocking, it was cold—beads of water were condensing on the sides and it felt almost as good on his burn as the ice.


  He looked around for his makeshift parasol and it was there, but the crowd had trampled it flat and the stick was broken and the cardboard torn.


  He couldn’t help it. He cried.


  The woman picked up the scraps of cardboard. “Ah, I saw this, when you were sitting in line. Clever.”


  He nodded. “My parasol.”


  “A nice bit of shade. What’s your name?”


  “Xareed, Miss.”


  “Call me Millie.”


  The crowd around them was growing and on the other side, someone was throwing dirt on the burning diesel oil. He put an arm around the jerrican, holding it close.


  The woman eyed the growing crowd uneasily. “Come on, Xareed. I’ll help you carry this back to the camp, all right?”


  They walked side by side, the can between them. She was only a little taller than he was and they shared the handle, his left hand, her right touching.


  “Where are you from, Miss Millie?”


  “Canada,” she said. “How long have you been here?”


  “Three years. We were firstcomers.” He told her about their mud brick house and his mother, grandfather, and sisters. “Is that man your husband?”


  “Yes. David.”


  “Why did you come here?”


  “To help, if we can,” she said.


  She was sweating now, and Xareed was relieved. He hadn’t been sure if she was human or not. He asked his next question nervously. “How did you come here?”


  She glanced sideways at him and then back at the dirt they were trudging across. “Why do you ask?”


  “It’s hard to get here. Sometimes helicopters come but the rebels have rock . . . ats?”


  “Rockets.”


  “Rockets. And the roads have mines. And there is no convoy.” He peered at her. “And I do not think you walk.”


  She sighed. “No. We came our own way.” She did not elaborate, but instead asked him what circumstances had brought him to the camp.


  He found himself telling her the entire story, right up to looking back at the burning farm, the burning tree.


  “Ah,” she said. “Shade.”


  “Yes.”


  She left him at the edge of the camp where he was able to get one of his trusted neighbors to carry the water can the rest of the way in return for a liter of its contents. By the time he’d reached the mud brick house, the ice was reduced to a handful of small chips but there was still enough for his sisters, mother, and grandfather to each have a small mouthful.


  It was a miracle. A small miracle, but still a miracle.


  Later, that afternoon, the next miracle happened.


  “The tanks are full! The tanks are full.”


  “Are the wells working?”


  “Did more trucks come?”


  Wildly different stories swept the camp. He got one version from Yahay, who lived in a tent near Well #2. “It was that stranger, the man who came with the woman, without a car.”


  “What did he do?”


  “He climbed up onto the water tower.” The water tower was a metal tank on legs three meters above the ground. A petrol well-pump filled it so gravity could drain it. It was three meters across and four meters tall and held 38,000 liters when full. Since the well had gone dry the month before, it had been mostly empty.


  “So?”


  “He opened the inspection hatch and climbed down into it. I was standing near. I heard water rushing and then the tank began to creak. I ran to the tap and cold, cold water came out when I held the valve open. I cried out in surprise and everyone came running. In the excitement, I didn’t see him come out of the tank. Maybe he didn’t,” Yahay said, wide-eyed. “Maybe he turned into the water.”


  Xareed remembered the man disappearing with the injured passenger. He didn’t think the man had turned into water. Especially when the other two tanks were found to be full very soon after.


  Xareed went looking and found the strangers sitting with the French IRC nurse and watching the sunset in front of the clinic intake tent. He crouched down behind the tent flap and listened.


  “It’s a respite. How often can it be done? We’ve been short for a month now. Forty-five hundred people go through a lot of water.”


  The man—David—looked at his wife. “Can’t keep it up. It will attract too much attention and it will be bad for us and for the camp. But, I do have a longer-term solution, I think.”


  “Yes?”


  “Let me try it. You’ll know if it works.”


  They left after that, walking out into the sudden dusk, and Xareed watched carefully. He was wondering if he would see another miracle when he saw another man leave the edge of the camp and drift after the strangers.


  While it was true that the rebel troops did not hide in the camp, it didn’t mean that they didn’t have their spies among the refugees. This man was a bit too well fed, a bit too well dressed. He wore boots and pants, not sandals and the robe, and his shoulder-slung bag was shiny new.


  Perhaps he too was interested in the miracle of the water.


  Xareed looked around and then followed, swinging wide to the north. He kept his head down, like someone looking for firewood. Anything near the camp was long gone, but that didn’t keep people from looking.


  David and Millie kept moving, crossing quickly over the dip that marked the old lakeshore and then down the slope. They were moving by feel and starlight now.


  Xareed found a shallow gully that marked an old streambed and ran down it, using it to hide his passage. He passed David and Millie and crouched low as they walked closer.


  Millie was saying, “—find Canadian salmon here and it will blow the whole thing.”


  David said, “Yeah. Pity. There’s an awful lot of snowmelt going to waste up there. But you’re right. And there’s the hypothermia danger. BBC Meteorological says it’s raining around Lake Tanganyika. That’ll do.”


  From Xareed’s position in the gully they were all silhouetted against the fading sunlight on distant wisps of clouds, so he saw the follower close the distance and take the gun and some