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Brown hair worn short, wide-set eyes, her sole flaw a network of hairline scars across one cheekbone.
You make your rules, you live by them. People who wanted you to bend or break them for pay were, ipso facto, the enemy.
by J.R. Dunn

For a minute Mallon thought they were going straight into the river. Then the driver swung the wheel and they pulled up behind a nondescript, beat-up van parked beside a light pole. The older agent, the one who liked to talk, got out and opened the door for him. Mallon thanked him—it never hurt to be civil. They'd allowed him to finish shaving and walked him out the side entrance rather than past the hotel desk. The ordinary run of cop might not have done that.

Directly across the river lay Talwar's estate. The peak of the orchestral tent was clearly visible, white and shining in the morning sun. Thick greenery along the water hid all signs of activity, though if the last couple days had been any indication, the place would be running like a hive even at this early hour.

"Go on in, Mr. Mallon." The older fed waved him toward the van. "They're waiting for you."

The van's back door swung wide at his approach. He clambered inside, squinting into the dimness. It didn't seem as if they were waiting for anybody.

It was a twelve-footer, larger than it appeared from outside. Crowded with surveillance gear, much of it switched off in light of the countermeasures Talwar possessed. Apart from the man who had opened the door, Mallon saw a tech gazing at a screen at the far end, and two men in shirtsleeves with shoulder holsters speaking in low tones. They did no more than look up when he appeared.

Shutting the door, the fourth man, another tech from the look of him, moved toward a cheap coffeemaker and poured himself a cup. "Hey …," Mallon said. "How about some of that lousy coffee?"

The two agents glanced at him once again, their gazes lingering this time. A smile crossed the face of the shorter one. "Mr. Mallon."

"The bodyguard," the tall one muttered.

The short one picked up a sheet lying atop a console. "Bryan Mallon," he read aloud. "Founder and CEO, Aegis Consultants, a bonded protection agency active throughout the Midwest and South—"

"That's an easy buck."

Mallon faced the taller agent. "More to it than you might think, my man."

The agent crossed his arms. "So what's your deal, Mallon?"

"My deal?" There was no point in jerking them around, not if they were feds. They could tie him up any one of fifty ways with no effort at all. And in any case, he needed to know what they were doing here. "Simply put—Samuel Talwar is sponsoring a concert this evening featuring … debuting, I guess you'd say, a concerto by his protege—"

"Felice Carey."

"—right. It's news in serious music circles, lots of people have flown in, and I've been hired to provide security."

"He has his own security," the short man said, an expression of puzzlement on his face. "They're not bad either."

Mallon was about to explain that it wasn't at all unusual for a home security team to realize that it was out of its depth with large events and call in a supplementary force, when the taller one spoke.

"So why you? Is there a complication, Mallon?"

He studied them a moment. "I'd be willing to go into complications if I knew who I was talking to."

The shorter man pulled out his wallet and flipped it open. Douglas Labou, field agent, Biosecurity Task Force. Mallon knew the organization, an offshoot of the old Homeland Defense network. "There's no Al-Q over there, I can tell you that."

Labou's smile widened. The tall agent, who had made no move for his own ID, gave a barely audible snort.

"Okay, here it is: there's been a threat. Felice Carey's brother, Garth. They're afraid he'll use the occasion to take a crack at Talwar."

"Serious threat?"

"They see it as serious."

Labou frowned. "What's his beef?"

"He's a psycho, so I'm told. Talwar stole his sister away, corrupted her, some goddamn thing. So he has to go." Talwar had met Felice Carey through a musical competition or contest he'd sponsored—the best composition based on a theme by Talwar himself. She'd taken the prize, and from there things had progressed to a patron-protege relationship and beyond in relatively short order.

"Have you spoken to Felice Carey?"

Mallon shrugged. "Haven't laid eyes on her. I understand she's pretty sick."

"Pretty sick," Labou echoed.

Something in his expression caught Mallon's eye. "Is she the reason—"

The tall one broke in again. "Mallon, what would your reaction be to an incursion by federal law enforcement over there sometime this afternoon?"

"You don't have an operative named Garth Carey?"

Labou chuckled. The tall one allowed himself a small grin. "Nope."

"Then I would stay out of the way, instructing my crew to do likewise."

The tall man leaned close. "And nobody else?"

"Not that I can think of."

Labou's eyebrows rose. "You don't like Talwar."

"He's a billionaire. What's to like?"

The two agents eyed each other a moment. Finally Labou clapped his hands. "Okay, Mr. Mallon. Sorry about rousting you so early. I'll have them drive you back to the hotel …"

"Why bother?" Mallon gestured in the direction of the estate. "I'm right here."

"So you are."

· · · · · 

He got out his phone as he walked away from the van. "Laurie? Morning to you too … I'm across the river, on the roadway there. Right … He can't miss me."

He slipped the phone into his jacket, keeping hold of the business card Labou had given him in lieu of coffee. He overcame an impulse to glance behind him. He didn't want to give the tall guy any satisfaction.

Shouts and construction noises, the sounds of last-minute preparations, drifted across the river. His eyes rested on the water. You could almost wade over, shallow as it was. Of course, you'd be picked up by the sensor array on the opposite bank. Talwar's security chief, Mohammed Desai, had showed it to him the other day. Visual, chemical, auditory—an impressive setup overall, though Mallon had figured out three ways to finesse it on the spot and had told Desai two of them.

He had to assume that Garth Carey, an IT hardware pro, had seen the same holes. Discreet and illegal examination of his web activities over the past few months had revealed a newfound interest in security systems.

He raised his eyes to take in the house. If such a construct, half castle, half mansion, could be so called. Citizen Kane: the camera tilting to reveal Xanadu in all its monstrous glory. That was the image, clichéd but unavoidable. Strange how the imaginations of the ultrarich ran in the same tight channels. If you mentioned it to Talwar, he'd no doubt be indignant—look again! Take in the lines of the place—half Mogul dynasty, half Millennium Trois. Wholly original, a living work of art, like nothing else on Earth.

But the truth was inescapable. Once Xanadu is built, everyplace that follows that resembles Xanadu becomes simply another Xanadu. There was no way around it, until a new paradigm appeared.

He sought out the Carey woman's window, but his knowledge failed him. He wasn't certain exactly which one it was. He could guess the wing—there, on the second level. But more than that, no. He recalled what Maynard Gilles (Talwar's aide, and an individual more suited to the role of factotum did not exist) had told him when he requested a few minutes with her to discuss her brother. "Ms. Carey," Gilles had said, his childlike face as close to blank as it ever would get, "does not speak."

Just that and no more: Does not speak. Does not speak to strangers, does not speak to hired hands, does not speak to anyone at all anymore … no indication. Those words alone and a sudden whirl into a completely unrelated topic.

He felt the pressure of eyes from the van. All the same, he knew a bit more than those feds back there. More than he'd told them, which was only fair—there was plenty they hadn't told him. For a moment he considered stalking back and laying it in front of them: you tell me what the disease is, and how Talwar is responsible, and the possibility of Garth Carey knowing about it, and I'll tell you about the guy that quit. And the child. I'll throw in the child too.

But he didn't turn, and he didn't walk back. Instead he stood flicking his cheek with the card, watching his company car cross the bridge that went nowhere else but Talwar's paradise on Earth and swing onto the service road.

He took out his phone and entered Labou's number. Just in case he needed it right away.

The car pulled up with a touch more in the way of brakes than was strictly required. Mallon opened the door to find Ray, a new hire out of the USMC embassy guards, behind the wheel. Ray called out good morning and handed Mallon a foam cup as he got in.

Mallon regarded it bemusedly, smelling the coffee even as he pried off the top. Hot, and just the way he liked it.

· · · · · 

Mallon took his time crossing the lobby. That was how he thought of it—as a lobby. He supposed it was the living room or parlor, but it reminded him of a hotel lobby more than anything else in his experience. Talwar had made his fortune off a bacteria mold that produced plastic by the ton lot, but you wouldn't find any of that here. The floor was marble, the walls polished stone to the level of an average man's shoulders. Pillars held up the ceiling. The decorative motif was musical: several keyboard instruments were visible—a concert piano along with examples of various ancestors (spinets? He couldn't recall the name.) and an actual harp. In the center of the room a holo was playing, an interview with none other than Samuel Talwar himself: "… music is a form of mathematics. And mathematics comprises the actual structure of the universe. Why should human beings respond emotionally to something of that nature? I intend to find out …"

A number of tables, a little larger than what you'd find in a coffee shop, had been brought in. Each was now fully occupied. The closest was surrounded by a group displaying that ambiguous scruffiness emblematic of the professional intellectual. These must be the music critics Talwar had been wooing—their security tags were the green marking press. The tags were integrated into the estate's security system, the various colors restricting the wearer to certain limited areas. Mallon's was a clear dot on the lapel of his jacket. It restricted him not at all.

He ran his eyes across the room out of professional habit. He saw nothing of Gilles or Desai. Plenty of security loitering near the walls, obvious even in slacks and sport coats, but no sign of anyone in charge.

"… you can't buy your way into the arts. I don't care who you are. And money can't change the rules. Talwar and his microtones. There's a reason why there's eight tones. The failure of serialism showed that clearly. Microtones are a crock."

"Microtones are the basis of most Eastern music. And Dickie, you talking like a traditionalist?"

Dickie, a tall man with the face of a corrupted sharecropper, stretched out in his seat. "Well, there's tradition and there's tradition …"

"I think what's bothering Richard is that it's Talwar." The man's back was to Mallon, and all he could see was a mop of bushy hair. "Mr. Music is Math."

"What—it doesn't bother you?"

"I notice you're here drinking his Blue Mountain."

"Another billionaire playing Renaissance patron. The festivals, the commissions, the scholarships … all setups. All designed to showcase the name 'Talwar.' This Carey will be more of the same."

"Oh no." The blond woman spoke for the first time. "Not Felice Carey. She's done some very good work."

"Has she really?" the bushy-haired man said.

"Nothing major. Some piano pieces. A few song settings."

"Academic," Dickie said. "Gimme tenure stuff."

"Really, Dickie?" The blond woman smiled. "You're actually listening to female composers now?"

Dickie gave an elaborate shrug.

"Uh-huh. Well … why not give us a title?"

All of them regarded the tall man, who frowned into his empty coffee cup as if the answer was hiding there. His face reddened. At last the bushy-haired man said, "How about 'Microtones for Money'?"

Released by the sound of laughter, Dickie looked out over their heads. Catching sight of Mallon, he snapped his fingers. Mallon turned toward him. The man hesitated and dropped his arm. Mallon smiled. "I'll get you someone, sir."

He started across the room. He'd just caught sight of Gilles, rushing through with his workbook under one arm. Gilles gave him a blank look when Mallon called his name, then, thoughts visibly clicking into place, raised a hand and cried out, "Ahh, Bryan …," as if he'd been waiting all morning for the pleasure.

Mallon fingered his tie. Gilles was the kind of man who made you do things like that. His style was the Dead-End look—baggy, ill-fitting suit, oversized shirt buttoned to the neck, white socks showing above the ankle, patent-leather shoes, the whole arranged as if to say, "I can look good even dressed like this."

"Anything to report?"

"Nothing yet." Mallon had just left the cubbyhole his inside team had been assigned. Laurie had given him the impression something was brewing, if not quite ready to taste yet.

"I see. Well … I'm in a rush. There's supposed to be a dozen floral arrangements in this space, and they've only now arrived."

"A question or two. Thirty seconds."

Gilles glanced over his shoulder. "Make it twenty, Bryan."

"The man who walked out …" One of the reasons Mallon had been hired was the fact that a member of Talwar's security force had quit on them only days before. "You have a file on him?"

Gilles blinked in puzzlement.

"Just covering all bases," Mallon assured him.

"I see …" Gilles raised his workbook. Behind him a woman wearing a long gown appeared, hands clasped demurely before her. "You don't think he'd be involved … Well, what's your address again?"

"Mr. Gilles …"

"Ahh! Moriah, dear, I've been running ragged …"

"One other thing," Mallon said. "The child."

Gilles paused halfway into his turn. "The what?"

It was the same response he got from everyone. "There was a child present when I arrived the other day." She'd been hard to miss. About three, an age Mallon knew well—that was the age his youngest daughter had been the last time he'd seen her, five years ago. Obviously well cared for, though screaming in desolation while being carried out by an older woman. "Mommy!" over and over again. Mallon had gotten a good look at her, unable to turn away as she was carried past—instinct, or a touch of guilty conscience?

He spoke to the woman. "Do you know what I'm talking about? I need to know: is she here now, and is my team responsible for her safety?"

The gowned woman cast a quick glance a Gilles. "I think she's at the lake house …"

"Oh, that child? No, no, no." Gilles grinned. "Not your worry."

"All I need to hear."

Gilles bobbed his head. "Good. Nothing else? Your team—they do understand, they're to bring Carey to our people. Mr. Talwar does not want a scandal."


"Fine. Now where was I?"


"Yesss. Moriah! Come with me, love …"

Mallon made his way back across the lobby. Dickie shot him a glare as he passed. Mallon gave him a "one-minute" sign.

· · · · · 

"You've got an attachment from security," Laurie said as he walked in.

"Great—download, please," he told the system.

"… but you'll want to hear this first." Laurie was his operations manager. Brown hair worn short, wide-set eyes, her sole flaw a network of hairline scars across one cheekbone. Acne or abuse, Mallon could not say. She'd never had them fixed, easy as that would be. She'd once confessed to Mallon that she was afraid of machinery touching her face.

"We just heard from Knoxville. Benny struck gold."

Mallon bent closer. Knoxville was Garth Carey's current hometown. "Yeah?"

Handing him a printout, Laurie said, "Seems that little Mr. Carey had his car painted last week."

"Uh-huh." A nice dark forest green, not a factory option for a Chrysler Scimitar. That had been one mistake. The other had been getting a parking ticket a couple days afterward, when the change had been noted and entered in the state database.

"We're going over traffic copter footage. And a local firm is checking motel lots and so on."

"Outstanding." That was the difference between Aegis and your run-of-the-mill security outfit—or Talwar's team here, for that matter. Let the bunker mentality take over, start thinking defensively, and next thing you were hunkering down, waiting for the threat to come to you, starting at every loud noise. Mallon's philosophy, learned in Army G-2 and honed over three years handling intelligence in the Mideast, was to go out after them. A man planning a hit, a robbery, or a kidnapping was not living a normal existence. There would be changes: behavioral, physical, psychic, involving basic elements of life such as his job, his family and friends, or, as here, his wheels. Assessing them could give you a solid idea as to what he was thinking and what his plans might be. There were only a handful of ways to approach a target, after all.

"Should I inform Desai's people?"

Mallon made a twirling motion around one ear.

"No. We're clear."

All the same, he led her to a shielded computer console and typed out a brief sitrep concerning the feds. Laurie murmured, "We noticed the van."

"Can you get this out to everybody?"

She nodded once more. Touching the keyboard, Mallon highlighted the line do not hand over to Talwar's people. "That in particular."

Ray came over with a traffic shot that certainly seemed to show a dark-green Scimitar on the east-side ring road. Their euphoria lasted as long as it took to ascertain that the photo was five hours old and that the car showed up nowhere else.

"Inform the team." Clearing the screen, Mallon accessed the download on Desai's man. A young, bland face peered out at him. "Now, where can I find you?" he asked, more rhetorically than anything else.

"Oh, the guy that quit?" Laurie bent close to the screen. "He's still around. He's leaving for two weeks' vacation at one of Talwar's foreign holdings. He still gets it, even though."

"Nice deal," Mallon said.

· · · · · 

Talwar's staff lived on the estate, a more feudal arrangement than Mallon would have been comfortable with. A garden-apartment complex at the far end of the property, shielded from the main house by a dense growth of trees. Mallon passed tennis courts and a pool on the way over.

He found his man packing suitcases into a car. His wife, visibly pregnant in the front seat, peered suspiciously over her sunglasses as Mallon pulled up, unobstrusively blocking the car's way out.

The ex-guard straightened at Mallon's approach. Felix Halder, a local boy hired right out of a community-college classroom. Talwar didn't like them too educated or experienced.

Mallon gave him a wave. He kept his sunglasses on. "I'm glad I caught you."

Halder regarded him with some apprehension. Mallon offered his hand, nearly forcing the man to take it. As he drew it back he brushed his lapel, assuring that Halder noticed he had the highest clearance the place afforded.

"So, where you headed?"

"Uhh … Montserratt."

"Montserratt. That's …"

"The Carribean. West Indies."

"Got you." Mallon knew full well where the island was. The place had been nearly destroyed by a series of volcanic eruptions early in the century, and a variety of Talwar's bugs had been a crucial element in recovering it. "How long? Two weeks? All paid for, even after you've resigned. That's generous."

"Mr. Talwar's a generous man."

Halder's wife gave out an irritated sigh. Mallon acted as if he hadn't heard. "Now, what I wanted to talk to you about … Oh … have any federal people spoken to you before this? No? What I need to know is exactly why you left the job. I read your statement, but I wanted to hear it from you."

"Go ahead and tell him," Halder's wife said. "You've told everybody else."

Halder scratched an eyebrow. "Uh, y'see … Terry …"

"Terry is knocked up," his wife said clearly. "And is utterly and irrationally terrified for the health of her unborn child."

Mallon swung toward her. "Really? Now why is that?"

Halder touched his arm. Mallon allowed himself to be led away while the younger man jabbered about Ms. Carey's illness, how nobody was clear what it was, how afraid his wife had become lately. You know, the way pregnant women get …

"I did say 'irrationally,' didn't I?" Halder's wife called out.

Halder went on, repeating the whole thing twice more in different words. "… and I'll tell you this. Mr. Talwar has been understanding about the whole deal. Very understanding. Whatever people might say about him. He's been understanding itself."

"He's been the same as ever." Halder's wife had gotten out of the car and stood with her arms crossed atop the door, glaring at them. "Mister, if you had any idea what Talwar was up to, you'd race us out of this place."

"Goddammit, Terry … What did I tell you?"

She made a face at her husband then bounced back into the seat. Halder glared a moment longer, his breathing harsh.

"When's she due?"


Mallon gestured toward the car.

"Oh … November. Yeah, November. Uhh … you got kids?"

"Two girls."

Halder visibly relaxed, as if the fact was a rarity that placed them both in some type of secret brotherhood along the lines of the Masons. "Listen," he said in a quiet voice. "What she's talking about … it's gossip. Pure gossip."

"What kind of gossip?"

"Oh … Talwar giving Felice the disease himself. An experiment. Something he brewed up in one of his labs."

Mallon slipped off his glasses. "Is that what they say?"

"Yeah. But it's nothing." Halder brightened. "I can prove it too. 'Cause of the reason why they say he did it."


"So she could write music better!"

"So she could … people say that?"

Halder bobbed his head. Mallon digested the thought for a moment. At last he looked up.

"Hey—you got a plane to catch."

"Shit … so we do." Halder glanced at his watch. "Ah … we'll make it easy. Start early, that's my rule."

"Keep ahead of it, sure." Mallon began moving away. "Oh … one other thing. That child that was running around the big house. Little girl, about three? Whose is that?"

"Oh, that's hers. Felice Carey's."

"Already started with that poor thing." Terry Halder's voice rose on the next words. "My kid ever touches a piano, I'll break her fingers."

Halder shook his head helplessly. Mallon popped his glasses back on. "Enjoy your trip."

· · · · · 

The lobby was beginning to fill up, almost enough to seem crowded. Several Hollywood types, complete with entourages; a news team in the midst of an altercation with Desai's crew. He saw Desai himself walking over, giving the impression of taking his time although in truth moving right along.

Mallon headed for the cubbyhole. "We spotted the car," Laurie announced breathlessly as he stepped inside. "I was just about to call you."

Kenner, one of his more experienced people, had caught sight of the car just this side of downtown before losing it at a red light. The team was now quartering the area, standard naval search pattern. If Carey was around, they'd find him.

He was just shaking his head at Laurie's question as to whether they should request assistance from Desai when Kenner announced that the car had crossed two blocks ahead. In the seconds it took him to close the distance, it seemed that they'd lose it again. But when Kenner made the turn, there it was, at a stop sign just a block away. Mallon listened, hands cupped under his chin, while Kenner followed the Scimitar to a motel parking lot less than five miles from the estate. Kenner eyeballed Carey as he got out and made his way to a second-floor room—for some reason, the camera footage wasn't feeding right.

"Do we pick him up?"

"No." Mallon said in a low voice. "I've got a hunch. Let's play it out. Tell Hubie to keep on him."

Mallon remained seated a moment longer. "Laurie," he said at last. "Heard anything about a doctor on premises?"

"Not that I know of. None of Desai's people mentioned it."

"But it makes sense, right? He's got a sick woman here, illness unknown but, from what I've heard, not the common cold. She must get regular checkups, therapy maybe. He can afford top dollar."

"You want me to find out?"

Mallon considered it and got to his feet. "No."

"We've got the feed!" Laurie called out as he reached the door.

He went back to take in a near-perfect image of a motel that had seen better days.

"Hubie was switched to the wrong interface," Laurie explained.

"He was, was he?" Mallon headed out once again. "Tell him I take it all back."

He knew precisely whom he was looking for but saw no sign of her amidst the crowd. There were several graceful, discreet women wearing long gowns, but not the one he wanted. He drifted along for a moment, listening in on various conversations.

All of them seemed to deal with music. He felt mildly oppressed, the feeling of being the odd man out. He couldn't begin to grasp the pull that music had on these people. Some of them had flown in from as far as the coasts. Some, perhaps, from overseas. All to hear a band play a tune. Mallon was glad it couldn't touch him. Obsessions were dangerous. They put you in a place where you lacked control, pushed you into things unimaginable otherwise.

Across the room Moriah appeared, gliding self-possessedly through the crowd. Mallon intercepted her, wearing his best smile. "Excuse me, Moriah …"

She smiled back, obviously remembering him from this morning.

"Does Dr. … I forget the name …"

"Dr. Sorley."

"Yeah, that's right. Does the doctor have an office in the building?"

"Actually, no. He examines Ms. Carey in her own suite. And any other matters that come up in the clinic."

"I see. And how would I get hold of him?"

"Oh, he's present now. He arrived for lunch with Mr. Talwar, but of course …" Moriah gestured around the room.

"Poor scheduling."

"Yes. I don't believe he's occupied at the moment. Can I show you to him?"

"If you would." He held his breath, waiting for her to say something along the lines of "Let me clear it with Mr. Gilles," but she merely turned and floated off with barely a rustle of her gown. He set out after her.

They went down the nearest hallway, through a next-to-invisible door, up a hidden staircase to the second level, and into a room that made the one downstairs resemble the motel.

A man with unnaturally perfect gray hair and a slightly darker double-breasted suit sat in an armchair that seemed too small for him. The table beside him bore an empty coffee cup. He regarded them a moment then slowly got to his feet.

"Dr. Sorley," Moriah said. "This is …" She touched a finger to her lips and glanced at Mallon, flushing slightly. "Oh, I'm sorry …"

"Mallon." He stepped forward and gripped the doctor's hand. "Supplemental security. There's something you can help me with."

Gesturing to a nearby chair, the doctor sat back down. Mallon turned to thank Moriah but found her already halfway to the door. He lowered himself to the edge of the chair.

"What can I do for you?" Sorley's voice had a definite touch of New England to it.

"I have some questions about Ms. Carey's illness."

Sorley's expression mingled irritation and puzzlement. "What does that have to do with security?"

"We've already lost one man over it."

"Good point," Sorely admitted. "Go on."

"Exactly what is Ms. Carey suffering from?"

Dr. Sorley dropped his eyes to Mallon's lapel. One eyebrow barely shifted at the sight of the security tag. "Ms. Carey is afflicted with a TSE, a chronic degenerative brain disease in the same family as Creutzfeldt-Jakob or kuru."

"I take it's not contagious."

"Not at all. You can put that out of your mind."

"I've been told she doesn't speak—"

"Who told you that?" Sorley said sharply.

"That was Mr. Gilles."

"Gilles." Sorley's lips quirked. "She's not yet aphasic, and won't be for some time."

"You mean … you can understand her?"

"Yes. I can understand her. At times. Of course, I've been treating her since onset."

"You're aware we may have a problem with her brother? I don't suppose it would help if I spoke to her about it."

Sorley shook his head. "No. She hasn't seen any of her family for several years."

"If she's …" Mallon raised a hand, let it drop. "How can she write music, the shape she's in?"

"Well, that's the thing." Sorley bent forward, all signs of boredom vanished. Here, at last, was something that interested him. "It's the condition that makes it possible. We'll be covering this at the press conference this afternoon …" He checked his Rolex. "Which I assume has been postponed. In any case … Shan's syndrome was first reported at the turn of the century. A noted Chinese-American artist and sculptor developed a degenerative condition not dissimilar to Ms. Carey's. Lost the ability to interact with most people, to assimilate new knowledge, the long, sad litany. But at the same time, her creative abilities simply exploded. She began producing far more elaborate and daring work than previously. Work that was universally acknowledged as masterful and remains so today. All due to her disorder—you might call it a collaboration between artist and disease. It seems that Byron and his romantic brethren were correct in a sense. Being human does cut us off to an extent from the wellspring of creativity. If you peel away those hyperdeveloped layers—very carefully, cell by cell, as only a microorganism can do—you uncover … you unveil, that's the word. You unveil the primal creative centers, the home of the archetypes, allow them full play, which they're not given under normal conditions."

He had an expression on his face that Mallon could not recall seeing before. A kind of smiling intensity, as of a man speaking of a lover. "There have been very few cases in the past three decades. Ms. Carey's is the first involving a musician."

"It would work in a lot of other disciplines too, wouldn't it? Mathematicians, physicists …"

Sorley nodded. "Absolutely."

"But not businessmen."

Sorley's face hardened and he opened his mouth as if to speak. Mallon cut him off. "You've heard the rumors, right?"

"Of course I have." The coldness was back, in full force. "They're rumors. Sam Talwar made his fortune through biotechnology. Since its very beginning, biotech has been surrounded by rumor. It always—"

Mallon's cellphone rang. He flipped it open. "It's Carey," Laurie said in an urgent voice. "He's left the motel. Apparently on his way here. And he's with somebody."

Just as he'd guessed. "Okay. Keep him in sight. I'll be right down."

He got to his feet just as the door opened. A woman considerably younger than Sorley entered the room. The doctor scrambled to his feet. "Hello, dear."

Your kind has wives too, Mallon thought as he nodded to the woman. "You've been very helpful, Doctor. Oh, one last thing: this … condition. It involves a big cut in life expectancy, that right?"

The doctor stared. "Considerable."

Mallon walked away. The woman threw a concerned look between him and the doctor. "Ms. Sorley," he said as he passed.

· · · · · 

Mallon had gotten into the business working for Ben Smiley. The last of the old breed—polyester suits, wayfarer sunglasses, an office furnished with gray metal desks purchased for twenty dollars apiece used. Smiley would take on any damned job that wasn't obviously illegal. His clients loved him for it. Clients like Dante Angeri, the local capo, who asked him to hold a thick padded envelope in his office safe. An envelope that turned out to contain two-and-half mil in hot stock certificates that Angeri was waiting to move. But the feds moved first, dragging old Smiley out in handcuffs on the charge of dealing in stolen securities. Mallon had been right beside him in the squad car. "The kid's got nothin' to do with this," Smiley kept repeating to anyone within hearing distance. (Even after three years, Mallon had still been "the kid.") Finally somebody listened, and he was cut loose. He made certain that Smiley got his favorite cigars in prison. Churchills, the big, expensive ones. Smiley could only smoke a couple a week when the guards weren't around, but he liked to handle them, liked the way they smelled. Mallon's wife hit the ceiling over the added expense at a time when he was out of work and trying to start his own agency. But Mallon was obligated, and in any case, it didn't last long—Smiley was dead in his cell less than a year after going up.

Mallon learned from it. Know your client, accept no business from the criminal, the trash, the lowlife. They had half a brain in their heads, they all had schemes, and they would suck you into them without a second thought. The Mob had their own guns; they could defend themselves. The rapsters could talk fast—let 'em rap their way out of their problems. As for the dopers—where, precisely, had they ever earned protection?

He stuck with it, for the most part. Angeri had gotten off scot-free (his name hadn't been on anything) and tried to make up by sending him business, but Mallon always found an excuse. True, he'd been burned a time or two in borderline cases, but that could happen to anybody.

You make your rules, you live by them. People who wanted you to bend or break them for pay were, ipso facto, the enemy.

He paused at the door leading into the lobby. It was, if anything, even more packed than before. He was beginning to suspect that somebody had gone overboard with the guest list. He made his way through the critics, the media, the hangers-on, seeing none of them, only that old gray face smiling over a cigar and saying how different it was going to be when he got out.

With a glance his way, Laurie indicated the screen. Garth Carey was clearly identifiable. "He's right across the river. You could hit him with a rock from here." She illuminated the woman beside Carey with a light pen. The image expanded. "And this is …"

"Trude or Delia. I'd say Trude."

Fred, their surveillance tech, let out a laugh. "I told you."

Laurie rolled her eyes. "Bryan, I swear, you are scary …"

"Nothing scary about it. Who else could it be?" Garth and Felice were children of their father's second marriage. The first had produced two girls. Both parents had been the type who cut ties, so the kids grew up without knowledge of their half-siblings until an e-mail accident in their teens revealed the story. The older girls, it developed, liked having a little sister and brother. They'd spent a lot of summer vacation time together through college.

"But how'd you guess Trude?"

"She's the fun-loving one. The athlete. They'll always act."

Garth raised a hand to the estate, seeming to be pointing straight at the camera. Both of them wore sunglasses, their expressions serious. Trude made an attractive picture, nearly as tall as Garth, hair blowing in the wind. Abruptly they turned and walked up the road, exactly as if to disguise their interest in the estate. They passed a surprising number of people. The concert had been well-publicized

"The van's still there," Laurie said. "Should I inform them?"


Laurie let out a frustrated breath. Mallon said nothing. After a moment, the pair passed a light pole he recognized. "The van's where?"

"Well—it was there."

"We put tracers on their car?"

"Both of them. She's staying someplace else."

"Then we're covered."


"But?" He turned to face her. She gazed back with her arms crossed. "Laurie—where's Delia?"

She said nothing.

"We keep close, ready to bounce. We got plenty of room and we know things."

"You're right." She moved away with an air that said nobody in the world was right.

Mallon's phone rang. He plucked it from his jacket pocket. "Hello?"

"Mr. Mallon?" a breathy female voice said. "I need to talk to you. Right away."

"Who's this speaking?"

"It's about the little girl."

Mallon pursed his lips. "Okay. I'll play. What is it?"

"I'll meet you in the game room. You know where that is?"

"Tell me." He listened to the directions, nodding at every few words. "Simple enough. Be right over." He snapped the phone shut.

"They're going," Laurie said.

On the screen Mallon saw the two walking back the way they'd come. "Keep on 'em. I'll be right back."

"Will do," Laurie told him without meeting his eyes.

He walked out into the press conference announcement. Gilles stood beside a set of double doors speaking through a handset. "Line up, please, one by one …" Two security men stood alertly behind him, one on either side of the doors. "A press card will be required …"

"What the hell you mean 'press card'?" A blonde that Mallon vaguely recognized from the screen tottered up to Gilles on platform heels. "You're not keeping me out of anywhere, you son of a—"

The crowd began pressing past them, any sign of an organized line now vanished. The two guards pushed back as best they could. Several others raced up, one grabbing the squalling actress around the waist and lifting her bodily off the floor. "No, no," Gilles cried. "I'll talk to her!"

Down the same corridor, past the door leading to the staircase, left at the cross-corridor, the first door after that. The game room wasn't what he'd expected. He'd pictured a rank of screens, like a video arcade. But this room was filled with actual games, the old type that required more than one person to play properly. An elaborate and ancient chess set on one table, a no-less-impressive backgammon board on another, and, at the far end, an ancient billiards table. The musical motif was evident here as well, in a huge old jukebox up against one wall.

Mallon would have given all of it a closer examination if it hadn't been for Mohammed Desai leaning against what appeared to be a card table, flanked by two of his bulkier employees. Mallon sensed movement behind him and assumed he was covered there as well. He put on a smile and stepped forward. "I'm at least half-surprised. I'll give you that."

Desai let out a deep breath. Mallon halted five paces away, just close enough to make the guards nervous. "Well, here I am. What do you want with me?"

"What I want"—Desai spoke with a distinct British accent. His background was something that Mallon had been able to discover nothing about—"is for you to explain what the devil you're up to."

Mallon waited him out. Desai bent forward, both hands gripping the edge of the table. "Look here, man, we already have you representing yourself as a government agent—"

"The hell you do. Is that what Halder told you?"

"That's right. He rang immediately to inform us you'd been sniffing about. Quite loyal, really, unlike the little woman—"

"Whoa … I wouldn't dismiss Terry that quickly. It took me all of six seconds to figure out who wore the britches in that family. You missed a bet there. You'd have been better off hiring her."

Desai bit his lip.

"Okay, enough. What am I doing? It's simple. I took on an assignment in good faith, on certain understood premises, only to find the ground shifting under my feet. I set out to discover why. What I have learned has not pleased me—"

The door behind Mallon slammed open and Gilles burst into the room. The two guards flanking the door stepped toward him but then relaxed on seeing who it was.

Gilles came to a halt, eyes fixed on Mallon. "Have you got it out of him?"

"Not as much as that actress got out of you."

The little man pointed at Mallon. "Get this—you are finished as a security consultant. You hear me? We are going to see to it—"

"Gilles, will you please?" Desai gestured at Mallon. "Pay him no mind."


"Now—we were speaking of your displeasure—"

Several cell phones rang at once. Desai's and Gilles's at the very least, possibly others among the guards. Mallon studied Desai closely as he answered, but the security chief's face told him nothing. It was Gilles who shouted, "Federal agents?"

After a few quiet words, Desai hung up. He looked at Mallon in silence. Mallon turned to discover Gilles doing the same, still holding his cell phone. "Well," Mallon told them. "You gonna hide out here or what?"

He turned on his heel and headed for the door. The guard to the right made a move to block him but at the last minute transformed the motion into a swift opening of the door at an evident signal from Desai.

Mallon waited for them in the hall. "After you," he told the security chief, who wordlessly led the way to an elevator.

This will be a treat, Mallon told himself. At last he was going to meet Samuel Maruti Talwar. He'd never laid eyes on him. All the arrangements had been made with Desai and Gilles. It was the first time, to his knowledge, that he'd ever met an actual billionaire. It would be interesting to see what kind of mentality went with that kind of money. He'd be willing to hazard some conjectures.

The feds had beaten them to it. The two agents who had started Mallon's day were standing in front of a large carved door facing the elevator.

"Hey there, Mallon," the older one said. "You get around."

"These two are the security head and the majordomo," Mallon told him. "They ought to be in there. The rest are just squaddies."

"Take 'em in. You other guys, stand fast."

Mallon walked through the door followed by Desai, wearing a thoughtful expression, and Gilles, with no end of dirty looks.

Labou and his tall partner stood within what appeared to be an office—the Platonic ideal of an office: one desk with one chair, another chair in front of the desk, and that was it. One entire wall was a window that, if hadn't been curtained, would have given a nice view of the rest of the estate. A junior agent accompanied them, along with a man in a three-piece suit, serious glasses, and an extremely elaborate workcase.

"Guarding the body, Mallon?" Labou said.

"Something on that order, yeah."

The tall agent was about to make a suitably scathing response when an unnoticed door slid open and Samuel Talwar walked in. It was apparent he'd been awaiting his own legal team. Three men followed close on his footsteps, equipped much the same as the government attorney. One had a build similar to Talwar's and identical varnished skin, marking him as a relative. Talwar himself was a large man with a square face and the perfect black hair of his ancestry. He was casually dressed in slacks, shirt, and deck shoes. He sat behind the desk without a glance at any of them. "All right—say your piece."

The government lawyer, speaking in a relatively quiet voice, stated that they were present to execute warrants concerning human biological experimentation involving one Felice Claudia Carey, said experiments being carried out at the direction and the behest of Samuel M. Talwar. Said experiments involved genetic modification of a dangerous disease organism along with procedures proscribed under the Bioterrorism Act of 2008, the Biotechnology Research Act of 2010, amended 2012, 2017, and 2022, the Human Experimentation Act of 2015, and numerous other regulations and protocols.

Talwar's people were already at work. A table had unfolded soundlessly out of the wall, and two of them were bent over it while the third, the one who resembled Talwar himself, supervised. Gilles and Desai drifted over to stand beside them, Gilles still giving Mallon the occasional sour look.

"… we ask you to accompany us at this time, Mr. Talwar."

Talwar didn't even raise his head. "You got that, Roger?"

"Yes, we do, and we have a response prepared."

"I don't believe we're interested in any response outside of a court of—"

"You'd better be interested, fella. If you take this man into custody on those warrants in defiance of the documentation we have here"—Roger gestured at a growing stack of papers behind him—"then you are guilty, with no excuses or exculpation, of false arrest stemming from malfeasance. And we will run you, and your escort, into the nearest brick wall as many times as we have to until you come apart. You understand me?"

The government lawyer looked nonplussed. "Now hold on—"

"You're name's Darren, that right? You've already got at least one reprimand in your jacket for jumping the gun on a prosecution witness, correct? This guy's a hot dog, Sam."

"I like that type," Talwar said.

"So do I, most of the time." Roger smiled and raised a finger. "Okay, point one, the human experimentation bullshit … Hey, have I got to shout or you want to come over here?"

The lawyer hesitated a moment before moving across the carpet. Mallon heard Labou curse underneath his breath.

"Any and all procedures involving Ms. Carey occurred in the People's Islamic Republic of Algeria. That's a little out of your jurisdiction, don't you agree?" Roger picked up a handful of documents and handed them to the attorney.

"Are you admitting—"

"We're not admitting dick. Look those over."

Talwar, paying no more attention than he had to anything else, punched for music and sat back to listen. It was just loud enough to drown out any further words between the attorneys.

Mallon took a step toward the magic table. Catching his eye, Desai waved a hand as if to say "be my guest," and Mallon strode over and picked up a discarded sheaf. A lot of what appeared to be timesheets filled in with barely legible handwriting. He dropped it and examined another, which turned out to be in Arabic. Now, wasn't that helpful?

By now the lawyer was thoroughly cowed, no more than nodding and grunting while Talwar's attorneys took turns flogging him with documents. Mallon glanced at the feds. They stood gazing at the table, neither of them happy.

Mallon turned to Talwar. "I want to see Ms. Carey."

Talwar acted as if he hadn't heard. The attorneys continued their banter. "I want to see Ms. Carey!" Mallon repeated, more loudly this time.

That got their attention. The lawyers studied him a moment before turning to continue their presentation.

Mallon lunged toward them. "I want her brought down here. I want to talk to her."

Clutching his workbook with both hands, Gilles stepped closer. "I don't believe Ms. Carey is capable—"

"Fine. Then we'll go over there. And don't you tell me we can't, Gilles. I happen to know that Sorley is on premises. He can oversee it, make sure she's not stressed or whatever. But I want to talk to her. I want her to tell me, signal, nod her head, what all this means to her." He picked up the Arabic documents and let them drop. "That she has some inkling of what's going on, that she knows what has been done to her. That she wants to stay here."

The head lawyer fished out a sheet. "This release demonstrates that Ms. Carey was in full agreement—"

Mallon waved it away. "That's not what matters now. I want to hear what she has to say today. What she has to say about her brother, what she—"

"You'd better tell your man to simmer down," the chief lawyer said.

"He's not our man," the tall agent said. Mallon glanced over his shoulder at the two of them. God forbid he should expect support from that quarter.

"Then who is he?"

Talwar had actually deigned to open his eyes and was now staring quizzically at Mallon. For a moment silence reigned. Then, with obvious reluctance, Desai spoke. "That's our hired gun."

Talwar's gaze flicked between Desai and Mallon. "Good choice," he said at last.

The chief lawyer turned from Mallon as if he'd flicked out like a lightbulb. He waved at Darren. "Your move."

The government lawyer shook his head, with the expression of a man not recognizing the words spoken to him. Labou appeared beside him. "What about bringing a person into the U.S. suffering from a new disease. There's regs concerning—"

Talwar's lawyer ran a finger over the scattered documents. He snatched one up and handed it to Labou. "Declaration to the CDC of a noncontagious disorder."

Labou sighed.

"Anything else?"

"We have no grounds," Darren whispered. "No grounds."

He retreated from the table as if afraid to turn his back on it. Mallon watched him in fascination. It wasn't often you saw a man so beat up without a finger being laid on him. "Matters … appear to be in order … We may have further questions …"

Labou gazed at Talwar's lawyers as if they could help him. "Darren," the chief attorney called out. "We anticipate no media leaks. Otherwise … feel free to contact us at any time."

The lawyer headed straight for the door. The agents eyed at each other another moment before following him. Mallon went after them. A glance showed Talwar still lost in the music.

"This is going to look bad," Labou was telling the lawyer.

"Doesn't get worse." Mallon raised a hand to quiet the tall one. "Tell me something, you think you can handle a simple arrest?"

"What do you mean by that?"

"Carey. I'd feel better if he was in federal hands."

With a cry, Gilles rushed into the hall. "You've found him? You've got Carey? But you were told—"

"Gilles, if I'm not mistaken, my employment ended down in the game room. So blow."

Keying in the name of the motel, he showed it to Labou. The agent nodded and with a gesture led the others down the hall. Mallon spoke into the phone. "Laurie—tell Hubie to bag him." He waited for the inevitable next question. "No," he said firmly.

· · · · · 

Laurie already had the equipment broken down and ready to go by the time he got there. She said nothing more about the sister, for which Mallon was grateful. He wasn't at all sure what his answer would have been.

He was in the doorway, standing guard over the last of the equipment, when a sudden hush fell over the room. Talwar appeared, dressed now in a tropical suit that likely cost half as much as Mallon's entire wardrobe. He made his way through the crowd, waving here, calling out a name there, with Gilles and a single bodyguard bringing up the rear. He was halfway to the door when a blond woman threw herself in his path. It took Mallon a moment to recognize the actress, so transfigured was she. Talwar listened amiably for a moment, answered shortly and made to move past her. She was reaching for his arm when the guard, with a move that gratified Mallon's professional eye, eased her to one side.

Talwar had nearly reached the door when he caught sight of Mallon. Missing a step, he turned and headed in Mallon's direction.

"I understand I owe you."

"It'll be in the bill."

"Will it really." Talwar stared at him. Mallon imagined it was supposed to wear him down. He consciously relaxed.

"I need a new security chief," Talwar said at last. "Desai screwed up."

"Nah—you keep Desai. Desai's good."

"Maybe I don't want just good." Abruptly Talwar changed tack. "You squeezed it out of Sorley, didn't you? You scared him. I've never seen him that shook."

"Get a new doctor too."

Talwar let out a laugh. "You're a mustang, Mallon. That business upstairs, demanding to see Felice …" He paused. "Suppose I told you we could see her now."

"Let's go."

"I thought so."

Mallon waited.

"Can't do it, you understand. She's afraid of unfamiliar faces—"

"Isn't that just dandy."

"No, no, Mallon." Talwar moved closer. "You're judging me. Don't do that. You don't know. What you'd find is a happy woman. A woman who's fulfilled. I made her what she was only in dreams. I made her the ideal Felice. What she longed to be. An artist among artists. A composer of world-historical class. That's what I gave her. That was my gift.

"I love that woman. You have no idea. And what I love in Felice … What's important in Felice. What Felice really is." Talwar clenched his fists. "It still exists. It hasn't gone anywhere. It's been transformed into music. It's become immortal, in the only way that counts. Felice is immortal in a way you and I can never be.

"And I'll prove that to you. You come tonight. As my guest. And you listen. What you'll hear is the first true step forward in music since Wagner. Everything in the last century and a half—serialism, polyphony, minimalism, you can throw it out. This is what comes next. Pure music—purer, more abstract than anything since Beethoven's last quartets. But at the same time, music that will tear your heart out. There has been nothing like this for centuries. And we created it, me and Felice. You listen, and then look me in the eye and tell me I'm wrong."

He put his hand on Mallon's shoulder. Mallon stiffened. It was a gesture of possession, of a man leaving his mark on something he'd be back to collect later. "Maynard, put him on the guest list. Top tier."

He stepped away. Mallon didn't take his eyes off him. He had meant to ask about the child, what place she had in the planning, but there was no point.

"See you then."

Mallon was still gazing after Talwar when the man called Dickie came up to him. "Excuse me … we have an extra chair at our table … perhaps you could tell us what Mr. Talwar is really like?"

· · · · · 

There was a nice steak house not far from the estate. Mallon had a good dinner, taking his time over it. Afterward he walked to the bridge, getting there a little before sunset, in time to watch the last guests go in. One of Desai's guards noticed him and advanced to the end of the long circular driveway but only gave him a troubled look before returning.

The music started on schedule. First the random noise that he supposed represented tuning up before the massive sound of the concerto itself began. He listened for a moment, but it said nothing to him. At last he turned to examine the crowd on the far side of the river. They seemed to be taking it in raptly. There was a lot more of them than he might have guessed.

A figure appeared at the near end of the bridge. "I thought you'd be here."

Mallon waved Labou closer. The agent halted beside him, propping his arms on the railing. "What do you make of it?"

Mallon shrugged. He was the last one to ask. "You?"

"I don't know. It's strange. It's like nothing I've ever heard before but … I'd swear I had heard it somewhere. It's like … it's like snakes. I got a thing about snakes. I see one, I'm petrified, but I can't look away either. It's like that. Like something you'd hear in a dream."

"Any good?"

"How the hell do I know?" A moment passed before he went on. "The brother's in custody. Hasn't said a word. No weapons, no evidence of any sort. They'll be cutting him loose in twenty-four."

He turned his head at a blare of sound from behind the house. A moment passed before he spoke again. "He's a Maratha, you know. Talwar."

Mallon leaned closer. The word sounded familiar, one of those names scarcely remembered from school.

"One of the last Hindu dynasties before the British came. Oh, not in the direct line. A relative. But an aristocrat all the same. I don't think that ever leaves you. Once you've felt that kind of power. Once you've lived with it."

"Hasn't left him."

Labou emitted a mirthless laugh. "No. And I don't like it. A man beyond the law is not part of my worldview."

"Oh, he ain't untouchable. You can sting him. Did you know there's a child?"

Labou's gaze sharpened. "What?"

"Yeah. Felice Carey's. And his, I think. She's at the summer house in the mountains. Go up there tomorrow. Take a DYFS official with you. I think you'll find the arrangements are irregular. The girl's being kept from her mother."

"That's not enough to bring him in."

"Don't worry about that."

"What do you mean?"

Mallon remained silent a moment, wondering if it was too soon. "There's a half sister."

He felt Labou's steady gaze in the darkness.

"Two, actually, but only one's here." He'd watched her go in not more than an hour ago. He wouldn't have thought it was the same woman, she seemed so elegant. Dressed in white, a long gown topped with a small jacket. Her hair up, something gleaming and precious within it. He'd been uncertain exactly why he was waiting, precisely what action he would take when at last he saw her. But he knew, even as he watched her emerge from the limo, that he was there to offer whatever help she required, whatever assistance she needed in removing Talwar from this world. Just as clearly, he saw that she required nothing from him or anyone else. It was evident in her stride, her air, in the small, clear disc she wore on that stylish jacket.

He was about to explain, he who never explained, that there are humans with something missing, that they always grab onto anything new to see what could be wrung out of it, that it always has to be grabbed back, that the stakes were higher than ever now, when there was a sharp report from the direction of the orchestral tent. For a moment it seemed to him that it was part of the music, but then it was repeated and he knew it for what it was.

The sound of the orchestra faltered and died away. Labou cursed and pulled out his phone. Mallon waited as he called for backup and an ambulance. Putting the phone away, he regarded Mallon. "It would be a good thing," he said. "If you weren't here when I come out."

"Just get her away from there."

With a wave of his arm, Labou started off. Mallon watched him race across the vast manicured lawn, flash his badge at the two guards in front, and plunge inside without slowing down.

Mallon leaned against the railing, looking at nothing in particular, giving only half an ear to the uproar at the rear of the house. At last he lifted his eyes. A single light was on in the wing he knew belonged to Felice Carey. He could get in there. He still had the security tag, and he could talk his way through anything. But he wasn't going to do that. Because he was afraid. Afraid of what he'd see. Afraid that he'd be confronted with something he would never understand and yet would grasp all too well. Afraid that he would find her happy.

The wail of sirens grew louder. He started for the end of the bridge. Two patrol cars passed as he stepped off. In the glow of their light bars he saw something that surprised him. The company car was waiting, Laurie leaning against the hood.

"I almost didn't come," she told him.

"But you did."

She cocked her head at the house. "So she—"


Laurie cast a glance at him. From that angle, the light striking her that particular way, you couldn't see the scars at all. "You want to drive?"

He stepped toward the car. "I'm beat. You go ahead."

"And what did you think of the music?" Laurie asked as they pulled away.

"Couldn't tell you," Mallon said. "I'm tone deaf. It's all banging and scraping to me."

She frowned. "Really?"

An ambulance roared past, drowning out further conversation. They failed to pick it up afterward and spent the drive back speaking of other things.

The End

© 2005 by J. R. Dunn and SCIFI.COM