The president of the United States is dead. He was murdered in the morning sunlight by a four-year-old boy.

It was a simple stumping rally in Kentucky, no more than a pit stop on Tobacco Road. The Bluegrass State would vote Republican in next year's election, just as it had in the past two. At least that's what President Hank "Gator" Griffin said on this crisp October morning at Bowling Green College.

His speech was a barn-raiser, a helluva thing, roiling with Bible Belt-friendly sound bites. Keep the country strong. Reelect morality. Reelect character and faith. Next November, reelect Griffin and Hale.

God bless America. Waving now, working the crowd. Pump-pump handshake. Wink. Thank you. Kiss the lady. Hold the baby. Listen to the cheers.

Listen, as they turn to screams.

It happened so quickly: a smile and nod from the four-year-old's parents, a kiss on little Jesse Fowler's cheek for the photographers, a glint of silver in the boy's hand, the president's carotid artery open at the jaw, the scarlet wound arcing across his throat like a comet. The child's face spattered in red mist, the president's mouth forming a question, the boy's tiny teeth glittering white in the camera flashbulbs, a cry from a Secret Service agent.

The president did not stagger, did not sway; he crumpled at the knees, face white as bone. His forehead split open as it struck the sidewalk. There were many screams, many arms around him. A Secret Service agent grabbed the murderous boy as he dashed between a photographer's legs. The agent lifted Jesse Fowler high, by the ankle. The boy was furious, screaming obscenities no four-year-old should know. He swung his switchblade at the agent, knocking off the man's sunglasses. He swung again. And again.

More hands around the president. More screams from the crowd. Fowler's parents rushing the agent in shock, trying to protect their son. Secret Service agents covering Griffin's body with their own, his blood seeping into their suits. A scream rising from the child as he swung upside down by his ankle.

A chopper soon descended onto the campus's common field, its downdraft ripping the griffin/hale signs from shocked spectators' hands. The president and an army of Secret Service and medical agents arrived at the Bowling Green hospital three minutes later. But Hank "Gator" Griffin was already dead by then.

During the chaos at the college, little Jesse Fowler had been disarmed and tossed into the backseat of a police cruiser. His parents were also apprehended.

Just before the vehicle carrying the world's youngest political assassin peeled away from the scene, a photojournalist snapped a picture of the child. It would have been worthy of the Pulitzer Prize, had it been published. In the photo, Jesse Fowler's tiny bloodstained hands were pressed against the car's rear window. He gazed at a spattered griffin/hale sign, which was reflected in the cruiser's window in one of those remarkable moments of photojournalism.

The child's bloodshot eyes were wide. He was laughing.

By noon that day, Vice President Vincent Hale had been sworn in as the leader of the world's last superpower. Secretary of State Charles Caine was appointed VP.

The child's parents, Jennifer and Jackson Fowler, were arraigned on charges of conspiring to murder the president of the United States. The small Bowling Green restaurant they owned would never open again.

Their son was placed under maximum security in an undisclosed government facility for evaluation and interrogation. A week later, a nurse and an armed guard discovered Jesse Fowler's body. The four-year-old was lying in bed, his mouth and eyes open, dead. There were no signs of self-asphyxiation. There was no overdose, no theatrical cyanide capsule, no reasonable cause of death. Just the dried remains of a nosebleed, and eyes so bloodshot the whites had gone completely red.

Jesse Fowler had said only one thing during that week of confinement and examination. A balding, bearded doctor had asked the boy if he knew what he'd done to the president.

Jesse Fowler had looked at the doctor and giggled.

"Go fuck your mother," he'd said.



Saturday sex with Sarah was the best, John Smith decided. The very best. It was long, sweaty, dirty; nipple nibbles, fingernails raking the back and chest, obscene whispers, incomplete sentences. Headboard practically banging into the neighboring apartment's living room. Open windows to let the November Miami breeze cool them—and to let the rest of the world shift uncomfortably with envy. That sort of sex.

John marveled at this as he pulled himself off her body, panting, staring up at the ceiling with an expression that was half self-satisfaction, half awe. Sarah grabbed a sheet from the floor, laughed long and loud, and rolled sideways to face him. The sheet stuck to her sweaty breasts and hips. She brushed a red curl from her face.

"Unbelievable," she said.

John gazed at the ceiling and shook his head. "I know."

"It's getting better."

He shook his head again and blinked. "I know."

Sarah smiled. "You should write a song about it."

"Uh, how about 'Christ Almighty, Do Me All Nighty.' "

"You could've done better than that," she snorted, and climbed out of bed. John watched Sarah's hips as she gracefully stepped through his cramped bedroom, traversing the thirtysomething's version of hopscotch: a pile of books on the floor, last night's clothes, several ratty folders filled with sheet music, an empty box of Trojans, his Gibson guitar. She was nimble and beautiful, and John wondered, not for the first time, what she saw in him.

She opened the bedroom door. John's fat, fuzzy cat scrambled past her legs and leaped onto the bed. He stomped onto John's chest and meowed, malcontent.

"Buzz off, Cat," John said.

"You need to buy him food," Sarah said, stepping into the living room on her way to the bathroom. "You said it yourself last night. And, Jesus . . . you should really clean up this place."

"Right," he called. "Wanna help?"

Sarah laughed. "Your house. Your mess. You clean it up."


John reached over and plucked a lighter and crumpled pack of cigarettes from the far end of the bedside table. He shook the pack, and two bent—but, thank God, not broken—Camel Lights rattled out and into his palm. He lit one, inhaled, and gazed at the ceiling.

Cat meowed again, sounding more surly this time. John absently scratched the critter's head, regarding him with a mixture of disdain and fondness. As Sarah showered, John watched the palm trees sway outside the window, stroked Cat, and finished his smoke.

He'd already put on a T-shirt and pulled his hair into a ponytail when Sarah came back into the room.

"Where ya going, stud?"

"Nowhere. Just to the Castle," he replied, slipping on a pair of jeans. "Gotta get the cat his food, and get me some more smokes."

Sarah looked at the unlit Camel by the ashtray. "I'm out, too."

"Have that one," John said, and kissed her. "Try to live through the nasty nonmenthol flavor. I'll take the bike. Won't be long."

Outside, as he pedaled his ten-speed into the apartment complex parking lot, Sarah called down to him from the balcony. She told him to hurry. She made a joke about how red-haired maidens reward bicycle-riding knights with breakfast and "muchly" hot sex . . . particularly if they come bearing cancer sticks.

John laughed, imagining her in bed, his head between her thighs, and said he'd pedal as fast as he could.

Alleys—honest-to-goodness damp, dark, well-worn shortcut alleys—were one of the things John missed most while living in Miami. Cycling always reminded him of his childhood in the Midwest, and of bike races with neighborhood kids, up and down the alleys. Miami was a driver's city, a twentieth-century city, a pink place that had no love for kick-the-can or cobblestones. This was the land of the planned community, where "historic home" meant that the paint on a house's shutters had just dried.

As he pedaled to the Castle convenience store—Zero Hassle at the Castle!—John pined for alleys and shortcuts, redbrick roads that led to scrappy basketball rims and tree houses. But there was no sense begrudging it. Miami was different. Neither better nor worse, just different. And since Miami had been around a lot longer than John had, he thought it best to adapt.

Besides, Miami had palm trees. And November weather like this.

He was making a quick turn onto Flamingo, a scenic residential road that would add a few minutes to his ride—but what the hey, it was Saturday—when he spotted the white van barreling toward him.

I don't think it sees me, he thought. If it did, it wouldn't be going so fa—

John yanked the bike to the left, gripped both brakes, and nearly flew over the handlebars. The van's tires screeched. John's bike swerved between two parked cars, a Lexus and a very old, very cherry Beetle, and isn't it the damnedest things you notice at moments like this? The bike's front wheel struck the curb. John spilled onto the sidewalk, felt the flesh tear on his palm and chin.

He heard the van's front doors open, the rear slide-door whoosh along its rail, and the click-click of expensive dress shoes. John tried to slip out from under the ten-speed, but his foot was stuck on the chain. He looked up. Three men sporting sharp suits and crew cuts surrounded him.

"You know, a little help here would—"

"Grab him," the biggest suit said, and the other two pounced. Their gloved hands locked on to John's upper arms like talons, yanking him from under the bike in one fluid motion, as if he were in some street-fighter ballet.

One of the men twisted John's left arm behind his back—say uncle, isn't it the damnedest things you notice?—and John howled. The other suit held John's right arm out straight, like a wing. John couldn't move. He couldn't speak. They were going to break his arm; John could feel the muscles pulling apart.

The third man, the big suit, stepped before him. The stranger had gray eyes, a flat nose, a cleft in his chin, cheekbones carved from marble. No emotion was on that face. The men stood there on the sidewalk for what felt like an excruciating eternity.

Finally, the man raised his eyebrows. "You want it to stop?"

John nodded his head furiously.

The big man inhaled and exhaled slowly. "Good. Now. You're going to take a little ride with us."

The pain in John's left arm eased a little, and he used the moment to heave his body from side to side. His outstretched arm tore away from its captor and swung outward. He screamed for help. The talon on the throbbing wrist behind his back slipped slightly. He was going to do it, going to do it, going to run, going to break—

No air. No air.

The leader, the one with the Superman chin, punched John in the stomach a second time. Then a third. John fell to the sidewalk, clutching his midsection, cradling it like a squirming baby. Through the haze, he saw one of the men toss the ten-speed into the back of the van. He spotted the other with a syringe, felt the bee sting of the needle, then things became pleasant, sweet, dark, darker.

He heard one last thing before he lost consciousness, the leader's voice.

"Should've come quietly, Johnny-boy."

* * *

When Michael was a child, his mother and father took him for a drive through Indiana's corn country, the place where that state's true heart would always beat. American flags, high school basketball, Old-Time Religion. Those things were in the soil of the state—no, deeper than that even, a layer of bedrock geologists could never fathom. The drive into the heartland took two hours from where they lived in Indianapolis.

Michael had been only nine at the time, but he had noticed the transformation of the horizon during that drive: the mortar and steel of city giving way to the bland homes of the suburbs. Then, with the abruptness of a beachhead, the land of station wagons and culs-de-sac relinquished control to the flat expanse of Indiana's heart. The corn. It was a sea, Michael thought back then. Bright green combines occasionally slipped through its waves like barges. And like the sea, the corn could barely be contained; it ebbed just feet from the road.

There, at a family picnic by the roadside, Michael's mother had told him that places were like people; they had personalities. More important, she said, they had emotions. Souls. Sometimes you could feel the soul of a place. Michael had munched on a peanut butter sandwich and asked her what she meant.

"Close your eyes," she said. "Listen. Just breathe and listen. Listen with your ears. What do you hear?"

Quiet, he'd said. Grasshoppers. Corn leaves slapping against each other. A bird. The wind.

"Now what do you feel?" she asked.

Nice. Peaceful. Love, maybe.

"Maybe that's what this place is like," his mother said. "Maybe this place is peaceful, loving. Gentle. Maybe that is this place's soul. It's important to listen to a place sometimes, to hear what it thinks. Understand?"

Michael said he did, a little. Maybe. His mother laughed and kissed him on the cheek and said that maybe he would understand when he was older. He'd finished his sandwich, took a sip of cherry Hi-C from his thermos, and went to play Frisbee with his father.

Michael had never forgotten that conversation. And while he understood its mysteries now about as much as he had then, he always made time to close his eyes and listen to a new place. It had come in handy years later when he went to Parris Island, and then to Kosovo and Afghanistan and other countries with alien names and landscapes. Those places held power over their inhabitants. That faraway day's lesson had dovetailed with what he learned in boot, and later in Force Recon training. Know the land, and you'll know the people.

Michael knew Gitmo. He'd been here for only a week, and he knew it. Gitmo was angry. Gitmo was confused. Under the Kevlar and pride and posturing, Gitmo was crying for blood. Its inhabitants were restless. It wanted to put a hurt on whoever was behind the death of the president two weeks ago.

Michael ran to appease the lion inside. He ran to clear his head of the irrational, the emotions, the confusion and endless discussions that were unfolding at Guantánamo and, presumably, in America. He'd learned about the president's assassination a week after the rest of the civilized world. He had been on assignment, assisting CIA types in a nation where the scorpions were the size of ashtrays and the politics as volatile as nitroglycerin. Now he was back in the fold, catching up, getting informed.

Michael was into his sixth mile when a Humvee approached from behind. It pulled ahead by a few hundred yards and stopped. A full bird stepped out and waited for Michael to catch up.

Michael stopped, stood erect, and saluted. His breathing was even, but the sweat poured from his arms and face. His thirty-year-old body was a study in sculpture, loyalty, and endurance. Scars were on his arms and back. A USMC tattoo on his right biceps. Women remarked at his physique and his blue eyes, not that it mattered much to him. Men remarked at his ability to do seventy pull-ups in two minutes.

The colonel returned the salute and stepped forward.

"It's Saturday, son," the older man said. "Even God Himself rested one day of the week."

Michael half-smiled. "I expect to go to heaven, sir, and I'd like to represent our Corps in a mano a mano boxing match against the Lord God when I get there. This is prep."

"Blasphemous." The colonel laughed, then clapped Michael on the shoulder. They stepped over to the Humvee. The driver passed the colonel a clipboard. The old man scanned the sheet of paper.

"Says here you're to report to the airstrip in three hours. Heading to Virginia."

"Sir? I just returned from an op," Michael said. "I'm supposed to head back home to Denver. Two weeks' leave."

"I don't know anything about that." The colonel nodded at the clipboard. "This came to my office. Classified. I'm supposed to round you up personally and get you on that plane. Now I don't take a shine to running errands, Smith, particularly when they're so hush-hush I can't have one of my staff get their nails dirty for me. You're not going to give me any trouble on this, are you?"

Michael stiffened. "Of course not, sir."

"Then be there at eleven hundred, as ordered."

"Yes, sir."

As the Humvee sped away, Michael stood in the sun, still sweating. He gritted his teeth. He breathed and listened.

Gitmo was angry. Gitmo was confused. For the first time this week, Michael was glad for that. He was glad he wasn't the only one. He began to run again, this time back toward the base.

The lion inside him had many questions.

* * *

the president is alive!! this is another attempt to create pandemonium!! an elaborate hoax is being staged against the american people. as you know my source inside insists this is nothing more than an excuse to get griffin out of the public eye. blackjack and Special(k) say there is no threat to america but the president had to be removed so he can conduct talks with the true entities behind this conspiracy.

the world had to believe assassination was true so no one could suspect the real reason why griffin is gone. the grays are finally reestablishing communications and wish to discuss total social and technological integration with us!! after two years of silence they are retransmitting their signals! there is proof, the photograph below was sent from blackjack and confirmed by another source as authentic. it is an image taken from hubble of the phobosian base where the grays have been stationed for the past decade. the time is at hand! the next great age of humanity has begun!!!! kilroy2.0 was here kilroy2.0 is everywhere

>ATTACH graybase.jpg

Kilroy2.0 leaned back from the computer screen in satisfaction. This new message had just been posted to his Web site It was one of six sites he updated daily.

He rocked back and forth in the wooden chair, his round, bearded face ebbing in and out of the light flickering from the five computer monitors. The rest of the apartment was soaked in shadow; the afternoon sunshine warming the rest of Washington, D.C., was blocked by the sheets of aluminum foil taped to the window frames.

Sunlight was not welcome here. This was a timeless place. A temple. Kilroy2.0 was beyond time, beyond day, beyond daylight. There were no Fridays or Saturdays or Mondays. Only Nondays.

Once, long ago during his life as a civilian, Kilroy2.0 had been known by another name, a man's name, a Pedestrian's name, forgettable. It was the name of an unenlightened tourist of the world, one familiar to worker bees who did not hear the whispers in the walls. But that name, that life, that was Before. Before he had seen the Truth that was seeping through the Media's Lies. Before he had his pulpits.

Before he was here. Before he was everywhere.

Kilroy2.0 smiled in the silence, rocking, cataloging and prioritizing the next series of Web-site updates in his mind. Beneath the desk, the small fans inside his five computers whirred softly. The wooden chair creaked as he rocked. The walls did not speak, for which he was grateful. Silence was like a sand castle to him: fragile, fleeting, golden.

The pounding at the front door shattered it all.

Kilroy2.0 started, glanced across the living room. The chain locks rattled at the impact. His eyes flashed back to Monitor Three, at the miniature video screen in the corner.

The feed from the wireless webcam he'd installed in the outside hall was dead.

The pounding, again.

Kilroy2.0 stood straight up, the chair hitting the floor like a pistol shot. Hands shaking, he dashed to the windows. This was it. They'd finally found him and they'd make him vanish, take away the Word and transform him into a Pedestrian just like Before and

can't let that happen, have to get out of here

He ripped at the aluminum foil on the windows, gasping and squinting through the furious sunlight.

A man was out there, waiting for him on the fire escape.

Kilroy2.0 shrieked. The pounding behind him stopped . . . then the door exploded inward, nearly flying off its hinges. Kilroy2.0 whirled toward the door. The window behind him shattered. Arms reached out to him from inside, now from outside.

The voltage from the Taser stun gun surged through Kilroy2.0's body before he knew he was hit. He crashed face-first onto the hardwood floor, taking all of his 320 pounds with him. His dirty spectacles skittered across the hardwood.

One man was barking orders. Take everything with a motherboard. Monitors, too. Look for laptops, BlackBerries, cell phones. Clean it out. Cuff him up.

Kilroy2.0 heard it all, terrified, exhilarated. They dragged his limp body out of his home and down the apartment building's stairs. As they stepped out of the building and into the sunlight, a rogue thought flashed through Kilroy's mind.

He couldn't smile at the irony, but he wanted to.

kilroy2.0 was here

* * *

Hospitals may vary in shape, size, and design from the outside. They are all identical inside.

Hallway mazes, clanging doors, floors and walls colored in muted browns and blues. Hospitals are collages of impassive colors that do not offend, that make no promises.

Father Thomas walked through the halls of St. Mary's, passing door after door, trying not to focus on the smell of sterilizer and Salisbury steak that seemed to sweat from its walls. When a place deals in illness and death, those things are in the air, the walls, the beds, of that place. In his six years as a priest, Thomas had strode through many hospitals like this one. They all smelled the same to him.

He wondered, fleetingly, if doctors smelled a sameness in churches.

The call to the rectory this morning had come as neither shock nor revelation to Thomas. It was Mark McGee. Mark's father, Gavin, had requested his last rites. Thomas knew the man, liked him, admired his humor and courage—particularly during the past three years. Gavin McGee was an optimistic man. But cancer eats everything, especially optimism.

For three years, Thomas had watched his parishioner being devoured by his own mutating flesh. The cancer in Gavin McGee's lungs took great pleasure in tearing out of remission, feasting upon the good cells of a good man. Thomas believed almost everything he'd been taught in seminary about suffering, about God's mysterious role in death and diseases. Yet he silently believed that God had no role in creating a few things on this earth. Cancer was one of them. It was as if Lucifer had left a splinter of himself in the world when he had fallen long ago, a thing whose purpose was to uncreate, to unwind man's Providence and dine on its goodness. Cancer was not a bad thing that happened to good people. It was an arrow fired from something old and unholy.

Father Thomas found Room 511 and knocked. Mark McGee answered, shook Thomas's hand, and motioned him inside. The priest hugged Ellen, Gavin's daughter, and said hello to her husband. He nodded quietly at their thank-yous, told them it was his duty and his honor; Gavin McGee was his friend, a pillar, a proud parent, a little slice of legend at St. Barnabas. They all smiled at that, and Thomas was glad for it.

Even through the fog of painkillers, Gavin McGee recognized Thomas almost instantly and smiled. The patient's thick silver-red hair was nearly gone now. His once-wide shoulders sagged downward, toward Tinkertoy arms. Gavin McGee winked at Thomas, saying it all: I'm throwing the fight, but I'm fine with it.

"Hello, Gavin," Thomas said.

"I know the secret now, Father," McGee said. "Realized the place I'm heading is a helluva lot better than where I'm at."

Thomas smiled. "That's about as true as it gets."

McGee nodded toward his grown children. Nearly forty years ago, Gavin McGee had been the topic of dinnertime conversation here in sleepy-eyed Stanton, Oklahoma. He had taken his ex-wife to court to claim full custody of Ellen and Mark. As a mother, Shellie just wasn't up to snuff, he'd told the judge. Boozing, carrying on with barflies, she was no role model he wanted his children to follow. The judge ruled in his favor, marking Gavin McGee as the first man in Stanton ever to win such a case.

"Not a bad life, eh, Father?" McGee said.

"No, Gavin. Not a bad life. The best life."

Thomas administered the last rites. Gavin McGee renounced his sins, asked for forgiveness, said he believed in Father, Son, Holy Spirit, and the one Holy and Apostolic Church. McGee held his children's hands through the sacrament, accepted the body and blood of Christ, and smiled when it was over.

In his years performing this role in dozens of rooms just like this one, Thomas often saw such dignity so close to the end. He wondered if his own parents had felt this kind of peace. Their deaths had been sudden, but surely in the divine infinite expanse of a second, they would have felt the same calm and courage as Gavin McGee. Surely we all will, he thought.

In St. Mary's parking lot, on the way back to his Cavalier, Father Thomas Smith was stopped by an armed man who politely asked him to join him for a ride. The green-eyed man, who sported a crew cut—clearly military—said he didn't want any trouble; he simply wanted the priest to get in the car. As a Crown Vic with tinted windows pulled up beside them, Thomas insisted he had no money, and that he was a shodan—a first-degree karate black belt—and could protect himself if it came to that.

Two other men stepped out of the car. They were also armed.

The leader said he didn't think it would come to that.

* * *

A bead of sweat slipped down Jay's forehead, hung on his eyebrow, then finally plunged onto his cheek. He wanted to wipe off the sweat, but couldn't. He was handcuffed and terrified.

Two strangers were in his East Village apartment, walking through his living room, scanning the myriad spines on the bookshelves, daintily picking up and examining the trinkets from faraway lands. Their white latex gloves provided a disconcerting contrast against the many dark-hued, primitive items.

A third man stood before him, above him. This man pulled a white handkerchief from his suit's breast pocket. He reached down and gently wiped the sweat from Jay's face.

Jay did not speak. He had been told not to speak unless spoken to. He abided by this rule in silent terror, watching these three puzzle over his life. One of them gazed at a photograph of Mikhail Gorbachev with interest. The man glanced at a photo of Jay standing beside Kofi Annan and harrumphed.

A half hour ago, Jay had been enjoying a sweet tea and an intense game of Tetris—his two Saturday vices, if one could call them that—when Patricia called to tell him she was running late. The subway had inexplicably stopped service for a few minutes, she'd said. This gave Jay a few more minutes of Tetris's spinning bricks before he had to run to the market on Eighth to snag the chicken breasts. Eventually, he left. He'd been gone for no more than twenty-five minutes. In that time, these three men had broken into his home and waited.

They'd descended on him like midnight predators. A chop to his shoulder. A quick shove across the room, where he fell onto the sofa. A display of gun barrels to convince him they meant business. Impassive glares from dangerous faces.

Jay Smith had quickly learned in New York that when a man with a gun asks you for your wallet, you give it to him. If he tells you to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in Swahili, you do that, too. Say nothing threatening, do nothing threatening. Find another way to burn the adrenaline, just give him the wallet and go for a long walk afterward. Process it in the to-be, not the now.

Jay glanced over the couch now, searching for the cordless phone. A wordless 911 call, a traced line, a dispatched cruiser . . . but the receiver wasn't there. They had removed it.

One of the searching men plucked a picture frame from a bookshelf and handed it to the man standing before Jay. It was a black-and-white photograph of Patricia: black hair cropped short, eyebrows arched in surprise and joy. The leader held up the photo and looked down at Jay.

"Your wife. She's about the cutest thing I've ever seen. I bet you'd do anything for her, wouldn't you?"

Jay licked the sweat from his lips and shuddered. "Yes."

"I bet the last thing she'd want to see when she came home is her husband with a bullet where his brain used to be, hmmm?"


"And I bet the last thing you'd want is your little Peppermint coming home and meeting us. Meeting us, Jay. That could be very troublesome—downright dangerous—for such a pretty lady. Isn't that right? Why, we might have to do something to those photo-taking peepers of hers, should she see us."

"How did you know—"

The man raised his 9 mm and pointed it at Jay's head. "Answer the question."

Jay shuddered again. "Right."

"I'm sorry for the theatrics, but this way is best," the man said. "It's also the most effective."

His brown eyes bored into Jay's. "So. Are you going to continue being a good boy?"

Jay nodded. One of the men lifted him off the couch and shoved him toward the front door.

* * *

Mike Smith gazed at his reflection in the men's room mirror. He smiled. He brushed his hair again. He turned his head from side to side, looking for stubble. He flared his nostrils, searching for wily nose hairs. He checked his fingernails. They probably wouldn't be on camera, but appearances are everything and people talk. He straightened his tie. He gargled a handful of water. Looked for stubble again. He'd be going to makeup in five minutes, so it probably didn't matter. But still.

This is my night, he thought. The beginning of the explosion. Ten minutes on CNN. Ten minutes on Larry King. Larry fucking King. The book'll shoot up the lists like a Titan rocket. The networks will call. Ten minutes with King. Then twenty with Oprah. ABC will pull Barbara Wahwah out of retirement for an exclusive. And then, nirvana itself, the speaking engagements. Oh, the speaking engagements, the huddled masses, all gathered to hear the World According to Me.

He was going to give Rochelle the biggest, wettest, sloppiest kiss for pulling this off. Shit. He was going to give Larry King the biggest, wettest, sloppiest kiss when this was all over with, just as Marlon Brando had. This was it. The beginning of the explosion.

There was a knock at the door. That cute production assistant with the ponytail and a pen behind her ear peeked into the men's room and smiled. It was probably supposed to look like a comforting smile for Mike's benefit, but the corners of her mouth telegraphed years of experience: I know you're nervous, that's why I gave you some time in the head. But navel gazing's over, bub.

"Mike? It's me again, Terry. We're gonna have to get you over to makeup in the next two minutes."

"Right on." Confident. Cool.

Terry was unimpressed. "Dr. Smith, I'm going to remind you that you're the first up tonight. And since this is Larry King Live, you'll want to be on time."

Mike nodded and gulped. He suddenly had to pee.

"Right, right. Just give me another minute, okay?"

Terry's eyes tensed for a second. "One minute."

Mike dashed over to a urinal, frantically unzipped his fly, and barely managed to aim at the basin before the piss came. He was washing his hands when the door opened again.

It was another PA, apparently. Young man, jeans, T-shirt. A security pass dangled from a band around his neck like a flimsy convention name tag. He smiled nervously—now that is a bona fide, dyed-in-the-wool, can't-hide-shit-from-a-psychologist genuine smile, Mike thought—and walked over to the sink. The kid was holding a copy of Hunting the Hunters.

"Dr. Mike?"

"I'm ready," Mike said, glancing in the mirror.

"That's great. But I was hoping that before you went, you could sign my copy of your book. I loved it, especially the chapters about the Three Ring Circus killer. I have a pen."

Mike brightened. "Of course. I'm glad you liked it."

The kid placed the book on the counter. As Mike's hand reached for the hardback, he asked, "And to whom am I signing this fine piece of—"

He opened it and blinked. The pages had been cut, hollowed out. A pistol was resting inside.

In one heartbeat, the kid grabbed the gun, pressed it to the base of Mike's ear, and said, "To your biggest fan."

* * *

Saturday night was movie night at the Smith home, though Jack often thought the rigmarole of getting Kristina and Carrie bundled up, out the door, and into the Passat was a production Hollywood could make a movie of, or option at least. Getting the twins to agree on a movie at the video store was another epic; perhaps a television miniseries. Witness the spectacle of clashing cinematic tastes! Carrie wants to see The Lion King for the trillionth time! Kristina demands Pippi Longstocking, an untried classic! Who will win? Who will decide?

Daddy, that's who.

Tonight, the four-year-olds had been relatively peaceful in Blockbuster's family section, particularly after Daddy slyly recommended D.A.R.Y.L., a "megacool" movie he'd seen when he was a boy.

Blessedly, they took the bait. They made a pit stop in the mystery section for "Mommy and Daddy's movie" and made it home with little fuss. Jack chalked it up to James Brown's "I Got You (I Feel Good)." The twins gleefully sang along. All six times.

Lisa had already called the pizza place by the time they came home. Jack got the plates ready; Lisa and the girls grabbed the juice boxes and the napkins. Lisa was asking them which flavor they wanted—"Grape!" the kids cried in unison—as Jack turned on the TV and popped in the girls' movie.

The doorbell rang. Jack grabbed a twenty from his wallet and opened the door for the pizza guy. The men exchanged the typical heys and how's it goin's. This pizza guy . . . like all pizza guys these days, it seemed . . . peered over his shoulder, curiously eyeing the living room. Minimum-wage voyeurs, Jack thought. But then again, there had to be some perk for such a thankless job.

"How much do I owe you?" Jack asked.

The stranger dropped his box, covered Jack's mouth with one hand, and yanked him outside with the other. It was quick and silent.

The girls did not watch D.A.R.Y.L. with Daddy that night.



John lifted his T-shirt and gazed at the reflection of his stomach in the floor-to-ceiling mirror. His midsection hurt like hell, but there were no bruises; no proof of the assault. Even his hand and chin had been had been cleaned and bandaged. His left arm still throbbed from when those suits had pulled it behind his back and nearly broken it, that game of Say Uncle on steroids.

He lowered his shirt and looked at his reflection. Shoulder-length, sandy blond hair. High cheekbones. Five feet eleven inches. Lanky. Aside from the small Band-Aids on his chin and palm, John looked the same as he did when he had kissed Sarah good-bye this morning.

John didn't know what time it was or where he was; he'd never worn a watch, and this so-called waiting room had no clocks. Just a conference table, ten posh office chairs, several plastic cups, a single drinking straw, some cans of soda—and one large, cracked mirror. The mirror, that was his work.

About an hour and a half ago, John had abruptly been pulled from unconsciousness. He was strapped to a gurney, looking up at fluorescent lights, white ceiling tiles, and bespectacled faces. Through the haze, those faces had looked like moons. They gently commanded John to stay calm. He did, for a few seconds. Then he remembered the bicycle ride, the van . . . the man with the marble cheekbones . . . and began screaming for answers. He screamed about constitutional rights, probable cause, and arrest warrants. He pleaded and proclaimed his innocence again and again. The restraints didn't budge. Neither did these strangers.

As the moonmen pushed his gurney down a hallway, John asked questions. He pressed his body against the restraints. He craned his neck and spotted men in military fatigues with M16s trailing beside the folks with the white coats. The ceiling tiles streaked by above him. The gurney made a right, a left, a right. He wanted to know what he'd done. He wanted to know where he was. There had been a terrible mistake. A terrible, terrible mistake. After a while, the true terror took hold and he'd stopped screaming.

When the gurney finally stopped, one of the moonmen—a middle-aged doctor, presumably—bent down to whisper in John's ear. John could feel the man's beard, his mouth was so close.

"John, I want you listen to me," the man said, his voice calm. He had an under bite, which made him sound vaguely like Sean Connery. It was annoying. "My name is James DeFalco. I'm an assistant here. I'm not the man who can answer your questions; I'm not authorized to give you any information yet. But your questions will be answered soon. Soon, John. Do you understand?"

John stared at the ceiling and blinked. He said he understood.

"Good," DeFalco said. "Now, we're going to lower this gurney, remove your restraints, and help you up. We're going to walk you through this door. We're then going to close the door. There you'll wait for the answers to your questions."

Fuck this, John thought.

"Do you understand what I'm telling you, John?"


"Are you going to cooperate, John?"


The white coats lowered the gurney. Then the soldiers loosened the restraints across his chest, wrists, and legs. John didn't move until two of the grunts had slung their rifles behind their backs and grabbed his armpits to help him up.

John swiftly swung his elbow upward and connected with the nose of one of the soldiers. Blood peppered John's shirt. The soldier fell backward across the gurney. The other grunt grabbed John and slammed him, front-first, into the wall. As the white coats screamed not to hurt him, for God's sake don't hurt him, the door was yanked open and John was thrown into the waiting room. As he scrambled to get up, the dead bolt clicked home.

John had pounded on the metal door, paced the room, and finally thrown one of the office chairs into that mirror wall, praying it would shatter to reveal a roomful of clipboard-toting eggheads—and a way out. It did not shatter. The chair cracked the glass and nearly hit John as it bounced back from the impact. It was a seven-foot-tall exclamation point for his screams.

That had been an hour ago. He'd sung to himself, to keep the terror away and the questions from eating up his brain. He sang the trusty standbys: Dylan, Baez, McLachlan. He even sang some of his own songs—"Do This for Me," "Rockefeller Center," "Winter Love," "Unscrew You."

Now John was staring at himself in a splintered mirror, wondering why men in suits had beaten and sedated him, why moonmen with rifles had thrown him into a conference room, why in God's name this had happened to him.

John heard the dead bolt unlock. He turned to see a fat man with tangled hair, pop-bottle glasses, and a wild man's beard enter the room. No, not fat. Obese. Well over three hundred pounds, a boulder with legs. The newcomer immediately waddled over to one of the chairs and plopped into it. The door closed and locked. The stranger stared and smiled at the table.

John walked over and stood across from the newcomer. The man did not look up. He rocked in his chair.

"Are you the man I'm supposed to talk to?" John asked.

Silence. Rocking.

"Listen. I've got questions," John said.

The man scratched his head. He didn't look up.

John looked closely at the man. The dude was probably his age. He slouched over a great belly. He smelled. He had dandruff. A Pollock painting of food stains covered his grimy yellow T-shirt. John watched the man reach over, grab a can of Dr Pepper from the table's center, and pour the soda into a plastic cup. He snatched the drinking straw, plunked it into the liquid.

John sat down across from him. "Hey. You the guy I'm supposed to talk to, or not?"

"No." The man's voice had a disconcerting tremble; high-pitched, almost feminine.

"Did they bring you here, too?"

"Yeah." Giggle.

"Do you know why we're here?"

The stranger looked up, grinning. Behind his pop-bottle spectacles, the man's blue eyes widened until they looked as if they'd pop out of his skull.

"I know everything," he whispered.

John jumped back in his chair and nearly screamed.

He knew those eyes.

* * *

Ten minutes later, the priest and the marine came in; the door locked behind them. John looked wordlessly at the pair as they entered—watched in part fascination, part horror, as they gazed each at the other, at the soda-sipping lunatic, at John.

It was an exercise in contrasts. The marine was wearing BDUs. Flattop. Broad-shouldered. Chisel-chinned. The priest was slightly pudgy; his cheeks were full and shiny, his stomach pressed against his belt. His hair was combed in a style of humility or fashion cluelessness; John didn't know which.

John did know, however, that—despite the physical differences—these men were brothers. Identical twins. They were the same height. Their blue eyes worked over each other with the same expression of suspicion. Their faces were pursed in the same look of silent fear and amazement.

John also knew that despite the physical differences, the lunatic across from him was also a dead ringer for these two.

And all three of them looked like John.

The lunatic slurped the last of the Dr Pepper in his cup and smacked out a soda-commercial ahhhh.

The priest reached into his breast pocket with a shaking hand and pulled out a rosary. He sat down at the end of the table, in the chair closest to the cracked mirror. He ran his fingers through his hair and gawked at John in disbelief. John was certain he was returning the expression.

The feeling was unreal, like the unsettling sensation of watching yourself on video, only magnified. Do I really look like that? Only worse. Only this time, the video You is sitting six feet away from the real You, wearing a priest's collar, breathing the same air, probably feeling the same slippery, sick sensation in his gut.

The marine still stood near the door. His eyes flicked over the lunatic, then sized up John and the priest. Cracking his knuckles, the marine strode back to a corner of the room and leaned against the wall, watching them, saying nothing.

The priest dropped his rosary on the table. He looked at John, his hands still shaking. "Are we brothers?" His voice had a slightly nasal quality. Had his nose been broken years ago?

"I don't know." John felt sick. "I thought I was an only child."

The priest nodded. "So did I."

"Quadruplets," the fat lunatic said.

The door opened again. This time, two more men. One of them was yelling out into the hall as the door was closing, something about who he was and whom they'd have to answer to if they didn't explain everything right fucking now. He pounded on the door as it locked.

The other newcomer was almost as thin as John. He was wearing a sweatshirt and jeans; his hairline was beginning to thin. He looked very much like the priest sitting at the table—same hair, same tightly wound shoulders, probably a dozen pounds lighter than Father Whoever. The man's eyes jumped nervously from the screaming man to the rest of the room. They widened when they spotted John's face. The wide-eyed man opened his mouth to say something. John just shook his head: Don't know what to tell you, man.

The man who'd been pounding on the door whirled around. This one looked like a politician. Blow-dried hair, Brooks Brothers suit, starched collar, and shiny, expensive tie. Brooks Brothers looked at his fellow captives. His face went white.

"Shit the bed," he said.

And then the wide-eyed man beside him—the one who looked like the priest at the table—fainted. The politician looked down at the body, then up at John. He shrieked, whirled around, and began pounding on the door again.

Let me out let me out let me out.

The lunatic began to laugh.

John's eyes went to the priest again. Father Whoever was clutching his head in his hands. John looked past the priest, into the splintered mirror wall. This is just like that, he thought. Only the reflection screams because you're the video You not the real You and you're the cracked mirror, seven years of bad luck and welcome to Wonderland, you should've come quietly, Johnny-Boy, I really need a cigarette, and this can't be happening. . . .

By the time the seventh "twin" came through the door, the group had calmed down, clammed up. No one had spoken since the unhinging twenty minutes ago. Call it sensory overload. Call it shock. Call it brains filled with too many questions to make nice-nice pleasantries like What's your name and What do you do and Jeez you look familiar did I know you in high school.

John gazed up at the newly arrived bearded, bespectacled, bewildered man, but didn't look closely. It didn't matter. The newcomer looked like the priest. He looked like the lunatic, the politician, the fainting man, the marine.

He looks like me. Just like me.

Part 2