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Blacker than Black (Jaundiced Eyes, Part 1)

Categories: Case Histories

By Shane Ivey, (c) 1998

Panama, 1986.

A soft wind rustled through jungle leaves. The night was clear
but moonless and black with swirling mists, and all the stars were
dark past a fog-obscured canopy of trees. The air was close and
humid and hot. Unseen bat wings flapped, dry and leathery, in the
sky overhead as a swarm took flight to hunt. The treeline opened
around a wide swath of level grass, the featureless yard of a Spanish-
style villa house surrounded by a garden and a low stucco-painted wall.
The house and its light and noise seemed incongruous to the soft mist
and the endless rustling and hooting of the forest, but it was only the
first of many. Less than half a mile away stood other houses on
outlying city streets.

Men waited in the garden, armed and bored, swarthy men clad in
floral shirts, with submachine guns slung carelessly from their
shoulders. Three sat around a table playing cards while a fourth paced
along the wall on the far side of the house, smoking a cigarette and
staring into the darkness of the fog and the forest.

He could not see the soldiers who crawled there. There were four
of them watching him, and another four were dispersed in the treeline
around the house. One had already crept undetected to the driveway.
They wore a motley assortment of utility clothing and equipment, black
market gear from a dozen sources, all of it in perfect condition. All
wore mask-like combat hoods and greenish-black face paint. No part of
the squad could see more than a few of the others; there was no need.
They had trained and practiced this maneuver, drilled until they knew
what was to come as surely as a choreographed dance. None of them were
green enough to expect that all would go as planned; but they could
handle whatever cropped up. They always had before.

The men nearest the smoker stared straight at him, waiting. At
that distance in daylight they would have been spotted with ease even in
the fog, but not now, not by a target with his night vision ruined by the
ambient light of the house and especially by the orange ember, brilliant
in the dark of night, of his own cigarette. The men who crept there all
thought the same thing: You dumb shit. Dumb and dead. Wish they were
all like you.

Finally the guard turned and ambled along the wall toward the
corner, toward his friends. Behind him two shapes, slightly darker than
the grass, darted from the treeline. In seconds they reached the wall,
moving almost silently through the damp grass with practiced ease and
coordination. One carried a simple loop of wire, the other a black-
bladed knife.

In the treeline, another of their squad cupped a hand around his
mouth and uttered the long croaking hiss of one of the countless breeds
of monkey in the region.

The sentry turned curiously and looked into the dark. Some
instinct drew him; he walked back the way he had come, staring intently
across the yard. In a moment he had walked obliviously past the two men
hunched against the other side of the wall. The men lifted themselves
easily over the wall and their feet touched the ground with barely a
whisper of leaves. They moved toward the target with quick steps, one
to either side.

At the whisper of the leaves the sentry began to turn, exhaling a
stream of smoke which blended at once with the fog. The wire looped
around his throat before he inhaled again, blocking air and blood as
the killer dragged him back and down. The other’s knife caught him
hard in the diaphragm. The sentry grunted and his face twisted in
agony and confusion as he tried to draw breath, then the now-bloody
knife stabbed him again, driving beneath his sternum. His fingers
twitched against the cold metal of his useless Uzi; then he died.

The killers crept low to the wall of the house and left the body
there. They moved softly to the corners as the others ran across the
unwatched side of the house to the wall. The one with the wire stuffed
it into a pouch and drew forth a small automatic pistol dominated by a
massive silencer. The others climbed over the wall and darted through
the garden. One of them looked through a window into a utility closet
and laundry room. He rose with a short crowbar-like tool and applied
it to the window.

Seconds later, the man with the silencer stood with another
inside the closet, creeping toward the door. They heard footsteps
approach the door, then an irritated voice in Colombian Spanish: “I’m
checking, I’m checking. One moment!”

The men knelt behind the washer and drier; outside, the others
pushed the window into place and crouched out of sight. The door
opened, flooding the dark room with light from the hall, and a heavy-
set man stepped inside. He half-closed the door and looked to a switch
box set into the wall behind it. It was too dark. He cursed softly
and turned to the string of the hanging bulb.

The silenced pistol fired upward from the crouched position of the
killer, two quick shots putting tiny bullets through the man’s right
eye. The noise of the gunshots seemed terribly loud inside the closet,
but the intruders doubted any would notice it beyond a few feet from
the half-closed door. The spent shells clattered ringingly to the tile
floor. The rounds did not have the power to punch through the skull
and create an exit wound, only enough to enter and ricochet from his
skull, probably more than once, inside the brain. The man blinked in
confusion as blood welled in his eye socket, and he took a hesitant
step back before he collapsed. The other intruder stepped up to catch
the man as he fell, then shoved him out the window to the others.

The first stuffed his silenced pistol into his pouch and pulled
another, a Czechoslovakian nine millimeter automatic. The intruders
entered more quickly; two more stepped inside, these carrying squarish
Ingram machine pistols with fat suppressors. Outside, the other
intruders were in place: it was time to move.

And not soon enough: another man came down the hall and glanced
into the closet, asking impatiently, “Jorge, what is the . . .” He had
enough time to look with widening eyes at the four disguised men before
a suppressed burst tore into him. He fell bloodily to the floor, and
the men darted out to the hall. From outside they heard another
suppressed burst, then a shout of alarm quickly and painfully silenced.

The sounds of conversation had gone quiet inside the house, though
music still blared. A woman laughed. Then a huge man stepped into the
hall; the intruders recognized him from their briefings as the head of
their target’s bodyguards. His eyes were crazed, his nose bright red
from a night of chemical abuse, white powder still visible on his
mustache. He carried a gleaming machete. He saw the intruders and
lunged howling toward them, nearest the one with the pistol.

The intruder felt the pulse pound in his throat as the raid
turned to combat and sharp death barreled toward him; time seemed to
creep, and the next second stretched into endless images of immediacy:
he raised his pistol and fired, the unsuppressed gunshot thunderous in
the quiet, putting a round into the huge man’s stomach to no apparent
effect; then another, then another, walking the shots up, one through
the sternum, the next through the throat, and even as his blood spurted
out the man stepped forward with the machete raised for a diagonal
slash, as good for cleaving a man as for stalks of jungle foliage; the
intruder scrambled back and aside, darting clumsily for the cover of a
doorway, then the others fired, and a dozen rounds pierced the
bodyguard’s arm, shoulder, torso, and skull. His momentum carried him
crashing to the carpet.

The intruder shook his head for an instant as he hauled himself
back up. One of the others winked, his eyes showing the humor that
his mask concealed, then signaled with his fingers: move in.

More shots rang out, then shouts and screams. The intruders moved
to the next doorways and tossed grenades: more shouts, then flashing
explosions, mostly noise. The intruders leaned in low, inspected the
rooms visually for a quarter-second before mercilessly shooting their
disoriented targets, men and women alike. They moved on, then the one
with the pistol reached a stairwell. He glanced back, and his partner
relayed the signal to their leader. The order was returned as silently.
The two of them moved up the stairs.

On the upper level they found empty rooms. Below they heard
gunshots and shouts, suppressed bursts, then the booming report of a
shotgun, not one of theirs, only once before the return fire. They
found another set of stairs behind a door, leading up to the attic. A
faint light shone there. They moved up.

They saw their quarry sitting on the wood floor amid crates and
boxes with another man, an older man the intruders recognized as the
family physician, a strange character with a background full of
inexplicable gaps. Their quarry was barely twenty years old, Eduardo
Spinoza, the son of Manuel Spinoza, one of the chief new Colombian
drug lords. Before the two sitting men stood a strange brazier of
some dull metal lit with glowing embers, above which yellow smoke
hovered, seeming to glow of its own accord as much as from the pale
flame below. Above them hung the nude bodies of six young women,
bound to the attic rafters. All of them were dead and recently
mutilated. The smoke curled about them, seeming to touch their
bloody hair and flesh with languid attention.

The doctor spoke dreamily in a murmuring, rasping voice: “Oh!
See, Eduardo: the King has heard our prayer! He sends angels of night
and dream from the mists of Carcosa.” Then he looked up and saw the
two intruders stepping into view.

“On the floor or die,” one of them barked in Spanish.

“But,” objected the doctor in confusion, “all is not yet ready.”

Eduardo looked dazed.

Within the pale smoke black shapes formed, vague but solid,
wheeling in flight and then darting downward. Outside, a man loosed
a grunting scream, uncontrolled agony quickly suppressed by instinct
and training. In the intruders’ earphones they heard their team
break radio silence.

“Shit! Get d-unngggk . . . .”

“Man down, man down, watch the trees!”

A dark shape in the pale smoke grew larger than the rest, as if
flying nearer to the viewers in the attic.

Eduardo leapt to his feet and darted back for a bay window set
into the wall.

The first intruder fired twice into the doctor’s head and throat,
training and experience compensating some for the inevitable shakiness
of combat. His partner shouted and turned his machine pistol toward
the smoking brazier.

The dark shape there loomed hugely forward.

It leapt forth on hairy insect legs, one of its bony wings
buffeting the first intruder over and cutting a slash into his shoulder.
Even as its prey loosed a burst from his machine pistol the thing lunged
at him with snapping claws and a savage beak: the bullets entered the
thing’s dusty carapace and passed through its wings and hit the boxes
beyond, then the monstrosity landed upon him. Its beak rose and fell
and its claws grasped, and then it lifted the man high by his glistening
entrails. The corpses swayed from the rafters overhead.

Eduardo crashed through the window and landed hard on the grass,
twenty feet below. The other intruder scrambled for the window, yanking
a Chinese high-explosive grenade from his belt. His racing mind verged
on horrified panic, but he suppressed it, willed himself to action and
well-honed instinct. Don’t think–Jesus, that thing–don’t think–
don’t think!
The monster dropped its prey with a wet thud, and
turned toward him just as he tossed the grenade. It rolled along the
floor and glanced off of the strange metal of the brazier. He leapt
through the window. The world tumbled crazily for an instant, then he
slammed roughly into the earth.

The monster leapt after him; it was directly above the pallid
smoke of the brazier when the grenade exploded. The explosion was
weaker than it should have been, but it tore a hole in the floor and
walls and sent the brazier crashing into the boxes and further
mutilated the dead women. Outside, other creatures looming on evil
wings over their prey were engulfed in the same weak explosive force,
then vanished. Two men near the monsters were sent reeling or killed
outright by the concussion.

The one who had thrown the grenade lay on the grass for a second,
winded by the fall, his left wrist twisted into a painful angle. He
staggered to his knees, then saw Eduardo hobble into a car in the
driveway. The intruder rasped, “Stop,” then he grimaced and ducked
again, covering his face with his arm as Eduardo ignored him. The
young man turned the key, shouting with a rush of triumph.

The car exploded as the starter sparked eight ounces of Soviet
plastique.

When the battered intruder stood again, he heard the others
reporting over their radio link. Three of them remained functional.
Over the next few minutes two of them set incendiaries around the house,
while he checked the fallen and dragged them to the yard. Then they
heard the whoofing sound of an approaching helicopter.

When it landed the men piled the bodies and themselves inside,
while other soldiers watched from behind mounted machine guns. They
heard distant sirens, but no one else could be seen nearby. As the
helicopter lifted away the house went up in a pillar of flame.

Sam Dee, Petty Officer Second Class, United States Navy Medical
Corps, SEAL Team Two, cradled his sprained wrist and listened to
ragged breathing echo within his own ears. He was twenty-five years
old. Through the deepening tunnel-vision of rushing adrenaline and
creeping shock he looked at the other wide-eyed survivors of the raid.
None of them said a word.

None knew what the hell they would report when the helicopter
landed.

* * *

Commander Horace Richards stood before the window in his office on
the Marine base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, staring out across the painted
asphalt of a motor pool at the distant green paneling of the enlisted
barracks. Richards had organized the Panama raid, and he had fully
expected that it would come off like clockwork and result in the
apprehension of a source of valuable intelligence about the Spinoza
family. Now he expected to spend weeks explaining himself to the Navy
brass as well as the CIA and DIA spooks who would want the story.

He hardly blamed the SEALs who had carried out the mission. They
had run into something the intelligence reports had not predicted.
Intelligence was never perfect; in most circumstances they would have
handled whatever came up. The fact, however, that the team had suffered
significant losses, and the risk that would be posed to future
operations, were of more immediate concern than any failings in the CIA
or the satellite-watchers of the NSA. Richards would rather have
throttled the chief spook of the operation, but protocol left that
pleasure to figures higher than he. His only recourse was making sense
of the the reports of the men within his command. They were battered
and shaken, but they would still respond to the abuse of training. He
frowned and forced himself again to be the interrogator.

Sam Dee stood uncomfortably at attention behind him, waiting,
silently keeping time with the the throbs of pain in his wrist.

Richards turned to face him.”We have not gotten a straight answer
yet about this clusterfuck. We had a top-notch squad demolished out
there. By who? And I don’t want to hear about any bug-eyed flying
fucking monkeys, either, mister. Who were they?”

Dee stared coldly at the officer. “I don’t know, sir. They hit
us by surprise. I don’t guess any of us got too good a look.”

“You said you were right up under one of them.”

“Well, I don’t know, sir, maybe I got confused in between shooting
unarmed hookers in the back.”

“We went over those orders in your briefing, God damn it. Word
came down from ONI and CIA. It had to come off like a local smash-and-
grab. And don’t try to change the subject on me, Dee. I have zero
time for bullshit.”

“Aye, sir.”

“So then they ran away.”

“They disappeared, sir.”

“After they tore your squad a new asshole.”

“I guess they did, sir. They sure didn’t open a few beers to talk
it over, sir.”

Commander Richards stepped closer and leaned into Dee’s face. Dee
blinked, but his face remained stony. “Don’t fuck with me, E-5,” said
Richards. “That’s the last slack I plan to cut you. I can . . .”

The door opened, and two men stepped in. Rear Admiral Tony
Johnston they both recognized, and both knew things suddenly had gotten
very deep indeed. The other man, unknown, wore a bland dark suit and an
infantry-grade crewcut.

“Dismissed, Commander,” said Johnston easily. Both sailors stood
straight at attention and saluted.

“Uh . . . ,” asked Richards, “sir?”

“Did I stutter?”

“Dismissed, aye, sir.” He saluted again and walked out quickly.

Dee held his salute until the admiral returned it and closed the
door. “Sit down, son,” he said. “We have a little to talk about.”

Johnston was sixty years old with snowy hair. He had piloted a
warship near the Mekong for four years in Vietnam, his boat one of the
many used as springboard and support for covert land operations launched
by SEALs and Marine Recon teams. In the years since then he had stayed
close to the world of grey and black ops. He had done his share to
support men like Dee, men who would face arrest and prison or execution
more quickly than they would ever wear a badge or medal for their
“unsanctioned” experiences.

Dee relaxed slightly and sat. His back remained straight at
attention. He waited.

“Petty Officer Samuel David Dee,” observed Johnston, taking
Richards’ chair at the desk. “I’ve read your file. Richards has written
some flattering things there. Passing scores in knife school, but top
scores in pistol and judo training. Good at ambush. Sharp memory,
quick logical skills, close attention to detail, focused, not easily
distracted. He says you’re a fine corpsman. He also says you turned
down a shot at medical training. Why?”

“Hard to say, sir. I guess I just like the field.”

Johnston grunted and leaned forward. His eyes glittered. “Don’t
equivocate with me, Petty. It’s not your style. You’re spooked,
aren’t you?”

Dee remained expressionless. “I’ll get by, sir.”

“Hell. Answer my question. Why did you turn down the
recommendation for medical school?”

“I’m a SEAL, sir. I trained for the field, not to sit on books.
I figure I’d get bored as hell, if you’ll pardon the expression, sir.”

“I see. What got you spooked out there in Panama, Dee?”

“Sir? We’ve been debriefed . . .”

“I know that. The report was vague. Richards is sharp, he knows
when to start covering his ass and yours. ‘Unidentified enemy troops,
including paratroops employing unknown technology.’
Is that right?”

Dee paused, licked his lip slightly. “That sounds about right,
sir.”

“Bullshit. I’ve seen Richards’ squads run into ‘unknown
technology’ before, and they did fine. And from your file, I’d say
you’re definitely sharp enough to know the difference. What tore your
squad up, Petty?”

“Sir?”

“It wasn’t any unidentified enemy troops, was it?”

Dee remained silent. Johnston glanced up at the other man, who
waited silently through all this. The man said nothing. Johnston
looked at Dee again.

“Mister Dee,” he said, “I think you ran into something that you
never saw or even heard of before. I bet it was unnatural, just about
as scary as hell, and I expect it’ll go down as a sea-story in the
barracks and nothing more than Richards’ vague-ass report in the books,
which will all be torched before anybody can read them anyway. Does
that about sum it up?”

“Just about, sir.”

“I want details. You think you’re the first? We’ve seen some
shit before. Maybe the same, maybe different but just as wrong. No
way to know until I get a straight answer from you.”

“I . . .” Dee took a breath. “There was this thing, this torch-
looking thing.”

The other man spoke, finally. “A brazier?”

Dee glanced at him. “Maybe. Anyway, they were in that, sort of.
I don’t know if we killed any of them, sir . . . .”

Two hours later Dee stood alone in the hall outside. His mind
still leapt from question to question despite his fatigue. Over and
over the same images reappeared: a massive black shape, dusty carapace,
bony wings, all forming from nothingness and then returning thence,
leaving only death and horror. Unidentified troops would look good
on the minutes, but it wouldn’t help them deal with the . . . things
. . . the next time they appeared. And what of the things?

How had the impossible suddenly come into deadly reality?

Johnston and the other man remained in Richards’ office, five feet
away on the other side of the door. Dee could hear their voices.

“He’s a virgin, admiral.”

“Not anymore. Besides, he’s seen more combat than I have, and
he’s not whining for any medals he knows he can’t get. I think he can
hack it.”

“Combat, shit. You know what that counts for.”

“I know it’s a place to start. He’s the only one who got a look
at the artifact. He’s kept it together this long. I think you can use
him.”

There was a pause. “I’m not comfortable with it.”

“You don’t need to be comfortable, Major, you need to execute the
damn mission.”

A moment later the door opened. The “Major” nodded to Dee. “Care
to join us again, Mister Dee?”

Dee stepped past him, and the man shut the door once more.

“Dee,” said Admiral Johnston, “I want you to listen sharp.”

Dee nodded and stood at attention. “Aye, sir.”

“This is Josh Barnes, Drug Enforcement Administration, formerly of
the Special Forces. He was a major when the Army let him go. He now
owns you. Every word he says, you listen up and you follow it like it
came from my mouth. You following me, Petty?”

“Aye, sir. Agent Barnes owns me.”

“That’s right. Everything you witnessed in that raid, and
everything you were briefed on for it and for other action involving
the Spinoza group, you make available for Barnes. He has the clearance.
If you hold out, I’ll come looking for you. He already knows I’ll come
looking for him if he fucks anything up.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Very good. Gentlemen, I wish you luck. I’ll expect a report in
the near future.”

“Begging your pardon, sir . . .”

Johnston looked at him. “What is it, Dee?”

“What were they, sir?”

Johnston stared silently at him for a long moment. “You ever look
at a mirror sideways, Dee?”

“Sir? When I was a kid, maybe.”

“You look at a mirror from the side, you see zip. You have to turn
it forward, then you see something, all of a sudden. Those things you
ran into . . . . Well, maybe they’re what’s in the mirror when you look
at it head-on. Maybe somebody learned how to turn the mirror straight,
when all the time we only see it from the side. I figure those things
crossed the space in between.”

Dee’s jaw was tight as he considered this.

“Hell of a fucking world, right? Take it slow, Dee,” said
Johnston. “Don’t wrap your brain around it too much. Those things you
ran into, you want a shot at wasting them?”

His voice was tense. “Absolutely, sir.”

“Good. Don’t try to take it much farther than that. You might be
bright enough to see more than you’ll want.”

* * *

The flight to Colombia was quiet, even though Dee and Barnes had
the transport almost to themselves. Get some rest, Barnes had said,
and Dee needed no explanation. He remembered the same lesson from
training, when he and the other trainees in Basic Underwater Demolition
School were the midst of Hell Week. Rest up while you can, fairies,
said one field instructor, expounding endlessly upon the dangers of
being less than alert on a real mission. Sleep now, or forever hold
your piece.
But sleep never came on the flight; when his eyes closed,
Dee saw only spiny black hairs and glistening claws in the gap between
shadows.

Bogota was all heat and noise after Dee’s two-week recuperation in
the locked-down quiet of Guantanamo’s restricted barracks. Traffic
moved at a crawl. The car’s air conditioning at full power did little
more than push hot air after hotter. People walked past and rode past
on mopeds and motorcycles, swerving between crawling cars and the
scarred trunks of palm trees.

Barnes finally broke the silence.

“This car’s been swept clean, so we can talk. And that’s lesson
one, cherry. You don’t say a single thing about the mission unless I
tell you it’s safe.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Aye, nothing. You’ve been doing black ops for a while now.
This is blacker than black, what we’re getting into. You never heard
of that, and you didn’t hear it just now. Just remember: you don’t
take any of this with you to the bullshit sessions and card tables.
Ever. And shitcan the ‘Aye, sir’ business. Why do you think you’re
wearing that suit and tie? Your cover is civilian, not Navy.”

“Yessir.”

“Better. All right. You’ve never done spook work, so you got a
nice, simple cover. You’re you. Sam Dee. Except the last two years
you haven’t been doing black ops down south, you’ve been working
security for me, full-time bodyguard work. With your corpsman training
and can-do attitude, you do it fairly well, and I pay you better than
you could get doing cop work anywhere. You saved my ass once, and you
got my daughter out of a bad date last year. I’m an investor. Oil
money out of Texas. Lots of oil. I’m in Colombia looking for
pharmaceutical concerns to match up with, and looking for a little
snuff while I’m here. There’s a venture capital investors’ convention
in Bogota the next couple of days, so if we look cocky and slack-assed
enough we ought to blend.

“In a few minutes we’ll be meeting the other operative. He’s
Elliot Ritter, an NSA spook. COMSEC and COMINT and SIGINT, mostly,
plus some specialized training. In his cover he’s my partner, a
fellow investor running the same firm. He’ll lie low, mostly, to work
the technical gear while you and I deal with HUMINT, human intelligence.
But he knows more about the world than you do, so stay sharp and don’t
talk too much.”

Dee glanced at Barnes slightly askance. “Got it, sir.”

The next two days were hectic, each an eighteen hour jaunt through
the slums and heights of Bogota playing businessman and bodyguard while
Barnes sniffed out contacts who might have access to the Spinoza family.
Ritter did not venture out once; for every hour that Barnes and Dee
combed the streets, Ritter checked and double-checked their
communications and electronic security and tracked the bugs and tracers
that Dee surreptitiously placed on vehicles or furniture that Barnes
selected.

The safe-house was a one-story block of just-painted brick, pale
blue and drab in a hedge-lined yard. Dee supposed it was meant to look
cheery; the records showed it rented to a Houston investment firm.
There were gaps in the hedges, but no nearby buildings were high enough
to allow sight into the house or yard. Elliot Ritter swept the house
and their vehicles and personal belongings for bugs irregularly but
annoyingly often; he kept track of photographic-capable satellite
schedules through three portable computers; another two were linked to
government and private communication channels and databases. Pocket-
portable receiver/recorders ran non-stop on feeds from microphones
planted on Barnes and, with Dee’s help, on the contacts with whom they
had met over the past thirty-six hours. The house seemed piled high
with orderly collections of weaponry and electronics. Dee and Ritter
sat at a dining table, taking notes on recordings while Barnes took a
shift to sleep.

“No, no, sir, you do not understand,” said a plaintive voice on
one recorder. “I only see Master Spinoza rarely, only when I make
deliveries, and then only sometimes. I never go far into his home.”

“I understand,” said Barnes’ voice. “Listen, friend: If you
have the chance to enter the Spinoza household, you should inform me.
It is very important to me. I can make it worth your while, no?”
A
hint of menace crept into his voice. There was a pause.

“Yes, of course. Of course. I will tell you at once should such
an . . . opportunity arrive.”

“Thank you.”

Ritter chuckled. “Josh is slick. He should have gone with CIA.
The way he’s laying it on now, if he’s not careful he’ll have half the
thugs in this city trying to break into the Spinoza house.” Ritter was
thin and blonde, with a suntan that looked somehow uncomfortable on his
weedy frame. He wore thick wire-rimmed glasses. He was thirty-five
years old.

Dee asked, “Why all the heat for Eduardo? In the files it looked
like he was a bit player. We wanted him for his contacts, but he was
replaceable.”

Ritter shook his head. “If you’re after the drugs, he was
replaceable. Sure, you can get better intelligence from half a dozen
goons in Spinoza’s house.”

“But we’re not after the drugs.”

“You’re the one who tangoed with the demons, right?”

Dee looked away.

“Moving to Contact David-Zero,” said Barnes’ voice on the
speaker.

“Look,” said Ritter, with a grim smile, “you did okay, sounds like.
Better than I did, first time in the Dark.”

“You been in a lot of scrapes like that, then?”

Ritter looked at the rolling tapes. “That’s classified, kid.” He
took a drink of coffee. “You up on your Greenwich Village?”

Dee smiled. “I let it lapse the last year or two. But the reports
said Spinoza bankrolls several galleries, and Eddie Spinoza had a show
up there. Sounded like some softcase got turned on by the notoriety,
then the critics came down hard and they canceled the show.”

“Yeah, something like that. Did they show you any of his work?”

“No.”

“Figures. Eddie’s work featured certain . . . symbolism. Things
that attracted our attention. It’s hard to explain it any more than
that.”

Dee mulled that over for a moment. “How many of you are there,
Ritter?”

Ritter took another sip of coffee. “Just us, kid,” he lied.
“Just us and the Admiral.”

* * *

Dee slept for a few hours that night. Barnes woke him. “Up and
at em,” he said from the doorway of the bedroom. “Ritter caught a
bug.”

Ritter’s “bug” was a repeating set of scrambled radio signals
emanating from eight separate locations, according to the receivers
they had established throughout the city. “Source Alpha-One, here.” He
pointed to a marked location on a computer screen. “Beta-One, here.
Alpha-Two, here,” he pointed to another location. , “and Beta-Two, here.
Gamma-One . . . Gamma-Two. Same pattern, eight times. One signal
emits, then another responds.”

Barnes looked dubious. “You sure? It looks random to me.”

“Sure it does. It’s supposed to look random. If it doesn’t, the
spooks aren’t doing their job right. But look. Distances all fall
within a set range. And each ‘One’ source corresponds to a given range
of proximity to a known Spinoza affiliate or an American or British
intelligence, law enforcement, military, or diplomatic resource.”

“That’s a lot of possibilities, and that range of proximity
leaves a lot of leeway.”

“Maybe. But I wouldn’t bet that way.”

“All right,” said Barnes. “Keep following the sources. Find
patterns. I want to know where one’s going to be, or close to it as
we can get.”

Ritter looked at him questioningly. Barnes nodded.

“Yeah, maybe. I want to set up a little meeting to find out for
sure. This will have to take priority over checking out Spinoza’s
contacts.”

Two days later, Dee shuffled down a Bogota street, wearing local
clothes and aping the demeanor of young local men he had seen, and
trying hard to look like he was just on his way to a party. Cars drove
past; with each honk of a horn he tensed slightly, each time more sure
it was the signal. It was past ten o’clock at night.

Acquiring a target had not been too hard, really. Dee and Barnes
had established surveillance on coordinates provided and updated by
Ritter. Barnes was adept at the work, and Dee learned quickly. Look
for the ones who look dangerous,
Barnes had said. Most of the time
the coordinates moved slowly, if at all. The difficult part had come
with the less-mobile sources, when they restricted their movement to
indoors, only hitting the streets for short times when Ritter said
IMINT sources were less likely to be recording from the skies.

Now Dee’s target walked ahead of him at a brisk pace, unaware,
hopefully, of his shadow. He was either a native or he knew the area
well; there was nothing of the tourist about him. He wore a plain
dark suit and he walked with efficiency and purpose. Something about
his demeanor set Dee’s senses off: Special Forces, or maybe Recon,
he thought, I can smell it.

The maneuver was being timed carefully by Ritter. None of the
usual imagery intelligence satellites were positioned to observe, but
his sources had indicated that a commercial satellite had been covertly
repositioned, one capable of taking ground-level-quality photographs of
events in Bogota. The good news was that it only took its shots every
ninety seconds.

Dee didn’t bother to ask how Ritter’s sources got their
information, or how a privately-ownedsatellite could be “covertly
repositioned” by people in whom Barnes and Ritter would take an
interest.

Now he stalked along casually and waited for Barnes to decide the
time was right. He hated it. How long’s this poor bastard been in a
suit?
He wondered, catching peripheral glimpses of the man ahead of
him. I can take him down, but what if we missed something? No Team,
here, no squad, no nothing. Mano a mano.
He grinned slightly. It
was too bad he wouldn’t be able to take the story to his Team afterward,
he thought. Team or no Team, I’m still a SEAL, and that guy’s just
Infantry. Mano a mano, plus my little toy. Fuck yeah, then. You ready
to dance, mano?

The crowd thinned slightly as the man turned and began walking up
a hill. Dee quickened his pace slightly and walked closer behind the
man.

A car honked its horn, a long beat and a short one.

That’s it, he thought, and he thumbed a button on the device in
his pocket.

Suddenly every speaker within hearing distance emitted a tooth-
jarring squeal of feedback. The target snarled and reached up, yanking
a small earphone from his ear. He looked stunned as he turned to catch
a glimpse of Dee’s rushing approach: Dee’s footsteps made hardly any
sound.

Dee sent his fist into the man’s midsection, two knuckles raised
as he punched his solar plexus. The man gagged and folded but did not
go down. By reflex he threw his arm up, swayed into a balanced
position, and send his other hand pummeling low for his assailant.
Dee deflected the fist with a knife-edged hand, curling his fingers
around the man’s wrist as he did so, twisting in the same motion. The
man stepped in and rolled and nearly broke the maneuver, but he was
slow, out of breath, and then he was tumbling over Dee’s leg and
hurtling for a grim instant through space. He slammed into the wall
head-first and crumpled.

A cab pulled up. Dee hauled the man inside, and the driver
floored the pedal and drove off like a shot. Behind them Dee saw
people looking in confusion at the fleeing cab and the site of the
brief action. Dee removed a throat-mike from beneath the man’s collar
and tossed it out the window, then secured his hands with plastic cuffs.
Barnes produced a fat syringe and injected the man with a foul-looking
serum.

The cab dropped them off at a rented dental office, three miles
away. Barnes had given the driver an imposing stack of American money
and advised him to move his family to another country.

Dee hauled the man inside in a fireman’s carry, slung over one
shoulder. The office building was empty, this late at night, but
Barnes had keys. There were no security measures in the building
beyond the door locks.

Forty-five minutes later they finished examining and preparing
the subject.

“Three teeth is it, then,” Ritter said. “No other biological
mods.”

“Right. Any reason to take out the other two?”

“No, they’re empty.”

The third tooth had already been extracted. Dee had never
performed the procedure before, but he had agreed to muddle through it.
Just like working on a regular bone, he had told himself, but in fact
it had not been so complex: the tooth was artificial to begin with,
made for relatively easy replacement. It was filled with poison, ready
to be loosed with hard pressure in just the right place. Dee had
laughed at the theatrics of it.

The captive was strapped to the dentist’s chair. He had been
stirring for several minutes.

“You say his head wound’s all right?”

“I gave him a nice bump,” said Dee, “but I don’t think it’s worse
than that. Hard to tell, though, with that drug screwing his eyes up.”

“Yeah. It takes a while for ‘em to wake up with this cocktail,”
Barnes said, nodding to the vial of the foul-looking serum. “But he
ought to be about ready.”

“Good,” said Ritter. “We’ve lost an hour already. If we take
more than another two, I won’t feel as safe.”

Dee looked at him. “Why two?”

Barnes answered. “State secrets, kid.” He stepped over to the
captive and slapped his face.

The man shuddered and opened his eyes. His pupils were wide,
their black engulfing each cornea even in the harsh light of the room.
“Wh . . . what . . . ?”

Barnes smiled. “Think of this as a test, genius.”

The captive looked around, wide-eyed. “You’re not Security.”

“What makes you say that?”

The man blinked. He shook his head. His eyes remained wide.
“Fuck you.”

“That drug kicking in yet, tough guy? I bet it’s got your vision
just as screwy as can be.” He leaned down closer to the man. “Maybe
we’re FBI. Maybe we got tired of you dumbfucks scanning all our
Legat’s conversations.”

“No.”

“Maybe we’re CIA. Yeah? Maybe this is a black op, and you’re the
duck that’s getting dead.”

The man said nothing. He blinked his inky-looking eyes.

“Maybe I’m an alien,” said Barnes softly. “Maybe I’m a Grey, and
I want to pick your brain and probe your ass. Conversation and kinky
sex. Hell, that sounds to me like a good date. What do you say,
soldier?”

The man said nothing. He looked increasingly confused, as if
overwhelmed by sensations.

Barnes continued. He seemed to be enjoying himself. “What do you
think? Are those skinny bastards just trying to be sociable?”

“I don’t understand,” said the man. “What are you–”

“Don’t you try to lie to me. Look at me! We have you juiced up
on shit I can’t even pronounce. I know you can’t tune me out or screw
with me. You’re not even physically capable of it right now.”

The man stared at him. His face twisted into a strange amalgam of
fear and rage and credulity.

Barnes said, “You boys are after Spinoza, aren’t you? Why?”

The man shook his head. “No . . . no . . . No, we’re after . . .
I mean . . . it’s . . .”

“TALK!” Barnes shouted, and the man physically cringed, as if the
word itself had been driven into his brain. Barnes leaned down. “Why
are you after Spinoza? Why are you after Spinoza? Why–”

“THE YELLOW SIGN!” The man seemed to shriek despite his own will.
He looked baffled and horrified at the words he was speaking. “He has
seen the Yellow Sign, and we must learn where!”

“Who must learn? Who?”

“We . . . They said . . .”

Ritter turned to Dee. “Let’s check the halls,” he said quietly.

“THEY who?” yelled Barnes.

“They said . . .”

Ritter nudged Dee. His voice was harder. “Move.”

“WHO?” Barnes still shouted.

Dee stepped out to the hall ahead of Ritter. He heard the captive
shout as Ritter closed the door behind them.

“The OUTSIDERS!”

* * *

Dee and Ritter conducted a slow patrol of the halls, steering clear
of those with line-of-sight from large windows. Ritter seemed
thoughtful.

After the first sweep, Dee said, “What’s that mean, ‘The
outsiders’?”

“He was delusional. Power of suggestion: all that talk about the
Greys. Barnes had to mix in the fantastic with the ordinary to get the
subject’s thought processes moving in the right direction. It’s the way
the drug works, or something. He could have talked about elves and
goblins and got a similar result.”

“Then why . . .”

“Why’d I move you? In case he does say something real. Didn’t
Barnes give you the ‘Blacker than Black’ speech?”

They walked in silence for a few minutes.

“Tell me something, Ritter. Which are we? The Hatfields, or the
McCoys?”

Ritter looked at him, said nothing.

Dee persisted. “What’s this all about, Elliot?”

“What do you mean?”

Dee glanced back at the dentist’s door. “I mean, Barnes was going
at it like he’d been waiting years to get that guy on the slab. Christ,
he had a hard-on before the spook woke up.”

“You want to know if this is personal?”

“Is it?”

Ritter was silent for a moment. Then: “We’ll probably never know
who that sap is, not really. Odds are we won’t get much useful out of
him. Then we’ll probably pass him up to our bosses and move on, same as
his people would do to us, have been doing to us for years.”

“He’s an American operative?”

“He’s part of an outfit that operates above and beyond the chain
of law and command. They’re traitors and spies. Barnes is just
enjoying the moment. The worm doesn’t turn too often.”

“So it is personal.”

“It all gets personal, sometimes. All the shit. I’ll tell you
something. Back in the world, a stranger is playing with my kids and
sleeping with my wife. What the hell am I doing here?”

Dee did not answer.

“So I guess that makes it pretty damn personal to me,” said
Ritter.

“Then why are you here?”

“This is the job.” He was quiet for a moment. “When I was a kid,
I wanted to be on BLUE BOOK. Man, I ate that stuff up. The Air Force
and flying saucers, right on the edge of meeting people from other
worlds, all of it. Of course, they canceled BLUE BOOK right after
I graduated the Air Force Academy. So I stayed in signals intelligence
and communications intelligence, and I kept my ears open. I half-way
didn’t believe BLUE BOOK was really shut down. I figured, if they said
BLUE BOOK had been a smokescreen, then maybe that’s just a smokescreen
itself. You work close enough to intelligence, you start seeing three
sides to every lie.

“So, anyway, all the time I kept studying other things, too. All
the secrets and codes and lies that we’ve always had. I mean humanity,
not just America. It got me into some strange skies. Kabbalists say
that every word of the Pentateuch has many meanings; not just the story
that we learn in Sunday school, but each letter is symbolic of something
else. What if they could decipher that code? Then there were European
alchemists, who took it a step further and saw symbolism and
correspondences in the elements and in our souls. People still think
they were just trying to get rich by trying to turn lead to gold.

“But that was just the start. Senzar, Aklo . . . But anyway,
that’s how I found The King in Yellow, and the Yellow Sign.”

“Yeah? What is it?”

“The Sign . . .” He sighed. “The King in Yellow is just a play.
Sort of existential fantasy, heavy on the symbolism. At least, that’s
what it seems like. A godlike King comes back to pass judgment on his
rebellious and doubting subjects, and then their city turns into his
city, their reality becomes his reality. Hastur and Carcosa are one.
The only truth is the King,” he continued quietly, staring dreamily for
a moment into the shadows, “and doubt becomes despair. It cropped up
around the turn of the century and stirred up a lot of controversy, then
it got suppressed after a lot of readers went suicidal with depression.

“A few years ago somebody published it again in a horror story.
He said he’d gotten hold of the original and transcribed it. I don’t
know why. Notoriety, maybe, or maybe he wanted to make it seem real
to keep the dilettantes away from the real thing. It didn’t take much
digging to realize that he’d written a fake.

“The Sign is just a symbol, a sigil they drew on the cover of the
play. In the play, people who knew the Yellow Sign were doomed. Sooner
or later, everybody found the Yellow Sign. Neither is much of anything
to look at, on their own. It’s what they imply that makes them
strange.”

“And?”

“I think they are metaphor and emblem of the truth of reality.”

Dee waited. Ritter sighed again. “Look, we’ve been telling each
other the same story all along, in religion, in art, philosophy,
politics . . . Is beauty the sense of purity, of truth? We’re a race
of screaming monkeys who can only tell the truth with lies.”

“So you know the truth, now? From that play?”

“Eddie Spinoza did. Something in his paintings . . . He showed
it obliquely, just shadows of it, just like we always see it.”

“But you want it straight-on.”

“Don’t you want the truth?”

Dee shrugged away the disquiet that he felt. “Eddie’s dead and
gone, and his paintings were scrapped. After this mission, I plan on
going back to the world in one piece and seeing my mom and meeting
girls and smoking cigarettes and getting drunk, and the hell with hairy
fucking bugs. Then I’ll head back to Coronado and get wet and sandy,
and if I’m lucky they’ll start giving these city ops to Delta Force
again. And that’s good enough for me. I figure, the rest of it,
that’s just college philosophy. That just sounds like all those
hippies and artists saying ‘God is dead’ to look profound.”

Ritter smiled bitterly. “If only they were right.”

* * *

The home of Manuel Spinoza was an estate of surpassing beauty
and exquisite design, a lush and sprawling garden which arose fragrant
and magnificent around high houses, long barns, and wide corrals.
Spinoza was born on the streets of Bogota, an urchin gifted with nothing
but his own iron will and remarkable cunning. And luck: Spinoza was
certainly born with luck. By his fortieth birthday he was one of the
wealthiest men in Colombia, a man to be reckoned with, a modern
aristocrat who cultivated the stylings of a feudal Spanish lord.
Merchant and killer, noble and fixer, prideful in his right to
contradiction and hypocrisy, in his heart he was a lover of beauty,
and over the years he spent anonymous fortunes indulging that love.
More than one gallery and obscure playhouse survived by this shadowy
benefactor.

His wife was named Mariel. She was sixteen when she was wed to
forty-year old Manuel, and she was seventeen when she bore him his
first and only child. For many years Manuel isolated Mariel and his
son from the hard truths of his world and brought a succession of fine
tutors to provide the education which his wife desired for herself and
their child. The boy, Eduardo, had shared his father’s artistic
temperament, and thanks to his father’s wealth he enjoyed the luxury
to exert his skills; but likewise he gave free reign to pride, and so
he had taken especial glee in the controversy that attached to shows
which featured the son of the infamous drug lord. Long distant from
the brutal world of his father’s life, Eduardo had been careless.

Mariel had been distant for several days, pensive at times,
steeped in black misery at others, and strangely dreamy in odd moments
that none around her could predict. She seemed to drift further every
day. Soon she no longer called her servants by name, and when she
heard their names she seemed disinterested or simply baffled. They
treated her gently, nevertheless. Her husband was worse. Both had
been affected deeply by the death of their only son.

She watched every sunset. She would sit at the window just so,
and look out over her shoulder to the deepening pink and purple of the
sky and the gathering shadows of the forest and the distant droning
city. The sun often reflected from the gentle ripples of the pond.
“The Sun is weeping again,” she would say in that dreamy voice. “See
his tears? They shine yellow and gold in the water.” Her maid was
around her most in these times, and she would nod and speak
encouragingly, while inwardly she ached to leave and to spend time
with her family, with life. Her mistress was dying inside. She had
been dying since they brought the news of Eduardo’s death.

She sat by the window again. She looked out to it, looking
sideways over her shoulder as always, her hand folded in her lap. Her
maid waited not far away, hating the room. Eduardo’s art was hung
prominently all about. It was unnatural stuff, imagery that looked
fanciful but implied despair. It mocked the sensations which it
evoked.

Heavy footsteps came shuffling along the hall. The maid
recognized the gait: Mister Spinoza was drunk. Only drunk; he never
indulged in the drugs which his family so profitably produced. He
never allowed his employees to touch the stuff. There had been rumors
that Eduardo had broken the taboo and that Mr. Spinoza had turned a
blind eye, but others said it was not so. The maid thought Eduardo
had seemed too sensitive to take an interest in cocaine. Perhaps she
was indulging her own ideals; certainly Eduardo had painted nothing to
draw forth unaltered love or confidence from life.

Manuel Spinoza pushed the door open and looked inside at his
wife. He ignored the maid. He took a noisy breath through his nose.
“Mariel,” he said, with the tone of a man making a great pronouncement.
“Our son is dead.”

The maid frowned. Again, here he came to make the announcement,
as if poor Mrs. Spinoza had not heard him say it every evening for two
weeks.

Mariel nodded with a sigh. “Yes,” she said. “Yes. He would
say–the Phantom of Truth has been laid. Laid to rest, forever.”

“He would. He would. But it is wrong!”

“Oh, of course it is.”

“There was no Masquerade.”

“No.” She shook her head thoughtfully, and her face softened as
emotions played across it: sadness, despair, a winsome smile; none,
it seemed, could dominate.

Manuel remained silent. The maid’s frown deepened: again they
spoke of this nonsense, the crazy things from that book their son had
loved. The book had been missing since Eduardo’s death, but they had
spent the past days entranced with its memory, entranced with the source
of Eduardo’s unwholesome inspiration. Then others in the household had
become similarly obsessed, speaking of nothing but a dreaded King and
rulers choked with ennui. It frightened the maid that they sometimes
seemed to think it real.

“Oh.” Mariel looked up and regarded her husband with a look that
hinted of inspiration. “There may be one yet.”

“How? The Phantom . . .”

“But he may come again, Manuel. Did Yhtill not arise? He
may . . . You should be the priest, knowing and wise.”

“I? But I . . .”

“You cannot be Aldones! We would be divided.”

He grunted. “We have not read it, Mariel. Even you only heard
the fragments that Eduardo spoke.”

The maid stared silently at the floor.

Mariel seemed not to hear him. “Yes,” said Mariel. “Yes, have
them light the coals! Are the braziers still in place, where Eduardo
and Doctor Subin placed them?”

“Here, and outside, yes.”

“Have them light the coals. All shall come. All shall come and
dance, and all the city of Hastur shall await the return of the Phantom
of Truth.”

“And the King?”

“Of course,” she said softly, looking outside to the dimming
world.

“I would rather end the Masquerade before then.”

“There is no truth without its price.”

He said nothing. She looked at him again, and she smiled with
great sadness.

“Have we not seen the Yellow Sign?”

* * *

“That’s not much to go on,” said Ritter. They stood in the hall
not far from the dentist’s office, where Barnes had left their captive
strapped to the chair.

“That’s not all,” said Barnes. “We’re out of time. They’re going
to hit the place tonight.”

“Tonight? He said that?”

“He guessed it. Standing orders for his squad: conduct operations
outside the Spinoza compound proper, maintain surveillance, and breach
the compound only when circumstance or evidence requires it.”

Ritter nodded and scowled. “Circumstance; like one of their spooks
getting caught.”

“Two things, then,” said Dee. “First off, who is our boy, and who
are his friends?”

“His name doesn’t matter. He’s Special Forces, like you said.
He’s in a team of ten that were assigned to the Spinoza case. They
don’t know about the things that your team ran into. Which tells us a
little about their resources, but not much.”

“What kind of local assets will they have when they hit the place?
What kind of firepower?”

“Assets, next to zero. You just heard the only useful information
they got, and that was from the maid.”

“What information? Spinoza had some kind of dance?”

“Had and still is having. They’ve had it every night for the past
week. Everyone in the household has to dress up and come in masks.
They make believe like they’re characters in that play. Then everyone
gets bored and goes to bed.”

“And the braziers?” Ritter asked.

“Subin and Eduardo placed nine of them throughout the region.
Two in Bogota, the others just out in the woods. Then they put nine
more inside the Spinoza estate. Our boy’s team followed that up right
away and collected the ones outside. The maid said Spinoza has them
light up the others every night before the dance.”

“Where were they placed?”

“There’s no telling. Our boy’s too confused to give me details
that precise.”

“Crap,” said Dee, “we can worry about their decorating later.
You want us three to do something about a team of nine Green Berets
who are going to hit the Spinoza house just to bust up a dance? Nine
American Green Berets?”

“What I want is a strike force with air support, but I’m not
going to get it. We have no choice. Either we move in fast, or we
pick up the pieces.”

“It’s not just a dance,” Ritter said quietly.

“No? Then what the hell is it that’s got all of us going in
balls-blazing?”

Ritter and Barnes were silent.

“Blacker than black, huh? I hope you have some tactics planned.”

Barnes said, “You know the drill, sailor. They don’t know we’re
coming. They’ll be jamming up communications for their own raid. So
we pick them off until they catch on, and we hope we can duke it out in
a stand-up fight from then on.”

“And I guess Spinoza’s people will roll out the red carpet?”

“Spinoza’s people are for the Green Berets to worry about.”

* * *

Their feet crunched along in a steady chorus of leaves and rocks
and drying sticks, and with each new step Dee fought the urge to turn
and give his partners one of the icy lectures that he’d gotten in land
warfare training. Even Barnes; especially Barnes: Barnes had been out
of the field for a while, but he had been a Green Beret himself, once.
He ought to know how to move quietly. Dee had objected to Ritter’s
coming along at all; he didn’t have the training, and he could do more
good with his gear at the safe house. Barnes had ignored the
objections, saying they would need Ritter for his other skills. The
plan of action was simple enough: Dee would move in at point, then he
and Barnes would take out the opposition, then they would get Ritter
inside to figure out what the hell was going on. With luck, the
opposition would be obligingly careless and would go down quietly, one
at a time.

Barnes had a Land Rover waiting for them at the dentist’s office.
They left their captive there; Barnes had said someone would retrieve
him later. Barnes and Ritter and Dee had taken some gear from the
safe-house and driven fast for the Spinoza estate, then they left the
Land Rover off a side road two miles from the villa. They had infrared
goggles, but Dee insisted that they allow no slack and take no chances.
He figured that in the time it took them to hike there, their night
vision would kick in and his companions would get used to the need to
walk slow and soft. One out of two ain’t bad, he thought, except
when you’re going in one to three against Special Forces.

As they walked, nobody spoke. Dee had plenty of time to think,
with some detached part of his brain running nonstop while he focused
on moving and on the sounds and smells and light of the dim world
around him. They were a mile from the Spinoza estate; it was past
four in the morning, and the forested hills were blanketed in stifling
fog. That, at least, absorbed some of the sound; if his partners could
be a little quieter, thought Dee, they might have a chance at surprise.

Every word he says, Admiral Johnston had ordered, you follow
like it came from my mouth.
Dee felt stupid that he had not asked
for clarification or qualification. Would Admiral Johnston order him
to move in and kill close to a dozen American soldiers? Would he brook
the audacity it would take to question the order and verify it up the
chain of command? Perhaps, or perhaps not. Dee had learned to follow
orders over the past few years. He thrived as a SEAL because he was
smart and he understood things quickly, but also because he moved, he
acted and he executed plans without a lot of useless second-guessing
and moralizing. Some duties were onerous, of course; sometimes he
still heard the grunts and screams of dying prostitutes, women who
simply had the singular misfortune to ply their trade with a tacit
enemy of the United States government. But Dee was a soldier, first
and last, and orders were orders, and once he decided a leader was
worth following he knew his duty was to follow without question.
Would Admiral Johnston order a hit on a squad of American soldiers?
Who the hell knew? But he had sent Dee along on this operation with
orders to follow Agent Barnes, and Dee felt confident he would only
have done so after considering the implications.

As for the rest of it . . . He still could not quite put the
interrogation together in his thought. Ritter’s excuses and
explanations had made sense, some of them, but some of them had
clearly been bullshit. Still, Dee took it all seriously; he could
easily recall the dusty horror which had nearly been his death, which
had disemboweled a fine SEAL while others like it did worse to those
outside. Eduardo and Doctor Subin had certainly seemed to have some
relation to the monstrous things; and now Ritter and Barnes seemed to
think that Eddie Spinoza’s parents planned to conjure up similar things
in their little masquerade. But Dee had no idea how the things had
appeared, or how they might appear again. Somebody learned to turn
the mirror,
Johnston had suggested. Hell of a fucking world. Maybe
so; but how would they turn the mirror back aright?

They seemed to come upon the estate suddenly: there was no light,
no noise in the trees and rolling mists, only a thinning of the woods
before a high wall which stretched away into the darkness. They
huddled behind the trees for five minutes, listening and waiting.

“Power’s off,” breathed Dee. “No generator, either. No sentries,
or else they’re quiet as hell. Sounds like . . . sounds like voices
in there, distant, a lot of people together.”

“Masquerade,” said Ritter.

“Yeah, most likely. Goggles.” He lifted the goggles to his eyes
and thumbed the power. Nothing happened. He switched it again; still
there was only blackness. “What the hell?”

“Power’s off, all right,” said Barnes.

Dee slid the goggles off again. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Blacker than black, kid. They brought out the tools of the trade
for this operation.”

“You telling me our targets cut off the power to our own goggles?”

“That’s what happened. Look on the bright side: they can’t see
shit, either.”

“Shit. That’s just great.”

“Keep it together, Dee,” Barnes warned.

“Don’t tell me about keeping it together, Barnes,” Dee said
angrily. “You never saw together til you saw me in the field. But if
we’re going in blind against entrenched troops with special operations
training, we’ll need more than bad attitudes to come out again.”

“I know how they operate,” said Barnes. “I plan, you execute.
That’ll get it done.”

Dee shook his head. “I guess we’ll find out.”

“Just keep your eyes open for signs of the targets,” said Barnes.
He stood.

Dee stood as well. “You better believe it.”

They climbed over the wall. Dee went up first, using a mirror to
scan the grounds on the other side. There was nobody, only the mist
and trees, hedges and unlit buildings in shades of grey and black. He
rolled over and hopped to the earth, leaving a rope affixed for the
others to climb more quickly. Still no other movement disturbed them,
no sign that any had sensed their intrusion.

They moved across the lawn at a jog, feet rustling the damp grass,
belts and holsters jingling with each rough step. More than ever Dee
wished for his old squad, for men who knew how to move in concert and
who each knew how the others would act and react. He shook it off.
This is the job, he told himself. Get it on, and save the rest for
the debriefing.
Soon enough they passed the first hedges and were
moving through an orchard. There they paused. Dee smelled still water
nearby, and mentally placed the orchard and the pond from the maps they
had reviewed in the Land Rover. North of the pond would lay the main
road which led to a village outside the estate. Away from the main
house it would be easy to become disoriented, he thought; there were
two orchards and any number of smaller gardens on the grounds, and the
many small houses and buildings all seemed alike in the darkness.

He glanced at his companions. Barnes seemed hypervigilant, even
then. His eyes darted back and forth, and he turned to look
suspiciously at every breath of wind or soft step of an animal. Ritter
was breathing hard from the jog, but he nodded when he caught Dee’s
eyes. All of them wore dark utility suits with kevlar vests, and
Barnes and Dee carried submachine guns sporting long silencers.

Dee turned and had almost set off again when Barnes gestured for
him to wait. Barnes stepped closer and breathed a whisper, barely
audible.

“Tracks.” He pointed to the earth. Dee saw nothing, but then
Barnes had no doubt had better training from the Green Berets. “You
move alone,” whispered Barnes, “and quiet. That way.” He pointed to
the dim shape of a hedgerow in the darkness. “Ambush. Pick them off.
Draw them out of formation. Then we’ll hit them.”

Dee stared at him silently for a moment, then he nodded and
unbuckled his pack and his bandolier, any loose metal or leather to
make unwanted noise, and dumped them. He even took the strap from his
weapon. He did not think about it; he forced himself not to think
about it. There was only the night, and the night held death in nine
different guises unless he was quick and silent enough to defeat them.

He ran in nearly a crouch through the fog, his feet rustling along
the moist grass, his neck buzzing with the rush of the hunt, his pulse
pounding, his throat hot with latent fear well-restrained. This was
it; this was the action, this was the apex of all his gory years. His
Team had once jokingly called him the Baron, Baron Samedi, filling
graves with the wounded men under his care. Now he smiled as he ran,
though the pun no longer held any humor. Here he felt he was lord of
the graveyard indeed, like a voodoo spirit, coming a dark wind to throw
his enemies down.

He saw the first of them before he heard them, and he darted
silently to rest against the grass. The man leaned still and watchful
against the tangles of an overgrown hedge, an assault rifle ready and
aimed into the darkness, heedless to Dee’s approach behind him. One
here,
thought Dee, and he looked at the extent of the darkened hedge
and recalled the maps: Two there; one by the shed; enfilading pattern
for a southerly approach.
He smiled again and crept away northward,
toward the shed, already knowing he was behind their line. Sloppy, for
Green Berets,
he thought. Take out the shed and they’ll have a fat
hole to fill, and enemies to hunt them while they fill it.

He stopped in a steep grassy depression twenty yards behind the
shed. He could see the sentry crouched there against the corner,
staring through a rifle scope into the mist to the east. Northeast of
him would be another two, Dee had decided, then the first two he had
passed in the hedges to the south. That left another three or four
moving into the house itself. They know we’re coming, and they’re
smart enough to kill us before worrying more about the goons inside,

he thought. Just not smart enough to get it done. He looked around
once more, though his course was already laid in his mind. He counted
ten to steady his rushing thoughts, to focus, to aim.

He already knew his laser sight would not work; whatever had
jammed up their night-vision goggles would disable the lasers just
as well. He aimed with iron sights for two seconds, their glowing
dots lining up just below the distant man’s throat. The suppressed
burst cut the air in dazzling fire and dull noise and the target fell
in a bloody gargle as the bullets tore through his throat and head,
then Dee was running, crouching low and sprinting over the wet grass
around west of the shed while he heard a shout and running footsteps
from the enemy.

Then he was in an orchard and he stopped and leaned nearly to the
ground, listening to the men move. He smiled ferally. There he
goes . . . northern idiot splitting from his cover.
Dee ran again,
now straight ahead and around the shed. He stopped and lay flat beneath
a high bush. Scant seconds later the soldier’s shape came jogging into
view and headed for a stand of elms near the shed. Dee tracked him with
the naked sights for three seconds and fired. The man fell with a grunt,
and then he screamed.

Dee ran northeast again, toward the dying man’s partner but north of
him, if he had calculated it right. Yes . . . He heard the rattle of a
holster tied down too loosely, south of him. He turned and moved after
the sound, snarling silently within the cotton hood, and as his feet
stirred unseen leaves he saw the man’s shape turning toward him, his Uzi
moving slower than his eyes, and Dee checked his approach with a heel and
fell to one knee as he aimed. The target shouted and fired a suppressed
burst, jogging backwards now, and the bullets flew high and wide. Dee
aimed high and fired. The man shouted again as bullets broke his cheek
and jaw, but the rest of the burst shot high. Dee’s sights tracked him
as he fell. Dee was consumed with the iron rush of killing, careless for
a moment of the others who would already be coming. He fired again and
the bullets tore up the grass just left of the thrashing man’s shoulder.
Dee hissed and forced himself to exhale. Steady, you stupid bastard,
he told himself, but it was no good, the rush was too strong. He fired a
long burst and bullets ripped into the head and body of his target.

Then he was moving again. Breathe slow . . . count the
seconds . . .
He found a low wall and ran south along it, directly
toward the men in the hedge but on the other side of it now. He counted
four, then he stopped and went prone against the wall and aimed over it
and waited. One . . . two . . . three . . .

He counted eight before he saw one of them still east of him,
running low across the grass from the hedge toward the wall, thirty yards
distant in the eerie moonlit haze of the fog. Dee shifted his aim and
sighted carefully, timing his breaths and his pounding heartbeat. He
shot the man’s legs, cursed, then fired again to kill him.

Getting sloppy, he thought as he hopped the wall and ran toward
the hedge. Steady . . . steady and cold as ice is how you– He
glanced north as he heard another suppressed weapon fire, then movement
in the periphery of his sight, a shape in an unexpected gap in the hedge,
and the butt of a pistol smashed into his forehead in an explosion of
brilliant yellow light.

He heard a voice above him mutter gibberish. He saw a red haze; he
blinked and forced himself to think. The man stood five feet away, still
in the hedge, aiming a pistol at his midsection. His machine gun had
fallen out of reach.

“Answer me, you shit,” the man hissed. “Or I’ve got no reason for
you to live. Who the fuck are you people?”

Dee’s head throbbed. The adrenaline in his veins was cold as ice
now, his breath ragged and sluggish and his mouth coppery.

“Last chance,” said the man. He aimed carefully. Dee saw the
pistol was quite steady, despite the night’s action.

“D-don’t,” Dee grunted. STALL: the word echoed in his mind,
the only clear thought he could muster.

“Why the fuck not? Where’re your friends?”

“Back . . . I’m alone.”

“Bullshit.” The man knelt lower and glanced east toward the sound
of new footsteps. The pistol did not waver. Another man approached,
wearing a plain black utility suit like all of them. Neither man wore
a mask, though both wore dark face-paint. Both looked clean-cut,
healthy, and afraid.

“No sign of the rest of them,” hissed the other man as he
approached. “Jack and Terry are dead.”

“So’s Sisbarro. This fucker says he’s alone.”

“Fuck him. Shoot him and come on, if that’s all he says. We need
to get to the house.”

The other aimed at Dee’s face. “Talk fast, shithead.”

“Five,” Dee said roughly. He felt nauseous. “Five of us.”

“And?”

Dee heard the thumping sound of a suppressed burst, and the gunman
collapsed into the gap in the hedges a few feet from Dee. Another burst
fired into the hedge beside the other gunman, who dropped prone and
fired from the ground, his unsuppressed rifle deafening.

Dee rolled into the hedge bushes in the gap and scrambled for the
pistol at his hip. He felt terribly slow; he saw long bursts of shots
slam into the prone shooter and the ground around him. The man screamed
raggedly for barely a second before another burst silenced him. Then
came movement to either side: Barnes and Ritter came jogging toward him,
and a few feet away the first gunman stirred and half-rose, bleeding and
pale with shock, dying; Dee raised his pistol; the man fired an instant
before Dee shot him in the face.

Ritter came closer again, then he paused as Barnes stopped and
winced. He looked down at his chest.

“Okay,” Barnes said hoarsely. “I’m . . . .” He fell in a slump to
the grass.

Dee rose unsteadily and went to him. There was a neat hole in his
kevlar vest, now covered with blood, directly over his heart. The wound
was still hemorrhaging, but weaker by each second. Barnes died with a
last incoherent whisper.

Dee stood and looked around shakily. It was over, at least for a
span of moments. Seven men lay dead. Seven American men. And why?
But that was always the question; that had always been the question.
His had been a childhood of boredom and the relentless pursuit of
excitement. Then came the Navy, then came the SEALs, then five years of
discipline, five years of duty, five years of silence, five years of
bloody murder. Why? What did all the dead take with them, that its
absence bettered the world?

This is bullshit, he told himself, angry at the distracting
reflections, but his thoughts raced on, defying discipline and the logic
and cold rationality that had long-since become his instinct.

He looked again at the dead. He had killed before: how many
times? He had counted them at first, he and several other young SEALs
in a morbid competition, but soon enough it became more detached; not
routine, but a part of the job which professionalism demanded they take
seriously. But now it seemed important to him to know how many there
had been. Something had changed; no, everything had changed. He had
killed Americans, perhaps soldiers like himself, doing their duty though
they neither understood nor cared for it. They were dead by his hand,
and that cast all the deaths before them into a new and questioning
light.

What the fuck is this? Jesus Christ, what is this all about?

He took a breath and tried to shake it all off, push it back, look
to the job still unfinished, but he remained unsettled. Ritter seemed
close to shock. He stared at Barnes as if stunned that the man was
dead.

“Come on,” said Dee, forcing harshness into his voice. “If these
guys were Special Forces, be glad he’s the only one of us who’s down.”

Ritter looked up slowly and shook his head.

He seemed distant,
as if listening to voices barely heard.

Dee hissed at him again. “Ritter! You need to tell me the
mission so we can get it done. Now wake up and look sharp, God damn
it.”

Ritter shuddered for a moment. “They–they’re saying . . .
Inside,” he said weakly. “Get me inside. That’s all.”

Dee shook his head and spat. “Come on, then, and get your ass
together.” Around them the fog seemed thicker, but he could see the
sky overhead, lightening and swirling in strange patterns of grey.

* * *

The house was dim and still when they entered it. It echoed of
their own creeping steps and soft breath and the distant knocks and
murmur of hinted presences. A lone candle lit the first halls through
which they walked, then an antique lamp burning antique oil in pale
light in a broad dining room. The house seemed rich yet deathly,
desolate in its finery, with accents of gold flickering like sparks
on dark wood in the half-light of wan and tiny yellow flames.

Dee and Ritter moved with deliberation and care, each step a
muted scraping reminder of their isolation within a place still haunted
by enemies. Ritter’s mouth was a tight line betraying his tension, but
his eyes wandered, and to Dee’s mind he seemed dangerously distracted.
But silence was imperative: Dee said nothing, only gestured more often
to direct Ritter’s movements and focus the man’s attention. Only
Ritter knew the reasons for their presence there; without him, Dee could
hope at best for a long and deadly flight through the grounds and forest
back toward the city. He had little hope that he would survive it
without Ritter to call his anonymous contacts for aid. He signaled
again, directing Ritter to the side of the next doorway. Ritter blinked
and nodded. He frowned, but said nothing, in response to Dee’s angry
glare.

They found the first corpses in an antechamber, where the walls
were pierced and broken from recent gunfire and the furniture was
shattered by a fight. The men were Spinoza’s, Dee guessed, by their
suits. They had been shot to death, and one had gone through a beating
before he died; looking at his torn knuckles Dee guessed the man had
given some pain in return. “Close quarters,” he whispered, slowly
inspecting the trajectories of blood and bullets. “And nobody else
around. Looks like our boys either killed everyone, or else nobody
found this yet. Sloppy, though, trying to take captives. They
shouldn’t have let them fight back.” He looked up at Ritter and saw him
staring out the door. “Ritter,” he hissed more roughly.

Ritter looked at him slowly, almost blank. “We should go,” he said
softly. “Soon the suns will rise.”

Dee stared at him for a moment. He tasted a faint sheen of tin.
Finally: “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

Ritter blinked. “I don’t know. I don’t know. But we should go
on. We’re not yet there.”

Dee stared at him a moment longer. Ritter’s losing it, he
thought. He is sure as shit losing it, and I’m hanging out here on a
short rope without him.
For a moment he considered aborting the
mission and explaining Ritter’s loss of nerve to Johnston afterward,
but then he stood and walked onward. This is the mission, he told
himself uneasily. This is it. Full-on, or nothing.

“Come on, then,” he said to Ritter.

Deeper into the house they still heard only the low murmur of
movement and voices further away, until they came to an open bedroom.
There was a high bed with ornate wooden posts, and a half-open wardrobe
housed a television set. A small light flickered atop a mahogany chest
of drawers: Dee recognized the strange metal of the brazier he had seen
before Eduardo and his tutor at their deathplace in Panama. This one
seemed its match.

A man lay on the bed, unmoving, on his back with his eyes staring
at the dim ceiling. A young woman sat in a chair close to him, leaning
forward to whisper into his ear.

Dee aimed his submachine gun at her and waited, but she seemed not
to notice. “Get up and stay quiet,” he whispered in Spanish, “and no
sudden moves.”

The woman looked at him with a smile. “But he cannot yet rise, and
I cannot leave my love.”

Ritter stood with him in the doorway and looked in, bemused. “He
is dead.”

“He is resting,” she said. “But all have come, and soon he will
rise.”

“All have come?”

She smiled again. “All who know the Yellow Sign.”

Dee remained silent. The breath was strangely tight in his chest.

Ritter frowned. “All? Are you sure?”

“All have come who know the Yellow Sign,” she said. “Yet not all
know the Sign who have come.”

Ritter smiled obligingly. “A riddle?”

“A warning.” Her voice lilted with the promise of laughter.

Dee shuddered, and suddenly he became aware of a gripping fear, an
inexplicable but dizzying fear which seized his throat with ice, pounded
hot behind his eyes, made sluggish every movement, tinged every thought
with weeping despair. He stepped back once involuntarily as he grimaced
and struggled to subdue his emotions.

Ritter did not react. The woman looked at the strange brazier.
“The coal burns,” she said, “and the suns rise. My love has not long
to be still.”

Ritter turned and walked away into the hall. “Come,” he said to
Dee. “We must be quick.” Dee breathed deeply and followed him.
Ritter looked around for a moment in confusion. “They gather already,”
he muttered. “The suns rise above the breakers of fog; the moon is
still before the towers. The towers . . . The voices . . .” He
stopped and shook his head violently, then clutched a hand to his ear.
“Enough,” he growled.

When he pulled his hand away, he held a strange glassy-looking
earpiece, thin and rubbery and transparent, with intricate, almost
organic patters to be seen within it. He looked at it and laughed.
“They talk about you,” he said, holding the thing out to Dee. “Take
it. I . . .” He looked around again.

Dee stared at the glassy thing for a moment. As he took it he
lifted the gun in his other hand and aimed at Ritter’s head. “No more
bullshit,” said Dee in a low voice, nervous and deadly. “What the hell
is going on here, Ritter? Who’s giving the orders?”

“The Outsiders,” muttered Ritter, “but They will never see us here.
This part of it is done. I must go. All have gathered and await the
final scene.”

Dee sighed in disgust and held the earpiece to his ear. He cursed
as it suddenly became fluid. It flowed into his ear; he felt a liquid
pressure in his ear and Eustachian tube for an instant. He heard a
nauseating liquid sound, then voices, as clean and clear as if they
came from the air before him. When he looked up again, Ritter was gone.

” . . . Ritter. Ritter, signal,” said the first voice. It was
crisp English, American, a man’s voice. Dee thought he detected a
Southern accent. There was a pause. “I think he’s lost it, Admiral.
No response.”

“Is he moving?” Dee felt his breath catch for an instant. He
recognized the voice of Admiral Johnston.

“No, sir, he’s still in the hall. He hasn’t moved, sir.”

“Damn. We should have outfitted Dee with one.”

“What now, sir?”

“Go in. Get Ritter out of there. We can snap him out of it for
the debriefing.”

“But sir, if Lepus–”

“To hell with Lepus. You know he’s out of the loop on this
operation. Bring in Ritter. If Ritter’s learned what he said he’d
learn, Lepus won’t be a worry for us.”

“Yes, sir. What about Dee?”

Dee heard Johnston sigh. “Kill him.”

“Sir?”

“If you get Ritter, you won’t need anything Dee’s seen. He’s
been exposed to too much without sanction, in any event. Brainwipe’s
too risky. Bring them both out, then kill Dee. He’s a damn good kid,
but there’s too much at stake.”

“Yessir. Moving in, sir. Over.”

Dee stared at the empty air for a long moment, dazed and silent,
until his thoughts suddenly leapt ahead. It was over. Whatever this
fucked-up mission had been about, whatever Outsiders Barnes and Ritter
and Johnston and the rest of them answered to or whatever they wanted
to achieve, it was unsanctioned and it had gone south. His duty now
was to survive despite all treachery.

That motherfucker!

His first raging instinct was to want Johnston’s blood as the
commanding officer of this betrayal, but he forced himself to think it
through. Cold as ice gets you home, he thought. If Ritter lives,
you die.

In Dee’s mind, Ritter’s life was already over. He ran quickly
down the hall, stalking each corner with his weapon held ready, moving
ever closer through the empty rooms toward the great courtyard where he
somehow knew they all would be. He felt disconnected from it all, as
if observing from beyond the hushed footfalls and soft breath and
coursing fear of his flesh. As he passed windows he saw the sky outside
roiling steely-grey over looming banks of liquid fog, broken only by
strange patterns of black stars, black stars like pinpricks in the dun
air, and it did not occur to him to wonder at it.

* * *

They waited in boredom and tense anticipation in a great courtyard.
Cassilda stood in imperial state with her retinue and family near the
fountain. Cassilda? Dee knelt in a well-shadowed alcove and shook
his head softly. Cassilda? Her name was Mariel, he remembered. He
pictured her face from the briefing dossiers, the fine lines and
softness and the deep, sad, beautiful eyes. Her name was Mariel. He
had seen to her son’s violent death, and seeing her now he somehow found
himself regretting it.

He took a deep breath, angry at his own distracting thoughts; he
nearly cursed aloud before he remembered to keep silent for the
“earpiece” which Ritter had given him, which now lay beneath him on the
ground. The unearthly thing had come out easily enough, but he had no
way to know what it might still hear. Now he only would leave it as a
beacon to attract Ritter’s would-be rescuers.

Mariel extended an exquisite arm up toward the steely heavens to
direct the gaze of her sycophants. “See the distant Earth and her lonely
Sun,” she said. “So blind. So blissfully blind.”

The priest looked at her with a gaze at once stern and humoring.
Manuel! He is no priest. He is Manuel Spinoza, thought Dee, he is
her husband, and he is a drug-running scumbag whose death would get me a
medal if I could swing it.

“My Queen,” said Spinoza, “It is nearly time to retire, is it not?
He will not come.”

Mariel looked reproachfully at her husband. “Would he lie to me?
Would . . .” She paused uncertainly, looking slightly embarrassed, as if
forgetting the words of her thought. “Would . . . would this Stranger
disdain the court, the heart of Hastur?”

Manuel shook his head. He, too, seemed to speak haltingly. “The
Stranger wears the mask, to . . . to . . .”

She spoke hurriedly. “He will come, Noatalba.”

Noatalba–Manuel–began to speak, but gasps and hushed exclamations
arose from others in the court. Then came another voice, powerful and
unhindered by doubt, and from its first utterance Dee sensed a change,
sensed comprehension which spread among the eyes and faces of the court.

“Cassilda,” said the voice, “I have come.”

They turned to the voice, rich with sardonic humor and hints of
knowledge yet ungifted, and they muttered in wondering whispers behind
their masks: “Yhtill! The Stranger! The Pallid Mask!” Dee strained
his eyes toward the darkened balcony upon which the figure stood, and in
a chance flicker of torchlight he saw.

It was Ritter.

His face was slack, less apathetic than empty, devoid of the
slyness and veiled contempt which filled those spare words. Dee
wondered idly at Ritter’s skill as an actor, to convey such suggestion
by voice alone; but more deeply he knew with growing and unreasoned
terror that there was no role there portrayed, no part played, only the
truth carried out to its dread fullness now that its sallow phantom
had arrived. He looked across the people in the yard and saw no longer
maids and butlers and cousins and well-dressed thugs, but courtiers and
nobles and serving-ladies, subjects of Cassilda and the Court of Hastur,
aching for an end to the endless doubt of waiting. And Dee knew that
Ritter had not transformed them, but had been himself transformed.

Cassilda stepped forward, no longer doubting, no longer fumbling
for scraps of memory half-imagined; Cassilda stepped forward, epochal
despairing Queen, and she turned hesitant eyes to the Stranger.

Dee’s mouth suddenly ached with the taste of his own rancid and
bilious spit. His eyes throbbed, bulbous orbs glaring in dull heat,
drawing his slack flesh unwillingly in a rictus of nausea. Cassilda
and Noatalba and the Stranger spoke again, but he could no longer hear
their words. He saw other shapes come jogging into the shadows, masked
gunmen in black, but they seemed useless and insignificant before the
momentous court of Hastur. Thought churned, sluggish and unwelcome, as
Dee fought his cresting terror, fought it with will and reason as he had
been trained, as had saved him so many times before, then the thoughts
sped heedlessly beyond his control.

Cool, cold as ice wins it, logic and reality are how you survive,
survive and make the other die, survive and learn and carry on, survive
and face the day, face the beating suns, face the faceless, face the
coming King . . .

He winced painfully in confusion. Bullshit. This is bullshit,
Ritter, it doesn’t mean anything, nothing means anything, nothing is
anything, nothing is but the coming King.

He stepped back clumsily. Fuck you, Ritter! Fuck you and your
“power of suggestion” and your drugs! My thoughts are my own. I’m
coming for you. You hear me, fucker? Do you hear me, Stranger? He’s
coming for you! I–I’m coming for him, I am, I come through the
roiling mist of My thought and the drifting oily sky of Mine ill-
starred dream, I come for thee, thou fickle children of Mine idle whim,
I come for thee, thou who hast known My sign and yet would deny its
provenance, and thou, wearer of the mask, messenger of folly, bringer
of false Truth, I come for thee . . .

“YHTILL!”

Vomit filled his mouth. The terror of thought no longer his own
was torn pained and aborning from his mind and rolled from bitter lips
across the rising clouds of unknown Hali, across the oily skies of
ancient dreams, across the shifting streets and crumbling spires of
immortal expectation, sardonic, empty, sonorous, dolorous, the voice
of King or God coming over meaningless eons and the blasphemous plots
of maggoty children to claim His due.

“YHTILL!”

Dee stared, slack-jawed, in muted protestation. No . . . he
thought or felt, as reason vied with reality in the horror of his
soul. . . . no . . . Truth approached and would be cast down; but
the hollow King remained. . . . no . . . The walls pulsed and men
and women wept with despair, unnatural despair, the dawning
understanding of the only truth that remained. . . . no . . . It
was not a voice in him, now, not a thought, hardly a feeling, only the
dim and shrieking awareness that with courage he might face at last the
reality to which all Truth was laid.

“YHTILL!”

The skies twisted in banking mists and fog from the impenetrable
Lake of Hali. Dee arose. About him shadows flickered and shifted,
the shadows of swaying filthy robes. He felt the mask tight against
his face and reached for it in desperation, tugged at its fabric, but
felt only the tugging of his own numb flesh. His blood writhed in
wormlike vessels and his breath bore the stench of carrion. Moments
now, only moments remained before the coming of the pale King. The
subjects of Hastur saw him and stared, stricken. He sensed he could
understand, he would understand, he would swallow fear and stand and
know the truth. He felt a corpulent swelling in his flesh. One hand
lifted clawlike to accusingly indicate Yhtill, and he knew the
ascension of the King was nearly complete. In that last instant
comprehension and courage shattered and slipped from his desperate
thought.

Dee ran. Fog deepened over the court and its citizens, wide-eyed
and weeping as they beheld the strange stars and awaited the coming
King. More of them came from the black-spired streets outside, the
people of ancient Hastur to see the rising of the mists of Hali, this
day long foretold when Carcosa and Hastur would be one beneath the
scalloped tatters of the King. They ignored the wild man who darted
along the broken streets and fled them, fled the monstrous shadow of
tattered oily rags, the black stars and flapping bat-wings and rolling
fogs of the iron sky, the cities now become one in the eternal will of
the King, the iridescent dead which shambled in grim awareness along
basalt avenues to each exhalation of the unspeakable, fled comprehension
and courage, fled beauty and sorrow and all they hold of truth, fled the
mists of lost Carcosa.

* * *

They found Dee in the forest near the outskirts of Bogota.
Colombian and American recovery teams combed the area for days after the
disappearance of the Spinoza household, and when one reported a wild-
looking man in the woods the American captain drove over to check
personally. He found Dee curled on the earth like a fetus, insensate as
an animal, stinking of filth and sweat.

“Christ,” said the captain. “This is one of them.” He looked back
at a sergeant and nodded. The man directed several others toward their
filthy prize to restrain him for transport.

“Pass the word to the General,” said the captain. “It’s the new
guy. Looks like he’s had a hell of a night at the opera, but we have
him.”

The sergeant spat to the ground angrily. “Captain. Are you sure
you need him in one piece, sir?”

“Forget it, sergeant.” The captain’s voice was hard.

“He killed some damn good men, Captain. A lot of goddamn good men.
You didn’t see what they did to Merrick, the FBI kid. Blew his face off,
clean off into the dirt.”

“The top said leave him alone,” said the captain. “One piece. You
want to argue it with Fairfield? Be my guest.”

The sergeant said nothing. He watched the now-helpless killer in a
silent lust for revenge.

The sergeant and captain sat across from Dee as their men secured
him in the van and drove away on uneven dirt roads that would lead to an
unlisted staging area and airstrip. Both men watched him in silence for
a time, wondering what had happened to drive the man to stupefaction,
and privately both hoped they would never know.

Finally the captain turned to the sergeant. “Do you have the
dispatch from the General?”

The sergeant nodded soberly and reached into his coat pocket. He
handed the captain a small envelope. The captain did not bother to check
its seal. It held only a thin sheet of paper. He read the message and
looked again at the sergeant. “Are you sure this is it?”

The sergeant nodded again. “That’s all they gave me, sir. Maybe
they’ll get more out of him at Bethesda.”

The captain nodded and leaned forward to be heard clearly. “Well,
troop, listen up. One question.”

Dee lay still as the van swayed and bumped along the road, his eyes
wide and staring through tumbling molecules of steel and nylon to the
squirming and devouring endlessness which awaits at the core of all
things. In his ears the men’s voices rattled and fell in a cacophony
of meaningless noise; the captain’s question was a droning echo only
hinting at the words which came unbidden into his thought, the words of
that mocking and dreadful voice of the mists, that doleful voice of
tattered robes and empty eternity, of truth without reason, without
beauty, without hope. They asked the same thing, and its only true
portent was fear.

“Have you seen the Yellow Sign?”

Shane Ivey runs Arc Dream Publishing and is the lead editor of the newest Delta Green projects.