A/N: Well, this is it. I hope you've enjoyed reading this beast; I've very much enjoyed writing it. (Here's hoping, too, that the ending doesn't land with too much of a crushing thud.) Take care, thank you for the comments, and I will try to get caught up on my replies. If, as an inveterate wastrel, I don't, know that I am grateful for your readership. Catch you later!

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Someone was shaking him by the right shoulder. He could hear himself inhaling, exhaling, not gasping, not panting, the kind of deep, slow breathing by which he might mark out a place for himself within a darkness as heavy as earth.

"Mr. Fischer?" a woman's voice asked.

"Susan—" Fischer said, and opened his eyes; he woke up.

Nancy Crawford, a concerned frown on her face, was looking down at him. "Were you here all night, Mr. Fischer?" she asked.

He was lying on the sofa in his office at Fischer-Morrow. Still wearing his dirty jeans, his second sweatshirt. No blood on his chest and torso. He stared at the stab wounds that weren't there.

"I must have been," he mumbled. His mouth was very dry. He sat up; not knowing what else to do, he looked at his watch. It was six-twenty. "What are you doing here so early, Nancy?"

"I'm always here this early, Mr. Fischer."

Fischer swung his mud-smeared boots to the floor and for a long moment sat without moving while aftershocks of emotion shook through him. Fear and sadness. Anger, a terrible sense of loss. Love, more terrible still. He found himself trying not to cry in front of his secretary. Nancy gently squeezed his shoulder, then discreetly moved away.

"You might go up to the penthouse, sir, to tidy yourself," she said. She took a tumbler from the drinks cabinet, ran water from the filtered tap in Fischer's private bathroom. He took the glass gratefully when she brought it to him. "Your father isn't there; he's left for Los Angeles."

The fiftieth-floor penthouse. Cold heaven, Fischer thought, drinking his water. Maurice, disliking to commute and seeming to draw power from proximity to the focal point of his empire, as much as claimed the place for his own, but he— thoughtfully— permitted Robert room enough for toiletries and a change of clothes.

"No, Nancy, it's alright. I'll go home and get cleaned up." Fischer set his empty glass on an end table, stood up. As he did, he spotted a drop of blood, now dried from garnet to reddish brown, on the carpeting near the sofa.

Susan.

"One good thing this morning, anyway," Nancy was saying. She took something from the edge of his desk, held it out for him to see. "I found this."

It was the black plastic folder.

"I must have mis-stacked something yesterday," she continued. She seemed oblivious to Fischer's stare. "I moved a pile of papers from my in-pan when I got here this morning, and there it was. Should I return it to Mr. Browning's office, sir?"

"No, Nancy, thank you. I'll return it to him myself."

He took the folder and his briefcase, still on his desk where he'd placed it last night. He had to force himself to keep from bolting for the elevators. He rode down to the executive parking level, and there in his Jaguar with shaking hands he opened the folder, pawed past Susan Gaumont's picture to the page of her file that showed her purported address in Surry Hills. It was the same as last night, the same as his dream. He fumbled the key into the ignition and started the engine.

#####

He knew, through the tightening grip of early rush-hour traffic, that it was impossible, unthinkable: it wouldn't be the same place. But it was. Almost. A white metal sign spiked into the grass out front told of an APARTMENT FOR RENT 1 BR. Fischer parked the Jaguar where he'd parked in his dream, crossed the street, and went in through the open front glass door, past the mausoleum of post boxes, the brown metal fire door beyond. He remembered the ground-floor walls as pale green; now they were a dusty yellow. The carpeting underfoot as he took the stairs three at a time was a darker shade of brown. He went to 304.

He found the door intact.

His heart was pounding, but not from the climb. He raised his right hand and knocked.

No reply. No sound of motion from within. Fischer knocked again, then tried the knob. It turned in his hand. He opened the door.

Nothing. Nothing inside. The flat was completely empty. Early morning sun shone in at the curtainless window. The carpeting had been torn up; the hardwood boards underfoot were dusty gray, rough with spots of glue. Fischer stepped inside, the ghost-pressure of fingers on his left bicep, and moved toward what had to be the kitchen. To his right, through an open doorframe across a narrow dark hallway, a second curtainless window admitted sunlight into an empty bedroom.

Behind him, a man asked: "Can I help you?"

Fischer turned. The speaker was leaning in at the apartment's open door. He was thin, pale, black-haired, twentyish, slightly less than average height; he wore jeans and what had to have been a very old black concert tee. ELO. Time. Faded peach-and-blue applique dripped like The Persistence of Memory down his flat belly.

"We're having someone in about the lock downstairs; still, we'd prefer people to stop by the office before they come up for a look." The man, the landlord, spoke, possibly, a little too clearly. His expression bespoke a suspicion that might shift quickly from "polite" to "I'm calling the police." "You are here about the flat, aren't you?"

"I'm, uh, not sure."

"Of course, it doesn't look right with the carpet gone," the landlord continued, stepping inside. He offered Fischer an apologetic smile. "It was damaged. Water leak, you see. We've had the plumbing put right; now we're waiting on the carpet layers. Should be any day, now."

Fischer asked, his voice emotionless: "How long has it been empty?"

"About a month, give or take."

Fischer felt numb. He thought he could see the remnants of a dark circular stain like a shadow in the floorboards by the door. "Water, you say?"

"Yes. Something I probably shouldn't admit, but the old girl's pipes aren't getting any younger." He shrugged, looked appraisingly about the flat. "Still, it's a good space for the price. Convenient, amenities—"

As he turned his head, the sun through the front-room window directly lit his eyes. There was something familiar about them. Hazel, strangely pale in the light.

"Have we met?" Fischer asked.

The man looked at him, bemused, his expression in limbo, now, between smile and frown. "Not to my knowledge, no."

"My mistake." Fischer made a show of taking one last look around the empty room. "I, umm, I'll think about it." He offered the man his right hand; the man shook it. "Thank you for your time."

"No problem."

He led the way out; Fischer followed. Just inside the door, in a terminus of sweepings against the wall, something sparkled. He bent down, picked it up. Tangled in a furry clump of dust was a tiny piece of glass, silver-backed. A shard from a broken mirror. Fischer carefully brushed it clean. He could see himself reflected in it.

#####

He went home and showered and shaved and dressed for work. He was ravenously hungry; he would order breakfast when he got back to the office. He wanted to call in sick, but the excuses were too implausible, too embarrassing. What would he say? That he'd had a bad dream? That, worse, he could no longer separate his dreams from reality? He had, he realized, razor at jaw then toothbrush in mouth, an even more childish reason for not wanting to stay in his flat, one he would never admit to anyone: he didn't want to be alone. All he wanted, in lieu of having the impossible, that is to say a girl who likely never existed, was for things to be normal, to be as they were, pre-Gilliam's, four nights ago.

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He didn't know it then, but he'd passed a test.

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So much for the stage-one checklist, thought Susan Gaumont, as she waited for what would no doubt be the first of too many drinks.

She'd forwarded Miles their initial report the better part of a day ago, shortly after Nick returned from the empty flat in Surry Hills. Criterion one: the subject's lucid reaction to, and interaction within, the dream-state, as evidenced by Robert Fischer's ability to converse rationally within said state. Criterion two: the ability to remember things from the dream-state, as evidenced by Fischer making use of the warehouse ad, him calling Chris by name. Criterion three, or the ability to continue patterns of action between the dream-state and the waking-state, or top-level reality: Fischer remembering, and echoing, Susan's comment about his dry cleaner, his use of the warehouse ad to find the Koran that Susan and her team had hidden for him. Criterion four: the ability not only to react to the dream-state but to create in response to such reaction, as embodied in the gun with which Fischer had "killed" Chris. What was known, technically, as "a semi-conscious defensive manifestation." And, finally, criterion five: the subject's ability to recover, however morbid the term might seem, from death within the dream-state: not only had Fischer had the presence of mind to re-check the Surry Hills flat this morning, but their contact at Fischer-Morrow had reported that, despite his having "died" in a dream last night, Mr. Fischer had made all but the earliest of his day's meetings and had gone to lunch at his usual time. Whether he had actually eaten said lunch their contact didn't say.

Now Susan and Nick and Chris were to stay put until Miles made his initial assessment of freshly checklisted Robert Fischer, which assessment was to take place after Fischer left the office tonight. Depending on the results of that assessment, the three of them might be in Sydney for another week or more, as Fischer began stage two, the focused, conscious, detail-specific stage, of his dream-defense training; they might be leaving the country tomorrow. For now, each of them had an executive suite in the Observatory Hotel, aptly named. Miles, as always, might have saved the company money and dormed the three of them together: the most unavoidable symptom of post-dreamwork crashing was a fear of being alone. (They were, Susan tried not to think, less than a kilometer from Robert Fischer's flat; he was apt to be suffering the effects of after-dream, too.) Consequently, while Nick did strange and mage-like things with alcohol at his suite's full bar, Susan was sitting on the floor of his living area with her back resting against the couch, listening through the open bedroom door while Chris made what would be, in Cincinnati, a very early morning call to his wife and their four-year-old daughter.

"No real koala, honey, I'm sorry," he was saying. A pause long enough to contain a little girl's sleepy Why...? "'Cause it would make the koala sad to leave home, wouldn't it? He'd miss all his friends." A second pause. Susan could picture his patient smile. "Yes, baby, and his mommy and daddy, too. I'll get you a nice stuffed koala instead, okay?" Later, she would phone her mum in Manchester, and Chris and Nick would listen to her; in due time, Nick would have an audience when he checked in with his boyfriend in New York. All out of their need to feel normal, grounded, connected.

For now, Nick, bless him, having ventured out and found limes and, more incredibly, fresh mint, was making mojitos while the three of them waited for room service. Susan, watching him turn a tall frosted cylinder of a glass into what looked for all the world like a cloud-gray terrarium, felt, beneath her appreciation, a stirring of sadness.

"He was right, you know," she said. "Fischer. That first night I met with him."

Nick casually kept his eyes on his alchemy. "About what?"

"He asked if I was working. I told him I wasn't. I lied."

"Is this the point in the evening at which you air your madonna-whore complex, dearest?"

Susan smiled slightly, despite herself. "Afraid it is, yes."

Nick said, in his voice like worn silk: "Please continue."

And Susan replied, as she always did: "I'm going to quit."

"Again." Nick stepped from behind the bar, crossed to her gingerly, conscious of spills, and handed down that first terrarium-like glass.

Susan met his eyes as she took it. "I mean it this time."

"I know you do, Susie." He looked at her long enough for he to see he was sincere, then returned to his laboratory space. As he reached for an empty glass, he made an end to a long line of ellipses: "Again."

They all came to the dreamtime from very different backgrounds. Nick, an actor and performance artist forever in search of new sensations, once told Susan (and they were his words, his alone) that he didn't want to end up as "just another art-fag with a smack habit." Having done time for armed robbery and assault, Chris first experienced shared dreaming as a form of therapy, as a condition of his parole. And Susan was where she was because of a breakdown.

#####

A little less than four years ago, she and Tom Warwick, wiry, sandy-haired, good-natured Tom, had volunteered to test the RAF's new virtual-reality flight-simulation program, DreamTech. Only it wasn't virtual: it was, in fact, exactly as advertised. They were administered special sedatives; they trained as a flight crew within a shared dream-state. All of which was fine, even if the concept itself was more than slightly unbelievable: the equipment and flight scenarios were absolutely realistic, and Tom and Susan said as much in their evaluations and reports.

Three weeks after they began their test of DreamTech, Susan was Tom's co-pilot in a real-world shakedown flight of a refitted Tornado GR4 over Snowdonia. It was nighttime. The sky through the filtered canopy was a high-latitude blackish-blue. "You know what the best thing is, Gaumont—?" Tom asked. In retrospect, his voice over the helmet feed would seem dreamy, a little absent.

Having spent much of the day putting trainees through their flailing paces in a Hawk T1, Susan was in no mood for reverie. "Cut the chatter, Warwick."

"— if we crash," Tom continued, possibly unhearing, "we just wake up."

The official report regarding what happened next would say that he'd had a leak in his oxygen mask, leading to hypoxic dementia. Whatever the explanation, whatever the conjecture, whatever the excuse, the fact, for Susan's purposes, remained: he drove the jet right into the side of a mountain.

Susan didn't have time to unlock the controls he'd frozen. A low-altitude ejection. A crash, an explosion. Warwick was killed outright. Susan broke her right arm, her right leg. She nearly broke her neck. She was off-duty for six weeks, and then she was deemed permanently unfit to fly. The RAF discharged her quietly, with only a written reminder regarding how training procedures, most especially DreamTech, fell under the auspices of the Official Secrets Act. Two weeks later, she was standing on Waterloo Bridge at three a.m., her head full of booze and leftover painkillers, watching the Thames whorl about the stone-clad pilings. She'd had oxy-fueled thoughts about dying like Vivien Leigh in the eponymously titled film; unable to find a bus willing to hit her on the bridge at this hour of the morning, she'd resigned herself to death by cliché: the old classic of jumping to a watery grave.

"There is an alternative, you know."

A man was standing next to her. No surprise there: she was so stoned the entire Household Division might have stomped and clopped to a halt beside her and she wouldn't have noticed. She nodded unsteadily toward the bridge upriver. "Westminster's a bit too trafficky this time of night."

"I'd like to offer you a job, Miss Gaumont." His accent, she thought, in drunken arrogance, was gentrified low-grade. Like that of a council flats boy who'd managed to make something of himself.

"I'd like to tell you to piss off," she replied.

"In the morning. Or afternoon. After you've had a chance to sober up." He took her helpfully but quite firmly by the upper arm.

"I'm a trained fir- firt- fighter," she said. "I could break your bluffy neck."

"Later," said Miles. He hadn't given his name, but that's who he would prove to be, eleven hours of sleep and sobering hence. "You come home with me, you pass out on my sofa, and after a decent breakfast and a couple of aspirin, you'll listen to what I have to say. Deal?"

In the easy mutability of extreme intoxication, Susan turned her eyes back to the black water and nodded again. He kept his hold on her arm, drew her back from the railing, and she leaned with drunken shamelessness into his topcoated side as he led her off the bridge toward another cliché, one slightly more livable than the first: the future and redemption.

#####

Now, already, and again, three and a half years later, the excuses were cycling through her mind, and even Nick's magic couldn't help: The fact that hers was a brutal, unforgiving job. The fact that essentially she was paid to molest unwitting strangers. The fear in Rober Fischer's too-blue eyes, raw and searing and agonized, as he lay dying in a dream.

The soft sound of pleasure and trust, deep in his throat, the one and only time he kissed her in the real world.

She would talk to Miles. She would do so with the counterbalances already in place: she was good at what she did, and, in a world without legal protection for those who fell victim to mental extractors, what she did was a public service, practically a form of heroism. He would listen to her with sincere sympathy. And once he'd released her and Nick and Chris from further participation in Robert Fischer's dream-training, she would take a week off, then call him for her next assignment. As she always did.

But the strain was starting to linger. She drank her mojito there on the floor, with her back leaned up against Nick's sofa, and fingered the piece of amethyst hung from a silver chain around her neck.

Don't go. Please—

"Don't worry," she whispered. "I won't."

#####

As Susan Gaumont reached the midpoint of her first of many drinks, as a knock and a call of "Room service!" came from the outer side of the door to Nick's suite, in a bar called Gilliam's, Miles met his second Fischer.

He'd met his first thirty-eight days earlier.

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"Young people of wealth and power are sheltered" was one of the things Miles told potential clients. He hated to think of it as a sales pitch, even though that was exactly what it was, because he believed every word. "Understandably, perhaps inevitably. It's like riding in a limo instead of a roadster: they're insulated from sound and motion, from wind and heat and cold. They need to feel the road."

He'd spoken those very words to Maurice Fischer five weeks ago. Robert, Maurice's son and the present subject of Miles's pitch, was in the United States on Fischer-Morrow corporate business; Maurice met with Miles in his office on the fortieth floor of Fischer-Browning's world headquarters in Sydney. Said office, that being the father's, noted Miles, was on the opposite end of the floor from the son's.

In Fischer's presence, Miles felt his standard-issue unease. It wasn't that the man before him was incredibly wealthy or incredibly powerful (wealth and power being precursors to the most well-founded paranoia and, hence, mainstay traits among those who approached Miles and his teams for help), or, more chillingly, that he had about him the slightly loose-boned appearance of a man unwilling to admit, either to himself or others, that he was in the early stages of succumbing to a terminal disease. No, Miles's discomfort arose from the fact that people like Maurice Fischer inevitably correlated economic stature with raw altitude— hence today's meeting on the fortieth floor of Fischer-Morrow— and Miles, quite simply, disliked heights. He'd worked long enough in dreams to understand the literal importance of grounding; right now, the good soil of New South Wales was some one hundred meters away, give or take a civilized overcoating of concrete and asphalt.

And the office would have to be all windows, too, wouldn't it? As if people like Maurice Fischer would have not only the world below for their own but the sun and the clouds, too, as pets in the bargain. Still, the distraction of space and height made it easier for Miles to focus on Fischer himself, on the man's time-jagged face, his strikingly blue eyes, weary but still sparked with the potential for ferocity.

Theft within dreams, or extraction, a procedure by which specially skilled and trained agents of espionage entered into their victim's mind and stole secrets and ideas: it was the thing, unbelievable but true, against which Miles and his teams offered their very wealthy and powerful clients defensive training.

Such training, at least as provided by MG Consultants, Limited, consisted of two stages. In the first stage, Susan Gaumont and her team would subject the client to a series of dream-state and real-world scenarios and assess his or her reactions to those scenarios.

"A rough-hewing, if you will, of the client's mental defenses," Miles said. "Your son, for instance, Mr. Fischer—" — for it was Robert who was to be dream-trained, if Robert's father saw clear to make use of the services Miles and his people had to offer. "The initial goal would be to break him out of himself psychologically, to introduce him to selflessness—"

"My son is not a selfish man," Maurice Fischer said, not judgmentally, not defensively. Merely a statement of fact, by the sound of it.

Miles knew better. He might have said, "I never said he was, Mr. Fischer." As it was, he left the words unspoken: he knew from experience that men as powerful as Maurice Fischer were too quick to read reassurance as sarcasm or insincerity. Instead, he continued: "We expose him, under real-world but controlled conditions, to things like betrayal and fear, loyalty and pain, devotion and sacrifice. All heavy hitters. Big, solid blocks of feeling." "Blocks," Miles thought, being, in the end, the operative word. "Something I've learned, Mr. Fischer: young men of privilege need to be jostled about a bit before they're open to training."

"Knocked out of their comfort zones, you mean," Maurice said. He might have smiled, just a bit. He pushed back his wheeled leather-clad throne of an office chair, stood, moved casually away from the desk. His destination was a mahogany cabinet wall-set between two ceiling-high sets of bookshelves. "May I offer you a drink?"

"Very kind of you, Mr. Fischer."

Fischer uncapped, poured, returned. He offered Miles one of two tulip-shaped glasses, red-amber liquid pooled within. Miles sniffed, sipped appreciatively. "Angel's share," he murmured.

Reseated, Fischer took his own sip before he continued. "So your first team introduces uncertainty and instability into my son's life."

"Precisely."

"Then you build him back up."

"No, Mr. Fischer," Miles said. "He builds himself back up."

"Explain."

"For this to work, for the training to work, at least at first, your son has to feel, innately, that he's fighting not necessarily to protect your company or its secrets but something in which he, himself, absolutely believes."

Now Fischer's smile was, if remote, definite nonetheless. Miles had the feeling he was witnessing an expression as rare as the cognac in his glass. "So we're back to selfishness."

"If you prefer. The original survival instinct. In this first stage, we inculcate willingness, the ability to react to threat. And the threat, Mr. Fischer, is all too real. Extractors are, in a word, insidious. It's hacking taken to a whole new level. A type of crime that, as you may or may not be aware, governments worldwide are still practically powerless to fight. A violation that is nearly impossible to trace or to prove." Miles paused. He looked evenly at Fischer and said: "I should know how dangerous these criminals are, Mr. Fischer. Many of them learned their skills from me."

"Back when the technology was still legal."

Miles nodded. "Precisely."

Fischer turned his glass slowly in his hands, frowning, looking almost as if he were listening for the click of tumblers in a lock. "For the training to be most effective, you say, the trainee must initially be unaware that he or she is being trained."

"Which leads to a quite-serious conundrum."

"Namely, the question of consent," Fischer said.

"Exactly. Your son can't know what's being done to him. This isn't a class, a seminar. His awareness would change the outcome; his awareness would be an impediment. Very likely he'd emerge with less-than-perfect skills. He must be absolutely open and receptive. This implies, Mr. Fischer, a fearful level of vulnerability." Miles gave Fischer a moment to mull before he continued, with a quieter reassurance: "But it also provides a practical demonstration. An antidote to skepticism, if you will. Your son will realize, if only after the fact, that, yes, in the right or wrong hands, a dream can manipulate the dreamer. But he'll also learn that the dreamer can manipulate the world of the dream."

His duty as salesman done, Miles finished his most excellent cognac while he waited for Fischer's response. His eyes on his own glass, Fischer very quietly said what might have been "Do it for yourself, Robert."

"Pardon me, Mr. Fischer?"

"Do it," Maurice Fischer said. "He can take it."

#####

By the looks of him, Robert Fischer had, indeed, taken it. He was bit shaken, possibly, a bit sad and pale, but the young man occupying the stool beside the one on which Miles sat seemed to embody the enduring, steely-eyed difference between "delicate" and "frail." Shaken, yes, but not shaking. Fischer held his glass with a steady hand.

Miles contemplated the contents of his own glass, set before him on the illuminated marble surface of the bar. For a pub cognac, it was very good. Not, of course, as good as the drink Maurice Fischer had provided him (only the gods could afford, on a regular basis, such godlike libations), but, for a suburban tavern called Gilliam's, very good nonetheless.

He took a drink and said to Robert Fischer, conversationally (the place was full but not packed, and the noise level was reasonable: no need to shout): "You look down in the dumps, son. Was she worth it?"

Fischer frowned for a moment, brushy brows descending on skylike eyes. Then, looking at Miles and seeming to see no threat, he relaxed. "I'm not sure."

"I'll take that as a qualified 'yes.'"

"Are you a mind reader?" Fischer asked, drolly.

"A seasoned observer, that's all. If it were business, you'd be drinking alone. When a man's heart is broken, he wants the world to know."

Fischer drank. "Those who wish us harm don't always play according to the rules, do they?"

"Are you so certain that harm is what she intended?"

"No." Fischer offered his glass a mildly sardonic smile. "I'm not really sure what she intended."

"But she hurt you."

"I'm not even sure of that."

"I know what it's like," Miles said. "Almost like death, having someone so near and being unable to reach that someone." He could understand, now, the impact that Robert Fischer had had on Susan Gaumont, which had been all too plain from her tone when she called that morning with her initial report on Fischer's stage-one training. (Conversely, Miles could understand her likely effect on Fischer, but that was another matter entirely, one to do, technically, with emotional transference within the dream-state but actually involving the idea, more plainly and purely, that she was a beautiful young woman whose compassion lent an honest depth to her acting, and Mr. Fischer was, fairly obviously, a lonely young man). It wasn't his looks— many of the blueblood youngsters with whom Miles and his team dealt were of the genetic-perfection bent— no: there was something in the way he was trying to project, as it were, a sort of forcefield with those too-clear eyes. The fact was the boy had an endearing gentleness about him, and about which he, possibly out of misplaced deference to his father or his own social and economic status, seemed, very much unfortunately, quietly ashamed. Such negativity, left unchecked, was apt to sour into bitterness.

"Still," Miles continued, "we can always chalk it up to experience. We need things to shake us free of our comfort zones. To open us up, to allow us to see the resources at our command, our strengths as well as our weaknesses. To allow us to grow."

"'That which does not kill me makes me stronger.'"

"Absolutely. An oldie but goldie. And one hundred percent true. Tell me something: if you could see her again, what would you say to her?"

Hesitation. Fischer turned his glass slowly between his fingertips. "I would ask her if it was real— if any of it was real— for her."

"Because it was real for you."

"Mm." Softly: "Yes."

A ruminative pause, shared. Then Miles pushed back his left cuff, read the hour from his old black-faced Cabot. "Lord, that's the time?" He offered Fischer an apologetic smile. "If you'll excuse me, I really must be going. Afraid I'm expected elsewhere. You know how it is. Business."

#####

As his drinking companion eased off his bar stool, Fischer got his first good look at him. Close-trimmed curly hair, gray dimming what had once been a very pure gold, a plainly handsome face now weary with jowls, eyes of teacup-glaze blue concealing intensity beneath lazy lids. A build, within a well-tailored charcoal-gray suit, that was solid but not portly. A precise, military-like bearing through the chest and shoulders, which stood in contrast to the quiet geniality of his expression and the free-flow purple, blue, and dusty rose of his watered-silk necktie. He seemed casually to enforce an agelessness that might have encompassed a range of years between fifty-five and seventy-five; in any case, time had had little dominion over his considerable height. As he stood, the man reached for the breast pocket of his suit jacket. Fischer was a moment quicker freeing his own wallet: given the last few days, especially his fear and disorientation this morning, the cost of a drink was a small price to pay for pleasant, even reassuring, company.

"No. Please. Allow me, son." The man opened his wallet, smiling as he did, and placed a crisp twenty-dollar bill on the bar. He looked at Fischer with friendly twinkles in his New-Spode-blue eyes. "I have a feeling we'll meet again."

He left.

A moment later, Fischer noticed that the man had left his wallet lying on the bar. "Wait—"

But the man was gone. And the wallet looked familiar. Very familiar. Out of curiosity, Fischer opened it.

It was his. The one he lost the night he met Susan Gaumont. His credit cards were there; so was his driver's license. Save for the twenty the man had placed on the bar, the cash hadn't been touched. A white business card was tucked into the crease of the side-fold. MG Consultants, Limited.

Fischer laid a ten on top of the twenty and left Gilliam's. The night air was cool; a fresh breeze was blowing from the east. He looked toward the lights of the shops and restaurants; he looked in turn into the quiet tree-shadowed darkness between the houses and blocks of flats. Alert but unafraid, he set off the way the man was likely to have gone.

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THE END