Any Time You Like

(with apologies to The Eagles)

New York, November 25, 1995

Martin Hacker fingered the Illuminati pin in his pocket as the airplane touched down in New York and thought of events coming full circle.

When he was a new recruit to the FBI, his mentor had liked to blame things on "the Illuminati." If evidence disappeared or witnesses left town or the coffee maker didn't work, it was the fault of the Illuminati.

But the Illuminati were real, and they pulled strings on a global scale. Some joined the Illuminati for power, some for wealth, some for fame. Martin Hacker wasn't any of these. He lived more or less anonymously on a salary that wasn't enough for the amount of work he did. He protected his government, and his country, and he knew things that ordinary people never dreamed of.

When he joined the Illuminati, he learned things FBI agents never dreamed of.

Twenty years ago this month, he'd told his wife he was skipping out on their anniversary dinner in favour of a trip to New York City—a trip to the Hotel Cabal. He hadn't told her it was for his initiation into the Illuminati Society.

Membership in the Illuminati could be heaven, or it could be hell. But you got to choose.

Soon it would be Matt Bluestone's turn to make a choice.

New York, November 24, 1975

The Illuminati's invitation had included three nights' stay at the Hotel Cabal in New York City. He had needed to show the invitation before the doorman would agree to let him in. Now, looking around the lobby of the hotel, Hacker felt a strange sense of wonder.

The hotel was decorated in a strange proliferation of styles: art deco, Victorian, French Provincial, Oriental…more than he could name. Every piece of furniture, every table setting, every ornament was exquisite in its craftsmanship. All across the lobby there were flowers: tumbling from hanging planters, coiling around ornate stands, blooming in beds against the wall. Hacker didn't recognize the species. Their heady fragrance was a world apart from the smells of a city in winter.

Martin tipped his hat as he approached the woman behind the front desk. She was prettier than she had any right to be; she could have been a movie star. Dressed in an exquisite ruby evening gown and satin gloves, she exuded the old-fashioned glamour of the glory days of silent film. She wore an ornate eye-in-a-pyramid pendant on a delicate gold chain around her neck; the eye was a diamond. "Welcome to the Hotel Cabal," she said. "My name is Tiffany."

"Martin Hacker," he replied, offering her the Illuminati's invitation.

Tiffany smiled as she opened the card. "And welcome to the Illuminati," she said, attaching a small pin to his lapel. As initations went, it was laughably simple. Yet Hacker felt his heart skip a beat. He'd never been much for ceremony; why did this act seem so momentous?

Tiffany picked up a candle in an old-fashioned holder and led him towards the staircase. She was explaining the hotel's amenities, but Hacker hardly heard her; he was too busy marvelling at the curious décor and Tiffany herself. He passed a painting on the wall which look suspiciously like a Picasso.

The corridors were lit by wall sconces and lined by planters containing the same flowers. "What are they?" Hacker asked, leaning over to breathe in the intoxicating fragrance.

"Colitas."

"Never heard of it," he answered.

"One of our members developed the strain. He was a very good friend of mine."

How good? Hacker thought automatically, then chided himself for his irrational jealousy. He was married, for God's sake.

But she was beautiful.

They ascended the stairs, only to encounter someone on the landing above. "This is our night watchman," Tiffany said. "Richard Wagner, meet our newest member, Martin Hacker."

Martin began to nod; his head froze in mid-movement as the watchman nodded back.

The typical night watchman was an ex-cop or ex-soldier gone to seed. The man in the corner looked young except for his eyes. Hacker had seen that look before; one of his uncles had fought in Vietnam. Wagner had pale skin, as though he'd never seen the sun, and a gaunt face, like a dead man's. The man's jacket could have been that of a valet—the buttons were flashing silver, the trim was a flamboyant red—but the colour of the coat, black as the devil's heart, resulted in an overall effect that did not put Hacker at ease. And he was wearing some sort of cape. He had no doubt that the Walther PPK in the man's belt was loaded, or that the Illuminati pin on his lapel was real. As Martin walked by, he had a crawling sensation of being x-rayed by the night watchman's pale, pale eyes.

Led by the light of Tiffany's candle, Hacker swore he heard voices murmuring behind the doors. It was as though the entire place was full, and yet, he hadn't seen anyone other than the hotel staff and himself.

"Place seems quiet," Hacker said.

"We're having a special event tomorrow evening. I suspect that most of the guests are already asleep in preparation."

"Should I stay in my room until morning, then?'

"As an Illuminatus, you can go anywhere," Tiffany said, pressing a small object into his hand, "as long as you have the right key."

Late that night, breathing in heady floral-scented air, Martin Hacker dreamed.

In his dreams he was seven years old again. Little Marty and his best friend Kevin Kozela were exploring the old Pries place. The big farmhouse, abandoned for decades, stood on a lot that was overgrown with weeping willow and silver birch (and colitas). Marty and Kevin had thought it would be fun to check it out.

They'd been wrong.

As a spectator, he watched Kevin and Marty descend the wooden steps to the basement. The dirt floor was muddy under their sneakers; unidentifiable shapes loomed in the darkness surrounding their flashlight beams. He thought he saw a painting of an eye in a pyramid hanging on the wall. A slight tremor sent dust sifting down from the ceiling.

Get out, Martin Hacker screamed. But history was a mighty river, and it had carried him so far from his seven year old self that his words were unintelligible to Marty's ears. Marty heard only a sound like a beam creaking, and presumed it was nothing.

"It's a skeleton!" Kevin said suddenly, pointing into the black.

Then there was another tremor, a bigger one, and the whole house fell down around them.

Where had all the dirt come from? It was everywhere—weighing down his limbs, filling his mouth, clogging his throat. He couldn't get air into his chest.

Martin Hacker woke up, doing his level best to scream, and realized that he still couldn't breathe.

His throat was closed. His chest flared, trying to draw oxygen into his lungs, but nothing was getting through. Desperate, he formed his hand into a fist and slammed it into his guts. The clog in his throat broke at last.

Martin gasped, filling his tight lungs with the suffocating scent of colitas. He wheezed, sucking in just enough air to sustain life, but not enough to satisfy. His vision blurred.

He staggered out of bed towards the window. He opened the lock and pulled up, but the window did not move. He tugged harder; it resisted a moment longer, then gave.

Marty…Martin…drank deeply of the New York night. It tasted sweeter than wine.

Marty had been pulled from the basement of the collapsed house more than a day later. It had taken his parents and neighbours that long to guess where the boys had gone and then dig him out of his living grave.

He remembered being dressed in a grey suit for Kevin Kozela's funeral. He hadn't attended the burial of Mr. Pries' remains, but he'd wondered why they'd pulled Kevin and Mr. Pries out of the collapsed house only to put them back in the ground again.

Martin also remembered talking to Kevin after the cave-in, through the long, dark hours when he'd fought for air in the darkness. His parents had told him that Kevin had been killed instantly, his head crushed by a falling beam. His parents told him that the bad air had made him hallucinate.

But Kevin had told him what had come for Mr. Pries, and how it still sniffed around every once in a while. How its tunnelling had brought down the building around them. If it wasn't for Kevin, Marty knew he would have died in there too—or at the very least, left the core of himself behind.

Even so, Martin Hacker had never stopped having nightmares about being buried alive.

Hacker slept in late and then spent the afternoon in the Hotel Cabal's salon, watching people come and go. Most of them wore the eye-in-the-pyramid pin. He could have sworn that at different times he had seen Jimmy Hoffa, Amelia Earhart, and Mace Malone weaving their way through the crowd.

The air hung heavy with the breath of colitas. Time skipped like a record. He'd look down at his watch and it would be twenty minutes later.

The doorman admitted a man who strongly resembled the chief steward of the White House. He was accompanied by a creepy guy who looked about a thousand years old.

Martin blinked; it was suddenly an hour later. In the corner, a little girl played with a family of dolls. "My name is Lissa," she said, "and my daddy is coming for me."

Blink. Three hours later. A fat, bald man was leaning over the front desk, speaking very loudly in a foreign accent. He was insisting on a ground floor room, ignoring the clerk's protests that the hotel was full, and demanding to speak to the concierge.

Out of the back room, Tiffany appeared, dressed in a stunning emerald gown and her gold necklace. She managed, somehow, to look even more alluring by day than she had the night before.

"I'm an ambassador," the man thundered, waving his eye-in-the-pyramid-embossed invitation under Tiffany's nose. "I should be able to sleep in whatever room I please."

"You don't want to go in Room 101," she told him with a smile.

"Why, what's in Room 101?"

"It's got rats."

Time skipped again. Martin was sitting before a mostly-consumed dinner plate and holding a cup of coffee.

Tiffany was seated across from him. She slid a cigarette into a long laquered holder, and took a drag, watching him all the while.

"Those things are going to kill you," Martin said. Confusion had made him irritable.

"I'm not dying any time soon." Her voice was husky. She looked him over, forgiving him his faux pas. "You look tired."

"Sorry. Bad dreams."

"Do tell?"

"No, it's nothing wrong with the service. It's just…" Martin let out a shuddering breath and put down his cup.

He was tired, and the coffee wasn't waking him up. He was halfway through his answer before he realized that he was speaking, not just thinking. Martin was horrified to realize that he had just told Tiffany all about the collapsing house and Kevin Kozela and the tunnelling thing, but Tiffany was nodding as if nothing were out of the ordinary.

Then they walked hand in hand to the hotel's courtyard, where a band was already playing. Flowers everywhere, Martin Hacker thought as they began to dance.

An unknown time later, Tiffany excused herself to speak to someone else—the Jimmy Hoffa lookalike. Every time Martin blinked, she had a new dance partner. Mace Malone. Quincy Hemings. The old, old man. They whirled in a blur of colour and sound.

Hacker rubbed his eyes as though waking from a long sleep. He was standing next to the fat ambassador, who had lost his thunder from before.

"Did you enjoy your meal?" he asked, for something to say.

"I don't remember," the man said. His eyes were distant.

"What's your name, then?" Martin Hacker asked with a frown.

"I don't remember. I don't remember," he repeated, over and over again. He began to look agitated.

Tiffany approached and put a drink into the Ambassador's hand. Martin Hacker breathed in her perfume. She smelled of the blooming flowers. Colitas.

Martin fled from the dance in the courtyard, his heart pounding.

Lissa was still awake, far past her bedtime. Now she sat in the corner of the lobby, watching Wagner play solitaire.

The night watchman looked up, realizing he was being watched, and his pale eyes locked on Hacker's.

Martin knew he had to say something, but his mind was blurry and all he could come up with was, "Are there still rats in Room 101?"

"Of course."

He paused, blinked. "You're not trying to get rid of them?"

Wagner hesitated, studying him, and then reached into his pocket. He pulled out a fat white rat and placed it on his open palm. "Are you frightened of rats?" The small animal twisted about his wrist like an acrobat, then climbed his sleeve to his shoulder, where it sat on the hook of his cape and wriggled its nose.

"I'm not scared of rats," Martin replied, feeling the need to emphasize his lack of fear.

"I'm not scared of rats either," Lissa bragged, holding out her hands for the animal. Wagner gently scooped up the rat and placed it on Lissa's palms.

In the FBI office there was a missing persons report, the six year old child of a prominent journalist.

"Of course not," Wagner murmured, "you're scared of the basement, aren't you?"

There was a name on the file. Alyssa Moran.

Lissa cuddled the rat to her chest.

There was a photo of the girl holding a puppy.

Wagner's eyes fell on Martin's, meaningfully, but Hacker could not decipher their message.

Another skip. Martin was walking arm in arm with Tiffany down the corridors of the Hotel Cabal.

She stopped in front of a door and opened it with her key. The room was lushly furnished, with red velvet furniture the colour of Tiffany's lips. There were mirrors on the ceiling and a huge king size bed with satin sheets. The ever-present colitas bloomed in a pot on the lacquered table.

He had a wife. Shana was waiting for him back home in Washington, D.C.

So why was he sitting on a plush velvet couch, pouring two glasses of pink champagne?

"I want you to tell me what's going on here," Martin Hacker said sternly.

Tiffany was too smart to play dumb. "The Hotel Cabal serves many functions. It is a secure meeting place for the Illuminati's membership in good standing. It is a secure holding place for members in…not such good standing. And it is a tool to further the aims of the Society."

"Where's Lissa's father? And what about the ambassador?"

"Whose father?"

"The little girl. In the lobby." Hacker frowned. "Is he not cooperating with you, is that it?"

"Sometimes people can be…unreasonable." Tiffany sipped her champagne and changed the subject. "The Hotel, or a variation thereof, has been here since this city was called New Amsterdam."

"How do you do it?" he whispered. "This job of yours?"

Tiffany said nothing, but her eyes spoke volumes.

"I'll get you out. I swear it."

She looked away. "I don't want out."

"You're kidding me."

"This is my assignment."

"Can't you request another?"

"I could, but…there's no guarantee it's any better than here, you know what I'm saying? They could send me anywhere. Here…" She shrugged. "I live well, fine clothes, fine food, fine wine…and interesting company."

"You could quit."

Her smile faded. "You can't quit." Tiffany took a sip of her champagne, taking his hand in hers. "Pretend you're in the afterlife already. Membership in the Illumanti can be heaven, or it can be hell. But the choice is always yours."

Some time later, Martin Hacker left Tiffany's room and wandered the corridors of the Hotel Cabal.

It was still dark out, if the windows could be believed. The voices still whispered around him, but the hotel itself was still.

Time stuttered. Hacker awoke halfway down the staircase, in the lobby, in what appeared to be the kitchen. When it stabilized, he was standing before a half-open door. Unfinished wooden stairs led down into darkness.

He was not surprised to realize where he was. Wagner had, after all, warned him away from the basement.

He took a step downward. He heard a strange chanting, then voices. He thought he recognized one of them as Quincy Hemings'. The smell of colitas was obliterated by the heavy scent of freshly disturbed earth.

Martin Hacker fled, lungs burning, chest on fire, as fast as his legs would move him.

The thing…that thing in the basement…had finally convinced him. He'd had enough of the Illuminati. He didn't care if they sent an assassin after him. He'd seen something worse than dying.

He ran through the lobby like a madman, drawing curious looks from Lissa and Amelia Earhart, but nobody made any move to stop him. He could see the doors of the Hotel Cabal only a few footsteps away…

…and the man named Wagner standing beside them.

Martin Hacker balled his fists, preparing himself to confront the Hotel Cabal's night watchman. He already knew that Richard S. Wagner had a loaded gun and suspected that he had no hope of beating him regardless.

But he would go down fighting.

He stopped just a pace away from the doors. "This is where you tell me I can't check out, isn't it?" Hacker asked, feeling the weight of predestination pressing him down.

But Wagner did not draw his weapon. Instead, he gave Martin Hacker a sad and weary smile as he reached out, tapped the pin on Hacker's lapel.

"You're an Illuminatus now. You can check out any time you like," he said softly.

There was something in his face that gave Martin Hacker pause. Hacker's brain started screaming at him to just yank the door open and get the hell out.

He expected the door to be locked, but it opened easily in his hand. He expected a bullet in his back, but as far as he could tell, Wagner never moved.

What he didn't expect were the words that followed him out into the night as he fled from the Hotel Cabal.

The streets of New York City were hyper-real in the sunlight. They seemed too solid, too immediate. Noises were intrusively loud, as though the whole world had its volume dial suddenly cranked up. Or had Martin's hearing become sensitized in the muffled, thick air of the Hotel Cabal, where all words were hushed and voices murmured behind closed doors?

Hacker took a deep breath of the city air; it seemed fresh and sweet despite the pollution. He inhaled the aromas of car exhaust and hot dogs. He wondered if he smelled like colitas.

Martin wanted his old life back. He'd have something to eat, then call Shana, beg forgiveness and put himself on the next available flight back to Washington, D.C.

Damn, but those hot dogs smelled good.

Hacker joined the lineup of people waiting to buy a dog; but when he reached the front of the line, he froze in place. He stared at the vendor asking him what he wanted.

Was he, or was he not, the Ambassador from the hotel courtyard?

"I said, what do you want?" The man gestured to his cart.

Behind Martin, a plump woman yelled, "Get your food or get out of the way!"

Martin ordered a hot dog with mustard and ketchup. As the vendor was assembling it, he leaned over and asked the man urgently, "What did you do before?"

The man's face became blank.

"Before you started selling hot dogs?" he prompted.

"I don't remember," said the vendor. He handed Martin his dog. "I don't remember."

Across the street, televisions in an electronics store window were tuned to the news. A newscaster reported that Alyssa Moran was still missing.

Hacker suddenly found he had no appetite.

Three weeks later

Not even the pressures of working for the FBI or the comforts of gin or the struggle to cover up the Kennedy assassination at the request of the Illuminati Society could stop Martin Hacker from thinking about the Hotel Cabal.

His memories of Tiffany were remarkably faded. He could only barely recall what she looked like, and even then, he was uncertain whether he was imagining her, or a phantasm based on the old film stars she so resembled.

In fact, much of what had happened at the Hotel Cabal seemed like a dream. How could it be possible, in this day and age, for the modern world to dance to a secret society's tune?

He had been tired when he'd arrived at the hotel. Perhaps he'd been ill, running a fever. Perhaps he had experienced hallucinations, the way he had in the basement of the Pries house.

But there was one conversation that he recalled with crystal clarity.

"I'm not scared of rats."

"Some people are."

No, Martin Hacker wasn't afraid of rats. But now he knew, knew beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there was a room in the Hotel Cabal where you smothered in the dark. It was impossibly small, too small for a human being, though you were in it just the same. The floor was made of dirt, its ceiling was lined with stone, and in the stygian darkness you were buried in earth and rock. At the end, you swam up through the earth and clawed your fingers to bloody ribbons on the stone. Who knew how long a man could survive in there, slowly feeling the life pressed out of him, breathing just enough to stay alive a moment more, but never enough to satisfy? Breathing air so damp and stale, spiced with just the faintest hint of colitas.

Eight months later

Martin Hacker had learned small rituals. He lined his countertop with a neat row of empty gin bottles. Drunks left their bottles all over the floor. Martin Hacker was not a drunk.

Shana was gone. She would never be coming back. He'd dumped her, in a very public, very embarrassing way, in the middle of her family's Christmas dinner. It had nothing to do with Tiffany, even though Martin had used Tiffany as the excuse.

Throughout the divorce proceedings he kept reminding himself that Shana was terrified, absolutely terrified, of sharks.

Shana would never have to find out what room in the Hotel Cabal contained the sharks. He wished he could have explained that to her.

He knew he could never have told her that he'd dumped her partly because of sharks, but mostly because of Lissa, playing cards in the lobby of the Hotel Cabal with someone he'd later come to learn was not, in fact, the famous composer but rather the most infamous assassin of the twentieth century.

Not his little girl. Not ever his little girl.

It was one thing the Illuminati would never have on him.

Six years later

This could be heaven, or this could be hell.

But you get to choose.

Martin Hacker had no children, no girlfriend since Shana, and no contact with his family. His mother had passed away; he hadn't been there. His father wasn't speaking to him as a result, which made it easier. He had no idea what his brothers were doing. Most days he forgot to care.

Hacker filled his time with his work for the Bureau. His standing rose, because he was always working overtime, always covering for other guys so he wouldn't have to go home to an empty apartment. And the Illuminati kept coming up with assignments to keep him busy.

On his vacations he could always be found in the salon of the Hotel Cabal in New York City, nursing a glass of pink champagne.

The trick had been to realize that working for the Illuminati meant freedom, not a life sentence. It was only a confinement if you let it be. When you embraced your work for the Society—when you did it with relish and flair—you reaped the rewards. And the greatest of those was knowing that you weren't like the other shmucks you passed on the sidewalk; you were part of something bigger than yourself, something that would last forever.

Twenty years later

Hacker wasn't supposed to meet Matt Bluestone until the sun rose. Somewhere in the upper floors of the Hotel Cabal, a gargoyle was fighting for its life while Mace Malone and Matt Bluestone looked on. Hacker had planned to have a few drinks in the salon while he waited, maybe catch up with Tiffany. He hadn't expected to find the building marked "Condemned."

The front doors were nailed shut. Martin peered through the dirty glass of the windows; the inside had been stripped of its furniture, while the walls were caked with spiderwebs, hanging heavy with the dust of years.

How had this happened so quickly? He'd been here sipping pink champagne only…

Martin was startled to realize it had been over seven years since his last visit. Where did the time go? In a blur of work and gin, it was seven years later.

Martin Hacker trudged across the street and walked to an office building, where he took the elevator to the top floor and climbed to the roof. He leaned against the railing, watching the Hotel Cabal as its neon sign flickered intermittantly in the light. Somewhere along the line, he'd grown nostalgic. The night air was scented with suggestive fragrance: tobacco and the breath of night-blooming colitas.

Hacker whipped around.

Richard S. Wagner leaned on the railing next to him, smoking, watching the hotel. Martin had not heard him arrive. He held a bag in his left hand. His cape swirled in the wind. He did not look a day older than the last time Hacker had seen him.

"That habit's going to kill you," Hacker said inanely, his mind once again swimming in that heady cocktail of confusion and fear and lethal excitement.

"I'm not dying any time soon," the assassin replied, blowing out smoke.

In the years since the last time, Martin had learned enough to believe him. He had also learned that sometimes all you could do was play out events to their inevitable, predestined conclusion. He decided to play for time, because damned if he was going to die without knowing what he'd done to get Wagner sent after him. "It's condemned?" he asked, gesturing to the hotel.

"Five years ago they decided to make it automated." The scorn in his voice was audible. "It's all computers now, and robots and other technological garbage, which takes up so much space and makes so much noise…it was easier to hide the tech if the place looked condemned." Wagner shook his head. "I don't understand how anyone can lose their mind in there, when all they need to remember is what can be done with modern technology. And apparently the next iteration will offer virtual reality to its…guests." Wagner didn't seem impressed by this idea either. "Once they've perfected it, they'll renovate and reopen—and there will be room once again for the membership as well."

"You still think it was better the way they did it in the seventies?" Hacker asked.

Wagner opened the bag, let him see inside. Inside was a pot of colitas. "I don't consider chemical trickery an improvement on mechanical automation, if that's what you're asking," he said. "This is for Tiffany."

Hacker's breath caught in his throat. "She's still alive?"

"She's not dying any time soon either. More's the pity." He reached into the bag, pulled out a business card, and handed bag and card to Hacker. "Perhaps you'd like to give it to her."

The card was for a well-known psychiatric institution. A name and room number were written on the back.

Hacker raised an eyebrow. Perhaps Wagner hadn't come to kill him. "What happened to her?"

"Reality is a fragile thing."

"More so for us than them?" Hacker gestured at oblivious passersby.

"It's not easy to know what's really going on."

Martin swallowed. "You twist your mind around a thing or lose your mind completely." His memory was reminding him that there'd been something big living under the Hotel Cabal, and it might still be down there. His mind was telling him that it had been a drug-induced hallucination, but now he wasn't so sure.

"And sometimes we can only twist so far." He nodded at the bag. "Mr. Pries would certainly agree."

Hacker was too late to hide his reaction.

"Pries developed the strain," Wagner said by way of explanation. "He tried to leave the Society some years ago."

"They found his body," Hacker whispered, "in the ruins of his house."

Wagner did not ask how he knew. "His body was the least of his concerns."

Hacker did not have too much time to think on that, because at that moment a pair of figures glided off the roof of the Hotel Cabal: Bluestone and the gargoyle called Goliath.

"So what do you think about those gargoyles?" Hacker asked suddenly. "You could breathe colitas for a thousand years and never dream up something that crazy."

Wagner looked amused. "Do you want to know how the Society did it in the old days?"

Hacker hesitated. Did he?

Did he really?

He had to know. Knowledge was all he had to show for the dues he'd paid.

He nodded.

The Illuminati's assassin reached into his pocket and pulled out his closed fist. When he opened it, a small knife lay in the palm of his hand.

And then the blade shifted shape.

Machine gun.

Spear.

Katana.

Flintlock rifle.

Scythe.

Its permutations evolved faster than Hacker's mind could follow. Finally, with a shudder, it returned to its original form. Wagner put it back into his pocket.

"What is that?" Martin Hacker asked, his voice thick.

"Magic," Wagner replied.

Not drugs. Not electronic trickery. Not virtual reality.

Just reality being far less solid than we'd ever thought.

"The Illuminati…" Hacker swallowed over what felt like a clod of earth in his throat. "Use magic?"

"The upper echelons." He nodded at the hotel. "Poor Mace. He really doesn't have a clue."

Poor Mace…How many plots within plots do they have?

"So," Wagner said, watching him carefully, "are you ready to quit?"

"Are you kidding?" Hacker retorted. "You know what's in their basement. That…thing…It remembers me. From when I was a child. It remembers me…"

Wagner reached out and flicked Hacker's pin again. "That's how it finds you."

"It's as easy as taking off jewelry?" Hacker didn't believe him.

"As taking off a soul tag," Wagner retorted. "That's why I told you about magic." He looked away. "I think we all know it instinctively. We know a bullet through our heads is still no way out."

Hacker felt his breath catch. "You've figured out how to take it off."

"I think so."

"You're fighting them."

He nodded.

"You wanted me to look in their basement. All those years ago."

"Your friend was their collateral damage. And your marriage. And your nightmares." He paused. "What are you going to do about it?"

Hacker hesitated, knowing he was verge of another choice.

He could have a wife. Kids. Go back to a normal life.

They'd killed Kevin. They'd cost him Shana.

Magic—just when you think you know what's real.

Martin Hacker felt suddenly like those shmucks he secretly laughed at every day. He thought he'd known what was really going on. Now he realized he knew next to nothing.

But he'd find out.

Oh, yes, he would.

Hacker reached into his pocket and fingered the Illuminati pin he carried. Matt's pin. Poor Matty. He only wanted into the Society so he could learn its secrets and expose it. Well, he was in for a surprise. Knowledge comes at a price.

But you can check out any time you like.

Wagner read the answer on Hacker's face. "I'm disappointed," he said softly, climbing up onto the edge of the building, and falling backwards into the night.

Hacker reached out his arm instinctively. Wagner's cape unfurled—no, not a cape, wings—and the demon or gargoyle or whatever he was soared into the darkness, swallowed up by the New York night.

Whatever he was, Hacker wouldn't want to trade places with him. His spell was certain to fail, and when it did…

Martin Hacker knew the rules. He would teach them to Bluestone.

You can check out any time you like…but you can never leave.