On Montague Street, the east wing of the British Museum looming at his back, Robert Fischer stood in a thin cold December rain before the door of a narrow white-fronted two-story brick house. Wedged shoulder-to-shoulder between similar neighbors, the building raised its attic and flat roof to low-hanging cadmium clouds, its top half blending into the blue-gray winter dusk; below, light from its paned and security-barred ground-floor windows glowed weakly out against the gloom. A low run of five wide steps separated Fischer from the black door. He looked up at it while rainwater crept in icy tendrils beneath the collar of his coat and, beneath that, further still, the respective collars of his suit jacket and shirt, and told himself, his lips moving silently, how he came to be here.
Not the wherefores of his childhood, his adolescence, and young manhood: those things were givens, facts. Points, at this time, of sanity. Not the death of his mother, his subsequent distant relationship with his father (now also dead); not his education; not his coming of age as heir to a mighty energy conglomerate whose existence was presently poised at the edge of limbo. No: the facts he needed to recall now were utterly prosaic, utterly unphilosophical:
By black London taxi he came from Heathrow four days ago. The driver's name was Frank Burns. He was beefy, genial, copper-haired, fiftyish. His voice when he asked Fischer's destination carried a southern Irish lilt since coarsened, Fischer had guessed, by long residence in or near the Docklands. His license number, stamped on the I.D. card that bore his picture, center-framed on the cab's dash, was as clear in Fischer's mind as the address of his flat back home in Sydney. Fischer, bred for business, for statistics, and a chemical engineer in the bargain, had a head for numbers.
The street-number of the house on Montague Street he had obtained by back-tracing, through database twists and turns and, finally, with the help of a private detective, the phone number on a white business card that bore the inscription MG Consultants, Ltd.
And this, most importantly of all— a litany, a chanting, on his lips, in his mind— was how he arrived at the house itself: via softly creaking elevator from a top-floor suite at the 41 to the hotel's ground floor, thence through the lobby, deep wood paneling to his left and right, polished black-and-white tiling underfoot, to the street. He counted the steps from the elevator to the door; thus concentrating (the number of steps, thankfully, matching the number from the day before and the day before that), he offered in passing only the slightest absent nod to the young woman— "Good evening, Mr. Fischer."— at the reception desk. A middle-aged man top-hatted and liveried in green opened for him the rightmost of the hotel's gleaming brass doors and, seeing that Fischer was without an umbrella (the man, no doubt, noticed other things, odd things, strange things, about Fischer as well; but the cost of a stay in a place such as this included, as a given, the utmost discretion), offered to hail him a cab. Fischer, declining with a "No, thank you" that vocalized itself more like a soft grunt, walked off, northward, into the rain. This was too important a trip to trust to the inherent unreality of chauffeured auto-travel. He needed to smell the outside air, to feel the jostle at crowded corners whilst waiting for walk-lights. He needed to feel the slick and grit of London's sidewalks, the variegated repair of the city's paving beneath the soles of his shoes.
As he forwent a taxi, he avoided, also, the Tube. He walked all the way from point A to point B. (B. Bloomsbury. Appropriate.) He could name not only the streets along which he had passed but all the cross-streets, too. He memorized headlines, passing news stands. He knew the names of all the plays and all the films, legitimate and il-, in all the theatres on Shaftesbury. He knew the current lottery jackpots. He could feel the rainwater soaking through the shoulders of his coat. He could feel the sharp pre-blister dig of shoe leather through his socks at his heels.
He knew how important it was that he should know how he had arrived at the house. Were anyone to ask, he would be able to provide an itinerary of prodigious and precise detail.
How did you get here, Mr. Fischer?
He knew the answer.
He knew, on this dismal wet evening at least, that he wasn't dreaming.
Of course he hadn't called either the number on the card itself or the auxiliary contact his detective had excavated for him. He didn't need to hear a hiss of disconnect, a prerecorded message telling him that the number he was trying to reach was not in service. He had simply taken the address and set off. He needed the truth to be as prosaic, if not as ugly, as possible. He needed to see the black door open into the cluttered worn reception area of a bed and breakfast, or to hear a ruckus of children, the noise of a television program, the sounds of family life, while a man or woman, mid-thirties, mid-forties, father or mother, asked him with weary suspicion what it was he wanted, what he was selling, who he thought he was looking for.
He shook rainwater from the shoulders of his coat, trudged up the five broad steps, and pressed the brass button of the doorbell.
He waited with his shoulders hunched against the chill and the trickling rainwater. The wind was picking up; a cold freshness was wending north, up through London's warren of avenues and streets, off the Thames. Fischer stood half-facing Montague, the museum and its black iron fence in his peripherals. He was unsure whether things unwatched would disappear. He was about to re-ring the bell when a man answered the door.
He was young, black-haired, pale, thinner, even, than Fischer, and longer through the legs. He wore black jeans, black battered lace-up boots, a ratty brown hoody. White cracked stenciling across the chest: GOTHAM ALIEN ARTS. He looked at Fischer with oddly pale hazel eyes.
Fischer asked: "Is she here, Nick?"
They were beyond surprise, both of them, if not quite all the way to expectancy, let alone familiarity. The young man who'd been one third of the team that had inducted Fischer into dream-defense training fourteen months ago nodded and stood aside to let Fischer enter. The dusk seemed to follow him in. The entry hall was painted a pale, faded rose; to Fischer's immediate left, a doorway opened onto steps leading downward into darkness; beyond the doorway was a glass-windowed cage of a room, like a small office. Straight ahead, at the entryway's terminus, a nearly ladder-thin run of stairs covered in maroon carpeting wound its way upward. To his right stood an oaken sideboard overhung by a gilt-framed wall mirror; twelve feet further along, a golden wedge of light angled out through a heavily woodworked doublewide doorway. As Fischer entered, the floorboards creaked dryly beneath a thin green runner and the gritty wet soles of his shoes.
"Take your coat?" Nick asked, his voice in its New York accent pragmatic yet polite. Fischer was shrugging clear of water-heavy sleeves when a woman's voice said, "Who is it, Nick?", and Susan Gaumont stepped into the entry hall from the doorway to the right.
Fischer handed Nick his overcoat as his eyes met hers. He felt no anger, no shock, no longer the numbness he'd been feeling for months; he felt, looking at her in that dim hallway, more brightly, brilliantly alive than he'd felt in ages. He tried a smile with facial muscles unaccustomed to anything but stillness.
"Hello, Susan," he said.
She was nearly his height in weathered leather boots, worn jeans, a faded loose charcoal-colored sweater, the sleeves too long. A man's sweater. Not originally hers, Fischer thought. He wondered who'd given it to her, or from whose closet she'd taken it on permanent loan. He remembered her hair as being black. In the dusky light of the hallway, it was a very deep brown; she wore it as she had in Sydney, in his memory and in the dreams she and her team had concocted for his mental-security training and in his dreams since then, long and straight, loose against her shoulders. Its darkness contrasted with the London-winter pallor of her skin.
With eyes he remembered clearly from their minutes together in the real world (minutes only: no more than three-quarters of an hour total, of that he was flatly certain)— a blue between slate and serge, wideset and intelligent in the strong features of her face (lips full but not quite lush, cheekbones cleanplaned and high, a nose not shy but straight and not unsubtle)— she was looking at him— how?— incredulously, sadly, disbelievingly. Possibly with profound relief. With a trace of happiness, too. Too many emotions, too carefully controlled.
"Mr. Fischer," she replied.
A tympanic pounding of his heart as she spoke his name. Not a racing. More like notes on a musical staff, three distinct blows, say: boom BOOM boom. He remembered her voice thus, too: upper alto in its timbre. Refined, intoxicating. Truly: a sweet alcoholic smokiness to it, like good single-malt whiskey.
He didn't quite meet her eyes. He said— another memory— as he had over a year ago, in an art gallery in Sydney: "It's Robert. Rob, if you prefer."
He heard his own voice as though he were listening to a sound recording. A digital file baritone in pitch, flat, soft. Mechanical.
She came closer. Something in the region of her sternum caught the light, a faceted glint, as she approached: a small rough chunk of amethyst, wire-wrapped, hanging from a silver chain around her neck. "What are you doing here, Robert?"
He hesitated. He'd been so careful to remember the details of the trip here; now he found himself fighting an urge to look behind himself, to see if the door (now shut: he'd heard the click of the lock, felt the drop in air-motion at his back, as Nick closed it), the steps, rain-slick Montague, the square crouching bulk of the museum, the world itself, were still there.
"That's not part of—" he whispered. Not part of his memory.
Not part of the dream.
She was close enough to touch him. She didn't. She tilted her face up toward his, angling, he realized, for a better look at his eyes. Looking down at her hands, so close to his, Fischer could see that the too-long sleeves of her sweater were slightly frayed at the cuffs.
"Susan—" Nick said, caution in his tone. Fischer stood very still while Susan examined him. Just beyond his peripherals, he knew, the other man was tensing, easing toward a stance either offensive or protective.
"It's alright, Nick," she replied. Why that was so Fischer could only guess: either he was that small, that pathetic, that bedraggled and broken-looking, or she could see in his eyes whatever it was she had hoped to see. That his pupils weren't dilated, perhaps. That his sclerae weren't shot through with red. That he wasn't high on drugs. Now she straightened away, touched his right arm. "Why are you here, Robert?"
He looked at her. He was acutely aware, suddenly, that he hadn't shaved. Hadn't shaved in— How many days? He frowned. He could see himself in the hallway mirror. He wore a white dress shirt. No tie. His suit jacket, deep-ocean blue, pinstriped, he could recall taking from a heavy hotel hanger Wednesday. (In his mind, he could hear, clearly, the clacking of the brass hook on the closet cross-rod.) Today, he was almost certain, was Sunday. His hair was lank, lighter in memory and in reality in its brown than Susan's, though nearly black, now, for being rain-wet and pushed back off his pale wide forehead. Coarse stubble filled like reddish-brown moss the hollows beneath his high cheekbones. He tried not to stare at her. His wideset eyes at the best of times were practically unearthly, cold and pale; now, he sensed, their glassy blue bordered on the maniacal.
"This isn't part of the dream," he heard himself say.
"What dream?" she asked, gently.
He replied, truthfully: "I'm not sure." He wasn't sure if he'd ever known. Suddenly, too, he couldn't remember the last three streets he'd crossed, coming here. One might have been, must have been, Holborn; the others were nameless, blank. He bit his lower lip; he swallowed half a sob. "Can we— I need to talk to you, Susan."
"Of course. Come in." She took his arm, led him away from the door.
Nick was hanging Fischer's coat in a closet off the cage room; he kept his eyes on Fischer as he re-crossed the entryway ahead of them. "I'll be in the workroom, Sue, if you need me."
That's what lay through the room to the right. Fischer might have thought it a parlor; he'd had inklings, imaginings. of old furniture, a sofa and heavy stuffed chairs, maybe bookshelves and a television. What he saw, passing, did, indeed, include a sofa and chairs. It also included a floor-city of tower CPUs and a sturdy table on which lay keyboards and a bank of monitors, their screens either alive with what looked to be AUTO-CAD programming or dancing with starburst screensavers.
"We'll be more comfortable upstairs," Susan said. She was still holding on to his arm. "You're cold. Would you like something hot to drink? Tea?"
"No, thank you."
She released him at the foot of the stairs, which were too narrow to allow for anything other than single-file traffic. He followed her up.
At the top of the stairs, a narrow hallway, its walls a pale yellow, led right and left. Frosted wall sconces provided light; a pattern of flowers had faded as if into mist in the green carpeting. Fischer followed Susan to the left. At the end of the hall was a library, little more than a cubby, really. Bookshelves occupied every available inch of wall from floor to high ceiling, crowding even against the room's tall window. The smell of leather, dust, heavy velum paper. Two high-backed leather-upholstered chairs, hints of burgundy in their sheen, faced one another near the window. A tall brass reading lamp flanked each one; Susan closed the window's heavy red curtains, then reached beneath the lily-shaped lampshades and switched on the bulbs. She motioned Fischer to one of the resulting pools of light, took the other for herself.
Fischer said, rhetorically, as they sat: "You must have seen the news."
"Your father, yes: I'm so very sorry."
Fischer swallowed around a tightness in his throat. His father had been dead, now, for just under a year. Maurice Fischer had never treated his son with anything other than variations on distance following the death of Robert's mother; nevertheless, grief, uncaring, unmindful of its source, still could have its way. "Thank you. But, no, not that—"
"About Fischer-Morrow in the Court of International Trade? Yes, I saw."
"What did the reports say?" His voice was flat. "Tell me."
"That it was a standard-issue anti-trust investigation, if one on an epic scale. A going concern of that size: several of your competitors were voicing monopoly allegations—"
"Susan, it was me. I tried to break up the company."
She frowned, shocked. "What—?"
Fischer continued, softly: "I don't know what's real anymore. If my thoughts are my own. To make a long story short, five weeks to the day following my father's death, I walked into a cabinet meeting and declared my intention to liquidate Fischer-Morrow. Uncle Peter— Peter Browning: I don't think you met him— my godfather, our head of accounting— thank God, he fought me on it. When it became clear that I wasn't voicing a misguided whim, on behalf of the board of directors, he and our head of legal affairs suggested— suggested— that I take a sabbatical. Our publicity department, meanwhile, was prepared to issue a statement to the effect that I'd suffered a breakdown following the death of my father. Sheer luck: it never came to that. Our share value worldwide would have fallen through the floor."
He leaned forward, rested his elbows on his knees, rested his chin on peaked fingertips.
"So now we're in court. The board versus me, me versus myself. Browning isn't trying to shut me out— he's a hard bastard, but he's nothing if not loyal. I still have access to the company files, to my holdings and funds—"
Now she leaned forward, too. "Why don't you just drop the suit?"
"It's not as simple as that. For one thing, it opened the door for the anti-monopolists. The C.I.T. has ordered an examination of our articles of incorporation, which could lead, at the very least, to a reorganization of our governing structures. For another, the directors now have doubts of their own regarding my competence, my sanity. And, finally, I do, too. I'm doubting myself. It's like an obsession: I want to break the company up. But, Susan, I don't. It's my heritage. It's powerful; it's successful. I'm proud of it. The thing is, at the back of it all— at the back of my mind— I've got this thought— this belief, almost— that my father wanted me to be my own man."
"He very likely did, Robert."
"But it's as if the idea was— is— I don't know— Not organic. I don't know how else to describe it. Like it's masquerading as my own, and I don't— I don't know where it came from."
Her face went very still. "Like someone put it there?"
"It sounds insane." Much to his shame, his eyes filled with tears. He continued, his tone harsh, to hide his embarrassment, anger, fear:
"You see, part of being your own person is accepting who you are. Accepting your duties. I knew who I was. Or I thought I did. The idea that I should be my own man: I should have been able to reconcile that with running the company. All that fucking power: of course I could be my own man. I could do whatever I wanted. But it was a compulsion. Insidious. To be my own man, I had to break up the business. I had to destroy it from the inside out. And along with it came this— I think it was meant to be a realization, but somehow I knew it wasn't: that Dad loved me, that he wasn't disappointed in me, that he didn't think I was weak. Susan, I'm not stupid. I'm not that naive. My therapist had been telling me those things about Dad for years: one bloody plane trip wasn't going to suddenly validate all of it."
She accepted without question his obviously rocky relationship with his father. She focused her question elsewhere: "What plane trip was that?"
"The flight from Sydney to Los Angeles. Dad died, and I was taking him— He wanted to be buried in the States, next to Mom. Those ideas— being my own man, breaking up Fischer-Morrow— months later, I traced them back to that flight. They got into my dreams. I fell asleep, and that's when they got inside my head." His jaw was starting to shake. A tear broke loose, ran down into the forest of stubble on his right cheek; he pushed the trickle roughly away with the heel of his hand. "At first I thought— when I got to L.A.— You know how you feel sometime, after a long flight? Numb? Not just jet-lagged, but not quite yourself? I kept waiting for the feeling to pass, but it didn't. Days later, after the funeral, and it was like I was still waiting for myself to arrive. And those thoughts that weren't mine, about breaking up the company, about being my own man—" He looked at her, met her eyes. "I've read up on it since."
"Read up on what, Robert?"
"I'm in the prodomal stage of schizophrenia."
"I doubt that." She left her chair, knelt on the carpet before him. She took his right arm, unbuttoned his cuff, pushed up the sleeves of his suit coat and shirt. She studied his forearm, turned his hand palm-up, traced the skin of his wrist with her fingertips. Examining him, Fischer realized, for needle marks. She asked, reaching for his his other hand: "Were you seated in first class?"
He didn't mean to sound arrogant, first class being simply a part of his life, how things were and how they'd always been; and then he felt his cheeks go warm as Susan, her eyes on the skin of his wrist, smiled slightly.
"Were you alone in the cabin?" she asked.
"Do you remember who was seated with you?"
"Not all of them, no. I was a bit lost in my own thoughts that day. But: a tall man, fair hair, broad face. Narrow eyes. Mid-thirties. I dropped my passport; he picked it up for me. Another man— we'd collided in the aisle. Also mid-thirties. Shorter than the first, I think. Dark hair, worn very short. Handsome, I suppose. There was— I think he had a scar across his right eyebrow. Something too smug about him. He said words to the effect of 'Pardon me,' and I thought—"
He replied reluctantly. A bit sheepishly, after his error of haughtiness a moment before. "He had a British accent, and I thought it sounded a bit too coarse for first class."
It might have been a trick of the light, but he thought he saw recognition in her eyes.
"Do you know who I'm talking about?" Fischer asked.
"I might. Possibly. If it is who I think it is, his name is Eames."
She appeared to have found a spot of particular interest just south of the heel of his left hand; as a consequence, possibly, she seemed to hesitate before looking up. Seemed. No. He knew, then, as she raised her head and met his eyes, a chill creeping deeper than the cold and wet of the London December lurking beyond the curtains and the murky panes of the window next to his head:
She'd been in on it all along.
In the confines of the chair, Fischer straightened his jacket. He kept his eyes on hers; she was waiting, with apparent patience, for him to respond. He reached into the right-hand pocket of his jacket and took out a revolver, an old snub-nosed .38, cool and solid and heavy in his fingers, and pressed the muzzle of the barrel to the underside of Susan's chin.
At the touch of the metal on her skin, her breath hitched. "Robert—"
The angle of his arm beneath her jaw had already practically negated the space between them. Now he leaned close enough so that their foreheads were nearly touching.
"If I shoot you," he said, very softly, one more litany he'd been chanting, silently, in his head, on his lips, for days, "you'll only wake up. Am I right, Susan...?"