by Madison Smartt Bell

Pantheon, 1996, Penguin pb 1997

Copyright Madison Smartt Bell 1997

All Print Rights Reserved  









It was cold enough then that Devlin could just see his breath whirling ahead of him as he huffed up the crown of the hill, his rubber soles slapping the asphalt just beyond the concrete edge of the storm drain. The leaves had begun to turn as well, so there was a Japanese maple changed a rich blood red in a nearby yard, though it was in shadow now, with the sun so low in the west behind Devlin as he ran. Twilight, but ahead of him and sixty feet above, the leaves of the old sycamores were shot through with a sundown brilliance, so that they glistened like gold foil, moving lightly altogether on the wind like water, foam on the crest of a wave of darkness.

Later he thought that was one thing wrong; he shouldn't have been looking up, because once he saw the car the time was already gone for him to throw himself out of the way. He jumped or hopped straight up instead, just to clear his feet from the ground, a reflex, not a thought. The first impact he felt was the heels of his palms skidding across the warm hood, while the brakes began to howl, and he saw a featureless shadow of his own reflection on the windshield glass. A skein of frost was on the edges of the windshield and underneath two faces swimming, passenger and driver, mouths and eyes dark holes through them. A flash of sunlight from the glass and Devlin was rolling sideways, scarcely aware of his fingers clawing, spun by some torque of the collision that flipped him up and over the curb and landed him on the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the storm drain.

The car, a black Camaro, hovered a few yards past, its engine coughing and grumbling in the cold. Devlin saw cottony puffs of steam bouncing out of the rusted tailpipe. He was instantly aware that he had not been killed, but it seemed impossible he was not badly hurt. The ground was cool, damp, not yet frozen, but the slam across his back had winded him. Apart from that he felt no pain. He sat up cautiously; his legs drew up automatically with the movement. Not broken, then. His astonishment still could not quite come through. The Camaro coughed and trembled; its brake lights pulsed red. A windshield wiper stuck out at a wrenched angle from the near side. In the sideview mirror, Devlin saw a face turned to inspect him: teardrop sunglasses and a cigarette hung from the lip. He put his fists on the ground and pushed himself up. As he reached his feet, the face rolled out of the mirror, the brake lights winked, and the car backfired softly as it shot away down the hill from him.

"Son of a bitch!" Devlin said out loud, but with no real heat. His whole being had begun to sing with endorphins and adrenalin. Now he realized he had not attended to the license number. That frost still on the windshield... the car must belong to someone who lived nearby, more than likely across York Road, given the make, and the attitude. But to hell with it, really. They were just scared. As for blame, Devlin had been running in the roadway, his head in the clouds. He wore a dark denim jacket over a sweatshirt, a couple of strips of reflective silver tape above the pockets his only concession to safety precautions. The Camaro'd had no lights on, the best he could remember that flashed impression of its nose shoveling toward him, but it couldn't have been going as fast as it seemed, else Devlin would never have got to his feet.

A couple of other cars whizzed past and down the hill to the Charles Street stoplight. Devlin looked down at his left hand, which clutched a strip of wiper-blade rubber. He must have snatched at the wiper as he was being tossed clear of the car. Yes, and his palm was bleeding from light scratches here and there. He let the rubber drop into the gutter, then thought again and crouched with a slight effort, retrieved it and stuck it into his jacket pocket. He stood up. There was a knotting sensation in the meat of his left upper thigh, no worse than a bad charley-horse really. Perhaps the bumper had struck him there.

He was actually already walking away from the whole thing, and with scarcely as much as a limp. A few steps down from the hill's low peak, he glanced back and saw that the Camaro's angle would have been blind as his own when he came running up the far side. So. The cold air he gulped tasted fresh to him as spring water, and his heart was beating vigorously, his sweat was fresh. It was a straight shot down the gentle slope to the corner of his street. Oddly, no one was out on the sidewalks or in the yards, no dogwalkers, bicyclists, other joggers. The falling sunlight came striated through the limbs of the old trees, tiger-striping the leaf-littered lawns. Evening birdsong was very grateful to Devlin's ear, that moment upon him, its presence sweet. The catch in his thigh no more than an accent on his mood, he picked up his pace and began to jog.


"What happened?" Alice said, frowning slightly as Devlin walked in the kitchen door. She was standing at the stove, stirring grated cheese into a sauce.

"What happened where?"

Alice licked a fleck of cheese from her finger, pointed at his pants leg. "Looks like you've been rolling on the ground."

Devlin glanced down, and noticed for the first time the smudge and tear of the fabric over the sore spot on his leg; he was generally rubbed over with grass stains too. Absently he scratched at the back of his head, and his hand came away full of scraps of dead leaves. "Took a tumble," he said, and with scarcely a flicker of hesitation, "Stepped on my shoelace-- that's what it must have been." The evasion seemed necessary to him, though he didn't know why. From deeper in the house came the thrum of music, Michelle tuned into MTV. Alice nodded abstractedly at her saucepan, and Devlin was moved to hug her from behind, to lift her slightly from under her breasts, but she was distracted, shifting her hips away from him, air-kissing vaguely in his direction with pursed lips.

"Why don't you go and get cleaned up? Dinner's soon."

"Right." Devlin snapped his fingers and walked through the dining room, the living room, stuck his head into the den. Michelle was propped on couch cushions, her legs drawn up, a math book open across her knees. Music and light pulsed from the television, washing her in fluorescent colors.

"Hey, Shell...." Devlin hadn't seen her that day, since she got home from school. He lowered a couple of blinds and turned on a floor lamp; he stopped himself from nagging her about reading in poor light. "What're you up to?"

Michelle pinched her nose for a parody robotic accent: "Find the derivative." She shook back her long chestnut hair and spoke normally. "Want to help?"

"I'm a liberal arts major," Devlin said. "Useless to you." He looked at her with the mixture of pleasure and fear he often felt. She was seventeen and very pretty, his only child, looking up at him now with a faintly ironic smile on her full mouth, patient with his interruption. Her green eyes were dilated to spheres of black, from the dim light probably. On the TV screen, Janet Jackson stood in a line of dancers with her hands on her hips, squatting, jerking upright, snapping her head angrily from side to side.

"Talking to yourself there, Dad?"

Devlin caught his lips moving over the secret: I was hit by a car and I walked away from it. Keeping his silence, he felt a flush of euphoria swell from his heels to the roots of his hair. The room seemed to glow with a hyper-real luminence. On the screen, the music changed, some band Devlin'd never heard of. Michelle dropped her head so that her hair swung down, and scribbled something on her math pad.

"Um... I guess I need to finish this."

In the upstairs bathroom, water slammed on the enamel of the tub, waiting to run hot. Sweat had turned clammy inside Devlin's shirt. He stripped off his clothes and stuffed them in a hamper. A glimpse of his body in the bathroom mirror rather pleased him, how it was intact, unbroken. Raising a foot to the edge of the tub, he probed the edges of the bruise on his thigh. A hot soak would have done it good, but there wasn't time. He pulled the valve on the faucet and stepped into the shower.

Alice's voice came floating up the stairs as he was towelling off. "Mike... five minutes till it's ready?" Devlin dressed quickly and went down to supper at the kitchen table: baked chicken and potatos, beans in the homemade cheese sauce. Michelle had changed her clothes, he noticed, ready to go out. Devlin ate with sincere appetite; everything seemed unusually satisfactory: the food, his glass of wine, the warm kitchen and warm presence of his wife and daughter, all burnished bright by his clash with the Camaro. It was pleasant also to imagine their surprise if he told them now. He held the secret to him with a little smile.

Michelle pushed back her plate and stood, smoothing her hands down her tight-jeaned hips and arching her back with the graceful laziness of a well-fed cat.

"We have ice cream," Alice said.

"No thanks," said Michelle. "I gotta run."

"Where're you going?" Devlin said.

"The movies," Michelle said, and with an air of resignation, "With Holly and Amber. And Mark and Ricky."

"I didn't ask," Devlin said, with a pushing motion of his palms.

"You didn't have to," Michelle said. Her tone braked just short of sarcasm. "I've made a full disclosure." Her pupils were still very wide, even in the bright light of the kitchen.

"Check," Devlin said. "Have fun."

"I won't be late." Michelle's hair whirled, fanning out a faint citrus scent as she moved to the door. In a moment the sound of her car's motor cranking came back from the driveway.

"Who's Ricky?" Devlin said. He stood up and carried a couple of plates to the sink, aware that his bruised leg had stiffened while he sat at dinner. Through the window over the sink he could see Michelle leaning across the passenger seat of her secondhand Corolla, fishing for something in the glove compartment.

"You've met him," Alice said. "He played in the band at that party at the Taylor's... he plays bass." She set a stack of plates on the drainboard beside.

"God," Devlin said, rolling rubber gloves onto his hands. "He wears a nose-ring, doesn't he? Makes him look like Porky Pig."

"What's the difference?" Alice said. "A nose-ring here, a nose-ring there.... He's a harmless kid. Don't be a cop."

"For the love of--" Devlin stopped himself; he captured the surge of anger like a balloon, punctured it, and let the irritation hiss away. No use to squander the good mood he'd returned in. "Dinner was great."

"Glad to hear it," Alice said. His retreat was tacitly acknowledged. She put some leftovers into the refrigerator. Devlin squirted soap into a pan. Beyond the window, Michelle sat up and the glove compartment light winked out. Scouring a pot, Devlin watched her back around the corner of the house and out of view. Sure, he reminded himself, she'd earned that car, which was less flashy, less expensive, than what many of her classmates drove. They'd agreed to let her out on school nights, so long as she kept up her work. A little freedom... this time next year she'd be away at school. She was a National Merit finalist and the counselors said she'd be a shoo-in for the college of her choice. All was well. Indeed she'd never given them any worry. Still Devlin was perhaps perversely pleased that she usually ran in large loose groups, instead of going with just one boy.

"You're quiet tonight," Alice said.

But of course, Devlin thought, secrets lose their power when they're told. It was still possible that he might tell her now what happened, enjoy her sympathy and concern, but it would certainly seem peculiar to have waited this long, and somehow he needed it all to himself, this thrill of his survival. Instead of speaking he turned toward her and kissed her on the mouth, holding his wet hands behind his back. This time she let her mouth relax and kissed him back.

"Just wondering..." she said when he drew away. "What you were thinking."

Again Devlin faced his indistinct reflection in the windowpanes over the sink. "Not worth a penny," he said. "I'm just fine."


Weekday mornings at six-thirty, Devlin got up and drank some coffee, ate an apple or sometimes a roll, while Alice sat at the kitchen table still yawning in her bathrobe, for she went to work a couple of hours later than he. He scraped the frost from his windshield with his comb, started the car and drove south into downtown Baltimore, to park in the underground garage near the hospital on Redwood Street. In the lobby he bought another coffee in a styrofoam cup, decaf this time for the sake of his blood pressure, and rose in the elevator to the ninth floor. In his office he debriefed his answering machine, sat down in one of the fatly stuffed recliners, and began.

His patients were children from three to eighteen, whose families were well-to-do or well-insured and often both. They came from the same social stratum to which Devlin and his wife belonged: educated, professional folk. Some of the children went to Park School with Michelle, though Devlin excused himself from treating her close friends. Most were children of divorce or multiple divorces, veterans of kaleidoscopic rotations of parents, step-parents, siblings and relations. All day long, Devlin listened to their voices, combining, recombining. Increasingly, they frightened him.

Fifteen-year-old Julian slumped on the office's leather couch, slapping his knees together, then spreading them rudely wide. He'd spent two years at one of the local private prep schools, and this fall refused to return; his mother, whose work as a dress designer frequently took her out of town, had passed this problem along to Devlin.

"You want to take your sunglasses off?" Devlin reached toward the cord of the window blind. Julian wore wire sunglasses with perfectly round black lenses, which he had never consented to remove. His hair was crewcut at the back and sides, with a flip in the front carefully sculpted with mousse. On his left bicep was a blue inked tattoo roughly the size of a paperback book jacket, depicting the Marlboro Man.

"Nah, man, I don't wanna."

"Whatever." Devlin dropped the blind cord, which swung against the large double pane with a plastic click. Outside, a siren was winding down Greene Street; the rooftops were pinkening in the dawn. Devlin took his own sunglasses from his shirt pocket, put them on.


Julian snickered. "Doc, you're a trip." He yawned and returned to his previous theme. "Anyway, you know, like, she can't make me go."

"Well, I guess maybe there're some laws on the subject," Devlin said.

"Really?" Julian's tone was of abstract interest. His I.Q., for what it was worth, was unusually high.

"So I've been told," Devlin said. "Legally, you're supposed to go to school, I think. Till you graduate, or turn eighteen...."

"You mean somebody's going to come after me with a big net or something."

"Right," Devlin said. "Like a dogcatcher."

"Man, you're funny," Julian said, with no hint of amusement. "I could home-school. Like that thing you know that Calvert sends out, to army brats and kids overseas."

"It's supposed to be a good program," Devlin said. "Were you planning to check it out?"

"Hey," Julian said. "What've those guys got under there?"

"I can't tell what you're looking at," Devlin said. "The sunglasses, remember?"

"Those dolls... there." Julian flipped a limp hand toward a bookcase opposite him. On a middle shelf were several cloth dolls dressed to resemble modern adults, or children.

"What've they got underneath those clothes, like little dicks and pussies and stuff? You know, for like the little kids to play with?"

"Guttermouth," Devlin said. "You're shocking me. Go home and wash your mouth out with soap."

"Well, do they?"

"Why don't you look?" Devlin said. "I wouldn't stop you."

Julian raised his hand again, let it fall limp to the edge of the couch. "Head games, man, these stupid shrink head games...."

"Were you talking about home-schooling?"

"Sure, come on, but what's the point? I mean I'm supposed to finish high school so I can get into college, and I'm supposed to go to college so I can go to, I dunno, law school or something, and then... like, where does it all end up?"

"Beats me," Devlin said.

"Yeah. Like screw it, you know? There's not really any dogcatcher, man, they can't make me go."

"Well, maybe they won't," Devlin said, slight stress on the won't. "Julian, do you want somebody to make you go?"

Julian was suddenly suspicious. "Crazy, man, why should I want that?"

When Julian was done, Devlin shook a couple of Tums from the large canister in his desk drawer, chewed them slowly and washed them down with juice from the small office refrigerator while he wrote up his notes. In half an hour a new client arrived, Rachel Weintraub, five years old: sleep disturbances, violent tantrums, biting. Her parents were six months divorced and there was joint custody, so that Rachel spent a week with Mom, (who'd recently returned to work and was preoccupied with Rachel's one-year-old brother), then a week with Daddy, who commuted to Washington, where he was sometimes obliged to stay late, in pursuit of the affair that had originally broken the marriage. Rachel had initially been referred by a teacher at the kindergarten of Friends School, which she apparently had entered with the force of a tornado.

Given her record of symptoms, Rachel herself seemed shockingly meek. Devlin invited her into the playroom next to his office. His wife and Michelle had helped him decorate and arrange the area so that it less resembled a nursery school or pediatrician's waiting room than a cross between an upscale toystore and a magician's cave from a children's book; lighting produced much of this effect. The contents proper were routine for such a place: an assortment of dolls, stuffed animals and puppets, some miniaturized domestic furniture that could be arranged and rearranged, toy guns and toy soldiers, a drawing table with art supplies, a tent, an oversized chess set arranged on a checkered rug, and various other attractions. Rachel stood at the edge of the room, looking. Whenever some particular item caught her eye, she would quickly glance back to Devlin to estimate his reaction. All the while she kept two fingers thrust so deeply into her mouth that her knuckles glistened with saliva. Her hair was light blonde, the consistency of spun sugar, and fell in loose tangling curls almost to her waist. That hair would be a lot of work for someone, Devlin thought.

"Red dress you have there," Devlin said, pointing at the patterned jumper Rachel wore. The girl pulled her fingers from her mouth and gave him what he could only describe as a black look. There was no movement of her features really, it was purely a change of color.

"How does it feel to you?" Devlin said. "Red."

"Don't say that," she told him. "You're not supposed to."

"Sorry," Devlin said. "Why not?"

"Because," Rachel said, definitively. She wiped her fingers carefully in a fold of her jumper, then crossed the room and touched a purple velour dragon on a middle shelf.

"This is not Barney," Rachel said.

"Certainly not," Devlin said. "You're absolutely right about that."

Rachel carried the dragon through Devlin's office to the waiting room. Her mother's jacket and a shopping bag were on a chair, but the lady herself was absent for some reason; perhaps she'd gone to phone the babysitter. With no visible reaction, Rachel came back into the playroom.

"Do you like Barney?" Devlin said.

"I have a Barney." Rachel dropped the dragon on the carpeted floor. "At my Dad's." She set the toe of her saddle shoe on the dragon's tail. Experimentally she shifted her weight forward.

"It doesn't hurt him," she said, looking quizzically at Devlin. "He doesn't feel that."


Rachel covered the dragon's foot with her shoe and mashed down harder. "Mom takes pills to keep her happy," she said.

"That's nice," said Devlin. "I hope they work."

"Barney's not a real dinosaur," Rachel said. She set her foot on the ridges of the dragon's back. "Real dinosaurs aren't pretty. You wouldn't say they were."

"Depends on the dinosaur," Devlin said.

"No," Rachel said. "You wouldn't."

"All right," Devlin said. "I guess I better not."

"Real dinosaurs don't get cold or hungry," Rachel informed him. "It doesn't matter a bit to them."

"I don't understand how that could be possible," Devlin said.

"Because they're petrified, silly!" Rachel jumped on the dragon with both feet, then lost her balance and skittered off to the side. "For a million thousand years."

"Oh," Devlin said. "I see."

After Rachel, he left the building, ostensibly for lunch. For half an hour he wandered a several-block area in the neighborhood of the hospital. There were a couple of pawnshops here and he went into these, browsing among cheap jewelry and secondhand musical instruments and guns and battered stereo equipment. The pawnbrokers regarded him with a certain suspicion for his aimless lingering.

At length Devlin went into a small cafeteria and deliberately bought bad food, a soggy salad with iceberg lettuce browning at the edges. He sat at a small, ill-balanced table near a window. Across the street hulked his office building, all dull chrome and dark glass; he stared at it with a degree of disaffection, while picking at his food. Although the neighborhood was overshadowed by a large state hospital, Devlin's practice was now exclusively private, had been so for almost ten years. His former association with the hospital still won him the odd referral, and meanwhile his reputation had expanded on its own. The practice was lucrative enough that he might have afforded to work considerably less hours than he did, and that was a thought with some attractions, because of late it seemed to require a certain gray determination for him to rise and face his day. He was still as effective as he ever had been, he believed. Still, he might thin his list of patients easily enough by failing to replace the ones who, one way or another, left his care.

What then? What to do with sudden windfalls of free time? Devlin felt stodgily short on inspiration. He ate about half of his salad, chewing it like hay, drank a carton of orange juice, and went back to his office.

Then there was Kirk, an anxious and aggressive twelve-year-old in glasses, who for his last few sessions had wanted to do nothing but play chess. Kirk spent much of his free time reading chess books and never failed to trounce Devlin soundly, though the games seemed very stressful for him no matter their result. Sitting crosslegged before the chessboard rug, Devlin felt the boy's tension as an ache in his own back, though usually he was quite comfortable playing with the children on the floor. Kirk always played in a bitter silence, with a grandmaster's air of concentration; Devlin was looking forward to whenever he'd move on to a new phase.

After Kirk came Brittany, who picked up one of the dolls from the shelf Julian had noticed, and held it on her lap while she sat in a recliner, stroking it as if it were a cat.

"How's it going?" Devlin said.

"Cosi, cosi," said Brittany. At her private school, she was learning Italian.

"But I'm an Irishman," Devlin said. "You could always try Gaelic."

Brittany gave him a weak smile for this weak jest. She had a brief broad face with wide cheekbones. Her hair was cut to the length of her ear lobes, and heavily hennaed. Today she wore a flower print babydoll dress with black combat boots; the hems of white socks peeked over the boot tops.

"New earrings?" Devlin said.

"Who's counting?" Brittany dropped a hand from the doll in her lap and began fidgeting with the lever of the reclining chair, popping out the footrest, then snapping it back. Both her ears were pierced as many as ten or fifteen times. She wore dangles from her lobes, then studs that grew progressively smaller as they climbed the curved cartilege of her ear. The upper piercings, which were inflamed and looked extremely painful, reminded Devlin of ritual mutilation. Common enough, though, among his clientele. He was waiting for somebody to swagger in with a wooden disc distending the lower lip in the manner of New Guinea tribes, or African-style full-facial scarification, or stacks of concentric gold rings to elongate the neck.

"How's home," Devlin said. "How's school? Or you pick something."

Brittany stretched out her boots of the foot rest and sat back, studying the doll-- it was the mother doll she'd chosen, or the one the children often tended to identify as the mother. Devlin put a hand in his pocket and felt along the muscle of his upper thigh. The bruise from the Camaro had flowered into a hematoma, a multicolored bloom of spongy blood-drenched tissue with a lump in the center the size of a dried lima bean. The bean itself was spookily insensitive. Devlin touched it gingerly through the cloth of his pocket, then curled his fingers away from the area.

"I got my IUD taken out," Brittany said. "That's news."

"I'd say so," Devlin said. "Does this mean you want to get pregnant?"

"No way," said Brittany. She held up the doll by a hank of its yarn hair and looked past it at Devlin, as if to mock whatever symbolism he might search out in this behavior. "I just don't want to have any more sex."

"I see," said Devlin. "Forever?"

"For a while...." Brittany put the doll face down in her lap and stroked it.

"Well," said Devlin. "It seems you've thought it through."

"There's condoms anyway," she said. "You know, the guy really should wear a rubber now-- safe sex."

"This too sounds like a mature thought," said Devlin, suddenly unutterably depressed. He sat in silence, fingering the edges of his bruise. Brittany clicked down the footrest and leaned forward, looking at him with new concentration. Her eyes were brown.

"Tell me something, Mike," she said. "Did anybody ever kill theirself on you? You know, one of..."

"--my patients?" Devlin said. "Yes."

"What did you think when it happened?"

"Think?" Devlin said. "I blamed myself. And I felt bad for a long time. Guilty." He cleared his throat. "Betrayed too, for that matter. I'd thought we had an understanding."

"Hey, you know I would never do that," Brittany said. "I'm not trying to send you some message here or anything. Do you get that?"

"I get it," Devlin said. He knew that Brittany wasn't suicidal. She didn't even meet his definition of "disturbed." A year before, at age sixteen, she'd finished off a reasonably typical teenage power struggle with her parents by going off without permission to follow the Lollapalooza tour-- where in fact she'd had a quite lucrative job, managing some concession. Her parents had responded by having her committed to a mental hospital on her return. Brittany had emerged from that experience no more angry or paranoid than Devlin would have expected of any sane person under such circumstances. She had even kept up with her grade in school in spite of the ten weeks she'd lost in the bin.

Yet her parents (undivorced for once) were obsessed with the notion that she was crazy or drug-addicted or both. For his part, Devlin thought she needed a friend more than a shrink. He trusted what she told him about drugs: sometimes a joint, some drinking at parties. She'd tried Ecstasy once at a rave but didn't like how it made her feel. That was all. But two weeks previously her mother had asked for a meeting with Devlin --unusual in itself because neither parent was much inclined to become involved with Brittany's treatment. Mom's mission turned out to be to learn if Devlin could arrange for Brittany to be put on a urinalysis program. No, Devlin had said. She doesn't need urinalysis. She needs love. --Tough love, the mother said, tonguing the buzz-word with a certain assurance. Devlin remained silent for a moment. The woman before him was not intentionally cruel, not even extraordinarily neglectful, yet he had come to the conclusion that just as some people are temperamentally unfit to have a dog, so Brittany's parents were thoroughly unsuited to have children. No, he told her finally, just ordinary love.

"I believe you," he said to Brittany, and she let herself relax, raising her boots to the footrest and drawing up her knees.

"Thanks," said Brittany. "Thanks, Mike." She held the doll near her face and looked at it seriously. "Who was it, your one that died? Guy or a girl?"

"I can't tell you," Devlin said. "You know that."

"Yeah," Brittany said. She shrugged against the nubby fabric of the chair. "Sorry. But you know, I've never even thought of it? I mean, not seriously. If you're feeling sorry for yourself, that's one thing... but that's not real." She put the doll back on the shelf and looked at it from a distance, at all the dolls together, lifeless there. "I know I'll be all right in the end," she said. "I just have to get through this time." She looked at Devlin with ordinary interest; she didn't really need him to agree.

I'm forty-six, Devlin thought of saying. In another forty-six years, I'll be dead. I've got through quite a lot of time already. He held his tongue.


In the back room office of Ryu's Tae Kwon Do, Devlin set his foot on the edge of the desk and rolled back the loose white cloth of his uniform trousers to display the elaborate blood-etched flower of his bruise. Master Ryu, who was roughly Devlin's age but didn't look it, leaned across the desk and squinted. Beyond the office's glass window, students milled around the floor, waiting for the five o'clock class to begin.

"Urrgggh," said Master Ryu, a low growling sound common with him, and uninterpretable. Devlin waited. "You can be exorcising," Master Ryu said.

Devlin took his foot from the desk and shook out his leg. The bruise was not painful when he moved; he only felt a tightness there, and he thought that a workout would help his bloodstream begin to wash it away; besides he needed it for other reasons.

"Mee-shell," Master Ryu pronounced. "She no come school?"

Devlin shrugged-- an unmartial thing to do. Michelle was, he supposed, suffering from post-black-belt slump; she'd passed the test the previous spring, but fallen off since then. Not uncommon, though from time to time it bothered him.

"It's better if I don't make her go," he said. "She's at that stage-- whatever I say she pulls the other way." He forced a laugh, in which the master joined.

"So," said Master Ryu, "When you starting school by hospital?"

"Still looking for space," Devlin said warily. He had been dancing around this subject for some weeks with the master, who wanted him to open a new branch of the school downtown, but Devlin was shy of the idea for different reasons: the responsibility, the extra time involved. Master Ryu gave him a penetrating look but Devlin did not volunteer anything more. He composed his face into a perfect blank, bowed to the master and left the room.

A second-degree black belt, Devlin was the ranking student on the floor. He called the class to attention as Master Ryu walked in, and gave the commands to bow, to kneel for meditation, but this afternoon his mind would not come clear. The problem of the new school kept pricking through to him, piercing the invisible sphere he tried to form around himself in meditation, which sealed this daily hour of pain and sweat hermetically away from the rest of his life. Finally he gave up and clapped his hands for the class to rise. In unison they bowed to Master Ryu, then Devlin led the warm-up, stretching.

He drove himself through basics hard, punching, blocking, kicking, working himself toward a breathless sweat, toward mental vacancy he hoped, though his thoughts still nagged at him: the new school, and behind it something else, something indeterminate. Basics done, the class split into groups, and it was Devlin's task to teach the intermediate belts their new form, which left too much room for his mind to wander. He rolled the issue of the new school into a ball and blasted it away from himself with an imaginary roundhouse kick, but instantly the other thing lunged at him from behind it: the face of Talia Crawford as he'd seen her last seven years before, smiling, optimistic, and utterly deceitful. She'd be twenty-two this year if she had lived, and Devlin had been so confident that she would live and prosper. Talia had outwitted everyone, teachers, parents, shrink and all. Her grades were up, her social life improving, the scars on her inner wrists faded to scarcely noticeable spidery white lines. She kept her last appointment with Devlin, attended rehearsal of a school play in which she'd won a significant role, went home and finished all her assignments for the next school day, then climbed into a warm bathtub and executed herself by sealing a blue plastic grocery bag around her head with duct tape. What horrified Devlin most was the combination: that wish for comfort, relaxing in warm water, and then the vicious gangland cruelty of her self-murder. There had been no note, no nothing.

Devlin's concentration was completely broken. He made two mistakes in the form he was teaching, and Master Ryu punished him with twenty-five pushups, bare knuckles on the hardwood floor, for which Devlin was grateful. When he got up, his head had shifted, a constricted gray knot without content now, and that was some relief.

Paddle drill. Outside the large glass windows of the room, the light was falling and the sky gone dark; automatic streetlights had snapped on above the parking lot. Master Ryu stood offering a red paddle-shaped target, held at a slight angle just above waist height. Devlin hit it with an instep roundhouse, not really hard, a rangefinding kick; he spun through and away and ran back to the end of the line. The rhythm of kicks drummed out ahead of him, smack, smack, smack. When it came his turn again Devlin could release himself completely, so that the paddle broke free of the holder's hand and fluttered up in a graceful arc to rebound from the ceiling tiles and drop like a shot bird. Master Ryu smiled approvingly at Devlin, stooping to retrieve the target, and Devlin was where he had wanted to arrive, aware of nothing but the heat of his muscles, the flash of energy, and the shock of contact from high roundhouse kicks, three-sixties, wheel kicks with a jump or adding a punch, then combinations-- the rotary motion of a roundhouse followed through with a spinning hook or wheel or crescent. Following through, Devlin drilled like a tornado, the side of his foot lashed against the paddle with a gunshot crack and he let out a spontaneous catlike yowling cry as he spun out.

"Put that away," Master Ryu said gutturally. Devlin breathed deeply into the chi center a couple of inches below his navel, refreshing this area so it glowed like a hot coal under a bellows. All his clothing was limp with sweat. Fifteen minutes of paddle drill would wring you out completely, like a sponge.

"Full equipment," said Master Ryu, and Devlin automatically trotted to his gym bag. Because of the bruise, and his mental uneasiness, he'd explicitly decided not to fight tonight, but the momentum of the practice carried him irresistably past that decision, so that despite any misgivings he was putting on groin cup and shin pads and arm pads and chest protector and foam helmet. Biting down on his mouthguard he stood to face his first opponent, both of them somewhat comically swollen with all this padded body armor. Devlin wondered for a second if a direct hit might shatter the lima bean bull's eye of his bruise and send a blood clot racing to his brain or heart to end all his distractions and worries permanently, but it was necessary not to think of that, not to think of anything.

"Charyet... Kunye," said Master Ryu. Opponents bowed all down the line. "Si chak!"

Devlin sparred warily with lower belts, conserving his energy very carefully. His age worked against him now; he could no longer fight many rounds without tiring, or sustain a constant hail of attacks. But he could block, keep covered up, keep breathing while he watched for the opening where one clean combination could be made to count for everything. In the blackening glass of the windows, the palely reflected figures of the fighters moved like wraiths.

In his fourth and final round Devlin faced Jhun Cho, an unusually burly Korean youth who was pumping for his first-degree black belt test two months in the future. He was somewhat less than overjoyed to be meeting this opponent so late in the day, when he was tiring and his breath had gone almost completely ragged. Devlin himself was something under average height for a white American, but since much of his length was in his legs he was accustomed to fend off attackers with side kicks. This tactic would not work well on Jhun, who both outreached and outweighed him somewhat.

"Charyet... Kunye. Si chak!"

Devlin moved in quickly, sliding step, his knee rising for a first attack, but Jhun spun faster with a mule kick, thrusting his heel into Devlin's upper thigh. Devlin grunted with annoyance, though luckily it was the unhurt leg. He'd have a bruise to match the other, and a hitch in his stride for the rest of the fight. He moved in and hit Jhun's chest protector with a roundhouse but the new knot in his leg cut into his speed and the kick was not strong enough to penetrate. He changed up and faked toward the body, then went to the head with the same leg, but another back kick from Jhun caught him solidly under the sternum, sending him staggering back with the wind hissing out of him. He could just contain Jhun's follow up, punching once weakly as Jhun rushed in, then clinching for a moment before he rolled away.

Jhun changed up and back again, bouncing on his toes, more confident now, and Devlin was quite definitely discouraged. He had to work to conceal the fresh limp, and his chi center felt shattered, empty and cold. Time seemed to passing with excruciating lethargy. Devlin held his hands close to him, taking shots on his forearm pads, spending as little effort as he could and hoping to recover. Under this kind of pressure he tended to fire side kicks like a robot, but now he was too slow, or Jhun was too close so that the kicks were jammed. It seemed the round would never end. Devlin had to do something, anything-- win himself some breathing room. He spun inside, his shoulders jarring Jhun slightly back, and before he thought his leg came up, following through the turn with a crescent kick that caught Jhun squarely on the side of his padded helmet.

A stun. Devlin had time to switch stance and find his range for a million dollar side kick that hit Jhun middle target and knocked him reeling back toward the wall. A couple of students sitting crosslegged on the floor shifted away to avoid him.

"Break," cried Master Ryu. He directed them both into the center of the ring. "Sook!" Jhun's face was unreadable, but he no longer seemed much inclined to charge. Devlin tiptoed around him for another twenty seconds before the master stopped the fight. He and Jhun bowed to each other, then fell on each other's necks in a brief embrace.


Devlin headed home in his steamed-up car, pumping sweat and adrenalin, humming a little under his breath. The match with Jhun had served its purpose, purging him, and he might sustain the feeling of carefree emptiness for a little longer, before he must reenter the doors of his life. He stopped at a shotgun bar on Loch Raven and sucked down a bottle of beer quickly, for his thirst, then ordered another, with a shot of whisky. Customers were grouped loosely around the rectangular bar which occupied the center of the room, most drinking from longnecked bottles. Devlin, who was unknown in this venue, eavesdropped idly on their conversations. The walls were mirrored, so he could watch himself watching the barmaid, who was rather pretty, a woman in her middle forties, trim in jeans and a man's dress shirt, her face just slightly lined from the habit of pleasant expressions. On a television screen fixed to a high bracket in the corner, the electronic red ball of a keno game bounced slowly. In the mirror beyond the double counters of the bar, Devlin's face was a mask of shadow; he could still savor the feeling of being a stranger to himself.

He had cooled down completely by the time he returned to the car, so that he no longer fogged the windshield glass, which was for the better. Some soreness from his workout reached him now, and he felt the catch in his other leg where Jhun's kick had landed, but at the same time the drinks he'd had relaxed him, their warmth fanning out and circulating through his limbs. He drove slowly and attentively, while the radio broadcast some inoffensive pop song from the rear speakers of the car. Half entranced, but still sufficiently alert, Devlin mouthed the words as the car floated down the night-lit street. The tune ended, there came a weather bulletin predicting heavy frost, and then a plug for an organization seeking volunteers to work with abused children in the inner city-- some sort of buddy-big-brother thing, and call this number. Devlin thought, with his customary ironic detachment, that these would be quite a different class of victims from the ones that he was paid to help, if help it was. On the radio began another song, with a stronger ring of authenticity, faint sound of calluses sliding on the strings of an acoustic guitar, and a woman's voice, mournful and low. Devlin began crying uncontrollably, tears the size of coins spurting from his eyes. He had just presence of mind enough to pull the car to the side of the road and slam it into Park. Slumping forward over the wheel, he went on weeping violently, and after a few minutes he began laughing through his sobs, for the inexplicable strangeness of it all, and this thought, with the laughter, brought more tears. At last he sat back, swallowing and gasping in cold air. He'd failed to register the number of that place, whatever it was. The radio annoyed him now; he flicked it off, and dragged his sleeve across his nose. There was a sharpish pain in his sinuses, like an ice cream headache. He fell back in the seat and rested, listening to the car tick as it cooled, and thought, I can't just do nothing, I cannot do nothing...


A Friday evening, Devlin cooked ambitiously, making a flank steak roulade, French vegetables and a fancy salad. Everything turned out as he had intended, winning the slightly startled admiration of Alice and Michelle when they came to the table. Tonight all three of them were in good humor with each other, and Devlin could enjoy a pleasant sense of the fitness of things that persisted when dinner was done and he began to wash the dishes.

Michelle swung through the kitchen on her way out to a Halloween party. Devlin was just slightly spooked by her; she'd made up her face in solid black, and stuck her long hair down into a dark turtleneck, so that her head was sleek and narrow as a seal's. Behind the black pancake surface her eyes looked merry at his surprise.

"Good Lord," said Devlin. "A burglarette."

Michelle laughed and moved in to give him a sticky black kiss. She didn't smell of citrus now, but something musky, like burning rope, or cedar. Was it the face paint? She laughed again, moving toward the door, and Devlin waved her out, dismissively, a shoo.

He finished the dishes and shucked off his gloves. Alice called from the den as he went up the stairs.

"Ready to start the movie soon?"

She'd rented them a video-- cocooning time. Devlin hesitated, halfway up the steps.

"I'll just be a minute."

At the head of the stairs he turned into Michelle's room, thinking he was looking for cold cream to wipe off the black lipstick smudge on his cheek, though of course he could have used Alice's... or soap and water. Pushing the door softly to behind him, he inhaled deeply, a faint trace of the cedary smell. She'd left the window open despite the cold, both the upper and lower sashes slightly ajar. Clicking his tongue, Devlin moved to close and latch it. He turned and looked around the room, uncertain.

The ambience was somewhat similar to the therapeutic playroom at his office, not too surprising since Michelle had helped with those arrangements. Michelle was atypically neat; her bed was made, and arranged with cushions and various stuffed animals from her childhood. Devlin found these latter touching and a little sad; many of his teenage clients also clung to such souvenirs. The art on the walls bore witness to mutating taste. There was the inevitable silver unicorn mincing through a fluorescent faery glade. A full-length poster of a ratty-looking rock star who'd blown his head off with a shotgun not too long before. Since this event, Devlin rather wished that Michelle would take the poster down, but he could think of no way to mention the subject that wouldn't make him look like an utter fool. On the opposite wall hung a framed print of a painting by Odilon Redon... sign that Michelle's likes were shifting toward the esoteric.

Devlin moved across the carpet to her desk, where a screen-saver glowing on her small PC seemed to beckon him. He was aware of his effort to make no sound with his steps. He snapped on the cantilevered lamp and sat down in her chair. On the blotter were some handwritten notes for an English paper. A redheaded troll, dressed in a black and silver punk rock costume, gazed up at him with its glass eyes. There was a little brass incense burner, supporting a cone of ash, and beside it a small brass-bound lock box, cheaply made to resemble a pirate chest with its curved lid. Devlin reached for this, hesitated, then drew it to him across the blotter.

The lock, naturally, was a joke. Devlin straightened out a paper clip and popped it. There was a velvet-lined tray in the top, divided into two compartments, holding some gold jewelry and fresh-water pearl earrings. Devlin lifted out the tray. Underneath were a prayer wheel of birth-control pills with about half the pellets punched out and consumed, a pack of Zigzag cigarette papers, a small metal hash pipe, and a ziploc bag of expensive looking gold-colored marijuana.

Devlin prickled. His fear was unspecific. Brittany's voice arose in the space between his ears, mentioning something about condoms. He opened the bag of dope and sniffed-- that cedar smell, almost a taste, went directly to the back of his throat. He folded one of the cigarette papers and shook a modest amount of the dope into the crease. It been ten years at least since he'd rolled a joint, and it came out a little lopsided. He bent the paper with Michelle's notes on it and blew the leftover crumbs back into the bag and rolled it up and put everything back into the box and shut it. No way to lock it with the paper clip, but it seemed probable to Devlin that she would simply turn the key in the lock without checking first to see if the box were open-- why should she check? Thus he would not be caught.

He sat, rolling the joint back and forth in the circle of lamplight. As a matter of fact, he had never been caught. He had begun smoking marijuana in high school himself and continued through college and a few years afterward, then drifted away from it like most of his friends of that time. In his high school days alcohol had also been very easy to obtain and Devlin, who grew up in rural West Virginia, had often driven long distances late at night under the influence of both. After his fashion he had been very circumspect but the fact that he had come to no harm must be credited to whatever god looks after fools and little children. This thought did not much reassure him now. He was not comfortable telling himself that it was "different with a daughter," and his feeling that the world was an infinitely more dangerous place now than then struck him as... subjective.


Devlin smoothly palmed the joint and looked up toward the door, wiping his expression scrupulously blank. A knack that returned to him out of nowhere, like riding a bicycle, or picking a lock. Alice had arrived in the doorway, soundlessly in her sock feet, and stood there looking at him with a slight ironic smile. It bothered Devlin that he hadn't heard the door open. His heart slammed like a teenager's-- not quite caught, but close.

"What are you poking around in here for?"

"I wasn't poking...." Devlin swivelled in Michelle's desk chair, looked blandly up at his wife. She had Michelle's coloring, the wide full mouth, and the same chestnut hair in a shorter cut, barely grazing her shoulders. She was six years younger than he, and looked still more youthful. They were lucky in this way, Devlin thought, but then so were most of the people they knew, all fit and fresh-faced and healthy, as if they'd live forever. A headachey-looking vertical crease appeared in the center of Alice's forehead.

"Cat got your tongue?" she said. "You know she hates to feel like she's snooped on."

Devlin felt a flash of irritation. "Well, hell, I never even--" He caught himself, seeing the skin tighten over the fine bones of her face as she set herself. She gave better than she got in household quarrels, and Devlin didn't want a fight tonight. The thought that he was lying did not affect him.

"She left the window open," he said meekly, and stood up, slipping the joint into his pants pocket as he moved. "I just came in to close it." Of course that didn't explain why he'd be sitting at her desk, but Alice seemed willing to accept it. Her face relaxed, and now her eyes looked only tired. Stepping carefully so as not to break the joint in his pocket, Devlin put his hands on his shoulders and dug into the tightened muscles there, massaging.

"Ahh..." Alice said. "Come on, let's watch the movie." She took his elbow and Devlin went with her down the stairs, his free hand in his pocket, cupping the joint against his bruise.

The film was some sort of period piece, based on a turn of the century novel, or perhaps the life of a turn of the century novelist? Devlin had a little trouble concentrating. The movie had been Alice's pick; he might have been happier with some simpleminded thriller, if not Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan. The subtleties of the cinematography seemed ineffective on the TV screen. But after all there was no need for much attention. Devlin let the streams of cultivated talk flow over him, watched the shifting of the pixelated colors. Narrative wallpaper. Alice leaned into him comfortably on the couch, her head aligned with the television. Devlin fidgeted with a lock of her hair, began absently fondling her ear-lobe.

"Tickles," she said, and touched his hand with her own forefinger to make him stop.

After about an hour Alice declared an intermission and went to the kitchen to make popcorn. Devlin remained on the couch for a moment. The patch of his side where she had rested felt suddenly cool. The frozen television screen displayed the face of an English actress, an overbred-looking watery blonde who had recently become very popular among discriminating movie-goers. Her lips were parted and her weak chin tucked, locked by pause mode in the mid-expression of some delicate nuance of emotion.

Devlin yawned and went to the kitchen, where Alice was tending the popcorn machine. Butter-free and exquisitely healthy-- Devlin had given it to her, to the house, the preceding Christmas.

"What?" Alice said, surprising him. Had he been staring? When he didn't answer she came over and sat down at a chair across the kitchen table from him. For a moment they both watched the popcorn whizzing around the yellow-tinted cannister of the machine. The burst kernels made a sound somewhere between a pock and a whisper as they rebounded.

"How was everything down at the shop?" Alice looked at him directly, her beautiful deep eyes, so like Michelle's.

Devlin shrugged. "Another day at the orphans' picnic."

Alice clicked her tongue at him; she disapproved of such cynicism. Her gaze turned back to the popcorn machine, now trickling off its last few pops. She might have sympathized with his stirrings of professional unease, Devlin thought with a slight flare of irritation, except that she was too pragmatic. If you don't like what you're doing, Alice would say, do something else. She herself had been a psychiatric social worker for a number of years, but shifted to a strictly administrative post when she became exhausted by dealing with an endless succession of hopelessly self-destructive lunatics. So if she did say what Devlin imagined she would say, she would be quite right. She had already put her own money where her mouth was.

After twenty years of marriage, a great number of possible conversations became fundamentally redundant. Alice would disapprove of this notion too-- which seemed a good reason for Devlin to keep it to himself. He had been holding his tongue a lot lately, not with an effort of restraint, but with a sort of fond possessiveness. Alice was pouring the popcorn into a flowered ceramic bowl. She smiled at him, beckoned. There was no discontent between them. Their quiet was a kind of calm.

Devlin returned with her to the den. He put his hand into his pocket and curled his fingers around the joint again to protect it from his movement. His knuckles grazed painlessly against the bruise. Two secrets. Why did he want to keep them? He wondered idly about Michelle, less with concern than curiosity. Not where she was or what she was doing, but what she might be thinking and feeling. What would it feel like, Devlin wondered, not to already know exactly what would happen?

The leaves had all fallen on the median of Broadway, and the stripped limbs of the small unhealthy looking trees bowed and whined in the wind, which came in short sharp gusts that would make an umbrella useless. Devlin tightened the string of his sweatshirt hood. A fine misty rain wipped on and off his face with the wind; it was very cold and stung like ice. He had consciously dressed down for the occasion. Jeans with fatlaced sneakers, sweatshirt under leather jacket-- that was the uniform in these precincts, and with his hands in his pockets and his head turtled back inside the sweatshirt, Devlin wouldn't be taken, at a distance, for white. Or at least, that idea reassured him, though he was worried about his car. He'd come shopping for space for Master Ryu's downtown school, down here where commercial space was surely going begging. The Kae (as the Korean community loan fund called itself) wouldn't spring for much rent, and Devlin was damned if he'd sink his own money into the venture, dubious about it as he already felt. But he was doing it, so it appeared. No, he wasn't definitely doing it. He was giving it a look.

He turned on Eager Street and walked east. Incongruously, there were a good many late model cars parked along this block, many flashier and more expensive than Devlin's little Saab. He didn't know what they were doing there, but he did feel slightly more confident that he might find his own vehicle intact when he returned to it. He passed a liquor store, a derelict building sheathed in plywood, a bar, a hairdresser, a liquor store, a derelict building whose doors and windows were gaping smoke-stained holes, a convenience store, a liquor store. Despite the foul weather there were a great many young black men milling around on the street, smoking extra-long cigarettes and drinking out of paper bags, sometimes shouting or amusing each other with menacing gestures or mock assaults. No one seemed particularly to notice Devlin, who walked briskly, keeping his head down.

At the next the corner he turned and went south. Cut off by the side street's windbreak, the rain now swung into his face again. Devlin rehearsed the directions he'd had from Mr. Spetakis on the telephone: corner convenience store, the Parrot Bar, a surplus store, and next to that the storefront he'd come to check out. The gates were up and massively padlocked, with mesh so fine that Devlin couldn't see into the darkened interior. Under the gates, the filthy plate glass was cracked and cris-crossed with silver duct tape. Evidently Spetakis had not yet arrived.

Devlin snuck a look at his watch-- nervous of finding the place with no delays, he'd come almost fifteen minutes early. He stepped back from the gates and looked first one way on the street and then the other. The soft leather of his tennis shoes seemed to be porous enough that his feet were getting wet. The bars, on the whole, seemed not worth chancing. Devlin went into a convenience store and bought a can of malt liquor and asked for a pack of matches also. The plexiglass was so thick between him and the cash register that he had to shout to make himself heard. It was a Korean store, and Devlin grinned secretly at the suitability of that, as his paper sack rotated toward him on the plexiglass turntable.

He walked down to the next corner, sipping from the bag, a gesture that would improve his camouflage, he thought. There was a shattered playground, streaked with mud, with metal stubs of an uprooted swingset and huge coiled springs from which the rocking animals had been ripped. The only intact piece of equipment was a jungle gym made of four-by-fours and metal pipe. Around its base was a large trash heap: papers and rags and many halfpint liquor bottles, and a sodden single-bed mattress.

Devlin swung onto the jungle gym and climbed to the top. He felt somewhat more secure here, though he also suspected the feeling was delusional. The wind abated, and the rain slacked off. Devlin heard a horn blowing, and a couple of distant shouts. He found the matches at the bottom of the bag, took out the joint he'd swiped from Michelle and lit it.

Time took on a curious elasticity. Devlin stared down at a wet alley cat that picked through the litter beneath the jungle gym, hunching its damp shoulders. There was a dead pigeon there with the trash, but the cat didn't seem to connect with it. The roach burned against his fingers and Devlin started-- he stubbed it out on the pipe and flicked the remains down onto the trash pile. Absurd to be busted for a joint down here, though not perhaps very likely either. The rainswept cement, the trash itself, the orangish tiger stripes of the wretched cat, all seemed brighter, more vividly present than before. Devlin's beer tasted flat and metallic now; he didn't much want to finish it but his mouth was cottony and dry. He was so stoned, in fact, that he could barely remember his own name. The thought of his daughter smoking this stuff bewildered him. Evidently it was two-hit shit-- he'd been a fool to smoke the whole thing.

It seemed he'd forgotten Mr. Spetakis for what must have been hours-- he snatched at his wrist to look at his watch and discovered that only ten minutes had passed. It was clearing, in fact, with slanting rays of sunlight pouring down from a rent in the clouds. Devlin shivered, and dropped his can onto the trash pile, contributing to the community spirit, he thought. He climbed down and walked back toward the storefront in a fog of unfocussed paranoia.

The Parrot Bar's blacked-out glass door swung open as he approached; there was a blast of music and two men came out shouting at each other, shoving. Devlin's reactions were molasses-slow; he seemed to be aware of this event for aeons during which his legs continued to carry him toward it. At last he stopped and drew back, but the two men had separated, one going around the corner in the opposite direction from the other. The bar door swung shut on its pressure hinge, cutting off the music sharply. A small white pickup truck was idling by the curb, and as Devlin began walking that way again, the truck shut off and the driver stepped out to greet him.

Spetakis was a large and rather soft appearing man, exuding a winey smell which was not unpleasant. He introduced himself as "Georges," giving the name the French pronunciation. His hand was soft and rather moist when Devlin shook it. He hauled an enormous brass ring of keys from his pocket and began undoing the padlocks on the gates. The door behind them was lockless-- a hole through the metal frame where the cylinder had been. Spetakis smiled at Devlin, displaying a gold front tooth with a heart cut out to show the white enamel. The gates pulled back with a rusty scrape, and they went in.

"So," said Spetakis, his gold tooth winking in the dim interior. "So you are the man of karate."

"Yes," Devlin said. His tongue felt thick and slow. "Tae Kwon Do," he added, automatically. The Koreans were particular about such things.

"You do not carry the knife or the gun."

"No," Devlin said. It seemed to cost him a profound effort to utter these monosyllables. But Spetakis, nodding approvingly, seemed satisfied with his reply.

Focus, Devlin told himself. With an effort of concentration on the business at hand, he could bring himself down enough to function. Mr. Spetakis manipulated a light switch back and forth several times-- dust on the contacts, he explained. Fluorescent lights flickered on overhead. The space was long, rather narrow, but wide enough for four practitioners to stand abreast. A partition at the side walled off three cubicles that might be used as dressing rooms. Devlin went to the closets in the rear and flushed the toilets and turned the water on and off. The pipes belched a little rust from disuse, but the plumbing appeared to be operational.

All in all, it looked better than he'd been expecting. The space would not require much in the way of remodelling or repair. The partitions could serve as they presently stood. There was some shelving to be removed from the walls, a modest amount of debris to be cleared. The torn and grimy linoleum on the floor could be covered with mats easily enough.

Devlin felt an odd rush of confidence: momentum. The thing was possible, and why not? His risk was nil; Ryu and the Kae would support the operation. If it went well, Devlin would even be compensated for his time-- at nothing like the rate he pulled at his practice, but. He might think of it as a different kind of opportunity.

So he told Spetakis that he thought the place would do, but, aware that his judgment might well be impaired, he also said he'd have to postpone the formal closure of the deal to another day. Spetakis didn't seem concerned by the delay. He relocked the gates across the storefront and they shook hands again beside the little truck. Devlin mentioned something about repairing the front window, and promised to phone by the next Monday.

Hands in pockets, he turned the corner of Eager Street. The clouds had parted further, rolling eastward in a bulging bruise-like mass, and from the west, fresh light poured over the buildings and the street, clear and cold and brilliant. Devlin clutched for a moment, anxious that he'd forgotten to ask Spetakis about the heat, or the missing front door lock, but then he recalled the deal was open still, the problem had been anticipated; he was maintaining. The afternoon light rushed down as the rain had earlier, carving the buildings sharply from the shadows, throwing the people on the street into electric relief. The wind rose, lifting scraps of colored paper into swirls like autumn leaves, and Devlin's mood lifted with them, into a kind of exaltation. His steps began to roll in time to the mega-bass pounding from a cruising car on his right. There was laughter, and a child ran out of a store pursuing a rubber ball with blue stars on it, and picked it up and carried it inside. Devlin keyed into a young woman pushing a candy-striped stroller a few paces ahead of him, slender and long-legged and walking with an antelope grace. Her hair was done in long thin braids, caught at the nape of her neck with a gold pin. Devlin overtook her and looked back to see her face. Her forehead was high and she held her chin up, and Devlin saw a flash of her teeth in the dark skin. Foggily he remembered it wouldn't be wise to stare.

Slam of a car door and a voice shouting right in Devlin's ear it seemed. "I'ma KILL you, nigga!" He snapped to the front, fists rising reflexively to cover his face. Someone crashed into him, dressed much as he in leather and sweatshirt but with a black face and black shades. Devlin regained his balance and moved toward the wall. The second man, larger, swung back the flap of his oversized field jacket and reached into his waistband, shouting still, his face twisted and spraying spittle. Leather Jacket ducked, his hooded head tucked into his elbows, and dodged around the girl with the stroller, while several sulphurous flashes sprouted from the shadows inside the field jacket. Devlin heard a sound like a string of firecrackers lit together. Leather Jacket was sprinting toward the corner; he vaulted between the shoulders of two women coming the other way, scattering their groceries. But the shooter only stood with his arms hanging down, the pistol swinging just below the zipper of his field jacket. He was a big man, knotty-looking and thick through the chest, with reddish hair cut very short and a light-skinned puffy face, pockmarked with old acne scars. He stood for a long moment as if paralyzed, then someone snatched him into a car which raced away with its tires crying.

Now Devlin looked at the girl, who had fallen on her back with her head slightly raised against a building wall. The shots had blown her several yards backward from the stroller. Her short jacket had come open and her orange rayon top welled with a dark pulsing stain which was also spreading underneath her body. Devlin knelt over her, stretched out his hand. Someone nearby was screaming, crying hysterically. As for Devlin, he could feel nothing. He was reaching for a pulse or a breath but there would be neither and in the end he drew back his hand without touching the girl at all. The whites of her eyes showed under the long still lashes, and there was blood coming through her teeth.

Now Devlin felt the eyes on him and he straightened and backed away. A circle of onlookers closed, leaving the stroller outside. A siren was howling northbound on Broadway. Devlin took another few steps back and looked at the infant in the stroller. Somehow he thought it was a boy, and maybe five or six months old. He had forgotten how to estimate the age of babies. The child's skin was very black and glossy, with a big forehead and brows that seemed knitted together. He was not crying, or moving at all, only his eyes moved slightly as he looked about himself, very soberly. His eye seemed to fix on Devlin, who remembered reading somewhere that such a silence was an adaptive response for infants under terrible stress. Keep silent and hope for the predators to pass you by. Indeed, no one was paying any attention to the baby at all. Devlin heard doors of a police car banging, static on a radio. The voice seemed to reach him from outside, a long way distant: I cannot do nothing. He took hold of the stroller's rubberized handles and began to push it in the direction of his car.