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David Niall Wilson has been writing and publishing horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction since the mid-eighties. A former president of the Horror Writer's Association and multiple recipient of the Bram Stoker Award, his novels include Maelstrom, The Mote in Andrea's Eye, Deep Blue, the Grails Covenant Trilogy, Star Trek Voyager: Chrysalis, Except You Go Through Shadow, This is My Blood, Ancient Eyes, On the Third Day, The Orffyreus Wheel, Vintage Soul, My Soul to Keep & Others, Kali's Tale, Heart of a Dragon, The Second Veil, The Parting, Nevermore - A Novel of Love, Loss & Edgar Allan Poe , Killer Green & Crockatiel – the newest novel in the new series O.C.L.T. David has also co-authored the Stargate Atlantis novel Brimstone, with Patricia Lee Macomber, and Hallowed Ground – written with International best-selling author Steven Savile. He has over 150 short stories published in anthologies, magazines, and five collections. His work has appeared in and is due out in various anthologies and magazines, including the recent anthology 2113 – stories based on the music of Rush, edited by Kevin J. Anderson.

David lives and loves with Patricia Lee Macomber in Hertford, NC with their daughter Katie, and occasionally their genius college daughter Stephanie, three sons serving in the USN, Will, Zach, and Zane, their ridiculous Pekingese Gizmo, their not-so-vicious cat, Sid, a never-to-become-a-coat chinchilla named Pook Daddy, Bellatrix LeStrange (the cutest cat in the world) and her long-haired glaring grandma, Boots. David is CEO and founder of Crossroad Press, a cutting edge digital publishing company specializing in electronic novels, collections, and non-fiction, as well as unabridged audiobooks. Visit Crossroad Press at http://store.crossroadpress.com

Sins of the Flash by David Niall Wilson

Christian Greve was a man on a collision course with destiny. He spent his days taking graduation pictures, glamour shots, and baby pictures, and dreaming of the day when the world would praise him for his talent. Christian was an artist, but there was one problem: All of the models he's ever photographed have worked against him. They changed his careful poses. They tilted their head to ruin the source of lighting, or twisted their features slightly. He knew it was their fault, because the visions in his head-the images he intended-were pristine and perfect, down to the tiniest detail. He'd learned makeup the hard way from an abusive, chemically addicted mother who turned tricks and made him part of the show, and he knew he was in the right here. Now he's found another way to perfect his art-and a new partner in agent/entrepreneur Hiram Gates.

When a string of dead models, their makeup eerie and beautiful, start turning up, Tommy Doyle and his partner "Big Mac" Markum are called in. Doyle has spent most of his life chasing psychos. He has a reputation for hating the press, and an innate ability to enter the darker side of the city and bring the crazies to justice. Can he stop this new, apparently motive-less string of killings before the body count rises too high for his own sanity? This is a San Valencez Mystery, set in David Niall Wilson's fictional city of San Valencez, California-a place just left of reality, where nothing is ever quite as it seems. Look for other novels set in San Valencez, including the successful dark fantasy series The DeChance Chronicles and the supernatural thrillers Deep Blue, On The Third Day, and Ancient Eyes. This is also the first full-length Tommy Doyle novel, following the success of his debut in the novelette "Burning Bridges," published in the anthology All Hell Breaking Loose.

CURATOR'S NOTE

Dave's one of those writers who does it right, quietly working away at his craft. He's got a brilliant sense of story and a gift for the macabre. – Steven Savile

 

REVIEWS

  • For Deep Blue: " Wilson demonstrates that a horror novel doesn't need gallons of blood to succeed, that spiritual terror can be even more effective."

    – Publisher's Weekly
  • "This is an exquisite meditation upon the nature of pain and redemption written with a blues sensibility that rolls through the mind like bleak, resounding chords of dark music. The perfect novel for a hot, sultry night."

    – J. L. Comeau – CountGore.com
  • For This is My Blood: "Wilson's prose is smooth and powerful, carrying its allegorical weight with grace. His first novel is one of the most unique vampire stories to appear in recent years, balancing themes of damnation and prophesy against those of faith and redemption."

    Publisher's Weekly
 

BOOK PREVIEW

PROLOGUE

Tommy Doyle leaned into the worn vinyl of the booth and sighed. Across from him, his partner, "Big Mac" Markum was sipping a cup of coffee and staring out at the street. Tommy stared glumly at the dingy windows. The afternoon sunlight shattered against bird droppings and streaked grease-paint advertisements for "specials" and lowered visibility to almost nothing. It suited Tommy fine, he wanted to be alone, and to think. If he couldn't have both, he could count on Mac to let him think.

He glanced out the window. Across the street, a family of four pulled up to the curb, left their battered station wagon behind, bravely locked against the world, and walked down the sidewalk in a group. Downtown in late afternoon was an amalgam of suited businessmen, prostitutes, drunks, and everyday people with errands that had drawn them from their quiet, safe neighborhoods and brightly lit homes into the bowels of the city.

The family moved quickly and efficiently. The father glanced over his shoulder ever few steps, covering their rear. Tommy would have smiled if it hadn't been so sad. Families shouldn't have to walk the streets like they were a military formation. Parents shouldn't have to study every new face and every new situation and weigh the possibility they were on a collision course with some psycho.

The family stopped in front of a dingy window. Above the window a sign proclaimed, very simply, "Photography." There were black and white and color portraits in the window, and some other objects, but Tommy couldn't make them out through the grimy glass and across the street. All he saw was the sign, and the family disappearing into that darkened doorway.

He thought about photographs. There wasn't anyone in his life he wanted a picture of badly enough to snap the button down, and those that he already possessed were images he needed to forget. His father. His mother. His cousin. All gone. All dead. He wondered briefly if the guy at the photo studio would give him a discount if he went in and explained that he wanted a family photo, threw his arms wide, and proclaimed "this is it."

Tommy turned his gaze to the interior of the diner and left the street to Mac, who hadn't moved or spoken.

Two tables away, an old guy sat and read the newspaper. Across the top it read San Valencez Chronicle in bold, gothic type. Beneath that were a slightly smaller headline and a series of photos. Tommy didn't need to read the headline, he'd memorized it. He didn't need to see the photographs, either. They hung in the gallery he called a mind, winking and whispering at him constantly.

Tommy sipped his coffee and stared into the cup. The swirling froth erased the diner for a moment. Tommy saw the photographs, one after the other, falling like dead leaves onto the blotter of his desk. Dead children, each with horrible deformities. The huge basement complex beneath The Colossus Food Mart stretching endlessly into a putrid, shadowed pit. Philip Barnett's face, gleaming with sweat, and his voice rose in that unholy, hellish freaking chant.

Something brushed his arm. Tommy snapped back to the present. The old man from two tables over had risen and stood too close to Tommy's table. He gripped his newspaper like a club in trembling, liver-spotted hands. Eyes gleaming, he jabbed the paper at Tommy, who had to fight not to smack it aside, or back away.

"It's you," the old man said. "Damned if it isn't you, just like in the paper." He shook the offending object accusingly and jabbed it at Tommy again. "Just like in here. You're that cop. The 'Psychos-r-Us' guy."

Tommy didn't speak. He clutched his coffee more tightly.

Mac's voice rumbled low. "Move on, friend" he said softly. Soft for Mac was like the roar of a distant train rattling windows and shaking dime store china off the walls of brownstone apartments. Tommy heard the china crashing in his mind, and thought of bones. He saw tiny skeletons, bundled in rags. The coffee swirled in his gut, a pool of acidic bile. In defiance, or self-defense, he raised his cup and drank.

The old man backed up half a step in deference to Mac, but then he held his ground and brandished his paper again. "Why'd you do it? Why'd you hit that reporter? He never hurt you. He never hurt them kids, 'neither. Just doin' his job."

Mac rose and turned toward the man.

"I said move it along, buddy. Don't make me ask you again."

The old guy glared first at Mac, then at Tommy again, then turned and shuffled toward the door. As he went, he talked to himself, loudly enough to be heard.

"Psychos-r-Us. That's right. Just might BE right."

The door closed, slowly at first on a cushion of air, then finishing with a snap. Mac laid a couple of bills on the table, and the two of them rose. Mac started to say something, thought better of it, and held his peace.

The walls of the diner were lined with ranks of photos chronicling San Valencez's past. Streetcars, trains, ships, actors and sports stars glared and stared and peered down from hundreds of identical black wooden frames. Tommy tried not to picture those other photographs in a line over the counter. He tried not to see the expression on the diner's owner's face if he presented them as a gift, along with the framed proclamation that "Psychos are everywhere. Never forget."

A splash of color beside the door caught his eye. It was a Beer poster with a pretty young woman smiling out at him. She clutched a condensation damp bottle of beer in her hand. The caption read, "Drink Surf Beer, brewed and bottled locally." In a bubble over the girl's head it said "Feeling down? Surf's up!"

"Swell," Tommy muttered. He pushed through the rickety door and onto the street. The family was just exiting the photo shop across the street. Now that their mission was complete, they were all as furtive and hurried as the father had been on his way in. They huddled close together, and it seemed only seconds from the time they left that shadowed doorway and slammed the doors of their car. A thin figure stood framed, just for a moment, in the doorway of the shop, watching them depart.

Tommy and Mac climbed into the unmarked car at the curb and pulled into traffic. The city swallowed them whole.

PART ONE

"What is a face, really? Its own photo? Its make-up? Or is it a face as painted by such or such painter? That which is in front? Inside? Behind? And the rest? Doesn't everyone look at himself in his own particular way? Deformations simply do not exist."

–Pablo Picasso

CHAPTER ONE

It was hot, it was late, and Christian was very near the snapping point. He needed to be out of the studio and into the dark room. He smiled at the young girl seated on the stool before him. He held up a stuffed bear and shook it at her invitingly. He watched as her tiny eyes followed it, first in suspicion, then in glee. Her smile widened, her teeth flashed white and brilliant, and he pushed the button and snapped off two quick shots in succession. Without a pause, he moved the bear downward, then to the right.

Each time the bear stopped moving, the camera flashed. The girl paid little or no attention to either Christian, or to the camera. The bear was her focus, and Christian breathed an inward sigh of relief. He had no patience for recalcitrant brats who didn't want their picture taken. He had no patience, in fact, for much of anything. Christian snapped the last of the pictures on the roll, barely managing to maintain his thin smile. He turned to the heavy-set, crooning woman in the corner, already slipping forward to scoop up her child.

The little girl's gaze was still locked on the teddy bear, and seeing this Christian grinned viciously. He twisted the bear's head violently, tearing the cloth and sending a small puff of stuffing into the air, then gave it a quick, deliberate flip through the air. It landed in a box atop a dozen or so other juvenile distractions, the head sliding off to one side and disappearing into the shadowed depths of the box.

The child, whose mother had her back turned, let out a wail. The mother turned first to her daughter, and then to Christian, but by the time she met his gaze he was smiling serenely. He gave her a little shrug, as if to say, "Who knows what kids are thinking?"

She returned the smile, and Christian beckoned her to follow him into his small office. His entire business would have fit nicely into a normal-sized mobile home, and he was painfully aware of the shabbiness of the building, and the austere, almost monkish decor. It was all he could do to keep his ears from reddening in shame as he watched the woman, who appeared to have about one functioning brain cell to her name, glancing at his drab walls in disapproval.

He slipped behind the counter, reached for the ledger he kept below the cash register, and turned back to the woman. She stood there, a vacant smile on her face, the little girl now placidly draped across her left shoulder, supported by one flabby, meaty arm, and it was all Christian could do to repress a shudder.

"She's a little angel, don't you think, Mr. Greve?" She said, as though the only thought that could possibly be passing through his mind was to agree. "Got her momma's looks, don't you think?"

Christian nodded, still feebly attempting to maintain his smile. What he was thinking was that, if there were truly a God in heaven, that he would never give a cute, innocent girl a curse like this woman's looks.

Aloud he said, "Pretty as a picture, Mrs. Blake. You'll want copies for the whole family, I imagine? The special this week is two big, glossy 8 X 10 portraits, four 5 X 7's, and sixteen wallets."

The practiced speech rolled forth in one long, monotonous stream. It wasn't the weekly special; it was the only special. It was a ridiculously low price, but it was all he could get them to pay. That was the fact. It was just cheap enough to entice customers into his studio, and just steep enough to keep him from being evicted or starving

The woman nodded and made clucking sounds at the little girl, who was now playing with her mother's hair in fascination and drooling on the woman's blouse. Christian averted his eyes from this grotesque spectacle as the proper papers and releases were signed.

As he worked over the forms, adding the prices and putting check marks into the appropriate blanks, the woman wandered over to the far wall, her eyes wide and curious. Lining that wall were bookshelves, the only real furniture in the room other than the battered file cabinet and his cluttered desk. On one shelf a row of tiny porcelain masks was displayed. Some were clowns, others women or children. Each was painted exquisitely, makeup and expression rendered in minute detail. Each was a perfect rendition of a captured emotion, a stolen sample of someone's face.

"Where did you get these, Mr. Greve?" she asked, not really wanting to know, but drawn to them anyway. He was used to it.

"I've collected them, off and on, here and there," he said, hurrying his fingers at their task. His fingers trembled, and he clutched the pen tightly as she grew nearer to his treasures, swaying to quiet her brat and endangering his work. What if she touched them? What if the child spit?

He felt the hard lump in his pocket, centered on it, suppressing the sudden panic and intense anger seething just below the surface of his pained smile.

"They look hand painted." The woman commented, reaching out as if she might actually touch one.

Christian bit his lip. The paperwork was done, and his obligation for conversation was complete. He smiled as patiently as he could manage, cleared his throat to turn her attention back to the business and hand, and gestured at the forms on the counter. She signed them quickly, not reading to check and see that they said what he'd claimed they would. No one ever read the forms, and more than once Christian had considered adding a check box that would bequeath him their immortal soul, just to prove the point.

When the forms were signed, she turned back to the shelves. After staring for what seemed an unbearably long time, she gave a little shrug and turned to the door.

"Wave goodbye to the nice man, Chastity," she instructed, her voice caked with saccharine.

The little girl, Chastity, turned and gave Christian a long, hard look. She did not wave, nor did she smile. She stared. She saw more than her moron mother ever would, and he returned her gaze, putting every bit of intensity and bile into his expression that he could muster. She turned away and hid her face in her mother's hair.

You'd better hide you little shit, Christian was thinking as the door opened, then closed behind them. If Mommy weren't here, I'd have gotten some damned good shots.

Christian hated children. He'd hated being one, he'd hated growing up with them, and he found them, if anything, even more distasteful now that he'd escaped into the world of adults. As a boy, he'd never had friends, and children seemed to sense this, reaching out at every opportunity to push his buttons. Behind their innocent, ignorant smiles, they laughed at him; they always had.

He moved about the studio, straightening up and closing out the cash register, locking the door and each window carefully and methodically. What was his was his, and he was not going to make a mistake that would change that. No matter what he was doing, he never forgot that there were eyes watching, minds working. Someone always wanted what you had, no matter how worthless it might be. That was the way of the world.

It was true of his lunch money on the school playground, years before, and it was true now. Only the size of the bullies and the depth of their anger had changed. It had grown.

Christian took particular care with the small masks and carved faces on his shelves. They looked hand-painted because they were. He'd worked hard on each of them. There was something of himself in every expression, every tint and hue. The masks were reflections of his passion – the perfection of image. Again, the warm, malleable lump in his pocket pressed into his flesh, reaching out to him. Christian shivered.

Photography was the ultimate realization of his talent. His dream was to transfer his vision through his camera, to achieve the perfection of image that flashed through his mind when he came across a suitable model indelibly onto film. The models were the problem. He saw the images in his mind. He could transfer those images to the faces of the models and blend his talent with their beauty, but only in his mind. Their physical form was beyond his control. They sensed his attempts at manipulation, and they fought the changes. It was their selfishness – their failure to recognize his genius for what it was, that had cost him a career in fine art. Christian knew they laughed at him too. His hell was populated with models and children.

Christian locked up the front, sealed his office, and worked his way back through the studio. He performed a mental check-off as he went, sealing each window, each door, putting away anything and everything he found that was not exactly where it belonged. When he was satisfied, he slipped through the final door in the rear and energized the first zone of the alarm system. The back room of the studio was where his real work took place; it was his darkroom.

In the darkroom no bulbs shone down on him like searching spotlights; no eyes pried into his secrets, and no fingers pointed at him in mockery or accusation. In the darkroom he was king. He could close the door, settle into the small space with its reek of chemicals and its gloomy solitude, and release his genius. The images formed in his mind with deeper clarity in the dark, and it was in that room that his vision was most pure.

Christian had never fooled himself. What he did for a living was snap photographs, plain and simple. Any fool, he knew, could be taught to point a camera, get the lighting and focus right and come out of the mess with serviceable photographs. This was not art, but a mechanical trade, a pastime.

He hated the limitation of it; he believed that he should be "creating" the images, not just recording them. Each bit of background, each tilt of the head and shift in the subtle shades of the lighting brought out dynamics in his models, emotions and effects that were unattainable without his expert fingers at the controls. Even in the mundane, everyday grind he'd fallen into, he tried to put a bit of this into his work, though it went largely unappreciated. It was all that kept him sane.

These simple portraits, little girls, drooling babies, moronic families with shit-eating grins that were genetically imprinted on their entire brood, even these were art when he finished with them. He sifted the day's negatives through the chemicals, hung them to dry, and watched carefully as each color and line appeared on the photo-paper like magic, his own magic, filling print after print with his wasted talent.

Christian cherished the time in the darkroom. Only when the snooping eyes of the rest of the world were not trained on him nor watching over his shoulder could he enjoy what he had created. He could sit for hours and study the way a difficult bit of lighting had come out, or how he'd gotten a particularly dense young model to tilt his or her head just the right way.

This day had not been a good one, and it had left a particularly bitter taste in his mouth. Maybe it was the insistence of that last woman that her little "angel" was the most photogenic piece of flesh to ever grace film. Maybe it was the way the little shit had toyed with him, sniffling, even crying once, turning her head away coyly, then broad siding him just as he was getting frantic with frustration, letting loose the smile that would make it all worthwhile and only letting him catch the last, waning seconds of it. Showing him that in her eyes, he wasn't as important as a dingy stuffed bear.

She had known; they all knew. They taunted him. They recognized his talent and were jealous of it, and they did everything in their power to prevent him from succeeding. The girls, and the women they grew into, were the worst. They always knew just how to take that edge of perfection off of his work, no matter how diligently he planned or how quickly he acted.

His thoughts darkened a shade, and he thought again about the little girl, Chastity, and the lost smile. Mother's little angel. He would have liked to make her into a little angel. If she hadn't kicked around so much, or hadn't been so damned cocky, he'd have been able to do his work.

He closed his eyes and imagined how he would pose her, given the chance. In his mind, he tilted her head to the side, the smooth skin of her face as cool and pliant as porcelain. He applied the makeup just so, bringing out the highlights of her cheekbones and accentuating the depth of her eyes.

He sat her further back on the divan, pulled her small legs up so that her knees bent, and leaned them to one side, her tiny saddle shoes tucked up beneath her.

He released her hair from the constraints of the pigtails her mother had trapped it in and let it cascade over her shoulders in an elegant but innocent shower of gold. Christian brushed the bangs up and over so they fell coquettishly over one eye and brought out the contrast between youth and future beauty, ravishing and innocent. Heart-stealing.

She was a perfect model. It was unfortunate that God had given the power to them, the mother and the daughter. They had the power to destroy his genius in their vindictive little hands. All it would take was one trapped moment of control, and he could create a masterpiece. He was so close he could taste the success, could see the admiration in the eyes of his colleagues, and could feel the adulation of his public.

A trickle of sweat rolled languidly down the side of his face, starting at his forehead and winding past his nose. He licked it from his upper lip, tasting the salt. His day's work came back into focus slowly. He reached into the vats and lifted each print carefully with his forceps, attaching them to the clips that suspended them for drying. Now that he was relaxing, his mind cleared, and the rest of the day played out for him like a stop-motion film.

There had been another girl earlier that afternoon, a girl of about fourteen. She wasn't beautiful, but there had been something there to work with, something perhaps better than the mundane beauty of super models.

Christian had read pain in the girl's eyes. She was young, but with eyes so sad and far away that she might have been thirty, or forty, living on the streets. The girl's mother had the same look, but her expression was battered into her face, sunken and developed to graphic proportions that would have rendered any photo too honestly caustic, and too brittle. Her features had Piccassoesque linearity – too much a caricature for film. She was chiseled from pain and touched by the disintegration of her spirit.

The daughter was different. Sparks still jumped in the depths of her eyes, and not so deeply that a perfectly timed photo couldn't catch them. Ice chip sparks of pain, fear, and even of hope danced there.

Christian had sensed that there was a man behind those sparks, probably the father. He didn't know a lot about families, but he knew about fathers. He could imagine the atrocities that created such expressions of hopelessness and servility as well. Sweat leaked through to stain his collar as he pulled out one of the shots from his tray and stared at the girl's tragic countenance. The motion caused his thigh to press that warm lump in his pocket against the flesh of his groin, and he held very still for a moment, suppressing the urge to slide his hand into his pocket and pull it out. It wasn't time.

The girl had been dressed in a gown much too old for her and had worn makeup beyond her years. It looked out of place, almost ridiculous, and she hadn't been comfortable with it. A dress-up doll for daddy, Christian thought. The two women had exchanged glances as they watched his reaction, the mother's empty and lost, the equivalent of a mental shrug, the daughter's reaching out, searching for help, or for support.

Christian had tried his best to put the girl at ease. Her name was Dorinda. Not a common name. He'd commented on it, and the mother mumbled something about it being her husband's choice. Not surprising. Christian figured the dress and the makeup were the father's choice, as well, and wondered how long the daughter had been the choice, while he was at it.

Dorinda had squirmed, twisted, and resisted his every attempt to get a true smile to cross her face, so he'd given in and settled for the wistful, trapped expression she provided so readily. The mother, watching like a spectator at some grim sacrifice, tried only once to get the girl to smile wider before backing away to the wall and standing against it. She had looked as though she were afraid of being caught by surprise.

Christian let his mind drift to the girl's waif-like figure, to the remnants of the image he'd been tying together in his mind as he'd photographed her. He'd imagined her compliance directed at himself, not at the father.

He would have made her up, too, but differently. Her hair was a light reddish color, matched by her eyebrows, which had been so light that they barely showed, giving her an ethereal aspect. Christian would have played on this, using golds and yellows, lightening her complexion still more. He would have brushed her hair back and tied it in a ponytail in the center, so that it sprouted from her head and spilled back down.

He would have slid her dress from one shoulder and let it drop down so that one tiny, budding breast showed for his camera. He would have moved to her side as he readied her, tilting her head a little this way, caressing her nipple so that it stood out, proud and defiant against the world of pain reflected in her eyes. Not to sate his own hunger, but for the camera – always for the camera.

He would have pulled one leg in close, almost a cross-legged position, but the other he would have let bend behind, spreading her legs just enough to get a shadow gap between, a dark contour to break up the monotony of her "light" appearance.

Her portrait would have been that of a melancholy fairy princess, a desperate, clinging work of art that grasped at the eye and tore at the heart. Christian could have captured that pose, worked with it, changing the hues of the makeup as he did with his painted masks, perfecting and sculpting her until the image was beyond reproach.

With a sigh, he drifted back from the daydream and moved down the line of prints to the next model. The thought of transforming the monotony of his drudgery into the glamour of a real studio – the family portraits into something for an uptown gallery – all of it excited him, bringing an erection that was nearly painful in its intensity. He had to focus. There was work to be done before he could drift away completely.

Chastity and Dorinda would still be with him when he was home and alone. They were part of him; the photos he'd never taken and would never see would always be with him. They were stolen moments from a history that never was, and they belonged solely to the world in Christian's mind.

The day's next subject had been a little boy with curling blonde hair and brilliant blue eyes. This child had been a marvel, and had proven to be the one truly bright spot in a day of disappointments. The boy seemed instinctively to choose the proper angle for his smiling face to glow in the eye of the camera. Both parents had been there, standing proudly to the side as their child hammed it up for the camera. He hadn't even needed the stuffed bear to keep his attention.

Christian half-heartedly suggested that the couple might consider letting the boy do some modeling. It was not the type of fame he'd hoped for, but the child was a natural. They had laughed, thanked him, and declined. The boy was their treasure. They would never put him under such pressure. He was such an angel.

The image of the little girl, Chastity, without her sniveling, uninspired mother tagging along, no longer kicking and fussing, but pliant and submissive to his whims returned. It would be so damned easy if they would cooperate. He put the last of the prints up to dry quickly and made his way to the door, carefully dousing the lights beyond the darkroom before exiting.

Christian was careful about everything. He was careful about his business, his car, and his home. He was careful where and when he went out. He was even careful where he shopped for his food. There were just too damned many people out there waiting for him to make a mistake, waiting to take what was his. He had never met most of them, but he knew they were there all the same. He'd known for years.

As he locked the door and slid the dead bolt over with the heavy key, he turned quickly. He had a slender briefcase with his day's work tucked neatly into one pocket, and he carried this under one arm and clutched tightly to his side.

There was nobody in sight, as was usual at that hour. Lowering his head, Christian made his way quickly down the side of the building and into the private lot where he parked his car. It was situated between the rear wall of his studio and that of a bookstore specializing in holistic medicine and other forms of metaphysical crap. He could never pass the front of the store without shaking his head in disbelief as he scanned the titles in the window.

"Healing Stones, Gems and Their Spiritual Properties," "The Wisdom of the Ancients," "The Witch Tarot Revealed." He couldn't understand what would possess someone, anyone to purchase such a book. He saw the people who frequented the place, watched them from the small window at the front of his studio, and was even more dismayed. Young people, old people, beautiful young women and huge fat men, all of them trundled in and out that door every day, most with a purchase under their arms.

They had money for books about nothing, but they had no time or money to spare for his work. Idiots. He kicked at a loose soda can and watched it skid across the gravel and bang into the wall with a clatter. He kept his eyes on the ground until he reached his car, in no mood for even a chance encounter at that point.

He caught sight of an advertisement in an old newspaper flattened against one wall of the alley, and he stopped. The photo on the ad was remarkably well done, for what it was. He stooped to pick it up without thinking.

"Models, dancers, entertainers . . .The Gates Entertainment Brokers present San Valencez's finest artists and performers. Single party shows, modeling appointments, bachelor parties and more. For information, phone The Gates Entertainment Brokers . . ."

Christian stared at the ad for a long time. The photo was of a young woman. She wore a silky white dress draped tightly about her body, showing off the curves of breast and thigh to perfection. The highlights on the silk were artfully done, and the expression on her face was very nearly inspired, lips pouting, eyes demure, belying her obvious experience. She was perfect. The photographer had known his business, and even the grainy reproduction of the newsprint couldn't hide it.

Gates must have found some new stock, he thought. He tucked the paper under his arm with his briefcase and continued on to his car. The photo intrigued him, and he thought that the new model was worth looking into. He was definitely tired of spoiled children and arrogant teens; it was time for a change of pace.

He reached his car, an ancient Dodge Dart, unlocked the door quickly, and tossed the paper to the passenger seat. Then he slid in behind the wheel and carefully closed and locked the door. Something itched at the back of his mind, something significant, and he couldn't quite put his finger on what it was. For some reason the image of the little girl, Chastity, the older girl, Dorinda, and the blue, blue-eyed boy kept resurfacing to disturb his chain of thought. The lump in his pocket pressed into his waist, trapped by his thigh, and it seemed to pulse with his heartbeat. It felt so warm.

He pulled slowly out into the traffic on State Street and slid in between a large shiny Cadillac and some sort of flashy convertible. He looked into the rear-view mirror, and the woman in the convertible smiled back at him.

She was looking at his car, and she was looking at him, and she was smiling – laughing behind his back. He tore his gaze from the mirror and stared straight ahead, wondering if the man in front of him were watching through his rear-view and laughing as well. You couldn't be too careful with people. None of them could be trusted, but most of the time you could slip past them unnoticed.

He edged the Dart around the Cadillac as soon as the light turned green, cutting off an old Ford full of teenagers. He zipped down the block and turned onto Grisham. The apartment complex where he lived was small, not flashy, but the security was good, and people there left him alone. He had a safe place to park his car, a grocery store within minutes of his front door, and privacy. It was all he needed.

The manager had let him turn the back bedroom into a temporary darkroom so he could work at home, and that was where Christian created. The rest of the apartment was an extension of the darkroom in his studio; the hallway served as a full-size version of the bookshelf in his office.

Masks and faces, paintings and mannequins lined the walls and filled glass display cases, overwhelming the few isolated pieces of furniture he owned. Eyes watched his movements and stared at him from every inch of free space, wide eyes, slanted eyes, oval eyes, eyes of every color and hue, lips to match and contrast, to seduce or repulse. He'd developed the images, one by one, from memories stolen during the days of drudgery, from brief stops at supermarkets and Laundromats, and from watching the moronic clientele of the bookstore beside his studio.

They filled his world.

The darkroom was the core of his creativity. It was inviolate. Nobody but Christian had ever entered that space, and nobody disturbed his time away from the world. He needed that time to free the images from his mind and from the developing fluid before they piled up too deeply and crowded out coherent thought. Other men would have had a study, or a den. Christian had a darkroom.

There was no television in the apartment, and there was no phone. There was nothing but the darkroom, an old AM radio, and some spindly, second-hand furniture he'd picked up at a yard sale.

All of the walls that did not hold his masks were plastered with photographs. He had some he'd taken as far back as his days in high school, others taken at the beach, or the zoo, with a telephoto lens and the privacy of distance between himself and his models. Most of them were of women.

Christian loved to look at his women. Their shape was the most pleasing on film. Their curves could be highlighted to perfection with the right lighting. Their hair glowed and their eyes beckoned and scorned. The emotion they could put into a smile was a blazing fire next to that of even the most animated of male models. He knew that capturing their beauty was meant to be his life's work.

As he studied the photos, he added the images to his mental collection. When one struck his fancy or cried out to him for completion, he molded a mask, or sculpted a face to match, drawing the image forth through his fingers. He'd learned a lot about the use of makeup from watching his mother, more from books and magazines. One corner of his bedroom was stacked high with piles of fashion magazines and makeup advertisements.

Christian carefully hung his jacket on its hook by the door and lined his briefcase up against the wall, the edge exactly even with the frame of the door. If there had been any dust in his apartment, it would have formed around the contour of that case eventually. It rested in exactly that same spot every evening until he was ready to open it and begin his work.

Christian walked to his kitchen, got himself a cold can of beer from the refrigerator, and sat down at the table with the page of newspaper he'd found spread out in front of him. Nothing else on the page interested him but the advertisement.

He wondered if the woman in the ad worked there, or if she'd just been hired for the session? Such a ploy would not be beyond Hiram Gates, he knew. It would, in fact, be just his style. Money was the only factor that came into play in Gates' thoughts, money and the next scam. He did have some amazing models, though.

In fact, there was very little that went on in the city of San Valencez with any sort of profit involved that Hiram Gates didn't have his hands in, one way or another, very little that involved good-looking women and entertainment, in any case. There were other, smaller agencies, but none with his scope and variety, or with his scrupulous lack of attention to morality.

Christian sipped his beer and stared at the woman's eyes. He studied the pose, the lighting, and as he did so, things came together in his mind. Images of the girl he'd photographed that day, Dorinda, surfaced, and his mind painted her haunted eyes onto the beautiful, mature features of the model. He stroked the paper gently, as if his finger could blend the two, or shift the ink and paper to match his vision. He stared at the number at the bottom of the advertisement, and for the first time in years he wondered why he'd never gotten himself a phone.

He tore the number from the page, being careful not to rip any of the photos, tucked it into his pocket and continued to drink his beer. He had called the man so few times that he'd forgotten Gates' number. It was providence he'd found the ad, or fate. All of Christian's attempts to use professional models had ended badly, but he thought, just maybe, this time would be different.

The Gates Entertainment Brokers Inc. was open until 8:00 PM, officially, and much later for special customers. It was barely 6:00. He had plenty of time to walk down to the corner, provided none of the local kids were out there, and make his call. There were two in particular that enjoyed harassing him every time he left his home, one boy and one girl

The thought of them stole Christian's good mood. They taunted him regularly, called him "Scarecrow," and "Buzzard." He'd been used to such names when he was a child, but now they stung more sharply. He should be the adult, the one in charge, not the butt of their adolescent jokes. He should be able to stop them. The feelings of rage and impotence brought a wave of nausea that was slow in passing.

The girl would have made a fine model. She dressed like a twenty-dollar whore, dark stockings, darker boots, short black skirts and long, silver chains. Her hair stood straight up in the middle and was short down one side. Her makeup invariably clashed with both her complexion and her outfit in a brilliant splash of color that reminded Christian of a peacock's plumage.

The boy, though, was pure arrogance. Young, strong, and sneering, he was the one to look out for. Once he'd caught Christian staring too long at the girl, not understanding that it was an artist's scrutiny. That was when the catcalls had begun.

"Why don't you take a fucking picture, old man?" He'd shouted.

Christian had blinked and looked up at the boy stupidly, because taking a picture was exactly what he'd wanted to do. He'd wanted the girl to pull back her gauzy blouse, expose her pale breasts in contrast to the night-black of her clothing, lean her head back so the hair on the side that was not cut dangled over her shoulder at an angle and bared her throat to unseen demons of the night. He'd wanted to take that picture, had seen it clearly – and he'd stared too long.

Christian had broken his own cardinal rule of not being noticed, and it cost him a chunk of his private world. There was the stretch between his door and the grocery that was no longer safe or private. He had only the mental image of another lost masterpiece in payment, and it left a bad taste in the back of his throat. It was such a waste, the girl, the photo that would never happen, and the privacy.

He'd been meaning to add the girl's face to one of the masks in his collection for some time, but things had come up. It was something to think about, still, something to dream about. Any other day that would have been enough, but now it was a problem.

Gulping the last of his beer, he checked to make sure he had plenty of change in his pocket and stepped to the front window. He pulled the drapes aside and glanced down the street. There was nobody in sight, so he unchained and bolted the door and stepped out, carefully latching the door behind him and doing the same with the security gate out front. The fence was low, but any protection was better than no protection. His mother had taught him that long ago; she'd been talking about her diaphragm, but the wisdom still lurked in the words.

The streetlights were caught in that moment of indecision between dusk and daylight, flickering on and off erratically. The street was deserted and quiet, but Christian's nerves would not be still. He hurried his steps. He wanted to be in the phone booth and out, then into the store as quickly as possible. He was suddenly in the mood for something stronger than beer, and they had a pretty good wine selection for a corner market.

It took three rings to get an answer; a very feminine, strikingly attractive voice slid seductively onto the line. "Gates Entertainment Brokers," she said, "how may we help you?"

Christian hesitated for a moment, and then answered. "I'd like to speak to Hiram, please," he said quietly. His words were followed by a silence, a muffled, hurried question, and then "Mr. Gates is busy just now. Is there something I can do for you?"

"I'm afraid not," Christian snapped. "Tell Hiram that it's Christian Greve on the phone, and that I have a business proposition. Tell him now, please."

There was a quick shuffle on the other end; another woman's voice tittering inanely, and then a loud, metallic clatter. Moments later, Gates' brusque, polished voice was on the line. "Gates here, what can I do you out of, Christian my boy?"

"I need to talk to you," Christian said, almost too quickly, trying unsuccessfully to hide his growing excitement. "Can we meet tonight?"

"Tonight's no good, I'm afraid," Gates said, obviously not at all excited about the proposition of meeting with Christian. "How about my office, tomorrow?"

"No," Christian replied, surprising himself. "I need to see you, tonight. It will be worth your while. I have an idea, but I need to explain it face to face. It could be very, very big."

Now it was Gates' turn for silence. "Well, I suppose a quick drink at Sid's wouldn't hurt. Say, an hour?"

"Fine," Christian breathed, almost in relief. "I'll be there. I'll be in one of the booths in the back."

"Right." The phone clicked off, and Christian turned away. He was about to say forget the wine, but he saw the two youngsters slipping from an alley down the street, and they had not yet spotted him. He stepped from the phone booth and into the small store as quickly as possible, watching them carefully. They stopped on the corner, where they always did, looked around and laughed about something. The girl had on the usual dark hose and boots, but her blouse was bright scarlet, and her hair was done in a wash of yellow and orange that played brilliantly in the light of the street lamps.

Christian's breath caught in his throat. She was beautiful, perfect and graceful, and draped back over the boy's arm. She was nearly in the pose he'd dreamed of, her eyes tilted toward where he watched from his vantage point just inside the door of the little store.

"Trouble with those kids again, Mr. Greve?" came a brittle, crackling voice from over his shoulder.

Christian whirled, coming face to face with the gnarled, gnomish little man who ran the place, and managing somehow to nod. Without a word, he spun toward the freezers lining the wall and selected a bottle of burgundy at random.

"That be all?" the little man asked him, eyeing him strangely.

"Yes," Christian mumbled. His mind was still flashing the image of the girl, her colored hair flickering in the dim light, the abandon in her eyes. If only he could bend her to his vision, hold her in place and focus the camera for that one instant, that perfect masterpiece. If only she were his to fashion and recreate.

He paid for the wine, waved vaguely in the direction of the old man and slipped out onto the street with his eyes lowered. He moved as quickly as his shaky legs would carry him, concentrating on the sidewalk, praying they wouldn't look up, wouldn't notice him. His prayers, as always were ignored.

"Hey, Buzzard," the boy's voice carried across the street to him. "Look at me, old man."

Hating himself, Christian raised his eyes as he passed, doing as he was bid, his shoulders shaking in sudden fear. The boy had his arms draped loosely over the girl's shoulders, her hair sliding over them both like a silken drape on the one side where it was long enough.

"You like what you see, Scarecrow?" the boy leered. "She likes you, said she'd like to do you, old man, do you real slow."

They both burst into laughter then, and Christian forced his gaze down and away, his blood boiling up and reddening his face, flushing crimson through his ears. He heard their mocking laughter, even after he'd fumbled his way through the security gate and the front door of his apartment. He fell back against the locked door heavily and gasped for breath.

Damn them! He thought.

He tried to shake free of the fear that clutched at his heart by concentrating on the vision of the girl he'd glimpsed from the store, stolen while she was unaware. It was precious, a treasure to be captured and added to his world.

As his heartbeat slowed, he staggered away from the door and into the kitchen, popped the cork on the bottle of wine and poured himself a small glass. He didn't want to drink too much before he met Gates down at "Big Sid's." He would have to drive, and he seldom did so after dark. It wouldn't do to have an accident.

He sat and sipped the wine, and the moon rose into the sky outside his window to rule the night. The street was bare again, his two antagonists having disappeared into the shadows that had coughed them up earlier, and his mind drifted forward. He wanted to be certain he worded his proposition correctly. He needed to bring his vision to light in a manner that would excite Gates. It was important that he have the other man's support.

He retrieved his briefcase and rummaged through it quickly, drawing out one of the finished prints of the girl Dorinda. He took this to the table and placed it in front of him. The wine had brought a flush of heat, and the strobed image of the girl on the street impressed itself over the image on the photograph. Christian closed his eyes and slid his hand slowly into his pocket.

He pulled out a small ball of white polymer clay. It was warm and pliant, soft to the touch. His fingers trembled as he rolled it flat on the tabletop, then back into a ball, flattened it a second time and began to shape. His fingers moved quickly, pressing into the white surface of the clay with surety and precision. He closed his eyes for a moment; let his memory paint Dorinda against the inside of his eyelids. He did not stop working when his eyes closed. He thought of the girl's tragic expression and deep, lost eyes. In his mind he reached out and tenderly traced the lines of her face, pressing into her pale skin, smoothing lines from the corners of her eyes and etching in others.

It seemed like a very long time had passed, but when he opened his eyes and gazed at the tiny face on the table, he found it had been only fifteen minutes. He still had time.

Rising, he flipped the switches on his oven quickly and set the heat. As it warmed he placed the tiny mask onto a bit of foil and an old plate. When the oven had heated, he slid the plate inside on the upper shelf and set the timer for fifteen minutes. The polymer would set as smooth as porcelain in a very short amount of time.

Christian checked his watch. He was very close to downtown, so the drive to Big Sid's was only a matter of a few minutes. He didn't want to be late, Gates might not wait for him, but he knew he would need something to convince the man. Gates didn't share Christian's vision, but he could be shown.

When the mask was set he placed it back on the table and opened the drawer that held his paints. He didn't want much. Dorinda's face was pale, and the haunting quality of her eyes, a child's eyes grown into daddy's play-toy's eyes with the not-so subtle slashes of makeup would be easy to duplicate.

He worked quickly, using a very fine brush, highlighting the sharp edges of the girl's smile, etching her cheeks and deepening the dark slash that was her lips, made up in garish cherry red. He never once glanced at the photograph once he'd started, and when he was finished, he sat back, staring at what he had created intently. It wasn't perfect, but it was close. He had changed her into the girl he held in his mind, or a very close facsimile of that girl. It was enough. He poured another glass of wine and sipped slowly, alternating his gaze between his watch, and the mask on the table until he was certain it was dry enough to be moved.

When his glass was empty, Christian rose, grabbed a light jacket from beside his door and placed a worn felt hat on his head. He carefully wrapped the mask in waxed paper, and then tissue. Then he tucked it into his pocket, along with the print of Dorinda's face.

When all the lights were off, all the windows were locked, and the wine bottle was corked and tucked away in the refrigerator, he stepped to the door. He was as ready as he would ever be, and without a backward glance, he stepped into the night.