Trapped men, that I would call them. How else to accuse without mocking ... good men snared ... by dice, mahogany wheels and the smooth, unending shuffle. By tools of the trade trapped, tormented and ultimately mis-formed. People become faces, and faces ... they appear as cards red or black, and choice ... ... now there's a word fit for steel jaws, when a man's heart becomes just another bet. Choices ... simply piles of plastic chips. Trapped, just, simply ... when I think of words to describe it they are all words making men smaller ... I looked up from the monitor's number scrawl ... letting my voice roll-bones ... "The games trap smart men, Andrew - men with nerve and money ... but men without patience. What Ivy-covered caution does that snare inspire?"

"Snared?" He threw over me a sleek, Ivy-league glance. "Only Barnard ass traps a Harvard man."

"Barnard ... oh, I see ..." Sex and arrogance ... how they thrive in a young man ... I cracked the gold Zippo. It lay on the table between us. If only that ... but perhaps - I nudged where anger might have found a home. "Four months in Charleston and already immune? Get to Shem Creek more often - shill crabs."

"Shem Creek? You mean the restaurants?"

Hopeless ... I frowned. "This is Charleston, not Boston, Andrew and in Charleston a hen's wet rump starts, not ends mischief." A lecture lost on the unprepared, I immediately observed. His scrubbed cheeks registered nothing. Nothing of novelty or local custom, nothing of caution ...

"No probleeem-mo, Mr Davidson, I never lose control."

Did I detect my face smiling inward? What a man lacks he may not lose ... perhaps I should have expressed anger. Since 3-PM yesterday I watched craps-pit numbers stumble, then run askew ... "Table number four, Andrew ... returning one-point-eight percent since July ... July-nine. That's six weeks of stable return and suddenly ..." I glanced away from the screen, over the oak table-top to his unhurried eyes ... ignoring mine his face showed the bright, unlined, calculated indifference for which I hired him ... but if not respect, a young man needs learn persistence - a mouse-click pushed statistical windows from the server onto his monitor ... nothing like enough data ... card sequences, player's escorts, pit-boss names - I slicked hair back from grey temples and flicked through a list. " Has Mona run craps all evening? And yesterday, perhaps? ... has she left the crap's pit in the last 48 hours!"

"Her cycle began Wednesday evening, Mr Davidson. The boy's eyebrows raised perhaps too casually ... " An unexceptional evening ..." Then the leer ... " Some hottie, that Mona ... wears chrome nails, eye-liner and doesn't ..." The boy - Andrew - a boy nothing more or yet eased into the metal-web and slid eyes around. "What I mean is, you should have a video monitor installed Mr Davidson, so we could see the ... the casino floor in ..."

His words dribbled away - thumbnail ice-cubes overtopping crystal ... tumbling away ... he couldn't possibly have felt the cold crease in my neck, and felt my lips turn ice so speaking of that intrusion I would not do. No. Buried in data, wishing more the boy Andrew could have felt nothing, yet from nothing he found other words ...

"... but yes, Mr Davidson, she had the pit both nights ..." Andrew's thick, long eyelashes raised ... " and the last four days in July." He tapped at screen numbers. "House rake at one-point-four percent yesterday, and one-point-two-two so far tonight ... not an unreasonable variance."

As if for support Andrew glanced at the two coders slouched in transparent cubicles against the near wall where tapping keyboards made less noise than short-sleeve Hawaiian shirts, and stacks of empty cola-cans. One man looked up mouthing alpha-numeric nonsense while bits of Twinkie crumbled from too hungry lips ...

Andrew shrugged, "Like I said, Mr Davidson, quite expected."

How the Arab would laugh at that ... I checked the Rolex - Jerry would arrive just after the hour ... then frowned into my own monitor screen. Reasonable variance? Reasonable ... yes. A young man believes in his own powers of reason as he believes in sex. I slipped a Pall Mall from a case etched gold, tapped loose tobacco tight at the end and lit it. "Have we changed testing procedures for the dice?"

"No, Mr Davidson."

"And the monthly table re-balance?"


"When did we last replace felt on table number four?"

"A year last April." Andrew hesitated ... "Manufacturer specs call for replacement every three years ..." He hesitated ... "Of course, in this humidity ..."

I flashed an access code not well documented - a new screen appeared. "Humidity ... thirty-six percent tonight, yesterday ... last month ..." The screen was unusual, for it followed the physical level of the building, and that of most people near - the physical ... how wet, how hot, how noisy whatever I owned and the personal monitors of all employees... how wet, how hot and if needed their heartbeats ... how alive ... " and when did air-conditioning last fail?"

Andrew beat fingers into the keyboard ... he flushed ... stuttered ... "I ... I don't know, Mr Davidson ... but that's not a reasonable ..."

A long smoky trail dragged from the Pall Mall. "Yes, Andrew, quite right. Greatest variance you could expect is zero-point-zero-six percent." I let eyes fix on him. "But I'd find that screen, Andrew, and the humidity data before you go home tonight."

"But it's not listed in the database, Mr Davidson, and I've got ROOT access!"

To the bottom of truth - how the Arab would howl ... I slid up and out of my metal-web, straightened a wrinkle on my pinstripe and stepped cross the Persian rug. "Right again, Andrew ... very unreasonable ..." The door stopped me, and I turned. "Where is our dear Mona now?"

"On break, sir, perhaps at the bar. I can check ..."

I allowed the Pall Mall to smoulder. "Have a Herrn escort Mona home tonight. Strictly friendly - say a customer made some threat ... The man needs get a scrape from Mona's chrome fingernails ... have that scrape and the dice sent to our chemist for testing ... Does that seem unreasonable, young man?"

"Why ... why no, Mr Davidson. I'll ..."

Softly, I closed the door behind me and entered pass-codes. That room, the casino control room I liked very much, for as human experience goes it contained the sum of human reason. Tonight, house take sat at plus forty-two thousand dollars. My house. What ought to be was; what needed to be had to be. Even pass-codes entered everywhere, and trailing like cold auras each person, codes never really left those four insulated walls. Real numbers really never lied. I liked that room, for outside no reason whatsoever was to be found.

But I am prepared. Outside, I mugged smiles into a ceiling-high chrome mirror that grinned tall, thin Cheshire cat grins if one cat could be found with short, grey hair. Short hair, most of it, not bald ... damn him, Levin - my wife's brother and curse - it is his one pride, his hair ...

The hallway makes a right angle, between honeycomb walls to approach a door. Closer an access panel glowed begging yet another pass-code. When the door slid open I stepped into my office overlooking the casino floor at the rear of Charleston's Harbor House Restaurant. Restaurant - that is important. I do not run a swill-joint, or baudy house or back-alley craps-game where long slick fingers black-or-white may lose a paycheck.

I snap at the two men. "Good evening , Steckle."

"Yes, Herr Davidson, a pleasure and a good evening to you."

"And you, Herman, have you eaten?"

"Nur bis leuta, mein herr."

So proper, this Herman fellow ... proper Charleston eats here - those who can afford valet parking and the wine-list ... and here on my casino floor Charleston boys play bad with girls who always do. Extravagantly. I believe extravagance in either food or sex is not moral behavior, but in such beliefs I find little company. A man holding no other serious views becomes a hermit among crowds. But my belief in extravagant play provides salvation, not to say a business ... a business of extravagant play, though play is a game - games have rules, and if a second one exists I do not know it ... the rule of this extravagance is the random which may have no rule. Ibn-Ali believes otherwise, naturally as does the Catholic fiend Hricko, but ... My office is not, however, extravagant, to say functional ... three doors, some light, a cubicle for my floor manager, another in frosted glass for my secretary and my own desk ... and of course windows on the casino.

I watch them now, the players ... well dressed for a serious Friday night dressed darkly, most of them, and most darkly ill-at-ease, for whatever their successes outside the casino they were here meat for the numbers. Raw meat til a deal's luck proved otherwise. How the women sensed men-at-risk, stirring them with bare flesh like peeled oranges in a punch - groping at their ill-ease, drinking it in, intoxicated by the weakness.

Few players carried casual disregard easy as pugs carry bellyguns - the tall man ... sandy hair, a white suit and Panama was such - conspicuous at roulette playing one-after-another prime-number red squares. Playing numbers which annoy in their studied lack of meaning. The man winning one silver chip after another no more. He carried a weapon - a police issue 40-caliber and should not have been inside the casino. Him or the gun, if dice and pigs flew. Beside him ... or I should say below him hunched a thick, short swarthy ill-fitted bulk of a person ... The man-in-white's retainer if I knew less wearing a black fez and red tassel. Moving his right leg, but no more then as bodies flowed buried in a dark, swooning crush. Awkward, yes, the better the disappear under women's bare flesh. A Turkman with his own, unconscious harem ... that I could understand - I would have taken him for one of Ibn-Ali's advance men, but he is unarmed and that would have been noted, the man escorted ... even one of Jerry's trusted Corsicans.

An unlikely pair, them ... Baptist DeLeon and the godless Turk. I can find ten more at any sound of the dice, at any table. Strangers, in pairs as if attracted by opposites and each one utterly unlikely. One learns about unlikely, in this business. I mark them for concern ...

Jim Dugan works the floor - his cubical empty. Dugan ... a practicing Catholic ... the floor calls him 'Lefty' Dugan, and Lefty address me as 'Boss' for which after nine years I have ceased to complain. Serious men at the observation windows did not turn to follow me. They did not talk or smoke for they are watchers and killers - trained hard men and for that and for them I am responsible no error allowed. Italian cut jackets draped chairs, and their 38-caliber Barettas hung snugly beneath left shoulders. Above the casino floor, on the south and west corners other observation rooms also held such Herrn - and as carefully as these two they also watched. More than enough, with the cameras, but a man's office is his business, and most of the casino business is to watch - to count, yes and if needed ... to persuade, but first to watch ... I stopped at a window observing a phalanx of visiting German engineers mill about the 21-tables ... clever engineers losing steadily ...

Has my secretary looked up from her desk? Leather becomes her. I believe Sarah despises me - tonight she wears from neck to ankles shear blue wool that hides her small breasts but not her ass - a whore's ass of which she is so proud. I use her body relentlessly, and for such use she returns only hate. I brushed sweat from my cheek. A Rolex Sentry Custom mounted above an onyx-chrome Palmetto at the far office corner read nine-twenty-five PM.

I dropped into a lounge snugged behind my desk, stretched out, lean leather contours pressing my back ... pouring brandy short. "What happened to the police-woman. She had been playing roulette?"

"She left, Mr Davidson, forty-five minutes ago."

"Called away by her Captain, no doubt, eh Steckle?" City council ... those members that matter insisted on a presence ... and the authorities were quick to find a way - illegal of course, illegal as the tables and cards ...

A tourist city, the council wanted - a sifter, a shaker, an ocean-side magnet for dollars spent on no product but shilling the visitor's imagination ... a virile business city fit for Baptist Gods and southern families and German engineers, and in the worlds history or that of many no such attraction and no such city had ever existed nor would it. A city of old families, powerful unchanging family ties yet a city counting life in seconds, where God is richly worshiped and lonely tourists amused all wrapped within the city's virtue.

Thus my casino, and a detective's presence as useful to those authorities as the tables are to the City fathers ... fathers of bastards ... that one detective, perhaps the only person still believing in the city's virtue ... a dangerous, quick man ... I wheeled around. "And no doubt your Siemen's device intercepted all transmissions? The detective ... he would not evade us!" A question, yes ... once, the detective had been young, thoughtful ... I had seen that and hoped perhaps a partnership might develope. Two able men of different ... aspects, but ... but no! DeLeon had chosen that path of human endevour one might call ... vengeful! A so-called man-of-action he had become. My head bobbed ... "Steckel?"

I caught his blinkless eyes staring into me. Then ... "Herman?" Steckle's partner tapped an earphone and shook his head. Steckle said crisply. "WE caught no intercept, Mr Davidson. No message, no order ... no suspicious static. But there's always ..."

"Always chance for a mistake. A mistake, Steckle, from you ...?" I left questions hanging on a Cheshire grin. " And the police-woman ... she left winning or losing?"

"Up a couple yards. Altman tailed her into the alley, then blanko. He still searches ..."

Altman a good man, a careful man ... "Yards, Steckle ? Blanko? How you learn these words ... and her replacement ...?" I waved off the question. The Germans, even the best corrupted so easily ... And the man in white Steckle did not recognize was in no way a replacement ... I snapped at brandy. "Sound, Steckle, if you please."

Well practiced hands tapped a keyboard ... and sounds floated in ... Voices first, through Klipsh speakers beside the Rolex. Table-by-table, voices at first wavering, then clearing as electronic filters linked acoustic memes, masked noise ... extracting sharp, single voices then voices smoothing together table-by-table over the entire floor ... table-sounds followed and mixed in - dice rolls crackling and the whirr of a roulette wheel ... dull ruffling of cards at black-jack. I didn't use card-shoes for dealing 21 ... a serious player wants smells of a dealer's hand on losing cards - the human touch ... and wants to believe his luck rides a random shuffle. It never failed to amuse - that word, amuse I rarely use, but how, at the bottom of hope truth sits and below, at the bottom of truth lies noise - the random.

The Arab finds much amusing, but not that - the random ... Jerry ... he insists I call him Jerry rather than more formally, Ibn-Ali Jerrah ... formality in the casual like truth in noise, he finds too much truth at bottom, as do I. What coherence lies beneath that ...

Sarah's hand-written appointment notes lay at the desk-top. Jerry at ten, our nemesis Hricko at eleven-fifteen - I barely know the man. But Ibn-Ali guarantees his appropriate behavior during ... during business - Hricko, that of his own people Jerry also assures. For the SOB Island faction worshiping snakes ... ecologists, ZPGr's, greens ... they have more names than south-wind ... for them to meet openly with an enemy has no precedent. Hricko's shuffle and deal - how cleverly the pervert has prepared lies I do not wonder.

And then, the infernal politician Peg Bottie will arrive as do unpaid markers sometime stylishly after midnight. Always after midnight for her, as if dark money were clean money. From clean, white German hands to hers ... the engineers were noted card-counters, losing steadily if not foolishly, and if they paid otherwise for Ms Bottie's political services they also paid here. I must compliment Sarah for the notes, and arranged times as they fell in order, much as the floor-sounds seemed to me.

Awful brandy, though expensive ... I left herrn to their watch and stepped into the adjoining suite for a shower and change. Sarah follows. The suite is discrete and secure - a foot of concrete separates it from the rest of the building; at the back a well protected stairwell leads to the alley as if one should want to leave. For the suite is also tastefully expensive in deep wool carpets and mahogany. Jerry's gifts. A man needs dress appropriate to the business of a casino - or style of a casino owner walking his own gaming floor to be seen as customers will see - a man like them dressed in dull luster silk Tux and white bow-tie. For men dressed on a Friday evening, a Tux and bow-tie are standard dress.

Sarah is at her desk, before I re-enter the office. As was the chrome shill waiting beside a door leading to another and that hallway to the casino floor. She spoke without charm. "Ya look great, tonight, Mr Davidson. A regular boino!" Her eyes snatched hungry at Sarah, at her position, at her ... diffidence ... " The wife got yer shoes polished and Tux fresh-pressed."

"Why, yes, Mildred ... thank you."

"Gonna knock the hi-rollers dead tonight, I can see that Mr Davidson."

I merely nodded. Mildred carried an orchard below her right breast pinned into chrome fabric , and a yellow rose which she tucked into my lapel. Perhaps she would say no more - I did not hire shills, for their linguistic skills though some have been know to moan intelligently or at least moan at appropriate times. Mildred turned, entered her code for numeracy also was required and reached for the door-knob ...

"Chrisalmighty ...!"

Lefty Dugan burst in on her hand - she stifled pain, and a scream ... Lefty hung through the door half open, like his jacket showing the butt of a PPK-38 caliber his face red-Irish angry as the sloppy Irish brogue, "we got trouble, boss ..."

Mildred sobbing now, after the shock and holding her wrist, where it bent back. I motioned a watcher from his window ... and looked down at the top of Jim Dugan's troubled head. Flame red, and troubled ... trouble a floor manager tough as Irish sin couldn't solve; trouble that evaded my clean-cuts plying the gaming floor ... trouble, therefor without reasons ... I sniffed at the rose and offered my hand.

"A policeman, no doubt ... the policeman ... DeLeon ..."

"Yeah, boss, how did you ...?"

"DeLeon would no more play roulette for amusement than I would a cuckold."

"He's play'n alright, boss. Somehow, he got a sonic transmitter onto the floor ... sound waves, boss like a vacuum cleaner, but broadcasting at 200 Khz. Security picked it up when a garage door started opening! The damned dick couldn't broadcast far, but at that frequency the concrete walls in this joint are tissue-paper. That broadcast is trouble - against floor rules!"

What did the damnable detective know? I am scratching at froth, then say too loudly. "And we are nothing if not rules." I mocked serious - rules and misery. Sarah stood arms folded at the mouth of her frosted glass cubicle. I smoothed wrinkles, in the Tux and dismissed the girl, turning again to Dugan. "Let's find that troubled policeman, Lefty. Both his misery and ours need not continue."

"You shouldn't go, Saul, not alone. Take one of the boys ..."

Boys? Sarah's voice trailed behind me. Behind us, my office door clicked shut ... and through velvet only steps away where carpet plush replaced hardwood a crack of blue light appeared and sounds of the casino floor roared through. Casino lights exploded as the velvet swept away, not a curtain but for what it held back solid as brick holding back wax stench from wood and bodies. I thought brick would have complained while it crumbled and faces poured through amber light.

"Eight now, place your bets ... eeeeasy eight now. Plaaaace your bets ..."

"Heh, Mr Davidson, nice evening, huh, what-ya-say, I'm up a grand and ..."

"Early this evening, aren't you Saul? Figure my bankroll's too thick by an inch?"

"Very smart Tux, Mr Davidson. Why, it even matches my ..."

"Over here, Saul, whatcha' think? Table's plus-five - dealer's showing a three and I'm soft seventeen. Double down, huh, Saul? Whatcha' think about ..."

... when the fresh-starched cotton uniform slapped my side. "That new chef's burned the flounder again, Mr Davidson," whined the blue cotton. "WE should'a kept the Nigger if ya ask me ...!"

"No one has asked!" I fired head chefs for less ...

"The customer ain't pay'n!" Her voice grated. "Gotta do something, Mr Davidson! I can't get tips on flounder dry as shark's pussy!"

I gritted teeth ... long white fingers trembled on my neck. "Pronto!"Sarah's lips at my ear. "Leave fish for the Catholics, Saul, and Lefty on the floor." The curve of her breasts pushed into the stiff Tuxedo fabric. " Follow me back to the office ... see this for yourself!"

This! In my office all movement had stopped. All three Herrn had gathered close to one monitor drilled high into a corner, and when I dropped into a lounge the picture shot straight down at me. A grey picture - pinstripes - part of a man's leg. I zoomed from his black, red-tasseled fez to behind his knee, dragging into focus a crease. That knee, a creased fabric and the small bulge fitting into the socket as it were. Minor enhancements ... dials lay at my hand ... contrast enhance and a noise filter brought out curve to the trigger and tips of a derringer's two barrels.

"Who saw it, I ask?"

Herman nods. I examine the picture. The Turkman's weapon, tucked into the crease behind his knee. But what weapon and for whom?

Steckle's silent partner Herman spoke. "A 45-caliber mein herr. Plastic body, ceramic shell-casings and barium slugs. Kein Metall ! By those our detectors failed."

"Wonderful Herman, the GDR taught you well, but such a weapon ... for whom is that weapon intended - how and when and where? Were you taught also to see that?"

Immediately Herman flushed. "Eine Grausigkeit, diese Waffe . Once ... only once it may be used ... im Grabenkampf ... at close range, the slugs are noisy, hollow-point explosives ... yes, I have been taught. Tod bildet Sie frei." Herman's face tightened. "Such a weapon desires crowds - to be used inside a crowd." His hand made a hard-knuckle fist, two knuckles extended. "Like this! Both slugs expended together as the shooter brushes by. The target's spine shatters, while in noise his killer escapes."

Such brilliance ... I threw back my head and laughed. "In the noise, eh Herman, between the bodies? Murder and escape! This evening, we are all such experts on noise." On the casino floor, bodies blocked our view from the window, concealing Turkman's trousers - only the black fez dancing above ... I rapped sharply on the armrest. "So Steckle, whose life is to be freed, by our assassin? That man closest ... Lieutenant DeLeon, or perhaps his partner when she returns? Or is our Turkman waiting for Ibn-Ali ... a family feud perhaps or does he lust for the pervert Hricko - many in business would see him dead, or ... or does the Turkman wait for me? Which chance does he wait for, Steckle?"

Sarah gasped. "Not you, Saul!"

"Not me! How so Sarah, my ... my dear. What's a rich Jew to the Turkman, once the Armenians have been forgotten?"

Only the side of Steckle's face is visible. Cold sweat trickles down. He believes cultures once destroyed may rise by their own will. On this we agree. Running a hand through short-cropped blond hair and shifting the holster, Steckle's face snapped down from the screen. "Chance I do not believe, Herr Davidson. Neither that of a missing policewoman, nor the Lieutenant's apparent indifference."

"Apparent, eh Steckle? Then they have planned something!"

"The police? Of course - what else do police do? All of them plan! None will save a marked man one extra breath - not two seconds, not three ... Give me a free hand - I will cut down the Turk now!"

"The fury, eh Steckle? Sudden, without mercy, without ..."

"Pardon, mein Herr. Soldiers are meant to die." He stared long through the window, then looked directly through me like a bayonet. "Those - those will die aware and die with a hand around an enemy's throat! Of this the Turkman as you call him must also be aware - this obviousness serves for cover, better the long we allow it."

"All so obvious, Steckle." I wiped blood from my lip. "Soldiers, all in a line ... do they always listen for orders, find a line and die on it? Some die hidden and some obvious, but to their fates trapped ... trapped, never escaping like every other good soldier!"

"He will do his duty. Do not ignore the obvious, Herr Davidson. He waits for you!"

My lip bled where I bit in ... stalking the room ... stalk and be stalked. Abruptly, I stopped behind the second man. "And you, Herman, do you agree? The Turkman obscures, while his bullet waits for me?"

Herman's cheeks brighten. He packs meat to his bones. Such a man considers fully before speaking beyond his partner. "Herr Steckle and I see the same scene, yet not the same picture. Notice, if you will mein Herr the man's ease ... his light carry ..."

"HA!" I shout. "So the prepared man floats as if in a hashish dream! Un-willing and thus able."

"Nein, mein fu ... Herr Davidson. He has prepared the scene too well. Todesmarken soll es Bett besitzen ... the Turk will kill the policeman."

I clapped loudly, applauding and cocked my head toward a second monitor below the first. "So it's all of us bedded together, say the gentlemen? The policeman DeLeon and myself. One of us! But why stop with two. What special virtue do we posses? Why not throw in the policewoman, and even our dear Sarah, who must have broken hearts this week ... you have broken them, haven't you Sarah?"

"Saul, I don't think ..."

"On flesh so sweet, revenge so sweet ..."

A bitter little smile curled from her lips that said nothing ... that shouted ... I pointed to the lower screen that for images either vague or contorted in grey alley fog could have been a frozen corridor in hell. "And what's that, my dear Sarah - or who are they? Could they be Herr Altman and the policewoman? Struggling, desperate or stealing love - even a good man loses disciple in hopeless, struggling love." Her eyes turned away ... I bore in. "And in what part of the alley? It's darkest corner? Why didn't they choose a night without rain? For these questions surely the woman's touch is needed."

Sarah stepped around me peering into the screen, sucked into the grey frothy picture as after a love long lost.

"Something must be very wrong, Saul," she managed in high, drifty tones, the once smooth voice cracking. They ..."

The connecting door to the control-room corridor flew open and Andrew's face saucer-eyed in fear shone through shocked hair in wild disarray. "Mr Davidson, Herr Altman is dead!"

From the opposite side Steckle's voice snapped. "Herr Davidson ... from the window ... they're moving ... !"

The dead or the dying, which first? I shot cross the room in two bounds. Both DeLeon and the Turk were moving rapidly away from the roulette table toward a side of the gaming floor which behind velour curtains hid a door to the alley. Steamy waves of patrons blocked their way, and they cut through those human waves cleanly, without disturbance as do experienced swimmers, DeLeon leading and seemingly ignored by him but only steps behind swimming against bare flesh the thick-body Turk.

My own knuckles scraped my skull. "How can this be? The detective allows the shooter, his own assassin the flat of his back!"

"Should I have them stopped, Herr Davidson?"

"Stop them?" Never had I seen DeLeon stopped and least by the dying. I whipped around facing the boy Andrew. "Altman dead?"

"Yes sir, dead as a rock! His heartbeat just flat-lined."

"Impossible!" How quickly the boy learned. "No! I shouted and turned on Steckle. "Cop and Turk, is it ... tell Lefty to trail, and put two men on each of them, following till they reach the alley - then smother both - no damage, no haste, no refusal." I darted past Sarah's desk toward the living-suite door. "Herman, you come with me."

His PPK-38 was already out in a hard, manicured hand. "A weapon, mein herr, you will need ..."

But I have prepared. "Damn the weapons, for a spare second" ... I am reaching for the door-knob already unlocked by a signal I once thought clever, pounding steps through Persian wool, bursting another door and keying furiously at the top security panel. I go down the stairwell in bounds, lungs burning acid taste, breath flies away, Herman close as shadows, my hands strike steel levers opening the outer door ... onto the alley - it strikes in wet, stinking blasts of humidity, hot and vague, writhing features clawing eyeless fog. All that might be hidden remains uncreated for awareness to decide ... a mystery for one-and-a-half seconds, but each of us must know more.

When I return home I shall know those numbers, those essentials of who and how and why. Data will scream the obvious. I will not be trapped and yet in this rain-drenched fog all has become so instantly clear. As if I hammer the world into being out here ... where an oath God be damned I will not be trapped again.

"There, at the door ...!" comes a shout whose thin woman's voice I know echoing from everywhere. A soundless flash. "Missed the bastard ...!"

I will to retreat, but during these fractions of a second one may only go forward. Gun-oil reeks from Herman's 38-caliber above my shoulder. Cobbles grate at foot-leather, chew at my heels. Consciousness insists on its own material being, a momentum of the undecided. A halogen lamp winks blind blue traces above the casino-floor exit door now flung open to my left and filled in dull white diving forward - flashes behind it both dull and bright and long silver fingers reaching from the opposite brick wall - sound explosions crashing against brick I feel Herman's arm strike me down and my face slaps the cobbles hard, wet and slick, slick now with salt taste and the snarl of cordite from Herman's 38 - the shots whining overhead blind hateful snarls they reach nothing, a red-tasseled black fez dancing above me, wide vacant gun-barrels dancing, flashing overhead, then writhing arms flung upwards, slapped back against the bricks, sliding ... crumpling down, the heavy flesh as a red-tasseled fez crumples beneath ... a thick body groaning away life ... nor more is he an assassin it is over I think. Not over!

Brick splinters crust the fog. More long-fingered silver flashes and explosions which I know as a policeman's 40-caliber automatic they rattle slow and sure if I do not dream in a triangle above my head, across and down the alley - the policeman DeLeon lying prone, squeezing away from himself death.

Insistently death springs into being, a woman curses and screams cursing at the heavy PUCK-PUCK of lead against willing bare flesh ... perhaps in seconds I see her laying stretched out bleeding from a torn breast ripped from a gown once so silver a red rose pinned over the breast alone made it seem real.

Words rip from my mouth. "He beat you, DeLeon. For two seconds he had you beaten."

DeLeon snarled. "Write that in hi-stone, Davidson," and lifted his Panama from the cobbles. "But he needed the third second ta get you!" DeLeon's parched, southern face does not disguise the hate. "One second, on the City's nickle, Saul ... send ya the bill."

Scarlet heat streaks my face ... what I might owe. He could not know that! No-one could. Then a mask falls down, the cheshire grin, my face smooth, white, cold ... I limp away, leave Deleon the slouch in his bloody, howling alley leaning against the brick wall he might have grown out of it for all he moved, the policewoman tottering beside him - in shock I imagine. A police siren howls from the streets below. They will find Altman ... a good soldier, I cannot save him. Herman has saved my life - I will not see his lost. Andrew has one arm, I another. Blood from Herman's wound dribbles down my leg, but he appears feather light as we carry him up the stairwell.

A tall bond man stands beside Sarah. "We have secured the casino floor, Herr Davidson. There is no panic, and we have circulated a story concerning two derelicts ... the games continue if muted."


"And Mr Jerrah has called, Sir. He will arrive in seven minutes. Extra security has been assigned to his Mercedes ..."

"And to him, also ..."

"Indeed, mein herr."

Sweat pours from Herman's forehead. The shot shattered his arm, he is tight-lipped and soundless in pain, but we are not trapped. Shooting has stopped; above, in the control room data is filed without remorse and we will examine it carefully. For somewhere among the numbers will appear Mona and the Turkman, or they and Hricko, or ... . Yes, we will examine those data with great care. A thread will appear of behaviors or needs or plans. Perhaps Andrew may begin tonight. A chill runs up my arm. Cold dry air blows down the stairwell. We climb endless steps toward my suite only steps above. Sarah wrings her hands crying at the doorway.