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The Automatic Rifleman

Fritz Leiber is credited with developing the horror story with an urban setting. His Fafhrd and Gray Mouser series is more a parallel development to Robert E. Howard's work than it's a copy (compare Le Fanu's Carmilla with Stoker's Dracula for another case of "similar" not meaning "the same"). And for horror in an SF milieu, it'd be hard to better, say, "A Bad Day for Sales" or "A Pail of Air."

I stole this idea from Leiber's urban fantasy "The Automatic Pistol."

Well, it's not quite that simple. Vergil was regularly accused of stealing from Homer, to which he would reply, "Why don't you try it yourself? If you did, you'd understand that it's easier to filch Hercules' club than it is to steal a verse from Homer." But "The Automatic Rifleman" wouldn't exist in the form it does were it not for Leiber's literally seminal story.

If you like my work, go out and read everything Fritz Leiber wrote before, say, 1960. I don't know of a writer with a more varied and brilliant take on every subject he touched.

The story itself is a wish-fulfillment fantasy like a great deal of other horror fiction, some of it very good. The story posits the notion that things are in their present state because some external force is working to make them bad; in other words, the world's problems are not the result of mankind's own actions.

I wish I could really believe that was true.


Coster was waiting for them in the darkened room, hidden by the greater shadow of the couch. His face was as lean and hard-edged as the automatic rifle he held pointed at the door. "Where's the goddam light?" Penske muttered. He found the switch, threw it, and froze with his hand halfway down to the knife in his boot.

Davidson bumped into Penske from behind and cursed, her lips twisting into the sneer she kept ready when she was around the short man. "Move your—" she began before she saw why Penske had stopped. Then, without hesitation, she cried, "George, look out!"

"Too late," said Coster with a bailiff's smirk and the least motion of the rifle muzzle to bring it to the attention of George Kerr. The black man in suit and tie loomed behind his two companions. His eyes were open and apparently guileless, shuttering a mind that had already realized that the flimsy apartment walls would be no obstacle to rifle bullets. "But we're all friends here," Coster went on, his grin broadening.

"Then I suggest we all come in and discuss matters," said Kerr in a cultured voice, showing his bad front tooth as he spoke. His fingers touched Davidson's right elbow and halted the stealthy motion of her hand toward her open purse.

"Sure," said Coster, nodding, "but stay bunched in that corner, if you will." His head and not the rifle twitched a direction. "Until you're convinced of my good intentions, you'll be tempted to—put yourselves in danger. We don't want that."

"Who the hell are you?" Penske demanded, shuffling sideways as directed. An angry flush turned his face almost as dark as that of Kerr beside him.

"My name's Coster," the rifleman said. "Agfield told me where I'd find you."

Davidson whirled angrily toward Kerr. "I told you not to trust that bastard!" she said. "Somebody ought to take one of his basketballs and stuff it—"

"Dee, that's enough," the big man said, his eyes still on the rifleman. He had closed the hall door softly behind him. Nothing in his manner called attention to the pistol holstered in the small of his back.

"He said you could use a rifleman for what you had in mind," Coster amplified. "We're what you need."

"We?"asked Penske tautly. The muscles beneath his leather jacket were as rigid as the bones to which they were anchored, for he recognized even better than the others the menace of the weapon which covered them.

"Me," said Coster, "and him." His left forefinger tapped the gunbarrel where it projected from its wooden shroud. His right hand stayed firm on the rifle's angled handgrip, finger ready on the trigger.

Calmly, Kerr said, "Agfield doesn't know what we have in mind."His right hand was now loose at his side, no longer restraining Davidson.

"Sure he does," said the rifleman, flashing his tight-lipped grin again. "Kawanishi, the Japanese Prime Minister. And I'm here to make sure you get him."

For a moment, no one even breathed. Coster leaned forward, his right elbow still gripping the gunstock to his ribs. He said earnestly, "Look, if I were the police, would I be talking to you? The whole World Proletarian Caucus is right here, right in front of . . . us. And if it was trials, convictions, they were after—the evidence is on you, or at least outside in your car. You blew away a teller in La Prensa, and you've still got the gun, don't you? And the one that killed that little girl in Mason City?"

Davidson mumbled a curse and looked hot-eyed at Penske.

"But we're friends," Coster repeated. Very deliberately, he rotated the automatic rifle so that its muzzle brake pointed at the ceiling. The rubber butt rested on his thigh.

"Friends," said Kerr. "Then we should get comfortable." He took off his suit coat and turned, as deliberate as Coster, to drape it over the back of a chair. The grip of the big Colt was a square black silhouette against his light shirt.

Everyone eased a little. Coster laid the rifle across his knees, one hand still caressing the receiver of the weapon. Davidson and Penske both lit cigarettes, the latter by flicking the head of a kitchen match with his thumbnail. He tossed the wooden sliver toward a wastebasket. It missed, but he ignored it as it continued to smoulder on the cheap carpet.

Kerr took one of the straight chairs from the kitchen-dinette and sat backwards on it, facing in toward the living room and Coster. The pistol did not gouge at him that way. "Penske, why don't you bring things in from the van," he said.

The short man glowered, but his expression suddenly cleared and he walked to the door. "I'll knock when I want you to open," he said as he left the room.

Davidson moved over beside Kerr, her fingertips brushing the point of his shoulder."You sound very confident about your ability to use that gun," the big man said with a gesture toward the oddly shaped rifle. "But I don't know that I'd care to make plans based on something . . . suppositious."

Coster's tongue clicked in amusement. "Do you want references? Somebody who saw us put away Kennedy? Or King?"

Davidson snorted a puff of smoke. "You don't look like a fool," Kerr said.

"I'm not—not any longer," the rifleman replied. He shook his head as if to clear something from his hair. He went on, "What we've done doesn't matter. You won't believe me, and it doesn't matter. But if you have some place for a demonstration, we'll—demonstrate."

Kerr nodded. "That would be best," he said neutrally.

Coster suddenly turned and lowered the rifle again toward the door."Speaking of fools," he said, "your Mr. Penske—"

There was no knock. The door slammed back."All right you—"Penske shouted before he realized that the fat muzzle of the automatic rifle was centered on his breastbone. The swarthy man held a carbine waist high, his left hand locked on the curving 30-round magazine.

Obviously furious but with no more sound than his chair made clattering on the floor, Kerr strode toward the disconcerted Penske. With his left hand the black gripped the carbine and tugged the smaller man back within the room. Then his right hand slapped Penske's head against the wall. He stepped away, holding the carbine muzzle-down."And if you'd used it, you damned fool?"the big man demanded."If you'd brought the police down on us here, what chance would our plans have had then? What chance?"

"You didn't have to hit me," Penske said, not quite meeting Kerr's eyes.

Contemptuously, the black unloaded the carbine, tossing the magazine onto a stuffed chair and ejecting the round in the chamber. It winked against the carpet. "Get the things out of the van," he said.

Kerr had rented the furnished apartment a month before, but that was as far as preparations had gone. The can-opener beside the sink was broken and Penske, grumbling, had to hack their dinners open with his heavy-bladed dagger.

"If you were a real Green Beret, you could bite the lids off," Davidson gibed. "Shut the hell up!" the short man snarled. He caught Coster eying him as the rifleman spread baked beans one-handed on a slice of bread. "I'da'made it, no goddam doubt," Penske said defensively. "Only they had us doing sprints up and down the company street with sand in our packs. Some wise-ass clerk thinks it's funny to laugh at me. I knocked his teeth out, and the bastard's goddam lucky they hadn't issued us ammo. But the goddam government don't want anybody that'll really fight, so they busted me out."

"Makes a good story," Davidson said. "I think they caught him with his—"

"Dee!" Kerr said.

Penske's eyes unglazed and he slowly lowered his knife back onto the can of spaghetti. He hammered the hilt down with his palm, splashing the red sauce onto the table.

Despite their hostility, Davidson and Penske settled down to a desultory game of cribbage after dinner.

Kerr sat in the living room across from the rifleman. "I don't play games that you have to score," the big black said. "When I win, the whole world will know it. When I win, there won't be any polite Orientals pumping mercury into the sea because poisoning children is cheaper than not. There won't be any blue-shirted gestapo beating in their brothers' heads because the bankers say to. There won't be any more nuclear powerplants pouring out their deadliniess for a quarter-million years."

The rifleman smiled. He held a jelly glass he had filled with whiskey and had not diluted."There won't be any three-year-olds orphaned in La Prensa because their daddy was too slow emptying his money drawer."

"What are you here for?" Kerr demanded.

Coster's free hand played with his rifle. "Now? To kill a Japanese politician in America discussing import quotas." He swigged his drink.

Kerr leaned forward. "To show the rich that there is justice for the people?" he pressed.

"Human society's a funny thing," said the rifleman, staring at the reflection of the overhead light in his whiskey. "Very complex. But if it gets enough little thrusts, all in the same direction . . . lots of people hate lots of other people anyway. Someday enough people are going to hate enough other people that one of them is going to push the button. Then it all stops."

Kerr's lips tightened. "Bad as things are, I don't believe they've come to that pass yet. Nobody would gain by that."

"Right. Nobody would gain."

Penske and Davidson were arguing about the count. The dinette was blurry with cigarette smoke. Kerr stared for a moment at the ex-soldier, then said to Coster, "There'll be bodyguards, you know. Secret Service men."

"Bodyguards," Coster snorted. "Like Huey Long had? It was one of his guards who killed him, you know, a bullet ricocheting in the marble hallway. And when King Alexander was killed in Marseilles, the gunman ran right through a line of mounted gendarmes."

"I suppose you shot him, too?" Kerr said acidly. "Like Kennedy?"

Coster looked at the heavier man with an odd expression. "I wasn't there," he said. "That was in 1934.The man who did it used a pistol, yes, but there was an automatic rifle backing him up. If it had been needed." He finished his drink with a long swallow and said, "A push here, a push there . . . ."

Kerr stood abruptly."It's been a long day for us," he said."Now that I've stopped seeing pavement, I'll go to bed. You can carry your things into the smaller bedroom, Coster. Penske fits the couch better, I think."

Coster nodded. "I don't have much," he said, toeing a canvas AWOL bag.

In the dinette, Davidson threw in her hand without a word. She followed Kerr into the larger bedroom, slamming the door behind them.

The rifleman walked over to the table, his weapon muzzle-down in his left hand. He poured a drink and raised it in an ironic salute."Cheers," he said to the brooding Penske. He drank and walked into the remaining bedroom without bothering to take his bag.

* * *

Penske drove with Davidson on the front seat beside him. Her short hair was dark except at the roots where it was growing in blond. Kerr and Coster looked at each other from side benches in the windowless back of the van.

Over his shoulder Penske said, "Ah, George . . . the guy who owns the farm, Jesse, I met him when I was at Bragg, see? Could be he won't be around and he's not gonna care what we're shooting, choppers, grenades, whatever. Only maybe you better stay in the back, you know? It'd be better if Jesse didn't, you know . . . ."

"Jesse doesn't like his black brothers, is that it?" Kerr said easily. His face worked and he added, "Don't have much use fer a nigger 'cept to kick his black butt, that is."

"Well, George . . ." the short man mumbled. "We just needed a place to range in the guns . . . ."

"That's all right, it's no fault of yours," Kerr said. "Or your friend's."He looked over at the rifleman."You see what they do, splitting natural allies so that they'd rather tear each other's throats out than both tear at their oppressors. Turning humans into beasts."

"Humans are beasts, of course," Coster said without emphasis. "Whether or not Darwin was right, he was convincing on that score. I think that's why the concept of werebeasts is so much less terrifying today than it was in the fifteenth century. We're all basically convinced that man-beasts are normal reality. Hieronymus Bosch and his constructs of part flesh, part metal . . . that I don't think we've outgrown. Yet."

"Is that all injustice means to you?" Davidson asked sharply. "That we're all beasts, so what? Did you just get out of your flying saucer or something?"

Coster looked at her, his fingers toying with the selector switch below his rifle's gunsight."Viewpoint, I suppose," he said. "But no, I'm human. Funny, I used to wonder what aliens . . . creatures from space, that is . . . would look like. I thought they might look just like you and me." He began to laugh brittlely.

No one in the van spoke again during the remainder of the drive.

After nearly an hour on the road, Penske pulled off on a farm track. A gate stopped the van immediately. The swarthy man jumped down, unhooked the chain, and tugged the sagging frame out of the way. As he got back in and slipped the van into gear, he explained, "Jesse said he'd loop it for me, not run it through the bars."

Penske pulled up just beyond the arc of the gate. He said to Davidson, "Go hook it shut. We don't want any a' the cows to get loose."

Davidson's eyes narrowed. "You opened it, you can shut it. Who the hell—"

"Look, bitch!" Penske said, his right hand curled by reflex into a fist, "You'll shake a leg or you'll—"

"Penske!"Kerr shouted, thrusting his torso over the seat and forcing the driver back without contact."What do you think we are, exploiters ourselves who treat women like furniture? Want to try that with me too, is that what you think?"

"George, I . . . " Penske began. He shook his head fiercely to hide the tears of frustration. Then he unlatched the door, almost falling out backwards in the process. He closed the gate. It was almost a minute before the short man got back into the van and drove on. There were three more gates in the long track between the highway and the pasture swale in which they finally halted. Penske opened and closed each gate himself without saying anything more.

In wet weather the swale drained into a creek more than three hundred yards from the van. The bank beyond the watercourse was steep but generally grassy. There was a bare patch in line with the axis of the swale. Bits of cardboard and metal there brightened the bullet-gouged bank. Other target material lay in riddled clumps at various distances along the way. There was some scattered cartridge brass, mostly .22 caliber—centerfire empties had been picked up for reloading.

"The boys around here use it a lot," Penske said in satisfaction as he took cases out of the back of the van.

"The boys," Davidson snorted. "The Klan's more like it."

Penske looked at her without speaking or moving. He had just begun to load a magazine into a carbine. He looked back downrange after a moment.

Davidson swallowed, then bit at a knuckle. "I'll set some targets up," she said.

"That'll take rigging," Penske said without turning around. "You get the rest a' the guns loaded. Coster'n me'll rig the targets."

"Sure," she said, and she slid a box of miscellaneous empty containers over to the automatic rifleman.

Coster gripped the box with his left hand and his jutting hip bone. His other hand held the rifle at its balance. "All right," he said, "where do you want them?"

"I doubt you'll have to fight off the field mice," Kerr observed from the van. "You can leave the gun here and save the trouble of carrying it."

"No trouble," Coster said. He began walking down the swale.

Penske, carrying an armload of clothesline and plastic milk jugs, trotted along beside the rifleman. "You put a few a' those at one hundred and two hundred," he said. "Save a lot for the bank across the creek, though, 'cause that's where it's really gonna be at. We'll see if you can handle that thing'r not."

The smaller man stopped some fifty yards from the van. He dropped his load and pointed. A fence post and a metal engineer stake stood on opposite rims of the swale. "I'm gonna rig a moving target," he said. "You set up the bottles."

Both men worked quickly. By the time Coster had returned to the line of the posts, the shorter man joined him, unreeling clothesline behind him."Aw right," Penske said, wringing his hands with enthusiasm as they strode back to the firing line. "Aw right, now we just see how goddam good you are."

Coster said nothing.

On a blanket beside the van, Davidson had laid out half a dozen varied long arms. Kerr was still in the vehicle, either in deference to Penske's request or from a disinclination to be anywhere else. Penske had forgotten his shirt downrange. Sweat streaks trembled along valleys separating ridges of chest muscle. He picked up what looked like an ordinary autoloading rifle and checked its magazine before cradling the weapon in his left arm.

"We let the lady shoot, hey?" Penske said to Coster with a high-lipped grin. "Then you'n me try it."

The automatic rifleman shrugged.

Davidson passed Penske's reference with only a scowl. She picked up an M1 carbine and pointed it in the general direction of the nearest bottles. Her grip on the trim little weapon was fierce enough to whiten the skin across the tendons of her hands. She held the gunstock a good quarter-inch from her shoulder. The first shot was loud and metallic, startling even to those who were prepared for it.

"You don't wanna let it scare you," Penske said, reaching for the carbine.

"Go shove your head up your ass!" Davidson flared, snatching the weapon away with a clear willingness to empty it into the swarthy man. She whirled back to the targets and fired a long, savage volley as fast as she could jerk her trigger finger. When she paused, the muzzle had recoiled up to a 30° angle. None of the men spoke when she glared around fiercely. Squinting along the barrel, Davidson resumed fire more deliberately until the banana magazine was empty. Her brass spun off in flat arcs to the right. Once a puff of dirt halfway to the targets marked a shot. Davidson flung the carbine back onto the blanket and stalked into the van.

Penske started to say something but thought better of it. He grinned at Coster and raised his own rifle. Instead of a shot, there was a ripping five-round burst, the rifle emptying its own magazine as Penske held the trigger back. Dirt spouted around the bottles, though the last three shots had been slung skyward by the recoiling muzzle.

"Thought you had the only automatic rifle here, huh?" the short man crowed. "Converted this myself, same as one a' the M1s and the .22 there. Not so special now, are you?"

"You only hit one bottle," Coster said. His left hand curled around the grip on the rifle's forearm.

"Only one?" Penske cried in a fury. "A man's a lot bigger target'n a goddam bottle!"

Metal clicked as Coster's forefinger slid forward the safety catch in his rifle's trigger guard. Speech crumbled into the shattering muzzle blasts of the automatic rifle.

Coster ignored the nearest targets. The bottles at 200, then 300, yards disintegrated in pluming earth. The weapon fired in short bursts of two and three rounds, the muzzle recovering momentarily between blasts to snuffle another target. When the bolt locked back on an empty magazine, there was nothing but dust and glass shards at either aiming point.

Coster's fingers relaxed on the handgrips. He extracted the magazine and began thumbing cartridges into it from a box on the ground. He looked sidelong at Penske.

"We'll try the moving one, wise guy," the shorter man said.

Behind them, Kerr had gotten out of the van. "What kind of gun is that?" he asked.

"M14E2,"Penske replied."The squad automatic version of the standard M14. Has pistolgrips and a straight-line stock. Made goddam few of 'em, too, before they switched from the fourteen to the sixteen."He looked at Coster."Hey, ain't that so?"

Coster shrugged and locked home his magazine. Heat waves danced from the tip of the barrel where metal was exposed to the air.

"Well, don't you even goddam know?" Penske demanded. "How'd you get that rifle, anyway?"

The rifleman looked at him."You'd better hope you never learn," he said. "Now, are we going to shoot guns or talk about them?"

"We'll shoot," the smaller man said fiercely. "We'll goddam shoot."He pointed to the gallon milk jug suspended beside the engineer stake. "One line's through the handle, the other's tied to it," he said. "When I pull this one—" he gestured with the loop of wire-core clothes line in his left-hand—" the jug runs to the other post. Don't sweat, I poured it full a' dirt so it'll show if you hit it. If you hit it."

"Then pull," Coster said, and braced himself. His knuckles were as white as Davidson's had been. His head, hunched low, looked more like that of a man trying to hide than one aiming.

Penske chuckled. "Won't hit nothing but air if you're that scared a' your weapon," he said. He tugged two-handed at the line bent around the fencepost. The jug spurted sideways and the first three bullets ripped it. Sandy loam sprayed from the torn plastic in all directions. The impacts spun the jug around its support line and the second burst caught it at the tip of its arc. Dirt flew again and both lines parted. The gun muzzle tracked the flying container, spiked it in the air, and then followed it down the swale, the bullets themselves kicking their target into a semblance of life.

Flying brass had driven Kerr back from where he stood to Coster's right. Now he massaged his left fist with his right palm, watching the rifleman reload methodically.

"That enough?" Coster asked. Kerr nodded.

Penske had silently begun to gather up the paraphernalia they had brought. Suddenly he stopped, staring at the empty cartridge box he held in his hand."You reloaded from this," he said, waving the box in Coster's face. "Last time."

"So?" said the rifleman. "You want me to pay you for them?"

"You stupid bastard!"the shorter man blazed. "This was .30-'06 for my Remington there. It won't fit a goddam M14. You need .308!"

"Then I didn't use your ammunition after all," Coster said, backing a step. "I brought my own in my kit, you know." His foot tapped the AWOL bag gently.

"Let's see that goddam rifle," said Penske, lunging forward, and the safety clicked off with the muzzle only six inches from the bridge of his nose.

"Don't," said Coster very quietly.

Sullenly, the ex-soldier backed away."Somebody gimme a hand with this crap," he said, thrusting weapons back into their cases.

"We aren't rivals, you know," Coster said without lowering the M14. "I wasn't Oswald's rival either. If you want a man dead and he dies, what else matters?"

"Just shut the hell up, will you?" Davidson burst out unexpectedly.

The three men looked around in surprise. Davidson's fists were clenched at waist-height, her elbows splayed. After a moment Coster said, "All right." He dropped the muzzle of his rifle and began handing guns back into the van.

* * *

A mercury-vapor streetlight threw a line of saw teeth through the Venetian blinds to the wall above the couch. Penske lay there, fully clothed, watching the whorls which his cigarette smoke etched across the pattern. The apartment was still.

Penske took a last drag on his cigarette. Its yellow-orange glow was momentarily brighter than the blue of the streetlight. He ground the butt out in the dish with the others and the crumpled pack from which they had come. Then Penske swung his feet over the side of the couch and stood, his right hand silently drawing his knife from its sheath in the same motion. He glided across the worn carpet to the door of Coster's room.

For a moment the swarthy man waited with his ear pressed against the panel. There was no sound within. The door did not have a working latch; its hinges were nearly silent. Penske pulled the door open just enough to slip through into the pitch-dark bedroom. His whole body followed the knife as if he were a serpent and the blade was his questing tongue.

There was a metallic click from the bed, tiny and lethal as a cobra.

"The light switch is on the right," Coster said quietly. "Better flip it on. Carefully."

Penske's hand found the switch. The room was narrow. The bed lay along its axis, the foot of it pointing to the door. The M14 pointed down that same axis. Coster's index finger was within the trigger guard. The safety catch had clicked as it slid forward. The shorter man stared at the muzzle brake of the automatic rifle. He remembered the way bullets had shredded the earth-filled jug that morning. Now his blood and tissue and splinters of his bones would spray the inside of the door panel.

"Put your knife away," Coster said.

The shorter man only blinked.

"We're not here to kill you, Penske," said the automatic rifleman. His voice was calm, almost wheedling. "Put your knife away and close my door behind you. It'll all look different tomorrow. Kawanishi will be dead, and you'll have as much of the credit for it as you want."

Penske swallowed and began to back through the doorway. The gun muzzle waggled disapproval. "First the knife," Coster said.

The shorter man hunched over, his eyes on the rifle except for quick dips down to the strait boot sheath. He jabbed the point into the flesh above his ankle the first time he tried. At last he succeeded.

"Fine," said the rifleman. "You can go now."

Penske's face contorted with rage. "You bastard, you gotta sleep sometime!" he said.

Coster smiled like a skull. "Do we?"

The swarthy man slammed the door, turned, and jumped back before he realized that the figure hulking on the arm of the couch was Kerr. "What're you doing up?" Penske demanded in a husky whisper.

Kerr shrugged."Let's go out on the landing," he said."Dee's asleep. "But it was toward the rectangle of light around Coster's door that he nodded.

The second-floor apartment was served by an outside staircase. Its landing formed a small railed balcony, open to crisp air and the stars of early morning. Kerr waved Penske outside, then followed and swung the door closed behind them. The big man was barefoot, but he wore slacks and a shirt. The latter was unbloused to conceal his pistol.

Penske clenched his joined hands. "He can't shoot," he said in a low voice. "Not worth a damn."

"You could have fooled me, then," said Kerr. "What I saw this morning was pretty convincing."

"I tell you he's afraid of it!" Penske burst out. "The recoil, the noise even—he flinched every time Dee shot, and when he was shooting himself—I swear to god he kept his eyes shut!"

Kerr's fingers played at flaking paint from the bars of the railing. His complexion was richened to a true black in the wash of the streetlight. "It looked like that to me, too," he admitted, "but he hit everything he shot at. He couldn't have done that if—if you were right."

"Unless that goddam rifle was alive," said Penske under his breath. He gripped the railing with both hands. His eyes were focused on the cars parked in the lot beneath them.

"Don't be a fool," Kerr snapped.

"George, I've seen people who can shoot," Penske said urgently."That bastard's not one of 'em. Besides, nobody's that goddam good to shoot like he did offhand. Nobody human. He got it somewhere, and he trained it up to look like an M14 and shoot for him. Christ, he don't even know the difference from one kinda ammo and another. But it don't matter 'cause he's trained this—thing—and it's just like a guard dog." The little man paused, breathing deeply. "Or a witch cat," he added.

Kerr's index finger began to massage the gum above his bad tooth. "That's nonsense," he muttered around his hand. He did not look at Penske.

The smaller man touched Kerr's wrist. "It fits, George," he said. "It's the only goddam thing that does. The whole truth an' nothing but."

Kerr pursed his lips and said, "If we suppose that . . . what you say . . . could be true, does that change anything?"

"It changes—"Penske blurted, but he stopped when Kerr raised his hand. The question had been rhetorical.

"We accepted him as a man with a sophisticated weapon," the big man continued as if he had not been interrupted. "That's no less true now than it was. And our need for his weapon is no less real."

Penske blinked. "Maybe you know what you're doing. But I don't like it."

Kerr patted him on the shoulder. "After tomorrow it won't matter," he said. "After this morning, that is. Let's both get some sleep."

Coster's door was dark when the two men re-entered the silent apartment. Everything was peaceful. Penske wondered briefly at what would have happened if instead they had returned determined to kill the automatic rifleman. He took his mind off that thought as he would have taken his hand off a scorpion.

The three men in the back of the van were each expressionless in a different way. Davidson swung to the curb in front of the office building. The street was marked "No Parking" but there was little traffic this early on a Saturday morning. Kerr nodded minusculy. Penske, carrying a Dewar's carton, scrambled out the back door. Coster followed with a long, flat box stenciled "Ajax Shelving—Light—Adjustable—Efficient." His right hand reached through a hole in the side of the box, but a casual onlooker would not have noticed that.

The entranceway door was locked. After a moment's fumbling with the key Kerr had procured, Penske pulled it open. Behind them, the assassins heard the van pull away. It would wait in the lot of a nearby office building until time to pick them up.

The hallways were empty and bright under their banks of fluorescents. Coster stepped toward the elevators but Penske motioned him aside. "We take the fire stairs," he said. "Get in a elevator'n you got no control. We can't afford that."

The stairs were narrow and sterile, gray concrete steps in a dingy yellow well.

Penske slipped once as he took two hurrying steps at a time, barking his shins and falling with a clatter on the box he carried. He got up cursing and continued to leap steps, but now he held the liquor carton in his right hand and gripped the square iron rail with his left. At the third floor landing, the little man pulled open the door and peered suspiciously down the hall.

"Clear," he said, stepping through. He let the door swing closed as Coster grabbed for it. Penske was opening an office with another key when the rifleman joined him. Then they were inside, the hall door closed and the fluorescents in the ceiling flickering into life.

Coster threw down the shelving box and caressed the M14 with both hands. Penske squatted on the carpet as he reassembled the stock and action of his carbine. He sneered, "You shoulda took that down 'steada hauling a goddam box that size around. Or don't you know how?"

"I don't take him down," said Coster. "You handle your end, I'll handle mine."

Penske strutted into the inner office. From the letterheads on the desks, the suite was connected in some fashion or other to the university. The swarthy man pushed a swivel chair aside and raised the Venetian blinds."There," he said, waving. "There's where the bastards'll be."

Coster's slight smile did not change as he ducked a little to follow Penske's gesture. The rifleman had not visited the ambush site before. The window looked out on a parking lot, almost empty now, and the back street which formed a one-way pair with the street in front of the building. Beyond the lot and the street was a chainlink fence surrounding the building that sprawled across the whole block. The gates were open, but there was a guardhouse with a sign which read "Carr Industries—Knitwear Division."

The name had amused Kerr.

In the paved yard between the gates and the two-story mill were already gathered a score of newsmen and perhaps an equal number of plain-clothes security personnel. Many of the latter carried attaché cases and binoculars. They looked bored and uncomfortably warm in their suits.

The phone beside Penske rang. He jumped, waggling his carbine. Coster grinned and lifted the instrument out of its cradle. He offered it to the shorter man. Penske glowered. "Yeah, everything's goddam fine," he said. "Just don't screw up yourself." He laid the receiver down on the desk instead of hanging up. At the other end of the open line was Kerr in a sidewalk phone booth. The sound of the shots through the telephone was the signal to start the van toward the pickup point.

Coster swung open the lowest window into the room. He pushed the desk further aside and knelt with the rifle muzzle a yard back from the frame. The relative gloom of the office shielded them from the security men who were dutifully sweeping windows and rooftops with their binoculars. Coster grinned in satisfaction. He lowered the automatic rifle and began scanning the crowd left-handed through the glasses Penske had brought.

"Gonna spray the whole load a'the bastards?"Penske asked. "Supposed to be some big mother from the State Department, too."

"Nobody dies but Kawanishi," said Coster. He did not take his eyes from the binoculars. "We'd lose the effect, otherwise."

Penske grunted. Coster grimaced at him and explained, "If Martin Luther King had been gunned down with thirty whites, there would have been doubt as to just . . . what we had in mind. It would have been an accident, not an attack—and maybe no cities had burned. American officials can die at, say, a Memorial Day parade. Here, only the Japanese. Only a slant-eyed Nip." He turned back to the crowd.

The swarthy man stared at the side of Coster's head. His right hand began a stealthy, not wholly conscious, movement to his boot. As his fingers touched the knife, there was a sharp snap. Penske jumped as he had when the phone rang. The rifle lay across Coster's lap, its muzzle pointing at Penske. The safety had just clicked off.

The rifleman set the binoculars down between them. "Don't even think of that," he said.

Penske's lips were dry, but he nodded.

There was a bustle around the mill entrance. Uniformed officers had joined the plain-clothes team and were forming a double cordon against the gathering sightseers. Down the cordon and in through the gate drove a city police car with its bar lights flashing, followed by a trio of limousines. The first of the black cars disgorged its load of civilians, both Westerners and Japanese. "Small fry," mumbled Coster beneath the binoculars.

A security man from the third, open-topped, limousine ran to the rear door of the second big car and opened it. A tall, gray-haired man in a dark suit got out. He nodded and reached a hand back to help his companion.

"Yes . . . " Coster breathed. He dropped the glasses and fitted his left hand to the forward grip of the automatic rifle. A stocky man, shorter than the first, straightened and waved to the cameras. Then he hurtled forward, face-first onto a patch of concrete already darkened by the spray of his blood.

The BAM BAM of the two-round burst struck the office like hammer blows. A Daumier print on the wall jarred loose and fell. Coster scrambled back to the outer office. Penske waited a moment, his eardrums still jagged from the punishing muzzle blasts. Three security men were thrusting the Undersecretary of State back into the armored limousine like a sacked quarterback. Cut-down Uzis had come out of the attaché cases, but they were useless without targets. A cluster of security men was shouting into walkie-talkies while trying to shield Kawanishi's body. They were useless too. Kawanishi was beyond human help, his spine shattered by two bullets.

Penske broke for the door, leaving his carbine and the binoculars where they lay. He could replace them in the van. They were too dangerous to be seen carrying now. The stairwell door was still bouncing when the shorter man reached it. Coster was taking the steps two and three at a time, his right hand hugging the rifle to him through the hole in the carton. Penske, unburdened, was only a step behind when the rifleman turned at the second-floor landing, lost his footing on the painted concrete, and slid headlong down the next flight of steps. The crack of his right knee on the first step was louder than contact alone could explain.

Penske paused, staring down at the rifleman. Coster's face was a sallow green. "Give me a hand," he wheezed, trying unsuccessfully to rise.

"You'll never make it with a broken kneecap," the swarthy man said, more to himself than to the fallen man.

"God damn you!"Coster shouted. He had flung the shielding carton away from the automatic rifle. He aimed the weapon at Penske's midriff. "Help me!"

The safety clicked on. Both men heard the sound. Coster went a shade still paler and tried to force the slotted bar forward with his index finger. It would not move.

"Sure, I'll help you," Penske said softly. He slipped his dagger from its sheath and stepped forward.

The van was waiting at the curb with its rear door ajar. Penske leaped in, thrusting the carton before him. He shouted, "Drive!"

"Wait!" Kerr snapped to Davidson. "Where's Coster?"

Penske had the automatic rifle out on his lap now. He was feeling a little dizzy. "He fell and I had to leave him," he said. "Don't worry—he won't talk."

Without further orders, Davidson swung the van out into traffic. Occasional pedestrians were looking around for the source of the sirens they heard, but no one gave the escape vehicle a second glance.

Kerr's eyes narrowed as he watched the smaller man's fingers play with the action of the automatic rifle. After a moment he said, "Well, maybe it's for the best."

Penske did not reply. His mind was filling with images of men staggering and falling, each scene a separate shard differing in costume and background. Together the images turned smoothly like gear teeth engaging, each a part of a construct as yet incomplete.

"You know, I don't think I ever got a chance to look at that," Kerr remarked conversationally. He reached out to take the weapon.

"No!" said Penske, and the automatic rifle swung to cover the black's chest.

For an instant Kerr thought of drawing his pistol, but the thought passed and the pressure on the trigger of the automatic rifle passed also. "Okay," the big man said, "so long as you shoot what you're told to shoot with it."

Penske was no longer listening. The pattern was now complete. It stretched from a cold world whose remaining energies were all harnessed in a great design, to an Earth without native life forms. Winds whipped sand and nerve gas around badlands carven in past millennia, and the poisoned seas surged against blue-glowing shorelines. But over those landscapes coursed metal creatures who glittered and shifted their forms and raised triumphant cities to the skies.

And in Penske's mind something clicked. A voice said in no human language, "Yes, this replacement will be quite satisfactory . . . ."

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