“I was thinking Chinese for dinner tonight. Wife says I need to lay off, but then she eats just as much as I do when I bring it home.”

“Are you even listening to yourselves?” I said. “Talking about moo goo gai pan when a man is dead and murdered in his own home?”

The officer shrugged. “It’s no worse than one of his movies. You ever see any of them?”

“Yes,” I said, my insides heaving at the splatters of blood and the outline on the floor which depicted the unrecognizable heap in which director Candon Verbridge had been found. “I wasn’t a fan. Too gory.”

“Too gory?” the officer said. “That was the best thing about them. Best splatterpunk director to come out of America during the last fifty years.”

“And you don’t find it at all odd that he was, himself, splattered and cored?” I asked. A police officer with a fondness for splattercore seemed a much better preparation for the scene of a violent homicide than a lifetime of reviewing films.

“Huh. I suppose it is,” said the officer. “Maybe it was a copycat. Some nutty fan. The scene looks a lot like The Scattered Stains, doesn’t it?”

It didn’t just look like that nauseatingly, horrifyingly gory movie, I thought. It was nigh identical, at least from what I could remember seeing through my fingers at the screening. I was about to say something in reply, to confirm the officer’s theory, when a thought struck me:

The Scattered Stains had been about an incorporeal entity that had murdered anyone who refused it.

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“Sir, can I see that camera?” The Metromart employee held out his hand.

“It’s my camera,” I snapped. “I came in with it.”

“Sir, do you have a receipt?”

“Of course I don’t have a receipt!” I cried. “Here, look at this.” I turned the camera on and handed it to the Metromart greeter. “See this picture of me in the park? With my nephews? Do you think I just took those in the store?”

“Oh,” said the greeter. “I’m sorry. We’ve just had a lot of thefts lately.”

I took the camera back with a harrumph and left. As soon as I was out of view, I popped it open and removed its SD card. I’d taken the pictures with another camera over a year ago; by switching the cards, it was very easy to make the camera look like it was mine. By the time Metromart found the discarded packaging, it was too late.

Starting up the car, I headed over to Berkeley’s to pawn my new acquisition.

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The photoshoot had gone great, Reid thought. It was rare enough to find a willing model, much less one that had the combination of good bone structure, natural-looking long blonde hair, and violet eyes.

It had gone so well, in fact, that Reid’s assistant had drawn him aside during a break. “Does something strike you as a little…odd…about this model?” he asked.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, love,” said Reid.

“I dunno. Something about her just seems a little…unnatural.”

“Well, that’s not her natural hair color, if that’s what you mean,” Reid laughed. “But you ought to know that by now, love. No human has that color naturally–it’s dye or wig or chromosome engineering from one of those fly-by-night gene labs in the Beral Lands.”

“But…her eyes, and her skin…I just don’t feel like they’re real,” Reid’s assistant persisted.

“Well, I can assure you that they are her real eyes and her real skin,” laughed Reid. “Not a skinjob, this one! But I agree, she does have a very exotic otherworldly beauty about her. Sometimes I can scarcely believe it’s real myself!” He turned away abruptly and clapped his hands. “Okay, that’s a wrap with this one! Miss, you’re been lovely. Please send out the next model from the green room, if you please.”

The model nodded, and walked into the small room that Reid had set aside for the use of his models, locking it behind her. It was completely empty, save a for a small trunk.

The model took off her hair–a very convincing nanofiber wig–and replaced it with one that was short, dark brown, and tightly curled. Then she took off her nose and ears–they were both prostheses made of nanomaterials as well. Carefully hovering over a selection of replacements, she decided on a pair of small lobeless ears and a wide nose with flared nostrils, both dark-skinned. She could have opted for more flexible shape-and-color changing nano-protheses, naturally, but custom-made ones with a single shape were less likely to stand out and had a more natural look.

As she shimmied into a fresh outfit laid out by Reid ahead of time, the model adjusted the chromatophores in her eyes and skin to fresh hues. The photographer had asked for dark skin and green eyes, and so she obliged–matching her overall hue to that of her fresh prostheses and her eyes to a color wheel with the aid of a mirror.

There was a knock on the door. “Ma’am?” said Reid’s assistant.

“Ready in a moment, dear,” the model cried, rearranging her multi-layered vocal cords to produce a much lower, huskier register.

It would be easier to have the assistant and camera crew in on the fact that their model was a Callistan, surely. But Callistans were hated, discriminated, against, even outlawed–not least because they were spies and assassins as often as they were fashion models. But–in the model’s mind, anyway–if she had the ability to change her appearance at will, and the prosthetics and wigs to make it happen, why not use it to earn a little safe money at the expense of others?

The unspoken code of Callistans was very clear on that point: it was perfectly okay to fool, rob, or kill Zeussians (as they called all other humans), so long as you didn’t abandon your secret Callistan identity or fall in love with one.

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“Welcome home,” said Pavlov. It was an even bet as to which terrified Hardwick more: that an intruder was in his home, or that the intruder had spoken without moving his lips.

“W-who are you? What are you doing here? Get out!” screamed Hardwick, dropping his load of groceries. Vinegar from a shattered bottle of pickles pooled around his shoes as he fumbled for his cell phone.

“That won’t be necessary.” Pavlov once again spoke without moving a muscle. He simply kept his dark eyes fixed on Hardwick, gleaming beneath his slicked-back helmet of black hair and high domed forehead.

Hardwick’s arm went limp, and his smartphone cracked its screen as it tumbled to the hardwood floor. “Sutton sent you.” It was a statement, not a question.

“Of course.” Pavlov’s eyes were unblinking, his thin lips pursed and closed.

“How…how did you find me?” there was a hint of resignation and despair in Hardwick’s voice.

There was no real reason Pavlov had to answer the man’s entreaties, but whether out of pity or a desire to gloat, he did so: “You left a thousand breadcrumbs. People have seen you, spoken to you, heard rumors. I took those breadcrumbs from their minds and followed them to the loaf. It wasn’t hard; no harder than a voracious reader tracking a fact through a library of open books.”

“What happens now?” Hardwick was frozen; he wasn’t sure f it was fear of some kind of paralysis like that Pavlov had induced in his arm a moment ago. He also failed to notice that his lips were not moving; the conversation had seamlessly shaded over into the realm of extrasensory perception.

“I will search your mind to see if you actually possess the information that Sutton believes you to. Then I will wipe its contents clean.”

There was an ominous, disinterested finality in Pavlov’s remarks, even though his face was as a mask throughout. Many would blubber or gibber helplessly at this point, but–whatever his other flaws may have been–Hardwick was able to keep his composure in the face of looming destruction.

“Will it…hurt?”

“Did it hurt before you were born? Does it hurt when you are asleep?” Pavlov thought evenly. “I see here that you know many of the things Sutton hoped, but not nearly as many as he feared. It was a foolish move to try and parlay such pittances into a plea bargain and a reward, but smarter men have transgressed for smaller prizes.”

It was done. Pavlov’s expression was one of intense discomfort for a moment, and then Hardwick crumpled to the floor, every neuron in his brain still functioning but completely devoid of the engrams which had represented a functioning mind. The psychic hitman calmly walked out through the open door, while Hardwick’s police handler found him unresponsive hours later. The witness was assumed to have suffered a massive stroke, and was left in a persistent vegetative state in an area hospice.

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He remembered, all right. Dr. Carlsson had left a garageful of books to the library, but his illness meant that the only living things that’d set foot in there for five years were rats and roaches. Half the books had to be thrown out—including some more than 200 years old—because they’d been chewed to pieces for rat nests or smeared with droppings and mold. Even so, the donation had been a treasure trove, with books dating back as far as 1697 in excellent readable condition.

“He took it out with a community user card. The card was real enough—we issued it—but the address is bogus. This street only goes up to 750 and the address is a 902.”

“Those kids at circulation dropping the ball again?”

“Don’t be so hard on them. This guy obviously went to a lot of trouble to get his hands on the thing; you can’t be prepared for that sort of thing.”

“No, I guess not.”

“So where does that leave us? ‘On Symbologie’ has walked off with this Mr. Richat.”

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Everything would have been fine if the Spanish tourists had arrived on time.

Kay and Alice had met them at the bus stop, clearly bamboozled and lost (as the island’s easygoing bus schedule was wont to do for foreign tourists). As it so happened, no one at the bus stop spoke any more than pidgin Spanish…that is, except the two young American education students fresh out of Advanced Spanish 499.

There were still problems, largely because the tourists were Galician and spoke Castilian Spanish with a heady cocktail of Galician loanwords and a strong accent. Kay and Alice, who had studied Latin American Spanish–specifically the Mexican variety–were able to communicate only with considerable difficulty. Still, they had been able to describe the bus schedule, tell the Spaniards when the next bus was probably due, give them directions to their hotel, and even attempted to impart a few useful English phrases.

That would have been that, deeds done by good Samaritans, if the Spanish tourists had arrived on time.

Only they hadn’t.

The two Spaniards, Isabella Sanchez and Inez De Rojo, never arrived at their hotel, and never left on any of the ferries. There were no bodies, and no leads–except for Kay and Alice, who were the last ones to have any contact with the missing and who had spent the following week at a rustic and secluded beach on the leeward side.

It wasn’t until they tried to take the ferry home that Kay and Alice realized they were the only suspects in a missing persons case.

Cohen’s novels were characterized by intricate and intertwining multiple plots, and he had a remarkable ability to weave various complicated threads together despite prose that was often described as turgid or, charitably, plain. He wasn’t writing to the literati, of course–does anyone outside their number even aspire to anymore?–but rather for the lucrative disposable-book trade. People who needed something to read on the train, on the plane, or any of those other bottlenecks where the frenetic pace of modern life was unavoidably slowed would purchase a Maxwell Q. Cohen book and discard it like a candy wrapper after reading.

Most of the finer thrift stores overflowed with volumes stocked alongside Crichton, Koontz, and King. His were human stories, though, without a hint of the supernatural or the technological and crafted for those who were not of either bent. It was a formula for consistent success, if not renown, and most of the titles wound up selling very well. His latest, “Forest of Bloodshot Eyes,” had even debuted on the bestseller list and there was scuttlebutt of a Hollywood adaptation with the latest pretty-thing-of-the-month shoehorned into a role written for someone 20 years older and 20 IQ points smarter.

That’s why Cohen’s unannounced disappearance from his lakeside home had been such a bitter shock.