5

he street was quiet, making it seem more threatening than deserted; but it was deserted. Angel Cussler's office was in a dilapidated six story building midway of the short block. The parking lot next to the building was empty except for a battered, five- or six-year-old compact. It was too late an hour for an attendant to be on hand. Gifford parked and locked his car and went into the office building to ride an ancient elevator that smelled of tobacco smoke and sweat to the third floor. In the third floor hall, light seeped faintly beneath only one door. There was no name painted on the door, but there was a number and it was the same as on the card Angel Cussler had given him.

He was passing up a meeting with Royce and Calderon to come here. An informal meeting, to be sure, but one Royce seemed to think was important. Calderon himself came down from the stage to invite them, telling Gifford that he felt they might have an important future together, his evangelical organization and good old Channel 73. He told Biff Potter he wanted him to join his group, as a performer of religious music. It was hard to say which statement was more astonishing, but neither somehow seemed as astonishing or important as the card Gifford carried now in his pocket. He couldn't say why. But when Biff Potter shrugged and made an excuse. Gifford offered him a ride. After dropping Potter off, Gifford drove straight here.

Gifford knocked on Angel Cussler's door.

"Who's there?"

"It's me," Gifford said.

"Oh, yeah," came Cussler's voice. There was a moment's silence then; a beat of it in television terms. Gifford wondered what was going on, what Cussler was clearing from his desk before opening the door. "Yeah, Gifford. Just a sec."

A key rattled in the lock from the inside of the room and the door came open. Cussler peered up at him, as if to make sure, then stepped back to give him room to enter. Gifford could small the cheap whiskey on Cussler's breath and knew what the man had been hiding away.

The office was little bigger than the elevator but seemed smaller because of the furniture crowded into it: a desk, a pair of filing cabinets that looked like Army surplus, and some sturdy wooden chairs that probably were too. The smell of tobacco and sweat here was more pronounced than in the elevator. And it was mingled with the perfume of cheap whiskey. There was a window with grimy blinds closed over it.

Walking crabwise to his desk, so as not to take his eyes off his guest, Cussler said, "I wondered if you'd come."

"I've heard your name."

"What?" Barely behind his desk, he froze in position, giving Gifford a puzzled look. "Me?"

"From Tommy Hillier."

Cussler came to life, shrugging away his puzzlement, and sliding into his chair. He leaned his elbows nervously on his desk. "So. Well, yeah. That makes sense. I knew Tommy. Shame what happened to him. Did a bit of work with him a few times."

"He called you his adviser."

"His what?"

"His adviser."

Cussler reached for a cheap cigar that burned pungently in the ashtray n his desk and wheezed some laughter. "Adviser, huh? That's one way to put it." He puffed the cigar once and returned it to the ashtray.

"Sorry I can't offer you a smoke, Mr. Gifford, but that's my last."

"I don't smoke," Gifford said, thinking of his pipe.

"Just as well," Cussler said, settling back. "Small room like this, two of them burning . . ." He shrugged and his eyes narrowed a moment as he regarded Gifford.

"You said it was important for me to come here," Gifford reminded him.

"It's important, all right. You know, of course, that I'm no adviser. Regardless what Tommy told you, I'm no adviser." He picked up the cigar again. "I mean, I might give you some advice, but that's not exactly what I do for a living. What I do for a living --"

He hesitated and looked at the cigar, then at Gifford. His facial expression was coy but there was no coyness in his eyes. They were the eyes of a barracuda that had missed a meal.

"Broker," he said finally around the cigar. "That's the word I'm searching for. Mr. Gifford, I am a broker."

"In what? Pork bellies?"

Cussler ignored the sarcasm. "You coming here is your lucky day, Mr. Gifford. You're going to make yourself some money."

"How much?"

He tapped some ash from the end of his cigar into the ashtray. "What do you say to two hundred thousand dollars?"

Gifford's eyebrows rose.

Cussler wheezed out more laughter. "Just don't let this office fool you. It's what you call low overhead. I got the money. Cash."

"For what?"

"Tax purposes, what else? We'll sign some papers, but they'll be for a much smaller amount and there'll be a check for that. Just to cover your ass with the internal revenue and like that. But you'll get a bundle they won't know anything about."

Gifford pulled his chair closer to the desk. "Why?"

Cussler pointed at him with the cigar and said, "Now you wouldn't be giving though to trying to hike up the price some more, would you?"

Gifford grabbed the cigar out of his hand and threw it into a corner. He leaned forward, close to Cussler's face. "Why do you want to give me all this money, Mr. Cussler. What do you get out of it?"

Cussler's mouth hung open a moment, then shut as he leaned back in his chair and forced a smile. "I thought you knew. Biff Potter's contract."

In the small shabby office, it had seemed to Gifford that nothing its proprietor could say would surprise him. How wrong he was. The one thing that, had he given it any thought, was most likely, somehow dumbfounded him. Cussler shifted nervously in his chair. The forced smile gave way to a look of fright and Cussler said, "Two hundred thousand dollars. That's a hell of a lot more than you think he's worth, isn't it?"

"Just what's going on?" Gifford asked.

"It's a legitimate goddamn offer."

"Well, then, here's a legitimate refusal." He got up to leave.

Cussler almost beat him to his feet. "Just a minute. Hold on! You can't walk out. Nobody walks out on that kind of money." His hands were shaking, Gifford realized; and his voice. "Look, we can talk about it, can't we? Make you another offer? Just -- Just don't walk out on me like that."

"Whatever your scam is --"

"Don't be so quick to run out on me, that's all. Just give me a few minutes." He dropped to his knees and fumbled with something under the desk, almost crawling out of sight to retrieve something. It was a battered attache case. He started to put it on the desk but the ashtray was in the way, so he knocked it off the desk to make room. He fumbled with the latches on the case a moment before he got them opened. He threw up the lid and turned the case around so that Gifford could have an unobstructed view of the money that filled it.

"You believe me now? All of this, it's all yours."

The bills were old and worn. Fifties, twenties, tens. They were bundled and fastened with the sort of red rubber band that came around Gifford's morning paper every day. Cussler picked up a bundle of fifties and shook it in the air. "It's yours."

And there was a lot more than just two hundred thousand in there.

"What's so valuable about Biff's contract?" Gifford asked.

"People gonna flock to his concerts, Marty. Just gonna flock. I can smell it in the air."

"There's a lot in the air to smell. His records don't even sell over television any more."

"Just a matter of time. Promotion. I see this guy, all I can see is the talent he's got. I know that out there, all across the country there's road houses and honkytonks and --"

Gifford reached across the desk, past the hand that waved the bundled fifty-dollar bills and grabbed Angel Cussler by the collar and yanked. Cussler gave a yelp as he was pulled across the desk. "You know what?" Gifford said. "I think you pushed Tommy Hillier out that window."

"Jesus, no. No, Jesus, no. I never --"

He saw the look of unadulterated fear on Cussler's face and heard the babble of his words, and as suddenly as the rage had taken hold of Gifford, it passed. A feeling of shame replaced it. He let go of Cussler's collar. "I'm sorry. I don't know --"

Cussler slid back across the top of the desk and off it to the floor. He sat there, lips trembling, eyes huge with fear, and stared at Gifford. He still clutched the bundled fifties the way a child might clutch a toy. In a small voice he said, "This is all I got in the world, all I can offer you for the contract."

Gifford sat back down. Cussler got to his feet and found his own chair. "Look, if I had more, I'd give you more. Look, if you'll take my note --"

"Why?" Gifford asked, still furious. "Just tell me what there is about that paper that's worth that much money?"

"It's all legitimate," Cussler said. "Speculation."

"Cussler --," Gifford said, his tone dangerous.

Sweat beaded Cussler's forehead. He drew a handkerchief from his right hip pocket and ran it across his face, drenching it in sweat before stuffing it back where it came from.

His eyes closed tightly. His face twisted as with pain. "You're never going to believe me. You're never going to believe me."

"Give it a try."

"All right, all right. A try." He leaned forward in his chair, putting his hands on the desk but not looking at Gifford. He was breathing heavily. "Okay, I'm no adviser. I mean, I don't give therapy like a shrink or read palms or that shit. I'm a broker, that simple."

His eyes cut sharply toward Gifford and behind the fear there seemed to be something else. Pride, perhaps. Or maybe just a kind of arrogance. "But you better believe me, Marty. I'm a special kind of broker. I deal in human souls."

Gifford opened his mouth to speak, but he honestly couldn't think of anything to say to that.

"Yeah, you don't believe me. I said you wouldn't. But you will. Because it's the truth. I'm a broker in human souls. You heard Calderon tonight. What did he talk about? The human soul, of course. Saving them. All preachers talk about that. So does the Bible. All through history, that's the big thing. Saving people's souls. Well, I buy and sell people's souls."

"You don't look like Mephistopheles."

"Who? You mean the devil? No, not me. I said I buy and sell. I'm just the middle man." He leaned forward and let his voice drop to a conspiratorial tone. "And I got me two clients, not just one."

He smiled. "That's right. I'm in the same business as all them TV preachers. I make deals for souls. Small deals. Nobody gets to be President in trade for his soul these days, or gets all that much money, either. You might be surprised what you can pick up for just a bottle of bad peach wine, too. Or a bit of bail money. Once I get them, I sell them to one of my clients. I do all right, I do a passable business. Not spectacular, but then I might do better if I set up on Sunset-Vine in Hollywood."

Gifford indicated the attache case and its money at the end of the table. "That's not a bottle of cheap wine."

"Yeah, well maybe I lucked into something special, you know? Hey, I don't exactly have to tell you who my two clients are, do I? I won't go into details on how I normally work, either, how I turn these things in for payment. It don't matter anyway, because this one's not like the others. There's something special about Biff Potter, but don't ask me what."

"You mean, this is all about Biff Potter's soul?"

"Listen," Cussler said, angry. "I heard about that clause you got in Potter's contract. You can't be as ignorant of this as you let on. Whatever your game is --"

"Just tell me the rest of it," Gifford snapped.

Cussler slammed shut the lid on the attache case and pulled it across the desk to himself. "This is all the damned money I got. Maybe I can get you some more, but we're going to have to have some sort of agreement first."

Gifford stood up. "Tell me the rest of it or I walk."

"You ain't gonna turn down this much money," Cussler said with certainty.

"Good night, Mr. Cussler," Gifford said, and started toward the door.

Cussler said, "Just hold on, will you? Jesus, I'll tell you what I know. I don't know everything, they don't tell me all of it, you know."

Gifford sat back down.

"I swear to you, I don't know why Biff Potter's important. But I can give you an idea how important he is. They're here, in town. Both of them and in person."

"Who?"

"Who the blazes to you think? And it scares me. I don't work with them, no direct. I never worked with either one of them. But they're here now and Biff Potter is the reason, and so are you. It's that clause in his contract."

"I'd like to know about that clause," Gifford said.

"I don't know a lot, but I know some of it, and I've done some educated guessing on the rest of it. They're omnipotent on their terms, sure, but when they created this universe, they set up laws. The universe runs on laws. So when one of them -- or both of them -- operates on our level, they have to obey certain laws. They have to take human form and they have to operate in accordance to ways that severely limit their powers."

"I don't believe any of this."

"I said you wouldn't, didn't I? Anyway, whatever it is about Potter's soul, both of them are here, restrictions and all. Sure, they're more powerful than we are, they can do stuff we can't, like that business with the clause -- assuming you really don't know anything about this --"

"You mean one of them worked some sort of magic to put that clause in the contract and made it so that only I can see it?"

"If you didn't write it, the who did?" Cussler said.

It was a good question. Gifford said, "Which one do you have your deal with? God or Satan?"

"Neither one, yet. There isn't any such deal. But once I have the merchandise lined up, they'll have to deal with me. That's the rule. I'll see how valuable this thing really is, then."

"This is all a joke, a hoax."

"Look, both of then are interested. I know this business and you don't, pal. I know how to deal with them. Do you?" He hesitated before continuing. "If you won't make a straight sell, how do you feel about a partnership?"

"All I want is some fresh air," Gifford said.

"Look, I'm willing to go along with whatever you want. You got me over a barrel, but I'm the one knows who to go to and how it's done. You can't --." He stopped abruptly. "Hey, you hear that?"

"Hear what?"

"You didn't hear it?"

Perhaps there had been a sound. Distant and scratching. Alien but faint.

Not especially menacing but not natural, either.

"I'm not sure."

Cussler turned and pulled on the cord opening the blinds. There was little light outside. He gazed toward the street, then peered upwards at the sky.

He turned back toward Gifford, a nervous smile on his lips. "My nerves," he said. "They ain't what they used to be. My stomach, too." His hands moved lick small rodents on the top of the desk, his fingers twitching. "This --"

The odor was sudden. It was snot particularly unpleasant, although it was pungent in a way that assaulted the nostrils, like ammonia. Gifford had no idea where it came from. Cussler's mouth fell open, not with astonishment but with terror. The color drained from his face and he said, "Oh, sweet Jesus, no --," and the thing was there.

It was there as suddenly as the odor. There was no clap of thunder, the air did not sparkle, no cloud of greenish smoke preceded it. But it was there, complete and solid where it hadn't been the instant before, and it was real.

It was dark but that was all Gifford could tell about its hue. The skin of it had a certain rubbery sheen but its suppleness was the suppleness of flesh. In most respects, its form was human, but not in every one. In certain ways it seemed somehow superhuman, in others unearthly. It did have horns. And wings. The wings were leathery and bat-like and spread out behind it like a billowing cape.

Gifford had no more detailed impression of it than that. He was breathing too hard, his heart pounding with too much trip hammer force. And the creature wasn't there long enough for him to have a good look at it, even if he wanted one.

Cussler's presence of mind was stronger than Gifford's. He grabbed for the attache case. The demon-thing snatched it out of his hands and held it up almost to the ceiling and squeezed it. The sides popped from the case. Money popped as well, a green snowstorm in the claustrophobic confines of Cussler's office. Then the creature tossed aside the pieces of the shattered attache case and grabbed Cussler.

Cussler's scream pounded the close walls of the rooms like fists. The thing lifted him up and squeezed.

This was the part that jolted Gifford, starting every nerve in his body to seesawing like a pump handle, driving the sweat out of his pores and onto his skin. Cussler was lifted and squeezed and he screamed, not as if he was being constricted and strangled, but as if something else entirely were happening to him. His shape began to change. In the hands of the creature, he became more compact, keeping just enough of his human appearance that there was no question it was really him, really the living, squirming, agonized Angel Cussler. Only then did his tongue protrude to cut off his scream in a strangled, tortured gargle. Only then did the eyes protrude. They popped like the sides of the case, spewing from the sockets in a shower of fluid, trailing flesh and what might have been nerves, trailing to the floor.

Now there was blood. Now there was a horrible stench that flooded the room and hammered against Gifford's senses as brutally as the fear did, and as paralyzing.

The beast threw Cussler down and Cussler's form was restored, what remained of it. As suddenly as it came, the beast was gone. But not Angek Cussler. Not him. Dead, he lay crushed and crumpled on the floor, like a man who had fallen to the concrete sidewalk from the top of a tall building.

Gifford made a strangled, rasping sound that was meant to be a scream but wasn't. He pushed his chair back and it toppled, spilling him sideways into the floor, his face inches from the mangled corpse. He scrambled to his feet and reached the floor, pounding on it with both fists, losing terrifying seconds before he thought to grab the doorknob.

He tore out of the office and down the hall to the stairs, unwilling to wait for the elevator. He pushed his way out of the building onto the sidewalk, into the night air that was hot and stifling with Georgia humidity.

There was a whimpering sound. He stopped and listened for several seconds, trying to place it before realizing it was his own.

He leaned his back against the age-grimed brick of the building and fought a losing battle for self-control. The blood, the eyes, Cussler's scream.

Gifford slid against the rough brick wall, falling to his knees, heedless of the cement of the sidewalk. Oh God, he told himself. Things like that -- things like that are impossible --.

Impossible.

And horrible.

"Marty," crooned a woman's voice. "It's all right, Marty. You're safe now. Everything's all right."

Uncomprehendingly, Gifford looked up at her. Lauren Justus bent and put her arms around him.

"It's over. You're safe."

"Where did you come from?" His voice was feeble.

"Everything's going to be all right, now."

Some of his personal fear poured away into a new basin -- fear for someone else. "Lauren. Oh my God, you've got to run. You've got to get out of here. You can't know, can't understand. You've got to get away."

She helped him get to his feet, kept her arms around him when he was standing. "Come with me, Marty."

"Where's your car. I don't see your car."

"Let's use your car, Marty."

"No, you don't understand. There'll be police. If they find your car, they'll want to question you. You can't explain any of this."

"Let's say I came by cab. Give me your keys."

They were at his car. He fumbled in his pocket, found his keys, handed them to her.

"You're in no shape," she told him. "I'll drive."

"I'm fine --really."

"I'll drive," she said firmly.

The next thing he knew he was in the passenger's seat and the car was moving through a barren section of old buildings, back toward town. Lauren was silent. In the faint glow he watched her face. How could anyone's face be calm and relaxed in a world where things like he had just seen could happen. How could any face be so beautiful any more?

Things became disjointed then. Perhaps he dozed. The next thing he knew the car was parked in the drive of her home, one of the old restored houses in Inman Park. Here it was a different world. The night was cool, not oppressive. What happened in Cussler's office was a dream, something that had never happened at all, like the contrived reality of a cartoon. Road Runner insanity. Nothing was real any longer except Lauren, with him on this porch, opening the door with her key. She led him up the stairs to her apartment, quiet so as not to wake up anyone.

She had five rooms on the second floor. There was another apartment on the other side, and the family that owned the house -- Gifford thought they were an elderly couple -- downstairs. Lauren's living room was spacious. Gifford's impressions from previous visits was of a charming, tastefully furnished room. Lauren led him back to the bedroom and turned on a lamp by the bed.

He started to tell her about what had happened. She pressed her mouth against his and he stopped talking, feeling her soft lips, her darting tongue. His arms slid around her, almost involuntarily, and he pulled her close.

Again he experienced that disjointed sense of time. He had no impression of undressing; it simply happened. Naked, they were in bed together and he could feel her hands roving up and down his body, feel himself responding. They kissed again, heatedly.

They made love and it was not just his passion he spent between her legs but his fear as well. They made love more than once in the night before falling asleep.

Morning came and he woke. She lay next to him, asleep. He looked at her. Her magnificent, billowing hair covered half her face and flowed to her shoulder and breast. He had never made love with her before this; had never seen her body before. He was amazed at its beauty. He had never seen such perfect breasts, so narrow a waist. The smile that so lightly touched her lips as she slept amazed him.

He looked at her for a long time until he was certain that he recognized her for the first time.

What was it Cussler said? They're both here? That was why he'd been at Calderon's revival. Calderon was one of the two, of course. But who was the other one?

It hurt to look at her and know the truth as she slept like that. But she was on the scene just moments after the demon killed Cussler.

And there was more. There was that clause in Potter's contract. Lauren typed that contract. No one could see the clause but Gifford, and that implied quite a bit. Both were here and according to Cussler, in human form both were forced to work under stringent limitations. The clause was a maneuver by one of them to frustrate the other's effort to acquire Biff Potter's soul.

He got up quietly to dress. Lauren lay undisturbed, still sleeping.

There was no way he could help but notice her beauty. Until now he'd realized only that she was beautiful, never just how beautiful.

And how unearthly her beauty was.

6

he hotel room door was open. Gifford's nerves tingled like high tension wires as he entered and found himself in an area too large for any hotel room, even one in this luxuriant suite. The place seemed filled with night except for a place in the room's center where a pool of light spread out around large overstuffed chair. Calderon sat in the chair.

He said, "It's good you came, Martin."

"I had to."

"Tell me nothing," Calderon said. Oh, how reassuring was his voice. "I know what you've gone through and I understand." His dark glasses were palpable and resistant to reflection, a portion of a starless night frozen into lenses. They seemed part of his face. The thin mouth was set in a shallow, curving smile that knew and promised much and meant much more.

A casual gesture of Calderon's right hand parted the shadows next to him, revealing a second chair. "Sit," he said. Gifford obeyed.

Like a cloak, the shadows drew around Calderon until only his face could be seen.

Gifford said, "Father --"

Another gesture of that hand. "Say nothing," came the voice. "Your thoughts are open to me, as are your feelings. Can you actually believe, My son, that it is possible for you to keep secrets from me?"

"I have no secrets."

"Of course not." Peaceful voice. Reassuring voice. "But there are things you have told no one else because you do not understand them. They are things you believe will be doubted because others can understand them no better than you do. You have no secrets, but you do have things you have been afraid to say."

"Yes. Afraid."

"You need fear nothing, My son. I understand it all."

He leaned forward and His hand touched Gifford's shoulder. A feeling of great warmth and goodness flowed through Gifford's body. It was like what he felt when he was alone with Lauren.

"You know so much now," Calderon said. "You know more than all but a few select people have known in all of history."

It was impossible for Gifford to stop the tears now. He had not cried like this since childhood. His body was wracked with uncontrollable convulsions as he sobbed. He slid from the chair to his knees and with an effort of will as great as any he had ever managed, said, "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned."

Calderon's hand lifted from Gifford's shoulder. "And who has not? Do you truly think I would hold a thing like that against you, my son?"

As suddenly as it came, the drying stopped. But Gifford remained on his knees.

Calderon said, "My son, you matter. You have a soul. I cherish that soul of yours. It is the reason you are here."

Trying to regain something of his self-control, Gifford buried his face in his hands. "There is another soul I have as well. Biff Potter's."

Calderon smiled. "I cherish that soul as well, My son."

"But she tried to steal it, to gain control over it, to -- to --. I saw. . . I saw . . ."

"Don't think of what you saw."

"But I saw a man die. The Thing that killed him -- "

"Don't think about that," Calderon commanded sharply. "What you saw is not important. All that you do, however, matters."

"But --"

"Look at me instead."

Gifford looked.

omething glowed behind the lenses of Calderon's glasses. His eyes were lights that were brighter and stronger than the sun, but Gifford neither blinked nor pulled his gaze away. He was blinded by those incandescent eyes but only for a moment. Then he was staring into a light that was as deep as any darkness, a light that was the light of souls. He felt warmth and goodness, as when Calderon's hand touched his shoulder, as when he made love with Lauren; and he felt much more.

Faith and conviction flowed into his body from the blinding brilliance of those eyes and Gifford knew, he knew, he knew.

He cried out and fell back against the chair. He whimpered. He felt Calderon's hand again on his shoulder.

The great trembling that shook his body eased. He slid sideways to the floor and lay there gasping.

At last he looked up. Calderon sat there, watching him. The glasses were dark, shielding now against the light from Calderon's eyes.

Suddenly, Gifford was overcome with shame.

"There is no need to feel that way."

"I know," he said, picking himself up. He made himself sit in the chair. "It just that I can't help . . ."

"You can't help believing."

It was true, Gifford realized. It was absolutely true.

"Do you understand it, My son?"

"Yes, Father."

"This feeling you have has a name. Its name is Faith. You have been filled with a faith that's eternal and undying. Now you know the truth."

"I'm filled with the truth. Blessed with it."

Leaning back in the chair, Gifford closed his eyes. With them shut he could almost see the glow of the faith rising up from deep within his body -- no, not his body. From his soul. His very special soul.

Gifford said, eyes still shut so that he could see the glow, "It isn't right that I should own Biff Potter's soul. I'm nothing but a man. One man has no right to own another's soul."

"No. Of course he doesn't."

"This war between You and . . . and Your Adversary. Over souls. If Biff Potter's soul really that special?"

"Have I not assured you that all souls are special?"

"Yes, I know that. But, I mean -- I mean, I want to give Biff Potter's soul to You. How? How do I do that?"

"Simply say that you do."

"It's that easy? I mean is that really all of it? Then I give it to You. Oh, my Father, I give it to You."

Calderon stood up. His lips curved into a deeper smile than Gifford had ever seen before on those lips. "My son, I thank you. You shall never know the measure of My Gratitude."

The shadows moved and swallowed both of them.

***

When Gifford woke he found himself in a chair in his own apartment and he knew he wasn't here under his own power. There was no question of it being a dream, either. He sat there a long time, staring blankly toward a corner of the ceiling where there was nothing to be seen but the vague impressionistic thoughts in the back of his own mind.

After a while he realized someone was knocking on his door. He opened it and saw Biff Potter.

"Biff."

The little boy smile melted from Biff Potter's roadmap face and a look of astonished concern replaced it. "Mr. Gifford, you don't look so well."

"No," Gifford said hastily. "I'm fine." He stepped back from the door to let Biff in.

Biff gave a small nervous laugh and came in. He said, "You look a bit like a sometimes used to feel before I swore off the bottle."

"That's not it," Gifford said. "I guess I've been under a lot of stress, and I'm excited as well. I have great news and it concerns you."

As he led Biff Potter into the living room, the excitement seemed to drive away the sickness. "It's about your contract."

Biff looked around the room. "Nice place you got here, Mr. Gifford."

"Sit down and listen to me, Biff. I know you're a religious man, but even so, this might surprise you."

"Mr. Gifford," Biff said slowly. "What I came to talk to you about is my contract. Hell, it's just about up and I know you aren't making a lot of money off me any more, either. Besides, I'm just plain tired. I want to retire."

Gifford barely heard the words. They didn't matter. "What do you know about the human soul, Biff?"

"Have you ever considered a career in souls, Biff."

"If you want the honest truth," Biff said with a chuckle, "no."

"Last night I sold your contract."

Biff's eyes narrowed with surprise. "Sold it? Who in hell was the sucker?"

"It's not exactly what it sounds like, Biff."

"Hell, the thing runs out in a few more days. It doesn't really matter one way or the other that you sold it. If you managed to make something off it, that's fine with me. You done a lot for me and you deserve a little extra. But I'm surprised, that's all."

"The man who bought it was Linwood Calderon."

"I don't believe that."

"I've never life to you, Biff."

"Hell, I know that, Mr. Gifford. You're a decent man and I appreciate all you done for me. But what's a man like him want with me?"

"You have a very special soul, Biff. And you have the chance to save other souls."

"All I am is an old reformed drunk and a horn player who's lost his lip."

"No, you're special and Calderon appreciates how special you are. And I think you'll be surprised how special He is."

"You sound born again."

Martin Gifford looked down at the clenched hands in his lap. "Last night . . ." His voice trailed off.

"When I was a kid," Biff said, "my mother was all hellfire and brimstone. There wasn't a revivalist who could put up his circus tent in our town and not find her in it come sermoning time. Matter of fact, the first time I played my clarinet for an audience, it was in one of them tents. It was summer and the way the sun beat down, you could hardly breathe, even after they'd rolled up the sides of the tent to let the air in, what little air there was circulating. In my day I've played for a bunch of those side shows."

"This one's not like the others."

"I saw a lot of evangelists' tent shows in my time, Mr. Gifford, and I learned what they are. God's three-ring circuses, every one of them. They don't save people, at least not many people. They just use them."

"But Calderon --"

Without heat, Biff cut him off. "Oh, him too. I heard him talk, I seen his show last night. It's the same old snake oil as everybody else, except he works the good halls instead of some dinky canvas tent on the edge of town."

Gifford felt anger welling up inside of him. "You don't understand."

"Well, it's likely I don't, I guess," Biff admitted. "Lord knows you've never done anything that wasn't in my best interest. But hell, I just don't want to work for that man. I really don't want to work at all anymore. Like I said, I'm tired. I want to retire. Ever since Tommy's death, I've felt like I ought to just pack it in."

"I think Tommy would have approved of what I've done."

Slowly, as if thinking it over, Biff shook his head back and forth. His eyes, as they so often did, seemed focused on nothing, far away. "Old Tommy. You know, toward the end he started talking to me about souls, sometimes. He said he knew a man who was a dealer in them. Used to collect them and pass them along to Old Scratch, I guess, and maybe the Man Upstairs, too. I used to joke with him about it, ask him what good would something like souls be to God or the Devil. Funny how people never ask that one. You know what Tommy used to tell me?"

"No," Gifford said.

"He said, they ate 'em."

"That's not a very funny joke," Gifford said. "Didn't Calderon speak at Tommy's funeral?"

"Yeah," Biff said, getting to his feet. "Well, I guess that's one joke that's just on old Tommy."

"Just give it some thought, won't you?" Gifford said.

"Sure. But hell, there's not that much time lest on my conmtract, after all."

Gifford opened the door to let Biff out. Lauren Justus was standing on the sidewalk.

The morning sun gleaming on her hair gave it a sheen like a halo. Biff said, "Hello, Miss Justus."

"Hello, Biff. Martin telling you all about your new future?"

"Yeah, it's a trip, isn't it?"

"A trip," she agreed sadly, looking at Gifford.

Potter moved off down the walk. Gifford saw his dilapidated car parked across the street.

"We ought to talk, you and I," Lauren said, as soon as Biff was out of earshot. "You're a remarkable fool, Martin Gifford. Just remarkable."

"Get thee behind me, Lauren."

As he started to close the door, he heard the screech of brakes. Someone yelped in surprise, then pain, and something struck metal. As he saw Biff's body thrown over the hood of a car, Gifford hurled open the door. Lauren's gaze never left his face. Her expression never changed.

Gifford yelled Biff's name and ran toward the street. Lauren stopped him simply by pressing Her hand against his shoulder.

"I'm sorry, Martin," She said in a low voice, speaking rapidly. "It's too late. You can't help him. There's nothing you or anyone else can do. Not even I."

The car rolled past the body and stopped. Biff lay motionless on the street, his arms and legs askew at impossible angles. Gifford saw blood all around. He said his friend's name, almost strangling on it, then turned away and was sick in the bushes. Lauren watched him with little show of emotion.

When his stomach was empty, he looked at her and said, bitterly, "You didn't have to kill him."

"Me? Take another look, Martin."

She pointed toward the street where other cars were stopping. A tall man got out of one. He wore dark glasses and an expensive suit. He went to Biff's side and bent down.

The driver who had struck Biff was talking frantically with a couple on the sidewalk. Gifford moved halfway down the walk to the street but could go no further. Only he and Lauren saw what happened then.

Something small and glittering crawled away from Biff's chest. It moved quickly, a rodent trying to elude a hawk, not fast enough. Calderon's hand swooped and plucked it off the pavement. It fought and wriggled. Calderon squeezed it in His hand until it stopped struggling.

Then He lifted it to His mouth and bit.

When he was finished, Calderon wiped glistening moisture from His chin. He got back into his car and drove off.

Lauren took Gifford by the arm and guided him back toward his house. "There's nothing you can do," She said.

Gifford realized he could not resist. He let her lead him into the house. When She shut the door he said, "You killed him."

"Idiot. His soul doesn't belong to Me."

"But --"

"Martin, Martin," She said, taking his hand gently, lovingly. He felt She was pleading with him, then realized what he heard in Her voice and saw in Her eyes was only pity. "You don't understand even now, do you? How do you think We collect the souls due Us?"

He could only think of having made love to Her the night before. His loins ached. He fell to his knees, sobbing.

he took him in Her arms, pressed his face against Her stomach. "It all seems so cruel, Martin. But that can't be helped. The Universe is constructed according to certain laws. Even God must obey those laws, having created them. One is that when We come here, We must take human form. And We must follow certain laws and patterns. We have no choice. It's how We set things up. Poor Martin, I feel so sorry. Don't you have any idea why I'm here?"

"To kill Biff."

"I didn't kill Biff," She repeated. She bent down and took his face between Her hands. Her hands were soft, Her kiss wonderful. He loved Her fiercely and hated himself for it. All of a sudden there were a good many things he seemed to hate himself for. She said, "Don't you realize what a mistake you've made? Calderon isn't Who you think He is. And I'm not Who you think I am, either."

"Liar!"

"You know better, Martin. You know you do."

She made him look into her eyes. He knew She was telling the truth then, as he had known Calderon was telling the truth when he looked into His eyes. He closed his eyes tightly and cursed faith for the traitor he knew it to be, but that was not enough. There was a difference. He sobbed. But he knew She was right. He had made a terrible mistake. "Oh, God. Oh, God, no."

The ache in his loins rose to his stomach and became a pain. He would have doubled over from it had She not caught his shoulders and supported him.

He said, "Biff -- the police --"

"The police already believe they've spoken to you. They believe Biff's death was an accident. The poor man who was driving won't suffer to much for his part in this. But he will suffer some. There is always suffering. When it can finally be avoided, then We will have perfected the universe."

"It was You who worked that clause into Biff's contract, wasn't it?"

"Yes. I thought it was possible that Tommy Hillier might have persuaded Biff to sign with My Adversary. I didn't realize how stupid you would be when you saw it."

Gifford groaned with the pain in his midsection. She kissed him and it went away. "I'm sorry," She said. "Cussler explained much of it to you. Certain souls are extraordinarily powerful. They come along rarely, every several centuries, but when they do, My Adversary and I must do battle like this to determine which of us acquires the soul. We nourish Ourselves with souls, and without an occasional very powerful soul, We cannot continue to exist. Biff's soul has the power -- and to Us the benefits -- of fifty trillion normal souls. Biff's death and the contribution of his soul to one of Us were necessary."

"It can't be like that."

"Poor man. What do you think is more important? Our survival or a few more years of life for Biff Potter? I can assure you what My Adversary thinks of His survival versus a few more years of anyone's life."

He desperately wanted not to believe what she was saying, but that was impossible, now. The sickness was return and the pain. "Leave me alone," he told Her. "Get out. At least you haven't got what You wanted."

"Recently My Adversary has been outdoing Me on just about every level of this soul collecting business," She agreed. "He grows stronger, too, while I grow weaker. In time -- in time, who can say what might happen?"

"Get out of here."

"I'm going, Martin."

The pain was so intense he was doubled over on the floor, but he managed to say, "I never want to see You again."

"You'll see me once more. It can't be helped. My Adversary got Biff's soul, but part of the law is that these souls occur in pairs. The second one is not as powerful as the first, but it will insure My survival until it comes time to play this game once more."

She bent and kissed him. "I'm sorry, Martin. I truly am." Then she was gone.

But the pain stayed. After a time Martin managed to reach the phone and call an ambulance.

In the emergency room the doctor couldn't believe that Gifford had recently undergone a complete physical. "They couldn't have missed this," he said. "Not as widespread as it is." He was young and seemed more furious at the incompetence of Gifford's physician than about what was spreading through Gifford's body. Gifford lay there and watched the doctor and the nurses and orderlies scrambling about in a remarkably busy way considering the fact there was nothing they could do for him. The pain grew more and more intense and they offered him a shot but he turned it down because it might put him to sleep; and if he slept he would dream and in his dream he would see Linwood Calderon catching a small, helpless thing and lifting it up to His mouth. He didn't want to see Calderon, even in a dream.

He didn't want to see Lauren either, but She promised She would come to him just one more time, and he knew it would be just a matter of hours. Because he lacked the strength to scream, Martin Gifford began to cry. #####