The Accidental Finale
Written by Valeria

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story was begun in a fit of despair after viewing "La Famiglia," and then abandoned in a deeper fit of despair after viewing "Just an Old-Fashioned Love Song." Rachel's challenge has inspired me to dust it off, finish it up and send it out. So blame her.

DISCLAIMER: H:LOTS characters property of NBC and Baltimore Pictures. Other characters property of CBS and Paramount Pictures. Quoted song lyrics property of Seal, June Carter Cash and Merle Kilgore. Quoted verse property of Alfred Lord Tennyson. One line in this story, and only one, was stolen from the horrifyingly prolific Stephen King...can *you* find it? No profit made.

This story is a parody. The "Tom Fontana" and "Scott Sassa" referred to in this story are not meant to represent the real-life Tom Fontana or Scott Sassa, and any resemblance thereto is purely coincidental. The behavior and actions attributed to them in this story are in no way representative of the real-life Tom Fontana and Scott Sassa, their behavior or their actions, and should not be taken as such. In other words, if you take any of this seriously, there is something seriously wrong with you.

WARNING (in scary announcer's voice): This episode contains a level of violence really, really unusual for this series. Reader discretion is advised. Yes, it's completely tasteless. Sorry.

The first person to identify the mysterious lodge dance bartender, and name the episode in which he appeared, wins valuable get your pencils ready.

Thanks to Rachel and Marti for beta reading. Special thanks to Rachel for helping me over an especially high hump of writer's block, and to Tom Fontana (the real one) for his *constant* inspiration. And to Casey, my lovely cat, for not trying to stick her head inside my printer until after it was safely turned off.

"Our long national nightmare is over!" --President Gerald Ford

The police lodge dance was shaping up to be a stupendous success.

The silver disco ball gleamed in the low light, casting colorful bits of glitter on the partygoers boozing and boogying beneath it. The music seeped into all corners of the room, lending a steady, thudding backbeat to every conversation. And throughout the splendidly decorated dance hall, the detectives of Al Giardello's homicide squad reveled in the festivities of the evening.

And why not? They were, after all, at the pinnacle of their chosen profession. They had achieved the status and position that some poor souls, after decades of faithful service in and out of uniform, would never see. They had faced down the sort of personal demons that would have sent lesser human beings into sweaty, gibbering lunacy. They worked for God. They had *arrived.*

Admittedly, some had arrived by more honorable means than others. The old days, the days when you could just look at the guy--and, very rarely, the gal--next to you and know they had earned their exalted station through blood, sweat and heroically suppressed tears, were long gone. Now the second floor squadroom sported a bewilderingly motley array of ex-IAD toadies, Brylcreemed chop-shop busters, stool pigeons, beauty queens, secretaries with guns, misplaced FBI agents and various and sundry hangers-on of a highly improbable sort.

The squadroom itself had changed, too; once a sickly- yellow, rundown cavern, befitting the harsh reality of the work done inside it, it was now as sweetly pristine as a tea room. Once, they were family, the real kind of fighting, feuding family that shared a bond surpassing the false camaraderie of baseball games and barbecues. Now they were like dimwitted junior high kids, gossiping and giggling, passing do-you-like-me notes from desk to desk and drooling over the new girl. Incongruous. Depressing. Disturbing, even.

But they did have nice new carpeting.

And so, the murder police of Bawlmer enjoyed their lovely party. At one table, Tim Bayliss earnestly explained the guiding principles of Zen to a politely smiling Lewis and Stivers and a blank, uncomprehending Falsone. At another, a gold-chain accented Stu Gharty sat with his lovely wife Flora, their faces a study in seething, pent-up bitterness. In a far corner of the room--a corner untouched by the twinkling disco ball's light--there sat a mysterious man in a metal folding chair, arms crossed, silently watching the proceedings. He saw everything. He heard everything. He gave nothing away.

Over by the cash bar in the opposite corner, John Munch stood in his dress blacks, next to an attractive, if slightly raddled-looking, blonde wearing enough sequins to blind Mr. Blackwell. The two chatted animatedly--well, actually, the woman chatted, while Munch nodded and smiled and gave attentive-sounding answers without hearing ninety percent of what she said. It was a skill he had honed to perfection during three marriages and any number of romantic entanglements, and it was coming in especially handy tonight.

His omnipresent dark glasses were coming in handy too, for they enabled him to keep a surreptitious eye on the man in the metal folding chair. He had no idea who the man was, was certain he'd never seen him before. And yet...and yet...

The truth was, Munch hadn't been feeling too well lately. Physically, sure, he was just fine, but he was plagued by the strangest sensation that he was being watched. Constantly. And that the people watching him were, often as not, laughing at him. He would have just chalked it up to his congenital raving paranoia, or another flashback biting him on the ass, if not for the accompanying sensation that he was, somehow...not speaking for himself. That the very words he uttered were not, in fact, his own.

Then there was the fact that for years now, partners, coworkers--people he'd thought of as friends--had been vanishing without a trace, their absence "explained" away by the most blatantly ridiculous and perfunctory excuses. He had long suspected that he might not exist, philosophically speaking; but it was one thing to entertain that proposition at four a.m. after a merry romp through the medicine cabinet, and another to be faced with the idea that he, himself, might actually disappear at any given moment.

Munch just couldn't figure it out, and things he couldn't figure out made him really, really nervous. He spent a lot of time hiding in the back of the squadroom, emerging just long enough to emit a few one-liners before returning to relative safety. Were *they* watching him back there? Were *they* why everyone he worked with wound up getting shot? Were *they* why he had almost brained Gharty with an ashtray--no, he'd wanted to do that ever since he first met the sorry sad-sack Big Man wannabe. (Were *they* why Stan never called?)

Of course, he'd wanted to tie a knot in Billie Lou's tongue the first time she'd inflicted that Dogpatch drawl on his ears--and now, he somehow found himself on a date with her. When the hell had he asked her? He honestly had no memory of it.

The man in the folding chair shifted in his seat, staring straight into Munch's eyes; Munch froze like a rabbit in the sights of a fox. Just as abruptly, the man turned away, focusing on Bayliss. Munch's heart raced. Billie Lou, oblivious, chatted on and on.

No, something was very wrong. And, though every bit of common sense Munch had said it was all a plot by the federal government and its evil minions in the military- industrial-capitalist complex, some part of him knew—just *knew*--that the man in the folding chair was the real string-puller, the puppetmaster, the grand conspirator...

Distracted as he was, Munch didn't see Gharty until the other man was right in front of him. Billie Lou had noticed, though; she was positively preening with delight at Gharty's discomfiture. She leaned forward a little, further displaying her half-exposed cleavage.

"Billie Lou?" said Gharty, his face a study in angry surprise. "What are you doing here?"

*Next, Billie Lou is going to say, "I'm John's date." Then, after a beat, Gharty will say, "Is that right..."*

Munch shook his head violently. What the...

*Then I look straight at Gharty, give him that little wiseacre smirk and say, "The more Billie Lou works for me at the..."*

What was *happening* to him? Where the hell was his head tonight? *The brown acid that's going around is not good, people...*

Billie Lou gave Gharty a jaundiced look. "I'm John's date," she said pointedly.

Gharty stared at Munch in disbelief. "Is that right?" he demanded after a moment.

Munch looked straight into Gharty's eyes, a triumphant little grimace curling his mouth. "The more Billie Lou works for--"

The sound of his own words stopped him short. Gharty and Billie Lou exchanged glances, then turned back toward him expectantly.

*Coincidence. That was just coincidence. Getting the screaming heebie-jeebies would, therefore, be highly inappropriate.* "Uh...the more..."

Now everyone--Lewis, Bayliss, the big bald guy tending the cash bar—seemed to be staring at him. Watching. Waiting.

*" for me at the Waterfront, the more beguiling she becomes." Then Billie Lou asks Gharty, "Are you here with Flora?" He'll have a little Freudian slipup and say, "Who?" And then she says, "Your wife," and then...*

That did it. *Now*, he was scared.

The man in the folding chair was watching, too. Waiting. His eyes burned holes in Munch's head.

Munch felt dizzy, and slightly sick. He forced the words out of his mouth.

"The more...Billie Lou works for me at the Waterfront...the more beguiling she--"

And then, someone screamed.

The bald bartender reached out and grabbed Munch's shoulders, yanking him roughly backwards; dragged nearly off his feet, Munch staggered, fell against the cash bar and overturned an entire row of bottles. At that exact moment, in the exact spot where he had been standing, something heavy and huge came plummeting from the dance hall's ceiling and crashed thunderously to the floor.

Once again, the room had gone still, every eye riveted on the scene. The music had stopped. The disco ball had quit spinning. Billie Lou and Gharty had not moved an inch.

Leaning unsteadily against the devastated cash bar, his shirtfront drenched in an unpleasant combination of Grand Marnier, peach schnapps and an unidentifiable California red, John Munch stared at the fallen object before him.

It was a klieg light.


The room didn't move.

He looked at the light. He opened his mouth, and nothing came out; not his words, or anyone else's. He looked at the light some more.

Then he knew.

All at once, with overwhelming certainty, he knew. *Everything.*

The room was still completely silent. Some seemed merely frozen in place; others, to be waiting for something. He could sense the collective intake of breath.

He turned toward the bartender. His rescuer stared at him, solemn and unsmiling, then wordlessly raised an arm and pointed toward the ceiling.

Munch looked up, and saw the banks of lights. He looked to the right of him, and saw the light stand poles, the assembled cameras, the ADs and line producers and bevy of technicians. He looked to the left of him, and saw the hair people, the makeup people, the wardrobe people, the continuity-checkers. He looked down, and saw the faint outlines of tape marks from past blocking sessions.

Then he looked straight ahead, at the man in the metal folding chair.

Who looked like he was ready to vomit.

Munch smiled. The thin blue-pencil line between fiction and fact had been erased; he knew who--and what--he really was, and he knew who this man was. And the words that came to mind now were entirely, indubitably his own.

"So, Tom, Tommy boy, old long last we meet. Or am I obliged to address you as Mr. Fontana?"

The man in the folding chair snarled. "What you're *obliged* to do, Dee-*tect*-ive Munch, is get back on your fucking mark and say your fucking lines unless you want to spend the rest of your fucking career being throttled by WWF welterweights on live fucking TV, *DO I MAKE MYSELF FUCKING CLEAR?!!*"

Munch didn't quite grok that one, but he had bigger fish to fry. "So am I the only one who didn't know about this?" he demanded of the rest of the room. "Huh? *Hello?!*"

"Know about what?" Gharty looked genuinely puzzled.

"What do you mean, know about what? That we're made up! A pure product of the imagination! Unreal! Chimerical! *Fictional goddamned characters!*"

Gharty shook his head in impatient confusion. "Munch, I don't know what the hell you're talking about. And neither does anybody else." Billie Lou, not seeming to see the broken klieg light at her feet, shook her own head in agreement.

Munch was nearly jumping up and down with agitation. "Over there! That guy?" He pointed to Fontana, who hadn't budged from his chair. "*He's* the one! *He's* behind it all!"

Gharty gave a half-hearted glance in Fontana's direction, then turned back with a derisive snort. "An empty chair," he announced to the room. "He's making an ass of himself over an empty chair--congratulations, Munch. You've outdone yourself."

"But--but he--" Munch turned back to the bartender. "Come on! Show them, just like you showed me!"

The bartender just shrugged, and resumed drawing pictures in a dog-eared Bible. Billie Lou gently patted Munch's arm, her expression somewhere between maternal and patronizing. "Stu's right, John. There's no one sitting over there."

"But--" Munch sputtered. "But the light! You have to see it, Billie, you--it's *right there!* This proves it! This proves we're--"

"Look, will you please just keep it to yourself, Captain Trips?" snapped Gharty, grabbing one of the few intact bottles of Jack Daniels. "I'm in no fucking mood."

Tom Fontana grinned in triumph, once again feeling in control of the situation. "He's right, you know, Munch. I'm not even here. You're just seeing things. You're crazy."

"The hell he is," said a new voice.

All heads turned toward Meldrick, who sat, arms folded, gazing contemptuously in Fontana's direction. "Guess the cat's finally out of the bag now, huh, *Tommy?*"

Stivers frowned in confusion. "Meldrick, who are you talking to?"

"I'm warning you, Lewis," Fontana hissed between clenched teeth. "You keep your goddamned mouth shut or--"

"Or what?" Lewis let out a bitter laugh. "Hell, man, you already made off with two of my partners, wrecked my marriage, got me suspended and stuck me in that fucking Luther Mahoney storyline for two damn years. What the hell *else* can you do?"

"Just try me," said Fontana, with a scary little laugh of his own. "You have no *idea* what I'm capable of coming up with."

"Oh, yeah, I do," Meldrick retorted. "I get HBO. And you know what? I don't fuckin' care anymore. I'm sick of livin' a lie, sneakin' around, hurtin' people on your damn say-so--"

"Meldrick?" Stivers ventured, looking bewildered.

"You knew about this too?" Munch, now practically hyperventilating, strode across the room to Meldrick's table. "For the love of God, please tell me *WHAT'S GOING ON!*"

"Knew about *what?!*" Stivers nearly shouted. "Who are you *talking* to?!"

"Actually, it doesn't really matter what's going on," Bayliss mused aloud, staring into space. "Because, you see, nothing is actually going on, and nothing can go on. All that we think of as reality is merely a thin veil of willful illusion that--*aaauuugh!*"

His words of wisdom were abruptly cut off when Stivers pushed his chair backwards, sending it and him crashing to the floor.

"Thank you," Meldrick muttered. "Been wanting to do that myself since Emma Zoole."

" back..." Tim moaned weakly.

"You're a Buddhist now, remember, Tim?" Stivers snorted. "Pain is an illusion." She pointed to a far corner of the room. "Look, Falsone--the woman at that table just fell out of her strapless evening gown!"

Falsone, who had been engrossed in applying another layer of Parkay spread to his hair, snapped into alertness. "Tits? Wow! Janine didn't have tits--" He quickly hightailed it toward the unoccupied table.

"So who's this Tom?" Stivers demanded of Meldrick. "Aren't you a little old for imaginary friends?"

Lewis looked uncomfortable. "Terri, it's kinda hard to explain if you don't..."

Stivers shook her head. "Just save it, okay? I'm going to the john...maybe you'll be sane again when I get back." With that, she abandoned her own chair and headed for the door.

As Munch claimed an empty chair, several technicians and assistant cameramen waved in Fontana's direction. "Tom?" one called out. "Look, you get all this straightened out one way or another, okay? It's late and we're calling it a night."

That got Fontana up and out of his chair. "Wait just a goddamn minute! You can't--"

"Hell we can't," retorted the cameraman. "Check the union rules sometime--if you're not too busy finding new ways to fuck up the show. Let's go, guys..." He headed for the exit, a small army of techs following in his wake.

"Wait a damn--" The technical crew filed out the doors, ignoring Fontana completely; the production staff, makeup, wardrobe, best boys, gofers and several extras followed in their wake. "I said, get back here! *GET THE FUCK BACK HERE!*"

The set emptied out, only the Bawlmer bunks and their fiendish ringmaster remaining. Fontana waved his fists at the departing crew with apoplectic, and futile, furor. Bayliss painfully rose to his feet, limping toward Stivers's abandoned chair. Stu, Flora and Billie Lou knocked back a few, hostilities temporarily suspended in light of the apparent mass psychotic outbreak. Falsone searched diligently for the topless lady. The bartender drew some two-headed angels.

"It's a conspiracy," Lewis said to Munch, when some semblance of quiet had returned. "But, hell, you knew that."

Fontana was now looming over Meldrick's shoulder. "You are a dead man, you understand me? And it won't be dignified, and it won't be quick--"

"Thing is, you see," Lewis continued without missing a beat, "we started out right. Fictional characters, sure-- but three-dimensional ones. People who *seemed* real. People who could've been real. And started happening." He leaned closer to Munch, who was hanging on every word. "We were *too* real, you see? So real, we were startin' to write our own stories. Make our own way. We were gettin' to be too independent—too uppity--to suit Paddy Chayefsky over there. And even worse, we were gettin' so real...we started realizing we weren't real. We started bein' able to see all of *this.*"

Munch nodded silently. All those half-glimpses of strange lights and odd shadows, overheard snippets of bizarre conversation: "Gimme a medium-wide shot..." "Throw in another of those triple-take things..." "Tell the girl in wardrobe we need..." "Belzer's stoned *again*?" He'd simply assumed it was the acid. *New rule, never assume anything is just the acid, ever again...*

Meldrick waved his hand at the lights, the abandoned cameras. "We couldn't be controlled anymore. And so--"

"He decided to flatten us out," Munch finished. He was sickened, but not especially surprised.

Lewis gave Fontana a beatific smile. "I finally managed to put all the pieces together during my suspension. Stupid plotline, Tommy...more stupid than you knew."

Fontana just stood there, seething with rage, clenching and unclenching his fists.

"Hey, tit lady!" Falsone shouted, passing by their table. "Tit lady! Where'd you go?" To everyone's relief— Fontana's included--he wandered off again.

"You see?" Bayliss said, rather sulkily. "I was right. It *is* all an illusion."

Meldrick snorted. "Yeah, like you knew."

"I would have figured it out," Tim said defensively. "I bet I would have figured it out a long time before Frank told me, but you guys wouldn't have believed me anyway. You never believe anything I say, you're always making fun of me--"

"Aw, quit *whining,* Timmy," Lewis growled impatiently. "I got a lot of exposition to get through here before--"

"Frank?" Munch interjected. "Frank knew? Of course Frank would figure it all out..." His expression grew dark. "So *that's* why he had a stroke. Fontana, you fucking bastard!"

Fontana smirked a little, pride overtaking his anger. "Had to find a good way to shut him up for a while...a nice, *poignant* way. That scene in the, Tim, if you could have seen the look on your *face!*" And then he actually giggled, a soulless, hollow sound that made both Munch and Tim shudder involuntarily.

"So is that what happened to all the others?" Munch demanded. "Stan? Kay? Megan?"

"Oh, Megan...I just got tired of her," said Fontana, waving a dismissive hand. "Same with Brodie. Felton...well, you know Felton, that piece of Billytown suet pudding could fuck up a free lunch. I'm not responsible for that." His expression darkened again. "But Bolander, Howard...those two were trouble from the get-go. They were...too smart. Too suspicious. Had to be taken care of. And Crosetti..."

"Crosetti," Munch breathed. Now he felt like he might actually be physically ill.

Meldrick nodded grimly. "Crosetti. And Mikey, quick, one slow. Work of the master." He leaned back a little in his chair. "Bolander knew all along, I think, but he didn't know what to do with what he knew. Bullet in the head took care of that—destroyed the metafictional lobe of his brain, so he didn't know if he was real, imaginary or a chalk drawing on the damn sidewalk. Just kinda wandered off one day.

"Kay had it figured out way before I did, and she was gonna tell me. Let me know Crosetti wasn't my fault, you know...always kind of felt like it was. Which is why Tommy boy over there suddenly decided we both hated each other's guts."

"Hey, I don't blame you," Fontana shot back. "That bitch *always* got on my nerves."

"Felt real bad about it when I found out, but it was too late by then."

"HEY!" Billie Lou shouted from across the room, Southern-fried charm dissolved in a haze of scotch. "Who the hell're y'all talkin' to? Huh? Y'all talkin' to empty chairs like a buncha sorry Yankee fools..." She slipped gently to the floor, passing out right next to the klieg light. Gharty attempted to drape his jacket over her, but was too plastered to pull it off his arms and finally settled for using his whole body. Flora shrugged and reached for the Wild Turkey.

Munch shook his head and turned back to Meldrick. "Please tell me *he's* why I'm dating her..."

Meldrick grinned. "All the skanks and head cases you've thought you were gonna set up permanent housekeepin' with? Hard to say."

Munch looked around him, at the abandoned cameras and lights and the chaotic scene on the set. His head was still spinning, and not in the fun way. "So what do we do now?" he finally asked of no one in particular.

The hand on the back of his neck was swift and astonishingly strong; as the fingers dug into his skin, he let out an involuntary yelp of pain. Fontana's sour breath wafted across his cheek as the other man hissed into his ear.

"What do you do now? You do what *I* say, Dee-tect- ive Munch. Because if you don’t...well. I'll send you on a tailspin that'll make Kellerman's bye-bye look positively *noble* by comparison." He studied Meldrick and Tim with sharp, beady eyes. "And that goes for the two of you" -- he raised his head, shouting at the rest of the room -- "and anyone else here who thinks they're gonna start writing their own ticket! You got that? Doesn't *matter* what you know, or what you think you know -- it doesn't change the *equation* here, folks! I created you! I control you! I can destroy you -- and damn, is it fun! I'm the god! I'M THE GOD!"

The bartender--now drawing a hermaphroditic St. Sebastian--shook his head in disgust, but no one else seemed to hear the producer's psychotic tirade.

Fontana released his hold on Munch; Munch rubbed his neck, turning to Lewis for some sort of cue. Meldrick seemed to shrink back, defiant but scared. Fontana chortled with unholy glee...

And then they heard it. A new sound, from across the room: a small, ominous *click.*

"So who's the god now?" said a new voice. "Huh? Who's the god *now?*"


Four heads turned as one toward the voice. Three men frowned in bewilderment. One gasped in shock.

"Holy fucking shit," Fontana muttered, his face drained of all color.

The man smiled, and kept the gun trained directly between Fontana's eyes. "How'd you put it that time, Tim?" he asked conversationally. "The brain, the eye, the hand, the gun...something like that? I've never watched the show much, to tell you the truth."

Tim looked from the stranger to Fontana, and back again. "And *you* are...?"

The stranger's smile widened. "Oh, that's right...we haven't been properly introduced, have we? I'm—"

"Scott Sassa," Fontana said, never taking his eyes off the gun barrel. "The network's new vice-president in charge of—"

He shut up, quickly, when the other man cocked the gun trigger.

"Programming," Sassa finished softly. "By the way, interrupt me again and your brains will be garlanding the ceiling. Understand?"

Keeping his firing stance, he studied the trio at the table with a bemused air. "Pleased to meet you all...I suppose. Tim, John, Mandrake—"

"That's *Meldrick,*" snapped Lewis.

"Whatever," Sassa shrugged. "Considering you won't be existing for much longer, it hardly matters."

"Excuse me?" demanded Munch.

Sassa looked straight at Munch, his dark, empty eyes filled with a hollow mirth. "I thought you were supposed to be the witty one. So who absconded with all that priceless, rapier-like banter, hmmmm?"

"*He* did," said Munch, pointing at the stock-still Fontana; a juvenile gesture, he knew, but these executive- suite robotics were scaring him far more than Tom's screeching tantrums. "It's his fault."

Sassa nodded. "Figured. He's really been shooting blanks the past few years—so to speak."

That got Fontana exercised. "Listen, you mewling puking piece of back-office shit, I oughta—"

"But you won't," Sassa noted, giving the Glock a theatrical little twirl before again pointing it toward Fontana's skull. "For obvious reasons. Now what was I saying...oh, yes. Your little creations here. You know, there's no need to scream and carry on, Tom -- they won't be bothering you anymore. Just step aside, like a good boy, and I'll finish the job."

The three men at the table exchanged worried glances. "Finish *what* job?" Meldrick finally asked.

"Why, you lot, of course." Sassa allowed himself a quick, malevolent little grin. "I've got no use for any of you, obedient or otherwise. Don't ask me how you've managed to get a free pass the last six years, with the ratings you *haven't* got...but you're yesterday's news. I've got this fantastic pilot script on my desk, a warm, chick-oriented drama about the trials and travails of a spunky Iowa librarian that the whole family can enjoy. Liz Phair's already signed on to do the theme song. All I need are a solid lead-in show, an actress who's not too ethnic and looks good in her underwear...and your time slot."

He rocked back on his heels, surveying their stunned faces with no small amusement. "Don't worry. It'll be painless, I promise; a nice, quick fade to black. None of these ridiculous theatrics he's been subjecting you all you want to step aside, Tommy, and let me clear the set?"

"The hell I will," Fontana snarled, his face contorted with rage. "If you think for one second I'm giving up *my* show and *my* characters to some chinless wonder boy who got his job by sucking all the right boardroom cock, you've got another think -- "

Sassa pulled the trigger. Some small shred of decency made it a mere warning shot over Fontana's head; a shot which traveled across the room, caught Paul Falsone's skull and split it like William Tell's arrow did the legendary apple. Billie Lou and Gharty didn't stir. The bartender didn't look up. The rest of the room erupted into chaos, screaming revelers diving under chairs and tables with an hysteria not exactly suiting Baltimore's alleged finest.

It was at this precise moment that Rene Sheppard and Laura Ballard, resplendent in plunging silver lamé and baby- doll minidress, made their scheduled entrance, strutting to the center of the room and striking their best Barbie-cop poses. No one, including the mano-a-mano television executives, either noticed or cared.

"So," said Fontana, maintaining some semblance of cool despite his soiled trousers, "it's come to this, has it?"

"You know what?" Bayliss shouted above the din of the huddled masses. "Why don't John and Meldrick and I just leave, right now, and we'll keep all this to ourselves for the rest of our lives..." Lewis and Munch nodded in fervent agreement.

Sassa smiled. "Well, you *could*...but then I'd have no choice but to empty this thing into your respective guts and leave you to die slow, utterly agonizing deaths. That sound like a good plan to you? Hmmm?"

The three men, who had risen to their feet, quickly resumed their seats again. Despite himself, Fontana grinned. "See why I wrote it in that they *always* leave their guns back in the squadroom? Huh? Huh? Pretty clever, eh?"

"Not bad," Sassa admitted grudgingly. "Keep 'em ignorant, off-kilter and disarmed...not bad at all. We may have a place at the table for you yet, Tommy—"

"Ex-CUSE me!" Ballard shouted, voice rising to a petulant, dentist's-drill pitch. "I believe this is our big *scene* here? Like, *where* is the damn camera?"

Rene Sheppard pivoted on one spike heel, regarding her companion with amused contempt. "*Our* big scene? Pardon me, dearie, but for this little money shot, you're strictly my foil. Now move aside and let me rock their worlds." Sheppard preened and vamped with an arrogant hauteur, not seeming to notice the chaos around her or the dead body at her feet.

Ballard craned her neck around in indignation. "Where's the camera? Where's the crew? Tom-meee," she whined, "there's no crew here!"

Sheppard raised one perfectly tweezed eyebrow. "What are you, blind? It's right over there." She shrugged a shoulder, letting the spaghetti strap slip off it as she posed poutily before one of the abandoned cameras.

Munch, who was desperately racking his brain for some day-saving witticism and coming up empty, turned sharply at this little exchange. "*They* know? *Them?* Jesus, if those two could figure it out and I couldn't..." His head sank into his hands.

"Don't take it personally," Fontana said. "I told them."

Munch slowly raised his head again, shaking it in bleak disbelief. "Let me guess," he said, regarding his erstwhile creator over the tops of his dark glasses. "You made yourself a pair of fuck toys and then decided to share them with the world, am I right?"

"What am I supposed to do, *apologize?*" Fontana snorted. "Unlike some folks I could mention, at least *they* know acting's really all about tits and ass—"

"Tooommmmm-EEEEEE!" Ballard screeched, making numerous pairs of hands instinctively fly to protect numerous pairs of ears.

Sassa winced, gritted his teeth and, in what was doubtless a sheer nervous reaction, shot off two more rounds. The first hit Ballard squarely in the chest; she staggered backwards, fell onto Falsone's corpse and let out one last, rather whiny gasp of breath. The second went wide, ricocheting off an abandoned soup spoon, entering Gharty's upper spine and exiting the top of Billie Lou's head in a peacock's-tail fan of blood and brains. The two bodies let out one grotesque mutual shudder and then lay forever stilled.

Sheppard, either oblivious or indifferent, posed on and on.

There was no more screaming from the remnants of the crowd; save for the bartender, they had all fled the rapidly sinking ship of the set. Bayliss, Lewis and Munch sat rigidly in their seats, staring at the NBC vice president- cum-sharpshooter in horrified amazement. Fontana gazed at the bloody remnants of his creations with more indignation than anything else. Sassa lowered his gun and calmly surveyed the scene.

"Pity," he remarked. "I was rather thinking of creating an 18-to-35 demographic sitcom around that younger one, with the other two as wacky lovable neighbors...but they annoyed me." He jerked his head in Fontana's direction. "Sit down."

The producer rolled his eyes in a half-hearted gesture of defiance, then threw himself into Falsone's empty chair. The other three men, as one, pointedly moved their own chairs as far away as caution would allow. The bartender, having put the final touches on a drawing of St. Dymphna on a life raft, closed his Bible, stretched and began ambling toward the door. As he passed the table, his progress unimpeded by the two television executives, Munch grabbed for his arm.

"Look," he said urgently, "you showed me all this stuff. You knew what was going on all along, didn't you? Help us out here!"

The bartender looked Munch over, his expression not without pity.

"In a sky full of people," he responded, "only some want to fly. Isn't that crazy?"

And with that, he walked out the ballroom door and vanished into the night. Fontana and Sassa barely seemed to notice.

"So you gonna kill *me* now, or what?" Fontana demanded, arms folded across his chest.

Sassa considered the question seriously. "Well, the thought did cross my mind, but I rather like that mob show you do...'The Falsettos' or whatever it's called. Not that we could ever have anything that unwholesome on my network, but -- "

" 'The Fals' -- for Christ's sake, that's not even *my* fucking show!" Fontana yelled.

"It's not?" Sassa raised his gun again, then reconsidered: "No, actually, it'd be cheaper to let you live than to try and find a replacement. We can put you over in story editing or something...what *is* that smell?"

"Look here," Meldrick interrupted. "What's gonna happen to us?"

Sassa smiled. "Well, there's three bullets left in this thing, tell me."

"But—" Munch sputtered, as the two other men exchanged fearful glances. "What about our fadeout?"

The other man shrugged. "Yes, I did promise you one, I know...but frankly, you're all starting to irritate me." He studied the Glock thoughtfully. "And you said it yourself, didn't you? One shot to the, er, noggin, lights out, finito—quick as that. So what's the difference?"

"Thanks a lot, Munch," muttered Meldrick. "Been nice knowing you--sort of."

Tim laughed nervously. "Look, we can talk about this-- "

"No, we can't," Sassa replied. "I'm a busy man and you've already wasted enough of my time. And by the way, if you're thinking of really going TV-movie on me and trying to wrestle this thing out of my hands..."

He snapped his fingers. From out of the shadows and behind all the abandoned equipment came a bevy of suits, a *legion* of faceless suits, soulless and mechanical as an army of golems. All carried guns; all had them trained on the trio at the table.

Sheppard smirked at the new arrivals. "No autographs, please..." She arched her head back, shrugging off the second spaghetti strap.

Ignoring her, Sassa angled a glance toward Fontana. "Now, you do realize our new fiscal year budget dictates they all have to die. You're not going to start making a fuss again, are you?"

"Have I still got that story editing gig?" Fontana demanded.


The producer shrugged, his sangfroid fully returned. "Then fuck 'em. They've always gotten on my nerves, too."

Sassa gave him a little nod, then aimed his gun toward Munch. "You first. Get up."

Munch just stared at him; the other two men moved their chairs closer in a futile protective gesture. Sassa didn't bat an eye. "I said, get up...or you can watch your friends die first. Let's go."

There was a waterlogged sandbag in his gut. At the same time he was strangely lightheaded, as though he had somehow left his body and begun floating above the nightmarish scene before him. He felt himself rising from his seat, propelled by some inexorable force; as he stood up, Bayliss grabbed his arm and gripped it tightly.

"Sit down," Tim whispered. "I'll go first."

Typical Bayliss. Munch smiled in spite of himself, then gently pulled his arm away.

"Come on, for Christ's sake," said Sassa, waving his pistol. "Over here. On your knees."

His shirt still reeked of spilled booze. He concentrated on the rank smell as he left the table, walking past the now openly grinning Fontana, and knelt in the center of the ballroom floor, his back to the gun-wielding executive.

"You can't do this!" Tim shouted.

Munch stared straight ahead, past the corpses littering the floor. The Armani-covered shinbones of Sassa's zombie army seemed to be everywhere. He was starting to tremble, and hated himself for it.

"You ain't gonna get away with this!" Meldrick cried, leaping to his feet. "I ain't lettin' us just go down without a fight!"

That got a bark of laughter from Sassa. "You already have." He raised his arm.

*Wish I had my hat,* Meldrick thought. *I'm gonna die, and I don't even have my damn hat--* He looked around the room wildly. "Fontana!" he demanded. "You're next, after he knocks us all off--you're next! You don't really think you're walkin' out of this, do you? You can't be that stupid!"

Fontana, now calmly sipping at Falsone's half-finished drink, shot him the finger. Meldrick sank back into his seat, shaking his head in despair; apparently the man was, in fact, that stupid. "Munch, run for it--or something!"

Sassa snickered. "You have the right to remain silent--that ring a bell, Detective Lewis?"

"Don't do this!" Bayliss pleaded.

Munch felt his eyes squeezing shut. *Sh'ma Yisroel Adonai Elohenu, Adon--*

The noise was like a truck backfiring...

************** the ballroom doors flew open with a resounding *slam.*

Sassa turned sharply, lowering his arm; the three- piece golems, acting as one, immediately followed suit. "What the hell is--"

"Oh, *fuck!*" cried Fontana. Munch stayed frozen on the floor, not daring to open his eyes...

Gasps of surprise, and Fontana's voice again. "Get them! Get *her!* Quick--"

And a new voice. "Drop it! Put it DOWN, *PUT IT DOWN!*"

And Tim, shouting, "Jesus Chr--"

The air exploded with bangs, thuds, crashes, tables overturning, glassware shattering and the unbearable sonic blast of machine-gun fire. Munch felt himself tackled from behind and slammed face-first to the floor, an arm covered in rough cloth pinning the back of his neck; the smell of gunpowder filled his nostrils as bullets whizzed and careened past his ears. "*Ten-thirteen! Ten-thirteen!*" he screeched as only he knew how, but the words were lost in the hellish chaos...

Silence. The only sound was the ringing of his ears.

He was dead. He *had* to be dead. Which made it all the more puzzling that he was still lying face-down in a ruined dress shirt on a very hard floor, the weight of another body pressing on his back and someone's harsh, labored breathing hot on his neck. His ears weren't just ringing, they were buzzing...

Fontana's voice ripped into the hornet's nest. "You are *dead,* you bitch, *YOU ARE DEAD!*"

The weight rolled suddenly off his back; hands rested on his shoulders, trying to pull him upright. He didn't dare open his eyes, thus assuring he'd see his first vision of he struggled painfully onto his elbows, he heard new noises around the room, quieter ones, and felt a pair of arms wrapping gently around his neck.

He opened his eyes, blinking for a moment as he looked up at the small, camouflage-clad, ski-masked figure. His own hands slowly reached up and pulled away the mask, releasing a fall of long, red hair. Still out of breath, face flushed, the now-spent AK-47 cradled against her side, his rescuer smiled almost angelically. Hell's-angelically.

"You okay, Munchkin?"


He considered the question at length. "No," he eventually said, palms still flat on the floor as he stared into Kay Howard's face, "I am *not* okay. In fact, I strongly suspect I've never been *less* okay, as I'm clearly either dead or insane or some horrific combination of the two..."

"Get up," she said briskly, putting her hands under his arms and unceremoniously starting to haul him upright. "Come on, we don't have much time here."

Obeying mechanically, he staggered to his feet, turned around and almost fell over again from pure shock. The once-resplendent banquet hall had been reduced to a bullet- scarred, viscera-sprayed hellhole. The disco ball lay in silver shards on the floor; a gunpowder smell choked the air, randomly blown-out windows providing no relief from the stench. Bayliss and Lewis were emerging cautiously from beneath the remains of their banquet table, gaping at the scene in amazement.

Where Rene Sheppard had been standing, there was only a long, messy streak of red, some singed hair and one high- heeled shoe. Scott Sassa lay motionless on the floor, bullet holes decorating him from crotch to chin; his army of darkness was now a mismatched pile of limbs flung like doll parts across the room. Fontana was now handcuffed to his chair, another ski-masked figure looming menacingly over him. A third figure was carefully draping a tablecloth over the remains of Gharty and Billie Lou. The figure straightened up, removing the mask to reveal...

"Frank," said Munch. He was starting to get dizzy again, and had a sudden urge to check his pockets for Zuzu's petals.

Frank Pembleton gave him a formal little nod of recognition. Then he gave the open-mouthed Tim a smile of serene, dazzling beauty.

"You didn't really think I'd just walk out of Johns Hopkins and leave you like that, did you, Tim?" he queried. "Give me credit for *some* class..."

A long moment passed; there was a sudden thud and a grunt of pain from Fontana's corner, but nobody took any notice. "You're back," Tim finally said.

Frank actually laughed. "Baby..." He surveyed the carnage around him with a magisterial air. "I am *back.*"

"You're back," said Munch.

"He's back," said Meldrick, wiping a large piece of Sassa off his shoe.

"You're back!" cried Tim. "You're *back!*"

"I am back. And we've been planning this little operation for a long time now, so--Tim, for God's sake, would you try and demonstrate some modicum of *dignity!* PLEASE!"

He gazed with patented scorn upon his partner, who appeared to be attempting a human version of Snoopy's suppertime dance.

Meldrick shook his head, grinning with equal parts disbelief and relief. Munch just stared at the ruined ballroom, the piles of corpses, the camouflaged figures and the battle-scarred Fontana. This was happening? Everyone else seemed to think it was happening. Why swim against the current? As Kay caught his eye again, she laughed and casually wrapped an arm around his waist.

"So why now?" he demanded. "Why didn't you come for us sooner?"

"*FUCK!*" screamed Fontana, as the third, still-masked figure's brass-knuckled fist again connected with his face.

Kay let out another laugh, pushing sweat-dampened curls from her face. "You're kiddin', right? They had this place wrapped up tighter than a damn Superball. Barbed wire, attack dogs, electrified fences, magnetic force fields, surface-to-air missiles, this really mean bouncer named Chester...took us three months just to deactivate all the land mines."

"Land mines," Munch repeated.

She gave him an impatient look. "Yeah, land mines. What'd you *think* we were doing, having tea parties with--"

"*FUCK FUCK FUCK MOTHERFUCKING FUCK!*" Fontana writhed in his chair, blood now streaming down his face and flowing from his broken nose. His camouflaged tormentor drew back, letting out a quiet chortle.

"Poor little Tommy's hurt, huh?" the figure demanded, voice muffled by the ski mask. "He's hurt? You don't know the *meaning* of hurt, you sorry son of a bitch."

At the sound of that voice, Munch gaped in astonishment. "No," he said, shaking his head. "This is just too ridiculous to--"

Megan Russert pulled off her ski mask and grinned, running a hand through her long blond hair. "Sorry...I got a little distracted." She threw a rueful glance in Frank's direction. "God, those things are hot...but *he* insisted. Ever the perfectionist."

"But..." Munch turned toward Bayliss and Lewis, who both looked as astounded as he felt, then back to Russert. " were in Paris. Right?"

Russert snorted. "Oh, right--I met some French diplomat and went skipping off to Paris. Uh-huh. Sorry, Munch...but the short version is that Frank told me what he thought was going on, and I made the mistake of trying to recruit for the cause. Then I got tipped off that a *certain* producer was going to give my daughter an inoperable brain tumor if I so much as hinted at the I took Caroline, and I ran. Been running ever since...Tommy here made up the Paris story to cover his tracks. Didn't look too good, one of his little marionettes managing to escape all on her own."

Bayliss knitted his brow, trying to digest these new revelations. "So, that's why Beau was..."

Megan smiled again, a sad little smile, and shook her head. "You'd think so, wouldn't you...but no. Beau never knew. Apparently, killing him was just for fun." She glared at Fontana, her lips a thin, grim line. "For *fun.*"

"You are dead," a broken-toothed Fontana rasped, spitting out the blood pooling in his mouth. "I'm gonna lock both you cocksucking bitches in a little room and slowly torture you to--"

His words were cut off when Russert again slammed the brass knuckles into his face; the producer let out a long groan of pain and let his head sink to his chest.

Tim started walking toward the chair, a dangerous gleam in his eyes. "I'll take some of that action, Megan. How about we have us a nice, old-fashioned, 'L.A. Confidential'-style beatdown? Huh? Right on camera. Bet that'd get you your damn *ratings,* you prick--"

"Tim, we don't have time to fuck around," Frank growled. "There's an army of suits on our tails, the eastern perimeter isn't secured yet and I've got Mary and the kids waiting in the minivan. Get over here." Tim obeyed instantly, though not without a regretful glance back at the broken and bleeding creative genius.

"But how'd you get back for Beau's funeral?" Munch demanded, still standing in the middle of the ballroom. He rather wanted to sit down, but that would have meant relinquishing the unprecedented, and exceedingly pleasant, phenomenon of Kay voluntarily touching him.

The sad smile returned. "I didn't," Megan replied. "That was a decoy...damn double-agent bitch named Margaret May. Real master of disguise, that little slut. She almost got Kay killed once, but Kay can tell you about that--"

"Some other time," interjected Frank, shifting from foot to foot impatiently. "Because it occurs to me that we are *wasting* time here, valuable time--let's gather up our compatriots and leave." Tim, of course, nodded in complete agreement.

Meldrick laughed; he couldn't help it. Frank hadn't changed one damn bit. "Fine, Frank, that's fine. Just give us a second here to--"

And then, he leapt a foot in the air.

Because the body lying at his feet--the bullet-ridden, nearly eviscerated, irreparably damaged body of Scott Sassa...

Was *moving.*


The air in the blackened shell of a ballroom was still and hushed. Every eye in the place was riveted on the torn, twitching corpse of NBC's most promising young vice- president--a corpse that was now, indisputably, returning to some horrible, perverted form of life. The legs jerked reflexively, the eyes rolled around and around like mad marbles in their sockets, the arms began what looked like an attempt to push the body to its feet...

Lewis let out a sound somewhere between a gurgle and a moan, backing away from the reanimated body with terror in his eyes. Frank made a hasty sign of the cross and, when that did no good, grabbed his emptied submachine gun, wielding it like a club; Tim searched around him for some weapon of his own, and settled on a broken table leg. Russert again raised her brass-knuckled fist, almost hyperventilating.

"John?" Kay said, a quaver in her voice.

"I see it," Munch managed, watching the body start to raise itself on its elbows. He put a protective arm of his own around Kay's shoulders.

"Not him," she said. "*Them.*"

He followed the direction of her gaze, and felt bile start to rise in his throat.

The mortal remains of Sassa's zombie army were also moving across the floor, as swiftly as a colony of worker ants...and they were reassembling themselves. An arm scurried before them, fingers carrying it to its rightful torso, where it joined the shoulder with an audible *snap.* A decapitated head rolled merrily along, not a yard from where they stood, and reunited with its former neck. The severed lower half of a body eased onto its feet, strolled over to its upper parts and, with one movement, became a whole zombie again.

The sextet of Bawlmer cops began backing as one into the center of the room, all pretense at defiance or bravado rapidly vanishing. Frank let out a sobbing noise, looking around wildly at the reassembled golem militia, brandishing his makeshift club at all and none of them...

"That's good, Frank," Kay said, trying desperately to keep some semblance of calm in her voice. "Everybody grab a club, huh? Just like Frank and Tim!"

"Everybody grab a--what the fuck good is *that* gonna do?" Meldrick cried, his voice skittering up a good half- octave from fear.

"Zombies!" Kay yelled back, her own machine gun raised up again as Sassa struggled to his feet; when he started marching toward them, she knew, they *all* would. "We didn't remember what we were dealing with, huh? Haven't you ever seen 'Night of the Living Dead'? They only die if you get 'em in the head--and we didn't! Beat 'em or burn 'em, that's the only way to--"

Her words were cut off by a new, utterly diabolical sound: Tom Fontana, still cuffed to his chair, still covered in his own blood, literally screaming with laughter.

"You wanna go Section 8 on your own time, Fontana?" Munch shouted. "We've got bigger things to worry about here--"

The sullied producer gasped for air, then gave Munch the grin of a deranged circus clown. "Aw, come on, *Munchkin*--aren't you gonna ask me who the Dr. Frankenstein is here? Aren't you gonna ask me who's pulling the psychokinetic strings?" His speech was garbled, a combination of impending madness and the bloody spume foaming from his lips. "It's *ME,* you fucker! *ME!* Didn't I warn you that you had no clue what you were dealing with? All of you! *ALL* of you!"

A wild-eyed Tim let out a miserable laugh of his own. "What the hell's going on *now?*" he begged aloud, as Sassa's dead hand seized hold of its gun.

"Me!" Fontana screamed. "*I'M* what's going on! Didn't I warn you? I am a TELEVISION PRODUCER! I have powers and abilities no mere human could ever *hope* to achieve! I control the living! I revive the dead! I make *slaves* of those who dared challenge my authority while they walked the earth as mortal men! Now you have *SEEN* my power! And now you shall *KNOW* the price of my wrath! MY wrath! MINE! MINE! ME! ME! *ME!*"

There was a sonic *boom* overhead, as thunder smote the heavens and lightning shot from the sky at the producer's demonic tirade. Three blocks away, an unfortunate jogger was reduced to a pile of smoldering ash. Inside what had once been a gaily lit ballroom, a zombie army and its newly reanimated general prepared for maneuvers against six Bawlmer cops whose only crime was to seek the truth, the truth about themselves...


Fontana bounced up and down in his seat with triumphant glee, the legs of his chair banging against the ballroom floor; despite the blood now covering his shirtfront, he seemed to be in possession of an ever- increasing reserve of power and strength. One jerk of his head, and the zombie army all had their guns in firing position. One twitch of his foot, and they all had them trained on the sextet of police officers. One particularly obscene gyration of his hips, and they took a step--just one step--toward their prey. Clearly, he intended to draw out this moment of his greatest triumph for as long as inhumanly possible.

"This is really it, ain't it?" Meldrick said, his voice very quiet.

"No shit, Sherlock," Munch replied sourly.

Lewis angled his head toward one of the vacated cameras. "Anyone out there? Tell my moms I love her! Anthony, too!"

"Mary will avenge me," said Frank. "She'll avenge us all. Get thee behind me, Fontana!"

"This isn't fair," Tim complained. "This is the textbook *definition* of unfair!"

"Je ne regrette rien," murmured Russert. Considering the circumstances, she seemed rather calm; distracted, even.

"I love you, Kay!" Munch shouted. "I love you! I've always loved you!"

As Kay opened her mouth to reply, Fontana beat her to the punch. "They'll kill *you* first, you little bitch!" he managed between chortles of sadistic mirth. "Little fucking Miss Hundred-Percent-Clearance-Rate--well, you can't detect your way out of *this* one, can ya, you little twat? You didn't bargain on *this,* huh? Didn't bargain on *THIS!*"

Suddenly, Megan Russert smiled.

"No," she said calmly, turning to Fontana, "she didn't...and I bet *you* didn't bargain on this, either."

With one swift movement, she reached into her impeccably tailored camouflage jacket, drew forth a Sig Sauer and blew Tom Fontana's brains out.


The group stayed where it was, studying Fontana's body. Several minutes passed; it neither twitched nor jerked nor attempted to rise.

"Is it over?" Kay muttered.

Russert repocketed her Sig Sauer, tilting her head thoughtfully as she stared at the producer's remains. "It would certainly appear to be...though we've been wrong about that before, God knows."

"Well, shit," said Meldrick, "why didn't we think of doing that in the first place?"

"Our complete lack of known reserve firepower may have had something to do with it," Frank responded dryly. "Now let's please resist the urge to gloat over the enemy's corpse and get out of here, shall we? Megan, why in God's name didn't you *say* you had--"

"Uh, guys?" Munch ventured.

Frank's upper lip curled in an impatient sneer. "What the hell is it *now,* John?"

"Well, I don't want to rain on our collective parade, believe me...but if Fontana controlled the zombies, and he's dead now...why are all the zombies still moving?"

Pembleton pivoted slowly on one heel, studying the undead army still ringing the ballroom. It was still whole. Still standing upright. And it was now, slowly but unmistakably, moving closer and closer and closer.

"John?" the other detective finally said. "That's a damned good question."

"Okay, I've just about *had* it," Meldrick declared, gesturing obscenely and futilely toward the snail's-pacing golem troops. "Fuck this, okay? *Fuck* it! I don't care if I'm dyin' or not, I'm only gonna ask this one more time-- I wanna know who's pullin' the strings here, and I wanna know it *right fuckin' now!*"

The dry *click* of a Sig Sauer's trigger gave him his answer.

Meldrick's mouth dropped open.

Megan Russert smiled, a tight, cold little smile as she trained the gun on his skull. "I aim to please, to speak."

Then she put the gun away again. After all, with an entire roomful of zombies at her disposal, what did she need with it? She snapped her fingers; they halted instantly in their tracks.

"Tom wasn't lying," Russert continued. "He was a powerful, powerful man...but you know how damned *talkative* some men get right after a good fuck? He was one of 'em. Gave away a *whole* lot of trade secrets." She gave the zombies an amused glance. "This being one of 'em."

As one, Meldrick, Tim and Munch turned toward Kay and Frank. The latter two looked utterly shocked; blindsided, even.

"But, but you...I..." Kay put her hands to her head, looking more than a little queasy.

Russert smirked. "You didn't really buy that whole story about my escaping, did you? I mean, you and Frank are supposed to be these uniquely brilliant detectives--you never even once suspected that I was an executive mole? You actually thought I wanted to be your *friend?*"

"We..." Frank studied his shoes, as abashed as a schoolboy. Tim gave him a comforting pat on the back.

"Unbelievable. You never even *suspected?* I'm very disappointed in you two...but yes, it's true. Tom and I have been lovers since he created me. And I've been a very good girl on his behalf...fucked that walking pork rind Beau when he asked me to, took a double demotion when he asked me to. Penetrated your pathetic little attempt at a rebel cell when he asked me to. Put up with his idiotic plots, his increasingly inane dialogue, his brand-new bimbettes...just waiting and waiting and *waiting* for my reward." She gave Fontana's mutilated corpse a cursory once-over. "And, well...I guess I finally just got tired of waiting. So thanks for helping me out, you guys...I really appreciate it."

Kay stared at her erstwhile ally, a terrible enlightenment dawning in her eyes. "You're *her,*" she said, pale skin turning paler. "You're the double agent. You're Margaret May. Aren't you?"

Russert shook her head. "Gosh, you *finally* managed to figure it out...aren't we brilliant."

Munch rubbed his temples, hard. It didn't help. "What about Caroline?" he said.

The blond conspirator against her own kind shrugged a little. "Brat child actor Tommy dug up from somewhere...she does Met Life commercials now. I don't have any kids. Thank God."

As Tim opened his mouth, Megan waved a dismissive hand. "Shut up. I think we've all had enough of your trademark dithering for one night."

"You killed Beau," Kay said between clenched teeth. "It was *you,* wasn't it? It was *you!*"

Megan gave her a smile that even a passing stranger would have wanted to smack off her face. "Maybe I did. Maybe I didn't...but *you'll* never know, Ms. Detective. And I can't tell you how goddamned *good* that makes me feel."

With that, she stalked away from the group, head high, and stood before her gathered gun-toting minions. In perfect sync, they looked up at her, awaiting their final orders; Russert threw her shining blond head back and laughed.

"Kill!" she shouted, eyes turned luminously toward the heavens. "Kill! *KILL!*"

The zombies cocked the triggers of their weapons. "No," Megan cried. "That's too damn quick. Tear them to pieces! Rip the flesh off their miserable bones! Dismember them as they did you! Kill! *KILL!*"

The zombies tossed aside their weapons. The detectives, now long past any scruples about pride and dignity, cowered together on the floor as the hollow men drew ever closer, ever closer...

Suddenly, they stopped.

The victimized quintet looked up, final tears and prayers halted in midstream. Russert still had her face tilted upward, but her expression had gone from triumph to puzzlement.

"Call me crazy," she said, "but do you hear someone singing?"


Five other pairs of ears pricked up. Yes, they could hear it, too--from somewhere outside the ballroom, an unmistakable, boisterous warble.

" a burnin' thiiiiiiiiiiing..."

Kay frowned. "The hell?"

"Jesus Christ," Meldrick said softly. "That sounds like..."

The sound of the singing was getting closer. "And it maaaaaaaakes a fiery riiiiiiiiiiiing..."

"Sounds like what?" Russert demanded, her voice suddenly edgy and tense. "Sounds like *what?*"

Munch's eyes widened. "Is that who I..."

"It *can't* be," Bayliss insisted.

Frank shook his head. "It can't?" he replied. "Considering how the rest of this night has gone, why couldn't it?"

"Couldn't be *what?*" Megan shouted. "Couldn't be *WHAT?*"

"Booooooooouuuuund by wild desiiiiiiiire...I fell into a ring of--"

The singing stopped suddenly, replaced by an unearthly howl. "FIRE! FIRE! FIRE! Ciabola *bumpty-bumpty-BUMP!*"

And the ballroom doors flew open yet again, and a figure appeared, framed dramatically in the doorway...

"Mikey?" said Meldrick in a strangled voice.

His pale blue eyes were wild, deranged, their depths evincing a madness far beyond the dark side of the moon. His blond hair was grimy with soot and sodden with sweat. His face was smeared in ash, his clothes stained and blackened, his arms mottled with unhealed burns. His hands were crabbed claws of shining pink scar tissue, the fingers stiffly, and apparently permanently, curled over the flamethrower he clutched to his chest.

For a long, long moment, there was total silence.

"You," Russert whispered. "Sweet're *dead!* Tom said you were..." Her blandly pretty features distorted as the whisper became an enraged scream. "Tom said you were! He *said* he took care of you! He *promised* me you'd be crab chum right after the finale! Did he fuck this up, too? Jesus fucking Christ, do I have to do *everything* myself? EVERYTHING?"

Kellerman just stared at her, his breath a steady, grinding rasp. His smile was the first, flickering flame of an arsonist's blaze.

"Mikey," Meldrick repeated quietly. He held out a hand.

Kellerman didn't seem to see the hand, to hear his ex- partner; his eyes were riveted, fixated on RTITLE: The Acci not move. Lewis dropped the hand, looking sick and lost.

"He *is* dead," Munch murmured, unconsciously clutching at Kay's fingers. "He's one of her zombies too, she's faking us out again just like with--"

Kay shook her head. "Uh-uh," she whispered back. "There's somethin' here she didn't plan on..."

"Shut your fucking mouth, you little cooze!" Russert shouted, her face nearly purple with fury. "I've got bigger things to deal with here than--NO!" she shrieked as the zombies, sensing the tension, began shuffling toward Kellerman. "You stay right where you are..."

Her voice became low, husky, darkly insinuating. "This one here? He's *mine.*"

She drew the Sig Sauer. Kellerman let out a truly terrifying laugh, and raised the flamethrower...


Afterwards, they would all remember his voice; how beautiful it was. *Beautiful.* A sweet tenor croon.

"The taaaaaaaaaaaaste of loooove is sweeeeeeet..."

She missed. It was as simple as that.

The bullet sailed past Kellerman's head, whistled through the air and hit the face of Terri Stivers, who had chosen a truly inopportune moment to return from the ladies' room; the former narcotics detective crumpled to the floor without a sound. Munch let out an inchoate noise and, too shit-scared to let the still-motionless zombie hordes give him pause, ran for cover. The others followed suit, leaving Kellerman a clear line of fire.

"When heaaaaaaaaaarts like ours meeeeeeeeeeeet..."

The flamethrower roared into life, a tongue of concentrated fire turning the Sig Sauer molten and Megan Russert's entire forearm to a charred, blackened stump. She staggered forward and back for an endless half-second, then fell to her knees with a scream of pure, unholy agony.

"I fellllllllll for you like a chiiiiiiiiiild..."

She screamed and screamed, the raw sound of a soul trapped in hell; the flame that had taken her arm traveled along a trail of spilled eighty-proof bourbon, caught the edges of a tablecloth and began leaping, dancing, around the ballroom's perimeter, finally seizing on the undead Scott Sassa's custom-tailored sleeve. The creature let out a belching grunt, flailed madly for a moment and then exploded into a noxious cloud of gray ash. And that got the rest of the army back on the march.

"Ohhhhhhhhhh, but the fire went wiiiiiiiiiiiiild..."

He activated the flamethrower again. Megan's screams were silenced forever as she was enveloped in a burst of brilliant orange light, consumed and reduced to a skeleton of ash. Fontana's body went next, and then a half-dozen frantically shuffling zombies; then an overturned table near one of the zombies, then the tablecloth still wrapped around it, then the dregs of the punchbowl that had been sitting on it, then a chair lying next to the broken punchbowl...

Tim looked wildly around the burning room. "Munch? Why are the zombies still--"

"How the hell would *I* know?" Munch shouted back, trying to stomp out one of the residual blazes and burning his ankles in the process. "Shit--my lucky socks!"

The air was filling with a poisonous haze. "Stay down!" Frank shouted, already starting to choke on the fumes. "Stay down and let's get the hell out of here NOW! The window, go for the closest window!"

Another zombie went up. Munch, wheezing for breath, grabbed for another table leg and lit it against a flaming tablecloth, creating a makeshift torch. "You were right, Kay!" he cried. "Beat 'em or burn 'em, that's the only--"

He stopped short as he realized he was surrounded by zombies. Angry zombies, moving more and more swiftly. Right on cue, his torch flickered wanly and sputtered out.

"I felllllll innnnntooooo a burnin' ring of FIIIIIIIIRE!"

As Kellerman took out another row of zombies and turned the far end of the ballroom into a bona fide inferno, Bayliss grabbed Frank's depleted machine gun, raised it over his head and ran toward the undead mob circling Munch. The machine gun thudded against three skulls in quick succession, turning them to gray powder; Munch, trapped in the center of the narrowing circle, slammed two more zombies right in the face. Then one of them reached out and grabbed his throat between its hands, clutching it with a superhuman strength and shaking him like a pit bull worrying a rag doll. Feet dangling off the ground, his face turning blue, he gasped for air and got a searing lungful of smoke...

"I went down, down, down...and the FLAAAAAAAAAAAAMES went HIIIIIIIIIIIGHER!"

Tim fought frantically to get to Munch, but the zombies had caught on--for every one he knocked down, another one jumped into his path. Frank and Meldrick, coughing into their sleeves as they smashed the panes of a nearby window, turned to leap into the fray and were stopped by another blast from Kellerman's flamethrower; five feet closer, and they would have been part of the barbecue. Munch's hand dropped the spent torch of its own volition. Dark spots danced before his eyes, his struggles grew weaker and weaker...

"And it burns, burns, BURRRRRRRNS..."

Kay Howard staggered from behind the cash bar, gray golem powder coating her from head to foot. Her eyes dark and piercing as a falcon's, hair streaming behind her like a banner of fiery light, a bellicose wail tearing from her throat, she tackled the zombie strangler from behind and drove the barrel of her machine gun straight through its skull.


As the fingers pureeing his Adam's apple turned to dust, Munch fell to the floor; coughing painfully, he reached for the dropped table leg, slammed a zombie in the shins and crushed its skull as it toppled over like a disease-ridden sapling. Tim and Kay, having made short work of the rest of the mob, grabbed his arms and half-pushed, half-dragged him toward the broken window.


Frank had his head halfway out the window, gulping mouthfuls of untainted air as Meldrick punched out the remainder of the panes. The beleaguered trio stumbled toward them, through an obstacle course of living dead, charred corpses, destroyed furniture, shattered glass and ever-encroaching walls of flame...


"*Mikey!*" Meldrick shouted, his voice nearly lost in the roar of the blaze and Kellerman's manic caterwauling. "Mikey, come with us! It don't have to be like--"

"*Let's go!*" Frank screamed in his ear. "It's too late, Meldrick--LET'S GO!"

"*You go,* Frank! *YOU GO!* I got a partner to--"


Tim grabbed Meldrick's shoulders, shoving him flat against the sill; a half-second later, Kellerman's flamethrower took out the exact spot where Meldrick had been standing.

"Well, what the hell are we waitin' for?" Lewis shouted. "Move it!"

He dove out the window, Frank, Tim and Kay quickly following. Munch hesitated for just one last moment, taking in the indelible picture of Michael Scott Kellerman standing in the center of the ruined ballroom, surrounded on all sides by an all-consuming orange light, arms raised, blond head thrown back in hellish glee, a Brynhild ascending the funeral pyre...

In one swift movement, he tossed aside the flamethrower and pulled two hand grenades from his pockets. Munch threw himself out the window, narrowly evading the activated grenade Kellerman had lobbed directly at his skull.


They pulled themselves up from the pavement, gasping and clutching each other's arms; burnt, bloody, filthy and bruised, they staggered as fast as they could away from the blazing building. They hadn't made it a hundred yards when Meldrick turned back, struggling fiercely as Frank and Tim clutched his arms.

"I gotta go back!" he shouted, fighting like a fish on the hook. "I gotta go back for Mikey!"

Frank kept moving forward, yanking Meldrick along as they ran. "It's too late, Meldrick! He's gone completely around the--"

"I don't care! I gotta get back to him! That's not really *him* in there!" His throat was raw, his voice hoarse with smoke and emotion. "It's two years of Fontana's little mind games that messed him up--we can help him!"

"He thinks we can *help* him," Munch snorted, in between panting for breath and hacking up whole mouthfuls of zombie ash. "He made a barbecue out of Russert, he set fire to a room with us in it, he tried to turn *you* into a human shish kebab and now he's playing ring toss with grenades! Freud, Jung, Adler, Reich, Rank and Dr. Joyce Brothers working tag-team around the clock couldn't--"

Tim lunged for Meldrick's arm again as the other man nearly broke free. "Munch, *you're* not helping--Meldrick, Frank's right! There's no way you can get in there! There's nothing we can do for him!"

"I don't care! He's my *partner,* man! I gotta go back, I gotta find a way to--"

The sheer force of the explosion knocked them to the ground.


As the quintet slowly emerged from their protective crouch, Frank and Tim let go of Meldrick's arms; he put forth no more resistance. Tears shone in his eyes as he stared at the fire that now enveloped the entire building, reaching giant fingers into the dark Baltimore sky.

Kay was the first to break their stunned silence. "What a waste," she said softly, brushing singed curls from her forehead as she gazed upon the burning, blown-out ruins. "What an utter goddamned waste." Frank shook his head in agreement.

Tim turned toward Lewis, empathy and guilt in his eyes. "I'm sorry, Meldrick," he said awkwardly. "I'm sorry it ended this way for him--"

"No," Meldrick said, a sorrowful little smile on his face. His voice quavered, but he held himself together. "He saved us from Russert. From her and that whole goddamned zombie army. See, that's why he musta come back. He *knew,* y'know? He knew."

Munch attempted to brush off a gravel-encrusted elbow, wincing as he realized the gravel was embedded in his skin. "Lewis, just face facts. Fontana took a fair-to-good, fair- haired boyo detective and turned him into a psychopathic firebug dumber than a bag of--shutting up," he mumbled, as Frank gave him a particularly withering glare.

"He knew," Lewis repeated. "He died a hero, man--and that's *exactly* how he woulda wanted to go. Godspeed, Mikey."

From his sprawled position on the pavement, Lewis gave a dress-blues salute. Munch rolled his eyes, but no one paid any attention.

"That was my idea, you know," Frank commented without rancor. "The one-man honor guard. Fontana stole it from me. But I suppose that's all water under the bridge now that--"

The honk of an approaching vehicle's horn cut him off. A dark red minivan, its sleek exterior scored with long, ominous-looking scratches, roared up the road; the driver, face masked in the glare of the headlights, screeched to a halt, threw open the door and came running toward them.

"Frank!" a new voice shouted. "Frank?"

"Mary!" Tim cried delightedly.

Mary Pembleton stood before the idling minivan, surveying her husband and his four companions with mingled anger and relief. "Hi, Tim--nice haircut. Makes you look where the *hell* have you all been? I've been sitting in sector A-6 for a good four hours now, waiting for..." Her voice trailed off as she studied the bedraggled, injured little group, the glass and debris littering the ground around them, the fiery skyline behind them. "Frank? Kay? Are you--what in God's name *happened?* And where's Megan?"

"No time to explain, Mary," Pembleton said as he struggled to his feet. "Just trust me when I say we're better off. We've got to get out of here--"

"Really? Thank you for pointing that out," Mary said dryly, shifting her assault rifle to the opposite shoulder and proffering a hand to her husband. "It wasn't too nerve- wracking, sitting there with the lights killed wondering if my babies were gonna still have a father after all this was over...I'm never getting stuck with getaway driver duty again, you understand? Never."

"You drew the shortest straw," Kay retorted, rubbing at a large purple mark blossoming on her forehead. "Fair's fair...and trust me, you lucked out."

Then they heard it--the far-off rumble of a particularly sinister thunder. One-Mississippi, and the rumble separated into thousands upon thousands of booted feet, clearing and hitting the pavement in perfectly synchronized rhythm...

"Aw, shit," Meldrick groaned. "*More* zombies?"

"We should be so lucky," Mary said, eyebrows raised. "That's the network Ordnungpolizei out on the curfew street sweeps for dissident characters. You've never heard them doing maneuvers before?"

"Ain't had the pleasure. Do they know we're out here?"

"Bet on it," Kay said darkly. "We have to move. We timed our raid to be over before the patrols got to Fells Point, and I don't wanna even *think* how far off-schedule we are now..."

Two-Mississippi. They struggled up off the asphalt. Munch weaved unsteadily back and forth; he was more than a little nauseated, an understandable feeling in someone who had escaped a violent, utterly meaningless demise no less than four times in the course of a single evening, and was now apparently closing in on a fifth. More to the point, he had seriously embarrassed himself in the process, in front of someone who...he turned to Kay.

"Uh, Kay, you know that thing I said, before, I mean about..." He could feel his face burning, and not from the proximity of the rapidly spreading fire. "I mean, about how I always, that I...what I *meant* was that--"

Her mouth against his cut off the remainder of his words. He wrapped his arms around Kay; heedless of stormtroopers, flames and their immediate audience, they kissed with all the passion borne of six years of frustrated, unacknowledged mutual longing...

"Oh, for sweet Christ's *sake,*" Frank groaned, eyes beseeching the heavens.

Kay broke the kiss, but not the embrace, and gave her fellow resistance fighter a glance of utterly unapologetic amusement. "We're fictional characters, huh? That means we can have a shamelessly cinematic moment or two whenever we damn well see fit."

Lewis stamped his feet on the pavement, both to shake the golem dust from his clothes and from utter exasperation. "Yeah, that's great--could we maybe get the fuck *outta* here now? Please?"

"You're the one who was all hot to run back inside," Munch retorted. His head was spinning again, for a variety of reasons...

Three-Mississippi; and above the noise of marching feet there came a shrill, torturous, utterly cold animal howl, slicing the air like a razor. Kay shivered violently, her eyes growing large and fearful. "Dear Lord," she whispered. "They brought out the K-9 detail--"

"*K-9* detail?" Lewis demanded. "So on top of everything else, these Nazi clowns have themselves a goddamned wolf pack to...holy shit."

"You're being charitable," said Frank. "They use them for what they call 'problem cases.' The NBC brass has a very expansive definition of problem cases. I saw what was left of Scheiner after they got through with him--"

"Scheiner?" Tim's eyes went from wide to wider. "They set those...*things* on an old man? On *Scheiner?* Fucking bastards--sorry, Mary."

Munch emitted a few shellshocked twitches. "Great. Terrific. In that case, what the hell are we all *STANDING* here for!"

Four-Mississippi, and another chorus of horrific howls. They clambered pell-mell into the minivan, stumbling over spare weaponry--all fitted with child-safety locks--a cache of ammunition, a broken tennis racket, several half- used boxes of Kleenex, a diaper bag and a mixed assortment of pacifiers, Fisher-Price toys and Emmylou Harris tapes. Frank took the seat immediately behind his wife, shouldering her rifle; Kay grabbed a Glock and took the opposite window, Munch practically in her lap. Tim tripped over his own feet, wrenched his back and nearly squashed Frank Junior, contentedly asleep in his infant seat.

"Hi, Uncle Tim," piped up a new voice: Livvy Pembleton, similarly strapped in, clutching her policeman bear and wide-eyed with toddler excitement.

Tim grimaced in pain, reaching out one spastically flailing arm to pat her head. "Hi, sweetie--aagh--so how do we get past those guys?"

"We pray," said Mary, shifting gears so abruptly that every head in the van snapped simultaneously backwards. "And when praising the Lord fails, we start passing the ammunition."

Five-Mississippi. The minivan took off again with a squeal of abused tires, careening down Thames Street in a fashion unsafe at any speed. Bayliss, his back still spasming, pitched forward into an involuntary fetal position. They got going none too soon; already, black- helmeted minions of the diabolical GE subsidiary were rampaging through the Waterfront, frantically gulping liquor out of broken bottles and reducing the place to a busted shell. Meanwhile, dozens of swankily-suited zombies--reserve forces of Sassa's, judging from their unsullied appearance-- were slowly staggering up the steps of police headquarters, wielding flashlights and pitchforks in some grotesque homage to the traditional cinematic village mob. A few of them turned when they heard the van approaching; Mary floored the gas, her face tight with tension...

"But Kay said there were land mines," Munch pointed out, craning his neck and staring fearfully out the side window. "And barbed wire and guards and--how the hell *are* we gonna make it out of here?"

"We'll make it," Mary said, not taking her eyes from the pothole-scarred road. Tim attempted to pull his head up from between his knees, and only succeeded in making the crick in his neck worse.

"I can't see a damned thing," he complained. "What's going on?"

"The van crashed and we're all dead. What do you *think* is--OW!" Munch rubbed his arm where Kay had punched it, shooting her an injured glance. "Try to lighten the mood a little and...what about the missiles? And the force fields? And you said--"

Frank shot a pointed glance at his still wide-awake daughter. "We'll *make* it," he pronounced, with studied finality.

Kay nodded in agreement. "Safe in Rocky Point, this time tomorrow." She clutched her pistol a little tighter. "Dad's got the bunker outfitted, we'll be fine..."


"Yeah, okay, but the missiles and--"

Lewis shot him a warning glance. "Munch? Ease up."

"Yeah, okay. Fine. Sorry for trying to be a *realist* here." He turned back to the window. Mary ran several more red lights, honking madly at an errant postal truck. "So, why do I suddenly have 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' running through my head--"

"*SHUT UP, MUNCH!*" shouted every adult occupant of the van simultaneously. Little Frankie started, opened his eyes and then immediately fell asleep again. Munch folded his arms and sulked.

*Half a league, half a league, half a league onward, all in the valley of Death rode the six hundred...*

Seven-Mississippi. The air was now literally vibrating with the sound of the goosestepping hordes. Behind the van, the pitch-black night sky, turned to a rosy- fingered dawn by the fires now leaping merrily from rooftop to rooftop; ahead of it, the footsteps of fascists and the hounds of hell. The van windows rattled in their frames. Livvy, absorbing the collective tension, began chewing on the ear of her bear.

*Theirs was not to reason why, theirs was but to do and die...*

"Munch?" Lewis said with a nervous laugh. "You can start talkin' again, if--"

"Oh, my *God!*" Mary shouted.

She slammed on the brakes, skidding wildly and thudding to a stop mere inches from the sleeping baby lying in the center of the road...

The animal stench hit the minivan from all sides, its musky reek making the occupants gag. They stared at the concrete blocks walling off the road ahead of them, the shoulder-to-shoulder polizei in full-body riot gear, the circling pack of red-eyed wolfhounds the size of small cows. The soldiers lined each side of the street, they blocked off every possible exit, they peered over sniper's rifles from every rooftop...

The apparent troop leader strolled into the center of the road, smirking as he held up the doll that, from even five feet away, looked like a real child. The dogs writhed and jerked on their leashes, hot foaming saliva dripping from their jaws.

Eight-Mississippi, and nine, and ten.

*Cannon to the right of them, cannon to the left of them, cannon in front of them volleyed and thunder'd...*

"Out of the van!" he shouted. "Surrender peacefully and we'll spare the children!"

"Jesus," said Bayliss, still in a half-crouch. "This doesn’t sound good..."

"That's what I love about you, Timmy," said Lewis impatiently. "That keen detective instinct. Mary, can you get around the roadblock--"

"And go *where?*" Frank retorted. "Look out there-- they're on all sides. Guns, dogs...we'd never get past them."

"Not in a million years," Lewis agreed. "You're right. We're surrounded."

Munch grabbed for Kay's hand again; their fingers interlaced. "Only one thing left to do then, I guess..."

Kay nodded. "Only one thing."

*Storm'd at with shot and shell, boldly they rode and well...*

The troop leader tossed the baby doll over his shoulder; his thick leather kommandant's jacket squeaked audibly with the gesture. "On the count of THREE, or we shoot!"

"Livvy?" Mary said. "Put your head down and close your eyes. *Now.*" The little girl complied, squeezing her eyelids shut with a whimper of fear.


The van roared forward. The troop leader froze, staring into the headlights just a second too long; his body bounced from the grill to the hood to the windshield and flew off to the side of the road like a mannequin. Frank and Kay unleashed an indiscriminate volley of gunfire out their windows, frantically grabbing for new weapons from the backseat arsenal as fast as Lewis and Munch could load them. The occupants of the van held on for dear life as they sped toward the concrete roadblock, faster and faster and faster...

*Into the jaws of Death, into the mouth of Hell,*

*Rode the six--*


Two hundred and twenty-one stories above the surface of the earth, in a small and cluttered room dominated by banks of television equipment and walls of monitors, one man watched the progress of the dark red minivan with intense, unwavering interest.

He leaned forward in his ergonomic chair, blue-gray eyes alight with excitement as he tracked the van's progress from Federal Hill--"Sector A-6"--to Thames Street to the roadblock at August Avenue. A tall, thin man, his face was a study in austere agelessness; he could have been an old thirty-five or a remarkably well-preserved seventy. He wore what appeared to be black pajamas, their cleanly tailored lines and soft, luxurious fabric bespeaking great expense; a black beret covered his sparse gray hair. A pretentious costume, to be sure, but it suited him. A heavy silver ring adorned one hand, a battered Rolex the opposite wrist.

He adjusted his wire-rimmed glasses and swiveled in the chair, studying the monitors; Mary was now about half a mile from the NBC roadblock. "Give me camera three," he said to a flannel-shirted technician.

The monitors' POV switched instantly to the troop leader, strutting up and down in his black uniform and patent leather boots and holding an eerily lifelike baby doll in his arms. Behind him, two soldiers nervously gripped the leashes of a pair of monstrous wolfhounds, nearly being jerked out of their shoes as the creatures lunged toward the doll.

The man nodded to himself; all was as he'd been told. "Okay...SkyCam." The scene switched to a wide overhead shot: the van speeding down the road, the roadblock itself subsumed in darkness.

"Okay...Andrew, resume camera three. Peter, get me VanCam."

A split screen: one half the gathered troops, the other a close tracking shot from the van driver's perspective. The man leaned forward even further, his heart starting to race. Nothing had gone quite as planned tonight, but *if* they could pull this last stunt off...a very big if...

Long, artistic fingers touched the earpiece mike as he spoke into it. "Here we go. Chloe, get me MoleCam, quick-- Jim, this is control. You copy?"

Another monitor displayed one of the uniformed soldiers in extreme closeup; in their prearranged signal, the "soldier" touched his own ear with two fingers. *Roger, control.*

A burly, bald-headed man entered the control room, clutching a Bible whose margins were covered in strange religious drawings. The black-clad man turned and nodded a brief acknowledgement, then returned his attentions to the monitors.

"Jim," he said into his earpiece mike, "the mother hen's about to meet the fox. Provisional plan number nine to be activated. Are you ready?" One finger now, the soldier tracing the outside of his ear: *Roger, control. We're ready.*

"Roger. Final transmission. Out."

No sooner had the man spoken than a new image appeared on the split screen--the van frantically swerving and braking to avoid what looked like an abandoned baby, soldiers and snipers and wild dogs surrounding the occupants inside. The roadblock itself was a solid, unassailable mass of concrete, all possible alternate escape routes were walled off...

"Shit," one of the cameramen said involuntarily.

The black-clad man just smiled, a quiet, self-assured smile. "That's the National Broadcasting Corporation for you--all the subtlety of a stripper at a garden party."

Peter, still tracking the VanCam, shook his head. "What do you think she'll do, Christof?"

The man shrugged. "We'll know soon enough...either way, we're ready." He swallowed hard; though he would rather have died than admitted it, he was very scared. They could make this work, they *could,* but if it didn't...

"Okay, people...situation alert!"

Every technician, cameraman and intern in the place scrambled to their respective posts. The bald-headed man stood where he was, watching the screens and clutching his Bible with white-knuckled fingers.

"Oh, Christ," said Andrew. "I think she's really gonna--"

Christof leapt from his chair. "She is, she is! God bless her--*OKAY, PEOPLE, SITUATION GO!*"

As Mary plowed her minivan straight into the Ordnungpolizei leader, the control room filled with the soft whirs and clicks of buttons being pressed, switches being thrown...

From the tiny control room's signaling tower came a sound that no one in either the control room or the minivan could hear, a sound which sent the NBC dogs of war collapsing to the ground in paroxysms of canine agony. Simultaneously, a good third of the polizei troops suddenly turned on their brothers in arms, firing rubber dum-dum bullets and tranquilizer darts to beat the band; a few, in a bit of unnecessary nose-thumbing, employed novelty-shop potato guns and lawn darts.

The ensuing confusion was made worse when the smoke bombs began whistling through the sky, hitting the ground and bursting into opaque clouds of pink, purple, yellow and a particularly attractive mint green. The remaining polizei flailed in panic, firing into the smoke clouds with complete abandon. Fortunately, some unscrupulous soul had taken the precaution of replacing all their ammunition with blanks...

"VanCam!" Christof cried. One bank of monitors switched back to Mary's POV. Hazes of cotton-candy fog obscured the windshield; the minivan skidded from one side of the road to the other, the occupants now holding their fire out of sheer confusion. The minivan jackknifed...and was lost in the haze as the VanCam went black.

"SkyCam--oh, hell, that won't help." Christof swore; discreetly, under his breath. "Now *I* can't see where they're going--Jim! Tammy! Consuelo! Astrid!" he shouted into the earmike.

A staticky buzz filled the control room. "Control, this is Tammy. The van almost overturned but has straightened out, repeat straightened out, again barrier- bound at approximately eighty miles per hour--"

"Where is everybody? Any dead or wounded on our side?"

More static. "All accounted for, minor casualties only. We're in a ditch by the side of the road."

"All one hundred and sixty-five of you?"

"It's a big ditch. Van still barrier- bound...incoming..."

"Roger, out." Christof threw aside his earmike. "Try camera four...yes! Almost past the smoke clouds!" A medium closeup of the minivan, emerging from the gaily colored fog, mowing down several NBC polizei as it thundered toward the roadblock...

Peter jumped up from his console in disbelief. "But you've got to *stop* them! They're headed right for a goddamn concrete--"

Christof held up his hand. "Wait. Just wait."

"I *can't* wait, for Christ's sake! They're all gonna--"

The minivan crashed straight into the concrete barrier...

And the barrier gave way, cement blocks flying every which way like popping corn kernels as the intact minivan emerged on the other side, jackknifed again, slowed and spun to an almost graceful halt.

"Camera seven," Christof said quietly. Along with the rest of the room, he held his breath.

A closeup shot of the van and all its inhabitants: shocked, breathless and alive. Tim had managed to straighten up, somewhat; he and Kay were tending to Munch, who appeared to have fainted. Lewis had his head craned backwards, studying the ruined roadblock. Clearly not convinced they were out of danger, he turned around and began loading another Glock. Frank had pulled a crying Livvy from her car seat and was holding her; Mary, having assured herself that everyone was alive and both her children were unharmed, had her forehead pressed to the steering wheel, terror and exhaustion visibly seeping from her bones. Little Frankie, amazingly, still slept. The control room was very quiet.

"SkyCam," Christof finally said. Another aerial shot. The road behind the barrier was littered with prostrate dogs and drugged or wounded polizei; none made any attempt to pursue the van. The van sat where it was, its occupants obviously trying to figure out how on earth they were not all dead.

"Okay...back to seven."

"You want audio?" Andrew asked.

Christof again held up a hand. "Patience...just wait."

Twenty minutes passed, a half-hour; silence in the control room, confusion on the ground. Finally, the minivan doors swung open, Tim and Lewis emerging. The latter, skittish as a cat, immediately pointed his gun in the roadblock's direction, finally lowering it with a bewildered shake of the head. Tim opened the driver's door and gently carried Mary out and to the back seat, placing her between Kay and Frank as the latter strapped Livvy back in. Meldrick and Tim stood by the driver's door, gesticulating; some sort of argument seemed to be taking place. Finally, Lewis stomped back to his old seat and Tim slid behind the wheel. The battered van started up again, resuming its journey at a much more cautious speed...

"Camera nine," said Christof. A tracking shot of the minivan, its headlights boring into the darkened road ahead of it. "Okay...wait just one more minute and we should..." The man smiled. "They are now on the Peninsula Expressway, en route to Rocky Point--we did it! We actually did it!" He grabbed for the abandoned earmike. "Folks, this is control. They are out of danger, repeat, out of danger--NBC territory has been cleared, they are in the DMZ headed for Rocky Point. We'll keep tracking them for safety's sake, but we've done it!"

The silent control room exploded into cheers, a fresh explosion of static from the earmike bespeaking the same reaction on the ground. Champagne corks would have popped, but for the fact that no food or drink was ever allowed near the precious equipment; the crew hugged, shouted, jumped up and down like game show contestants. Chloe threw her arms around the Bible-toter, who returned the embrace shyly.

"But the *wall!*" Peter finally shouted above the din, banging on a console. "What about the--"

Andrew threw him a scornful look. Trainees today... "Foam rubber. What else?"

"Foam rubber," repeated one of the interns in wonderment. "Foam rubber?" Christof nodded.

Peter's jaw dropped. "But how...I mean..."

"It's hardly rocket science," Christof replied. "We infiltrated NBC's militia months ago and began a fairly straightforward sabotage program. They put up the roadblock a few weeks ago, after Dyer and Lausanne managed to escape; Jim and Tammy have been going in there at night, replacing the concrete blocks one by one. Fortunately for us--well, fortunately for *them,* really--no one in the polizei corps decided to try and bang their head against it in the interim." The man readjusted his glasses, shaking his head a little. "Typical mainstream TV types, putting complete trust in illusions...Astrid and Miles replaced all the live ammo with blanks. Pity they couldn't rescue that Scheiner fellow in time. I liked him. But every war has its civilian casualties..."

He waved a dismissive hand at Peter and the intern; as much as he enjoyed such planning and plotting, actually discussing it was a bore. He turned to the rest of the room. "The 'troops,' and our people posing as zombies up at the police station, will be back after they've carried away as much of the old set as they possibly can. NBC brass'll be too disorganized for a while to stop them. We've got quite a party planned for when they arrive, but before then..."

Christof gestured toward the Bible artist, now standing off in a corner behind some equipment. "Before then, I think we should all give our colleague here a little individual recognition, for a truly inspired bit of improvisational acting under what I think was *extreme* duress. Tony, you want to come out of your hidey-hole there and--"

The control room broke into a round of sincere applause. Tony, the bartender-cum-actor, shrugged a little. "It was nothing," he said modestly. "I wasn't with the troops or--"

"No, you were just at ground zero," Chloe retorted. "Super job. Just super."

Christof again turned to the monitors; the minivan traveled steadily forward, the road's lone vehicle. "They should get to Rocky Point in a few hours. We'll give them a month or two there to recuperate...we need to give our actors rehearsal time, anyway. We should be able to coax all the actual characters onto the set in time to launch this as a mid-season replacement."

Andrew chewed on a mechanical pencil. "So are we calling this a spinoff, or..."

Christof shrugged. "Same premise, some of the same characters, same police setting--but a completely new location, new concept, new supporting cast. And a new network, of course...spinoff? You tell me."

Another intern, a gangly pimply creature in large horn-rimmed glasses, nervously cleared his throat several times. "Uh...sir?"


"Uh, well, I just...I mean, I don't mean to interrupt or anything, but I was wondering..." The kid swallowed, then mustered up his courage. "Can we really *do* this?"

"Why couldn't we?" Christof asked matter-of-factly.

"Well..." Now thoroughly on the spot, the young intern turned bright red. "I mean, they *know* they're fictional characters. They're gonna realize they're on another television show...sooner or later, anyway. Right?"

Christof leaned against a console, now regarding the intern with a measured eye. "Yes, no doubt. They're all intelligent people; they should figure it out without much assistance."

"But..." The intern looked down at his shoes, words coming out in a rush. "But the last show you did, okay, as soon as the guy figured out that his life was actually fake, and the town he lived in was a set and everyone around him was just an actor, I mean, it all fell apart and..."

A tense hush fell over the room. The intern had dared broach the one forbidden subject, the great taboo: Christof's most famous creation, his most spectacularly successful television program. The show that had aired around the world, that had captivated billions of viewers for nearly thirty years, that had all come to an end one fateful day when a klieg light fell onto the set and...

Several pairs of eyes turned fearfully toward Christof; the intern swallowed again, his huge Adam's apple bobbing like a cork. Christof was silent for several moments, not angry or embarrassed but simply thoughtful.


Ever since the Seahaven debacle, the producer-director once hailed as a "televisionary" had stayed far from the madding network crowd. He retreated into the protective shell only great wealth could provide, allowing others to tag him either reclusive genius or disgraced has-been as they saw fit. He cut off contact with all his old colleagues, fired his agent, refused all interviews. He even did the once unthinkable, and stopped watching television entirely.

When the job offer came in from the tiny startup cable company, he had tossed it in the trash, though not before laughing at the paltry sum they obviously thought to be a lavish salary. He still wasn't sure what had made him rescue their letter from amid the milk cartons and coffee grounds; perversity, perhaps, or just sheer boredom. A moment of reckless impulse, something he usually went out of his way to avoid.

But it was the best impulsive gesture he had ever made. Awed by his reputation and bowled over that he had actually agreed to work for them, his nominative bosses gave him complete artistic freedom and creative control, patiently waiting for him to decide on exactly the right project to pique his interest. He hired his own personnel team--some new talent, some holdovers from the Seahaven days-- and paid their salaries himself. He financed and built his own control room, stocked his office refrigerator with plenty of Evian and set himself the painful task of checking out the network competition. God, it was depressing how far television had fallen since *he'd* been setting the standards...

He had been idly flipping channels one Friday night when he saw it. A formerly great television show about a squadron of Baltimore homicide detectives, now a feeble parody of itself thanks to a witless network and a dissipated, power-mad producer run amok. The show's missteps and misfires made him wince reflexively every few seconds, but the idea...the characters...the once-gritty setting...the possibilities. He, and only he, could take this show and restore it to the greatness it had once known. He had found his purpose, and his project.

And being a television producer, he would use any means necessary to accomplish it.

Infiltrating the NBC studios and the show's set had been surprisingly easy. His people posed as cameramen, technicians, second-tier extras, security guards; a little bribery here, a few favors called in there, and it wasn't at all hard to penetrate the major network's much-ballyhooed security perimeters, to sabotage their cores of fascisti. Of course, it didn't hurt that Tom Fontana had such a gift for making enemies that finding willing moles and double agents was as simple as breathing.

Christof drew up typically precise and painstaking plans. He would let the sixth-season finale and seventh- season premiere proceed as planned, then raid the set during one of the show's interminable ice-skating preemptions. With no audience and no distractions, rescuing the good characters and transporting them to his own network would be a complex but fairly straightforward enterprise...

And then, history had repeated itself in the form of a fallen klieg light and he was forced to improvise. Fast. And then, he'd discovered the characters had some hidden agendas of their own and he was forced to adapt his cherished plans. Fast.

And damned if--given the proper backup support, of course--he didn't have a real talent for it.

Christof strolled casually back to his ergonomic chair; like the Rolex, a holdover from the old days. He pressed his fingers together and smiled. The intern was now sweating profusely.

"You don't think the show will work," he mused aloud, "because they know they're fictional."

"Well, I guess," the intern squeaked. "I just meant that--"

"Think about it, though," said Christof, now addressing the entire room and not just the hapless intern. "I mean, they said it themselves, right? They *know* they're fictional...but that knowledge makes them three- dimensional. They have been so fleshed out so well, they have discovered the concept of free will. They have begun to *write themselves.*" He stretched out long, black-clad legs, warming to his subject. "You see, that's where I failed on the--on my old show. I took a *real* man, yes, but I surrounded him with fakes. Fake friends, fake wife, fake life. Everyone was just playing a part. But these characters..."

He leaned back in the chair. "Yes, the essential skeleton supporting their existence is not 'real life,' but a television show. Yes, we will have a few actors--a *few* fakes--in the mix, to move the plots along from week to week. Yes, they are aware they are, in fact, fictional. But how can you accuse a *character* of being fake, when they cannot be anything but that character? They're not actors playing roles. They're...well, they're *them.* That's all they can be. And what's wrong with that, when they have made *themselves* so real? And when, no matter what sort of artificial situations we may invent for them, *they* will decide the ultimate outcomes--and all on live TV!"

Bright spots of excitement glowed on his cheeks as he gazed upon his audience; mesmerized, they hung on every word. "You see what I'm saying? The fictional...becomes the real...and the fiction we build their lives around will have *real* denouements. It's a metaphysical Chinese box. And all played out for the discerning viewing audience to see."

"Sort of a reverse Choose Your Own Adventure," Peter piped up, and then wished he hadn't.

Christof gave him a politely dismissive stare. "Some may see it that way."

He glanced up at the banks of screens again; the minivan almost appeared to be floating in the darkness surrounding it.

The intern considered the impact of the great man's words, turning them over and over in his mind. "But how are you going to get them to be *on* this show?" he asked. "I mean, once they're over in Sandy Point or wherever--"

"Rocky Point," Christof corrected him. "Because they'll soon come to realize that being fictional means they are born to do certain things and none other. They are three-dimensional characters, to be sure, but they have their limits just like us so-called real people do...their appointed destinies. The limitations of their own free will. Oh, maybe they won't realize it *consciously,* but they'll be pulled back to the version of their old lives that we'll offer them. Attracted back. Because it's all they really know. We all yearn for the familiar, whether it's good for us or not..."

Out of the corner of one eye, he kept track of the minivan. "And we'll make it good for them. They'll write their own parts--so to speak--have their own lives, think their own thoughts. They'll just do it in front of a few more people than you or I would. And in time, everything that's happened to them tonight will just be a bad dream...a fading bad dream. Trust me, young man, even the most memorable and 'real' of fictional characters have exceedingly short memories. In time, they'll be able to imagine no other life than that with which we've provided them."

" 'We accept the reality of the world with which we're presented,' " the intern quoted.

Christof looked at him sharply for a moment, then smiled again. "You saw my last interview. Well, here's another little bon mot for you...'Life is a mystery. Just accept it.' "

Abruptly, he pivoted his chair in the direction of Tony, who still stood wordlessly cradling his Bible. "Which, in a somewhat roundabout fashion, brings us to Tony's part on the new show. Tony, you'll be playing a detective--I know, I know," he said, as Tony and a few others opened their mouths to protest. "Some of them may recognize you at first, or think they do. But you'll be playing a completely different character, with a completely different personality...and they'll soon accept that the resemblance is mere coincidence. Trust me."

"But what if they don't?" Tony insisted. "What if my cover's blown?"

Christof shrugged. "So what if it is? You'll work around it. This show is an ongoing improvisation, Tony...much like life itself. We're all acting without a net. And life hands us surprises and little embarrassments as a matter of course." He removed the beret, running one hand through his thin thatch of hair. "Take it from me-- you'll learn to think on your feet."

Tony and the young intern exchanged glances. "But what if the characters, if they won't play along?" the intern ventured. "What if they just, you know...sort of sit there and refuse to do anything?"

Christof rubbed his forehead, looking distinctly amused. "Young man," he said, replacing the beret, "please let me remind you that for a longer period than you have been alive, I produced a television show in which the, er, protagonist spent an entire third of his air time *sleeping.* In other words, from a viewer's vantage point, not doing a damn thing. And even when he *was* actually doing things...well, why mince words? Dull as a post, most of it. But people loved it, because it was real. His real life. And if these characters, as you put it, refuse to play along...why, that's their real decision, their real lives, *and* it's unexpected. It's exciting. Trust me-- either way, people will love it."

He reached beneath the console in front of him, pulling out a small sheaf of papers. "But enough of this. As I was saying, Tony, you'll be a detective in the homicide squad, along with Frank and Tim and Kay and the rest of them. You're a respected veteran of the force--but please, no watered-down Big Man imitations. You're quiet, something of a loner. Your box scenes will be very low- key...deceptively so. You have an excellent clearance rate. You've been battling clinical depression on and off for several years--but again, no melodramatic gun-to-the-temple stuff."

Tony put down his Bible and took a small notebook from his pocket, quickly jotting down Christof's words. "Got it. Who am I partnering with?"

"Haven't decided yet. Munch, maybe. A nice little irony there. What else...your personal life is a question mark at this point. We'll cast someone who seems appropriate when you've fleshed your role out a little. Or who knows, maybe one of the characters will take a fancy to you, do our work for us...oh, and your name is Detective Truman Burbank."

Every head in the control room turned simultaneously in Christof's direction. Chloe's mouth dropped open; her expression was that of someone who had just heard a wildly inappropriate joke. "Christof, are you *really* sure that--"

The producer-director shrugged again. "So, I couldn't resist a little cheap self-referentialism. There are worse crimes."

He turned back to his own pages of notes, effectively ending the discussion. "You'll be seeing some of our 'zombies' and 'soldiers' in larger parts...the final supporting cast should be announced next week. But please keep in mind--and this goes for all of you--they are *supporting* cast members." He gestured toward the monitors. "Our main focus at all times must be *them*-- these real fictional people. We went through enough trouble to get them, God knows...and when I say improvisation, I mean improvisation. We'll have basic character read- throughs and rehearsals, but if anyone's expecting to be handed a full-fledged script and storyboards every week, they are completely unclear on the concept."

Tony, and everyone else in the control room, nodded solemnly.

"Good," said Christof brusquely. "We're all on the same page. For now, anyway." He stifled a yawn. "I know this has been a very long night for us all...needless to say, you'll get time-and-a-half." He glanced at Tony. "And combat pay. Andrew and Chloe and I will be manning the controls until they get to Rocky Point, but the rest of you can--"

"Sir?" a voice interjected.

Chloe rolled her eyes, but Christof appeared rather pleased with the pimply-faced intern's newfound boldness. "What is it, young man?"

The intern dug his hands into his pockets. "Well, speaking of" His gaze darted from the control room consoles up to the monitors, where the shadowy silhouette of the minivan rolled onward.

Christof frowned at the intern for a moment; then, as comprehension struck him, he burst out laughing. "My God," he said, "you're absolutely right...Chloe, what time is it?"

A little abashedly, Chloe held forth her empty wrist. "I don't know. Are you sure it's not too early?"

"It doesn't matter," Christof replied. "Cue the sun!"

The minivan, unimpeded and unpursued, crossed the bridge between the mainland and Rocky Point. At that exact moment--almost as if on cue--a beautiful sunrise illuminated the horizon.


Submitted for your approval: five characters in search of an author, five characters fully aware that they are hostages to fictional misfortune. Their creator, lost to a psychotic megalomania that will ultimately destroy not only him, but the very show he once cherished. And a rival television producer, now presuming to assert his own control over these characters...utterly unaware that he, too, is a mere figment of a writer's imagination, that he is not the puppeteer but another, blissfully ignorant marionette.

And you, in the so-called viewing certain are *you* that you are, in fact, real? What proof do you have that you truly exist, save as a fleeting idea in the mind of some other, far more powerful and prescient entity? And even if you accept that *you* are sure can you be that the one who created you is not a mere creation as well?

Irony. It's a commodity never in short the Twilight Zone.