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
The first person to identify the mysterious lodge
dance bartender, and name the episode in which he appeared,
wins valuable prizes...so 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
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,
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
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
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
What was *happening* to him? Where the hell was his
head tonight? *The brown acid that's going around is not
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
The sound of his own words stopped him short. Gharty
and Billie Lou exchanged glances, then turned back toward
*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.
*"...works 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
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
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.
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
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 pal...at 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
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?
"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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
His words of wisdom were abruptly cut off when Stivers
pushed his chair backwards, sending it and him crashing to
"Thank you," Meldrick muttered. "Been wanting to do
that myself since Emma Zoole."
"Oh...my 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
"It's a conspiracy," Lewis said to Munch, when some
semblance of quiet had returned. "But, hell, you knew
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 then...it 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
"Aw, quit *whining,* Timmy," Lewis growled
impatiently. "I got a lot of exposition to get through here
"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
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 box...man, 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,
too...one 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
"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
"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
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
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
He shut up, quickly, when the other man cocked the gun
"Programming," Sassa finished softly. "By the way,
interrupt me again and your brains will be garlanding the
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
to...so you want to step aside, Tommy, and let me clear the
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
Sheppard, either oblivious or indifferent, posed 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
"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
"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, so...you 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
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
"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
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...
...as the ballroom doors flew open with a resounding
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
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 hell...as 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
"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
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
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
"*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.
"But...you 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
truth...so 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
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
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
"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
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
"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!
"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
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,
Meldrick...so 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
"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,
"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
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.
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
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
"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
"Call me crazy," she said, "but do you hear someone
Five other pairs of ears pricked up. Yes, they could
hear it, too--from somewhere outside the ballroom, an
unmistakable, boisterous warble.
"Looooooooove...is a burnin' thiiiiiiiiiiing..."
Kay frowned. "The hell?"
"Jesus Christ," Meldrick said softly. "That sounds
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 be *what?*" Megan shouted. "Couldn't be
"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 shit...you'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
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
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
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 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
"The ring of FIIIIIIIIIIIIIRRRRRRRRE!"
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.
"THE RING OF FIIIIIIIRRRRRRRRE! FIIIIIIIIIRRRRRRRRE!
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...
"I WENT DOOOOOOOOOWNNNNN, DOOOOOOOWWWWWNNNNNN,
"*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--"
"AND THE FLAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAMES WENT
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
"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
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
"AND IT BURNS, BURNS, BURRRRRRRRNNNNS...THE RING OF
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
"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
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
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,
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
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
thinner...so 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
"Aw, shit," Meldrick groaned. "*More* zombies?"
"We should be so lucky," Mary said, eyebrows raised.
"That's the network Ordnungpolizei out on the march...post-
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
"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
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
Munch emitted a few shellshocked twitches. "Great.
Terrific. In that case, what the hell are we all *STANDING*
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
*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,
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
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,
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
"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.
"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
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
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
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-
"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
Peter jumped up from his console in disbelief. "But
you've got to *stop* them! They're headed right for a
Christof held up his hand. "Wait. Just wait."
"I *can't* wait, for Christ's sake! They're all
The minivan crashed straight into the concrete
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
"Okay...back to seven."
"You want audio?" Andrew asked.
Christof again held up a hand. "Patience...just
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
" '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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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 nights...er..." 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
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 audience...how
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
imaginary...how 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 supply...in
the Twilight Zone.
CUE THEME MUSIC