'Hey, Colonel,' said a sharp-looking young swampy, tightly curled masses of hair pulled back by a rubber band, 'where you goin'?'

Elvis Aron Presley, Op, shrugged, and said, 'Home, I guess.'


The sinking city smelled of dead fish, Paris perfume and easy money. Every time the waters rose, the locals just added another layer to the sidewalks, and shored up all the buildings below the waterline. A few months ago, the wall of The Crab Shell, a famous nightspot, had given way and a roomful of high-rolling gamblers had drowned. The New Orleans canal-rats had been scooping poker chips, jewellery, fancy hats and sodden paper money out of the drainage sluices ever since. Roger Duroc knew Venice well, and recognized the odours of damp and corruption as the encroaching swampwater ate away at the foundations of this city. One day. New Orleans would just collapse like the House of Usher, and disappear under the stagnant waters. He wouldn't be sorry.

Before leaving Salt Lake City, he had had to take a course of innoculation shots that still made his arm itch. New Orleans was the disease capital of the South-East, and he didn't want to bring away any of the wide variety of rots, agues, fevers or plagues endemic to the city. Most people on the canals wore breathing masks. Given the high proportion of criminal elements in the city—it was wide-open, a PZ in name only—Duroc assumed that they were as much for disguise as for protection. Some of the masks were carnival fashion accessories, with tinsel whiskers stuck out of the breather snouts and twirled spangle eyebrows above the eyeplate dominos.

Duroc sat in Fat Pierre's, a fast-food joint, spooning thin hot gumbo into his mouth, and listening to the owner's teevee. Dressed in the black suit and wide hat of a Josephite elder, he was mainly ignored by the hustlers and hookers who made up the rest of the clientele. That was fine by him. A hugely obese chef, presumably Fat Pierre himself, was stirring his bottomless pot of gumbo, dropping in huge slabs of vatgrown Boosted Rooster from time to time and generously sinking okra into the gloop.

On the teevee, Lola Stechkin was hostessing a documentary about the rash of inexplicable phenomena that had been sweeping the world for the past year. They had footage of the ruins of the Monastery of Santa de Nogueira in Arizona, which had last December been the focus of an inexplicable devastation the news people were trying to pass off as a freak meteorological occurrence. A British science-fiction writer wearing a circus-tent sarong was talking to Lola about rains of frogs, the tracks of Bigfoot, and Buick-sized lumps of ice falling in the desert, while a tattooed astrologer was waving an hourglass and trying to get in on the act. There were all sorts of experts on the inexplicable, and they were always on the teevee these days.

Duroc suppressed a shudder. He hadn't been there, but since Santa de Nogueira, his worldview had not been the same. All his life, he had known about the Dark Ones and the powers that had run in his family for centuries. Always, Nguyen Seth, the Elder, had been there, talking of things beyond anyone's comprehension. Seth the Summoner had always been with his family, down through the centuries, ageless and unchanging, stalking the back alleys of history. And, in his dreams, he had been with his ancestors in the dungeons of the Inquisition, Place de la Guillotine, Dien Bien Phu. But only when the thing called the Jibbenainosay squeezed itself into the universe and joined in combat with the woman-shaped fiend Krokodil had Duroc really been forced to accept the reality.

With the Jibbenainosay towering above him in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, vast and alive beyond the reach of his mind, he had known the truth of the catch-phrase people had been using recently. Quoting Judy Garland's words in The Wizard of Oz, people would react to each new wonder, each new horror, with 'Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas any more.'

From Santa de Nogueira, Lola cut to a more recent Arizona disaster site. Fort Apache, where madmen had run riot, and strange presences had infiltrated the computer system. An expert was blandly explaining how close to holocaust the economic and information systems of the entire country had come.

Duroc had been mixed up in that, too. He hadn't been there, of course, but he had carried in his body the demon that had attacked the fort. The pain was still with him.

The gumbo scalded his mouth, and he washed it down with a swallow of mineral water.

Lola segued into a commercial for the GenTech biodiv, and a trustworthy-looking actor in a white coat was holding his midriff open so you could see how well his vat-grown liver was working as it dealt with a bottle of triple-strength vodka.

Duroc thought of the women he had never met, but whom he had tried to kill. Chantal Juillerat, S.J., Swiss national, Op and exorcist. Jessamyn Amanda Bonney, alias Jazzbeaux, alias Krokodil, former juvenile delinquent, current host of an entity so alien that it made Nguyen Seth seem like a human being. These women, and their men—Trooper Nathan Stack, Sergeant James Quincannon, Cardinal Fabrizio De Angelis, Hawk-That-Settles—had interfered in the business of Elder Seth, and would inevitably die. They could not hope to survive against the Dark Ones.

Lola came back, and her Serious Expression evaporated into her Smiley Face as she started boosting the ZeeBeeCee Blotto Lotto. 'Who knows,' she was saying with moist lips, 'maybe you'll be the lucky winner…'

What kind of a country was this? They took the mind-stretchingly unimaginable and spat it out in three-minute chunks before doing a money-making link into a pie-in-the-sky game. Don't worry about the End of the Universe, because you could be the LUCKY WINNER!!!!!

Lola was talking with a robot-voiced computer named RaLPPH, as it went through the arduous process of selecting the citizen who would be the beneficiary of the teevee station's giveaway. Stock shots of poolside mansions, hunks and bimbos in immodest swimming suits, piles of sparkling gems, gleaming sports cars and screen-filling stacks of high denomination bills appeared. The dreams of America were so petty.

'Say, m'sieur,' began a coffee-skinned indenture girl, slipping onto the stool next to him, 'are you lonesome tonight?'

Duroc looked sternly at her. She was young. She wore a filmy dress which changed colour as she moved. It was slit to the thigh, and cut low on her neck. Her hair was short and brittle with setting gel. Her lipstick and eyeshadow were vivid scarlet.

He shrugged, and nodded to the gumbo chef.

'Anis,' he said, holding up two fingers. 'Deux.'

Fat Pierre grunted, and reached for a dusty bottle. They called themselves French in the sinking city, but couldn't make a proper anis.

'I'm Simone Scarlet,' she said, shaking her blood-red nails.

'Enchante,' he replied.

'Are you a preacher?'

'Would it matter?'

The girl smiled. 'Preachers are just men like others.'

'I'm not a preacher. I'm an Elder of the Church of Joseph.'

The drinks arrived. He sipped his. He had to fight to stop his hands shaking. The shadow of the Jibbenainosay was still in his mind. It could never be banished.

Simone Scarlet drank. 'You're from Salt Lake City?'

He nodded.

'And does the desert really bloom?'

'It does.'

Duroc put her age at about seventeen. She was a little undernourished, her silky limbs a shade too meagre, her skull a touch too apparent under her velvety skin.

Simone Scarlet sighed. 'I'd love to become a resettler. It looks so exciting on the newsnets. As if you're really doing something, not just sitting here while the waters rise.'

He laid a hand over hers. She was warm to the touch.

'There are always places for the pure in heart, child…'

Her face fell. 'Pure…some chance, huh?'

'Pure in heart.'

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