He shall be tall, came the first voice, a whisper in the dark.


Olive-skinned, came a second—a woman’s, and like a lazy breeze.


“He’ll be tall,” Masters said to the young bronze-skinned woman alone with him on the triplex’s terrace. “And, perhaps, Middle Eastern.”


With a hairless face, and ears like butterfly wings. The third was of dubious sex.


“No mustache, no facial hair,” said Masters, “and large, protruding ears.”


“How do you know all that?” the young woman asked. “And how do I know you’re not gonna call down and choose this big-eared, beardless Middle Eastern guy to be my valet?”


“You have my word,” Masters said.


Music and murmurs wafted into the night as a man opened the terrace door and stepped away from the gathering inside the triplex and out onto the terrace. He was slender, ruddy-skinned. He wore a brown corduroy jacket and matching ten-gallon hat, snuggly-fitting blue jeans, and brown shit-kicker boots tipped with rough pieces of golden metal. He shut the terrace door, set down an iceless brown liqour drink, and lit a cigar.


“If you’ll excuse me, now, my dear,” Masters said to his companion. “I’ll be just a few short minutes.”


The young woman started toward the triplex.


“One more thing,” Masters said, causing her to turn. “The valet. He’s a smoker, and tonight he’s already befouled several nice vehicles belonging to my guests. Let him know that if he smokes in mine, I’ll personally bend him over and park the thing, right up to its gas tank, in his polyp-infested ass.” He grinned. “Feel free to quote me.”


Lightning flared. “Run along now, dear,” Masters said, gazing skyward. “Straight downstairs. Don’t dare linger.”


The young woman grinned half-heartedly and left the terrace. Masters turned to the lighted skyscraper that stood in the east. The brown-booted man stepped up beside him, set his glass on the ledge, peered over, and whistled.


“I’ve got a son-in-law,” the man said in a southwestern drawl, “says that if you fall from a height this great, you black out or have a killer infarction long before you smack ground. We argued about it. My take was, you can’t perform much of a post-mortem on a street smear, so who knows if it’s true? I say, if the Good Lord Jesus had wanted man up so high, He’d have given us rocket engines instead of assholes.” He gave Masters a shit-eating grin. “So. Mr. Masters. Just how does it work?”


“Quite simply and efficiently. I’ll be happy to have specifications sent to your offices, Mr.—”


“Diggs. Rex Diggs. Daxxon Oil. Dallas. Baton Rouge. But I wasn’t referrin to your reactor, sir.”


“Power plant, please,” said Masters. “I find ‘reactor’ too Three Mile Island.”


“Excuse me, then—power plant. But I wasn’t talkin about that. I was talkin about you.” Diggs pointed to the golden boulder. “I noticed that there weren’t any photos taken of you standin beside it. Your people were in plenty. Not you. Photographs can reveal too much, I figure, like the way your body seems to bend when you’re near it. Not in the way that old men bend, but in the way of a dead tree in a painting of a cemetery.”


“I know you’re speaking, Mr. Diggs; I can see your lips moving. But for the life of me—for all my eighty-eight years—”


“Eighty-eight?” Diggs interrupted. Then he shrugged and said, “Well, why not? It suits you. Two eights. It’s double-infinity, isn’t it? Or Heil Hitler.” He sipped at his drink. “I’m not one for mystical stuff myself. I’m an engineer. I’m a businessman. And while I never took any of it to be plain b-s, I always figured the people in stories about magic were simply metaphors.”


“Like Jesus.”


“No. No. Lord, no. Jesus was a real guy. What I mean is, like how the Freemason story about the murder of Hiram Abiff, the Master Architect—you know that tale, of course—how it was really the tellin of how Europeans stole the secrets of civilization from blacks, then buried those same blacks in a ‘shallow grave’ northwest of their home. You know. There’s somethin factual at the story’s core. Or that one about . . . what is it?—the Minotaur?—told by your grandfather to a gathering of heads of state at the first World’s Fair in 1851. No. Told by you. . . . Now, I don’t know what you are, Masters, and I don’t care. Don’t care how long you’ve walked this Earth, what kind of Faustian deal you made or glowin, red-hot devil’s dick you sucked to make it happen. I represent a consortium of business interests from across this great nation, mostly energy concerns, as I’m sure you can imagine. To me, to my associates and friends, you’re no better than a fossil. This thing with the asteroid, your so-called power plant, you’ll stop it now, or we’ll rebury the goddamned thing, and you along with it.”


Masters grunted. “Interesting,” he said. “And tell me, Mr. Diggs, will you all be wearing those ridiculous fucking hats?”


Diggs drained his glass. “Well, I said my piece, old hoss. Now, it’s up to you to—”


A commotion in the sky caught Diggs’s attention. He looked up, his jaw dropped, and his cigar plopped into his drink.


Birds were flooding the night. Hundreds of them. Thousands. Streaming in from every direction, they converged on a single thunderhead Diggs hadn’t noticed before: a solitary cloud of shifting gray and black, squatting directly above this tower.


The birds became one beneath the cloud; and then tumbling, wheeling, looping, they loosed a cacophony of squawks and caterwauls and shrieks. The only thing louder was the peal of thunder that followed as a massive burst of lightning superheated the sky. The blast reduced the triplex’s second and third floor windows to powder, and the birds to something resembling volcanic slag.


“Jesus!” Diggs cried as a black-feathered meteorite shattered the glass in his grip. He threw up a yelp for each burning bird that pelted his back and head. The fiery shower drove him to his knees. Then a chorus of terrible screams brought his gaze to the triplex, and his eyes went saucer wide. Masters’s guests inside the triplex were on fire, shrouded in flames that seemed somehow . . . alive. Alive—in the way that they danced and twirled, raged dark and bright. They made flesh run like tallow and people leap like wildlife. Diggs felt a pressure at the fore of his skull as the sight took definite hold of his mind. He couldn’t help thinking he was seeing through a window into Hell itself.


“By now, your friends and associates are dead,” said Masters. “But not by my hand. Everyone in that room, Mr. Diggs—U.S., Indian, Chinese, and Israeli heads of state, CIA, SIS—they all knew about me. What they didn’t know is that I knew that they knew. I invited them here, knowing that the unveiling of the archanium boulder would bring out my true enemies—enemies far more dangerous than any of you.”


The triplex’s bottom floor exploded, and a firestorm of burning bodies, molten metal, and melted glass rolled toward Masters and Diggs like a tidal wave from an ocean in Hades.


“Jesus!” Diggs cried. “Jesus! Jesus Christ!”


“Long dead, I’m afraid, his bones burned and ashes scattered to the four corners of the globe. He won’t be returning. Not many have mastered that trick.”


As the terrible firestorm bore down on them, Diggs seized two fistfuls of Masters’s white linen lapels and pulled on them, hollering, “Jesus! Jesus! My God, help me! Help me! YOU—HAVE—GOT—TO—SAVE—ME!”


Masters’s ice-blue eyes became the color of steel. He grabbed Diggs’s testicles, squeezed until there was a crunch, then lifted, and sent Diggs over the ledge, snatching Diggs’s shit-kickers off as he did.


Diggs roared louder than the flames as he fell. He roared louder still when the burning (and, in several cases, still screaming) bodies began plunging into space after him, and the vision of Hell that had taken hold of his mind now twisted it. He saw things. Impossibilities—like a massive human figure standing inside the gray and black clouds above Emory Masters’s central tower. He saw Masters, too, the old man’s normally alabaster head a blazing blood-red skull. Masters appeared to hock a red-hot loogie down at him before going up like a piece of magician’s flashpaper. And Diggs also saw Jesus. Jesus, with his long blond shepherd’s hair trailing beneath his crown of bloody thorns, his dingy brown underwear flapping in the wind. Jesus was right above Diggs, and he was falling, too. Diggs reached out to him. Jesus winked a blood-soaked eye at Diggs, then disappeared, leaving Diggs to fall alone, helpless and hopeless and conscious the whole way down, despite what his son-in-law had said, and the amazing agonies in his heart and balls.


Masters returned to life with the sound of Rex Diggs’s pleas to Jesus still ringing in his ears. Most of Masters’s clothes had burned off. He was soot-streaked but pink-bodied. Dirty but unhurt.


He dropped Diggs’s smoldering boots, and the golden metal at their tips struck dully against the terrace floor. He peered through smoke and high, crackling flames—to where the air burned hottest, to where it writhed like tall, silvery snakes. A giant stood there, his barn-broad back to the archanium boulder, the mouth of his weapon glowing red, and dripping liquid fuel like venom.


“You could’ve just asked me for it,” Masters said.


The giant stood silent.


“So, it’s like that now, eh?” Masters said “No more words. No more pretense toward civility.” He shrugged. “Tell your friend up there he’s going to want to be careful with it. The material displays some instability when subjected to intense—”


A flash—a boom—and the giant was gone. The archanium boulder was gone, too.


“—electromagnetic fields,” Masters finished. He looked skyward. There was no trace of the gray and black cloud.

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