The federal agent and the therapist stared at each other from across the coffee table.
Special Agent Grant Lukather studied the therapist's body language and waited for an answer. Dr. Newcomb's attention kept drifting to the hilt of Grant's Sig Sauer handgun peeking from under his blazer.
Grant broke the silence. "So, can you account for that?" Dr. Newcomb rubbed his palms on his trousers. "I don't know what you mean." "Do we need to go over it again? It's okay, I have time." Casually. Calmly.
"What agency did you say you were with?"
Dr. Newcomb seemed to look for a focus other than Grant's jacket. He was nervous. And stalling. Grant showed his badge again.
"Predictive Analytics. Part of Homeland Security."
"Never heard of them."
"We don't have a network show if that's what you're saying. But we work as hard as any other federal agency. And I can bring you downtown if you want to feel important."
"Oh no, that's fine." Dr. Newcomb tensed. He took it as threat. He then noticed Grant watching him, and tried to play it off. "You investigate what-psychics?"
"I investigate any case where someone predicts something will happen, and it does."
"Like, last Tuesday, for instance. A gas line rupture on the Tucson pipeline triggered an explosion, killed eleven people."
"I read that in the news, yes."
"Oh, come on, doctor. You didn't need to read about it in the news."
Dr. Newcomb wouldn't keep eye contact. "I don't, uh-"
"Because Tucson Police got a call the night before that the gas line was going to explode. And the call was traced to your cellular phone. Right here in Albuquerque."
"There must be some mistake."
"Just a stab in the dark, but I'm gonna say the mistake was you used your own phone to make the call. Now, we have guys looking into the explosion. Forensic guys. It looks like a malfunction, but it could have been a bomb. Was it a bomb, Dr. Newcomb?"
"Why are you asking me?"
"Because in all the cases I've investigated, the caller usually knew something bad was going to happen because he was one of the perpetrators."
"I see where you're going with this."
"Good. I like that. That's a little bit of predictive analytics you just did there." Dr. Newcomb sat forward, mirroring Grant's pose.
"Fine. Okay. Here it is. I wasn't trying to kill those pipeline workers. I was trying to save them. And I failed. Are you a fatalist?"
"You knew it would be exactly eleven."
Dr. Newcomb let out a long breath. "My clients come to me for a certain type of therapy. Hypnotic regression. Do you know about it?"
Grant nodded. "I have a degree in psychology. So. Yeah. I know about it."
Dr. Newcomb brightened a little. "Well, then. I can't explain this to you without violating confidentiality, but if Paul consents, he can tell you himself."
"Paul Marks. Kind of looks like a young Timothy Busfield."
"That guy from West Wing? What's he got to do with this?"
Dr. Newcomb stood and grabbed his coat. "Let's go for a ride."
Paul Marks entered Dr. Newcomb's wood-paneled office and shook hands with Grant. He had an easy grip and an easier smile, but he looked tired. He looked downright exhausted.
And yeah, Grant could sort of see a resemblance to the actor.
Dr. Newcomb settled into his therapist role. If Grant's presence still made him tense, he didn't show it. "Paul, thanks for coming in on such short notice."
"Oh, no problem. I guess I kinda signed up for this when I came to you."
"This is my associate, a fellow psychologist named Grant."
Grant nodded at Paul, "Hey." Dr. Newcomb said, "Paul, I would like to bring you under for another session, with Grant present, but only if you're all right with it."
Grant wasn't so eager to jump in without a few answers. "In the interest of full disclosure, Paul, I'm with a federal agency and I'm investigating a case that may involve your therapist. What sort of problem do you have?"
"Well, it started as just nightmares. But they've been getting worse, and more frequent. And now I've started having these, uh, these brief blackouts, every few days, that spring up outta nowhere and I come out of it feeling like I did something wrong, or like the world is... off, somehow."
"What are the nightmares about?"
"I don't remember. I never remember. Dr. Newcomb's therapy has been helping, though. I'm good for at least a couple of days after a session here."
Dr. Newcomb nodded curtly and ushered Paul to his plush couch. "Why don't we just get things started."
Paul reclined and began breathing deeply. Grant took a seat in a chair facing the couch. Dr. Newcomb sat in another, by a small round table. A large metronome made of wood and brass sat on the table. Newcomb set it into motion and waited for Paul to get comfortable. Then, the tone of Newcomb's voice changed. He spoke evenly, yet with a deep resonance. "Paul, watch the pendulum and listen to the sound of my voice. I am going to count down from twenty. When I reach the number one, you will be in a state of complete relaxation, detached from this office and your surroundings. Nineteen. You will be able to hear my voice, but you will be deep asleep. Eighteen."
Newcomb went on, until he reached one. Grant resisted the urge to stare at the metronome or listen too closely to the therapist, for fear of falling into a trance himself. He'd never been hypnotized before, but now was not the time to try.
Paul closed his eyes. Slowly, his breathing changed.
Dr. Newcomb talked to him, guiding him back to his childhood memories. Paul spoke briefly of his bicycle accident at nine years old.
Dr. Newcomb regressed him further, to when Paul was an infant. And even further. All the way back until Paul witnessed a "bright, luminous space" full of warmth.
Newcomb nudged Paul beyond the light. "Keep going, past the light, to your previous life. To who you were before you were Paul Marks."
Paul shifted on the couch and pulled his arms close to his body. "All right. I'm there." His accent had changed slightly. Suddenly there was a little Brooklyn in his voice.
"Where are you."
"In a hospital. I'm old. I'm sick. I'm dying. I just want a cigarette, but they won't let me have one. Not the night nurse."
Dr. Newcomb sat forward. "Tell me your name."
"Brian Huntley." "What is the date, Brian?" Paul, with his eyes still closed, moved his head as if looking for a calendar. "August the twenty-third." "The full date." "August twenty-three, 2047."
Go back in your life to the year 2010. Can you go there? Pick a day in the fall.
Yes. I see it now. I'm there. It's October fourth. A Monday.
Where are you?
I'm at home making breakfast. We're living in Denver, this is after the move from Chicago. My wife Millie is still in bed, she's a slow starter. I have the paper open on the breakfast table and I'm skimming it, waiting for the toast to pop.
Look closely at the paper.
It's the sports section. Talking about the Broncos game, against the Titans. Marshall caught a long bomb in the end zone in the fourth quarter. A circus catch. Denver won by seven. Toast is up, Millie! Come on and get your coffee!
The session lasted another ten minutes. Newcomb guided Paul to different memories in Brian's life, all happening around the current date or a week ahead. Grant asked for Paul to describe himself, and soon Paul found a moment when Brian was staring at the bathroom mirror, brushing his teeth. Grant made notes during the session, taking care to write down every fact that could be verified or disproved. Paul provided several pages of such facts, from the trivial (weather effects in Denver) to the more elaborate (the makes and models of cars in every driveway on Brian's street) to the valuable (stock market numbers). Then there were the names Brian and Millicent Huntley, another set of data that could be easily refuted. Grant didn't believe Paul could have been living the life of someone else still alive right now, so the next step was to prove how Paul was either inventing or learning this information, and to what purpose. Who was being conned?
Paul awoke with no memories of what he'd confessed under hypnosis. He admitted to feeling "a little dizzy" but otherwise well rested, and after booking another session, he shook hands with both Grant and Newcomb, and left.
Newcomb was about to explode with excitement. He looked expectantly at Grant. "Well? What do you think? Is it real?"
"You're asking me?"
Newcomb started pacing behind his desk. "I didn't know what to think the first time I regressed him. I eventually had him recall the date of that session, and pushed him forward a bit, to that evening. I listened to him watch the local news broadcast. He mentioned a national story about an insurgent attack in Sadr City that killed two American soldiers. That night, I saw the same story."
Grant shrugged. "Paul could have read that online before your session. You know how the Internet gets things first."
"He told me about the gas line rupture four days before it happened."
Grant felt trapped in the illogic of the discussion. "How is this even possible? The whole idea behind past lives is that they're just that-they happened in the past."
Newcomb was a few weeks of new-age philosophy ahead of Grant. "Most interpretations of the afterlife say it is a place beyond space and time. So, theoretically, a soul could pick just about any timeline to be reborn. Maybe it doesn't matter if they've lived in that time already. The spirit can co-exist in the same time because time doesn't matter to it, outside of this mortal world." Newcomb made a face, then amended, "I realize all of what I just said sounds ridiculous."
Grant tucked his notepad into his blazer and left a business card on Newcomb's desk. "I'm going to do some fact checking. Call me if there are any other developments. We're not done with Paul. My gut says he's cheating us somehow. Some sort of trick."
Newcomb followed Grant to the door. "What are you going to do?" "I'm going to figure out how he's doing it. And why." "What do you mean 'why'? There's no motive here." "There's always a motive."
Motive or not, the facts began to check out. Brian Huntley lived in Denver, with his wife of eight years, Millicent. Brian was a detective with the robbery homicide division at Denver P.D. He hadn't been there long; just about a year. Before that, he worked for Chicago police.
Brian's one blip on Google: A few articles from two years back about a case dubbed the "Ash Killer." A man had broken into a house in Cicero while the owner was sleeping, placed a line of ash on her forehead, then shot her point blank. Brian and his partner happened to be two doors down following up on a cold case when Brian heard the shots. He pursued the suspect on foot and with the help of backup, trapped him in a vacant house. The suspect later surrendered.
The man's name was Darin Wick. Middle thirties, angry at the world. What interested the prosecution was the Vibhuti ash "signature" Wick used on his victim. Forensics tested it and dated it at more than a thousand years old. Furthermore, it had the identical composition of the ash used on another victim fifteen years prior, in a series of murders in Ohio. That man was also dubbed the "Ash Killer;" Leonard Church. Also captured and convicted, and died in prison a year after he was sentenced.
Wick refused to explain or even acknowledge the unusual Vibhuti on his victim. And wherever he got it, he destroyed or ditched it before surrendering. Grant found a small clip of Wick during his sentencing, where he screamed obscenities at the prosecution and the judge, declaring the end of the world and warning the judge "you're next." Grant stopped watching when he realized none of this information was relevant to his research.
Grant poked around for another hour for information that could verify the story he got from Paul's hypnotherapy session, but he knew Paul would have access to that same information and could have memorized it ahead of time. Grant accessed a satellite view of the street where Brian lived, and matched some of the cars Paul described in his mental drive through Brian's eyes. What Grant couldn't figure out is how Paul would have been prepared to answer the random question of what kinds of cars were in the driveways. Newcomb allegedly made that up on the spot. If this were some elaborate ruse, where both therapist and patient were in on it, what was the goal?
It was time for the cards.
Grant had acquired three Tarot decks in as many years, but his favorite was the Legacy of the Divine, similar to a standard Tarot deck with the exception that the major arcana card The Hierophant was replaced with a card named, simply, Faith, and like other contemporary decks, Pentacles were Coins.
Before his career in Predictive Analytics, he never gave much thought to Tarot. It fell in with every other system that claimed to see the future. That is to say, Grant dismissed it as self-indulgent storytelling. But that changed when he ran into Marie in New Orleans four years ago, on a case involving a string of murders.
Since then, Grant had been practicing Tarot on his own, memorizing the layered meanings of the cards, learning new spreads. He couldn't make the connections like Marie, but he began to develop some pattern recognition, and like any good meditation tool, the cards allowed him to consider options he wouldn't otherwise.
He laid out a quick three-card spread, and discovered the Ten of Wands as his biggest problem in the next week. Too many contrasting ideas and opinions to weigh him down, making it hard to choose the right path. And the World, reversed? That major arcana seemed out of place in this small spread. He logged the entry in a notebook and returned to his work.
Grant researched well into the weekend, working from his hotel room. By Sunday night he was growing frustrated, on hold with a market analyst in his Predictive Analytics agency, when the television distracted him.
Fourth quarter, the Broncos versus the Titans. The fans were on their feet and the announcer's voice swelled with anticipation: Marshall had made it to the end zone just in time to reach for a forty-yard pass. He caught it with one hand. A "circus catch."
Grant hung up the phone and stared at the TV.
"Now you know how I feel." Newcomb took a swig of coffee and began drowning his pancakes in maple syrup. Grant had phoned him to meet at a diner near his hotel.
"I'm not saying I believe it yet."
"What will it take? He can see through this other man's eyes like they were his own. It's like having a camera that can travel to any point in Brian Huntley's life - and before Brian has even lived it. I've been doing past-life regression for six years and I've never seen anything like this before."
"There has to be more to it. We're just not thinking big enough."
"Because we're dancing around the bigger issue here: Fate exists. Destiny." The waitress stopped by briefly to refill their coffee. Newcomb smiled at her but remained silent until she was out of earshot. "Doesn't she remind you of Anne Hathaway?"
"No. I don't see that."
"I mean I don't see evidence of destiny, or fate."
"If someone can predict the future, doesn't that mean we're all on a set path? I'm a little fuzzy on the math of it, but doesn't a perfectly accurate prophet prove predestination?"
Grant considered debating the fundamentals of forecasting, but he didn't want to open that door with Newcomb. Psychologists made for terrible debate partners. "We need more information."
"What more do you want? We can have the stock numbers for next week. We can call Vegas and be rich from sports betting. I won't lie. I've been thinking about that a lot since I discovered Paul's secret power."
"That would not end well, let me tell you."
"But is it illegal? Tell me how it's breaking the law."
Grant changed subjects. "What we need to do now, is see what happens when we alter something on Paul. Some detail. Something he's already predicted."
"I tried that already." "What? When?" "When I called to warn of the explosion. It didn't change a thing." Grant finished his coffee and stood up. "Bring Paul in tomorrow for a session, and call me when he's under." He dropped a twenty on the table.
"Where are you going?" Grant headed for the door.
Tuesday morning. Brian Huntley shuffled out his front door in sweat pants and slippers to grab the morning paper. Grant watched from a rental car parked across the street and two houses back. The man was as Paul described him: Broad-faced, worry lines across his forehead, hair on his chest. Brian glanced down the street as he returned inside. Grant wondered if Brian noticed him.
Grant's cell phone rang. "This is Lukather."
"Hey, it's me. Paul is on the couch now, and he's regressed back to Brian. Are you really in Denver?"
"I just saw Brian grab the morning paper. No doubt he's making toast for his wife right now."
"So what do we do?"
"Have Paul tell you what Brian does today. Focus on the morning. When does he leave for work, which route does he take, that sort of thing."
"What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to fuck with fate."
Grant waited on the line as Newcomb regressed Paul to the present date in Brian's life. He could hear Newcomb's therapy-voice and Paul's slight Brooklyn accent that vanished when he was awake. Brooklyn... Brian grew up in New York. What was this about?
Newcomb picked up the phone again. "Did you get all that?" "I couldn't really hear." "Brian leaves in ten minutes, he takes his car to the police station. He listens to talk radio on his way. He takes Seventeenth because there's an accident on Colfax."
Grant looked at the silver Toyota in the driveway. "Which car is his?"
"Let me ask."
Grant heard Newcomb speak to Paul, and a moment later: "The Camry."
"All right. Keep him under for as long as you can. I'll call you back in the next ten minutes."
Grant got out of his rental car and walked along the sidewalk across the street, in the direction of Brian's house. He kept his focus straight ahead, his stride casual. Last night at the outlet mall near his hotel, Grant had purchased a track suit so he could appear to be a morning jogger in the neighborhood. The tag made his neck itch. In his jacket pocket he thumbed his steel pocketknife.
Once he got clear of the large bay window at the front of the Huntley house, Grant quickly crossed the street and approached Brian's Toyota. He looked around, and then in one fluid motion, flipped open his knife blade, stabbed the rear tire, and continued jogging back toward his rental car.
Nobody seemed to notice. But just to be sure, he kept up the role as jogger and ran to the end of the block, then came back up the other side, where his car was parked.
By the time Grant got back behind the wheel, he could see the Camry's rear tire was already flat. A few minutes later, Brian stepped out dressed for work, jingling the keys in his hand. He noticed the flat tire almost immediately, and cursed loudly. Brian bent down and inspected the tire, then went to the passenger door and rummaged through his glove compartment.
A moment later, Brian stood up with a card in his hand and dialed a number on his phone. He began pacing.
Grant's phone rang. It unnerved him; for a moment Grant was terrified Brian was the caller on the other end, somehow already knowing that Grant was spying on him. But it was Newcomb. Grant answered: "What is it?"
"I know you said you'd call me, but Paul is suddenly restless. Like he's having night terrors. What happened?"
"See if you can have him recall Brian's morning again."
Grant waited on the line. He watched Brian pace up and down the driveway, gesticulating as he spoke to someone on the other end. Newcomb came back on the phone: "It's different now."
"Brian has a flat tire. He calls roadside assistance but the soonest they can reach him is in two hours, so he changes the flat and puts the temporary on. He's late for work. He misses an interrogation. His partner handles it solo."
Grant's stomach sank. This little experiment meant to catch Paul in a lie just went the other direction.
He sat in his car, watching Brian get the temporary tire out of the trunk. Newcomb's voice broke the silence.
"This feels wrong, Grant. Like we broke something."
Grant drove around Denver for the next five hours, circling on interstates until it was time for him to take the Peña Boulevard exit for the airport and fly back to Farmington. Driving helped him focus. And right now, he felt lost at sea.
What was the connection? How could a man's past life be happening at the same time as his present one? Grant feared accepting one phenomenon would send him in a spiral of even more strangeness he would also have to accept. But he couldn't deny that Paul Marks and Brian Huntley were connected somehow. Paul could replay every moment of Brian's life; even moments not yet lived.
And change... When Grant changed something in Paul's memory of Brian's day, it disturbed Paul. And this is why Paul was seeing Newcomb in the first place. Night terrors. Bad dreams he couldn't remember when he woke. Was Paul somehow sensitive to events that altered what the future is supposed to be? The biggest unanswerable questions were all on the table here. Free will versus fate. Nonlinear time. Grant kept going over the morning's events, hoping to see a practical trick or con, so he could return inside the borders of a reality he knew.
The Ten of Wands. Here it was. The card from his spread. And the outcome; The World, reversed. Things getting out of control, rippling out to many people at once. Grant needed to lay another spread, possibly a Celtic Cross or a five-card situational. His deck, tucked in a silk pouch, was back at his hotel in New Mexico.
The flight back was long and bumpy. At the Albuquerque airport, Newcomb was waiting for him, the muscles of his face and neck taut with worry. The two men didn't speak until they were in the parking lot. And Newcomb didn't look at Grant when he finally asked, "What do we do now?"
"I don't know."
"Have you told anyone else?"
"Not yet. You?"
"Of course not. This blows open the whole field of past-life regression. The fact that one of Paul's previous incarnations is still alive now is just-"
Grant stopped Newcomb at the car. "What did you just say?"
"Brian is still alive now. You know this."
"One of his previous incarnations? How many past lives do people have?"
"Well. Theoretically, it goes all the way back, I guess. But people have a hard time recalling more than four."
Grant looked at the ground for a moment, his mind racing.
"What?" Then Newcomb caught up to the agent's process. "You want to regress Paul back farther, don't you. Past Brian."
Grant nodded slowly. "Let's see how far down the rabbit hole goes."
I'm in a hospital. I'm old. I'm sick. I'm dying. I just want a cigarette, but they won't let me have one. Not the night nurse.
Go back. Keep going back through the years of your life as Brian Huntley. You're traveling through this life toward infancy, to the moment you were born...
There's a light. I'm in a brilliant, warm space.
Keep pushing past that. To the life before.
Where are you?
The rest home. It's bridge night, but Gloria passed on Saturday and I'm wondering why I should even go. Who's gonna be my partner now? I lose partners, that's my life. More than just partners. A mother shouldn't outlive her daughter, you know.
What's your name?
Ingrid, what is today's date?
Tuesday the what?
Oh, how the hell should I know. Who dares keep a calendar in a rest home?
All right, I'm looking around, sheesh. Okay, so the Distraction Board has one.
What's the distraction board?
The place where the staff tries to pretend this is a YMCA. Look at all these events. Swimming lessons. Yoga. Ballroom dancing. Like we have working hips.
It says right here, March 2031.
Grant paced in Newcomb's office, hands hiding his face as he tried to figure it out. Newcomb watched, seated next to Paul, who was still prone on the couch, his eyes closed. Newcomb gave Grant another moment before asking: "Should I bring him back up?"
"No," Grant said, and stopped in his tracks. "Ask him..."
"Ask her, you mean."
"Ask whoever-it-is, what does she remember most? If she can travel to any point in her life, what would be the day that stands out above the others?"
Newcomb asked. Paul spoke, but in a slightly more gravelly voice. As if he were a lifetime smoker. "The day I got the call about my daughter. Audrey."
"What happened to Audrey?"
"Her body was found in a tram car at Sandia Peak. They just left her there. Can you believe that? I didn't want her to drive halfway across the country just to keep her car for college. I told her not to."
Newcomb whispered to Grant: "Sandia Peak is just outside town. This is local."
Grant leaned toward Paul. "When did this happen? The day you got the call, what was the date?"
"The date, 2010. October eighth."
Grant double-checked the calendar: Four days from now.
Paul kept going on about Audrey, tears leaking from his snapped-shut eyes. "The worst day of my life. I lost my daughter, and my friend Donna, too. She just collapsed at work, aneurysm. Sad day in the news, too. That whole rule of three. More like nine, that day. I cried so much."
"Paul-Ingrid," Grant corrected himself, "how was your daughter killed?"
"Shot twice. Once in the head, once in the heart. And the bastard tried to make it a racial thing. He put ash on her forehead."
Paul's session lasted just two more minutes before he faded and awoke with a headache, but during those precious two minutes Grant learned that the ash on Audrey's forehead was "really old" and that, for a few months, the forensic evidence threatened to get some murderer in Colorado out of prison on appeal. It was a direct match to the Cicero homicide. The Ash Killer strikes again.
Except the killer was someone new. Not Leonard Church, who'd been dead for more than a decade. Not Darin Wick, currently locked up in Florence, Colorado. Another culprit. According to Paul's past life as Ingrid, Audrey's killer was never caught.
What was most disturbing about this information: None of it had happened yet. Right now, Audrey was still in Palm Springs with her mother, packing for her trip to Amherst. The day after tomorrow, she'd hit the road and drive east on I-40, stopping overnight in Arizona to do a little sightseeing. By Thursday she'd be passing through Albuquerque, texting her mother before Audrey would disappear at a gas station. There was no way to prove any of this, but after Grant's little experiment in Denver, he didn't feel the need. A larger picture was starting to form. Grant now had a thread between these two past lives of Paul's; a line that could be drawn in ash.
Wednesday morning. Thirty-six hours before Audrey's abduction.
Grant drove into "Club Fed" - the massive complex of privately-owned federal prisons built in Florence, Colorado. Grant made his way through two check points, forced to stop and open his trunk both times, then escorted through a fence-line hallway and into a small building with a kind of airlock room, where Grant gave up his Sig Sauer, his ballpoint pen in his pocket, his belt, and even his keys. A guard walked him to the Visitors Station, down a long hall where the stink of the prison seeped in past the heavy application of Pine-Sol.
The Visitors Station wasn't much more than a windowless rec room with half a dozen metal tables placed in no particular arrangement. No phones, no plexiglass. And at the time, no convicts, save for one.
Darin Wick stared coldly as Grant approached. As Grant reached the chair opposite Wick, the convict shook his head at him. "No."
Grant paused. "No?"
"You don't get to sit down yet. I don't know you."
"Does it matter?"
"It does if you're a reporter. Don't you read my website? Interviews are five hundred an hour. Go fill out the form." Grant sat down. "I'm not a reporter." Wick cocked an eyebrow at him. "Some relative of the victim?"
"I'm not related."
"You're all related."
Grant showed his federal identification. Wick seemed amused by it.
"Predictive Analytics. That ain't real. But it's charming. What brings you here, mister analytics?"
"The ash you put on Mary Piller's forehead when you killed her." "That wasn't me, man..."
Grant continued, "You got it from Church, or someone he knew, and before you surrendered, you hid it somewhere in that vacant house so someone else could find it."
"No idea what you're talking about."
"You're going to tell me who you gave it to. Whoever knew where to find it even after the police tried and failed."
"Why do you think someone has it?"
"Because in three days the body of a teenage girl will be found dead in Albuquerque with the same ash on her forehead."
A wicked grin spread on Wick's face. He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms. "Predictive Analytics, I get it."
"Who is the new Ash Killer?"
"Who told you the future?"
Grant waited, staring Wick down. Wick seemed amused, even entertained. But he didn't blanch at Grant's prediction. And that unnerved Grant; his stomach tightened. "You know who the killer is, don't you."
"Yes. But you go first. Who told you the future." Grant took a breath. "Her mother." "She's a psychic?" "She doesn't know she told us."
Grant watched Wick unpack that statement until realization spread across his brow. "You clever son of a bitch. You found someone farther down the chain."
Grant's muscles twitched. "What?"
"You got to her with hypnosis, didn't you."
Wick watched Grant closely for an answer. Grant held his tongue, suddenly fearful he'd given away too much. How could Wick know about any of that? Grant thought he was offering cryptic information at best, and yet Wick jumped right to the truth, as if it were laid out before him. Four breaths later, Grant found his voice. "Your turn."
Wick leaned in and stared at Grant's eyes, searching; inspecting. Like a doctor might. "Is that you, Yuri?"
"Answer the question. Who is the new killer?"
Wick smiled. "Me."
"Don't be stupid. You're locked up."
"Darin Wick is locked up. I am more than this body."
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"You know what I'm talking about. Same way you got to Audrey's mom."
Grant shook his head. It didn't make sense to him. Was Wick talking about his past incarnations? Was he also part of this string of concurrent lives? Or was he a different chain? The realization began to take hold in Grant's mind.
"You and Leonard Church. You're one in the same."
"There we go."
"And you have another life out there right now."
"I have a hundred others out there."
"So do you. Too many vessels, not enough souls. Everyone is coming back in the same cycle. Only difference between you and me? I am aware. I remember. I know the game. I come into this world knowing it, every time."
Wick chuckled. "I love it. You know how many times you've tried to stop me? And you do all right for yourself, all things considered. But you just can't see the big picture."
Grant stood up. "That's enough."
Wick shook his head. "No it's not. I'm not done yet."
Grant folded up his federal I.D. and stepped away from the table. As he walked for the door, Wick called after, "You're an endangered species now!"
It was a typical gas station along Interstate 40, just outside city limits, next to a Denny's where Grant had parked, facing the station. The sun wasn't quite out of the sky but the fuel pumps and the store were already lit up for the night. People stopped to refuel, to grab a soda for the car, or to use the restrooms on the side of the convenience store, and then they went on their way.
But Grant knew better. He knew that in four minutes, Audrey Matheson would drive up in her Honda into the side parking lot, go in and pay for a Smart Water and a protein bar, and that would be the last time witnesses saw her. Police would later find her car still parked in the lot. This was the place. This was where the ash killer would get her.
This was where Grant would stop him.
When he slashed Brian's tire in Denver, Newcomb confessed he felt unnerved. Like they had done something wrong; committed some crime against the universe. Grant did not feel that way now. He felt like he was making things right.
The interview with Wick kept replaying in his head. It haunted his sleep. Wick's words seemed like the ravings of a madman, but Grant couldn't shake the idea that the convict knew what was really going on, and might even be the sole perpetrator. What did he mean, we are all related? The questions nagged at Grant.
And the other line. Too many vessels, not enough souls. Was there a finite number of souls? Was that possible? Grant had always assumed that a soul was created with a new child, but the whole concept of past lives would invalidate that idea, or at least created a lot of problems. Was the Earth in some sort of strange population crisis, where seven billion lives were being managed by a significantly smaller number of souls? The theoretical landscape made his head hurt.
He considered calling Newcomb and getting the therapist's opinion on the matter, but he didn't want to miss out on-
There it was. Audrey's car.
The muscles around Grant's stomach tensed. He scanned the area for signs of anyone suspicious. He checked the Sig Sauer in his lap. He began debating his decision not to involve local police. It would have meant he had backup right now, but how would he have described the scenario? Could he have lied? Just made something up? Would the police presence have alerted the killer and made him change his abduction plans?
No, this was Grant's problem.
Audrey got out of her car and went into the convenience store inside the gas station. She was pretty and petite, with brunette hair that waved and curled around her face. Grant tucked his handgun into his shoulder holster and got out of his car. He didn't want to wait from a place where he couldn't observe Audrey, even if the interior of the store seemed an unlikely point from which to abduct her. Grant walked thirty paces to one of the fuel pump stations and stood where he could see into the store.
Audrey was in back, by the wall of refrigerated drinks.
Grant scrutinized the people pumping gas, their cars, and anyone loitering on the property. Nothing felt out of the ordinary. Yet something felt... off. Slightly unbalanced. His stomach muscles tensed another notch.
Audrey stepped up to the register with a Smart Water and a Cliff bar.
The phone in Grant's pocket buzzed. He glanced at the number. Newcomb. Decided to let it go to voicemail because Audrey was stepping out of the store now, on her way back to her car. The car police would later find in that exact spot.
Grant began walking back to his car, on a parallel path with Audrey, two dozen steps away from him. She veered off for her Honda. He stopped and put his cell phone to his ear, as if he were on a call, still watching her from the corner of his eye.
Audrey started her car, pulled out, and drove past Grant, merging back onto the access road to the interstate.
Grant stood and watched her go. Confused. Did he change something? The phone in his hand buzzed again. Newcomb, a second try. Grant answered. Newcomb spoke quickly. "Grant, I need you to get to Kindred Hospital, get to the
ICU ward when you're here."
"Wait, what? Why? What happened?"
"It's Paul. I think he's in a coma."
Newcomb was waiting at the door to Paul's private room when Grant stepped off the elevator. Grant followed him in, to find Paul in stable condition but unconscious despite any real head trauma. The two men whispered at the foot of Paul's hospital bed. "He's in and out, but for a while he was unresponsive. They couldn't wake him."
"Who did this to him?"
"It happened while he was driving. Wrecked his car. They think the airbag might have given him a concussion, but you know what I think?"
"Only this one was a doozy."
"How'd you get here so fast?"
"He has me listed as his point of contact. In case of emergencies like this."
Paul stirred and his eyelids fluttered. Newcomb bent over him.
Paul whispered, "Doc..."
"How long have I been out?"
Newcomb looked at Grant, then back at Paul. "About two hours now."
"Doc, I'm scared... Everything..."
"Everything will be okay, Paul."
Paul's eyelids fluttered again and he passed out, his head lilting to one side.
Newcomb and Grant shared a look. Newcomb whispered, "I need to regress him. Find out what happened that shook him up so bad he crashed."
"You can't do that here. He needs to recover."
With his eyes still closed, Paul frowned and said, "Honey, have you seen my keys?"
"It's okay, Paul," said Newcomb.
Newcomb blanched and asked, "Who is this?"
Newcomb grabbed a chair, placed it by the bed and sat forward, close to Paul's ear. "Brian, I need you to listen to the sound of my voice. You're too close to what's happening right now. Pull away, so you can observe yourself from a place of safety. You are safe, just watching what is happening. Do you understand?"
Paul's muscles began to relax. He nodded. "Okay. Yeah."
"Good. All right. Now. What day is it?"
"Eighth of October. It's six fifteen and we're gonna be late to dinner."
Grant checked his watch. "That's right now. Like five minutes from now."
Newcomb continued, "What is happening right now?" "I'm trying to remember where I put my keys when I got home from work. Probably in my jacket. I'm walking to the kitchen, and... sharp, blinding pain in my head, then my chest. I fall. Then I can't... there's no more. That's it."
Newcomb was nearly unglued now, unsure what to ask next. Grant took over and focused on Paul.
"Go back-listen to me, Brian, go back in time, back before you were Brian." Grant spoke the words he'd heard Newcomb use a hundred times in all those sessions. "Back through the bright, luminous space."
Paul twitched in the bed. Newcomb just stared back and forth at the two men, still in shock.
"Okay. I'm there."
"Who are you now?"
"My name is Ingrid Matheson."
Grant let out a breath. "Good..."
"Ingrid, what date is it?"
"I don't know."
"Try and concentrate."
"That's what the man is saying."
Grant frowned. "What man?"
"The man who took me."
Newcomb finally wrested control of himself and leaned back in: "Ingrid, take a moment and describe for us what is going on, where you are, and who is with you."
He was waiting for me. He knew my name.
I'm in a motel room. I can't move my arms, they're trapped behind my back. I'm scared. I don't understand why I'm here.
The man stands over me. He snaps his fingers in my face and tells me to focus. He says he has a message for Grant. I tell him I don't know anyone named Grant, but he tells me to shut up. I realize he's crazy, and he's going to kill me. I look around the room for anything. The phone is on the nightstand but I can't reach it. The man forces me to look up at him.
"No more cheating, Grant," he says.
What does he look like?
Tall. A bit over six foot. Short, black hair. Mustache. His eyes are a little too close together. One side of his face by his ear has a splotch, a birthmark.
He holds a bag. No, more like a pouch. It looks very old. It smells old. I ask him what it is, where he got it.
"I took it from an angel," he says. And now I'm certain he's going to kill me. So I try to keep him talking. I ask about the angel.
"This angel had a special job. You see, men could grow to become criminals, or turn sour and evil in a lifetime, but their souls were still pure, and a murderer in one life could be a holy man in the next. Salvation through reincarnation.
"But not all souls are pure. There are bad seeds. Ones who return to Earth because they love the sight of blood. The smell of fear. The look of surprise on a person's face just before their spirit is kicked back into the aether.
"The angel hunted these souls. Like an exterminator. And his name was Uriel. He had two weapons: A sword, and this bag of ash, all that remains from a holy fire, long ago."
He reaches into the bag and when he pulls his hand out again, his fingers are caked with some kind of gray chalk.
"Everyone thought Uriel's sword was the big deal, but it's this, right here. I can smear this on you..." He touches my forehead, drawing a circle. "...and now, when I kill you, I kill your soul, too. No afterlife, no 'luminous space.' Total obliteration. Supposed to weed out the bad seeds that way."
I'm crying. I tell him, I'm not a bad seed. I'm a good person. He smiles and nods.
"Do I look like an angel to you?"
He does not. I ask him what happened to Uriel.
"He came for me, all holy fury and light, and I pleaded for my life. I told him I would learn to be good again. I was just lost. I begged him for a little more time. One more rebirth. And for just a moment, just a breath, he felt pity for me. He saw me as a sad, groveling creature.
"That's when I grabbed his sword and murdered that righteous fuck."
He points a gun at me. I'm trying to think of something to say, something to ask him to keep him talking. I don't want to die. I start babbling. He talks over me.
"Ashes, ashes, you all fall down..."
He shoots me once in the head and then in the chest.
Newcomb paced frantically. "Oh god. Oh dear god. This isn't happening, it's not possible. I don't even believe in this shit, oh god..."
Grant glanced at his watch: Six fifteen. Maybe his was running fast. He had maybe a minute to try and save Ingrid's life. Maybe less. He spoke to Paul:
"Now go back, just a little bit. Do you hear me? Go back to when you were looking around the motel room."
Paul nodded. "Okay."
"You saw the phone."
"On the nightstand! The motel phone."
"Okay. What is the number?"
"Is there any number on the phone? Or on a card next to it? Can you see anything like that?"
"It's too fast, it goes by too fast."
Newcomb jumped back in now: "Remember you have control. You can pause what you are seeing right when you look at the phone. Do that."
Paul nodded, eyes shut tight. "Okay. There is a number for incoming calls. Like to give someone who wants to dial in directly to the room."
Grant had a pen ready. Paul rattled off a number with a 760 area code, and extension 204 at the end. Grant recognized the Palm Springs area code from his research into Ingrid earlier in the week. The extension, he guessed, corresponded to the motel's room number.
Grant grabbed his cell phone and put it to his ear. Paul's head jerked, then his chest sank into the mattress, and he let out a final breath.
The life support monitors went off like fire alarms. A nurse and two residents stormed in, glancing at Grant and Newcomb with suspicion and accusation in their eyes. They tried to bring Paul back.
He never came back. He was gone.
The question: What should be my next move against Wick?
The cards: The Devil reversed, Judgment, and the Ace of Swords.
Grant understood Wick as the Devil card; a destructive force and a control freak, consumed by his own agenda. Judgment, however, was a card about self-transformation and seeing things in a new light. The image of a penitent angel looking to the heavens unsettled Grant. He thought of the story Ingrid's killer told; of Uriel and his weapons, the ash and the sword. And now here was the Ace of Swords, a card marking a singular force of will; a deciding moment when the solution becomes clear.
The reading didn't help. He decided the best move for now was to clear out and get off the grid. He packed up his things from the hotel and checked out with the TV. Newcomb was back at his office, and despite giving him specific instructions to stay off the phones and cancel his appointments, Grant didn't like leaving the therapist alone.
On the drive, Grant went over what he had done in the hour since Paul, Brian, and Ingrid all died at the same time. The motel number Ingrid had seen led Grant to the manager, who'd informed him that the man who took room 204 paid in cash, which meant there was no way for Grant to track him. Grant had him call the Palm Springs police and have them investigate the room immediately. He had the manager describe the man who booked the room, and it matched Ingrid's description. Grant got on the federal wire with his laptop and put out an APB, alerting Southern California. A few minutes later, the motel manager called him back and said, "I think that fella just drove off. The room is empty. Some blood on the bed. How'd you know somethin' was going on? What area code is this?" Grant pushed for a description of the vehicle, a plate number, anything. The manager claimed he didn't get a good look at the plate, but it was a silver Toyota sport utility, caked in dust like he'd been driving cross-country. Grant added that information to the APB, and gave his contact information for anyone who had a lead.
Now came the waiting. Grant hated waiting. He considered flying out to LA, but by the time he got there, Ingrid's killer could be anywhere.
The best bet was to let the system work for him. Wait for something to ping on the radar. Maybe Grant would get lucky.
As he pulled into the lot for Newcomb's building, Newcomb called him.
"The police are here. Asking me about Paul, and you." Then, in a near whisper: "This guy looks like James Gandolfini. It's intimidating."
"I'm on my way up."
The police, as it turned out, was just one cop: Detective Jon Coleman, chewing gum with his mouth open. He did not look like anyone famous, in Grant's opinion. Coleman had gotten Newcomb's info from hospital security and wanted to follow up on what they thought happened to Paul, considering Newcomb and Grant were in the room when he suddenly died.
Newcomb was stammering out an evasive answer when Grant walked in the door. "And he'd been complaining of blackouts."
Grant and Coleman shook hands, and Coleman noticed the bulge of Grant's Sig in his shoulder holster. "You mind showing me I.D.? Doc says you're a Fed, but hell if I've heard of you guys."
Grant supplied his badge. Coleman grinned at it and chuckled. "Just like he said. You want to tell me what you and the shrink are doing here?" Newcomb glanced at Grant.
"I'm investigating a case that involved Paul Marks."
"My department had circumstantial evidence that linked Marks to an incident in another state." Vague, but hopefully enough to satisfy the detective for now.
Coleman smacked his gum. "You want to elaborate on that?"
"What was really going on with this guy, mentally?"
Newcomb answered defensively, glancing at Grant again. "I can't answer that. I have to protect patient confidentiality."
"Protect from who?" The grammar made Grant wince.
"I can't say, really." Newcomb continued to seek Grant's unspoken permission.
Coleman turned his attention to Newcomb. "So your therapy with this Paul Marks, whatever is going on, you haven't shared with anyone, is that what you're saying?"
Coleman looked back to Grant. Grant nodded. But something began tickling the back of his brain, some errant thought.
Coleman nodded. "Good. Just what I wanted to hear." And the detective pulled his service Glock and shot Newcomb twice in the chest, and the therapist fell back into his chair, his eyes glazing over.
Grant moved as fast as he could think, pulling his Sig Sauer and sidestepping for the door, but Coleman was faster, and had the Glock trained on him.
The two men stared each other down through their gun sights. Grant could hear his heartbeat in his eardrums. Newcomb made a last, weak cough, then died.
Coleman spat out his gum on the floor. "Hello again, Yuri."
Grant tried to control his breathing. "Who are you?"
"Come on. You know me. I hear you had a nice long chat with another iteration of mine up in prison a few days back."
"I'm not here to kill you, but I will if I have to."
"Then why are you here?"
Coleman kept his Glock on Grant, and used one hand to toss a set of handcuffs at Grant's feet. "I'm your driver. We're going for a ride. You got a date with the bag man."
Grant made no move for the cuffs. He knew what Coleman was suggesting. "Drop your weapon." "Or you'll do what? Shoot a cop with a clean record? You'll be on every wanted list in the state. I chose this mortal life and made every decision just to be ready for this moment, right here. Thirty-six years in the planning. I am part of a network of iterations, do you get that? Do you see how I'm playing this game? I'm always one step ahead of you. Kill me here and I'll just be reborn in someone else, maybe thirty years ago, armed with the knowledge that you will be here, right now. You can't win. You lost the moment you showed your face in Florence."
Grant's aim faltered. He lowered his gun, trying to find his center of gravity. The consequences of Coleman's threats pinged in his brain.
Coleman smiled and lowered his Glock to match Grant. He could see the creeping realization in Grant's eyes.
But then Grant remembered Brian Huntley and the slashed tire. He remembered Newcomb on the phone. They changed the course of events that morning. Free will scored one against predestination.
And, submitting to Coleman now was a surefire death sentence.
Grant locked eyes with Coleman. "This will keep you busy." He shot the detective in the head.
Coleman was dead before his body hit the floor. Grant paused a moment, not sure what to expect next. Some part of him believed a man-maybe even Wick himself- would storm through the door and strike Grant down. He wasn't sure how this reincarnation phenomenon worked, he just knew that the future was as malleable as it was predictable.
After a moment of indecision, Grant moved quickly, checking the man's pockets. He found a wallet, keys, and cell phone, and took them all.
Newcomb's phone rang. He let it ring.
He had just shot a police detective, and the only person who would believe his story was dead in his chair. If Coleman knew what he was doing, he'd already alerted his department about Grant's involvement with Newcomb and Paul Marks. Soon the police would follow up here, and find the scene.
Hiding Coleman's body. Yes. That would give Grant more time to get some distance. He heaved the man over his shoulder. At the door, he looked back at Newcomb. Wanting to do more. Wanting to turn the clock and save him. Wondering if Newcomb was already living out another life, far away from this madness. Maybe he was.
In the back stairwell, on the way to the parking lot, Coleman's phone rang.
He let that one ring, too.
Coleman's scraped-up Ford sedan flashed its parking lights when Grant triggered the key fob. The rental car was too dangerous to use now, he decided. It would be flagged in the system, since it was booked under his name. With some luck, police wouldn't think to look for Coleman's car until the following morning.
He popped the trunk and dropped Coleman's body inside, then scanned the lot for witnesses. The place was quiet. Just before shutting the trunk lid, Grant spied a plastic bag from a hardware store. Inside: duct tape. Extension cord. A hammer. Handkerchiefs. Grant shook his head. "You had some surprises for me here, didn't you."
In the car, he thumbed Coleman's cell phone awake. One new voicemail. He punched the button and listened.
Nothing but a long silence, then the click of a disconnect. From an unknown number. No way to know who was trying to reach Coleman... or Grant, if they already knew what had happened.
A recent saved voicemail message played next. "Coleman. Yuri knows. He's in the life of a federal agent named Grant Lukather, working with a shrink. Wick called me from prison and said you would be the man for it. Make sure they haven't talked to anyone else about it, and bring Grant to LA, alive. We need to ash him. He's been an annoyance long enough. Meantime, we're stepping up the plan. All of us are meeting here for distribution. We're getting the band together."
Distribution. Of what? Grant checked the phone number that left the message: 310 area code. Los Angeles. A minute later, after a hard-target Google search, he had a corresponding address. Another minute later, he was merging onto the freeway, headed west. For California.
In Gallup, a waitress at an all-night diner attacked Grant with a steak knife. She waited until he was in the bathroom, washing up. He put her down, but not without a fight, and fled knowing he just lost whatever lead time he'd made from Albuquerque. As she bled out on the grimy men's room floor, she gurgled at him: "Yuri."
Outside Holbrook, a trucker driving a moving company's semi ran Grant off the road, pulled over, got out, and blasted the sedan with a shotgun. Grant wounded the trucker and scrambled into the woods. The trucker shouted after him: "You can't hide! Pretty soon everyone else will be me! A whole world of me!"
At a parking garage, he hotwired a car and took a rural highway south, toward Phoenix. Once he was alone on the road, he stopped and fished out the car's first aid kit. Dressed his cuts from the knife fight at the diner, and checked for scattershot wounds. Then he was back on the road.
Two hours later, a teenager on a bicycle caught sight of him at a stoplight, and flipped open his phone. "I see him, he's in Scottsdale, on Superstition Freeway." Grant ran the light and tore onto Interstate 10. He was a dozen hours away from Los Angeles.
And unable to trust a single soul on the planet.
The Los Angeles address was a church.
The structure towered over the other buildings around it, and seemed to predate the construction of most of the neighborhood by at least fifty years. And it was built like a compound. Cameras mounted high, like vultures peering down. Bars on the first-floor windows.
Grant had arrived thirty minutes before dawn, and parked in a vacant lot across the street. It had taken him the better part of a day to get here with some level of confidence that he hadn't been followed. Twice he had ditched his vehicle to steal another. He leeched a wi-fi signal from the parking lot of a closed Starbucks and checked on statewide criminal alerts. The system that he'd employed to try and zero in on Ingrid's killer two days ago was now in full effect against Grant. Superiors from Predictive Analytics had tried to contact him via email. Likely on his phone as well, which he'd thrown out the window on the highway last night.
A federal warrant had been issued for his arrest, in association with the murders of Newcomb and Coleman. He was also a suspect in the murder of someone named Diane Sylva, whom Grant guessed was the waitress at the diner.
Grant pulled his thoughts from his own situation and focused on the church. In the past half hour, men and women from all walks of life had arrived, one by one. The middle-aged man wearing a sweater vest. The young woman with tattoos on her arms and a snub-nosed revolver tucked in her trousers. The bodybuilder in gym clothes. The Asian man carrying a katana in its scabbard. One at a time they arrived, and after about fifteen minutes inside, others trickled out, each clutching something in their fists. Church did not seem to be in session, but clearly something was going on.
Grant dug into his shopping bag and pulled on an oversized hoodie and a well-worn military jacket he'd bought at a surplus store back in Arizona, to help conceal his face and his handgun. He stared at the church and tried to think of another option-someone to call, someone to help him. Anything else.
As he approached the double doors, Grant kept close eye on the latest arrivals. More strangers had gathered at the front steps, some nodding to each other like perhaps they knew one another. The entry opened, and everyone stepped in. He was given a cursory glance from the doorman, but no one made a move to stop him.
The main chamber of the church had been turned into a makeshift meeting hall. Two rows of tables were arranged likes pews near the pulpit, and the strangers lined up for whatever was being given away.
At the pulpit, a man with a birthmark on his face and narrow eyes spoke to the crowd. "Welcome. I know the irony here. Most of us don't know each other even though we're the same. To avoid confusion you can call me by my mortal name, Luke Beals. In case you're just getting in, here's how it goes. Get in line and take a pouch. This is your share of ash from the big bag. With every pouch is a map and a marked territory. Stick to your territory. Our last mortal in the chain is Wick, and he will instruct us when to go active."
Grant got into line with the others, keeping his head down, listening intently. Putting it together. They're distributing the ash. For one massive, coordinated murder spree, it seemed. If the story Ingrid related about the ash was true, then Wick-or whatever his real name was-planned to strike a fatal blow to the population; one that would kill exponentially more people than those he simply murdered. Like Paul, Brian, Ingrid, and whoever else might have been occupied by that one soul, entire chains of people would simply, and suddenly, die.
The line moved forward again. Grant peered ahead. The pouches on the table were closer now. Ten yards. A plan formed in the back of his brain: Use the ash on one of Wick's iterations. One bullet in his marked target, and the rest should fall like dominoes. He would even stop those who'd already left with a little handful of ash.
A shudder ran through the crowd, as if a cold breeze scraped past them. Grant didn't feel it, but it's clear the others did.
Beals snapped his fingers at the middle-aged man with the sweater jacket. "Find out what that was." Sweater jacket nodded at the tattooed woman, and the two of them stepped into an adjoining room. Grant watched as the woman sat in a plush chair and closed her eyes. The man shut the door, but before it closed, Grant heard him say: "I'm going to count backward from fifty..."
Shit, Grant thought. He kept one hand in his pocket, wrapped around the handle of his Sig Sauer.
The line moved forward more. Grant could see the tables now.
Five small pouches rested atop folded-up metropolitan maps. The man in line ahead of him grabbed a pouch and a map, and reviewed his location. The man was dressed in a business suit, but carried a retractable knife in a belt-loop holster.
Grant was next. He could almost reach out and grab a pouch...
"This is for Chicago," the man in the suit complained.
Beals looked down at him from the pulpit. "We need to spread out."
"Why don't I just stay in LA?"
Beals stared for a moment. "I'm not going to have an argument with myself." The man proceeded to argue the organizational plan, claiming he had spent his years working on a skillset for just such an occasion.
Grant stepped up to the table, grabbed a pouch, and walked away. All he had to do was get outside. Outside, he could plan his next move and ambush Wick. Inside, he was outnumbered and outgunned.
Halfway to the door, a voice shouted behind him. "Hey! You forgot this."
The man in the business suit jogged up to him and gave him his city map.
Just as Grant reached out for the map, the man in the sweater vest flung open the door to the side room and pointed at him. "Yuri! He'll kill us all!"
Grant opened his pouch and threw its contents in the face of business-suit man. Ash blinded him and he stepped back, arms covering his head.
Grant then pulled out his Sig Sauer and raised it to shoot the man. That's when the bodybuilder tackled him from behind and they went down hard.
More men swarmed at Grant, grappling a leg or an arm. He heard Beals shout at the business-suit man, "Get out of here now!" and then Beals was on him, struggling to get the pistol from Grant's hand.
But Grant would not let go. He fired off a shot that splintered the bodybuilder's shin. Beals planted his shoe on the gun and forced it to the floor. Grant still would not let go. The Asian man began punching Grant in the face. Beals took out a cigarette lighter and held the flame against Grant's trigger finger.
Grant screamed, and finally let go of his only weapon. His index and pointer fingers were badly burned, charred black. The mob turned him bloody and bruised.
Beals stopped them with a command. "Let's do this properly." He held up someone's pouch and dipped his hand inside.
Grant was forced to sit up, his chin held like a vice, as Beals painted ash on his forehead.
"There we go. Nice. You know... I can't believe you got this close all on your lonesome, Yuri. I'm gonna miss you." Beals took the tattoo-girl's snub-nosed revolver and pointed it at Grant's head.
Grant sneered and whispered under his breath.
"What was that?" Grant whispered hoarsely again.
Beals leaned in close. "You got some final words?"
Grant put his face an inch from Beal's. Opened his mouth to whisper... and head-butted Beals, his skull cracking against his captor's. Beals stumbled back. Like an invisible shockwave, the others around Grant stumbled at the same time. An echo of a sound yet to be struck. A shared premonition coursing through each of them. This was what Paul had felt every time one of his past lives was abruptly changed. Grant had just a fraction of a moment to act.
In one quick, decisive motion, Grant drew the katana from the Asian man's scabbard at his waist, and stabbed Beals through the heart. Beals's eyes went wide and he clutched the sword, and everyone around Grant clutched their hearts. Then, Beals collapsed to the floor, sliding off the katana's blade.
A smear of ash blotted Beals's forehead, from where Grant head-butted him.
States away, in the bowels of Club Fed, Darin Wick gasped and dropped dead from sudden cardiac arrest.
A hundred others fell over dead at the same time, many of them carrying little pouches of ash in their pockets.
It was done.
Dawn broke over the rooftops outside the church, and sunlight lanced into the main chamber, haloing Grant, who was still holding the sword in his good hand.
For a moment, he looked almost like an angel.
About the Author
Eric Heisserer was probably a better writer in his previous life. Next year he will be directing Paul Walker in an adaptation of his first Popcorn Fiction story, 'Hours.'