The conspiracy is vast and all-encompassing. Now they know. Will they survive it?

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"It's all wound down, somehow. Ever'thing's changed."

"Changed? Changed how?"

He scratched his grizzled chin and turned a cloudy, cataract eye on the overcast sky. "Can't say," he finally grunted. "Ain't something you see, I guess. More like something you feel. In your bones. You know?"

"Yeah," I grunted back, turning my own eye on the overcast sky. "I guess I do." I dropped my head to gaze at the grit that I was swishing back and forth with the toe of my right shoe. The concrete of the sidewalk was cracked and flaking. It came up easily with a pry of my toe and grated noisily underfoot. "I feel the same way sometimes."

"Then why's you asking me?"

"I don't know," I returned distantly, fishing about within my pants pocket for a fistful of change. "Maybe I thought you would know."

And I dropped the coins into the upturned hat that lay between his grimy feet. He cackled and scooped it up at once.

I turned to leave. After several footsteps, he called out, "And, hey, mister! If you get it figured out, stop by an' tell Old Ben all about it! 'Cause I'd for damned sure like to know!" He laughed madly until I was beyond hearing.

The lunch crowd seemed thinner than usual. Maybe it was the threatening weather. Or the damp chill of the autumn air.

I pulled the lapels of my overcoat shut with my right hand, and dimly considered buttoning up. Again I turned my gaze on the darkly boiling heavens and wondered at the sun. Where was the warmth? Where was the light?

It seemed forever gone and but a faded recollection. Summer was a myth and spring an outright lie. I could scarcely remember the last touch of either condition.

And when I rounded the corner to find her standing there, I could remember nothing at all. My grip fell slack and my coat blew wide with the next gust. I stopped walking to stand upon uncertain legs.

Suddenly, I was quite frightened. My heart raced, my breath came in choked gasps.

As always, her lips were painted violently red. Her face was powdered morbidly pale. And her eyes were . . . death. I felt the world entire seemed but a faded lacy glow to hover about those infinite wells of midnight. How they would drown me. How they would be the inevitable end of me.

Her smile was hesitant and fierce in the same instant. She wanted to trust me or devour me, I couldn't be certain which. Maybe she didn't know, either. And she was obviously wondering at my own hesitation. I could see the question rise in her expression as the shade of an angry inferno might cover the cratered face of the autumn moon. Was she turning to run?

At last, I felt my lips part a crack. I felt a shallow smile spread across my unhappy face.

Her own smile brightened, and she started forward. The wind drove the hem of her black dress between her legs to outline her divine form, and I thought no demon had ever seemed so darkly beautiful or so grimly alluring.

I felt my own feet moving, and she was sheltered in my arms, buried against my burning breast. "Do you believe?" she hissed softly. She was cool and smelled gently of wild flowers and spicy earth.

"I don't know." It was all I could manage. "I'm trying to believe"

"It's difficult, but you must believe. For both of us." She sighed heavily, and turned her dark eyes to find mine.

I looked away. I tried to be strong for her, and was ashamed to be weak. But I couldn't help myself. I was terribly afraid, unreasonably afraid.

There was so much to fear. Now. Now that I knew.

For a sick moment, I wished it all away. I wished her away. I wished the truth away and longed for the lies. The lies that were silly comforts and meaningless dogma.

"We should go," she whispered anxiously. "We shouldn't be here."

"I thought . . ." I didn't know what I thought. Of course we should go. We should never have come in the first place.

"What?"

"I thought just once more. Just one more time to be certain."

She gasped and I felt her stiffen. She pulled away as she might from a drowning man that would drag her under, too. Her piercing gaze searched my countenance for betrayal. And apparently found none, much to my relief.

"Why? You've already seen so much! Enough to convince ten men."

"Still, I have to be sure. Absolutely sure."

"It's too dangerous. They'll know."

"Then let them learn. I have to do this. You can come with me, or stay here." I clung to the hope that she would not leave, showing all the tenacity of the drowning child that I was. Her dark eyes washed over me until all was consumed in those inky depths. With every last shred of frayed resolve and mortal strength, I hauled myself free of the current and gasped, "I have to be certain. I have to know for certain."

She relented after a time, and fell against me once more. "Okay."

We started across the plaza, into the shadow cast by a towering god of glass and steel that stood above us, its head unseen buried in the tumultuous clouds. We were impossibly tiny and insignificant in its presence.

A short line had formed before the revolving doors at its feet. We waited with the others, and pushed our way into the foyer at our turn.

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