"I almost brought you some iced tea," said Mulligan, "with lots of lemon."
Arlene and I both grimaced. "He's getting mean," she said.
"A sadist," I agreed. We'd told the master gun plenty about our adventures, and he had fixated on the way Albert, Jill, Arlene, and I had passed our- selves off as zombies by rubbing rotten lemons and limes all over ourselves. The odor of the zombies had forever spoiled the taste of citrus for me.
" 'Course I could let you have one of these instead," Mulligan continued, holding out two frosty Limbaugh brews, one in each paw.
"The man's getting desperate," I said. "Who goes first?" asked Arlene, ready to spill the beans; and Mulligan hoped they would be tastier than the typical MRE.
The admiral had left us. He looked like an old beachcomber as he wandered down the beach. I thought about what he'd said--how he'd tied the past and future together with these precious islands as the center of his universe. Maybe they were the center of the universe for all humanity.
"Beers first," I volunteered, holding my hand out. Mulligan looked as happy as Jill when I let her drive the truck. He passed out the brews and settled his considerable bulk back in his beach chair.
"Once upon a time ..." I began, but Arlene punched me so hard it made her breasts jiggle very nicely. With that kind of encouragement, I got plenty serious.
"We had to take down the energy wall so Jill could fly out of L.A. and get here," I began. "In the Disney Tower we located a roomful of computers hooked into a collection of alien biotech--"
"Yeah, yeah," Mulligan said impatiently. "I re- member all that. Get to the window already!" So I did.
We were too high. I'd never liked heights, but it seemed best to open the windows.
"We took down the energy wall, at least," I had said over my shoulder. "Jill must notice it's gone and start treading air for Hawaii."
Arlene nodded, bleak even in victory. I didn't need alien psionics to know she was thinking of Albert. "The war techies will track her as an unknown rider," added Arlene, "and they'll scramble some jets; they should be able to make contact and talk her down." "Great. Got a hot plan to talk us down?" I asked my buddy.
Arlene shook her head. I had a crazy wish that before Albert was blinded, and before Arlene and I found ourselves in this cul-de-sac, I'd played Dutch uncle to the two lovebirds, complete with blessings and unwanted advice.
Somehow this did not seem the ideal moment to suggest that Arlene seriously study the Mormon faith, or some related religion, if she really loved good old Albert. The sermon went into my favorite mental file, the one marked Later.
She shook her head. "There's no way," she began, "unless . . ."
"Yes?" I asked, trying not to let the sound of slavering monsters outside the door add panic to the atmosphere.
Arlene stared at the door, at the console, then out the window. She went over to the window as if she had all the time in the world and looked straight down. Then up. For some reason, she looked up. She faced me again, wearing a big, crafty Arlene Sanders smile. "You are not going to believe this, Fly Taggart, but I think--I think I have it. I know how to get us down and get us to Hawaii."
I smiled, convinced she'd finally cracked. "Great idea, Arlene. We could use a vacation from all this pressure."
"You don't believe me." "You're right. I don't believe you."
Arlene smiled slyly. She was using the early-bird- that-got-the-worm-smile. "Flynn Taggart, bring me some duct tape from the toolbox, an armload of computer-switch wiring, and the biggest goddam boot you can find!"
The boot was the hard part. The screaming, grunting, scraping, mewling, hiss- ing, roaring, gurgling, ripping, and crackling sound effects from beyond the door inspired me to speed up the scavenger hunt. Hurrying back to the window with the items, I saw Arlene leaning out and craning her neck to look up.
"Do you see it?" she asked as I joined her. Clear as day, there was a window washer's scaffold hanging above us like a gateway to paradise. When the inva- sion put a stop to mundane activities, all sorts of jobs had been left uncompleted. In this case, it meant quantities of Manila hemp rope dangling like the tentacles of an octopus. A few lengths of chain, with inch-long links, were even more promising than the rope. The chain looked rusted, but I was certain that it would support our weight.
The tentacles started above us and extended well below the fortieth floor--not all the way to the ground, but a lot farther away from the demons in the hallway working so hard to make our acquaintance. Arlene used the duct tape and the wiring to create a spaghetti ladder that didn't look as if it would hold her weight very long, never mind my extra kilos. But we needed an extra leg up to get over to the ropes. "Great," I said. "This looks like a job for Fly Taggart."
Before I could clamber out the window, however, her hand was on my arm. "Hold on a minute," she said. "My idea, my mission."
The locked door was rattling like a son of a bitch, and the thought of our entrails decorating the office made me a trifle impatient. That was one kind of spaghetti I could pass over.
"Arlene," I said, as calmly as possible under the circumstances, "I have absolute confidence in you, but this is no time to hose the mission. Let's face it, I have more upper body strength and a greater reach than you do, so I should go first." While I explained the situation, we both worked feverishly to finish our makeshift rope. Then I tied it around my waist. Naturally I gave her no opportunity to argue. I was at that window so fast she probably feared for my life. A good way to keep her from staying pissed. I took one mighty leap, making sure she held the other end of the lifeline, and I climbed up and over, where I grabbed hold of the nearest rope and started lowering myself, groaning a bit at the strain and reminding myself that I had all this great upper body strength. I only wished I had more of it to spare.
Once I was on the ropes, I swung myself over to where Arlene could reach them more easily. She clambered out the window over my head and fol- lowed my lead.
The annoying voice in the back of my head chose that precise moment to start an argument. Damned voice had a lousy sense of timing.
Getting tired, are you? Feeling a bit middle-aged around the chest area? Old heart hanging in there? The arms are strong from all those push-ups and pull-ups, but how's the grip? Your hands are weaker than they used to be, aren't they? You know, you haven't had these injuries looked at . . .
"Nothing a blue sphere couldn't fix up," I mut- tered.
Medikits aren't good enough for you, Corporal? You'd rather trust in that alien crap, huh? And how do you know that you and Arlene weren't altered in some diabolical manner when your lives were saved in that infernal blue light?
"I'm hanging from a freakin' rope and you choose this moment to worry about that?" I shouted. "Fly, are you all right?" Arlene called down. "Okay," I called back, feeling like a complete idiot. Normally I don't argue out loud with the voice in my head.
"Don't go weird on me now," she said. "If I fall, I want my strong he-man to catch li'l ol' me." "No problemo," I promised. "But I think we're getting enough exercise as things stand." Well, at least I'd convinced her I was playing with a full deck again. As if life had become too easy for us, the door in the office flew off with such force that it smashed through what was left of the window and went sailing in the direction of the freeway. The door was as black and twisted as if someone had turned it into burned toast and tossed it in the trash.
The first monster to peer out the window, if black dots count as eyes, was one of the things Arlene had wisely dubbed a fire eater. It must have only recently joined the other pukes and taken care of the door problem for them. In a flash it could solve the rope problem, too, burning our lifeline to cinders. We didn't have a fire extinguisher this time.
Fire Guy wasn't alone, either. He was the gate- crasher, bringing with him a whole monster conven- tion. They'd be pouring down the ropes after us like molasses on a string if we didn't do something fast. I stopped the story there because I wanted to finish my beer, and because I had my eye on another can of Limbaugh. The master gun had brought a six-pack, so with the aid of higher arithmetic, I figured I had another one coming.
"And?" asked Mulligan, fire in his eye; and the way his mouth was working you could say fire in the hole, too.
"As the fire eater was getting ready to burn our ropes--and you can always tell an attack is coming by the way its skin bubbles and its body shimmers like a heat mirage in the desert--I swung out and then came in hard, kicking in a window with one try. In the remaining seconds I pulled the rope taut and Arlene shimmied down into my arms as tongues of flame raced after her. But we'd made it to a much lower floor. We had a twelve-story head start, so we booked."
"Story is right!" thundered Mulligan. "I've never heard so much bullshit!"
For one grim moment I wasn't at all sure I'd be getting my second beer.

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