Page 10


Where was the freak?


Suddenly a pale form rose from a drainage swale on the farther side of the road, the Bucky replicant, bloodied by his high-speed fall but back on his feet and shouting: “Something terrible has happened, terrible, terrible.” Looking no less powerful than a bull, he put his head down and charged her.


Carson planted her feet wide, assumed the stance, the compact shotgun held low in both hands, right hand on the pistol grip in front of the forecomb, left hand cupping the slide, weapon held slightly to her right side, both elbows bent, the better to absorb recoil, which would be brutal if she locked her joints—a tendon-tearing, shoulder-dislocating kind of brutal. As serious as a weapon gets, the Sniper fired only rhino-stopping slugs, not buckshot with a wide spread, but nevertheless she aimed by instinct, no time for anything else. The Bucky Guitreau impersonator, with blood in his wild eyes, lips snarled back from his teeth, barreled straight at her, fearless, ferocious.


She squeezed off the round, the recoil jumped her backward a few inches, the barrel kicked up like she knew it would, pain knocked through her shoulders, a sensitive filling in a molar throbbed the way it did once in a while when she drank something ice-cold, and though she wasn’t in an enclosed space, the shot rang in her ears.


The slug took the replicant dead-center in the chest, cracking his sternum, splintering bone inward, blood blooming, his left arm flailing up reflexively, right arm stroking down reflexively, as if he were launching into some novelty dance like the Chicken. Jolted but not staggered, slowed but not halted, he came on, not shouting anymore, but not screaming either, feeling no pain, and she fired again, but screwed up because she was shocked and scared by how he surged forward, didn’t get him in the gut or the chest, but in the right shoulder, which should have torn his arm off or at least a chunk of it, didn’t, and he was reaching out to grab the barrel of the Sniper, looking strong enough and furious enough and focused enough to take maybe two more rounds and still tear her face off, rip out her throat.


Michael appeared at the back of the Honda, his shotgun boomed, scored a flank hit just above the hip, and Carson fired again, maybe nailed the replicant point-blank in the left thigh, but his arm was in past the muzzle of the shotgun, knocking the barrel high, his crimson hand reaching toward her face. Guitreau said something that sounded like “Gimme your eyes,” and Michael fired again, a head shot, and that did it, finally dropped the Bucky thing, na*ed on the silver-and-black pavement, facedown, still for a moment, but then trying to belly-crawl away from them, a broken-melon head and other devastating wounds but trying to hitch away as if he were a crippled roach. He became still once more, lying there motionless, motionless, then a last convulsive spasm, and he was done.


From the corner of her eye, Carson saw something move, something close, and she swiveled toward tight-assed Janet.


CHAPTER 26


CAUTIONING SILENCE, Erika Five led Jocko, the albino troll, up one of two sets of back stairs, to the second floor, well away from the centrally located master suite.


Of the three mansions that had stood on the three lots Victor purchased, two were very alike architecturally. He joined them in such a way that a foreground trio of oaks and a background lattice arbor draped with evergreen St. Vincent lilac left the impression, from the street, that the houses were still separate.


Between them, the two residences initially included thirty-four bedrooms, but interior walls were taken down and all that space put to other uses. Victor had no family and allowed no overnight guests.


He had intended to tear down the third residence and incorporate that lot into the grounds of his estate.


A city politician with ambitions for the governorship—and with rigid ideas about the preservation of historic buildings—blocked Victor’s attempt to have the third house certified for demolition. He tried to resolve the issue with respect for her public office and her social eminence. A fat bribe would have bought her cooperation on most matters; however, she believed that a reputation as a committed preservationist was key to the achievement of her political goals.


After the politician’s replicant had been birthed from the tank, Victor had the real woman snatched from her home and brought to the Hands of Mercy, where he described—and then demonstrated—to her the most ingenious methods of torture devised by the Stasi, the secret police of the former East Germany. When in time she stopped begging for surcease and begged instead for death, Victor allowed her to choose the instrument of murder from an imaginative selection that included, among other things, a compressed-air nail gun, a hand-held power sander, and a large bottle of carbolic acid.


The woman’s complete mental collapse and retreat into catatonic detachment not only made it impossible for her to decide upon the means to her end but also robbed Victor of some of the pleasure of administering corporal punishment. Nevertheless, he considered the resolution of the historic-preservation issue to have been one of his finer moments, which was why he included it in his biography that had been downloaded into Erika’s brain while she had been forming in the tank.


Victor wanted his Erikas not merely to service him sexually and to be his gracious hostess to the world; he also intended that his wives, each in her turn, should admire his steadfast intent to have his way in all matters, his steely resolution never to bow or bend to the wishes of the intellectual pygmies, frauds, and fools of this world who sooner or later humbled all other great men whose accomplishments they bitterly envied.


On the second floor of the mansion, the north wing remained unused, awaiting Victor’s inspiration. One day, he would discover some convenience or luxury he wanted to add to the house, and the north wing would be remodeled to accommodate his latest enthusiasm.


Even here, mahogany floors had been installed and finished throughout all the wide hallways and rooms. In the halls, the floors were overlaid with a series of compatible antique Persian rugs, mostly late-nineteenth-century Tabriz and Bakhshayesh.


She took Jocko to an unfurnished suite, where she switched on the overhead lights: a small sitting room, a bedroom, a bath. The space lacked carpeting. Heavy brocade draperies with blackout liners, which had come with the house, were closed over the windows.


“The staff vacuums and dusts the north wing just twelve times a year,” Erika said. “The first Tuesday of every month. Otherwise, these rooms are never visited. The night before, we’ll move you to another location, and back again after they have finished and gone.”


Still wearing the skirt fashioned from the checkered tablecloth, wandering from lounge to bedroom, admiring the high ceilings, the ornate crown moldings, and the Italian-marble fireplace, the troll said, “Jocko is not worthy of these refined quarters.”


“Without furniture, you’ll have to sleep on the floor,” said Erika. “I’m sorry about that.”


“Jocko doesn’t sleep much, just sits in a corner and sucks his toes and lets his mind go away to the red place, and when it comes back from the red place, Jocko is rested.”


“How interesting. Nonetheless, you’ll sometimes want a place to lie down. I’ll bring blankets, soft bedding to make it comfortable.”


In the bathroom, the black-and-white ceramic tile dated to the 1940s, but it remained in excellent condition.


“You have hot and cold running water, a tub, a shower, and of course a toilet. I’ll bring soap, towels, toilet paper, a toothbrush, toothpaste. You don’t have hair, so you won’t need shampoo or a comb, or dryer. Do you shave?”


The troll thoughtfully stroked his lumpy face with one hand. “Jocko doesn’t have even one nice hair anywhere—except inside his nose. Oh, and three on his tongue.” He stuck his tongue out to show her.


“You still won’t need a comb,” Erika said. “What deodorant do you prefer, roll-on or spray-on?”


Jocko squinched his face, which drew his features into a disturbing configuration.


Once Erika knew him better and could be direct without seeming to insult, she would tell him never to squinch again.


He said, “Jocko suspects his skin is hypersensitive to such caustic chemicals.”


“All right then. I’ll be back shortly with everything you need. You wait here. Stay away from the windows and of course be as quiet as you can.” A literary allusion rose from the deep pool of them in Erika’s memory, and she added, “This is just like Anne Frank, hiding from the Nazis in the secret annex in Amsterdam.”


The troll stared at her uncomprehendingly and smacked the flaps of his lipless mouth.


“Or maybe not,” said Erika.


“May Jocko say?” he asked.


“Excuse me?”


“May Jocko say?”


Owlishly large, with huge irises as yellow as lemons, his eyes still struck her as mysterious and beautiful. They compensated for all the unfortunate facial features surrounding them.


“Yes,” she said, “of course, say what you want.”


“Since tearing my way out of he who I was and becoming he who I am, Jocko, who is me, has lived mostly in storm drains and for a little while in a janitorial closet at a public restroom. This is so much better.”


Erika smiled and nodded. “I hope you’ll be happy here. Just remember—your presence in the house must remain a secret.”


“You are the kindest, most generous lady in the world.”


“Not at all, Jocko. You’ll be reading to me, remember?”


“When I was still he who was, I never knew any lady half as nice as you. Since the he who was became the I who am, Jocko, I’ve never met any lady a quarter as nice as you, not even in the restroom where I lived eleven hours, which was a ladies’ restroom. From the janitorial closet, Jocko listened to so many ladies talking out there at the sinks and in the stalls, and most of them were horrible.”


“I’m sorry you’ve suffered so much, Jocko.”


He said, “Me too.”


CHAPTER 27


THE PRESENCE APPROACHING CARSON, from her right and low to the ground, wasn’t Janet Guitreau, but the German shepherd, panting hard, tail wagging.


She with the great butt remained where she had been when Carson got out of the Honda: fifty feet farther along the road. Head high, shoulders back, arms out at her sides as if she were a gunfighter ready to draw down on a sheriff in the Old West, she stood tall and alert.


She was no longer jogging in place, which was probably a huge disappointment to Michael.


Interestingly, the Janet thing had watched their confrontation with the Bucky thing and had felt no obligation to sprint to his assistance. A small army of the New Race might inhabit the city, but perhaps there wasn’t sufficient camaraderie among them to ensure they would always fight together.


On the other hand, maybe this lack of commitment to the cause resulted solely from the fact that Janet’s brain train had jumped the tracks and was rolling through strange territory where no rails had ever been laid.


Out there in the scintillant silver rain, bathed in the Honda’s high-beam headlights, she appeared ethereal, as if a curtain had parted between this world and another where people were as radiant as spirits and as wild as any animal.


Michael held out a hand, cartridges gleaming on his palm.


Reloading, Carson said, “What’re you thinking—go after her?”


“Not me. I have a rule—one showdown with an insane superclone per day. But she might come for us.”


For the first time all night, a sudden light wind sprang up, trumping gravity, so that the rain angled at them, pelting Carson’s face instead of the top of her head.


As though the wind had spoken to Janet, counseling retreat, she turned from them and sprinted off the roadway, between trees, into the dark grassy mystery of the park.


At Carson’s side, the dog issued a low, long growl that seemed to mean good riddance.


Michael’s cell phone sounded. His newest ring was Curly’s laugh, Curly being the Curly of the Three Stooges. “N’yuck, n’yuck, n’yuck,” said the phone. “N’yuck, n’yuck, n’yuck.”


“Life in the twenty-first century,” Carson said, “is every bit as stupid as it is insane.”


Michael took the call and said, “Hey, yeah.” To Carson, he said, “It’s Deucalion.”


“About freakin’ time.” She surveyed the darkness to the east and south, expecting Janet to come bouncing back in full killer mode.


After listening a moment, Michael told Deucalion, “No, where we are isn’t a good place to meet. We just had a situation, and there’s debris everywhere.”


Carson glanced at the body of the Bucky replicant. Still dead.


“Give us like ten or fifteen minutes to get somewhere that makes sense. I’ll call you back, let you know where.” Pocketing his phone, he said to Carson, “Deucalion’s almost done at Mercy, he found what he hoped to find.”


“What do you want to do about the dog?”


Having been drinking from a puddle on the pavement, the shepherd looked up and favored Carson, then Michael, with a beseeching look.


Michael said, “We take him with us.”


“The whole car’s gonna smell like wet dog.”


“It’s a lot worse for him. From his point of view, the whole car smells like wet cops.”


“He’s a pretty boy,” she admitted. “And he looks like he ought to be a police dog. I wonder what his name is.”


“Wait a minute,” Michael said. “This must be Duke. The D.A.’s dog. Goes to court with Bucky. Or used to.”


“The Duke of Orleans,” Carson said. “Saved two kids in a fire.”


The dog’s tail spun so fast that Carson half expected it would propel him across the slick pavement in the manner of one of those Florida Everglades air-boats.


The wind soughed in the trees, and suddenly it seemed to carry the scent of the sea.


She opened the car door, coaxed the shepherd into the backseat, and got in behind the wheel once more. As she returned her Urban Sniper, muzzle down, to the leg space in front of the passenger’s seat, she realized that the bags of Acadiana food were gone.


Through the windshield, she saw Michael returning from a nearby roadside trash receptacle.


“What have you done?” she demanded when he splashed into his seat and pulled the door shut.


“We’d already eaten most of it.”


“We hadn’t eaten all of it. Acadiana is good-to-the-last-crumb wondermous.”


“The smell of it would drive the dog crazy.”


“So we could’ve given him some.”


“It’s too rich for a dog. He’d be puking it up later.”

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