“You can be free.”


Ripley said, “Well.”


“You can have a new life in me.”


“It would be a strange kind of life.”


“The life you have now is a strange kind of life.”


“True enough,” Ripley acknowledged.


A mouth formed in Werner’s forehead. The lips moved, and a tongue appeared, but the mouth produced no voice.


“Complete control?” Ripley asked.


“Complete.”


“Absolutely complete?”


“Absolutely.”


“Do you know you’ve just grown a mouth in your forehead?”


The sly pirate grin returned. Werner winked and whispered, “Well, of course I know.”


“Why would you grow a mouth in your forehead?”


“Well … as a demonstration of my control.”


“Then make it go away,” Ripley said.


In Patrick Duchaine’s voice, the mouth in the forehead began to sing “Ave Maria.”


Werner closed his eyes, and an expression of strain overcame his face. The upper mouth stopped singing, licked its lips, and at last disappeared into a brow that appeared normal once more.


“I would prefer to set you free with your permission,” Werner said. “I want us all to live in harmony inside me. But I will set you free without permission, if I must. I’m a revolutionary with a mission.”


“Well,” said Ripley.


“You will be free of anguish.”


“That would be nice.”


“You know how you sit in the kitchen, tearing apart hams and briskets with your hands?”


“How do you know about that?”


“I was previously security chief.”


“Oh. That’s right.”


“What you really want to tear apart is living flesh.”


“The Old Race,” Ripley said.


“They have everything we don’t.”


“I hate them,” Ripley said.


“Be free in me.” Werner’s voice was seductive. “Be free in me, and the first flesh we’ll tear together will be the flesh of the oldest living member of the Old Race.”


“The Beekeeper.”


“Yes. Victor. And then when the Hands of Mercy staff is all alive in me, we’ll leave this place as one, and we’ll kill and kill and kill.”


“When you put it that way …”


“Yes?”


Ripley said, “What do I have to lose?”


“Nothing,” said Werner.


“Well,” said Ripley.


“Do you want to be free in me?”


“How much will it hurt?”


“I’ll be gentle.”


Ripley said, “Okay then.”


Suddenly all insect, Werner seized Ripley’s head in chitinous claws and cracked his skull open as if it were a pistachio shell.


CHAPTER 14


NEXT DOOR TO THE BENNETS lived Antoine and Evangeline Arceneaux, in a house encircled by a ground-floor veranda with ironwork almost as frilly as that of the LaBranche House in the French Quarter, and by a second-story balcony where much of the equally frilly iron was concealed by cascades of purple bougainvillea that grew up the back of the structure and across the roof.


When Janet Guitreau, nude, and Bucky Guitreau, fully clothed, stepped through a neighborly gate between the two properties, most of the windows at the Arceneaux house were dark. The only light came from the rear of the residence.


As they moved toward the back of the house to reconnoiter, Bucky said, “This time I’ll have to be the one who says something terrible has happened, and you’ll stand aside where they can’t see you.”


“What does it matter if they see me?”


“They might be put off because you’re naked.”


“Why would that put them off? I’m hot, aren’t I?”


“You’re definitely hot, but hot and something-terrible-has-happened don’t seem to go together.”


“You think it would make them suspicious,” Janet said.


“That’s exactly what I think.”


“Well, I’m not going to go back and get my clothes. I feel so alive, and I just know that killing in the nude is going to be the best thing ever.”


“I’m not going to dispute that.”


Step by step, as they moved through the rain, he envied Janet her freedom. She looked lithe and strong and healthy and real. She radiated power, confidence, and a thrilling animal ferocity that made his blood race.


By contrast, his clothes were heavy with rain, hanging on him like sacking, weighing him down, and his sodden shoes were binding the bridges of his feet. Even though he was losing his law education, he felt imprisoned by his creation-tank program, as much by what it required of him as by what it restricted him from doing. He had been given superhuman strength, almost supernatural durability, yet he remained condemned to a life of meekness and subservience, promised that his kind would one day rule the universe but at the same time assigned the tedious duty of pretending to be Bucky Guitreau, a political hack and uninspired prosecutor with a circle of friends as tiresome as a ward full of bores who had received chemical lobotomies.


At the back of the house, light brightened two ground-floor windows, beyond both of which lay the Arceneauxs’ family room.


Boldly, shoulders back and head high, body glistening, Janet strode onto the veranda as if she were a Valkyrie that had just flown down out of the storm.


“Stay back,” Bucky murmured as he moved past her to the nearest of the lighted windows.


Antoine and Evangeline Arceneaux had two children. Neither son was a candidate for Young American of the Year.


According to Yancy and Helene Bennet, who were dead now but had been truthful when they were alive, sixteen-year-old Preston bullied younger kids in the neighborhood. And just a year ago, he tortured to death the cat belonging to the family across the street, after he had agreed to take care of it while they were away on a week’s vacation.


Twenty-year-old Charles still lived at home, though he neither worked nor attended college. This evening, Janet had started to find herself, but Charles Arceneaux was still looking. He thought that he wanted to be an Internet entrepreneur. He had a trust fund from his paternal grandfather, and he was using that money to research a few areas of online merchandising, seeking the most promising field in which to bring his innovative thinking to bear. According to Yancy, the field that Charles researched as much as ten hours a day was Internet pornography.


The curtains were not closed at the window, and Bucky had an unobstructed view of the family room. Charles was alone, slumped in an armchair, bare feet on a footstool, watching a DVD on a huge plasma-screen television.


The movie did not seem to be pornographic in the sexual sense. A guy in a curly orange wig and clown makeup, holding a chain saw, appeared to be threatening to cut open the face of a fully dressed young woman chained to a larger-than-life-size statue of General George S. Patton. Judging by the production values, in spite of the potential for an antiwar message, this film had not been a candidate for an Oscar, and Bucky was pretty sure that the guy in the clown makeup would carry through with his threat.


Rethinking his strategy, Bucky backed away from the window and returned to Janet. “It’s Charles alone, watching some movie. The rest of them must be in bed. I’m thinking maybe, after all, I’m the one who should stay out of sight. Don’t knock on the door. Tap on the window. Let him see … who you are.”


“You going to photograph this?” she asked.


“I think I’m over the camera.”


“Over it? Aren’t we going to have an album?” Janet asked.


“I don’t think we need an album. I think we’re going to be so busy living this, doing one house after another, that we won’t have time to relive anything.”


“So you’re ready to do one of them?”


“I am more than ready,” Bucky confirmed.


“How many do you think we can do together before morning?”


“I think twenty or thirty, easy.”


Janet’s eyes were bright in the gloom. “I think a hundred.”


“That’s something to shoot for,” Bucky said.


CHAPTER 15


ON THE GLASSED-IN PORCH, planter baskets hung from the ceiling. In the gloom, the ferns cascading from the baskets seemed to be giant spiders perpetually poised to strike.


Not afraid of the troll but not content to sit in the dark with him, either, Erika lit a candle in a faceted red cup. The geometrics of the glass translated the mercurial flame into luminous polygons that shimmered on the troll’s face, which might have been a cubist portrait of Poe’s Red Death if the Red Death in the story had been a funny-looking dwarfish guy with a knobby chin, a lipless slit for a mouth, warty skin, and huge, expressive, beautiful—and eerie—eyes.


As Victor’s wife, Erika was expected to be witty and well-spoken when she was a hostess at events in this house and when she was a guest, with her husband, at other social occasions. Therefore, she had been programmed with an encyclopedia of literary allusions that she could draw upon effortlessly, though she had never read any of the books to which the allusions referred.


In fact, she was strictly forbidden to read books. Erika Four, her predecessor, had spent a lot of time in Victor’s well-stocked library, perhaps with the intention of improving herself and being a better wife. But books corrupted her, and she was put down like a diseased horse.


Books were dangerous. Books were the most dangerous things in the world, at least for any wife of Victor Helios. Erika Five did not know why this should be true, but she understood that if she began to read books, she would be cruelly punished and perhaps terminated.


For a while, from across the table, she and the troll regarded each other with interest, as she drank her cognac and he drank the Far Niente Chardonnay that she had given him. For good reason, she said nothing, and he seemed to understand and to have sympathy for the position in which his few words, spoken earlier, had put her.


When he first came to the window and pressed his forehead to the glass, gazing in at her on the porch, before Erika packed a picnic hamper for him, the troll had said, “Harker.”


Pointing to herself, she had said, “Erika.”


His smile, then, had been an ugly wound. No doubt it would be no less hideous if he smiled again, for he possessed a face that familiarity did not improve.


As tolerant of his unfortunate appearance as a good hostess should be, Erika had continued to stare through the window at him until in his raspy voice he had said, “Hate him.”


Neither of them had spoken again on the troll’s first visit. And for the time being, silence served them well on this second tęte-ŕ-tęte.


She dared not ask whom he hated, for if he answered with the name of her master, she would be required, by her program, either to restrain and detain him or to warn the appropriate people of the danger that he posed.


Her failure to betray the troll immediately might earn her a beating. On the other hand, if she reported him at once, she might nevertheless be beaten anyway. In this game, the rules were not clear; besides, all the rules applied to her, none to her husband.


At this hour, all of the household staff were in the dormitory at the back of the estate, most likely engaged in the intense and often brutal sexual activity that was the only release from tension allowed their kind.


Victor liked his privacy at night. She suspected that he needed little if any sleep, but she didn’t know what he did when alone that made privacy so important to him. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know.


The busy rush of rain on the roof and beyond the windows made the silence of the porch, by comparison, intimate, even cozy.


“My hearing is very good,” she said. “If I hear someone coming, I will blow out the candle, and you will at once slip out the door.”


The troll nodded agreement.


Harker …


Because Erika Five had arisen from her creation tank less than twenty-four hours earlier, she was up-to-date on her husband’s life and accomplishments. The events of his day were regularly downloaded directly to the brain of a wife in development, that she might be born fully understanding both his greatness and the frustrations that an imperfect world visited upon a man of his singular genius.


Erika, like other key Alphas, also knew the names of all the Alphas, Betas, Gammas, and Epsilons produced in the Hands of Mercy, as well as what work they performed for their creator. Consequently, the name Harker was familiar to her.


Until a few days before, when something went wrong with him, an Alpha named Jonathan Harker had been a homicide detective with the New Orleans Police Department. In a confrontation with two detectives who were members of the Old Race—O’Connor and Maddison—the renegade Harker was supposedly killed by shotgun fire and by a plunge off a warehouse roof.


The truth was stranger than the official fiction.


Just during the past day, between his two beatings of Erika, Victor performed an autopsy on Harker and discovered that the Alpha’s torso was largely missing. The flesh, internal organs, and some bone structure seemed to have been eaten away. Fifty or more pounds of the Alpha’s mass had disappeared. From the carcass trailed a severed umbilical cord, suggesting that an unintended life form had developed inside Harker, fed upon him, and separated from its host following the fall from the roof.


Now Erika sipped her cognac. The troll sipped his wine.


Resorting to a literary allusion that she felt appropriate, though she would never fully understand the reference if she never read the dangerous book by Joseph Conrad, Erika said, “Sometimes I wonder if I’m Marlow, far upriver with Kurtz, and ahead of us—and behind us—lies only the heart of an immense darkness.”


The troll’s lipless mouth produced an approximation of a lip-smacking sound.


“You grew inside Harker?” she asked.


The cut-glass container marshaled the light of the amorphous flame into square, rectangular, and triangular tiles that presented the troll’s face as a shimmering red mosaic. “Yes,” he rasped. “I am from what I was.”


“Harker is dead?”


“He who was is dead, but I am who was.”


“You are Jonathan Harker?”


“Yes.”


“Not just a creature who grew in him like a cancer?”


“No.”


“Did he realize you were growing in him?”


“He who was knew of I who am.”


From the tens of thousands of literary allusions through which Erika could scan in an instant, she knew that, in fairy tales, when trolls or manikins or other such beings spoke in either riddles or in a convoluted manner, they were trouble. Nevertheless, she felt a kinship with this creature, and she trusted him.

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