She said, “May I call you Jonathan?”


“No. Call me Johnny. No. Call me John-John. No. Not that.”


“What shall I call you?”


“You will know my name when my name is known to me.”


“You have all of Jonathan’s memories and knowledge?”


“Yes.”


“Was the change you underwent uncontrolled or intentional?”


The troll smacked the flaps of his mouth together. “He who was thought it was happening to him. I who am realize he made it happen.”


“Unconsciously, you desperately wanted to become someone other than Jonathan Harker.”


“The Jonathan who was … he wanted to be like himself but become other than an Alpha.”


“He wanted to remain a man but be free of his maker’s control,” Erika interpreted.


“Yes.”


“Instead,” she said, “you shed the Alpha body and became … what you are now.”


The troll shrugged. “Shit happens.”


CHAPTER 16


FROM BEHIND A POTTED RAFUS PALM on the veranda of the Arceneaux house, Bucky Guitreau watched as his nude wife rapped lightly on a family-room window. He shifted his weight ceaselessly from one foot to the other, so excited that he could not keep still.


Apparently, Janet had not been heard. She rapped harder on the window.


A moment later, young Charles Arceneaux, the would-be Internet entrepreneur, loomed in the room beyond the window. His startled expression at the sight of a nude neighbor was as extreme as that of a cartoon character.


A member of the Old Race might have thought Charles looked comical just then, might have laughed out loud. Bucky was of the New Race, however, and he didn’t find anything comical. Arceneaux’s startled look only made Bucky want even more ardently to see him slashed, torn, broken, and dead. Such was the current—and growing—intensity of Bucky’s hatred that any expression crossing Charles Arceneaux’s face would inflame his passion for violence.


From between the fronds of the rafus palm, Bucky saw Charles speak. He couldn’t hear the words, but he could read the lips: Mrs. Guitreau? Is that you?


From this side of the window, Janet said, “Oh, Charlie, oh, something terrible has happened.”


Charles stared but did not reply. Judging by the angle of the young man’s head, Bucky knew that Charlie was not staring at Janet’s face.


“Something terrible has happened,” she repeated, to break his hypnotic fascination with her ample yet perky breasts. “Only you can help me, Charlie.”


The moment Charles moved away from the window, Bucky left the cover of the potted palm. He took up a position against the house, beside the door between the family room and the veranda.


As Janet stepped to the French door, she looked as voracious as some primitive tribe’s goddess of death, teeth bared in a humorless grin, nostrils flared, eyes fierce with blood lust, wrathful and merciless.


Bucky worried that Charles, seeing this fearsome incarnation, would suddenly suspect her true intention, refuse to admit her, and raise an alarm.


When she reached the door, however, and turned to gaze in at Arceneaux, her expression was convincingly that of a frightened and helpless woman desperate to find a strong man to lean on with her ample but perky breasts.


Charles did not wrench the door open at once only because, in his eagerness, he fumbled helplessly with the lock. When he got it open, Janet whispered, “Oh, Charlie, I didn’t know where to go, and then … I remembered … you.”


Bucky thought he heard something behind him on the veranda. He looked to his right, over his shoulder, but saw no one.


“What’s wrong, what’s happened?” Charles asked as Janet crossed the threshold into his arms.


“A terrible thing has happened,” Janet said, pressing Charles backward with her body, leaving the door open behind them.


Eager not to miss anything, but hesitant to reveal himself and enter the house before Janet had complete control of Charles, Bucky leaned to his left and peeked through the open door.


Just then Janet bit Charles somewhere that Bucky would never have thought of biting, and simultaneously she crushed his larynx, rendering him unable to scream.


Bucky hurried inside to watch, forgetting about the open door behind him.


Although Janet’s performance lasted significantly less than a minute, there was much for Bucky to see, an education in ferocity and cruelty that the torture specialists of the Third Reich could not have provided to anyone who devoted a year of study to them. He stood in awe of her inventiveness.


Considering the mess in the family room when Janet was done, Bucky was amazed that she had made so little noise, certainly not enough to wake anyone who might be sleeping elsewhere in the house.


On the plasma-screen television, the chain-saw guy in the orange wig and the clown makeup did something to the girl chained to the statue of George S. Patton, something the moviemakers had thought was so unspeakable that audiences would shriek with horror and delight in order to repress the urge to vomit. But by comparison with Janet, the moviemakers were no more imaginative than any child sociopath tearing the wings off flies.


“I was so right,” Janet said. “Killing in the nude is the best thing ever.”


“You think it’s definitely one of your personal core values?”


“Oh, yes. It’s totally PCV.”


Although they did not know the Arceneauxs as well as they had known the Bennets, Janet and Bucky knew that in addition to Charles, four other people lived in this house: sixteen-year-old Preston, who was the neighborhood bully, Antoine and Evangeline, and Evangeline’s mother, Marcella. The grandmother had a downstairs bedroom, and the others were on the second floor.


“I’m ready to do one just as complete as you did Charlie,” Bucky said.


“Do Marcella.”


“Yes. Then we’ll go upstairs.”


“Take off your clothes. Feel the power.”


“I want to do one with my clothes on first,” said Bucky. “So when I do one in the nude, then I’ll have something to compare it to.”


“That’s a good idea.”


Janet strode out of the family room with the power, the grace, and the stealth of a panther, and Bucky followed in high spirits, leaving the door to the veranda open to the night.


CHAPTER 17


BECAUSE A WOMAN capable of humility, shame, and tenderness presented a more satisfactory punching bag than a woman who could only hate and fear and stew in anger, Victor designed his Erikas to have a wider range of emotions than others of the New Race.


As they drank together on the porch, Erika Five found that her sympathy for the troll quickly ripened into compassion.


Something about him made her want to take him under her wing. Because he was the size of a child, perhaps he strummed a maternal chord in her—though she was barren, as were all New Race women. They did not reproduce; they were produced in a factory, as were sofas and sump pumps, so she most likely had no maternal instinct.


Perhaps his poverty affected her. Once he had burst out of his original Alpha body, the troll possessed no clothes to fit him, no shoes. He had no money for food or shelter, and he was too small and disturbing in appearance to return to work as a homicide detective.


If you were given to literary allusions, you might say he was a Quasimodo for his time—or more poignantly, an Elephant Man, a victim of prejudice against ugliness in a society that worshipped beauty.


Whatever the reason for her compassion, Erika said, “I can make a life for you here. But you must be discreet. It will be a secret life. Only I must know. Would you like to live here free from need?”


His smile would have stampeded horses. “Jocko would like that.” Seeing her bafflement, he said, “Jocko seems to suit me.”


“Swear you’ll conspire with me to keep your presence secret. Swear, Jocko, that you come here with only innocent intentions.”


“Sworn! He who became me was violent. I who was him want peace.”


“Your kind have a reputation for saying one thing and meaning another,” Erika observed, “but if you cause the slightest trouble, please know that I will deal with you severely.”


Puzzled, he said, “Others like me exist?”


“In fairy tales, there are many similar to you. Trolls, ogres, imps, manikins, gremlins … And all the literary allusions referring to such folk suggest they’re full of mischief.”


“Not Jocko.” The whites of his eyes were red in the red light, and the lemon-yellow irises were orange. “Jocko hopes only to perform some service to repay your kindness.”


“As it happens, there is something you could do.”


“Jocko thought there might be.”


His sly look seemed to belie his claim to innocence, but having experienced two beatings in one day, Erika was motivated to give Jocko the benefit of the doubt.


“I’m not permitted to read books,” she said, “but I’m curious about them. I want you to read books to me.”


“Jocko will read until his voice fails and he goes blind.”


“A few hours a day will be enough,” Erika assured him.


CHAPTER 18


FROM GRANDMOTHER to neighborhood bully, to Antoine, to Evangeline, Bucky and Janet Guitreau went through the Arceneaux family like a school of angry piranha through anything that might piss off killer fish.


Although it would have been good to hear their tormented cries and pleas for mercy, the time hadn’t yet come for open warfare. Bucky and Janet did not want their victims to wake the family next door, who in their sleep were corpses waiting to happen. By various means, they silenced the Arceneauxs before proceeding to destroy them.


Neither he nor Janet knew the rest of the people who lived in the houses past the Arceneaux place, but those potential victims were of the Old Race and therefore no less fun to kill merely because they were strangers.


At some point he could not precisely recall, Bucky had stripped off his clothes. Janet let him render Marcella and then devastate young Preston, and in the master bedroom, she gave him Antoine while she took Evangeline apart. They needed but a few minutes.


At first the nudity had been awkward; but then he sensed chunks of his program dropping out, not only lines of code but blocks of it, and he felt as free and natural as a wolf in its fur, though far more savage than a wolf, and angry as a wolf could never be, and not in the least limited in his killing to what was strictly necessary for survival, as was a wolf.


When only he and Janet were alive in the master bedroom, she kicked at what remained of what she had destroyed. Choking with rage, spitting with disgust, she declared, “I hate them, hate them, so soft and fragile, so quick to fear and beg, so arrogant in their certainty that they have souls, yet so cowardly for creatures who say there is a god who loves them—loves them! As if there is about them anything worth loving—such hopeless trembling milksops, spineless braggarts who claim a world they won’t fight for. I can’t wait to see canyons bulldozed full of their dead bodies and oceans red with their blood, can’t wait to smell cities reeking with their rotting corpses and pyres of them burning by the thousands.”


Her rant thrilled Bucky, made his twin hearts race, thickened his throat with fury, tightened the cords of muscle in his neck, until he could feel his carotids throbbing like drums. He would have listened to her longer, before the need to move on to the next house would have overcome him, but when movement in the doorway drew his attention, he silenced her with two words: “The dog!”


In the hallway, staring in at them, stood the Duke of Orleans, tail low and motionless, hackles raised, ears pricked, teeth bared. Having seen the pizza guy dead on the foyer floor, Duke must have followed them from their house to the Bennets’, and from the Bennets’ here, witness to every slaughter, for his eyes were accusing and his sudden growl was a challenge.


From the evening that they replaced the real Bucky and Janet Guitreau, this perceptive German shepherd had known they were not who they appeared to be. Friends and family accepted them without hesitation, evincing not a moment of suspicion, but Duke kept his distance, wary from hour one of their impersonation.


Now, as the dog regarded them where they stood in the carnage that had been Antoine and Evangeline, Bucky experienced a startling change of perception. The dog was not merely a dog.


All of the New Race understood that this was the only life and that no afterlife awaited either them or the Old Race. They knew that the concept of an immortal soul was a lie concocted by members of the Old Race to help their fragile kind cope with the reality of death, death everlasting. The New Race recognized that no realm existed beyond the material, that the world was not a place of mystery but instead a place of unambiguous cause and effect, that applied rational intellect could reason its way to the simple truth behind any apparent enigma, that they were meat machines just as the members of the Old Race were meat machines, just as every animal was a meat machine, and that their maker was also only a meat machine, albeit a meat machine with the most brilliant mind in the history of the species and with an infallible vision of a man-made utopia that would establish a Million-Year Reich on Earth before spreading to every habitable planet circling every star in the universe.


This creed of absolute materialism and antihumanism had been drilled into Bucky and Janet as they formed in the creation tanks, which was an immeasurably more effective way to have learned it than by watching Sesame Street and reading a series of dull grade-school textbooks.


Unlike members of the Old Race, who could be comfortable for decades with the philosophy that life had no meaning, only to become God-besotted in middle age, the New Race could take satisfaction from knowing they were so indoctrinated with hopelessness that they would never have a doubt about their convictions. Father told them that unassailable hopelessness was the beginning of wisdom.


But now the dog.


His disturbing forthright stare, his judgmental attitude, the fact that he knew they were impostors, that he followed them through the night without their knowledge, that he did not slink away from the danger Bucky and Janet currently posed to any living thing not of their kind, that instead he came to confront them: Suddenly this dog seemed to be something more than a meat machine.


Evidently, the same perception troubled Janet, for she said, “What’s he doing with his eyes?”


“I don’t like his eyes,” Bucky agreed.


“He’s like not looking at me, he’s looking into me.”


“He’s like looking into me, too.”


“He’s weird.”


“He’s totally weird,” Bucky agreed.

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