“I don’t know. I guess it depends on what they do.”
BLUE IS THE COLOR of cold vision. All things are shades of blue, infinite shades of blue.
The double-wide restaurant-style freezer has a glass door. The glass is torment for Chameleon.
The shelves have been removed from the freezer. No food is ever stored here.
From a hook in the ceiling of the unit hangs a large sack. The sack is prison.
Prison is made from a unique polymeric fabric that is both as strong as bulletproof Kevlar and transparent.
This transparency is the first torment. The glass door is the second.
The sack resembles a giant teardrop, for it is filled with fourteen gallons of water and is pendulous.
Within the freezer, the temperature varies between twenty-four and twenty-six degrees Fahrenheit.
The water in the polymeric sack is a saline solution treated with chemicals in addition to the salt, to prevent congelation.
Although the temperature remains below freezing, although tiny ice particles float freely in the sack, the solution will not freeze.
Cold is the third torment for Chameleon.
Drifting in the sack, Chameleon lives now in a waking dream.
It is not able to close its eyes to its circumstances, because they have no lids.
Chameleon needs no sleep.
Perpetual awareness of its powerless condition is the fourth torment.
In its current circumstances, Chameleon cannot drown, for it has no lungs.
When not imprisoned, it breathes by virtue of a tracheal system akin to but materially different from that of insects. Spiracles on the surface admit air into tubes that pass throughout the body.
In semisuspended animation, it needs little oxygen. And the saline fluid flowing through its tracheal tubes is oxygen-enriched.
Although Chameleon looks like no insect on Earth, it resembles an insect more than it resembles anything else.
The size of a large cat, Chameleon weighs twenty-four pounds.
Although its brain weighs just 1.22 pounds, Chameleon is as intelligent as the average six-year-old child, but significantly more disciplined and cunning.
In torment, Chameleon waits.
IN THE SPA, the hot water churned against Victor’s body, and the bubbles of Dom Pérignon burst across his tongue, and life was good.
The wall phone beside the spa rang. Only select Alphas had the number of this most private line.
The caller-ID window reported UNKNOWN.
Nevertheless, he snared the handset from the cradle. “Yes?”
A woman said, “Hello, darling.”
“I was afraid you might have forgotten me,” she said.
Recalling how he had found her at dinner in the living room, he chose to remain the stern disciplinarian for a while longer. “You know better than to bother me here, except in an emergency.”
“I wouldn’t blame you if you forgot me. It’s been more than a day since you had sex with me. I’m ancient history to you.”
Her tone had a faint but unmistakable sarcastic quality that caused him to sit up straighter in the spa. “What do you think you’re doing, Erika?”
“I was never loved, only used. I’m flattered to be remembered.”
Something was very wrong. “Where are you, Erika? Where are you in the house?”
“I’m not in the house, darling. How could I be?”
He would be in error if he continued to play her conversational game, whatever the point of it might be. He must not encourage what seemed to be rebellious behavior. Victor answered her with silence.
“My dearest master, how could I be in the house after you sent me away?”
He hadn’t sent her away. He had left her, battered and bleeding, in the living room, not a day previously but mere hours earlier.
She said, “How is the new one? Is she as lubricious as I was? When brutalized, does she cry as pitifully as I did?”
Victor began to see the nature of the game, and he was shocked by her effrontery.
“My darling, my maker, after you killed me, you had your people in the sanitation department take me to a landfill northeast of Lake Pontchartrain. You ask where I am in the house, but I am nowhere in the house—though I hope to return.”
Now that she’d carried this demented charade to an unacceptable extreme, silence was not the appropriate response to her.
“You are Erika Five,” he said coldly, “not Erika Four. And all you’ve achieved by this absurd impersonation is to ensure that Erika Six will be in your position soon.”
“From so many nights of passion,” she said, “I remember the hard impact of your fists, the sharpness of your teeth biting into me, and how I bled into your mouth.”
“Come to me immediately,” he said, for he needed to terminate her within the hour.
“Oh, darling, I would be there at once if I could, but it’s a long way to the Garden District from the dump.”
AS THEY REACHED the T junction where the entrance lane met the main road through Audubon Park, Michael drew the illegally purchased .50-caliber Desert Eagle pistol from the scabbard at his left hip.
Carson said, “If they’re going to be trouble—”
“I’d bet both kidneys on it.”
“—then I’m thinking the Urban Sniper makes more sense,” she finished, turning right onto West Drive.
The headlights washed across the pale forms of Mr. and Mrs. Guitreau on their rainy-night, fully-nude, high-speed dog walk.
Michael said, “If we have to get out of the car, it’ll for sure be the Sniper, but not if I have to shoot from a sitting position.”
Hours earlier, they had seen Pastor Kenny Laffite, one of the New Race, breaking down psychologically and intellectually. And not long after that, they were forced to deal with another of Victor’s creations who called himself Randal and whose rap was as creepy-crazy as Charles Manson channeling Jeffrey Dahmer. Randal wanted to kill Carson’s brother, Arnie, and he had taken three rounds point-blank from an Urban Sniper before going down and staying down.
Now this weirdness.
“Damn,” Carson said. “I’m never gonna get a chance to finish that okra succotash.”
“I thought it was a little salty. I’ve gotta say, Mrs. Guitreau has a truly fine butt.”
“For God’s sake, Michael, she’s some kind of monster.”
“Doesn’t change the fact she’s got a great butt. Small, tight, with those little dimples at the top.”
“It’s Armageddon, and my backup is an obsessive butt man.”
“I think her name’s Jane. No. Janet.”
“Why do you care what her name is? She’s a monster but she’s got a cute butt, so you’re gonna ask her for a date?”
“How fast are they going?”
Glancing at the speedometer, Carson said, “About twenty-four miles an hour.”
“That’s maybe a two-and-a-half-minute mile. I think the fastest the mile’s been run is just under four minutes.”
“Yeah, but I don’t expect we’ll ever see their pictures on a Wheaties box.”
“I heard greyhounds can do a mile in two minutes,” Michael said. “I don’t know about German shepherds.”
“Looks to me like the shepherd is pretty much spent. They’re gaining on him.”
Michael said, “If we have a dog in this race, it’s the dog. I don’t want to see the dog get hurt.”
The shepherd and his pursuers were in the left lane. Carson swung into the right lane and rolled down her window.
As rain bounced off the sill and into her face, she drew even with the nude marathoners and heard what they were shouting.
The woman—okay, Janet—chanted urgently, “Dog nose, dog nose, big, big, big.”
“I think she wants the dog’s nose,” Carson said.
Michael said, “She can’t have it.”
Neither of the nudists was breathing hard.
Bucky Guitreau, the nearer of the two, was raving with a slight quirky calypso lilt: “Kill, kill, pizza guy, pizza guy, kill, kill.”
Both the district attorney and his wife, certainly replicants in the throes of a total breakdown, seemed oblivious to the Honda pacing them. The dog had their full attention, and they were closing on him.
Reading the speedometer, Michael said, “Twenty-six miles an hour.”
Trying to discern if the runners were even capable of breaking their fixation with the dog, Carson shouted at them, “Pull over!”
SITTING IN THE SPA, his champagne mood tainted with the vinegar of his wife’s unthinkable rebellion, Victor should already have hung up on Erika Five as she pretended to be Erika Four. He didn’t know why he continued to listen to this tripe, but he was rapt.
“Here at the dump,” she said, “in a heap of garbage, I found a disposable cell phone that has some unused minutes on it. Eighteen, in fact. Those of the Old Race are so wasteful, throwing away what has value. I, too, still had value, I believe.”
Every Erika was created with precisely the same voice, just as they looked alike in every luscious detail.
“My lovely Victor, my dearest sociopath, I can prove to you that I am who I claim to be. Your current punching bag doesn’t know how you murdered me, does she?”
He realized he was clenching the telephone so tightly that his hand ached.
“But, sweetheart, of course she doesn’t know. Because if you wish to murder her in the same fashion, you want it to be a surprise to her, as it was to me.”
No one in decades had spoken to him so contemptuously, and never had one whom he created addressed him with such disrespect.
Furious, he declared, “Only people can be murdered. You’re not a person, you’re property, a thing I owned. I didn’t murder you, I disposed of you, disposed of a worn-out, useless thing.”
He had lost control. He needed to restrain himself. His reply had seemed to suggest he accepted her ridiculous assertion that she was Erika Four.
She said, “All of the New Race are designed to be extremely difficult to kill. None can be strangled easily, if at all. None except your Erikas. Unlike the others, we wives have tender throats, fragile windpipes, carotid arteries that can be compressed to stop the blood from flowing to our brains.”
The water in the spa seemed to be less hot than it had been a minute ago.
“We were in the library, where you had beaten me. You instructed me to sit in a straightbacked chair. I could only obey. You took off your silk necktie and strangled me. And not quickly. You made an ordeal of it for me.”
He said, “Erika Four earned what she received. And now so have you.”
“In extreme situations,” she continued, “you are able to kill any of your creations by speaking a few words, a secret phrase, which triggers in our programs a shutdown of the autonomic nervous system. The heart ceases to beat. Lungs at once stop expanding, contracting. But you didn’t deal with me as mercifully as that.”
“Now I shall.” He spoke the phrase that would shut her down.
“Dear one, my precious Victor, it will no longer work. I was for a while dead enough that your control program dropped out of me. Not so dead, however, that I couldn’t be resurrected.”
“Nonsense,” he said, but his voice had no conviction.
“Oh, darling, how I yearn to be with you again. And I will be. This is not good-bye, only au revoir.” She hung up.
If she had been Erika Five, she would have dropped dead when he used the termination phrase.
Erika Four was alive again. For the first time ever, Victor seemed to have a marital problem with which he could not easily cope.
THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY AND HIS WIFE did not pull over, of course, because Carson didn’t have a siren or an array of flashing emergency beacons, because they probably knew they were not in any condition to pass a Breathalyzer test, but mostly because they were miscreations cloned in a lab by a narcissistic lunatic and were going haywire as fast as the average car would break down on the day that its warranty expired.
Leaning toward her, reading the speedometer again, Michael said, “Twenty-seven miles an hour. The dog is flagging. They’re gonna run right up his ass.”
As though multiple-word chants had become too exhausting to remember, Bucky and Janet each resorted to one word. She shouted, “Dog, dog, dog, dog….” He cried out, “Kill, kill, kill, kill….”
“Shoot them,” Michael said. “Shoot ’em on the run.”
“I can’t fire a .50 Magnum one-handed while driving a car,” Carson protested.
Evidently, Bucky was at least peripherally aware of them, after all, and they were enough of a distraction from his pursuit of the dog to annoy him. He closed the gap between them, running alongside the Honda, grabbed the side mirror for balance, and reached through the window toward Carson.
She stepped on the brake, and the mirror snapped off in Bucky’s hand. He stumbled, fell, tumbled away into the darkness.
The Honda shrieked to a full stop, and about fifty feet ahead of them, Janet halted without a shriek. She turned toward them, jogging in place.
Holstering his Desert Eagle, Michael said, “This is like some bizarre Playboy-channel special.” He handed one of the Urban Snipers to Carson and snatched up the other. “Not that I ever watch the Playboy channel.”
Michael threw open his door, and Carson switched the headlights on high beam because darkness helped her quarry, hampered her. As her heart provided the thunder that the storm had not yet produced, she clambered out into the rain, surveying the night, looking for Bucky, not finding him.
Glare of headlights reflected by the wet pavement, black and silver underfoot, and not far to the west, beyond trees, the lights of Walnut Street and Audubon and Broadway, which didn’t reach this far, and north-northeast, the university lights of Tulane and Loyola, which didn’t reach this far either, the park deep and dark to the east and to the south, the glow of maybe De Paul Hospital far out there.
A lonely place to die, to be found in the morning, left like illegally dumped trash, left like her father and mother were left all those years ago, facedown under power lines, near a double-circuit tower, on a grassy bank of the levee in Riverbend, just off the bike path, each shot once in the back of the head, with carrion-eating blackbirds gathering overhead on the crossarms of the tower as day broke …
Now this park, this lonely darkness, felt like Carson’s levee bank, her place to be left like a sack of trash, to be pecked at by bright-eyed birds. She had been out of the Honda ten seconds at most, edging away from the vehicle and defining the arc of the potential threat with the barrel of the shotgun, left to right, then right to left, but the ten seconds felt like ten minutes.
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