The receptionist—a forty-something blonde—wore cowboy boots, a denim skirt, a crisp white blouse, and a bolo tie with a turquoise slide. The triangular ID block on her desk bore the name KATIE. When Carson and Michael boldly identified themselves as private detectives from California, on a case, and asked if the editor or the publisher might be able to see them, Katie said, “I suspect they’ll both be able to see you, since they’re one and the same.”
The man who came out to see them was tall, handsome, looked more like a marshal than an editor, and was as appealing as Jimmy Stewart in one of his aw-shucks roles. His name was Addison Hawk, and after he examined their PI licenses, as he led them back to his office, he said, “The last time we had a private detective visiting—in fact, the only time that I’m aware of—he got himself shot in the buttocks not once but twice.”
Michael said, “That’s the very kind of thing we avoid at just about any cost.”
Hawk sat behind his cluttered desk, and they occupied the two chairs in front of it.
“What kind of case are you on?” the editor asked.
“Even if you weren’t a newspaperman,” Carson said, “we wouldn’t be at liberty to say. I can only tell you that it’s an estate matter involving an inheritance.”
“Someone local could get rich—is that it?”
“Perhaps,” said Carson.
“That sounds so fake to me,” Hawk said, “that I’ve got to think it might be true.”
“We’re assuming someone who publishes and edits a small-town newspaper knows most everybody on his beat.”
“I’m pretty much married to this town, and I’m not embarrassed to say I’m so much in love with it and its history that every morning seems like the first morning of my honeymoon. Some people I don’t know but only because they choose not to know me.”
From a manila envelope, Carson extracted a photograph of Victor from his New Orleans days, which she had brought from San Francisco. She slid it across the desk, and said, “Have you seen this man in Rainbow Falls? He would have come here sometime in the last two years.”
Hawk didn’t react at once, took time to study the photo, but finally said, “I get the feeling I might have seen him once or twice, but I couldn’t tell you where or when. What’s his name?”
“We don’t know what name he’s living under now,” Michael said, “and revealing his real name would violate our client’s privacy.”
“You sure do exhibit an admirable discretion,” Hawk said, with just a small ironic smile.
“We try,” Michael said.
When Hawk returned the photo, Carson presented him a computer printout of a county map that Erika had provided them. On it, she had marked in red the road from which Victor had disappeared in his GL550 Mercedes. “This twenty-four-mile loop winds through both low country and hills before it comes back to the state highway. From what we can see on Google Earth and other sites, this road serves no ranches, no houses, certainly no town, no evident purpose. It runs through completely unpopulated territory, yet it must have cost a fortune to build.”
Hawk held her gaze for a long moment, then searched Michael’s eyes. Finally he said, “That road has a number. It’s on the milepost at the start and on the one at the end, but nobody refers to it by the official number. Folks in these parts call it End Times Highway. Now I’m wondering who you really are.”
After his meeting with Councilmen Ben Shanley and Tom Zell at Pickin’ and Grinnin’, Mayor Erskine Potter intended to deal with a couple of other issues and also go home to see how Nancy and Ariel were coming along with the barn renovations. Then he would return to the roadhouse at 5:30, with Ben and Tom, to prepare for the arrival of the Riders in the Sky Church families at six o’clock, who would be rendered and processed by the Builders beginning at seven or perhaps sooner.
After the councilmen left, however, Erskine noticed that the clock at the hostess’s station, on the mezzanine level just inside the front entrance, displayed the wrong time. Because of the internal thousand-year clock and calendar that was part of his program, he knew the correct time to the precise second. He insisted on correct time on all timepieces. Everything depended on synchronization, yet the hostess’s clock was four minutes slow.
When he corrected this error, he glanced toward the lighted clock behind the bar and was distressed to see that it was two full minutes fast. He went through the gate at the end of the bar, leaned over the backbar, and adjusted the time on this second errant clock.
The memory that he had downloaded from the real Mayor Potter was complete enough, regarding the roadhouse, for him to recall there were also clocks in the manager’s office, in each of the two dressing rooms used by performers, and in the kitchen. Concerned that the building might be out of harmony with true time, he went from clock to clock, his concern quickly escalating into a deepening disquiet as he found every timepiece incorrectly set.
The former Erskine Potter had been chronologically challenged to a serious degree. It was almost as if the man didn’t care about time, as if he had no understanding whatsoever that time was the lubricant of the universe, that without time—and fully accurate time—nothing else could exist. There would be no past, no present, no future, no material world, no mass or energy of any kind, no light or dark, no sound or silence, only nothing within nothing unto nothing.
By the time he got to the final clock in the kitchen, Erskine Potter was afflicted by the lack of synchronization of time in the roadhouse, and filled with a sense of urgency. His hands shook as he tried to adjust the last clock, which was five minutes behind the real time. He first set it a minute fast, then a minute slow, and as he struggled to align the minute hand with the correct check on the dial, breathing rapidly and cursing the clumsy adjustment stem, he grew afraid that if he didn’t complete this correction at once, something disastrous would happen, that perhaps the roadhouse would implode into a time-flow disjunction and cease to exist, cease to have ever existed.
When on his third try he brought the clock into harmony with true time, a great tide of relief swept through him, and his distress rapidly abated—until he noticed the condition of the stainless-steel counters, the cooktop, the griddle, the grill, the deep-fryer wells, the floor. Crumbs littered and grease spattered this place as much as they had the kitchen at the mayor’s home. Perhaps it was not a culinary catastrophe, not so bad as to be an inexorable magnet for rats and roaches, but it was far from perfect, and perfection must be the standard of cleanliness for all machines, tools, and devices if they were to deliver high performance for a long time.
If the original Mayor Erskine Potter was an example of an average human being, if they all shared his lack of attention to detail, then they would succumb to the Community much faster than even the Creator expected. The death they deserved would overtake their entire species, continent after continent, with such rapidity as to give new meaning to the word blitzkrieg.
The new mayor didn’t have time to clean the kitchen, especially not on this first day of the war, but he couldn’t dissuade himself from going into the walk-in refrigerator to assess its condition. Even if one disregarded the need for a good scrubbing, this still qualified as a mess. As in the refrigerator at the mayor’s home, nothing here was arranged in a logical fashion. With more than one hundred churchfolk to kill this evening, Erskine must not spend any time scrubbing these wire and glass shelves; but he did rearrange the contents, putting associated items together in such a way as to make the cooks and their assistants considerably more efficient than they could possibly have been previously.
He had no memory of returning to the long mahogany bar in the main room. Perhaps he had gone there to double-check the time on the lighted clock. When he realized where he stood and in what task he was engaged, he had rearranged half of the hundreds of bottles of liquor, mixers, and liqueurs on the backbar shelves. The previous lack of order had surely prevented maximum bartender efficiency.
With some surprise, he discovered that most of the afternoon had slipped away.
Carson didn’t know if Addison Hawk thought they might be foreign agents or radicals of one kind or another, but to overcome his sudden suspicion, she gave him the number of a detective with whom they once worked in New Orleans and who was now the chief of detectives in the NOPD.
In the process of finding that number, she also produced from the mysteries of her purse photographs of doggy Duke, of brother Arnie, and of Scout being as cute as Scout knew how to be. In fact, she produced eleven photos of Scout, each of them more smile-inducing than the one before it.
Either she had misjudged the depth of Hawk’s suspicion or her pride of parenthood struck him as so sincere that he found it hard to believe her motives in asking about the End Times Highway could be anything but honorable. With the sixth of the eleven photos, she realized that she was gushing shamelessly, and a glance at Michael—who gaped at her as if he had just seen Dirty Harry morph into Mother Hubbard—confirmed that her Scout rap had escalated into Scout babble. Hawk’s interest in the photos seemed real, and by the time that she showed him the last of the eleven snapshots, he didn’t find it necessary to call the chief of detectives in New Orleans.
As Carson returned to her chair, Hawk said, “Anyway, nothing I could tell you about End Times Highway could reveal any national secrets, because I don’t know any. What I do know is that the road was graded and built at breakneck speed in just two years, between 1964 and 1966, which was before my time. It was a federal-government project, and speed clearly trumped budget. A lot of the labor came from here in Montana. But there was other construction going on at the same time, lots of it, and the labor was brought in. Many of them were military personnel, and I assume the others had security clearance of the highest order. They worked out there, at points all along the new highway, from 1964 through 1968.”
“Wasn’t that about when the Cold War started to get downright icy?” Michael asked.
“Just so,” said Hawk. “Now, the outside labor that did all the building other than the highway—they had their own temporary town out there, facilities for a couple thousand of them. And nobody ever knew one of them to come into Rainbow Falls for R and R or for anything else. We think they were working under a security quarantine. The road was closed to the public until 1969, and when it opened, it was just a road to nowhere, and you couldn’t see a trace of whatever else it was they constructed along those twenty-four miles. Some good old local boys tramped a lot of hours through those woods and fields, doing some hunting but doing more snooping, and none of them could ever find a trace of what must have been stuck underground.”
“Missile silos,” Carson suggested.
“There were definitely a few of those,” Hawk confirmed, “because sometime after the Soviet Union collapsed, the government declared three silo complexes out there obsolete, decommissioned them, and offered them for sale to corporations that might want to use them as low-humidity, highly secure storage vaults for sensitive records. I believe they were all sold, though I don’t know that they’ve all been used. I hear maybe the Mormon church keeps duplicates of their national genealogy-project files out there, but I’ve never been able to confirm that.”
In Erika’s kitchen, Deucalion had told them about his experience with the flock of bats and about the intuitive insight they inspired, leaving him certain that Victor would be found this time not in any equivalent of the Hands of Mercy, but deep underground.
Hawk said, “Most folks in these parts don’t believe the silos were the whole of it. They think there must be other facilities out there along the End Times Highway.”
“Like what?” Michael asked.
Addison Hawk shrugged. “It’s all speculation, and most of it less real than your average sci-fi show on TV. Not worth repeating, because no one really knows anything. Maybe the silo complexes were the sum of it.” He leaned forward in his chair. “What does the End Times Highway have to do with this nameless man whose photo you showed me? No, wait, forgive my newshound curiosity. I’m sure that would be some violation of your client’s privacy.”
Carson said, “If a day comes when we can talk about the case, Mr. Hawk, you’ll be high on our list. You’ve been most helpful.”
As she and Michael got to their feet, the publisher rose from his chair and asked, “How long do you expect to be in town?”
“We don’t really know,” Michael said. “It could be a while.”
“Mind telling me where you’re staying—in case I spot this quarry of yours?”
“From here, we’re going straight to Falls Inn to get a room.”
As Hawk walked them out to the reception area, he said, “I know Rafe and Marcia Libby, they own the inn. If you’d like, I can call ahead, make sure they give you the best they’ve got for a price that’s right.”
“That’s kind of you, Mr. Hawk.”
“Happy to oblige. Be sure to show Marcia that photo of Scout and Duke. She’s crazy for kids and dogs.”
At the front door, the publisher reached up to tip his cowboy hat to them, but smiled as he realized that he had left it on the desk in his office.
Outside, with less than an hour before twilight, the day cooled fast. Behind the clouds that darkened the heavens, a deeper darkness was slowly rising.
Under the closed lids, his eyes move ceaselessly.
His intelligence is of such a high order that no pleasures of this world can seduce him. The universe within his mind is more vivid and alluring than anything external reality offers.
The room in which he sits is large and windowless. The lighting is soft. The walls are bare concrete. The floor matches the walls.
He has no interest in art, for his imagination teems with far more beautiful images than any ordinary man or woman could create.
Near the center of the room stands one armchair, unoccupied. In front of the armchair is a futon. He requires no other furnishings.
He sits on the futon, legs crossed, hands turned palms-up on his knees. Although his eyes are closed, his inner eyes are always wide open.
He is and is not Victor Frankenstein. He is not anything as simple as a clone of the great man, but rather an enhanced clone.
During the eight years this Victor lay in suspended animation, waiting to be called to full consciousness, the original Victor daily downloaded his memories into the clone who would replace him if he died. This Victor knows everything the other Victor knew—and more.
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