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“Well, you know the crime scene was strange,” Carson said.


“That’s not all you’ve got, either.”


“His apartment was a freak’s crib,” Michael revealed. “The guy was as psychologically weird as anything you found inside him.”


“What about chloroform?” Carson asked. “Was it used on Allwine?”


“Won’t have blood results until tomorrow,” Jack said. “But I’m not going out on a limb when I say we won’t find chloroform. This guy couldn’t have been overcome by it.” “Why not?”


“Given his physiology, it wouldn’t have worked as fast on him as on you or me.” “How fast?”


“Hard to say. Five seconds. Ten.” “Besides,” Luke offered, “if you tried to clamp a chloroform-soaked cloth over his face, Allwine’s reflexes would have been faster than yours … or mine.”


Jack nodded agreement. ‘And he would have been strong. Far too strong to have been restrained by an ordinary man for a moment, let alone long enough for the chloroform to work.”


Remembering the peaceful expression on Bobby Allwine’s face when his body lay on the library floor, Carson considered her initial perception that he had welcomed his own murder. She could make no more sense of that hypothesis, however, than she had done earlier.


Moments later, outside in the parking lot, as she and Michael approached the sedan, the light of the moon seemed to ripple through the thick humid air as it might across the surface of a breeze-stirred pond.


Carson remembered Elizabeth Lavenza, hand-less, floating facedown in the lagoon.


Suddenly she seemed half-drowned in the murky fathoms of this case, and felt an almost panicky need to thrash to the surface and leave the investigation to others.


CHAPTER 26


TO all OUTWARD APPEARANCES, Randal Six, Mercy-born and Mercy-raised, has been in various degrees of autistic trance all day, but inwardly he has passed those hours in turmoil.


The previous night, he dreamed of Arnie O’Connor, the boy in the newspaper clipping, the smiling autistic. In the dream, he requested the formula for happiness, but the O’Connor boy mocked him and would not share his secret.


Now Randal Six sits at his desk, at the computer on which he occasionally plays competitive crossword puzzles with gamers in far cities. Word games are not his purpose this evening.


He has found a site on which he can study maps of the city of New Orleans. Because this site also offers a city directory of all property owners, he has been able to learn the address of Detective Carson O’Connor, with whom the selfish Arnie resides.


The number of blocks separating Randal from their house is daunting. So much distance, so many people, untold obstacles, so much disorder.


Furthermore, this web site offers three-dimensional maps of the French Quarter, the Garden District, and several other historic areas of the city. Every time he makes use of these more elaborate guides, he is quickly overcome by attacks of agoraphobia.


If he responds with such terror to the virtual reality of the cartoonlike dimensional maps, he will be paralyzed by the vastness and chaos of the world itself if ever he steps beyond these walls.


Yet he persists in studying the three-dimensional maps, for he is motivated by intense desire. His desire is to find happiness of the kind that he believes he has seen in the smile of Arnie O’Connor.


In the virtual reality of New Orleans on his computer screen, one street leads to another. Every intersection offers choices. Every block is lined with businesses, residences. Each of them is a choice.


In the real world, a maze of streets might lead him a hundred or a thousand miles. In that journey, he would be confronted with tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of choices.


The enormity of this challenge overwhelms him once more, and he retreats in a panic to a corner, his back to his room. He cannot move forward. Nothing confronts him except the junction of two walls.


His only choices are to stay facing the corner or turn to the larger room. As long as he doesn’t turn, his fear subsides. Here he is safe. Here is order: the simple geometry of two walls meeting.


In time he is somewhat calmed by this pinched vista, but to be fully calmed, he needs his crosswords. In an armchair, Randal Six sits with another collection of puzzles.


He likes crosswords because there are not multiple right choices for each square; only one choice will result in the correct solution. All is predestined. Cross YULETIDE with CHRISTMAS, cross CHRISTMAS with MYRRH___Eventually every square will be filled; all words will be complete and will intersect correctly The predestined solution will have been achieved. Order. Stasis. Peace.


As he fills the squares with letters, a startling thought occurs to Randal. Perhaps he and the selfish Arnie O’Connor are predestined to meet.


If he, Randal Six, is predestined to come face to face with the other boy and to take the precious secret of happiness from him, what seems now like a long harrowing journey to the O’Connor house will prove to be as simple as crossing this small room.


He cannot stop working the crossword, for he desperately needs the temporary peace that its completion will bring him. Nevertheless, as he reads the clues and inks the letters in the empty squares, he considers the possibility that finding happiness by relieving Arnie O’Connor of it might prove to be not a dream but a destiny.


CHAPTER 27


DRIVING AWAY FROM the medical examiner’s office, into a world transformed by what they had just learned, Carson said, “Two hearts? Strange new organs? Designer freaks?”


“I’m wondering,” Michael said, “if I missed a class at the police academy”


“Did Jack smell sober to you?”


“Unfortunately, yeah. Maybe he’s nuts.”


“He’s not nuts.”


“People who were perfectly sane on Tuesday sometimes go nuts on Wednesday”


“What people?” she asked.


“I don’t know. Stalin.”


“Stalin was not perfectly sane on Tuesday. Besides, he wasn’t insane, he was evil.”


“Jack Rogers isn’t evil,” Michael said. “If he’s not drunk, insane, or evil, I guess we’re going to have to believe him.”


“You think somehow Luke might be hoaxing old Jack?”


“Luke ‘been-interested-in-viscera-since-I-was-a-kid? First of all, it would be a way elaborate hoax. Second, Jack is smarter than Luke. Third, Luke— he’s got about as much sense of humor as a graveyard rat.”


A disguise of clouds transformed the full moon into a crescent. The pale flush of streetlamps on glossy magnolia leaves produced an illusion of ice, of a northern climate in balmy New Orleans.


“Nothing is what it seems,” Carson said.


“Is that just an observation,” Michael asked, “or should I worry about being washed away by a flood of philosophy?”


“My father wasn’t a corrupt cop.”


“Whatever you say. You knew him best.”


“He never stole confiscated drugs out of the evidence lockup.”


“The past is past,” Michael advised.


Braking to a stop at a red traffic light, she said, “A man’s reputation shouldn’t have to be destroyed forever by lies. There ought to be a hope of justice, redemption.”


Michael chose respectful silence.


“Dad and Mom weren’t shot to death by some drug dealer who felt Dad was poaching on his territory That’s all bullshit.”


She hadn’t spoken aloud of these things in a long time. To do so was painful.


“Dad had discovered something that powerful people preferred to keep secret. He shared it with Mom, which is why she was shot, too. I know he was troubled about something he had seen. I just don’t know what it was.”


“Carson, we looked at the evidence in his case a hundred times,” Michael reminded her, “and we agreed it’s too airtight to be real. No file of evidence is ever braided that tight unless it’s concocted. In my book, it’s proof of a frame. But that’s the problem, too.”


He was right. The evidence had been crafted not only with the intent of convicting her father postmortem, but to leave no clue as to the identity of those who had crafted it. She had long sought the one loose thread that would unravel it, but no such thread could be found.


As the traffic light turned green, Carson said, “We’re not far from my place. I’m sure Vicky’s got everything under control, but I feel like I ought to check on Arnie, if that’s okay”


“Sure. I could use some of Vicky’s bad coffee.”


CHAPTER 28


IN THE MASTER BEDROOM of the Helios estate, all was not well.


What Victor wanted from sex exceeded mere pleasure. Furthermore, he did not merely want to be satisfied but fully expected to be. His expectation was in fact a demand.


According to Victor’s philosophy, the world had no dimension but the material. The only rational response to the forces of nature and of human civilization was to attempt to dominate them rather than be humbled by them.


There were serfs and there were masters. He himself would never wear a slave’s collar.


If there was no spiritual side to life, then there could be no such thing as love except in the minds of fools; for love is a state of spirit, not of flesh. In his view, tenderness had no place in a sexual relationship.


At its best, sex was a chance for the dominant person to express control of the submissive partner. The fierceness of the dominance and the completeness of the submission led to satisfaction of greater intensity than love could have provided even if love had existed.


Erika Four, like the three before her and like the other brides that he had made for himself, was not a partner in the traditional sense of marriage. To Victor, she was an accoutrement that allowed him to function more effectively in social situations, a defense against the annoyance of women who saw in him the prospect of wealth by marriage, and an instrument of pleasure.


Because pleasure and power were synonymous to him, the intensity of his satisfaction was directly proportional to the cruelty with which he used her. He was often very satisfied.


Like all of his modern creations, in a crisis she could block the perception of pain at will. During sex, he did not permit her to do so. Her submission would be more satisfyingly complete and genuine if she were made to suffer.


If he struck her particularly hard, the evidence would be gone in hours, for like all his people, she healed rapidly Bleeding lasted less than a minute. Cuts healed without scars in a few hours. Bruises sustained in the night would have faded by dawn.


Most of his people were psychologically engineered to be utterly incapable of humiliation, for shame in all its shades grew from an acceptance of the belief that Moral Law lay at the heart of creation. In the war against ordinary humanity, which he would one day launch, he required soldiers without moral compunctions, so certain of their superiority that no ruthlessness would be beyond them.


He allowed Erika humility, however, because from humility arose a quality of innocence. Although he was not entirely sure why this should be the case, the mildest abuse of a delicate sensibility was more thrilling than committing savageries against a woman who lacked all innocence.


He forced her to endure the things that most shamed her because, ironically, the greater her shame and self-disgust, the further she would lower herself and the more obedient she would become. He had made her strong in many ways, but not so strong that he could not break her will and mold her as he wished.


He valued subservience in a wife more if it had been beaten into her than if it had been engineered in the tank, for in the latter case, her slavish obedience felt mechanical and dull.


Although he could remember a time, centuries ago in his youth, when he had felt differently about women and marriage, he could not recall or understand why that young Victor had felt the way he did, what belief had motivated him. He didn’t actually try to understand, however, because he had for a long time taken this different road, and there was no going back.


Young Victor had also believed in the power of the human will to bend nature to its desires; and it was that aspect of his early self with which Victor could still identify. All that mattered was the triumph of the will.


What was wrong here in the bedroom was that for once his will failed to bend reality to its desire. He wanted sexual satisfaction, but it eluded him.


His mind kept straying back to the dinner party, to the sight and sound of Erika noisily sucking soup from spoon.


At last he rolled off her, onto his back, defeated.


They stared at the ceiling in silence until she whispered, “I’m sorry”


“Maybe the fault is mine,” he said, meaning that perhaps he had made some mistake in the creation of her.


“I don’t excite you.” “Usually, yes. Not tonight.” “I’ll learn,” she promised. “I’ll improve.” “Yes,” he said, for that was what she must do if she hoped to keep her role, but he had begun to doubt that Erika Four would be the final Erika.


“I’m going to the hospital,” he said. “I’m in a creative mood.”


“The Hands of Mercy” She shuddered. “I think I dream of it.”


“You don’t. I spare all of you from dreams of your origins.”


“I dream of someplace,” she persisted. “Dark and strange and full of death.”


“There’s your proof that it’s not the Hands of Mercy. My labs are full of life.”


Both bored with Erika and troubled by the direction of her musings, Victor rose from the bed and went na*ed into the bathroom.


A jewel in this mounting of gold-plated fixtures and marble-clad walls, he looked at himself in the beveled mirrors and saw something much more than human.


“Perfection,” he said, though he knew that he was just shy of that ideal.


Looping through his torso, embedded in his flesh, entwining his ribs, spiraling around his spine, a flexible metallic cord and its associated implants converted simple electrical current—to which he submitted himself twice a day—into a different energy, a stimulating charge that sustained a youthful rate of cellular division and held biological time at bay His body was a mass of scars and strange excrescences, but he found them beautiful. They were the consequences of the procedures by which he’d gained immortality; they were the badges of his divinity.


One day he would clone a body from his DNA, enhance it with the many improvements he had developed, expedite its growth, and with the assistance of surgeons of his making, he’d have his brain transferred to that new home.


When that work was finished, he would be the model of physical perfection, but he would miss his scars. They were proof of his persistence, his genius, and the triumph of his will.

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