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A death wish did not, however, entirely explain either the decor or Allwine. This black hole was also about power, just as real black holes, in far reaches of the universe, exert such gravitational pull that not even light can escape them.


These walls, these ceilings, these floors had not been painted by a man in a state of despair; despair enervated and did not inspire action. She could more easily imagine Allwine blackening these walls in an energetic anger, in a frenzy of rage.


If that was true, then at what had his rage been directed?


The arms of the chair were wide and plumply padded. Under her hands, she felt numerous punctures in the vinyl.


Something pricked her right palm. From the padding beneath a puncture, she extracted a pale crescent: a broken-off fingernail.


A closer look revealed scores of curved punctures.


The chair and the room chilled her as deeply as if she had been sitting on a block of ice in a cooler.


Carson hooked her hands, spread her fingers. She discovered that each of her nails found a corresponding slit in the vinyl.


The upholstery was thick, tough, flexible. Extreme pressure would have been required for fingernails to puncture it.


Logically, despair would not produce the intensity of emotion needed to damage the vinyl. Even rage might not have been sufficient if Allwine had not been, as Jack Rogers had said, inhumanly strong.


She rose, wiping her hands on her jeans. She felt unclean.


In the bedroom, she switched on the lights. The pervasive black surfaces soaked up the illumination.


Someone had opened one of the black blinds. The apartment was such a grim world unto itself that the streetlamps, the distant neon, and the glow of the city seemed out of phase with Allwine’s realm, as if they should have existed in different, isolated universes.


Beside the bed, she opened the nightstand drawer, where she discovered Jesus. His face looked out at her from a litter of small pamphlets, His right hand raised in blessing.


From among perhaps a hundred pamphlets, she selected four and discovered that they were memorial booklets of the kind distributed to mourners at funerals. The name of the deceased was different on each, though all came from the Fullbright Funeral Home.


Nancy Whistler, the librarian who had found Allwine’s body, said he went to mortuary viewings because he felt at peace there.


She pocketed the four booklets and closed the drawer.


The smell of licorice hung on the air as thick as it had been earlier in the day. Carson couldn’t shake the disturbing idea that someone had recently been burning the black candles that stood on a tray on the windowseat.


She crossed to the candles to feel the wax around the wicks, half expecting it to be warm. No. Cold and hard, all of them.


Her impression of the scene beyond the window was unnerving but entirely subjective. Enduring New Orleans hadn’t changed. In the grip of creeping paranoia, however, she saw not the festive city that she knew, but an ominous metropolis, an alien place of unnatural angles, throbbing darkness, eerie light.


A reflection of movement on the glass pulled her focus from the city to the surface of the pane. A tall figure stood in the room behind her.


She reached under her jacket, placing her hand upon the 9mm pistol in her shoulder holster. Without drawing it, she turned.


The intruder was tall and powerful, dressed in black. Perhaps he had entered from the living room or from the bathroom, but he seemed to have materialized out of the black wall.


He stood fifteen feet away, where shadows hid his face. His hands hung at his sides—and seemed as big as shovels.


“Who’re you?” she demanded. “Where’d you come from?”


“You’re Detective O’Connor.” His deep voice had a timbre and a resonance that in another man would have conveyed only self-assurance but that, combined with his size, suggested menace. “You were on TV.”


“What’re you doing here?”


“I go where I want. In two hundred years, I’ve learned a great deal about locks.”


His implication left Carson no choice but to draw her piece. She pointed the muzzle at the floor, but said, “That’s criminal trespass. Step into the light.”


He did not move.


“Don’t be stupid. Move. Into. The. Light.”


“I’ve been trying to do that all my life,” he said as he took two steps forward.


She could not have anticipated his face. Handsome on the left, somehow wrong on the right side. Over that wrongness, veiling it, was an elaborate design reminiscent of but different from a Maori tattoo.


“The man who lived here,” the intruder said, “was in despair. I recognize his pain.”


Although he had already stopped, he loomed and could have been upon her in two strides, so Carson said, “That’s close enough.”


“He was not made of God . . . and had no soul. He agonized.”


“You have a name? Very carefully, very slowly, show me some ID.”


He ignored her order. “Bobby Allwine had no free will. He was in essence a slave. He wanted to die but couldn’t take his own life.”


If this guy was correct, Harker had nailed it. Each razor blade in the bathroom wall marked a failed attempt at self-destruction.


“We have,” the intruder said, “a built-in proscription against suicide.” “We?”


“Allwine was full of fury, too. He wanted to kill his maker. But we are also designed to be incapable of raising a hand against him. I tried long ago . . . and he nearly killed me.”


Every modern city has its crazies, and Carson thought she knew all the tropes, but this guy had a different edge from what she had encountered before, and a disturbing intensity “I tried going to his house to study it from a distance … but if I’d been seen, he might have finished me. So I came here. The case interested me, because of the missing heart. I was in part made from such stolen essentials.”


Whether this hulk was the Surgeon or not, he didn’t sound like the kind of citizen who made the city safer by being on the streets.


She said, “Too weird. Spread your arms, get on your knees.”


Although it must have been a trick of light, she thought a luminous pulse passed through his eyes as he said, “I bow to no one.”


CHAPTER 35


I BOW TO NO ONE.


No suspect had ever challenged her in such a poetic fashion.


Wound tight, wary, edging sideways from the window because her back felt exposed, she said, “I wasn’t asking.”


She took a two-hand grip on the pistol, pointed it at him.


“Will you shoot me in the heart?” he asked. “You’ll need two rounds.”


Allwine lying on the autopsy table. Chest open. The associated plumbing for two hearts.


“I came here thinking Allwine was an innocent man,” he said, “torn open to provide the heart for another… experiment. But it’s not that simple anymore.”


He moved, and for an instant she thought he was coming at her: “Don’t be stupid.”


Instead he went past her to the window. “Every city has its secrets, but none as terrible as this. Your quarry isn’t a crazed murderer. Your real enemy is his maker … and mine, too.”


Still reeling from his apparent claim to have two hearts, she said, “What do you mean, I’ll need two rounds?”


“His techniques are more sophisticated now. But he created me with bodies salvaged from a prison graveyard.”


When he turned away from the window, facing Carson again, she glimpsed that subtle pulse of luminosity passing through his eyes.


“My one heart from a mad arsonist,” he said. “The other from a child molester.”


Their positions had been reversed. His back was to the window, hers to the bathroom door. Suddenly she wondered if he’d come alone.


She put herself at an angle to him, trying to watch him directly while keeping the bathroom threshold in her peripheral vision.


This put the door to the living room behind her. She could not cover every approach by which she might be assaulted, overwhelmed.


“My hands were taken from a strangler,” he said. “My eyes from an ax murderer. My life force from a thunderstorm. And that strange storm gave me gifts that Victor couldn’t grant. For one thing …”


He moved so fast that she did not see him take a step. He was at the window but then right in her face. Not since her first days at the police academy, when she’d been in training, had Carson been out-maneuvered, overpowered. Even as he seemed to materialize in front of her, he boldly wrenched the pistol out of her hand—a shot discharged, shattering a window—and then he was around her, behind her.


She thought he went behind her, but when she turned, he seemed to have vanished.


Even dressed in black in this black room, he could not make a shadow of himself. He was too big to play chameleon in a dark corner.


His unmistakable voice came from the window-seat—“I’m not the monster anymore”—but when Carson spun to face him, he wasn’t there.


Again he spoke, seemingly from the doorway to the living room—“I’m your best hope”—yet when she turned a third time in search of him, she was still alone.


She didn’t find him in the living room, either, though she did recover her service pistol. The weapon lay on the floor beside the Lockaid lock-release gun, which she had left there earlier. The door to the public hallway stood open. Wishing that her thudding heart would quiet, she ejected the magazine. The telltale gleam of brass confirmed that the weapon was loaded but for the one expended round.


Slamming the magazine into the pistol, she cleared the doorway fast, staying low, weapon in front of her.


The corridor was deserted. She held her breath but did not hear any footsteps thundering down the stairs. All quiet.


Considering the shot that had accidentally discharged, she could be reasonably sure that someone in the apartment across the hall was watching her through the fish-eye lens in that door.


She stepped back into the black hole, snatched up the Lockaid gun, and pulled the door shut. She left the building.


As she reached the bottom of the stairs, she realized that she had not switched off the lights in the apartment. To hell with it. Allwine was too dead to care about his electric bill.


CHAPTER 36


IN A CORNER of the main lab, Randal Six had been strapped in a cruciform posture at the center of a spherical device that resembled one of those exercise machines that could rotate a person on any imaginable axis, the better to stress all muscles equally. This, however, was not an exercise session.


Randal would not move the machine; the machine would move him, and not for the purpose of building mass or maintaining muscle tone. From head to both feet, to the tip of every finger on both hands, he was locked into a precisely determined position.


A rubber wedge in his mouth prevented him from biting his tongue if he suffered convulsions. A chin strap did not allow him to open his mouth and perhaps accidentally swallow the wedge.


These precautions would also effectively muffle his screams.


The Hands of Mercy had been insulated against the escape of any sound that might attract attention. A researcher involved in cutting-edge science, however, Victor could not be too cautious. And so…


The brain is an electrical apparatus. Its wave patterns can be measured with an EEG machine.


After Randal Six had been extensively educated by direct-to-brain data downloading but while the boy had remained unconscious in the forming tank, Victor had established in his creation’s brain electrical patterns identical to those found in several autistic people that he had studied.


His hope had been that this would result in Randal being “born” as an eighteen-year-old autistic of a severe variety. This fond hope had been realized.


Having imposed autism upon Randal, Victor sought to restore normal brain function through a variety of techniques. Thus far he had not been successful.


His purpose in reverse-engineering Randal’s release from autism was not to find a cure. Finding a cure for autism interested him not at all, except that it might be a source of profits if he chose to market it.


Instead, he pursued these experiments because if he could impose and relieve autism at will, he should be able to learn to impose selected degrees of it. This might have valuable economic and social benefits.


Imagine a factory worker whose productivity is low due to the boring, repetitive nature of his job. Selective autism might be a means by which said worker could be made to focus intently on the task with an obsession that would make him as productive as—but cheaper than—a robot.


The lowest level of Epsilons in the precisely ranked social strata of Victor’s ideal society might be little more than machines of meat. They would waste no time in idle chatter with their fellow workers.


Now he threw the switch that activated the spherical device in which Randal Six was strapped. It began to rotate, three revolutions on one axis, five on another, seven on yet another, slowly at first but steadily gaining speed.


A nearby wall contained a high-resolution nine-foot-square plasma screen. A colorful ultrasound display revealed the movement of blood through Randal Six’s cerebral veins and arteries as well as the subtlest currents in his cerebrospinal fluid as it circulated between the meninges, through the cerebral ventricles, and in the brain stem.


Victor suspected that with the properly calculated application of extreme centrifugal and centripetal forces, he could establish unnatural conditions in cerebral fluids that would improve his chances of converting Randal’s autism-characteristic brainwaves into normal cerebral electrical patterns.


As the machine spun faster, faster, the subject’s groans and terrified wordless pleas escalated into screams of anguish and agony His shrieks would have been annoying if not for the wedge in his mouth and the chin strap.


Victor hoped to achieve a breakthrough before he tested the boy to destruction. So much time would have been wasted if he had to start all over again with Randal Seven.


Sometimes Randal bit the rubber wedge so hard for so long that his teeth sank in it to the gum line, whereafter it had to be cut out of his locked jaws in pieces. This sounded as if it might be one of those occasions.


CHAPTER 37


A WHITE PICKET FENCE met white gateposts inlaid with seashells. The gate itself featured a unicorn motif.


Under Carson’s feet, the front walkway twinkled magically as flecks of mica in the flagstones reflected moonlight. Moss between the stones softened her footsteps.


Almost thick enough to feel, the fragrance of the magnolia-tree flowers swagged the air.


The windows of the fairy-tale bungalow were flanked by blue shutters from which had been cut star shapes and crescent moons.


Trellises partially enclosed the front porch, entwined by leafy vines graced with trumpetlike purple blooms.

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