He said, “You smell maximum real, bro.”
“Worked at it.”
From the rearview mirror dangled a bright-yellow air freshener shaped like a banana. Bobby slipped it off the mirror and hung it from my left ear.
Sometimes he is too funny for his own good. I wouldn’t reward him with a laugh.
“It’s a banana,” I said, “but it smells like a pine tree.”
“That old American ingenuity.”
“Nothing like it.”
“We put men on the moon.”
“We invented chocolate-flavored breakfast cereal.”
“Don’t forget plastic vomit.”
“Funniest gag ever,” I said.
Bobby and I solemnly clinked bottles in a patriotic toast and took long swallows of beer.
Although I was, on one level, frantic to find Orson and Jimmy, on the surface I fell into the languid tempo by which Bobby lives. He is so laid back that if he visited someone in a hospital, the nurses might mistake him for a patient in a coma, shuck him out of his Hawaiian shirt, and slide him into a backless bed gown before he could correct their misapprehension. Except when he’s rocking through epic surf, getting totally barreled in an insanely hollow wave, Bobby values tranquility. He responds better to easy and indirect conversation than to any expression of urgency. During our seventeen-year friendship, I’ve learned to value this relaxed approach, even if it doesn’t come naturally to me. Calm is essential to prudent action. Because Bobby acts only after contemplation, I’ve never known him to be blindsided by anyone or anything. He may look relaxed, even sleepy at times, but like a Zen master, he is able to make the flow of time slow down while he considers how best to deal with the latest crisis.
“Bitchin’ shirt,” I said.
He was wearing one of his favorite antique shirts: a brown Asian landscape design. He has a couple hundred in his collection, and he knows every detail of their histories.
Before he could reply, I said, “Made by Kahala about 1950. Silk with coconut-shell buttons. Same shirt John Wayne wore in Big Jim McLain.”
He was silent long enough for me to have repeated all the shirt data, but I knew he’d heard me.
He took another pull at his bottle of beer. Finally: “Have you for real developed an interest in aloha threads, or are you just mocking me?”
“Just mocking you.”
As he studied the rearview mirror again, I said, “What’s that in your lap?”
“I’m just way happy to see you,” he said. Then he held up a serious handgun. “Smith & Wesson Model 29.”
“This is definitely not a barn raising.”
“Exactly what is it?”
“Somebody took Lilly Wing’s boy.”
“Some abb,” I said, meaning an abnormal type, a sleazeball.
“Woofy,” he said, which is Australian surfer lingo for waves contaminated by a sewage spill, but which has evolved other, related meanings, none positive.
I said, “Boosted Jimmy right out of his bedroom, through a window.”
“So Lilly called you?”
“I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, biking by right after the abb did the deed.”
“How’d you get from there to here?”
I told him about the abb, the kidnapper, whom I’d encountered under the warehouse.
He frowned. “You said yellow eyes?”
“Yellow-brown, I guess.”
“No. Brownish yellow, burnt amber, but the natural color.”
Recently, we’d encountered a couple of men in whom radical genetic changes had occurred, guys in the process of becoming something more or less than human, who appeared for the most part normal but whose otherness was betrayed by brief but detectable flashes of animal eyeshine. These people are driven by strange, hateful needs, and they are capable of extreme violence. If Jimmy was in the hands of one of these, then the list of outrages to which he might be subjected was even longer than the savageries that a standard-issue sociopath might have in mind.
“You recognize this abb?” I asked Bobby.
“You say about thirty, black hair, yellow eyes, built like a fireplug?”
“Neat little baby teeth.”
“Not my type.”
“I never saw him before, either,” I said.
“Twelve thousand people in town.”
“And this isn’t a dude who’s a beachhead,” I said, meaning we wouldn’t have seen him hanging out with surfers. “So he could still be local and we wouldn’t know.”
For the first time all night, a breeze sprang up, a gentle onshore flow that brought to us a faint but bracing scent of the sea. In the park across the street, the oaks became conspiratorial, plotting together in whispers.
Bobby said, “Why did this abb bring Jimmy here of all places?”
“Maybe privacy. To do his thing.”
“I’d like to do my thing, Cuisinart the creep.”
“Plus the weirdness of this place probably feeds his dementia.”
“Unless it’s more directly connected to Wyvern.”
“Unless. And Lilly’s worried about the guy on the news.”
“Kidnaps kids, locks them away. When he gets three or five or whatever from one community, then he burns them all at once.”
“Stuff like this is why I don’t listen to news these days.”
“You’ve never listened to news.”
“I know. But I used to have different reasons.” Looking around at the night, Bobby said, “So where would they be now?”
“Maybe this is more ‘anywhere’ than we can handle.”
He hadn’t looked at the rearview mirror recently, so I turned in my seat to check things out behind us.
Bobby said casually, “Saw a monkey on the way in.”
Taking the air freshener off my ear and looping its string over the mirror again, I said, “Just one? I didn’t know they traveled alone.”
“Me neither. I turned a corner in Dead Town, and there it was, running across the street, caught in the headlights. This little freakin’ dude. Not your ordinary evolutionary link, missing or otherwise.”
“Maybe four feet tall.”
Apparently, there were refrigeration coils in my spine.
All the rhesuses we had seen thus far had been about two feet tall. They were trouble enough. At four feet, they would constitute a different magnitude of threat.
“Major head,” Bobby said.
“Four feet tall, big head.”
“I didn’t try to measure it for a hat.”
“Give me a guess.”
“Maybe as big as yours or mine.”
“On a four-foot body.”
“Top-heavy. And misshapen.”
“Grisly,” I said.
Bobby leaned forward over the steering wheel, squinting through the windshield.
About a block away, something was moving. About the size of a monkey. Slowly and fitfully approaching.
Putting one hand on the shotgun, I said, “What else?”
“That’s all I saw, bro. It was way fast.”
“Maybe soon there’s gonna be a bunch of that.”
“Tumbleweed,” I said, identifying the approaching object.
Neither of us relaxed.
With the moon down, it was easy to imagine that the park across the street was swarming with phantasmagorical figures under—and high in—the massive oaks.
When I described my encounter with the gang that had almost caught me in the bungalow, Bobby said, “Thirty? Man, they’re busy breeders.”
I told him about their use of the flashlight and the manhole hook.
“Next,” he said, “they’ll be driving cars, trying to date our women.”
He finished his beer and handed the empty bottle to me, which I planted upside down in the ice chest.
From somewhere along the street came a soft, rhythmic creaking. It was probably just one of the shop signs swinging on its mountings, disturbed by the breeze.
“So Jimmy could be anywhere in Wyvern,” Bobby said. “What about Orson?”
“The last I heard him barking, I think it was coming from here in Dead Town somewhere.”
“Here on Commissary Way or over in the houses?”
“I don’t know. Just this direction.”
“Lot of houses over there.” Bobby looked toward the residential streets on the far side of the park.
“Say like four minutes a house…Take us nine or ten days, searching around the clock, to go through all of ’em. And you don’t do day work.”
“Orson’s probably not in any of the houses.”
“But we have to start somewhere. So where?”
I didn’t have an answer. Besides, I didn’t trust myself to speak without my voice cracking.
“You think Orson is with Jimmy? We find one, we find both?”
“Maybe this is one time we should tell Ramirez what we know,” Bobby suggested.
Manuel Ramirez was the current chief of police in Moonlight Bay. He had once been a good man, but like all the cops in town, he had been co-opted by higher authorities.
“Maybe,” Bobby said, “in this case, Manuel’s interests are the same as ours. He’s got the manpower for a search.”
“He’s not just corrupted by the feds,” I said. “He’s becoming.”
Becoming. That’s the word some of the genetically afflicted use to describe the physical, mental, and emotional changes that are taking place in them—but only once those changes have passed the subtle stage and reached a crisis.
Bobby was surprised. “He tell you he’s becoming?”
“He says he isn’t. But there’s something wrong with him. I don’t trust Manuel.”
“Hell, I don’t entirely trust me,” Bobby said, which put into words our greatest fear—that we might not merely become infected with the retrovirus but that we might start becoming something less than human without being aware of the changes taking place.
I sucked down the last of the Heineken, jammed the empty bottle into the ice chest.
“We gotta find Orson,” I said.
Orson is no ordinary dog. My mother brought him home from the Wyvern lab when he was a puppy. Until recently, I didn’t realize where fur face had come from or how special he was, because my mom didn’t tell me and because Orson was good at keeping his secrets. The intelligence-enhancement experiments were conducted on monkeys and on hardcase lifers transferred from military prisons, but also on dogs, cats, and other animals. I’ve never given Orson an IQ test; pencils aren’t designed for paws, and because he lacks the complex larynx of a human being, he isn’t capable of speech. He understands everything, however, and in his own way he makes himself understood. He is smarter than the monkeys.
I suspect he possesses human-level intelligence. At least.
Earlier, I suggested that the monkeys hate us because we gave them the ability to dream but not the means to fulfill their dreams, leaving them lost outside the natural order. But if this explains their hostility and thirst for violence, why should Orson, who is also outside the natural order, be so affectionate and good-hearted?
He is trapped in a body that serves his enhanced intelligence less well than the monkeys’ bodies serve them. He has no hands, as they have, and his vision is comparatively weak, as is that of any domesticated breed of canine.
The monkeys have the communal comfort of the troop, but Orson endures in a terrible solitude. Though more dogs as smart as Orson might have been created, I’ve yet to encounter another. Sasha, Bobby, and I love him, but we are too little comfort, because we can never truly share his point of view, his experience. Because he is, at least for now, a singularity, Orson lives with a profound loneliness that I can perceive but never fully comprehend, loneliness that is with him even when he is among his friends.
Maybe his basic doggie nature explains why he doesn’t share the monkeys’ hatred and rage. I think dogs were put in this world to remind humanity that love, loyalty, devotion, courage, patience, and good humor are the qualities that, with honesty, are the essence of admirable character and the very definition of a life well lived.
In good Orson I see the hopeful side of my mother’s work, the real potential of science to bring light into an often dark world, to lift us up, to stir the spirit and to remind us that the universe is a place of wonder and infinite potential.
She did, in fact, hope to accomplish great things. She aligned herself with a biological-weapons project solely because this was the only way to obtain the high level of funding needed to realize her design for a gene-splicing retrovirus, which she believed could be used to cure many illnesses and inherited disorders—not least of all, my XP.
You see, my mom didn’t destroy the world without good reason. She did it trying to help me. Because of me, all of nature is now poised on the brink. Maternal love became the wellspring of ultimate terror.
So…you want to talk about your conflicted feelings for your mother?
Orson and I are her sons. I am the fruit of her heart and womb. Orson is the fruit of her mind, but she created him as surely as she created me. We are brothers. Not just figuratively. We are bound not by blood but by our mother’s passions, and in that sense we share one heart.
If anything were to happen to Orson, a part of me would die—the purer part, the better part—and die forever.
“Gotta find him,” I repeated.
“Faith, bro,” Bobby said.
He reached for the key in the ignition, but before he could switch on the engine, a sound arose, louder than the soft million-tongue flutter of leaves in the breeze, swelling by the second.
Bobby put one hand on the Smith & Wesson in his lap.
I didn’t draw my pistol because I knew what I was hearing. The beating of wings. Many wings.
Like wind-torn shingles from Heaven’s roof, the voiceless flock came out of the night, tumbling down in a clatter and whirl of wings more than half a block away, then flying parallel to the pavement, following the street, streaking in our direction. The hundred birds I’d seen earlier were surely part of this apparition, but another hundred had joined them, perhaps two hundred.
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