“Carson, remember when you looked in the mirror this morning and didn’t like what you saw?”
She said, “Suddenly I feel pretty.”
“All my life,” Francine told Carson, “I’ve known perky-tit types like you, and not one of you bitches ever had a brain bigger than a chickpea.”
“Well, there you’re woefully wrong,” Michael told her. “On a bet, my friend had an MRI scan of her brain, and it’s as big as a walnut.”
Francine gave him another broken yellow smile. “You’re a real cutie. I could just eat you up.”
“I’m flattered,” he said.
“Remember what happened to her dinner last night,” Carson reminded him.
Francine put down her cell phone. From the bar, she picked up a BlackBerry, on which she was receiving a text message, evidently in response to the photo.
Michael said, “You’re a total telecom babe, Francine, fully swimming in the info stream.”
“You’ve got a nice tight butt,” Francine said. She put down the BlackBerry, swiveled off her stool, and said, “Come with me, cutie. You too, bitch.”
Michael followed the old woman, glanced back at Carson, and said, “Come on, bitch, this’ll be fun.”
To assist with the tracking and the eventual efficient execution of Detectives O’Connor and Maddison, one of Victor’s people—Dooley Snopes—had fixed a magnetic-hold transponder to the engine block of their department sedan, tapping the battery cable for power, while the car was parked in front of O’Connor’s house, and while she had slept unaware through the summer morning.
Dooley had not been programmed as an assassin, though he wished that he had been. Instead, he was basically a sneak with a lot of technical knowledge.
Cindi Lovewell drove past Dooley, who was sitting in his parked PT Cruiser in Faubourg Marigny. The Lovewells had been issued an SUV—a Mercury Mountaineer with darkly tinted side and rear windows—which facilitated the discreet transport of dead bodies.
Cindi liked the vehicle not only because it had a lot of power and handled well but also because it had plenty of room for the children she yearned to produce.
When they had to drive to Crosswoods Waste Management north of Lake Pontchartrain with a couple of corpses, how much nicer the trip would be if it were a family adventure. They could stop along the way for a picnic.
In the front passenger’s seat, studying the red dot that blinked near the center of the street map on the screen of their satellite-navigation system, Benny said, “The cops should be parked about”—he surveyed the curbed vehicles past which they drifted, and glanced at the screen—“right here.”
Cindi rolled slowly past an unmarked sedan, cheap iron that had seen a lot of use. Victor’s people were always better equipped than the so-called authorities.
She parked at a red curb near the end of the block. Benny’s driver’s license was in the name of Dr. Benjamin Lovewell, and the Mountaineer had MD plates. From the console box, he took a card that read PHYSICIAN ON CALL, and hung it from the rearview mirror.
Tailing a target, professional killers need to be able to park as conveniently as possible. And when police see a speeding vehicle with MD plates, they often assume that the driver is rushing to a hospital.
Victor disliked his funds being spent on parking tickets and traffic fines.
By the time they walked past the sedan to the PT Cruiser, Dooley had gotten out of his car to meet them. If he’d been a dog, he would have been a whippet: lean, long-legged, with a pointy face.
“They went into The Other Ella,” Dooley said, pointing to a restaurant across the street. “Not even five minutes ago. Did you kill anybody yet today?”
“Not yet,” Benny said.
“Did you kill anybody yesterday?”
“Three days ago,” Cindi said.
“Three,” Benny said. “Their replicants were ready.”
Dooley’s eyes were dark with envy. “I wish I could kill some of them. I’d like to kill all of them.”
“It’s not your job,” Benny said.
“Yet,” Cindi said, meaning that the day would come when the New Race would have achieved sufficient numbers to bring their war into the open, whereupon the greatest slaughter in human history would mark the swift extinction of the Old Race.
“Everything is so much harder,” Dooley said, “when we have to watch them all around us, watch them leading their lives any way they want, any way they please.”
A young couple walked past, shepherding their two tow headed children, one boy and one girl.
Cindi turned to watch them. She wanted to kill the parents right now, right here on the sidewalk, and take the children.
“Easy,” Benny said.
“Don’t worry. There’s not going to be another incident,” Cindi assured him.
“What incident?” Dooley asked.
Instead of answering him, Benny said, “You can go. We can handle it from here.”
Occasionally smacking her lips over her broken yellow teeth, Francine led Carson and Michael through the restaurant, across a busy kitchen, into a storeroom, and up a set of steep stairs.
At the top were a deep landing and a blue door. Francine pressed a bell push beside the door, but there was no audible ring.
“Don’t give it away for free,” Francine advised Michael. “Lots of ladies would be happy to keep you in style.”
She glanced at Carson and snorted with disapproval.
“And stay away from this one,” Francine told Michael. “She’ll freeze your cojones off as sure as if you dipped them in liquid nitrogen.”
Then she left them on the landing and started unsteadily down the stairs.
“You could push her,” he told Carson, “but it would be wrong.”
“Actually,” Carson said, “if Lulana were here, even she’d agree, Jesus would be all right with it.”
The blue door was opened by a Star Wars kind of guy: as squat as R2-D2, as bald as Yoda, and as ugly as Jabba the Hutt.
“You been truly blood-sworn by Aubrey,” he said, “so I ain’t goin’ to take away dem kill-boys you carryin’ under your left arms, nor neither dat snub-nose you got snuggled on a belt clip just above your ass, missy.”
“And good afternoon to you, too,” Michael said.
“You follow me like baby ducks their mama, ‘cause you make the wrongest move, you be six ways dead.”
The room beyond the blue door was furnished with only a pair of straight-backed chairs.
A shaved gorilla in black pants, suspenders, a white chambray shirt, and a porkpie hat sat in one of the chairs. On the floor next to his chair was a tented paperback—a Harry Potter novel—that he had evidently set aside when Francine had pressed the bell push.
Across his thighs lay a semi-auto 12-gauge, on which both his hands rested in the business position. He wasn’t aiming the shotgun at them, but he would be able to blow their guts out before their pistols cleared their holsters, and blast off their faces as an afterthought even before their bodies hit the floor.
Baby-duck walking, Carson and Michael obediently followed their squat leader through another door into a room with a cracked yellow linoleum floor, blue beadboard wainscoting, gray walls, and two poker tables.
Around the nearest table sat three men, one woman, and an Asian transvestite.
This sounded like the opening to a pretty good joke, but Michael couldn’t think of a punch line.
Two of the players were drinking Coke, two had cans of Dr Pepper, and at the transvestite’s place stood a cordial glass and a bottle of anisette.
None of the poker players seemed to have the slightest interest in Carson and Michael. Neither the woman nor the transvestite winked at him.
In the middle of the table were stacks of poker chips. If the greens were fifties and the blacks were hundreds, there was perhaps eighty thousand dollars riding on this hand.
Another shaved gorilla stood by a window. He carried his piece in a paddle holster at his hip, and he kept his hand on it as Carson and Michael passed through his duty station.
A third door led to a shabby conference room that smelled like lung cancer. Twelve chairs stood around a scarred table on which were fourteen ashtrays.
At the head of the table sat a man with a merry face, lively blue eyes, and a mustache. His Justin Wilson hat rested on the tops of his jug-handle ears.
He rose as they approached, revealing that he wore his pants above his waistline, between his navel and his breasts.
Their mama duck said, “Mr. Godot, though they smells like da worst kind of righteous, these here be da ones what were vouched by Aubrey, so don’t bust my stones if’n you got to gaff ‘em like catfish ‘fore dis be finished.”
To the right of the man with jug ears and slightly behind him stood Big Foot in a seersucker suit. He made the previous gorillas look like mere chimps.
Big Foot looked as if he would not only kill them but eat them at the smallest provocation.
Godot, on the other hand, was hospitable. He held out his right hand and said, “Any friend to Aubrey, he a friend to me, ‘specially when he come with cash money.”
Shaking the offered hand, Michael said, “I expected we’d have to wait for you, Mr. Godot, not the other way around. I hope we’re not late.”
“Right on da minute,” Godot assured him. “And who might be dis charmin’ eyeful?”
“This charmin’ eyeful,” Carson said, “is the one with the cash money.”
“You done just got even prettier,” Godot told her.
As Carson withdrew two fat rolls of hundred-dollar bills from her jacket pockets, Godot picked up one of two suitcases from the floor beside his chair and put it on the table.
Big Foot kept both hands free.
Godot opened the case, revealing two Urban Sniper shotguns with sidesaddle shell carriers and three-way slings. The barrels had been cut down to fourteen inches. With the guns were four boxes of shells, slugs not buckshot, which was the only thing the Sniper fired.
Carson said, “You are a formidable resource, Mr. Godot.”
“Mama so wanted a preacher son, and Daddy, rest his soul, he set on me bein’ a welder like hisself, but I most truly rebelled against bein’ a poor Cajun, so I done found my bliss, and here I is.”
The second suitcase was smaller than the first. It contained two Desert Eagles in .50 Magnum with titanium gold finish. Packed beside the guns were the boxes of ammunition as requested and two spare magazines for each weapon.
“You for sure ready for what recoil dat monster pays you back?” Godot asked.
Wary of the big pistols, Michael said, “No, sir, I pretty much expect it to knock me on my ass.”
Amused, Godot said, “My concern be dis lady here, son, not your strappin’ self.”
“The Eagle has a smooth action,” Carson said, “less kick than you’d think. It slams back hard, sure, but so do I. From thirty feet, I could put all nine rounds in the magazine between your groin and your throat, not one higher, not one wide.”
This statement brought Big Foot forward, glowering.
“Rest yourself,” Godot told his bodyguard. “She done made no threat. Dat just braggin’.”
Closing the suitcase that contained the pistols, Carson said, “Are you going to count your money?”
“You da most tough I seen in a while, but you also gots some saint in you. I’d be so bad surprised did it turn out you thieved me even some littlest bit.”
Carson couldn’t suppress a smile. “Every dollar’s there.”
“Mr. Godot,” Michael said, “it’s been comfortable doing business with you, knowing we’re dealing with real human beings.”
“Dat’s most cordial of you to say,” Godot replied, “most cordial, and it sounds true from da heart.”
“It is,” Michael said. “It really is.”
Randal Six stands in the furnace closet on the ground floor, listening to Billy Joel singing in an upper room.
The closet measures approximately six by seven feet. Even the dim blue glow of the gas pilot flame and the weak light seeping under the door give him enough illumination to assess this space.
At long last he is in the house of the smiling autistic, Arnie O’Connor. The secret of happiness lies within his grasp.
He waits here in the cozy gloom as one song changes to another, and to another. He is enjoying his triumph. He is acclimating himself to this new environment. He is planning his next step.
He is also afraid. Randal Six has never been in a house before. Until the night before last, he lived exclusively in the Hands of Mercy. Between there and here, he spent a day hiding in a Dumpster; but a Dumpster is not the same as a house.
Beyond this closet door waits a place as alien to him as would be any planet in another galaxy.
He likes the familiar. He fears the new. He dislikes change.
Once he opens this door and steps across this threshold, all before him will be new and strange. Everything will be different forever.
Trembling in the dark, Randal half believes that his billet at Mercy and even the torturous experiments to which Father subjected him might be preferable to what lies ahead.
Nevertheless, after three more songs, he opens the door and stares into the space beyond, his two hearts hammering.
Sunshine at a frosted window sheds light over two machines that he recognizes from magazine ads and Internet research. One machine washes clothes. The other dries them.
He smells bleach and detergent behind the closed cabinet doors above the machines.
Before him lies a laundry room. A laundry room. At this moment, he can think of nothing that could more poignantly suggest the sweet ordinariness of daily life than a laundry room.
More than anything, Randal Six wants an ordinary life. He does not want to be—and cannot be one of the Old Race, but he wants to live as they do, without ceaseless torment, with his small share of happiness.
The experience of the laundry room is enough progress for one day. He quietly pulls shut the door and stands in the dark furnace closet, pleased with himself.
He relives the delicious moment when he first glimpsed the baked-enamel surfaces of the washer and dryer, and the big plastic clothes basket with what might have been several dirty rumpled garments in it.
The laundry room had a vinyl-tile floor, just as did all the hallways and most of the rooms at the Hands of Mercy. He hadn’t expected vinyl tile. He had thought that everything would be wildly different from what he had known.