“Not beyond the control of Ibo,” she said.
“He who is red.”
“That’s right. Do you want to come with me to meet Zozo Deslisle and get a make-happy gris-gris?”
“No. I just want to tie down those cops and cut them open and listen to them scream while I twist their intestines.”
“You’re the one who told me to drive past,” she reminded him.
“I was mistaken. Let’s find them.”
Victor was at his desk in the main laboratory, taking a cookie break, when Annunciata’s face appeared on his computer screen in all her glorious digital detail.
“Mr. Helios, I have been asked by Werner to tell you that he is in Randal Six’s room and that he is exploding.”
Although Annunciata wasn’t a real person, just a manifestation of complicated software, Victor said irritably, “You’re screwing up again.”
“That can’t be what he told you. Review his message and convey it correctly.”
Werner had personally conducted a search of Randal’s room and had taken it upon himself to review everything on Randal’s computer.
Annunciata spoke again: “Mr. Helios, I have been asked by Werner to tell you that he is in Randal Six’s room and that he is exploding.”
“Contact Werner and ask him to repeat his message, then get back to me when you’ve got it right.”
“Yes, Mr. Helios.”
With the last of a peanut butter cookie raised to his lips, he hesitated, waiting for her to repeat Helios, but she didn’t.
As Annunciata’s face dematerialized from the screen, Victor ate the final bite, and then washed it down with coffee.
Annunciata returned. “Mr. Helios, Werner repeats that he is in fact exploding and wishes to stress the urgency of the situation.”
Getting to his feet, Victor threw his mug at the wall, against which it shattered with a satisfying noise.
Tightly, he said, “Annunciata, let’s see if you can get anything right. Call janitorial. Coffee has been spilled in the main lab.”
“Yes, Mr. Helios.”
Randal Six’s room was on the second floor, which served as a dormitory for all those of the New Race who had graduated from the tanks but who were not yet ready to be sent into the world beyond the walls of Mercy.
As the elevator ascended, Victor strove to calm himself. After 240 years, he should have learned not to let these things grind at his nerves.
His curse was to be a perfectionist in an imperfect world. He took some comfort from his conviction that one day his people would be refined to the point where they matched his own high standards.
Until then, the world would torture him with its imperfections, as it always had. He would be well advised to laugh at idiocy rather than to be inflamed by it.
He didn’t laugh enough. In fact he didn’t laugh at all these days. The last time he could remember having a really good, long laugh had been in 1979, with Fidel, in Havana, related to some fascinating open-brain work involving political prisoners with unusually high IQs.
By the time he arrived at the second floor, Victor was prepared to laugh with Werner about Annunciata’s mistake. Werner had no sense of humor, of course, but he would be able to fake a laugh. Sometimes the pretense of joviality could lift the spirits almost as high as the real thing.
When Victor stepped out of the elevator alcove into the main corridor, however, he saw a dozen of his people gathered in the hall, at the doorway to Randal Six’s room. He sensed an air of alarm about the gathering.
They parted to let him through, and he found Werner lying faceup on the floor. The massive, muscular security chief had torn off his shirt; writhing, grimacing, he hugged himself as if desperate to hold his torso together.
Although he had exercised his ability to switch off pain, Werner poured sweat. He appeared terror-stricken.
“What’s wrong with you?” Victor demanded as he knelt at Werner’s side.
“Exploding. I’m ex, I’m ex, I’m exploding.”
“That’s absurd. You’re not exploding.”
“Part of me wants to be something else,” Werner said.
“You aren’t making sense.”
With a chatter of teeth: “What’s going to be of me?”
“Move your arms, let me see what’s happening.”
“What am I, why am I, how is this happening? Father, tell me.”
“I am not your father,” Victor said sharply. “Move your arms!”
When Werner revealed his torso from neck to navel, Victor saw the flesh pulsing and rippling as though the breastbone had gone as soft as fatty tissue, as though within him numerous snakes squirmed in loose slippery knots, tying and untying themselves, flexing their serpentine coils in an attempt to split their host and erupt free of him.
Astonished and amazed, Victor placed one hand upon Werner’s abdomen, to determine by touch and by palpation the nature of the internal chaos.
Instantly, he discovered that this phenomenon was not what it had appeared to be. No separate entity was moving within Werner, neither a colony of restless snakes nor anything else.
His tank grown flesh itself had changed, had become amorphous, a gelatinous mass, a firm but entirely malleable meat pudding that seemed to be struggling to remake itself into… into something other than Werner.
The man’s breathing became labored. A series of strangled sounds issued from him, as if something had risen into his throat.
Starburst hemorrhages blossomed in his eyes, and he turned a desperate crimson gaze upon his maker.
Now the muscles in his arms began to knot and twist, to collapse and re-form. His thick neck throbbed, bulged, and his facial features started to deform.
The collapse was not occurring on a physiological level. This was cellular metamorphosis, the most fundamental molecular biology, the rending not merely of tissue but of essence.
Under Victor’s palm and spread fingers, the flesh of the abdomen shaped itself—shaped itself—into a questing hand that grasped him, not threateningly, almost lovingly, yet in shock he tore loose of it, recoiled.
Springing to his feet, Victor shouted, “A gurney! Hurry! Bring a gurney. We have to get this man to isolation.”
As Erika disengaged the five steel lock bolts from the second vaultlike door, she wondered if any of the first four Erikas had discovered this secret passageway. She liked to think that if they had found it, they had not done so on their first day in the mansion.
Although she had tripped the hidden switch in the library by accident, she had begun to construe her discovery as the consequence of a lively and admirable curiosity, per Mr. Samuel Johnson, quoted previously. She wished to believe that hers was a livelier and more admirable curiosity than that of any of her predecessors.
She blushed at this immodest desire, but she felt it anyway. She so wanted to be a good wife, and not fail as they had done.
If another Erika had found the passageway, she might not have been bold enough to enter it. Or if she had entered it, she might have hesitated to open even the first of the two steel doors, let alone the second.
Erika Five felt adventurous, like Nancy Drew or—even better—like Nora Charles, the wife of Nick Charles, the detective in Dashiell Hammett’s The Thin Man, another book to which she could cleverly refer without risking her life by reading it.
Having drawn the last of the five bolts, she hesitated, savoring her suspense and excitement.
Beyond doubt, whatever lay on the farther side of this portal was of tremendous importance to Victor, perhaps of such significance that it would explain him in complete detail and reveal the truest nature of his heart. In the next hour or two, she might learn more about her brilliant but enigmatic husband than in a year of living with him.
She hoped to find a journal of his most tender secrets, his hopes, his considered observations on life and love. In truth, it was unrealistic to suppose that two steel doors and an electrocution tunnel had been installed merely to ensure that his diary could be kept somewhere more secure than a nightstand drawer.
Nevertheless, she wished intensely that she would discover just such a handwritten, heartfelt account of his life, so she could know him, know him to the core, the better to serve him. She was a little surprised—but pleasantly so—to find that she seemed to be such a romantic.
The fact that the dead bolts were on the outside of these doors had not been lost on her. She made the obvious inference: that the intent had been to imprison something.
Erika was not fearless, but neither could anyone fairly call her a coward. Like all of the New Race, she possessed great strength, agility, cunning, and a fierce animal confidence in her physical prowess.
Anyway, she lived every minute by the sufferance of her maker. If ever she were to hear, spoken in Victor’s voice, the order to terminate herself, she would unhesitatingly obey, as she had been programmed.
William, the butler, had received such instructions on the phone and, even in his distracted condition, had done as ordered. Just as he could turn off pain—as could they all in a time of crisis—so could he shut down all autonomic nerve functions when thus commanded. In an instant, William had stopped his own heartbeat and respiration, and died.
This was not a trick he could have used to commit suicide. Only the word-perfect ritual instruction, delivered in his master’s voice, could pull that trigger.
When your existence depended entirely on such sufferance, when your life hung by a gossamer filament that could be cut by the simple scissors of a few sharp words, you couldn’t work up much dread about what might be contained behind two bolted steel doors.
Erika opened the second door, and lamps brightened automatically in the space beyond. She crossed the threshold and found herself in a cozy Victorian drawing room.
Windowless, the twenty-foot-square space had a polished mahogany floor, an antique Persian carpet, William Morris wallpaper, and a coffered mahogany ceiling. The ebonized-walnut fireplace featured William de Morgan tiles around the firebox.
Bracketed by a pair of lamps in fringed shades of Shantung silk, an overstuffed chesterfield with decorative pillows in Japan-themed fabrics offered Victor a place to lie down if he wished, not to nap (she imagined) but to relax and to let his brilliant mind spin out new schemes unique to his genius.
In a wingback chair with footstool, he could contemplate while upright, if he chose, under a floor lamp with a beaded shade.
Sherlock Holmes would have been at home in such a room, or H.G. Wells, or G.K. Chesterton.
The focal point, from either the plump sofa or the chair, was an immense glass case: nine feet long, five feet wide, and more than three feet deep.
As much as possible, this object had been crafted to complement the Victorian decor. It stood upon a series of bronze ball-in-claw feet. The six panes of glass were beveled at the edges to charm the light, and were held in an ornate ormolu frame of beautifully chased bronze. It appeared to be a giant jewel box.
A semiopaque reddish-gold substance filled the case, and defied the eye to define it. One moment this material seemed to be a liquid through which circulated subtle currents; yet just a moment later it seemed instead to be a dense vapor, perhaps a gas, lazily billowing along the glass.
Mysterious, this object drew Erika just as the lustrous eyes of Dracula drew Mina Harker toward her potential doom in a novel that was not likely to be a source for literary allusions suitable to the average formal dinner party in the Garden District but that was in her downloaded repertoire nonetheless.
Being refractive, the fluid or vapor absorbed the lamplight and glowed warmly. This internal luminosity revealed a dark shape suspended in the center of the case.
Erika could not see even the vaguest details of the encased object, but for some reason she thought of a scarab petrified in ancient resin.
As she approached the case, the shadow at its core seemed to twitch, but most likely she had imagined that movement.
From City Park, Carson drove to the Garden District to cruise the streets around the Helios residence.
They were not yet ready to shoot their way into the mansion and go on a Frankenstein hunt, but they needed to scope the territory and lay out escape routes in the-unlikely-event that they were able not only to kill Victor but also to get out of his house alive.
En route, she said to Michael, “Those people in the white Mercury Mountaineer, back there in the park—did they look familiar to you?”
“No. But he waved.”
“I think I’ve seen them before.”
“I can’t quite remember.”
“What are you saying? Did they seem dubious to you?”
Checking the rearview mirror, Carson said, “I didn’t like his smile.”
“We don’t shoot people in New Orleans for having an insincere smile.”
“What were they doing on the service road? That’s only for the use of park personnel, and that wasn’t a park vehicle.”
“We aren’t park personnel, either. Under the circumstances, it’s easy to get paranoid.”
“It’s stupid not to be paranoid,” she said.
“You want to go back, find them, and shoot them?”
“I might feel better,” she said, checking the mirror again. “You want to call Deucalion, set up a meet?”
“I’m trying to picture how the original Frankenstein monster applies for a cell phone.”
“It belongs to Jelly Biggs, the carny who lives at the Luxe, the friend of the guy who left the theater to Deucalion.”
“Who names their kid Jelly Biggs? They doomed him to fathood.”
“It’s not his real name. It’s his carny name, from his days in the freakshow.”
“But he still uses it.”
“Seems like if they’re in the carnival long enough, their carny monikers become more comfortable than their real names.”
“What was Deucalion’s freakshow name?” Michael asked.
“That had to be before political correctness. The Monster—what a self-esteem quasher. These days they’d call him the Different One.”
“Still too stigmatizing.”
“Yeah. He’d be called the Unusual Beauty. You have his number?”
She recited it while Michael keyed the digits in his phone.
He waited, listened, and then said, “Hey, this is Michael. We need to meet.” He left his number and terminated the call. “Monsters—they’re all so irresponsible. He doesn’t have his phone on. I got voice mail.”
In the coat closet off the hall between the living room and the kitchen, Randal Six is not yet fully happy, but he is content, for he feels at home. At last he has a home.