As a detective, she was accustomed to overtime whenever an investigation approached culmination, but this current assignment wasn’t a typical homicide case. This was maybe the end of the world.
She had never been through the end of the world before. She didn’t know what to expect.
Michael Maddison, her partner, was waiting on the sidewalk when, at noon, she pulled the plainwrap sedan to the curb in front of his apartment house.
He lived in a bland apartment in a plain slab of a building, on a nondescript block just off Veterans Boulevard. He said the place was “very Zen,” and claimed to need a minimalist retreat after a day in the perpetual carnival of New Orleans.
He dressed for the Apocalypse the same as he dressed every day. Hawaiian shirt, khakis, sport coat.
Only in footwear had he made a concession to doomsday. Instead of the usual black Rockport walking shoes, he wore white. They were so white they seemed radiant.
His sleepy-eyed look made him more delicious than usual. Carson tried not to notice.
They were partners, not lovers. If they tried to be both, they would wind up dead sooner than later. In police work, kick ass and grab-ass don’t mix.
After getting in the car and pulling the door shut, Michael said, “Seen any monsters lately?”
“In the bathroom mirror this morning,” she said, accelerating away from the curb.
“You look terrific. Really. You don’t look half as bad as I feel.”
“You know how long it’s been since I had my hair done?”
“You take time to go to a hairdresser? I thought you just set it on fire and burned it off now and then.”
“The box said they’re made in China, or maybe it was Thailand. Everything’s made somewhere else these days.”
“Not everything. Where do you think Harker was made?”
Detective Jonathan Harker, who had turned out to be the serial killer that the media dubbed “the Surgeon,” had also turned out not to be human. Neither a 12-gauge shotgun nor a four-story fall had fazed him.
Michael said, “I don’t quite see Helios building his New Race in the parlor of his mansion in the Garden District. Maybe Biovision is a front for it.”
Biovision, a cutting-edge biotechnology firm founded by Helios when he first came to New Orleans more than twenty years previously, was the holder of many patents that made him richer year by year.
“All those employees,” Carson said, “all those outsourced services coming in every day—you couldn’t conduct a secret people-making lab in the middle of all that.”
“Yeah. For one thing, being a walleyed hunchback in a cowled cloak, Igor would really stand out when he went for coffee in the vending-machine room. Don’t drive so fast.”
Accelerating, Carson said, “So he has another facility somewhere in the city, probably owned by a shell corporation headquartered in the Cayman Islands or someplace.”
“I hate that kind of police work.”
He meant the kind that required researching thousands of New Orleans businesses, making a list of those with foreign or otherwise suspicious ownership.
Although Carson disliked desk jockey sessions as much as Michael did, she had the patience for them. She suspected, however, that she didn’t have the time.
“Where are we going?” Michael asked as the city blurred past. “If we’re going to Division to sit in front of computers all day, let me out right here.”
“Yeah? And what’ll you do?”
“I don’t know. Find somebody to shoot.”
“Pretty soon you’ll have lots of people to shoot. The people Victor’s made. The New Race.”
“It’s kind of depressing being the Old Race. Like being last year’s toaster oven, before they added the microchip that makes it sing Randy Newman tunes.”
“Who would want a toaster oven that sings Randy Newman?”
Carson might have blown through the red traffic light if a refrigerated eighteen-wheeler hadn’t been crossing the intersection. Judging by the pictorial advertisement painted on the side of the truck, it was loaded with meat patties destined for McDonald’s. She didn’t want to be hamburgered to death.
They were downtown. The streets were busy.
Studying the swarms of pedestrians, Michael wondered, “How many people in this city aren’t really people? How many are Victor’s… creations?”
“A thousand,” Carson said, “ten thousand, fifty thousand—or maybe just a hundred.”
“More than a hundred.”
“Eventually Helios is going to realize we’re on to him.”
“He knows already,” she guessed.
“You know what that makes us?”
“Loose ends,” she said.
“Totally loose. And he seems to be a guy who likes everything tied up neat.”
She said, “I figure we’ve got twenty-four hours to live.”
Carved of marble, weathered by decades of wind and rain, the Virgin May stood in a niche, overlooking the front steps of the Hands of Mercy.
The hospital had long been closed. The windows were bricked shut. On the gate in the wrought-iron fence, a sign identified the building as a private warehouse, closed to the public.
Victor drove past the hospital and into the parking garage of a five-story building that housed the accounting and personnel-management department of Biovision, the company he had founded. He slotted the Mercedes into a space reserved for him.
Only he possessed a key to a nearby painted-steel door. Beyond lay an empty room, about twelve feet square, with concrete floor and walls.
Opposite the outer door, another door was controlled by a wall-mounted keypad. Victor entered a code, disengaging the electric lock.
Past the threshold, a hundred-forty-foot corridor led under the hospital grounds, connecting the adjacent buildings. It was six feet wide, eight feet high, with block-and-timber walls and a concrete floor.
The passageway had been excavated and constructed by members of the New Race, without publicly filed plans or building-department permits, or union wages. Victor could come and go from the Hands of Mercy in complete secrecy.
At the end of the corridor, he entered his code in another keypad, opened a door into a file room in the lowest realms of the hospital. Rows of metal cabinets contained hard-copy backups to the computerized records of his many projects.
Usually, Victor enjoyed hidden doors, secret passageways, and the hugger-mugger that was necessarily part of any scheme to destroy civilization and rule the world. He had never entirely lost touch with his inner child.
On this occasion, however, he was annoyed that he could get to his laboratory only by this roundabout route. He had a busy day ahead of him, and at least one crisis needed his urgent attention.
From the file room, he entered the basement of the hospital, where all was quiet and, in spite of the corridor lights, shadowy. Here he had once conducted his most revolutionary experiments.
He had been fascinated by the possibility that cancer cells, which reproduce with reckless speed, might be harnessed to facilitate the rapid development of clones in an artificial womb. He had hoped to force-grow an embryo to adulthood in a matter of weeks instead of years.
As will now and then happened when one is working at the extreme limits of known science, things went awry. What he ended up with was not a New Man, but a highly aggressive, rapidly mutating, ambulatory tumor that was, to boot, pretty damn smart.
Because he had given the creature life, he might have expected at least some small measure of gratitude from it. He had received none.
Forty of Victor’s people had perished here, trying to contain that powerful malignancy. And his people were not easy to kill. Just when all had seemed lost, the atrocity had been subdued and then destroyed.
The stink of it had been terrible. All these later years, Victor thought he could still smell the thing.
A twenty-foot section of the corridor wall had been broken down in the melee. Beyond that ragged hole lay the incubation room, dark and full of wreckage.
Past the elevator, half the width of the corridor contained sorted and arranged piles of rubble: broken concrete, bent rebar, steel framing knotted as if it were rope.
Victor had organized but not removed this rubble and ruin, leaving it as an enduring reminder to himself that even a genius of his caliber could sometimes be too smart for his own good. He had almost died here, that night.
Now he took the elevator up to the ground floor, to which he had moved his main laboratory after the ungrateful tumor had been destroyed.
The hallways were quiet. Eighty of the New Race worked in this facility, but they were all busy at their assigned tasks. They didn’t waste time gossiping around the water cooler.
His immense lab was furnished with fantastic machines that would have mystified not just the average man but also any member of the faculty at any department of science at Harvard or MIT. The style was operatic Art Deco, the ambience Hitlerian.
Victor admired Hitler. The Fuhrer knew talent when he saw it.
In the 1930s and ‘40s, Victor had worked with Mengele and others in Hitler’s privileged scientific class. He had made considerable progress in his work before the regrettable Allied victory.
Personally, Hitler had been charming, an amusing raconteur. His hygiene had been exemplary; he always looked scrubbed and smelled soapy.
A vegetarian and an ardent animal lover, Hitler had a tender side. He would not tolerate mousetraps. He insisted that rodents be captures humanely and turned loose in the wild.
The problem with the Fuhrer had been that his roots were in art and politics. The future did not belong either to artists or to politicians.
The new world would not be built by nazism-communism-socialism. Not by capitalism, either.
Civilization would not be remade or sustained by Christianity or by Islam. Neither by Scientologists nor by the bright-eyed adherents of the deliciously solipsistic and paranoid new religion encouraged by The Da Vinci Code.
Tomorrow belonged to scientism. The priests of scientism were not merely robed clerics performing rituals; they were gods, with the power of gods. Victor himself was their Messiah.
As he crossed the vast lab, the ominous-looking machines issued oscillating hums, low pulsing throbs. They ticked and hissed.
He felt at home here.
Sensors detected his approach to his desk, and the screen of his computer brightened. On the monitor appeared the face of Annunciata, his secretary at the Hands of Mercy.
“Good morning, Mr. Helios.”
Annunciata was quite beautiful but not real. She was a three-dimensional digital personality with an artificial but wonderfully smoky voice that Victor had designed to humanize his otherwise somber work environment.
“Good morning, Annunciata.”
“The corpse of Detective Jonathan Harker has been delivered by your people in the medical examiner’s office. It awaits you in the dissection room.”
An insulated carafe of hot coffee and a plate of pecan-and-chocolate-chip cookies were on Victor’s desk. He picked up a cookie. “Continue.”
“Randal Six has disappeared.”
Victor frowned. “Explain.”
“The midnight census found his room deserted.”
Randal Six was one of many experiments currently living at the Hands of Mercy. Like his five predecessors, he had been created as an autistic with an obsessive-compulsive tendency.
Victor’s intention in designing this afflicted creature had been to determine if such a developmental disability could have a useful purpose. Controlling an autistic person by the use of a carefully engineered obsessive-compulsive disorder, one might be able to focus him on a narrow series of functions usually assigned to machines in contemporary factories. Such a worker might perform a repetitive task hour after hour, weeks on end, without error, without boredom.
Surgically fitted with a feeding tube, catheterized to eliminate the need for bathroom breaks, he might prove to be an economical alternative to some factory robots currently on the assembly lines. His food could be nutritional pablum costing a dollar a day. He would receive no pay, no vacation, no medical benefits. He would not be affected by power surges.
When he wore out, he would merely be terminated. A new worker would be plugged into the line.
Victor remained convinced that eventually such machines of meat would prove to be far superior to much current factory equipment. Assembly-line robots are complex and expensive to produce. Flesh is cheap.
Randal Six had been sufficiently agoraphobic that he had not been able to leave his quarters voluntarily. He was terrified to cross the threshold.
When Victor needed Randal for an experiment, attendants brought him to the lab on a gurney.
“He can’t possibly have left on his own,” Victor said. “Besides, he can’t have gotten out of the building without tripping an alarm. He’s here somewhere. Direct security personnel to review yesterday’s video from his room and from all the primary hallways.”
“Yes, Mr. Helios,” said Annunciata.
Considering the high degree of verbal interaction she maintained with Victor, Annunciata might have appeared, to an outsider, to be a manifestation of an artificial machine intelligence. Although she did interface through a computer, her cognitive function in fact occurred in an organic New Race brain that was maintained in a hermetically sealed tank of nutrient solution in the networking room, where she was wired into the building’s data-processing system.
Victor envisioned a day when the world would be inhabited only by the New Race living in thousands of dormitories, each of which would be monitored and served by a disembodied brain like Annunciata.
“Meanwhile,” Victor said, “I’ll be studying Harker’s cadaver. Locate Ripley and tell him that I will need his assistance in the dissection room.”
“Yes, Mr. Helios. Helios.”
About to take another bite of the cookie, he hesitated. “Why did you do that, Annunciata?”
“Do what, sir?”
“You repeated my name unnecessarily.”
On the monitor, her smooth brow furrowed with puzzlement. “Did I, sir?”
“Yes, you did.”
“I was not aware of doing so, Mr. Helios. Helios.”
“You just did it again.”
“Sir, are you sure?”
“That is an impertinent question, Annunciata.”
She looked appropriately chastised. “I’m sorry, sir.”
“Analyze your systems,” Victor directed. “Perhaps there is an imbalance in you nutrient supply.”
Jack Rogers, the medical examiner, maintained an office in which an avalanche of books, files, and macabre memorabilia might at any moment bury an unwary visitor.