Erika could see now that he was in a mood, but part of the function of a good wife was to elevate her husband’s mood, so she pointed to a nearby chair and said cheerily, “Why don’t you pull that up and sit with me and have some cognac. You’ll see it’s really a charming place for dinner.”
Looming, glowering, he said, “You’re having dinner in a formal living room at a three-hundred-thousand-dollar, eighteenth-century French escritoire!” The bad mood abruptly had become something worse.
Frightened and confused but hopeful of explaining herself in a way that might yet win his heart, she said, “Oh, I know the history of the piece, dear. I’m quite well-programmed on antiques. If we—”
He seized her by her hair, jerked her to her feet, and slapped her across the face once, twice, three times, very hard.
“As stupid and useless as the other four,” he declared, speaking with such force that he sprayed spittle in her face.
When he threw her aside, Erika staggered against a small table and knocked over a chinoiserie vase, which fell on the Persian carpet, yet shattered.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t understand about not eating in the living room. I see now it was foolish of me. I’ll think more seriously about etiquette before I—”
The ferocity with which he came at her was much greater than anything he had exhibited before, than anything she had imagined she might have to endure.
He backhanded her, chopped at her with the edges of his hands, hammered her with his fists, even bit her, and of course she could not defend herself, and of course he forbade her to switch off the pain. And the pain was great.
He was fierce and cruel. She knew he would not be cruel to her unless she deserved it. Almost worse than the pain was the shame of having failed him.
When at last he left her on the floor and walked out of the room, she lay there for a long time, breathing shallowly, cautiously, because it hurt so much to breathe deeply.
Eventually, she got up far enough to sit on the floor with her back against the sofa. From this perspective she noted with shock how many fine and expensive things were spotted with her blood.
Erika realized that her brilliant husband had invented the miraculous spot remover not solely for those rare occasions when a butler chewed off his fingers.
If she were to be the final Erika, she would need to learn from this experience. She must meditate on all that he had said and on the precise nature of the punishment he had administered. If she applied herself to a thoughtful analysis of the incident, she would surely be a better wife.
Clearly, however, the challenge before her was far greater than she had at first understood.
The three gone-wrongs were removed from the bed of palm fronds on the truck, wound in sheets, and then carried through torchlight to a shallow depression in the trash field, to be buried at a decent remove from the five members of the Old Race.
This was a more solemn ceremony than the dance of death, and not as viscerally exciting. Some of the crew grew restless by the time the three shrouded cadavers were lined up in what would become their communal grave.
Following this interment, the crew—which included as many women as men—would go to the showers to scrub one another clean. There, the sex would begin, and would continue through the evening’s feast, through the night until near dawn.
Curiously, although the stomping should have worked off much of their pent-up aggression, they often found their anger surfacing with renewed power later, and the sex became thrillingly savage.
Dog-nose Nick regretted only that the others felt the need to bathe before having at one another in various combinations. He loved the smell of Gunny Alecto, in particular, when she was incrusted with filth. After soap, she remained desirable, but not as much so.
As Gunny drove her garbage galleon toward the gone-wrongs, to plow a layer of concealing trash over them, the anticipated feast and orgy were thrust from Nick’s mind when abruptly something pale and many-limbed and strange beyond his experience shivered up out of the trash field. As quick as a spider, but like a huge assemblage of human limbs and heads and torsos in an illogical construct, it seized the three gone-wrongs and dragged them down, down and out of sight, and the trash field shuddered underfoot.
In the main laboratory at the Hands of Mercy, an Epsilon named Lester, a member of the janitorial team, performed daily maintenance at an industrious pace.
When Mr. Helios was in the facility, Lester could not clean in the lab. Mr. Helios did not like to be distracted by a mopping and dusting minion.
This suited Lester just fine. He always got nervous around his maker.
Because Mr. Helios spent more time than not within these walls and because he worked at irregular hours, whenever his great genius compelled him, Lester’s routine chores in this part of the building had to be done at different times every day. He liked the night best, like now, when none of the other staff members ventured into the main lab in their maker’s absence.
Perhaps the complex and fantastic machines, their purposes beyond his comprehension, should have made him fearful. The opposite was the case.
They hummed, burbled, ticked, whispered almost like voices imparting secrets, chuckled, occasionally beeped but not with the quality of alarm, sputtered, and murmured musically. Lester found these noises comforting.
He didn’t know why they should comfort him. He did not think about it or try to understand.
Lester didn’t try to understand much of anything, except what he needed to know to perform his work. His work was his life, as it should be for one such as him.
When not working, he found that time hung heavy. Sometimes he sat for hours, scratching his arm hard enough to make it bleed, and then watching it heal, scratching it open again, watching it heal, scratching it open… At other times, he went down to a private place on the lowest level of the building, where there was rubble that his maker would not permit to be cleaned up, and he stood in front of a concrete wall, knocking his head rhythmically against it until the compulsion to do so had passed.
Compared to work, leisure time had little appeal. He always knew what to do with the hours when at work.
The only other thing in his life besides work and leisure was the occasional blackout, a recent phenomenon. Now and then he woke, as if he had been sleeping on his feet, and found himself in odd places, with no recollection of how he had gotten there or of what he had been doing.
Consequently, he tried to work most of the time, cleaning again what he had cleaned only an hour ago, to help the time pass.
This evening, as he mopped the floor around his maker’s desk, the dark screen of the computer suddenly brightened. The face of Annunciata appeared.
“Mr. Helios, Helios, I have been asked by Werner to tell you that he is in Randal Six’s room and that he is exploding, exploding.”
Lester glanced at the face on the screen. He didn’t know what to say, so he continued mopping.
“Mr. Helios, sir, Werner wishes to stress the urgency, urgency, urgency of the situation.”
This sounded bad, but it was none of Lester’s business.
“Mr. Helios, an Alpha has made an urgent, urgent, urgent request for a meeting with you.”
Growing nervous, Lester said, “Mr. Helios isn’t here.”
“Mr. Helios. I have become aware that Werner, that Werner, that Werner has been trapped in Isolation Room Number Two.”
“You’ll have to call back later,” said Lester.
“Instructions?” Annunciata asked.
“May I have instructions, sir?”
“I’m just Lester,” he told her. “I don’t give instructions, I take them.”
“Coffee has been spilled in the main lab.”
Lester looked around worriedly. “Where? I don’t see any coffee.”
“Coffee exploding, exploding in the main lab.”
The machines were humming and burbling as always. Colorful gases and liquids were bubbling and glowing in glass spheres, in tubes, as always they bubbled and glowed. Nothing was exploding.
“Annunciata,” said Annunciata sternly, “let’s see if you can get anything right.”
“Nothing’s exploding,” Lester assured her.
Annunciata said, “Werner is coffee in Isolation Room Number Two. Analyze your systems, Annunciata, analyze, analyze.”
“I don’t follow you at all,” Lester told her. “You’re making me nervous.”
“Good morning, Mr. Helios. Helios.”
“I’m going to clean over at the other end of the lab,” Lester declared.
“Werner is trapped, trapped, trapped. Analyze. See if you can get anything right.”
Carson pulled Vicky’s Honda to the curb in front of Michael’s apartment building. She did not engage the parking brake or turn off the engine.
They sat staring at the place for a minute. A bland structure, slabs on slabs of apartments, it didn’t look menacing. It was a big, dumb, happy kind of building where nobody would be stalked and killed by relentless meat machines.
“What’s that thing they say about going home again?” Michael asked.
“Yeah. That’s it. You can’t go home again.”
“Thomas Wolfe,” she said.
“Whoever. I’m definitely getting a you-can’t-go-home-again vibe.”
“I’m glad I put on my new white shoes this morning. I’d have felt bad about never having worn them.”
“They’re cool shoes,” Carson said as she pulled away from the curb. “You’ve always got the right look.”
“That’s nice. That’s a nice thing to say. I’m sorry about earlier, when I said you were going female on me.”
“Water under the bridge.”
“That Red Bull gave me an appetite.”
“I’ve got a what-would-you-like-for-dinner-before-we-strap-you-down-in-the-electric-chair kind of appetite. I want to eat everything before the switch is pulled. I’m starved.”
“Want to get po-boys?”
“That’s a start.”
They rode for a longer while in silence than was customary for them, at least than was customary for Michael, and then she said, “You know that plan we had—shooting our way into Helios’s mansion, taking him out?”
“I’ve been revisiting that bit of strategy myself.”
“It took two of us to kill that guy in Arnie’s room, and it was a close thing. And then that pair at the house—”
“Fred and Ginger.”
“They did sort of look like dancers, didn’t they? Okay, Fred and Ginger. I’m not sure we could have held them off if Deucalion hadn’t shown up.”
“Everybody on staff at the mansion is going to be as hard to take down as those two.”
After another silence, Michael said, “Maybe we should drive up to Shreveport to visit Aunt Leelee.”
“Deucalion will have some idea when we meet at the Luxe.”
“He hasn’t called back. He doesn’t leave his phone on, and then he forgets to check his voice mail.”
“Cut him some slack on the telecom stuff,” Carson said. “He’s a late-eighteenth-century kind of guy.”
They took the oil lamps down from the tops of the two poles and brought them to the hole in the trash field out of which the mother of all gone-wrongs had risen to snatch the three shrouded cadavers.
The light revealed the mouth of a tunnel, seven or eight feet in diameter, descending at an angle into the depths of the pit. The compacted trash that formed the walls of the passageway seemed to have been plastered over with a clear bonding material, like a glue, that glistened in the lamplight.
“That was something, huh, Nick?” Gunny Alecto asked. “Wasn’t that something?”
“It was something,” Nick Frigg agreed, “but I don’t know what.”
“What a night,” she said excitedly.
“Some night,” he agreed.
“Let’s go after it,” she said.
“Down there after it? I was thinking that myself.”
Life at Crosswoods was pretty good because of the ceremonies with the symbolic killings, more and more of them all the time, but the truth was they didn’t have much novelty in their lives. The sex, all of them at each other every night, and the dances of death, and now and then gone-wrongs always different from the things they’d seen before: But that was about it.
Even Epsilons, simple in their function and dedicated to their work—and especially a Gamma like Nick—could develop a yearning for variety, for something new. Here was something new, all right.
Two of the crew had run back to the supply trailer to get four long-handled flashlights with powerful beams. They returned now, and one of them, Hobb, said, “We going down, Nick?”
Instead of answering at once, Nick took one of the flashlights, switched it on, and knelt at the mouth of the tunnel. He probed with the beam and saw that about a hundred feet from its entrance and at that point maybe ten feet below the surface of the trash field—the passageway took a turn to the left, curving down and out of sight.
He wasn’t afraid of what might be down there. He wouldn’t die easy, and he didn’t mind dying.
When he inhaled, he sure liked the rich smell rising out of the depths of the pit. Complex, familiar yet far more intense than the melange at the surface. Nuanced.
In addition to the thousand odors of garbage, each of which he could identify separately and savor on its own, he detected a scent entirely new to him, a mysterious and alluring fragrance that he believed must be the mark of the colossal agglomeration of gone-wrongs that had too briefly revealed itself.
“We’re gonna go down,” he said. “But not all of us. Just four.”
“Pick me, Nick, pick me,” said Gunny Alecto.
“I already picked you,” he said. “You want to go, Hobb?”
Hobb’s eyes flared with excitement. “Oh, yeah. Count me in, Nick. There’s always screwin’ and eatin’, there’s always that, but there’s never been this.”
Hobb was a guy, so Nick picked a woman for the fourth. Azazel was hot, not as hot as Gunny, but she could take it and dish it out and leave you half broken and needing some time to heal.
Nick figured if they got down into the bottom of the pit and couldn’t find the mother of all gone-wrongs, then they could still go at one another, down there in all that stink, which would be something new, something better than ever.