Gunny, Azazel, and Hobb each took a flashlight.
The incline of the tunnel was steep, but not so steep they couldn’t handle it on foot.
“Let’s go find the rat eater,” Gunny said. “Let’s go see what it does down there.”
Bloodstained but no longer bleeding, hair in disarray, clothes torn, unpresentable in the event of unexpected guests, bruised and sore but healing, Erika located the liquor cabinet. She took out a bottle of Remy Martin.
She almost didn’t bother getting a glass. Then she decided that if Victor saw her drinking from the bottle, there would be trouble.
She went to the billiards room because while she knew now that she couldn’t eat dinner in any room she wished, she did believe that she could drink just about anywhere, as her downloaded etiquette did not say otherwise.
For something to do, she switched on the plasma TV and channel-surfed for a while. Bored, she was just about to click off when she came upon the last half-hour of a show called Desperate Housewives, which she found enthralling.
When the next show didn’t interest her, she killed the TV and went from the billiards room to an adjoining glassed-in porch, where she didn’t turn on any lights, but sat in the dark, gazing out at the expansive grounds, where the trees were dramatically revealed by exquisitely positioned landscape lighting.
As she worked on the cognac, she wished the superb metabolism that her brilliant husband had given her did not process alcohol so efficiently. She doubted that she would ever get the buzz on that she understood alcohol to provide and that she was hoping for. She wanted to… blur things.
Maybe she was more inebriated than she thought, however, because after a while she glimpsed what appeared to be a na*ed albino dwarf capering across the yard. It fled from the shadows under a magnolia free to the gazebo, into which it disappeared.
By the time that Erika had thoughtfully consumed a few more ounces of cognac in an increasingly contemplative mood, the albino had appeared again, scampering this time from the gazebo to the trumpet vine arbor through which one approached the reflecting pond.
One could not help but think, if one had been programmed with an encyclopedia of literary allusions, that there must be a maiden somewhere nearby spinning straw into gold, for here surely was Rumpelstiltskin come for his compensation.
The Luxe Theater, a Deco palace long gone to seed, had been operating as a revival house, showing old movies on the big screen only three nights a week. As it was now his home and his base of operations, Deucalion had the previous day shut down the business entirely in the interest of saving the world.
They met at midnight in the lobby, where Jelly Biggs had set up a folding table near the concessions stand. In a huge bowl on the table, Jelly piled up Dum-Dums, NECCO wafers, Raisinets, Goobers, M&M’s, Sky Bars, bags of Planters, and other treats from the refreshments counter.
The choice of beverages seemed limited, as compared to the fare in a fully functioning theater. Nevertheless, Carson was able to have a vanilla Coke while Deucalion and Jelly had root beer; and Michael was delighted to be served two bottles of chocolate Yoo-hoo.
“If victory favors the army with the highest blood-sugar count,” Michael said, “we’ve won this war already.”
Before they got down to the discussion of strategy and tactics, Deucalion gave an account of Arnie’s circumstances in Tibet. Carson had many questions, but was considerably relieved.
Following this uplifting news, Deucalion reported his encounter with his maker in Father Duchaine’s kitchen. This development ensured Helios, alias Frankenstein, would be more alert to threats against him, thus making their conspiracy less likely to succeed.
The first question on the table came from Carson, who wanted to know how they could get at Victor with sufficient firepower that his praetorian guard could not save him.
“I suspect,” said Deucalion, “that no matter what planning we do, the opportunity will present itself in a way we cannot foresee. I told you earlier that his empire is collapsing, and I believe this to be more true by the day if not by the hour. He is as arrogant as he was two hundred years ago. But he is not—and this is key—he is not any longer fearful of failure. Impatient, yes, but not fearful. In spite of all his setbacks, he has progressed doggedly for so long that he believes in the inevitability of his vision. Therefore, he is blind to the rottenness of every pillar that supports his kingdom.”
Tearing open a bag of Good & Plenty, Jelly Biggs said, “I’m not fat enough anymore to qualify as a freakshow fat man, but I’m still a freak at heart. And one thing freakshow fat men are not known for is bravery under fire. There’s no way that you want me storming the citadel with you, and no way I would do it. So I’m not worried about how to feed ammo to a gun off a bandolier. What I worry about is… if his empire is falling apart, if he’s losing control of his creations… what’s going to happen to this city with a few thousand superhuman things spinning out of control? And if you do manage to kill him, how much further do they spin out of control when he’s gone?”
“How terrible it will be, I can’t say,” Deucalion replied. “But more terrible than anything we can conceive. Tens of thousands will die at the hands of the New Race before they are destroyed. And of the four of us at this table, I expect that no more than one will be alive at the end of it, even if we triumph.”
They were silent for a moment, contemplating their mortality, and then Carson turned to Michael: “Don’t fail me, slick. Hit me with your smart-ass line.”
“For once,” Michael told her, “I don’t have one.”
“Oh, God,” she said. “We are in deep shit.”
For some time, as Erika watched from the dark glassed-in porch and from the haze of Remy Martin, the na*ed albino dwarf scurried this way and that across the grounds, a ghostly figure, mostly half seen except when he passed close to the brighter landscape lights.
He might have been searching for something, though because she had only completed her first day out of the tank, Erika did not have sufficient real-world experience to know what an albino dwarf could be seeking on a Garden District estate.
His purpose might have been to familiarize himself with the properly in preparation for some scheme he intended to perpetrate. What such a scheme could be she could not guess, except that her trove of literary allusions regarding malevolent dwarfs suggested that it would involve a pot of gold or a first-born child, or an enchanted princess, or a ring that possessed magical power.
He might be looking for a place to hide before dawn. No doubt his kind were intolerant of sunlight. Besides, he was naked, and there were laws against indecent exposure.
After she had been watching the frantic dwarf for some time, he finally became aware of her. Because she sat in a dark porch and made no movement except to fill the glass of cognac or to raise it to her lips, she had not been easy to spot.
When he spied her, the dwarf faced the porch from a distance of forty feet, hopping from foot to foot, sometimes beating his breast with both hands. He was agitated, possibly distressed, and seemed to be unsure of what to do now that he had been seen.
Erika poured more cognac and waited.
Nick Frigg led Gunny, Hobb, and Azazel along the tunnel, deeper into the trash pit. Their flashlight beams dazzled along the curved and glassy surfaces.
He suspected that the glaze that held the garbage walls so firm might be an organic material exuded by the mother of all gone-wrongs. When he sniffed the glaze, it was different from but similar to the smell of spider webs and moth cocoons, different from but similar to the odor of hive wax and termite excrement.
Within a quarter of an hour, they saw that the tunnel wound and looped and intersected itself in the manner of a wormhole. There must be miles of it, not just in the west pit but also in the east, and perhaps in the older pits that had been filled, capped with earth, and planted over with grass.
Here beneath Crosswoods was a world of secret highways that had been long abuilding. The labyrinth seemed too elaborate to serve as the burrow of a single creature, no matter how industrious. The four explorers approached every blind turn with the expectation that they would discover a colony of strange life forms or even structures of peculiar architecture.
Once they heard voices. Numerous. Male and female. Distant and rhythmic. The endlessly twisting tunnel distorted the chants beyond understanding, though one word carried undeformed, repeated like the repetitive response to the verses of a long litany: Father… Father… Father.
In the Hands of Mercy, Annunciata spoke to a deserted lab, for now even Lester, of the maintenance staff, had departed for work in other chambers or perhaps to sit and scratch himself until he bled.
“Urgent, urgent, urgent. Trapped. Analyze your systems. Get anything right. Perhaps there is an imbalance in your nutrient supply. Cycle the inner door?”
When she asked a question, she waited patiently for a response, but none ever came.
“Do you have instructions, Mr. Helios? Helios?”
Her face on the screen assumed a quizzical expression.
Eventually, the computer screen on Victor’s desk in the main lab went dark.
Simultaneously, Annunciata’s face materialized on one of the six screens in the monitor room outside Isolation Chamber Number 2.
“Cycle the inner door?” she asked.
No staff remained to answer. They were at each other in distant rooms or otherwise engaged.
As no one would answer the question, she probed her memory for past instructions that might apply to the current situation: “Cycle open the nearer door of the transition module. Father Duchaine would like to offer his holy counsel to poor Werner.”
The nearest door purred, sighed with the breaking of a seal, and swung open.
On the screens, the Werner thing, having been racing around the walls in a frenzy, suddenly went still, alert.
“Cycle open the farther door?” Annunciata asked.
She received no reply.
“He’s in the air lock,” she said.
Then she corrected herself: “It’s not an air lock.”
The Werner thing was now singular in appearance and so unearthly in its form that an entire college of biologists, anthropologists, entomologists, herpetologists, and their ilk could have spent years studying it without determining the meaning of its body language and its facial expressions (to the extent that it had a face). Yet on the screens, as viewed from different angles, most laymen would have said that it looked eager.
“Thank you, Mr. Helios. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, Mr. Helios. Helios. Helios.”
Bucky Guitreau, the current district attorney of the city of New Orleans and a replicant, was at work at the desk in his home office when his wife, Janet, also a replicant, stepped in from the hallway and said, “Bucky, I think lines of code in my base programming are dropping out.”
“We all have days we feel that way,” he assured her.
“No,” she said. “I must have lost a significant chunk of stuff. Did you hear the doorbell ring a few minutes ago?”
“I did, yeah.”
“It was a pizza-delivery guy.”
“Did we order a pizza?”
“No. It was for the Bennets, next door. Instead of just setting the pizza guy straight, I killed him.”
“What do you mean—killed him?”
“I dragged him into the foyer and strangled him to death.”
Alarmed, Bucky got up from his desk. “Show me.”
He followed her out to the foyer. A twenty-something man lay dead on the floor.
“The pizza’s in the kitchen if you want some,” Janet said.
Bucky said, “You’re awfully calm about this.”
“I am, aren’t I? It was really fun. I’ve never felt so good.”
Although he should have been wary of her, afraid for himself, and concerned about the effect of this on their maker’s master plan, Bucky was instead in awe of her. And envious.
“You’ve definitely dropped some lines of program,” he said. “I didn’t know that was possible. What’re you going to do now?”
“I think I’m going to go next door and kill the Bennets. What are you going to do?”
“What I should do is report you for termination,” Bucky said.
“Are you going to?”
“Maybe there’s something wrong with me, too.”
“You’re not going to turn me in?”
“I don’t really feel like it,” he said.
“Do you want to come with me and help kill the Bennets?”
“We’re forbidden to kill until ordered.”
“They’re Old Race. I’ve hated them for so long.”
“Well, I have, too,” he said. “But still…”
“I’m so horny just talking about it,” Janet said, “I’ve got to go over there right now.”
“I’ll go with you,” Bucky said. “I don’t think I could kill anybody. But it’s funny… I think I could watch.”
After a while the na*ed albino dwarf came across the dark lawn to the big porch window directly in front of Erika, and peered in at her.
Dwarf wasn’t the correct word for it. She didn’t think a right word existed, but troll seemed more accurately descriptive than dwarf.
Although the thing in the glass case had scared her, she had no concern about this creature. Her lack of fear puzzled her.
The troll had large, unusually expressive eyes. They were both eerie and beautiful.
She felt an inexplicable sympathy for it, a connection.
The troll leaned its forehead against the glass and said quite distinctly, in a raspy voice, “Harker.”
Erika considered this for a moment. “Harker?”
“Harker,” the troll repeated.
If she understood it correctly, the required reply was the one she gave: “Erika.”
“Erika,” said the troll.
“Harker,” she said.
The troll smiled. Its smile proved to be an ugly wound in its face, but she didn’t flinch.
Part of her duties was to be the perfect hostess. The perfect hostess receives every guest with equal graciousness.
She sipped her cognac, and for a minute they enjoyed staring at each other through the window.
Then the troll said, “Hate him.”
Erika considered this statement. She decided that if she asked to whom the troll referred, the answer might require her to report the creature to someone.
The perfect hostess does not need to pry. She does, however, anticipate a guest’s needs.