Everything amazed her, and much of it delighted—like water. From the shower head it fell in glimmering streams, twinkling with reflections of the overhead lights. Liquid jewels.
She liked the way it purled across the golden-marble floor to the drain. Pellucid yet visible.
Erika relished the subtle aroma of water, too, the crispness. She breathed deeply of the scented soap, steamy clouds of soothing fragrance. And after the soap, the smell of her clean skin was most pleasing.
Educated by direct-to-brain data downloading, she had awakened with full knowledge of the world. But facts were not experience. All the billions of bits of data streamed into her brain had painted a ghost world in comparison to the depth and brilliance of the real thing. All she had learned in the tank was but a single note plucked from a guitar, at most a chord, while the true world was a symphony of astonishing complexity and beauty.
The only thing thus far that had struck her as ugly was Victor’s body.
Born of man and woman, heir to the ills of mortal flesh, he’d taken extraordinary measures over the years to extend his life and to maintain his vigor. His body was puckered and welted by scars, crusted with gnarled excrescences.
Her revulsion was ungrateful and ungracious, and she was ashamed of it. Victor had given her life, and all that he asked in return was love, or something like it.
Although she had hidden her disgust, he must have sensed it, for he had been angry with her throughout the sex. He’d struck her often, called her unflattering names, and in general had been rough with her.
Even from-to-brain data downloading, Erika knew that what they had shared had not been ideal—or even ordinary—sex.
In spite of the fact that she failed him in their first session of lovemaking, Victor still harbored some tender feelings toward her. When it was over, he’d slapped her bottom affectionately—as opposed to the rage with which he had delivered previous slaps and punches—and had said, “That was good.”
She knew that he was just being kind. It had not been good. She must learn to see the art in his ugly body, just as people evidently learned to see the art in the ugly paintings of Jackson Pollock.
Because Victor expected her to be prepared for the intellectual conversations at his periodic dinner parties with the city’s elites, volumes of art criticism had been downloaded into her brain as she had finished forming in the tank.
A lot of it seemed to make no sense, which she attributed to her naïveté. Her IQ was high; therefore, with more experience, she would no doubt come to understand how the ugly, the mean, and the poorly rendered could in fact be ravishingly beautiful. She simply needed to attain the proper perspective.
She would strive to see the beauty in Victor’s tortured flesh. She would be a good wife, and they would be as happy as Romeo and Juliet.
Thousands of literary allusions had been a part of her downloaded instructions, but not the texts of the books, plays, and poems from which they came. She had never read Romeo and Juliet. She knew only that they were famous lovers in a play by Shakespeare.
She might have enjoyed reading the works to which she could allude with such facility, but Victor had forbidden her to do so. Evidently, Erika Four had become a voracious reader, a pastime that had somehow gotten her into such terrible trouble that Victor had been left with no choice but to terminate her.
Books were dangerous, a corrupting influence. A good wife must avoid books.
Showered, feeling pretty in a summery dress of yellow silk, Erika left the master suite to explore the mansion. She felt like the unnamed narrator and heroine of Rebecca, for the first time touring the lovely rooms of Manderley.
In the upstairs hall, she found William, the butter, on his knees in a corner, chewing off his fingers one by one.
In the unmarked sedan, driving fast, seeking what she always needed in times of crisis—good Cajun food—Carson said, “Even if you were Jack’s mother, even if you were his wife, even then you wouldn’t know he’d been replaced.”
“If this were like some Southern Gothic novel,” Michael said, “and I was both his mother and his wife, I’d still think that was Jack.”
“That was Jack.”
“That wasn’t Jack.”
“I know that wasn’t him,” Carson said impatiently, “but it was him.”
Her palms were slick with sweat. She blotted them one at a time on her jeans.
Michael said, “So Helios isn’t just making his New Race and seeding them into the city with fabricated biographies and forged credentials.”
“He can also duplicate real people,” she said. “How can he do that?”
“Easy. Like Dolly.”
“Dolly the sheep. Remember several years ago, some scientists cloned a sheep in a lab, named her Dolly.”
“That was a sheep, for God’s sake. This is a medical examiner. Don’t tell me ‘easy.’”
The fierce midday sun fired the windshields and the brightwork of the traffic in the street, and every vehicle appeared to be on the verge of bursting into flames, or melting in a silvery spill across the pavement.
“If he can duplicate Jack Rogers,” she said, “he can duplicate anyone.”
“You might not even be the real Carson.”
“I’m the real Carson.”
“How would I know?”
“And how will I know if you go to the men’s room and a Michael monster comes back?”
“He wouldn’t be as funny as the real me,” Michael said.
“The new Jack is funny. Remember what he said about the dead old guy on the table having more personality than homicide cops?”
“That wasn’t exactly hilarious.”
“But for Jack it was funny enough.”
“The real Jack wasn’t all that funny to begin with.”
“That’s my point,” she said. “They can be as funny as they need to be.”
“That would be scary if I thought it was true,” Michael said. “But I’ll bet my ass, if they ring a Michael monster in on you, he’ll be about as witty as a tree stump.”
In this neighborhood of old cottage-style houses, some remained residences, but others had been converted to commercial enterprises.
The blue-and-yellow cottage on the corner looked like someone’s home except for the blue neon sign in a large front window: WONDERMOUS EATS, FOR TRUE, which translated from Cajun patois as “good food, no lie.”
Michael preferred to read it as “good food, no bullshit,” so from time to time he could say “Let’s have a no-bullshit lunch.”
Whether the legal name of the restaurant was Wondermous Eats or whether that was just a slogan, Carson had no idea. The cheap Xeroxed menus had no name at top or bottom.
Cottages had been cleared off two adjacent lots, but the ancient live oaks had been left standing. Cars were parked in the shade among the trees.
The carpet of dead leaves looked like drifts of pecan shells and crunched under the tires of the sedan, then underfoot as Carson and Michael walked to the restaurant.
If Helios succeeded in the abolition of humanity, replacing it with obedient and single-minded multitudes, there would be nothing like Wondermous Eats, for True. There would be no eccentricity and no charm in the new world that he desired.
Cops saw the worst of people, and grew cynical if not bitter. Suddenly, however, flawed and foolish humanity seemed beautiful and precious to Carson, no less so than nature and the world itself.
They chose a table outside, in the oak shade, apart from most of the other diners. They ordered crawfish boulettes and fried okra salad, followed by shrimp-and-ham jambalaya.
This was a denial lunch. If they could still eat this well, surely the end of the world was not upon them, and they were not as good as dead, after all.
“How long does it take to make a Jack Rogers?” Michael wondered when the waitress had left.
“If Helios can make anyone overnight, if he’s that far advanced, then we’re screwed,” Carson said.
“More likely, he’s steadily replacing people in key positions in the city, and Jack was on his list already.”
“So when Jack did the first autopsy on one of the New Race and realized something weird was going on, Helios just brought his Jack on-line quicker than planned.”
“I’d like to believe that,” Michael said.
“So would I.”
“Because neither of us is a big cheese. On his short list, our names wouldn’t be there between the mayor and the chief of police.”
“He would have had no reason to start growing a Carson or a Michael,” she agreed. “Until maybe yesterday.”
“I don’t think he’ll bother even now”
“Because it’s easier just to have us killed.”
“Did he replace Luke or was Luke always one of them?”
“I don’t think there was ever a real Luke,” Michael said.
“Listen to us.”
“When do we start wearing aluminum-foil hats to protect ourselves from alien mind-readers?”
The thick air swagged the day like saturated bunting, hot and damp and preternaturally still. Overhead, the boughs of the oaks hung motionless. The whole world appeared to be paralyzed by a terrible expectation.
The waitress brought the crawfish boulettes and two bottles of ice-cold beer.
“Drinking on duty,” Carson said, amazed at her self.
“It’s not against department regulations during Armageddon,” Michael assured her.
“Just yesterday, you didn’t believe any of this, and I half thought I was losing my mind.”
“Now the only thing I can’t believe,” Michael said, “is that Dracula and the Wolfman haven’t shown up yet.”
They ate the boulettes and the fried-okra salads in an intense but comfortable silence.
Then before the jambalaya arrived, Carson said, “Okay, cloning or somehow he can make a perfect physical duplicate of Jack. But how does the sonofabitch make his Jack a medical examiner? I mean, how does he give him Jack’s lifetime of knowledge, or Jack’s memories?”
“Beats me. If I knew that, I’d have my own secret laboratory, and I’d be taking over the world myself.”
“Except your world would be a better one than this,” she said.
He blinked in surprise, gaped. “Wow.”
“That was sweet.”
“What was sweet?”
“What you just said.”
“It wasn’t sweet.”
“It was not.”
“You’ve never been sweet to me before.”
“If you use that word one more time,” she said, “I’ll bust your balls, I swear.”
“I mean it.”
Smiling broadly, he said, “I know.”
“Sweet,” she said scornfully, and shook her head in disgust. “Be careful or I might even shoot you.”
“That’s against regulations even during Armageddon.”
“Yeah, but you’re gonna be dead in twenty-four hours anyway.”
He consulted his wristwatch. “Less than twenty three now.”
The waitress arrived with plates of jambalaya. “Can I get you two more beers?”
Carson said, “Why the hell not.”
“We’re celebrating,” Michael told the waitress.
“Is it your birthday?”
“No,” he said, “but you’d think it was, considering how sweet she’s being to me.”
“You’re a cute couple,” said the waitress, and she went to get the beers.
“Cute?” Carson growled.
“Don’t shoot her,” Michael pleaded. “She’s probably got three kids and an invalid mother to support.”
“Then she better watch her mouth,” Carson said.
In another silence, they ate jambalaya and drank beer for a while, until finally Michael said, “Probably every major player in city government is one of Victor’s.”
“Count on it.”
“Our own beloved chief.”
“He’s probably been a replicant for years.”
“And maybe half the cops on the force.”
“Maybe more than half.”
“The local FBI office.”
“They’re his,” she predicted.
“The newspaper, local media?”
“Whether they’re all his or not, when’s the last time you trusted a reporter?”
“Clueless,” she agreed. “They all want to save the world, but they just end up helping to weave the handbasket.”
Carson looked at her hands. She knew they were strong and capable; they had never failed her. Yet at the moment they looked delicate, almost frail.
She had spent the better part of her life in a campaign to redeem her father’s reputation. He, too, had been a cop, gunned down by a drug dealer. They said that her dad had been corrupt, deep in the drug trade, that he’d been shot by the competition or because a deal had gone sour. Her mother had been killed in the same hit.
Always she had known the official story must be a lie. Her dad had uncovered something that powerful people wanted kept secret. Now she wondered if it had been one powerful person—Victor Helios.
“So what can we do?” Michael asked.
“I’ve been thinking about that.”
“I figured,” he said.
“We kill him before he can kill us.”
“Easier said than done.”
“Not if you’re willing to die to get him.”
“I’m willing,” Michael said, “but not eager.”
“You didn’t become a cop for the retirement benefits.”
“You’re right. I just wanted to oppress the masses.”
“Violate their civil rights,” she said.
“That always gives me a thrill.”
She said, “We’re going to need guns.”
“We’ve got guns.”
“We’re going to need bigger guns.”
Erika’s education in the tank had not prepared her to deal with a man who was chewing off his fingers. Had she matriculated through a real rather than virtual university, she might have known at once what she should do.
William, the butler, was one of the New Race, so his fingers were not easy to bite off. He had to work diligently at it.