“The thing is, he beat me during sex, even bit me once, and he called me the worst names. I was so ashamed.”
“He’s a good man, a great man, so I must have done something terribly wrong to have made him hurt me, but I don’t know what upset him.”
“You’re doing it again,” Christine said impatiently, “talking about your private life with Mr. Helios.”
“You’re right, I am. But if you could help me understand what I did to displease my husband, that would be good for both me and Victor.”
Christine’s stare was sharp and unwavering. “You do know that you are the fifth Erika, don’t you?”
“Yes. And I’m determined to be the last.”
“Then perhaps you’d better not talk about sex even with him.”
“Even with Victor? But how will I find out why he was displeased with me?”
Christine stropped her sharp stare into an even more piercing gaze. “Maybe he wasn’t displeased.”
“Then why did he punch me and pull my hair and pinch my—”
“You’re doing it again.”
Frustrated, Erika said, “But I’ve got to talk with somebody about it.”
“Then talk to the mirror, Mrs. Helios. That’s the only safe conversation you can have on the subject.”
“How could that be productive? A mirror is an inanimate object. Unless it’s magical, like in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”
“When you’re looking at yourself in the mirror, Mrs. Helios, ask yourself what you know about sexual sadism.”
Erika considered the term. “I don’t think it’s in my programmed knowledge.”
“Then the very best thing you can do is educate yourself… and endure. Now, if that’s everything, I have a number of tasks to attend to.”
The soft rattle of the computer keyboard under Vicky Chou’s nimble fingers, as she composed a letter, was the only sound in the summer afternoon. Each time that she paused in her typing, the subsequent silence seemed nearly as deep as deafness.
The merest breath of sultry air stirred the sheer curtains at the open window but did not produce the faintest whisper. Outside, the day lacked bird songs. If traffic passed in the street, it did so with the muted grace of a ghost ship sailing without wind across a glassy sea.
Vicky Chou worked at home as a medical transcriptionist. Home was Carson O’Connor’s house, where she received free room and board in return for serving as a caregiver to Carson’s brother, Arnie.
Some of her friends thought this was an odd arrangement and that Vicky had negotiated a bad deal. In truth, she felt overcompensated, because Carson had saved Vicky’s sister, Liane, from serving life in prison for a crime she had never committed.
At forty-five, Vicky had been a widow for five years; and as she’d never had children of her own, a fringe benefit of living here was the feeling of being part of a family. Arnie was like a son to her.
Although autistic, the boy rarely presented her with a problem. He was self-absorbed, quiet, and endearing in his way. She prepared his meals, but otherwise he cared for himself.
He seldom left his room, and he never left the house except when Carson wished to take him with her. Even then he usually went only with reluctance.
Vicky didn’t have to worry about him wandering away. When he wandered, it was to internal lands that held more interest for him than did the real world.
Nevertheless, the silence began to seem eerie to her, and an uneasiness crept over her, growing with each pause in her typing.
At last she rose from her desk chair and went to check on Arnie.
Vicky’s second-floor room was a pleasant size, but Arnie’s quarters—across the hall—were twice as large as hers. A wall had been taken down between two bedrooms to provide him with the space that he required and with a small bath of his own.
His bed and nightstand were jammed in a corner. At the foot of his bed stood a TV with DVD player, on a wheeled stand.
The castle occupied a significant part of the room. Four low tables formed an eight-by-twelve-foot platform on which Arnie had erected a Lego-block wonder that was brilliantly conceived and executed in obsessive detail.
From barbican to curtain wall, to casements, to ramparts, to the keep, to the highest turrets, down to the bailey, through the inner ward, to the barracks and the stables and the blacksmith’s shop, the ninety-six-square-foot marvel seemed to be Arnie’s defense against a frightening world.
The boy sat now in the wheeled office chair that he occupied when working on the castle or when just staring dreamily at it. To any eye but Arnie’s, this Lego structure was complete, but he was not satisfied; he worked on it every day, adding to its majesty and improving its defenses.
Although twelve, Arnie looked younger. He was slender and as pale as a Nordic child at the end of a long dark winter.
He did not look up at Vicky. Eye contact dismayed him, and he seldom liked to be touched.
Yet he had a gentleness about him, a wistfulness, that moved her. And he knew more of the world, and of people, than she had first believed.
One bad day, when Vicky had been missing Arthur, her dead husband, almost more than she could bear, though she had not openly expressed her misery, Arnie had reacted to her state of mind and had spoken without glancing at her. “You’re only as lonely as you want to be,” he’d said, “and he would never want you to be.”
Although she tried to engage the boy in conversation, he said no more.
That day, she had perceived a more mysterious aspect to autism in general and to Arnie’s case in particular than she’d previously recognized. His isolation was beyond Vicky’s power to heal, yet he had reached out to counsel her in her loneliness.
She’d had affection for the boy before that moment. Thereafter, it grew into love.
Now, watching him at work on the castle, she said, “I always think it’s perfect as it is… yet you find ways to make it better.”
He did not acknowledge her, but she felt sure that he heard.
Leaving him to his work, Vicky returned to the hallway and stood at the head of the stairs, listening to the persistent silence below.
Arnie was where he should be, and safe. Yet the quiet did not feel peaceful, instead felt pregnant, as though some threat were gestating and at the brink of a noisy birth.
Carson had said that she and Michael were on a case that “might come home to us,” and had warned Vicky to be security-conscious. As a consequence, she had locked the front and back doors and had left no first-floor windows open.
Although she knew that she had not overlooked a lock or latch, the silence below called to her, cautioned her.
She descended the stairs and toured the living room, Carson’s bedroom and bath, the kitchen, checking that all doors and windows were still secure. She found everything as she remembered having left it.
Half-drawn blinds and sheer curtains left the lower floor shadowy. Each time Vicky turned on a lamp to facilitate her inspection, she turned it off behind her when she moved on.
Carson’s room was the only part of the downstairs that featured air conditioning. Bolted in place, the window mounted unit could not be removed without a racket that would betray an intruder long before he could effect entrance. At the moment, the air conditioner waited to be switched on; like similar units in Vicky’s and Arnie’s rooms, it was used only to facilitate sleep.
With the windows closed, these lower rooms were warm, stuffy. In the kitchen, she opened the top door on the refrigerator, not because she wanted anything in the freezer, but because the icy out-draft, billowing against her face, felt refreshing.
In her second-floor room once more, she found that the hush of the house continued to unnerve her. This seemed like the silence of an ax raised high but not yet swung.
Ridiculous. She was spooking herself. A case of broad-daylight heebie-jeebies.
Vicky switched on her CD player and, because Carson was not home to be bothered, turned the volume up a little louder than she usually did.
The disc was an anthology of hits by different artists. Billy Joel, Rod Stewart, the Knack, Supertramp, the BeeGees, Gloria Gaynor, Cheap Trick.
The music of her youth. Arthur had asked her to marry him. So happy together. Time had no meaning then. They thought they would live forever.
She returned to the letter that she had been composing, and sang along with the CD, her spirits lifted by the music and by memories of happier days, the troubling silence banished.
With the floor of the house pressing overhead, surrounded by the smell of bare earth and moist fungus, shrouded in gloom, anyone else might have progressed from claustrophobia to a panicky sense of being buried alive. Randal Six, however, child of Mercy, feels protected, even cozy.
He listens to the woman come downstairs and walk from room to room as though looking for something that she has mislaid. Then she returns to the second floor.
When he hears the music filtering down from high in the house, he knows that his opportunity has come. Under the cover of rock’n’roll, the noise he makes getting into the O’Connor residence will not be likely to draw attention.
He has thoroughly explored the crawl space, surprised by how adventurous he has become. The farther he goes from the Hands of Mercy both in terms of distance and time, the more his agoraphobia abates and the more he desires to expand his boundaries.
He is blossoming.
In addition to the concrete piers on which the house perches, the crawl space is punctuated by incoming water pipes, by sewer pipes and gray-water drains, by more pipes housing electrical cable. All of these services puncture the floor of the structure.
Even if Randal could disassemble one of those conduits, none of the points of penetration would be large enough to admit him.
He also has found a trapdoor. It measures about three feet square.
The hinges and latch are on the farther side, where he can’t reach them. The door most likely opens up and inward.
Near the trap, adjacent to the incoming gas line, flexible ductwork, eight inches in diameter, comes out of the house; it snakes through the crawl space. The farther end of the duct is framed to a cutout in the lattice skirt.
Randal assumes this is either an air intake or a safely vent for a gas-fired heating system.
Judging by the evidence, the trapdoor opens into a furnace room. A repairman could use it to move between the equipment above and the connections under the floor.
In the house overhead, autistic but capable of a dazzling smile, Arnie O’Connor possesses the secret to happiness. Either the boy will relinquish it or Randal Six will tear it out of him.
Lying on his back, Randal draws his knees toward his chest and presses his feet against the trapdoor. In the interest of breaking through with as little noise as possible, he applies pressure in gradually increasing increments. The latch and hinges creak as they strain against their fastenings.
When a particularly boisterous song echoes through the house and as the music swells toward a crescendo, he doubles his efforts, and the trapdoor springs open with a burr of screws ripping wood, a twang of torquing metal.
Happiness will soon be his.
After the meeting with Victor, Cindi wanted to go to the mall, but Benny wanted to talk about methods of decapitation.
According to their ID, Cindi and Benny Lovewell were twenty-eight and twenty-nine, respectively, though in fact they had been out of the creation tanks only nineteen months.
They made a cute couple. More accurately, they were made as a cute couple.
Attractive, well-dressed, each of them had a dazzling smile, a musical voice, and an infectious laugh. They were soft-spoken and polite, and they generally established instant rapport with everyone they met.
Cindi and Benny were fabulous dancers, though dancing was not the activity they most enjoyed. Their greatest pleasure came from killing.
Members of the New Race were forbidden to kill except when ordered to do so by their maker. The Lovewells were frequently ordered to do so.
When a member of the Old Race was slated to be replaced by a replicant, Cindi and Benny were the last smiling faces that person would ever see.
Those who were not scheduled to be replaced by pod people but who had somehow become a threat to Victor—or had offended him—were also destined to meet the Lovewells.
Sometimes these encounters began in a jazz club or a tavern. To the target, it seemed that new friends had been found—until later in the evening, when a parting handshake or a good-bye kiss on the cheek evolved, with amazing rapidity, into a violent garroting.
Other victims, on seeing the Lovewells for the first time, had no fair chance to get to know them, had hardly a moment to return their dazzling smiles, before being disemboweled.
On this sweltering summer day, prior to being summoned to the Hands of Mercy, the Lovewells had been bored. Benny could deal well with boredom, but tedium sometimes drove Cindi to reckless action.
After their meeting with Victor, in which they had been ordered to kill Detectives O’Connor and Maddison within twenty-four hours, Benny wanted to begin at once planning the hit. He hoped that the business could be arranged in such a way as to give them an opportunity to dismember alive at least one of the two cops.
Forbidden to kill as they wished, other members of the New Race lived with an envy of the free will with which those of the Old Race led their lives. This envy, more bitter by the day, expressed itself in despair and in a bottled rage that was denied relief.
As skilled assassins, Cindi and Benny were permitted relief, and lots of it. He usually could count on Cindi to match the eagerness with which he himself set out on every job.
On this occasion, however, she insisted on going shopping first. When Cindi insisted on something, Benny always let her have what she wanted because she was such a whiner when she didn’t get her way that even Benny, with his high tolerance for tedium, lamented that his maker had programmed him to be incapable of suicide.
At the mall, to Benny’s dismay, Cindi led him directly to Tots and Tykes, a store selling clothing for infants and young children.
He hoped this wouldn’t lead to kidnapping again.
“We shouldn’t be seen here,” he warned her.
“We won’t be. None of our kind works here, and none of our kind would have reason to shop here.”
“We don’t have a reason, either.”
Without answering him, she went into Tots and Tykes.
As Cindi searched through the tiny dresses and other garments on the racks and tables, Benny followed her, trying to gauge whether she was likely to go nuts, as before.
Admiring a little yellow dress with a frilly collar, she said, “Isn’t this adorable?”