The time was 4:08:24 A.M. His program included an awareness of time to the precise second, an internal thousand-year clock that made timepieces and calendars superfluous.
Before he could adjust the oven clocks, the new Nancy and the new Ariel returned from upstairs. Behind them shambled the real Nancy and Ariel, barefoot and in pajamas, small silver scarabs bright on their left temples.
From outside came the sound of an approaching truck, no more than a minute ahead of schedule.
To the real Mayor Potter, his replicant said, “Erskine, get to your feet and come out to the back porch.”
When the mayor rose from the chair, his gaze was no longer either distant or startled, not mesmerized, but terror-stricken. Nevertheless, he obeyed, as did his wife and daughter when commanded by their replicants.
On the porch, as the big paneled truck braked to a stop in the driveway, Erskine raised one hand to his temple and tentatively touched the rounded head of the needle, which glowed like a jewel in the headlights. But he proved powerless to extract it.
In the cold night, warm breath steamed from everyone. The plumes from the real Potters were more forcefully expelled and more rapidly repeated than the exhalations of those who had usurped their lives.
The house stood on two forested acres on the outskirts of town. No neighbors were near enough to see the three former residents being dispatched to their fates.
Two members of the Community got out of the cab of the unmarked truck and opened the rear doors.
While the new Nancy and Ariel waited on the porch, the new mayor led the former Potter family to the back of the truck. “Get in.”
Along both sides of the cargo area, benches were bolted to the walls.
Five people in nightclothes were seated on the right, two on the left. The Potters joined the two on the left.
Like animals paralyzed by fright, the ten stared out at the new mayor. None of them could cry out or move unless told to move.
The truck was big enough to carry ten more. The driver and his teammate had other stops on their schedule.
With the Potter family aboard, the driver closed and bolted the doors. He said, “For the Community.”
“For the Community,” the new Erskine Potter replied.
He had no idea where the individuals in the truck would be taken or when they would be killed. He wasn’t curious. He didn’t care. They were the spoilers of the world. They would get what they deserved.
For Carson O’Connor-Maddison and her husband, Michael Maddison—she the daughter of a homicide cop, he the son of industrial-safety engineers—the past two years were the busiest of their lives, with considerable homicide and little safety. As New Orleans police detectives, they discovered that a supercilious biotech billionaire named Victor Helios was in fact Victor Frankenstein, still rockin’ at the age of 240. In league with the 200-year-old Deucalion, who sought his maker’s destruction, Carson and Michael survived numerous violent encounters with members of Victor’s New Race, saw horrors beyond anything Poe might have hallucinated in an opium fever, did a significant amount of chasing and being chased, shot a lot of big noisy guns, and ate mountains of fine Cajun food at establishments like Wondermous Eats. Carson drove numerous vehicles at very high speeds, and Michael never kept his promise to vomit if she didn’t slow down. They destroyed Victor’s laboratory, put him on the run, ate even better Cajun takeout from Acadiana, attended Victor’s death, and witnessed the destruction of his entire New Race. They acquired a German shepherd named Duke after saving him from monsters, and they were present when the enigmatic and strangely talented Deucalion cured Carson’s then twelve-year-old brother, Arnie, of autism. Seeking a fresh start, they turned in their badges, got married, moved to San Francisco, and considered opening a doughnut shop. But they wanted work that allowed them legally to carry concealed firearms, so instead of running a doughnut shop, they obtained licenses as private investigators and soon launched the O’Connor-Maddison Detective Agency. They busted some bad guys, learned to use chopsticks, ate a lot of superb Chinese food, spoke wistfully about the doughnut shop that might have been, and had a baby whom Carson wanted to name Mattie, after the spunky girl in the movie True Grit. But Michael insisted he wanted to call her Rooster or at least Reuben, in honor of Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, the character played by John Wayne in that film. Eventually, they named her Scout, after the splendidly spunky girl in To Kill a Mockingbird.
An hour before dawn, just over four weeks before Halloween, and less than two years prior to the end of the world—if you believed the most recent doomsday scare being advanced by the media—Carson and Michael were sitting in the cab of a delivery truck, in a row of fourteen identical trucks, in a dark parking lot between two huge warehouses, near the docks. They were conducting surveillance in an industrial-espionage case, and talking about, among other things, baby wipes.
“They aren’t too caustic,” Carson disagreed. “They aren’t caustic at all.”
“I’ve read the ingredients.”
“I’ve read the ingredients, too. Aloe vera, lanolin, herbal extract—”
“What herbs did they get the extracts from?” Michael asked.
“An herb’s an herb. They’re all natural. Herbal extracts clean without leaving harmful residues.”
“So they say. But they don’t tell you the specific herbs. When they don’t tell you the specific herbs, the cop in me smells a rat.”
“For heaven’s sake, Michael, no company’s going to set out to make dangerously caustic baby wipes.”
“How do you know? Anybody could own the company. Do you know who owns the company?”
“I’m pretty sure it isn’t owned by al-Qaeda.”
“‘Pretty sure’ isn’t good enough when we’re talking about our little girl’s bottom.”
She sighed. Michael was still adorable, but fatherhood sometimes brought out a paranoia in him that she had not seen before. “Listen, sweetie, I care about Scout’s bottom just as much as you do, and I’m comfortable with using baby wipes.”
“They contain baking soda.”
“Pure baking soda. It eliminates odors.”
“There’s baking soda in fire extinguishers,” he said.
“Good. Then we don’t have to worry about Scout’s bottom catching on fire.”
“Baking soda,” Michael repeated, as if it were a synonym for rattlesnake venom. “I think we should use cotton cloth, water, and soap.”
She pretended horror. “Soap? Do you know what’s in soap?”
“Soap is in soap.”
“Read the label and then tell me about soap.”
“What’s in soap that’s so terrible?”
Carson didn’t know what might be in soap, but she figured at least half a dozen ingredients would alarm Michael and make baby wipes a lot more acceptable to him.
“Just check out the label—but don’t expect ever to be able to sleep again once you’ve read it.”
Out there in the unlighted parking lot, a dark figure moved.
Leaning toward the windshield, Michael said, “I knew this was the place.”
From the seat between them, Carson picked up a camera with night-vision technology.
“What do you see?” Michael asked.
Eye to the viewfinder, she said, “It’s Beckmann. He’s got an attaché case. This is the swap, all right.”
“Here comes someone else,” Michael said. “Pan left.”
Carson panned and saw another man approaching Beckmann from behind a warehouse. “It’s Chang. He’s carrying a shopping bag.”
“Is there a store name on the bag?”
“What does it matter? It’s just something to carry the money.”
“Chang wears cool clothes,” Michael said. “I’ve been wondering where he shops.”
Zooming in with the camera, clicking off a series of shots, Carson said, “He’s talking to Beckmann. Beckmann is putting down the attaché case. Chang is taking something from the bag.”
“Make sure you get a clear shot of the bag. We can enhance it till the store name is readable. Hey—something just happen?”
“Yeah. Chang pulled a gun from the bag and shot Beckmann.”
“I didn’t see that coming.”
“He just shot him again. Beckmann’s down.”
“I don’t hear any shots.”
“Silencer,” Carson reported.
“This is so not right.”
“Chang just knelt, shot him a third time, back of the head.”
Putting down the camera, Carson said, “You know what.”
“I’m too dad for this stuff.”
Drawing the pistol from her shoulder rig, she said, “And I’m too mom. But baby needs new shoes.”
The truck departed, carrying the real Erskine, Nancy, and Ariel to their doom. The new Mayor Potter, his efficient wife, and his focused daughter returned to the house.
Energetic, industrious, and sagacious, the three thoroughly cleaned the kitchen. They reordered the contents of the cabinets, the refrigerator, and the pantry to ensure that every meal could henceforth be prepared as quickly as possible.
They exchanged not a single word as they worked. Yet they did not duplicate one another’s efforts. Neither did they at any time crowd one another.
When the kitchen had been put right, they prepared an early breakfast. Erskine cracked, scrambled, and fried a dozen eggs while Nancy fried a pound of bacon.
Spots of green mold marked the bread. Like every member of the Community, Ariel was loath to waste anything. She prepared twelve browned slices in the four-slot toaster.
A squeeze-bottle of liquid butter—actually a butter substitute—was thrillingly efficient.
Erskine plated the eggs. Nancy added the bacon. Ariel poured three glasses of orange juice.
As Erskine put the plates on the table, Nancy set out the flatware and Ariel put a paper napkin at each place setting.
With night still pressing at the windows, they sat at the table. They ate.
Because conversation inhibited the efficient consumption of a meal, they initially dined in silence.
Eventually, Erskine said, “As mayor, it has been my habit to take my family at least twice a week to restaurants owned by some of my constituents.”
“Eating at home takes less time,” said Nancy.
“Yes. But until the Community replaces the current population of Rainbow Falls, we must follow the habits and traditions of the Potter family to avoid arousing suspicion.”
“When we eat at home,” Ariel said, “we should eat the same thing for breakfast every morning.” Her public role was as a daughter to Erskine and Nancy, but she was neither their daughter nor younger than they were; she was their equal in the classless utopia of the Community. “We should develop a menu for each meal of the day and cook nothing but those menus. Repetition will result in ever more efficient preparation.”
“Yes,” said Erskine.
“Agreed,” Nancy said. “And food shopping will be simplified.”
After finishing breakfast, they cleared the table and rinsed the china. They racked the dishes, the cookware, and the utensils in the dishwasher.
Soon they must reorganize the other rooms, the garage, and the rest of the property as they had already improved the kitchen. They felt no need to consult on an agenda; they must first explore the barn.
The driveway forked. One lane went to the garage, and the other led to the red barn toward the back of the property.
Never had the Potter family been farmers. Nancy and Ariel were horsewomen, and the barn served as their equestrian facility.
The building encompassed about sixteen hundred square feet, most in the main room, with a tack room at the back. Along the south wall were three stalls. From across the room, three other stalls faced the first group.
In the north stalls stood a stallion named Commander and two mares named Queenie and Valentine. The south stalls were unoccupied.
“The walls are insulated, and there’s an oil furnace that keeps the temperature from falling too low,” Erskine said.
“The insulation will also contain sound,” Nancy said. “We might need the sound to be well contained.”
The horses watched them with interest.
Ariel turned in place, surveying the room. “The windows must be packed with sound insulation and boarded over inside. From outside, they should appear unchanged.”
Erskine declared, “Here it will happen.”
“Ideal,” Nancy said.
Ariel’s somber expression became a thin smile of anticipation. Her gray-blue eyes shone with a lustrous steely light.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes. This is where I will be what I am.”
Nancy said, “Install locks on the barn doors. Very good locks.”
Beginning a second survey of the barn, Ariel said, “And fortify the stalls, both the walls and the doors. They must be very strong.”
The three stood in silence for a moment. Erskine knew that they felt the same things: urgent purpose, the thrill of a war begun, a kind of awe that they were the agents of change that would remake the world, and an almost feverish desire to exterminate the rabble, the vermin, the pestilence, the filth that was humankind.
Chang’s sense of danger proved to be no less impressive than his sense of style in men’s fashions.
After choosing the delivery truck as their surveillance post, Carson and Michael had disabled the ceiling lamp in the cab and had left the driver’s and the passenger’s doors ajar. When they got out of the truck, the doors made no sound; no sudden light betrayed them.
Nevertheless, having knelt to fire a third round, the coup de grâce, into the back of Beckmann’s head, the killer sprang to his feet. He swiveled toward the sixth truck in the row of fourteen identical vehicles—their truck—and squeezed off two shots.
The first bullet struck an iron-bell note from the chassis and ricocheted into the night. The second pierced the windshield.
In her years as a cop, Carson had never been shot, less because she was cautious than because she was bold. She often played by the book—but only until she intuitively knew that playing by the book could get her killed.
Chang was the employee of a Chinese corporation. He headed its Division of Competitive Intel, which meant—bluntly put—that either by thievery or by bribery, he acquired technological trade secrets from other corporations. He wasn’t a former military man or an agent of a government intelligence service. Until now, violence was not in his criminal repertoire.