The Benedetto residence was a white Greek Revival house with a square-columned portico under a second-floor balcony, overhung by a tree with furrowed bark and scarlet leaves.
Stepping onto the portico, they looked through the pair of six-above-six French windows that flanked the door, but there was no one to be seen.
“Let’s think about this,” Michael said.
Carson rang the doorbell.
He said, “I wish I hadn’t ordered the meat loaf. The way this night is unfolding, I’m going to have killer acid reflux.”
Carson pressed the bell again.
The chimes were still ringing when the door opened, and Denise Benedetto stood before them. She said coolly, “Yes? What is it?”
She wasn’t the Denise Benedetto with the silver face jewelry or the blood or the thick speech.
“Does Larry Benedetto live here?” Carson asked.
“He’s my husband.”
“Well, my husband and your husband went to college together. We happened to be in town, and Michael—this is Michael—he said maybe we should look up Larry, he was such a great guy. Tell her yourself, Michael.”
“Larry was a great guy,” Michael said. “He was so smart and witty and thoughtful, and he had real style. And he was funny. Oh, man, nobody could make me laugh like Larry did, he could make me bust a gut.”
“My husband isn’t here now,” she said. “He’s busy at … work.”
“He works evenings, huh?” Michael said. “Darn. And we’re leaving first thing in the morning. Would you tell him Michael McMichaels stopped by with his wife, Myrtle? We might be in town again in a few months. Next time I’ll call ahead, if that’s all right.”
“Yes,” she said. “That would be better. Good evening.” She closed the door.
Walking away from the house, casually kicking a couple of times at the drift of fallen scarlet leaves as though she were carefree, Carson said, “She’s sure a charmer. Don’t look back. In case she’s looking, we don’t want her to think we’re looking back to see if she’s looking. The best you could do was Myrtle?”
“I like the name Myrtle,” he said.
“Michael and Myrtle McMichaels?”
“John and Jane Smith—see, that’s the kind of thing that sounds suspicious. Michael and Myrtle McMichaels sounds so unlikely it’s got to be real. What’re we doing now?”
“Walking away from the house.”
“Okay. What’re we doing next?”
Turning left on the sidewalk and heading toward Beartooth Avenue, Carson said, “These properties back up to the properties on the next street. We’ll come through the yard of the house behind the Benedetto place to get to the back of their place.”
“Depends on what we see, if anything. Larry was ‘so smart and witty and thoughtful, and he had real style.’ Sounds like you and this Larry got in touch with your feminine side together.”
“Maybe you’ve forgotten, but I don’t actually know Larry. And what would have happened if old Larry had been at home?”
“Then we just made a mistake. It was another Larry Benedetto you went to college with, sorry for disturbing you.”
“When we start snooping around, what is it we’re looking for?”
“Denise’s baby. Did you see what was on the foyer floor behind that woman?”
“No. I was busy lying about Larry.”
“A teddy bear. One of the arms had been torn off and stuffing was coming out of the shoulder. One of its ears had been torn off, too.”
The last of those herded into the truck settled on the benches. The driver and his partner closed the cargo-box doors, bolted them, and returned to the cab.
Deucalion raised himself on one arm to determine exactly where at the phone company they were, and saw the employee parking lot.
As the engine started, he transitioned from a supine position on the roof to the interior of the cargo space, where he stood in the center between the facing benches.
In what was full dark to them but at worst murky to him, he was able to discern eleven people sitting five on one side and six on the other. They were not secured in any way, but they rode in docile acceptance of their fate.
The weeping woman still wept, although her whimpers were hardly audible. A man repeated softly, “No, no, no, no, no, no ….”
Several of them were sweating in this cold night, and they had the sour scent of terror.
“Who are they? Who’s done this to you?” Deucalion asked.
Ten remained silent, but one woman spoke in a slurred voice, as if she had suffered brain damage: “My sister … my sister.”
A half-seen face. Like an apparition at a seance.
Deucalion said, “Your sister did this to you?”
“My sister she … she Wendy.”
“Wendy? Why would she harm you?”
The eyes of the apparition glimmered darkly in the dark as she said, “Wendy Wanda twins my sister.”
“Your name is Wanda?”
“She dead my twin five years.”
The truck yawed slightly, rhythmically, as if they were boating on the river Styx. A man began to groan in anguish.
The woman said, “Dead five years now back.”
Deucalion thought of the replicants in New Orleans. Upon seeing a replicant, an identical might think her dead sister had returned.
In the rusting shed, breathing the faint odor of something dead and desiccated, the boy could no longer tolerate the sight of the cottage across the street, its only light a porch light, its windows black with portent.
“Let’s go,” Travis said.
His words came in the pitch of a child’s voice, but in some way not easy to define, his voice wasn’t that of a child anymore.
“There’s no urgency,” Bryce Walker assured him.
“Not that cold. And I’ve been cold before.”
“There’s no use waiting anyway.”
“We don’t know for sure.”
“No, son, we don’t.”
“There are some advantages to being an old fart like me,” Bryce said. “One of them is experience. I’ve had maybe a thousand times more experience than you have. No offense. And one thing experience has taught me is that life can hammer you hard just when everything seems to be so fine, but life can also drop the most amazing moments of grace on you just when you thought nothing good would ever happen again.”
“Let’s go,” the boy interrupted.
“In a moment. What you have to do somehow is be grateful for what good you’ve known and for what good will come, in spite of the bad times, because you come to see that you can’t have one without the other. I’m not saying that it’s always easy to be grateful when the pattern of things so often doesn’t make sense. But by the time you’re my age, you realize it all does make sense, even if you can’t quite say how.”
“Let’s go, all right?”
“We might,” Bryce said. “But not until you tell me what I just said to you.”
Travis shuffled his feet in place. “Never give up.”
“That’s part of it. What else?”
An old Chevrolet passed in the street, briefly whirling autumn leaves in its wake.
“Nothing’s over till it’s over,” Travis said.
“That too. What else?”
From some perch on a roof elsewhere in the Lowers, an owl called out, and a more distant owl responded.
Travis said, “Maybe we don’t ever really die.”
Bryce wanted to fold his arms around the boy and hold him very tight, but he knew that such an expression of sympathy was not wanted yet. Because in spite of what Travis had first said, he had not given up all hope. While there was hope, there need not be consolation.
“All right,” Bryce said. “Let’s go. My ass is half frozen off.”
A tall fence separated the two backyards. For Carson, however, since childhood, fences had existed for one reason: to be climbed. Thankful that she still wore her Rockport walking shoes instead of ski boots, she gripped the headrail of the fence and toed her way up and over.
Michael dropped to her side in the Benedettos’ backyard and drew the pistol from his shoulder rig.
“Isn’t that a little premature?” she whispered.
“I just remembered, good old Larry was thoughtful and stylish and funny, yeah, but he also had a dark side.”
“You think she lied, he’s not at work?”
“She’s a replicant. Her whole existence is a lie.”
“I’m glad you’re not in denial anymore.”
Carson drew her pistol.
Michael said, “A little premature?”
“There’s a baby in there.”
They crossed the lawn to the deep back porch. There didn’t seem to be a lot of sunning patios in Montana. The wooden steps creaked, though not enough to be heard inside.
Four windows—all with lighted rooms beyond—faced onto the porch. They were curtained.
Michael knelt on one knee at the head of the porch steps, his attention split between Carson and the back of the property, making sure no one surprised them from behind.
At the first window, the curtains were fully closed, and Carson could see nothing. At the second, a one-inch gap gave her a view of part of a laundry room.
On the other side of the back door, the curtains at the first window were again less than tightly drawn, and between the panels she could see a kitchen.
A girl of about five or six sat at the kitchen table. Her face was flushed and wet with tears.
On the table in front of her lay several teddy bears. They had been torn open and dismembered.
Encircling the girl’s neck, a rope secured her to the headrail of the chair.
A flood of fury swept Carson from the window to the back door, but she possessed the presence of mind to know that Michael had more power than she did for this job, and she breathed his name.
When he came to her, she indicated the door and whispered, “Kick it in.”
A door always had to be taken down in one kick or two, unless you wanted to lose the advantage of surprise and be gut-shot going through—or in this case risk giving the Denise replicant a chance to do something unthinkable to the child before she could be stopped.
Michael might argue that a baby was not necessarily a baby baby, but they had worked together long enough for him to know better than to second-guess Carson at a moment like this. He gripped her arm as she offered it to steady him, reared one leg back to slam the door, but hesitated. On two feet again, he quietly turned the knob, and the unlocked door opened.
Making the assumption, as always, that it was a trap, they went in low and fast, but the girl at the table was the only person in the room. Wide-eyed, the child regarded them with no less amazement than she might have if Santa Claus had come through the door months ahead of his season.
Carson eased past the refrigerator to the hall door, which stood half open. Sheltering behind it, she exposed herself enough to survey the hallway. The false Denise was nowhere to be seen.
Michael snared a wicked-looking piece of cutlery from a wall rack of knives.
Too smart to fear him as he approached her with the gleaming blade, the girl said, “Mommy’s not my mommy.”
Michael shushed her and sawed at the rope between her neck and the headrail of the chair.
The hallway remained deserted.
When Carson glanced at the table, Michael had already freed the child; he lifted her out of the chair. Carson gestured for him to go, go, go.
After Michael exited, Carson hesitated half a minute before abandoning the position from which she could observe the hallway, giving him time to carry the girl to the fence between properties. She retreated backward across the kitchen, and was glad she did when suddenly the not-mommy entered from the hall.
Like the New Race replicants in New Orleans, this one boasted great reflexes and the instincts of a predator. Carrying a pair of scissors, perhaps the implement with which she’d earlier gutted the teddy bears, she flipped it in her hand to grip it by the blades, and threw it as if it were a dagger.
Carson juked, the scissors flew past her, and the replicant attacked. She squeezed off one, two, three shots, and scored with all three: the first high in the abdomen, the second in the chest, the third in the throat.
The not-mommy pitched backward, went down, striking her head on the handle of the oven door as she fell. Although wretched sounds issued from her torn throat, she sat up, clutched at a countertop, got to her feet, and snatched a knife from the same rack from which Michael had gotten the blade to free the girl.
The creature’s persistence in spite of grievous wounds didn’t surprise Carson, although even for a replicant, there wasn’t much blood. Backing into the open doorway between the kitchen and the porch, Carson squeezed off three more rounds: scored with the first, missed with the second, scored with the third.
The replicant collapsed facedown, and instead of retreating, Carson advanced, expending her last four shots point-blank into the woman’s back and into the back of her head. Then she scrambled to the open door, from which she watched the deceased, because she knew from hard experience that the word deceased might prove to be wishful thinking.
Gasping, she ejected the depleted magazine from the pistol, fished a replacement from a pocket of her blazer, and reloaded.
There was some blood, but it didn’t pool around the body. She thought the head wounds or the neck wounds should have leaked more.
The not-mommy didn’t move, didn’t move, and still didn’t move.
Carson decided the replicant must be dead, but nevertheless she backed across the porch, pistol in a two-hand grip. She took the steps sideways. She sidled across half the yard, expecting to be charged again, before she turned her back on the house and ran.
Michael had already crossed the fence, out of sight. Carson hoped he didn’t drop the girl on her head.
As the truck returned to the warehouse, Deucalion waited in the cargo box with the eleven people from the telephone company, who were in a strange, desperate condition. Even with animal-keen eyesight, he couldn’t see them well enough to determine how they had been disabled and so effectively controlled.
The warehouse door clattered up, the truck pulled inside, and as the big sectional rattled down once more, the driver switched off the engine.