the dead town - Page 7


“You won’t get out,” Deucalion said. “They’ve taken over the police, all authorities. Roads are blocked at both ends of town. They’re seizing key utilities—telephones, the power company. The weather helps them because people will tend to stay at home, where their replicants can more easily find them.”

“Without phones or any text-messaging devices,” Sammy said, “without the Internet, KBOW is the only efficient way to warn a lot of people.”

Ralph Nettles said, “I’ve got guns. I … collect.”

Sammy had always thought that the even-tempered, responsible, detail-obsessed engineer probably had a plan for every contingency from falling in love to Armageddon. Although he’d never heard Ralph say a word to suggest that he collected guns, he wasn’t surprised by this disclosure, and he suspected that the collection would prove to be extensive, though just short of a quantity that would justify the use of the word paranoid.

“I have enough to defend this place,” Ralph said. “My house is less than a mile away. I could be back here with arms and ammo to spare in … twenty minutes or so.”

Deucalion said, “I’ll go with you, and we’ll be much quicker than twenty.”

The front-door buzzer sounded. KBOW was locked to visitors after the reception lounge closed at five-thirty.

“That’ll be Transport Number One,” Deucalion said. “They think they have four zombies to collect. Wait here. I’ll deal with them.”

Sammy could never have imagined that the stunning revelation of the existence of the replicants and the sight of their alien innards would prove to be less startling than Deucalion’s departure from the room. He, Ralph, Mason, and even half-catatonic Burt all cried out in surprise, however, when Deucalion, turning away from them, did not merely walk out of the room but vanished from it.

Chapter 12

Two extra cushions had been added to one of the kitchen chairs to elevate five-year-old Chrissy Benedetto, who otherwise would have been barely chin-even with the top of the table.

The girl needed both hands to lift her mug of hot chocolate, and each time that she drank, her eyes widened as if with delight at the taste.

“You make it different,” she said.

“I use almond milk,” said Erika, who sat across the table from the child.

“Almond like that nut almond?”

“Yes. Exactly.”

“You must squeeze real hard to get milk out of one.”

“Other people do the squeezing. I just buy it at the store.”

“Can you get milk out of a peanut, too?”

“I don’t think so.”

“Can you get milk out of a ka-chew?”

“A cashew? No, I don’t think so.”

“You’re very pretty,” Chrissy said.

“Thank you, sweetie. You’re very pretty, too.”

“I was the Little Mermaid at preschool. You know, last time it was Halloween.”

“I’ll bet you charmed all the boys.”

Chrissy grimaced. “Boys. They all wanted to be scary. They were like ick.”

“Pretty is better than scary. Boys always figure that out, but it takes them a long time.”

“I’m gonna be a princess this year. Or maybe a pig like Olivia in those books.”

“I’d go with princess if I were you.”

“Well, Olivia is a pretty pig. And really funny. Anyway, Daddy says what you look like on the outside don’t matter. What matters is what you’re like inside. You make good different cookies, too.”

“I add pecans and coconut to the chocolate chips.”

“Can you teach my mommy?”

“Sure. And I could teach you, too.”

The last quality that Erika Five—now Swedenborg—should have discovered in herself was a talent for relating to and nurturing the young. Having been grown in a creation tank in the Hands of Mercy, in faraway New Orleans, having gained consciousness as an adult, she had neither parents from whom she might have learned tenderness nor a childhood during which she might have been the object of the gentle concern of others.

She was created to serve Victor, to submit to him without protest, and was programmed to hate humanity, especially the young. Even then, Victor envisioned a world that would one day have no children in it, a future in which sex had no purpose other than the relief of tension, a time when the very concept of the family would have been eradicated, when the members of the posthuman New Race owed allegiance not to one another, not to any country or to God, but only to Victor.

“Mommy’s in the city buying me new teddy bears,” Chrissy said.

That was what Michael told her. In fact, her mother was dead.

“That stupid pretend mommy tore up my teddy bears.”

The pretend mommy was the Communitarian that replaced the real Denise Benedetto. Michael had rescued Chrissy, and Carson had but moments later killed the replicant.

“Where did that pretend mommy come from, anyway?” Chrissy asked.

She seemed as fragile as a Lladró porcelain. The girl’s trusting nature and her vulnerable heart brought Erika close to tears, but she repressed them.

“Well, honey, maybe it’s like bad witches sometimes in fairy tales. You know, sometimes with just a spell, they make themselves look like other people.”

“Pretend mommy was a bad witch?”

“Maybe. But pretend mommy is gone now and never coming back.”

“Where did she go?”

“I hear they threw her in a cauldron of poison that she herself was brewing to use on other people.”

Chrissy’s eyes widened without benefit of hot chocolate. “That’s so cool.”

“She tried to turn herself into a flock of bats and fly out of the cauldron to freedom,” Erika said, “but all the bats were still covered in the poison, and they just—poof!—turned into a cloud of mist and vanished forever.”

“That’s what should happen to bad witches.”

“And that’s what did happen. Poof!”

From the study, along the hallway and into the kitchen, came again the voice of Jocko in the throes of hacker excitement: “Boom, voom, zoom! Got me the puddin’, now bring me the pie!”

Putting down her cookie, Chrissy said, “Your little boy don’t sound like any little boy I ever heard.”

“No, he doesn’t. He’s very special.”

“Another plum, another plum, another plum for me! Jocko shakes the cyber tree! Ah ha-ha-ha, Ah ha-ha-ha-ha!”

“Can I meet him?”

“In just a little while, sweetheart. He’s doing his homework right now.”

“Boogers! Boogers! Boogers! BOOGERS! Okay, okay. Sooo … clip it, flip it, jip it, nip it, rip it, tip it, whip it, aaaannnd ZIP IT! Jocko is king of the world!”

Erika said, “You remember what you told me your daddy said about the outside and inside of a person?”

“Sure.”

“Well, Jocko is very pretty inside.”

“I hope he likes me.”

“Jocko likes everybody.”

Chrissy said, “Does he like to play teatime?”

“I’m sure he’d love to play teatime.”

“Boys usually don’t.”

“Jocko always wants to please. Honey, have you ever been afraid of something, then you discovered there was no reason to be afraid?”

Chrissy frowned, considering the question, then abruptly beamed. “Like dogs.”

“Were you afraid of dogs?”

“The big ones with big teeth. Big old Doofuss next door.”

“But then you got to know Doofuss better, huh?”

“He’s really all sweet inside.”

“And I’ll bet he doesn’t look scary anymore outside, either.”

“He’s cute now.” Her right arm shot up, and she waved her hand as if she were in a schoolroom and seeking the attention of the teacher.

“What is it, sweetheart?”

“The duke. I first saw the duke, he scared me.” The duke was what she called Deucalion. “But then he picked me up and he held me like you hold a baby and said close my eyes tight, and he magicked us from there to here, and he don’t scare me anymore.”

“You’re a good girl, Chrissy. And brave. Girls can be just as brave as boys. I’m proud of you.”

Along the hallway, from the study, came Jocko’s voice as he continued hacking: “Jocko spies the cake! Gonna cut him a slice! Then cut a slice twice! They bake, Jocko takes! Delicious digital data! Go, Jocko! Go, Jocko! Go, go, go, GO!”

Chapter 13

Rafael Jesus Jarmillo, chief of police, lived in a two-story American Victorian on Bruin Drive. The house featured gingerbread moldings along the eaves of the main roof and the porch roof, as well as around the windows and the doors. It was the kind of modest but well-detailed house that, back in the day, Hollywood routinely portrayed as the home of any reputable middle-class family like Andy Hardy and his dad the judge, before moviemakers decided that the middle class was nothing but a dangerous conspiracy of dim-witted, grasping, bigoted know-nothings whose residences in films should reveal their stupidity, ignorance, boring conformity, greed, racism, and fundamental festering evil.

Frost really liked the place.

He and Dagget had driven past the house hours earlier, in daylight. They knew that it was painted pale yellow with robin’s-egg-blue gingerbread, but at night, with no landscape lights, it appeared as colorless as the snow-covered ground on which it stood.

As he parked at the curb, Dagget said, “Wife, mother-in-law, and two kids. That right?”

“That’s what the background sheet said. No dog. No cat. A canary named Tweetie.”

Seen through the bare limbs of a tree, the second floor lay in darkness, but lamplight brightened every downstairs room. An oval of leaded and beveled glass in the front door sparkled like an immense jewel.

Frost didn’t usually find Victorian houses charming. Following Dagget along the walkway to the porch, through the snow, he decided this residence struck him as inviting primarily because it looked warm.

If there was such a thing as reincarnation, then in a previous life, Frost must have been a member of some loincloth-wearing tribe in a sultry equatorial jungle—or maybe a desert iguana that spent his days on sun-baked rocks. Deep in his bones and marrow, he seemed to carry a past-life memory of extreme heat that left him not merely especially vulnerable to this Montana chill but also aggrieved by it, offended, abused.

The irony of being born into the Frost family with an intense aversion to cold was not lost on him. The mysterious power who remained hidden behind the machinery of nature expressed His sense of humor in an infinite number of ways, and Frost found the world wonderfully amusing even when he was the butt of the joke.

Dagget rang the doorbell, and they could hear the chimes inside. When no one answered, he rang again.

The draperies were not closed over the windows, and Frost moved along the porch, checking out those rooms flush with warm light. He saw no one, but in the living room, evidence of recent violence caught his attention: an overturned needlepoint chair, a figured-bronze lamp that had been knocked off an end table, a ginger-jar lamp on which the pleated-silk shade had been knocked askew, and a cracked mirror above the fireplace.

After he called Dagget’s attention to these signs of a struggle, they went around to the back door, which featured four panes in the top, only half-covered by sheer curtains. On the kitchen floor lay scattered knives, a meat cleaver, a few pots and pans, and shattered dishes.

The door was locked. Dagget unzipped his ski jacket, drew his pistol, tapped the barrel hard against the glass, broke a pane, and reached inside to disengage the deadbolt.

The blanketed night and the thick falling snow muffled sound so much that Frost doubted a neighbor would have been alerted by the cracking of glass. He drew his pistol and followed Dagget into the kitchen, closing the door behind them.

The house was as silent as a dream of deafness.

Bracketing doorways, taking turns crossing thresholds, they searched the ground floor. By the time they arrived at last in the living room, they had found no one.

A cascade of sweet clear notes put an end to the creepy silence as Tweetie, in his cage, greeted them. In spite of the circumstances, Frost found the birdsong cheerful and even calming, perhaps because he was reminded of the parrots and other feathered denizens of the equatorial jungle in his past life.

“What neighborhood of Hell is this?” Dagget muttered.

Frost’s attention dropped from the bright yellow bird to a furry blue bedroom slipper lying beside the overturned needlepoint chair. He required a moment to realize that the footwear was not what had inspired Dagget’s question. Beyond the slipper lay a bare foot with toenails painted candy-apple red. A woman’s slender foot with well-formed toes and a delicate arch. Severed at the ankle.

Severed was not the right word because it implied a blade. The flesh and bone were neither clean-cut, as they might have been if the dismembering weapon were a razor-edged sword, nor ragged and splintered, as any kind of saw would have left them. The stump looked both glazed and finely pitted, as if dissolved but simultaneously cauterized by an acid.

Dagget settled on one knee beside that grisly object, to examine it closely. He spoke in a murmur: “It’s damn pale, isn’t it? Skin as white as plaster. No visible surface veins or arteries. The exposed flesh … it’s as pale as halibut. As if all the blood was sucked out of it.”

Not a drop of gore marred the carpet around the foot.

Leaning closer, Dagget said, “The flesh isn’t pitted exactly. It looks … as if it’s been chewed on by a million tiny teeth.”

“Don’t touch it,” Frost whispered.

“I don’t intend to,” Dagget assured him. “It’s evidence.”

Frost’s admonition had nothing to do with a concern about contaminating evidence. The foot looked so strange that he wondered if they could be contaminated by it.

Although Tweetie had most likely continued to sing, for a while Frost had not been aware of the canary. The trilling notes reclaimed his attention, but instead of being cheerful, as before, they sounded thin and shrill and bleak.

“What now?” Frost wondered.

“Upstairs.”

Leaving the living room through an archway, entering the foyer, they discovered part of a hand.

Chapter 14

As Teague took them on a quick tour of the house—the residence of Hank and Dolly Samples—he brought them up to speed regarding what happened at the country-music nightclub earlier in the evening. Considering his certainty about the extraterrestrial identity of their adversaries, Carson wondered how she and Michael would be able to convince these people that their interpretation of events was incorrect.