March 25 2006
It was after store hours at the mall, but the complex housed a Cineplex that kept the concourse open past midnight on weekends. Lynch window-shopped the closed storefronts while he tried to spot Anna in the crowd. He wore a wool pea coat to cover his shoulder holster. The ear bud of the com unit was hard to see anyway, but he'd put on a stocking cap and pulled it down over his ears. He leaned against a display window and brought the tiny microphone to his lips. "Are you here?"
[Yes. You look comically suspicious like that. How many merchant sailors do you see in Arizona?]
"Where are you?"
[Very near. Keep your hand down. Wander around in the food court; let me see if you've got a tail.]
He moved towards the food court outside the theaters; many of the vendors were still open, and a crowd nearly filled the tables. He tried to spot a tail, and her, while appearing to be wandering aimlessly, looking at nothing in particular.
He glanced at one of the tables and nearly broke his stride. A girl was sitting in a chair backed well away from her table, her face hidden as she bent over, fiddling with the strap on her thick-soled, high-heeled shoe; her straight black hair almost touched the floor. Her arms were bare and the color of coffee with extra cream. What the hell is Sarah doing here? Then she straightened and pulled her hair back, and he saw he was mistaken. The coloration was the same, as were the broad facial features common to many Native American tribes. But this girl had a slightly different nose; her eyes were less slanted, and different from Sarah's color: an unusual reddish brown that made him think of banked fires. She was wearing a tight little red dress with a slit up the side that exposed the entire length of her legs to her hips, and gave him a glimpse of something brief and black underneath; its neckline plunged almost to her navel, showcasing small but beautifully-formed breasts. Surrounded by working-class moviegoers, she looked as eye-catching and out of place as a Christmas ornament in an egg carton. Seems like an odd place to meet a john.
She glanced up at him and gave him the sort of brief smile one gives a stranger. When he didn't respond, her eyes slid off him and she dug a brush out of her purse and began running it through her hair, tossing her head around and drawing the eye of every male in the room. Pays to advertise. She was a sexy little package, but she wasn't one of his girls. He looked elsewhere.
He spotted a kid in skater attire idling among the tables. A ball cap perched sideways on his head, from which a few strands of light blond hair escaped. He wore sunglasses indoors hours after sunset, and full-finger leather gloves that would hide half-inch nails. The loose bulky clothing would conceal a slender girl's figure. The boy was alone, unusual for a teenager; he didn't seek out any of the kids at the tables either. Lynch marked him as a possible and moved on.
[You have a tail. Don't respond, just keep playing tourist. Let's see if there's another.]
He wandered along the row of food vendors. A thought struck him, and he doubled back to the start of the row, as if he were having trouble making up his mind.
One of the food shops had a large grill built against the back wall. The kid at the grilling station never turned, but was clearly a young girl. The hair in the opening at the back of her uniform cap was light blonde. Does she have some kind of resolution software that makes a clear image out of the blurry reflection of the stainless-steel wall?
He looked up the two-story wall of the concourse, to a very short row of mirrored glass panels that he was sure were second-story office windows overlooking the food court. She wouldn't have to be down here at all.
[Spotted another; I think that's it. Looks like you've been moving too fast for them to set up a proper net. Grab a bite and sit down for a few minutes. You look tired, love.]
He picked up a coffee and stale Danish from the kiosk near the center of the court, and sat at a nearby table. The salesgirl had averted her eyes as she'd served him. The scars; even with an eye patch, they still make me a walking freak show. It's a wonder I can move anywhere unremarked. I should have done something about them years ago. Then he remembered Anna stroking them, tracing the deep furrows with fingertips so small they slipped inside to the bottom, reaching scar tissue he couldn't touch with his own hands. It had made him shiver.
[Are you okay? Blow on your coffee if everything's okay.]
He lifted the mug to his lips, blew, and took a sip. The mic was between the knuckles of his first two fingers. "What's happening?" His lips barely moved.
[I'm about to put away your two tails. I hope they're not friends.]
"Doubtful. Too much new blood at the Shop. My friends are all too senior for this crap."
[One down… Just have to get them out of sight long enough for us to clear the lot.]
"I should have been taking you along on trips. There were lots of times you'd have come in handy."
[And who would have mopped the floors and kept the kids from running with scissors? Two down. Finish your snack, and head for the south exit. I may not be there yet, so wait.]
He forced himself to finish the coffee, but left the pastry. When he stepped through the glass doors covering the south exit and onto the sidewalk, he saw a black van sat idling at the curb. There was no one behind the wheel. He stayed away from it, leery of the big side door, behind which a half dozen men might be waiting.
He heard the mall door behind him slam open. He turned, reaching under his coat. It was the skater kid, with something in his hand. The van door slid aside, revealing several other teens similarly dressed. Running, the skater kid jumped into the van and the others laughed as the door slid shut and one of them took the wheel and drove away quickly. Shoplifter or purse snatcher, is all.
Immediately, a small red convertible pulled up, its top open to the night air. It was the girl in the red dress. She smiled. "Hey, sailor," she said in Anna's voice. "Looking for a date?"
She cocked an eyebrow at him. He walked around and got in. As the car pulled away from the curb, he looked her up and down. "This isn't the kind of 'girl stuff' I was expecting."
"Just a disguise. Sarah picked out the dress. I accessorized it, with some recommendations from my shopgirl friend." She turned to him, smiling. "You like?"
"It's different. And very sexy. But it breaks every rule of fieldcraft. Every man in the place was staring at you."
"All but three. They were disciplined men, looking for someone else, someone more unobtrusive, and didn't give me a second look. Made your tails easy to spot."
He remembered how she'd sat with her back to the wall, turning her head this way and that as she brushed her hair. A perfect way to check all around the room without looking suspicious. "Huh. Well, I'm looking now. This isn't permanent, is it?"
"It could be," she said slowly, "if you want. The hair's a wig, of course, but it's attached very securely. You'd have to work at it to dislodge it."
"Uh, let me think on that. Playing dress up can be a fun change, but I'm used to you the other way."
"I'm sure you could get used to this, if you had to." The breeze mostly passed over the windshield without entering the car. She'd tied her hair back with a scarf that matched the dress, and the cool wind hardly moved it at all. The red-brown eyes gazed at him with an open expression. "I wouldn't mind. No matter how I look, I'm still me."
Change the subject. "Where are we headed?"
"Prescott, mostly by two-lane roads. Then north to Ash Fork, where we pick up old US Sixty-six for a long loop north. The trip will take an extra day, but between the military bases, the wildlife refuges, the national parks, and the mountains, there aren't many routes home that avoid the interstate system. I took a more direct route skirting the Mexican border to get here on time, but I don't think we should take the same way back. I hope you're not in a hurry to get home." She glanced at him. "What is it?"
He chuckled softly. "I'm headed down Route Sixty-six with a beautiful girl in a red convertible. No, I don't mind an extra day. I'm living the dream." His fingers reached under her hair to touch the back of her neck. "Find a hotel around Ash Fork, before we head over the mountains."
She smiled without taking her eyes off the road. They turned onto a divided four-lane headed northwest. "What have you got in mind?"
"Spending our first night together." He felt a rising excitement as he smiled at her. "And penetrating your disguise."
"Easier than I thought." He gently ran a hand along her bare upper arm as she snuggled tight against him in the hotel bed. The dress and undergarments lay on a chair nearby.
"I wasn't exactly resisting."
His hand left her arm and rested on her hip. "Penetrating your disguise, I mean." His fingers curled around the projection in the front of her hip. Maybe it really is her pelvis, just not bone. "This is an unusual color combination. Usually it's the other way around."
"I wasn't about to dye anything. I wasn't sure it would come out, for one thing. Besides, this disguise was never intended to pass close examination, just hide my identity in public and draw some attention." She tucked long strands of raven hair behind her ear and looked up at him. "So, how did it feel, this 'playing dress up'?"
"Fun, once we got rolling. Uncomfortable at first. It felt like cheating on my wife."
"Your wife has been dead for years, Jack. Surely-"
"I'm talking about the second one." He cupped her buttocks in his hand and snugged her up against his thigh. "The little blonde I married Wednesday night." He smiled down into her wide-open eyes. "You want a ceremony?"
She threw a leg across him. "Already had one."
"A ring, then. I'll buy you a rock you can see from orbit, if you want it."
"I have my rock right here. A foundation stone." Her hand slid down his belly, and a little farther. "I'm good on wedding presents, too." She snugged her head into his neck. "I love you, Jack."
"Huh." The hand that had been stroking her hip stilled. "I, uh, I told my wife I loved her all the time. It didn't stop me from being a selfish bastard, and it didn't stop her from leaving me. But, you know, I-"
Her fingers pressed firmly against his lips. "Stop. Keep your superstition. I don't need you to speak the Word."
"Have you forgotten who you're talking to, who you're lying with?" She touched his face. "Pupil dilation and eye movement. Voice stress patterns. Skin temperature and conductivity. Capillary action." Her hand slid down his chest. "Heart and pulse rate. Breathing and blood pressure. Involuntary muscle twitches, body language. Chemical emissions." Her hand moved in a slow circle in the center of his chest. "I can even use my body language to convey subliminal messages, to query your systems and get a response."
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying that you and I have conversations all the time, that you're not even aware of." Delicately, her fingers traced the scars over his forehead. "And you tell me you love me whenever you're near me."
An hour later, she whispered, "How are you doing this to me?"
He'd been about to doze off; he opened his eyes. "I think the 'doing' is kind of reciprocal."
She was curled up against his hip with her head on his stomach. She stroked the inside of his thigh, and he felt himself stirring again. "You know what I mean. I didn't think this was possible before we did it. How are you doing it? How are you getting me to do it? What couldn't you tell me before? Surely I've had enough experience to understand an explanation now."
He huffed softly, a one-breath laugh. "Huh. You think I've got a secret to tell you?"
"Course I do. Don't you think I'm ready yet?" She swung a leg over and lay full length on him, the top of her head tucked under his chin. "Do I need more practice?"
He worked his hand under the thick hair to the back of her neck. "We're not practicing. This is what it is. And I don't understand it any better than you do. No one does."
"How can that be? It's hardwired into you. You must understand it." The hands that had been caressing his shoulders stilled. "Could you talk about it with me if I was a real girl? But then, I don't suppose you'd have to."
He put his arms around her and pulled her up until they were eye to eye. "It wouldn't make any difference. You called lovemaking a Mystery, remember? It's a mystery to everyone. What's the name of your favorite music album?"
"Until Bobby records a CD? Sara Maclaclan, Fumbling Toward Ecstasy… oh."
He rubbed the back of her neck. "'Real girl,' huh? I thought we settled that."
"I was just fishing." She slid out of bed.
He caught her wrist. "Where are you going?"
"To get you a glass of water. You're dehydrated."
"Stay here. I don't want it. I want you."
She looked down at his hand on her wrist. "You know, you've been manhandling me a lot lately. Do you get like this with every woman you have sex with?"
"No." He loosened his grip. But she clasped his fingers around her wrist again with the other hand.
"Good. That makes me feel special. I like being handled by this man. Very much." She lowered her lashes. "You know you can't hurt me, and I know you'd never want to. I'm not some fragile little girl. You can be as rough with me as you like."
"Anna… are you turning kinky on me?"
Very carefully, she said, "Define 'kinky.'"
Another hour later, he said, "It's a two-way street, you know." He touched his fingertips to his ruined face. "You don't have to put up with this. There are surgeons who can make all this disappear, even put in an eye to match the right one."
"Why would I want both sides of your face the same? I think your face is a perfect reflection of your dual nature." She covered the scarred side with her right hand. "The adventurer, the poet, the scholar. The lover of fine things, who made me a fine thing worthy of love. The sensualist who woke passions in me I didn't know existed."
She removed her hand and placed her left over the unscarred half, splitting her fingers to leave his eye uncovered. "The fearsome warrior. The battle hardened leader of men who knows the price of victory and is prepared to pay it, the man of iron will and unyielding purpose who won't be denied. With this man at my side, I could almost pity my enemies." She cradled his face in her hands. "One of them holds my very heart, my source; the other shaped my soul. How could I bear to lose either of them?"
Another hour went by. They wrestled, laughing, tangling their legs in the twisted sheets. She giggled as he grabbed her arms, pinning them above her head as he straddled her. Her legs kicked at him ineffectually. It was a total sham; they both knew she could have thrown him through the wall into the next room. But it didn't matter. He was laughing too.
He brought his head down, as if to take a kiss. She grinned and whipped her head to the side, exposing his real target. His lips found the side of her neck where it joined her shoulder, and she melted as he nuzzled her.
"Mmmm." Her eyes closed softly, then opened again as he drew back. "What's wrong?"
"The pads in your nose and cheeks. How much trouble to take them out?"
"None." He watched her nose and cheekbones narrow until her regular features lay clear under the dark complexion.
"You never told me you could do that."
"I didn't know, until I started thinking about disguising myself."
"Huh. What about the contacts?" Shouldn't have let her wear them to bed; it's bad for the eyes.
Flick. Her eyes were their regular grayish blue.
"Liquid crystal, I think. I have a default setting, like my voice, but I can change any time. Watch this. Guess who?" The gray in her eyes faded as the blue tint lightened.
The blue acquired a rosy tinge, became a deep violet.
"Roxanne. Of course."
They brightened to an almost luminous green.
Suddenly as a light going out, they turned brown, so dark the pupils almost disappeared.
They lightened slightly, to the color of milk chocolate.
Their color warmed as if they'd caught fire, regaining their reddish tinge.
"I think so too."
"But nobody I know."
She smiled up at him. "Man, do you never look in a mirror?"
Some time later, he woke to soft light leaking in from around the curtains. She still lay beside him, her chin propped on her forearm, looking straight into his eyes. "Good morning. You know how unusual your sleep patterns are?"
"Yes. Ever since I manifested."
"An hour enough sleep, or shall we wait to hit the road?"
"An hour? What time is it?"
"Get me to the shower. We'll be on the road by six-thirty." Did we really do it four times last night? When it dropped in the pot at the tower, I'd got four hours' sleep out of forty-eight. From the tower to this hotel room, none out of thirty. I should have hit this bed like a felled tree. Instead, I spent all night trying to satisfy a woman who's literally inexhaustible. I may fall asleep in the shower. And if she follows me in there, we'll do it again before we leave. He felt her fingers playing with the hair on his belly. Lord, I'm almost sixty; if I'm going to live through this marriage, I'd better throttle back. He put a finger under her chin. "You could use one too. Want to scrub my back?" Tomorrow.
He watched her pull up to the front entrance while he was checking out. The top was up, but he could see her through the windshield well enough to see she was still wearing the wig. She looked over the tops of her sunglasses as he came out the hotel doors, and pushed open the passenger door for him. He dropped in, took one look at her and said, "What the hell are you wearing?"
She looked down at the short pleated skirt and middy top as if noticing them for the first time. "This? Roxanne picked it out for me. I'm sure it suits her better, but I wanted to wear it at least once before I give it to her."
"It makes you look sixteen years old. Actually, it makes you look like a naughty schoolgirl. I'm glad you weren't wearing it when we checked in. Now I really feel like a cradle robber."
"Ha. Want me to drop the top? On the car, I mean."
"Very much. Might keep me awake."
"Sleep. You know you'll wake if you need to." The car rolled out of the drive and took to the highway as the ragtop folded back, flooding the passenger compartment with early morning sunshine. The car cast a long shadow on the road ahead. "If you go offline now, maybe you'll be awake when the road starts winding through the mountains."
A blast from an air horn almost in his ear nearly shot him out of his seat. They were passing a semi; the driver looked down and grinned, giving him a thumbs-up, and then making a fanning motion as they rolled past. Anna tugged her skirt back down one-handed. "Drat. The wind catches this just right sometimes, and blows it all the way up to my hips. Maybe I should have worn something else. Or at least packed some more modest underwear. But I was thinking of you at the time."
The sun was high overhead. He checked his watch. "It's noon? Where are we?"
"On a short stretch of I-10 that crosses the Colorado. We're in California. From here, we swing south through Imperial Valley and one last mountain pass, then take the descent to Escondido. Maybe two and a half hours." She looked at him. "Jack, you seem tireder than when you went to sleep. Are you okay?"
He rubbed grit from his eyes. "Yeah. I've been through this before. I haven't had a night's worth of Zs in a week. Go without long enough, your body almost forgets sleep. Six hours just reminded it what it's been missing."
"You could have got more last night." She smiled at the windshield.
"I got more than I bargained for, just not sleep. No small job, trying to keep up with a nuclear-powered nymphomaniac."
"That's not correct." She swung off the interstate onto a two-lane road headed south. "A woman who's a nymphomaniac is addicted to sex. It's you I can't get enough of." She reached for his hand. "Should I put you to bed with a glass of warm milk tonight? Let you catch up some?" She gave it a quick squeeze. "You poor thing! You haven't had a bite since we met up, except for that pastry in the mall. Do you want to stop? I need to change anyway."
"Why bother? We're almost home."
"That's why I need to change."
He shook his head. "I've created a monster. Are you really the same girl who had six identical outfits in her closet?"
"Yes. And I once wore the same outfit for six years without taking it off. Your point?"
"Why put on another outfit to come home in?"
"I have a promise to keep."
Sarah sat cross-legged on the floor of the conversation area of the great room, reading with her back propped against the end of one of the couches. Although the outside temperature was in the seventies, she had a blaze going in the gas fireplace. Not only did the fire provide her with some badly-needed spiritual comfort; the heat gave the others an excuse to leave her alone, and gave her a reason for her isolation that she could accept.
That didn't mean she was enjoying the solitude. She was a private person, and often felt more comfortable alone than in company. But being shunned by her friends grated. Okay. Maybe I went a little overboard about the photographs. But it was just the last straw. That little facsimile human has been treating me like a threat to be dealt with since I first moved in. She's made me look like an ingrate and an intransigent bitch in front of the others. Now she's got her claws in the master of the house: the final authority, the last male around here I could count on to be halfway impartial in a dispute between us. How can I ever get a fair hearing now? She's bribing the judge. She's bribing them all, with cookies and clean laundry and sunny smiles. And behind it all, a purpose as cold as any other machine's.
The couch moved slightly as someone dropped into it. A lock of copper hair fell over the arm of the sofa onto her shoulder. She didn't move it. She acted as if she didn't notice her visitor, as if they were just two individuals sharing space. She heard a page turn. The two of them turned pages, reading, or, in her case, pretending to, letting the silence stretch.
"You're wrong about her, you know."
She took a deep breath. "No, I'm not. Her skill at acting human doesn't refute my position, Caitlin. It reinforces it." She put down her book. "If she'd whir and clank a little, the act would be easier to tolerate. But she's too good. Don't you see? She was built to imitate us perfectly, programmed for it. It's not free will. She's just following orders. We don't really mean anything to her; she could just as easily have been programmed to hate us all, and she'd do it just as skillfully. You're the computer whiz. You know what I'm talking about."
"Yes," Caitlin said slowly, "I am the computer whiz. And if she can convince me she's more than a machine, why can't she convince you? And why is this coming to a head now, after sharing a roof with her for two years?"
She couldn't come up with a good answer. It just seemed to her that a crisis was brewing, and they couldn't afford to pretend with Anna any longer. "Caitlin. What's the weak spot in her mimicry program? What's the part of being human she can't seem to get right?"
"Sarah, I don't even think of it as programming anymore. At least, not the way you mean it."
"Resentment. Irritation. Just plain bitchiness. She never gets in a mood she has to apologize for later. If something blocks her path or doesn't go her way, she just backs up, assigns new values to the variables, runs the equations again, and changes tack. Sometimes you can see it, almost see her shifting gears."
"In the mall. Don't tell me her reactions were normal. You've been in tight spots with Lynch. Did he act like that? As if he was playing a marvelous game?"
"It ties in. I don't know how, but it does." Her thoughts tumbled along, taking her mouth with them. "That bedroom. Yes, she put a lot of thought and effort into it. I had no idea she'd learned so much about me, and it scares me. Why did she do it, Caitlin? Not because she likes me. It was an attempt to buy my loyalty, or at least my silence. She doesn't want me reminding the rest of you that she's different. She-"
"No." Caitlin didn't shout, but her voice filled the big room nonetheless. "She doesn't need to silence you, Sarah. Don't you see? You can talk all you want about her. We're not listening." Caitlin swung her legs off the couch. "We've already made up our minds. Her tears are real. Her smiles are real. We want her to be real, Sarah." She rose to leave. "I don't forget what she is. But I think I see her more clearly than you."
"Hey, dude and dudettes!" Eddie stood at the open back door, shouting down the hall. "L-Man's coming in the gate."
Caitlin gave her a glance. "Anna too?"
"He's with a girl, but it's not Anna. Sarah's got sisters, right?"
Sudden fear gripped her. Rachel? Elisabeth? What would they be doing here? Is Mother all right? Grandmother? She rushed down the hallway, matching Caitlin stride for stride in her hurry.
Bobby came down the back stairs three at a time to join them as they reached the door. The three of them spilled through the doorway, past Eddie and Roxanne, in time to see a red two-seater convertible pull into one of the empty garage bays. She got a glimpse of straight black hair cascading over the back of the driver's seat, bound by a red scarf. She almost shook with relief. Wrong color; not them.
Lynch got out of the passenger side and walked around to the driver's door. He opened it and extended a hand. The woman took it and swung her deeply tanned legs out, one at a time.
"Gawd. She's…." Roxanne stood blinking at her shoulder, unable to finish. Bobby whistled softly. Eddie snapped his fingers and made a sound low in his throat.
The woman was wearing a red dress so short, her black lace panties were an utter necessity that forced a double-take as she planted her thick-soled sandals on the concrete. She flowed upward from the seat and stood gracefully, her hand still in Lynch's, feather-light. She handed her key to him, as one accustomed to small services from men, and stood with one hand on her hip as he opened the trunk and pulled out a trio of bags. She smiled at him in thanks as he closed the trunk, then turned towards the house, leading the way as if she owned the place. Her hips rolled enticingly as she walked, and the slits up the sides of her dress opened at every step, exposing her to the hips without showing the strings of her black panties. Her nipples bobbed under the shimmering fabric as each foot touched the concrete. She smiled invitingly at each of the gawking boys in turn.
"Oh my God. He's brought home a prostitute." A whirl of emotions went through her: surprise at Lynch's shocking breach of security and manners; a touch of unease as she noted that the woman was clearly a Native American; a certain dark satisfaction that he had tired of his mechanical toy so soon. "What will his little-"
Then she recognized the dress.
Roxanne finally found her voice and finished her statement. "She's you."
"Hi, guys," the woman said in Anna's voice as she glided up. "We're home." She smiled faintly at Sarah and tucked her hair behind her ear with her middle two fingertips, an almost absent gesture that Sarah recognized from the mirror. The clunky shoes made the two of them the same height, letting Anna's eyes, now brown, meet hers levelly. The eyes were also hooded and totally lacking humor. "Darling, you were so right. In this outfit, I had the eye and the crotch of every man I saw. If I'd been what I looked like, I could have made a fortune last night. Of course, as soon as you held it up in the store, I knew it was just like the walk I learned from you. The dress works so much better when you're wearing it." Sarah couldn't find a word of reply as Anna sashayed past her into the house, leaving them all staring after.
"It appears to me," Caitlin said quietly behind her, "she's learned to express resentment, Sarah. Wouldn't you agree?"