“I really, really don’t think this is a good idea, Ana.”
“It should be OK. You found out where they live. I’d like to see what it looks like. Just drive by, that’s all.”
Zimmer consulted his map. The light turned green. A truck behind him honked. He eased the car forward.
“I barely got started. I haven’t found out who they work for or what they want.”
“Mr. Aldridge said they’re very secretive. You probably would never find that out.”
“Maybe not. But I don’t see what could be learned from driving by where they live.”
“Well, for one thing, they seemed to come out of nowhere. At least now I’ll know where they started from. I’ll feel a little better about that.”
“Yeah, OK; if you say so.”
They were now in a residential area of Queens, one of the boroughs of New York City. Row houses had given way to two and three story houses set on small lots apart from their neighbors, often with narrow driveways between, not impressive, exactly, but undoubtedly expensive. Most looked in good repair. He turned at an intersection. They passed along a row of small businesses, with restaurants and mom and pop stores crowded down a street under a profusion of signs. An airplane thundered overhead on an approach to some nearby airport. He turned left and pulled to the curb.
“Let’s see,” he said, looking at the map again. “Umm...two more blocks and a right turn and that oughta be it. You’re sure you wanna do this?”
A minute later, he said, “OK. It’s 3127. Oughta be on the right.”
The house looked little different from those around it, perhaps a little larger. It was painted white and had two stories plus dormer windows. The first floor windows were barred, like some of the other houses on the block. They eased past.
“Drive around the block. Let’s do it again.”
Cars were parked all down the street, in the shade of curbside trees. On their second approach, she pointed to one of several vacant slots three or four houses short of their target but on the other side of the street. “Pull in here and stop. Let’s watch it a minute.”
They sat there.
“Yes, it does.”
“I bet they want it that way.”
“Let’s just sit here a minute.”
He killed the engine. They waited.
“I appreciate your help, Scott.”
“No problem. I’m glad to do it.”
“I’m sure those contracts were boring.”
“Well, yes, but the overall experience wasn’t bad. There were compensations.”
“Ianthe? What about her?
“She’s interesting, kind of a puzzle. There’s something about her....”
“What do you mean?”
“She’s so correct, so polite. But I got the feeling that there’s a lot going on underneath.”
“Oh. Well, that’s probably true. Believe it or not, I don’t know her that well myself. I left when she was little, and I’ve only seen her a half dozen times here, never for very long. Thomans tend to be formal around strangers anyway, but she seems a little extra reserved, I guess you would say.”
“Have you ever seen her open up?”
“Yes, I think so, once. She came to visit me at a resort about a year ago. I had her wear a simple disguise and we wandered around like regular people. That really delighted her. She had fun.”
“Hmm. In some ways she reminds me of you, but when I was there she acted sort of like the lady of the big house.
Even so, I got a few hints that there was another person behind that front.”
“Really? Like what?”
“Hello! What’s that?” He nodded his head. A man had come out of the house. He opened the front gate and stepped out. He had a cap and jacket on. He began walking in their direction but on his side of the street.
“That looks like one of the men who attacked me,” she whispered. “I think his name is Sascha something.”
“Hmm. So, we found the right place....”
The man was looking down the sidewalk ahead of him. He strolled past three houses and then turned and stepped into the street. He walked up to Darcy’s car window and stopped. She glanced at Zimmer, pressed the button, and rolled her window down halfway.
“My employer would like speak with you, please,” he said, his Slavic accent thick. “Ten minutes, at most.”
“Oh!” She sat back and thought a second. “All right.” She rolled the window back up and looked at Zimmer. “If I’m not back in fifteen minutes, call the police.”
“I wouldn’t do that. Let’s just get out of....” But it was too late. She had opened the door and stepped out. He watched her accompany the man back across the street, down the sidewalk, in the gate, and up to the door of the house. The man opened the door for her and she went in. He sighed and patted his shirt to check that he actually did have his cell phone. He didn’t like this at all.
Inside the front door was a short hallway with several doors, all closed. The man led her to the one at the end and opened it for her. She stepped through. To her surprise she found herself in a large room totally devoid of furniture. It too had several doors, all closed, and a high ceiling. Opposite there was a balcony with a railing. The door behind her clicked shut—Sascha had evidently backed out, leaving her alone.
As she turned to examine the room, another door opened in the center of the balcony up above. A man stepped to the railing and looked down at her. He was somewhere in his fifties, heavy but not fat, wearing a gray suit and red tie. His head was bald and the skin on his face was smooth and pink.
“Ms. Darcy, I presume?” he said. As had Sascha, he spoke with a pronounced accent.
“Yes, sir. And you are?”
“My name is not important, Ms. Darcy.”
“You know my name. It is basic manners for me to know yours.”
“It is; I grant you that. My apologies. I am Arkady Cherenkov, madam.”
“You appear to have an interest in me, Mr. Cherenkov. Why?”
“You have no idea?”
“No sir, none.”
“You surprise me, madam. You are interfering in my employer’s business affairs. I cannot believe that you are not aware of that. Indeed, he has ordered me to see that you stop.”
“How can I stop something I am unaware of doing?”
“A good question, madam, but an irrelevant question. As it happens, there is a more recent matter which renders that one moot.”
She said nothing. Finally, he spoke again.
“You have damaged some of my property, madam, two assets to be precise. Both have required repair and retraining, thanks to you. Indeed, one may never recover from the retraining, but that is not your affair. Nevertheless, I must insist on a measure of restitution. Fortunately for me, that restitution coincides with my employer’s wishes as well.”
He clapped his hands twice, sharply. A door beneath him and opposite her opened. “Meet Grigor, Ms. Darcy. Grigor is in charge of our training and retraining.”
A man stepped out, an enormous man, a half head taller than Matt and probably twice his weight, with very short dark hair and wearing a tank top that revealed the shoulders and arms of a weightlifter. He moved deliberately, balanced and graceful. Three paces into the room he stopped, casually crossing his arms, and studied her with cold eyes. His biceps were the size of her thighs.
“Mr. Cherenkov, if I am not out of this house in three minutes, the police will be called here.”
“Aha. Perhaps, Ms. Darcy, you should not be too hasty about that.”
He opened the door behind him. Two people emerged: a dazed Scott Zimmer, blood dripping from a cut on his cheek, being pushed by her old acquaintance Sascha. Zimmer glanced at her and shook his head, either in regret or to signal that he was all right; she couldn’t tell. Sascha shoved him down to one end of the balcony while pointing a pistol at him.
Cherenkov closed the door and turned to Darcy. “It is bad for training to be interrupted, do you not agree? Now I think we may proceed without interruption.”
He began speaking in Russian. She couldn’t catch every word, but Russian was a distant cousin of Luvit, and in her work with Dr. Sledd in comparative linguistics she had studied it as well as Polish and Czech. She could follow what he was saying. Basically, he was telling Grigor to beat her to death.
The man unfolded his arms and stepped toward her. He moved like a cat, in perfect control at every moment. She tried the door behind her. It was locked. Turning, she backed away from the approaching giant.
He tried to trap her in a corner but she darted around him to the center of the room. She was certain she was much faster than he was...but just how fast was he? He came at her again and again she slipped around him. The fourth time he anticipated and stepped to his left as she went by, directing a slice at her chest. She evaded it easily, but even so she felt the breeze as his arm passed. He was much faster than his size would indicate.
They repeated the same basic maneuver a dozen times or more until it became monotonous. The man showed no impatience, advancing time after time. She didn’t dare continue the same pattern indefinitely. He might be anticipating just such a mistake, waiting to catch her off guard. His face remained emotionless, implacable.
After evading him for what seemed ten minutes, it dawned on her that the real problem was that the man on the balcony might become impatient. She could do this for hours, but if Cherenkov grew tired of watching their lethal ballet he might simply tell Sascha to shoot her.
Poor Scott! His instinct had been exactly correct. Hers had been wrong. They should have driven away. She had to do something.
On her next duck by him she changed direction suddenly, zipped by his chest, and popped him smartly in one eye with a knuckle. She darted out of range of his hands in the next fraction of a second, but not before his fingers ripped two buttons off her blouse. His head jerked back and a hint of anger crossed his face. He wiped the wounded eye several times with the back of one hand, glaring at her with the unaffected one. The pain that had to have caused would have convinced practically anyone to find something else to do, but Grigor merely shook it off and kept advancing.
Reducing him to monocular vision might have helped a little but it was becoming clearer every second: she was in serious trouble.
Matt was at his desk in the corner of the living room paying bills with the help of Foosh, sleeping on a pile of papers at his left elbow. From time to time he’d pull one out from under the cat or slide one back underneath. Foosh tolerated this, showing only by irregular breathing or twitching his tail that he even noticed. He was punching numbers into the calculator when he became aware that Julio was standing at his side, looking unusually somber.
“Hey there, mijo. What’s up?”
Julio looked at the floor.
“I did a bad thing, Dad. I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to!”
Matt tossed his pencil down and studied his son. He looked about to cry.
“Pos, mijo...¿Qué hiciste?” (“Well son, what did you do?”)
“I scratched your truck, Dad.”
“You did? Well, it already has a few scratches, son. A pickup truck is no damn good unless it has a few scratches. Is it a big scratch?”
“Kinda big. I didn’t mean to, Dad!”
Julio was not only contrite, his t-shirt was only half tucked in and he was wringing his little hands. He looked like a lost waif in a Disney movie.
“Oh, jeez. Well, let’s go look at it.”
Julio led him outside. Dr. David Jameson, the friendly university physicist who tutored the twins, was leaning against the truck. Young and athletic for a professor, he unfolded his arms as they approached.
“So, you told him, huh?”
“I don’t see a scratch,” said Matt.
“Other side, Dad.”
He walked around the vehicle. The far side had a “scratch” that was impossible to miss, actually a furrow, almost a rip, from low on the rear quarter panel along the bed to the driver side door where it became a puncture and stopped.
“Holy crap!” blurted Matt. “Did you back it into a steel post?”
Julio’s face clouded up and tears began to roll down his cheeks.
“He wasn’t in the truck, Matt,” said Jameson. They were on a first-name basis. “It was parked right where you see it.”
“Good God, son! How the hell did you manage to do that?”
Jameson answered for him.
“It was an unintended consequence of a scientific trial. Except for that, it was a complete success. I suppose you could call it a smashing success. Or maybe a ripping success.”
Jameson actually had a twinkle in his eye.
“OK,” said Matt, taking a breath. “How’d he do it? Tell me.”
“We’ve been studying robotics for a couple months. You probably knew that. Your son wanted to build a robotic vehicle. That’s it over there.”
He nodded to his left. Under a tree sat a wheeled vehicle half the size of a riding lawnmower. Indeed, it seemed to have the big, knobby tires of a riding lawnmower. It looked like an assembly of junk, but then there were no body panels hiding its interior parts, which seemed to consist of electric motors, batteries, wires, steering components, and other unidentifiable hardware. Jameson continued.
“Your son designed and built all that. But that’s not the most remarkable part. He also designed the logic program that runs it without human input, and the sensors that tell it where it is and what to do. The propulsion system is completely novel as far as I know. The power circuits are exceptionally efficient. Just imagine the force it needed to make that scratch! The vehicle senses what is in front of it quite well...but, as we now know, not what is next to it. That’ll have to be a subsequent modification. Right, Julio?”
Julio still looked overwhelmed. He said nothing in reply. Jameson went on.
“That this vehicle was created by a seven year old, even with my guidance, is incredible. What torque it had to have to do all that damage! As a science project it would probably win him a full college scholarship. That is, once he makes a few adjustments, of course.
“A college scholarship,” he added, his eyes still twinkling, “should more than offset what it’ll cost to repair your truck.”
Matt reviewed the scene: the wounded truck, his son’s machine of devastation, Jameson trying not to smile, and Julio himself, hands jammed in his pockets, looking at nothing in particular. He checked his watch.
“Yeah, maybe. It might even cover the cost of a rent-a-car while this thing gets fixed.” He sighed. “I reckon that’s enough science for one day, don’t you, son? You make the salad tonight, mijo. And clean up afterwards, and fix that death tractor of yours so it doesn’t trash anything valuable or run over a dog. I’ll handle the insurance company. Deal?”
Julio nodded at the ground.
“All right. Good.” He winked at Jameson as he laid a hand on Julio’s shoulder. “Thanks, Dave...I guess. See you next week, OK? C’mon, son. Let’s go lick our wounds.”