Zoey never heard Kowalski coming.
It took him all of two seconds to close the distance, and one second to wrench the gun from her hand, ripping the skin from her index finger in the process. In one continuous, practiced motion he then twisted her arm and shoved her to the floor, pressing a boot to her back. Zoey’s face was mashed painfully into the carpet of gold coins. She noted that the one right next to her eyeball had been minted in 1918.
“Hello there,” said the voice of Zoey’s biological father from inside the vault. She craned her head around just in time to see Will walk through the man. When Arthur Livingston was alive, he had sure loved his holograms. Will was looking around the vault, as if hoping something else was hiding in one of the clearly empty corners. He accidentally kicked the single, sad coin across the floor, then picked it up, staring at it as if hoping he could make it start multiplying with the power of wishful thinking.
“If this recording is playing, then I am either talking to Zoey Ashe, my daughter by the lovely Melinda Ashe, or to a person or group of people who have found a way to subvert the security of one of the world’s finest vaults. If it is the latter, you should know that I admire your skills, and such a breach in fact entitles the estate to a full refund from the Fisk Vault Corporation. But you will be otherwise disappointed with the contents you have worked so hard to gain access to—as you can see, this vault contains but a single coin, one which cannot even be redeemed as legal tender, whose significance will be apparent only to those closest to me. As for the purpose of this recording, well, I assume by now there is some anxiety over the fact that I did not leave behind a Last Will and Testament. But I have, and you are watching it. From here on out, I am going to address this message to my daughter, and only offspring that I know about, Zoey Ashe. Zoey, I am going to begin with a phrase I have always wanted to use: if you are watching this, it means I am already dead.
“Hopefully I died in my sleep, after a nice evening with a lovely lady, and hopefully I did not foul the bed at the moment I expired. But, if I have assessed the situation correctly, then that is not how I passed. I have, instead, died in some violent manner before my time, at the hands of brutal and greedy men. If so, then you should know that this event is not wholly unexpected and in fact is the reason why I am making this recording now, though I am only fifty-eight and have been told I am in perfect health. As such, my first wish is that my killers be found, and that this hologram projector be placed outside of their bedroom window at night so that they will think they are being haunted. But I digress.
“Zoey, about six years ago I got drunk one night and started doing what men like me do when we get drunk and lonely, which is hunt around social-networking Web sites to track down old girlfriends. There I found your mother and all of her proud photos of you. Little Zoey Ashe, my daughter, turning into a woman. I saw you smiling into the camera and striking poses, your mother’s hips and my eyes. I saw birthday parties in tiny apartments and run-down trailers, you smiling over store-bought cakes and generic soda, your mom in the background, with a different boyfriend each time. Three different stepfathers, if I’m counting right. So, I made some drunken phone calls and, full of myself as I often was, I decided I would be a hero to little Zoey. On a whim, I bought you a hundred-thousand-dollar luxury car, and paid the dealership to deliver it to your home in Fort Drayton. I flew in, imagining myself rolling up to your trailer with my shiny gift, and you coming out and giving me a big smile and a bigger hug. I’d give you the keys and we’d take it for a spin and you’d decide that maybe I wasn’t such a bad guy after all.
“But as you know, that’s not what happened. Instead, you stood in the driveway, your arms folded across your chest just like your mom used to do, and you gave me absolute hell. You told me you’d rather walk to school every day than to be the stray I rescued. You said one expensive gift sixteen years too late didn’t buy me the right to walk around thinking I had done right by you and your mom. You put a finger in my face and yelled and made so much ruckus that your neighbors came out to see what the commotion was. I was furious, as you surely remember. I said some terrible things and left that place with my tail between my legs.
“But I was only angry because deep down, I knew you were right. In your anger, I saw myself as I truly was when I wasn’t surrounded by ass-kissers and yes-men. You must understand that in my world, I buy and sell people for the price of nothing more than shiny toys and lavish vacations. A bribe here and a beautiful escort there, that’s all it takes to make people turn a blind eye to misdeeds, or do secret favors, or tell me what I want to hear. To abandon everything they know to be right. And these are comfortable people, who aren’t hungry or desperate but who’ll still sell out in a second for the right trinket. But then there was you, standing there among the weeds and dog turds and rusting cars, throwing my gift back in my face, because you wouldn’t sell out. I saw all of the fire that made me crazy for your mother all those years ago, and that has made me unable to forget her since. All of the backbone that I like to pretend I have. Of course, years passed and I never saw you again, but I found myself thinking back to that day, more and more.
“So, in these tumultuous final days, I saw the writing on the wall and I thought, who can I trust? I’m surrounded by a core of capable people. Some of them are even loyal. But they’re also ambitious. They like playing the game, acquiring power, the way men like me do. So who could I trust with my fortune, and my secrets? If I made it known that any of my inner circle would be in control of my assets, or even what those assets truly were, then it would begin—the jockeying for position, the jealousy, the under-the-table deals. No, it had to be someone on the outside. Someone worthy of the riches and the awesome power that even my inner circle does not yet fully understand. It had to be someone they’d never suspect in a thousand years, someone who would not be corrupted by the power. And so, Zoey Ashe, the daughter I never really had, I say to you, and to the world, the following:
“I, Arthur B. Livingston, being of sound mind and disposing memory and not acting under duress or undue influence, and fully understanding the nature and extent of all my property and of the disposition thereof, do hereby make, publish, and declare this document to be my Last Will and Testament, and do hereby revoke any and all other wills and codicils heretofore made by me. The entirety of the property owned by me at my death, real and personal and wherever situate, I devise and bequeath to my only daughter, Zoey Marceline Ashe, minus any estate taxes and the cost of the kick-ass memorial celebration I have detailed in my Last Will and Testament, a full text copy of which has been electronically transmitted to my attorney as of right … now. Ms. Ashe is also given full control of all offshore accounts, landholdings, stock, corporate holdings, and assets associated with all of my entrepreneurial endeavors under the umbrella of Livingston Enterprises, again as detailed fully in the text copy. All current employees will continue in their present roles until notified otherwise, at Zoey’s discretion.
“If you examine the floor of the vault you should find but one object—my lucky coin. A rare, one-sided 1911 Chinese Silver Dragon, the roaring dragon on one side, the other completely blank due to a minting error. I won this coin in a poker game when I was sixteen, from a man who told me it was worth a hundred thousand dollars. It turned out to be a worthless counterfeit. I have always kept it, as a reminder. That coin was always on my person, from that day until the writing of this will. Years ago, Will Blackwater gave a job interview that consisted of nothing more than borrowing that coin and doing a magic trick with it. I hired him immediately. Zoey, the final provision in this will is that you have him show you how the trick is done. Oh, and tell Gary he can keep the golf clubs, I don’t think Zoey plays.
“And … that’s it. If anyone gets any bright ideas and tries to bring bodily harm to Ms. Ashe in hopes of acquiring some or all of my estate, they should be aware of the following. In the event of her demise, all assets will be liquidated and donated to the Church of Mormon, minus thirty million dollars, which will immediately be placed as a bounty on the head of whoever brought said harm to Ms. Ashe.
“Good luck, Zoey. I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you. This is the best I could do. What you do with your inheritance is up to you. I only urge you to make sure you grasp exactly what it is you have been left before deciding what to do with it—the money and the land are trivial in light of the real treasure. Beyond that, my only advice is what my father gave me before running out on us when I was ten years old. Figure out who you can trust, and let them do the work for you. Arthur Livingston out.”
The hologram man stood awkwardly for several seconds and then said, “Is it still on? No, it’s the black button. The black one. Here, let me—” Then he walked out of his own hologram, and it blinked off.
There was silence. Zoey struggled to breathe, her chest pressed between the cold gold coins and Kowalski’s heavy boot. And then Will started laughing.
Echo Ling, sounding near panic, said, “What just happened?”
Will wiped his eyes, straightened his tie, and walked out of the vault. As he passed Zoey, he said to Kowalski, “You might want to take your foot off my boss, before she fires all of us.”
The foot lifted from Zoey’s back and she sat up, clutching the hand that was bleeding freely from when Kowalski ripped the gun away. Her head was spinning.
All she could think to say was “Somebody get me a towel. And tell me what’s going on. Did he … did he leave everything to me? The house and … everything?”
Will said, “Yes. You’ve seen Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, right? Well, you’re like Charlie.”
Echo elaborated, “Only instead of a golden ticket, it was Arthur Livingston’s aversion to condoms.”
“Wait … really?”
“Another way to put it,” said Will, “is that your father just killed all of us. Including you.”
He pulled out a silk pocket square and tossed it to her. She wrapped it around her finger. Feeling light-headed, she looked around the room, and saw everyone looking back at her, waiting. Eager to hear what the boss had to say.
Zoey said, “You guys with the guns? You were Arthur’s henchmen or whatever?”
One of the men said, “We’re contractors. We’re twenty-four-hour grounds security.”
“So you heard his ghost say you work for me now?”
“Well … we’ve been told to assume the contract remains active until informed otherwise, and as far as—”
“Good.” She looked at Kowalski and said, “You’re fired.”
“I never worked for you, babe.”
To the guards she said, “Escort this man from the grounds. Tell him to take his severed hand with him.”
Kowalski stuffed his gun back into his shoulder holster and headed up the spiral stairs. “I can see my own way out.”
Zoey turned to find Will and to the guards said, “Him, too. He’s fired. Everybody is fired. Whoever else is here.” To Echo, “You, too.” To the guards, “As for your contract, it expires the moment you finish that final task. Escort these people off the grounds, then escort yourselves out and close the gates behind you.”
Will and Echo exchanged a look.
Will said, “Zoey, I want you to think carefully about—”
“Get OUT! You’re trespassing. All of you are.”
“Listen to me. If you leave this house unprotected, you will not survive the weekend. Word is going to get out and when it does, the predators in this city are going to swarm this place like piranha.”
“Guards, if this man doesn’t leave this house in the next ten seconds, shoot him.”
The guards clearly did not want to do that. But one of them—the oldest—cleared his throat and said, “You, uh, have been asked to leave, Mr. Blackwater.”
Will stared long and hard at Zoey, like he was trying to read something in her face. Whatever it was, it convinced him to turn on his heels and follow Kowalski up the stairs. Echo followed him, and the four henchmen went last. Seven sets of heels clanged up the spiral stairs and then knocked faintly across the floor overhead. And then it was silent, and Zoey was alone. She sat there on the golden floor with her cat, bleeding in her dead father’s cavernous palace, which she apparently now owned.
At two in the morning, Zoey sat on the bottom steps of the grand staircase in the foyer, petting Stench Machine as he ate cat food off of a piece of china that, for all she knew, was an antique worth more than everything she owned. Zoey was starving, and the house was presumably full of all kinds of rich-people food—caviar or whatever—but she was too exhausted to go looking for it or to figure out how to cook it. Instead, she got out her phone and found a pizza place that delivered late at night. There were dozens, if not hundreds, of them in Tabula Ra$a (there were zero such establishments back home in Fort Drayton) so Zoey did what she always did when shopping, which was to sort them by customer ratings. She called the top place and ordered their special: “The Meatocalypse.” She got the large.
And so she sat there, waiting for the delivery guy, not even sure how to let him through that front gate when he arrived. She stroked her cat, her skinned finger throbbing, trying to come up with a plan. This was what she had so far:
Step One: Eat a giant pizza.
Step Two: Go to bed.
Step Three: Get up in the morning, call home and ask Mom what to do.
Zoey’s mother had a lawyer who had done all of her divorces, maybe they could get him on the phone and figure out exactly what Zoey needed to do to extricate herself from the vast crime empire she now apparently ran. Didn’t the government just seize everything in cases like this? For unpaid taxes and such? If so, she wondered if she could get a car out of the deal, something to drive herself back to Fort Drayton if nothing else. She’d also like to keep the shoes …
Candi, the house security A.I. stripper hologram, blinked to life by the door.
Stench Machine skittered up the stairs in terror as Candi said, “There is someone at the front gate, and my sensors show they are incredibly aroused.”
The hologram seemed to be waiting for some kind of instructions but Zoey wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do. Could she talk to it?
“Uh, can you tell me who it is?”
There was a pause and then a male voice said, “Boselli’s Pizza, delivery for Zoey Ashe.”
Candi said, “Scans indicate the vehicle contains one pizza and no weapons. Shall I open the gate?”
A minute later there was a knock on the door. A monitor blinked on next to the doorframe, showing that it was in fact the pizza man. He was bald but with a thick, jet-black beard, wearing an old-fashioned navy pea coat with, of all things, a red boutonniere on his lapel. Even the late-night pizza delivery guys in this neighborhood were pure class.
Zoey opened and the man said, “Good evening, ma’am. That’ll be thirty-eight fifty. You have a beautiful home, by the way.”
“Oh, thank you. I just got it. Let me run up and get my purse.”
“No problem, sweetie.”
She climbed the stairs and headed for her bedroom. The feed was still playing on the wall, the “Hunt for Livingston’s Key” event still hopping from one view to the next, continuing to follow the exciting race to see who could destroy Zoey’s life first.
She dug through her purse for her wallet and mumbled to the TV, “You guys do what you want, I’m eating a giant pizza made entirely of meat.”
She gave the feed a glance and saw a grainy nighttime shot of a camera bouncing down an alley. Two guys in black vests and guns were running toward something on the ground. It was a person, lying there, thrashing and squirming.
Zoey stopped what she was doing to watch.
One of them reached the writhing man and said, “Buddy, are you okay? Can you hear me?”
The man on the ground only grunted. One of the guys pulled out a flashlight and illuminated a bleeding man who was bound hand and foot, his mouth duct taped shut. Two things registered with Zoey immediately:
1. He was wearing a red T-shirt that was playing a looping animation of a “Boselli’s Pizza” logo;
2. Several of his fingers had been bitten off.
Before Zoey could work out what this meant, the feed blinked away—one of the abrupt jump cuts that Zoey still wasn’t used to—and what appeared next was a very clear shot of the stairwell she had just climbed, the view bouncing gently up toward the second floor.
Zoey stopped, and stared.
Text scrolled down a sidebar on the screen—video comments, posted by viewers, almost moving too fast to see. She caught one that said, “Hyena show us her tits before you eat her, bro,” and then that one was quickly driven off the screen by dozens more that simply said “Team Molech.”
Zoey dropped her purse and said, “Oh, come on.”
She turned and was not surprised to find the psychopath known as the Hyena standing in the doorway of her bedroom, blocking her way out. She had never gotten a clear look at the guy before, when it was dark and he was busy getting driven into a frozen pond by her Toyota. But there was no doubt it was him—he had ditched his “beard,” revealing an ugly surgical scar that looped around his jaw, looking like work that had been done in some back alley. He was no longer holding the pizza, and Zoey now noted that the little red flower pinned to his chest had a blue pinprick light in the center—that was his Blink camera. He was broadcasting live to the massive “Hunt for Livingston’s Key” audience, along with a dedicated base of Hyena fans who simply got off on watching women get tortured in real time. She again wondered how big that audience was, and again decided she didn’t want to know. Out the corner of her eye, she saw herself appear on the monitor, from the POV of her assailant. The room was a little too dark for the camera, so the Hyena found the light control on the wall and dialed it up to his satisfaction.
Zoey looked at herself on the monitor and actually had the crazy impulse to fix her hair, but then saw on the screen that the golf club was still on the bed behind her. She quickly snatched it, holding it out toward the Hyena like a sword. A fraction of a second later, the video version of herself up on the wall feed did the same.
He smiled and said, “Bet you never thought you’d see me again. I’ve had a whole train ride to think about this moment. To get it just right. First, let’s get this out of the way.”
He yanked the club from her hands, like he was taking it from a baby. He held it out in front of him, letting his camera get a good view of it.
In a series of smooth, casual motions, the Hyena bent the golf club into the shape of a pretzel. He didn’t strain, or grit his teeth, or even appear to be flexing with the effort. He just pulled the metal rod into loops, like it was a silver licorice whip.
He held it up and said, “Eh?”
Zoey’s mouth went dry. She muttered, “What are you people?”
“Wait! I’m not finished!” He held the steel pretzel up to his mouth, and took a bite out of it. Again, with only a trivial amount of effort, like chewing some mildly tough beef jerky. He spat out a twisted hunk of metal and grinned. Then he tossed the golf-club pretzel aside.
The Hyena spat blood, then said, “That fear, that paralysis, that you’re feeling right now? That’s a primal memory, bubbling back to the surface. It’s the realization that first and foremost, you were born to be food for something stronger. That as an organism, you were destined to end your existence with the sensation of teeth tearing flesh and crunching bone. So, here is how this is going to go. I’m going to bite you eight times. Those bites will sever eight tendons, and they will render your legs and arms both inoperable. Then, over the course of days and weeks, I will slowly, and completely at random—”
Zoey crossed her arms.
“No. I’m not doing this. I’m not running and screaming, I’m not letting you put on a slasher-movie chase for your creeper fans on Blink, I’m not giving you a show. I’m sick of it. I don’t know what you are, or how you people can do the things you do. But I’ve been doing nothing but run for the last eight hours. I’m done with that. I don’t run anymore. Anybody out there watching this hoping that’s going to happen, go ahead and zip up your pants.”
“You’ve got quite a mouth on you. And I’m going to cut out that tongue and eat it in front of you. But first I’m going to—”
“No. You don’t get to monologue for your audience. You’re not cool, you’re not menacing.”
“I don’t think you’re in any position to tell me what—”
“LA LA LA LA LA NOBODY CAN HEAR YOU! LA LA LA!”
“DOO DOO DOO DOO NOBODY CAN HEAR YOUR EVIL MONOLOGUE AND CREATIVE RAPE THREATS! BUTT SHOW, BUTT SHOW BABY—”
The Hyena lunged at her. Zoey tumbled back, hitting the floor while her on-screen doppelgänger was still singing “Butt Show.” They landed with the Hyena straddling her, trying to pin down her arms. She quickly reached up and snatched the boutonniere camera off his jacket. Before he could put together what she was doing, Zoey worked her right arm free and chucked the camera toward the bedroom door. The view on the wall monitor blurred into a boring shot of the hallway ceiling.
The Hyena screamed, “BITCH!” but he was now at an impasse—he had lost his audience, and therefore had lost not only his entire reason for being there, but also his ability to prove he had fulfilled the contract. He climbed off Zoey and ran into the hall to get his camera and—
—took a single bullet to the head.
A red mist of blood hung in the air. The Hyena flopped to the floor like a sack of dog food. Zoey yelped and crawled backward on her hands.
Into view stepped a Latino man in his thirties, in a black suit with a bright red shirt underneath, open at the collar. He had contrived beard stubble, and was keeping a smoking pistol trained on the dead man on the floor. He crushed the boutonniere camera under his shoe, then checked for a pulse on the Hyena.
Satisfied the man was dead, he stashed the pistol inside his jacket and in a deadpan tone muttered, “Stop, or I’ll shoot.” He turned to Zoey and said, “Are you injured?”
“No. I don’t think so. Who are you?”
“I apologize for entering your home without permission, and I will leave immediately if that is your wish. My name is Armando Ruiz, and if you will pardon my lack of modesty, I am the finest bodyguard in Tabula Rasa. If you look up my credentials, you can easily confirm this to be true and, in fact, I insist that you do so at your earliest convenience. I came to ask for a job but decided to intervene when I saw what was about to occur. So with your permission, I want to secure the front entrance and main gate, so that I am not forced to deal with additional intruders. This is actually not my preferred method for neutralizing threats, if for no other reason than the cleanup is very unpleasant for everyone involved.”
“Uh … sure. How did … how did that guy do that? He bent metal with his bare hands. Then he ate it.”
Armando shrugged. “I am going to guess that it is due to some combination of being very strong, insane, and high on hallucinogens. As of now, that is only a concern to whoever is saddled with the unenviable task of writing his obituary. Wait here, and lock the door to your room. I will be back within twenty minutes.”
He whipped out the gun and a moment later could be heard stomping down the stairs. Zoey sat on the bed, staring at the bleeding corpse on the hallway floor, then decided she preferred this new stranger’s company to that of the dead man. She followed Armando down to the foyer and watched as he worked out the gate controls on the front-door monitor. He tapped through menus and the system assured him that no other threats were on the property at the moment, though Zoey thought it was strange the system didn’t at least mention the presence of two tigers.
When Armando noticed her behind him, she said, “Sorry, I didn’t like being that close to the dead guy. He came back to life once already.”
“Well. Sort of.”
“All right. Well, Ms. Ashe, I can tell you that the security on the grounds is top of the line, but it will do you no good if you allow strangers through the front door. And my services will do you no good if you do not listen to my instructions. Did you look me up?”
“Oh. No. Hold on.”
Armando headed back upstairs, maybe to make sure the Hyena was still dead. Zoey looked him up on her phone using the exact same method she’d used to find a pizza joint an hour earlier, and found he was lying about one thing—when she ranked bodyguards in the city by review score, Armando actually wasn’t number one. He was number four. But to be fair, two of the guys above him were dead, and the other one had a really weird goatee. Armando charged—wait, really?—$300 an hour, but his highlight reel showed him escorting politicians and pop stars, tackling crazed fans and disarming gunmen. In the videos, he always wore some variation of that black suit and red shirt, like it was a uniform he had created for himself. If the clips were in date order, he had also gone through a phase where he wore a bright red fedora pulled down over his eyes, but apparently he had outgrown that. On the whole, he appeared to very much be on the level, and somewhat famous among people in his field.
When he returned, Armando said, “If you do not wish to hire me, I will give you some recommendations for other options. But I assume you know now that you cannot leave the grounds unguarded, correct?”
Zoey said, “Sure. You’re hired, or whatever.” She looked around and said, “Did you see a pizza down here somewhere?”
“As your bodyguard, my first instruction will be for you to not eat any food delivered to you by a serial killer.”
“Yeah, that makes sense. I’ve kind of lost my appetite anyway.”
“I’m going to contact the police to come get the body. It’s a nonemergency, so it will take them four to six hours to arrive, if they arrive at all. In the interim I will be appraising the security situation and we will have a serious discussion about it in the morning. There’s nothing for you to do, other than get some sleep.”
“I’m not sleeping with that body right in front of the door.”
“I’ll drag him away, if that will ease your mind. But he took a bullet to the brain, which even by zombie rules should eliminate him as a future threat.”
“Move him anyway. Oh, and I haven’t figured out how to access Arthur’s money yet but if I can’t get into the accounts then you can just take a bunch of furniture or something as payment. It all looks pretty expensive.”
He smiled. “I’m confident we can work it out. Do you have any problems or questions?”
“Yeah. I mean no, that sounds fine. I’m too tired to think.”
“This is what you are paying me for. In the morning, you will have some big decisions to make.”
“And then you’ll tell me just how screwed I am?”
“Most people in your situation would be pondering just how screwed their enemies are. You’re safe now, Ms. Ashe.”
“Armando.” They shook hands. “Good night, Zoey.”
When he let go of her hand, she lunged in and hugged him. He reciprocated the hug about as much as a tree trunk would, and clearly wasn’t a fan of the way she spent the next ten minutes crying into his lapel. But he waited it out in silence, which Zoey thought was polite of him.
Finally she pried herself away and apologized, and by the time Zoey was closing the door to the bedroom Armando was already dragging the dead psychopath down the hall, leaving a red smear on the hardwood floor in his wake. Zoey locked the door and shut off the wall feed. She kicked off her shoes for the first time and crawled into bed. Stench Machine jumped up and pressed his back against her face, as he usually did. She had time to think that after this nightmare of a day, she’d never get to sleep again. But halfway through the thought, she was out like a light.
The first two things Zoey discovered after she woke up sore and stiff Friday morning was that she was apparently now a huge celebrity in Tabula Ra$a, and that the toilet in the guest room talked.
It was, on the whole, an extremely impressive toilet. It had a self-warming seat (which apparently automatically lowered itself when it detected a female approaching), played gentle music the entire time she sat on it, and had two nozzles inside the bowl to wash and then dry her private parts when she was done. That list was presented in ascending order of how alarming Zoey found each of them.
Topping them all, however, was the fact that in the middle of this process a male voice with a British accent asked her if she wanted to watch the morning news update while she peed. Zoey’s answer, a sleepy yelp of terror, apparently was interpreted as “Sure, toilet, show me the news to drown out the sound of my farts.” A screen blinked to life and automatically hopped around from coverage of Zoey’s hostage situation on the train, to the intruder getting shot in her house, to rumors of her inheritance, to a recap of the chase for the “key” that had led up to it. Zoey thought for a moment that the whole world had ground to a halt to cover her situation, then figured out that the feed was set to deliver a custom feed of just the news that pertained to her. It was the kind of thing that could mess with a person’s head.
The British toilet-bot interrupted to give a startlingly detailed report of her health, informing her that she was not pregnant, currently did not have any drugs in her system, was not diabetic or suffering from kidney disease, but was at risk for a urinary tract infection due to slightly elevated levels of leukocyte esterase in her urine. She thanked the toilet, but it did not respond. That was good—if she started to think of it as a sentient being, it would probably be much harder to poop in its mouth.
Zoey knew she should go out and get a status report from Armando, or at the very least find out if Armando had been killed by a second wave of psychopaths who were now waiting to ambush her outside the bedroom door, but she kept finding reasons to not leave the guest room or even get off the toilet. She decided she liked it in there, a little room with a big, heavy door and soundproofed walls. Outside was the big, crazy house and outside that, the bigger, crazier city. For all she knew, the corpse of the Hyena was still slumped out there somewhere, drawing a cloud of flies.
The toilet voice came back to ask if she was okay, apparently if you sat on it too long it started to assume you had died. She told it she was fine, but a few minutes later it asked again. She needed to figure out how to turn off that feature if she intended to sit there the rest of the day, which at some point had apparently become her plan. The part of Zoey’s brain that thought up ways to procrastinate from unpleasant tasks—honed to perfection through years of exercise—reminded her that she should call her mother, who was probably worried sick about her. Especially if she had watched the news, though she normally wasn’t in the habit of doing that (“Honey, don’t you know they’re just giving you all of the stories of people being ugly to each other and ignoring all of the good?”). The call went to her voice mail, because Zoey’s mother also wasn’t in the habit of answering her phone.
“Hi Mom. I just wanted to let you know I’m okay. I don’t know if you watch the news but it looks like I inherited like a billion dollars in drug money or something. Can you find a lawyer? Just tell him I’m in danger of getting murdered or going to jail for having a bunch of heroin warehouses and mafia money that I didn’t even ask for, so whatever he can do to fix that would be great—SHUT UP! Sorry, I wasn’t talking to you, Arthur’s robot toilet is hassling me. Oh also my bodyguard shot a guy last night, hope that’s okay. He had super powers, they all do. I don’t know what’s up with that. Anyway, call me.”
Well, that should set her mind at ease. Zoey hung up and summoned the tremendous force of will it took to stand. She glanced at the shower and tried to decide if she felt safe enough to get naked in this house, then decided she smelled so bad that she just had to risk it. Also, it would be another good excuse to not leave the guest suite. She went out into the bedroom and scooted the table and lamp in front of the door, just in case.
The shower, she discovered, had fifty nozzles and a touchscreen with dozens of settings bearing unhelpful descriptions like “Jungle Massage.” After trying a few it became clear that each was set to fire the water from various patterns and temperatures in order to create some kind of transcendental showering experience, while some unseen aromatherapy module pumped the room full of scents ranging from “Fresh-Cut Grass” to “Baking Cinnamon Buns.” Zoey could not find a setting for just “regular shower” so she picked one at random and set about trying to decipher which of the dispensers on the wall oozed shampoo (at least one of them seemed to have been filled with scotch). Then, a few seconds in, the walls of the shower stall vanished and were replaced by a crystal-clear view of an emerald rainforest, the four screens simulating the experience of being outdoors bathing under a tropical waterfall. This freaked her out, because even though she knew it was just a video feed, she still couldn’t shake the fear that a group of savages would come along and find her inexplicably standing naked in a stream. She hurried up and finished bathing, then spent twenty minutes trying to figure out how to turn the shower off.
By nine, Zoey found herself sitting on her bed, staring at the big door, and steeling herself to go outside. At nine-thirty she was still sitting there, Stench Machine getting hungry and impatient. Time and time again she mentally resolved to go out, and time and time again, her butt would not leave the bed. Finally there was a knock at the door, and Armando was asking if she was okay. That broke the spell and, bracing herself to see the pale corpse of a serial killer, she yanked open the door and found that not even a bloodstain remained from last night’s horror.
She said, “So what did you do with the dead guy, just toss him out to the tigers?”
“No, ma’am, everything was done through official channels. Though the TRPD and the coroner required two separate bribes, for some reason. I’ll put it in my expense report.”
“They didn’t need to talk to me?”
“Welcome to the world of Tabula Rasa. Or rather, welcome to the world of being wealthy in Tabula Rasa. Now, the first decision I have to burden you with this morning involves access to the grounds. You’ve had a number of house staff try to report to work this morning. I’ve been turning them away—”
“Yeah, I don’t want to bother with any of that.”
“Well, you have fifty thousand square feet of mansion and fifty acres of land here, it takes a small army to keep it looking like this.”
“Right, otherwise the people who drove past might not feel quite as miserable about their own lives when they see it.” Zoey headed toward the stairwell and said, “I’m not staying here, all that stuff is somebody else’s problem. Keep everybody out for now. Not just to keep the serial killers from leaking in, but to make sure none of Arthur’s old cronies decide to get revenge.”
“If you’re referring to the house staff, I’m not sure how much hunger for vengeance lies in the hearts of the landscapers or cleaning crew.”
“I’m mainly worried about—”
They had reached the landing, and Jacob Marley’s ghost had been lying in wait. Stench Machine went streaking down the stairs in terror.
“Oh my god, will you unplug that stupid thing? What I was saying was, I’m mostly worried about the Suits—the, uh, creepy henchmen Arthur worked with—”
“Oh, I know who they are.”
“Well, will they come back with a bunch of thugs and try to kick down the door?”
“That would be an exceptionally poor strategy on their end. The security system would give me ample advance warning. The most difficult part would be neutralizing them before the crossfire created too much damage to the décor. I believe there are vases in that foyer older than the New Testament. No, the danger posed by those men is of a … different nature.”
“So what do you—” Zoey stopped, startled by the sound of clinking noises from down the hall. “Wait, is somebody else here?”
Armando looked confused. “Just Carlton, the butler.”
Zoey had completely forgotten about him.
Armando, growing alarmed, asked, “Was he ordered to leave? He said he never heard from you after he retired for the evening. The gunshot woke him up.”
“I didn’t even think about him. It’s … fine I guess. Can I trust him?”
Armando shrugged. “I did a background check. He has been a butler for fifty years. You can’t trust anybody one hundred percent but…” he shrugged again. “These are the decisions you have to make. It comes with the inheritance.”
Zoey left Armando where he was and followed the busy sounds, which took her through the dining room and into the hallway where she had gone the night before, only instead of heading toward the holographic Mold door, she went the opposite way and soon found herself in a vast kitchen suited for a restaurant. She saw two huge stainless refrigerators with touchscreen controls, a flat-top grill like they have at Benihana, a deep fryer, and a row of three ovens topped by fifteen burners (Zoey marveled at all of the instant macaroni and cheese she could boil on that thing). She saw rows of copper-bottomed cookware dangling from racks over two huge sinks. Off in one corner was the arched brick opening of a wood-fired oven.
She wandered around the room, past a fragrant wall-size rack of fresh herbs sprouting from tiny little pots under grow lights. On the opposite wall was a bar—mirrored shelves of liquor and a beer tap, next to a coffee bar setup boasting an antique brass espresso machine that looked ten times as expensive as the professional one she used at work. She went over to give it a look, finding it comforting to be around tools she had mastered—grinders, steamers, even a little jar of toothpicks for drawing designs in the foam. The lingering scent of coffee oils was wonderful, even if it did remind her of long days, sore feet, and one particularly awful steam burn.
“Mr. Livingston would have his beans delivered weekly,” said Carlton’s voice from behind her. He had walked in silently from the other door, carrying Stench Machine.
Zoey spun and said, “Oh, I’m sorry. I was just … looking.”
“You’re apologizing for looking at your own kitchen? Your cat was wreaking havoc in the pantry, I had to go chase him down. I do believe he is hungry.”
“Oh. Right. I’m … sorry.”
Carlton nodded toward the coffee bar and said, “Your father, he found a service that ships the beans the day after they are roasted. Flies them in from Colombia. Have you eaten? Would you like something?”
She was starving, but said, “Oh, don’t worry about me. I’ll … order something.” Then she thought and said, “You don’t keep cat food around, do you? Not for me, obviously. I put some in my suitcase but I didn’t pack enough, I thought I’d have a chance to stop at a—”
Before she could finish, Carlton sprang into action, opening the nearest refrigerator.
“If you’re asking if I can prepare a meal a cat would find satisfactory, well, how difficult can it be?”
“You’d be surprised.”
Carlton pulled a tuna steak, eggs, and a stick of butter from the refrigerator, then continued loading his arms from a walk-in pantry. He emerged with flour, a bag of rice, a jar of peanut butter, a plastic bear full of honey, a box of brown sugar, and a single, perfect banana.
“Do you like bananas, Ms. Ashe?”
“Oh, you don’t have to—”
“Your father compensated me quite well to do precisely this, in precisely this situation. Am I to assume that my employment continues under the previous terms? It is my understanding that some staff were let go last night.”
“Um, sure, that’s fine.”
“Well, then, for you to refuse to allow me to perform my duties would turn me into a thief. Please have a seat.”
The nearest stovetop was suddenly a flurry of activity. Knobs were turned. Blue flames whooshed to life and a saucepan and two skillets were banged into place above them. Zoey took a seat at the bar and soon the intoxicating scent of melting butter joining the smell of fresh herbs and coffee. Armando stared intently at the process, but it wouldn’t occur to Zoey until days later that he was making sure Carlton didn’t poison her.
Zoey said, “You, uh, pretty much know what goes on around here, right?”
Carlton shrugged. “I try to keep to myself, but of course a man hears things. We humans don’t have lids on our ears, as useful as that would be at times.”
He grabbed a loaf of crusty bread off of a wire cooling rack on the counter, the bread presumably having been pulled from that brick oven hours earlier.
Zoey asked, “Those men. Or rather, those three men and that one girl—Will and Andre and the rest. What do they do? Or what did they do, for my dad? Are they, like, hit men?”
“They solved problems that your father needed solved.”
“So hit men, then.”
“I can only say that if they did kill anyone, they did not do it in the house.”
A banana was peeled, laid on a cutting board, and sliced lengthwise. The crusty bread was expertly cleaved into thick slices. The tuna steak was laid gently into the sizzling oil of one skillet, brown sugar was stirred into melted butter in the other. Boiling rice was pulled from its burner and covered.
“You know what I’m asking. Are they dangerous?”
“If you are looking for specifics, I can say only that I was not made privy to any illegal activity. That would have put me in a difficult situation should I ever have been called to testify. That was made explicit in the terms of my employment.”
“So you knew Arthur was a criminal.”
Carlton dropped the bananas into the butter and brown sugar mixture. Flour, salt, baking powder, and eggs were whisked together in a bowl.
“‘Criminal’ is something of a nebulous concept in this city, I’m afraid. But yes, your father dealt in many large-scale, cash-only transactions off the books and had … colorful associates. And I heard tales, particularly of things he did in his youth, and during the war. He was not a man you wanted as an enemy. But, behind every great fortune … you know the rest.”
A quarter inch of white had formed along the bottom of the pink tuna, and Carlton flipped it with an effortless, elegant motion. He turned toward the counter, and quickly the two slices of bread were smeared with a wad of peanut butter, then drizzled with honey. Armando’s eyes followed his hands every step of the way.
“So you know Arthur left me everything? And you’re just … taking it in stride? I’m your boss now, that’s it? You don’t think all of this is weird?”
“I assure you, this does not rank even in the top ten strangest weeks I’ve had during my time in Arthur’s employ. I’m sure your needs will be different from his, but I am confident I can adjust, even at my advanced age. Otherwise, employers come and go. Some better than others.”
Carlton pulled the tuna off the heat and set it aside. He pulled caramelized banana chunks from the pan and laid them atop the peanut buttered slice of bread, then laid the other slice of bread on top and dunked the whole thing in the egg and flour mixture. He then dropped the batter-coated sandwich into the deep fryer. Zoey thought there was something vaguely obscene about it.
“And you’re not curious at all as to why he left everything to me?”
“I had a friend pass recently, who left his home and life savings to a Waffle House waitress. Said she was the only person who was ever kind to him. I once read about another woman who slept in a tent under an overpass, who it turned out had a coffee can full of gold coins buried underneath it, worth two hundred thousand dollars. She left it all to a local church that she had never attended.”
“So you’re saying he was just crazy? That’s why all this happened?”
“I believe ‘eccentric’ is the word they use when one acquires a certain level of affluence. But in Arthur’s case, perhaps it was simply regret.”
Carlton sat the barely cooked tuna on a cutting board, diced it, and piled the chunks in a small bowl. He poured in some of the rice, mashed it all up with a fork, and set a fresh batch of homemade cat food on the floor for Stench Machine.
Zoey said, “Regret? What, like he had a crisis of conscience?”
“In my youth, I used to loathe being told I would understand something when I was older, but I’m afraid I must find myself saying it here.”
He pulled the deep-fried peanut butter and banana sandwich from the fryer and let the oil drain from the basket.
He said, “At your age, life is full of possibilities. But as the years pass, those possibilities vanish, one by one, like doors closing in a hallway. You feel time slip by, and your energy slip away. One day, you realize you’re too old to be a famous musician, or change careers, or have more children. And each of those closed doors represents a regret. As you get older, well, those regrets come to define you. Perhaps the lack of a family life was Arthur’s regret. But honestly, what does it matter? If you’re asking what you should do with your inheritance, that is up to you, Ms. Ashe. If you’re asking what Arthur Livingston would have wanted you to do with your inheritance, well, the man is dead. So who gives a shit?”
He set the sandwich gently on a plate, the batter having formed a perfect golden brown crust. He sliced it diagonally, melted peanut butter oozing out as he carefully arranged the two halves. He garnished it with a fanned-out sliced strawberry, sprinkled it all with a light dusting of powdered sugar, then slid the plate to Zoey, followed by a glass of milk.
“Your father’s favorite brunch and, on occasion, midnight snack. Elvis Presley’s, too, I’m told.”
Zoey took a bite, felt the gluttonous rush of fried fat and sugar spilling across her tongue, and decided that the world was a wonderful place.
From behind her, Armando said, “A car full of your fathers’ associates is on the way. They just turned down the inlet road, heading for the gates. God, I love the security system here.”
Zoey asked, “They can’t get through the gates unless we let them, right?”
To Carlton she said, “Here’s what I think. I think this whole thing stinks of one of Arthur’s scams. I only talked to that man twice in my whole life. He knocks up my mom, vanishes into thin air, then eight years later shows up at our apartment out of the blue, with a wad of money and a football.”
“I think he saw a picture of me my mom posted on the Internet, as a kid I was kind of a chuck wagon and I had short hair, and I was holding a football in the picture so I guess he decided that was my thing. Anyway, then he disappears until eight years after that, when he shows up on my sixteenth birthday as if it’s the first time, like every eight years he suddenly remembers he has a daughter. This time he turns up with a luxury car. And another football. Had it delivered on a flatbed truck, with a big red bow on the top—the car, not the football. And all my unemployed neighbors are standing around gawking at it … I’ve never been more angry and embarrassed in my life. I always assumed it was some stupid tax write-off or something. And that’s what I think this is—it’s all some legal thing to hide assets from the feds.”
Carlton hesitated, as if deciding whether to share what he was about to say next.
“Your father … he had a routine. He would bring home a different, very beautiful woman every Friday night. Then every Saturday morning, he would have me mostly prepare a brunch—eggs, crepes, fresh fruit, homemade whipped cream, leaving only the final assembly and plating of the dish undone. Then I would exit the kitchen and your father would come and finish putting it all together, so that when the Lady of the Week walked in, she would see your father wearing his big, ridiculous chef’s hat and preparing a five-star meal for her. And she would smile. They all did, every time.”
“I’m sorry, but that’s kind of gross. Not this sandwich, by the way. The sandwich is miraculous.” On the floor, Stench Machine was eating his fish and rice just as hard as he could.
“My point is, I cannot tell you that your father was a good man. To those who went against him, I’m sure he was not. But even to his friends … it’s not that he didn’t want to be a good man. It’s that he didn’t really know how. So, he liked to impress people. To dazzle them. That was as close to good as he could get.”
Candi the bimbo hologram blinked into the middle of the room and said, “Turn on the hot tub jets and open four bottles of champagne, Andre Knox and Budd Billingsley are at the front gates. Ooh, it looks like we’ll have enough people to form a spank gauntlet!”
Armando said, “They’re not armed. They never are. I don’t judge them to be an immediate threat to your personal safety. As to whether or not they are a threat to your financial safety or are otherwise trustworthy, well, again that’s what you have to figure out.”
Zoey chewed, then said, “All right, let them in. But if they so much as reach into a pocket without permission, shoot them both in the head.”