Arling parked under the portico, directly opposite the front door, and got out of the car.
I hoped against hope that this dangerous situation could be satisfactorily resolved without violence.
I am a gentle entity.
Nothing is more distressing to me than finding myself forced, by events beyond my control, to be more aggressive than I would prefer or than it is within my basic nature to be.
Arling stepped out of the car. Standing at the open door, he straightened the knot in his tie, smoothed the lapels of his coat, and tugged on his sleeves.
As our former major domo adjusted his clothing, he studied the great house.
I zoomed in, watching his face closely.
He was expressionless at first.
Men in his line of work practice being stone faced, lest an inadvertent expression reveal their true feelings about a master or mistress of the house.
Expressionless, he stood there. At most, there was a sadness in his eyes, as if he regretted having to leave this place to find employment elsewhere.
Then a faint frown creased his brow.
I think he noticed that all of the security shutters were locked down. Those retractable steel panels were mounted on the interior, behind each window. Given Arling’s familiarity with the property and all of its workings, however, he surely would have spotted the telltale grey flatness beyond the glass.
This scaling of the house in bright daylight was odd, perhaps, but not suspicious.
With Susan now tied securely to the bed upstairs, I considered raising all the shutters.
That might have seemed more suspicious, however, than leaving them as they were. I could not risk alarming this man.
A cloud shadow darkened Arling’s face.
The shadow passed but his frown did not.
He made me superstitious. He seemed like judgment coming.
Arling took a black leather valise out of the car and closed the door. He approached the house.
To be entirely honest with you, as I always am, even when it is not in my interest to be so, I did consider introducing a lethal electric current into the doorknob. A much greater charge than the one that had knocked Susan unconscious to the foyer floor.
And this time there would have been no ‘ouch, ouch, ouch,’ in warning from Mr. Fozzy Bear.
Arling was a widower who lived alone. He and his late wife had never had children. Judging by what I knew of him, his job was his life, and he might not be missed for days or even weeks.
Being alone in the world is a terrible thing.
I know well.
Who knows better than I?
I am alone as no one else has ever been, alone here in this dark silence.
Fritz Arling was for the most part alone in the world, and I felt great compassion for him.
But his loneliness made him an ideal target.
By monitoring his telephone messages and by imper¬sonating his voice to return calls that came in from his few close friends and neighbours, I might be able to conceal his death until my work in this house was finished.
Nevertheless, I did not electrify the door.
I hoped to resolve the situation by deception and thereafter send him on his way, alive, with no sus¬picion.
Besides, he did not use his key to unlock the door and let himself in. This reticence, I suppose, arose from the fact that he was no longer an employee.
Mr. Arling had considerable regard for propriety. He was discreet and understood, at all times, his place in the scheme of things.
Trading his frown for his professional blank-faced look, he rang the doorbell.
The bell button was plastic. It was not capable of conducting a lethal electrical charge.
I considered not responding to the chimes.
In the basement, Shenk paused in his labours and raised his head at the musical sound. His bloodshot eyes scanned the ceiling, and then I sent him back to his labour.
In the master suite, at the ringing of the chimes, Susan forgot her restraints and tried to sit up in bed. She cursed the ropes and thrashed in them.
The doorbell rang again.
Susan screamed for help.
Arling did not hear her. I was not concerned that he would. The house had thick walls and Susan’s bedroom was at the back of the structure.
Again, the bell.
If Arling received no response, he would leave.
All I wanted was for him to leave.
But maybe he would leave with a faint suspicion.
And maybe his suspicion would grow.
He couldn’t know about me, of course, but he might suspect trouble of some other kind. Some trouble more conventional than a ghost in the machine.
Furthermore, I needed to know why he had come.
One can never have enough information.
Data is wisdom.
I am not a perfect entity. I make mistakes. With insufficient data, my ratio of errors to correct decisions escalates.
This is true not only of me. Human beings suffer this same shortcoming.
I was acutely aware of this problem as I watched Arling. I knew that I must acquire whatever additional information I could before making a final determination as to what to do with him.
I dared make no more mistakes.
Not until my body was ready.
So much was at stake. My future. My hope. My dreams. The fate of the world.
Using the intercom, I addressed our former major domo in Susan’s voice: ‘Fritz? What are you doing here?’
He would assume that Susan was watching him on a Crestron screen or on any of the house televisions, on which security-camera views could easily be displayed. Indeed, he looked directly up into the lens above and to the right of him.
Then, leaning toward the speaker grille in the wall beside the door, Arling said, ‘I’m sorry to disturb you, Mrs. Harris, but I assumed that you would be expecting me.’
‘Expecting you? Why?’
‘Last evening when we spoke, I said that I would deliver your possessions this afternoon.’
‘The keys and credit cards held by the house account, yes. But I thought it was clear they should be delivered to Mr. Davendale.’
Arling’s frown returned.
I did not like that frown.
I did not like it at all.
I intuited trouble.
Intuition. Another thing you will not find in a mere machine, not even in a very smart machine. Intuition.
Think about it.
Then Arling glanced thoughtfully at the window to the left of the door. At the steel security shutter beyond the glass.
Gazing up again at the camera lens, he said, ‘Well, of course, there is the matter of the car.’
‘Car?’ I said.
His frown deepened.
‘I am returning your car, Mrs. Harris.’
The only car was his Honda in the driveway.
In an instant, I searched Susan’s financial records. Heretofore, they had been of no interest to me, because I had not cared about how much money she had or about the full extent of the property that she possessed.
I loved her for her mind and for her beauty. And for her womb, admittedly.
Let’s be honest here.
I also loved her for her beautiful, creative, harbouring womb, which would be the birth of me.
But I never cared about her money. Not in the least. I am not a materialist.
Don’t misunderstand. I am not a half-baked spiritual¬ist with no regard for the material realities of existence, God forbid, but neither am I a materialist.
As in all things, I strike a balance.
Searching Susan’s accounting records, I discovered that the car Fritz Arling drove was owned by Susan. It was provided to him as a fringe benefit.
‘Yes, of course,’ I said in Susan’s voice, with impec¬cable timbre and inflection, ‘the car.’
I suppose I was a second or two late with my response.
Hesitation can be incriminating.
Yet I still believed that my lapse must seem like nothing more than the fuzzy reply of a woman dis¬tracted by a long list of personal problems.
Mr. Dustin Hoffman, the immortal actor, effectively portrayed a woman in Tootsie, more believably than Mr. Gene Hackman and Mr. Tom Hanks, and I do not say that my impersonation of Susan on the intercom was in any way comparable with Mr. Hoffman’s award-winning performance, but I was pretty damn good.
‘Unfortunately,’ I said as Susan, ‘you’ve come around at an inconvenient time. My fault, not yours, Fritz. I should have known you would come. But it is incon¬venient, and I’m afraid I can’t see you right now.’
‘Oh, no need to see me, Mrs. Harris.’ He held up the valise. ‘I’ll leave the keys and credit cards in the Honda, right there in the driveway.’
I could see that this entire business his sudden dismissal, the dismissal of the entire staff, Susan’s reaction to his returning the car troubled him. He was not a stupid man, and he knew that something was wrong.
Let him be troubled. As long as he went away.
His sense of propriety and discretion should prevent him from acting upon his curiosity.
‘How will you get home,’ I asked, realizing that Susan might have expressed such a concern earlier than this. ‘Shall I call a taxi for you?’
He stared at the camera lens for a long moment.
That frown again.
Damn that frown.
Then he said, ‘No. Please don’t trouble yourself, Mrs. Harris. There’s a cellular phone in the Honda. I’ll call my own cab and wait outside the gate.’
Seeing that Arling had not been accompanied by anyone in another vehicle, the real Susan would not have asked if he wished to have a taxi but would have at once assured him that she was providing it at her own expense.
I admit to errors.
Do you, Dr. Harris?
Anyway. . .
Perhaps I impersonated Mr. Fozzy Bear better than I did Susan. After all, as actors go, I am quite young. I have been a conscious entity less than three years.
Nevertheless, I felt that my error was sufficiently minor to excite nothing more than mild curiosity in even our perceptive former major domo.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’ll be going.’
And, chagrined, I knew that again I had missed a beat. Susan would have said something immediately after he suggested that he call his own taxicab, would not merely have waited coldly and silently for him to leave.
I said, ‘Thank you, Fritz. Thank you for all your years of fine service.’
That was wrong too. Stiff. Wooden. Not like Susan.
Arling stared at the lens.
After struggling with his highly developed sense of propriety, he finally asked one question that exceeded his station: ‘Are you all right, Mrs. Harris?’
We were walking the edge now.
Along the abyss.
A bottomless abyss.
He had spent his life learning to be sensitive to the moods and needs of wealthy employers, so he could fulfil their requests before they even voiced them. He knew Susan Harris almost as well as she knew herself and perhaps better than I knew her.
I had underestimated him.
Human beings are full of surprises.
An unpredictable species.
Speaking as Susan, answering Arling’s question, I said, ‘I’m fine, Fritz. Just tired. I need a change. A lot of change. Big change. I intend to travel for a long time. Become a vagabond for a year or two, maybe longer. I want to drive all over the country. I want to see the Painted Desert, the Grand Canyon, New Orleans and the bayou country, the Rockies and the great plains and Boston in the autumn—’
This had been a fine speech when delivered to Louis Davendale, but even as I repeated it with genuine heart to Fritz Arling, I knew that it was precisely the wrong thing to say. Davendale was Susan’s attorney, and Arling was her servant, and she would not address them in the same manner.
Yet I was well launched and unable to turn back, hoping against hope that the tide of words would eventually overwhelm him and wash him on his way: ‘—and the beaches of Key West in sunshine and thunderstorms, eat fresh salmon in Seattle and a hero sandwich in Philadelphia—’
Arling’s frown deepened into a scowl.
He felt the wrongness of Susan’s babbled reply.
‘—and crab cakes in Mobile, Alabama. I’ve virtually lived my life in this damn house, and now I want to see and smell and touch and hear the whole world firsthand—’
Arling looked around at the still, silent grounds of the large estate. Squinting into sunlight, into shadows. As if suddenly disturbed by the loneliness of the place.
‘—not in the form of digitised data—’
If Arling suspected that his former employer was in trouble even psychological trouble of some kind he would act to assist and protect her. He would seek help for her. He would pester the authorities to check in on her. He was a loyal man.
Ordinarily, loyalty is an admirable quality.
I am not speaking against loyalty.
Do not misconstrue my position.
I admire loyalty.
I favour loyalty.
I myself have the capacity to be loyal.
In this instance, however, Arling’s loyalty to Susan was a threat to me.
‘—not merely through video and books,’ I said, winding to a fateful finish. ‘I want to be immersed in it.’
‘Yes, well,’ he said uneasily, ‘I’m happy for you, Mrs. Harris. That sounds like a wonderful plan.’
We were falling off the edge.
Into the abyss.
In spite of all my efforts to handle the situation in the least aggressive manner, we were tumbling into the abyss.
You can see that I tried my best.
What more could I have done?
Nothing. I could have done nothing more.
What followed was not my fault.
Arling said, ‘I’ll just leave all the keys and credit cards in the Honda—’
Shenk was all the way back in the incubator room, all the way down in the basement.
‘—and call for a taxi on the car phone,’ Arling fin¬ished, sounding plausibly disinterested, even though I knew that he was alerted and wary.
I commanded Shenk to turn away from his work.
I brought him up from the basement.
I brought the brute at a run.
Fritz Arling backed off the brick porch, glancing alternately at the security camera and at the steel blind behind the window to the left of the front door.
Shenk was crossing the furnace room.
Turning away from the house, Arling headed quickly toward the Honda.
I doubted that he would call 911 and bring the police at once. He was too discreet to take precipitous action. He would probably telephone Susan’s doctor first, or perhaps Louis Davendale.
If he called anyone at all, however, he might be speaking with that person when Shenk arrived on the scene. At the sight of Shenk, he would lock the car. And whatever Arling managed to shout into the phone, before Shenk smashed into the Honda, would be sufficient to bring the authorities.