“The real Jack wasn’t all that funny to begin with.”

“That’s my point,” she said. “They can be as funny as they need to be.”

“That would be scary if I thought it was true,” Michael said. “But I’ll bet my ass, if they ring a Michael monster in on you, he’ll be about as witty as a tree stump.”

In this neighborhood of old cottage-style houses, some remained residences, but others had been converted to commercial enterprises.

The blue-and-yellow cottage on the corner looked like someone’s home except for the blue neon sign in a large front window: WONDERMOUS EATS, FOR TRUE, which translated from Cajun patois as “good food, no lie.”

Michael preferred to read it as “good food, no bullshit,” so from time to time he could say “Let’s have a no- bullshit lunch.”

Whether the legal name of the restaurant was Wondermous Eats or whether that was just a slogan, Carson had no idea. The cheap Xeroxed menus had no name at top or bottom.

Cottages had been cleared off two adjacent lots, but the ancient live oaks had been left standing. Cars were parked in the shade among the trees.

The carpet of dead leaves looked like drifts of pecan shells and crunched under the tires of the sedan, then underfoot as Carson and Michael walked to the restaurant.

If Helios succeeded in the abolition of humanity, replacing it with obedient and single-minded multitudes, there would be nothing like Wondermous Eats, for True. There would be no eccentricity and no charm in the new world that he desired.

Cops saw the worst of people, and grew cynical if not bitter. Suddenly, however, flawed and foolish humanity seemed beautiful and precious to Carson, no less so than nature and the world itself.

They chose a table outside, in the oak shade, apart from most of the other diners. They ordered crawfish boulettes and fried okra salad, followed by shrimp-and-ham jambalaya.

This was a denial lunch. If they could still eat this well, surely the end of the world was not upon them, and they were not as good as dead, after all.

“How long does it take to make a Jack Rogers?” Michael wondered when the waitress had left.

“If Helios can make anyone overnight, if he’s that far advanced, then we’re screwed,” Carson said.

“More likely, he’s steadily replacing people in key positions in the city, and Jack was on his list already.”

“So when Jack did the first autopsy on one of the New Race and realized something weird was going on, Helios just brought his Jack on-line quicker than planned.”

“I’d like to believe that,” Michael said.

“So would I.”

“Because neither of us is a big cheese. On his short list, our names wouldn’t be there between the mayor and the chief of police.”

“He would have had no reason to start growing a Carson or a Michael,” she agreed. “Until maybe yesterday.”

“I don’t think he’ll bother even now”

“Because it’s easier just to have us killed.”

“Totally easy.”

“Did he replace Luke or was Luke always one of them?”

“I don’t think there was ever a real Luke,” Michael said.

“Listen to us.”

“I know.”

“When do we start wearing aluminum-foil hats to protect ourselves from alien mind-readers?”

The thick air swagged the day like saturated bunting, hot and damp and preternaturally still. Overhead, the boughs of the oaks hung motionless. The whole world appeared to be paralyzed by a terrible expectation.

The waitress brought the crawfish boulettes and two bottles of ice-cold beer.

“Drinking on duty,” Carson said, amazed at her self.

“It’s not against department regulations during Armageddon,” Michael assured her.

“Just yesterday, you didn’t believe any of this, and I half thought I was losing my mind.”

“Now the only thing I can’t believe,” Michael said, “is that Dracula and the Wolfman haven’t shown up yet.”

They ate the boulettes and the fried-okra salads in an intense but comfortable silence.

Then before the jambalaya arrived, Carson said, “Okay, cloning or somehow he can make a perfect physical duplicate of Jack. But how does the sonofabitch make his Jack a medical examiner? I mean, how does he give him Jack’s lifetime of knowledge, or Jack’s memories?

“Beats me. If I knew that, I’d have my own secret laboratory, and I’d be taking over the world myself.”

“Except your world would be a better one than this,” she said.

He blinked in surprise, gaped. “Wow.”

“Wow what?”

“That was sweet.”

“What was sweet?”

“What you just said.”

“It wasn’t sweet.”

“It was.”

“It was not.”

“You’ve never been sweet to me before.”

“If you use that word one more time,” she said, “I’ll bust your balls, I swear.”

“All right.”

“I mean it.”

Smiling broadly, he said, “I know.”

Sweet,” she said scornfully, and shook her head in disgust. “Be careful or I might even shoot you.”

“That’s against regulations even during Armageddon.”

“Yeah, but you’re gonna be dead in twenty-four hours anyway.”

He consulted his wristwatch. “Less than twenty three now.”

The waitress arrived with plates of jambalaya. “Can I get you two more beers?”

Carson said, “Why the hell not.”

“We’re celebrating,” Michael told the waitress.

“Is it your birthday?”

“No,” he said, “but you’d think it was, considering how sweet she’s being to me.”

“You’re a cute couple,” said the waitress, and she went to get the beers.

Cute?” Carson growled.

“Don’t shoot her,” Michael pleaded. “She’s probably got three kids and an invalid mother to support.”

“Then she better watch her mouth,” Carson said.

In another silence, they ate jambalaya and drank beer for a while, until finally Michael said, “Probably every major player in city government is one of Victor’s.”

“Count on it.”

“Our own beloved chief.”

“He’s probably been a replicant for years.”

“And maybe half the cops on the force.”

“Maybe more than half.”

“The local FBI office.”

“They’re his,” she predicted.

“The newspaper, local media?”


“Whether they’re all his or not, when’s the last time you trusted a reporter?”

“Clueless,” she agreed. “They all want to save the world, but they just end up helping to weave the

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