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About the Author
"I live in upstate New York with my wife and son and have sold stories to Electric Wine, Ideomancer, and Chiarascuro."
The Dead Wife
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I notice her at the opening of my one-woman show in Berlin, the exhibition that marks my acceptance as an important emerging voice in the art world. Five years I've labored towards this day, this show. I'm drunk on rare wine. One of Germany's most influential critics has publicly praised my work, causing a surge of 'sold' markers tagged to the paintings on the walls. Ingenues have been hovering around me like puppies, asking my advice on how to succeed as artists. "You think of paint as though it were oxygen," I've been telling them, and they've said yesyes sagely, pretending to understand. They're wannabes, all of them. You find their type haunting galleries with battered portfolios and attending openings such as this because they secretly believe fame is something that can be absorbed, like sunlight, like heat.
The dead wife stands at the wine table, sipping sherry, the same delicate smile curling her lips that I remember from the old man's estate.
Here. Now. My God.
One of the ingenues touches my arm and asks if I'm all right.
"Time's a circle," I whisper. "Move ahead as far and long as you wish only to end up right back where you started."
The dead wife broke down twice during my time at the old man's estate. Once I found her sitting on the floor in the middle of his sickroom, silent and still and smelling faintly, as always, of wax. I felt for a pulse --- the dead wife's wrist was cold to the touch and firm as plastic --- then commed the estate's gardener and exterior technician, Leon Bauvier.
Leon's face filled most of the screen. Dark skin slick with sweat, straw hat barely containing an unruly mass of dreadlocks, eyes lost behind the mirrored curve of a sun visor. I saw a bit of background; steel poles sprouting a thicket of razor wire and topped by a fist-sized laser turrets. I'd caught him working on the perimeter security fence. We were having a problem with raccoons this year, a prolonged dry spell driving them from the Oregon hills and into the fence's hungry lasers. More than once I'd wakened at night to bubbling animal screams.
Leon pulled up the visor and wiped his eyes. "What's wrong, Yuki? Why are you comming from the sickroom? Is something wrong with Mr. Hampton?"
A month after I came to the estate, the old man stroked out. Anyone lacking his money would have been consigned to the public wards, patients packed together like wood, minimal care. Sour breath, urine, feces, rot-in-progress. The old man was lucky to be rich.
"Still in a vegetative coma, but other than that, he's fine. No, I was taking a break from the studio and found this." Swivel the comm, let Leon see the motionless dead wife, swivel it back. "There's no physical damage I can see, so I'm thinking some sort of programming error's responsible for the breakdown."
"Could you check her out?"
Leon shook his head with a dance of dreadlocks. "I've got my hands full with this damned fence. Anyway, the biodoll isn't my responsibility. Drag the Russian out of his cave, make him do his own work."
The household maintenance was divided neatly. Leon was in charge of the gardens, the boathouse, the security perimeter. Sergei maintained the estate's interior systems; plumbing, lights, heating, cooling. Neither Leon nor I knew the Russian's last name, nor did we care. Sergei lived on vodka, he bathed far too infrequently, he spent most of his off-duty time patched into VR pornography. There wasn't much to like about him.
"Sergei will be drunk," I said.
Leon spat. "Isn't he always?"
I've pulled myself together. It's taken another two glasses of wine. Abandoning the ingenues I trail after the dead wife and her companion as they examine my paintings. I've seen this man's photograph on the financial page. His is a beautiful face, but hard and sharp as a ceramic blade. He's elegant and dangerous, an explosion waiting to happen. Stand too close and boom, little bloody fragments. I remember a short-lived scandal involving a lover of his who disappeared without a trace. The official determination was that the woman ran away to Portugal, that the dangerous man hadn't arranged her death. I don't know. Maybe he's innocent of any crime.
His fingers brush the dead wife's cheek. I may be the only person in the room to see he strays to the throat and gives her windpipe a little squeeze.
The dead wife gently kisses her escort.
My official title at the estate was painter-in-residence. The old man's lawyer found me eating lunch in a filthy Kyoto automat and offered me the position based on the strength of my landscape in the Nagasaki Biennial. My friends in Japan called me an art whore for selling my talents to an American billionaire, but I was the one with the gorgeous studio, the unlimited supplies, the freedom to create without worry of bills. The starving artist makes good. Think of the connections to be forged. This could be the jump-start to a real career.
Well. The best laid plans. The old man had his stroke before I completed a single painting. It turned out that there were no parties to show off my talent, no wealthy buyers for my work. . .
One evening Leon and I ate dinner on the patio while the setting sun wrapped the Oregon wilderness in sheets of flaming red/gold. The old man's estate occupied a small corner of Fremont National Forest, ten thousand hectares of trees and rolling green hills. What had once been a treasure of the American people was now his private retreat. Through political manipulation? Outright bribery? Maybe he'd just bought the land. He had enough money.
"I heard from Mr. Khambi today," I said as the sun slipped behind the distant hills. The old man's lawyer commed me in the studio around noon, breaking my concentration and ruining a morning's work. "The daughters are back in court trying to have the old man declared incompetent."
Leon shook his head. "Twenty minutes after they win that battle, you and I will be out of a job. They've been wanting to sell this land to the timber companies for years." He sighed. "I suppose I'll go back to Haiti."
The old man's children were greedy wretches, but could I claim to be any better? Didn't I spend his money on paint and canvas, turning out artwork he would never see?
"There's one good thing about all of this, Leon."
He raised an eyebrow.
"Sergei will be out, too."
Leon nodded as something stirred in the formal garden, a shadow moving quietly among the roses. He squinted and turned away.
"It's just the fucking biodoll."
I saw Evelyn Hampton pluck a fragrant bloom and walk in the direction of the koi pond. When I was hired back in Kyoto, Mr. Khambi mentioned that I find her to be an eccentricity.
His was an interesting choice of words.
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