Gary never knocked, he just appeared. Overweight and always on the brink of another adventure or heart attack, Gary had been Bill’s agent for a dozen years. Bill liked him because he was discreet when it came to his interests and obnoxious with the public.
"Round trip tickets on the space plane. You’ll have her back in a week." Gary held up the gold tickets and his half-burned cigarette. In his other hand he carried a briefcase and something that resembled an aluminum lunch pail. He made a beeline to the dinner table at the back of the living room.
"Gary, what about this passport stuff?" Bill stood before the large picture window that overlooked the woods and river at midwinter. Through the trees, the river appeared muscular.
"The Thais will have a big shot onboard, in case there’s trouble. The rest–paid off. Everything’s lookin’ smooth for yours truly who will escort the beautiful Sophia Z back to the US of A and to the house of the great American writer." Gary bowed like a sham magician before sitting down. "Hey, where is she?"
"Changing clothes. Listen, it’s over with Heather. I want Sophie’s memory with her deleted."
"Consider it done."
"I’m tired of all the pollution in my affairs. Why spend even five minutes with some gossipy tramp destined to get old?" he asked, not expecting a response, stomping across the hardwood floor to where his agent sat.
Gary opened the briefcase then rubbed his hands together. "Wow, from Sophie to Sofia, one letter, one helluva change. Blonde to brunette wasn’t a bad choice, either. Now, I brought some photos and a synopsis of all the internal upgrades." He pulled out the contents of his briefcase and shuffled through a stack of coffee-stained papers, loose micro-disks, and schematics.
Bill watched Gary hastily page through Sophie’s original blueprints. "How can you keep these plans in such a shambles?" He delicately moved one drawing into view, a captain fingering his beloved treasure map. "See if there’s some kind of refinement-dampers to smooth out all those martial-arts moves. I’d rather see her dance the Charleston than simulate mass murder."
"You don’t want her to hesitate when you’re in real trouble."
"I’m not talking about a delay. I’m tired of being in a Kung Fu vid every time I raise my voice or chase after those damn birds."
Disgustedly, Bill waved at the brick chimney near the window. A plate covered the duct from an old woodstove removed years ago.
"Blackbirds," he said. "They come down and can’t get back out–screeching the whole time until I take the plate off and chase ’em out the window." He paused, shaking his head. "Sophie took care of the last batch…God, what a mess."
Annoyed by the memory, Bill aimed for Sophie’s room and his heart aimed for a new life. He caught her clipping on a black onyx necklace, her white neck exposed, her perfect slender arms making wings.
"Ready for your flight?"
"Sure." She placed a hand on the dresser and her slouch–a design flaw–became the pleasing curve of an Olympic swimmer. "I wish you were going, too."
"Another time," he replied, managing a smile.
"Sophie, you look great," Gary announced as the two of them emerged from the bedroom.
"Thanks," she chirped.
Sophie wore a black pant suit and mandarin-collared blouse with gold buttons. Both men enjoyed her graceful Tai Chi form as they talked and examined several official documents, courtesy of the Thai government.
"This is a sensitive area I’m entering," Bill said.
"I’ll say, you’re committing a string of felonies in a single week."
Bill shrugged, signed a few papers, and pushed them toward Gary. "Keep it out of the tabloids; away from my friends."
"Of course, always do. By the way…there’s something else I need." Gary monitored Sophie as she leapt across the room in a series of aerial kicks and somersaults, and Bill took notice, too, frowning. "Does she have to practice in here?" Gary asked, drumming the table with his fist."
"Don’t worry, think ballet. So, what do you need?"
"Some of your blood."
"My blood?"
"It’s required. Have Sophie understand–"
"Bullshit! Blood for what?"
Sophie flew across the room and stood at Bill’s side. She stared at Gary with dead eyes.
"Tell her to back off!"
Sophie slashed the air in front of her.
"Sophie, what the hell are you doing?" Bill sighed and looked heavenward for an answer. "Go sit on the couch."
"Is Gary making you uncomfortable?"
"Sit down!" He glared at Sophie, shoving a finger in her face. "Don’t question me."
Direct eye contact still worked. Bill’s optic signature locked on to unique receptors in Sophie’s main processor and reduced other stimuli and conflicting signals to ashes. It was simple: eye-to-eye and she always obeyed. Yet the rush of excitement Bill felt made him believe will power controlled her, not mere programming.
Like an athlete yanked from the game, Sophie silently protested the decision with a scowl, hands on hips, before heading to the couch.
Bill tailed Gary who hurried into the kitchen wiping his broad forehead with a hanky, hanging over the sink, smoking, flicking ashes into the mouth of the garbage disposal. Bill expected Gary to get sick, but Gary’s drink of water and quick nod signaled he was ready to finish the day’s work. The two men returned to the dining room table.
"Let’s get this over with," Bill said, rolling up his sleeve, taking a seat.
From the aluminum case Gary pulled out a syringe. His hands trembled, removing an alcohol wipe from a sealed foil package. "There’s some real tissue used to construct the genitalia," he said quietly, rubbing the crook of Bill’s arm, cleaning the skin. "Helps to establish…a kind of connection…"
"Whatever. You better just stick me once."
The needle went in perfectly.
Bill stared at the barrel filling with blood. "Any news on the Maenad syndrome?"
"Haven’t heard of an outbreak in years. The Thais are brutal in the test phase–the lower classes–fresh meat." Gary made a glum face removing the syringe. He had Bill press a piece of cotton over a tiny drop of blood before applying a band-aid. "Actually, these days they’re more worried about Hollywood types sending back their creations full of holes and burns. I guess the road from foreplay to S&M is a short drive for some people." Proud of his insight, Gary attempted a smile, adding, "Bad PR hurts the company’s family line."
"My concern is to avoid dying at the hands of a woman with five times my strength. Is the central processor inaccessible to outside tampering?"
"Absolutely," Gary said with confidence. "A series of fail-safe mechanisms will put your girlfriend asleep before she rips you in half. Besides, you have a unique relationship with Sophie."
"True. How many people know that when you simply draw the female form or write a silly poem you bring something of the feminine soul to life? Soon I’ll have the woman that all artists call upon to bring their work to fruition."
Heart slowing, finally starting to relax, Gary picked at a thin line of dirt under his fingernail. A smile cut his face in half.
Outside, the snow began falling and the wind drove it sideways. A muffled flutter of wings made Sophie snap her head toward the trapped bird. Bill muttered a curse and dragged a chair over to the chimney.
"Gary, open the side window."
"Wow, it’s a whiteout," Gary said.
Bill removed the plate and waited.
Sitting in the dark hole was a female wood duck. Bill studied the creature while Sophie crouched in a new stance that was immediately offensive to him. Arms forward from her body and slightly bent gave her the appearance of a praying mantis.
"Sophie, resume a normal human stance," Bill said.
"This is the stance when you’re in danger."
"I’m not in danger."
Sophie remained frozen in attack mode, and Gary nervously handed Bill his winter gloves.
Bill made eye contact.
"Sit your ass down and don’t move!"
"Okie dokie," she sang.
The wood duck sailed into the living room and Gary mumbled something about a winter barbecue. As Bill gave chase, he repeatedly glanced back at Sophie whose eyes devoured the bird from a distance. Gary picked up a heavy glass ashtray from the coffee table and held it shoulder level, twisting his body to keep the bird in view.
Cornering the duck, Bill grabbed her. Through his gloves he sensed a current, a bundle of tiny flames mingled with his own pulse.
Releasing the bird at the open window, Bill turned to Sophie who appeared distressed at losing the creature. He shot her a look full of small knives. Gary smirked.
Immediately, another wood duck swooped from the rooftop to join its mate. Bill watched as the two birds found their rhythm in a loose formation flight. Although the snow and wind made him gasp for breath, he leaned further out the window. Staring into the whiteness, Bill’s hands felt bruised by wood duck’s pulse. He tore off the gloves feeling the heartbeat of another life leap between his palms.
Gary ran toward the window, still holding the glass ashtray as if to throw, curious to see what held Bill’s attention. His sudden movement triggered Sophie. Snatching Gary, she bit deep into his neck and fell to the carpet with her prey, arms and legs locked against Gary’s final struggle. His screams quickly diminished to a whimper.
Bill’s curse to the heavens made Sophie look up. He grabbed the ashtray off the carpet, raised it over his head and gazed at her perfect, blood-covered face. Their eyes met and instantly his will vanished, his optic signature cancelled by Sophie’s hunger. Then, slowly, as if leaning over to kiss someone, she returned to Gary’s neck. As the wind moved deeper into the room, Bill lowered his arm and the ashtray slipped from his hand.
He stumbled toward the open window and leaned into the cold air.
The two wood ducks reappeared, flying just above the river–living brush strokes, glamorous and ancient. For several moments they were visible before disappearing into the dense white smoke of winter.