After the hospitals, the grief, and all the damn flowers, Patrick Cole figured killing Hackett would be the easy part.
Cole edged past the concrete lions flanking the pretentiously long driveway to Hackett’s mansion. The moonlit summer night was warm and smelled of damp earth. Arched silver maples shadowed the dark road, forming a tunnel that snaked into the trees. He kissed the tiny auburn ponytail from Maddie’s first haircut and tucked it back in his wallet with her biometric I.D.
He had to take the carving knife the biggest he owned—out of his belt to put the wallet away. He gripped the sweat-slick bone handle tight.
The call of a nightbird broke the quiet night. Cole swallowed hard and forced his shaking legs to move. Crushed gravel shifted under the worn tread of his work boots as he hurried toward the house.
Three sleek red sports cars sat between a stone fountain and the double-wide front door. He sidled between the cars, wary of alarms. Fortunately, Hackett could afford privacy. The nearest neighbors were a quarter-mile away. Unfortunately, he could also afford private security.
Cole ignored the door and headed left, pushing through the hedge at the side of the house. The sickly sweet scent of bruised privet stung his nose and for one heart-stopping moment he fought down the tickle of a sneeze.
Sudden noise from the back yard froze him mid-step, sent a chill down already tight back muscles: the sound of brutal blows, flesh on flesh, grunts of violence delivered. But no guards came running. No dogs barked.
“Stop, you’re killing me!”
Cole risked a glance into the yard. Two men wrestled on the dark ground behind an empty swing set. The man on the bottom wore muddy cotton pajamas. The one on top had a tailored suit, cuffs riding up as he strangled his opponent.
The loser struggled to peel the fingers away from his throat but his strength was failing. With a last effort the man twisted, arms thrashing on the ground in a frantic search for the nickel-plated pistol that gleamed in the moonlight.
Cole sprinted across the fresh-cut grass. He grabbed the gun and stood over the fighting men. The strangler looked up, startled, his handsome face straight from Cole’s nightmares.
No hesitation. Cole shot Hackett through the head. Blood flowed black in the pale light as the corpse slumped to the grass.
Only then did Cole flush with adrenaline and his hands start to shake. His voice sounded strange in his ears as he said, “There, it’s done.”
The fractured laugh bubbling up his throat brought a bitter swell of nausea. He pulled out Maddie’s ponytail and gave it one final kiss. Then he put the gun to his temple.
“Here I come, baby girl.”
The man on the ground pushed himself up and into the light. His face was identical to that of the man lying dead beside him.
“What the hell?” Cole said, the pistol sagging in his grip. “You’re twins?”
He aimed the gun again.
“Wait! I know you,” said the kneeling man. He gestured at the body. “He killed your kid.”
Cole hesitated, saw the man swallow and grab at the chance to explain.
“I’m sorry about your daughter, Mr. Cole. Accelerated cloning works but the viral gene transfer was flawed.” The man’s face pinched in regret. “In rare cases it caused activated pseudo-progeria, but Hackett couldn’t wait for a fix. He wanted the money, the fame.”
Blood was trickling from the man’s nose. He wiped it away. “I read the secret report, the one he buried. Like he planned to bury me.”
Cole saw it now, a hole dug in a nearby flowerbed, the shovel stuck in a mound of loose soil.
“Tell me everything,” he said, the gun still aimed.
The explanation came quickly. James Hackett had a problem. His wife was tired of living with a megalomaniac. She threatened to leave him, and she owned half the company.
So he made a beta-version of himself in secret. While the original built the company he sent the copy—”Call me Jim,” said the man in the pajamas—to keep the wife and kids happy.
“Which I did,” Jim said. He cast a speculative look at Hackett’s remains. “But I guess he thought I must be as ruthless as he was. He decided to get me before I got him.” Jim pulled himself to his feet.
Cole stepped back but kept the gun up and ready. “But you know what he knew,” he said, his voice gaining strength. “You have access to the company and its equipment?”
“Yes.” Jim frowned. “Why?”
Cole lowered the gun and extended his other hand, the one cradling Maddie’s ponytail.
Jim stared for a long moment before nodding. “It won’t be her, you know. Just a close copy.”
“Close enough,” Cole said.
“I’ll do it,” Jim said. “If you help me bury the body.”
Killing Hackett had been harder than he expected. Making a deal with the devil? That was the easy part.
Food for Thought
This story crystallized as a rumination on the moral quagmires surrounding new technologies, revenge, and the lines between right and wrong. The challenges of applied ethics come when morality meets the road: Can the pressures of loss, the responsibility of a parent to their child, or the immorality of others justify one’s own questionable behavior? Is justice absolute or relative? Which hold greater sway, the malleable laws of society or what some may see as a greater benefit? Do the ends ever justify the means? Can beauty come from a questionable act? And whose life, exactly, is the main character trying to resurrect?
About the Author
J.R. Johnson is a future historian, geographer of the imaginary, and social engineer with an emphasis on business ethics. For more on her latest projects visit jrjohnson.me.
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