From the very first moment he saw her, Miller knew that Stevie was the one.
They met at a party up in the Hills, in a gazebo down by the far end of the swimming pool, out of sight from the main house. Los Angeles lay spread out beneath a sky the colour of a ripening bruise. Light from beneath the surface of the pool rippled across ceramic tiles, beechwood furniture, spiky green shrubs blowing in the warm breeze. It was late and the party was beginning to thin out.
Some sixth sense drew Miller to that spot. Perhaps he noticed an ebb in the movement of guests, people trying not to look like there was somewhere they were trying not to be. Stevie wore a simple dress of purple silk so dark it was almost black, the work of a lesser-known designer. She lay on the ground, convulsing, back arched, thick white foam trickling from the corner of scarlet lips. Miller knelt, ancient knees complaining, and checked startling emerald eyes rolled right back in their sockets. Tugging down the dress, he drove the syringe through her breast bone.
“The dress looked expensive,” he explained, days later. He visited her in the bungalow in the clinic grounds where they had put her to recover. “I thought maybe whoever leant it wouldn’t want it back with holes in.”
Stevie accepted this with a small nod, wearing the same empty, impassive expression she’d worn since she’d snapped to that night, the adrenaline catapulting her back to life. Looking down to see Miller’s wrinkled fist clutching the needle there between her breasts.
“And what did you think I was worth?” she asked. “Think anyone was going to mind me coming home with holes in?”
Miller shrugged, the gesture meant to say that in this city, attractive women are a dime a dozen, that’s just the way it is, what can you do?
(“Not that she isn’t without residual value,” explained Hazelford, morning after the party. Early hours. Practically still the same night. Stood with Miller in the recovery room. Stood at the foot of Stevie’s bed while she lay, somewhere between sleep and unconsciousness. Explaining the paperwork on the screen he held. “She’s signed the double-D.”
Miller whistled, not impressed but willing to humour the clinic chief. He looked at Stevie, her face now relaxed and peaceful, and idly wondered who he owed royalties to for doing so. Double-D. Dual licensed. Digital and DNA. Her appearance and genome licensed away, purchased to be resold for both digital and physical reproduction.
“The rights holders are paying for us to put her back together,” said Hazelford. “So see you do a good, thorough, expensive job, okay?”
“I would’ve thought they’d rather she was out of the way,” said Miller. “You know, make the duplicates worth more, once the original’s no longer around.”
“I guess they think her star’s still got a little way more to rise before a nice lucrative tragic young death. You don’t recognise her?”
“Should I?” Not looking at Hazelford as he said it.
The clinic chief shook his head. “You need to watch more TV. Go to a movie once in a while. It’s not good for someone in our line of business to be so out of touch.”)
“I didn’t recognise you,” said Miller. “Not at first. Of course I know who you are now.”
“Then that makes one of us.” She withdrew into the depths of the thick white robe, pulling it tighter around, hugging it to herself.
Miller moved around the room. The slats across the windows drew bars of golden sunlight across the floor and furniture, the prints on the oatmeal walls, across Stevie curled in one corner of the sofa. He examined the few personal possessions he’d brought from her motel room. He’d thought from the lack of possessions that she’d just been passing though and was surprised to discover that she’d been living there for a few years. Some people just don’t accumulate history.
Miller picked up a fat paperback. A biography of Stephanie Keo. The cover showed bird, some kind of parakeet made of emeralds and rubies. A charm she was fond of. A missing clue from her mysterious death.
“I knew the author,” said Stevie. “We had a thing, for a while. That’s why I have that book. Not because I look like her.”
Miller turned to the inside cover and read the inscription there. ‘You are in every word I write.’ He closed the book, put it back where it had lain, said his goodbyes. He walked through the midday heat, through the sculptured grounds, back to the main clinic building. His office was cool, the conditioned air carrying a chemical tang.
He had barely sat down when Hazelford knocked and put his head round the door. “Got time for a sales consult?”
The couple were maybe a little younger than the norm but otherwise typical of the clinic’s clientele. Expensively dressed, subtly tanned. They would both have unglamorous jobs and healthy bank balances.
“Dr. Miller can answer any concerns you have,” said Hazelford.
Miller perched on the edge of the desk, smoothing down the front of spotless white lab coat. Gravitas oozing from his white hair, the lines etched into his skin.
“You hear so many scare stories,” said the woman.
“They say we still don’t really understand the process,” said the man.
Miller’s thoughts flitted briefly to an emergency room in New York and his first Hillier baby, barely three-months-old, bawling with the pain of the arthritis which was already fusing tiny fingers and toes. Violet eyes rimmed with red.
“The procedure is perfectly safe,” said Miller. “Sure, there may be the occasional report of problems, but those are from the less reputable institutions. Budget chop-shops. Shoestring operations. Places across the border catering for the less discerning.” He smiled. “In all the years I’ve been working here — in fact, I think I’m right in saying in the whole operating history of this clinic — ” He turned to Hazelford who confirmed it with a nod. “ — in all that time, we haven’t had a single erroneous birth or reported defect.”
Hazelford took up the pitch. “If anything, choosing to have your child’s genome designed to your exact specification is far safer than leaving it up to the random chance of so-called ‘natural’ conception. There have been studies. Let me show you some statistics...”
“So what was a baby doc doing at a glitzy showbiz party?” asked Stevie that evening. She had been restless when Miller had dropped round to check on her, talking about checking out early, jumping the fence, so he’d driven her up into the hills. Let her stretch her legs and feel the wind in her hair. They parked up under the HOLLYWOOD sign, right under the large white TM cantilevered out from the D.
“They let me hang around and eat my fill of canapés in exchange for being on hand. Just in case.”
“Just in case some ditzy starlet decides to OD?”
“Something like that.”
“Lucky for me.”
“You and a few others. You weren’t alone. My colleagues caught others. There must’ve been a bad batch doing the rounds.”
They watched the lights of planes drifting slowly towards LAX.
“Have you ever sold one of me?” Stevie asked.
Miller shook his head. “No straight clones, no.” Seeing Stevie’s disappointed look he added, “We’ve given a few kids your eyes. But it looks like boys are in fashion this season.”
“Lots of Dor Hillier clones?”
Miller winced, thought of young children hobbling on prematurely aged joints.
“Isn’t he still popular?” asked Stevie. “Those crazy violet eyes of his.”
Miller chose his words carefully. What to say about Dor Hillier, movie star, original genome licensor, millionaire recluse doing the Howard Hughes thing in the penthouse above Wilde’s Casino in Vegas. “These days, we tend to discourage the choice of Hillier DNA. There have been problems. Issues. Premature ageing. Even in the case of partial splices.”
“It seems no matter how careful was are, there are always… complications.”
Dust devils played in the beams illuminating the sign. Far below, the lights across a couple of blocks went out and then slowly started flickering back on.
“They say I look like her,” said Stevie. “Stephanie Keo. A little, anyway. I played her in a movie. Only made for TV, but it was really me. ‘Hillier and Keo: Until Love Do Us Part’. That was my big break.” She took on the faraway look again. “It was where I met that writer. He was a special consultant or something. Stephanie Keo was his obsession and I looked like her, so…”
Miller turned, carefully studied her profile. “I guess you do. Look like her, I mean. A little, anyway.”
“They thought I might be a copy, at first.”
“She never signed,” said Miller.
“I know. That was my favourite line from the movie. ‘But Dor, how can you stand the thought of all those other people running around wearing your face?’” Again, the faraway look, but this time happy. “They still thought it might be possible. That I was built from some black market sample.”
“Of course not. My mom could never have afforded to have me designed. I wasn’t even planned.”
“Which meant you were free to licence.”
“Yeah. Great. You know all those films? Those games? The blockbusters? You know how many were really me? None of them.”
“Not one. Someone else even does the motion capture. They don’t use me for the voice. I’m just wheeled out to meet the press when it’s all done and rendered and then after the interviews and the premiere it’s back into my box.” She bit her lip, turned to stare away across the city.
Miller drove her back to the clinic, made sure she got safely to the bungalow, then drove home. In the bathroom he removed gritty dry contact lenses and splashed ice cold water over his face. Drying off, he looked at himself in the mirror, blurry under harsh fluorescent lights. In the kitchen he poured himself a drink and carried it the few feet to the sofa. TV on, he dialled up a movie, not even looking at the screen as he did, so familiar was the action.
He watched the biopic all the way through again. Stevie playing opposite a genuine Hillier clone who had never landed another role and who was dead now. Someone had called them, Hillier and Keo, the Taylor and Burton of the Twilight generation. Their lives, together and apart, shot through a filtered of cheap melodrama, played out like a bad soap opera. They took it in turns to battle addiction, to run off with other people. To break up in dark hotel rooms and reconcile on tropical beaches. Until Keo grew tired of her love being dismissed as mere obsession and Hillier realised that her couldn’t live without her.
And so to the denouement, with heaps of artistic licence applied. No one really knows what happened that night. Was she already dead before he kicked in the door to her apartment? Did she die by her own hand? And what happened to Keo’s good luck charm, that emerald and ruby parakeet?
The movie ended. Miller fished out his phone. He punched in a number. Made a call. Made a deal. Arranged a trip to visit Big Sal.
Big Sal. Sal, short for nothing. Not really his name. He chose it for it’s Mafioso sound, although he didn’t have a splash of Italian blood in him. A little on his hands, maybe. But Big, yes. Flabby jowl upon flabby jowl cascading down to ugly flower-print shirts covering an expanse of gut. Fat sausage fingers, squeezed by gaudy signet rings, raising a large glass festooned with fruit and umbrellas in greeting as Miller and Stevie were lead out onto the roof terrace. A hot dry wind blew in from the Nevada desert. Las Vegas, almost restrained in the brilliant daylight, spread out far below them.
“Doctor Miller. So very good to finally meet you in person.” Sal didn’t get up from the crowded table. “And who is your beautiful friend?”
(“Road trip?” asked Miller, when he’d gone to see Stevie the next morning.
“They’re letting me leave?”
“No. Not yet. But I’m leaving, and I can sign you out under my personal supervision, so if you feel like a change of scene…”
“Hell, yes,” she’d said.)
“A friend,” said Miller. He banged the Thermos down on the table as hard as he dared. It had the desired effect.
“Is that him?” asked Sal.
“That’s him,” said Miller, holding a chair for Stevie.
(“What’s in the flask?” asked Stevie, as Miller climbed into the rental car outside the clinic.
“The heir to the throne,” he’d said, and put it away in the glove box.)
“But where are my manners?” Sal made the introductions. They were mostly lawyers. The man with the wire trailing from his ear was introduced as Head of Security. The woman was called Betty. “She’s going to be my baby mama.”
“Hello, pumpkin,” said Betty to the Thermos.
(“How you can tell Hazelford’s had too much to drink,” said Miller, “is he starts asking people whether they want to meet the heir to the throne.”
“The heir to the throne?” They were just outside barstow with the top down, shouting to be heard over the rush of wind.
“Uh-huh. You see, Hazelford collects embryos.”
“Embryos? You mean like — ?”
“Yeah.” Miller flicked his gaze back and forth between the road and Stevie’s open-mouthed expression. “I know. He’s a sick fuck.”
“So he gets loaded and then it’s like, ‘Hey, wanna come back to my place and see my dead baby collection?’”
“Not quite. These embryos are all viable. Held in cryo.”
“And one of these is the heir to the throne? So who’s kid does that make … him? Her?”
“Him. Daddy was the Prince of Pop and mommy was the daughter of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll,” said Miller. He watched Stevie from the corner of his eye as this sunk in.
After a while she said, “But they didn’t have any kids.”)
“Proving parentage will be problematic, although not impossible,” said one of the lawyers.
Miller produced a slim folder. “You’ll want to carry out your own tests, of course — ”
“Of course,” agreed Big Sal.
“ — but here’s everything I could pull from Hazelford’s records. The DNA match should satisfy any court, and there’s a chain of custody stretching back to the original clinic.” He handed the papers across. “I even threw in a little simupic of what he’ll look like as a teen at the back there.”
Big Sal turned to the last page. “That is one fine looking kid. Don’t you think so, baby?”
“Ooh, what a cutie,” said Betty.
The Head of Security leaned in and did a double take. He raised his sunglasses to get a better look. “Just what the fuck is he trying to pull?” He leapt to his feet, a hand sliding inside his jacket.
“What’s got into you?” asked Big Sal.
“What about it?”
“The kid’s black.”
Big Sal rolled his eyes. “Jeez. You’d think that when you paid more than minimum wage you’d be buying a little brains. What? They never taught you no history at school? Sit down. No. Make yourself useful. Go get Doctor Miller’s package, then show our guests to their rooms.”
The package was a small leather case. Alone in his room, Miller opened it. Inside was one of the hotel’s towels, thick and white and fluffy, WILDE’S embroidered in one corner. He unfolded it. The gun was bluish-grey and cold to the touch. Miller worked the mechanism a couple of time, checked the safety, then put it in his pocket and went to meet Stevie for dinner.
They ate on a mezzanine overlooking the casino floor. Neither of them had much appetite. Miller found he couldn’t swallow, so great was his anxiety. He had to wash the food down with great gulps of wine.
Stevie chased pasta shapes around her plate with her fork.
Miller saw his chance.
“Aren’t you going to eat that?” he demanded.
Stevie looked up, surprise and hurt in her eyes. “I — ”
“What the hell’s the matter with you?”
She threw down her fork. “You really want to know? Okay. How much did they pay you?”
“Is that what this is about? You want a cut of my money?”
“What? No! That poor kid. How could — ?”
“I get you out of that fucking clinic, take you away for a few days, and suddenly you think you’re entitled to a share of my business?” Miller stood, took out his wallet, emptied all the cash on to the table. “Here. Take it. But do me a favour, okay? Go find a dealer and OD again.”
He walked away, his heart racing. He headed for the elevators, through rows of crashing and flashing slots. When he was sure Stevie couldn’t see him any more he turned towards a door marked PRIVATE. The Head of Security let him in without a word.
A bank of monitors showed the casino floor. Miller focused on the one which showed the best view of Stevie. He didn’t know what he expected. She was still sat at their table, staring off into the distance, wine glass held absentmindedly in her hand. She hadn’t run back to her room, which was good. Not broken down and sobbing. She must be tougher than the reports had suggested. Maybe her time in the clinic had helped.
Miller stood and watched. Time passed. A man walked up to the table and sat down opposite Stevie. Miller held his breath.
The man was young, maybe in his mid-twenties. (And Miller cursed himself for thinking like that.) Dark shoulder-length hair. Nice suit worn casually. A flash of something golden on his wrist as he shot his cuffs. He toyed with Miller’s discarded wine glass as he spoke to Stevie. Miller could see she was being brought out of her unhappiness. A waiter approached the table and the man sent him away with a wave of his hand. He and Stevie stood and walked away.
Miller slipped out of the room and walked quickly across the casino floor, away from the noise and bustle, towards the private elevators. He timed it perfectly, slipping into the elevator behind Stevie and the man just as the doors were sliding shut.
Stevie opened her mouth to protest. Saw the gun. Froze.
“We were just going for a drink,” said the young man said. “Why don’t you join us?” He had bright violet eyes.
“I’m not here for either of you,” said Miller. “So if you don’t do anything stupid I won’t have to hurt you.”
The elevator glided up the side of the hotel, quickly slowing to a halt. The doors opened on the penthouse. The furniture was Vegas chic, only just the right side of tacky. The walls were glass. Beyond, night was falling and the city, a galaxy of lights, slowly swam into life.
“Then who are you here for?” asked the young man. He wore an amused expression which annoyed Miller.
“You know who,” said Miller. “Show me.”
He marched them from room to room. Everything was ordered with the impersonal neatness of a hotel. One bedroom held a few personal possessions, clothes in the closet, toiletries in the en suite.
“Didn’t find what you’re looking for?” asked the young man. He added, “Doctor Miller.”
Miller’s vision swam. Blood thundered in his ears. He leant against the wall, breathing heavily.
“What about those drinks?” asked the young man. He put an arm around Stevie, shepherded her from the room. Miller followed, the gun still trained on their retreating backs. Feeling control slipping away.
The kitchen was granite and steel. On the central island stood the Thermos flask. Miller saw it. His hands began to shake.
The young man delved in the refrigerator and brought out bottles, cartons of juice, ice. He built three drinks in tall glasses and pushed one across the counter to Miller.
“Here. Looks like you could use it, Doc.”
He handed another glass to Stevie, then held up his own in a toast.
“To long life.”
“Where. Is. He.” Miller hissed the words through teeth clamped shut to keep them from chattering.
Stevie sipped her drink, put it down, picked up the Thermos.
“The heir? Yes,” said the young man.
“How did it end up here?”
“Big Sal works for me.”
Miller felt the room spin. He grabbed the edge of the counter, knuckles turning white.
The young man took the Thermos from Stevie, replaced it with her drink. “Didn’t the Doc let you in on the plan?”
Stevie shook her head.
“Our young friend here doesn’t really figure, except to get him through the door.” He placed the Thermos on a shelf. “To buy him access.” He stood close to Stevie, back to Miller, and spoke softly into her ear. “How’s the Doc looking? I’m afraid to see for myself. Like his carefully crafted plan is falling apart around him? Can you read the despair in his face?”
Stevie backed away from him. The young man laughed.
“They never let me play the bad guy, which is a shame, don’t you think? I’m good at it. Now where was I? Oh, yes. Exposition. Doctor Miller didn’t ask for much in return for delivering the heir to the throne of rock ‘n’ roll. A few million dollars, yes, but just for the look of the thing. A couple of rooms for the night. A gun which he otherwise wouldn’t have been able to smuggle past security. Various other small favours.”
The young man raised an eyebrow. “Oh, come on, Steph. Surely you’ve guessed by now. Don’t be so slow.”
“Don’t call me that,” said Stevie, her voice quiet, calm.
The young man paused. “Did I…? Well, I guess. It’s an easy enough mistake to make. You look so much like her.” He rallied. “Which is, after all, why you’re here. Why he bought you. When they wouldn’t throw in access to this penthouse as part of the deal he had to find another way. Which is where you came in. As bait to lure Hillier out of seclusion. His dead love, living and breathing again. How could he resist?” He paused, studying Stevie, then spoke to Miller without turning. “I think that’s your cue. You’re meant to ask ‘where is he?’ again.”
Miller has his head down, shoulders hunched, leaning on the counter for support.
So Stevie asked the question. “Is Hillier really here?”
The young man sighed. “You really not Steph, are you? You look like her, sure, but she would have got it by now.”
Stevie’s eyes widened. “No,” she said. “ You can’t be. He would be — ”
“As old as the Doc looks.” The young man turned to Miller. “How old are you, really? What colour are your eyes behind those lenses?”
Miller was having trouble breathing.
“Michael Miller the third,” pronounced Hillier, walking around the counter. “You know he’s your age,” he told Stevie. “A couple of years out of med school and look at him. Eh, Doc? How are you enjoying those film star looks Mommy and Daddy bought you?”
Miller thrust the gun at him.
Hillier scoffed. “Do you think I’d let you run around with a loaded gun?” He wrapped his hand around Miller’s, crushing fingers into the gun’s hard metal. Miller’s knees buckled.
“What did you hope to achieve?” asked Hillier. He grasped a handful of Miller’s hair, pulled his head back, looked into his eyes. “Did you think you’d find some cure to your condition? Well, I’m sorry to disappoint you. Really, I am. But there isn’t any science which will help you. You see, I made a deal. A deal with somebody who makes the Genome Licensing Authority or America look like a bunch of puppy dogs and kittens. It cost me a lot. Everything I loved. But look at me now. I live, and each one of you cheap little knock-offs feed me. You’ll — ”
His back arched. From just above the breast pocket of his suit protruded the tip of a kitchen knife. Stevie stepped aside as Hillier fell, and with her back to the island she slumped to the floor besides his body. Miller tried to rise, collapsed. She gathered him to her.
“He would have killed us,” she said. She leant forward, took Hillier’s arm. The skin was old, wrinkled, the limb a thin brittle stick. As she moved it, something gold slid from the sleeve, caught for a moment around the hand, fell to the tiled floor. A small golden chain, and hanging from it, a charm in emerald and ruby. “Just like he killed Stephanie Keo.”