Brain Thief

Alexander Jablokov

Tor Books

1

For Bernal, the message in the cowboy boot finally confirmed that something was wrong.

Muriel liked to make her communications to her single employee works of art. The one standing on the windowsill at the end of the hall was an elaborately decorated cowboy boot, complete with spur. In it were three foil-wrapped chocolates, bitter-sweet, and a 3 × 5 index card on which was written, in Muriel’s slanted handwriting, "Bernal. What I learned today changes everything. Head over to Ungaro’s lab if you crave an explanation."

Of course he craved explanation. Muriel was supposed to be at the opening of an exhibit of Re nais sance silver at the Cheriton Art Gallery that night, not hanging around the lab of her pet AI researcher.

Impromptu visits to Muriel-funded research programs were what Bernal got paid for. He’d just gotten back from one, a road trip to South Dakota to deal with some bad feelings about the mammoth project, with a few side visits on the way. Bernal rubbed his eyes. It had been a long day’s drive from the campground at Seneca Lake, and he’d been looking forward to a hot shower and quick sleep in a back bedroom, with business left for the next day.

But something had seemed off as soon as he had made it into the house, a quality of deliberate silence. He’d run up the curving staircase to the sconce-lit hallway upstairs and said hello to the tailor’s dummy in the military dress jacket that guarded the low bureau with the turned wood bowl on it. A glance into Muriel’s bedroom had increased his unease.

Clothing lay piled against a radiator. An old wooden soft-drink box, smelling of damp cellar, had been dumped out, and the toys that had once been stored in it, things like stuffed tigers with green eyes and long-obsolete video games, lay scattered across the dark-red oriental carpet at the foot of the bed. A doll’s head had rolled under a highboy. It stared demurely at Bernal from beneath long lashes, one eye half closed.

Found objects, like a wood shoe form, the numerals 61/2 bold black on its side, and a row of glass eyeballs of various colors, rested on top of door moldings, safe above the mess. Her bedside lamp was an Art Deco Atlas nobly holding up a frosted glass circle with a 40-watt bulb behind it. What looked like the contents of her jewelry box had been poured over his patinaed bronze feet.

The yellow silk upholstered daybed was piled with shoe boxes. Dozens of them. He knew that Muriel loved shoes, but this was ridiculous. The entire top layer was new purchases from some store called DEEP. A receipt showed that they had been purchased just that afternoon, and the figure made Bernal’s male eyes bug out.

He’d worked for Muriel for two years now, and he knew how to judge her mood from the disorder in her private space. This was worse than he’d ever seen it. Something was definitely up with her.

A suit bag, unzipped and empty, lay on the bed.

He’d made fun of her for that bag. It usually contained what he called her ninja outfit: fitted black microfiber and kevlar, which she always insisted would come in handy some day if she had to commit a crime. Muriel was somewhere beyond sixty but fit enough to carry the suit off. Accessorized by some usually over-the-top diamonds, the thing actually looked like a real outfit. He understood that she sometimes wore it to the gym. But not to a gallery opening.

Hanging by the mirror was the gown she’d been prepared to wear, a bronze knee-length. If she’d decided to switch outfits, she’d done it recently.

When he saw the cowboy boot on the windowsill, he figured he’d have his answer. But all he got were more questions. He ran his fingers through his hair as he reread the card, wondering what she was up to. Bernal Haydon-Rumi’s fine features, wide brown eyes, and slim build showed his mixed Burmese/Greek/ etc. ancestry, but the hair seemed pretty much his own invention. He wasn’t quite young anymore, but wasn’t sure whether he was going to succeed in becoming anything else.

A door slam downstairs made Bernal jump. Just as he was turning from the window to head down there, a flicker of motion outside caught his eye. He pressed his forehead against the glass and peered through the tree branches to the ground.

A figure in a pink nightgown ran across the lawn, heading toward the garage.

He recognized Muriel.

Excerpted from Brain Thief by Alexander Jablokov.
Copyright 2009 by Alexander Jablokov.
Published in January 2010 by Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.