Aethra

December 23, 2021

Translated by Thalia Bisticas

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Michalis Manolios is a mechanical engineer currently living in Athens, Greece. His first science fiction novel, Αγέννητοι Αδελφοί (Unborn Siblings), was published by Kleidarithmos in 2014 and his second, Το βιβλίο και η περφόρμανς (The book and the performance) by Kedros in 2019. He has also published three collections of short stories: Σάρκινο Φρούτο (Fleshy Fruit, Triton, 1999), Καλλίμορφη (Kallimorphe, Kedros 2020) and …και το τέρας (…and the beast, Triton, 2009), from which the short story “Aethra” won the 2010 Aeon Award. His short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies in Greece, Italy, Ireland, the United States, the Philippines, and China.
Content Warning(s):
Alcohol, Blood/Gore, Sexism and misogyny

Madam is looking at herself. Of course, that’s not so rare in this house, but this time Madam is doing it with great gravity. I can see her, of course, from afar. My world is like a watchtower: it looks onto all the floors and so now I can see Madam looking at herself. It’s night and Madam is getting ready to go out. So she is looking at herself, but not in the mirror. And then, she takes her gun from the coffee table and—I don’t believe it—unlocks the table and leaves.

§

Shit, I think as the hoverscooter alternately flirts with the air and the water. Nice work. Can’t even get a good night’s sleep. I woke up in the middle of the night from a dream that I was in a house with bodies rotting in every corner. I jolted up only to remember that I had to go to Aethra’s in the evening. Nice work.

In a little while, the island of Folegandros came into view. Aethra’s villa perched up on the rock. I took the road and went through the main gate. I had no trouble finding the parking lot on the vast estate, and I finally turned off the tortured engine. I plugged the vehicle into a recharging unit and made my way to the house, not knowing if I should be marveling at the sweeping expanse of gardens being tended by indefatigable little robots or the spectacular view stretching beyond the stone wall.

Then the door opened.

“Good evening, Inspector.”

Maybe it was because of my biased predisposition or because the sun was on its descent towards the horizon, but her smile seemed somewhat mysterious. But I imagine that it was, in fact, that same front-page smile that, along with the extremely handsome facial features, had helped her get so far ahead in the art world.

“Good evening … uh … Aethra,” I muttered moronically. As an artist, she went by her first name only, and “Ms. Aethra” sounded terribly wrong.

“Aren’t you going to go through the rubrics, Inspector?”

“Certainly …” I mumbled like an embarrassed schoolboy. “This is an unofficial visit. My embedded cameras have been turned off, I have not been accompanied by a district attorney and I do not have a search warrant. Whatever we say is off the record.”

“Please come in.” Her smile widened, as did the opening in the door.

Naturally, I had heard of Aethra’s villa. All of Greece had, although she had never allowed it to be photographed or filmed. But when you have to make ends meet on a paycheck just big enough to maintain one clone in the public tanks in case something happens to you, well, seeing so many at first glance like that leaves you with your jaw sweeping the floor and you can’t tell what’s more daunting: the cost or her taste.

There was another reason I was so stunned. Aethra’s work wasn’t the only reason that she was the media’s darling. The creature escorting me to the interior of the house could, even now in her thirties, easily win any beauty contest. So entering the house and counting at first glance one, two, three, even four Aethras, in the most sensual of positions, wearing the least amount of clothing possible during the hot Grecian summer, I suddenly realized that I belonged to the wrong gender for this mission. I now understand why the guys down at the precinct teased me when I got the assignment.

Don’t make a complete ass of yourself, my boy! I thought in a panic. Make sure you don’t totally ruin the police’s image. Don’t look around. Keep your eyes on the hostess and above all, don’t go grabbing anything! Jeez, any normal guy in here would charge like a bull in a china shop and here I am, the dickhead, coming to talk about a homicide!

Directly opposite, on the mantelpiece, sat a clone in the lotus position. She was stark naked, an exact copy of her mistress. Her ribcage expanded with each inhalation. She followed my every move with a Buddhist gaze of creepy serenity. How much craft, how many test runs, and how much money had to be spent to give a clone that kind of look? I didn’t know and I didn’t want to find out. One thing was for sure: Aethra knew how to do her job.

“Sit down, make yourself comfortable,” she said, adopting a chatty tone from the outset.

My next problem was precisely that: where to sit. The seats she was indicating were two devilishly conceived clones lying prone on cube-shaped platforms. Their perfect, long legs were bent at an obtuse angle, knees to the face. Their undoubtedly reinforced hands firmly clasped the platforms under their slightly raised pelvises. Between the legs of one, canvas strips were woven and between the other’s was a leather mesh that didn’t seem to be attached. In my state of consternation, I noticed that this mesh had veins in it and I decided to sit in the canvas armchair. As I approached, the clone vacantly gazed at me with Aethra’s eyes, perhaps calculating my weight. Her chest was bare beneath the canvas strips. Fortunately, though, she was wearing a sufficiently modest pair of dark panties without which I would have literally found myself in an even more embarrassing position. I sat on the back of her thighs and gradually rested my back on her calves. It was comfortable, damn it all, and it was warm. Her legs molded themselves as much as they could to the contours of my body. Her heels delicately touched the nape of my neck and the soles of her feet became a cushion for my head. I realized that she was holding her breath until she had adjusted her position because she suddenly exhaled and I slightly sank into the chair. Aethra, still standing, seemed to be wholly amused by the situation.

“What can I get you? Coffee? Orange juice?”

“Yes, an orange juice would be just fine.”

As she left for the kitchen, I surveyed the coffee table next to me. A cleverly designed minimalist aluminum frame constrained her every movement. Her blonde hair was short and she wore a gag. She looked straight ahead and I noted that eight deep fingernail scratches ran the length of her half-naked buttocks. This really ticked me off. I mean, I’ve seen some crazy shit in my time, but I had never laid eyes on this kind of kinky human décor before. Worst of all, though, was that I could feel the blood rushing to my groin. Rushing and not going away. To be blunt, I started getting a hard-on. I stood up in a fluster and the sensual seat released a faint sigh.

The room was enormous and chock full of ideas. Between the fireplace and the endless back veranda, which, of course, overlooked the Aegean, there was a large cylindrical column of thick glass filled with water that disappeared through the ceiling to the next floor. The effect was that when you looked towards the veranda, you could see the island of Santorini totally immersed in water as if the volcano had indeed had its last word. To the right of the water column was the western window. I nearly choked on the lump in my throat. I had never seen a live person built into a wall. Her splayed limbs were embedded in the window frame, her arms up to slightly above the elbows and her legs up until just above the knees. The rest of her body served as a window grille, the rays of the oncoming sunset filtering through her hair and outlining her impeccable curves. She turned her head towards me and let out a nervous little sound. Something ominous glinted in her mouth and something nasty slowly churned in my stomach.

I approached with my hands clasped behind my back.

Aethra’s perky breasts were as tempting as the ones of Venus from the neighboring island of Milo. Up close, I could see that the clone had a gold, Y-shaped stud in her mouth. The bottom part pierced her lower lip, went through the tip of her extended tongue, and continued upwards forking under the nose so the prongs entered each nostril. The spherical tips prevented its removal. Damn! I’d flip before I ever got back to Athens.

“Llll,” went the clone.

I glanced back over my shoulder for my hostess, who was taking so long with the orange juice. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

“Are you Aethra?”

A stressful nod.

“You’re not a clone?”

Decisive shake of the head.

I turned away with my face in my hands, but my eyes met again with Buddha’s gaze and I remembered that Aethra was a specialist in deriving anthropomorphic reactions from the absolute absence of consciousness. I turned again towards the window. It was looking me in the eyes. As I lowered mine, I noticed the small plate on the pedestal: Imaginary Self. That kind of humor was beyond me.

Opposite the water column was the only piece I was prepared for. The unique clone of the Ambassadress slowly revolved on its pedestal. Balancing in the midst of an eternal step, arms open wide, palms upturned, she smiled optimistically and benevolently on those for whom she had been created. Her only garments were the stellar neighborhood of Earth, tattooed on her belly, her navel symbolizing the mother planet, and a galactic map on her back. It was a statue that Phidias himself would have envied if it had not possessed a pulse and a temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. A platinum cylindrical hairpiece engraved with a greeting in binary code held her hair up in a ponytail so it didn’t fall over the map. An inscription on the pedestal told her story.

It was about five years ago that my hostess had reached the pinnacle of her success. When that wormhole connecting us to the neighboring galaxy of Andromeda opened up for the first time, they had asked us to send them something representative and inanimate. We sent Aethra’s Ambassadress.

I then heard Aethra make a little grunt in the kitchen in the back, but at the same time I heard Aethra say, “It’s okay, it’s fine.” Without the slightest curiosity to find out what was going on, I hastened back to my seat, avoiding the pleading gaze of the walled-in clone inarticulately begging me to free her. I cautiously sat myself down again.

“I hope I didn’t keep you waiting too long.” Aethra smiled, setting my juice—where else?—on the coffee table. She stretched herself out on the leather-“skin” armchair. For a second there I thought it would rip under the weight, but apart from a slight adjustment sigh, nothing happened. “So, Inspector? I’m all ears.”

Well, that was it, damn it. The first five minutes at Aethra’s had proven to be very tough. I needed a normal environment to start off this damned conversation.

“Um, you know, Aethra, I believe that the Department made a mistake sending me here.”

Frown.

“They should’ve sent a woman. Or a eunuch, if you catch my drift,” I said and then added to the mirth of her laughter that was breaking the ice, “Perhaps we could go somewhere a little less … distracting for me?”

“Ha! Yes, of course. Let’s go out onto the back veranda.”

“Ah, yes. Can I ask you an irrelevant and perhaps rather personal question?” I asked as I rose to my feet with relief. “Would you explain this here? I imagine it must be a very expensive clone.”

Again that relaxed smile. “You mean the red scratches? Oh, Inspector, it is indeed a personal question, but I will answer it for you. You see,” she said, as we walked over to the veranda, “no clone is more valuable than its prototype. And there are certain things I do not … do. So when I don’t want to leave a good friend unsatisfied …”

“Like Hector Dimou, for instance?” I asked, catching sight of a large shadow descending inside the water column.

“Like the late Hector Dimou, yes. Inspector, allow me to introduce Aethrita.”

The creature that had quickly dived over to us was nude, veiled only in something of an azure blue, a cross between opaque leather and scaly skin. I looked for webbed hands and feet, but everything was normal. This did not prevent the creature’s movements from being beautifully dream-like or her long blonde hair from undulating into fantastic patterns in the buoyancy of the water. She laid her hand flat on the glass between us and her intelligent eyes flitted back and forth between me and her splayed fingers.

“Hello, Aethrita,” I said stupidly and raised my hand in a feeble attempt to keep up my end of the unachievable handshake.

“Don’t be fooled by her eyes,” Aethra read my thought. “She barely has the intelligence of a mouse.”

“Even so …” I started, but she was, almost indifferently, tapping the base of the water column with her foot, where the license number was discretely attached.

“Don’t worry, Inspector. I’m more human than artist.”

We went out onto the veranda and Santorini, which hadn’t been submerged, after all, offered an incomparable view in the distance. The sun was setting to our right, towards Milo, which wasn’t visible, however. I gazed at the sea, gathering my thoughts and then turned to Aethra. Unlike the clones, she was dressed in loose white clothes: unrevealing flowing pants and shirt. I imagine that she had no need to show off her figure and particularly to a cop, especially in her home.

“Alright, let’s start at the beginning,” I said. “Hector Dimou arrived here on Tuesday afternoon. He spent the night and left Wednesday morning. He was seen in Athens at approximately one o’clock midday and in Thessaloniki at the Dodeka Gallery at around five in the afternoon. He dined with friends on the Halkidiki peninsula and made a quick trip over to Samothrace on Thursday morning, but hastened to return to Thessaloniki because he was feeling very indisposed. By late afternoon he had died. I assume you have been filled in up to here.”

“Yes,” said Aethra gravely. “I would just like to add that he may have spent the evening here, as you said, but he didn’t spend it with me. I left on Tuesday night for the island of Amorgos and I didn’t get back until the next afternoon as many, many friends have already attested to.”

“Correct. I am aware of that. So, the autopsy showed that a rare slow-action poison, whose name I can barely remember and which I certainly cannot pronounce, was responsible for his death. The poisoning has been estimated as occurring between Tuesday and Wednesday night.”

“Precisely,” she said with a hint of a smile. “From what it seems, he could have been poisoned by at least half the population of Greece.”

“Something to that effect. So I’m here to ask you a few things, which, by the way, have nothing to do with your alibi. First of all, do you have any poisons on the premises?”

“Hmm … I don’t know exactly what you’re looking for, Inspector, but I’m sure I have one or two substances that could kill a person like any household does. The pesticides used in the garden, for example, or other medication I have for myself or the drugs the maintenance robots use for some of the clones could, in large doses, do the job.”

“Could I have a list of these drugs?”

“Why not? I could have the maintenance supervisor send you a printout.”

“Fine, that would be very useful. Tell me something else. Did you have any visitors while Dimou was here?”

“Not while I was here—until Tuesday night, that is. But not after I left, either.”

“How do you know that?”

“Look, although the house is not under electronic surveillance, there are two guard robots on the grounds. If an intruder had gotten in, I would know.”

“What if it was someone the robots already knew?”

Confident smile. “Inspector, the best surveillance system in this house is its décor and furnishings. If anyone had gotten in, I would have been informed upon my return from Amorgos. And believe me, my clones always tell me the truth.

“I see. So then that leaves the matter of the clones. How many do you have exactly?”

“Ahh, Inspector, that is a matter for the tax inspectors,” she said smiling broadly.

“Alright, tell me something else then. Do you have free clones?”

“Of course not. I would be suicidal if I did, especially as far as semi-sentient clones are concerned. None of my clones have both the brain and the freedom to hurt a human if that’s what you’re asking.”

“So a semi-sentient clone couldn’t instruct another …”

“My semi-sentient clones can’t speak. And you seem to forget that almost all the decorative clones are mutated. Many of them can’t even walk. Do you think that those armchairs or the Buddha on the mantelpiece could walk on over and have a chat with us?”

“I see. Tell me exactly what you think Dimou did while you were away.”

“I’m sure you’ve read my statement. I think he crashed out. We had had quite a bit to drink and he was quite … fatigued. He went up to my room and slept like a log.”

“How do you know he slept in your room?”

Smile. “I have witnesses. He got up on Wednesday morning, had a bite to eat, and went on his merry way. And I have nothing more to add on this matter.”

I had drawn a blank. Not even a tiny lead. Timing was critical and I wasn’t at all sure I had made any progress whatsoever. I was afraid I hadn’t created the kind of atmosphere I needed to make some headway. Shit! They really should’ve sent a woman.

“So Inspector, I don’t think you made this whole trip from our wonderful capital just to ask me these four or five questions. There are such things as phones in this day and age.”

“No, the truth is that I made the trip myself due to the … uh … singularity of the house where Dimou slept. I wanted to see the place for myself, see the clones he saw, and see … you.”

“So,” she quipped, “now that you’ve seen everything, are we through?”

“I’m afraid not. I’ve only seen the living room. Aethra, it would be a great help if I could see the whole house. And the rest of the clones.”

“Oh, I’m afraid we are finished. This is as far as I go helping the police. I’m not giving you the key to my private life. My dear Inspector, I am sorry,” she said as she rose to her feet. “Get yourself a nice little search warrant and I will be happy to help you out, although personally I really can’t see the reason why I should.”

I got up too, cursing under my breath. I mumbled something stupid and she saw me to the door. I was letting myself have it on the way to the driveway. I continued berating myself until I realized the hoverscooter was not about to cooperate. It took me a while to discover that the circuits were totally shot. I was in deep shit. I immediately called Athens. A technician told me to check a couple things and then decided that he had to send a crew over. Great. I went back up to the house with my tail between my legs.

“The circuits? What’s this all about, Inspector? Some kind of ploy so you can spend the night here?”

“No! Really! You know these things have a mind of their own sometimes. One minute they’re working; the next they’re not,” I tried to explain as I mentally cursed Maintenance. “I’ve already contacted Athens, but they can’t get here till tomorrow morning.”

“So now what do you want?”

“Nothing. I’ll just drag it out to the road until morning …”

Aethra looked skywards and huffed. “Come inside, my man.” She abruptly motioned towards the interior of the house. Suddenly I could do nothing but obey her. “Seems to me you don’t know what you’re doing. It’s summer, my friend. Summer on Folegandros and not only will you not find a room, you won’t even find a stool to sit on.”

“Look, don’t worry about me. I can sleep in the hoversc—”

“Sit down!” she snapped.

Wow, the lady had a temper and wouldn’t take no for an answer. In my haste to sit down, I chose the skin armchair. Disgust and delight.

“Listen to him! Sleep in the hoverscooter! You’ll freeze during the night and be burnt to a crisp in the morning, my little city slicker. Let me think.”

She went upstairs and I found the opportunity to stand up. Both the skin and the canvas armchairs eyed me with the calm calculating gaze of a living scale. I remembered they couldn’t walk. The muscles of their arms were somewhat relaxed until the next weight came to rest on them.

I turned my back on them, cursing the hoverscooter.

Aethra came down the stairs with an electronic notepad in hand. She seemed calmer now. “It might not seem that way, but this is your lucky day. What’s your name again, Inspector? Not that. Your first name. OK, Costas. Are you sure you’ve switched off all those embedded doodads?”

“Yes. I turned them off as soon as I got off the phone with Athens.”

“Come on. Let’s go and chill on the veranda again. The colors get better just after sunset.”

I couldn’t believe it. What I hadn’t managed to do, the stupid scooter had! She treated me to a cold beer and I decided that perhaps the best way to get the job done was to forget I was on duty. There I was, with Aethra, just the two of us—so to speak—in her home. Who wouldn’t love to be in my shoes, man? The colors on the horizon were truly magnificent. We didn’t say a word until the second beer. She was a fast drinker and was pulling me along with her. She launched into conversation.

“An artist! Yes, an artist. But you have to be all kinds of other things, too. A cross between a biologist and an engineer, a psychologist and a model of yourself. The most tiring thing is the design. The design and all the mistakes that can crop up. Will it have joints at the knees or will the legs have one long bone? Does it need a backbone or will that put a strain on it for no reason? How long does it have to last? What parts have to be fortified? And the most difficult decision: how much does it need to comprehend? Should it be able to interact at all? I want certain facial expressions and how do I achieve these? What kind of maintenance does it need and how do I regulate the metabolism? And, of course, there’s the math: how do I lower the cost without affecting the lifespan?”

As I listened, my hair stood on end. She explained all about the physical check-ups, the endless red tape, and the necessary consciousness tests to get the permits; the delicate task of programming the maintenance robots and how incredibly important they were. And she explained about the procedure and methods of retirement. It was all very sobering despite the alcohol I was consuming.

“I’m going to go make us a bite to eat. Would you like to keep me company in the kitchen?”

I did. But I can’t—I don’t want to—describe how she ran her kitchen. I only lasted about ten minutes in there. Then I practically made a run for the bathroom, but fortunately managed not to puke. It wasn’t out of disgust though. So many people must have seen that kitchen. It was a mixture of horror and disgrace. In the bathroom, after I had calmed down, I noticed a large round bathtub with a clone leaning over one end of it holding an empty jug. She was peeking at me conspiratorially with a faint smile on her lips. I wondered how one filled the bathtub since there was no faucet and no button to press or knob to turn to get water flowing out of the jug. I must have wondered aloud because suddenly the clone’s smile broadened and water started pouring out of the empty jug into the bathtub.

“Okay, that’s enough,” I commanded and I approached because it didn’t seem that the jug was connected to any water pipes. Up close I was able to make sure that the jug touched nothing but the clone’s leg.

Back to the veranda for a candlelight dinner. The excellent food was accompanied by a mature red wine. We had finished our meal when I asked, “Don’t you feel strange doing what you do? I mean, some see it as extremely narcissistic and others consider it totally sadomasochistic.”

“It is very lucrative. And I’m very good at it. Truth be told, I have, at times, had notable success in other forms of art. But, you know, living art always piques the curiosity more. Looks help too, of course.”

“Yeah, but in your own home?”

“Some of the most famous people in the world often stay at my house and they are usually my best clients too. So, you see, my house is something of a showcase.”

I nodded. I comprehended without really understanding. She smiled condescendingly.

“Come on, Costas, grab your glass of wine and come let me show you why no clone of mine could have murdered poor Hector. I think the only one you haven’t seen is the one up in my bedroom.”

We went up the stairs with Aethrita following our ascent as she floated upward in her water column. The room was predictably huge, the top of the water column at one end of the room and the enormous bed at the other. On the wall over the bed was the Crucifixion. Black hair in a boy-cut, with covered chest and loins, she hung at a definite forward slant. A large mirror on the ceiling made the allusion to Dali even more pronounced.

“The nails have been driven through the hands, as tradition would have it, and not through the wrists, as the practice truly was. In anatomical terms this is not possible, so you may well realize that certain modifications were needed as well as to fully heighten the clone’s endurance.”

At the sound of her voice, the clone slightly raised her head, her eyes bleary.

“Is this the bed where Dimou slept?”

“This is it.”

While we were walking towards the other end of the room, I heard a voice from the crucifix. “Hey you, cop.” I turned towards it in surprise. “I did it,” the crucified clone declared gravely. I nodded.

“She’s a semi-sentient one!” I whispered to Aethra intensely. 

“It’s a commission that was cancelled,” she apologized. “As you can see, she couldn’t come off the cross and she certainly couldn’t be put back on.”

“You could never get a permit for such treatment!”

“Come on now, Costas,” went Aethra with quiet confidence, reaching the water column. “I showed her to you without being obliged to. You think I’m violating the law? Turn me in. But this is not what you came for.”

She pressed a button and a red light went on in Aethrita’s watery world. The clone swam over to a specific spot in the tank and proffered her hands and feet to a mechanical device that automatically locked them in handcuffs. “Sometimes I take a dive and so I take precautions, you know.”

Aethrita dolphined up to the surface where we were. Smiling, Aethra stretched out her hand and when the clone was close enough, she suddenly dunked her hand in the water and pulled Aethrita’s head out of the water by the hair. “Look here, behind the ears,” Aethra said as the aquatic clone flailed. “See the gills? She can jump out of the water, but after two steps she’ll be flopping about on the floor like a fish.”

“Water,” whimpered Aethrita.

Aethra let go of her and switched on the green light indicating she could be freed of her handcuffs. “She’s semi-sentient, she’s faithful, and she’s my favorite.”

Down to the living room again.

“You must’ve seen the water bearer in the bathroom. It’s a stupid clone that only knows about pouring and testing the water’s temperature. She can’t move anyway. Like the Ambassadress here. She doesn’t know anything. Her brain’s permanent command is “remain still.” Then we have the Buddha with the same level of intelligence, and the ladies here,” she said indicating the armchairs, “who are good only at solid geometry and calculating weight. Now, the coffee table is exactly what its name indicates, and, as you can see, the metal frame totally confines her. Because she doesn’t have any anatomical modifications, her maintenance is very demanding. Apart from everything else they do, the robots see that she changes position regularly during the day by shifting the metal frame. In any case, she remains locked round the clock.”

“The scratches are fresh. Did Dimou make them?”

“Hector always wants a little something extra.”

“He wrote a castigating review of your work last year.”

“I’ve never had a perfect relationship with anyone.”

“Not even with one of the many friends you partied with in Amorgos, right after Hector?”

“Not even with them,” was the even response. “It’s just that with Hector, we thought up to the very last minute that we could keep business and our personal life separate. In any case, at some point, a critic’s job demands that he becomes unpleasant.”

“And then why on Tuesday night when he asked you for “a little something extra,” did you give him your most valuable clone?”

“Because Hector wouldn’t settle for anything less than me.” She led me over towards the window. “And if you don’t count Aethrita, the coffee table was the only one left, since the window over here is built into the wall.”

The walled-in clone was quiet now. She stared mostly at Aethra without protestations. Aethra laid her hand on her double’s shoulder as if she were leaning on an old friend. The tour seemed to be over and, of course, she had made no mention of what she had in the kitchen.

“You’re tired,” she observed with a smile. I nodded. “Well, if you don’t mind sleeping in the same bed Hector did, then my room is at your disposal.”

“What about you?”

“I’ll make myself comfortable elsewhere. You sure you can find your way?”

I took advantage of the unexpected opportunity of being able to examine the room closely, indifferent to the fact that the crucified clone was sure to report my activities to her mistress. But after being unable to find anything out of the ordinary, I sank onto the bed, thoroughly riled by the whole situation and with, of course, the tortured body hanging over my head. At the other end of the room, Aethrita’s water column softly glowed under its hidden lights.

§

Madam is looking at herself. Of course, that’s not so rare in this house, but this time Madam is doing it with great gravity. I can see her, of course, from afar. My world is like a watchtower: it looks onto all the floors and so now I can see Madam looking at herself. It’s night and Madam is preparing for the final battle. So she looks at herself, but not in the mirror. And then, she stands up in front of the coffee table and motions to me to go and call him.

§

I couldn’t sleep despite the luxurious bed. Still in my clothes, I had the vague feeling I was in danger. I finally started to doze off when a voice came from above.

“Hey.”

Terrified, I raised my eyes to the Crucifixion and its mirrored image in the ceiling. The perfect bodies faintly glimmered in the light coming from the water column.

“I did it,” she whispered breathlessly.

Suddenly it dawned on me. You pathetic, dime-a-dozen Sherlock, did I need to spell it out? It had taken me a while, but it was all starting to come together. I immediately called Athens and got put through to Nikos, who had gone to Amorgos to get testimonies about the orgy Aethra used as her alibi.

“Most of the participants were from other islands, but there were some locals there too. Yes, there’s one who claims to have spent most of the night with Aethra. Wake him up and ask him what? At this time of night?”

I hung up and as I waited for him to call me back, I pulled out my gun. But I was too tired to stay awake. I merely pointed it toward the door and slipped into nightmares that were better than reality.

§

Drip.

I jolted up in bed. Something had dripped. On my forehead. Blood had dripped on my forehead. My chest heaved and I cursed under my breath. I didn’t want to look at my watch, afraid that I still had the whole night ahead of me. And still nothing from Amorgos. I pulled the pillow towards the middle of the bed and I prepared to sink back to sleep when I heard the lapping of water.

“Madam is looking at herself!”

Intelligence of a mouse my ass! But now I knew better. I got up and tiptoed out of the room, looking all around as the aquatic clone sank downwards. Downstairs the living room was clear. Any Madam that may have been here was gone. I made my way in the dim light towards the coffee table and made sure that the scratches were still there. Then I untied her gag.

“Aaa! I’m Aethra!” she whispered. “She’s the coffee table, a full clone! Check the scratches!”

“I’m already doing that,” I reassured her and tied the gag back on because there was a sound coming from the veranda. She shook her head to and fro. A white silhouette emerged from behind the water column. Aethrita watched from her post.

“Having trouble sleeping, Inspector?” Aethra asked as she approached, “or are we out getting more testimony?”

She sat in the canvas armchair and lay her hand protectively on the coffee table. “You know, Inspector, all semi-sentient clones here would tell you that they are the real Aethra. Of course, in my presence they all adore me. You see, whether or not they continue their sorry existence wholly depends on their mistress’s whims.”

She caressed the coffee table’s back. At the same time, something metallic glinted in her other hand. Despite the dim lighting, I could see that the walled-in clone had suddenly turned her head from the window. She gave a whimpering “Llll.”

“You know what this is, Inspector? A simple paper clamp. And now look what Madam can do here. Look what has happened many a time in our happy home.” She grabbed the coffee table by the hair. The table shook her head violently but to no avail. The next minute the clamp was on her nose.

My body suddenly pitched forward in her direction, my hand on my gun. “If you don’t take that off her this minute, I swear that I’ll resurrect Mendel himself, and Dolly, too, if need be, to figure out who is who in here.”

The coffee table was twisting and turning as far as the metal frame would allow. “I’m touched by your concern, Inspector,” Aethra said as she removed the clamp from the table’s nose. “But didn’t I tell you that this is an extremely valuable clone?” The kneeling woman on the floor next to her gasped for breath. Aethra stood up.

“Come, Inspector. The time has come for some explanations. Come with me so I can give you mine.”

I let her lead me up the stairs to the bedroom. The clone on the crucifix raised her head again as if to make sure that her mistress was there, and then she hung it again. Although the creature in white standing before me did not go to the trouble of turning on the lights here either, it seemed to me that something had changed in her expression.

“Put your gun away, Costas,” she said, changing her mode of addressing me again. “You won’t be needing it,” she added as she unbuttoned her shirt. I was ready for the sight of her beautiful body, but not for the lacerations on it outlining a brassiere. “Because you see, appearances can indeed be deceiving, but then again, not exactly.” Her shirt was on the floor and now she was removing her pants. The same style lacerations outlining a garter belt.

“Hector did that?”

“As you have already guessed, I am the coffee table.”

I remained silent, awaiting a confirmation that did come.

“An illegal clone. A full one, with her own mind.”

“She gave you to him and then unlocked you so you could kill him.”

“We all had our motives.”

“When she got back, you attacked her and locked her up.”

“She was dead tired from her little orgy. She thought she could immobilize me with a gun.”

And now she’s begging to be tried for illegal cloning, rather than stay where she is, I thought. “But then why the charade? You could have killed her and been done with the whole thing.”

“No, because there is the matter of Hector’s murder, which complicates things, Costas. I got out of Aethra all the information I need about the orgy in Amorgos so that I can stand up to any cross-examination. But I needed to keep things running here the way they were until the police closed the case. And I didn’t want the cops getting any ideas about tests I couldn’t pass, like a retina scan.”

“And that’s exactly what you managed to do—wisen me to the facts,” I said.

She looked at me. Standing perfectly still, with her clothes on the floor. “Is that what I managed to do?” she asked, disappointed and slightly intimidated.

My hands opened in a questioning gesture. There was something I didn’t understand.

“Costas,” she said as if her whole existence depended on what she was going to say, “at my inception, I had Aethra’s mind—free and independent. But with a metal frame fixed to your body, your perspective changes very quickly, believe me. One day is enough. And I was like that for five weeks. I wanted you to see that Aethra’s treatment of us …”

Well, screw me! That’s why she had taken so long to make the orange juice! Because she was out sabotaging the scooter! That’s why she provoked me into sitting in the armchairs! That’s why she showed me the kitchen!

“What do you want from me?”

“I have a plan,” she said. “Euthanasia for all the mutated clones …”

“Do it,” came the gasping plea from the crucifix.

“And freedom for Aethrita.”

I looked over her shoulder at Aethrita. She looked me in the eyes, pressing her palm against the glass like she had done an eternity ago.

“… or I’ll keep her if she wants me to. But first of all, I have to live.”

“First of all, you have to deal with me. What are you asking me exactly?”

“I’m asking you to write a favorable, careful report that will insure, as far as possible, that I won’t be submitted to any tests I can’t pass. I’m asking for support. I’m asking for a friend.”

“And what makes you think I’ll cover for you? There’s nothing in it for me.”

“I didn’t treat you to a free piece of ass like someone else did with me. There’s nothing in it for you, Costas, except for a clear conscience knowing that these clones will be put out of their misery. And a friend maybe?”

I exited the room, gun still in hand. She was asking me to help dig that poor creature out of the wall. And to stop the horror in the kitchen. But she was also asking me to let her put that clamp back on Aethra’s nose downstairs. And to leave it there.

I went out onto the veranda. In anywhere between two minutes and two hours, Nikos would be calling me from Amorgos to tell me that someone had left eight long scratch marks on Aethra’s buttocks. And I had to tell him I had caught the murderer. Or say, Okay man, bad hunch, I was wrong, forget it. Now I knew what time it was. Soon it would be dawn. And soon the maintenance crew would be here too. I put my gun in its holster. Nice work, damn my stupid principles. It won’t even let you get a good night’s sleep. Nice work.

© Michalis Manolios
© Thalia Bisticas

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