Newcomb took the cage elevator down. The trip lasted almost five minutes. Through the walls, he could hear moaning and entertainment of a more provincial kind. Newcomb had long since learned to tune them out; his mind was on the evening ahead, his hands shaking with anticipation.
He presented his green foil card to a slot that appeared in the door. It shut and then a moment later gears ground into life, opening the door. Newcomb never saw another human being here.
The next door was at the end of the hall. It wasn’t armored or forboding like the door that guarded the hall, it was a plain, worn front door that you might find on an old house. The paint was artisticallly chipped in places. The knob was plastic molded into a crysal shape. Opening the door brough a waft of lime blossoms and damp earth. Newcomb waited for him on the bed.
“Hello Newcomb,” he said, a hint of a smile on his lips.
“Hello Newcomb,” said the other, likewise.
Kroft tilted the gilt box this way and that, squinting through a jeweler’s lens. The man wielded his tools as if they made any difference. Newcomb knew for a fact that the only way to tell a real box apart from a fake would be to tap it, listen to the resonance. Newcomb knew because it was his job.
Kroft opened his large nostrils even wider, scenting the inside of the box. Newcomb had used albumin size beneath the gold leaf. The box had the exact same weight as the original it imitated. A more experience man would have been able to tell by the heft. But Kroft was already dragging his thumbnail, attempting to score the leaf. When it did not, he smiled.
“I couldn’t believe,” he said, “the genuine article at this price.”
“The best at the price you wanted,” Newcomb stated, looking at his craftwork. Brent should have been the one here, selling the box, but he was still under discipline for fumbling the last buyoff. And the last. And the last.
Kroft left the shop with a thickly wrapped packet under one arm. He would guard it like a man with a very precious burden indeed, and if it were stolen on the way home, the loss would bear the same weight.
The other Newcomb had the honey-fuzz beginning of a mustache on his upper lip. Newcomb put a hand to his face, and then laughed. The other Newcomb smiled. The two men mirrored each other’s steps as they approached and embraced each other.
Newcomb pulled away.
“I want to kill them,” he said, “kill them all.”
The other Newcomb nodded eagerly. “We should.”
“No vision,” the other Newcomb hissed.
The other Newcomb was silent.
“She hates us,” he said at length.
Newcomb sat on the bed. “Unappreciative.”
“She hates us both.”
“She hates you, and therefore she hates me by proxy.”
“Such hate in one person.”The other Newcomb paused. “When will you kill her?”
“It’s not that easy,” he said.
The other Newcomb took a seat next to him, and swung into a cross-legged stance.
“You talk about it every time you come here,” he said reasonably, “if you want something so badly, you should implement it.”
“Not that easy,” Newcomb said, “And I would be caught. There would be precisely one suspect in such a murder, and we’re both looking at him.”
The other Newcomb was eager. “So get a new Felicia. From here.”
But Newcomb shook his head. “It would be different.”
“I don’t see how.” the other Newcomb’s tone was flat. “I don’t see how it would be any different.”
“You’re not a forger,” Holt said again. “You’re an artist. You’re giving the people what they want, and the price they can afford.”
Newcomb could see his reflection in the black marble top of Holt’s desk. Or maybe it was slate.
“Then why can’t you give me a raise,” he asked patiently.
Holt lit a cigar. Newcomb tried not to cringe at the smell, Holt was watching him closely.
“You know I’d love to—”
“We’ve had this conversation too many times,” Newcomb said.
Holt nodded. “Good. So you know how it’s going to end.”
He stood and indicated the door. Newcomb remained seated.
“What if I go somewhere else?” he asked. “What if I take another job? I’m skilled.”
Holt laughed amiably.
“You know how I know you’re not a forger?”
Newcomb hung up his jacket. Garlic steam assaulted his nose. He wrinkled it, but tried to smile.
“Pork today?” He kissed away his smile in his wife’s hair.
Felicia was chopping onion. She had already chopped heaps and heaps of onion and cilantro. The smell drove him away from the kitchen, away from her.
“Poreef,” she said out the side of her mouth.
Newcomb’s smile went stony.
“But I gave you extra money,” he said carefully. “I gave you extra money and I asked yo—”
“Well, it wasn’t enough,” Felicia said acidly. “Maybe you should ask Holt for more. Then you can eat pork all you want.”
Newcomb stood in the doorway and watched her slam pot lids. She chopped mounds of aromatics to cover the taste of the imitation meat.
“What did you spend the money on?” he asked.
Felicia didn’t answer.
“What happened to the rest of the money?”
Felicia parted a squash with one knife stroke.
Newcomb dropped his briefcase behind the couch. He had a new necklace, silver leaf laid over wood. He laid this one next to the gold-coated copper and paste gems already populating her jewelry box.
The other Newcomb wouldn’t let it go.
“Let me do it,” he pleaded. He touched Newcomb’s face beseechingly. “Let me out. I can do it. I want to do it. You want to do it.”
Newcomb shucked the other’s hands from his shoulders. “I’m leaving. Please step away from the door.”
“She’ll start asking,” the other Newcomb said in a desperate whisper. “She’ll start wondering where you’re putting the rest of your money. You’ve been working overtime every night of the week.”
Newcomb put his hand on the other’s arms. “Let me out,” he said gently, “drop it. it’s nonsense.”
The other Newcomb stabbed a finger at his heart.
“You don’t believe I’m real,” he said accusingly, “really real.”
Newcomb looked at his own blue eyes, his own frown lines and wrinkles and blemishes and every flaw in him, faithfully made up to the closest decimal.
“Goodbye, Newcomb,” he said.
Felicia was humming. the kitchen smelled like cinnamon and cloves.
“Hello!” she called before he could say anything.
“Well, we’re in a good mood.” He chuckled, and then caught himself. “Sorry.”
“No, you’re right. I am in a good mood.” She accepted his peck on the cheek. “Make some real money today?”
“Yeah, I…” he stopped, hands on the rim of the sink.
Felicia dumped carrots into a stew that had no onions. “Holt finally see reason?”
Newcomb held his hands out. “Wait,” he said, “wait.”
He approached his wife, hands out. He laid them on her spine, her cheek, the dimpled curve of her rear. He smelled just below her right ear. He kissed each cheek in turn. Finally, he gathered her to himself.
Newcomb’s arms went limp. He pulled away from her.
Felicia was angry.
Newcomb shook his head. “No. no.”
Felicia had her knife up. She hadn been using the big carving knife. The cavity where it always sat when not in use gaped at him.
“What is it,” she snapped, “well? There isn’t any difference. Don’t pretend. Don’t pretend you can tell the difference!”