In the kitchen once more, she got the box of Tater Tots out of the freezer. She sprayed a baking sheet with Pam and spread the Tots on it.
She and Arnie would have dinner together. Then Podkayne of Mars. He liked to have her read to him, and she enjoyed story time as much as he did. They felt like family. This would be a nice evening.
Deucalion had spent the afternoon walking from church to church, from cathedral to synagogue, but nowhere between, taking advantage of his special understanding of time and space to step from nave to nave, from a place of Catholics to a place of Protestants, to another place of Catholics, through the many neighborhoods and faiths of the city, from sanctuary to narthex, to sacristy. He also intruded secretly into rectories and parsonages and pastoriums, observing clergymen at their work, seeking one that he felt sure belonged to the New Race.
A few of these men of the cloth—and one woman—raised his suspicions. If they were monsters to an extent greater than even he himself was, they hid it well. They were masters of the masquerade, in private as well as in public.
Because of their positions, they would of course be among the best that Victor produced, his Alphas, exceptionally intelligent and cunning.
In Our Lady of Sorrows, the priest seemed wrong. Deucalion could not put his finger on the reason for his suspicion. Intuition, beyond mere knowledge and reason, told him that Father Patrick Duchaine was not a child of God.
The priest was about sixty, with white hair and a sweet face, a perfect clone, perhaps, of a real priest now rotting in an unmarked grave.
Mostly singles, only a few pairs, primarily older than young, fewer than two dozen parishioners had gathered for vespers. With the service not yet begun, they sat in silence and did not disturb the hush of the church.
On one side of the nave, the stained-glass windows blazed in the hot light of the westering sun. Colorful geometric patterns were projected on the worshipers, the pews.
Our Lady of Sorrows opened her confessionals each morning before Mass and on those evenings, as now, when vespers were celebrated.
Staying to the shadowy aisle on the east side of the nave, out of the stained-glass dazzle, Deucalion approached a confessional, closed the door, and knelt.
When the priest slid open the privacy panel that covered the screen between them, and invited confession, Deucalion said softly, “Does your god live in Heaven, Father Duchaine, or in the Garden District?”
The priest was silent for a moment, but then said, “That sounds like the question of a particularly troubled man.”
“Not a man, Father. More than a man. And less than a man. Like you, I think.”
After a hesitation, the priest said, “Why have you come here?”
“To help you.”
“Why should I need help?”
“This world is a vale of tears for all of us.”
“We can change that.”
“Changing it isn’t within our power. We can only endure.”
“You preach hope, Father. But you have no hope yourself.”
The priest’s silence damned and identified him.
Deucalion said, “How difficult it must be for you to assure others that God will have mercy on their immortal souls, knowing as you do that even if God exists, you have no soul upon which He might bestow His grace, and everlasting life.”
“What do you want from me?”
“A private conversation. Consideration. Discretion.”
After a hesitation, Father Duchaine said, “Come to the rectory following the service.”
“I’ll be waiting in your kitchen. What I bring you, priest, is the hope you do not think will ever be yours. You need only have the courage to believe it, and grasp it.”
Carson parked the car on the shoulder of the service road, and they carried the suitcases through a stand of Southern pines, up a slight sunny incline, into a grove of well-crowned live oaks. Beyond the oaks lay a vast expanse of grass.
Twice the size of New York’s Central Park, City Park served a population only a fraction as large as that of Manhattan. Within its reaches, therefore, were lonely places, especially in the last ruddy hours of a fast-condensing summer afternoon.
Across the sweep of the meadow, not one person was walking or communing with nature, or playing with a dog, or throwing a Frisbee, or disposing of a corpse.
Putting down his suitcase, Michael pointed to a grassy spot ten feet beyond the oaks. “That’s where we found the accountant’s head, propped against that rock. That’s sure one you never forget.”
“If Hallmark made a remembrance card suitable for the occasion,” Carson said, “I would send you one each year.”
“I was impressed by the cocky angle at which he wore his cowboy hat,” Michael recalled, “especially considering his circumstances.”
“Wasn’t it their first date?” Carson asked.
“Right. They went to a costume party together. That’s why he was wearing a midnight-blue leather cowboy outfit with rhinestones.”
“His boots had mother-of-pearl inlays.”
“They were fine, those boots. I’ll bet he looked really cool with his body and head together, but of course we never got to see the full effect.”
“Did we ever know the killer’s costume?” she asked as she knelt in the crisp dead oak leaves to open her suitcase.
“I think he went as a bullfighter.”
“He cut off the cowboy’s head with an ax. A bullfighter doesn’t carry an ax.”
“Yeah, but he always kept an ax in the trunk of his car,” he reminded her.
“Probably next to the first-aid kit. How wrong can a first date go that it ends in a beheading?”
Opening the suitcase that contained the shotguns, Michael said, “The problem is everybody has unrealistically high expectations for a first date. Inevitably, they’re disappointed.”
While Michael checked out the Urban Sniper shotguns and fitted each of them with a three-way sling, Carson worked the slide on each pistol and inserted a cartridge in the breach.
Except for the small noises that she and Michael made, a cathedral quiet filled the grove, and mantled the meadow beyond.
She loaded the nine-round magazines of the two Desert Eagle Magnums with .50-caliber Action Express cartridges.
“Before we blast our way into his place,” she said, “we have to be sure Helios is home. We’ll only have one chance to surprise him.”
“Yeah, I’ve been thinking the same thing. We need to huddle with Deucalion on this one. He might have an idea.”
“You think Arnie’s in any danger?” Carson worried.
“No. We’re the threat to Helios, not Arnie. And he’s not going to try to silence you by grabbing your brother. He’ll figure it’s easier just to waste us.”
“I hope that’s right,” she said. “It gives me some comfort.”
“Yeah, nothing makes my day like being the primary target of an archfiend.”
“Look at this—Godot threw in two holsters for the Eagles, no charge.”
“Custom to the piece?” he asked.
“Gimme. That monster would feel awkward in a shoulder rig.”
“You gonna hip-carry the Eagle out of here?” she asked.
“It’s not that easy to reach in a suitcase, is it? If Helios has people—or whatever they are—looking for us, we may need these monster-stoppers long before we go to his house.”
While Michael loaded the shotguns, Carson loaded four spare magazines for the .50 Magnums.
They belted on the custom scabbards and sheathed the Eagles. Both chose the left hip for a cross-body, under-the-jacket draw.
At the right hip, each of them carried a pouch containing two spare magazines for the Eagle and eight spare rounds for the Urban Sniper.
Their sport jackets provided acceptable concealment; but this new weight was going to feel awkward for a while.
They closed the suitcases and slung the shotguns over their right shoulders—stocks up, muzzles down. They picked up the two nearly empty cases and retraced their route through the grove of oaks.
When they had descended two thirds of the open slope between the oaks and the Southern pines, they put down the suitcases and faced back the way they had just come.
“Gotta get the feel of the beast,” Carson said.
“One pop with each, and then out of here before park security comes looking.”
The sloping earth before them would both stop the bullets from traveling and prevent ricochets.
They took two-hand grips on their Eagles and squeezed off shots all but simultaneously. The reports were loud, war-zone loud.
Gouts of earth and grass marked the impact, as if two invisible and furious golfers had clubbed divots from the turf.
Carson felt the recoil knock all the way back to her shoulder sockets; but she had kept the muzzle down.
“Loud enough for you?” Michael asked.
“You ain’t heard nothing yet,” she said, holstering the Eagle.
They swung up their shoulder-slung shotguns, and the twin blasts were thunderclaps that shivered the air and seemed even to vibrate in the ground beneath their feet.
“Feel good?” he asked.
“A slug like that would take off a man’s leg.”
“Maybe not one of their legs.”
“Whatever it does to them, it won’t leave them smiling. Better move on.”
They shouldered the shotguns once more, picked up the suitcases, and walked briskly into the warm shadows among the pines.
Cindi Lovewell parked the Mountaineer along side the service road, a hundred yards behind the unmarked police sedan, switched off the engine, and put down the windows.
“They’re not in the car,” Benny said. “Where do you think they’ve gone?”
“They probably went into the woods to urinate,” Cindi said. “Their kind don’t have our degree of control.”
“I don’t think that’s it,” Benny said. “As I understand their biology, Old Race men don’t usually have urinary-control problems until they’re old enough to have really enlarged prostates.”
“Then maybe they, went into the woods to make a baby.”
Benny counseled himself to be patient. “People don’t make babies in the woods.”
“Yes, they do. They make babies everywhere. In woods, in fields, on boats, in bedrooms, on kitchen tables, on moonlit beaches, in the bathrooms aboard airliners. They’re making babies everywhere, all the time, millions and millions of new babies every year.”
“Their method of reproduction is crude and inefficient, when you think about it,” Benny said. “The tanks are a better system, cleaner and more manageable.”
“The tanks don’t make babies.”
“They make productive adult citizens,” Benny said. “Everyone is born in a condition to serve society. That’s so much more practical.”
“I like babies,” Cindi said stubbornly.
“You shouldn’t,” he warned.
“But I do. I like their tiny fingers, their cute little toes, their squinchy red faces, their little toothless grins. I like how soft they feel, how they smell, how they—”
“You’re obsessing again,” he said nervously.
“Benny, why don’t you want a baby?”
“It’s a violation of everything we are,” he said exasperatedly. “For us, it would be unnatural. All I want, really want, is to kill some people.”
“I want to kill some people, too,” she assured him.
“I’m not sure you really do.”
She shook her head and looked disappointed in him. “That’s so unfair, Benny. You know I want to kill people.”
“I used to think you did.”
“I can’t wait for the day we can kill all of them. But don’t you also want to create?”
“Create? No. Why would I? Create? No. I don’t want to be like them, with their babies and their books and their business empires—”
Benny was interrupted by two almost simultaneous explosions, hard and flat, distant but unmistakable.
“Gunfire,” Cindi said.
“Two rounds. From beyond those pines.”
“Do you think they shot each other?” she asked.
“Why would they shoot each other?”
“People do. All the time.”
“They didn’t shoot each other,” he said, but he was expressing a hope rather than a conviction.
“I think they shot each other.”
“If they shot each other,” he said, “I’m going to be pissed.”
Two more reports, again almost simultaneous, but louder than the others and characterized by a hollow roar rather than a flat bark, echoed out of the pines.
Relieved, Benny said, “They didn’t shoot each other.”
“Maybe somebody’s shooting at them.”
“Why are you so negative?” he asked.
“Me? I’m positive. I’m for creation. Creation is a positive thing. Who is it that’s against creation?”
With profound concern for the fate of the two detectives, Benny stared through the windshield toward the distant woods.
They sat in silence for half a minute, and then Cindi said, “We need a bassinet.”
He refused to be engaged in that conversation.
“We’ve been buying clothes,” she said, “when there are so many things we’ll need first. I haven’t bought any diapers, no receiving blankets, either.”
Thicker than the humid air, a pall of despair began to settle over Benny Lovewell.
Cindi said, “I’m not buying any formula until I see if I’m able to breast-feed. I really want to breast-feed our baby.”
From out of the pines, two figures appeared.
Even with his enhanced vision, at this distance Benny needed a moment to be sure of their identity.
“Is it them?” he asked.
After a hesitation, Cindi said, “Yes.”
“Yes! Yes, it is them.” Benny was so pleased that they were alive and that he would still have a chance to kill them.
“What’re they carrying?” Cindi asked.
“I can’t quite tell.”
“Where would they get suitcases in the woods?” Cindi wondered.
“Maybe they took them from the people they shot.”