City of Night / Page 18

Page 18



Former hospitals converted into laboratories for cloning and biological engineering do not in his experience have coat closets. The very existence of a coat closet says home.


Life on the bayou does not require a collection of overcoats and parkas. Hanging from the rod are only a few light zippered jackets.


Boxed items are stored on the floor of the closet, but he has plenty of room to sit down if he wants. He is too excited to sit, however, and stands in the dark, all but quivering with expectation.


He is content to remain on his feet in the closet for hours if not days. Even this narrow space is preferable to his billet at Mercy and to the fearsome machines to which his maker has often manacled him in the conduct of painful testing.


What tempts him to ease open the door is, first, the woman’s happy singing and the delightful clink clatter of kitchen work. He is further enticed by the mouthwatering aroma of onions sauteing in butter.


Having eaten brown food, perhaps he can safely eat virtually anything.


Without quite realizing what he is doing, as if half mesmerized by the domestic smells and sounds, Randal opens the door wider and ventures forth into the hall.


The threshold of the kitchen is less than fifteen feet away. He sees the singing woman as she stands at the stove, her back to him.


Now might be a good time to venture deeper into the house and search for Arnie O’Connor. The grail of his quest is near at hand: the smiling autistic with the secret of happiness.


The woman at the stove fascinates him, however, for she must be Arnie’s mother. Carson O’Connor is the boy’s sister, but this is not Carson, not the person in that newspaper photo. In an Old Race family, there will be a mother.


Randal Six, child of Mercy, has never previously met a mother. Among the New Race, there are no such creatures. Instead there is the tank.


This is not merely a female before him. This is a being of great mystery, who can create human life within her body, without any of the formidable machinery that is required to produce one of the New Race in the lab.


In time, when the Old Race is dead to the last, which will be the not too distant future, mothers like this woman will be mythical figures, beings of lore and legend. He cannot help but regard her with wonder.


She stirs the strangest feelings in Randal Six. An inexplicable reverence.


The smells, the sounds, the magical beauty of the kitchen draw him inexorably toward that threshold.


When she turns away from the cooktop and steps to a cutting board beside the sink, still softly singing, the woman fails to catch sight of him from the corner of her eye.


In profile, singing, preparing dinner, she seems so happy, even happier than Arnie looked in that photograph.


As Randal reaches the kitchen, it occurs to him that this woman herself might be the secret to Arnie’s happiness. Perhaps what is needed for happiness is a mother who has carried you within her, who values you as surely as she does her own flesh.


The last time Randal Six saw his creation tank was four months ago, on the day that he emerged from it. There is no reason for a reunion.


When the woman turns away from him and steps to the cooktop once more, still not having registered his presence, Randal is swept away by feelings he has never experienced before, that he cannot name, for which he has no words of description.


He is overwhelmed by a yearning, but a yearning for what he is not certain. She draws him as gravity draws a falling apple from a free.


Crossing the room to her, Randal realizes that one thing he wants is to see himself reflected in her eyes, his face in her eyes.


He does not know why.


And he wants her to smooth the hair back from his forehead. He wants her to smile at him.


He does not know why.


He stands immediately behind her, trembling with emotion that has never welled in him previously, feelings for which he never realized he had the capacity.


For a moment she remains unaware of him, but then something alerts her. She turns, alarmed, and cries out in surprise and fear.


She has carried a knife from the cutting board to the stove.


Although the woman makes no attempt to use the weapon, Randal seizes it in his left hand, by the blade, slashing himself, tears it from her grip, and throws it across the kitchen.


With his right fist, he clubs her alongside the head, clubs her to the floor.


Chapter 41


Following vespers, in the rectory of Our Lady of Sorrows Church, Deucalion watched as Father Patrick Duchaine poured rich dark coffee into two mugs. He had been offered cream and sugar, but had declined.


When the priest sat across the table from Deucalion, he said, “I make it so strong it’s almost bitter. I have an affinity for bitterness.”


“I suspect that all of our kind do,” Deucalion said.


They had dispensed with preliminaries in the confessional. They knew each other for the essence of what they were, although Father Duchaine did not know the particulars of his guest’s creation.


“What happened to your face?” he asked.


“I angered my maker and tried to raise a hand against him. He had implanted in my skull a device of which I was unaware. He wore a special ring that could produce a signal, triggering the device.”


“We’re now programmed to switch off, like voice-activated appliances, when we hear certain words in his unmistakable voice.”


“I come from a more primitive period of his work. The device in my skull was supposed to destroy me. It functioned half well, making a more obvious monster of me.”


“The tattoo?”


“Well-intended but inadequate disguise. Most of my life, I’ve spent in freakshows, in carnivals and their equivalent, where almost everyone is an outcast of one kind or another. But before coming to New Orleans, I was some years in a Tibetan monastery. A friend there, a monk, worked his art on my face before I left.”


After a slow sip of his bitter brew, the white-haired priest said, “How primitive?”


Deucalion hesitated to reveal his origins, but then realized that his unusual size, the periodic pulse of something like heat lightning in his eyes, and the cruel condition of his face were sufficient to identify him. “More than two hundred years ago. I am his first.”


“Then it’s true,” Duchaine said, a greater bleakness darkening his eyes. “If you’re the first and yet have lived so long, we may last a thousand years, and this earth is our hell.”


“Perhaps, but perhaps not. I lived centuries not because he knew in those days how to design immortality into me. My longevity and much else came to me on the lightning that brought me to life. He thinks I’m long dead… and does not suspect I have a destiny.”


“What do you mean… on the lightning?”


Deucalion drank coffee. After he returned the mug to the table, he sat for a while in silence before he said, “Lightning is only a meteorological phenomenon, yet I refer not just to a thundercloud when I say the bolt that animated me came from a higher realm.”


As Father Duchaine considered this revelation, some color rose in his previously pale face. “ ‘Longevity and much else’ came on the lightning. Much else… and a destiny?” He leaned forward in his chair. “Are you telling me… you were given a soul?”


“I don’t know. To claim one might be an act of pride too great to be forgivable in one whose origins are as miserable as mine. All I can say with certainty is that I was given to know things, blessed with a certain understanding of nature and its ways, knowledge that even Victor will never acquire, nor anyone else this side of death.”


“Then,” said the priest, “there sits before me a Presence,” and the mug between his hands rattled against the table as he trembled.


Deucalion said, “If you have come to wonder if there is any truth in the faith you preach—and I suspect that in spite of your programming, you have at least wondered—then you have entertained the possibility that there is always, at every hour, a Presence with you.”


Nearly knocking over his chair as he got to his feet, Duchaine said, “I’m afraid I need something more than coffee.” He went to the pantry and returned with two bottles of brandy. “With our metabolism, it takes a quantity to blur the mind.”


“None for me,” Deucalion said. “I prefer clarity.”


The priest filled half his empty mug with coffee, the other half with spirits. He sat. Drank. And said, “You spoke of a destiny, and I can think of only one that would bring you to New Orleans two hundred years later.”


“It is my fate to stop him,” Deucalion revealed. “To kill him.”


The color that had come into the priest’s cheeks now drained away. “Neither of us can raise our hands against him. Your broken face is proof of that.”


“We can’t. But others can. Those who are of man and woman born owe him no allegiance… and no mercy.”


The priest took more brandy-spiked coffee. “But we’re forbidden to reveal him, forbidden to conspire against him. Those commands are wired into us. We have no capacity to disobey.”


“Those proscriptions were not installed in me,” Deucalion said. “They no doubt came to him as an afterthought, perhaps on his wedding day two hundred years ago… when I murdered his wife.”


When Father Duchaine added brandy to his brew, the neck of the bottle rattled against the rim of the mug. “No matter who your god is, life is a vale of tears.”


“Victor is no god,” Deucalion pressed. “He is not even as little as a false god, nor half as much as a man. With his perverse science and his reckless will, he has made of himself less than he was born, has diminished himself as not even the lowliest beast in nature could abase and degrade itself.”


Increasingly agitated in spite of the brandy, Duchaine said, “But there’s nothing you can ask of me that I could do, assuming even that I might wish to do it. I cannot conspire.”


Deucalion finished his coffee. As it had grown cool, it had also grown more bitter. “I’m not asking you to do anything, neither to raise a hand nor to conspire against him.”


“Then why are you here?”


“All I want from you is what even a false priest can give to his parishioners many times in any day. All I ask is that you extend to me one little grace, one little grace, after which I’ll leave and never return.”


Judging by his ghastly expression, Father Duchaine had barely sufficient resources to make the revelation that now poured forth: “I’ve indulged in hateful thoughts about our maker, yours and mine. And only a couple nights ago, I sheltered Jonathan Harker here for a while. Do you know who he was?”


“The detective who turned killer.”


“Yes, all over the news. But what the news didn’t say… Harker was one of us. Both his psychology and his physiology were breaking down. He was… changing.” Duchaine shuddered. “I didn’t conspire with him against Victor. But I sheltered him. Because… because I do wonder sometimes about the Presence we discussed.”


“One little grace,” Deucalion persisted, “one little grace is all I ask.”


“What is it then?”


“Tell me where you were made, the name of the place where he does his work, and then I’ll go.”


Duchaine folded his hands before him, as if in prayer, though the posture more likely represented habit than devotion. He stared at his hands for a while and at last said, “If I tell you, there’s a thing I want in return.”


“What would that be?” Deucalion asked.


“You killed his wife.”


“Yes.”


“And so you, his first, were not created with a proscription against murder.”


“Only he is safe from me,” Deucalion said.


“Then I’ll tell you what you wish to know… but only if you give me a few hours to prepare myself.”


For a moment, Deucalion did not understand, and then he did. “You want me to kill you.”


“I’m not capable of asking such a thing.”


“I understand. But name the place for me now, and I’ll return whenever you wish to… finish our business.”


The priest shook his head. “I’m afraid that once you have what you want, you won’t return. And I need a little while to prepare myself.”


“Prepare in what way?”


“This may seem foolish to you, coming as it does from a false and soulless priest. But I want to say the Mass one last time, and pray, even though I know there is no reason I should be heard with a sympathetic ear.”


Deucalion rose from his chair. “I see nothing foolish in that request, Father Duchaine. It may be the least foolish thing that you could ask. When would you like me to return—two hours?”


The priest nodded. “It is not too terrible a thing I ask of you, is it?”


“I am not an innocent, Father Duchaine. I have killed before. And surely, after you, I will kill again.”


Chapter 42


Lulana St. John and her sister, Evangeline Antoine, brought to Pastor Kenny Laffite two praline-cinnamon cream pies topped with fried pecans.


Evangeline had made two for her employer, Aubrey Picou. On his generous permission, she had made two extra for their minister.


Mr. Aubrey had expressed the desire to eat all four of these pies himself but had acknowledged that to do so would be gluttony, which was—to his recent surprised discovery—one of the seven deadly sins. Besides, poor Mr. Aubrey had periodic intestinal cramps that might not be exacerbated by two of these rich delights but surely would bring him to total ruin if he inflicted four upon himself.


Lulana’s and Evangeline’s work day was over. Their brother, Moses Bienvenu, had gone home to his wife, Saffron, and their two children, Jasmilay and Larry.


In the late afternoon and evening, the only person attending to Mr. Aubrey was Lulana’s and Evangeline’s and Moses’s brother, Meshach Bienvenu. Like a mother hen looking after her chick, good Meshach would see that his employer was fed and comfortable and, as far as was possible for Mr. Aubrey, righteous.


The sisters came often with gifts of baked goods for Pastor Kenny because he was a wonderful man of God who had been a blessing to their church, because he had a healthy appetite, and because he was not married. At thirty-two, truly devout, charming enough, and handsome by some standards, he was a better catch than a double tubful of catfish.


Romantically speaking, neither sister had a personal interest in him. He was too young for them. Besides, Lulana was happily married, and Evangeline was happily widowed.


They had a niece, however, who would make the perfect wife for a man of the cloth. Her name was Esther, the daughter of their eldest sister, Larissalene. As soon as Esther completed the remaining three months of a sixteen-month course of extensive dental work to correct an unfortunate condition, the sweet girl would be presentable.


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