Lulana and Evangeline, with a storied history of successful matchmaking, had prepared the way for Esther with scrumptious pies and cakes, cookies and breads and muffins: a more certain path than one paved with palm leaves and rose petals.
Next door to the church, the parsonage was a charming two-story brick house, neither so grand as to embarrass the Lord nor so humble as to make it difficult for the congregation to attract a preacher. The front porch had been furnished with bentwood rocking chairs with cane backs and seats, made festive with hanging baskets of moss from which grew fuchsia with cascades of crimson and purple flowers.
When the sisters, each with a fine pie, climbed the porch steps, they found the front door wide open, as Pastor Kenny most often left it when at home. He was a most welcoming kind of churchman with a casual style, and outside the holy service, he was partial to white tennis shoes, khakis, and madras shirts.
Through the screen door, Lulana could not see much useful. The late twilight of midsummer lay at least half an hour away, but the sunshine was already rouge, and what rays penetrated the windows did little more than brighten black shadows to purple. Toward the back, in the kitchen, a light glowed.
As Evangeline reached to press the bell push, a startling cry came from within the parsonage. It sounded like a soul in misery, rose in volume, quavered, and faded.
Lulana first thought that they had almost intruded on Pastor Kenny in the act of offering consolation to a remorseful or even bereaved member of his flock.
Then the eerie cry came again, and through the screen door, Lulana glimpsed a wailing figure erupt from the living-room archway into the downstairs hall. In spite of the shadows, she could discern that the tormented man was not an anguished sinner or a grieving parishioner but was the minister himself.
“Pastor Kenny?” said Evangeline.
Drawn by his name, the churchman hurried along the hall, toward them, flailing at the air as if batting away mosquitoes.
He did not open the door to them, but peered through the screen with the expression of a man who had seen, and only moments ago fled, the devil.
“I did it, didn’t I?” he said, breathless and anguished. “Yes. Yes, I did. I did it just by being. Just by being, I did it. Just by being Pastor Kenny Laffite, I did it, I did. I did it, I did.”
Something about the rhythm and repetition of his words reminded Lulana of those children’s books by Dr. Seuss, with which she had felt afflicted as a child. “Pastor Kenny, what’s wrong?”
After a moment of consideration, Lulana said, “Sister, I believe we are needed here.”
Evangeline said, “I have no doubt of it, dear.”
Although uninvited, Lulana opened the screen door, entered the parsonage, and held the door for her sister.
From the back of the house came the minister’s voice: “What will I do? What, what will I do? Anything, anything—that’s what I’ll do.”
As squat and sturdy as a tugboat, her formidable bosom cleaving air like a prow cleaves water, Lulana sailed along the hallway, and Evangeline, like a stately tall-masted ship, followed in her wake.
In the kitchen, the minister stood at the sink, vigorously washing his hands. “Thou shall not, shall not, shall not, but I did. Shall not, but did.”
Lulana opened the refrigerator and found room for both pies. “Evangeline, we have more nervous here than God made grass. Maybe it won’t be needed, but best have some warm milk ready.”
“You leave that to me, dear.”
“Thank you, sister.”
Clouds of steam rose from the sink. Lulana saw that under the rushing water, the minister’s hands were fiery red.
“Pastor Kenny, you’re about to half scald yourself.”
“Just by being, I am. I am what I am. I am what I did. I did it, I did.”
The faucet was so hot that Lulana had to wrap a dishtowel around her hand to turn it off.
Pastor Kenny tried to turn it on again.
She gently slapped his hand, as she might affectionately warn a child not to repeat a misbehavior. “Now, Pastor Kenny, you dry off and come sit at the table.”
Without using the towel, the minister turned from the sink but also away from the table. On wobbly legs, drizzling water from his red hands, he headed toward the refrigerator.
He wailed and groaned, as they first heard him when they had been standing on the front porch.
Beside the refrigerator, a knife rack hung on the wall. Lulana believed Pastor Kenny to be a good man, a man of God, and she had no fear of him, but under the circumstances, it seemed a good idea to steer him away from knives.
With a wad of paper towels, Evangeline followed them, mopping the water off the floor.
Taking the minister by one arm, guiding him as best she could, Lulana said, “Pastor Kenny, you’re much distressed, you’re altogether beside yourself. You need to sit down and let out some nervous, let in some peace.”
Although he appeared to be so stricken that he could hardly stay on his feet, the minister circled the table with her once and then half again before she could get him into a chair.
He sobbed but didn’t weep. This was terror, not grief.
Already, Evangeline had found a large pot, which she filled with hot water at the sink.
The minister fisted his hands against his chest, rocked back and forth in his chair, his voice wrenched by misery. “So sudden, all of a sudden, I realized just what I am, what I did, what trouble I’m in, such trouble.”
“We’re here now, Pastor Kenny. When you share your troubles, they weigh less on you. You share them with me and Evangeline, and your troubles will weigh a third of what they do now.”
Evangeline had put the pot of water on the cooktop and turned up the gas flame. Now she got a carton of milk from the refrigerator.
“You share your troubles with God, why, then they just float off your shoulders, no weight to them at all. Surely I don’t need to tell you, of all people, how they’ll float.”
Having unclenched his hands and raised them before his face, he stared at them in horror. “Thou shall not, shall not, not, not, NOT!”
His breath did not smell of alcohol. She was loath to think that he might have inhaled something less wholesome than God’s sweet air, but if the reverend was a cokehead, she supposed it was better to find out now than after Esther’s teeth were fixed and the courtship had begun.
“We’re given more shalls than shall-nots,” Lulana said, striving to break through to him. “But there are enough shall-nots that I need you to be more specific. Shall not what, Pastor Kenny?”
“Kill,” he said, and shuddered.
Lulana looked at her sister. Evangeline, milk carton in hand, raised her eyebrows.
“I did it, I did it. I did it, I did.”
“Pastor Kenny,” Lulana said, “I know you to be a gentle man, and kind. Whatever you think you’ve done, I’m sure it’s not so terrible as you believe.”
He lowered his hands. At last he looked at her. “I killed him.”
“Who would that be?” Lulana asked.
“I never had a chance,” the troubled man whispered. “He never had a chance. Neither of us had a chance.”
Evangeline found a Mason jar into which she began to pour the milk from the carton.
“He’s dead,” said the minister.
“Who?” Lulana persisted.
“He’s dead, and I’m dead. I was dead from the start.”
In Lulana’s cell phone were stored the many numbers of a large family, plus those of an even larger family of friends. Although Mr. Aubrey—Aubrey Picou, her employer—had been finding his way to redemption faster than he realized (if slower than Lulana wished), he nonetheless remained a man with a scaly past that might one day snap back and bite him; therefore, in her directory were the office, mobile, and home numbers for Michael Maddison, in case Mr. Aubrey ever needed a policeman to give him a fair hearing. Now she keyed in Michael’s name, got his cell number, and called it.
In the windowless Victorian drawing room beyond the two vault doors, Erika circled the immense glass case, studying every detail. At first it had resembled a big jewel box, which it still did; but now it also seemed like a coffin, though an oversized and highly unconventional one.
She had no reason to believe that it contained a body. At the center of the case, the shape shrouded by the amber liquid—or gas—had no discernible limbs or features. It was just a dark mass without detail; it might have been anything.
If the case in fact contained a body, the specimen was large: about seven and a half feet long, more than three feet wide.
She examined the ornate ormolu frame under which the panels of glass were joined, searching for seams that might indicate concealed hinges. She could not find any. If the top of the box was a lid, it operated on some principle that eluded her.
When she rapped a knuckle against the glass, the sound suggested a thickness of at least one inch.
She noticed that under the glass, directly below the spot where her knuckle struck it, the amberness—whatever its nature—dimpled as water dimples when a stone drops into it. The dimple bloomed sapphire blue, resolved into a ring, and receded across the surface; the amber hue was reestablished in its wake.
She rapped again, with the same effect. When she rapped three times in succession, three concentric blue rings appeared, receded, faded.
Although her knuckle had made only the briefest contact, the glass had seemed cold. When she flattened her palm against it, she discovered that it was icy, though a few degrees too warm for her skin to freeze to it.
When she knelt on the Persian carpet and peered under the case, between its exquisitely sculpted ball-in-claw feet, she could see electrical conduits and pipes of various colors and diameters that came out of the bottom and disappeared into the floor. This suggested that a service room must lie below, although the mansion supposedly had no basement.
Victor owned one of the largest properties in the neighborhood and in fact had combined two great houses so elegantly that he had earned plaudits from historical preservationists. All of the interior reconstruction had been undertaken by members of the New Race, but not all of it had been disclosed to—or permitted by—the city’s building department.
Her brilliant husband had achieved more than entire universities of scientists. His accomplishments were even more remarkable when you considered that he had been forced to do his work clandestinely and since the regrettable death of Mao Tse-tung, without grants from any government.
She got to her feet and circled the case once more, trying to determine if there was a head or foot to it, as there would be to any bed or casket. The design of the object offered her no clue, but she at last decided, sheerly by intuition, that the head of it must be the end farthest from the door to the room.
Bending forward, bending low and lower, Erika put her face close to the top of the case, peering intently into the amber miasma, close and then closer, hoping for at least a faint suggestion of contour or texture to the shadowy shape within the liquid shroud.
When her lips were no more than two inches from the glass, she said softly, “Hello, hello, hello in there.”
This time it definitely moved.
Dog-nose Nick stood on the rim of the pit, breathing deeply of the stink brought to him by a light breeze that came down out of the declining sun.
More than an hour ago, the last of the day’s incoming trucks had dumped its load, and Crosswoods Waste Management had closed its gates until dawn. Now it was its own world, a universe encircled by chain-link topped with razor wire.
In the night ahead, the members of Nick Frigg’s crew were free to be who they were, what they were. They could do what they wanted, without concern that an Old Race truck driver might see behavior that belied their pose of sanitation-worker normality.
Down in the west pit below him, crew members were wedging pole-mounted torches into the trash field in the area where the interments would take place. After nightfall, they would light the oil lamp at the top of each pole.
With their enhanced vision, Nick and his people didn’t need as much light as they were providing, but for these ceremonies, torches set the perfect mood. Even those of the New Race, even Gammas like Nick, and even lowly Epsilons like the crew he bossed, could thrill to stagecraft.
Perhaps especially the Epsilons. They were more intelligent than animals, of course, but in some ways they were like animals in their simplicity and excitability.
Sometimes it seemed to Nick Frigg that the longer these Epsilons lived here in Crosswoods, having little contact with any Gamma other than he himself, having no contact at all with Betas or Alphas, the more simpleminded and more animalistic they became, as though without higher classes of the New Race to serve as examples, they could not entirely hold fast to even the meager knowledge and modest standards of deportment that had been downloaded into their brains while they had been in their tanks.
After the interments, the crew would feast, drink very much, and have sex. They would eat hungrily at the start, and soon they would be tearing at their food, gorging with abandon. The liquor would flow directly from bottle to mouth, mixed with nothing, undiluted, to maximize and accelerate its effect. The sex would be eager and selfish, then insistent and angry, then savage, no desire unindulged, no sensation unexperienced.
They would find relief from loneliness, meaninglessness. But the relief came only during the feeding, during the drinking and the sex. After, the anguish would return like a hammer, driving the nail deeper, deeper, deeper. Which they always forgot. Because they needed to forget.
At this moment, Gunny Alecto and other crewmen were at the walk-in cooler, loading the five human bodies and three dead gone-wrongs onto a pair of small, open-bed, four-wheel-drive trucks that would convey them to the site of the ceremony. The Old Race cadavers would be on one truck, the gone-wrongs on another.
The Old Race dead would be transported with less respect than gone-wrongs received, in fact with no respect at all. Their bodies would be subjected to grotesque indignities.
In the class structure of the New Race, the Epsilons had no one to whom they could feel superior—except those of the Old Race. And in these interment ceremonies, they expressed a hatred of such purity and such long-simmering reduction that no one in the history of the earth had ever despised more intensely, loathed more ferociously, or abominated their enemy with greater fury.
Some fun tonight.
At the Hands of Mercy, none of the three isolation rooms had been designed to contain a deadly disease, for Victor did not have an interest in the engineering of microorganisms. There was no danger whatsoever that he would accidentally create a deadly new virus or bacterium.