“I feel like I should take something.”
“I assume you heard Deucalion say ‘Apocalypse.’ For that, you don’t need anything, not even a change of underwear.”
She held the door for him as he left with Vicky, hesitated outside before closing it, and then realized what she needed: the keys to Vicky’s car.
They hung on the kitchen pegboard. She stepped inside, snared the keys, and left without a pang of sentimental regret.
She hurried after Michael, through the darkness along the side of the house, alert to the possibility that the pair from the Mountaineer might still be hanging around, passed him in the front yard, and opened the back door of Vicky’s Honda, so he could load her.
The car was parked under a streetlamp. With all the commotion, surely they were being watched. They would probably need to switch vehicles in an hour or two.
Carson and Michael assumed their usual positions: she behind the steering wheel, he in the shotgun seat, which was literally the shotgun seat tonight, because he sat there with two Urban Snipers that still smelled hot.
The engine caught, and she popped the handbrake, and Michael said, “Show me some NASCAR moves.”
“You finally want me to put the pedal to the metal, and it’s a five-year-old Honda.”
Behind them, Vicky began snoring.
Carson burned rubber away from the curb, ran the stop sign at the end of the block, and hung a left at the corner in a test of the Honda’s rollover resistance.
More than two blocks away, approaching, were the flashing red-and-blue lights of a squad car.
She wheeled right into an alleyway, stood on the accelerator, took out someone’s trash can, scared one of the nine lives out of a cat, said, “That sonofabitch Frankenstein,” and blew out of the neighborhood.
When the exhilarating dance of death was done, Gunny Alecto and another garbage-galleon driver plowed two feet of concealing trash into the shallow grave in which the remains of the five members of the Old Race were interred.
In the torchlight, the trash field glimmered like a sea of gold doubloons, and the excited crew appeared to sweat molten gold, too, as they calmed themselves, with some effort, for the more solemn ceremony ahead.
Beginning shortly after dawn, all the incoming trucks would dump here in the west pit for at least a week, and soon the brutalized remains would be buried too deep for accidental discovery and beyond easy exhumation.
When the plowing was finished, Gunny came to Nick, movie-star beautiful and filthy and grinning with dark delight. “Did they crunch like roaches?” she asked excitedly.
“Oh, they crunched,” Nick agreed.
“Did they squish?”
“Yeah, they squished.”
“That was hot!” she said.
“Someday, all we’ll be pushin’ into these pits is people like them, truckloads of their kind. That’s gonna be some day, Nick. Isn’t that gonna be someday?”
“Gonna get you later,” he said, slipping a hand between her hip boots, clutching the crotch of her jeans.
“Gonna get you!” she shot back, and grabbed him the same way, with a ferocity that excited him.
Dog-nose Nick couldn’t get enough of her stink, and buried his face in her hair, growling as she laughed.
The second truck now descended the sloped wall of the pit and drove toward the crew line. On the open bed were arranged the three dead gone-wrongs, the consequences of experiments that had not led to the hoped-for results.
Victor Helios didn’t refer to them as gone-wrongs, and neither did anyone at Mercy, as far as Nick knew. This word was part of the culture of Crosswoods, as were the crew’s ceremonies.
The five members of the Old Race had been lashed upright to poles for the last leg of their journey to the grave, the better to be pelted with garbage and reviled, but the gone-wrongs lay upon a thick bed of palm fronds, which arrived weekly by the hundreds if not thousands in masses of landscapers’ clippings.
They would be buried apart from the five Old Race cadavers, and with respect, though of course not with a prayer. The gone-wrongs had come from the creation tanks, just as had every member of the crew. Although they bore little resemblance to the human model, they were in a way kin to the crew. It was too easy to imagine that Gunny or Nick himself, or any of them, might have gone wrong, too, and might have been sent here as trash instead of as the keepers of the trash.
When the truck came to a stop, Nick and his fourteen crewmen climbed onto the open bed. They boarded it not in the raucous mood with which they had scrambled onto the first truck to cut down the bodies and to pitch them off, but with curiosity and some fear, and not without awe.
One of the Old Race, back in the days when carnivals had freakshows, might have stared at some deformed specimen on the stage and said softly to himself, There but for the grace of God go I. Some of this feeling filled Nick and his crewmen, too, although it was not colored with the pity that might have troubled the freakshow patron. And there was no sense in any of them that divine mercy had spared them from the tortures that these gone-wrongs had been through. For them it was sheer blind luck that they had arisen from their maker’s machines and processes in a functional form, to face only the anguish and tortures that were common to all their kind.
Yet, though in neither of their hearts did they have room for the concept of transcendence, though they were forbidden superstition and would laugh at the Old Race’s perception of a holiness behind nature, they knelt among the gone-wrongs, marveling at their twisted and macabre features, tentatively touching their grotesque bodies, and unto them came a kind of animal wonder and a chill of mystery, and a recognition of the unknown.
Beyond the windows of the Rombuk Monastery, the higher peaks of the snow-capped Himalayas vanished into the terrible, turbulent beauty of thunderheads as mottled black as cast-iron skillets that had known much fire.
Nebo, an elderly monk in a wool robe with the hood turned back from his shaved head, led Arnie and Deucalion along a stone corridor in which the effects of the hard surfaces were softened by painted mandalas, by the sweet fragrance of incense, and by the buttery light of fat candles on altar tables and in wall sconces.
In terms of decor and amenities, the monks’ rooms ranged from severe to austere. Perhaps an autistic would find that simplicity appealing, even soothing, but no one in Rombuk would allow a visiting child, regardless of his preferences, to occupy one of the typical cells.
These holy men were known for their kindness and hospitality as much as for their spirituality, and they maintained a few chambers as guest quarters. In these, the furnishings and amenities were for those visitors who had not yet felt—and might never feel—the need to eschew creature comforts in the pursuit of purer meditation.
A few days ago, Deucalion had left Rombuk after residing there for years. His stay had been by far the longest of any guest in the history of the monastery, and he had made more friends within its walls than anywhere outside of the carnival.
He had not expected to return for many months, if ever. Yet here he found himself less than a week after leaving, though not even for so much as an overnight.
The room to which Nebo led them was three or four times the size of the typical monk’s quarters. Large tapestries graced the walls, and a hand-loomed carnelian-red rug hushed every footfall. The four-poster bed featured a privacy curtain, the furniture was comfortably upholstered, and a large stone fireplace with a decorative bronze surround provided charming light and offered as much or as little heat as might be wanted with just the adjustment of a series of vents.
As Nebo lit candles around the room and took linens from a chest to dress the bed, Deucalion sat with Arnie on a sofa that faced the fireplace.
By firelight, he performed for the boy the coin tricks that had created a bond between them from their first encounter. As the shiny quarters disappeared, reappeared, and vanished forever in thin air, he also told Arnie of the situation in New Orleans. He did not doubt that the boy understood, and he did not patronize him but told him the truth, and did not hesitate to reveal even the possible cost of his sister’s courage.
This was a bright boy, imprisoned by his disorder vet acutely aware of the world, a boy who saw more deeply into things than did many people who were not shackled by his inhibitions. The quantum travel from New Orleans to Tibet had not alarmed him, had instead electrified him. Upon arrival, he looked directly into Deucalion’s eyes and said, less with astonishment than with understanding, “Oh.” And then, “Yes.”
Arnie tracked the coins with uncommon alertness, but he listened intently, too, and he did not seem to shrink from the dark potential of pending events half a world away. Quite the contrary: The more that he understood of the confrontation growing in New Orleans, and understood his sister’s commitment to the resistance of evil, the calmer he became.
Upon their arrival, when he heard that Arnie had not yet eaten dinner back on the dark side of the globe, Nebo ordered a suitable meal for this morning-bathed hemisphere. Now a young monk arrived with a capacious basket, from which he began to lay out generous fare on a trestle table by the only window.
In place of the Lego castle on which the boy worked much of every day, Deucalion had suggested to Nebo that jigsaw puzzles be brought from the monastery’s collection of simple amusements, and in particular a one-thousand-piece picture of a Rhineland castle that he himself had worked more than once, as a form of meditation.
Now, as the boy stood beside the table, gazing at the appealing spread from which he could make his breakfast—including some orange cheese but nothing green—another monk arrived with four puzzles. When Deucalion reviewed these with Arnie, explaining that a jigsaw picture could be considered a two-dimensional version of a Lego project, the boy brightened at the sight of the castle photograph.
Kneeling in front of Arnie to bring them as eye-to-eye as possible, Deucalion took him by the shoulders and said, “I can’t stay with you any longer. But I will return. Meanwhile you will be safe with Nebo and his brothers, who know that even the outcasts among God’s children are still His children, and therefore love them as they do themselves. Your sister must be my paladin because I can’t raise my own hand against my maker, but I will do all in my power to protect her. Nevertheless, what will come will come, and each of us must face it in his own way, with as much courage as he can—as she always has, and as she always will.”
Deucalion was not surprised when the boy hugged him, and he returned the embrace.
Vicky’s sister, Liane, whom Carson had spared from prison on a false murder charge, lived in an apartment in Faubourg Marigny, not far outside the Quarter.
She answered the door with a cat in a hat. She held the cat, and the cat wore the hat. The cat was black, and the hat was a knitted blue beret with a red pompom.
Liane looked lovely, and the cat looked embarrassed, and Michael said, “This explains the mouse we just saw laughing itself to death.”
Having regained consciousness in the car, Vicky could stand on her own, but she didn’t look good. To her sister, as she patted the cat and stepped inside, she said, “Hi, sweetie. I think I’m gonna puke.”
“Carson doesn’t allow that sort of thing at her house,” Michael said, “so here we are. As soon as Vicky pukes, we’ll take her home.”
“He never changes,” Liane said to Carson.
“Never. He’s a rock.”
Vicky decided she needed a beer to settle her stomach, and she led everyone to the kitchen.
When Liane put down the cat, it shook off the beret in disgust and ran out of the room to call the ACLU.
She offered drinks all around, and Carson said, “Something with enough caffeine to induce a heart attack.”
When Michael seconded that suggestion, Liane fetched two Red Bulls from the refrigerator.
“We’ll drink from the can,” Michael said. “We’re not girly men.”
Having already chugged half a bottle of beer, Vicky said, “What happened back there? Who was Randal? Who were those two that switched off my lights? You said Arnie’s safe, but where is he?”
“It’s a long story,” Carson said.
“They were such a cute couple,” Vicky said. “You don’t expect such a cute couple to squirt you with chloroform.”
Sensing that Carson’s It’s a long story, though containing a wealth of information, wasn’t going to satisfy Vicky, Michael said, “One thing those two were is professional killers.”
No longer in danger of puking, Vicky acquired that red-bronze hue of Asian anger. “What were professional killers doing in our kitchen?”
“They came to kill us professionally,” Michael explained.
“Which is why you’ve got to get out of New Orleans for a few days,” Carson said.
“Leave New Orleans? But they must have come to kill you, not me. I never antagonize people.”
“She never does,” Liane agreed. “She’s the nicest person.”
“But you saw their faces,” Carson reminded Vicky. “Now you’re on their list.”
“Can’t you just get me police protection?”
Michael said, “You’d think we could, wouldn’t you?”
“We don’t trust anyone in the PD,” Carson revealed. “There’s police corruption involved. Liane, can you take Vicky out of town somewhere, for a few days?”
Addressing her sister, Liane said, “We could go stay with Aunt Leelee. She’s been wanting us to come.”
“I like Aunt Leelee,” Vicky said, “except when she goes off about the planetary pole shift.”
“Aunt Leelee believes,” Liane explained, “that because of the uneven distribution of population, the weight imbalance is going to cause a shift in the earth’s magnetic pole, destroying civilization.”
Vicky said, “She can go on for hours about the urgent need to move ten million people from India to Kansas. But otherwise, she’s fun.”
“Where does Leelee live?” Carson asked.
“You think that’s far enough, Michael?”
“Well, it’s not Tibet, but it’ll do. Vicky, we need to borrow your car.”
Vicky frowned. “Who’s going to drive it?”
“I will,” Michael said.
“It’ll be a hoot spending a few days with Aunt Leelee,” Liane said. “We’ll drive up there first thing in the morning.”
“You’ve got to leave now,” Carson said. “Within the hour.”