“It’s really that serious?” Vicky asked.
“It really is.”
When Carson and Michael left, the four of them did the hugs-all-around thing, but the humiliated cat remained in seclusion.
In the street, on the way to the car, Carson tossed the keys to Michael, and he said, “What’s this?” and tossed them back to her.
“You promised Vicky that you’d drive,” she said, and lobbed the keys to him.
“I didn’t promise, I just said ‘I will.’”
“I don’t want to drive anyway. I’m sick about Arnie.”
He tossed the keys to her again. “He’s safe, he’s fine.”
“He’s Arnie. He’s scared, he’s overwhelmed by too much newness, and he thinks I’ve abandoned him.”
“He doesn’t think you’ve abandoned him. Deucalion has some kind of connection to Arnie. You saw that. Deucalion will be able to make him understand.”
Lobbing the keys to him, she said, “Tibet. I don’t even know how to get to Tibet.”
“Go to Baton Rouge and turn left.” He stepped in front of her, blocking access to the Honda’s passenger door.
“Michael, you always moan about me driving, so here’s your chance. Take your chance.”
Her surrender of the keys suggested despondency. He had never seen her despondent. He liked her scrappy.
“Carson, listen, if Arnie was here, in the middle of the New Race meltdown—if that’s what’s happening—you’d be ten times crazier with worry.”
“So don’t get yourself worked up about Tibet. Don’t go female on me.”
“Oh,” she said, “that was ugly.”
“Well, it seems to be what’s happening.”
“It’s not what’s happening. That was way ugly.”
“I call ‘em as I see ‘em. You seem to be going female on me.”
“This is a new low for you, mister.”
“What’s true is true. Some people are too soft and vulnerable to handle the truth.”
“You manipulative bastard.”
“Sticks and stones.”
“I may get around to sticks and stones,” she said. “Gimme the damn keys.”
She snatched them out of his hand and went to the driver’s door.
When they were belted in, as Carson put the key in the ignition, Michael said, “I had to punch hard. You wanting me to drive—that scared me.”
“Scared me, too,” she said, starting the engine. “You’d draw way too much attention to us—all those people behind us blowing their horns, trying to make you get up to speed limit.”
Deucalion stepped into Father Patrick Duchaine’s kitchen from the Rombuk Monastery, prepared to release the priest from this vale of tears, as he had promised, even though he had already learned of the Hands of Mercy from Pastor Laffite.
The priest had left lights on. The two coffee mugs and the two bottles of brandy stood on the table as they had been when Deucalion had left almost two hours ago, except that one of the bottles was now empty and a quarter of the other had been consumed.
Having been more affected by assisting Laffite out of this world than he had expected to be, prepared to be even more deeply stirred by the act of giving Duchaine that same grace, he poured a generous portion of brandy into the mug that previously he had drained of coffee.
He had brought the mug to his lips but had not yet sipped when his maker entered the kitchen from the hallway.
Although Victor seemed to be surprised, he didn’t appear to be amazed, as he should have been if he believed that his first creation had perished two centuries ago. “So you call yourself Deucalion, the son of Prometheus. Is that presumption… or mockery of your maker?”
Deucalion might not have expected to feel fear when coming face-to-face with this megalomaniac, but he did.
More than fear, however, anger swelled in him, anger of that particular kind that he knew would feed upon itself until it reached critical mass and became a rage that would sustain a chain reaction of extreme violence.
Such fury had once made him a danger to the innocent until he had learned to control his temper. Now, in the presence of his maker, no one but he himself would be endangered by his unbridled rage, for it might rob him of self-control, make him reckless, and leave him vulnerable.
Glancing at the back door, Victor said, “How did you get past the sentinels?”
Deucalion put down the mug so hard that the untasted brandy slopped out of it, onto the table.
“What a sight you are, with a tattoo for a mask. Do you really believe that it makes you less of an abomination?”
Victor took another step into the kitchen.
To his chagrin, Deucalion found himself retreating one step.
“And dressed all in black, an odd look for the bayou,” Victor said. “Are you in mourning for someone? Is it for the mate I almost made for you back then—but instead destroyed?”
Deucalion’s huge hands had hardened into fists. He longed to strike out, could not.
“What a brute you are,” said Victor. “I’m almost embarrassed to admit I made you. My creations are so much more elegant these days. Well, we all have to begin somewhere, don’t we?”
Deucalion said, “You’re insane and always were.”
“It talks!” Victor exclaimed with mock delight.
“The monster-maker has become the monster.”
“Ah, and it believes itself to be witty, as well,” said Victor. “But no one can blame your conversational skills on me. I only gave you life, not a book of one-liners, though I must say I seem to have given you rather more life than I realized at the time. Two hundred years and more. I’ve worked so hard on myself to hang on this long, but for you I would have expected a mortal span.”
“The only gift you gave me was misery. Longevity was a gift of the lightning that night.”
“Yes, Father Duchaine said that’s what you believe. Well, if you’re right, perhaps everyone should stand out in a field during a thunderstorm and hope to be struck, and live forever.”
Deucalion’s vision had darkened steadily with the escalation of his rage, and the memory of lightning that sometimes pulsed in his eyes throbbed now as never before. The rush of his blood sang in his ears, and he heard himself breathing like a well-run horse.
Amused, Victor said, “Your hands are so tightly fisted, you’ll draw blood from your palms with your own fingernails. Such hatred is unhealthy. Relax. Isn’t this the moment you’ve been living for? Enjoy it, why don’t you?”
Deucalion spread his fists into fans of fingers.
“Father Duchaine says the lightning also brought you a destiny. My destruction. Well… here I am.”
Although loath to concede his impotence, Deucalion looked away from his maker’s piercing gaze before he realized what he’d done.
“If you can’t finish me,” Victor said, “then I should wrap up the business I failed to complete so long ago.”
When Deucalion looked up again, he saw that Victor had drawn a revolver.
“A .357 Magnum,” Victor said. “Loaded with 158-grain jacketed hollow points. And I know exactly where to aim.”
“That night,” Deucalion said, “in the storm, when I received my destiny, I was also given an understanding of the quantum nature of the universe.”
Victor smiled again. “Ah. An early version of direct-to-brain data downloading.”
Deucalion raised a hand in which a quarter had appeared between thumb and forefinger. He flipped it into the air, and the quarter vanished during its ascent.
His maker’s smile grew stiff
Deucalion produced and flipped another coin, which winked up, up, and did not disappear, but fell, and when it rang against the kitchen table, Deucalion departed on the ping!
Carson driving, Michael riding shotgun: At least this one thing was still right with the world.
He had called the cell number for Deucalion and had, of course, gotten voice mail for jelly Biggs. He left a message, asking for a meeting at the Luxe Theater, at midnight.
“What do we do till then?” Carson asked.
“You think we could risk a stop at my apartment? I’ve got some cash there. And I could throw a few things in a suitcase.”
“Let’s drive by, see what we think.”
“Just slow down below supersonic.”
Accelerating, Carson said, “How do you think Deucalion does that Houdini stuff?”
“Don’t ask me. I’m a prestidigitation disaster. You know that trick with little kids where you pretend to take their nose off, and you show it poking out of your fist, except it’s really just your thumb?”
“They always look at me like I’m a moron, and say, ‘That’s just your stupid thumb.’”
“I’ve never seen you goofing around with kids.”
“I’ve got a couple friends, they did the kid thing,” he said. “I’ve played babysitter in a pinch.”
“I’ll bet you’re good with kids.”
“I’m no Barney the Dinosaur, but I can hold my own.”
“He must sweat like a pig in that suit.”
“You couldn’t pay me enough to be Barney,” he said.
“I used to hate Big Bird when I was a kid.”
She said, “He was such a self-righteous bore.”
“You know who used to scare me when I was a little kid? Snuggle the Bear.”
“Do I know Snuggle?”
“In those TV ads for that fabric softener. Somebody would say how soft their robe was or their towels, and Snuggle the teddy bear would be hiding behind a pillow or creeping around under a chair, giggling.”
“He was just happy that people were pleased.”
“No, it was a maniacal little giggle. And his eyes were glazed. And how did he get in all those houses to hide and giggle?”
“You’re saying Snuggle should’ve been charged with B and E?”
“Absolutely. Most of the time when he giggled, he covered his mouth with one paw. I always thought he didn’t want you to see his teeth.”
“Snuggle had bad teeth?” she asked.
“I figured they were rows of tiny vicious fangs he was hiding. When I was maybe four or five, I used to have nightmares where I’d be in bed with a teddy bear, and it was Snuggle, and he was trying to chew open my jugular and suck the lifeblood out of me.”
She said, “So much about you suddenly makes more sense than it ever did before.”
“Maybe if we aren’t cops someday, we can open a toy shop.”
“Can we run a toy shop and have guns?”
“I don’t see why not,” he said.
Sitting at the kitchen table in Michael Maddison’s apartment, Cindi Lovewell used a pair of tweezers to pluck the last of the wood splinters out of Benny’s left eye.
He said, “How’s it look?”
“Icky. But it’ll heal. Can you see?”
“Everything blurry in that eye. But I can see well with the right. We don’t look so cute anymore.”
“We will again. You want something to drink?”
“What’s he got?”
She went to the refrigerator, checked. “Like nine kinds of soft drinks and beer.”
“How much beer?”
“I’ll take one of them,” Benny said.
She brought both six-packs to the table. They twisted the caps off two bottles and chugged Corona.
Her wrist had already pretty much healed, though some weakness remained in it.
Maddison’s place was hardly bigger than a studio apartment. The kitchen was open to the eating area and the living room.
They could see the front door. They would hear the key in the lock.
Maddison would be dead two steps across the threshold. Maybe the bitch would be with him, and then the job would be done.
O’Connor being barren, Cindi felt sorry for her, but she still wanted her dead in the worst way.
Opening a second bottle of beer, Benny said, “So who was that tattooed guy?”
“I’ve been thinking.”
“He wasn’t Old Race. He has to be one of us.”
“He was stronger than us,” she reminded Benny. “Much stronger. He kicked our ass.”
“A new model.”
“He sure didn’t look like a new model,” she said. “What I’m thinking is voodoo.”
Benny groaned. “Don’t think voodoo.”
Sometimes Benny didn’t seem imaginative enough for a Gamma. She said, “The tattoo on his face was sort of like a veve.”
“None of this makes sense.”
“A veve is a design that represents the figure and power of an astral force.”
“You’re getting so weird on me again.”
“Somebody put some super-bad mojo on us and conjured up a god of Congo or Petro, and sent it after us.”
“Congo is in Africa.”
“Voodoo has three rites or divisions,” Cindi said patiently. “Rada calls upon the powers of the benevolent gods.”
“Listen to yourself.”
“Congo and Petro appeal to the powers of two different groups of evil gods.”
“You called voodoo science. Gods aren’t science.”
“They are if they work according to laws as reliable as those of physics,” she insisted. “Somebody conjured up a Congo or a Petro and sent it after us, and you saw what happened.”
Erika Helios had finished her dinner and had been for some time drinking cognac in the formal living room, enjoying the ambience and trying not to think about the thing in the glass case, when Victor arrived home from the Hands of Mercy, evidently having decided not to work through the night, after all.
When he found her in the living room, she said, “Good evening, dear. What a lovely surprise, when I thought I wouldn’t see you until tomorrow.”
Surveying the dirty dishes, he said, “You’re having dinner in the living room?”
“I wanted to have dinner somewhere that I could have cognac, and Christine said I could have cognac anywhere I pleased, and so here I am. It was very nice. We should invite guests and have a dinner party in the living room some night soon.”
“No one eats dinner in a formal living room,” he said sharply.