This reception lounge, however, was more in line with the public perception of a morgue. Minimalist decor. Sterile surfaces. The air-conditioning was set to CHILL.
Jack’s secretary, Winona Harmony, ruled this outer domain with cool efficiency. When Carson and Michael entered, the top of Winona’s desk was bare—no photographs, no mementos—except for a folder of Jack’s notes, from which she was typing official autopsy reports.
A plump, warm-hearted black woman of about fifty-five, Winona seemed out of place in this barren space.
Carson suspected that stuffed into Winona’s desk drawers were family photos, Beanie Babies, beribboned sachets, small pillows with feel-good mottoes in elaborate needlepoint, and other items that she enjoyed but that she found inappropriate for display in a morgue reception lounge.
“Looka here,” said Winona when they came through the door. “If it isn’t the pride of Homicide.”
“I’m here, too,” Michael said.
“Oh, you are smooth,” Winona told him.
“Just realistic. She’s the detective. I’m the comic relief.”
Winona said, “Carson, girl, how do you stand him being so smooth all day?”
“Now and then I pistol-whip him.”
“Probably does no good,” said Winona.
“At least,” Carson said, “it helps keep me in shape.”
“We’re here about a corpse,” Michael said.
“We have a bunch,” Winona said. “Some have names, some don’t.”
“One of your own,” Winona noted.
“Yes and no,” Michael said. “He had a badge like us and two ears, but after that we don’t have much in common with him.”
“Who would have thought a psycho killer like the Surgeon would turn out to be a cop,” Winona marveled. “What’s the world coming to?”
“When will Jack do a prelim autopsy?” Carson asked.
“It’s done.” Winona tapped the file of handwritten notes beside her computer. “I’m typing it now.”
This stunned Carson. Like her and Michael, Jack Rogers knew that something extraordinary was happening in New Orleans and that some of its citizens were something more than human.
He had done an autopsy on a guy who had two hearts, and several other “improvements.”
Carson and Michael had asked him to embargo his report until they could grasp the situation they faced—and within hours, much to Jack’s dismay, the cadaver and all records of the autopsy had vanished.
Now he was supposed to be taking great security measures with the body of Jonathan Harker, who was another of Victor’s New Race. Carson could not comprehend why he would reveal Harker’s inhuman nature to Winona.
Less comprehensible still was Winona’s current calm, her easy smile. If she was typing a report of an autopsy on a monster, she seemed oblivious of it.
His bewilderment matching Carson’s Michael asked, “Have you just started?”
“No,” Winona said, “I’m almost finished.”
Carson and Michael exchanged a glance. She said, “We need to see Jack.”
“He’s in Autopsy Room Number Two,” Winona said. “They’re getting ready to open up a retiree whose wife seems to have fed him some bad crawfish gumbo.”
Carson said, “She must be devastated.”
Winona shook her head. “She’s under arrest. At the hospital, when they told her that he died, she couldn’t stop laughing.”
Deucalion rarely needed sleep. Although he had spent periods of his long life in monasteries and in meditation, though he knew the value of stillness, his most natural state seemed to be the restless circling-seeking of a shark.
He had been in all but constant motion since rescuing the girl from the alley in Algiers. His rage had passed, but his restlessness had not.
Into the vacuum left by the dissipation of anger came a new wariness. This was not to any degree fearful in nature, more of a disquietude arising from a sense of having overlooked something of great significance.
Intuition whispered urgently, but for the moment its voice was a wordless susurration, which raised his hackles but failed to enlighten him.
With dawn, he had returned to the Luxe Theater. The movie house recently had been willed to him by an old friend from his years in a carnival freakshow.
This inheritance—and the discovery that Victor, his maker, was not two hundred years dead, but alive—had brought him from Tibet to Louisiana.
He had often felt that destiny was working in his life. These events in New Orleans seemed to be hard proof.
An Art Deco palace erected in the 1920s, now a revival house, the Luxe was in decline. It opened its doors only three nights a week.
His apartment in the theater was humble. Anything larger than a monk’s cell, however, seemed extravagant to him, in spite of his size.
As he roamed the deserted corridors of the old building, the auditorium, the mezzanine, the balcony, the lobby, his thoughts did not just race but ricocheted like pinballs.
In his restlessness, he struggled to imagine a way to reach Victor Helios, alias Frankenstein. And destroy him.
Like the members of the New Race that Victor had brought forth in this city, Deucalion had been created with a built-in proscription against deicide. He could not kill his maker.
Two centuries ago, he had raised a hand against Victor—and had nearly perished when he had found himself unable to deliver the blow. Half of his face, the half disguised by a tattoo, had been broken by his master.
Deucalion’s other wounds always healed in minutes, perhaps not because Victor had in those days been capable of designing such resilience into him, perhaps instead because this immortality had come to him on the lightning, along with other gifts. The one wound that had not healed with perfect restoration of flesh and bone had been the one that his maker had inflicted.
Victor thought his first-made was long dead, as Deucalion had assumed that his maker had died in the eighteenth century. If he revealed himself to Victor, Deucalion would be at once struck down again—and this time, he might not survive.
Because Victor’s methods of creation had improved drastically from his early days—no more grave-robbing and stitchery—his New Race most likely was gray-cell wired also to die in defense of its maker.
Eventually, if Carson and Michael could not expose Victor, they might be able to stop him only by killing him. And to get at him, they might have to go through an army of New Men and New Women that would be almost as hard to kill as robots.
Deucalion felt considerable regret, and even some remorse, for revealing the truth of Helios to the two detectives. He had put them in enormous jeopardy.
His regret was mitigated to some extent by the fact that they had unknowingly been in mortal jeopardy, anyway, as was every human resident of New Orleans, however many still existed.
Troubled by these thoughts—and haunted by the inescapable feeling that some important truth eluded him, a truth with which he must urgently come to grips—Deucalion eventually arrived in the projection room.
Jelly Biggs, once billed in the carnival as the fattest man in the world, was smaller now, merely fat. He sorted through the stacks of paperbacks stored here, searching for a good read.
Behind the projection room lay Jelly’s two-room apartment. He had come with the theater, a breakeven enterprise that he more or less managed.
“I want a mystery story where everybody smokes like chimneys,” Jelly said, “drinks hard liquor, and never heard of vegetarianism.”
Deucalion said, “There’s a point in every mystery story—isn’t there?—where the detective feels that a revelation is right in front of him, but he can’t quite see it.”
Rejecting book after book, Jelly said, “I don’t want an Indian detective or a paraplegic detective, or a detective with obsessive-compulsive disorder, or a detective who’s a master chef—”
Deucalion examined a different stack of books from those that Jelly searched, as if a cover illustration or a flamboyant title might sharpen his fuzzy instinct into hard-edged meaning.
“I don’t have anything against Indians, paraplegics, obsessive-compulsives, or chefs,” Jelly said, “but I want a guy who doesn’t know from Freud, hasn’t taken sensitivity training, and punches you in the face if you look at him wrong. Is that too much to ask?”
The fat man’s question was rhetorical. He didn’t even wait for an answer.
“Give me a hero who doesn’t think too much,” Jelly continued, “who cares intensely about a lot of things, but who knows he’s a dead man walking and doesn’t care a damn about that. Death is knocking, and our guy yanks open the door and says, ‘What kept you?’”
Perhaps inspired by something Jelly said or by the paperback covers ablaze with colorful mayhem, Deucalion suddenly understood what his instinct had been trying to tell him. The end was here.
Less than half a day previously, in Carson O’Connor’s house, Deucalion and the two detectives had agreed to join forces to resist and ultimately to destroy Victor Helios. They had recognized that this mission would require patience, determination, cunning, courage—and that it might take a long time, as well.
Now, less by deductive reasoning than by intuition, Deucalion knew that they had no time at all.
Detective Harker, a member of Victor’s New Race, had spiraled into homicidal madness. There were reasons to believe that others of his kind were in despair, too, and psychologically fragile.
Furthermore, something fundamental had gone wrong with Harker’s biology. Shotguns had not felled him. Something that had been born within him, some strange dwarfish creature that had burst from him, had destroyed his body in its birth throes.
These facts alone were not sufficient evidence to justify the conclusion that Victor’s empire of the soulless might be on the verge of violent collapse. But Deucalion knew it was. He knew.
“And,” Jelly Biggs said, still sorting through the paperbacks, “give me a villain I’m not supposed to feel sorry for.”
Deucalion had no psychic power. Sometimes, however, knowledge arose in him, profound insights and understandings that he recognized as truths, and he did not doubt them or question their source. He knew.
“I don’t care that he kills and eats people because he had a bad childhood,” Jelly railed. “If he kills good people, I want some good people to get together and pound the crap out of him. I don’t want them to see that he gets therapy.”
Deucalion turned away from the books. He feared nothing that might happen to him. For the fate of others, however, for this city, he was overcome by dread.
Victor’s assault on nature and humanity had built into a perfect storm. And now the deluge.
The gutters of the stainless-steel dissection table were not yet wet, and the glossy white ceramic-tile floor in Autopsy Room Number 2 remained spotless.
Poisoned by gumbo, the old man lay in na*ed anticipation of the coroner’s scalpel. He looked surprised.
Jack Rogers and his young assistant, Luke, were gowned, gloved, and ready to cut.
Michael said, “Is every elderly na*ed dead man a thrill, or after a while do they all seem the same?”
“In fact,” said the medical examiner, “every one of them has more personality than the average homicide cop.”
“Ouch. I thought you only cut stiffs.”
“Actually,” Luke said, “this one will be pretty interesting because analysis of the stomach contents is more important than usual.”
Sometimes it seemed to Carson O’Connor that Luke enjoyed his work too much.
She said, “I thought you’d have Harker on the table.”
“Been there, done that,” said Luke. “We started early, and we’re moving right along.”
For a man who had been profoundly shaken by the autopsy that he had performed on one of the New Race little more than a day ago, Jack Rogers seemed remarkably calm about his second encounter with one of them.
Laying out the sharp tools of his trade, he said, “I’ll messenger the prelim to you. The enzyme profiles and other chemical analyses will follow when I get them from the lab.”
“Prelim? Profiles? You sound like this is SOP”
“Why shouldn’t it be?” Jack asked, his attention focused on the gleaming blades, clamps, and forceps.
With his owlish eyes and ascetic features, Luke usually appeared bookish, slightly fey. Now he regarded Carson with hawkish intensity.
To Jack, she said, “I told you last night, he’s one of them.”
“Them,” said Luke, nodding gravely.
“Something came out of Harker, some creature. Tore its way out of his torso. That’s what killed him.”
“Falling off the warehouse roof killed him,” Jack Rogers said.
Impatiently, Carson said, “Jack, for God’s sake, you saw Harker lying in that alleyway last night. His abdomen, his chest—they were like blown open.”
“A consequence of the fall.”
Michael said, “Whoa, Jack, everything inside Harker was just gone.”
Finally the medical examiner looked at them. “A trick of light and shadow.”
Bayou-born, Carson had never known a bitter winter. A Canadian wind in January could have been no colder than the sudden chill in her blood, her marrow.
“I want to see the body,” she said.
“We released it to his family,” Jack said.
“What family?” Michael, demanded. “He was cloned in a cauldron or some damned thing. He didn’t have family.”
With a solemnity not characteristic of him, eyes narrowed, Luke said, “He had us.”
The folds and flews of Jack’s hound-dog face were as they had been a day ago, and the jowls and dewlaps, all familiar. But this was not Jack.
“He had us,” Jack agreed.
As Michael reached cross-body, under his coat, to put his right hand on the grip of the pistol in his shoulder holster, Carson took a step backward, and another, toward the door.
The medical examiner and his assistant did not approach, merely watched in silence.
Carson expected to find the door locked. It opened.
Past the threshold, in the hall, no one blocked their way.
She retreated from Autopsy Room Number 2. Michael followed her.
Erika Helios, less than one day from the creation tank, found the world to be a wondrous place.
Nasty, too. Thanks to her exceptional physiology, the lingering pain from Victor’s punishing blows sluiced out of her in a long hot shower, though her shame did not so easily wash away.