About a hundred fifty feet from the rampart on which he stood, a twenty-foot length of the dense trash trembled, and then appeared to roll, as though something swarmed through it. Perhaps a pack of rats surged just below the surface.
In recent days, members of Nick’s crew had half a dozen times reported rhythmic shiftings and pulsations in both pits, different from the usual swelling and settling related to the expansion and then sudden venting of methane pockets.
Little more than half a day ago, past midnight, strange sounds had risen from the east pit, almost like voices, tortured cries. With flashlights, Nick and his crew had gone in search of the source, which had seemed repeatedly to change direction but then had fallen silent before it could be located.
Now the pulsing trash went still. Rats. Surely rats.
Nevertheless, curious, Nick descended the sloped wall of the earthen rampart, into the west pit.
Aubrey Picou had retired from a life of crime to have more time to tend his garden.
He lived on an oak shaded street in Mid-City. His historic house boasted some of the most ornate decorative ironwork—fence, balcony railings—in a city dripping with such weighty filigree.
The front porch, draped with trumpet vines and hung with basket ferns, offered two white bench swings and wicker rocking chairs, but the shadows seemed no cooler than the sun-scorched front walk.
The maid, Lulana St. John, answered the doorbell. She was a fiftyish black woman whose girth and personality were equally formidable.
Leveling a disapproving look at Carson, trying to suppress a smile when she glanced at Michael, Lulana said, “I see before me two well-known public servants who do the Lord’s work but sometimes make the mistake of using the devil’s tactics.”
“We’re two sinners,” Carson admitted.
“ ‘Amazing grace,’” Michael said, “ ‘how sweet thou art, to save a wretch like me.’”
“Child,” said Lulana, “I suspect you flatter yourself to think you’re saved. If you have come here to be troublesome to the mister, I ask you to look within yourselves and find the part of you that wants to be a peace officer.”
“That’s the biggest part of me,” Michael said, “but Detective O’Connor here mostly just wants to kick ass.”
To Carson, Lulana said, “I’m sorry to say, missy, that is your reputation.”
“Not today,” Carson assured her. “We’re here to ask a favor of Aubrey, if you would please announce us. We have no grievance against him.”
Lulana studied her solemnly. “The Lord has given me an excellent crap detector, and it isn’t ringing at the moment. It’s in your favor that you have not shaken your badge at me, and you did say please.”
“At my insistence,” Michael said, “Detective O’Connor has been taking an evening class in etiquette.”
“He’s a fool,” Lulana told Carson. “Yes, I know.”
“After a lifetime of eating with her hands,” Michael said, “she has mastered the use of the fork in a remarkably short time.”
“Child, you are a fool,” Lulana told him, “but for reasons that only the Lord knows, in spite of myself, I always take a liking to you.” She stepped back from the threshold. “Wipe your feet, and come in.”
The foyer was painted peach with white wainscoting and ornate white crown molding. The white marble floor with diamond-shaped black inlays had been polished to such a shine that it looked wet.
“Has Aubrey found Jesus yet?” Carson wondered.
Closing the front door, Lulana said, “The mister hasn’t embraced his Lord, no, but I’m pleased to say he has come as far as making eye contact with Him.”
Although paid only to be a maid, Lulana did double duty as a spiritual guide to her employer, whose past she knew and whose soul concerned her.
“The mister is gardening,” she said. “You could wait for him in the parlor or join him in the roses.”
“By all means, the roses,” Michael said.
At the back of the house, in the immense kitchen, Lulana’s older sister, Evangeline Antoine, softly sang “His Lamp Will Overcome All Darkness” as she pressed dough into a pie pan.
Evangeline served as Aubrey’s cook and also as an amen choir to Lulana’s indefatigable soul-saving efforts. She was taller than her sister, thin, yet her lively eyes and her smile made their kinship obvious.
“Detective Maddison,” Evangeline said, “I’m so glad you’re not dead yet.”
“Me too,” he said. “What kind of pie are you making?”
“Praline-cinnamon cream topped with fried pecans.”
“Now that’s worth a quadruple heart-bypass.”
“Cholesterol,” Lulana informed them, “won’t stick if you have the right attitude.”
She led them through the rear door onto the back veranda, where Moses Bienvenu, Aubrey’s driver and handyman, was painting the beautifully turned white balusters under the black handrail.
Beaming, he said, “Detective O’Connor, I’m amazed to see you haven’t shot Mr. Michael yet.”
“My aim’s good,” she assured him, “but he can move fast.”
Well-padded but not fat, a robust and towering man with hands as big as dinner plates, Moses served as a deacon at the church and sang in the same gospel choir as his sisters, Lulana and Evangeline.
“They’re here to see the mister but not to trouble him,” Lulana told her brother. “If it looks like they’re troubling him, after all, lift them by the scruffs of their necks and put them in the street.”
As Lulana went inside, Moses said, “You heard Lulana. You may be police officers, but she’s the law around here. The Law and the Way. I would be in your debt if you didn’t make it necessary for me to scruff-carry you out of here.”
“If we find ourselves getting out of hand,” Michael said, “we’ll scruff-carry each other.”
Pointing with his paintbrush, Moses said, “Mr. Aubrey is over there past the pagan fountain, among the roses. And please don’t make fun of his hat.”
“His hat?” Michael asked.
“Lulana insists he wear a sun hat if he’s going to spend half the day in the garden. He’s mostly bald, so she worries he’ll get head-top skin cancer. Mr. Aubrey hated the hat at first. He only recently got used to it.”
Carson said, “Never thought I’d see the day when anyone would be the boss of Aubrey Picou.”
“Lulana doesn’t so much boss,” said Moses. “She sort of just tough-loves everyone into obedience.”
A brick walkway led from the back veranda steps, across the lawn, encircled the pagan fountain, and continued to the rose garden.
The sculptured-marble fountain featured three life-size figures. Pan, a male form with goat legs and horns, played a flute and chased two nude women—or they chased him—around a column twined with grapevines.
“My eye for antiques isn’t infallible,” Michael said, “but I’m pretty sure that’s eighteenth-century Las Vegas.”
The rosebushes grew in rows, with aisles of decomposed granite between. In the third of four aisles stood a bag of fertilizer, a tank sprayer, and trays of neatly arranged gardening tools.
Here, too, was Aubrey Picou, under a straw hat with such a broad brim that squirrels could have raced around it for exercise.
Before he noticed them and looked up, he was humming a tune. It sounded like “His Lamp Will Overcome All Darkness.”
Aubrey was eighty years old and had a baby face: an eighty-year-old baby face, but nevertheless pink and plump and pinchable. Even in the deep shade of his anticancer headgear, his blue eyes twinkled with merriment.
“Of all the cops I know,” said Aubrey, “here are the two I like the best.”
“Do you like any others at all?” Carson asked.
“Not one of the bastards, no,” Aubrey said. “But then none of the rest ever saved my life.”
“What’s with the stupid hat?” Michael asked.
Aubrey’s smile became a grimace. “What’s it matter if I die of skin cancer? I’m eighty years old. I gotta die of something.”
“Lulana doesn’t want you to die before you find Jesus.”
Aubrey sighed. “With those three running the show, I trip over Jesus every time I turn around.”
“If anyone can redeem you,” Carson said, “it’ll be Lulana.”
Aubrey looked as if he would say something acerbic. Instead he sighed again. “I never used to have a conscience. Now I do. It’s more annoying than this absurd hat.”
“Why wear the hat if you hate it?” Michael asked.
Aubrey glanced toward the house. “If I take it off, she’ll see. Then I won’t get any of Evangeline’s pie.”
“The praline-cinnamon cream pie.”
“With fried-pecan topping,” Aubrey said. “I love that pie.” He sighed.
“You sigh a lot these days,” Michael said.
“I’ve become pathetic, haven’t I?”
“You used to be pathetic,” Carson said. “What you’ve become is a little bit human.”
“It’s disconcerting,” Michael said.
“Don’t I know,” Aubrey agreed. “So what brings you guys here?”
Carson said, “We need some big, loud, door-busting guns.”
Glorious, the stink: pungent, pervasive, penetrating.
Nick Frigg imagined that the smell of the pits had saturated his flesh, his blood, his bones, in the same way that the scent of smoldering hickory permeated even the thickest cuts of meat in a smokehouse.
He relished the thought that to the core he smelled like all varieties of decomposition, like the death that he longed for and that he could not have.
In his thigh-high rubber boots, Nick strode across the west pit, empty cans of everything rattling in his wake, empty egg cartons and cracker boxes crunching-crackling underfoot, toward the spot where the surface of the trash had swelled and rolled and settled. That peculiar activity appeared to have ceased.
Although compacted by the wide-tracked garbage galleons that crawled these desolate realms, the trash field—between sixty and seventy feet deep in this pit—occasionally shifted under Nick, for by its nature it was riddled with small voids. Agile, with lightning reflexes, he rarely lost his footing.
When he arrived at the site of the movement that he had seen from the elevated rampart, the surface did not look significantly different from the hundred fifty feet of refuse across which he had just traveled. Squashed cans, broken glass, uncountable plastic items from bleach bottles to broken toys, drifts of moldering landscape trimmings—palm fronds, free limbs, grass—full trash bags knotted at their necks…
He saw a doll with tangled legs and a cracked brow. Pretending that beneath his foot lay a real child of the Old Race, Nick stomped until he shattered the smiling face.
Turning slowly 360 degrees, he studied the debris more closely.
He sniffed, sniffed, using his genetically enhanced sense of smell to seek a clue as to what might have caused the unusual rolling movement in this sea of trash. Methane escaped the depths of the pit, but that scent seemed no more intense than usual.
Rats. He smelled rats nearby. In a dump, this was no more surprising than catching a whiff of garbage. The musky scent of rodents pervaded the entire fenced grounds of Crosswoods Waste Management.
He detected clusters of those whiskered individuals all around him, but he could not smell a pack so large that, swarming through a burrow, it would be capable of destabilizing the surface of the trash field.
Nick roamed the immediate area, looking, sniffing, and then squatted—rubber boots squeaking—and waited. Motionless. Listening. Breathing quietly but deeply.
The sounds of the unloading semis at the east pit gradually receded, as did the distant growl of the garbage galleons.
As if to assist him, the air hung heavy and still. There was no breeze to whisper distractingly in his ears. The brutal sun seared silence into the day.
At times like this, the sweet reek of the pit could convey him into something like a Zen state of relaxed yet intense observation.
He lost track of time, became so blissed-out that he didn’t know how many minutes passed until he heard the voice, and he could not be certain that it hadn’t spoken several times before he registered it.
Soft, tremulous, in an indefinite timbre, the one word question could have been posed by either a male or a female.
Dog-nose Nick waited, sniffed.
“Father, Father, Father…?”
This time the question seemed to come simultaneously from four or five individuals, male and female.
When he surveyed the trash field, Nick found that he remained alone. How such a thing could be possible, he did not know, but the voices must have spoken out of the compacted refuse beneath him, rising through crevices from… From where?
“Why, Father, why, why, why…?”
The lost and beseeching tone suggested intractable misery, and resonated with Nick’s own repressed despair.
“Who are you?” he asked.
He received no reply.
“What are you?”
A tremor passed through the trash field. Brief. Subtle. The surface did not swell and roll as before.
Nick sensed the mysterious presence withdrawing.
Rising to his feet, he said, “What do you want?”
The searing sun. The still air. The stink.
Nick Frigg stood alone, the slough of trash once more firm beneath his feet.
At a bush with huge pink-yellow-white roses, Aubrey Picou snipped a bloom for Carson, and stripped the thorns from the stem.
“This variety is called French Perfume. Its exceptional mix of colors makes it the most feminine rose in my garden.”
Michael was amused to see Carson handle the flower so awkwardly even though it had no thorns. She was not a frills-and-roses kind of girl. She was a blue-jeans-and-guns kind of girl.
In spite of his innocent face and floppy straw hat, the master of this garden seemed as out of place among the roses as did Carson.
During decades of criminal activity, Aubrey Picou never killed a man, never wounded one. He never robbed or raped, or extorted anyone. He had merely made it possible for other criminals to do those things more easily and efficiently.
His document shop had produced forged papers of the highest quality: passports, birth certificates, driver’s licenses… He’d sold thousands of black-market guns.