Two minutes after Erskine parked, a Chevy pickup pulled off the highway and parked to his right.
Erskine stepped from his truck as two men got out of the Chevy. They were Ben Shanley and Tom Zell, who were city councilmen.
Neither Shanley nor Zell said anything to Erskine Potter, and he said nothing to them as he unlocked the front door of the roadhouse and led them inside.
They entered at a mezzanine level overlooking the main floor. Here were high-backed booths upholstered in dark-blue vinyl. Six stairs led to the lower and larger part of the huge room.
The bar, a great mass of polished mahogany, was on the right, at the end of the rectangular main room. Opposite the bar, on the left, beyond a set of double doors, a private dining room could accommodate as many as twenty-four.
Between the bar and the private area were forty square tables, each with four chairs. The tables were furnished with salt and pepper shakers, ketchup bottles, mustard bottles, and ruby-glass cups in which candles would be burning when the place opened for business.
Centered along the rear wall, the elevated stage lay beyond the dance floor. Behind a backdrop of midnight-blue velvet curtains lay a small backstage area and beyond that were two dressing rooms and two small bathrooms for the exclusive use of the talent.
There were no windows in the public areas.
“Six ways out of this space,” Erskine Potter said as he stood on the dance floor with the city councilmen. “Front doors we came through.” He turned, pointing: “Door to the bathroom hall, from which there’s also a fire exit. Door to the kitchen hall. Double doors to the private dining room, which itself has a fire exit. That door in the backbar leads to a service hall. And behind those curtains is a backstage door to the parking lot. Some of them look like nice wood doors, but they’re steel fire doors clad in fake wood. Once locked, nobody can break them down to get out.”
“How many will be here?” Tom Zell asked.
“A hundred twenty to a hundred fifty.”
“Will any of them be one of us?”
“Their pastor. Reverend Kelsey Fortis.”
“How many Builders will we have?” Ben Shanley asked.
“What’s the strategy?”
“Take the youngest and strongest men first and fast,” Erskine Potter said, “before they can resist. Then the other men.”
“Will they resist?” Shanley wondered. “Church folk?”
“Maybe a little. But the men will be finished quickly. Women’s instinct will be to get the children out the moment it starts, but they’ll find the doors locked.”
“Then we take the women,” said Tom Zell.
“Leaving the children for last.”
“Yes. Eliminate the strong, proceed to the weaker and then to the weakest. When all the adults have been processed, we can secure the children and present them to the Builders one by one, as they’re needed.”
In the pretty little house, Jocko spent an hour climbing the stairs and descending. Up, down, up, down.
Sometimes he sang as he raced up, plunged down. Or whistled. Or made up rhymes: “Jocko eats kittens each day for lunch! He eats them not singly but by the bunch! He eats children for dinner and then—he coughs them up and eats them again!”
Usually, Jocko paused on the landing. To pirouette. Pirouetting sometimes made him nauseous. But he loved it. Twirling.
Jocko didn’t actually eat kittens. Or children. He was just pretending to be a big mean monster.
Before he started up the stairs, he made scary faces at the foyer mirror. Usually the faces made him giggle. A couple of times, he screamed in real terror.
Jocko was happy. Happier than he deserved to be.
He didn’t deserve great happiness because, for one thing, he was a monster. Just not big or mean.
He started life in New Orleans as a kind of tumor. Inside the strange flesh of one of Victor Frankenstein’s New Race. He grew, grew inside the other person. Became self-aware. Broke free, destroying his host. Free of the New Race body. Free of Victor.
When you began as a tumor, life could only get better.
Jocko was taller than an average dwarf. Pale as soap. Hairless. Well, except for three hairs on his tongue. A knobby chin. A lipless slit for a mouth. Warty skin. Funny feet.
Not funny ha-ha. Funny yuck.
He wasn’t the kind of new man that Victor would have tried to create. Lots of things Victor created didn’t turn out like expected.
Up the stairs and down again. “Jocko’s a spook! Troll, demon, a ghoul! Jocko is beastly! Strange, weird, but so cool!”
Jocko didn’t deserve to be happy because he was also a screwup. He never looked before he leaped. He often didn’t look after he leaped.
Jocko knew what goes up must come down. But sometimes he threw a stone at dive-bombing birds, and the stone fell back on his head, and so he ended up stoning himself.
Birds. They said a bird in the hand was worth two in the bush. Jocko preferred the two in the bush. In Louisiana, birds attacked him on sight. Savagely. Pecking, screeching, pecking. Jocko remained wary of birds.
A monster. A screwup.
Worse. A coward. Jocko was easily frightened by so many things. Birds. Coyotes. Cougars. Runaway horses. Rap music. His own face. Brussels sprouts. The television.
The TV was super scary. Not when it was turned on and you could watch shows. When it was off. The blank TV was a big mean eye. TV watched Jocko when it was off.
Erika kept a folded blanket atop the TV. When the TV was off, she covered it with the blanket. The eye was still open. Open under the blanket. But at least it couldn’t see Jocko.
Monster. Screwup. Coward. And when alone, he couldn’t stop moving, doing. Fidgeting. Severe hyperactivity disorder. He read it in a book.
Yet Jocko continued to be enormously happy. Hugely happy. So happy he needed to pee frequently. He was happy because he was seldom alone these days. He and Erika formed a blissful family in this small house on forty acres of meadows and woods.
Made in Victor’s creation tanks, Erika was sterile, like all her maker’s New Orleans creations. But she still had an urge to mother someone. Victor would have killed her if he’d been aware of it.
Victor said families were dangerous. People were more loyal to their families than to their rulers. Victor wanted no divided loyalties among his creations.
Erika called Jocko “little one.” She also called him Sparky when he was too fidgety to sit still.
She sometimes called him Tiny Tim when he was calm. Calm and sitting in an armchair, just reading. They read books a lot. Sitting in their armchairs. In their pretty little house.
Maybe outside it snowed. Or rained. Or just wind, blowing. But inside—armchairs and books and often hot chocolate.
After an hour of running up and down stairs, Jocko grew worried. Erika should have returned. She went into town for cinnamon rolls.
Something happened to her. Maybe hit by a truck. Maybe hit by two trucks. Maybe rap music.
Maybe a bear got her. There were grizzly bears. Bears in the woods. Jocko had never seen one. But they were there. The woods were a bear toilet.
Maybe Jocko was now alone in the world.
When the maybes started, they didn’t stop.
Jocko hurried to the front door. It was flanked with sidelights. Beyond lay the front porch.
He looked out the left sidelight. Beyond the porch: the long gravel driveway. Leading out of sight to the county road. No car.
Jocko peeked through the right sidelight. Same porch, same driveway, still no car.
Left sidelight. Right sidelight. Left, right, left, right.
A window in the top third of the door. Above Jocko’s head. He jumped, glimpsed the porch, driveway, no car. Jumped. No car. Jumped. No car.
Left sidelight, jump, right sidelight, jump, left sidelight, jump: no car, no car, no car, no car, no car.
Maybe he shouldn’t hope to see Erika’s car approaching. Maybe he would hope and hope and hope, and it would appear, but it would be driven by a bear.
Erika must be dead. She would be home by now if she wasn’t dead. Jocko was alone in the world again. Alone with the blanket-draped TV. And bears watching from the woods. And birds circling in the sky.
Without her, he would have to live in sewers again. In storm drains. Coming out at night for food. Sneaking along dark alleys.
He was a monster. People didn’t like monsters. They would beat him with buckets, shovels, with whatever was near at hand. They had beaten him before, when he’d struggled to live on his own and people came upon him by accident. Buckets, shovels, brooms, umbrellas, canes, lengths of chain and garden hoses, large pepperoni sausages.
He whimpered with grief and fear. His whimpering scared him.
To distract himself, to avoid a full-blown emotional crisis, Jocko pirouetted. Pirouetted room to room. Then cartwheeled through the house. He juggled red rubber balls. Juggled fruit. Juggled vegetables. He hurried up and down the stairs on his hands. Up and down, up and down. He rearranged the contents of all the cabinets in the kitchen—and then put everything back where it belonged. He opened a bag of dried pinto beans and counted them. Then he counted them by twos. By threes.
Still, Erika did not return.
Carson and Michael owned a pale-yellow Victorian house with gingerbread millwork painted blue. The place looked as though it had been built by a crew of pastry chefs from a show on the Food Network.
Inside, glossy white woodwork, yellow walls, and rich red-mahogany floors lifted Carson’s spirits every time she came home. In each room, an ornate plaster medallion surrounded the ceiling light fixture.
Previously, in New Orleans, Carson had no interest in decor. To her, a house had been a place to sleep and eat and clean her guns. Michael’s idea of decorative style had been a La-Z-Boy and a pine table with a built-in lamp and magazine rack on which to stand his beer and a bag of Cheetos.
Their last case as New Orleans homicide detectives had taken them into dark and desperate places as perverse and full of threat as any chambers in Hell. Their choices and actions since had been largely in reaction to those experiences. Case closed, they left the sweltering, fecund bayous and moved to this city built on hills, where ocean winds and crisp fogs continually cleansed the streets and redeemed each day. They sought a place with many tall windows, with light colors and open rooms, where shadows were few and soft instead of deep and pervasive, where life could be lived rather than merely endured.
Now, home from the docks at last, having left foot-shot Chang in the custody of the authorities and having given statements to the police, they were greeted in the foyer by Duke. He was a German shepherd with soulful eyes and a talent for affection, his tail a semaphore ceaselessly signaling his delight at their return.
Usually, Carson and Michael would drop to their knees to scratch the dog’s chest and behind his ears, to give him a tummy rub when, inevitably, he collapsed to the floor and rolled onto his back. A dog’s love is pure and can inspire the repressed angel in even the most corrupted heart.
Carson and Michael weren’t corrupted, merely tarnished by a world that patinated every shiny thing, but this time they returned Duke’s greeting with just a pat on the head, a quick scratch under his chin, and praise spoken in falsetto.
“Pretty Duke, sweet thing.”
“Daddy is so happy to see his Dukie.”
Without prior discussion, they were both eager for the same thing: the smell of fresh baby, the sight of that toothless smile, those lively blue eyes.
“Dukie,” said Carson, “where’s Scout? Find Scout. Take us to Scout.”
The shepherd sprang to this assignment with enthusiasm. He raced along the hallway and vanished through the open kitchen door.
When Carson and Michael followed, they found Mary Margaret Dolan at the sink, peeling apples. Duke had stationed himself at her side, where he waited patiently for her to drop a piece of fruit.
Mary Margaret was sixty, plump but not fat, with flawless skin and eyes the color of sliced limes. Smart, compassionate, practical, and unfailingly cheerful, she used no language worse than “darn” and “horse manure,” though the latter made her blush.
She was a former nurse, and her past employers spoke of her only in superlatives. Her professional record contained not one blemish, not even a citation for arriving late to work or a reprimand for bending a hospital rule.
Mary Margaret’s husband, Brendan, had been a highly decorated police officer who died in the line of duty. Of her two sons, one had become a priest; the other was a career Marine with a chest of medals that honored his father’s sacrifice. As for Mary Margaret’s three daughters: One was a Benedictine nun; one was a Carmelite nun; and the third was a physician working with Doctors Without Borders, currently serving the poor in Haiti.
After conducting an exhaustive background check, Carson and Michael had almost decided against hiring Mary Margaret. They were put off by the discovery that the physician daughter, Emily Rose Dolan, on vacation from her third-world service, was cited by the California Highway Patrol for driving alone in a clearly marked carpool lane.
In spite of that egregious violation of the law, they at last settled on Mary Margaret, in part because she was the only applicant for the position of nanny who was neither tattooed nor belligerent.
A woman with tattoo-sleeved arms and a grudge against the world could be, of course, just as fine a nanny as anyone else. Carson and Michael were not bigots. They believed in equal opportunity both for the flamboyantly decorated and for the perpetually pissed-off. They just didn’t want to come home one day and discover that Scout now sported a serpent with bared fangs winding around her left arm or had started tossing off the F word with aplomb.
“Are you making a pie, Mrs. D?” Carson asked when she entered the kitchen and saw Mary Margaret using the paring knife.
“No, dear. Who would want mere pie when they could have apple dumplings? Did you get your man?”
“I shot him in the foot,” Carson said.
“Good for you, dear. Assuming the miscreant deserved it.”
“He had a gun to Carson’s head,” Michael said.
“Then you as well should have shot him in the foot, boyo.”
“She also vomited on him,” Michael said.
“You vomited, too,” Carson reminded him.
“But just into the bay. Not on the perp. I’d never vomit on the perp.”
A movable playpen stood in a corner of the kitchen, the wheels locked. In a pink pullover, a disposable diaper, and pink booties, Scout sat in the center of the pen, chewing on the baby-safe nose of a pediatrician-approved teddy bear.
Starting two weeks previously, Scout had been able to sit up on her own. But the feat still dazzled Carson, and she was no less proud of her daughter than she’d been the first time this happened.