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City revenues rose as property values soared and as the county shared the initial income from mineral-licensing rights on land it owned. The mayor and city council of that time hoped to leverage the tax windfall to get a head start on developing the infrastructure that a population boom would require.

Meriwether Lewis Elementary was originally intended to be a new high school with the amenities usually found only in rich suburban schools or private schools. This included an indoor Olympic pool to support swimming and diving programs second to none.

Before the school could be completed, however, the people of Rainbow Falls saw their inflated dreams of glory pricked when, for environmental reasons, the federal government restricted exploitation of the newly discovered oil deposits and gas fields, regulating them to such an extent that drilling projects already under way had to be closed. Tax revenues collapsed back to their former level as property values fell and outside investment evaporated.

The budget for the elaborate new high school, which was already under construction, had to be slashed. The indoor swimming pool would remain a depression in the floor. The cost of tiling it, installing the equipment to operate it, and finishing all the ancillary spaces—locker rooms, showers, sports offices—might bankrupt the Rainbow Falls School District. Maintaining and heating it would be forever beyond the capacity of their operating budget.

Ultimately, the existing high school was deemed adequate. A grade school in need of expensive repairs and improvements was closed, and the students were moved to what was now Meriwether Lewis Elementary.

Principal Raines and Chief Jarmillo circled the pool as they discussed the fate of the current crop of students. Crop was indeed the right word, because a team of Builders would soon harvest them.

“We’ll bring two classes at a time into the pool from the shallow end,” Melinda Raines said, “and move them into the deeper territory where the walls are high and there’s no hope of climbing out. The Builders will follow, take them, and prevent them from getting out the way they were brought in. Teachers will patrol the perimeter to ensure no escapes.”

Listening to the principal’s voice echo off the cold gray walls, Jarmillo said, “Any chance students still in the classrooms will hear any of what happens down here?”

Melinda Raines shook her head. “The walls are two-foot-thick, steel-reinforced, poured-in-place concrete.”

“What’s above us?”

“That ceiling is the floor of the gymnasium. It’s also two feet thick. Nevertheless, on the day of the field trip, we’ll cancel all athletic activities and lock the gym. If any screams carry through this ceiling, no one will be up there to hear them.”

Although half the immense room, including the unfinished pool, was well lighted, the half farther from the double doors lay in shadows that thickened as they receded into full darkness. Jarmillo had the impression of support columns and half-built interior walls.

Before the chief could ask, Principal Raines said, “Stadium seating would have flanked the pool, and beyond the seating on that side would have been an array of supporting facilities like locker rooms, offices. Beyond those, a lobby. None of it was finished. The below-street entrance to the lobby was never completed. In fact the exterior steps were filled in with earth, so there’s no exit from this space except by the doors we entered.”

“All of that area can’t also be under the gymnasium,” he said.

“No. It’s beneath a few feet of earth and the teachers’ parking lot. Essentially, we’re in a soundproof bunker.”

“Have we replaced the teachers?”

She shook her head. “The janitorial crew, the school nurse, and the culinary staff are with us. Tonight and tomorrow night, we’ll take the teachers in their homes.”

“Thursday will be a good day,” Chief Jarmillo said.

Principal Raines said, “The final phase—children’s day. Will you come to watch them be killed and processed?”

“We’ll be killing them all over town,” he said. “I’ll want to see as much of it as I can.”

Chapter 29

Having answered the bishop and been well answered in turn, Arnie analyzed the game board, considering his next move, while his sister and brother-in-law struggled to cope with the unwanted message they had received from the tattooed chess master.

Carson, Michael, and Deucalion were present when Victor Helios, alias Frankenstein, perished. Carson was certain that the circumstances of his horrific death allowed no possibility that he could have been revived. He had been simultaneously electrocuted, suffocated, and crushed.

Furthermore, when Victor died, the creatures of his making who were present fell dead as well, except for Deucalion. In his altered body, Victor had contained power cells that converted electricity to another life-sustaining energy of his invention. When he died, those batteries were tapped to relay a signal by satellite to every member of the New Race that he had created while in New Orleans, a lethal signal that at once terminated them. If he couldn’t be their immortal god, he would not permit them to outlive him by even one hour.

Pacing the study, Carson said, “The very fact that we saw them fall down dead is proof that no life remained in Victor.”

Still cradling Scout, Deucalion said, “Perhaps it proves just what you say. But he was a genius, even if a demented one. And I know as surely as I know anything that he had a contingency plan, a means by which to survive the death of his body, to survive not as a spirit deep in Hell, but in the flesh and in this world.”

“You say you know,” Carson countered, “but in fact you only feel that he’s still out there. You don’t know what the contingency plan could have been or where he is, or what he’s doing. How can we turn our lives upside down, go chasing off after a phantom, based only on a feeling?”

The lingering glow of his birth lightning pulsed through Deucalion’s eyes as he said, “Considering what you know of me, perhaps you might agree that a feeling such as this is more than a sensation, more than an emotion, that it may be a truth perceived by intuition, far more than a hunch. Far more. A revelation.”

Carson turned to Michael, but Michael shook his head and looked toward a window as if to say, If you want to debate a two-hundred-year-old sage with mysterious powers, have at him, but you don’t need my help to make a fool of yourself.

In the embrace of the self-described monster, Scout plucked at the lapel of his coat, as if eager for his greater attention. The smile with which the baby regarded his damaged face was only a few watts short of rapturous, as if she felt as safe in his arms as she would have been in the care of Saint Michael the archangel, celestial warrior.

“But even if he’s alive somehow,” Carson said, “and even if you could find him, what could Michael and I do that you can’t do better yourself? With your powers. With your … strength.”

“You can move more openly in the world than I can with my face and my occasionally illuminated eyes. Whatever the situation may be, I can’t fight and destroy him alone. As before, I need allies. And I know the two of you have the wit and courage to face down dragons. I don’t know that of anybody else.”

For the moment, Arnie was distracted from the game board. “You know you’ll do it, Carson. Michael knows, and you know it, too. You were born to kick butt and set things right.”

She said, “This isn’t a video game, Arnie.”

“No. It isn’t. It’s all that’s been wrong with the world for thousands of years, all that’s wrong now coming to a head here in our time. Maybe Armageddon is more than the name of an old Bruce Willis movie. Maybe you’re not Joan of Arc, but you’re more than you think you are.”

In the two years since Deucalion cured Arnie of severe autism, seemingly by a touch, Carson had sometimes thought that he had not only taken away that affliction but had also given the boy something. A quiet wisdom greater than his years. But not only wisdom. Another quality, perhaps not of mind or body but of character, an ineffable quality of which she was aware, though she could not name it.

To Deucalion, she said, “Even if we wanted to help, even if we should, what are we to do? If Victor is alive somehow, we don’t know where he is. We don’t know what madness he’s up to, if he’s up to anything at all.”

“He’s up to what he’s always been up to,” said Deucalion. “He wants to murder the idea of human exceptionalism, debase all life until it has no value whatsoever, acquire ultimate power at any cost, and by the accomplishment of those goals, thereby destroy the soul of the world. As for where he is … one way or another, we’ll soon know the place.”

One of Carson’s two cell phones rang. The tone was that of the line given solely to Francine Donatello, their office manager, who used it only on exceptional occasions, usually regarding a crisis related to one of their current cases. Grateful for the distraction, Carson answered the phone.

Francine said, “I got this call from a woman, she claimed it’s a matter of life and death, and she was pretty convincing. She left a phone number.”

“What woman?” Carson asked.

“She said to tell you that she was aware of your work in New Orleans and kept track of you when you left the NOPD.”

“Did she leave a name with that number?”

“Yeah. She said you met her sister, but you never met her. She said her last name now is Swedenborg, but her maiden name was Erika Five. I never heard a name that was a number before.”

Chapter 30

Bryce Walker sat in his hospital bed, staring at the window, watching gray clouds, like a spooring fungus, gradually creep across the sky.

The sheets were clean, the carafe contained ice water, but the capsule in the pill cup was different from the medication he received the previous evening.

According to the information on his chart, in the plastic sleeve hanging from the footrail of the bed, his prescription had not been changed. The nurse must have given him the wrong capsule by mistake.

That was one explanation, anyway. A second possibility might be that she had intentionally switched medications, hoping that he would not notice the difference in size and color from the capsule that he had been given twelve hours before, following his MRI.

Dr. Rathburn’s uncharacteristic impatience and his humorless demeanor. The silence and forced smiles of the nurses. The glimpse Bryce had gotten of hatred in the eyes of one of them, her face tight with contempt …

If he’d had a paperback Western to read, perhaps he would have told himself that everyone was entitled to be a screwup or a crank now and then, and he might have lost himself in a good yarn as he waited to see if lunch would be served on time. But then—the voices in the air shaft. Even the best book by his favorite author wouldn’t have taken his mind off those cries for help and mercy.

If the nurse gave him the incorrect medication on purpose, Bryce could imagine only one reason. The capsule in the paper cup must be a sedative. She was annoyed at him because of his dissatisfaction with his treatment, and she wanted him to be either more compliant or fast asleep.

No professional nurse of his experience would have done such a thing. Rainbow Falls Memorial didn’t rate as a five-star facility in anyone’s book, but neither was it a third-world hospital. When his wife, Rennie, had been ill, everyone on the staff proved efficient, friendly, and emotionally supportive.

Instead of swallowing the capsule, he put it in the pocket of his pajama shirt.

The room darkened as increasingly malignant-looking clouds metastasized across the sun.

Bryce vacillated between apprehension and denial.

Perhaps what truly troubled him, what affected him more profoundly than he realized, was the memory of the chest pains that had brought him here. An old man acutely aware of his mortality, terrified of death but too macho to admit his fear, might distract himself from his failure of courage by imagining mysterious enemies, conspiracies. The ordinary hisses and whistles of air moving through grilles and ductwork might inspire auditory hallucinations in a man left already shaken by a brush with death.

And that was as big a load as an elephant ever dropped.

Bryce had no abnormal fear of dying. In fact, he hardly feared it at all. Death was just a door he needed to go through to be with Rennie again.

He was trying to talk himself out of pursuing answers to the staff’s peculiar behavior and to the voices in the ductwork. Bryce was uncomfortably aware that since Rennie’s passing, he had been reactive instead of proactive in all things. He had not given up on life, but he’d given in to a tendency toward passivity that he would never tolerate in one of the heroic marshals or determined ranchers who were the protagonists in the novels that he wrote.

Not exactly disgusted with himself but more than merely annoyed, Bryce threw back the covers, got out of bed, and stepped into his slippers. From his closet, he withdrew the thin bathrobe provided by the hospital and pulled it on over his pajamas.

In the main second-floor corridor, Doris Makepeace, the shift supervisor, sat alone at the nurses’ station. Bryce remembered her well and fondly from Rennie’s last hospitalization.

Nurse Makepeace seemed to be lost in thought, staring at the wall clock across the hallway from her post.

Bryce could not remember an occasion when a shift supervisor or any other nurse had not been busy at the central station, from which they tended to all of the patients on this floor. Nurses always had more work than they could easily complete.

Doris in particular had always been industrious—bustling and lively and engaged and diligent. Now she appeared detached and even bored. Either she hoped to make the hands of the clock move faster by watching them or her thoughts had traveled so far beyond the hospital that she didn’t even see the clock.

As before, he might be making something out of nothing. Everyone needed to zone out for a few minutes now and then, during a busy day.

When Bryce passed in front of her, Doris Makepeace stirred from her trance to say, “Going somewhere?”

“Just getting a little exercise, maybe visit a couple of the other patients.”

“Stay close. Stay where we can find you. We might be taking you downstairs for tests.”

“Don’t worry. I’ll be right around here,” he promised, and he found himself shuffling instead of walking, not because he needed to shuffle, which he did not, but because he thought it might be wise to appear somewhat feeble.

“Don’t tax yourself. The sooner you’re back in bed and resting, the better.”

Nurse Makepeace’s voice had neither its characteristic lilt nor its customary warmth. In fact, Bryce heard a cold, authoritarian note close to contempt.

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