Now he got dressed, looking forward to a long night in his main laboratory at the Hands of Mercy
WHILE CARSON CHECKED on her castle-building brother, Michael stood at a kitchen counter with a mug of Vicky’s coffee.
Having just finished cleaning the oven, Vicky Chou said, “How’s the Java?”
‘As bitter as bile,” he said.
“But not acidic.”
“No,” he admitted. “I don’t know how you manage to make it bitter without it being acidic, but you do.”
She winked. “My secret.”
“Stuff’s as black as tar. This isn’t a mistake. You actually try to get it like this, don’t you?”
“If it’s so terrible,” she said, “why do you always drink it?”
“It’s a test of my manhood.” He took a long swal-
low that made his face pucker. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately, but you’ll tell me to shut up, you don’t want to know.”
Washing her hands at the sink, she said, “I have to listen to you, Michael. It’s part of my job description.”
He hesitated but then said, “I’ve been thinking how things might be if Carson and I weren’t partners.”
“What things?” “Between her and me.” “Is there something between you and her?” “The badge,” he said mournfully “She’s too solid a cop, too professional to date a partner.” “The bitch,” Vicky said drily. Michael smiled, sampled the coffee, grimaced. “Problem is, if I changed partners so we could date, I’d miss kicking ass and busting heads together.” “Maybe that’s how the two of you relate best.” “There’s a depressing thought.” Vicky clearly had more to say, but she clammed up when Carson entered the kitchen.
“Vicky,” Carson said, “I know you’re good about keeping doors locked. But for a while, let’s be even more security conscious.”
Frowning, Vicky asked, “What’s wrong?” “This weird case we’re on … it feels like … if we’re not careful, it could come home to us, right here.” She glanced at Michael. “Does that sound paranoid?”
“No,” he said, and finished the rest of the bitter coffee as though the taste of it would make their unsatisfying relationship seem sweeter by compar-
IN the car again, as Carson swung away from the curb, Michael popped a breath mint in his mouth to kill the sour stench of Vicky’s death brew. “Two hearts … organs of unknown purpose … I can’t get Invasion of the Body Snatchers out of my head, pod people growing in the basement.”
“It’s not aliens.”
“Maybe not. Then I think … weird cosmic radiation, pollution, genetic engineering, too much mustard in the American diet.”
“Psychological profiles and CSI techs won’t be worth a damn on this one,” Carson said. She yawned. “Long day. Can’t think straight anymore. What if I just drive you home and we call it a wrap?”
“Sounds swell. I’ve got a new pair of monkey-pattern jammies I’m eager to try on.”
She took a ramp to the expressway, headed west toward Metairie. The traffic was mercifully light.
They rode in silence for a while, but then he said, “You know, if you ever want to petition the chief of detectives to reopen your dad’s case and let us take a whack at it, I’m game.”
She shook her head. “Wouldn’t do it unless I had something new—a fresh bit of evidence, a different slant on the investigation, something. Otherwise, we’d just be turned down.”
“We sneak a copy of the file, review the evidence on our own time, look into it until we turn up the scrap we need.”
“Right now,” she said wearily, “we don’t really have any time of our own.”
As they exited the expressway, he said, “The Surgeon case will break. Things will ease up. Just remember, I’m ready when you are.”
She smiled. He loved her smile. He didn’t see enough of it.
“Thanks, Michael. You’re a good guy”
He would have preferred to hear her say that he was the love of her life, but “good guy” was at least a starting point.
When she pulled to the curb in front of his apartment house, she yawned again and said, “I’m beat. Exhausted.”
“So exhausted, you can’t wait to go straight back to Allwine’s apartment.”
Her smile was smaller this time. “‘You read me too well.”
“You wouldn’t have stopped to check on Arnie if you intended to go home after dropping me off”
“I should know better than to bullshit a homicide dick. It’s those black rooms, Michael. I need… to work them alone.”
“Get in touch with your inner psychic.”
“Something like that.”
He got out of the car, then leaned in through the open door. “Ditch the twelve-hour days, Carson. There’s no one you’ve got to prove anything to. Not anyone on the force. Not your dad.”
He closed the door and watched her drive away. He knew that she was tough enough to take care of herself, but he worried about her.
He almost wished that she were more vulnerable. It half broke his heart that she didn’t need him desperately.
ROY pribeaux ENJOYED the date more than he expected. Usually it was an annoying interlude between the planning of the murder and the commission of it.
Candace proved to be shy but charming, genuinely sweet with a dry, self-deprecating sense of humor.
They had coffee in a riverfront cafe. When they fell at once into easy conversation about a host of subjects, Roy was surprised but also pleased. The lack of any initial awkwardness would more quickly disarm the poor thing.
After a while she asked him exactly what he’d meant the previous night when he’d called himself a Christian man. Of what denomination, what commitment?
He knew at once that this was the key with which to unlock her trust and win her heart. He had used the Christian gambit in a couple of other instances, and with the right woman, it had worked as well as the expectation of great sex or even of love.
Why he, an Adonis, should be interested in a schlump like her—that mystery fed her suspicion. It made her wary.
If she believed, however, that he was a man of genuine moral principle who sought a virtuous companion and not just a good hump, she would see him as one with higher standards than physical beauty. She would convince herself that her lovely eyes were enough physical beauty for him and that what he really prized was her innocence, her chastity, her personality, and her piety The trick was to divine the brand of Christianity that she had embraced, then convince her that they shared that particular flavor of the faith. If she was a Pentecostal, his approach would have to be far different from that required if she was a Catholic, and much different from the worldly and ironic style that he must assume if she was Unitarian.
Fortunately, she proved to be an Episcopalian, which Roy found markedly easier to fake than one of the more passionate sects. He might have been lost if she’d been a Seventh Day Adventist.
She proved to be a reader, too, and especially a fan of C. S. Lewis, one of the finest Christian writers of the century just past.
In his quest to be a Renaissance man, Roy had read Lewis: not all of his many books, but enough. The Screwtape Letters. The Problem of Pain. A Grief Observed. Thankfully they had been short volumes.
Dear Candace was so enchanted to have a handsome and interested man as a conversationalist that she overcame her shyness when the subject turned to Lewis. She did most of the talking, and Roy needed only to insert a quote here and a reference there to convince her that his knowledge of the great man’s work was encyclopedic.
Another fortunate thing about her being an Episcopalian was that her denomination did not forbid drink or the joy of sensuous music. From the cafe, he talked her into a jazz club on Jackson Square.
Roy had a capacity for alcohol, but one potent hurricane erased whatever lingering caution Candace might otherwise have harbored.
After the jazz club, when he suggested they take a walk on the levee, her only concern was that it might be closed at this hour.
“It’s still open to pedestrians,” he assured her. “They just don’t keep it lit for the roller skaters and fishermen.”
Perhaps she would have hesitated to stroll the unlighted levee if he hadn’t been such a strong man, and so good, and capable of protecting her.
They walked toward the river, away from the shopping district and the crowds. The full moon provided more light than he would have liked but also enough to allay any of Candace’s lingering concern about their safety.
A brightly decorated riverboat chattered by, its great paddle wheel splashing through warm water. Passengers stood on the decks, sat at tables. This late-night river cruise wouldn’t stop at any nearby docks. Roy had checked the schedules, always planning ahead.
They ambled to the end of the pavement atop the breakwater of boulders. Fishermen were more likely to come this far in daylight. As he expected, here in the night, he and Candace were alone.
The lights of the receding riverboat painted serpentine ribbons of oily color on the dark water, and Candace thought this was pretty, and in fact so did Roy, and they watched it for a moment before she turned to him, expecting a chaste kiss, or even one not so chaste.
Instead, he squirted her in the face with the squeeze bottle of chloroform that he had withdrawn from a jacket pocket.
He had found this saturation technique to be far quicker, more effective, and less of a struggle than a soaked cloth. The fluid penetrated her nostrils, splashed her tongue.
Choking, gasping for breath and thereby inhaling the anesthetic, Candace dropped as suddenly and as hard as if she had been shot.
She fell on her side. Roy rolled her onto her back and knelt next to her.
Even in the insistent silvery moonlight, they presented a low profile to anyone who might look this way from a craft on the river. Glancing back the way they had come, Roy saw no other late strollers.
From an inside jacket pocket, he produced a stiletto and a compact kit of scalpels and other instruments.
He didn’t need larger tools for this one. The eyes would be simple to extract, though he must be careful not to damage the part of them that he considered to be perfectly beautiful.
With the stiletto, he found her heart and conveyed her from sleep to death with only the faintest liquid sound.
Soon the eyes were his, safely in a small plastic bottle full of saline solution.
On his way back to the lights and the jazz, he was surprised when he suddenly had a taste for cotton candy, not a treat that he had ever before craved. But of course the red wagon was closed and might not open for days.
A nineteenth-century stonemason had chiseled HANDS OF MERCY into a limestone block above the hospital entrance. A weathered image of the Virgin Mary overlooked the front steps.
The hospital had closed long ago, and after the building had been sold to a shell corporation controlled by Victor Helios, the windows had been bricked shut. Steel doors had been installed at every entrance, equipped with both mechanical and electronic locks.
A tall wrought-iron fence surrounded the oak-shaded property, like a stockpile of spears from a full Roman legion. To the rolling electric gate was affixed a sign: PRIVATE WAREHOUSE / NO ADMITTANCE.
Hidden cameras surveyed the grounds, the perimeter. No nuclear weapons storage depot had a larger or more dedicated security force, or one more discreet.
The forbidding structure stood silent. No beam of light escaped it, though here the new rulers of the Earth were designed and made.
A staff of eighty lived and worked within these walls, assisting in experiments in a maze of laboratories. In rooms that had once held hospital patients, newly minted men and women were housed and rapidly educated until they could be infiltrated into the population of the city The armored doors of certain other rooms were locked. The creations within them needed to be restrained while being studied.
Victor conducted his most important work in the main laboratory This vast space had a techno sensibility with some Art Deco style and a dash of Wagnerian grandeur. Glass, stainless steel, white ceramic: All were easy to sterilize if things got . . . messy Sleek and arcane equipment, much of which he himself designed and built, lined the chamber, rose out of the floor, depended from the ceiling. Some of the machines hummed, some bubbled, some stood silent and menacing.
In this windowless lab, if he put his wristwatch’
in a drawer, he could labor long hours, days, without a break. Having improved his physiology and metabolism to the point that he needed little or no sleep, he was able to give himself passionately to his work.
Tonight, as he arrived at his desk, his phone rang. The call came on line five. Of eight lines, the last four—rollovers that served a single number—were reserved for messages and inquiries from those creations with which he had been gradually populating the city He picked up the handset. “Yes?”
The caller, a man, was struggling to repress the emotion in his voice, more emotion than Victor ever expected to hear from one of the New Race: “Something is happening to me, Father. Something strange. Maybe something wonderful.”
Victor’s creations understood that they must contact him only in a crisis. “Which one are you?”
“Help me, Father.”
Victor felt diminished by the word father. “I’m not your father. Tell me your name.”
“I’m confused … and sometimes scared.”
“I asked for your name.”
His creations had not been designed to have the capability to deny him, but this one refused to identify himself: “I’ve begun to change.”
“You must tell me your name.”
“Murder,” said the caller. “Murder… excites me.”
Victor kept the growing concern out of his voice. “No, your mind is fine. I don’t make mistakes.”
“I’m changing. There’s so much to learn from murder.”
“Come to me at the Hands of Mercy”
“I don’t think so. I’ve killed three men . . . without remorse.”
“Come to me,” Victor insisted.
“Your mercy won’t extend to one of us who has … fallen so far.”
A rare queasiness overcame Victor. He wondered if this might be the serial killer who enchanted the media. One of his own creations, breaking programming to commit murder for no authorized reason?
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