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In the lab Victor raised this Father Duchaine from spilled blood before the real Father Duchaine had died, a trick more complicated than the one that the man from Galilee had performed with Lazarus.


Sitting in the front pew beside his priest, Victor said, “How do you sleep? Do you dream?”


“Not often, sir. Sometimes … a nightmare about the Hands of Mercy. But I can never recall the details.”


“And you never will. That’s my gift to you—no memory of your birth. Patrick, I need your help.”


“Anything, of course.”


“One of my people is having a serious crisis of the mind. I don’t know who he is. He called me … but he is afraid to come to me.”


“Perhaps . . . not afraid, sir,” the priest said. “Ashamed. Ashamed that he has failed you.”


That statement troubled Victor. “How could you suggest such a thing, Patrick? The New Race has no capacity for shame.”


Only Erika had been programmed to know shame, and only because Victor found her more erotic in the throes of it.


“Shame,” he told Patrick, “isn’t a virtue. It’s a weakness. No Natural Law requires it. We rule nature … and transcend it.”


The priest evaded Victor’s gaze. “Yes, sir, of course. I think what I meant was … maybe he feels a sort of… regret that he hasn’t performed to your expectations.”


Perhaps the priest would need to be watched closely or even subjected to a day-long examination in the lab.


“Search the city, Patrick. Spread the word among my people. Maybe they’ve seen one of their kind behaving oddly I’m charging you and a few other key people with this search, and I know that you will perform up to my expectations.”


“Yes, sir.”


“If you find him and he runs . . . kill him. You know how your kind can be killed.”


“Yes, sir.”


“Be cautious. He’s already killed one of you,” Victor revealed.


Surprised, the priest met his eyes again.


“I’d prefer to have him alive,” Victor continued. “But at least I need his body To study Bring him to me at the Hands of Mercy”


They were near enough to the rack of votive candles that the pulsing crimson reflections of the flames crawled Patrick’s face.


This inspired Victor to ask “Do you sometimes wonder if you’re damned?”


“No, sir,” the priest answered, but with a hesitation. “There is no Hell or Heaven. This is the one life.”


“Exactly. Your mind is too well made for superstition.” Victor rose from the pew. “God bless you, Patrick.” When the priest’s eyes widened with surprise, Victor smiled and said, “That was a joke.”


CHAPTER 40


WHEN CARSON PICKED UP Michael at his apartment house, he got in the car, looked her over, and said, “Those are yesterday’s clothes.”


“Suddenly you’re a fashion critic.”


“You look … rumpled.”


As she pulled away from the curb, she said, “Rumpled, my ass. I look like a cow pie in a bad wig.”


“You didn’t get any sleep?”


“Maybe I’m done with sleep forever.”


“If you’ve been up more than twenty-four hours,


you shouldn’t be driving,” he said.


“Don’t worry about it, Mom.” She took a tall Starbucks cup from between her thighs, drank through a straw. “I’m so wired on caffeine, I’ve got the reflexes of a pit viper.”


“Do pit vipers have quick reflexes?” “You want to get in a pit with one and see?” “”You are wound tight. What’s happened?” “Saw a ghost. Scared the crap out of me.” “What’s the punch line?”


What she hadn’t been able to say to Kathy Burke, she could say to Michael. In police work, partners were closer than mere friends. They had better be. They daily trusted each other with their lives.


If you couldn’t share everything with your partner, you needed a new partner.


Nevertheless, she hesitated before she said, “He seemed to walk out of walls, disappear into them. Big sucker, but he moves quicker than the eye.” “Who?”


“You listening to anything I’m saying? The ghost, that’s who.”


“You spiking that coffee with something?” “He said he’s made from pieces of criminals.” “Slow down. You’re driving too fast.” Carson accelerated. “The hands of a strangler, one heart from a mad arsonist, one from a child molester. His life force from a thunderstorm.” “I don’t get it.” “Neither do I.”


BY THE time Carson parked in front of Fullbright’s Funeral Home, she had told Michael everything that happened in Allwine’s apartment.


His face revealed no skepticism, but his tone of voice was the equivalent of raised eyebrows: “You were tired, in a weird place—“


“He took a gun away from me,” she said, which might have been the essence of her astonishment, the one thing about the experience that had seemed the most supernatural. “No one takes a gun away from me, Michael. You want to try?”


“No. I enjoy having testicles. All I’m saying is that he was dressed in black, the apartment is black, so the disappearing trick was probably just a trick.” “So maybe he manipulated me, and I saw what he wanted me to see. Is that it?” “Doesn’t that make more sense?” “Sure damn does. But if it was a trick, he should be headlining a magic act in Vegas.”


Looking at the funeral home, Michael said, “Why’re we here?”


“Maybe he didn’t really move faster than the eye, and maybe he didn’t in fact vanish into thin air, but he was dead-on when he said Allwine was in despair, wanted to die … but couldn’t kill himself.”


From a pocket she withdrew the four memorial booklets and handed them to Michael.


“Bobby had like a hundred of these,” she continued, “in a drawer of his nightstand. All from different funerals at this place. Death appealed to him.” She got out of the car, slammed the driver’s door, and met Michael on the sidewalk.


He said, “‘Life force from a thunderstorm.’ What the hell does that mean?”


“Sometimes like a soft lightning throbs through his eyes.”


Hurrying at her side, Michael said, “You’ve always been stone solid until now, like Joe Friday with no Y chromosome. Now you’re Nancy Drew on a sugar rush.”


Like so many things in New Orleans, the mortuary seemed as much a dream place as a reality. It had once been a Gothic Revival mansion and no doubt still served as the mortician’s residence as well as his place of business. The weight of the lavish rococo millwork must have been only a few pounds shy of the critical load needed to buckle the eaves, implode the walls, and collapse the roof.


Live oaks dating to the plantation era shaded the house, while camellias, gardenias, mimosa, and tea roses cast a scene-saturating perfume. Bees buzzed lazily from bloom to bloom, too fat and happy to sting, besotted by rich nectar.


At the front door, Carson rang the bell. “Michael, don’t you sometimes sense there’s more to life than the grind—some amazing secret you can almost see from the corner of your eye?” Before he could reply, she plunged on: “Last night I saw something amazing . .. something I can’t put into words. It’s almost like UFOs exist.”


“You and me—we’ve put guys in psych wards who talk like that.”


A bearish, dour-looking man answered the door and acknowledged in the most somber tones that he was indeed Taylor Fullbright.


Flashing her police ID, Carson said, “Sir, I’m sorry I didn’t call ahead, but we’re here on a rather urgent matter.”


Brightening at the discovery that they were not a bereaved couple in need of counseling, Fullbright revealed his true convivial nature. “Come in, come in! I was just cremating a customer.”


CHAPTER 41


FOR A LONG TIME after the session in the spinning rack, Randal Six lies on his bed, not sleeping—for he seldom sleeps—facing the wall, his back to the room, shutting out the chaos, allowing his mind slowly, slowly to grow still.


He does not know the purpose of the treatment, but he is certain that he cannot endure many more of those sessions. Sooner than later, he will suffer a massive stroke; the failure of an inner vessel will do what a bullet to his armored skull cannot as easily achieve.


If a cerebral aneurysm does not finish him, he will surely trade the developmental disability called autism for genuine psychosis. He will seek in madness the peace that mere autism is not always able to ensure.


In his darkest moments, Randal wonders whether the spinning rack is a treatment, as Father has repeatedly called it, or if it might be intended as torture.


Not born of God and alienated from belief, this is the closest he can come to a blasphemous thought: that Father is a cruel rather than a caring maker, that Father himself is psychotic and his entire enterprise an insane endeavor.


Whether Father is sincere or deceitful, whether his project is genius or dementia, Randal Six knows that he himself will never find happiness in the Hands of Mercy Happiness lies streets away, a little less than three miles from here, at the home of one Carson O’Connor. In that house lies a secret to be taken if it isn’t freely offered: the cause of Arnie O’Connor’s smile, the reason for the moment of joy captured in the newspaper photo, no matter how brief it might have been.


As soon as possible, he must get to the O’Connor boy, before the cerebral aneurysm that kills him, before the spinning rack whirls him into madness.


Randal is not locked in his room. His autism, which is at times complicated by agoraphobia, keeps him this side of the threshold more securely than could locks or chains.


Father often encourages him to explore from end to end of the building, even floors above and below this one. Adventurousness will be a first proof that his treatments are working.


No matter where he goes in the building, he cannot leave, for the exterior doors are wired to a security system. He would be caught before he escaped the grounds . . . and might be punished with a very long session in the spinning rack.


Anyway, when he occasionally leaves his room and wanders the halls, he never dares to go far, never a fraction as far as Father would like to see him travel. Sometimes even a distance of thirty feet presents him with an overload of sights and sounds that brings him trembling to his knees.


In his self-isolation, he nonetheless sees. He hears. He learns. He knows of a way out of Mercy that will not trigger an alarm.


He may not have sufficient fortitude to reach that special door, let alone to confront the busier world beyond. But his despondency has recently advanced to desperation, and the reckless action that is the whip of desperation may lash into him a kind of courage.


He will leave this coming night, in little more than twelve hours.


CHAPTER 42


THE QUIET RECEIVING foyer featured a baroque frieze instead of traditional crown moldings: deeply carved acanthus leaves punctuated every two feet and at the corners by the heads of angels alternating with gargoyles or perhaps mocking demons.


Inlaid in the forest-green marble floor, a foot-wide circular work of marquetry employed lighter marbles to portray mythological beings—gods, goddesses, and demigods—in perpetual pursuit. Even without dropping to his knees, Michael could see that some of the pursuit involved sexual fondling.


Only in New Orleans would either of these elements have seemed suitable to a funeral home. The house had probably been built around 1850 by nou-veau riche newcomers who hadn’t been welcome in the Creole sections of town. In this city, time even-


tually conferred dignity on what had once been outrageous as well as on what had been classic from the day it had been erected.


Studying a photo of Bobby Allwine that Carson had given him, Taylor Fullbright said, “This is the very gentleman, yes. I felt sorry for the poor soul— so many of his friends were dying. Then I realized he didn’t know any of the deceased.”


Carson said, “He—what?—just got a thrill being around dead people?”


“Nothing that kinky,” said Fullbright. “He just… seemed to be at peace around them.”


“That’s what he said—he was at peace?”


“The only thing I can remember he said was ‘Death can be as much a gift as a curse,’ which is often true.”


“Did you confront him about coming to all these viewings?”


“Confrontation isn’t my style, Detective. Some funeral directors are solemn to the point of seeming stern. I’m more of a hugger and a consoler. Mr. Allwine and his friend, they were never a problem. More melancholy than weird.”


Carson’s phone rang, and when she stepped away to answer it, Michael said to Fullbright, “He came with a friend? Can you give us a description?”


Smiling, nodding, as affable as a cartoon bear, the mortician said, “I can see him as clear in memory as if he were standing here. He was ordinary to a fault. Average height. A little heavier than average weight. Middle-aged. Brown hair—or maybe blond. Blue or green eyes, maybe hazel.”


With a sarcasm that sounded like earnest praise, Michael said, ‘Amazing. That’s as good as a photo.”


Pleased, Fullbright said, “I’ve got a sharp eye for detail.”


Putting away her phone, Carson turned to Michael: “Jack Rogers wants to see us at the morgue.”


“You might mention to the coroner,” Fullbright said, “that while I don’t extend commissions to those who send us business, I do offer discounts for referrals.”


“I can’t wait to tell him,” Michael said. Pointing to the marble marquetry at their feet, he asked, “Who’s that figure?”


“The one with the winged feet? That’s Mercury.”


‘And that one next to him?”


‘Aphrodite,” said Fullbright.


‘Are they…?”


“Engaged in sodomy?” the mortician asked jovially. “Indeed they are. You’d be amazed how many mourners notice and are cheered by it.” “I am amazed,” Michael agreed.


CHAPTER 43


THE LONGER ROY PRIBEAUX roamed his expansive loft apartment, gazing out of the tall windows, brooding about his future, the more troubled he became.


When a brief midmorning shower pelted the panes, blurring the city, he felt as if his future also blurred further, until it was a meaningless smear. He might have cried if crying had been his thing.

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