“Dork and Dink,” Michael groaned.
Although too far away to have heard, Harker glowered at them. Frye waved.
“This blows,” Carson said.
“Big time,” Michael agreed.
She didn’t bluster into the scene but waited for the detectives to come to her.
How nice it would have been to shoot the bastards in the knees to spare the site from their blundering. So much more satisfying than a shout or a warning shot.
By the time Harker and Frye reached her, both were smiling and smug.
Ned Lohman, the uniformed officer, had the good sense to avoid her eyes.
Carson held her temper. “This is our baby, let us burp it.”
“We were in the area,” Frye said, “caught the call.”
“Chased the call,” Carson suggested.
Frye was a beefy man with an oily look, as if his surname came not from family lineage but from his preferred method of preparing every food he ate.
“O’Connor,” he said, “you’re the first Irish person I’ve ever known who wasn’t fun to be around.”
In a situation like this, which had grown from one bizarre homicide to six killings in a matter of weeks, Carson and her partner would not be the only ones in the department assigned to research particular aspects of the case.
They had caught the first murder, however, and therefore had proprietary interest in associated homicides if and until the killer piled up enough victims to force the establishment of an emergency task force. And at that point, she and Michael would most likely be designated to head that undertaking.
Harker tended to burn easily—from sunshine, from envy, from imagined slights to his competence, from just about anything. The Southern sun had bleached his blond hair nearly white; it lent his face a perpetually parboiled look.
His eyes, as blue as a gas flame, as hard as gem-stones, revealed the truth of him that he attempted to disguise with a soft smile. “We needed to move hast, before evidence was lost. In this climate, bodies decompose quickly.”
“Oh, don’t be so hard on yourself,” Michael said. “With a gym membership and a little determination, you’ll be looking good again.”
Carson drew Ned Lohman aside. Michael joined them as she took out her notebook and said, “Gimme the TPO from your involvement.”
“Listen, Detectives, I know you’re the whips on this. I told Frye and Harker as much, but they have rank.”
“Not your fault,” she assured him. “I should know by now that vultures always get to dead meat first. Let’s start with the time.”
He checked his watch. “Call came in at seven forty-two, which makes it thirty-eight minutes ago. Jogger saw the body, called it in. When I showed up, the guy was standing here running in place to keep his heart rate up.”
In recent years, runners with cell phones had found more bodies than any other class of citizens.
“As for place,” Officer Lohman continued, “the body’s just where the jogger found it. He made no fescue attempt.”
“The severed hands,” Michael suggested, “were probably a clue that CPR wouldn’t be effective.”
“The vic is blond, maybe not natural, probably Caucasian. You have any other observations about her?” Carson asked Lohman.
“No. I didn’t go near her either, didn’t contaminate anything, if that’s what you’re trying to find out. Haven’t seen the face yet, so I can’t guess the age.
“Time, place—what about occurrence?” she asked Lohman. “Your first impression was … ?” “Murder. She didn’t cut her hands off herself.” “Maybe one,” Michael agreed, “but not both.”
THE streets OF NEW ORLEANS teemed with possibilities: women of every description. A few were beautiful, but even the most alluring were lacking in one way or another.
During his years of searching, Roy Pribeaux had yet to encounter one woman who met his standards in every regard.
He was proud of being a perfectionist. If he had been God, the world would have been a more ordered, less messy place.
Under Roy Almighty, there would have been no ugly or plain people. No mold. No cockroaches or even mosquitoes. Nothing that smelled bad.
Under a blue sky that he could not have improved upon, but in cloying humidity he would not have allowed, Roy strolled along the Riverwalk, the site of the 1984 Louisiana World’s Fair, which had been refurbished as a public gathering place and shopping pavilion. He was hunting.
Three young women in tank tops and short shorts sashayed past, laughing together. Two of them checked Roy out.
He met their eyes, boldly ogled their bodies, then dismissed each of them with a glance.
Even after years of searching, he remained an optimist. She was out there somewhere, his ideal, and he would find her—even if it had to be one piece at a time.
In this promiscuous society, Roy remained a virgin at thirty-eight, a fact of which he was proud. He was saving himself. For the perfect woman. For love.
Meanwhile, he polished his own perfection. He undertook two hours of physical training every day. Regarding himself as a Renaissance man, he read literature for exactly one hour, studied a new subject for exactly one hour, meditated on the great mysteries and the major issues of his time for another hour every day He ate only organic produce. He bought no meat from factory farms. No pollutants tainted him, no pesticides, no radiological residue, and certainly no strange lingering genetic material from bioengi-neered foods.
Eventually, when he had refined his diet to perfection and when his body was as tuned as an atomic clock, he expected that he would cease to eliminate waste. He would process every morsel so completely that it would be converted entirely to energy, and he would produce no urine, no feces.
Perhaps he would then encounter the perfect woman. He often dreamed about the intensity of the sex they would have. As profound as nuclear fusion.
Locals loved the Riverwalk, but Roy suspected that most people here today were tourists, considering how they paused to gawk at the caricature artists and street musicians. Locals would not be drawn in such numbers to the stands piled with New Orleans T-shirts.
At a bright red wagon where cotton candy was sold, Roy suddenly halted. The fragrance of hot sugar cast a sweet haze around the cart.
The cotton-candy vendor sat on a stool under a red umbrella. In her twenties, less than plain, with unruly hair. She looked as baggy and as simply made as a Muppet, though without as much personality But her eyes. Her eyes.
Roy was captivated. Her eyes were priceless gems displayed in a cluttered and dusty case, a striking greenish blue.
The skin around her eyes crinkled alluringly as she caught his attention and smiled. “Can I help you?”
Roy stepped forward. “I’d like something sweet.”
‘All I’ve got is cotton candy.”
“Not all,” he said, marveling at how suave he could be.
She looked puzzled.
Poor thing. He was too smooth for her.
He said, “Yes, cotton candy, please.”
She picked up a paper cone and began to twirl it through the spun sugar, wrapping it with a cloud of sugary confection.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
She hesitated, seemed embarrassed, averted her eyes. “Candace.”
“A girl named Candy is a candy vendor? Is that destiny or just a good sense of humor?”
She blushed. “I prefer Candace. Too many negative connotations for a … a heavy woman to be called Candy”
“So you’re not an anorexic model, so what? Beauty comes in lots of different packages.”
Candace obviously had seldom if ever heard such kind words from an attractive and desirable man like Roy Pribeaux.
If she herself ever thought about a day when she would excrete no wastes, she must know that he was far closer to that goal than she was.
“‘You have beautiful eyes,” he told her. “Strikingly beautiful eyes. The kind a person could look into for years and years.”
Her blush intensified, but her shyness was overwhelmed by astonishment to such a degree that she made eye contact with him.
Roy knew he dared not come on to her too strong. After a life of rejection, she’d suspect that he was setting her up for humiliation.
“As a Christian man,” he explained, though he had no religious convictions, “I believe God made everyone beautiful in at least one respect, and we need to recognize that beauty Your eyes are just. . . perfect. They’re the windows to your soul.”
Putting the cloud of cotton candy on a counter-top holder, she averted her eyes again as though it might be a sin to let him enjoy them too much. “I haven’t gone to church since my mother died six vears ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. She must have died so voung.”
“Cancer,” Candace revealed. “I got so angry about it. But now… I miss church.”
“We could go together sometime, and have coffee after.”
She dared his stare again. “Why?”
“It’s just.. . You’re so …”
Pretending a shyness of his own, he looked away from her. “So not your type? I know to some people I might appear to be shallow— “
“No, please, that’s not what I meant.” But she couldn’t bring herself to explain what she had meant.
Roy withdrew a small notepad from his pocket, scribbled with a pen, and tore off a sheet of paper.
“Here’s my name —Ray Darnell—and my cellphone number. Maybe you’ll change your mind.”
Staring at the number and the phony name, Candace said, “I’ve always been pretty much a … private person.”
The dear, shy creature.
“I understand,” he said. “I’ve dated very little. I’m too old-fashioned for women these days. They’re so … bold. I’m embarrassed for them.”
When he tried to pay for his cotton candy, she didn’t want to take his money He insisted.
He walked away, nibbling at the confection, feeling her gaze on him. Once out of sight, he threw the cotton candy in a trash can.
Sitting on a bench in the sun, he consulted the notepad. On the last page at the back of it, he kept his checklist. After so much effort here in New Orleans and, previously, elsewhere, he had just yesterday checked off the next-to-last item: hands.
Now he put a question mark next to the final item on the list, hoping that he could cross it off soon.
HE IS A child of Mercy, Mercy-born and Mercy-raised.
In his windowless room he sits at a table, working with a thick book of crossword puzzles. He never hesitates to consider an answer. Answers come to him instantly, and he rapidly inks letters in the squares, never making an error.
His name is Randal Six because five males have been named Randal and have gone into the world before him. If ever he, too, went into the world, he would be given a last name.
In the tank, before consciousness, he’d been educated by direct-to-brain data downloading. Once brought to life, he had continued to learn during sessions of drug-induced sleep.
He knows nature and civilization in their intrica-
cies, knows the look and smell and sound of places he has never been. Yet his world is largely limited to a single room.
The agents of Mercy call this space his billet, which is a term to describe lodging for a soldier.
In the war against humanity—a secret war now but not destined to remain secret forever—he is an eighteen-year-old who came to life four months ago.
To all outward appearances, he is eighteen, but his knowledge is greater than that of most elderly scholars.
Physically, he is sound. Intellectually, he is advanced.
Emotionally, something is wrong with him.
He does not think of his room as his billet. He thinks of it as his cell.
He himself, however, is his own prison. He lives mostly within himself. He speaks little. He yearns for the world beyond his cell, beyond himself, and yet it frightens him.
Most of the day he spends with crossword puzzles, immersed in the vertical and horizontal patterns of words. The world beyond his quarters is alluring but it is also . . . disorderly, chaotic. He can feel it pressing against the walls, pressing, pressing, and only by focusing on crosswords, only by bringing order to the empty boxes by filling them with the absolutely right letters can he keep the outer disorder from invading his space.
Recently, he has begun to think that the world frightens him because Father has programmed him to be afraid of it. From Father, he has received his education, after all, and his life.
This possibility confuses him. He cannot understand why Father would create him to be … dys-functional. Father seeks perfection in all things. One thing gives him hope. Out in the world, and not far away, right here in New Orleans, is another be him. Not one of Father’s creations, but likewise afflicted.
Randal Six is not alone. If only he could meet his equal, he would better understand himself… and be free.
AN OSCILLATING FAN riffled the documents and case notes—held down by makeshift paperweights—on Carson’s desk. Beyond the windows, an orange sunset had deepened to crimson, to purple.
Michael was at his desk in the Homicide Division, adjacent to Carson’s, occupied by much of the same paperwork. She knew that he was ready to go home, but he usually let her define the workday.
“You checked our doc box lately?” she asked.
“Ten minutes ago,” Michael reminded her. “You send me out there one more time, I’m going to eat a get-small mushroom and just stay in the doc box until the report shows up.”
“We should’ve had the prelim autopsy on that floater hours ago,” she complained.
‘And I shoulda been born rich. Go figure.”
She consulted photos of cadavers in situ while Michael watched.
The first victim, a young nurse named Shelley Justine, had been murdered elsewhere and dumped beside the London Street Canal. Tests revealed the chemical signature of chloroform in her blood.
After the killer rendered her unconscious, he killed her with a knife to the heart. With exquisite precision he removed her ears. A peptide profile found no elevated endorphin levels in the blood, indicating that the surgery occurred after she was dead. Had she been alive, the pain and terror would have left telltale chemistry.
The second victim, Meg Saville, a tourist from Idaho, had also been chloroformed and knifed while unconscious. The Surgeon—the press’s name for him—had neatly sawed off Saville’s feet.
“If he’d just always take feet,” Michael said, “we’d know he was a podiatrist, and we’d have found him bv now.”
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