Authors: Dean Koontz
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Thrillers
NICHOLAS FRIGG WALKED
the earthen ramparts that wound between and around the lakes of waste and rubbish, manager of the dump and master of all that he surveyed.
Over his jeans he wore thigh-high rubber boots hooked by straps to his belt. In this blazing heat he went barechested, wore no hat, and let the sun bake him to a bread-crust brown.
He had no worry about melanoma. He belonged to the New Race, and cancer could not touch him.
The malignancies that ate at him were alienation, loneliness, and an acute awareness of his enslavement.
In these uplands, significantly northeast of Lake Pontchartrain, the garbage arrived from the Big Easy and from other cities, seven days a week, in an endless caravan of semis with hydraulic rams that expelled compressed blocks of trash into the steaming pits of the landfill.
Misanthropes and cynics might say that regardless of the city, whether it be New Orleans or Paris or Tokyo, the definition of its garbage ought to include the worst examples of humanity that walked its streets.
And, of course, the urban legends of every city included stories asserting that the Mafia disposed of witnesses and other nuisances in garbage dumps where the workers were members of mobster-controlled unions.
The putrid depths of the Crosswoods Waste Management facility actually did contain thousands of bodies, many of which had appeared to be human when they had been secretly interred here over the years. Some
human, the cadavers of those who had been replaced by replicants.
The others were failed experiments—some of which did not look human at all—or members of the New Race who for a host of reasons had been terminated. Four Erikas were buried in these reservoirs of waste.
Everyone who worked at the dump belonged to the New Race. They answered to Nick Frigg, and he answered to his maker.
Crosswoods was owned by a Nevada corporation, which was itself owned by a holding company in the Bahamas. That holding company was an asset of a trust based in Switzerland.
The beneficiaries of the trust were three Australian nationals living in New Orleans. The Australians were in fact members of the New Race, who were themselves owned by Victor.
At the apex—or perhaps at the nadir—of this arc of deception stood Nick, both the master of the garbage and the overseer of the secret graveyard. More than most others of his kind, he enjoyed his work even if it was not what he wanted for a life.
The panoply of odors, an unending series of revolting stenches to an ordinary man, were a phantasmagoria of fragrances to Nick. He breathed deeply and licked the air, and savored the intricacies of every aroma.
By the introduction of certain canine genes, Nick’s maker had given him a sense of smell approximately half as sensitive as that of a dog, which meant he enjoyed olfactory perceptions ten thousand times more powerful than those of the average human being.
To a dog, few scents cause revulsion. Many are good, and nearly all are interesting. Even the stink of offal and the ripe miasma of decomposition are intriguing if not savory. And so they were, as well, to Nick Frigg.
This gift of smell turned a foul job into one with the potential to delight. Although Nick had cause to believe that Victor was a hard God if not cruel, here was one reason to consider that he did care, after all, about his creations.
Dog-nose Nick strode the ramparts, which were wide enough to accommodate an SUV, watching the semis off-loading along the far perimeter of the east pit, two hundred yards to his left. This ten-story-deep hole had been two-thirds filled with trash over the past few years.
Wide-track bulldozers—tagged “garbage galleons” by Nick and his crew—rode the sea of trash and distributed it more evenly across the pit than the trucks left it.
To his right lay the west pit, not quite as large as that to the east, but somewhat fuller.
Downslope, to the south, two previous sites had been filled and subsequently capped with eight feet of earth. Methane-gas vent pipes punctuated those grass-covered mounds.
North of the current two pits, excavation of a new east dump had been under way for two months. The chug and growl of earth-moving machines echoed down from those heights.
Nick turned his back to the busy east and studied the quiet west pit, from which incoming semis had been diverted for the day.
This moonscape of rubbish stirred his two hearts as nothing else could. Compacted chaos, waste and rack and ruin: These bleak, toxic barrens spoke to that part of him that might have been occupied by a soul if he had been of the Old Race. He felt at home here as he would never feel in woods or grassy fields, or in a city. The desolation, the filth, the mold, the rancidity, the ash, the slime called to him as the sea called a sailor.
Within a few hours, a van would arrive from New Orleans, loaded with corpses. Three were city bureaucrats who had been murdered and replaced by replicants, and two were police officers who had met the same end.
A mere year ago, such deliveries had been made twice a month. Now they came twice a week, often more frequently.
These were exciting times.
In addition to the five dead humans, the van carried three gone-wrongs, creatures created in the Hands of Mercy that had not turned out as Victor hoped. They were always interesting.
After nightfall, when everyone within the fenced perimeter of Crosswoods Waste Management would be of the New Race, Nick and his crew would carry the dead humans and the gone-wrongs into the west pit. In a ceremony that had gradually become richer over the years, they would bury them in that slough of garbage.
Although these nocturnal interments had lately become frequent, they still thrilled Nick. He was forbidden to kill himself; and he could not slaughter members of the Old Race until the day when Victor launched the Last War. He loved death but could not have it or deal it out. Meanwhile, however, he could wade the sea of trash and filth, shoving the dead into reeking holes where they would bloat and ripen, intoxicated by the fumes of decomposition—which was a fringe benefit that he cherished.
In the morning, the scores of incoming semis would be directed to the west pit, and the loads they deposited would be spread across these new graves, like another layer in a parfait.
As Nick gazed out across the west dump, longing for sunset, a flock of fat glossy crows, feeding in the garbage, suddenly exploded into flight. The birds took wing as though they were a single creature and shrieked in unison, swooping toward him and then up into the sun.
About a hundred fifty feet from the rampart on which he stood, a twenty-foot length of the dense trash trembled, and then appeared to roll, as though something swarmed through it. Perhaps a pack of rats surged just below the surface.
In recent days, members of Nick’s crew had half a dozen times reported rhythmic shiftings and pulsations in both pits, different from the usual swelling and settling related to the expansion and then sudden venting of methane pockets.
Little more than half a day ago, past midnight, strange sounds had risen from the east pit, almost like voices, tortured cries. With flashlights, Nick and his crew had gone in search of the source, which had seemed repeatedly to change direction but then had fallen silent before it could be located.
Now the pulsing trash went still. Rats. Surely rats.
Nevertheless, curious, Nick descended the sloped wall of the earthen rampart, into the west pit.
AUBREY PICOU HAD RETIRED
from a life of crime to have more time to tend his garden.
He lived on an oak-shaded street in Mid-City. His historic house boasted some of the most ornate decorative ironwork—fence, balcony railings—in a city dripping with such weighty filigree.
The front porch, draped with trumpet vines and hung with basket ferns, offered two white bench swings and wicker rocking chairs, but the shadows seemed no cooler than the sun-scorched front walk.
The maid, Lulana St. John, answered the doorbell. She was a fiftyish black woman whose girth and personality were equally formidable.
Leveling a disapproving look at Carson, trying to suppress a smile when she glanced at Michael, Lulana said, “I see before me two well-known public servants who do the Lord’s work but sometimes make the mistake of using the devil’s tactics.”
“We’re two sinners,” Carson admitted.
“‘Amazing grace,’” Michael said, “‘how sweet thou art, to save a wretch like me.’”
“Child,” said Lulana, “I suspect you flatter yourself to think you’re saved. If you have come here to be troublesome to the mister, I ask you to look within yourselves and find the part of you that wants to be a
“That’s the biggest part of me,” Michael said, “but Detective O’Connor here mostly just wants to kick ass.”
To Carson, Lulana said, “I’m sorry to say, missy, that
“Not today,” Carson assured her. “We’re here to ask a favor of Aubrey, if you would please announce us. We have no grievance against him.”
Lulana studied her solemnly. “The Lord has given me an excellent crap detector, and it isn’t ringing at the moment. It’s in your favor that you have not shaken your badge at me, and you did say please.”
“At my insistence,” Michael said, “Detective O’Connor has been taking an evening class in etiquette.”
“He’s a fool,” Lulana told Carson.
“Yes, I know.”
“After a lifetime of eating with her hands,” Michael said, “she has mastered the use of the fork in a remarkably short time.”
“Child, you are a fool,” Lulana told him, “but for reasons that only the Lord knows, in spite of myself, I always take a liking to you.” She stepped back from the threshold. “Wipe your feet, and come in.”
The foyer was painted peach with white wainscoting and ornate white crown molding. The white marble floor with diamond-shaped black inlays had been polished to such a shine that it looked wet.
“Has Aubrey found Jesus yet?” Carson wondered.
Closing the front door, Lulana said, “The mister hasn’t embraced his Lord, no, but I’m pleased to say he has come as far as making eye contact with Him.”
Although paid only to be a maid, Lulana did double duty as a spiritual guide to her employer, whose past she knew and whose soul concerned her.
“The mister is gardening,” she said. “You could wait for him in the parlor or join him in the roses.”
“By all means, the roses,” Michael said.
At the back of the house, in the immense kitchen, Lulana’s older sister, Evangeline Antoine, softly sang “His Lamp Will Overcome All Darkness” as she pressed dough into a pie pan.
Evangeline served as Aubrey’s cook and also as an amen choir to Lulana’s indefatigable soul-saving efforts. She was taller than her sister, thin, yet her lively eyes and her smile made their kinship obvious.
“Detective Maddison,” Evangeline said, “I’m so glad you’re not dead yet.”
“Me too,” he said. “What kind of pie are you making?”
“Praline-cinnamon cream topped with fried pecans.”
a quadruple heart-bypass.”
“Cholesterol,” Lulana informed them, “won’t stick if you have the right attitude.”
She led them through the rear door onto the back veranda, where Moses Bienvenu, Aubrey’s driver and handyman, was painting the beautifully turned white balusters under the black handrail.
Beaming, he said, “Detective O’Connor, I’m amazed to see you haven’t shot Mr. Michael yet.”
“My aim’s good,” she assured him, “but he can move fast.”
Well-padded but not fat, a robust and towering man with hands as big as dinner plates, Moses served as a deacon at the church and sang in the same gospel choir as his sisters, Lulana and Evangeline.
“They’re here to see the mister but not to trouble him,” Lulana told her brother. “If it looks like they’re troubling him, after all, lift them by the scruffs of their necks and put them in the street.”
As Lulana went inside, Moses said, “You heard Lulana. You may be police officers, but she’s the law around here. The Law and the Way. I would be in your debt if you didn’t make it necessary for me to scruff-carry you out of here.”
“If we find ourselves getting out of hand,” Michael said, “we’ll scruff-carry each other.”
Pointing with his paintbrush, Moses said, “Mr. Aubrey is over there past the pagan fountain, among the roses. And please don’t make fun of his hat.”
“His hat?” Michael asked.
“Lulana insists he wear a sun hat if he’s going to spend half the day in the garden. He’s mostly bald, so she worries he’ll get head-top skin cancer. Mr. Aubrey hated the hat at first. He only recently got used to it.”
Carson said, “Never thought I’d see the day when anyone would be the boss of Aubrey Picou.”
“Lulana doesn’t so much boss,” said Moses. “She sort of just tough-loves everyone into obedience.”
A brick walkway led from the back veranda steps, across the lawn, encircled the pagan fountain, and continued to the rose garden.
The sculptured-marble fountain featured three life-size figures. Pan, a male form with goat legs and horns, played a flute and chased two nude women—or they chased him—around a column twined with grapevines.
“My eye for antiques isn’t infallible,” Michael said, “but I’m pretty sure that’s eighteenth-century Las Vegas.”
The rosebushes grew in rows, with aisles of decomposed granite between. In the third of four aisles stood a bag of fertilizer, a tank sprayer, and trays of neatly arranged gardening tools.
Here, too, was Aubrey Picou, under a straw hat with such a broad brim that squirrels could have raced around it for exercise.
Before he noticed them and looked up, he was humming a tune. It sounded like “His Lamp Will Overcome All Darkness.”
Aubrey was eighty years old and had a baby face: an eighty-year-old baby face, but nevertheless pink and plump and pinchable. Even in the deep shade of his anticancer headgear, his blue eyes twinkled with merriment.
“Of all the cops I know,” said Aubrey, “here are the two I like the best.”
“Do you like any others at all?” Carson asked.
“Not one of the bastards, no,” Aubrey said. “But then none of the rest ever saved my life.”
“What’s with the stupid hat?” Michael asked.
Aubrey’s smile became a grimace. “What’s it matter if I die of skin cancer? I’m eighty years old. I gotta die of something.”
“Lulana doesn’t want you to die before you find Jesus.”
Aubrey sighed. “With those three running the show, I trip over Jesus every time I turn around.”
“If anyone can redeem you,” Carson said, “it’ll be Lulana.”
Aubrey looked as if he would say something acerbic. Instead he sighed again. “I never used to have a conscience. Now I do. It’s more annoying than this absurd hat.”
“Why wear the hat if you hate it?” Michael asked.
Aubrey glanced toward the house. “If I take it off, she’ll see. Then I won’t get any of Evangeline’s pie.”
“The praline-cinnamon cream pie.”
“With fried-pecan topping,” Aubrey said. “I love that pie.” He sighed.
“You sigh a lot these days,” Michael said.
“I’ve become pathetic, haven’t I?”
“You used to be pathetic,” Carson said. “What you’ve become is a little bit human.”
“It’s disconcerting,” Michael said.
“Don’t I know,” Aubrey agreed. “So what brings you guys here?”
Carson said, “We need some big, loud, door-busting guns.”