Authors: Dean Koontz
Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Thrillers
GLORIOUS, THE STINK
: pungent, pervasive, penetrating.
Nick Frigg imagined that the smell of the pits had saturated his flesh, his blood, his bones, in the same way that the scent of smoldering hickory permeated even the thickest cuts of meat in a smokehouse.
He relished the thought that to the core he smelled like all varieties of decomposition, like the death that he longed for and that he could not have.
In his thigh-high rubber boots, Nick strode across the west pit, empty cans of everything rattling in his wake, empty egg cartons and cracker boxes crunching-crackling underfoot, toward the spot where the surface of the trash had swelled and rolled and settled. That peculiar activity appeared to have ceased.
Although compacted by the wide-tracked garbage galleons that crawled these desolate realms, the trash field—between sixty and seventy feet deep in this pit—occasionally shifted under Nick, for by its nature it was riddled with small voids. Agile, with lightning reflexes, he rarely lost his footing.
When he arrived at the site of the movement that he had seen from the elevated rampart, the surface did not look significantly different from the hundred fifty feet of refuse across which he had just traveled. Squashed cans, broken glass, uncountable plastic items from bleach bottles to broken toys, drifts of moldering landscape trimmings—palm fronds, tree limbs, grass—full trash bags knotted at their necks…
He saw a doll with tangled legs and a cracked brow. Pretending that beneath his foot lay a real child of the Old Race, Nick stomped until he shattered the smiling face.
Turning slowly 360 degrees, he studied the debris more closely.
He sniffed, sniffed, using his genetically enhanced sense of smell to seek a clue as to what might have caused the unusual rolling movement in this sea of trash. Methane escaped the depths of the pit, but that scent seemed no more intense than usual.
Rats. He smelled rats nearby. In a dump, this was no more surprising than catching a whiff of garbage. The musky scent of rodents pervaded the entire fenced grounds of Crosswoods Waste Management.
He detected clusters of those whiskered individuals all around him, but he could not smell a pack so large that, swarming through a burrow, it would be capable of destabilizing the surface of the trash field.
Nick roamed the immediate area, looking, sniffing, and then squatted—rubber boots squeaking—and waited. Motionless. Listening. Breathing quietly but deeply.
The sounds of the unloading semis at the east pit gradually receded, as did the distant growl of the garbage galleons.
As if to assist him, the air hung heavy and still. There was no breeze to whisper distractingly in his ears. The brutal sun seared silence into the day.
At times like this, the sweet reek of the pit could convey him into something like a Zen state of relaxed yet intense observation.
He lost track of time, became so blissed-out that he didn’t know how many minutes passed until he heard the voice, and he could not be certain that it hadn’t spoken several times before he registered it.
Soft, tremulous, in an indefinite timbre, the one-word question could have been posed by either a male or a female.
Dog-nose Nick waited, sniffed.
“Father, Father, Father…?”
This time the question seemed to come simultaneously from four or five individuals, male and female.
When he surveyed the trash field, Nick found that he remained alone. How such a thing could be possible, he did not know, but the voices must have spoken out of the compacted refuse beneath him, rising through crevices from…From where?
“Why, Father, why, why, why…?”
The lost and beseeching tone suggested intractable misery, and resonated with Nick’s own repressed despair.
“Who are you?” he asked.
He received no reply.
A tremor passed through the trash field. Brief. Subtle. The surface did not swell and roll as before.
Nick sensed the mysterious presence withdrawing.
Rising to his feet, he said, “What do you want?”
The searing sun. The still air. The stink.
Nick Frigg stood alone, the slough of trash once more firm beneath his feet.
AT A BUSH
with huge pink-yellow-white roses, Aubrey Picou snipped a bloom for Carson, and stripped the thorns from the stem.
“This variety is called French Perfume. Its exceptional mix of colors makes it the most feminine rose in my garden.”
Michael was amused to see Carson handle the flower so awkwardly even though it had no thorns. She was not a frills-and-roses kind of girl. She was a blue-jeans-and-guns kind of girl.
In spite of his innocent face and floppy straw hat, the master of this garden seemed as out of place among the roses as did Carson.
During decades of criminal activity, Aubrey Picou never killed a man, never wounded one. He never robbed or raped, or extorted anyone. He had merely made it possible for other criminals to do those things more easily and efficiently.
His document shop had produced forged papers of the highest quality: passports, birth certificates, driver’s licenses…. He’d sold thousands of black-market guns.
When individuals with a talent for strategy and tactics came to Aubrey with plans for an armored-car heist or with a scheme to knock over a diamond wholesaler, he provided the risk capital to prepare and execute the operation.
His father, Maurice, had been an attorney who specialized in massaging juries into awarding outrageous financial compensation to questionable clients in dubious personal-injury cases. Some in his profession admiringly called him Maurice the Milkman because of his ability to squeeze buckets of profits out of juries as dumb as cows.
The Milkman had put his son through Harvard Law with the fond hope that Aubrey would embrace the—at that time—new field of class-action litigation, using bad science and good courtroom theater to terrorize major corporations and to drive them nearly to bankruptcy with billion-dollar settlements.
To Maurice’s disappointment, Aubrey had found the law tedious, even when practiced with contempt, and had decided that he could do as much damage to society from outside the legal system as he could from within it. Though father and son had for a while been estranged, eventually Maurice had been proud of his boy.
The Milkman’s son had been indicted only twice. Both times he had escaped conviction. In each case, after the foreman delivered the innocent verdict, the juries stood and applauded Aubrey.
To forestall a pending third indictment, he had secretly turned state’s evidence. After ratting out scores of thugs without their knowledge, he retired at seventy-five, his reputation intact among the criminal class and its admirers.
“I don’t do guns anymore,” Aubrey said. “Not the big, loud, door-busting kind or any others.”
“We know you’re retired—”
“For true,” Aubrey assured her.
“—but you still have friends in all the wrong places.”
“This rose is called Black Velvet,” said Aubrey. “The red is so dark, it looks black in places.”
“We’re not setting you up,” Carson said. “No prosecutor will waste thousands of hours to nail a harmless octogenarian gardener.”
Michael said, “Besides, you’d fake Alzheimer’s and have the jury in tears.”
“French Perfume doesn’t belong in a bouquet with this,” Aubrey told Carson, “but Black Velvet strikes me as more of a rose for you.”
“What we need are two Desert Eagle pistols, .50 Magnum.”
Impressed, Michael said to Carson, “Is that what we need?”
, didn’t I? If you have two hearts and you take one chest punch of that caliber, both tickers ought to pop.”
Aubrey gave a Black Velvet rose to Carson, who accepted it reluctantly. She held one flower in each hand, looking nonplussed.
“Why don’t you requisition through the PD?” Aubrey asked.
“’Cause we’re going to kill a man who would walk out of a courtroom, free and laughing, if we put him on trial,” she lied.
In the shade of his hat, Aubrey’s eyes glittered with interest.
“We aren’t wired,” Carson assured him. “You can pat us down.”
“I’d like to pat you down, all right, darlin’,” said Aubrey, “but not for a wire. This isn’t how you’d talk if you were wearing one.”
“For the Eagles, I’ll want one hundred rounds of .50AE’s, .325 weight,” Carson said, “jacketed hollow points.”
“Formidable. You’re talking maybe fourteen-hundred-feet-per-second muzzle velocity,” Aubrey said.
“We want these guys very dead. We’ll also need two shotguns. We want to use slugs, not buckshot.”
“Slugs, not buckshot,” Michael agreed, nodding, as if they were entirely simpatico about this, as if he weren’t scared half numb.
“Big stopping power,” Aubrey said approvingly.
“Big,” Michael agreed.
“Semi-auto so we can fire a second round single-handed,” Carson continued. “Maybe an Urban Sniper. What’s the barrel length on that?”
“Eighteen inches,” Aubrey said.
“We’d want it cut down to fourteen. But we need these fast, so there’s no time to wait for customizing.”
“Today. Soon. As soon as now. Urban Sniper, SGT, Remington—we’ll have to take any credible shotgun that’s already been modified to meet those specifications.”
“You’ll want a three-way sling for each,” Aubrey said, “so you can shoulder-carry and hip-fire.”
“So who do we go to?” Carson asked, still holding a rose in each hand as if she were protesting to end all war.
Unconsciously working the rose snips—
click-click, click-click, click-click
—Aubrey studied her and Michael for half a minute, then said, “That’s a lot of firepower to go after one guy. Who is he—the Antichrist?”
“He’s well protected,” she said. “We’re going to have to wade through some people to nail him. But they’re all dirtbags, too.”
Not convinced, Aubrey Picou said, “Cops go bad all the time. Given the lack of support they get and all the flack they take, who can blame them? But not you two. You two don’t go bad.”
“You remember what happened to my dad?” Carson asked.
Aubrey said, “That was all bogus. Your dad didn’t turn. He was a good cop to the end.”
“I know. But thanks for saying it, Aubrey.”
When he cocked his head in the sun hat, he looked like Truman Capote in ladies-going-to-lunch drag. “You telling me you know who really waxed him and your mom?”
“Yeah,” she lied.
“Just who pulled the trigger or who ordered it to be pulled?”
“We’re at the top of the food chain with this guy,” she said.
Looking at Michael, Aubrey said, “So when you punch his ticket, it’s going to be big news.”
Staying mostly mute and playing half dumb had worked well for Michael. He shrugged.
Aubrey wasn’t satisfied with a shrug. “You’ll probably be killed doing this.”
“Nobody lives forever,” Michael said.
“Lulana says we all do. Anyway, this is O’Connor’s vengeance. Why should you die for it?”
“We’re partners,” Michael said.
“That’s not it. Partners don’t commit suicide for each other.”
“I think we can pull it off,” Michael said, “and walk away.”
A sly smile robbed the old man’s pinchable face of its previous innocence. “That’s not it, either.”
Grimacing, Carson said, “Aubrey, don’t make him say it.”
“I just need to hear something that makes his commitment believable.”
“This isn’t going to snap back on you,” she promised.
“Maybe, maybe not. I’m almost convinced. I know your motive, darlin’. His, I want to hear.”
“Don’t say it,” Carson warned Michael.
“Well, he already knows,” Michael said.
“That’s the point. He already knows. He doesn’t need to hear you say it. He’s just being a pissant.”
“Now, darlin’, don’t hurt old Aubrey’s feelings. Michael, why in blazes would you want to do this?”
“Don’t,” said Carson.
“—I love her.”
Carson said, “Shit.”
Aubrey Picou laughed with delight. “I am a fool for romance. You give me your cell-phone number, and the man with the goods will call you inside two hours, to tell you how and where.”
“Aubrey Picou, I should make you eat these roses,” Carson said, shaking the French Perfume and the Black Velvet in his face.
“Seeing as how they’ve been flavored by your sweet hands, I suspect I’d like the taste.”
She threw the roses on the ground. “For that, you owe me one. I want to borrow the money to pay for the guns.”
Aubrey laughed. “Why would I do that?”
“Because we once saved your life. And I don’t have several thousand stuffed in a sock.”
“Darlin’, I’m not a man with a reputation for generosity.”
“That’s part of what Lulana’s been trying to tell you.”
He frowned. “This makes me more of a party to it.”
“Not if the loan is on a handshake. No paperwork.”
“I don’t mean legally. I mean morally.”
Michael thought his hearing had failed. The word couldn’t have been
“Just making the connection for the deal isn’t so bad,” Aubrey said, “’cause I’m not taking a commission, I make nothing from it. But if I finance it, even interest-free…”
This clearly surprised Carson. “Interest-free?”
“Seems like I’ve got some responsibility that way.” Under his big floppy hat, he now looked more worried than absurd. “This Jesus guy is scary.”
“I mean, if he’s half as real as Lulana says—”
“Half as real?”
“—then you have to think consequences.”
“Aubrey,” Carson said, “no offense, but considering the way you’ve lived your life, I don’t think scary old Jesus is going to make a big issue out of you loaning me money for this.”
“Maybe not. But I’ve been trying to change the kind of person I am.”
Aubrey took off his hat, wiped his sweaty forehead with a handkerchief, and at once put the hat on again. “They all know who I used to be, but Lulana, Evangeline, and Moses—they treat me with respect.”
“And it’s not because they’re afraid you might have them kneecapped.”
“Exactly right. It’s amazing. They’ve all been so nice to me for no reason, and after a while I sort of wanted to be nice to them.”
“How insidious,” Michael said.
“It is,” Aubrey agreed. “It really is. You let people like that into your life—especially if they also make good pie—and the next thing you know, you’re giving money to charities.”
“You haven’t really,” Carson said.
“Sixty thousand this year already,” Aubrey said sheepishly.
“The orphanage desperately needed repairs, so
had to step up and fill their soup pot.”
“Aubrey Picou helping an
,” Michael said.
“I’d be obliged if you don’t tell anyone about it. I’ve got a reputation to protect. The old crowd would think I’ve gone soft or senile.”
“Your secret’s safe with us,” Carson promised.
Aubrey’s expression brightened. “Hey, what about this—I’ll just give you the money, no loan at all. You use it for whatever you need, and one day when you’re more flush, you don’t give it back to me, you give it to some charity you like.”
“You think that’ll fool Jesus?” Michael asked.
“It should,” Aubrey said, pleased with himself. “Anyway, it would be like if I gave a bunch of money to a school for the deaf and the school principal skimmed a little off the top and used the skim to pay for a three-way with two hookers.”
“Do you follow this?” Michael asked Carson.
“It’s too metaphysical for me.”
“The point is,” Aubrey said, “the skim and the hookers wouldn’t be my fault just because I gave money to a school for the deaf.”
“Instead of paying back what you lend me, you want me to give it to a school for the deaf?” Carson asked.
“That would be nice. Just remember, what you do with it in the meantime,
have to answer for.”
“You’ve become a real theologian,” Michael said.