Blood canticle, p.25
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       Blood Canticle, p.25

          part  #10 of  The Vampire Chronicles Series
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Chapter 25



  QUINN'S BEDROOM. Conf¨¦rence extraordinaire.

  Mona was hysterical with joy over the message from Maharet. And by my leave at once E-mailed a letter of thanks on Quinn's computer, which somehow devolved into two pages, with me taking over the keyboard at one juncture to outline my intention of going at once to the island with my children to ascertain what had become of the Taltos. Mona signed off with her "screen name" of Ophelia Immortal, but not before including Quinn's name as well: Noble Abelard.

  No sooner was that sent off by the magic of electronics than we were fast at work ascertaining that Mona

  had the power to light candles by the force of her mind, ignite also the kindling in the fireplace, and the logs, and that she could levitate to the ceiling with no effort whatsoever.

  I wagered she could very likely make journeys of considerable length by air, but we had no time right now to test it. As for telekinetic power to push, she was very strong on this, able to push me back to the wall if I did not resist, and so could Quinn, but again we weren't able to test this to the max with resistance. No guinea pigs. My vocal suspicion was they could bring death to a mortal easily with this power, breaking down the heart and its feeding vessels inside his or her body with no difficulty.

  "You visualize it, you send it, you stand behind it with the full force of your will, you feel it leave you. "

  Ultimately Mona and Quinn would only learn the full extent of their powers if the situation on the island involved real danger. If they couldn't fend for themselves with full effect against hostile forces, they could certainly escape with supernatural speed and dexterity, and I could easily take care of them.

  Now, as to clothes, my instincts prevailed.

  I had a little theory of what we might find on the island. I nixed the idea of Aunt Queen's safari clothes for Mona and Quinn's hunting clothes for him. Forget the jungles and the far east side of the island.

  "What's the flashiest and fanciest suit you own?" I said to Quinn, all the while rooting through Aunt Queen's closets.

  "Well, I guess the gold lam¨¦ suit I had made for the Halloween feast. It's a three-piece beauty, but-. "

  "Put it on," I said, "with the fanciest dress shirt you own and a sequined tie if you've got one. "

  At last I drew from Aunt Queen's neat lineup exactly the thing: a black satin pinched-waist, deep slashed neck, sleeveless, knee-length dress trimmed in black ostrich feathers down the front and along the hem. Only an absolute stunner could wear such a thing. I tore off the ancient price tag and presented it to my princess.

  "Go girl," I said. "And here are the black sequined shoes to match. (Four-inch heels, rhinestones galore. ) Let's hit the road. "

  "This is how we go sneaking up to people hunting on a Caribbean island?" she said. She loved the duds. She was changing immediately.

  I went to the dressing table.

  Quinn had just returned in the shiny gold suit. Like all Quinn's suits, exquisitely tailored. The boy just didn't wear anything that wasn't finely sewn. Fact was, he had found a pale lavender satin shirt and

  sequined tie, and he was luscious.

  "How about the pearls, can I heap them on her?" I asked.

  "Absolutely," he replied. He went to work, putting necklace after necklace over Mona's head. All you saw was the richness of it, between the shuddering black feathers, her rounded little arms very peachy and her legs breathtaking under the flared short skirt.

  She shook out her tangled hair.

  "I don't get this," she said. "Aren't we supposed to be stealthy and careful and proceeding through the jungles?"

  "We will be," I said. "But we're not mortals, honey pie. We're vampires. You can push the jungle out of your way with your mind, sweetheart. And if we run into hostile dudes, this is the perfect armor. "

  (As for me, beloved reader, allow me to remind you I am in a three-piece butter-soft black leather suit, with purple turtleneck and the shiniest boots in Christendom. )

  Off we went to find the island of St. Ponticus.

  I carried Mona with me up into the air, comforting her as much as I could and urging her to use her own power as much as I could, and Quinn journeyed on his own, being very adept at this gift and having used it since his Blood Baptism.

  Within ten minutes Mona had her legs wrapped around me as well as her arms, she was so scared, but it didn't matter, she was hanging on, and she was learning, and I had her in my firm grip, and I resisted the urge to tease her by swinging her loose and holding her by one hand (chuckle, men are beasts), and we were headed for the gleaming rolling waters of the Spanish Main, now known as the Caribbean.

  When I spotted the island in question, I made a swift descent until I spied the topography Maharet had described. Any closer and the gravity would have taken hold of me.

  The decisive element was the airstrip with the words "St. Ponticus" painted in enormous letters on it. Probably faded to the human eye, but we could read them. There was a small Cessna plane on one runway, and then another very long vacant runway fit for a jet landing.

  When I verified this I went back up to judge the island as a whole before drawing close to the buildings.

  The island was oval-shaped. The resort covered the crescent-shaped south and southwest shore, with a huge margin of beach, and the rest of the island was jungle with rocky cliffs, apparently totally undeveloped.

  I went low again. It was clear the island had plentiful electricity.

  One immense villa dominated the landscape, fronting on the deepest southwest beach, with sprawling left and right wings and five stories of windows and spacious balconies. Its broad terraces led right down to the sand itself, and rooms on the lower floors of the palace had French doors and their own small courtyards, including gemlike swimming pools with low walls, and open gates to the beach.

  On the west side was a giant swimming pool, sparkling with underwater light, and to the west of that deserted tennis courts.

  Quite an affair, and off to the east what seemed to be a huge utility building with a restaurant attached to it. I could identify it by the open bar and the stools and the scattered tables, though not a soul was using it.

  Then came the harbor, or marina, I'm sure they preferred to say, with a huge fancy white cabin cruiser at dock and many small boats tethered to the pier, and beyond it a heliport with what seemed to me to be a giant copter.

  Last of all, and furthest from the villa, was the airstrip with the faded letters.

  There were busy little beings visible on the island, carrying what appeared to be white crates between the cabin cruiser and the small plane.

  I whispered to Mona: "Look down and use your vampiric gifts. What sort of people are these?"

  "Those aren't Taltos," she whispered in my ear.

  "You bet they're not," I said.

  "They're carrying automatic weapons," she said in my ear, "they've got gun belts. "

  "Right you are," I said. "And knives in their boots, most likely. They're fair game, you understand, they're drug pirates and they're dirty. "

  Some of the men wore colored bandannas around their foreheads. All wore jeans. Racial characteristics varied. The blood scent rose in my nostrils. I was hungry for it.

  "It's a positive feast!" she said. "But how are we going to do this! And what have they done to the Taltos!"

  I felt my heart tripping. I ought to have been ashamed. I was getting more heated by the second.

  I took her up again, and went towards the jungle of the east coast as Maharet had cautioned me to do. The whole island wasn't very big. One could have walked straight across it, even given the mountainous heights, in about two hours. But that is a great deal of jungle, really.

  We arrived at the foot of an awesome cliff, where there was a little strip of beach, just enough for us to come together. Beautiful and boring.

  I scanned the jungle around us. I picked up nothing clear. But the she
er thickness of the jungle, the sounds of all the little beasts, all this bothered me. It was a perfect hiding place, this jungle.

  I scanned afar for the voices of the drug pirates. Activity of phones. Some music. I let my scan grow in power. It was all drug maneuvers. Cabin cruiser had brought in a load. The load would go out in the plane and the copter. Transfer was almost complete. A chaos of voices. Party going on in one of the rooms of the villa, maybe other rooms as well.

  Mona was very shaken. "What if they've killed them all!" she cried. "What if they've taken over this island?"

  "What if they're working for the Taltos," said Quinn. "What if this is how the Taltos support themselves?"

  "I can't believe that," said Mona. "Besides, Ash Templeton had wealth. He didn't need anyone to help him to acquire more of it. He wouldn't have done this. He would have contacted Rowan and Michael had he needed help. " She was fast becoming hysterical.

  "Get a grip, Mona," I said. "The information's five minutes away. As for Maharet's advice, I'm overruling it. I'm going straight to the other end of the island. You can proceed through the jungle towards the back of the building if you like, but I want to enter by the front door. My blood's too hot for waiting. Are you with me?"

  "You're not leaving us here," said Mona. She clung to Quinn all the same. "Can we follow your lead?"

  "That's what I had in mind. "

  Quinn was plainly reticent. "I say we do what Maharet told us to do. "

  "Come on, Little Brother, get into the action," I said. "We're on the moral high ground. "

  We came down right above the airport-control building. Empty. Went around it, walking in a leisurely manner until we reached the enormous runway where the drug drones were just finishing their work with the little plane.

  You couldn't have imagined more dangerous-looking creatures than this trio, in their cut off T-shirts and jeans with knives visible on their belts, guns stuck inside them, plus the big automatic weapons slung over their lean muscular shoulders.

  When they happened to see us, they nodded and politely looked away. The clothes completely blinded them. Obvious presumption we were guests. Unwise to stare at us.

  Then came strolling along the pilot, a cut above the little crowd, but just as mean, burnt brown from the sun, a human raisin, armed to the teeth but wearing a dirty bill cap instead of a bandanna.

  They were all talking fast and a little hostile to each other in Spanish, a generally resentful and bristling bunch. Had the plane been overloaded? Was anything pilfered? What took them so long? I caught the greed and the impatience and the universal distrust. Nothing at all about any tall children who inhabited this place before.

  The pilot glanced at us, checked us out from head to toe, nodded, then went back to his conversation with the trio.

  "I get it," said Mona under her breath, meaning the clothes. I nodded.

  I walked across the distance between us, ignoring Mona's desperate plea for me not to do it.

  "So where's the boss?" I said.

  "Man, if you don't know, how should I know?" countered the pilot. Snarl for a face. Empty black eyes. "I'm off schedule. Don't hold me up. "

  "Where you headed?" I asked.

  "Get that info from Rodrigo," he said. "You shouldn't be down here anyway. Get back to the villa. "


  I whipped him away from the others, sank my teeth, sought the blood fast and drew it out: Where are the tall ones, the ones who lived here first? Know nothing. Whoa, delicious rush of blood to my brain and eyes. Floating for one second. Heart exploded. Flung him down on the tarmac, dead, staring up at me, last breath of air through his dead mouth.

  The trio of bandits stood trapped, then bolted. I hooked one and held him.

  Mona and Quinn caught the remaining pair, quickly seeking for the blood. For a second Mona had a struggle on her hands, the bandit going for his knife of all things, but she hung on, pitching it away, and finally subdued him, using more nerve than innate strength.

  Quinn was lithe and silent and perfect.

  "Tell me about Rodrigo," I said to the man I held helpless by the neck, my fingers getting tighter. I jerked him around and sank my teeth. Who is on this island? The boss, his mother, his women, this is his sanctuary, he'll cut you to pieces-. The heart and the blood went dead. I had had enough.

  The fresh blood swam up in my eyes, ignited my brain. I savored it, savored the tingling in my arms and legs. Battle juice.

  " 'They are corrupt. They have done abominable works,' " I quoted with a sigh as we came together. Quinn was dazed by the feeding. Mona was reeling.

  "They've been here for over a year!" she whispered. "That's all I could get. But where in the name of God is Morrigan?"

  We passed the heliport and its adjacent building. Two inside, breaking for coffee before takeoff. Same mold, heavily muscled arms, jeans low on their hips, looked up at me calmly from their steaming cups.

  I sauntered to the table, Mona and Quinn inside the door. I sat down:

  "You know what I'm talking about. The tall people who owned this place before Rodrigo took over. What's happened to them?"

  The shortest of the two shrugged and smiled: "You asking me? I never been here before last week. That's the way Rodrigo works. Ask Rodrigo. " He turned around and gave Mona the once-over with his eyes, then looked back to me with a sinister smile.

  The taller of the two shrugged.

  "Say your prayers," I said.

  After that little fatal skirmish we headed for the big restaurant utility building, which stood seemingly vacant and all lighted up, the bar stools standing empty outside under the thatched roof and the tables scattered on its pink tiled terrace.

  Stainless steel kitchen, glaring lights, groaning, rumbling, rattling machines. Scent of pine cleaners and soap. Countertops covered with trays of dirty dishes, stench of rotting food. Giant dishwasher churning.

  "Come on," I said, "no life here. "

  We pushed on towards the immense palazzo.

  We had to pass the ground floor suites with their private swimming pools, and here the internal lamps burnt and there was chattering and laughter.

  I caught the sound of the Bossa Nova coming from somewhere deep in the main part of the building, a soft seductive music pulsing over the breeze-swept sands.

  In the dark, beyond the low walls of the suites, we weren't visible as we moved along, scanning room after room. It was all drug goons who functioned as lackeys, bodyguards, unquestioning assassins, whatever the boss wanted, hooked to their giant televisions or chattering away on their cell phones, or even up to their waists in the pools. Blue walls. Bamboo furniture. Their rooms were pits of garbage, girlie magazines, bottles of tequila, beer cans, packaged chips spilling out of bags and bowls.

  We scanned desperately for knowledge of the tall people. We got nothing for our pains.

  My urge was to kill all of them. "They are all gone aside, they are all together become filthy, there is none that doeth good, no not one," saith the fourteenth psalm. But who am I, Saint Juan Diego, to mete out such a fate to these souls who might in some distant future repent and become saints of the Lord on High?

  Nevertheless! I'm a ruthless dude. And they had to go if we were to extricate even one Taltos from this island.

  Besides, there just wasn't any other way to do it.

  Gathering Mona and Quinn to me, I blasted the lackeys one after another, feeling the strength leave me in the instant that it hit them. This was not exhilarating. This was not fun. This became repulsive, and the only thing that made it endurable was my abhorrence of their boot leather souls.

  We came on a pair, fancier than the others, Miami-retro Hawaiian shirts. Mona took the comely one with the dazzling rings and the naked chest, and I clamped down on the older, frightened one, who gave up images of contrition in the blood.

  "They can't give us anything!" Mona said, wiping her lip. Her eyes were glassy and large. "Why don't they know?"
  "Because they come and they go, and they know nothing about what actually happened here," I said. "We're cleaning them up, that's the point. When the big man calls for help he won't get it. Move on. "

  Two more suites. Low-level, groveling servants. Snorting coke and listening to salsa. Mad that they couldn't turn up the volume. Orders of the guy in the main building. The strength was getting a little more difficult, and I let Quinn have a go at them and he took them down swiftly, eschewing the blood.

  Then Pay Dirt!

  The last suite fitted partially into the body of the main building. Considerably larger than the others. Forget the powder blue walls and the rattan furnishings. This was a palatial cell of pure whiteness. White leather couches, chairs, broad pillow-laden bed strewn with glossy magazines. Vases of fresh flowers bursting with color. A wall of books. Immense dressing table laden with cosmetics. Burgundy carpet. Shining in the night.

  And maybe just the strangest creature I'd ever seen in my long wanderings on the planet.

  Mona let out the expected gasp, and Quinn put his hand resolutely on her shoulder.

  As for the occupation of the beast, he was clacking away on his computer, which had a large printer connected with it, and he did not sense our presence any more than the drug bums in the other chambers. He paused in his work to pick up a full glass of milk and drain it. He set the glass on the table to his left, beside a large opaque pitcher.

  He was easily seven feet tall, apparently male, though it was difficult for me to tell until I really caught the scent, thick and sweet, and his lustrous black hair was cut maybe shoulder length and brushed back and held away from his bone-hard face by the common red bandanna.

  Sweet fragrance. Remarkable fragrance.

  He had huge black eyes, enormous and beautiful cheekbones and baby fresh skin all over. Clothes? Sleeveless gleaming satin T, chocolate brown leather mock jeans exquisitely stitched up, enormous feet in open sandals. Spiderlike hands, and fingernails and toenails polished in shimmering metallic blue. Mouth baby soft and large.

  He played delicately with the keys, oblivious to us, oblivious to all things, humming and turning his head from side to side as he wrote or calculated or sought or talked, and then-

  -he rose up to his height of seven feet and pivoted and pointed to us, eyes wide, hostile, mouth open.

  "Blood Hunters!" he cried out in a weary exasperated and disgusted voice. "Pass over me, you fools of the night, I assure you my blood is bitter to you. What do you want me to do? Cut my wrist and paint the door post? Pass over. Go feast on the humans on this island! Kindly don't disturb me again. "

  Mona darted across the courtyard and around the pool and we went after her.

  "Taltos!" she said. "I'm Mona Mayfair, the mother of Morrigan! You came down from me! You have my genes in you! Where is Morrigan!"

  Rocking back on his heels, he gazed upon her as though he pitied her.

  "You're a cute little pixie to be such a liar," he said with withering scorn. "You never birthed a human being in your life," he went on contemptuously and coldly. "You're a Blood Hunter. You can't birth. Why come into my room to lie to me about Mona Mayfair of all people, Morrigan's mother? Who are you? Don't you know where the party is, darling dear? Listen to the Bossa Nova, and go dance with the Drug Lord and his select minions. Drink their blood. It's hot with evil, you ought to love it. "

  The contrast between this large-boned baby fresh face and this dark free-flowing disdainful voice was shattering. But we were far from interesting to the creature, obviously, who was about to sit down again at the desk when Mona protested.

  "I was human before this," said Mona, reaching out to take the creature's right arm. (He pulled back. ) "I did birth Morrigan," Mona said. "I love Morrigan. My love has crossed into the Blood. I've come to find out if Morrigan is well and happy. Ash Templeton took Morrigan from me. You're descended from them. You have to be! Talk to me. Answer me! This is the goal of my life!"

  The creature took the measure of each one of us. More easy scorn. A little amazed laugh. He slouched back with a gorgeous grace, the lids of his eyes coming just perfectly halfway over his big glistening eyes, and his baby mouth smiling brilliantly. He raised one eyebrow.

  "Goal of your life?" he said mockingly. "Little redheaded Blood Hunter on stilts? Why should I care about the goal of your life? Ash Templeton, you said. Ash Templeton. Now that name is not known to me. Unless you refer to Ashlar, my father. "

  "I do, yes, I do!" said Mona.

  I was cautious in studying him, out of courtesy and full awareness that this was a Taltos, this was the mysterious being, and we had found at least one, but then my eyes saw what I should have seen before- the creature was shackled to the wall by his right leg.

  He wore a cuff of steel connected to a very long chain that was hooked to the wall behind the desk. It was a chain long enough to allow him access to the pool in the courtyard behind us, and conceivably to the bath, which lay to the right of the immense bedroom.

  "You know where Morrigan is, don't you?" said Mona. She seemed suddenly so tragic as she spoke these words. She'd been asking them forever, and now even this being wouldn't answer her.

  I focused my force on the chain and broke it with a loud snap. I knelt on one knee and severed the cuff.

  The creature jumped back, staring at the remnants of the shackles.

  "Well, aren't we the little band of wingless angels," he conceded, his voice still sneering, "but how on Earth am I to escape? These stunted apes control everything. Listen to them. You hear the Bossa Nova? That's the big boy's song. Rodrigo, Lord of All. And his Mother, Lucia. Can you imagine living with this music for a year now? Isn't it sweet?"

  "Oh, you'll escape all right," I said. "We'll take you out of here without question. Every human between here and the airstrip is already dead. And the others will soon join them. But we want to rescue all the Taltos. Where are the others? Do you know?"

  "Morrigan," said Mona. "When did you last see her?"

  "Morrigan!" the creature said, his head falling back, his voice like a black ribbon as the words flowed: "Stop saying her name. You think I don't know who she is? She's the mother of the entire Secret People. Of course I know her name. Morrigan is probably dead. Anyone who didn't cooperate with these Drug Merchants is dead. Morrigan was dying before they ever came. She birthed five males before she birthed Miravelle. That's too many children in too short a time. "

  He gave a weary shake of his head, eyes still half-mast, weight shifting from one hip to the other.

  "Her own sons rose up and raped her in the hope of a female birth. At last Miravelle! And da da da DA! The tribe goes on! Morrigan was sick unto death, and her milk dried up, and then came the poison. If the Drug Men shot her they wasted their bullets. She was my mother, by the way, I loved her. Past tense. Get on with it. "

  I expected Mona's tears to come and I thought them justified, and I held her tight with my right arm. But they only stood in her eyes, forming a glaze in the light as she followed this cold, hard speech. She looked suddenly like a costumed waif in her feathered finery, gazing up at the face of this bizarre and sardonic creature.

  This was a blow of such weight falling upon her that she could only stand there and let me support her. I wondered if she would slip from consciousness, so grave was her stare, so still her figure in my grip.

  "Take it easy, my little one," I whispered. I kissed her cheek. "We have yet to explore the main building. "

  "Oh, Beloved Boss," she said in a faltering voice. "Oh, Beloved Boss, I have sought and so I have found. "

  "Not yet," said Quinn, eying the creature grimly. "Not till we search the island end to end. "

  "Well, aren't we the gallant little gang of Blood Thieves," said the tall being, "and we all love each other, kissy, kissy! I'm impressed. Seems in my fathomless noisome memories of Paradise Lost and Come Again and Gone Underground and Lost and Species Wiped Out that you merciless little beings preyed
upon humans rather ruthlessly. What is this, Valentine's Day for Vampires?"

  "We're going to get you out of your little prison," said Quinn with equal coldness. "Will you kindly cooperate with us and tell us what Taltos are left here?"

  "And I'd oh, so love it if you told us your name," I said sarcastically. "It's a bit hard to read your mind. I keep stumbling in the ice and snow when I try. "

  He gave a bitter laugh in a small show of sinister spontaneity.

  "Oh, so the outside world has finally come," said the being, swaying with undeniable grace, his words flowing like glossy syrup. "Well, you're a year too late. I don't know who's left or where they are. I might be the sole specimen. " He made a broad upward gesture with both hands, and a broad hateful smile.

  "And you did say that Morrigan was your mother?" Mona asked tenderly.

  "Out of Morrigan and Ashlar," he said. "Pure as they come. Oberon of the first rank, known by the younger ones as a cynic and eternal wet blanket. Though I've never called them by name. They are Mother and Father to me. If I'd killed my brother Silas when he first started talking sedition maybe none of this would have happened. But I don't think the Secret People could have gone on forever. "

  "The Secret People, that's a lovely name," I said. "Whose idea was that?"

  "Yes, I've always thought it was sweet," he said. "And our life wasn't bad at all, let me tell you. But Father was na?ve to think it could last. Even Morrigan told him that. You can't keep a community of twenty Taltos perfectly under your supervision, you know, that sort of thing, no matter how much diversion and education and stimulation you provide. Father was a dreamer. Morrigan was an oracle. Silas was the poisoner. So it came to a bloody end. "

  Suddenly I divined a human presence behind the far door, and so did the Taltos.

  A tall dark-skinned woman came in, perhaps fifty years in age, but extremely well groomed and seductive- black-rimmed eyes, heavily made-up face, blood red lips, and a head of luxuriant dark hair and a pinched waist, breast-heavy figure.

  She was holding in her hand an obviously religious statue. She was fastidiously dressed in a mauve silk dress with a golden chain for a belt, black net stockings and sharp heels, flashy gold earrings, and she spoke immediately in heavily accented Spanish.

  "Well, I finally found it but I had to move Heaven and Earth, I tell you, you'd think it should be common enough, with the Pope going all the way to Mexico, but I had to go on the Internet and find it, and here it is. "

  And there it was!

  She set it down on the low white table along the wall! A brilliantly painted statue of Saint Juan Diego!

  I was thunderstruck.

  There he stood, brave little fellow, with his arms out, and the unmistakable image of Our Lady of Guadalupe in full rich color emblazoned on histilma, and the famous roses dropping to his feet, and all this in unmistakable detail! Of course, the image of Our Lady was glued on, and the flowers were paper, but so what, it was Juan, my Juan Diego.

  "And you left the party just to give this to me?" said Oberon with dripping mock affection.

  "Oh, shut your filthy mouth," she said. "And who are these people?" Flash of brilliant smile. "Ah, you are my son's guests, are you not? Welcome. "

  "I'll give you a thousand dollars for that statue," I said. "No, I'll make you a better deal. I'll let you live. After all, what good would a thousand dollars be to a dead woman? Go get in one of those small boats in the marina and take off. Everybody else on this island's doomed, except for the tall people. "

  She stared at me with immense curiosity and utter fearlessness, eyes opaque, mouth hard. In a flash she had a black pistol in her hand. And in a flash I'd taken it from her and thrown it on the bed.

  "You think my son won't cut you and your fancy friends to pieces? How dare you!"

  "Better take my offer," I said. "Woman, thy faith has saved thee! Head for the marina, now. "

  "Lucia, I think he's telling you the truth," said Oberon in the same languid disdainful voice with which he spoke to us. "I can smell death. It's all around us. I think the rule of the Drug Merchants has come to an ignominious end. Alas, your Ariel is free, my precious and prosperous pussycat, why don't you go?"

  Oberon moved slowly across the room, swaying a little from one hip to the other, dipping his head to this side and that, and dipping down to pick up the gun, and looking at it as if it was a curiosity, and as Lucia watched, perplexed, enraged, frustrated, furious, helpless, Oberon slipped the gun into the right position and shot Lucia three times in the face.

  So much for Lucia. She went down with knees bent, arms out, face pulp.

  "She was kind to me. " he said. "The statue is for me. I visited the Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe when the Secret People went to Mexico City. You can't have the statue. Even if you rescue me, I won't give it to you. "

  "Cool," I replied. "You're in such a good bargaining position. But who am I to steal Saint Juan Diego from anyone? I'm sure I can find another statue. But why did you kill her if she was so kind?"

  Oberon shrugged. "To see if I could do it," he said. "Are you ready now to go after the others? Now that I'm packing, I am more than ready to play my part. "

  "Oh God in Heaven," Mona sighed. I could see the shudder pass through her. She took several shaky steps forward and then collapsed in the white leather chair, her heels together, her hand to her forehead.

  "Oh, do tell me what's wrong, pretty little grandmother of the tribe," said Oberon. "What, you thought we were all little flutter-wing angels like Morrigan? Must I describe to you nature's purpose in designing the double helix, regardless of its number of chromosomes? It's to produce a variety of creatures within the species. Cheer up. We've a party to go to, don't we?"

  Quinn's face was grim. "Maybe you should give one of us that gun," he said.

  "Not on your life," Oberon replied. He slipped the gun into his low-slung waist. "Now where should we start? Let me fill you in on such facts as I possess. Now pay attention. "

  "Marvelous," I said. "Something besides performance art and gilded insults. "

  He chuckled. He went on undaunted, the voice black syrup again pouring thickly and slowly:

  "I can tell you that Silas and the vast majority of the Secret People were gunned down on the day that the Drug Merchants came. Torwan and several other females were kept for a while. But they cried all the time. Torwan tried to get away in a boat, and they caught her on the pier and stabbed her to death. I saw that. Of the men, only Elath and Hiram and I were kept. Then Elath killed one of the Drug Merchants and they shot him, and Hiram disappeared. And I think I saw Isaac once, but I'm not sure. I think they're all dead. Except for Miravelle and Lorkyn. "

  "What about Mother and Father?" I asked.

  Oberon shrugged.

  "Handsome Blood Thief, I must confess I hold out no hope. They were dying from the poison when the Drug Merchants landed here. Father told us to hide. Miravelle took care of them. Miravelle slept with them. We'd long ago put a stop to the poisoning but the damage was done. And no one could stop Silas

  and his rebellion. Right before Silas made his fatal mistake, Miravelle and Mother apparently had an opportunity to blind Silas with a screwdriver, but Miravelle, precious little thing, just couldn't bring herself to do it, sob, and Silas got free of Mother and knocked her unconscious. Oh, so tragic. I know now that I should have killed Silas first time I ever laid eyes on him. Father should have killed Silas as soon as Silas started threatening the Secret People. Lorkyn could have done it. She was the coldest female ever birthed on this island. A beast, I tell you. Alas! Who would have ever dreamed that Silas would rise up and try to take on the outside world. "

  I shook my head. "Cut to the connection between the rebellion of Silas and the coming of these drug people?"

  He shrugged. One of his great spidery hands smoothed his hair and firmed the red bandanna.

  "Silas started the war against them," he said. "He spied upon their work on a small nearb
y island. Don't ask me where. I never went there. But Silas plotted against them. He took a gang of the most aggressive and warlike of the tribe to their island, and went in smiling and saying kind things, and slowly and systematically murdered the whole gang. He took their drugs and their weapons.

  "Silas said the reign of Father had to end. Father was ancient, pure Taltos, unfit for the modern world. Silas said we had Mayfair genes, human cleverness, human dreaming. "

  I stood beside Mona as she cried silently.

  "The tribe celebrated, snorted the cocaine and shot off the guns. They smoked marijuana and went absolutely crazy. They killed two of us-Evan and Ruth-by accident. Can you imagine how stupid? Nobody had ever seen a dead Taltos before. It was ghastly. Silas had them ceremoniously dumped in the sea. Flowers flung into the water! Ludicrous. Silas began to shoot those whom he suspected of disloyalty!" He gave a deep disgusted laugh.

  "Lorkyn made a speech. She said that going to the drug island had been a typical Taltos blunder. The drug people belonged to a great cartel. Their cohorts would come to get us. We had to take Father and Mother and get onto the yacht and leave the island. We could do it. Silas tried to kill her, but the others stopped him. Now that was a revelation. But Lorkyn has a way with her. No one was prepared to see her go down. "

  He shrugged, rolled his eyes, pushed the gun more firmly into the belt of his beautiful brown leather jeans.

  "The drug people came," he said, swaying languidly as he went on. "By nightfall they were here. Silas and his allies ran at them, shooting off the guns they'd stolen. Rat tat tat! Can you picture it? They didn't even shoot from under cover. " He sneered. "The Drug Merchants shot every Taltos in sight. They kicked open doors all over the villa. Quite an unforgettable experience, waiting for them to kick open one's door.

  "It was the complete end of the Secret People. Those of us who were kept for a while? We were the quiet ones. The ones who didn't rush into battle.

  "They didn't find me till the third day. I was simply lying in my room, upstairs in the villa. In they walked. They made a servant of me. They taught me to mix Caipirinhas out of cacha?a and lime juice for Carlos. I knew the computer very well. I did the bookkeeping, spread sheets, payroll, all of that too. Then Lucia fell passionately in love with me. How could she not? She's well past the age where a male Taltos can make her bleed to death-.

  "-That's what we males do to human women, you know, unless they're past their menarche. Lucia showered me with attention. She did this room all in white for me. She went to Miami Beach to have her inviting little privy chamber surgically tightened till it felt like the sheath of a twelve-year-old. She did that for me. Very nice. Of course I've never been with a human twelve-year-old. She was a delicious lover. "

  "Hmmm," I said. "You don't mind her lying there with a pool of blood for a face?"

  "Not particularly. You said every human on the island was going to die. Didn't you mean it?"

  He sat down in his desk chair. He turned, poured himself another glass of milk from the pitcher and drank it down.

  He fell to studying the three of us again, Quinn and I standing and Mona on the edge of the white chair, knees up, her face beating with the blood, and her tearfilled eyes so unutterably sad they were indescribable.

  "Is that computer connected to the outside world?" Mona asked. Her voice was feeble, but she was still holding back the tears.

  "Of course not," he said sardonically. "What kind of idiot do you think I am? If it had been, I would have gotten help. I would have tried to reach Rowan Mayfair at Mayfair Medical in New Orleans. "

  We were all of us silently shocked.

  "How did you know about Rowan?" asked Mona. She wiped at her eyes. The black feathers of her dress brushed her cheeks.

  "Father told all of us-if ever we found ourselves in grave trouble, we were to contact Rowan Mayfair at Mayfair Medical in New Orleans. I think that was two years after I was born. Father was already being poisoned by Silas but he didn't know it. He only knew he was getting weaker. He thought he was dying of old age. He had been to see his lawyers in New York. Very secret. No names. No numbers. That was

  Father's way. Morrigan was seldom if ever awake. Father knew things were going on behind his back. Morrigan woke up one time and accused Father of being in love with Rowan Mayfair. "

  In love with Rowan Mayfair.

  "Why did she say that?" asked Mona in a broken voice.

  "I don't know," he said wearily, with mock innocence. "All I know is, she's my only lifeline to the human world. Then suddenly you show up, Grandmother Dear, and you want to rescue us. Aren't you a child? You look like one. Playing with your mother's clothes perhaps?"

  "Were you always of this disposition?" I asked. "Or has this enslavement altered you?"

  He laughed a mirthless knowing laugh. He stared at the dead woman on the floor.

  "You're a tricky one," he said. "I was born knowing Father and Mother were doomed. " He smiled. "Father didn't have the temperament to control the young males. There were secret births all the time. You might say I sang a tragic song from the beginning. After all . . . " He stopped, yawned and then continued: "How is one to rule a community of Taltos unless one is willing to kill the unwanted births and those who breed against one's rules?" He shook his head. "I don't see any other way. Unless of course one puts chastity belts on the females. That could be done. You know, modern nylon chastity belts or some such. But that was certainly not the way of Mother and Father. "

  "What did the Secret People do here?" Mona asked. She was trying to speak firmly. "Did you simply live pleasurably on this island?"

  "Oh, certainly not," Oberon responded. "Father and Mother provided a marvelous life for us. Father had a wonderful plane. It's in New York somewhere, stranded, dead, orphaned. Like Little Boy Blue's toys, waiting for him to come back. In that plane we visited all the great cities of the world. I loved Rome and Bombay in particular. I would love to see them all again-London, Rio, Hong Kong, Paris. And Mexico City. We were shepherded everywhere. And we were taught to observe human beings and pretend to be human beings. As long as we did that, Father and Mother took complete care of us. Simply terrific life. Father was very strict and very cautious. No telephones, no Internet. That might have been a fatal error in the long run. "

  "Did you ever want to escape?" asked Quinn.

  "Not me," he said with a shrug. "I loved the Secret People. Besides, human beings generally kill male Taltos. The women they let live. They use them. But the males they always kill. Everyone knew that. Our life here was good. We had superb teachers here on the island. Father had them flown in for two to three weeks at a time. Of course they didn't know what we really were, but that didn't matter. We had an excellent library in the main building-books, films, all that. "

  He took another glass of the milk, making a slight face.

  "It's not cold enough," he whispered. Then: "Sometimes we had human guides on our trips. Like when we went to India. We had the yacht, you know, the cabin cruiser for going out on the water. And the cleanup crew came in twice a week and went through the entire property. And then there was the jungle. Elath and Releth loved to go off in the jungle. So did Seth. I'm not much for gnats and scratches and snakes and that sort of thing. " He made a weary gesture with his long arm.

  "No, it was quite a nice life. Until Silas started his rebellion with the slow poisoning of Mother and Father. And of course, though Silas never lived to find out, there were others breeding behind his back, and plotting against him too at the end. It was out of control, totally out of control. " He shrugged again. "You might say it was a disaster. " He leaned back and looked down at Mona as she sat crouched on the edge of the white chair.

  "Don't be so sad," he said hatefully, "Little Grandmother of the tribe. It's not your fault. It's the way it is. Taltos can't live with humans. Taltos make fatal blunders. Father told me if it hadn't been Silas, it would have been another. The Secret People was an absurd idea. Near the end h
e talked a lot about Rowan Mayfair. Rowan Mayfair would know what to do. But he was a virtual prisoner in the penthouse by then. And Mother was only conscious occasionally. "

  Mona's heart was broken. The cautions in Maharet's electronic letter made sense. Darwinian principles, Stirling had called them. I wanted to wrap Mona in my arms.

  But we had yet to enter the main body of the villa. And I could hear shouting now. A handful of mortals had discovered the dead we had left behind in the other suites.

  The door burst open again, and this time the black greasy barrel of a gun preceded the man who had kicked it in. I sent the discrete power to hurl him backwards and destroy his heart. A spray of bullets struck the white ceiling. Too close. They might have killed this vile talking creature. What a loss!

  I plunged through the door. I found myself in a long thatch-roofed porch. Another mortal lifted his weapon. I sent the Fire. And in the sudden brilliant illumination, I saw another man running. The Fire caught him. Be quick.

  When I turned around, a young woman, jeans, shirt, snarling curses in my face, came at me with a big automatic weapon. I disarmed her, and sent the power. She collapsed, blood gushing from her mouth. I closed my eyes. I was sickened.

  I hoped to God that we'd cleared away most of the underlings. Maybe all.

  The Bossa Nova was very loud now here in this courtyard. I could hear the whispered words in

  Portuguese, the swooning dance. The music said Peace. It said Slumber. It was so sweet, so hypnotic.

  Through huge open doors I could see the deserted lobby with its lavish plants, the pink tile running to the broad central stairs. I was eager to get up there, get to the heart of the evil.

  I went back into the white-walled room, shut the door, stepped over the dead Lucia and got to the point:

  "When was the last time you saw any Taltos, living or dead?"

  Shrug. "Maybe nine months ago? Every so often I think I hear the voices of Miravelle and Lorkyn. I woke up once and saw Miravelle walking out there on the beach with Rodrigo. Perhaps they were taken prisoner too for these ungodly men. Miravelle was sugar and spice-the idiot kind of Taltos, if you pardon my candor. When Miravelle plays tennis with you, she wants you to win! Notoriously stupid. It would have been easy to keep her. Lorkyn is cunning enough to hide her true spirit, and exceedingly beautiful. Red hair like Granny here. I know I've seen Lorkyn. But is she still alive now? Who knows?"

  "Don't call me that," whispered Mona. She gave him a glacial smile. She seemed at a breaking point. "Oh, I know you mean it out of heartfelt respect, you're such a thoughtful creature, so full of innate love for everyone, but I will settle for Gorgeous, or Beautiful, or Darling One, or Toots, or even Sweetheart. You call me Granny again and I may chain you up to that wall and leave you here. "

  Another spontaneous laugh. "Very well, Toots," he said. "I didn't realize you were the boss of this little operation. I thought that position resided with the blond beauty here. "

  "And where is the room of Mother and Father?" I went on.

  "Penthouse suite," he said. "Believe me, they were probably thrown into the sea a long time ago. "

  "How many people do you think are left in the main building now? I've wiped out all the men in this wing of the building, and one woman. "

  "Aren't you the feisty one!" he sighed. "How should I know? I can make a guess. Rodrigo, his two bodyguards, maybe a goon or two to fetch, and maybe . . . maybe . . . Miravelle and Lorkyn. It's a party in the first-floor bridal suite, that's Rodrigo's home away from home, one level above, dead center looking out to sea. Or so his mother told me. " He pointed to the dead mother. "I'd love to shoot one of the goons, assuming you haven't taken care of all of them. "

  "What about women? Does Rodrigo bring other women here? Are there likely to be some innocent guests up there?"

  "Very unlikely," he said, head to one side. "If there are guests, they're dirty. This is a hideaway, a depot. Which has always given me the faint hope of seeing more of Miravelle or Lorkyn. You know, female

  Taltos are always, shall we say, feverish for fun? There's inevitably a slight issue of blood, but it comes afterwards and can be dealt with privately. And the milk! Well, let me tell you, the milk's delicious. Human beings can use them ad nauseam. "

  "All right, wait here for us, don't shoot anybody unless you have to and we'll take you out of here, Mona and Quinn, come. "

  "I have no intention of being left behind," said Oberon. He checked the gun in his belt. "I'll follow you. I told you I want to shoot a goon or two. Besides, if Lorkyn and Miravelle are here I want to see them. They're my sisters, for the love of Heaven. You think I'm going to sit in this room and listen for bullets flying?"

  "Don't you know by their scent if they're here?" asked Mona.

  He gave another amazingly soft laugh. "The males give off the scent, Grandmother," he retorted. "You should have studied up on the breed. "

  "That's what I'm trying to do," she said bitterly, the tears spilling. "Rescue it and study up on it, Oberon, my darling dear! I've come a long way to find you, you blessed little sweetheart of a thing. What a joy it is that we've met. I warned you, you call me Granny or Grandmother one more time, and I may just knock you flat on your back. "

  Rolling sarcastic laughter. "Okay, Toots," he said. "No more slips of the tongue. And you are gorgeous. "

  He stood up and stretched like a cat. Gave her a warped smile.

  "Have any of you brilliant and crafty and conscientious Blood Thieves lifted a cell phone off your human victims? I want to call Rowan Mayfair. "

  "I have my own," said Quinn. "And I did lift a couple. But it's too early to call. Let's move. "

  "Well, come on, you little sugar pot," Oberon said, offering Mona his hand. "Let's go kill Rodrigo so he can be with his mother. And then we'll come back for Saint Juan Diego. "

  "Why do you like him so much?" I asked.

  "Who, Rodrigo?" he asked. Big raise of his eyebrows. "I detest the man, I assure you. "

  "No, Saint Juan Diego," I said.

  "Oh. " Laugh. "I told you. I went to the Cathedral. Besides, when Lucia told me he'd been made a saint, I

  prayed to him for a miracle. " Suddenly his eyes got wide. "Good Lord!" he said.

  "What is it?" I asked. "Something has come as a surprise to the Cynic for All Seasons?"

  "Don't you see?" He was flabbergasted. "Saint Juan Diego answered my prayer! You're the miracle!"
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