Blood canticle, p.27

Blood Canticle, page 27

 part  #10 of  The Vampire Chronicles Series


Blood Canticle

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Chapter 27



  I STOPPED at the flat, stripped off the leather clothes, put on a lavender dress shirt, purple tie, black linen three-piece suit, new boots, cut out for Blackwood Farm, dived into Aunt Queen's bed and went sound asleep.

  (Saint Juan Diego was on the bedside table right beside me. )

  Vague memory of Mona coming in before sunrise and telling me she'd E-mailed to "the mysterious Maharet" an account of the entire event. I said: "Bravo. I love you. Get out of here. "

  At sunset, when I awoke, I went out into the house to discover Stirling Oliver had come. He'd had an early supper with Tommy and Nash, who had gone into New Orleans for the evening, and was now waiting for me on the "wicker terrace" on the east side of the house.

  I was so comforted by every aspect of Blackwood Farm and its unsuspecting humans that I could have wept, but I didn't. I made a little circuit of the big rooms. No sign of Julien's ghost. Why was he letting me off the hook? I rejoiced, whatever his reasons. Here at Blackwood Farm, the island of St. Ponticus seemed remote, the horrors of last night imagined.

  The Dazzling Duo had not risen yet.

  I took the statue of Saint Juan Diego and I headed outdoors.

  The wicker terrace had been created by Quinn out of all the antique wicker furniture he'd found in the attic of Blackwood Farm when he was still a teenager, and he'd had it all restored and put out here, and it was quite atmospheric and charming.

  The floodlights weren't on. There were just a couple of hurricane lamps flickering away, and Stirling, in a light tweed Norfolk jacket, was smoking a cigarette. His neatly trimmed gray hair was ruffled a bit by the breeze. But otherwise he was the picture of dignity. And the picture of a mortal with whom I could be at ease and talk as if I wasn't a monster.

  I sat down in the chair opposite him, with Saint Juan Diego out of sight at my side.

  There was that Fall bite in the air. I resigned myself to it, and breathed in the pure freshness of the breeze,

  and let my eyes linger on the pearly clouds and the frightening and inevitable little stars that soon shone through them.

  "So hit me with it, baby," I said.

  "Well," he said, his youthful eyes at once alert. "A plane of our people descended on the island as swiftly as could be managed, and collected the laptops and every other computer they could find in the mezzanine library that Oberon described to us, remnants of the Secret People that Oberon wanted saved, and they were about to take their leave when a boatload of the unsavory characters arrived. We had an escort of five or six soldiers of fortune, you might call them, not members of the Talamasca you understand, but quite loyal in their work for us, so there was a parley of sorts. The unsavory individuals deemed it prudent to depart. Very quickly in fact. I would say that they surmised that their time on the island had ended. Our plane took off without mishap. Chalk it up to poise and persuasion on the part of our soldiers.

  "Meanwhile, the firm of Mayfair and Mayfair traced the entire history of the island, finding a clear chain of title revealing the transfer from Lost Paradise Resorts to The Secret Isle Corp. , only officer and stock holder Ash Templeton. Attorneys for the Corporation in New York notified other attorneys, who then notified other attorneys who were the true managers of Ash's affairs.

  "They flew down this afternoon. Saw his body at Mayfair Medical. Revealed Last Will and Testament executed four years ago, leaving everything to Michael Curry and Rowan Mayfair, with some sort of trust arrangement for Ash's children. That was years after Ash left New Orleans with Morrigan. There was a bundle of accompanying letters. 'To be given to Michael Curry and Rowan Mayfair should I die or become incapacitated. ' They've been given to Michael and Rowan. "

  "I don't quite get it," I said.

  "Ash was taking steps," said Stirling. "He knew the Secret People were in trouble. He simply didn't take the steps fast enough. Communication was always sporadic. The estate lawyers didn't know the location of the Secret People or their name. Communication broke off two years ago. Ash should have given one of the firms a timetable and a course of action: 'If you don't hear from me every six months, etc. ' "

  "I see," I answered. "Any clue as to what was in the letters?"

  "From what Michael told me, the letters are full of polite warnings, observations and requests that Rowan and Michael and the Mayfair family care for his children. Ash was immensely wealthy. The money in essence passes to Rowan and Michael in trust for Oberon, Lorkyn and Miravelle.

  "No problem there. I don't know whether anyone's ever made you aware of it, but Rowan and Mona both made immense profits for the Mayfair Legacy. Rowan sits on the boards who invest the funds of the Medical Center Endowments and she's considered an incredibly shrewd moneymaker. I suppose what I'm

  struggling to say is that the Mayfair fortune continues to grow, in spite of the cost of Mayfair Medical, which is now the recipient of all sorts of grant money, and Ash's Last Will and Testament will be observed with complete honor by Mayfair and Mayfair, have no doubt. "

  "And you think you owe me this explanation?" I asked.

  "In a way, yes," he said. "You did rescue the Taltos. And of course you can tell all this to Mona when the subject arises. And I trust it will. "

  I nodded.

  "While we're on the subject," he said, "might I ask, how do you live yourself?"

  "On blood," I said.

  "No, but I mean the financial part of it. "

  "Stirling, look to the Chronicles and your own Talamasca files. Hand to mouth immortals are the stuff of B movies. I have more wealth than I know what to do with. It's managed in Paris and in New York for me by mortals who know me by voice. When I do become ragged, it's a matter of moral disposition, nothing more. "

  "Fascinating," he replied.

  "Go on with what's been happening," I said.

  "Well, Rowan is so busy in the laboratory with the two bodies, she's scarcely looked at the letters. Michael is reading through them now. He'll show them to me later.

  "Of course, the Talamasca has turned over all the computers from the morning raid to the Mayfair family. The computers are the property of Michael and Rowan by force of Ash's will. We had no choice but to do it. Perhaps they'll allow us to study the material later on. "

  "Has Mayfair and Mayfair taken any action about the island itself, to keep off the drug people?"

  "They've contacted every form of authority policing that part of the World, I believe, but I gather that it's rather complicated. We offered to send back the soldiers of fortune. They may take us up on it. A private security force of some type has been sent there. Also some kind of cleanup crew. Apparently the cabin cruiser, the plane-these things were Ash's property. This Rodrigo whom you so obligingly destroyed was a major DEA target. This was made known to the family when they asked for protection for the island. The family has not cooperated with the DEA or invited them in. It's all being handled privately. "

  "Hmmm. . . . " I felt uneasy about the island. All that jungle. I wish I had taken the time to walk through that jungle. "Where are the Taltos?"

  "You want the short answer, or the story?"

  "You kidding?"

  "Well, Miravelle and Oberon spent the morning and early afternoon at the First Street house in the company of Dolly Jean and Tante Oscar," said Stirling. "It was quite amazing. At times, I thought I was hallucinating. Apparently Tante Oscar has not left her French Quarter apartment in years. You remember, she wears three and four dresses at a time?"

  "Yes indeed I remember," I said. "She spreads evil rumors about me. I'd set her right, but if she's really over a hundred years old, I might give her a heart attack. "

  "Good point. When Dolly Jean called her on the famous refrigerated telephone, she agreed to come to First Street if the car were sent, and she spent the afternoon with Dolly Jean and Michael regaling 'the Walking Babies' with stories, or with Miravelle or Oberon regaling them, I'm not quite sure which, but all of it has been reco
rded for posterity by me and by Michael. Miravelle was shocked by a great deal that the two old women had to say, but Oberon was in hysterics. He thought them the funniest human beings he'd ever met, and he was stomping his foot and slamming the table.

  "Naturally I was enthralled merely watching this entire collection of beings, including Tante Oscar. " He drew on his cigarette. "She was indeed wearing some three or four dresses under her maroon fox-trimmed coat, and a black hat with roses on it and a little face veil, and she does have eyes like eggs. She entered the house making the Sign of the Cross over and over again, rosary beads running through her right hand, a battalion of exquisite twelve-year-old boys accompanying her up the marble steps and into the dining room. The boys soon discovered the swimming pool and were invited to swim and went to it with gusto. They might be still swimming now. Apparently they'd never been swimming in their lives before. "

  Stirling stopped.

  The Dazzling Duo had appeared. Both were tricked out in safari jackets and khaki slacks, Quinn with an open shirt, Mona with an olive green turtleneck-a startling contrast to the formal clothes they'd always worn before.

  They were both pale and a little gaunt. They had no need to feed, thanks to last night's repast, but apparently the dark adventure had taken their energy. Quinn appeared to be fasting. Mona looked wounded and frail.

  Just for a moment, I saw in her the gaunt dying girl she'd been when I first laid eyes on her. It frightened me.

  Kisses and hugs for Stirling, who rose to his feet to receive them.

  I clasped her hand and she bent low to kiss me on the mouth. I felt a fever in her, as though her body were consuming her past dreams. And an ashen sadness clouded her vision.

  She came right to the point, even before she flopped into a wicker chair and put her feet up on the table.

  "Rowan has to know whether they're alive or dead by now," she said.

  "Darling, they're dead," said Stirling, "there's no question. They've been brought up to a temperature of perhaps forty degrees, and connected to every sort of monitor known to Rowan. There's no life in them whatsoever. Only a gold mine of tissue and blood and bone which Rowan wants to examine. "

  "Oh, yeah, oh of course," said Mona in a low fast-running voice. She closed her eyes. She seemed so lost. "So the Mad Scientist must be overjoyed. "

  "What about the poison?" I asked. "Oberon said that Ash and Morrigan had been slowly poisoned by the rebel children. "

  Stirling nodded. "There were several compounds in their blood and tissue. Apparently they'd been given arsenic, Coumadin and some other rare chemical that strikes at the musculature. The doses would have been fatal to human beings. But it's a tricky matter. There might have been other poisons which didn't survive in the bodies. There were also huge amounts of benzodiazepines. "

  "Evil Silas," whispered Mona.

  "Has either Miravelle or Oberon said any more about the life of the Secret People?" Quinn asked. "I think the more Mona hears about that the better she will feel. "

  "To Hell with it," said Mona in a low voice.

  Stirling went on gently.

  "Yes, they've both talked a lot. So did some of the New York lawyers who represented Ash. Their life was very good, and it lasted some four years before this villainous Rodrigo took over the island. Oberon enjoys describing their trips and their studies very much. Miravelle has reverted more and more to a childlike state. Oberon becomes impatient with her. "

  "Where are they now?" asked Quinn.

  "At Mayfair Medical. Rowan had them both admitted for tests earlier this evening. "

  "Oh, splendid, and they agreed to it!" Mona said. "How could I not know that? The two dead ones are not enough! Lorkyn isn't enough. She has to have the live ones immediately as well! That's Rowan. Did she say the poor children looked a bit peaked? Or did she just shoot something into their veins and then throw them on the stretchers? I wish I could mount a conscientious opposition, but I haven't the spirit for it. So let them disappear into the laboratories and secret rooms of Mayfair Medical. Good-bye, sweet Miravelle! Will I ever lay eyes on you again? Farewell, oh, acid-tongued Oberon, may you not alienate too many of the nurses with your withering wit, for they can make your life miserable. And who am I, the Blood Child, to seek such a privilege as to see these odd, out-of-time beings, except perhaps to turn them loose into the workaday world where they'd undoubtedly fall victim to some insidious human equivalent to Rodrigo the Drug Lord!"

  "Mona, Miravelle and Oberon won't be kept there," Quinn said. "We can see to it ourselves. Rowan won't make them prisoners. You're making Rowan the enemy again for no reason. We can go to Mayfair Medical now and see them, very likely, if you wish. Nobody can prevent us. "

  "Listen to you!" Mona said, with a faint affectionate smile. "You think you know Rowan, and you don't know Rowan. And Beloved Boss here has fallen under her dark spell same as Ash Templeton apparently, who forswore her for his species and failed to save them for Morrigan's jealousy of her, Oh, Darkness, Oh, Piteous Darkness; Lestat, how can you find her glacial heart!"

  "You're using Rowan as a lightning rod," said Quinn calmly. "What's the excuse now for hating Rowan? Because she pronounced Ash and Morrigan dead? Lestat told you they were dead. Let it go. Let it all go. "

  Mona shook her head, words rushing. "Where's the wake? Where's the funeral? Where are the flowers? Where is the family with everyone kissing? Will they put Ash and Morrigan in the family tomb?"

  I reached over and took her hand. "Ophelia," I said softly, "what need have they for flowers now, or kissing? 'Is't possible a young maid's wits should be as mortal as an old man's life?' Be still, my beauty. "

  She answered me with Shakespeare:

  " 'Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself, She turns to favour and to prettiness. ' "

  "No, come back. Hold on. "

  She shut her eyes. The silence lengthened. I felt her draw breath.

  "Stirling, tell her how it went," I said cautiously. "Tell her the comic parts. "

  "If I may say so," Stirling said, "after an afternoon with Tante Oscar and Dolly Jean, and all their stories

  of Walking Babies in the swamps, Miravelle and Oberon were ready for a hospital suite. And very likely Michael Curry was glad to see them go. "

  "Did they never try to escape the house?" asked Mona.

  "Guards all around it," conceded Stirling. "But Mona, how can anyone let these two go unshepherded into a human world? Yes, the Secret People endured for some five years, it seems, and Oberon and Miravelle told the most wondrous tales of their life with Father and Mother, but the basic concept was falling apart from the start. The Silas Rebellion lasted two years. Rodrigo's takeover another two, and that's the story we have at this point. "

  "Well, what's going to happen to them?" Mona demanded.

  "Oberon's placed his fate entirely in Rowan's hands, and after meeting Michael and wandering about the First Street property, and his high comic rounds with Tante Oscar and Dolly Jean, I think he's insisting that Miravelle do the same. You might say that Oberon committed himself to Mayfair Medical and committed his sister. That's where things stand. "

  "Any word on Lorkyn?" I asked.

  "No," said Stirling. "None at all. Only Rowan knows what's happening with Lorkyn. Michael didn't have a clue. "

  "Ah, that's marvelous!" said Mona bitterly, her lip quivering. "I wonder if she will cut her up alive. "

  "Stop it," I said softly. "Lorkyn's filthy with the blood of others. She was the cohort of Rodrigo. Rodrigo slew Ash and Morrigan! Let it be. "

  "Amen," said Quinn. "I've seldom seen a more frightening creature than Lorkyn. What is Rowan supposed to do with her? Pass her over to the Drug Enforcement people? You think she wouldn't give them the slip? Rowan has a jurisdiction beyond the law, as we do. "

  Mona shook her head. She was becoming ever more fragile by the minute.

  "And what about Michael?" she asked, with a note of hysteria in her voice, her face stil
l pallid and her eyes hard with pain. "What's happening to my beloved Michael in all of this? Does he guess that Rowan's enchanted with the great Lestat behind his back!"

  "Oh, so that's it," said Quinn gravely. "And you, the child that bedded him and bore Morrigan, are now coming down upon Rowan for a bevy of kisses. Mona, bear up!"

  She shot him a deadly glance. "You've never said a mean thing to me, Quinn!" she whispered.

  Stirling was quite taken aback by all this.

  I spoke not one word.

  "You sell the love of Michael and Rowan short and you know you do," said Stirling with a bit of harshness. "Would that I could break all the confidences bestowed on me. I can't. Suffice to say Rowan loves Michael with her entire soul. Yes, there were moments of extreme temptation in New York with Ash Templeton. She, no longer able to bear, and this wise immortal, who could so well understand her . . . but she never yielded. And she won't break the foundations of her life for anyone else now. "

  "That's the truth," I said quietly.

  Quinn reached over and kissed Mona. She yielded to it forgivingly.

  "Where is Michael now?" she asked, avoiding my glance.

  "Sleeping," said Stirling. "After Rowan rushed in and took Oberon and Miravelle away, a bit dramatically perhaps, Michael collapsed on his bed upstairs and fell into a deep slumber. I don't think it helped his peace of mind one bit that Tante Oscar had looked deep into his eyes before she left and declared him 'the father of doomed progeny. ' "

  Mona was immediately furious. (But it was better than being insane. ) Her eyes were moist and rimmed in red. "That's just what Michael needs! How dare this creature come making such predictions! I'll bet Dolly Jean latched on to that too. Dolly Jean would never let an opportunity like that slip through her crafty little fingers. "

  "Yes, indeed," said Stirling. "She told Michael he had best sprinkle yellow powder all around his bed. I think that was the last straw for him. "

  "You know," said Mona, her hysteria cresting, her words racing again, "in my glory as Design¨¦e of the Mayfair Legacy, when I was going around in a cowboy hat and shorts and big-sleeve shirts, riding in the company plane, worth billions of dollars and eating all the ice cream I ever desired, I wanted to purchase a radio station. And one of my dreams was to give Dolly Jean her own show so that people could call in and chat with her about country ways and country wisdom. I was going to give Ancient Evelyn her own show-

  "-you know Ancient Evelyn, don't you, Stirling?

  "-Lestat, Ancient Evelyn just whispers and whispers-

  "-and I was going to give a prize to anyone who could actually understand her. I figured whisperers

  would call in, you know, who would whisper right back to her the way she whispered to them. We'd have an hour of whispering. I'd give them prizes too, Hell, why not? Then there would have been the Michael Curry Hour, when people could have called up with stories of the Irish Channel or Irish songs, and Michael and the callers could have sung them together. And of course I was going to have my own show, all about the world economy and world trends in architecture and art-(sigh). I had designs for every kook in the family. Never got to do that, got too sick. But Dolly Jean's still jiving. And Michael-Michael's wife cheating on him with you, and he's got no one to defend him. "

  "Oh, Mona let it go," said Quinn.

  My pain was no one's concern but my own.

  She collapsed back into a pale, glazed-eyed trance, but only for a moment:

  "And you know the damnedest thing," she said, squinting as though she couldn't quite recall her theme. "Oh yeah, vampires, I mean, real vampires, they don't have any websites. "

  "Let's keep it that way," said Quinn. "They shouldn't have any websites. "

  "It's time for you to hunt," I said. "You're both thirsting. Make a night of it. Head up north. Hit the beer joints along the roads. Beat the hours down with hunting. By tomorrow, it's my guess Rowan will be ready to let us see the remains of Ash and Morrigan. And we can see Miravelle and Oberon too. "

  She gave me a dazed look. "Yeah, that sounds great," she whispered. "A regular sideshow. There's a part of me that never wants to see Rowan or Michael again. There's a part of me that never wants to see Miravelle and Oberon ever again. As for Morrigan-. "

  "Come on, my precious Ophelia," said Quinn. "We're going to take to the air, baby, we're going to do what the Beloved Boss said. I know that jukebox, pool table route. We go for the Little Drink with the truckers and the cowboys, and maybe we stop to dance to the Dixie Chicks now and then, and along comes some guy with a conscience full of pure coal and we lure him out to where the parking lot falls into the trees and we fight over him. "

  She laughed in spite of herself. "Sounds brutal and basic," she sighed.

  He pulled her up out of the chair. She turned, and reached down to give me a warm hug and a kiss.

  I was happily surprised. I held her tight. "My pixie," I said. "You've only begun on the Devil's Road. You have such wonders yet to discover. Be clever. Be swift. "

  "But how do real vampires connect on the World Wide Web?" she asked with painful seriousness.

  "Beats me, sweetheart," I said. "I've never sufficiently recovered from my first sight of a steam locomotive. I almost got run over. What makes you think real vampires want to connect?"

  "Stop putting me on," she said dreamily. "But you don't want me to create my own web page?"

  "Absolutely not," I said somberly.

  "But you published the Chronicles!" she protested. "Now what about that?" She put her hands on her hips. "How do you defend that, I'd like to know?"

  "An age-old form of public confession," I said, "sacrosanct. Goes back to ancient Egypt. A book goes forth quietly into the world, labeled fiction, to be perused, pondered, passed from one to another, perhaps put aside for the future, to perish if unwanted, to endure if valued, to work its way into trunks and vaults and junk heaps, who knows? I don't defend myself to anybody anyway. Stay off the World Wide Web!"

  "Sounds positively dusty to me," she said. "But I love you just the same. Now think about this radio station idea. Maybe it's not too late. You could have your own show. "

  "AAAAAAHHHHH!" I cried. "I can't bear it! You think Blackwood Farm's the World. It's not, Mona! There's just Blackwood Farm, and all the rest is Sugar Devil Swamp, trust me. And how long do you think we'll have Blackwood Farm, you, me or Quinn? My Lord, you've got a direct connection to the one who told you where to find the Secret People, you're E-mailing Wisdom Central, and you're carrying on about websites! Be gone from me, now! Save thyself from my wrath!"

  I think I scared her just a little. She was so tired and gaunt that she fell back from the sound of my voice. "We're not finished with this discussion, Beloved Boss," she said. "Trouble with you is you get too emotional. I question anything and you just blow your stack. "

  Quinn picked her up and carried her off, making huge circles on the terrace as he went, singing to her, and so they disappeared from sight and her laughter rang out in the softly purring evening.

  A warm breeze came to fill the silence. The distant trees were doing their subtle dance. My heart was suddenly beating too hard and a cold anxiety crept over me. I picked up the statue of Saint Juan Diego from the flagstones and set him properly on the table where he belonged. I said nothing about him. Ah, tacky little dude with thy paper roses, thou art surely destined for better representations.

  I was in the depths. The pulsing night sang to me of the nothingness. The stars spread out to prove the horror of our universe-bits and pieces of the body of no one flying at monstrous speed away from the meaningless, uncomprehending source.

  Saint Juan Diego, make it go away. Work another miracle!

  "What is it?" Stirling asked softly.

  I sighed. In the distance the white fence of the pasture looked pretty, and the smell of the grass was good.

  "I've failed at something here," I said, "and it's a major failure. " I studied the man to whom I'd just spoken.
r />
  Patient Stirling, the English scholar, the Talamasca saint. The man who got down with monsters. Starved for sleep yet ever attentive.

  He turned to look at me. Clever, quick eyes.

  "What do you mean?" he asked. "What failure?"

  "I cannot impress upon her a sense of the gravity of her transformation. "

  "Oh, she knows," he said.

  "You surprise me," I answered. "Surely you don't forget who I am. You don't buy this facade. There's some reservoir of goodness and wisdom in you that never lets you forget what's behind this mask. And now you think you know her better than I do?"

  "She's reeling from one shock after another," he said calmly. "How can it be helped? What did you expect of her? You know she worships you. And what if she teases you with outrageous propositions? It was always her way. I feel no fear when I'm near her, no instinctive wariness of an undisciplined power. In fact, quite to the contrary. I sense that there may come a moment when you look back and realize that somewhere along the line her innocence was lost and you can't even remember when it happened. "

  I thought of the massacre last night, the ruthless elimination of Lord Rodrigo and his soldiers. I thought of the bodies heaved into the everlasting sea. I thought of nothing.

  "Innocence is not our stock-in-trade, my friend," I said. "We don't cultivate it in one another. Honor, I think we can have, more than you may know, and principles, yes, and virtue as well. I've taught her that, and every now and then we can behave magnificently. Even heroically. But innocence? It's not to our advantage. "

  He drew back to think on this, with just a little nod. I sensed that there were questions he wanted to ask me, but he didn't dare. Was it propriety or fear? I couldn't tell.

  We were interrupted and perhaps it was for the best.

  Jasmine came across the lawn with another carafe of coffee for Stirling. She was in a sharp tight red dress and high-heel shoes. She was singing loudly:

  "Gloria! Gloria! In Excelsis Deo!"

  "Where'd you pick up that hymn?" I asked. "Is everybody around here committed to driving me to madness?"

  "Well, of course not," she said. "What would make you say a thing like that? That's a Catholic hymn, don't you know that? Grandma's been singing it in the kitchen all day. Says it's from the Latin Mass in the old days. Says she saw Patsy in a dream singing that hymn. Patsy all dressed in pink cowboy clothes, with a guitar. "

  "Mon Dieu!" A shiver passed through me. No wonder Julien was leaving me alone tonight. Why not?

  She poured two cups of the steaming coffee. She set down the carafe. Then she kissed me on top of my head.

  "You know what Aunt Queen said to me last night in my sleep?" she asked in a cheery voice, her hand on my shoulder. I kissed her satin cheek.

  "No, what?" I asked. "But please break it to me gently. I teeter on the brink. "

  "She said she was tickled you were sleeping in her bed, said she always wanted a man handsome as you in her bed. She laughed and laughed and laughed. Grandma says when the dead come laughing and laughing in your dreams that means they're in Heaven. "

  "I think it does mean that," said Stirling very sincerely. "This coffee is perfection. How do you do this?"

  "Drink up," I said. "You have that powerful little MG TD with you, don't you?"

  "I certainly do," he said. "You could see it right out there in front of the house if you had eyes in the back of your head. "

  "I want you to take me for a ride in that thing. I have to deliver this saint here to Oberon. "

  "Can you hold this carafe and this cup for me while I drive? Jasmine, you mind if I borrow them?"

  "Don't you want the saucer? That's Royal Antoinette, the saucer's the prettiest part. Just look at it. Come in a big package from Julien Mayfair, this pattern, service for twelve, present for 'La Famille. ' "

  Zap. "No," I said. "Not from Julien Mayfair. "

  "Oh, yes, it did!" she said. "I have the letter. Keep forgetting to give it to Quinn. Was Julien Mayfair at the wake? I never met a Julien Mayfair. "

  "When did this package arrive?" I asked.

  "I don't know. Two days ago?" she shrugged. "Right after Mona Mayfair came to join the menagerie. Which one is Julien Mayfair? Julien Mayfair been out here?"

  "What did the letter say?" I asked.

  "Oh, something about if he was going to be visiting Blackwood Farm all the time, he wanted to see his favorite pattern of china. What's the matter with you? That china's beautiful!"

  I hadn't the slightest intention of explaining to her that Julien Mayfair was a spirit, and that this very pattern had figured years ago in a spell created by Julien in which he'd entertained an unsuspecting and all too human Quinn with hot chocolate and cookies and a long tale of how he, Julien, had coupled with Quinn's great-grandmother. Damn the infernal spirit.

  "You don't like it?" Jasmine said. "I just really do think it's a lovely pattern. Aunt Queen would have been thrilled with it. This is Aunt Queen's style, these roses. You know that. "

  Stirling was concentrating on me too steadily. Of course Stirling knew Julien Mayfair was a ghost. Or dead. Why was I concealing the activities of this demon? What was I ashamed of?

  "Yes, it's very quaint," I said. "Has an old-fashioned delicacy to it. Stirling, what about you drink all you want and then we take a ride?"

  "I'm quite fine," Stirling said. He was on his feet.

  So was I.

  I clutched Jasmine to me with reckless abandon and kissed her madly. She shrieked. I held her face in my hands, looking into her pale eyes. "You're a lovely woman," I said softly.

  "What are you so sad about?" she asked. "Why you look so miserable?"

  "Do I? I don't know. Maybe because Blackwood Farm is a moment in time. Just a moment. And it will pass. . . . "

  "Not in my lifetime," she said smiling. "Oh, I know Quinn's going to marry Mona Mayfair and she can't have any children. We all know that. But Jerome's growing up here. That's my boy, and he's Quinn's son, and Quinn has put his name on the birth certificate. I never asked Quinn to do that. Tommy's growing up here. And he's Tommy Blackwood. And Nash Penfield will grow old taking care this place, he loves it so much. And then there's Terry Sue, Tommy's mother. I don't know if you ever reckoned on Terry Sue, but if ever there was a sow's ear beaten into a purse of silk it's Terry Sue, that's Aunt Queen's little miracle, I'm telling you, and Terry Sue'll be giving the tours on the weekends soon, and so will her daughter Brittany. That's Tommy's sister now. Now that's a lovely girl, a polite girl. And she's going off to a good school, thanks to Quinn, all of it thanks to Quinn. And Aunt Queen. You don't know what all Aunt Queen taught Brittany. Blackwood Farm's just fine. You should have that faith. How can you help Patsy's ghost across the bridge and not know the future?"

  "Nobody really knows the future," I said. "But you're right. You know all kinds of things I don't know. It figures. " I picked up Saint Juan Diego.

  "It's you and Quinn and Mona that'll move on," she said. "I feel your restlessness. But Blackwood Farm? It will outlast all of us. "

  She gave me one more quick kiss. Then off she went, hips swaying beautifully in the tight red dress, pencil heels making her legs fine, her tightly cropped blond head high-the lady with the keys, and the future.

  I went with Stirling.

  We climbed into the low-slung car, delicious smell of leather, Stirling slipping on a pair of handsome beige driving gloves, and we roared down the drive, rattling over every rock and pebble.

  "Now this is a sports car!" I declared.

  Stirling flashed his lighter in front of his cigarette, then threw the car into high gear. "Yes, baby!" he shouted over the wind, sloughing off twenty years of his life, "and when you want to stub out your cigarette, you can do it right on the road," he said. "It's a beauty. "

  We went roaring on into the swampland.

  We didn't leave the paths of speed and recklessness for Mayfair Medical until about three hours before dawn.

; For a long time I walked the corridors, marveling at the murals and the benches and seating areas for the patients' families, and the finery of the waiting rooms with their warm furniture and paintings. And the lobbies with their grand sculptures and sparkling marble floors.

  And then I penetrated the halls of the laboratories and research areas, and lost myself in a labyrinth of secret places where white-coated individuals who passed me nodded, assuming I knew where I was going carrying the statue of a saint close to my chest.

  Enormous, more than my mind could contain, this monument to a family and to one woman. Affecting the lives of so many thousands. A great garden with so many seeds carefully planted to grow into a forest of self-perpetuating splendor.

  What was I doing on the Sacred Mountain of the One Who Walks with God?

  Find Oberon in the velvety quiet.

  Oberon was standing at the window, in white scrubs, looking out at the lighted arcs of the two river bridges. Soft crystalline glow of downtown buildings. He spun around when I entered the room.

  "Saint Juan Diego," I said, as I put the saint on the table by the bed.

  "Oh, thank you," he said warmly, without a trace of the old disdain. "Now I'll be able to sleep. "

  "Are you unhappy?" I asked.

  "No," he said softly. "Only wondering. In my cell I told myself that all beauty was contained in the ever changing waves of the sea. I had to believe it. But oh, the great world is such a wilderness of marvels. I am very happy. And my soul is not on guard for Miravelle, my sweet foolish Miravelle! I am safe. And so is she. And I am free. "
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