“That’s the thing about this city,” said Detective McMurtagh. “It’s impossible to discern what is real—or just a Mardi Gras illusion.”
Maretha shook her head. “I just don’t like the South in general. Voodoo. Fried foods. And that peculiar institution left its stink on everything. The New Orleans slave pens trafficked more people than anywhere else in America—combined. This city is cursed.”
She looked out the car window. To no one’s surprise, it was raining. They drove silently from the airport to the downtown hotel where the FBI awaited them with the boy.
“How did you end up in Arizona?” McMurtagh asked Maretha, navigating the rental car down the narrow pockmarked roads with great care. Road maintenance didn’t appear to be a Louisiana concern.
“Some distant relative was a Buffalo Soldier,” she said with pride. “Stationed at Fort Huachuca. We’ve been in Eastlake Park for generations. I love Phoenix,” she said, eyeing the colorful street characters of the French Quarter. A hipster in full Beau Brummell attire played the xylophone to a small crowd’s delight. A tiny blonde dressed as Tinkerbell was drinking a hurricane and swearing at the man in front of her. Halloween was six months away.
“So your family has always been in public service,” McMurtagh remarked.
“In one way or another. Police officers, nurses, teachers . . .” she waved her hand, dismissively. “We’ve always been suckers.”
McMurtagh and Maretha both laughed. Though they’d worked with each other for over a decade, this was their first trip on a case out of state—a very disturbing case that grew darker week by week.
“How did you end up working for CPS?” McMurtagh asked, always the detective.
“No one works for Children Protective Services, McMurtagh. It’s a calling.”
“A calling from God?”
“A calling from somebody . . .” Maretha looked out the window as a pack of teenage gutter punks loudly walked by. Several had extreme body modifications. One young man saw her staring at him. In response, he darted his split tongue at her, laughing at her nonreaction.
In her line of work, she’d seen worse. Much worse.
“Lord have mercy,” she muttered. “Makes me glad I never had any children of my own.”
McMurtagh flashed both his badge and steely eyed look at the eclectic group. The gutter punks understood him well enough and quickly evanesced.
“What about you, McMurtagh? How’d an Irishman make it all the way to the White Mountains of Navajo Country?”
“The Irish are everywhere,” he said, pulling into the parking garage for the Hilton New Orleans Riverside. The Feds certainly don’t skimp on accommodations, he thought.
The hotel’s elegance belied what they had been summoned for. McMurtagh wondered again for the dozenth time why he wasn’t questioning the boy in a police station. The Hilton was a place for conventioneers to discuss new computerized widgets for business, not interviewing an adolescent apocalyptic psychopath.
McMurtagh sat alone in one of the Hilton’s conference rooms. Agents were on either side of the door. He had been briefed and prepared himself to confront a teenager accused of unspeakable crimes. McMurtagh flipped through the crime scene photos, allowing himself to feel sickened at the creative criminality and complete disregard for human life. The pictures were similar to a case file sitting on his desk labeled Malachi.
After waiting an inordinate amount of time, another FBI agent silently walked in with a handcuffed young man, his upper lip covered in peach fuzz, eyes darting around the room.
“Who are you?” the boy asked with authority, his voice still unbroken and painfully young.
“Marty, I’m Detective McMurtagh,” he began. “I am going to record our conversation. Do you understand?”
“Please, detective. I have a new name. Please call me Mortimer. Malachi said you cannot put new wine into old bottles,” the boy replied with such grace and dignity that it gave McMurtagh pause. This boy should be playing video games with his friends, not answering to wholesale butchery of several middle aged women.
“Fine, Mortimer. May I record our conversation?”
“Malachi said you would come,” Mortimer smiled. “You are numbered with perfection. He said that once he killed The False Twelve and The False Six that you would join us at the place of waters.”
“Mortimer, where is Malachi?”
“Malachi is preparing the way of our Lord,” the youth replied, eyes glistening with fervor. “He is assembling his twelve disciplines. I will be consecrated when I turn twelve next month.” Mortimer scratched his ear, scarred from gages and other piercings. His skin was wan and eyes yellowed, probably from hepatitis A. His eyes were world weary behind the religious façade he had recently adopted. He won’t live past his teens, McMurtagh thought.
“When did Malachi give you your new name?” McMurtagh asked.
“Last week after the French Quarter Festival,” Mortimer replied. “We were asking for alms to get some beignets, and he said the Mississippi River was cursed. Malachi said I was the new Dead Sea.”
“Now I understand your new name, Mortimer. Mort is French for death. Mer for sea.”
“Yes! Malachi said you were clever. Malachi explained that I am a sign of the times. When I came to life, almost twelve years ago—just like Malachi, we were sent to usher in a new millennium. He taught me about Ezekiel’s prophecies about the Dead Sea. The Bible foretold me!”
“Where is Malachi, Mortimer?”
“I told you. He is preparing the way for our Lord. Malachi taught me how the Whores of Babylon have to be sacrificed.”
McMurtagh made some notes. “Tell me about the new Twelve.”
“We are not all twelve yet, but Malachi is reforming the twelve apostles so we will be ready when the Lord comes.” He leaned in, to confide with McMurtagh in heartfelt tones. “Detective, there is so much work to do, but we have begun. We are finding all of the Whores of Babylon.” Mortimer said, trying to be helpful. “There are so many.”
“When will you see Malachi for more teaching?”
“We meet at The Twelve to learn and to talk about how the work is coming.”
McMurtagh paused and tapped on his iPhone.
“Who are the other twelve apostles, Mortimer?”
“Malachi has not found them all. Peter is the rock. Matthew. James. Me.”
“Where do you meet?”
“We meet together with the son of Odysseus as the day ends to the Lord.”
“The son of Odysseus?” McMurtagh looked at Mortimer quizzically. He tapped on his iPhone again. He stood up and opened the door. “Agent?”
The silent agent entered, looking at Mortimer, then McMurtagh.
“Malachi will be at the Twelve Mile Limit bar on 500 Telemachus Street about sunset. He will be with four to five youths about twelve years of age. They’ll probably be around the back.”
The silent agent nodded his assent and disappeared.
McMurtagh turned to see Mortimer breathing heavily, anger enlivening his deadened eyes.
“You tricked me.”
“Mortimer, some people will come to take you to Children Protective Services. You have been misled,” McMurtagh said.
“I have betrayed the prophet,” Mortimer cried, putting his head into his hands. “Like a blindman, I was led astray.”
“Mortimer, we are going to have people help you—”
“No one can help me now. I have offended the prophet. Malachi will cast me out!” he wailed.
“I will not see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob. I will spend the end of days with weeping and gnashing of teeth,” he sobbed, unconsolably.
“I was blind, but now I see! And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee!” Mortimer screamed, his shrill voice echoing in the small conference room. “That thy whole body should be cast into hell!”
With that, Mortimer dug his hands into his sockets, gouging out his eyeballs, offering them to McMurtagh as a sacrifice.