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Authors: Graham Masterton

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BOOK: Ritual
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Charlie shaded
his eyes from the misty sunlight and tried to peer between the constantly changing
patterns of passers-by. ‘No,’ he said. ‘He’s gone; if he was ever there.’

‘You’re
over-tired, said Robyn. ‘You’ve started hallucinating.’

Charlie nodded.
‘Maybe you’re right. Let’s go back to the hotel.’

They walked
back to the St Victoir. The fat woman like Jabba the Hutt beamed at them as
they passed the reception desk.

‘Everything
va
bien?
she
asked them.

‘Fine, thank
you,’ said Charlie. ‘We’re very comfortable.’

‘Les haricots
sont pas sale,’ the woman sang, as they walked across to the elevator.

Charlie was
opening the decorative sliding elevator gate. He turned when he heard the women
singing and said, ‘What was that?’

‘Just a song,
monsieur
.’

‘Charlie?’
Robyn frowned.

‘I don’t know,’
said Charlie. ‘Not only am I suffering from deja vu,
I’m
suffering from
deja etoute
.’

Robyn kissed
him as the elevator rose up to the fourth floor. ‘It’s all this Cajun French.
It’s having an effect on your brain.’

Charlie checked
his watch. It was almost four o’clock. Robyn saw what he was doing and covered
the face of his watch with her hand. ‘Don’t think about it,’ she said, with
great gentleness. ‘Don’t think about it until you have to.’

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

T
he rain had cleared by nine o’clock but the streets were still
steamy and wet, so that the lights of Bourbon Street glistened and gleamed on
the sidewalks and on the rooftops of passing cars and brightly in the eyes of
those who had come to listen to jazz, or those who had come to eat at Begue’s
or Mike Anderson’s, or those who had come simply to gawp, or to score.

Against his
will, Robyn had made Charlie sleep for two hours during the afternoon, and then
join her downstairs in the St Victoir’s restaurant for a meal of blackened
redfish and rice, with ice-cold beer. There were two musicians playing under
the single large palm that dominated the St Victoir’s old-fashioned dining
rooms: a toothless old black man of about eighty playing a fiddle and a pale,
pimply boy of no more than thirteen or fourteen sitting on a stool and playing
a piano accordion. They played several Cajun complaintes, with the boy singing
in a high, weird voice. Then they played ‘Les Haricots Sont Pas Sale’ which was
the song that had given Zydeco music its name – les haricots repeated over and
over until it was slurred. Charlie had the feeling that he had woken up in the
wrong century, on the wrong continent.

He had checked
his watch at a quarter to nine, and given Robyn a tight, anxious smile. ‘Time I
was going,’ he told her. She had reached across the table and taken hold of his
hand and said,

‘Take care.
Just remember that whatever happens, you’ve got somebody to come back to.’

They walked
together to the corner of Royal Street. Then Charlie kissed her and made his
way along the crowded sidewalks to Elegance Street. The little courtyard was
lit by a single 19205 lamp standard, and from the main street it was impossible
to see the gates of the Church of the Angels. Charlie hesitated for a moment,
listening to the noise of traffic and laughter and music, and then walked
through the shadows until he reached the gates. He pulled the bell and waited.
He wore only a lightweight grey tweed jacket, a short-sleeved shirt, and a pair
of pale grey slacks, but he still felt sweaty and hot. He heard a clock strike
nine; he heard a jet scratch the sky. They were like his last reminders of the
real world.

The man with
the black hood and the hair like Japanese rice noodles appeared so suddenly and
so close to the gate that he made Charlie jump. ‘You are very punctual, Mr
Fielding,’ he remarked. ‘You’d better come on in.’

Charlie
thought: This is it. This is the moment of decision. I can back out now if I
want to. But then he thought of Martin. He thought not only of the Martin he
had come to know in the past few days, before the Celestines got hold of him, but
the Martin he had known on his rare visits back home, when he was small.
Suddenly, a dozen images of Martin that he had long forgotten came crowding
back to him, and by the time the man in the black hood had shot back the bolts
and unlocked the locks, he was ready to go, carried on a floodtide of emotional
memories.

The man made a
noisy performance of relocking all the locks and rebolting all the bolts. Then
he said to Charlie, ‘Come this way,’ and led him across a courtyard that was so
dark that Charlie could see where he was going only by the faint gleam of
wetness on the paving stones. Soon, however, they reached the back of a large
old house, which Charlie guessed must have fronted on to Royal Street, although
where and how he couldn’t quite work out. It was three storeys high, with
black-painted cast-iron balconies, and black shuttered windows from which no
light penetrated whatsoever. The man in the black hood led Charlie up a flight
of stone steps to the front door.

‘This house has
quite a history,’ he remarked, as he produced a key and turned it in the lock.
‘It was originally built by Micaela Almonester de Pontalba, who also built the
Pontalba buildings on Jackson Square. It was said that she had a secret
admirer, and this was the house she built for their romantic trysts.’

‘Interesting
location for a church,’ said Charlie.

The hooded man
said nothing, but admitted Charlie to the hallway. Charlie was immediately
struck by the smell, which reminded him strongly of
Le Reposoir
. It was a curious blend of herbs, and cooking, and dead
flowers, and something else besides which was unidentifiable but slightly
unsettling.
The smell not of death but of pain.

The hallway was
decorated with a mustard-coloured dado and wallpaper that looked as if it had
been chosen from the Sears catalogue of 1908. A chandelier of black cast iron
had a dozen bulbs but gave out very little light. There was a heavy bow-fronted
bureau, with a black bronze statue of Pope Celestine on it, lifting his hand in
benediction. The man in the black hood led Charlie up to a pair of double
doors, and said, ‘
You
are about to meet the chief
Guide and his council of Guides. The chief Guide here is Neil Fontenot. Some of
the council you may recognize. But the etiquette among the Celestines is for members
not to acknowledge each other’s existence outside of the church. Your friend
probably told you that.’

Charlie gave
him a quick-dissolving smile.

‘Very well,
then,’ said the man, and opened up the doors.

Inside, there
was a large plain room in which a dozen middle-aged men sat at a long mahogany
dining table. The dining table had been polished so deeply for so many years
that the men sitting on the opposite side of it were reflected upside down from
the waist, so that they looked like kings and knaves on playing cards. The men
were dressed in long black robes, with hoods cast back. As Charlie and his
escort entered, they were all looking attentively towards the far end of the
room, where a tall man with a cadaverous face was reading the Bible from a lectern.

In a rich,
resonant voice, he was reading the Parable of the Dinner, in which a man
invited his friends to eat with him, only to be met with repeated excuses and
refusals. ‘And the master said to his slave, “Go out at once into the streets
and lanes of the city and bring in here the poor and crippled and blind and
lame. Compel them to come in, that my house
be
filled.
For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste of my dinner.”‘

The chief Guide
raised his head, and said, ‘What do we learn from that? That Jesus believed in
our divine mission. That Jesus taught us to fulfill our hunger. And what is our
hunger?
The real hunger, to which most men dare not confess.
The hunger for the body; the hunger for blood.

The hunger for the only food of which man is worthy.
Were we
ever supposed to eat pigs? The Jews say no! Were we ever supposed to eat
cattle? The Hindus say no! My friends, when you read the New Testament today
and consider the words of Jesus, you know in your hearts that there is only one
true way.

‘For what did
he say at the Last Supper? He said, “
this
is My body,
given for you; do this for a commemoration of Me,” and he said, “This cup is
the new testament in My blood.”‘

At last, the
chief Guide turned to Charlie. He smiled, and came over, extending a
long-fingered right hand.
‘My friend.
Welcome to the
Church of the Angels. Xavier told me that you were coming.’

‘I feel like
I’m interrupting,’ said Charlie.

‘Interrupting?
Of course not! We are always pleased to greet new members. I understand from
what Xavier told me that you used to have a friend who was a Celestine?’

Charlie gave an
equivocal shrug. ‘I never really knew what they were. All I know is
,
Michael was happy. Well – we called him Michael. I think
his real name was Michel.’

M. Fontenot
draped his arm around Charlie’s shoulders, and led him down to the head of the
table. There was a large mole on M. Fontenot’s right cheek, and his nose was
peppered with blackheads. He said affably, ‘Your friend Michael was a Devotee,
was he?’

‘Charlie said,
That’s
right, a Devotee.’

‘And are you
fully aware what happened to him?’

Charlie glanced
around. ‘Can I say it here?’

‘Of course you
can,’ smiled M. Fontenot.
‘Openly.’
He looked around
at the other Guides assembled at his table and beamed in the way that a father
beams at other fathers when his son has said something cute.

Charlie said,
‘The fact is, Michel told me everything that he was going to do. He said he was
going to eat his own body, as much as he could, and that was the way to find
Jesus.’

‘And now you
want to find Jesus in the same way?’ M. Fontenot asked. The Guides at the table
broke out into spontaneous but ragged applause.

Charlie nodded
his head in what he hoped looked like idiotic acknowledgement. ‘Michel said it
was the only way. Michel said that if you wanted to follow Jesus, you had to do
whatever Jesus did. What was the very last thing that Jesus did, before He was
arrested and tried and crucified?

He ate His own
body and His own blood. And that was His secret!
The secret
that gave Him eternal life, the secret that nobody else understands.
That’s what Michel told me, anyway.’

M. Fontenot
took hold of Charlie’s hand, and said, intently, ‘Yes! Yes! And that is why
they call us the Celestines, the Heavenly Ones.
Those who are
chosen by God.
Because only the Celestines understand what you have to
do to sit at the right hand of Jesus. You have to devour the flesh of your own
creation. That is the secret of winning God’s approval. And that is the secret
of everlasting contentment and perfect peace. “I am the bread of life,” that’s
what Jesus said. “Eat me,” that’s what Jesus said. And Jesus ate the bread and
drank the wine, too. Jesus devoured his own body and his own blood, and that
was his way to heaven; just as ours is.’

Charlie said,
‘I understand you’re close to some kind of big occasion.’

M. Fontenot
didn’t seem particularly pleased to have been interrupted.
‘Occasion?
I’m sorry?’

‘The sacred number.
You’ve almost reached the sacred number.
Isn’t that right?’

‘Who told you that?’
asked M. Fontenot, narrowing his eyes. He stared at Charlie for a moment, and
then turned to the man in the black hood called Xavier. ‘Did you tell him
that?’

Xavier shook
his head. ‘Not me, M. Fontenot. But his friend was a Celestine, M. Fontenot. He
knows what we do, and he’s sympathetic. Believe me – I think we can trust him.
He’s not an FBI agent. We checked it this afternoon with FBI records. Quite
apart from that, just look at him.

He’s not
exactly FBI material, is he?’

Charlie put in,
‘You can trust me, I promise. You want me to cut my throat and hope to die?

Here, look –
here’s my wallet. You can check me out as much as you like.
Driver’s
licence, credit cards.
Here.’ He prayed that they wouldn’t actually
look. ‘My friend was a Celestine; and I want to be one, too. Tell me – what
else is there, in a world full of bombs and guns and ultimate weapons? To see
God! To sacrifice yourself, and to see God! Don’t you think that’s the greatest
trip of all?’

M. Fontenot
seemed a little pained by the word ‘trip’, but Charlie was fairly sure that he
had already won him over. His evangelical enthusiasm had helped; but it was
obviously far more important to the Celestines that he was a chef, and an
experienced butcher. (Not that he was, of course; but he believed that he could
keep on bluffing for long enough to rescue Martin.) M. Fontenot turned to
Xavier and between them they had a short, whispered conversation. At length,
Xavier said, ‘M. Fontenot is prepared to accept you as a Devotee,
monsieur
. However –’ (and here he smiled
as innocently as a small boy) ‘– he is anxious that you should be able to press
your talents as a butcher into the service of the church; and for that reason
he is asking you not to embark on your self-ingestion straight away. There will
be need of many men with talents like yours when the Great Day comes, men who
can quickly cut and prepare good meat, and he begs you not to start mutilating
yourself until this Great Day is over.’

Charlie tried
to look as if this were a disappointment. He lifted his fingers in front of his
face, and wiggled them, and said, ‘Oh, well, whatever you want. If you can tell
me how I can serve the Lord some other way, some different way, then I’ll be
listening.’

BOOK: Ritual
2.76Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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