(2nd Installment Revised July 11, 2014)
(The Menil Collection, in Houston, Texas
‘A row of shrouded bodies.’)
Visualize a warehouse the size of two football fields. Now imagine it is temperature controlled to 30 degrees below a witch’s tit. Then, picture it populated with thousands of shrouded mounds lying in a hundred straight rows.
The White Lady floated between them like a ghoul in a cemetery—too easy an image to conjure given the setting, I know—every now and then lifting a sheet to gaze at the frozen pale blue-tinged face beneath. The hollow whup-whup of the giant circulating fans high above us reminded me of wolves howling in the wilderness.
I had never seen Claire sad. Never thought she could be sad. Wasn’t sure she was actually sad at this moment, but I chose to believe if the White Lady could be sad, then this might be what that would look like.
I followed without looking at the faces. I didn’t want to see them. I had shared coffee with some of these faces. We had dodged bullets together. Lain under satin sheets together. Many I hadn’t known at all. One I had known in particular.
Here they were, all dead just the same.
“When did this happen?” I asked as we adjourned to an outer office after the White Lady’s inspection. Also climate controlled, but in the more acceptable keeping-things-alive way. Claire took an overstuffed executive chair behind a mahogany desk leaving me with the rickety metal job. She toyed with a paper clip on the desk blotter.
“It started just two months ago. One by one they began going off grid—just like you did, which is why I didn’t worry at first—then they started turning back up. Turned up floating down a river, dumped in an alley, tossed off a building. The numbers increased: two by two, four by four, eight by eight … you get the picture.” I couldn’t read her expression beneath the turned-down white lashed eyelids. I got the sense she was marshaling her strength.
If the White Lady was this worried …
“But … were they murdered, then? How? Who did it?”
Claire raised her eyes to meet mine. Icy blue stare.
“Someone murdered them all; of that, I am certain, Jeremiah. Exactly how that someone did it, I don’t know for certain … yet. Aside from the indecencies visited upon their corpses as the natural result of being left dead somewhere …” she waved her white gloved arm, pushing the world away. “ … out there for a time, there were no marks upon them.”
“Poison, then? Plague, maybe? Too much red meat?” I immediately regretted that last, as the White Lady’s brows arched higher than I thought possible and she slowly straightened the paper clip. Started jabbing the pointy end into the blotter cushion. And smiled. With brilliant white teeth.
“I understand … humour can be a release when one is unsettled.” Jab … jab. “For this and other reasons I will let your remark pass, Jeremiah.” Jab … jab. “Know this, however. Much as you may believe I am cold and uncaring, that I thought of these people as underlings, minions, foot soldiers, I was close to many of them, and cared about all of them … they were … my … family.” Jab—jab. “Now they are gone. Now I must start over. And I am positive that whoever killed my family does not actually want me to have a new one. Therefore … ” Jab—jab. “ … it is down to you to be the investigator, the enforcer, the avenger while I and the administration staff I have left take care of recruitment and training. Do you understand what I am telling you?”
Only too well.
“You want me to find out who did this to you—to us—how they did it and then … teach them a lesson, Ma’am.”
The White Lady narrowed her pale eyes, arose from her chair, leaned over the desk until her ethereal face was mere inches from mine. Held the point of the paper clip to my left eyeball. “You will have our armoury—all of our assets—at your disposal but make no mistake; you will be on your own, Jeremiah. A circumstance out of my control … but … I can still find you should you let me down.” Her deep voice strangled and caught.
I dared not move. I found her face strangely beautiful at that second, even if she was threatening my vision.
She recovered instantly, but did not change position. I could almost feel the jab … jab … in my iris.
She hissed, “No lessons, Mr. Smith, when you find whoever did this, I want you to fucking kill them. Fucking. Kill. Them. All! However … ” The White Lady smiled—whitely—and sat back down. “You may kill them slowly. And please take pictures—proof of death—if you are able. Yes, I would like that.”
With that she shooed me away. Things to do. People to meet.
Bodies to cremate.
I had started for the door when she added, “Oh … Jeremiah?” I stopped without turning around.
“She wasn’t there. ”
I turned around. From the short distance away, her ashen face seemed to float disembodied above the desk.
“The bodies. Lili—that was her name, yes?—wasn’t among them.”
I clenched my jaw. Nodded my acknowledgement. Exited the warehouse.
The limo driver picked me up. Next stop: the armoury.
My left knee tremor returned as I sat in the car.