|Men Are Trouble|
Page 6 of 8
Sharifa was long gone by the time Father Elaine arrived at ten minutes to six. She brought muscle with her; Gratiana loitered in the hallway surveying my office with sullen calculation, as if estimating how long it would take to break down the door, leap over the desk and wring somebody's neck. I shouldn't have been surprised that Father Elaine's faith in me had wavered - hell, I didn't have much faith in me. However, I thought she showed poor judgment in bringing this particular thug along. I invited Gratiana to remove herself from my building. Perhaps she might perform an auto-erotic act in front of a speeding bus? Father Elaine dismissed her, and she slunk off.
Father Elaine appeared calm, but I could tell that she was as nervous as two mice and a gerbil. I hadn't really had a good look at her in the dim church, but now I studied her in case I had to write her up for the Missing Persons Index. She was a tallish woman with round shoulders and a bit of a stoop. Her eyes were the brown of wet sand; her cheeks were bloodless. Her smile was not quite as convincing in good light it had been in gloom. She made some trifling small talk, which I did nothing to help with. Then she stood at the window, watching. A wingtip loafer tapped against bare floor.
It was about ten after when my desktop chirped. I waved open the icon and accepted the transfer of a thousand dollars. Seeren had a hell of a calling card. "I think they're coming," I said. I opened the door and stepped into the hall to wait for them.
"It gives Seeren the bright pleasure to meet you, Father Elaine Horváth," said George as they shuffled into the office.
She focused everything she had on the devil. "Just Father, if you don't mind." The bot was nothing but furniture to her.
"It's kind of crowded in here," I said. "If you want, I can wait outside ..."
Father Elaine's façade cracked for an instant, but she patched it up nicely. "I'm sure we can manage," she said.
"This one implores Fay to remain," said George.
We sorted ourselves out. Seeren assumed its perch on top of the file cabinet and George came around and compacted himself next to me. Father Elaine pushed her chair next to the door. I think she was content to be stationed nearest the exit. George looked at Father Elaine. She looked at Seeren. Seeren looked out the window. I watched them all.
"Seeren offers sorrow over the regrettable death of Rashmi Jones," said George. "Such Rashmi was of your church?"
"She was a member, yes."
"According to Fay Hardaway, a fact is that Father married Kate Vermeil and Rashmi Jones."
I didn't like that. I didn't like it at all.
Father Elaine hesitated only a beat. "Yes."
"Would Father permit Seeren to locate Kate Vermeil?"
"I know where she is, Seeren," said Father Elaine. "I don't think she needs to be brought into this."
"Indulge this one and reconsider, Father. Is such person pregnant?"
Her manner had been cool, but now it dropped forty degrees. "Why would you say that?"
"Perhaps such person is soon to become pregnant?"
"How would I know? If she is, it would be your doing, Seeren."
"Father well understands in vitro fertilization?"
"I've heard of it, yes." Father Elaine's shrug was far too elaborate. "I can't say I understand it."
"Father has heard then of transvaginal oocyte retrieval?"
She thrust out her chin. "No."
"Haploidisation of somatic cells?"
"Has Father considered then growing artificial sperm from embryonic stem cells?"
"I'm a priest, Seeren." Only her lips moved. "Not a biologist."
"Does the Christer Church make further intentions to induce pregnancies in certain members? Such as Kate Vermeil?"
Father Elaine rose painfully from the chair. I thought she might try to run, but now martyr's fire burned through the shell of ice that had encased her. "We're doing Christ's work, Seeren. We reject your obscene seeding. We are saving ourselves from you and you can't stop us."
Seeren beat its wings, once, twice and crowed. It was a dense, jarring sound, like steel scraping steel. I hadn't known that devils could make any sound at all, but hearing that hellish scream made me want to dive under my desk and curl up in a ball. I took it though, and so did Father Elaine. I gave her credit for that.
"Seeren makes no argument with the Christer Church," said George. "Seeren upholds only the brightest encouragement for such pregnancies."
Father Elaine's face twitched in disbelief and then a flicker of disappointment passed over her. Maybe she was upset to have been cheated of her glorious death. She was a granny after all, of the generation that had embraced the suicide culture. For the first time, she turned to the bot. "What?"
"Seeren tasks Father to help numerous Christers become pregnant. Christers who do such choosing will then give birth."
She sank back onto her chair.
"Too many humans now refuse the seeding," said the bot. "Not all then give birth. This was not forseen. It is regrettable."
Without my noticing, my hands had become fists. My knuckles were white.
"Seeren will announce its true satisfaction with the accomplishment of the Christer Church. It offers a single caution. Christers must assure all to make no XY chromosome."
Father Elaine was impassive. "Will you continue to seed all non-believers?"
"It is prudent for the survival of humans."
She nodded and faced Seeren. "How will you know if we do try to bring men back into the world?"
The bot said nothing. The silence thickened as we waited. Maybe the devil thought it didn't need to make threats.
"Well, then." Father Elaine rose once again. Some of the stoop had gone out of her shoulders. She was trying to play it calm, but I knew she'd be skipping by the time she hit the sidewalk. Probably she thought she had won a great victory. In any event, she was done with this little party.
But it was my little party, and I wasn't about to let it break up with the devils holding hands with the Christers. "Wait," I said. "Father, you better get Gratiana up here. And if you've got any other muscle in the neighborhood, call them right now. You need backup fast."
Seeren glanced away from the window and at me.
"Why?" Father Elaine already had her sidekick out. "What is this?"
"There's a problem."
"Fay Hardaway," said George sharply. "Indulge this one and recall your task. Your employment has been accomplished."
"Then I'm on my own time now, George." I thought maybe Seeren would try to leave, but it remained on its perch. Maybe the devil didn't care what I did. Or else it found me amusing. I could be an amusing girl, in my own obtuse way.
Gratiana tore the door open. She held her nightstick high, as if expecting to dive into a bloodbath. When she saw our cool tableau, she let it drop to her side.
"Scooch over, Father," I said, "and let her in. Gratiana, you can leave the door open but keep that toothpick handy. I'm pretty sure you're going to be using it before long."
"The others are right behind me, Father," said Gratiana as she crowded into the room. "Two, maybe three minutes."
"Just enough time." I let my hand fall to the middle drawer of my desk. "I have a question for you, Father." I slid the drawer open. "How did Seeren know all that stuff about haploid this and in vitro that?"
"It's a devil." She watched me thoughtfully. "They come from two hundred light years away. How do they know anything?"
"Fair enough. But they also knew that you married Kate and Rashmi. George here just said that I told them, except I never did. That was a mistake. It made me wonder whether they knew who you were all along. It's funny, I used to be convinced that the devils were infallible, but now I'm thinking that they can screw up any day of the week, just like the rest of us. They're almost human that way."
"A regrettable misstatement was made." The bot's neck extended until his head was level with mine. "Indulge this one and refrain from further humiliation."
"I've refrained for too long, George. I've had a bellyful of refraining." I was pretty sure that George could see the open drawer, which meant that the devil would know what was in it as well. I wondered how far they'd let me go. "The question is, Father, if the devils already knew who you were, why would Seeren hire me to find you?"
"Go on," she said.
My chest was tight. Nobody tried to stop me, so I went ahead and stuck my head into the lion's mouth. Like that little girl at school, I'd always wanted to have a real job when I grew up. "You've got a leak, Father. Your problem isn't devil super-science. It's the good old-fashioned Judas kiss. Seeren has an inside source, a mole among your congregation. When it decided the time had come to meet with you, it wanted to be sure that none of you would suspect where its information was actually coming from. It decided that the way to give the mole cover was to hire some gullible PI to pretend to find stuff out. I may be a little slow and a lot greedy but I do have a few shreds of pride. I can't let myself be played for an idiot." I thought I heard footsteps on the stairs, but maybe it was just my own blood pounding. "You see, Father, I don't think that Seeren really trusts you. I sure didn't hear you promise just now not to be making little boys. And yes, if they find out about the boy babies, the devils could just disappear them, but you and the Bride of God and all your batty friends would find ways to make that very public, very messy. I'm guessing that's part of your plan, isn't it? To remind us who the devils are, what they did? Maybe get people into the streets again. Since the devils still need to know what you're up to, the mole had to be protected."
Father Elaine flushed with anger. "Do you know she is?"
"No," I said. "But you could probably narrow it down to a very few. You said you married Rashmi and Kate, but that you never filed the documents. But you needed someone to witness the ceremony. Someone who was taking pix and would send one to Seeren ..."
Actually, my timing was a little off. Gratiana launched herself at me just as big Alix hurtled through the doorway. I had the air taser out of the drawer, but my plan had been for the Christers to clean up their own mess. I came out of my chair and raised the taser but even 50,000 volts wasn't going to keep that snarling bitch off me.
I heard a huge wet pop, not so much an explosion but an implosion. There was a rush of air through the doorway but the room was preternaturally quiet, as if someone had just stopped screaming. We humans gaped at the void that had formerly been occupied by Gratiana. The familiar surroundings of my office seemed to warp and stretch to accommodate that vacancy. If she could vanish so completely, then maybe chairs could waltz on the ceiling and trashcans could sing Carmen. For the first time in my life I had a rough sense of what the grannies had felt when the devils disappeared their men. It would be one thing if Gratiana were merely dead, if there were blood, and bone and flesh left behind. A body to be buried. But this was an offense against reality itself. It undermined our common belief that the world is indeed a fact, that we exist at all. I could understand how it could unhinge a billion minds. I was standing next to Father Elaine beside the open door to my office holding the taser and I couldn't remember how I had gotten there.
Seeren hopped down off the bookcase as if nothing important had happened and wrapped its translucent wings around its body. The devil didn't seem surprised at all that a woman had just disappeared. Maybe there was no surprising a devil.
And then it occurred to me that this probably wasn't the first time since they had taken all the men that the devils had disappeared someone. Maybe they did it all the time. I thought of all the missing persons whom I had never found. I could see the files in Julie Epstein's office bulging with unsolved cases. Had Seeren done this thing to teach us the fragility of being? Or had it just been a clumsy attempt to cover up its regrettable mistakes?
As the devil waddled toward the door, Alix made a move as if to block its exit. After what she had just seen, I thought that was probably the most boneheaded, brave move I had ever seen.
"Let them go." Father Elaine's voice quavered. Her eyes were like wounds.
Alix stepped aside and the devil and the bot left us. We listened to the devil scrabble down the hall. I heard the elevator doors open and then close.
Then Father Elaine staggered and put a hand on my shoulder. She looked like a granny now.
"There are no boy babies," she said. "Not yet. You have to believe me."
"You know what?" I shook free of her. "I don't care." I wanted them gone. I wanted to sit alone at my desk and watch the room fill with night.
"You don't understand."
"And I don't want to." I had to set the taser on the desk or I might have used it on her.
"Kate Vermeil is pregnant with one of our babies," said Father Elaine. It's a little girl, I swear it."
"So you've made Seeren proud. What's the problem?"
Alix spoke for the first time. "Gratiana was in charge of Kate."
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