Prodigal Son Page 1


DEUCALION SELDOM SLEPT, but when he did, he dreamed. Every dream was a nightmare. None frightened him. He was the spawn of nightmares, after all; and he had been toughened by a life of terror.

During the afternoon, napping in his simple cell, he dreamed that a surgeon opened his abdomen to insert a mysterious, squirming mass. Awake but manacled to the surgical table, Deucalion could only endure the procedure.

After he had been sewn shut, he felt something crawling inside his body cavity, as though curious, exploring.

From behind his mask, the surgeon said, “A messenger approaches. Life changes with a letter.”

He woke from the dream and knew that it had been prophetic. He possessed no psychic power of a classic nature, but sometimes omens came in his sleep.

IN THESE MOUNTAINS OF TIBET, a fiery sunset conjured a mirage of molten gold from the glaciers and the snowfields. A serrated blade of Himalayan peaks, with Everest at its hilt, cut the sky.

Far from civilization, this vast panorama soothed Deucalion. For several years, he had preferred to avoid people, except for Buddhist monks in this windswept rooftop of the world.

Although he had not killed for a long time, he still harbored the capacity for homicidal fury. Here he strove always to suppress his darker urges, sought calm, and hoped to find true peace.

From an open stone balcony of the whitewashed monastery, as he gazed at the sun-splashed ice pack, he considered, not for the first time, that these two elements, fire and ice, defined his life.

At his side, an elderly monk, Nebo, asked, “Are you looking at the mountains—or beyond them, to what you left behind?”

Although Deucalion had learned to speak several Tibetan dialects during his lengthy sojourn here,

he and the old monk often spoke English, for it afforded them privacy.

“I don’t miss much of that world. The sea. The sound of shore birds. A few friends. Cheez-Its.”

“Cheeses? We have cheese here.”

Deucalion smiled and pronounced the word more clearly than he’d done previously. “Cheez-Its are cheddar-flavored crackers. Here in this monastery we seek enlightenment, meaning, purpose . . . God. Yet often the humblest things of daily life, the small pleasures, seem to define existence for me. I’m afraid I’m a shallow student, Nebo.”

Pulling his wool robe closer about himself as wintry breezes bit, Nebo said, “To the contrary Never have I had one less shallow than you. Just hearing about Cheez-Its, I myself am intrigued.”

A voluminous wool robe covered Deucalion’s scarred patchwork body, though even the harshest cold rarely bothered him.

The mandala-shaped Rombuk monastery—an architectural wonder of brick walls, soaring towers, and graceful roofs—clung precariously to a barren mountainside: imposing, majestic, hidden from the world. Waterfalls of steps spilled down the sides of the square towers, to the base of the main levels, granting access to interior courtyards.

Brilliant yellow, white, red, green, and blue prayer flags, representing the elements, flapped in the breeze. Carefully written sutras adorned the flags, so that each time the fabric waved in the wind, a prayer was symbolically sent in the direction of Heaven.

Despite Deucalion’s size and strange appearance, the monks had accepted him. He absorbed their teaching and filtered it through his singular experience. In time, they had come to him with philosophical questions, seeking his unique perspective.

They didn’t know who he was, but they understood intuitively that he was no normal man.

Deucalion stood for a long time without speaking. Nebo waited beside him. Time had little meaning in the clockless world of the monks, and after two hundred years of life, with perhaps more than that ahead of him, Deucalion often lived with no awareness of time.

Prayer wheels clicked, stirred by breezes. In a call to sunset prayer, one monk stood in the window of a high tower, blowing on a shell trumpet. Deep inside the monastery, chants began to resonate through the cold stone.

Deucalion stared down into the canyons full of purple twilight, east of the monastery. From some of Rombuk’s windows, one might fall more than a thousand feet to the rocks.

Out of that gloaming, a distant figure approached.

“A messenger,” he said. “The surgeon in the dream spoke truth.”

The old monk could not at first see the visitor.

His eyes, the color of vinegar, seemed to have been faded by the unfiltered sun of extreme altitude. Then they widened. “We must meet him at the gates.”

salamanders OF torchlight crawled the iron-bound beams of the main gate and the surrounding brick walls.

Just inside the gates, standing in the open-air outer ward, the messenger regarded Deucalion with awe. “Yeti,” he whispered, which was the name that the Sherpas had coined for the abominable snowman.

Words escaping him on plumes of frosted breath, Nebo said, “Is it custom now to precede a message with a rude remark?”

Having once been pursued like a beast, having lived two hundred years as the ultimate outsider, Deucalion was inoculated against all meanness. He was incapable of taking offense.

“Were I a yeti,” he said, speaking in the messenger’s language, “I might be as tall as this.” He stood six feet six. “I might be muscled this solidly But I would be much hairier, don’t you think?”

“I… I suppose so.”

‘A yeti never shaves.” Leaning close, as if imparting a secret, Deucalion said, “Under all that hair, a yeti has very sensitive skin. Pink, soft . . . quick to take a rash from a razor blade.”

Summoning courage, the messenger asked, “Then what are you?”

“Big Foot,” Deucalion said in English, and Nebo laughed, but the messenger did not understand.

Made nervous by the monk’s laughter, shivering not only because of the icy air, the young man held out a scuffed goatskin packet knotted tightly with a leather thong. “Here. Inside. For you.”

Deucalion curled one powerful finger around the leather thong, snapped it, and unfolded the goatskin wrapping to reveal an envelope inside, a wrinkled and stained letter long in transit.

The return address was in New Orleans. The name was that of an old and trusted friend, Ben Jonas.

Still glancing surreptitiously and nervously at the ravaged half of Deucalion’s face, the messenger evidently decided that the company of a yeti would be preferable to a return trip in darkness through the bitter-cold mountain pass. “May I have shelter for the night?”

“Anyone who comes to these gates,” Nebo assured him, “may have whatever he needs. If we had them, I would even give you Cheez-Its.”

From the outer ward, they ascended the stone ramp through the inner gate. Two young monks with lanterns arrived as if in answer to a telepathic summons to escort the messenger to guest quarters.

In the candlelit reception hall, in an alcove that smelled of sandalwood and incense, Deucalion read the letter. Ben’s handwritten words conveyed a momentous message in neatly penned blue ink.

With the letter came a clipping from a newspaper, the New Orleans Times-Picayune. The headline and the text mattered less to Deucalion than the photograph that accompanied them.

Although nightmares could not frighten him, though he had long ago ceased to fear any man, his hand shook. The brittle clipping made a crisp, scurrying-insect sound in his trembling fingers.

“Bad news?” asked Nebo. “Has someone died?”

“Worse. Someone is still alive.” Deucalion stared in disbelief at the photograph, which felt colder than ice. “I must leave Rombuk.”

This statement clearly saddened Nebo. “I had taken comfort for some time that you would be the one to say the prayers at my death.”

“You’re too full of piss to die anytime soon,” Deucalion said. ‘As preserved as a pickle in vinegar. Besides, I am perhaps the last one on Earth to whom God would listen.”

“Or perhaps the first,” said Nebo with an enigmatic but knowing smile. ‘All right. If you intend to walk again in the world beyond these mountains, first allow me to give you a gift.”

LIKE waxy STALAGMITES, yellow candles rose from golden holders, softly brightening the room. Gracing the walls were painted mandalas, geomet-

ric designs enclosed in a circle, representing the cosmos.

Reclining in a chair padded with thin red silk cushions, Deucalion stared at a ceiling of carved and painted lotus blossoms.

Nebo sat at an angle to him, leaning over him, studying his face with the attention of a scholar deciphering intricate sutra scrolls.

During his decades in carnivals, Deucalion had been accepted by carnies as though nothing about him was remarkable. They, too, were all outsiders by choice or by necessity He’d made a good living working the freak shows, which were called ten-in-ones because they offered ten exhibits under one tent.

On his small stage, he had sat in profile, the handsome side of his face turned to the sawdust aisle along which the marks traveled from act to act, from fat lady to rubber man. When they gathered before him, puzzling over why he was included in such a show, he turned to reveal the ruined side of his face.

Grown men gasped and shuddered. Women fainted, though fewer as the decades passed. Only adults eighteen and older were admitted, because children, seeing him, might be traumatized for life.

Face fully revealed, he had stood and removed his shirt to show them his body to the waist. The keloid scars, the enduring welts from primitive metal sutures, the strange excrescences …

Now beside Nebo stood a tray that held an array of thin steel needles and tiny vials of inks in many colors. With nimble skill, the monk tattooed Deucalion’s face.

“This is my gift to you, a pattern of protection.” Nebo leaned over to inspect his work, then began an even more intricate tracing in dark blues, blacks, greens.

Deucalion did not wince, nor would he have cried out at the stings of a thousand wasps. “Are you creating a puzzle on my face?”

“The puzzle is your face.” The monk smiled down at his work and at the uneven canvas on which he imprinted his rich designs.

Dripping color, dripping blood, needles pricked, gleamed, and clicked together when, at times, Nebo used two at once.

“With this much pattern, I should offer something for the pain. The monastery has opium, though we do not often condone its use.”

“I don’t fear pain,” Deucalion said. “Life is an ocean of pain.”

“Life outside of here, perhaps.”

“Even here we bring our memories with us.”

The old monk selected a vial of crimson ink, adding to the pattern, disguising grotesque concavities and broken planes, creating an illusion of normalcy under the decorative motifs.

The work continued in heavy silence until Nebo said, “This will serve as a diversion for the curious eye. Of course, not even such a detailed pattern will conceal everything.”

Deucalion reached up to touch the stinging tattoo that covered the surface of the cracked-mirror scar tissue. “I’ll live by night and by distraction, as so often I have before.”

After inserting stoppers in the ink vials, wiping his needles on a cloth, the monk said, “Once more before you leave … the coin?”

Sitting up straighter in his chair, Deucalion plucked a silver coin from midair with his right hand.

Nebo watched as Deucalion turned the coin across his knuckles—walked it, as magicians say-exhibiting remarkable dexterity considering the great size and brutal appearance of his hands.

That much, any good magician could have done.

With thumb and forefinger, Deucalion snapped the coin into the air. Candlelight winked off the piece as it flipped high.

Deucalion snatched it from the air, clutching it in his fist… opened his hand to show it empty Any good magician could have done this, too, and could have then produced the coin from behind Nebo’s ear, which Deucalion also did.

The monk was mystified, however, by what came next.

Deucalion snapped the coin into the air again. Candlelight winked off it. Then before Nebo’s eyes, the coin just… vanished.

At the apex of its arc, turning head to tail to head, it turned out of existence. The coin didn’t fall to the floor. Deucalion’s hands were not near it when it disappeared.

Nebo had seen this illusion many times. He had watched it from a distance of inches, yet he couldn’t say what happened to the coin.

He had often meditated on this illusion. To no avail.

Now Nebo shook his head. “Is it truly magic, or just a trick?”

Smiling, Deucalion said, ‘And what is the sound of one hand clapping?”

“Even after all these years, you’re still a mystery”

“As is life itself.”

Nebo scanned the ceiling, as if expecting to see the coin stuck to one of the carved and painted lotus blossoms. Lowering his stare to Deucalion once more, he said, “Your friend in America addressed your letter to seven different names.”

“I’ve used many more than that.”

“Police trouble?”

“Not for a long time. Just . . . always seeking a new beginning.”

“Deucalion …,” the monk said.

‘A name from old mythology—not known to many people anymore.” He rose from the chair, ignoring the throbbing pain of countless pinpricks.

The old man turned his face upward. “In America, will you return to the carnival life?”

“Carnivals have no place for me. There aren’t freak shows anymore, not like in the old days. They’re politically incorrect.”

“Back when there were freak shows, what was your act?”

Deucalion turned from the candlelit mandalas on the wall, his newly tattooed face hidden in shadows. When he spoke, a subtle pulse of luminosity passed through his eyes, like the throb of lightning hidden behind thick clouds.

“They called me … the Monster.”



MORNING RUSH-HOUR traffic on the 1-10 Expressway flowed as languidly as the Mississippi River that wound through New Orleans.

When Detective Carson O’Connor got off the expressway in the suburb of Metairie, intending to use surface streets to make better time, the morning took a turn for the worse.

Stopped interminably at an intersection, she impatiently kneaded the steering wheel of her plainwrap sedan. To dispel a growing sense of suffocation, she rolled down the window.

Already the morning streets were griddles. None of the airheads on the TV news, however, would try to cook an egg on the pavement. Even journalism school left them with enough brain cells to realize that on these streets you could flash-fry even ice cream.

Carson liked the heat but not the humidity. Maybe one day she’d move somewhere nicer, hot but dry, like Arizona. Or Nevada. Or Hell.

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