Merrick (The Vampire Chronicles #7)

Chapter 12

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11

I WENT ON with my tale, flashing back once more some twenty years, to the summer of Merrick's fourteenth year.

It wasn't hard for the Talamasca to enfold such a friendless orphan as one could easily see.

In the days following Great Nananne's funeral, we discovered that Merrick had no legal identity of any kind, save for a valid passport obtained through the testimony of Cold Sandra that Merrick was her daughter. The last name was an assumed name.

Where and how Merrick's birth might have been recorded eluded our most diligent efforts. No baptism of Merrick Mayfair was recorded in any parish church in New Orleans for the year of Merrick's birth. Few pictures of her existed in the boxes which she had brought with us.

And indeed, no record of Cold Sandra or Honey in the Sunshine existed other than passports which were both under assumed names. Though we calculated a year of death for the two unfortunates, we could find nothing in the newspapers of Lafayette, Louisiana, or anywhere near it to indicate that murdered bodies had been found.

In sum, the Talamasca began with a blank slate for Merrick Mayfair, and using its immense resources it soon created for her the documentation of birth and age which the modem world requires. As for the matter of Catholic baptism, Merrick was adamant that she had indeed been given the sacrament as an infant¡ªGreat Nananne had "carried her to church"¡ªand as late as only a few years before I left the Order, Merrick still combed church records, in vain, for proof of this herself.

I never fully understood the significance of this baptism to Merrick, but then there were many things about Merrick which I never came to understand. One thing I can say for certain, however. Magic and Roman Catholicism were completely intermingled for Merrick and this remained so all her life.

As for the gifted and kindhearted man named Matthew, he was not difficult to trace at all.

Matthew had been, in fact, an Olmec archaeologist, and when polite inquiries were made among his survivors in Boston, it was quickly ascertained that a woman named Sandra Mayfair had lured him to New Orleans by means of a letter some five years before regarding some Olmec treasure for which the woman claimed to have directions and a rough handdrawn map. Cold Sandra claimed to have been given an article about Matthew's amateur adventures by her daughter Merrick, who came upon it in Time magazine.

Though Matthew's mother was seriously ill at the time, Matthew had made the journey south with her blessing, and had set out on a private expedition beginning in Mexico. He was never seen by anyone in the family alive again.

As for the expedition, Matthew had kept a journal by means of long impassioned letters addressed to his mother, which he had mailed all in a batch upon his return to the States.

After Matthew's death, in spite of the woman's determined efforts, no scholars in the field of Olmec studies could be interested in what Matthew claimed to have seen or found.

The mother had died, leaving all these papers to her sister, who did not know what to make of "the responsibility" and quickly decided to sell Matthew's papers to us for a liberal sum. Those papers included a small box of vivid color photographs sent to the mother, many of which included Cold Sandra and Honey in the Sunshine, both extraordinarily beautiful women, as well as the tenyearold child, Merrick, who did not resemble the other two.

As Merrick had risen from a week of torpor and was deep in her studies, and fascinated with her education in etiquette, it was no great pleasure for me to give her these photographs and letters for her private store.

She showed no emotion, however, when confronted with the snapshots of her mother and her sister. And preserving her usual silence on the question of Honey in the Sunshine, who appeared to be about sixteen in the pictures, she put all of this aside.

As for me, I spent some time with the pictures.

Cold Sandra was tall and tawny with very black hair and light eyes.

As for Honey in the Sunshine, she appeared to fulfill all the expectations engendered by that name. Her skin in the photographs did appear to be the color of honey, her eyes were yellow as were her mother's, and her hair, light blond and tightly curly, fell down around her shoulders like foam. Her facial features appeared entirely AngloSaxon. The same was true of Cold Sandra.

As for Merrick in the photographs, she appeared very much as she did when she came to our door. She was already the budding woman at the age of ten, and appeared somehow to be of a quieter nature, the other two often hanging upon Matthew and smiling as they embraced him for the eager lens. Merrick was frequently captured with a solemn face, and most often alone.

Of course these pictures revealed much of the rain forest into which they'd penetrated, and there were even poorquality flash shots of bizarre cave paintings which appeared neither Olmec nor Maya, though my opinion might very well have been wrong. As for the exact location, Matthew refused to reveal it, using terms such as "Village One" and "Village Two."

Given Matthew's lack of specificity, and the bad condition of the photographs, it wasn't difficult to see why archaeologists had not been interested in his claims.

With Merrick's consent, and in secrecy, we enlarged every photograph of any value, but the quality of the originals defeated us. And we lacked concrete information as to how the journey could be made again. But of one thing I was fairly sure. The initial flight might have been to Mexico City, but the cave was not in Mexico at all.

There was a map, yes, drawn with an unsteady hand in black ink on common modern parchment paper, but it gave no place names, only a diagram involving "The City" and the aforementioned Village One and Village Two. We had it copied for preservation's sake, as the parchment paper was badly damaged and torn at the edges. But it was hardly a significant clue.

It was tragic to read the enthusiastic letters which Michael had sent home.

I shall never forget the first letter he wrote to his mother after the discovery. The woman was very ill, and had only just learnt that her case was terminal, news which had reached Matthew somewhere along the route, though we had no indication of where precisely, and Matthew had begged her please to wait for him to come home. Indeed, it was on that account that he had cut the journey short, taking only some of the treasure, a great deal of which remained.

"If only you'd been with me," he wrote, or words to that effect.

And can you imagine me, your gangly and awkward son, plunging into the pure darkness of a ruined temple and finding these strange murals which defy classification? Not Maya, certainly not Olmec. But by and for whom? And in the very midst of this, my flashlight slips out of my hands as if someone snatched it from me. And darkness shrouds the most splendid and unusual paintings I've ever seen.

But no sooner had we left the temple, than we must climb the rocks beside the waterfall, with Cold Sandra and Honey leading the way. It was in back of the waterfall that we found the cave, though I suspect it might have been a tunnel, and there was no mistaking it because the mammoth volcanic boulders around it had been carved into a giant face with an open mouth.

Of course we had no light with us¡ªCold Sandra's flashlight was drenched¡ªand we were near to fainting from the heat when we got inside. Cold Sandra and Honey were fearful of spirits and claimed to be "feeling" them. Merrick has even spoken up on this subject, blaming the spirits for a bad fall she took on the rocks.

Yet tomorrow, we'll be making the entire trek again. For now, let me say again what I saw by the sunshine that made its way into temple and cave. Unique paintings, I tell you, in both places, which must be studied at once. But in the cave there were also hundreds of glistening jade objects, just waiting for a scoop of the hand.

How in the world such treasures have survived the usual thievery in these parts, I can't guess. Of course the local Maya deny all knowledge of such a place, and I'm not eager to enlighten them. They are kind to us, offering us food and drink and hospitality. But the shaman appears angry with us, but will not tell us the reason. I live and breathe only to go back.

Matthew never did go back. During the night he had grown feverish and his very next letter recorded the regret with which he set out for civilization, thinking his illness was something that could easily be cured.

How awful it was that this curious and generous man had fallen ill.

A mysterious insect bite had been the culprit, but that was not discovered until he'd reached "The City," as he called it, careful to use no key description or name. His last batch of letters was written from the hospital in New Orleans, and mailed by the nurses at his request.

"Mother, there is nothing that can be done. No one is even certain of the nature of the parasite, except that it has made its way throughout my internal organs, and has proved itself refractory to every medicine known to man. I wonder sometimes if the local Maya might have helped me with this ailment. They were so very kind. But then the natives have probably long been immune."

His very last letter was completed on the day he prepared to return to Great Nananne's house. The script had degenerated, as Matthew was suffering one violent chill after another, but obviously determined to write. His news was marked by the same strange mixture of resignation and denial which so often afflicts the dying:

"You cannot believe the sweetness of Sandra and Honey and Great Nananne. Of course, I've done everything I can to lighten their burden. All of those artifacts which we discovered on the expedition are by right the property of Sandra, and I will attempt a revised catalog once I reach the house. Perhaps Great Nananne's nursing will work some miracle. I'll write to you when I have good news."

The only remaining letter in the collection was from Great Nananne. It was in beautiful convent script, written with a fountain pen, and stated that Matthew had died "With the Sacraments," and that his suffering had not been very great at the end. She signed herself Irene Flaurent Mayfair.

Tragic. I can find no better word.

Indeed, there seemed a ring of tragedy surrounding Merrick, what with the murders of Cold Sandra and Honey, and I could well understand why Matthew's collected papers did not tear her away from her studies, or away from her frequent lunches and shopping trips in town.

She was also indifferent to the renovation of Great Nananne's old house, which did indeed belong to Great Nananne with proper title, and was passed on to Merrick by means of a handwritten will, which was handled for us by a skilled local lawyer with no questions asked.

The renovation was historically accurate and quite extensive, involving two expert contractors in the field. Merrick did not want to visit the house at all. The house, to my knowledge, does belong to Merrick officially, right now.

By the end of that long ago summer, Merrick had an immense wardrobe, though she was growing taller with every passing day. She favored expensive wellmade dresses with lots of stitching, and visibly worked fabrics such as the white pique which I already described. When she began to appear at supper in graceful high heeled shoes, I was personally and secretly distraught.

I am not a man who loves women of any age, but the sight of her foot, its arch so delicately stretched by the height of the heel, and of her leg, so taut from the pressure, was quite enough to send the most unwelcome and erotic thoughts through my brain.

As for her Chanel No. 22, she had begun to wear it daily. Even those who claimed to be annoyed by perfume rather liked it and came to associate it with her ever genial presence, her questions and steady conversation, her hunger for knowledge about all things.

She had a wondrous grasp of the fundamentals of grammar, which greatly assisted her in learning to read and write French, after which learning Latin was something of a snap. As for mathematics, she detested it, and suspected it somewhat¡ªthe theory was simply beyond her¡ªbut she was clever enough to absorb the fundamentals. Her enthusiasm for literature was as great as that of anyone I've ever known. She ripped through Dickens and Dostoyevsky, talking about the characters with easy familiarity and endless fascination as though they lived down the street from her house. As for magazines, she was enthralled by the art and archaeology periodicals to which we subscribed routinely, and went on to devour the standards of pop culture, as well as the news magazines she'd always loved.

Indeed, Merrick remained convinced all her young years, as I knew her, that reading was the key to all things. She claimed to understand England simply because she read the London Times every day. As for the history of Mesoamerica, she fell in love with it, though she never asked to see the suitcase of her own treasures at all.

With her own writing she made wondrous progress, soon developing something of an oldfashioned band. It was her aim to shape her letters as Great Nananne had shaped hers. And Merrick succeeded, being able to keep copious diaries with ease.

Understand, she was not a genius of a child, but merely one of considerable intelligence and talent, who after years of frustration and boredom had seized her opportunity at last. There was no impediment in her to knowledge. She resented no one's seeming superiority. Indeed, she absorbed every influence that she could.

Oak Haven, having no other child in its midst, delighted in her. The giant boa constrictor became a favorite pet.

Aaron and Mary took Merrick into the city frequently to the local municipal museum, and often made the short flight to Houston to expose her to the splendid museums and galleries of that southern capital as well.

As for me, I had to go back to England several times during that fateful summer. I much resented it. I had come to love the New Orleans Motherhouse, and I did seek every excuse to remain. I wrote long reports to the Elders of the Talamasca, admitting to this weakness, but explaining, well, pleading perhaps, that I needed to become better acquainted with this strange part of America which didn't seem American at all.

The Elders were indulgent. I had plenty of time to spend with Merrick. However, one letter from them cautioned me not to become overly fond of this "little girl." This stung me because I misinterpreted it. I made an avowal of my purity. The Elders wrote back: "David, we don't doubt your purity; children can be fickle; we were thinking of your heart."

Aaron, meantime, cataloged all Merrick's possessions and eventually established a full room in one of the outbuildings to contain the statues which had been taken from her shrines.

Not one but several medieval codices made up the legacy of Oncle Vervain. There was no explanation as to how he had acquired these books. But there was evidence that he had used them, and in some we found his notes in pencil along with certain dates.

In one carton from Great Nananne's attic were a whole cache of printed books on magic, all published in the 18oos, when the "paranormal" had been such the rage in London and on the Continent, what with mediums and s¨¦ances and such. These had their pencil markings as well.

We found also a great disintegrating scrapbook crammed with brittle yellowed newspaper clippings, all from New Orleans, which told tales of Voodoo attributed to "the local Doctor of much renown, Jerome Mayfair," whom Merrick identified for us as Oncle Vervain's grandfather, The Old Man. Indeed, all of New Orleans had known about him and there were many quaint little stories of Voodoo meetings broken up by the local police at which many "white ladies" were arrested, as well as women of color, and blacks.

The most tragic of all discoveries, however, and the one which was of the least use to us as an Order of Psychic Detectives¡ªif that is what we are¡ªwas the diary of the colored daguerreotypist who was too far back in the lineage for a direct connection in Merrick's account. It was a quiet, friendly document, created by one Laurence Mayfair, mentioning, among other things, the daily weather in the city, the number of customers at the studio, and other small local events.

It recorded a happy life, I felt certain, and we took the time to copy it very carefully and send that copy to the local university, where such a document by a man of color before the Civil War would be given its just due.

In time, many similar documents, as well as copies of photographs, were sent on to various Southern universities, but such steps were always taken¡ªfor Merrick's sake¡ªwith great care.

Merrick was absent from the accompanying letters. She really did not want the material traced to her personally because she did not want to explain her family to those outside the Order, and I think she feared, and perhaps rightly, that her presence with us might be questioned as well.

"They need to know about our people," she'd say at table, "but they don't need to know about me."

She was greatly relieved that we did what we did, but she was launched now into another world. She would never be that tragic child again who had showed the daguerreotypes to me the first evening.

She was Merrick the student who pored over her books for hours, Merrick the passionate arguer of politics, before, during, and after the television news. She was Merrick who owned seventeen pairs of shoes, and changed them three times a day. She was Merrick, the Catholic, who insisted on going to Mass every Sunday even if a Biblical inundation were falling upon the plantation and the nearby church.

Of course I was pleased to see these things, though I knew many recollections lay dormant inside her and must someday be resolved.

Finally, it was late fall, and I had no choice but to return to London for good. Merrick had another six months of study planned before she'd be sent to Switzerland, and our parting was tearful to say the least.

I was no longer Mr. Talbot, but David, as I was to many other members, and, as we waved goodbye to each other at the doorway of the plane, I saw Merrick cry again for the first time since that awful night when she'd cast off the ghost of Honey in the Sunshine and broken into sobs.

It was dreadful. I couldn't wait for the plane to land so that I could write her a letter.

And for months her frequent letters were the most interesting aspect of my life.

By February of the following year, Merrick was on a plane with me for Geneva. Though the weather made her hopelessly forlorn, she studied diligently at school, dreaming of summers spent in Louisiana, or of the many vacation trips which took her to the tropics which she loved.

One year she went back to Mexico, during the worst of all seasons, to see the Maya ruins, and it was that summer that she confided to me that we had to make the return trip to the cave.

"I'm not ready to retrace my steps," she said, "but the moment will come. I know that you've saved everything that Matthew wrote on the subject, and understand that I may be guided on that journey by others besides Matthew. But do not worry. It's too soon for us to go."

The next year she visited Peru, then after that Rio de Janeiro, and always back to school when fall came. She did not make friends easily in Switzerland, and we did all we could to convey upon her a sense of normality, but the very nature of the Talamasca is unique and secretive and I'm not sure we were always successful at making her feel at ease with others at school.

At age eighteen, Merrick informed me by official letter that she was more than positive that she wished to spend her life in the Talamasca, even though we assured her that we would educate her no matter what her choice. She was admitted as a postulant, which is for us a very young member, and she went to Oxford to begin her university years.

I was thrilled to have her in England. I met her plane and was astonished by the tall graceful young woman who flew into my arms.

She lodged at the Motherhouse every weekend. Once again the chilly weather oppressed her dreadfully, but she wanted to remain.

On weekends we would take side trips to Canterbury Cathedral or Stonehenge or Glastonbury, whatever her fancy. It was interesting talk all the way. Her New Orleans accent¡ªI call it that for want of a better term¡ªhad left her completely, she had surpassed me utterly in her knowledge of the Classics, her Greek was perfect, and she could speak Latin with other members of the Order, a rare talent in one of her time.

She became a specialist in Coptic, translating volumes of Coptic magical texts which the Talamasca had owned for centuries. She was deep into the history of magic, assuring me of the obvious, that magic all over the world and in every era is pretty much the same.

She often fell asleep in the Motherhouse library, her face on her book on the table. She'd lost her interest in clothes except for a few very pretty and ultrafeminine garments, and, intermittently, she bought and wore those fatal very high heeled shoes.

As for her liking for Chanel No.22, nothing ever inhibited her from wearing a great deal of the scent in her hair and on her skin and her clothing. Most of us found it very delicious, and no matter where I was in the Motherhouse, I knew, by the rise of this delightful scent, when Merrick had come through the front door.

On her twentyfirst birthday, my personal gift to Merrick was a triple string of natural and perfectly matched white pearls. Of course it cost a fortune, but I didn't care. I had a fortune. She was deeply touched by it, and to all important functions within the Order she always wore the necklace, whether attired in a black silk shirtwaist dress of magnificent angles and fullness¡ªher favorite for such evenings¡ªor a more casual dark wool suit.

Merrick was by this time a famous beauty, and the young members were always falling in love with her and complaining bitterly that she repelled their advances and even their praise. Merrick never spoke of love, or of men who were interested in her. And I had come to suspect that she was enough of a mind reader to feel very much isolated and alienated, even within our hallowed halls.

I was hardly immune to her appeal. At times, I found it downright difficult to be in her presence, so fresh and lovely and inviting did she seem. She had a way of looking luscious in austere garments, her breasts large and high, her legs rounded and tapered exquisitely beneath her modest hem.

There was one trip to Rome on which I became miserable in my desire for her. I cursed the fact that age had not yet delivered me from such torment, and did all that I could so that she might never guess. I think she knew it, however, and in her own way, she was merciless.

She once let slip, after a sumptuous dinner at the Hassler Hotel, that she found me the only truly interesting man in her life.

"Bad luck, wouldn't you say, David?" she had asked me pointedly. The return to the table of two other Talamasca comrades had cut the conversation short. I was flattered but deeply disturbed. I couldn't have her, it was quite out of the question, and that I wanted her so much came as a terrible surprise.

At some point, after that Roman trip, Merrick devoted some time in Louisiana to recording the entire history of her family¡ªthat is, what she knew of her people, quite apart from their occult powers, and, together with quality copies of all of her daguerreotypes and photographs, she made this available to several universities for whatever use they might desire. Indeed, the family history¡ªwithout Merrick's name, and indeed minus several key names¡ªis now part of several important collections concerning the "gens de couleur libres, " or the history of black families in the south.

Aaron told me that the project exhausted Merrick emotionally, but she had said les myst¨¨res were haunting her, and it had to be done. Lucy Nancy Marie Mayfair demanded it; indeed so did Great Nananne. So did white Oncle Julien Mayfair from uptown. But when Aaron prodded as to whether she was really being haunted, or merely respectful, Merrick said nothing except that it was time to go back to work overseas.

As for her own AfroAmerican blood, Merrick was always quite frank about it and sometimes surprised others by discussing it. But almost without exception, in every situation, she passed for white.

For two years, Merrick studied in Egypt. Nothing could lure her away from Cairo, until she began an impassioned investigation of Egypian and Coptic documents throughout the museums and libraries of the globe. I remember going through the dim and grimy Cairo Museum with her, loving her inevitable infatuation with Egyptian mystery, and that trip ended with her getting completely drunk and passing out after supper in my arms. Fortunately I was almost as drunk as she was. I think we woke up together, each properly dressed, lying side by side on her bed.

In fact, Merrick had already become something of a famous though occasional drunk. And more than once she had wrapped her arms around me and kissed me in a way that thoroughly invigorated me and left me in despair.

I refused her seeming invitations. I told myself, and probably rightly so, that I was partly imagining her desire. Besides, I was old then obviously, and for a young person to think that she wants you when you're old is one thing; to actually follow through with it is quite another affair. What had I to offer her but a host of minor inevitable physical debilities? I did not dream then of Body Thieves who would bequeath to me the form of a young man.

And I must confess that, years later, when I did find myself in possession of this young man's corpus, I did think of Merrick. Oh, indeed, I did think of Merrick. But by then I was in love with a supernatural being, our inimitable Lestat, and he blinded me even to memories of Merrick's charms.

Enough said on that damned subject! Yes, I desired her, but my task is to return to the story of the woman I know today. Yes, Merrick, the brave and brilliant member of the Talamasca, that is the story I have to tell:

Long before computers were so very common, she had mastered them for her own writing and was soon heard to be tapping away at fantastical speed on her keyboard late into the night. She published hundreds of translations and articles for our members, and many, under a pseudonym, in the outside world.

Of course we are very careful in sharing all such learning. It is not our purpose to be noticed; but there are things which we do not feel we can keep to ourselves. We would never have insisted on a pseudonym, however; but Merrick was as secretive about her own identity as ever she was as a child.

Meanwhile, as regards the "uptown Mayfairs" of New Orleans, she showed little interest in them personally, hardly bothering with the few records we recommended that she read. They were never her people, really, no matter what she might have thought of "Oncle Julien" appearing in Great Nananne's dream. Also, no matter what one might observe about the "powers" of those Mayfairs, they have in this century almost no interest at all in "ritual magic," and that was Merrick's chosen field.

Of course nothing of Merrick's possessions had ever been sold. There was no reason to sell anything. It would have been absurd.

The Talamasca is so very rich that the expenses of one person, such as Merrick, mean virtually nothing, and Merrick, even when she was very young, was devoted to the projects of the Order and worked of her own free will in the archives to update records, make translations, and identify and label articles very similar to those Olmec treasures which belonged to her.

If ever a member of the Talamasca earned her own way, it was Merrick, almost to a degree which put us to shame. Therefore, if Merrick wanted a shopping spree in New York or Paris, no one was likely to deny it. And when she chose a black Rolls Royce sedan as her personal car, soon establishing a small worldwide collection of them, no one thought it a bad idea at all.

Merrick was some twentyfour years old before she approached Aaron about taking stock of the occult collection she had brought to the Order ten years before.

I remember it because I remember Aaron's letter.

"Never has she shown the slightest interest," he wrote:

and you know how this has worried me. Even when she made her family history and sent it off to various scholars, she did not touch upon the occult heritage at all. But this afternoon she confided to me that she has had several "important" dreams about her childhood, and that she must return to Great Nananne's house. Together with our driver we made the trip back to the old neighborhood, a sad journey indeed.

The district has sunk considerably lower, I think, than she could have imagined, and I believe the shattered ruin of the "corner bar" and the "corner store" took her quite by surprise. As for the house, it has been splendidly maintained by the man who lives on the premises, and Merrick spent almost an hour, alone by choice, in the rear yard.

There the caretaker had made a patio, and the shed is virtually empty. Nothing remains of the temple, naturally, except the brightly painted center post.

She said nothing to me afterwards, absolutely refusing to discuss these dreams of hers in any detail.

She expressed extreme gratitude to me that we'd kept the house for her, during her period of "negligence," and I hoped this might be the end of it.

But at supper, I was quite astonished to hear that she planned to move back into the house and spend part of her time there from now on. She wanted all the old furniture, she told me. She'd supervise the arrangements herself.

"What about the neighborhood?" I found myself asking weakly, to which she replied with a smile, "I was never afraid of the neighbors. You'll soon discover, Aaron, that the neighbors will become afraid of me." Not to be outdone, I quipped, "And suppose some stranger should try to murder you, Merrick," to which she fired back, "Heaven help the man or woman who would attempt such a thing."

Merrick was as good as her word, and did move back to the "old neighborhood," but not before building a caretaker's quarters above the old shed.

The two miserably rundown houses which flanked the house were purchased and demolished, and brick walls went up around three sides of the enormous lot and along the front, coming to meet the high iron picket fence directly before the facade. There was always to be a man on the property; some sort of alarm system was installed; flowers were planted. Feeders were put out for the hummingbirds once more. It all sounded quite wholesome, and natural, but having once seen that house, I was still chilled by frequent stories of how Merrick came and went.

The Motherhouse remained her true home, but many afternoons, according to Aaron, she disappeared into New Orleans and did not return for several days.

"The house is now quietly spectacular," Aaron wrote to me. "All the furniture was of course repaired and refinished, and Merrick has claimed Great Nananne's mammoth fourposter for her own. The floors of heart pine have been beautifully redone, giving the house a rather amber glow. Nevertheless, it worries me dreadfully that Merrick secludes herself there for days on end."

Naturally, I myself wrote to Merrick, broaching the subject of the dreams that had motivated her return to the house.

"I want to tell you about these things but it is too soon," Merrick replied immediately.

Let me say only that in these dreams it is GreatOncle Vervain who talks with me. Sometimes I'm a child again as I was on the day he died. Other times we are adults together. And it seems, though I cannot with uniform success remember everything, in one dream we were both young.

For now, you mustn't worry. You must realize that it was inevitable that I should return to my childhood home. I am of an age when people become curious about the past, especially when it has been sealed off so successfully and abruptly as was mine.

Understand, I do not feel guilt for having abandoned the house where I grew up. It is only that my dreams are telling me that I must return. They tell me other things as well.

These letters worried me, but Merrick gave only brief responses to my queries.

Aaron had also become concerned. Merrick was spending less and less time at Oak Haven. Often he made the drive into New Orleans to call upon her at the old house, that is, until Merrick asked to be left alone.

Of course, such a manner of living is not uncommon among Talamasca members. Frequently they divide their time between the Motherhouse and a private family home. I had and still do have a home in the Cotswolds in England. But it is not a good sign when a Member absents herself from the Order for long periods of time. In Merrick's case it was particularly disturbing due to her frequent and cryptic mentions of her dreams.

During the fall of that fateful year, her twentyfifth, Merrick wrote to me about a journey to the cave.

Let me continue with my reconstruction here of her words:

"David, I no longer sleep through the night without a dream of my GreatOncle Vervain. Yet less and less am I able to recall the substance of these dreams. I know only that he wants me to return to the cave I visited in Central America when I was a child. David, I must do this. Nothing can prevent it. The dreams have become a form of obsession, and I ask that you not bombard me with logical objections to what you know I must do."

She went on to talk about her treasure.

I have been through all of the socalled Olmec treasures, and I know now they are not Olmec at all. In fact, I can't identify them, though I have every published book or catalog on antiquities in that part of the world. As for the destination itself, I have what I remember, and some writings by my Oncle Vervain, and the papers of Matthew Kemp, my beloved stepfather of years ago.

I want you to make this journey with me, though certainly we cannot attempt it without others. Please answer me as quickly as you can as to whether you are willing. If not, I will organize a party on my own.

Now, I was almost seventy years of age when I received this letter, and her words presented quite a challenge to me, and one which I didn't welcome at all. Though I longed for the jungles, longed for the experience, I was quite concerned that it was beyond my ability to make such a trip.

Merrick went on to explain that she had spent many hours going through the artifacts retrieved on her girlhood journey.

"They are indeed older," she wrote, "than those objects which archaeologists call Olmec, though they undoubtedly share many common traits with that civilization and would be called Olmecoid due to their style. Elements we might call Asian or Chinese proliferate in these artifacts, and then there is the matter of the alien cavepaintings which Matthew managed to photograph as best he could. I must investigate these things personally. I must try to arrive at some conclusion regarding the involvement of my Oncle Vervain in this part of the world."

I called her that night from London.

"Look, I'm entirely too old to go off into that jungle," I said, "if it's even still there. You know they're cutting down the rain forests. It might be farmland by now. Besides, I'd slow you down no matter what the terrain."

"I want you to come with me," she said softly, coaxingly. "David, please do this. We can move at your pace, and when it comes time to make the climb in the waterfall, I can do that part alone.

"David, you were in the jungles of the Amazon years ago. You know this sort of experience. Imagine us now with every microchip convenience. Cameras, flashlights, camping equipment; we'll have every luxury. David, come with me. You can remain in the village if you like. I'll go on to the waterfall alone. With a modem fourwheel drive vehicle, it will be nothing at all."

Well it wasn't nothing at all.

A week later I arrived in New Orleans, determined to argue her out of the excursion. I was driven directly to the Motherhouse, a little disturbed that neither Aaron nor Merrick had come to meet my plane.

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