The Garden of Evil

 

                                                     Prologue

     He sat alone and unmoving in an old green Volvo under a gnarled oak
tree. It was a typical autumn day along this part of California’s central
coast: blustery, gray, and drizzly. He rolled down the driver-side window.
Party sounds and smells drifted across the street on a brisk sea breeze. A
sudden gust swept in and blew a tissue paper off the seat beside him,
swirled it around like a devil wind, then carried it out the passenger-side
window. It landed on an oleander hedge. He chuckled nervously, debated
whether to get out and fetch it, decided against it.
     His concentration on the tissue paper was broken by a low, insistent
moan coming from the bay. It crawled up the hill toward him like an animal
in pain. He giggled again. It was the fog horn at the harbor’s entrance,
blaring its warning to ships and mariners. He relaxed and stared down toward
the sound, toward Harbor City itself.

     In some past misty age, the wide U-shaped bay around which the city was
built had been clawed out of the side of the coastline by the giant hand of
the Pacific Ocean. Today, the pier, restaurants, shops and fishing boats
were barely visible through the overcast. So was the highway, U.S. 1, which
snaked around the harbor then uncoiled itself in the direction of San
Francisco, a hundred miles away to the north.
     Harbor City had become an oasis of chic calm between the megalopolises
of Los Angeles and San Francisco. Besides fishing—both commercial and sports
varieties—the area was fast becoming known for its growing wine industry.
Full-bodied cabernets and crisp, fruity chardonnays from local vineyards
were more and more often to be found on the wine lists of better restaurants
up and down the coast, some as far away as ‘Frisco itself.
     In addition to agriculture, tourism was the other main economic stay
for the city. It was responsible for the quaint shops, hotels and boutiques,
RV parks, and fine dining restaurants at the harbor. It also provided
support (mostly through land grants and tax incentives) for the
well-regarded four-year private college located in the hills above the
harbor.
     Like the nearby California State University, Harbor College was a
liberal arts institution. But it was heavily influenced by the surrounding
agribusinesses, and its biology and agriculture departments were large and
well known. They offered courses and graduate programs in biology, botany,
plant physiology, plant genetics, and the business side of agriculture.
     He was an assistant professor of biology there.

     He munched on a carrot from his garden and stared intently at the house
across the street, the home of his department chairman. Though barely
afternoon, the lights were already on, and through the windows he could see
people moving around, drinking, eating, talking and lined up at a buffet
table piled high with foods.
     He was briefly distracted by another sound, this one coming from his
right, rolling down the hillside like an unseen avalanche. He cocked his
head toward it and could distinguish at least three different pitches. It
was disjointed and cacophonous at first. But it soon settled into a
rhythmic, syncopated pattern. He looked at his wristwatch and permitted a
tight smile to crease his lips: 4:00 p.m. on the dot, the call to vespers
from the Eastern Orthodox monastery somewhere up in the foothills of the
coastal mountain range. For the brothers, tardiness was not just rude; it
was sacrilege.
     He pictured the monks leaving their gardens, orchards and vineyards
(especially their vineyards), washing their hands at a communal fountain,
then filing into the church for prayers. The ritual probably hadn’t changed
much since Father Junipero Serra first brought Christianity to California in
the wake of the Spanish Conquistadors, then secured the Church’s place in
the New World with a line of missions dotting the coast like a string of
beads—rosary beads—from San Diego to San Francisco and beyond. Sometimes,
when the wind swept off the mountains, snatches of the brothers’ plainsong
were carried down the mountain, across the town and out to sea. Fishermen
returning home with holds full of albacore tuna claimed they could navigate
their way through the fog by the chanting.

     He pulled his coat high against the cold, his hat low over his face to
hide his identity, and turned his attention back to the house across the
street. Some of the revelers spilled onto the patio like fish from a net.
Warmed by alcohol, food, and camaraderie, they were inured against the
chill. Many of the college’s faculty lived in this upscale, white-collar
neighborhood in the hills above the town, far enough away to be exclusive,
close enough to the campus to bicycle to work.
     He couldn’t afford it.
He estimated there were thirty or so people at that house today: ten
department faculty, plus their spouses, some senior clerical staff, and a
few grad students. They were all having a great time: Food, Fun, and
Fornication, the trinity of pleasures the university elite allowed
themselves after their arduous cerebral labors. His mouth curled in a sneer.
     The occasion for this particular potluck gathering was the promotion of
two faculty members to full professor, one to tenured status, and, best of
all, the award to a department research team of a very large EPA grant. It
would lead to many publications and act as seed for future grants.
Promotions, grants, tenure: what better reasons to celebrate?
     But he was not on the receiving end of any of these kudos and awards.
His most recent grant application had been rejected. Not for lack of merit,
he knew.
     He clenched his teeth.
     He had proposed a groundbreaking experiment. If successful, it would
have rocked the discipline of biology back on its heels. His colleagues on
the review board had seen that, had rejected it out of rank envy; to stop
him from succeeding so they could apply for the money themselves.
     He grunted, his face a mask of hate. They were all small people,
grubbing about in the dark for federal or state dollars. Their ideas were
small as well, mere incremental extensions of previous work. None of them
had ever had, or was willing to admit to, a bold, sentinel concept like his.
He sighed. Like all great thinkers, he’d been rejected, his ideas ridiculed.
     Even worse, none of his colleagues would include him on their own
research protocols. His department chairman told him they complained that he
wasn’t a team player, that no one wanted to work with him. Ha! He knew
better. Being a team player just meant doing exactly what they wanted. A
trained monkey could do that. He knew the real reason he’d been written out
of their projects: because he might upstage them. Or worse, because he saw
through their flimsy concepts and house-of-cards protocols.
     He munched another carrot. Still, what was he to do? He’d published
nothing because he’d done no research, or at least none he could write or
talk about.
     He pulled his coat higher on his neck.
     He’d done research all right. Make no mistake about that. Dramatic,
Nobel-laureate research. But it was secret, carried out away from the
college in his private laboratory at home. Research that would knock ’em
dead. Literally.
     He bit down hard on the carrot. His department chairman had voted to
deny him tenure or promotion at his last two performance evaluations. Rumor
had it that his contract would not be renewed when it expired at the end of
the academic year. He’d be out of a job. With no track record in research, a
thin curriculum vitae, and no publications, his prospects for an academic
career looked bleak. And with few social skills, his chances in the private
sector were even more iffy. It didn’t look good. Not good at all.
     He burned with a hatred bred of desperation and fueled by failure.

     A tongue of flame erupted from the patio grill across the street,
snapping him back to the present. The smell of seared meat assaulted his
nostrils. Burning animal flesh. It made him nauseous. He spat out the carrot
and pictured the meat on fire, oozing juice and blood. It recalled another
time, another piece of burning flesh. A childhood time. It had happened a
long time ago but was still as painful as if it were only yesterday. He
grabbed at his groin and lowered his head as the memory of the burning flesh
between his legs flamed through his mind and body.

     “No, daddy. Please! I won’t do it again.”
     “You’re a sick little boy. Sick. Sick! Pulling at yourself like that.
It’s disgusting. You’re disgusting. I warned you. But you wouldn’t stop.”
     “I will stop. I will. I promise I will. Please don’t do it again.”
     “This time I’m going to give you a reminder. When you’re tempted to do
it again, you’ll remember this... You’ll remember it the rest of your life.”
     “No. Please. No. Stop, daddy! Owweeee...”


     He was sweating, his breathing rapid, still clutching his groin. He
looked down. A warm stain spread down his pant legs. With a dull ache in the
pit of his stomach, he started the car, closed his eyes and gripped the
steering wheel with both hands, his knuckles white. Again and again he
struck his head on the wheel, once too hard; the horn blared. A few patio
partiers from the house across the street looked in his direction. He
scrunched down until they turned away.
     It was time to go.
     He had dropped off his own potluck dish earlier. After a few minutes’
embarrassed conversation—to be certain he was seen, to be certain he had an
alibi—he had slipped away. But not before observing the crowd lined up at
the buffet table to load their plates with cold chicken and ribs, beans and
potato salad, cole slaw and chips.
     It shouldn’t take long, he estimated. A few days at the most if his
experimental data were correct (and his home research had convinced him they
were). Then the effects would begin.
     He chomped the carrot in two with one bite, tossed one half out the
window, then started the car. With engine revving high, he tore off down the
hill toward the sunless sea.