The priest was interrupted by a sudden roaring. No one there could say later how the fire started. An incendiary? A spark carried by the wind from burning Nanking? It was like a sudden, noisy ambush sprung by a silent signal. In a flash the fire had jumped up, a living red weed running around the sides of the storehouse, along the curved roof, and across the wooden floor by the walls.
The police captain was already inside, and he gripped Father Michael by the arm, pulling him outside.
The voice of Wu pursued them over the noise: “It’s all one. Fool! We’re all the same. Always were. Always.”
Michael and the captain were outside by then and turned around to listen.
“There’s only one of us. One . . .”
The rest of the sentence was drowned in a sudden outburst of flaming timbers.
Now, the glass rectangle of the single window was darkening over with smoke and grime. In a few minutes it would be impossible to see anything. Michael lurched over and peered in. Against the window he could see Thomas’ face plastered for an instant of fixed, grinning agony a horrible picture, a Bosch nightmare come alive.
Long, quickly lashing tongues of flame were licking at Thomas’ temples, neck, and hair. Through the hissing and crackling of the fire, Michael could hear Thomas laughing, but very dimly, almost lost to I lie ear. Between the flames he could see the shelves with their gray-white load of corpses. Some were melting. Some were burning. Eyes oozing out of sockets like broken eggs. Hair burning in little tufts. First, fingers and toes and noses and ears, then whole limbs and torsos melting and blackening. And the smell. God! That smell!
Then the fixity of Thomas’ grin broke; his face seemed to be replaced by another face with a similar grin. At the top speed of a kaleidoscope, a long succession of faces came and went, one flickering after the other. All grinning. All with “Cain’s thumbprint on the chin,” as Michael described the mark that haunted him for the rest of his life. Every pair of lips was rounded into the grinning shape of Thomas’ last word: “one!” Faces and expressions Michael never had known. Some he imagined he knew. Some he knew he imagined. Some he had seen in history books, in paintings, in churches, in newspapers, in nightmares. Japanese, Chinese, Burmese, Korean, British, Slavic. Old, young, bearded, clean-shaven.