From "The Usurpers"
A novel by Greg Swann
Chapter 4--Lucifer's Apostate
Leslie had gone to one of those lawyers who advertise on television for her divorce. Her case had been assigned to a goofy kid, a young man barely out of law school who sprayed saliva with his every word. The trial had been a bitter ordeal of motions and denials and accusations and barely restrained shouting matches. She had the suspicion that her lawyer was giving too much ground, but she didn't know how much until the settlement hearing.
Visitation was the one point she was absolutely inflexible about. She was convinced that Ronnie's first motive in molesting Karen was to prove his domination over her, but she couldn't discount the possibility that he might try it again--to get revenge on her, or simply to dominate Karen. She wanted no visitation rights, and her lawyer assured her that he would get no less than state-supervised visitation. He failed.
The final settlement was this: Ronnie retained ownership of the house on Ray Road, but Leslie had exclusive right of residence as long as she and Karen remained there. She was awarded a pittance in alimony and a laughably inadequate amount for child support. She would keep her Nissan, but she would have to assume the payments for herself. And Ronnie had unlimited, unsupervised visitation of Karen... Her lawyer had bargained away everything for nothing.
It was that night that she'd left for the first time. Through friends in the La Leche League she'd come into contact with the so-called Womens' Underground, a network of mothers shielding mothers shielding children from the usurpations of the law. She's driven Karen to Tucson, to a "safe house" run by another La Leche League mother. It grieved her to leave her there, but she knew she had to. She would fight, but she had to make sure Karen was safe first.
That was when she'd made the news for the first time. The divorce had not been mentioned in the papers; it was just another bad marriage, and the sensational aspects had not caught the attention of reporters. But as soon as he discovered she was gone, Ronnie ran to the police claiming Leslie had kidnapped his daughter. He guessed correctly that she'd run because of the visitation rights, but in his public persona as the aggrieved father he didn't feel compelled to say why she so strenuously objected to the settlement.
She heard the news reports on the radio when she was driving back to Phoenix. It shamed her to hear it, to hear herself called an abductress, a child-stealer. But no violation was as bad as the things Ronnie would do to Karen, if she gave him the chance. She didn't know where she stood with the law. She was ignorant of law, as most of us are. She thought it existed to protect children from monsters, not to protect liars from the truth. She thought it existed to achieve justice, not to impose an orderly seemliness upon the most vicious sorts of injustice. She thought it existed for life, and against death. She hadn't yet discovered that it's the other way around...
And yet she was being called a kidnapper, and she was prepared to face up to that charge. With the calm of quiet determination, she drove herself into downtown Phoenix and turned herself in at the police station on Washington Street.
What happened next should have told her to expect no justice from the law. When they ceased to bumble and fumble and blame her for upsetting their routine, the cops hustled her outside to a police cruiser. They kept her waiting there for over an hour, while they waited for the print reporters and TV cameras to show up. And then they hauled her out of the car and pushed her up the steps to the station, making a good show of their "apprehension" of a "dangerous felon" for the press. Only then did they charge her.
They kept her overnight in the lock-up, and the next morning her face was spread all over the Phoenix papers. She looked exactly like some murderer or drug dealer, exactly like some unrepentant miscreant felled by her own evil and by the superior force of the good. She knew that at breakfast tables all over the Valley fathers were pointing at those grim pictures and saying to their children, "See! That's what could happen to you, if you don't straighten up!" And worse than the humiliation, worse even than the imprisonment, was the thought that she, too, was being used by terrorizing usurpers who call themselves parents.
She was taken to the courthouse and arraigned. The judge said he would release her and sustain the divorce settlement if she would produce Karen. Leslie refused. The judge order her back to the lock-up. He said, "You've demonstrated a profound contempt for the law, Mrs. Crane. You can have your freedom back when you yield to this court and produce your daughter. You can have your freedom back when you acknowledge that the law will not be thwarted."
"I can have my freedom back when I give it up entirely," she said, but he pretended not to hear. The cops pushed and shoved her back out to the car, back to her cell, making sure that the press photographers had plenty of opportunities to record her humiliation. She was branded. Not just a kidnapper but a scofflaw, the very worst sort of villain the law can conceive of, the person who dares to think with her own mind and take responsibility for her actions, the person who refuses to accede to the universal usurpation that is the core of that charade we call "civilization"...
It was that afternoon when Brian Desmond came to see her for the first time. He was a slim man in his fifties with thinning gray hair swept back from a high forehead. His eyes were a piercing blue, and they seemed to miss nothing. He was a lawyer, a champion of justice, a righter of unbearable wrongs. He had read about her in that morning's edition of the Tempe Tribune. The papers had concerned themselves not at all with her motives for spiriting Karen away, but Desmond was experienced enough to read between the lines. He volunteered to defend her from the kidnapping charge, and to handle any other legal work that might need doing. And he refused payment.
Without being able to say why, Leslie felt an immense trust for him from the moment she saw him. She told him about her marriage, about the incest, about the visitation rights; she told him everything. When she finished he sat for a moment staring at the ceiling, the smallest hint of sadness in his eyes. Then he had explained, point by point, the legal strategy they would follow.
First, he would get Ronnie indicted for incest, for sexual abuse of a minor, and for any other felony charge he thought he could make stick. That would be enough to get the visitation rights suspended pending the results of the criminal trial. Then Leslie could have her friend in Tucson drive Karen up and get herself out of jail. And when Ronnie was convicted, Desmond would get the visitation rights permanently revoked.
It was simple and elegant and beautiful, and Leslie was enormously grateful. She said, "I don't understand why you're doing all this for us..."
"...It's kind of a long story."
Leslie shrugged and looked around her, pointing out her surroundings. "I have time."
He smiled. "I guess you do..." He looked hard at her and let out a long, slow breath. "Sure you want to hear it?"
"Brian, if I'm prying, just say so."
"You're not. In a way, you're the right person to tell. But it's not something I tell people. And it's pretty ugly..."
"There's not much that can shock me."
"Don't be too sure." He smiled, but weakly, almost as an apology. "Well, here goes...
"This all happened in one day, and I've wondered since then if it wasn't god showing me what hell would be like for all eternity. I don't believe in god, but I think I believe in hell." He laughed.
"Anyway, I was driving in Tempe, on Southern Avenue. I remember going past the library and watching the trees swaying in the wind. It was late March, and the very last storm of the winter was blowing in. You know the kind of storm I mean? The wind had been blowing hard, building for hours, and the clouds were an evil grey, ten stories high. It was barely two in the afternoon, but it was dark; I had my headlights on. The wind was howling, blowing the compact cars all over the road, but it hadn't rained, and it wouldn't for hours. The storm was just building, building, building, filling up the whole valley with wind and wind-borne dirt and thick black clouds.
"I remember looking up at the sky and thinking 'that's me'. Not rain, but not sun either, just a not-too-threatening place half-way between... Then I found out I was wrong.
"You're probably too young to remember, but I was famous then, known all over the state. I was the lawyer who could get anybody off, no matter what. The law was a game to me then, and justice a matter of complete indifference. The only pleasure I got in life was beating the system, getting people off the hook when I knew they were guilty.
"Not rain, but not the sun either. Not evil, just clever, tricky. That's what I thought...
"Anyway, I was driving to see a client, a man I'd defended twice before. He was locked-up in the police station in Tempe, over by the stadium." He paused, scowling. "You sure you want to hear this?"
"Well, you asked for it. He was a child molester. Not just a molester, a slasher, smasher, brutalizer. He would pick up little kids, never older than four or five, have his way with them, then cut them, beat them, kill them. He was the sickest, most evil man it's ever been my misfortune to know. When you asked me why I'm doing this, you looked at me as if I'm some kind of avenging angel. I'm telling you this because I want you to know exactly what I am. What I was then, anyway...
"Yes, the sickest man I've ever known, and yet at the time I thought of him as my proudest accomplishment as a lawyer. I hated him as a person. He was fat to the point of revulsion, and his sweat covered him like an oily film. He was big and hairy, but his voicy was a high whine. For a time I thought he might be a eunuch, but a cop who knew better than to expect justice from the justice system told me that he wasn't. We don't like to think about what the police do in private with those billy clubs, but when we think about a child-killer who never served one day of hard time in his life, we're willing to look the other way. I was, too, and I was his lawyer!
"But as much as I hated him as a person, I was proud to have him as a client. To beat a speeding ticket, that's nothing. No one cares. Shoplifting, car theft, burglary--no big deal. Even rape and murder have become so commonplace that no one really notices when the criminal goes free. But child molestation, that's another thing entirely. Decadence is the loss of the capacity for moral outrage, and our culture isn't quite dead yet. We still want to kill the men who rape children."
Leslie said, "As long as they're strangers..."
"Yes, well, there's that, too. But the point is that a child molester was made to order for the man I was then. My goal and purpose in the law was not to achieve justice, but to achieve a precise and perfect injustice. No, it wasn't that clear in my mind; I couldn't let it be that clear and continue to do as I did. What I felt was that a lawyer's job is to get his client cleared, not matter what. If he was not guilty, then obviously. But even if he was guilty, even if I knew it beyond any doubt, still, my job was to get him off.
"And I spare myself nothing: I didn't really care about the ones who were innocent. I worked for them, but they didn't fire me up the way the guilty ones did. I didn't get that feeling of furtive satisfaction I got when I saw a vicious bastard go free over some police impropriety. And child molesting is so outrageous that you can count on police errors. Cops are human, too, after a fashion, as hard as that might be to believe. When they see a kid who has been sexually abused, beaten, cut up and murdered, they go into a rage that warps their judgement. They foul up the evidence, forget the Miranda warning, beat a confession out of the molester. They make stupid remarks to the press, screw up the witness statements, skip steps in the forensic examination. It's a situation made to order for a tricky lawyer unburdened by scruples. I could get the physical evidence disallowed, rule out the confession, even keep the eyewitnesses from testifying. If that failed, I could get a psychiatrist to testify that the whole thing was the fault of the justice system, that my client should not be punished but rewarded.
"There was no stunt too cheap for me to pull. No matter what I tried to tell myself, I was on the side of decay; my purpose was to outrage the outraged, to sweep from the culture, in my own small way, what little capacity for shock remains in it.
"And so I defended a child molester whom I knew was guilty, who had bragged to me of his murders. He'd only been arrested twice before, caught in the act. But I knew of at least five other incidents. There are five little children buried in the mud-flats by the Salt River, north of the Rio Salado Parkway. He told me he took them there because it's usually deserted, even though it's so close to downtown Tempe. He'd bury them, then build a fire over the graves to hide the signs of digging. If some off-roader happened upon the spot, they'd see what looked like the remains of a teenagers' beer blast.
"When I got the the police station, the desk man looked at me kind of funny. I wasn't quite sure what it was, but at the time it looked almost like pity. As you might guess, I was none too popular with the police, so it shook me. They took me in to see Kevin--the cops called him 'Kid Killer Kevin.' He looked at me very strangely, sort of smiling and fearful both, like a dog who expects to be both cuddled and kicked.
"I sat down and asked him what happened, but instead of telling me, he started talking about me. I was a mystery to him, he said. He couldn't figure me out. Everyone else he understood. They hated him, and he thought they were right to hate him. But I'd always helped him, and he couldn't figure out why...
"I said, 'Kevin, I don't help you because I like you.'" He said, 'Oh, I know. You hate me just as much as anybody.' Why then, he wondered, did I keeping getting him off? Give the man credit: it was a question I hadn't dared to ask myself.
"He'd evolved two theories to explain my behavior. The first was that I was just as sick as he was, but in a different way. He killed children, and I killed justice, but we were both killers, both out of control. The second was that I was loyal to him as a person, even though I didn't like him. He said he'd come up with the perfect way to test, to find out which was true. When he said that, he smiled in that sick, ingratiating way again. 'Did you go down to the cooler to see the kid, Brian?' I hadn't. 'Go down there,' he said. 'Then come back and tell me how you're going to get me out of this one...'
"Well, that I couldn't figure out at all. He never wanted me to look at the children, fearing that the sight might cost him whatever good opinion I had of him. Pity from the cop on the desk, the smarmy smile from Kevin, and this request to look at a dead child, none of it made any sense. Just as I left the interrogation room I heard the howl of the wind, and it was like the whirlwind in my mind made real...
"I had a cop take me down to the morgue, and I wondered why he wouldn't look at me. He pulled open the drawer, then stood back, saying nothing. I looked down at the slab and there--" Brian's voice broke.
"Oh, yes, damnit! There on the slab was my daughter! Her silky blonde hair was crusted with dried blood and she was bruised everywhere. She was cut open from her breast bone to her crotch, and there were obscenities written on her skin in blood. I looked at the cop, just to look away, to look anywhere but at my little girl, my own flesh and blood, killed just as good as by my own hand. He stared at me with utter contempt. 'One of her thumbs is missing', he said. 'We looked all over, but we couldn't find it...'"
"Don't pity me. I got what I deserved. No, she got what I deserved... I pushed the drawer closed and walked upstairs, outside.
"The storm was still building, but I had no doubt by then where I fit into nature's scheme. I wasn't anything inbetween, I was cold, pure, black evil. Worse even than Kevin, because I didn't have the lame excuse of mental illness to justify my actions. I myself had unleashed a killer, and he had repaid that scourge by killing my own daughter...
"My wife and I were already divorced by then, but we were close. We weren't fit to live under the same roof, but we didn't think Katie should have to pay for our mistakes. I ate there two or three times a week, and Katie and I spent a lot of time together on the weekends. She was a wonderful child, Leslie, sweet and loving and patient and smart. I loved her so much it made me ache to think of her. I could do all the dirty, scummy things I did in court, but I was never anything but immaculate in her eyes, I was always her knight on a white charger...
"I stood out there for a long time, thinking about her. And then it started to rain, a hard, drenching winter rain. A rain hard enough to tear the leaves from the trees, hard enough to pulp the ground to mud, hard enough to bury little girls in the mud-flats of the Salt... And I looked up into that rain, letting it soak me, and I said, 'This is the deluge you have brought down upon yourself, Brian Desmond. This is the expression of what you have sought from the world. This is the weather you love, the rain, the cold, dark evil rain of a world where justice is sacrificed to a cheap and easy hubris...'
"It was foolishness, I suppose. No amount of yelling at myself would bring Katie back. But it was cleansing in a way, too. I stood out there until I knew what I had to do.
"I went by to see Eleanor, to tell her what happened, but she wouldn't see me. She'd heard about the killing on the radio, and she knew I was Kevin's lawyer. So I went home and got out of my soaked clothes. Then I got very, very drunk.
"The next day I went to court for Kevin's arraignment. I got a low bail for him, then paid it myself."
"It's not what you think. I might be slow to learn, but I'm not fast at forgetting. No, I wanted him out so I could take care of him, put him out of the game. I knew he'd killed eight kids, including my Katie. But my knowledge was privileged communication. I could turn State's evidence against, but I was sure he'd find some smart bastard just like me to get my testimony excluded. I didn't give a damn about the law, or even justice in any recognizable shape. No, what I wanted was revenge, and I knew just how to get it.
"I got Kevin released on bail, then I asked him to take me out to his burying grounds. I acted as I would if his sickness theory were true, as if the murder of my daughter had polarized me to his view of life. I expressed a perverse interest in seeing his gravesites.
"Have you ever been out there? It's pretty country. It's the flood basin of the river, as flat and barren a stretch of desert as you could hope to find that close to the city. The sun was high and hot, and between it and the bulging Sagauro, the land was pretty well dried up. There were a few shallow puddles here and there, but for the most part the mud was already hard-baked and cracked up.
"I got him out close to the river, where the soil is loose and sandy. Then I turned and hit him, hard. He was as soft as one of the kids he tortured, just a big fat baby with a beard. He knew nothing about fighting, while I'd had hand-to-hand training in the army. I hit him until he couldn't stand up any more, then I took my hunting knife and slammed it into his heart. I didn't give him what he deserved; I didn't torture him or cut off his balls and stuff them down his throat. Maybe I should have, but I don't have it in me. I just put a knife through his heart and waited for him to die.
"And then I dug a hole and buried him, there with his victims. And I built a big fire over his grave, so the dune-buggy racers would pass that spot by as just another place where kids had come to get crazy with beer and burgers.
"In society's eyes, I was a murderer, and I was prepared to pay whatever price the law might exact. But a few days later a Tempe detective came to see me at my office. He told me that Kevin had apparently skipped bail. He said I'd be out the amount I had posted, unless I wanted them to track him down. He said it very slowly, and I'm sure he knew that Kevin hadn't skipped town. What he was telling me was that he didn't intend to do anything about it. He toyed with me a little, but that was all. He said, 'Given the circumstances, I'd almost think to charge you with murder. But I'm sure you could get yourself released on a technicality...'"
Brian looked at Leslie, hiding nothing. "That's the story. Since then I've refused work from any client whom I could not prove innocent to my own satisfaction, and I've concentrated on tort cases against sex offenders."
Leslie looked at him sympathetically. "Are you paying pennance?"
"No. I don't believe in pennance, either. The past is gone; it can't be changed. No, what I'm doing is what's right. If I'd done that all along, my Katie would still be alive..." He looked down at his lap, blinking very fast to clear the tears from his eyes. "Karen reminds me of Katie a great deal. If I can save her from torture, then I'm doing something worthwhile. It won't erase anything I did before, but it won't add to my list of crimes, either..."
"Brian," Leslie said, "I'm sorry... And I'm sorry I made you tell me."
"Don't be. It needed to be said. And now you know I'm not an avenging angel, that I'm no more and no less than a man who caught a glimpse of hell and knew it had no place on earth..." He smiled wryly. "Maybe I am an avenging angel. Lucifer's apostate, cast out of hell and doomed to live here on earth..." He laughed.
Leslie laughed with him. She didn't care what he had been in the past. She knew and trusted what he was in the present...
"Well, have you got something?"
Ronnie was standing in The Gnome's office at Mountain Bell. He was showered and shaved, and he exuded cologne in shimmering waves. In the morning light, he look as he always did. But for a slight hoarseness in his voice, there was no reminder of the humiliation he'd suffered--and deserved--the night before.
Devon smiled devilishly, like Lucifer's alchemist. "What is it that one is supposed to say in these moments? Is it 'Eureka'? How about 'Excelsior'?"
"Get to the point, would you?"
The Gnome went on as if he hadn't heard. "Or how about 'Jackpot'? That's it: Jackpot!" He laughed.
Ronnie said nothing, just tapped his shoe soundlessly on the carpet.
"I must say, this was a challenging problem. Maybe the most challenging job I've ever worked on..."
"Do you have something, or don't you?!"
"Sit down, Ronnie. You'll feel better."
"Devon, god damnit! Would you just spit it out!?"
Devon smiled again. "What, and spoil all the fun? I live for these moments, Ronnieboy. I'm the misfit. I'm the one everyone makes jokes about. I'm The Gnome. Sure, I know about that name; how could I not know about it? But you know what else I am, Ronnie? I'm the guy people come to when they can't do something for themselves. I'm the guy who does the undoable, who solves the unsolvable... Is that a word, 'unsolvable'?"
"How the hell should I know?!"
"You should know with your brain. But since you don't, you have to come to me." Devon laughed heartily but without accompaniment. "But, you see, Ronnie, you did have to come to me. And you're no different from the boobs who claim to be my 'superiors'. You laugh about me, and you lord your power over me, but when you need to know something you can't find out on your own... Then you're just another kitten at my feet, squalling for attention."
Ronnie understood this performance. For the first time in his life he felt almost friendly toward The Gnome. He would never have said it out loud, would never have even named it in his own mind, but they had something in common... He plopped down in the chair in front of Devon's desk. "You're telling me you won't be rushed."
Devon smiled. "I'm telling you I won't be rushed."
Ronnie smiled in return. He was utterly helpless against an equal in domination.
"Let's start with something basic," Devon said.
"And pointless. A black hole, a dead end, a maze of twisty turning passages all alike... I looked into the billing records for that phone on Central Avenue."
"The line is billed in care of a Mister Cameron Dalton of the First Dalton Bank in a town in Ohio that is named, of all things, by what must be the most freakish of all coincidences--can you guess it?"
Ronnie scowled. "God damn you, Devon!"
"Come on, Ronnie! That's easy! The name of the town is Dalton! Anyway, the phone is billed in care of this Cameron Dalton. I gave him a call. He was very polite, very professional--until he found out what I was calling about. Then he got positively icy. Asked me if I had a warrant, wanted to know why I was calling, and told me in so many words that I could take my nosey questions and put 'em with yesterday's lunch." He laughed.
"So you're telling me you've got nothing?"
"A maze of twisty turning passages all alike... Not quite nothing. I found out that whoever is paying for that line doesn't want me to know who he is."
"So, are you saying that if we got a warrant, we'd find out something?"
"No, I'm saying that if we got a warrant, we'd have a name for nothing. People who bill phone lines in Phoenix to bankers in Ohio don't stop there. If we got a warrant, we'd find out the name of the holding company that is authorized to write checks to Mister Dalton, who in turn writes checks to Mountain Bell. And if we looked up the owners of that holding company, we'd find another holding company. And if we followed that backwards, we'd find four other holding companies, each of which owns a quarter of the second one. And if we followed those back, we'd find more of them, multiplying like rabbits. And if we continued to trace them back, we'd eventually come to another banker, this time one in Switzerland or Lichtenstein or the Bahamas. And do you know what he'd tell me, Ronnie?"
Ronnie sighed. "No, Devon, I don't know what he'd tell you..."
"It's obvious! He'd tell me to put my nosey questions with yesterday's lunch!"
"...is there a point to this, or are you just toying with me?"
"A maze of twisty turning passages--all different. I'm telling you what I told you before. Whoever is behind this is very, very good."
"Thank you, Devon. I cancelled a very important meeting to find out that there's somebody you look up to!"
"Hmm... I guess I do... But that's not what you came to find out."
"It certainly isn't!"
"It isn't. So let's look at something else: the signal pattern we're looking for has a unique signature."
Ronnie looked beseechingly to the ceiling. "Would you mind repeating that in English?"
"That was English, every word of it. In idiot's argot, I said that the calls are radically different from everything else in the spectrum. Whether they're voice or data, digital transmissions tend to look like continuous streams. A huge number of calls are carried on one circuit, and data transmissions are cut up into tiny little patches of code called packets. People are a lot slower than computers, so we set things up this way so we aren't wasting a lot of capacity waiting for you to get your thoughts together. Everybody who carries long-distance does things that way, Bell or private."
"So whoever's talking to your daughter uses a microwave repeater as if it were a string connecting two tin cans."
"...I still don't get you."
"Don't you see? That repeater on Central Avenue was used for only one caller, your daughter. When the line was active, it wouldn't look like a huge data stream, it would look like tiny little bursts of code, punctuated by long, long silences. That stands out like a sore thumb--or like a computer nerd at a party school."
"...How many times do I have to say I'm sorry, Devon?"
"Once. And I'm still waiting for the day. And I won't hold my breath. But you see, don't you? The signal is unique. It would be obvious anywhere, to anyone who was looking for it. The friendly folks at Mystery Foneco didn't care. The calls were going from a known source to an unknown destination. I could find that signal anywhere and never, ever trace the destination. Undoubtedly it's shot up to a satellite, and it lands I know not where. And it comes out looking like ordinary, everyday long-distance traffic. And I'd bet a month's pay it goes into a maze of twisty turning passages all alike..."
Ronnie said nothing.
"Hey, come on, Ronnie. Cat and mouse is no fun if the mouse poops out. What have I told you?"
"Hmph! You've told me you know a whole lot about nothing!"
"No... An intricately detailed ignorance offers its own satisfactions, but that's not what I've said. Think! What is your objective?"
"To find my goddamned daughter!"
"Precisely! An utterly perfect construction, accurate in wording and flawless in inflection. You wanted me to find your daughter, thrice condemned and by god the least. But what you told me is that you wanted me to trace the destination of those calls."
Ronnie was angry. He did nothing to hide the contempt he felt. "Which you can't do...!"
Devon shrugged. "Which I can't do... But--don't you see?--it's not important."
"It's not important!?"
"No, you idiot! Do I have to draw you a fucking picture?! It's not important! You don't want to know the destination of those calls, you want to know the source! You want to know where your thrice damned daughter is now..."
Ronnie was furious. He didn't like having his nose rubbed in his inability to reason. "What the hell's the difference!?"
"Jesus Christ on a crutch! Who dresses you, anyway? There's only one piece missing from the puzzle, but you can't see where it goes... Before we had a unique signal going from a known source to an unknown destination. At least one half of the call is a kid, and I'd be willing to bet the other half is, too. Kids never know when to get off the goddamned phone, as every parent knows. So it seemed reasonable to me that the signal was still out there, only now the source is unknown."
"Oh. Great!," Ronnie said, his voice oily with sarcasm.
"Just right, even if by accident: great! Because, you see, if we can find the signal, we can find the source. If we can locate where the calls are coming from now, we've located your daughter. Your goddamned daughter, as you saw fit to put it."
"Have you found her or not?!"
Devon smiled, Lucifer's alchemist. "I've found her."
"Well, god damn it, why didn't you say so!?"
His smile deepened. "I did say so."
"Sure, and it was like pulling teeth!"
"Indeed it was. But it was me doing the pulling. And you'll pardon me for saying so, but you're hardly the ideal dental patient..."
"Cut the shit, would you?"
Devon shrugged. "Why should I? I put up with your shit for four years, Crane. Why shouldn't I rub your nose in mine, if I can?"
It was a question Ronnie could never hope to answer, not without naming exactly what it was that he and Devon had in common. So he said nothing.
"Oh...! Poor Wonnie," Devon said in that mock baby talk that parents use to torment their children. "He has evwyfing he wants, so now he's mizabuh! He's so mizabuh!" He laughed. He didn't know how close to the truth he was. He should not have been surprised that he got no reaction, but he was. "Well, you don't have to be miserable any more, Ronnie. I traced one of those mystery calls last night. I got a phone number, and I ran a criss-cross on it this morning." He tore off a corner of his blotter. "Here's the address. Don't say thank you. I want to remember you just as you were in college." He laughed again.
Ronnie was miserable. But it wasn't because he had what he wanted. It was because he had what he deserved. Treachery should always come at such a price; it it did, there might be less of it. He left without saying a word.
"Janio, you'll pardon my french, but we're in deep shit..."
It was one in the afternoon in New York. Janio had wondered why Sally had been so quiet all morning, but he knew she'd speak when she was ready.
"Nothing we can't handle, Smartkid. What is it this time?"
"Uh... You remember that penetrator I told you about...?"
"He caught me, dad. I don't know how yet, but he found me. Not me--he found Karen!"
"It's all right, Sally. Don't be scared. Just tell me what happened."
"Well, Karen's been calling me through my relay in--she's been calling me from where she is. Last night somebody found the call and traced it back. I followed the trace the other way, and it was the same damned Telco phone phreak who was bugging me before."
"Oh, shit! Pardon my french."
"I said the same thing. You said to swear only when I thought I really needed to. I've been needing to a lot..."
Janio laughed despite his anxiety. "Did you cut the connection before the trace could go through?"
"I was almost sure I didn't make it in time. I watched the phreak's phone, but he didn't call to make a directory search. But just to be safe, I broke into the Telco computer in San--where Karen is. I assigned the phone number to a totally bogus address."
"That was quick thinking."
"I guess so, because just about two minutes ago the phreaker finally called for a criss-cross."
"So he thinks he knows where she is, but he doesn't."
"Yeah," said Sally. "But that won't last. As soon as they check that address, they'll know they've been had. They'll go to the paper record, and that's that."
"And that's that." Janio rubbed his temples. "Have you talked to Karen or Leslie?"
"Not yet. I wanted to see if you had any ideas."
"...where is Karen's father?"
"Mountain Bell, Phoenix, a thousand-to-one odds. His car's parked in a slot not a block from the building. I've got it eyeballed from SallyFour." SallyFour was the geosynchronous satellite that was one of her five "bodies".
"Describe the bum."
"Five-ten, one-hundred-seventy pounds, light brown hair, brown eyes. His hair is thining out, and he has a small red blotch on the skin of his neck. That's from the records Phoenix P.D. made when he was indicted."
"Describe the car."
"Eighty-six Chevrolet Corvette, fire engine red. License plate--wait a sec--" Janio waited while she broke into the computers of the Arizona Department of Motor Vehicles. "License plate: Arizona, GL7491. Janio, what are you going to do...?"
"I'm going to fly out and say hello to Ronnie Crane. I think it's an experience he'll remember..."
"But what if he goes to San-- What if he goes to where Karen is?"
"He won't. He'll get the cops to do his dirty work. I could be wrong, so keep an eye on that car and I'll call you from La Guardia just to be sure. But I'd bet a thousand grams he'll just sit on his ass and let somebody else take all the risks."
"No bet. What should I tell Karen?"
"Tell her to stay put for now. They're at more risk from a roadblock than from the detectives. A detective takes two days just to scratch his head."
"Watch Crane's phones, home and office. I'll want to know when he calls the cops. What about the phone cop?"
"Don't even worry about him. He's a vampire, but I control his blood supply. I can take care of him."
Janio smiled. "Sometimes I think your the most dangerous one of us..."
"Don't be silly, daddy. I'm a sweet, adorable little girl."
"With a mean streak."
"Well..., maybe just a tiny one... Anyway, that rapist is as good as castrated."
"Hmm... I wish I could say the same for the other one."
"Me, too! After what he did to Karen, I wish he was dead!"
"Me, too, Sally... Listen, there's one last thing: the show's yours tonight. Call the guests and cancel, then put together a real horrorshow, a real killingthing. Invent some bogus guests who think children are property, doomed to do whatever their parents say with no rights at all. Make them real pigs, Sally. This is no time for fair play."
"I understand. Janio...? Are we going to pull them out...?"
"If it comes to that, Smartkid. One way or another, we'll pull them out. You have my word on it."
Ronnie hadn't been gone from his office ten minutes when Devon's phone rang. The voice on the other end was so delightfully childlike that it took him a moment to grasp that it wasn't a friendly call, not in the smallest way.
"You're had, scumbubble! You're history! You have fucked with the wrong people, and now you're going to pay!"
For a long moment he said nothing. "...who is this?"
"Who do you think, asshole!?"
"I... I don't know..." But he did know, he just didn't want to admit it--not to the caller, and especially not to himself.
"Well, let me give you a little hint, dumbfuck." A piercing carrier tone came surging down the line. "Ring any bells?"
"Are you talking about your brains or your morals?"
He was shaking. His forehead had erupted in beads of sweat. "What... What do you want?"
"I've already got what I want, scuzball. You are neutralized. You are well and truly fucked. I've pulled the plug on your act!"
Devon was well and truly fucked, devastated. He'd dished out plenty of beatings, many far worse than the one he'd given Ronnie. But he'd never taken one, not once in his life. The terror he felt was only partly a fear of the adversary he'd known was too strong for him. The rest was no more than the fear of being disarmed for the first time in his life, of dealing with a person who wasn't stupid, who couldn't be intimidated by his lordly posturing. But still..., "This doesn't make sense."
"Doesn't it? Check your phones, butthead. Put me on hold; I can stand the rejection."
He stared at the reciver for a moment. Then he reached over and pushed the 'hold' button. He punched up another line. Dead. Total, stark white silence. He punched another and another. Nothing. Nothing, all the way down the line. Five lines out, and one tiny little orange light, blinking, blinking, blinking. It was a long moment before he could push the button that would make that light solid again. "...who are you?!"
"Don't you know? Haven't you guessed? I'll bet I'm your worst nightmare, the one thing you fear more than anything..."
He knew what she meant, but he didn't want to believe it.
"Think, jackass. I knocked out your phones, all but the line I'm using. How did I do it...? Have you read about those people who are trying to teach dolphins to speak? They work and work and work, but the dolphins never learn more than a few words. They can never hope to speak as well as you do. And they'll never learn how to think in human languages, because human languages aren't natural to them. Now think about how much work it is for you to program..."
"He can't help you, dipshit. He handles the loaves and fishes. I take care of the phones..."
"Oh, yes, fuckface. Would you like to hear your home phone?" The blurt-blurt-blurt of a busy signal came down the line. "Here's what it sounds like if someone tries to call your office." Blurt-blurt-blurt. "If you call in the techs, they'll work for days and finally trace the problem down to a software failure. They'll patch the code, check to make sure they get a dial tone, and then they'll leave. And then you'll pick up the phone and you'll hear the pristine silence that you found on your other lines."
"Oh, no, no, no..."
"You'll never have a phone under your own name again, shithead. Not for the rest of your life. You'll have to make all your calls from pay-phones, and you'll learn to spit out what have to say fast, because I'll be watching for you, and I'll cut every line I find you on. For the rest of your miserable fucking life!"
"Because you fucked with me, that's why, pissant! I wasn't bothering you. You should have left me the fuck alone!"
Devon was almost gone, almost completely out of control. But still... It was too much. "There's an escape hatch, isn't there?"
"You're smarter than I thought, dickhead. Tell me, how did you get yourself into this mess?"
Devon growled. "Ronnie Crane!"
"Bingo! He raped his own daughter, and you helped him. What does that make you, asswipe? A very sad and sorry little boy, that's what. And you're not going to play with Ronnie anymore, are you? And you're not going to work for the phone company anymore, are you? And you're not going to play any more stupid phone phreaking games, not from any phone anywhere. Are you?"
"I'll do anything you say! Anything!"
"You better know you will, pinprick! When I hang up, I'll leave this line open. Call your boss and tell him you quit. Get out of the building at once--and don't come back. And don't you ever fuck with me again, dogbreath! You won't like what happens if you do..."
The sweat was pouring out of him. "...I believe you."
Sally laughed, and the laughter was all the more brutal for being so delightfully innocent. "I thought you might..."
Devon was still shaking long after the line went dead. He had to try three times to get his supervisor's extension...
Janio called Sally from a pay-phone at the airport. He was booked on a non-stop to Phoenix, and he had about five minutes before it was time to board.
"He drove straight home. He's still there, and so far he hasn't made any calls."
"Good. What about the phone phreak?"
"Neutralized! I think he pissed his pants! Oops! I heard a bunch of really neat swear words in a cop movie, and I figured my call to him was a good time to try them out. It was fun! Daddy, when I grow up can I be a cop and swear at people all the time?"
Janio laughed. "Not if I can help it! One potty-mouth in the family is plenty! And one cop is one too many in any family."
"You know it! If I were a cop, I'd have to force myself to go to school. And I'd hate that!" She laughed, and Janio laughed with her.
"Have you called Karen yet?"
"Well, when you do, tell them to be ready to bug out on a moment's notice. Tell them to wait for your call, but be ready to run as soon as you say so. Got it?"
"And listen--about the show tonight. Make it ugly. Pull every stunt you can think of, but make the audience sick. Can you do it?"
"I can do it, Janio."
"I know you can. You're the smartest kid there is! Gotta run, baby. I love you!"
"I love you, too, daddy! G'bye!"
It was a glorious day in San Diego. The sky was cloudless, a deep, rich blue. At ten in the morning the heat of the day was just beginning to settle in, but it was dry, and there was a cool breeze out of the west. Leslie was doing up the breakfast dishes while Vivian marketed. There was a hummingbird out in the yard, foraging for its own breakfast. Leslie watched the blinding whir of its wings and felt very happy, very satisfied, very safe.
It was a good feeling, and she was proud to have reached it. For the first few days she'd been there, she had been convinced that they wouldn't make it, that the police would track them down and haul them back to Arizona. She was forever catching herself looking over her shoulder, certain that there was a detective watching from behind a tree or a utility pole or the corner of a house. She'd tried very hard to keep from communicating her fear to Karen. But it was a very real fear. But now it was gone--or almost gone. She still dreamed about it every night, sometimes the shame of public humiliation, sometimes, much worse, the fate that could befall Karen if she failed to keep her hidden, failed to keep her out of reach of the usurper.
On her third night there, she'd had the worst nightmare of all, the triumph of the usurper. In the dream, the usurper wasn't any particular person; at times he bore Ronnie's face, and at others he appeared as that awful judge, the one who'd jailed her in Phoenix for refusing to surrender Karen, for refusing to deliver her to the paws of her father. At one point, he'd taken the face of that horrible father in Yuma, and he'd said over and over, "Conduct yourself! Conduct yourself! Conduct yourself!"
But for most of the dream the usurper was faceless, a presence more than a person. Leslie thought he was the devil, the real devil, the real cause of evil and pain and torment and bitter tears and helpless rage. He had taken control of her, of every good mother she knew, and there was nothing they could do to resist. He had made them lock their own children away in tiny cages, then sent them out to slaughter every other child they could find, to beat them and slash them and smash their tiny little egos, to torture them into submission, relenting only when they gave up entirely and yielded to the usurper. And the children would get up and begin to beat and torture other children, offering them the same choice--surrender or die. And it was a whole world of usurpers, a whole world of crazed zombies who killed self-control in themselves, then set about to slaughter it wherever it could be found, wherever it might try to hide.
And then Leslie had seen herself, not in San Diego but in the house on Ray Road. She was standing at Karen's bed holding an enormous knife high over her head. She brought it down hard, again and again, into Karen's sleeping form. Blood spurted from the child and soaked her arms, but still she slashed and slashed and slashed, letting nothing stop her, not fear, not remorse, not revulsion at her own brutality. Her soul was the usurper's, not her own, and she was empty of all emotion. And then, when Karen was finally dead, she had felt herself with child, and she had known she was pregnant with the usurper's seed...
She had awaken screaming, screaming, screaming, but her subconscious had done the mother's job even while she slept: her screams were raging whispers, and she was lying on the floor of the bathroom with the door closed. When she returned to the bedroom Karen was sleeping peacefully, and innocent too young to conceive of any alternative to innocence...
But, still, dreams fade at the dawning. She knew that it would a long time before her subconscious felt secure enough to let the dreams fade away for good, but they were nothing more than the union of fear and imagination. They had no meaning in her waking life. And in her waking life the fear was gone.
But not for good...
Karen was standing in the doorway to the kitchen. She had Waldo in her arms, which was never a good sign, and one of her legs was crossed in front of the other. It was the way she stood when she was afraid, as though danger were a function of mobility and she could be safe as long as she tied her body up in a knot.
"What is it, Karen?" Leslie dried off her hands and knelt before her daughter. She gathered the girlchild up in her arms.
"Oh, mommy! I'm so sorry! I gave our secret away!" Karen went limp in her mother's arms and started to cry.
Leslie pulled her tighter and stroked her hair. She bit her lip, feeling the fear return to her like a surge of electricity. But she pushd it away and said, "It's all right, baby. Everything's all right. Nothing can hurt you. Just tell me what happened."
"Somebody penetrated Sally!"
"Oh, no! Was it--" She didn't want to ask the question, didn't want to believe it could ever be possible. But, "Was it her father...?"
"Huh?" Karen pulled her head back to look at her mother. The tears were still running down her cheeks and her breath was still coming in spasms, but the look on her face was the confusion that will permit no competition. "Why would he do something like that?"
Leslie stopped the first answer that came to her--why did your father do it to you? Instead she said, "Well, sometimes it just happens. A man touches a little girl where he shouldn't. It's not the little girl's fault, not ever, ever, ever. But sometimes it just happens..."
The confusion on Karen's face deepened. For a moment she was completely mystified. Then her brows knitted and the confusion was swept away by concentration. And in a bare second that expression, too, fled her face, to be replaced by the delight of discovering the comically obvious. "Mom, Sally's a computer!"
"I thought you knew. Sally's a little girl like me, but she's a computer, too. Nobody can touch her like, like... Nobody can really hurt her by touching her. They could hurt her equipment, but not even that would hurt Sally, because she's really a software program. And she lives in five different computers, anyway."
Now it was Leslie's turn to be confused. A part of he mind demanded that she reject this testimony as absurd, an impossibility. But, still... It explained a lot.
"Don't you believe me, mommy?"
"I always believe you, Karen. You're smart and strong and honest and so perfect. How could I ever doubt you? It just takes some getting used to, that's all." Which was a cosmic understatement.
"Well, anyway, Sally was penetrated, and it's all my fault!" And Karen was crying again, her head buried in Leslie's shoulder.
"It's all right, lady. Just talk. You'll feel better if you let it all out. What do you mean that Sally was penetrated?"
Karen's crying quickened. "I've been calling her from here. And somebody traced the calls! They know we're in San Diego, mom. They don't know what house, because Sally made the phone company computers tell a lie. But Sally says they'll find us pretty soon anyway! And it's all my fault!"
Leslie wanted to moan. She wanted to say, "Oh, no! Oh, god!" Instead, she said, "Everything's all right, Karen. Everything's all right. We'll be okay." She said it to herself, too, and hoped it was true.
"Am I in trouble, mommy?"
Leslie heard the question, and she heard the usurper saying, "Conduct yourself! Conduct yourself! Conduct yourself!" She said, "How could you ever be in trouble? You were just being yourself, just doing what you thought was right. I thought it was right, too, so I'm not in trouble either." She smiled. "You're my perfect, adorable Karen, and I love you for being so smart and so perfect. You could never be in trouble for being so wonderful..."
Karen sniffled. Her tears were spent, but her breathing was still ragged, still a gulping against a wall of resistance. "Sally says we may have to leave here. Her father's trying to do something for us. But if it doesn't work, we'll have to leave. She said we should get all our stuff packed up, but not to leave until she calls and says we should."
Leslie thought to reject the advice of a five-year-old girl, but then she remembered. She smiled at herself, but still she did what she had to. She said, "Okay. You go ahead and get started. I'll join you in a minute. And, Karen... Everything's okay, right?"
Karen rubbed the lasts of the tears out of her eyes, still red-rimmed but lit from within by the unquenchable flame of self-respect, self-love. She said, "Right, mommy. Everything's going to be just fine..." She giggled at the mockery of her mother, but it was more than a teasing--it was a giving back. She stood up full and proud and kissed Leslie's forehead. She threw her arms around her mother's neck and hugged her hard. And then she bounded out of the room, skipping on the dusky blue carpet, Waldo hanging from her left hand like a forgotten bag of potatoes.
Leslie stood up and walked back to the sink. She looked out the window to the yard. It was still sunny, still beautiful. The sky was still a cloudless robin's-egg blue. But the hummingbird was gone. Gone to the usurper, gone to suck the blood of other hummingbirds...? She shivered. Nothing had changed, and yet everything had. The usurper was loose and free, and he had found them yet again. The breeze gusted and she felt its coolness on her skin, felt it drying the tracks of the tears she hadn't know were running down her face.
She wanted to let it drop, to collapse to her knees and cry as Karen had cried, to stop this endless running and just sleep, sleep forever. But then she caught a glimpse of herself hacking that bloody knife into Karen's body, again and again and again... She rubbed her fists into her eyes, wringing the tears from her eyes like dishwater from a sponge. She wanted to stop running, and yet she couldn't, not without becoming the usurper herself. So she stood up full and proud, her eyes still red-rimmed but lit by the unquenchable fire of self-respect, self-love. She couldn't do what she wanted to do. But she could do what she had to do, and that was enough...