17

Sasha parked the Explorer in the driveway, because my father’s car was in the garage, as were boxes of his clothing and his personal effects. The day would come, with his death far enough in the past, when I would not feel that disposing of his belongings would diminish him in my memory. I was not at that day yet.

In this matter, I know I’m being illogical. My memories of my dad, which give me sustaining strength every day, are not related to what clothes he wore on any particular occasion, to his favorite sweater or his silver-rimmed reading glasses. His things do not keep him vivid in my mind; he stays with me because of his kindness, his wit, his courage, his love, his joy in life. Yet twice in the three weeks since I’ve packed up his clothes, I’ve torn open one of the boxes in the garage simply to have a look at those reading glasses, at that sweater. In such moments I can’t escape the truth that I’m not coping as well as I pretend to be. The cataract of grief is a longer drop than Niagara, and I guess I’ve not yet reached the river of acceptance at the bottom.

When I got out of the Explorer, I didn’t hurry into the house, though the grizzled morning was now almost fully upon us. The day did little to restore the color that the night had stolen from the world; indeed, the smoky light seemed to deposit an ash-gray residue on everything, muting tones, dulling shiny surfaces. The cumulative UV damage I would sustain in this shineless sunshine was a risk worth taking to spend one minute admiring the two oaks in the front yard.

These California live oaks, beautifully crowned and with great canopies of strong black limbs, tower over the house, shading it in every season, because unlike eastern oaks, they don’t drop their leaves in winter. I have always loved these trees, have climbed high into them on many nights to get closer to the stars, but lately they mean more to me than ever because they remind me of my parents, who had the strength to make the sacrifices in their own lives required to raise a child with my disabilities and who gave me the shade to thrive.

The weight of this leaden dawn had pressed all the wind out of the day. The oaks were as monolithic as sculpture, each leaf like a petal of cast bronze.

After a minute, calmed by the deep stillness of the trees, I crossed the lawn to the house.

This Craftsman-period structure features stacked ledger stone and weather-silvered cedar under a slate roof, with deep eaves and an expansive front porch, all modern lines yet natural and close to the earth. It is the only home I’ve ever known, and considering both the average life span of an XPer and my talent for getting my ass in a sling, it’s no doubt where I’ll live until I die.

Sasha had unlocked the front door by the time I got there, and I followed her into the foyer.

All the windows are covered with pleated shades throughout the daylight hours. Most of the lights feature rheostats, and when we must turn them on, we keep them dim. For the most part, I live here in candlelight filtered through amber or rose glass, in a soft-edged shadowy ambience that would meet with the approval of any medium who claims to be able to channel the spirits of the dead.

Sasha settled in a month previous, after Dad’s death, moving out of the house provided for her as part of her compensation as general manager of KBAY. But already, during daylight hours, she moves from room to room guided largely by the faint sunshine pressing against the lowered window shades.

She thinks my shrouded world calms the soul, that life in the low illumination of Snowland is soothing, even romantic. I agree with her to an extent, though at times a mild claustrophobia overcomes me and these ever-present shadows seem like a chilling preview of the grave.

Without touching a light switch, we went upstairs to my bathroom and took a shower together by the lambent glow of a decorative glass oil lamp. This tandem event wasn’t as much fun as usual, not even as much fun as riding two on a surfboard, because we were physically weary, emotionally exhausted, and worried about Orson and Jimmy; all we did was bathe, while I gave Sasha a seriously condensed version of my pursuit of the kidnapper, the sighting of Big Head, Delacroix, and the events in the egg room.

I phoned Roosevelt Frost, who lives aboard Nostromo, a fifty-six-foot Bluewater coastal cruiser berthed in the Moonlight Bay marina. I got an answering machine and left a message asking him to come to see me as soon after twelve o’clock as was convenient and to bring Mungojerrie if possible.

I also called Manuel Ramirez. The police operator said that he was currently out of the office, and at my request, she switched me to his voice mail.

After reciting the license number of the Suburban, which I had memorized, I said, “That’s what Jimmy Wing’s kidnapper was driving. If you care, give me a call after noon.”

Sasha and I were turning back the covers on the bed in my room when the doorbell rang. Sasha pulled on a robe and went to see who had come calling.

I slipped into a robe, too, and padded barefoot to the head of the stairs to listen.

I took the 9-millimeter Glock with me. Moonlight Bay wasn’t as full of mayhem as Jurassic Park, but I wouldn’t have been entirely surprised if the doorbell had been rung by a velociraptor.

Instead, it was Bobby, six hours early. When I heard his voice, I went downstairs.

The foyer was dimly lighted, but above the Stickley-style table, the print of Maxfield Parrish’s Daybreak glowed as though it were a window on a magical and better world.

Bobby looked grim. “I won’t take long. But you have to know about this. After I took Jenna Wing to Lilly’s, I swung by Charlie Dai’s house.”

Charlie Dai — whose birth name in correct Vietnamese order was Dai Tran Gi, before he Americanized it — is the associate editor and senior reporter at the Moonlight Bay Gazette, the newspaper owned by Bobby’s parents. The Halloways are estranged from Bobby, but Charlie remains his friend.

“Charlie can’t write about Lilly’s boy,” Bobby continued, “at least not until he gets clearance, but I thought he ought to know. In fact…I figured he might already know.”

Charlie is among the handful in Moonlight Bay — a few hundred out of twelve thousand — who know that a biological catastrophe occurred at Wyvern. His wife, Dr. Nora Dai — formerly Dai Minh Thu-Ha — is now a retired colonel; while in the army medical corps, she commanded all medical services at Fort Wyvern for six years, a position of great responsibility on a base with more than fifty thousand population. Her medical team had treated the wounded and the dying on the night when some researchers in the genetics lab, having reached a crisis in the secret process of becoming, surprised their associates by savagely assaulting them. Nora Dai knew too much, and within hours of those strange events, she and Charlie were confronted with accusations that their immigration documents, filed twenty-six years ago, were forged. This was a lie, but unless they assisted in suppressing the truth of the Wyvern disaster and its aftermath, they would be deported without notice, and without standard legal procedures, to Vietnam, from which they would never be able to return. Threats were also made against the lives of their children and grandchildren, because those who have orchestrated this cover-up do not believe in half measures.

Bobby and I don’t know why his parents have allowed the Gazette to be corrupted, publishing a carefully managed version of the local news. Perhaps they believe in the rightness of the secrecy. Perhaps they don’t understand the true horror of what’s happened. Or maybe they’re just scared.

“Charlie’s been muffled,” Bobby said, “but he’s still got ink in his veins, you know, he still hears things, gathers news whether he’s allowed to write all of it up or not.”

“He’s as stoked on the page as you are on the board,” I said.

“He’s a total news rat,” Bobby agreed.

He was standing near one of the sidelights that flank the front door: rectangular geometric stained-glass windows with red, amber, green, and clear elements. No blinds cover these panes, because the deep overhang of the porch and the giant oaks prevent direct sunlight from reaching them. Bobby glanced through one of the clearer pieces of glass in the mosaic, as if he expected to see an unwelcome visitor on the front porch.

“Anyway,” he continued, “I figured if Charlie had heard about Jimmy, he might know something we don’t, might’ve picked up something from Manuel or someone, somewhere. But I wasn’t ready for what the dude told me. Jimmy was one of three last night.”

My stomach clenched with dread.

“Three children kidnapped?” Sasha asked.

Bobby nodded. “Del and Judy Stuart’s twins.”

Del Stuart has an office at Ashdon College, is for the record an employee of the Department of Education but is rumored to work for an obscure arm of the Department of Defense or the Environmental Protection Agency, or the Federal Office of Doughnut Management, and he probably spreads the rumors himself to deflect speculation from possibilities closer to the truth. He refers to himself as a grant facilitator, a term that feels as deceptive as calling a hit man an organic waste disposal specialist. Officially, his job is to keep outgoing paperwork and incoming funds flowing for those professors who are engaged in federally financed research. There is reason to believe that most such research at Ashdon involves the development of unconventional weapons, that the college has become the summer home of Mars, the god of war, and that Del is the liaison between the discreet funding sources of black-budget weapons projects and the academics who thrive on their dole. Like Mom.

I had no doubt that Del and Judy Stuart were devastated by the disappearance of their twins, but unlike poor Lilly Wing, who was an innocent and unaware of the dark side of Moonlight Bay, the Stuarts were self-committed residents of Satan’s pocket and understood that the bargain they had made required them to suffer even this terror in silence. Consequently, I was amazed that Charlie had learned of these abductions.

“Charlie and Nora Dai live next door to them,” Bobby explained, “though I don’t think they barbecue a lot together. The twins are six years old. Around nine o’clock last night, Judy is tucking the weeds in for the night, she hears a noise, and when she turns around, there’s a stranger right behind her.”

“Stocky, close-cropped black hair, yellow eyes, thick lips, seed-corn teeth,” I said, describing the kidnapper I’d encountered under the warehouse.

“Tall, athletic, blond, green eyes, puckered scar on his left cheek.”

“New guy,” Sasha said.

“Totally new guy. He’s got a chloroform-soaked rag in one hand, and before Judy realizes what’s happening, the dude is all over her like fat on cheese.”

“Fat on cheese?” I asked.

“That was Charlie’s expression.”

Charlie Dai, God love him, writes excellent newspaper copy, but though English has been his first language for twenty-five years, he has not fully gotten a grip on conversational usage to the degree that he has mastered formal prose. Idiom and metaphor often defeat him. He once told me that an August evening was “as hot as three toads in a Cuisinart,” a comparison that left me blinking two days later.

Bobby peered through the stained-glass window once more, gave the day world a longer look than he had before, then returned his attention to us: “When Judy recovers from the chloroform, Aaron and Anson — the twins — are gone.”

“Two abbs suddenly start snatching kids on the same night?” I said skeptically.

“There’s no coincidence in Moonlight Bay,” Sasha said.

“Bad for us, worse for Jimmy,” I said. “If we’re not dealing with typical pervs, then these geeks are acting out twisted needs that might have nothing to do with any abnormal psychology on the books, because they’re way beyond abnormal. They’re becoming, and whatever it is they’re becoming is driving them to commit the same atrocities.”

“Or,” Bobby said, “it’s even stranger than two dudes regressing to swamp monsters. The abb left a drawing on the twins’ bed.”

“A crow?” Sasha guessed.

“Charlie called it a raven. Same difference. A raven sitting on a stone, spreading its wings as if to take flight. Not the same pose as in the first drawing. But the message was pretty much the same. ‘Del Stuart will be my servant in Hell.’”

“Does Del have any idea what it means?” I asked.

“Charlie Dai says no. But he thinks that Del recognized Judy’s description of the kidnapper. Maybe that’s why the guy let her get a look at him. He wanted Del to know.”

“But if Del knows,” I said, “he’ll tell the cops, and the abb is finished.”

“Charlie says he didn’t tell them.”

Sasha’s voice was laden with equal measures of disbelief and disgust. “His kids are abducted, and he hides information from the cops?”

“Del’s deep in the Wyvern mess,” I said. “Maybe he has to keep his mouth shut about the abb’s identity until he gets permission from his boss to tell the cops.”

“If they were my kids, I’d kick over the rules,” she said.

I asked Bobby if Jenna Wing had been able to make anything of the crow and the message left under Jimmy’s pillow, but she had been clueless.

“I’ve heard something else, though,” Bobby said, “and it makes this whole thing even more of a mind-bender.”

“Like?”

“Charlie says, about two weeks ago, school nurses and county health officials conducted an annual checkup on every kid in every school and preschool in town. The usual eye exams, hearing tests, chest X-rays for tuberculosis. But this time they took blood samples, too.”

Sasha frowned. “Drew blood from all those kids?”

“A couple school nurses felt parents ought to give permission before blood samples were taken, but the county official overseeing the program flushed them away with a load of woofy about there’s been a low-level hepatitis outbreak in the area that could become epidemic, so they need to do preventive screening.”

As I did, Sasha knew what inference Bobby had drawn from this news, and she wrapped her arms around herself as if chilled. “They weren’t screening those kids for hepatitis. They were screening them for the retrovirus.”

“To see how widely distributed the problem is in the community,” I added.

Bobby had arrived at a further and more disturbing inference: “We know the big brains are burning up gray cells around the clock, searching for a cure, right?”

“Ears smoking,” I agreed.

“What if they’ve discovered that a tiny percentage of infected people have a natural defense against the retrovirus?”

“Maybe in some people the bug isn’t able to unload the genetic material it’s carrying,” Sasha said.

Bobby shrugged. “Or whatever. Wouldn’t they want to study those who’re immune?”

I was sickened by where this was leading. “Jimmy Wing, the Stuart twins…maybe their blood samples revealed they have this antibody, enzyme, mechanism, whatever it is.”

Sasha didn’t want to go where we were going. “For research, they wouldn’t need the kids. Just tissue samples, blood samples, every few weeks.”

Reluctantly, remembering these were people who had once worked with Mom, I said, “But if you have no moral compunctions, if you used human subjects before, like they used condemned prisoners, then it’s a lot easier just to snatch the kids.”

“Less to explain,” Bobby agreed. “No chance the parents won’t cooperate.”

Sasha spat out a word I’d never heard her use before.

“Bro,” Bobby said, “you know, in car-engine design, in airplane-engine design, there’s this engineering term, something called test to destruction.”

“I know where you’re going with this. Yeah, I’m pretty sure in some biological research there’s something similar. Testing the organism to see how much it can take of one thing or another, before it self-destructs.”

Sasha spat out the same word, which I had now heard her use before, and she turned her back to us, as if to hear and see us discussing this was too disturbing.

Bobby said, “Maybe a quick way to understand why a particular subject — why one of these little kids — has immunity from the virus is to keep infecting him with it, megadoses of infection, and study his immune response.”

“Until finally they kill him? Just kill him?” Sasha asked angrily, turning to us again, her lovely face so drained of blood that she appeared to be halfway through applying the makeup for a mime performance.

“Until finally they kill him,” I confirmed.

“We don’t know this is what they’re doing,” Bobby said in an attempt to console her. “We don’t know jack. It’s just a half-assed theory.”

“Half-assed, half-smart,” I said with dismay. “But what does the damn crow have to do with all this?”

We stared at one another.

None of us had an answer.

Bobby peered suspiciously through the stained-glass window again.

I said, “Bro, what is it? Did you order a pizza?”

“No, but the town’s crawling with anchovies.”

“Anchovies?”

“Fishy types. Like the zombie club we saw last night, coming back from Wyvern to Lilly’s house. The dead-eyed dudes in the sedan. I’ve seen more of them. I get the feeling something’s coming down, something super-humongous.”

“Bigger than the end of the world?” I asked.

He gave me an odd look, then grinned. “You’re right. Can’t go down from here. Where do we have to go but up?”

“Sideways,” Sasha said somberly. “From one kind of hell into another.”

To me, Bobby said, “I see why you love her.”

I said, “My own private sunshine.”

“Sugar in shoes,” he said.

I said, “One hundred twenty pounds of walking honey.”

“One hundred twelve,” she said. “And forget what I said about you two being Curly and Larry. That’s an insult to Larry.”

“Curly and Curly?” Bobby said.

“She thinks she’s Moe,” I said.

Sasha said, “I think I’m going to bed. Unless, Bobby, you have more bad news that’ll keep me from sleeping.”

He shook his head. “That’s the best I can do.”

Bobby left.

After locking the front door, I watched through the stained-glass window until he got into his Jeep and drove away.

Parting from a friend makes me nervous.

Maybe I’m needy, neurotic, paranoid. Under the circumstances, of course, if I weren’t needy, neurotic, and paranoid, I’d obviously be psychotic.

If we were always conscious of the fact that people precious to us are frighteningly mortal, hanging not even by a thread but by a wisp of gossamer, perhaps we would be kinder to them and more grateful for the love and friendship they give us.

Sasha and I went upstairs to bed. Lying side by side in the dark, holding hands, we were silent for a while.

We were scared. Scared for Orson, for Jimmy, for the Stuarts, for ourselves. We felt small. We felt helpless. So, of course, for a few minutes we rated our favorite Italian sauces. Pesto with pine nuts almost won, but we mutually agreed on Marsala before falling into a contented silence.

Just when I thought she had drifted into sleep, Sasha said, “You hardly know me, Snowman.”

“I know your heart, what’s in it. That’s everything.”

“I’ve never talked about my family, my past, who I was and what I did before I came to KBAY.”

“Are you going to talk about that now?”

“No.”

“Good. I’m wiped out.”

“Neanderthal.”

“You Cro-Magnons all think you’re so superior.”

After a silence, she said, “Maybe I’ll never talk about the past.”

“You mean, even like about yesterday?”

“You really don’t feel a need to know, do you?”

I said, “I love the person you are. I’m sure I’d also love the person you were. But it’s who you are that I have now.”

“You never prejudge anyone.”

“I’m a saint.”

“I’m serious.”

“So am I. I’m a saint.”

“Asshole.”

“Better not talk that way about a saint.”

“You’re the only person I’ve ever known who always judges people solely on their actions. And forgives them when they screw up.”

“Well, me and Jesus.”

“Neanderthal.”

“Careful now,” I warned. “Better not risk divine punishment. Lightning bolts. Boils. Plagues of locusts. Rains of frogs. Hemorrhoids.”

“I’m embarrassing you, aren’t I?” she asked.

“Yes, Moe, you are.”

“All I’m saying is, this is your difference, Chris. This is the difference that makes you special. Not XP.”

I was silent.

She said, “You’re desperately searching for some smart remark that’ll get me to call you an asshole again.”

“Or at least a Neanderthal.”

“This is your difference. Sleep tight.”

She let go of my hand and rolled onto her side.

“Love you, Goodall.”

“Love you, Snowman.”

In spite of the blackout blinds and the overlapping drapes, faint traces of light defined the edges of the windows. Even this morning’s overcast heavens had been beautiful. I yearned to go outside, stand under the daytime sky, and look for faces, forms, and animals in the clouds. I yearned to be free.

I said, “Goodall?”

“Hmmm?”

“About your past.”

“Yeah?”

“You weren’t a hooker, were you?”

“Asshole.”

I sighed with contentment and closed my eyes.

Worried as I was about Orson and the three missing children, I didn’t expect to sleep well, but I slept the dreamless sleep of a clueless Neanderthal.

When I woke five hours later, Sasha wasn’t in bed. I dressed and went looking for her.

In the kitchen, a note was fixed with a magnet to the door of the refrigerator: Out on business. Back soon. For God’s sake, don’t eat those cheese enchiladas for breakfast. Have bran flakes. Moe.

While the leftover cheese enchiladas were heating in the oven, I went into the dining room, which is now Sasha’s music room, since we eat all our meals at the kitchen table. We have moved the dining table, chairs, and other furniture into the garage so the dining room can accommodate her electronic keyboard, synthesizer, sax stand with saxophone, clarinet, flute, two guitars (one electric, one acoustic), cello and cellist’s stool, music stands, and composition table.

Similarly, we converted the downstairs study into her workout room. An exercise bicycle, rowing machine, and rack of hand weights ring the room, with plush exercise mats in the center. She is deep into homeopathic medicine; consequently, the bookshelves are filled with neatly ordered bottles of vitamins, minerals, herbs — plus, for all I know, powdered wing of bat, eye-of-toad ointment, and iguana-liver marmalade.

Her extensive book collection lined the living room at her former place. Here it is shelved and stacked all over the house.

She is a woman of many passions: cooking, music, exercise, books, and me. Those are the ones I know about. I would never ask her to rank her passions in order of importance. Not because I’m afraid I’d come in fifth of the major five. I’m happy to be fifth, to have any ranking at all.

I circled the dining room, touching her guitars and cello, finally picking up her sax and blowing a few bars of “Quarter Till Three,” the old Gary U.S. Bonds hit. Sasha was teaching me to play. I wouldn’t claim that I wailed, but I wasn’t bad.

In truth, I didn’t pick up the sax to practice. You might find this romantic or disgusting, depending on your point of view, but I picked up the sax because I wanted to put my mouth where her mouth had been. I’m either Romeo or Hannibal Lecter. Your call.

For breakfast I ate three plump cheese enchiladas with a third of a pint of fresh salsa and washed everything down with an ice-cold Pepsi. If I live long enough for my metabolism to turn against me, I might one day regret never having learned to eat for any reason but the sheer fun of it. Currently, however, I am at that blissful age when no indulgence can alter my thirty-inch waistline.

In the upstairs guest bedroom that served as my study, I sat at my desk in candlelight and spent a couple of minutes looking at a pair of framed photographs of my mom and dad. Her face was full of kindness and intelligence. His face was full of kindness and wisdom.

I have rarely seen my own face in full light. The few times I’ve stood in a bright place and confronted a mirror, I’ve not seen anything in my face that I can understand. This disturbs me. How can my parents’ images shine with such virtues and mine be enigmatic?

Did their mirrors show them mysteries?

I think not.

Well, I take solace from the realization that Sasha loves me — perhaps as much as she loves cooking, perhaps even as much as she loves a good aerobic workout. I wouldn’t risk suggesting that she values me as much as she does books and music. Though I hope.

In my study, among hundreds of volumes of poetry and reference books — my own and my father’s collections combined — is a thick Latin dictionary. I looked up the word for beer.

Bobby had said, Carpe cerevisi. Seize the beer. Cerevisi appeared to be correct.

We had been friends for so long that I knew Bobby had never sat through a class in Latin. Therefore, I was touched. The apparent effort that he had taken to mock me was a sign of true friendship.

I closed the dictionary and slid it aside, next to a copy of the book I had written about my life as a child of darkness. It had been a national best-seller about four years ago, when I’d thought I knew the meaning of my life, prior to my discovery that my mother, out of fierce maternal love and a desire to free me from my disability, had inadvertently made me the poster child for doomsday.

I hadn’t opened this book in two years. It should have been on one of the shelves behind my desk. I assumed Sasha had been looking at it and neglected to put it back where she’d found it.

Also on the desk was a decorative tin box painted with the faces of dogs. In the center of the lid are these lines from Elizabeth Barrett Browning:

Therefore to this dog will I,

Tenderly not scornfully,

Render praise and favor:

With my hand upon his head,

Is my benediction said

Therefore and forever.



This tin box was a gift from my mother, given to me on the day that she brought Orson home. I keep special biscuits in it, which he particularly enjoys, and from time to time I give him a couple, not to reward him for a trick learned, because I don’t teach him tricks, and not to enforce any training, for he needs no training, but simply because the taste of them makes him happy.

When my mother brought Orson to live with us, I didn’t know how special he was. She kept this secret until long after her death, until after my father’s death. When she gave me the box, she said, “I know you’ll give him love, Chris. But also, when he needs it — and he will need it — take pity on him. His life is no less difficult than yours.”

At the time, I assumed she meant nothing more than that animals, like us, are subject to the fear and suffering of this world. Now I know there were deeper and more complex layers of meaning in her words.

I reached toward the tin, intending to test its weight, because I wanted to be certain that it was filled with treats for Orson’s triumphant return. My hand began to shake so badly that I left the box untouched.

I folded my hands, one over the other, on the desk. Staring down at the hard white points of my knuckles, I realized that I had assumed the very pose in which I’d first seen Lilly Wing when Bobby and I returned from Wyvern.

Orson. Jimmy. Aaron. Anson. Like the barbed points on a razor-wire fence, their names spiraled through my mind. The lost boys.

I felt an obligation to all of them, a fierce sense of duty, which wasn’t entirely explicable — except that in spite of my good fortune in parents and in spite of the riches of friendship that I enjoyed, I was the ultimate lost boy, myself, and to some extent would be lost until the day I passed out of my darkness in this world into whatever light waits beyond.

Impatience abraded my nerves. In conventional searches for lost hikers, for small aircraft downed in mountainous terrain, and for boats at sea, search parties break from dusk to dawn. We were limited, instead, to the dark hours, not merely by my XP but by our need to gather our forces and to act in utmost secrecy. I wondered whether the members of conventional search parties checked their watches every two minutes, chewed their lips, and went slightly screwy with frustration while waiting for first light. My watch crystal was etched with eye tracks, my lip was shaggy with shredded skin, and I was half nuts by 12:45.

Shortly before one o’clock, as I was diligently ridding myself of the second half of my sanity, the doorbell rang.

With the Glock in hand, I went downstairs. Through one of the stained-glass sidelights, I saw Bobby on the front porch. He was turned half away from the door, staring back toward the street, as though looking for a police surveillance team in one of the parked cars or for a school of anchovies in a passing vehicle.

As he stepped inside and I closed the door behind him, I said, “Bitchin’ shirt.”

He was wearing a red and gray volcanic-beach scene with blue ferns, which looked totally cool over a long-sleeve black pullover.

“Made by Iolani,” I said. “Coconut-husk buttons, 1955.”

Instead of commenting on my erudition with even as little as a roll of the eyes, he headed for the kitchen, saying, “I saw Charlie Dai again.”

The kitchen was brightened only by the ashen face of the day pressed to the window blinds, by the digital clocks on the ovens, and by two fat candles on the table.

“Another kid is gone,” Bobby said.

I felt a tremor in my hands once more, and I put the Glock on the kitchen table. “Who, when?”

Snatching a Mountain Dew from the refrigerator, where the standard light had been replaced with a lower-wattage, pink-tinted bulb, Bobby said, “Wendy Dulcinea.”

“Oh,” I said, and wanted to say more but couldn’t speak.

Wendy’s mother, Mary, is six years older than I am; when I was thirteen, my parents paid her to give me piano lessons, and I had a devastating crush on her. At that time, I was functioning under the delusion that I would one day play rock-’n’-roll piano as well as Jerry Lee Lewis, be a keyboard-banging maniac who could make those ivories smoke. Eventually my parents and Mary concluded — and persuaded me — that the likelihood of my becoming a competent pianist was immeasurably less than the likelihood of me levitating and flying like a bird.

“Wendy’s seven.” Bobby said. “Mary was taking her to school. Backed the car out of the driveway. Then realized she’d forgotten something in the house, went in to get it. When she came back two minutes later, the car was gone. With Wendy.”

“No one saw anything?”

Bobby chugged the Mountain Dew: enough sugar to induce in him a diabetic coma, enough caffeine to keep a long-haul trucker awake through a five-hundred-mile run. He was legally wiring himself for the ordeal ahead.

“No one saw or heard anything,” he confirmed. “Neighborhood of the blind and deaf. Sometimes I think there’s something going around more contagious than your mom’s bug. We’ve got an epidemic of the shut-up-hunker-down-see-hear-smell-speak-no-evil influenza. Anyway, the cops found Mary’s car abandoned in the service lane behind the Nine Palms Plaza.”

Nine Palms was a shopping center that lost all the tenants when Fort Wyvern closed and took with it the billion dollars a year that it had pumped into the county economy. These days the shop windows at Nine Palms are boarded over, weeds bristle from cracks in the blacktop parking lot, and six of the namesake palms are withered, brown, and so dead that they have been abandoned by tree rats.

The chamber of commerce likes to call Moonlight Bay the Jewel of the Central Coast. The town remains charming, graced with fine architecture and lovely tree-lined streets, but the economic scars of Wyvern’s closure are visible everywhere. The jewel is not as bright as it once was.

“They searched all the empty shops in Nine Palms,” Bobby said, “afraid they’d find Wendy’s body, but she wasn’t there.”

“She’s alive,” I said.

Bobby looked at me pityingly.

“They’re all alive,” I insisted. “They have to be.”

I wasn’t speaking from reason now. I was speaking from my belief in miracles.

“Another crow,” Bobby said. “Mary called it a blackbird. It was left on the car seat. In the drawing, the bird is diving for prey.”

“Message?”

“‘George Dulcinea will be my servant in Hell.’”

Mary’s husband was Frank Dulcinea. “Who the hell is George?”

“Frank’s grandfather. He’s dead now. Used to be a judge in the county court system.”

“Dead how long?”

“Fifteen years.”

I was baffled and frustrated. “If this abb is kidnapping for vengeance, what’s the point of nabbing Wendy to get even with a man who’s been dead fifteen years? Wendy’s great-grandfather was gone long before she was even born. He never knew her. How could you get satisfaction from taking vengeance on a dead man?”

“Maybe it makes perfect sense if you’re an abb,” Bobby said, “with a screwed-up brain.”

“I guess.”

“Or maybe this whole crow thing is just cover, to make everyone think these kids were snatched by your standard-issue pervert, when maybe they’re really being caged in a lab somewhere.”

“Maybe, maybe, you’re full of too damn many maybes,” I said.

He shrugged. “Don’t look to me for wisdom. I’m just a wave-thrashing boardhead. This killer you mentioned. The guy in the news. He leave crows like this?”

“Not that I’ve read.”

“Serial killers, don’t they sometimes leave things like this?”

“Yeah. They’re called signatures. Like a writer’s byline. Taking credit for the work.”

I checked my wristwatch. Sunset would arrive in about five hours. We would be ready to go back to Wyvern by then. And even if we were not ready, we would go.

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