Moving to a new bloom, the hummingbird went zrrr-jikajika.
“She told her mom, she didn’t like the way they touched her.”
Tim said, “Surely she knew the girl meant iodine.”
“Maybe she misunderstood. Maybe she wanted to misunderstand.”
Linda’s face seemed to darken even as the sun waxed brighter.
“Chloe’s mother complained to the police.”
The blur of wings produced a soft solemn threnody.
“The police questioned my folks, and cleared them.”
“But it didn’t end there?”
“The district attorney was facing a hard re-election battle.”
Tim said, “So the law became just politics.”
She lowered her face from the sun, but kept her eyes closed.
“The D.A. hired a psychiatrist to interview the children.”
“All of them, not just Chloe?”
“All of them. And the wild stories started.”
“And then no going back,” he said.
“Naked games. Naked dancing. Animals killed in the classroom.”
“Animal sacrifice? People believed that?”
“Dogs and cats killed to scare the children into silence.”
“Two kids even said a little boy had been chopped apart.”
“And they never mentioned this to their parents?”
“Repressed memories. Chopped apart, buried in the schoolyard.”
“Then dig it up, find out.”
“They did, found nothing.”
“And that wasn’t the end of it?”
“They tore open the school walls, looking for kiddie porn.”
“And found none,” he assumed.
“None. Also looking for items used in satanic rituals.”
“This sounds like Salem in another century.”
“Kids said they were forced to kiss pictures of the devil.”
“And children never lie,” he said.
“I don’t blame them. They were little…and malleable.”
“Psychiatrists can unwittingly implant false memories.”
“Perhaps not always unwittingly. Ceilings were torn out.”
“All this from a knee abrasion.”
“Floors ripped up, looking for secret basement rooms.”
“And nothing ever found,” he said.
“No. But my folks were indicted on the strength of testimony.”
She opened her eyes. She was looking into the past.
“I think,” he said, “was there a lot of this back then?”
“Yeah. Scores of cases. A nationwide hysteria.”
“Some must have been true.”
“Ninety-five percent eventually proved bogus, maybe more.”
“But lives were ruined, people went to prison.”
After a silence, she said, “I had to see the psychiatrist.”
“The same one interviewing the preschool kids?”
“Yeah. The D.A. required it. And the child welfare department.”
“Had they taken you away from your parents?”
“They were trying. The psychiatrist said he could help me.”
“Help you what?”
“Help me remember why I had bad dreams.”
“Did you have bad dreams?”
“Doesn’t every child? I was ten. He had a forceful presence.”
“A forceful presence, a seductive voice. He made you like him.”
The ascension of the sun shrank the cup shadows on the table.
“He made you want to believe in things…hidden, forgotten.”
She folded both hands around the small espresso cup.
“The lights were soft. He was patient. His voice hushed.”
She lifted the cup but did not drink.
“He had a way of making you meet his eyes.”
A fine sweat chilled the back of Tim’s neck.
“He had such lovely, sad, sad eyes. And soft gentle hands.”
“How far did he lead you toward…false memories?”
“Maybe farther than I want to remember.”
She drank the last of her espresso.
“In our fourth session, he exposed himself to me.”
As she spoke, she rattled her cup back into the saucer.
With a paper napkin, Tim blotted the cold damp nape of his neck.
She said, “He asked me to touch it. Kiss it. But I wouldn’t.”
“Good God. You told somebody?”
“No one believed me. They said my parents put me up to it.”
“To discredit him.”
“I was taken from Mom and Dad. I had to live with Angelina.”
“Who was she?”
“My mother’s aunt. Molly and I, my dog Molly—to Angelina.”
She stared at the backs of her hands. Then at her palms.
“The night I left, they stoned our house, broke the windows.”
“Who stoned it?”
“Someone who believed in secret rooms and devil-kissing.”
She folded her hands, one over the other, on the table.
Her remarkable calm had not deserted her.
“I haven’t talked about this in fifteen years.”
He said, “You don’t have to go on with it now.”
“Yes. I do. But I need the courage of caffeine.”
“I’ll get two more espressos.”
Weaving between tables, he carried their soiled cups across the patio. At the coffeehouse door, he paused and looked back at her.
The beneficent sun seemed to favor her above anyone and anything in view. Judging solely by appearances, you might have thought this world had never been unkind to her, that a life of steady happiness explained the innocent beauty that drew your eyes, as if magnetized, to her face.
On the road again, Krait drove with a happy heart. Events were proving him to be the king of this world, not a mere prince.
Timothy Carrier might be a formidable adversary. But the mason had a weakness that would be the destruction of him.
No longer did Krait need to track down this elusive pair. He could make Carrier—and the woman—come to him.
As he drove to Laguna Niguel, a thought occurred to him that he found electrifying. Perhaps the reversed world that he saw in mirrors and that he longed to explore might be his true world, the one from which he had come.
If he had no mother, as memory assured him that he did not, if his life had begun suddenly at eighteen, and if prior to that his life remained a mystery, then it made sense that he had come into this world not by way of any womb, but through a mirror.
His yearning for the mirror world might be a yearning for his true home.
This further explained why he had never purchased a house of his own in this world. Subconsciously, he had realized that no place on this side of the mirror could fully satisfy his need for hearth and haven, because here he would be forever a stranger in a strange land.
He was superior to and apart from the people of this backward world because he hailed from a land where all was as it should be, everything familiar and eternally unchanging and clean, where nobody needed to be killed because everyone had been born dead.
In Laguna Niguel, he drove the streets of a solid middle-class neighborhood, where handsome tract homes were well maintained with quiet pride, and where families owned more cars than their garages could contain.
At a few houses, basketball hoops were fixed above garage doors. The nets hung ready, in expectation of after-school games.
No fewer but no more flags flew than basketball hoops waited, not gloriously undulant, but solemn and draped, stars folded into stars, and stripes curled into furrows.
Close-cropped green lawns, bordered beds of impatiens in lush red and purple plenitude, geometric trellises entwined with climbing roses eloquently spoke of a love for home and a need for order.
Krait, a stranger here, wished all these people dead, street after street of them, mile after mile, dead by the millions, and wished all the houses to ashes, and all the lawns to dust.
This world might be the wrong place for him, but at least he found himself here at the right time, on the brink of an age of great violence and mass murder.
He located the particular house that had drawn him to these suburban hills. Two stories of butter-yellow stucco and white wood. Dormers. Shake roof. Bay window. Potted geraniums on the porch.
After parking at the curb and rolling down the window in the passenger’s door, he put on a set of headphones. He picked up from the seat a hand-held directional microphone and pointed it at one of the windows on the second floor.
Earlier, he had retrieved the sophisticated mike from the suitcase in the trunk of the car. It was one of several items he had been perspicacious enough to order from his support group following the unfortunate loss of his first vehicle.
At a maximum distance of fifty yards, through a closed window, the directional microphone could pick up conversations that were inaudible to the unassisted ear. Wind diminished its usefulness, and heavy rain rendered it worthless. But now the sky was clear, and the air had a mortuary stillness.
One by one, he tried the second-floor windows, but none gave forth a sound.
From the ground floor came singing. The woman had a light sweet voice. She sang softly, with a casualness that suggested she might be entertaining herself while doing household chores. The song was “I’ll Be Seeing You,” an American standard.
Krait heard a series of clinks, a soft rattle. They might have been kitchen sounds.
He heard no other voice but hers. Evidently, she was home alone, which was what he expected based on what he had learned.
After switching off the directional microphone and rolling up the car window, he drove two blocks and parked on a different street in the same neighborhood.
Carrying a small cloth satchel, he walked back toward the yellow-and-white house.
The sun-washed residential streets had a dreamy quality: bees buzzing lazily over festoons of yellow lantana, the lacy foliage of California pepper trees seeming to shimmer with pleasure as they basked in the warm light, a calico cat sleeping on a front-porch step, three larks perched on the rim of a birdbath as if studying their reflections in the water….
At the target house, the front walkway was paved with quartzite cobblestones laid in an intricate and pleasing pattern.
The deadbolt in the front door was not engaged. The simpler lock popped instantly to the pick of the LockAid, making little noise.
He put away the LockAid and carried the satchel into a small foyer, and softly closed the door behind him.
From the back of the house came the woman’s fair voice. Now she sang “I Only Have Eyes for You.”
Krait stood for a moment, enjoying.
The hummingbird remained busy at the Mexican blood flowers.
Clean white cups held fresh black espresso.
“How many children were at that day-care?” Tim asked.
“How many were induced to remember things like na*ed games?”
“Seventeen. The D.A.’s office leaked the salacious details.”
“Were the kids given physical exams?”
“First the psychiatrist said exams would be traumatizing.”
“If the D.A. bowed to that, he suspected there was nothing.”
“Maybe he planned to drop the case after it got him reelected.”
“But it gained too much momentum in the media,” Tim guessed.
Quivers of sunlight curled like lemon-peel oil on the espresso.
“The psychiatrist spent months drawing out the seventeen.”
“The same one who exposed himself to you.”
“Eventually he okayed pre-trial physical exams.”
A dog on a leash led its whistling owner past the patio.
Linda watched the tail-wagging mutt until it was out of sight.
“Two little girls showed evidence of prior molestation.”
At another table, chair legs shrieked against the stone deck.
“Soft-tissue scarring,” she said. “One of the girls was Chloe.”
“The one whose mother started it all.”
“By then Chloe was on more than Ritalin.”
“What do you mean?”
“Her parents hired the psychiatrist to treat her long-term.”
The crimson flowers bobbed their heads in a stir of air.
“He medicated Chloe. As part of her therapy.”
“The girls claimed more than…naked games?”
“Graphic claims of molestation,” she said.
The laughter of young women rose from a table under the tree.
“They said my mother held them down while my father…”
One of the laughs was silvery, the others shrill.
Disturbed from their branches, three sparrows flew.
“The girls’ testimony was recorded by the D.A.”
The sparrows soared, vanished in the throat of the sky.
“The psychiatrist was present for the recording,” she said.
“Are recordings like that admissible in court?”
“Shouldn’t have been, but the judge steamrolled it.”
“Grounds for appeal.”
“No hope of that, as it turned out.”
Like a scimitar, a brown feather carved down through the air.
“My father got twenty years. He went to San Quentin.”
“How old were you?”
“Ten when it started. Almost twelve by the verdict.”
“She got eight to ten years. A women’s prison in Corona.”
Espresso occupied her for a while.
Tim wanted to reach out to her, but he sensed that she would refuse comforting. The hardness of the injustice had long sustained her. Anger was her only comfort.
“Dad served five months before an inmate killed him.”
Her story had a weight that bowed Tim’s head.
“Stabbed four times in the gut, twice in the face.”
Tim closed his eyes but did not like the darkness.
“My mother developed pancreatic cancer. Misdiagnosed in prison.”
Looking up, he saw her staring at the feather on the table.
“In the hospital, she had no strength to hold my hand.”
A young man with a bouquet of roses crossed the patio.
“I held her hand in both of mine, but she slipped away.”
The bearer of flowers joined the laughing women.
“Their legal defense bankrupted them. Angelina had little.”
A woman rose to kiss the young man. He looked happy.
“Our name had been Locadio, but that was notorious now.”