Wednesday September 13 2006
As Andrew Grissom wheeled his car into a handicap space at the Playhouse Daycare and Preschool, he told himself that he wasn't worried, not really. I've been shot at, blown up, and damn near stoned to death, he thought. I've fallen out of airplanes and driven vehicles through burning buildings. Working for the government, I've seen and done stuff nobody but the black-helicopter crowd would believe. Hell, I've flown black helicopters. Surely, I can manage half ownership of a four-year-old. He hung his wheelchair tag on the rear view and went inside, looking for his grandson. The receptionist was sitting in a glass-fronted office just inside the door; without getting up, she directed him down a long hall to a door at the rear of the building. "He's on the playground right now. Just make sure you see Annie as soon as you get there, okay?"
He heard the racket before he reached the door: children shouting and laughing, calling to one another, a waterfall of sound. As he turned the knob, an adult voice, young and female, cut through the din. "Dale, come here, sweetie, your shoe's untied."
The playground was an area measuring about sixty by eighty, enclosed by a privacy fence and floored with wood chips instead of sand. A couple of good-sized spruces provided unclimbable greenery; the rest of the area was taken up with playground equipment and a riot of running, busy children. In the middle of it all, a young woman was kneeling, bent over in front of a child as she tied his shoelace. "There you go, sport." As the child ran back into the fray, she stood up and glanced his way.
Pretty little thing, was his first thought as she smiled at him and approached, brushing at her knees. Early twenties; blonde hair, pixie short; blue eyes; about five-one, one hundred to one-ten, all American girl. She was wearing the daycare's version of a uniform: a smock in the business's trademark color, with their logo over the left breast. "Hi, welcome to the zoo. Can I help you?"
He pointed to his grandson. "Just here to watch him play for a bit."
"Can I see a driver's license, please?"
"It's okay. I'm his grandfather."
The friendly smile didn't change, exactly, but something hard appeared behind those grey-blue eyes. Later, he would look back on that moment as the first of several times his radar should have pinged. "It's okay if you're his grandfather. I need to see some ID right now, though." He took only a heartbeat to wonder what this little twig of a girl might do if he refused, then reached for his wallet and held it open to display his license.
She glanced at it and became chummy again. "Sorry bout that, Mister Grissom, but I've never seen you here before; I needed to make sure you're on the approved list."
He couldn't help smiling at her. Must be the attitude. "I didn't see you check any list."
She tapped the side of her head. "It's not that long. Eleven kids, twenty-six names; the CTC list is longer."
"Call the Cops. Mostly exes and their parents." She glanced at the door. "Crystal really should have checked you out before you left the office. That's why it's at the front door, after all."
"Then maybe they should put you in the office." I bet anybody could talk their way past the girl who's there now.
She grinned; a cute pair of dimples made a brief appearance. "Not what I signed up for. I'm strictly a playground supervisor, and contingent besides."
"Hm. You're going to have to add a couple names to your list."
"His mom and dad's divorce is final next week. It was a little ugly."
She looked grave. "That's a rotten shame. Who has custody?"
"My son, but it was a near thing." You'd think prolonged absence in service to your country wouldn't be as big a disqualifier as infidelity, but family court seems to have some damn funny ideas. If Adrienne hadn't gone cheap on a lawyer, I might be on the CTC list by now.
"The office is going to need a copy of the custody decree, to bar his mom."
"And her boyfriend."
"Ew. Like that, huh? Dan seems like such a nice guy."
"You know him?"
"Well, he talks to me, if Drew's on the playground when he comes for him. Half these kids' parents couldn't tell you my name – or anybody's here. Can you imagine? The people who watch their kid eight or ten hours a day. Scary." She glanced behind him. "That bench back there is more comfy than it looks, if you want to take a seat and watch him. By the way," she said,leading the way as if he might get lost on the four-yard journey, "it's sweet that they named him after his grandfather."
He was beginning to feel annoyed. He was flattered, at first, by so much attention from a pretty young girl, but her solicitousness was starting to make him feel like an old cripple. "I think the college trust I set up for him might have had something to do with it; I'm pretty sure her dad's name was their original choice." He stood by the bench, not sitting, although she was plainly waiting for him to do so. "You know, you really don't need to hover like this. Shouldn't you be out there, watching the kids?"
"Not really. This place is pretty well designed. I can see the whole playground from anywhere, and I can actually keep track of the kids better if I'm not in the middle of them. Besides, company policy says I have to stick close to you while you're on the playground."
"Oh." So maybe she's not babysitting me, after all. "I thought I checked out okay."
"It's not about the kids, it's liability."
"If a kid comes in from the playground with a skinned knee, it's not a big deal, just kid stuff. But if an adult trips and falls down, they hire a lawyer." She glanced back at the play area. "Really, you should have had an escort from the front door, but Crystal's not supposed to leave the office empty, and staffing at this place is always bare minimum."
"I see. So, if I park my butt on this bench, you don't have to divide your attention, right?" He sat, feeling like a stubborn old fool. "Sorry. I wasn't trying to make your job harder. I'll stay out of your way."
"As if." She turned and sat down beside him, with less than a foot between. "These guys are no trouble, not any more. The first week was kind of hairy, while we felt each other out; now they know what I'm about, what they can count on me to do and what I'll allow or won't. Only three or four of them need a close eye." She spoke casually, but he noticed that she scanned the playground with eyes that were seldom still, like a sentry expecting an attack at any moment. He also couldn't help noticing the foot and a half of bench on the other side of her; she was sitting a lot closer than she had to. "Look. Under the slide. See her?"
He looked. In the shadow under the bottom of the slide, two eyes peeped out, surrounded by a cloud of coal-black hair.
"That's Bethie: she's my hider. She's waiting for me to notice her." She called out, in a voice not much louder than her speaking voice, but pitched high to carry, "Bethie! You come out of there and dust off, or I'm gonna scrub you with a floor brush!" To him, she said, "She comes with a change of clothes, fortunately; her mom doesn't mind her getting dirty, as long as she can come home clean. See the boy by the platform, a head taller than the others?"
The kid was running around the outside of the three-foot-high structure, growling like a bear and reaching towards the littler ones on the raised surface, pretending to be trying to catch them; they shrieked with excitement and ran from one side to the other, all of them having a ball. "That's Malcolm: he's my bully. Not really, but he has some weird notions of social interaction. When I came here, the only game he played was Cat and Mouse, chasing all the other kids from one side of the playground to the other and pushing them down, and attendance was down by half on days he was here, because parents wouldn't leave their kids when they saw him. He's going to be okay, the other kids are coming around him some, but I can't let him get away with anything, or he'll be all alone again." She turned to him. "And then there's Drew, the most precocious child I've ever talked to. He's a little adventurer who's always a misstep away from hurting himself somehow; the kid has absolutely no fear. Just like his dad, I'm betting. Special Forces, isn't he?"
"Marine. Force Recon."
"Force Recon. Those are the guys who find out just how bad it's going to be for the rest of the troops, by going in first and seeing how many people shoot at them?"
He chuckled. "Too close to the truth. He's getting out at the end of the month, thank God." And already dropping hints about a 'job interview,' very big money, can't discuss it, even with the old man. IO keeps an eye on our family members for potential recruits; it streamlines the background checks and reduces security risks. Like the goddamn Mafia. Of course, since they must want him for his combat skills, he'll be on a team, headed right back into the meat grinder, only on a general's pay.
He felt her fingers lace into his. "Hey. It's a sunshiny day. The air is filled with children's laughter. There has to be a law against looking so grim." She looked down at their joined hands. "Um, my family tells me I'm 'touchy-feely.' I seem to have no sense of personal space. I know it makes a lot of people uncomfortable, and we just met, but it reassures the kids, when they see a stranger on the playground. Are you okay with this, Mister Grissom?"
He raised his eyebrows. "Well, I could get comfortable with it … but you'd have to start calling me Andy. If you do this with boys your own age, I bet it leads to some misunderstandings."
She squeezed his fingers. "Oh, yeah, my age, and about twenty years beyond. One of my girlfriends calls me 'Handsy Anne'. It's a liability sometimes, but when I'm hitting it off with someone, I just feel compelled to touch them, to make them real. Am I making any sense?" She disengaged her fingers and stood up. "Or maybe I just have a thing for older men. Scuse."
He watched her walk directly to a corner of the play area where two boys were facing off. To Andy, it looked no different from half a dozen altercations he'd seen since he'd been sitting there, disputes that had vanished as fast as they appeared. Just as she reached them, one of the kids lifted his arms, as if to deliver a push; the motion stopped as soon as the boy saw Annie a step away. She saw the trouble coming before it started; she's got these kids pegged. She knelt between them, bringing all their heads to the same level. Her back was turned to him, but he could see the boys' faces clearly. She let them do most of the talking for about a minute, then delivered some statement or judgment that sent them off together, pals again. She surveyed her modest domain briefly, and then returned to her spot on the bench.
"Annie, have you got a boyfriend?"
She cocked an eyebrow. "I've got a husband. And kids."
He looked at her hand. "No ring."
"I'm not much into jewelry, and that tradition always struck me as silly. I get uncomfortable when I see women mooning over somebody's new engagement ring, like they only said 'yes' for the rock on their finger. I wouldn't want that thought crossing my man's mind."
I'll bet Dan's still making payments on the one Adrienne picked out. I wonder what she'll do with it. "I doubt it ever would. And if it did, he'd probably think it was worth it."
She turned her head and gave him a very direct look. "Should I have said, 'forty years beyond'?"
He chuckled. "Actually, I was sounding out my chances of adopting you, or fixing you up with my son."
"Andy, he's not even divorced yet. You think he's ready?"
"The marriage was ashes a year ago. For appearances' sake, she stayed until he came back from overseas, then moved out and filed – divorce and custody of Drew."
"Welcome home, soldier." Her gaze turned back to the playground.
"Yeah." He shifted on the seat. "No, little girl, I'm sure you wouldn't be interested in some decrepit old fart old enough to be your father."
"Humph. According to your driver's license, you're four years older than my husband."
He felt his ears redden. "He's sixty?"
"Next birthday. How's that foot taste?"
"He's rich, I suppose."
"If he weren't, I'd have to get a real job." She turned his way with a smile that vanished instantly when she looked at him. "I wonder if I'm ever going to get through three days in a row without seeing that look."
"Look?" But he knew what she was talking about.
"The look a man gives a woman when he thinks he's discovered her price."
He flushed again, even more deeply. "I didn't mean… I wasn't thinking…"
She let out a breath. "I don't get angry about it any more, it's pointless. But I see it on people's faces every time we're out together. Any woman married to a man twice her age – and they are loaded, usually – she's a whore, and the man she's married to is… either being led around by his penis or an egotistical fool trying to reaffirm his masculinity. It's so stupid. Andy, listen to me: I didn't marry Jack because he's rich; he made himself rich by being the kind of man I wanted to marry. Do you understand the difference?"
I understand why she won't wear a rock on her finger. "Annie, I believe you, but I don't understand."
"I suppose I look like a kid to you, but women my age are old enough to have been dating a third of our lives, and if we're still looking for a man, we've been through the wars. We've had our share of losers and cheaters and men…whose self-destruct timers are armed and ticking. And we've had our fill of overgrown boys who think of a woman as another toy, or worse, another mommy to take care of them. If you know one of us who'll tell you the truth, she'll tell you that washboard abs and girl-pretty looks are mighty fine, but what she really wants is a man who's a self-starter, with ambition and self-discipline and a sense of self-worth; a man who values his word, values friendship, values love. Andy, men aren't born with those qualities; they develop them. It takes time, and a lot of them just don't have it yet when they reach my age. Whenever I hear some woman moan about how all the good ones are taken, I just want to shake her and say, 'No, they're not! But you've got to stop excluding older guys from your dating pool!'"
She stopped, apparently to catch her breath. "Sorry. I know how wound up I get about this. A hundred years ago, May-October marriages were common as wildflowers; I don't know how they got turned into something perverse. Jack carries decades of struggle and triumph and defeat on his face, and no amount of makeup would make him look like a girl. But he's the finest man, of any age, that I've ever known, and I'm very lucky to have him. He doesn't like dating younger women, go figure, but he'd had a long dry spell when I met him, and he took a chance." She showed her dimples again. "And we hit it off right away. I fell in love. What else is there to say? Oh, I got a great deal on him, too: he came with five kids, no extra charge."
"Good God." He shook his head.
"Not quite a crazy as it sounds: they're housebroken, got their papers, shots up to date and everything." She seemed to glow as she said it. "Actually, only one of them is Jack's. The others are wards, kids he took in. See what I mean about him? Ages spread from seventeen to twenty-one. It's not like I'm changing diapers, or spooning mush into their mouths, or dressing and bathing them. Sometimes one of them will even load the dishwasher." She looked out on the playground. "I have to come here for my regular dose of nose-wiping and of toddler talk." She clapped her hands and every child looked her way. "Time! Wrap it up, you guys!" She turned to him. "Time for my next bunch. I guarantee Drew will be the last one inside."
He stood. "It's been really nice meeting you. If I come back tomorrow, will you be here?"
"Normally, I couldn't say, being contingent, but I know somebody quit today. I'll be here all week, likely." She offered her hand. "Tomorrow, then."
He was impressed with her handshake: she had the grip of a man, one twice her size. "At the risk of having you remind me you're married … have we met before?"
She locked eyes. "Trust me, Andy. If I knew you from somewhere else, I'd remember you. Vividly."
Thursday September 14 2006
"Annie, you make it sound like we should pull Drew out of here."
"Oh, no! Griping about staff is just one of my pet peeves about daycare in general."
It was the next day. As predicted, Annie had been shepherding her flock in the play area when he arrived, again without escort. The same girl was in the office; she hadn't even glanced up as he walked down the hall past her.
"You could do a lot worse than this place, believe me. It's clean and well-designed; it's safe, and if they had enough people to operate according to the written policies, it would be secure as an army base. They don't serve the kids swill for lunch, and they provide real activities for them, instead of plunking them down in front of the TV for six hours a day. It's just that the company seems to be trying to make back its initial outlay straight out of the payroll budget. Aside from me, the administrator, and the nurse, nobody here is making more than minimum wage. It's no wonder turnover is so high. If you work here, and you have a kid of your own in daycare, and you drive to work, you're working for almost nothing.
"And it's not just the economics that make no sense. Taking care of kids is important. But the wages they earn tell the people who work here that their jobs are menial and insignificant. Do you know, there are children here with parents who work downtown; they pay more to park their cars than they do to park their kids. Raising children shouldn't be a job you take because you're desperate and you can't find anything better."
"And yet, you're working here." He watched her redo a shirt on a boy who'd mismatched the buttons and holes; his parent, it seemed, had dropped him off without noticing the error.
"I'm a special case; this is more of a hobby for me. I'm learning a lot from these little guys. I may talk Jack into adopting, some day."
Better hurry, he thought. Then: What am I thinking about? I just agreed to help raise a four-year-old. "Annie, I've got a proposition for you."
She sent the boy off, then cocked an eye at him. God, she's cute.
"Stop it. It's a business proposition."
"Aren't they all? Did I mention today that I'm married, Andy?" Her features settled. "Just teasing. Don't look so nervous. Just lay it out."
"Come to work for me, full-time. Take care of Drew for Dan and me. I'll pay you whatever you think it's worth – name your price."
"At your house, or Dan's, I presume? Take him out of here?"
"Yes. You'd have a class of one, at a wage worth your time. We'll have to negotiate hours, but for the rest, it's your show."
She gave him a stern look. "And what, exactly, will the two of you be doing while I'm raising this child as my own? Looking on in approval, maybe?"
"Annie, neither of us has a clue how to raise a kid; we were both gone all the time, and the womenfolk handled it. I watch what you do to keep these kids safe and happy, and my heart just sinks. We need help."
"Hmp. Maybe you do, but not the kind you're offering me money for. How long have you two had him?"
"Two weeks Monday."
"Uh huh. And he's coming here clean, dressed, and rested, no marks, not diving into his oatmeal like he missed dinner. So, what is it you think you're doing wrong?"
He rubbed at the knot at the back of his neck. "I don't know, but I don't think I can afford a single mistake."
"You're not going to avoid mistakes, Andy. It'll be all right. You want some advice?"
"All I can get, from you."
"Flatterer. Don't take him out of daycare; he's got a lot of friends here, and he's learning some useful life skills. Didn't you notice that he's one of the ringleaders around here? When he gets to kindergarten, he'll adjust much better for it. Also, you ought to be enjoying him; playing with kids is a great stress reducer. Do you play at home?"
He grinned. "Some, but I'm a little awkward. Drew has to teach me everything."
"That'll pass. You're doing all right. Just give him the love and attention he needs, and space when he needs that, and not having his mommy around isn't going to cripple him. That's what you're worried about, isn't it?"
"Only, say, every five minutes."
"Wuss." She punched his shoulder, and then rubbed her knuckles. "Ow. I thought decrepit old farts were poofy and squishy. That was like hitting a bag of cement. You're ex-Army too, aren't you?"
"About twenty years 'ex'. Been doing security work since then."
She gave him an odd look; it would be another time to ask himself, in retrospect, why alarm bells didn't ring. "Dan talked with me a little yesterday, when he came for Drew. I mentioned that I met you, and he warmed right up; he thinks the world of you. Before I knew it, he was talking about this new job he had a line on, and the big money he'd been offered. But when I asked him what he was going to be doing, he got evasive, gave me some line about 'security work'. A while back, I was reading this book about the CIA in the sixties and seventies. Did you know they used to have their own armed forces? Recruited them from retired and discharged veterans, or got them pulled from their units for 'detached duty'."
"Is that so?" Keep your voice casual. Don't look her in the eye.
"Yep. At first it was just scratch teams put together for special jobs, like making sure the right Asian warlord got on top in a certain area. After a while, though, the dirty-tricks missions were coming so thick and fast, the teams stopped disbanding; they stayed on the payroll and became specialists in ops that never see the light of day."
"That's all very interesting, I suppose, but what's it got to do with Dan?"
"Because I think he's still following in his father's footsteps."
"Hon, I never worked for the CIA, and I don't think Dan will, either. The Agency quit doing that stuff about the time Bush took over as Director. I was still in the Service then."
"I won't press, Andy, but I'm not buying it. Both of you, be careful … and come back to Drew and me."
Drew … and me. I've known this girl for two days. She's half my age, and married. "I'm retired, remember? And Dan's getting out in a couple weeks. Reporting in is about his only duty now."
"Uh huh." She looked out over the playground. "I'm not convinced."
Change the subject. "You know, I still can't shake the idea that I've seen you before. Did I know your mom, maybe?"
"My mom." She was still looking out at the kids, but now he felt she was avoiding his eyes. "Don't think so. People tell me I look just like her, in the face. But she's six inches taller, brown-brown instead of blonde-blue – and if you talked to her for five minutes, you'd say we don't resemble each other in the slightest."
"You don't get along, I take it."
"Oh, you are so very right. The woman wants to run my life, cradle to grave; what I want means nothing to her. She doesn't take no for an answer. The only way to deal with her is to avoid her entirely, and I mean entirely. She doesn't have my address or phone number. I know a couple of people who tell me how she's doing, what she's up to. That's all the contact I need or want."
"That's harsh, Annie. I wouldn't expect you to have an attitude like that about anybody."
"She doesn't give me any choice, Andy; if she could locate me, she'd just swoop down to take my life away from me, starting with Jack and the kids. I'm not about to let that happen."
"What about your dad? How does he figure in?"
"My relationship with my dad is … complex. Have you guessed that I'm an Army brat?"
"You did appear schooled in some things military." For someone who'd never pass the physical, especially.
"Dad is like one of those guys on Mount Rushmore: stern and aloof and larger than life. He even looks like Teddy Roosevelt, only without the glasses. We never talked, when I was young. But whenever he was around, he always kept an eye on me." She smiled at a memory. "Beautiful eyes, sort of a deep gray-green. I loved looking into them, even when he was staring me down like he was ready to shoot me. He was very strict; he didn't give me a chance to pull anything, not that I would have. But I understood: it was Mom calling the shots and making the rules, and he was enforcing them."
"I used to do the same thing with Dan and Jessie, when I was home. When you're only there a tenth of the time, it's not right to make rules that everybody else has to live with, the other ninety percent when you're gone."
"Uh huh. Well, he and Mom are separated now. Just lately, we've been talking some. I'm getting to know him, finally; it's nice." She smiled out at the playground. "Andy, what would you say-"
She was gone. A wood chip lay in his lap, and a puff of dust was still rising by the bench, but she was all the way across the playground, and Drew was tumbling off the monkey bars into her arms.
A hammerblow of memory struck him. Of course he'd seen those gray-blue eyes before, hundreds of times, returning their cool appraisal over the barrel of his rifle with sweat trickling down his temple.
It had to be. Nothing human could move so fast. And it had his grandson.
He had half risen from his seat when she turned towards him, his grandson in one arm. Drew shrieked again, breathless with laughter, and threw an arm around her as she rubbed her knuckles across his head. "You scamp. You did that on purpose. What am I gonna do with you?" Three children looked their way and laughed, as if they'd seen the same thing a hundred times.
He sat back down, heavily, his gimp heart pounding alarmingly. Jesus God, what was I thinking? My grandson's playground director, a berserker assassin robot. Do they have a name for this kind of stress disorder? Ten minutes ago, I was working up the nerve to ask her out for a cup of coffee. Ten seconds ago, I would have opened fire on her with a rocket launcher. Come back to reality, Grissom. She's just fast and alert, that's all; I wasn't paying attention, probably senility creeping in. And she thinks I can give this kid a stable environment.
With Drew still in her arms, she was standing four steps away, searching his face. God knows what she must see. I wonder if I'm going to start seeing that thing everywhere I go, until they finally lock me up. Adrienne will be calling her lawyer before the doors slam shut.
She finally spoke – to the boy, not him. "I thought you knew not to do that in front of grownups."
"That's not a grownup, it's Grampa." The boy grinned at him. "She's fast."
Her expression was grave. "The first time was an accident. But now that he knows I can reach him in time from anywhere in the playground, it's a game, trying to catch me by surprise. Guess the cat's out of the bag, isn't it, Sergeant?"
Again, his vision shrank to a tunnel, with her at the other end. He could feel invisible hands squeezing his throat.
Her eyes widened in alarm and she spun away, turning her back to him, clutching Drew tightly to her. "Andy! Are you reaching for your piece, or your pills?"
He looked down at his right hand, which was pressed against his chest near the opening in his jacket. She thought I was armed. She turned her back, to put herself between Drew and a loaded gun. "I dunno. Not a weapon; I think I was trying to clutch my heart."
"Great. You scared me to death two different ways at the same time."
"I didn't know if you were going to have a heart attack, or open fire on me in a playground full of kids."
"I wouldn't try to use a gun on you. I know what you can do." Those pictures of her covered in blood, standing in a field of bodies …
She set Drew down and sent him off. Then, she turned, walked up, and stood before him, hands clasped in front of her, looking ten years old. "Andy, are you okay? I mean, are we still okay?"
"I don't know. Maybe. What happened to you?" In the lab, I never spoke to her. Not once in a year and a half. But my aim never left her face.
"The story of Pinocchio: I found someone to love me, I tried really hard to be good, and eventually … I became a real girl."
She sat down in her usual place beside him. Now that I know, having her within arm's length of me, I should jump like a cat whose tail's been stepped on; I was terrified of her every time she looked my way. His heart was still hammering in his chest; it reminded him that she'd known about the pills.
"Andy, do you want me to move? Your heart is running like a sewing machine."
"Can you get me a glass of water? I think it's time for one of these damn pills."
She stood and took a single step towards the door before she turned to face him. "Are you going to be here when I get back?"
"Unless I croak first, kid." He gave her a weak smile.
He barely had time to shake one of the tablets out of the bottle and dry-swallow it before she was back, with a small plastic cup marred by little teeth. He drained it at one go. "How did you know?"
"I can hear your heartbeat when I'm close enough; a heart that's been damaged sounds different. Then I noticed the outline of the prescription bottle in your jacket. When did it happen?"
"Three years ago, about. They retired me before I was out of the hospital. If I'd known retirement was this easy to adjust to, I'd have had one years ago." He passed the cup back. Instead of taking it from his hand, she closed her fingers over his. He started, but didn't try to pull away; not just because he knew he couldn't, if she wanted to hold him, but because he felt disinclined to try. She held his eyes with her own.
"Does it feel different, Andy? Now that you know, under the skin, it's titanium and boron fiber, or whatever?"
"'Or whatever?' Don't you know?"
"Not a clue. They didn't give me a set of blueprints, you know."
He didn't understand why, but that uncertainty made him feel better about her. "How did you get away?"
"I didn't exactly have to shoot my way out. When I decided to leave, I pretty much just walked away. That was over two years ago, and I don't know if anybody ever noticed." She set the cup on the ground and sat beside him again. When she reached for his hand, he let her twine her fingers in his.
Without looking at her, he said, "So, you made it all up? About having a family?"
"No, every word is true."
"And they know about you?"
"It's not something you can hide from somebody you're living with. Jack knew before I moved in with him. They all accepted me, each in their own way. They're a wonderful bunch. Bobby calls me 'Mom'."
"Hm. The sixty year old husband makes a little more sense now."
"Well, you know. To make the charade work, you'd want to look for someone who's … prepared to forego … having relations."
"'Charade.' Oh, jeez, Andy, is there room for two feet in that mouth?"
"Uh? You mean …"
"I mean that, outside of the kids' rooms, I don't think there's a horizontal surface in that house we haven't done it on. Jack is not a man to forego his … husbandly duties to his wife, especially when his wife is so enthusiastic." Her eyelids drooped until she was looking at him through her long lashes. "He claims I'm his first virgin. If that's true, he's got a natural talent for starting a girl off right. Oh, good. I'm glad you've got the decency to blush."
"Good God, how did we get started into this conversation?"
"I think it started when you hinted how lucky I was to find a man who didn't need a real wife."
"Um. Sorry, didn't know."
"Lots of things about me that you guys never troubled yourselves to learn. It seems to me that Dr. Seabrook and his people didn't learn anything about me that the original design team couldn't have told them."
He said carefully, "And exactly what design team would that have been?"
"Are you being cagey?" She gestured at herself with her free hand. "Nobody built this in a basement workshop. There must have been a design team, a good one. The project must have had deep pockets, too."
"No doubt. But, as of the time I left IO, nobody knew who they were, or who built you."
"What are you talking about? IO built me."
"Annie, IO didn't know a thing about you when we acquired you; if we had, we wouldn't have been studying you like some alien artifact, would we?" He paused, looking at his grandson, remembering how she had turned to protect him. "You sound like you don't remember your own beginnings, is that right?"
"I have some scattered bits of memory, from before I came to the lab. Aside from that, my life started as Dr. Seabrook's lab rat … and yours is the very first face I remember."
And my first sight of you was in the envelope that came with the steel box you arrived in; once through those pictures and the only way I looked at you in person was over the barrel of my rifle. I had you in my sights from the moment you got off the table like Frankenstein's Monster. "So, none of your memories includes mass murder? I have pictures of you surrounded by bodies. Grinning up at the camera with blood on your teeth." It came out a lot harsher than he'd intended. He didn't know what sort of reaction to expect: blank incomprehension, hot denial, killing rage all seemed possible. But I've got to know.
She looked down into her lap. In a tiny voice, she said, "Is it true, then?"
"What? You're asking me?"
"I said I don't remember much, from before … But I had a dream one night…"
"A dream? You sleep now?"
"Not nearly as much as you, but yes. I had this nightmare. I was locked in a room full of people; they were armed, everything from assault rifles to table legs, and they were all coming after me." She made a little sound, something like a moan. "I was wading into them, killing them with my bare hands. They were shooting each other, trying to hit me, and I was smashing them to pieces, and blood, just everywhere-" He saw tears running down her cheeks. "I came out of bed swinging and screaming. Thank God Jack was up already. And then Caitlin rushed in, and she knew how dangerous it was, what I could do, but she didn't even hesitate, just threw her arms around me-" She fell silent as her chin dropped to her chest. "I don't deserve the luck I've had, finding those kids, and Jack. They're worth my life."
"Annie?" It was Bethie, looking from Annie to him with huge eyes. "You cryin?"
"It's okay, sweetie, they're happy tears." She lifted their joined hands. "This is Drew's Grampa. He's a very nice man."
The kid turned and ran for the playground equipment.
Looking after her, Annie said, "I hope she understands happy tears. This morning, her mom was wearing sunglasses when she brought her in; it looked like she was sporting a shiner on her left eye. Might not mean anything, but if it happens again, or if Bethie comes in marked up … I might have to do something."
Something. "Like tell your supervisor?"
"Been there. Seems the potential loss of Bethie's tuition trumps my suspicions."
"Police?" He thought he already knew her answer. "Not enough evidence?"
"One black eye does not an abuse case make; neither does a little girl who's learned to hide when she's surrounded by noise and frenetic activity. Besides, I can't bring charges; even if my ID held up to police scrutiny, I can't appear as a witness."
A scrappy little thing like this, wimping out? "A lot of people feel that way about being on the witness stand, Annie. It'd be all right."
"Andy … I can't get past the metal detector at the courthouse door."
"Oh. Yeah. Guess not." He took a deep breath, and let it out. Should have known. "What will you do, then?"
"I'll tell Caitlin, my oldest. She loves kids. She'll kick the crap out of him."
"What about you?"
She shook her head. "I wouldn't dare. I don't trust myself to know when to stop."
"I'm not sure I would, either. Annie, there's something that's really bothering me about this. I stared at you for hours a day for a year and a half; these past two days, I've been a foot away from you, three or four hours altogether. It's been eight years, sure, but still … why the hell didn't I recognize you?"
"Well, I've got some ideas on the subject. When did you recognize me?"
"You know very well: when you moved like lightning to catch Drew."
"Uh huh." She turned away. "Andy, what do I look like?"
"What do I look like? Describe me."
"Five feet, five-one, short blonde hair, blue eyes, maybe a hundred and five …"
"Stop. A million people match that description; no one could recognize me from that. What about my nose?"
"Well, it's between your eyes and above your mouth."
"Ha ha. Is it straight, or does it bend left or right?"
"Sounds like you're guessing already. Is the bridge bent or straight? Is there a bulb at the tip? Are my nostrils the same size?"
"Why wouldn't your nostrils be the same size?"
"A lot of people's aren't, you know. How about mine?"
"Annie, they built you perfect."
"They wanted me to look as human as possible; people have imperfections. Perfect bilateral symmetry is rare: your two front teeth aren't exactly the same; your eyes and ears aren't level. You've worn a wedding ring; did it fit the third fingers of both hands the same?"
"Okay, okay. I don't remember your nostrils. Guess you can lose a lot of detail after eight years."
"Testing your theory."
He turned away from her, and she let go of his hand.
"Okay. You were looking at the back of my head five seconds ago. Did my hair cover the tops of my ears?"
I wasn't looking at your hair; I was wracking my brain trying to visualize your freaking nostrils, for god's sake. "Aaaargh! Fine. I don't have a clue what you look like, okay? Get me my white cane and glasses." He turned back. "So why am I sure I could find you in an airport full of people?"
She tapped his forehead gently. "Nifty computer you've got there. Four terabytes of storage, they think, and nobody's sure how fast it works. But the sensor suite's made to handle analog input, not digital; it works best making comparisons and processing changes of state, not mathematical manipulations of raw data. The human eye is drawn to movement, I suppose you know?"
Sure; if a flare goes off overhead, you're usually a lot safer if you freeze than if you dive for cover. "Uh huh."
"Your sense of smell and hearing work that way, too: an odor or a constant sound will fade into the background after a while, and you have to think about it to bring them back to your attention."
"I've had occasion to be grateful for that."
"I bet." She touched the backside of the bench. "Can you touch this, and tell if it's smooth or rough?"
He felt it carefully. "Got some rough edges, nothing big."
"Andy, why couldn't you just touch it to tell?"
"No, you didn't. You ran your hand along it, and felt the ragged part scrape along your fingers. You made the rough part feel different by introducing motion."
"Okay, I see what you're getting at. But this answers my earlier question how?"
"People don't usually recognize one another by memorizing maps of their faces. How often does a police sketch really look like the suspect? And the artist is somebody trained to pull details out of a witness's memory. And crazy as it sounds, pretty faces are harder to remember than ones that aren't."
"Analog computer, remember? Some time when you first laid eyes on me, you compared me to an ideal or composite template in your mind. You looked at my nose and decided it wasn't too big or too small, too straight or too crooked, and in proportion to the rest of my face. You did the same thing with all my other features: lips, eyes, chin, cheeks. You examined me for unusual asymmetry. When you decided I had no unusual characteristics to fix me in your memory, you classified me as 'pretty' or even 'beautiful'. But really, I just failed to be memorably ugly."
"So… how'd I recognize you?"
"What usually makes a person familiar to you is subtle: their walk, their body language, the way they turn their heads or smile, lots of stuff. I'm talking about the things that give a person's face and body life." She stood up. "I vaguely resembled someone you used to know, until I did something you recognized instantly. There's more to it than that, but…" She clapped her hands "Time to go in, guys!" Without looking at him, she asked, "Well, Andy, have you decided?"
"Whether you're going to drop a dime on me, and tell IO you've found their runaway robot. Are you going to help 'Mom' swoop down and steal my life away?"
He tried to bring them to his mind's eye, those horrible pictures that had wrecked his sleep so many nights; he tried to imagine that creature loosed on the world. But he kept seeing her with her back turned to danger, Drew clutched in her arms, shielding him. "No. No way in hell."
"Thanks. You're giving me a lot of trust, considering."
"So are you. What would you have done if I'd said anything else?"
"Run. Again. Grab the kids and an armload of clothes and burn rubber; let Jack find us later."
"You could silence the informant."
"As if." She bent slightly and kissed his forehead. "This is my last bunch today. How 'bout we go get some coffee?"
The coffee at Legal Grounds wasn't bad, the décor was down-to-earth, and there was no canned music. He sat in a booth and watched her sitting across from him, a glass of ice water held between her hands. She pursed her lips around the straw, taking it into her mouth a little further than necessary. She pulled up just enough water to wet her lips and let it go as she puckered briefly, making her lips glisten with moisture, never taking her eyes off him.
"What are you doing?" When I was eighteen, seeing a girl do that would've made it impossible to get up from the table; now, it just makes me uneasy.
She blinked, and slid the glass aside. "Sorry. I don't mean to act like I'm coming on to you, really. But my human-analog program is automatic to the point of reflex now. It recognizes you as a virile male that I want to impress, and sends these suggestions to my motion controller. I can override, but it takes a conscious effort. Strange," she continued, pretending not to see him flush, "I used to be aware of every notion in my head, and trace it back to source code; now, sometimes, I can't even describe what I'm thinking."
"Well, welcome to the human race."
She dimpled. "Thanks. Means a lot, coming from you. I just hope I never run into Dr. Seabrook; I don't think the meeting would be nearly as pleasant."
"I doubt you could get him to recognize you if you tried."
She nodded. "Yeah. As much time as he spent examining me, he never really looked at me; not like you." She grinned and put a hand to her lips. "Do you remember, when he had me tip back my head and open my jaws as wide as they'd go, and he put his face an inch from my mouth-"
"Reminded me of a lion tamer."
"Yes! I could have bitten his nose; I swear it was between my teeth for a second, when he was twisting his head around." She continued, in a fair imitation of Seabrook's voice, "'Hm. Careless. Should have put in a few fillings for realism; these are too perfect. Alistair, make a note.'"
He chuckled. "Speaking of being too perfect, I suppose you know your left and right sides are exactly the same."
"Yeah. Design flaw, I guess, or maybe after all the work the sculptors put into me, they couldn't bring themselves to spoil it."
"From where I'm sitting, it doesn't look like a flaw." It just slipped out. I'm acting like a kid on a date. Next, I'll be asking for her number. "All right, you're not doing anything obvious any more, so why is this happening?"
"'This'?" But she knew, he was certain.
"Annie, you're pretty, God knows, but it's been a long time since I was smitten by a girl I just met. I'm being manipulated somehow."
"Oh dear." She drummed her fingertips on the table; her short nails chittered softly on the Formica. "I,m sure you're right; the body language and such is more subtle now, but it's still there. Sorry. I'll try to turn down the charm. But I really want you to like me, and I can read your body language like you're waving semaphores, not to mention all the chemical signals you put out. I'm just responding to... and that intensifies your response, so I … Oh, here we go again."
"Been in this fix before, have you?"
"It's how I ended up married."
He laughed until he was daubing his eyes with his napkin. "Uhuh. Huh. Ah, hell."
"Oh, yeah. This nice-girl thing I've got going on is pure self-defense. If anything ever happened to Jack, I'd be a champion slut, I'm sure." She looked at him sharply. "You were going to say something?"
"Nothing intelligent." Was I really just about to call her a nympho? I keep saying the first thing that pops into my head, and I'm going to end up looking like a total jackass. Trouble was, he couldn't think of anything else to say. The silence lengthened, but she seemed comfortable with it, so he relaxed a bit. Presently, she took a dainty sip of her drink, and, not looking at him, said, "I'm glad I met you again, Andy. I missed you."
Shocked, he replied, "How is that remotely possible?" Weapon constantly trained on her, even if he had to walk backwards, bumping into tables…
"I suppose you're thinking of the gun. Or maybe the fact that we saw each other almost every day for over a year and never exchanged a word?" Another sip. "I never felt threatened by you, Andy; I didn't understand what you were doing, or why. I would have liked to ask you about it, but I was under orders to speak only when instructed to, or in answer to a direct question." She met his eyes. "To Dr. Seabrook, I was never anything but a case file, a specimen, a data set. He talked to me like he was instructing a computer. You didn't do that, at least; you were aware of me all the time. You looked me in the eyes."
She looked down into her glass. "You know, they never told me why you were there. I spent a lot of my time wondering about you: what you were thinking, what you were doing with that thing in your hands-"
"Sort of an EMP taser; a shot to the head was supposed to turn you into a pocket calculator."
"I kind of figured that out later. Ever try it?"
"On what? There was only one way to know if it worked."
"No wonder your heart went bad. Andy, what happened to Randall?"
"What happened to him? You kicked him in the balls so hard, he landed eight feet away."
"I remember. Did he die?"
"No. You put him in a wheelchair; I don't know if he ever got out of it."
"Oh. Andy … why didn't you shoot me then? I've often wondered."
"I've scratched my head over that more than once. Partly, I guess it was so sudden, and it was over so fast. I mean, you never gave a bit of trouble; you were docile as a pet rock. Some of the stuff you let them do to you … You never showed a trace of … the malevolence in those pictures. After almost a year, I got sloppy. And at first, I couldn't believe you'd done it; I never saw you move. One second, that asshole has your vest unzipped and he's tweaking your nipple through your shirt, grinning at me; I wanted to shoot the fucker myself."
"Andy!" she covered her grin with one hand.
"A second later, it looks like he decided to do a backflip to the floor. Then you say to Alistair, 'Was that good?' What was that about?"
"You remember how Randall used to play with my butt all the time, when Dr. Seabrook wasn't around?"
"Yeah. Though I don't know if Seabrook would have cared. He was an odd bird."
"Well, you may remember a half hour before, when he did it and Alistair said, 'A real girl would kick you in the balls for something like that'."
"Oh … my … God."
"He did make me promise to be a good girl. Every day."
He shook his head. "It changed things for me. It was bad enough knowing the damn gun might not be loaded; after I saw how fast you could move … I didn't expect any warning. I figured, someday when those eggheads were rapping your skull with a hammer, or whatever … some relay would trip, and you could be on me before I pulled the trigger. For damn sure I couldn't protect the others. It was like watching kids playing with a live bomb."
She reached for his hand and twined fingers. "Sorry. They should have let me talk, Andy. I was made to interact with people. A year – heck, a month of free conversation would have made me like I am now, I'm sure."
"Uh huh. And who could've ordered you into a vat of boiling water then? Lots easier to think of you as a machine, the other way." He looked down at their twined hands. "I'm sorry about all that. I never dreamed you could be like this. I think about the way you looked when we shut you in that warehouse with no water …"
"Hey. All better now." She squeezed his hand.
The waitress, plump and middle-aged, came to the table with a glass pot of coffee. "Warm-up?" She refilled his cup. "How bout you, sweetie? Want some ice in that, a lemon slice?"
She pulled her hand back. "No, thanks. Got everything I want right here."
The woman nodded down towards the table. "Don't let go of him on my account. You two got nothing to be embarrassed about. It's too bad you don't see it more often, a dad taking his daughter out for a date."
He was shocked speechless, but Annie looked up at her and smiled. "How did you know? There can't be a resemblance, I'm adopted."
The woman smiled and shook her head. "It's the way you look at him. You've got 'Daddy's Girl' written all over you. Not the spoiled kind," she amended. "Not the kind who wraps the old man around her finger and uses him. Or the kind who can't make a decision without asking Daddy, either, or I miss my guess. You're a girl who won't waste her time on a man doesn't measure up to her father."
"God, she's right. You and Jack would so get along."
The woman nodded. "Wish my girls were like that. I got a good husband, but he and my oldest were like two cats in a sack from puberty till she moved out. The youngest won't say boo to him, but you can tell she's just waiting till she's old enough to jump ship."
"Well, we didn't get along either, for the longest time." She turned to him. "You were always so strict. You never let me get away with anything."
A light bulb went off in his head. He reached for her hand. "You looked like trouble on its way to happen. Once would have been the last time."
"I turned out okay, though."
"I should say so."
The woman beamed at them and left. Annie said, "You really do look like Teddy Roosevelt. And I love your eyes."
"Can I give you a lift back to your car?" They were standing outside Legal Grounds; business and traffic were both starting to pick up as commuters started home.
"No, thanks. I'll take the bus. I can catch it from right here."
"I could take you home."
"No." She turned to him. "I trust you with my life, Andy, truly. But I can't extend that trust on behalf of my family; it's not just my secret to share."
"I don't get it. You're the one IO's hunting."
"I haven't told you everything, not even close. Suffice to say that we're all running from IO, even Jack. I'd risk my security, but I can't risk theirs."
His mouth twisted. "Not even for your 'dad'? What was that about?"
"It's my default story, the one I tell whenever it can be made to fit. You may have noticed that I like to talk to people."
"Like a Chatty Cathy doll. You'll probably know everyone on the bus before you get off."
"I sometimes do. What's a Chatty Cathy doll?"
"Before your time, I think. A sort of Barbie doll with a string in back. Pull it, and it repeats a few recorded phrases."
"I think you just made my point for me. You can only talk so long without telling people about yourself. Making up stuff about the recent past is easy enough, but talking about my childhood is awkward. Someone my apparent age might mention a memory we ought to share: a popular kiddy show, a story, some toy or fashion fad that I ought to remember. So, to cover my lapses, I invented a childhood that was sheltered and repressive, complete with a bitch-on-wheels mom and a dad who mostly wasn't there. It's not such a stretch, after all: you were my authority figure, and Ivana's become my nemesis." A bus came rolling up. "This is it."
He felt heaviness in his chest that had nothing to do with his need for pills. "I'm not going to see you again, am I?"
She turned to him, eyes wide. "You're not coming to school tomorrow?"
"Well, sure. But I didn't expect you to come back."
"Tomorrow's my last day, and then I'm on call again. They tried to hire me, but I told them I could only do contingent. Did you think I was going to ditch you, Andy?"
"It'd be safest."
"I was safe in the warehouse. When you live for real, you take chances." She gave him a hug, so quick and sudden he didn't have a chance to return it. The doors opened, and she stepped up. "See you tomorrow, Dad."
Friday September 15 2006
Will she look different today, he wondered, after what I learned last night? When I confront her with the truth, will the mask slip away, the sunny expression turn into the face of a monster?
Today, the corridor that ended at the door to the playground seemed longer than a football field; his steps, even on the carpet, echoed loudly against the walls. He pushed open the door, into the clamor of the playground, and she turned towards him with a smile so bright it made his heart ache. If only it could have been real.
The smile faded, as he knew it would. She stepped towards him. "Andy, you look terrible. What's wrong? It's not Dan, is it?"
"No." His voice sounded strange and tight; maybe it was the roaring in his ears. "I have some things … I need to show you. Do you know what this is?" He tried to be casual and unhurried as he reached into his jacket pocket, pulled it out, and pointed it at her.
She glanced at it, and then returned her gaze to his face. Her look wasn't sullen or feigning innocence, but attentive, as if he were in the middle of performing a trick and she was waiting for what came next. "It's a refinement of that gun you used to train on me: hand held, single use power pack, easily concealed. It's called a scrambler, and that pretty much describes what it does. Turn it on me, or any sophisticated electronics, and it starts trashing files and corrupting code; how much damage it does depends on the length of exposure. A short burst will produce something like a stroke: I might have trouble dancing or tying a shoelace, or maybe lose motor control entirely. A little longer, and I'll forget about being me." Her face settled into a blank expression that he remembered. "Keep hosing me until the power pack goes flat, and my boot file's gone; I'll be a hundred-pound mannequin. What do you want from me, Andy?"
"The truth." He felt his mouth twist into something that wasn't a smile. "What happened to 'Dad'?"
"You tell me what happened to him. I won't use that word again. If I said it now, it might sound like pleading."
"You've been lying to me."
"Not since you recognized me, not once."
"You said you trusted me with your life," he said. "Was that true?"
She backed away from him.
"Stop. What are you doing?"
"You let me get too close, Andy; I could have taken it away from you." When she was six steps away, she sat cross-legged on the ground. A few of the kids looked her way, but no one approached her. "Optimum range. I'll never reach you in time now. What sort of 'truth' do you think you've discovered about me?"
Without taking his eyes off her, he reached into his jacket with his other hand and pulled out the gruesome five-by-seven hospital photo; even from fifteen feet away, he knew she could see it clearly. "You recognize him?" He studied her face as if it lay under a microscope. But is any scrutiny close enough, if all her responses are preprogrammed?
"You know him?" She's surprised me twenty times in the last three days; why should now be any different?
"I know his name; I know he worked for IO on a surveillance team; I know that, most of the damage you see in that picture, I did. Is he okay, then?"
"No. he is most definitely not okay." He felt the picture bending in his fingers. "This isn't some half-remembered dream from your murky past. You did this six months ago, and it was just for starters, if the hints of an old friend of mine are on target. You're still a killer."
"If I killed someone that day, I didn't know it until now."
"You drove a man's jawbone into his brain with your bare fist. Don't tell me you weren't trying to kill him."
"Oh. That one. He was half a second away from cutting one of my girls in two with a shotgun, did your old friend tell you that? I wasn't trying to kill him, but I was in a hurry, and I made sure he stayed down. I'd do it again if I had to. Don't tell me you wouldn't do the same for Drew, you trained killer."
"What about the boy?"
"Am I on trial for my life, or are you just satisfying your curiosity before you shoot me? The bench is three steps to your left and one back, Andy. Sit down before you fall down." She's listening to my heart. What else can she sense about me? I'm not going to be able to bluff her. He stepped sideways and backed up until he bumped against the bench and sat down carefully. "You'd have to do a lot of explaining, and you'd have to make it damned good. Can you?"
She shrugged. "Depends."
"Depends?" He wiggled the scrambler slightly. "What the hell on?"
She never looked at it, only at him. "On you, Andy, on how much benefit of the doubt you're willing to extend me. If you've already made up your mind against me, the most plausible explanation in the world would just be proof of how good a liar I am; if you were begging to be convinced, any yarn would do. My story is the same either way. Whether it's good enough is up to you."
"I'll hear you out, and question anything that sounds fishy. I can't promise anything more. The stakes are too high."
"Okay." She looked straight up, gathering her thoughts or praying, who could tell, and said, "Just to save time, what do you know about the Genesis Project?"
Aha. The runaway kids, sure, but who's Jack? "Just what everyone who's not part of it knows. Some big-deal project to find and recruit paranormals, special talents, ESP types. IO created a school to help a bunch of them develop their gifts. But as soon as they learned enough to be dangerous, they hightailed it out of there and disappeared. IO's been looking for them ever since." And what's this got to do with that mayhem at the shopping mall?
"Okay. Most of that is self- serving bullshit."
"Annie!" A child's voice, mock-shocked and gleeful.
"Oops, bad word, sorry." She continued in a lower voice. "My kids, and maybe a hundred others, are escaped lab rats. Like me, only flesh-and-blood. They're second-generation test subjects that IO hopes to turn into superhuman assassins." She looked at him. "You think I don't know how that sounds? Then again, look who you're talking to. Andy, you've done some important things while you were in IO, I don't doubt. But at the end of the day, you're just a grunt, somebody who doesn't get told any more than necessary. What you know about International Operations is less than the tip of the iceberg. Take me," she said, gesturing at herself. "You're sure you don't know how IO acquired me. They just wheeled me into the lab, with a bunch of scary pictures - that they got from somewhere - to keep you on your toes, and set you to running all those goofy tests. Listen to me and believe, Andy: not only did IO build me, they built more than one."
I thought my throat felt tight before. "How many?"
"Depending on how you count, five or six. They built one, tested it, refined the design and built two more, rinse and repeat; five in all." She gestured at herself again. "This chassis was number two. But something happened, I don't know what. Maybe it took so much damage on its last mission that it had to be refurbished. All I know for sure is, they pulled the original hard drive – the personality, if you will – that belonged to that bloodthirsty bitch you see in those pictures. Then they installed a clean one – me. They transferred all the files that contained her skills but left out her memories.
"Except the combat skills package contained a lot of her experiences, as a reference I think. I don't think the techs realized how much of her they were putting back into me. How much of the worst of her they were putting back in." She shrugged. "But it only comes out when I'm in a fight, thank God. Anyway, there were five of us, and we usually worked as a team. And I clearly remember getting our mission briefs from men in IO uniform: that little shoulder patch is unmistakable, looks like the Green Lantern insignia. The last mission I remember, we were tasked to take out an Iraqi nuke plant that was making bomb-grade fissionables." Alarm suddenly showed on her face. "Andy! What is it?"
"January fifteenth, nineteen ninety. Every IO team was running an op in Iraq that night. The coalition was less than twenty-four hours from sending up the balloon; the pieces had been in motion for a month. Seventy hours before the first aircraft are scheduled to sortie, IO gets solid intel that Saddam's been playing the IAEA for suckers: he'd got his hands on enough plutonium to build thirteen nukes and mount them on SS-Twenty medium-range ballistic missiles. Even better, he's got a bomb-making reactor out in the desert, surrounded by an antiaircraft defense heavier than Baghdad's." She was studying him intently. "IO had eight teams then. Two each were tasked to the four launch sites. That left nobody to cover the bomb factory … until IO came up with a team nobody'd heard of before. They rode to their insertion point in a C-27 with Teams Five and Six. A buddy of mine on Six told me about it over a few beers once. Quite a few beers, actually.
"He said that when Five and Six boarded in Turkey, these guys were already aboard, lined up on the jump seat in full HALO gear, which was the start of the weirdness, since it wasn't a HALO jump. The helmets, coveralls, gloves, and full-face masks hid their features completely, and all the packs made it impossible to judge their size. They sat on those hard benches in a hundred pounds of gear the whole trip without moving or saying a word, not even to each other." And there was something about them that made the guys on Five twitchy: they kept looking at them and whispering to each other, more nervous about them than the mission. "Then, when the plane was over their drop site, boom! They hopped off the seat and stood up all at the same time, like a drill maneuver, and launched themselves out the door in seconds like a stick of bombs, one-two-three-four-five. And that's when it hit him, what it was about the way they were sitting there that wasn't right, that he couldn't put his finger on." He looked at her, a woman-child sitting cross-legged in the dust in her bright little smock. "They had to slide off the bench to stand up. Sitting on the bench, their feet didn't touch the floor. They were all shrimps."
"I suppose I was one of them. But my memory doesn't include the insertion, just the final attack."
"Where you killed a roomful of people with your bare hands."
"Where she killed a roomful of people. She hated human beings, Andy. She didn't like being used by them, and she dreamed of being free and killing whoever got in her way."
"Which of you was at the mall that day, Annie?"
She shook her head, looking down. "Still thinking of me as undefused ordnance, Andy? You wonder if some little thing might set me off and I'll go on a killing spree like the one in the picture, is that it?" She looked up at him. "If it had been her, none of IO's people would have lived through it, believe me. It was me all the way, augmented by her skills and her success-by-any-means attitude. But anybody I shot already had a gun pointed at me; heck, it was one of their guns I used. I did what I had to do to get my kids out safe, nothing more."
"And the boy you put through the meat grinder?"
She looked down at her lap. "When I discovered they were in the mall watching us, I had to find out what we were up against, and fast; I interrogated him, quick and dirty. I tried not to do anything to him that couldn't be fixed, but I had to be ruthless; I knew we were trapped with the clock ticking. As it was, we barely got away."
"And why is it so important to keep them out of IO custody? What are you doing with them?"
She looked up then, with a burning fierceness in her eyes that made him grip the scrambler a little tighter. "We're raising them, Jack and I, giving them a life as normal as their talents allow. I'd die before I let IO have them again, and so would he."
"To keep them out of an IO-run school?"
"They were in cages!" She lowered her voice. "Sorry. I go a little crazy, thinking about it. But what you think you know about the Project is way off, further than what you thought you knew about me. Ever hear anything about an IO group called the Keepers? You have, I can tell. The people who guarded the kids and hunt the escapees, that's what they call themselves … Zookeepers."
"Go on. Tell me about the Project."
"It started almost thirty years ago: a bio-research project to make soldiers that were … hardier and more effective: more acute senses, better reflexes, greater resistance to disease and injury. IO developed some theories and a sheaf of experimental therapies using lab animals. Ten trial generations later, they thought they were ready for human testing.
"They were wrong. The biochemical regime that seemed to work amazingly well on rats and primates produced very different results on subjects with human-level intelligence. The Generation Eleven test subjects went crazy, some worse than others: suicide, catatonia, violent schizophrenia. But they developed … powers."
"Or magic, or 'special talents'. Abilities unexplained and impossible to modern science, okay? Call it whatever you want; Jack calls it 'mojo'. Oh, you've heard something about that too, have you?"
"A word here or there, that's all, like somebody made a slip; same way with any mention of Keepers. It could be anything."
"Andy, you've never told me what team you were on."
"No, don't. Dan is twenty-six, twenty-seven. How old is Jessie?"
"We had her late; she'll be nineteen in two months."
"Is she really yours? Not adopted?"
"Yeah. What's this about?"
"Are you the biological father?"
"Yes! What the hell are you getting at?"
"You were on an even-numbered team."
"And how," he asked, leaning forward, "Did you figure that out?"
"Because, if you'd been a member of an odd-numbered team during the early Eighties, Jessie would have been at that school. And now, she'd either be running for her life or naked in a glass cell in some IO basement."
"The Odd Squads," he breathed. A lot of puzzle pieces are falling into place; if she's lying, she's well prepared, or just damn good.
"Only Team guys your age remember that nickname; the odd-numbered teams are no different from the evens, now. There aren't many members left who got that 'special inoculation series' … that made them into Gen Twelves." She looked at him. "No rumors this time, Andy. You know what I'm talking about, even if you never knew what it was: guys your age from the odd-numbered teams started getting weird, about the same time they got lots better at their jobs. They kept to themselves, mostly, and might say strange things if they drank in company. But they aced every test and trial, completed every mission, seemed to pull off miracles in the field."
"We thought they were getting special training, stuff they couldn't talk about."
"And they started disappearing."
"People don't always come back from missions, and the Odd Squads were drawing the toughest ones."
"Some of them did go out that way; some went crazy from overusing the mojo, and joined the Elevens in IO's basement; and some grabbed their kids and ran, when IO started stealing them. The treatment makes changes all the way down to genetic code, Andy. Children of Gen Twelves develop talents of their own, usually at puberty. They become Thirteens."
"So IO steals them from their parents? Farfetched."
"IO didn't get many that way; the Twelves got wise fast, and ran with their kids, or hid them. So that devious bastard Miles Craven quietly tracked them down, one at a time, but left them in place to keep from warning the others. He waited until the oldest of the kids approached puberty, and sent them all invitations to a 'special school' that was too good to refuse.
"It wasn't suspicious; even before their powers manifest, Thirteens tend to unusual aptitude, in athletics and academics both. The school was far from home and secluded, and the living arrangements were a little odd, but it was accepted as part of a special curriculum at an institution where no expense was spared to develop talented young minds." Her mouth tightened to a slash in her face. "IO had the kids thoroughly isolated. Mail and telephone and Internet didn't exist for them; all that family and friends got from the kids in school were e-mails which gradually turned into generic messages about how good things were going, and how busy they were; the kids got the same, notes from parents and sibs that sounded like they came from friendly strangers. When school holidays were about to start, IO used their total control of the kids' environment to concoct a hoax about a nationwide terror campaign targeting gifted schoolkids. 'For their own good,' they were ordered to forego their trips home and stay at the Academy – with their parents' enthusiastic agreement, of course. The students were told the school was adopting new security measures to keep them safe. Doors leading outside didn't open any more; armed guards appeared in the halls and classrooms and dorms, and escorted them everywhere, even the bathrooms. The 'school' turned into a maximum security prison." She took a quick breath, the sort of sound one makes when they're fighting back tears. "Some of the school officials, guidance counselors, PE coaches and such, weren't much older than the students, and the kids had confided in them. Turned out they were the kidnapped ones, the kids IO had had its hooks in for years, twisting them up good; they became the prison trusties, betraying the kids who'd trusted them." She looked at him. "You're not saying anything, Andy."
"It's a good story; I didn't want to interrupt."
"It gets better. When the kids started going through their changes, it became impossible to contain them and to hide the real nature of the Project. The security measures weren't enough, not to neutralize a hundred kids, any of whom might wake up with the ability to melt steel, or fly, or walk through walls."
"Oh, come on."
"What these kids can do is magic, Andy; it's why IO wants them so badly. My red-haired beauty, Caitlin, can bench press a school bus – I've seen her do it. Jack's boy Bobby can turn his finger into a cutting torch."
"Wait. Jack's a Twelve?"
"Team Seven till nineteen ninety-one, I think." She was about to continue, but he waved her to silence with his free hand.
She waited for him while he thought about it. Finally, he said, "I only know of one 'Jack' ever on the teams. You can't mean him."
"Bet I do: John Lynch, Jack to his friends, Director of Operations until about two years ago. Miles Craven kicks off, Jack goes AWOL, and the Genesis Project undergoes meltdown: not a coincidence."
"I've been coming on to Jack Lynch's wife. Now I'm holding a gun on her. My life's not worth a plugged nickel."
"Are you trying to be funny? Cuz, I'm not laughing, you'll notice. The kids who manifested powers that might enable them to escape … got special treatment. Part of what Gen-factor gives you is natural, autonomic: heightened reflexes, immunity from disease, other things; but the big guns, so to speak, need some concentration to load and fire. IO has several ways of temporarily … breaking the connection that allows an individual to access his powers. None of those ways is pleasant. They used them anyway.
"IO wanted to make them trained killers, Andy, but first they needed to know what they could do, and they needed them docile and compliant, so they turned them all into lab animals. I'm not exaggerating. They really did put them in cages, under constant observation; naked, so any physical changes would be noticed right away. They used drugs and brainwashing and isolation. I get sick every time I think of it, and I think it's what made Jack's mind up to sabotage the Project and release as many of them as he could when he left. That, and discovering his missing son among the lab rats." She added quietly: "What they did to me might have been excused as ignorance, but they knew they were torturing real people, kids, at the Project. That's unforgivable."
A boy shuffled up to her and lifted one shoe, showing her his dangling laces. She beckoned. "C'mere, Dale."
He wiggled the scrambler. "Don't."
"It doesn't affect bios. You could shoot me right through him, and he wouldn't notice. At least, not till I stopped tying his shoe." She tied the lace and sent him on his way. "I'm sorry about Hale; I'm even sorry about the other man, truly. But if the situation were the same today, I'd do things exactly the same way."
His mouth was dry. "I have some regrets of my own."
She gave him a long look. "I know what I said before. But I really thought you'd believe me. I thought you'd understand."
"And maybe I do. But I don't dare trust my feelings about this."
"All right, then." She clapped her hands. "Time, kids!"
One boy protested, "It's not time yet." He showed an old-fashioned wristwatch with hands. "See, the big one should be right here."
"I know." She smiled brightly. "But it's my last day, and I wanted time to say goodbye."
His stomach knotted, and it was getting hard to breathe.
Most of the kids filed past her sitting form with a brief wave, but a handful of boys held back. Guess she can charm them at any age. One of them was Drew.
The first child to approach was Dale. He stood in front of her with both laces untied, waiting. She grinned, tied them, then swiftly double-tied them so that they couldn't come undone. "Last time, sport."
"Thought I didn't know you were doing it, huh? You like seeing me bend down for you." She sent him off with a kiss on the forehead.
Next were the two boys who'd been fighting the first day. She addressed them together. "Next time you two get in an argument, I'm not gonna be there to break it up. You're just going to have to remember that brothers have differences, and sometimes half-brothers have more. But when the pushing starts, everybody loses, remember that too." She tousled their hair.
Malcolm, the big kid, held out his hands and she grasped them. "I'll remember. Play nice."
"Kids pick on me, I tell a teacher."
"That's right. Being nice doesn't mean you have to let people push you around."
The last one was Drew. He hugged her fiercely. "Don't go."
She wrapped her arms around him. Unseen by him, her face was as blank as a doll's, but her voice was filled with warmth. "You knew I'm just a temp. Sooner or later, I have to go. Didn't I tell you?" She held him away, and looked him in the eye. "I'm not gonna be there to catch you next time, little lion. Be careful. Mind your dad, and your grandpa; don't give them too much trouble. Maybe we'll see each other again."
The door closed behind him as he waved, and silence filled the playground.
"Okay," she said. "Where are we going?" She started to stand.
He stood too, his legs unsteady. "Nowhere. Right here."
She turned her head, looking at the playground equipment and brightly colored toys. "This is a crappy place for an execution, Andy." More to herself than to him, she said softly, "What if a kid finds me?"
"I have the drop on you now, but I've got no way to restrain you, and I don't dare try to move you somewhere. Getting in a car with you would be suicide." He added, "Sorry." She sat down again, and he moved around behind her.
"Oh, no you don't." She turned her head to look up at him. "If you're so d-damned sure this has to be done, you can at least have the balls to face me when you do it. Look me in the eyes, and watch the lights go out."
"All right." His heart was lurching in his chest like a rat that wanted out of a bag. He raised the scrambler, holding it two feet from her forehead.
A screech broke the silence, and Bethie attached herself to his arm; he was so surprised he almost dropped the damn thing.
"Bethie! No!" She was beside him, and he hadn't seen her move. She pried the girl off him, and gripped her by the shoulders. "It's okay, baby. It's okay. Just go inside." Her eyes misted as she added, "And don't tell anyone." As the child ran into the building, she called again. "Don't tell!" The door closed, and Annie pushed her fists to her mouth. "Oh, god, I had to say it to her, didn't I?" She wiped her eyes and sat back down. "Better hurry."
His heart steadied down, almost resuming its normal beat. He approached again and raised the scrambler, only a foot away this time, took a breath and let it out. Despite her demand, when he pressed the stud, she closed her eyes, softly. He held it on her, the stud fully pressed, as the seconds ticked by. A minute later, her eyelids drifted open, her eyes unfocused. "What happened?"
"Nothing." He put the scrambler back in his pocket. "Power pack's flat. I couldn't get my hands on a charged one." It was a lie; he'd made damn sure the pack was flat before he came.
She trembled. "Why?"
"I couldn't trust my feelings for you. I had to know. I know you could have taken it away from me; hell, a kid almost did it. But you could still have been bluffing me, right up to the moment of truth. I had to know what I was about to set loose on the world, even if it cost me my life."
She looked up at him. "Andrew Grissom, I don't know whether to kiss you or punch you out." She flowed upward like a fountain, took a step forward, and wound her arms around his neck. On tiptoe, her forehead was level with his chin. She tipped her head back and looked up into his eyes. "Um, a little help here?"
From the moment he put his arms around her, he knew it wasn't going to be a chaste kiss; she might call him 'Dad,' but his feelings toward her weren't very fatherly, and he wasn't surprised to feel her arms tighten around his neck as she pressed tight against him. No, wait, his arms were around her waist, he was doing all the pressing, almost pulling her off her feet. But when he loosened his grip, she was still all over him, and her mouth was wide open and inviting as hell. Reluctantly, he kept his tongue in his mouth and slid his hands up her flanks, shoulders, elbows, and finally he had her forearms in his hands, tugging gently. He pulled his mouth away. "Break."
She backed off no more than a hand's width, her eyes searching his face. "That… wasn't quite how I imagined it."
"Well, it was exactly how I imagined it."
"Hey, Annie?" Crystal's voice. How long she'd been there was anybody's guess. Only her head intruded briefly through the door opening, and then pulled back as she spoke through the doorway without looking at them. "Your, uh, your husband just called. He says your cell's still off, and he's worried."
"What a coincidence," she said huskily. "I was just thinking of him. Thanks, Crystal." She reached under the bench for her purse, pulled out her phone, and turned it on. "Always turn it off out here, and back on at the end of the day. I usually call by now." She pressed two digits, and held the phone to her ear. "A brush with death, and a kiss like that… my juices are flowing now. I'd better get a good meal into that man tonight, cuz he's gonna need his strength." A pause, and she smiled as she said, "Hi, love. I'm still at daycare. Got into a heavy discussion with one of the kids' grandparents. I'll tell you all about it tonight."
She listened; he watched her face blank, and then turn to utter dismay as she said, "Jack, no! I had plans for you tonight! How soon are you leaving?" The dismay settled into resignation. "Oh, bugs. Are you leaving the car at the airport, or do you want someone to pick it up?" Almost a minute of silence, as she stared off unseeing. "No, really, it's okay. You go do what you do, love; but be ready to do what you do when you get home, too, that's all I'm asking. Okay. Uh huh." She smiled suddenly, just the corners of her mouth upturned, lips slightly parted, and her lashes lowered. Bedroom eyes, he thought. "I'll hold you to that, lover boy. Meantime, I just might find a handsome man to have dinner with tonight, to tide me over till Sunday." She shut off the phone and turned to him, her expression challenging. "When was the last time somebody cooked you dinner at home?"
"Just dinner and talk, Andy. We've got a lot to discuss. I have to feed my kids, but it's boys' choice tonight, always something simple and meaty. They'll be done and out the door by six-thirty, likely. Then, I'll come over to feed you, and we can talk and make a night of it, if you don't have anything else planned."
"Make a night of it?" He arched an eyebrow.
"Stop it." She slapped his chest, then laid her hand on it. "I have to be home by midnight. We can talk old times, and maybe make some plans. Oh, here." With her other hand, she dug into the tiny front pocket of her smock and produced a slip of paper. "My number. I wanted to give it to you yesterday, but I didn't have anything to write on, so I did it last night to bring to work."
He took it, smiling crookedly. "An act of trust. And I brought a weapon."
Her palm described a gentle circular motion on his chest. "You know, the last man who pointed one of those at me, I married."
As she approached her house, Anna saw a strange car in the drive with a familiar pizza delivery sign on its roof. I'm only a few minutes late. Were the boys really that hungry, or did they see an opportunity to keep the pressure up? She pulled in behind the car, blocking it, and waited. Her suspicions were confirmed when she saw a familiar figure step out the front door, tripping over the welcome mat and almost dropping his insulated bag. Totally focused on getting to his car, the delivery man didn't even notice he was blocked in until she opened her door and stepped out. Then he stopped dead, eyes wide.
She smiled. "Hello, Marco. Did you get a good tip?"
"Uh." His eyes flicked up and down the street, looking for the safety of witnesses. She could tell by his pupil contraction that he didn't find any. "Yeah."
"Are you sure? The boys aren't usually very generous." They probably thought they were being generous letting you leave with a whole skin.
"Yeah. One of the girls paid."
"Really," she said, and stepped forward. He froze like a mouse that sees a shadow drifting across the ground and knows a hawk is overhead. She opened his car door for him. "Which one?"
"The, uh, the tall one. The redhead."
"Ah. She's pretty, isn't she?"
He swallowed, eyes locked on her.
"Come on," she said gently. "Every guy who's ever seen her gives the same answer to that question."
"Yeah. She's mad hot." He watched her uncertainly.
"What was she wearing?"
"Ah, nothing much. I mean, she was in a pair of shorts and this little top. And gloves with no fingers."
Surprised you noticed the gloves, Marco. She widened her smile."Workout clothes. She doesn't wear much when she's pumping iron, does she?"
He just couldn't help himself: he grinned for a moment before he realized his danger. Then his face turned blank and watchful.
She nodded, still smiling. "It's a perfectly normal reaction, Marco. Taking pictures of her over the fence while she's sunbathing, then trying to convince your friends she's your party girl, that's crossing the line."
"I'm sorry. Really. Sorry."
"I believe you." She really did, because she could hear it in his voice and pulse and sense it in his chemical emissions. She tilted her head towards the open car door, and he got in. She shut the door gently and ran a hand along the window sill. "I like your new car. Much nicer than the old one. Business picking up?"
"No. Insurance money. From the other one."
The one we had cut up into a hundred pieces and deposited on your lawn in the dead of night. Feel lucky you didn't own a horse. "Insurance didn't pay for a step up this big." We already know where you got the money: payment from your uncle for your help setting up the clash between us and the Dibagio brothers. The clash that started with my kidnapping. She stared into his eyes, silently, until he remembered real fear. "Sorry to hear about your Uncle Billy, Marco. Sounds like it was pretty messy." No news service had carried details of Billy Bennetti's death. "You know, aneurisms are like that. You can walk out of the doctor's office with a clean bill of health, and all the while, there's this tiny weakness in your circulatory system, like a thin spot on an inner tube. It can go any time, and if the artery's a big one… well, at least it was quick and painless. Must have been an awful couple of minutes though, watching his life gushing out of him and knowing there's no stopping it."
The boy swallowed. Sweat beaded his upper lip. He looked about to throw up. "Please. Let me go."
"In a hurry?" She smiled down at him. "Another delivery? Or a hot date? No, I have a feeling you don't date much." The smile disappeared. "You should meet more people, Marco. I could introduce you to somebody, set you up with a blind date you'll remember the rest of your life."
"I told you I didn't know what they were gonna do. I didn't tell anybody else. I won't tell anybody."
She turned towards her car. "Stay in touch. Think twice before you quit this job, Marco. Don't make us look for you again."