Threshold

Threshold by [Sly, Christopher]

In a near-future United States, an incurable sexually transmitted disease that supercharges your immune system but leaves you sterile threatens to ignite a generational civil war.

Second  Edition Available on Kindle

Make love AS war…

Prologue

Nobody could prove Dr. Archibald Fox created The Virus.

The Fox was America’s premier scientist. Winner of the Nobel Prize for genetic research, he was on the staff of the University of Notre Dame Medical School where his ribald humor was a constant source of embarrassment to the Catholic administrators. He conducted his research in a private laboratory attached to a sprawling estate, paid for with the profits from over two hundred patents. Nobody knew what he was working on when he vanished, and there was no evidence to suggest the direction of his research.

The Virus was like a medical magic wand, a sexually transmitted disease that made you well. It invaded the body and supercharged the human immune system like a form of Reverse-AIDS, and it left the infected person feeling obscenely healthy. The scientific community urged caution until the disease could be studied and understood, but the warning was often ignored, and in all honesty, it was much too late even then. It wasn’t long before those who had contracted The Virus began to notice a disturbing side effect; they stopped having children. That, as it turned out, became something of a complication.

Presented with an incurable sexual disease that caused infertility and robust health, there was no lack of confusion about how to deal with controlling the epidemic. The liberally minded began taking vigorous advantage of their new freedom from sexual roulette, and infertility wasn’t always considered a disadvantage. As the tangled reaction intensified and The Virus spread, political turmoil churned Washington into a war zone. The birth rate began to drop and the medical community failed to come up with a cure. Slowly, the panic gained political momentum.

It was Senator John Baylor who first gave direction to the battle. Twelve years into the epidemic he was able to forge a coalition from the turbulent and violent infighting among his fellow legislators. The problem was that the human race was quickly fornicating itself into oblivion, and Senator Baylor’s solution demonstrated a penetrating comprehension of the human psyche. His intent was to adapt, to transform a free society into one that might survive inevitable economic collapse. His method was a classic example of political manipulation.

He went after the children…

John Baylor went after those who were not old enough to vote, children who couldn’t organize, children who couldn’t politically resist. He concentrated the legislative efforts on preventing the incurable disease from spreading to the children who had yet to contract it. Naturally, the teenagers didn’t share Senator Baylor’s belief that they needed his protection.

With the passage of the first of The Virus Laws, the children began to feel the walls closing in. Baylor had expected the teenagers to rebel, expected the gang violence and the fear that would follow, escalating the panic he would need to stop mankind from coming to a disastrously ironic demise. He didn’t have time to wonder if, or why, Doctor Fox had created The Virus more than twelve years before. He didn’t have time to wonder if The Virus was the only thing to emerge from The Fox’s laboratory, or what, exactly, The Fox had been trying to accomplish. That, perhaps, was John Baylor’s biggest mistake. After all, the children were such easy targets…

Or were they?

The Queen of Wands will light the blaze,
The Knight of Cups will focus haze,
The Queen of Pentacles will aim the sun,
The Knight of Swords will see it done.

The Fox’s Notebook

Chapter One

The Queen of Wands will light the blaze,

The Fox’s Notebook

The child had no face, only a mouth open to scream as he was torn in half by a brutal tug-of-war. Blood gushed from gaping holes where his arms were ripping loose from his shoulders. Boiling red waves poured down a body knotted with bursting muscles snapping under trembling skin. The two men battling for possession had no eyes or ears, their mouths sprayed bloody spit through sharpened grinning teeth.

The flashlight went black and the paintbrush hung motionless in the midnight shadows. The stillness was filled with the murmur of breakers in the distance and crickets chirping somewhere in the warm summer night. Teresa crouched in the damp grass next to the wall of the church and waited. When the patrol car rounded the corner, headlights flashed through the chain link fence and across the playground. The car slowed and a searchlight probed the schoolyard.

The light slid along the grass near the lunch tables, then across the elementary school windows and out into the parking lot. The searchlight cut off and the car sped up, following the road toward the beach.

 

Detective Carlos Delvega stretched tired muscles and groaned in pain. He tightened his shoelaces and took a deep breath, then headed up the street at a slow jog. The Ventura neighborhood was quiet during the weekly ritual of sleeping off Friday night. Carlos picked up the pace down the empty street with his eyes taking in everything from long habit. Thirty minutes later he was sweating from every pore.

He leaned into the corner and sprinted the last two hundred yards to Saint Micheal’s and the playground with a chin-up bar. By the time he eased into a fast walk he was around the church. His eyes caught sight of the mural and he jerked to a stop.

His first thought was that it couldn’t possibly be real. Carlos walked to the painting and stopped ten feet away. There was a sickening clarity to the identities of the two men tearing the child in half.

Senator Baylor and Congressman Ross would not be pleased.

Carlos looked down at the signature signed with bold strokes.

Teresa Alvarez.

 

“It looks like they signed their name at the bottom, then changed their mind and painted over it. The punk almost made it easy.”

Kelly Newman pushed a cold cigar between clenched teeth and stared down at the mural on the side of the church. He was the Mayor of Ventura and by high noon both Baylor and Ross were going to be climbing his back wearing golf spikes.

“The Pastor doesn’t want to press charges, sir.”

Newman pulled his eyes from the mural and glared at Carlos.

“Don’t give me any crap about not having a case, Carlos. I want the kid who painted this.”

“What makes you so sure it was a kid, sir?”

“Do you enjoy police work, Detective?”

Newman waited but there was no response.

“Let me put it this way. Neither Senator Baylor nor Congressman Ross will be amused. The photographers have already been here. Do you think there is a chance that something like this is not going to come to their attention?”

 

It was the face of a sadist. It was the face of a man completely insane; a man who would squirm in pleasure as he drove nails through a screaming child. It was the face of a drug addict far past caring; a man long past salvation.

It was his face.

Senator John Baylor first became aware of how tightly he was holding the photograph when pain crept up his arms to register behind his eyes. He loosened his grip and took a deep breath.

“Extraordinary.”

“Senator, I don’t think you understand…”

“I understand perfectly. This mural is going to win me an election, Joseph. I want to see it on the front page of the Post.”

“Senator…”

“Do it.”

Joseph wasn’t pleased.

“And Joseph…” Baylor’s eyes went back to the photograph and stayed there.

“Who was the artist?”

 

The cat was just realizing he was in serious trouble. He stood furious on the kitchen table, his mouth and paws dripping bloody streaks over the cheap linoleum tabletop. How many mice had he killed? He had ripped them apart with needle sharp claws and crushed their soft bodies between his teeth until his fur was sticky with blood. It did no good. From under the cracks below the closed doors, mice squeezed into the kitchen and rushed the table. Out of holes chewed relentlessly through the baseboard and from ventilators high near the ceiling poured crazed mice. They covered the floor two feet thick, scrambling over each other and creating a seething ramp of hate straining toward the tabletop. There was no escape.

Poised on a counter overlooking the kitchen was a rat. She was albino white and she stood frozen with glowing emerald eyes locked on the cat. The cat measured the distance between them…

Teresa heard her mother coming up the stairs and it was an angry sound. She set down the brush and stepped away from the painting. The door crashed open and her mother stood framed, almost filling the doorway from side to side. The muscles along her mother’s jaw were twitching in spasms and her eyes were insane.

“How dare you! How dare you disgrace me like a common criminal. You’ve done it this time, Teresa.”

Teresa kept silent and faced her mother. She had plenty of time to react when her mother took two angry steps and swung. She refused to budge.

The slap hit so hard the crack echoed from her bedroom walls. Teresa’s jaw felt like it had been hit with a hammer and there was blood in her mouth. She was trembling, shaking with fury that came boiling up and turned the room hazy red. She spit blood at her mother.

 

“Carlos, are you on that mural case?”

Carlos stopped the coffee cup halfway to his mouth.

“There is no mural case.”

“You better go talk to this lady anyway. Mrs. Alvarez, do you know her?”

Carlos leaned back and the chair creaked ominously.

“I’ve met her.”

“I have a message for you. She wants somebody over there and she wants them over there now.”

 

“She spit on me! That’s what I get for bringing her into my home.”

“Calm down, Mrs. Alvarez.”

“Calm down? You don’t have children.”

Mrs. Alvarez was not in a reasonable state of mind. Carlos followed her up the stairs and waited while she unlocked the bedroom door. Teresa Alvarez was ready. She was nearly thirteen and she stood in the center of the room wearing a day pack and staring with fierce black eyes. Her hair was the color of coal and her features were delicate, almost perfect. Carlos turned to Mrs. Alvarez.

“What happened to her?”

He took a quick step and Mrs. Alvarez was suddenly backing up.

Carlos turned back to Teresa. Her jaw was swelling. It might even be broken and there was nothing he could do about it.

“There are still laws against child abuse, Mrs. Alvarez.”

The woman glared at him. Carlos glanced around the room and his gaze stopped on a painting propped on a homemade easel. It was a long time before he could pull his eyes away.

“Teresa, are you all right? Does it hurt much?”

The girl said nothing.

“Why don’t you go downstairs and wait in my car. It’s parked right out front.”

She walked past her mother without a glance.

 

Teresa opened the car door and climbed into the back seat. Her jaw had hurt terribly at first, but the pain had eased into a dull throb that was always at the edge of her consciousness. She would never see that woman again and she wasn’t sorry.

Her real mother wouldn’t have acted that way. But Teresa couldn’t remember her real mother. If she tried hard, she could call up the vague memory of a man she thought must be her father. Even that was uncertain. The policeman had been much nicer than she had expected. He had been mad at her mother. At least she still had her paints. She reached out and placed her hand on the pack and closed her eyes. When the front door of the house opened, she turned to watch the policeman walk toward the car. He was carrying her paintings. She tried to smile but it hurt and her mouth relaxed. He crossed to the door she was sitting beside and opened it.

“Why don’t you sit up front, Teresa.”

She nodded and climbed out, then watched him carefully stack the paintings on the floor of the back seat. She had told herself that jail couldn’t be any worse than the way she lived. She was never allowed to play, never allowed outside by herself except to go straight to school and back. She wasn’t the only one.

The policeman climbed in and looked over at her, his face uncertain.

“Don’t worry.”

Teresa knew better.

 

Carlos kept his voice lowered so Teresa wouldn’t hear him in the examination room. Dr. Lewis was watching him and waiting.

“You saw her jaw. Do you think it’s broken?”

There’s a chance, Carlos. We won’t know for sure until I see the x-rays. Do you want to tell me what happened?”

“Another parent disciplining a deviant child.”

“Have you made an arrest?”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea right now, Doc. Will you do me another favor?”

 

Carlos came awake sitting up. A quick glance at the clock read 6:00 AM. He reached for the phone to shut it up.

“Carlos.”

“Why aren’t you out working, Detective?”

The Mayor. What had he done to deserve this?

“What do you want?”

It came out harsher than he intended, but not as harsh as he felt. The Mayor was silent for several seconds and Carlos grinned.

“Who was the artist?”

“The artist is not wanted by the police.”

“The name, Carlos. Or kiss your ass goodbye…”

 

“Her jaw is fine, Carlos. She looks much better this morning.”

Dr. William Lewis noted the haggard expression on his friend’s face. This one was getting to him, but other cases had bothered Carlos in the past. For some reason, this one was different, and William had to know why. He had decided to make it a complete physical.

He had run the lab tests himself after taking the little girl to his home and seeing her tucked into bed. He had examined her jaw and run the x-rays but there was nothing to indicate fracture. Just as he was finishing, he had turned around and it had taken him by surprise. The damn thing was healing so quickly he could almost see it happening.

“Thanks, Doc.”

“What’s this all about, Carlos? I need to know this girl’s history and she won’t answer a single question. Who are her parents?”

Carlos barely flinched. He looked at William cautiously and then shrugged.

“The father died three years ago. The mother is Catherine Alvarez. Do you know her?”

“No, but I would like to examine her. Teresa may be the most unusual case I’ve had in forty years of medicine.”

“Why?”

“She heals incredibly fast, Carlos. You might even say impossibly fast.”

“Go on.”

William hesitated and glanced back at the house where the girl was eating breakfast. When he turned back to Carlos his friend’s face was watchful.

“She’s healthy. She’s so healthy it’s scary. It’s not due to The Virus, Carlos. Her eyes are different and her vision is phenomenal. There are other differences.”

Carlos had his eyes on the house; his face was a perfect mask.

“Don’t contact Mrs. Alvarez. Yesterday she told me that she had taken Teresa in out of the goodness of her heart.”

 

Teresa looked up between two bites of cereal and smiled. The swelling was gone and her jaw didn’t hurt at all. The policeman grinned back, then stopped in amazement. He walked up to her and took a close look at her face and then turned to the doctor. The doctor just stared right back at the policeman and didn’t say a word.

“Well, you sure look better.”

She grinned and went back to eating. She didn’t know what to expect but she felt wonderful, like everything was incredibly alive. She wanted to run and dance. The policeman hadn’t taken her to jail after all and she didn’t believe he was going to. He was a nice man, she could tell. She could always tell.

Even the doctor was nice, although he had prodded and pushed and looked over every inch of her skin. She had been embarrassed at first but he was a nice man and he was trying to help. He must have been checking to see if she had The Virus, but she knew she didn’t. She didn’t want The Virus, she wanted children someday. The doctor had told her she was in perfect health and she knew he was telling the truth because she felt good, and besides, she would have known if he were lying.

She finished eating and took the bowl over to the sink and washed it out. It was so different than being with her mother. She had never spent the night over at a friend’s house, never even been to a friend’s house. This was like on TV. She turned from the sink and they were watching her. Something was wrong.

“Don’t worry.”

The policeman smiled at her and she relaxed. “Are you ready to go?”

 

“Teresa, do you remember your real parents?”

Carlos had to get her talking. She was looking at him and waiting. He returned his eyes to the road.

Carlos started to turn the corner to his street, then saw the squad car and jerked the steering wheel straight. Now the problem was more immediate. If Mrs. Alvarez had called the station to check on her daughter, Carlos could be brought up on charges of kidnapping.

“Teresa, do you know how I make a living? I find people. I’m pretty good at it. Maybe your real parents are still alive. Would you like me to look for them?”

“Yes!”

He turned to her and smiled.

“What do you remember? How old were you when you were adopted?

“I was four years old.”

“Do you remember anything?”

“I don’t remember much. There was a man. He was a nice man and he made me laugh. I don’t remember my mother at all, and I’m not sure the man I remember was my father.”

Mongoose, you son of a bitch. There were other possibilities.

“I remember the others!”

He turned and watched her. She was excited, big black eyes shining with hope.

“What others?”

 

“Hello, my name is Emily Carmichael. I’d like to speak to the detective in charge of locating the mural artist.”

The police officer stared back. “He’s not here.”

“Could you tell me when he will return, please?”

“I don’t think he’s coming back, lady. He took off yesterday, and if I know Carlos, they’re not going to catch him.”

Emily composed her face and kept her voice level.

“Did he do something wrong?”

“They want us to call it kidnapping, but that’s not the way it is. Carlos Delvega is no kidnapper. If he’d brought the little girl in, neither Baylor or Ross would have rested until they had the poor kid boiled alive.”

Four questions later Emily turned from the policeman and was out the door and standing on the sidewalk watching the cars pass on the street before she realized she moved. She was shaking so badly she had trouble keeping her knees from collapsing. After twelve years of tracing every possible clue…

Teresa Alvarez. What spell had the child cast on a police detective that made him take her and run? They would probably be found quickly, and when they were, Emily was going to be there. If possible, she was going to find them first. Emily was certain it was her.

Where were the others?

Chapter Two

The Knight of Cups will focus haze.

The Fox’s Notebook

“Find him!”

Antonio didn’t bother to explain it was useless. Whoever was tipping off the Coast Guard had information that marked him as an insider. Things were coming apart very quickly as suspicion spread and the Cartel came unraveled. They were striking at themselves while surrounded by enemies closing in. And they weren’t the only ones under attack. It was long past time to abandon Florida as a drug entrance point and seek safer avenues into the United States.

“He has us chasing our tails while the sharks circle, picking us off one by one. I think you should consider holding up on all shipments into Florida until we find a more hospitable environment.”

“That’s not the kind of advice I pay you for.”

“It is exactly the kind of advice you pay me for. Zorro has beaten us here and now. This isn’t a holy war, it’s a business. He has proven himself capable of uncovering any plans we make, no matter what caution we use. Concede this round and pull back like the others who have remained out of the American prisons. Then continue the search for the American vigilante until he is chased from cover.”

Antonio waited silently while the reaction settled in. The fist slammed down on the desk, scattering papers that floated to the rust colored shag carpet.

“I will stake him to the ground and watch him eaten alive.”

Maybe, but Antonio wasn’t willing to bet on it. He didn’t intend to spend the rest of his life in a cell. He had received his warning, a letter postmarked from Miami bearing two words.

“You’re next.”

 

He wasn’t what Jennifer had expected.

She didn’t frequent the bars along the Ft. Lauderdale strip and it was a safe bet he didn’t either. It was a humid June afternoon on the Florida coast, but Jennifer was a native and she stood comfortably in a yellow summer dress at the patio bar, watching the man sitting alone at a table near the rail.

He was in his late sixties, wearing blue jeans and a sweatshirt with the arms torn off. His bare feet were propped up on the patio railing, and the chair was balanced backward on two legs rocking with the music drifting out of the bar. His eyes were behind sunglasses and he was wearing a blue baseball cap with the bill pulled low, shading his face. In his right hand was a bottle of Mexican beer and he tilted it casually, wiggling his toes as he drank. He lowered the bottle next to a book face-down on the table and watched the bikinis drift by on the sidewalk along the baking street.

Jennifer pushed herself away from the bar and wove through the empty tables. She stopped beside the chair just as it rocked down on four legs. The man stood and smiled, then offered her an empty seat. She sat down and leaned back, watching him examine her.

“Thank you for coming, Miss Barton.”

“And your name?”

“I’d rather not discuss that.” He bore her scrutiny silently.

“And what was it you wanted?”

He sat back in the chair and took a swallow from the bottle.

“I have a proposition for you. I happen to  know that you were fired from your last teaching position because you have The Virus. They have made it impossible for you to pursue a career in elementary education, and it’s my understanding that you took your work very seriously. I can give it back to you.”

She sat forward too quickly, then took a deep breath and settled backward into the chair. She thought while he waited.

“In return for?”

“An act of prostitution, Miss Barton. There is a man who is deathly ill, and unless he contracts The Virus, he will not survive. I was a friend of his wife’s before she died and I happen to know he will never seek medical attention. I want you to seduce him, to pass him the disease that makes you well.”

“There were a thousand prostitutes within a mile of  here.Why me?”

“Because you are a teacher who comes highly recommended. Dale Cooper lives deep in the Everglades with his twelve-year-old son. The boy is supposed to be in the seventh grade class you’ll be taking over in the nearest town. The problem is, the boy never shows up for school. One of the few times he has, he drove three teachers out of town inside of a week. He is a troublemaker, but he is my friend’s son.”

She couldn’t see the man’s eyes hidden behind the sunglasses, but she had the impression they were grinning. There was something about the son…

“What’s the boy’s name?”

“His name is Kyle. Kyle Cooper…”

 

Dale Cooper was sitting on the porch swing, feet propped up on the weathered railing. His eyes were closed and he looked like he was asleep but Kyle knew better. His dad took a couple of deep breaths and tried to hide the pain. Then the coughing started. It was the scariest sound Kyle had ever heard.

He waited while his dad cleared his lungs and spit blood over the side of the porch. Before his dad straightened, Kyle had turned away, staring out over the swamp.

“Had a visitor today while you were out fishing.”

“A visitor?”

“Kyle boy, there’s something we need to talk about. This habit of yours concerning missing school.”

“Come on, Dad! You know I don’t need their stupid school. I could show them a thing or two.”

“You’re going to get your chance, boy. Tomorrow you’re going to school. I gave that new teacher my oath you’d be there, so don’t you make me out to be a liar.”

“But Dad!”

His dad went into another coughing spell and Kyle watched silently.

 

Jennifer was going to do it.

One look at Dale Cooper had convinced her of the man’s illness. It was criminal to deprive the advantages of The Virus to those who needed it most, and Jennifer didn’t feel a bit guilty about breaking that particular law. There was a very tense situation developing as John Baylor began his early moves toward the Presidency. He was the first to give focus to the danger of an incurable sexual disease that caused infertility. As the birth rate continued to plummet, his claims of imminent disaster gathered stronger support in the legislature.

One result of the new laws was to cost Jennifer a career teaching children at a time when they needed teachers desperately. So here she was in Copeland, Florida, a little Everglades town very different from the city she had lived in most of her 35 years. And here she was waiting to meet Kyle Cooper.

Jennifer turned from where she stood at the schoolroom window and glanced at the clock over the door. Kyle had two minutes until he was late and she really didn’t think he was going to make it. The students were watching her, not even trying to hide their smiles. Jennifer took her place at the front of the room and raised her hand to stop the whispering. Just when she was about to begin, a grinning boy pushed through the door.

He stopped and surveyed the room as though he owned it. His wild red hair was shaggy and uncombed; his clothes torn and tattered; his feet bare. There was a great big wad of something in his left cheek and her eyes went wide when it looked as though he was about to spit tobacco juice out onto the classroom floor.

“Don’t you dare!”

He grinned and swallowed, then belched nearly loud enough to rattle the windows.

 

She was kind of pretty and Kyle got a touch of the guilts when her face turned red. But he had a reputation to uphold and he didn’t want her getting used to having him around. Best thing would be to get kicked out right away and get on down the road.

She recovered damn fast and she didn’t look near as mad as he’d have preferred. The fact was, the way she was staring wasn’t too comfortable.

“What’s the matter? Do I have snot on my face?”

He wiped the back of his hand across his nose and checked it out.

Everyone else thought it was funny, but she didn’t even crack a smile.

“If the show is over, Kyle, then go back outside, spit out the tobacco, and get right back in here and take your seat.”

“It’s not tobacco, it’s bubble gum.”

Kyle proved it by blowing a bubble as big as his head that exploded at her.

“I said spit it out.”

He admired the way she took right up and began scribbling fractions on the blackboard. It took considerable courage to turn her back just then, but Kyle was just warming up. By the time she turned around he was seated in the first row staring back.

 

“Can you solve fractions, Kyle?”

There was a strange light in the boy’s blue eyes, like nothing Jennifer had ever seen before. It was spooky at first. He was a good-looking kid underneath what was obviously a disguise aimed at making her angry. He took his time answering and the expression on his face was probably the first honest one since he walked through the door.

“Can you solve partial differentials? You’re not going to make me sit through this, are you? I have something important to do. Something real important.”

The other kids were giggling. Why had he even come in?

“Kyle, will you come with me, please?”

 

Was she actually going to let him go? He followed her out the door and away from the classroom. She turned and faced him.

“What’s wrong, Kyle? Is it your father?”

Kyle hesitated. She was smart and she looked it. Maybe too smart.

“Yes, Ma’am. He’s awful sick.”

“Why won’t he go to a doctor?”

“I don’t know for sure, but he gets real mad whenever I try to convince him. I think it has something to do with the way Mom died.”

She was staring off over his head and thinking about something. When she swung her eyes back to him they were too intelligent for comfort.

“What are you planning on doing, Kyle?”

He didn’t answer, but he could see he didn’t need to.

“I want you to go home. Straight home. I’ll drive out after school and give you your lessons. Don’t go anywhere else, Kyle. Promise me.”

“He’s dying!”

“Trust me, Kyle. Go home. I’ll see you after school, all right?”

 

He was wasting a day and every day mattered. He wavered, watching her face, then reluctantly nodded agreement.

“Good boy. Did you walk to school?”

“Heck no.”

“Be careful. I’ll see you this afternoon.”

Kyle turned in a hurry and headed for the scooter before she changed her mind.

“Kyle?”

He stopped with a silent curse. “Yes Ma’am?”

“Can you solve partial differentials?”

 

Dale Cooper sighed when he heard the scooter coming. He couldn’t be mad at the boy because the rascal was right. Kyle needed school about as much as a gator needed eating lessons.

Nobody had to force Kyle to learn. He spent hours every day staring at that computer of his that he had rigged up somehow. Dale had no idea how the darn thing worked and he had been amused when Kyle started constructing a radar dish out behind the house. Two days later they had a telephone and Kyle was talking to people all over the world using his new toy. No bills ever showed up and evidently nobody was the wiser.

Kyle pulled up in the front yard and climbed off.

“Didn’t take long this time, boy.”

Kyle grinned and walked to the porch.

“You won’t believe what happened, Dad. That nice lady agreed I didn’t need a classroom. She’s coming by this afternoon after school and giving me homework.”

Dale leaned back and smiled.

“I wouldn’t blame you son, not one bit.”

They grinned together and Dale stood.

“So where are you off to?”

“I think I’ll play with my computer.”

 

Jennifer Barton transferred from a Fort Lauderdale school district. Kyle sat down and lit up the computer. Three minutes later his code cracker pinged and he was in.

The first thing he found was that she hadn’t been teaching for five months, which was a good sign. It had been five months before that one of the Virus Laws went into effect barring people infected with the disease from occupations that required close contact with children. Kyle could see hard times on the way.

He continued to scan her file and he smiled as he read it. She was apparently one of the best they’d had, so naturally, they had given her the boot. He scrolled forward to the end where he intended to rewrite history. When he got there, his fingers froze. He leaned back and tugged on his lower lip.

Somebody had gotten there first.

It must have been one of the school administrators, covering for a former colleague. It took another half hour before he found the hospital where her medical records were kept. Jennifer Barton had a clean bill off health. He sat back again, studying the screen.

There were only two possibilities. The first was that he was wrong, that she didn’t have The Virus and the records hadn’t been tampered with. The second was much more interesting. No school administrator could crack into the hospital security and the high probability was that if both documents were altered, the job was done by the same person. Had she done it herself?

Kyle went after her college transcripts at Miami University. Her grades were excellent but there was nothing to indicate she would have the skills necessary to break in and alter secured records. So it wasn’t her. A friend? Or maybe a pro she hired to clear her past?

He sat with his feet up on his computer desk, drumming the fingers of his left hand to the rock and roll music coming from his stereo. The more he thought about it, the more suspicious he became. If the Colombians had somehow tripped over who was walling off Florida, he wouldn’t even have time to dodge. But it couldn’t be the Colombians. For one thing, it was much too subtle for them. They didn’t have either the need or the ability to insert Jennifer Barton into his school, teaching the class he was supposed to be in. Kyle sat up and got busy.

Forty-five minutes later he knew Jennifer Barton’s history inside out. She was no Colombian, and if she was working for them, she probably didn’t know it. More likely it was the Feds, something he hadn’t expected. They would certainly love to get their grubby little hands on him, the thanks he got for turning off the foreign drug tap. Kyle spent another hour cruising their records, checking the traps to see if any had turned up something dangerous. They were all clean. So it probably wasn’t the Feds.

That left the most ludicrous of explanations. It must be a new player, a total unknown of uncertain motive and strength. But how had the guy found him? Even worse, how long had he been watching Kyle and what did he know?

Jennifer Barton had jumped at the chance to come back out to the house. She knew his dad was sick and she had implied she was going to do something about it. From what Kyle had learned about her, it seemed a good bet she had agreed to trade The Virus to clear her record. That made her part a small one. For now…

He shut the computer down and stood.

“Just remember, you came at me. And you damn well should have known better.”

He grabbed his fishing pole on his way out the door.

 

Jennifer closed the history book and smiled.

“That’s all for today.”

The classroom was empty ten seconds later. Jennifer packed her materials and headed for the small house she was renting on the outskirts of town. It was a scary thing she was contemplating. Dale Cooper was not a bad looking man. He was large man and had probably been very strong in his younger days, but whatever he had was eating him away. As she walked she tried to think up ways to approach him, but her mind kept drifting back to Kyle. He intrigued her enormously.

She opened the door of her cottage and went straight to the bookshelves lining one wall of the cramped living room. She found the book the man had given her and pulled it from the shelf. It certainly wasn’t a grade school text book. What had she landed in the middle of?

She retreated to the bedroom and found a dress that would make it nearly impossible for Dale to say no. Then she stripped and climbed into the shower. She was standing under the scalding water when she remembered Raston Imri, a mathematics professor at Miami U. He had made it clear on more then one occasion that it was their duty to watch for the exceptional minds. He was the head of Florida’s Gifted Children Program and he had asked them to refer any exceptional children in their classes directly to him.

How intelligent was Kyle?

 

Dale Cooper turned the oven down to warm, then opened the oven door and checked the goose. Kyle was probably the best shot in the glades. They lived off the land mostly, except for the spare cash Kyle turned up with once in a while from one of the investment schemes he was so secretive about. Dale figured it was probably something illegal, but he didn’t pry. Legal or illegal, Dale knew Kyle wouldn’t do anything outright dishonest, or at least, nothing he would get caught at.

Why had Miss Barton turned Kyle loose? The fact was, the boy sounded sort of pleased. Dale wasn’t so far gone that he didn’t recognize a good thing when he saw it. He wasn’t going to live forever, that got clearer every day. He wasn’t sure what the boy was up to but he had every intention of giving Miss Barton the chance to get to know Kyle better. If anything happened to Dale, somebody was going to needed to watch out for Kyle. And her being a teacher, that just made it better.

He heard the car coming and shut the oven. His hand started to reach for the beeper gizmo Kyle had cooked up but it relaxed before he triggered it. Dale walked out onto the porch and smiled when she got out of the car.

 

Dale was standing on the weathered porch and looking at her very much like a man who hadn’t lost the urge. Jennifer left the books in the trunk and strolled to the bottom of the steps.

“Evening, Dale.”

“Evening, Miss Barton. I must say, you look a picture standing there like that.

“Please, call me Jennifer.”

“I hope you’re not in a hurry, Jennifer. Kyle is out on the flats fishing; he’ll be along. Have you eaten yet?”

He grinned at her and she smiled back, then took a seat beside him on the porch swing. They sat in silence for several seconds while Jennifer looked around. Civilization felt about a million miles away.

“Dale, can I ask you a question about Kyle?”

“I reckoned you’d be curious once you met him. He’s about the most curious kid alive. Hope he didn’t make it too hard on you this morning, Jennifer. He’s naturally allergic to classrooms.”

“I noticed that.”

Dale gave her a look that was hard to interpret.

“He’s a good boy. I don’t know how I would have carried on without him. Once you get past the smart-alecky, he’s got a gentle soul. You believe that, Kyle wouldn’t hurt a fly. Might scare him a bit.”

How long would Kyle be gone? Now that Jennifer was here, she was nervous. She turned to look at Dale and he stared right back. There was a fire blazing away behind those laughing eyes.

“Did Kyle tell you why I’m here, Dale?”

The man actually blushed, then turned away when he started to cough. It was a frightening sound the way his body racked to clear his lungs. He looked frantic, then swallowed.

Jennifer reached up and put a hand on his forehead. His body went rigid.

“Don’t worry about me, Jennifer. I’ll get along.”

“But I am worried. You live pretty far away from everything out here. If something happened to you, what would Kyle do?”

“Same as everybody else, I reckon, only better.”

“You know what I mean. He’s lost one parent, Dale, he can’t afford to lose another.”

Dale closed his eyes and took a deep breath. His face was relaxed, but Jennifer had the impression that underneath the deceptive calm he was frightened. She reached down and took his hand.

“I have The Virus, Dale. Does that bother you?”

He was surprised. Understanding crossed his face in a flash of crimson.

“I don’t remember hearing that it ever killed anybody, Jennifer.”

“No, it doesn’t kill them. It makes them well. It makes them feel wonderful and alive.”

Dale was looking from her face to her hand in total disbelief.

“If you’ll let me, Dale, I’d like to share it with you.”

 

Kyle shoved a chunk of goose in his mouth before the grin broke out again. He’d never seen his dad so uncomfortable and fidgety and all fired pleased with himself all at once. Miss Barton had no problems at all. She looked like she belonged sitting there at the table, like she’d been sitting there her whole life and everything was just as normal as could be.

When they were done Kyle sent them out on the porch and began clearing the table. He was whistling something or another and just feeling about as happy as he could ever remember. Everything had come out peachy and his face kept grinning until it hurt. About twenty minutes later his dad came in and leaned against the door jam.

“She’s heading back to town, boy. She said to send you out so she could give you your school books.”

He grinned at his dad and his dad tried to swallow a smile. Kyle dried his hands and headed out to Miss Barton’s car. She stood with the trunk open and was bending over, reaching inside.

“Miss Barton?”

She stood straight and met his eyes.

“I brought some books for you to read, Superboy. I’m not convinced you don’t need to be sitting in a classroom with other children your age, but it seems unlikely I’d be able to make you.”

“I learn better by myself.”

“We’ll see. Don’t let me down, Kyle. You’re going to have to prove yourself.”

“I’m not going to let you down, Miss Barton. You have a friend for life. You remember that.”

She smiled but he didn’t think she quite got the point. He glanced down at the books in the trunk and his eyes blinked as his hand reached. It came up holding a book on artificial intelligence. He looked up at Miss Barton and her mouth was open in surprise.

“You take this one back. You tell him I said only a fool would think anything was going to come from their moronic theories. You tell him I said they should quit wasting their time chasing ghosts with a pitchfork.”

She was watching him in total astonishment. Then she smiled and chuckled.

“And I thought it was so clever the way things worked out. I get my career back and your father gets The Virus. But that wasn’t it at all, was it, Kyle? The whole time it was you, not your father. What’s going on here, Kyle?”

Kyle looked down at the book in his hand.

“I don’t know, Miss Barton. But somebody’s after me, and it’s giving me the willies. You just agreed to give my dad The Virus?”

“That was it, Kyle. But he asked me if I would see to your education. He seemed genuinely concerned that it wasn’t broad enough.”

Meaning Kyle wasn’t wasting his time studying boring crap. Something very strange was going on. The guy’s actions seemed to indicate he wanted Kyle prepared for some use. Somebody knew what he could do and the book on artificial intelligence was a hint to what the man was after. He wanted Kyle to create it, and it was obvious the guy wanted it for a private reason. But how tricky was the bastard? Did he really think Kyle was going to read the stupid book and suddenly decide to give it a shot? Unlikely.

So it was a goad…

“I don’t suppose you got his name?”

“No. He said he would contact me occasionally to see how I was getting along. What does he want with you, Kyle?”

Kyle turned and heaved the book into the swamp, waiting until he heard the splash. He collected the rest of the books, an assortment of college textbooks stacked nearly two feet high, then looked at Miss Barton around the side of the stack.

“He wants to use me to do something that nobody else can. The thing is, I can’t either. If this guy calls, you tell him I said to back off.”

Kyle turned to the house and smiled at his dad standing on the porch watching Miss Barton. Kyle stopped and swung back to her when he was ten feet away. She was still standing there, watching him with veiled eyes.

“You remember what I said, Miss Barton, Kyle Cooper is your friend. If anybody bothers you, you let me know.”

 

Jennifer Barton didn’t know it yet but she had just become a double agent. There was something fascinating in the way this situation had started to unravel and Kyle intended to keep pulling until he reached center. It didn’t seem possible that someone was on to him because he had been extremely careful in covering his trail.

Was it possible the man hadn’t needed to trip over a loose end? Kyle was immediately positive. It was just possible that the man wasn’t a bad guy at all, that he didn’t have a clue as to what Kyle was up to and he was some mysterious apparition appearing out of Kyle’s mysterious past. It was no trick for Kyle to figure out his biological parents weren’t the average American couple, not considering the way he had turned out. He might be square in the middle of a major mess that could blow at any time.

He wiggled his toes on the Persian carpet in his room and itemized his finances. Now that the last of the foreign competition had been trampled, it was time to expand his growth and distribution network. The Everglades were the perfect setting for his numerous small farms hidden deep in the swamp. Kyle was already a multimillionaire and his various international investments were all scrubbing and multiplying his net worth.

But money was just money. It was an excellent tool but there were things it couldn’t do, one of which was something Kyle couldn’t stop himself from wanting so badly he drooled. How had the guy known Kyle’s personal devil?

Kyle lived to create. He couldn’t explain how it took hold of him and burned through him when he came up with an idea he had to see made real or die trying. By far the most seductive of the temptations was artificial intelligence. With it, he could do the most extraordinary things…

He swore and jumped to his feet. He didn’t care how long they kept trying to program thought into a machine, it just wasn’t going to work the way Kyle would need it to. He needed real intelligence, not some stupid knee jerk response. Not artificial, but real.

He pushed the frustration away again and glanced over the text books Miss Barton had brought, looking for something that would get his mind off the impossible. Not a math book in the bunch. His eyes fell on the biology book and his hand was reaching for it before he told it to move.

Half an hour later, his head began to sweat. The pressure built slowly and he felt it coming on, getting warmer and warmer as his brain shifted into high. Shivers ran up and down his arms and legs, leaving goosebumps crawling over his flesh. The muscles along his jaw bunched and his eyes went misty, then turned blind. Kyle closed his eyes and let it burn.

The solution might take years to complete and it was too hopelessly complicated for his own computer to handle. That didn’t bother him a bit. He was going to steal computer time; steal it right out from under their silly academic butts. There was a path. He didn’t know exactly where yet, but he would. Nothing was going to get in Kyle Cooper’s way.

He was going to create life…

 

Dr. Isaac Cass placed his hands on the heartbeat of the NSF supercomputer center at Miami University and closed his eyes.

He had been the first of his West Point class to make General. He had been assigned to work with the Pentagon as an analyst, but the situation he had desired so much blew up in his face. They had been glad to have him in the beginning; his credentials were certainly adequate. They had read his dissertation and claimed to be impressed. Then they had immediately put him to work and demanded he produce evidence that his dissertation was garbage. Isaac had refused.

Everyone was so pleased with the peace that had broken out they hadn’t wanted to hear predictions of disaster due to overpopulation that might be centuries away. They were fools hiding their heads in the sand from evidence all around them, too politically careful to propose programs that would only ignite bitter ethical and religious disagreement. Their decision was to wait and hope the problems went away. It had become obvious that there was no room for Isaac Cass and his crazy theories.

He resigned his commission and returned to school at the University of Notre Dame to pursue another doctorate, this time in operations research. His goal was a working model of the world economy that could be used to locate the stress points and avoid upheavals before they occurred. The University had accepted him into the program and persuaded him to teach a graduate class in international economics.

That was where he had met The Fox.

Dr. Archibald Fox had received the Nobel Prize for genetic research before he turned forty. He was acknowledged as the greatest mind the century had produced. The Fox would sit for hours over a beer and listen attentively to anything Isaac cared to say. When Isaac slowed down, The Fox would prompt him with a scenario and Isaac would be off again.

Isaac reached for his wallet and removed the photograph The Fox had mailed to him just after Isaac had accepted his position at Miami University. The picture showed four children about four years old playing on the grass. The little redhead had hair the exact shade as The Fox himself and Isaac grinned, thinking of the little Fox raising hell in the world.

As always, his gaze stopped on the blonde child, the one sitting separate from the others and staring resolutely at the camera with emerald green eyes…

Chapter Three

The Queen of Pentacles will aim the sun.

The Fox’s Notebook

She was a cute little girl with long blonde hair stretching halfway down her back and tied with a bright pink bow. Her dress was white and lacy and her shoes were shiny black leather with a thin strap across pink socks. She sat in the first row beside her mother… watching him.

Her face was composed and expressionless, but her emerald green eyes were focused and clear. Senator Baylor tore his attention away from the little girl and looked out over the auditorium full of parents from the Pennsylvania town.

“Are there any questions?”

Baylor smiled at the sudden silence and noted the tentatively raised hands. He pointed.

“The gentleman in the brown jacket.”

The man stood and faced the podium.

“Senator Baylor, I want to thank you for agreeing to come here this evening, and I think I speak for all of us when I say I’m relieved that a man like you is doing something about the epidemic. I have a teenage boy at home, and I’m sure many of you can appreciate the difficulty of convincing him that girls are bad for his health. If boys and girls are kept separate, how are they ever going to find somebody with whom to form a family? It would seem that isolating them from each other would produce the same results as if they caught the sterility virus.”

Baylor let the murmurs die down and addressed his answer to the audience.

“Your sons and daughters represent mankind’s last hope for survival. I can’t tell you how torn I am over what I must attempt to prevent, and what I know this will cost them. The problem is serious and I don’t claim to have a perfect solution. The truth is, we must prevent the spread of the epidemic. Keeping boys and girls apart yet ensuring they form happy unions is not a new problem in the history of our race. There is an equally old solution. Parents must help them. You must take the initiative in arranging controlled courtship and matrimony. It is a custom that has worked in many places over many centuries. It is a custom that is tried and proven; and that’s what we need now more than anything else. We need something we know will work.”

Baylor noted the startled reactions across the auditorium. His eyes never stopped while he analyzed and evaluated. When the crowd quieted down he pointed to another raised hand.

“The lady in the red dress.” She smiled and stood.

“Senator Baylor, I have a teenage daughter and sometimes I think she doesn’t hear a word I say. I tell her not to do something and she ignores me or answers with some sarcastic remark. It frightens me. We’re trying but we can’t make her understand. How can we protect ourselves from prison over a situation out of our control?”

Baylor watched the parents exchange glances. The law he had narrowly pressed through legislature naming parents responsible for their children’s contraction of The Virus had been the first step.

“Believe me, I understand your fears. We all know that children don’t always listen to their parents. If they did, there would be no crisis. But someone must take responsibility or the spread of the epidemic will never be halted. I agree with you completely, it is unfair to prosecute parents who have done their best. But without prosecution, we cannot stop this disease. Our species will perish.”

They didn’t like it. There was panic in some of their eyes. When they began to turn on him, he raised both his hands requesting silence. The noise died away until the auditorium was quiet and the tension peaked.

“But there is a solution…

“Being a parent is an awesome responsibility, and possibly, the hardest task any adult will ever face. Despite our best efforts, despite our guidance and our love and our firm discipline, some children will refuse to act responsibly. We all know this.

“But we can not give up. We cannot surrender to this menace; we cannot allow our children to destroy their lives and futures. Someone must take responsibility…

“I am currently in the process of drafting new legislation. It involves a project of mine I have titled: Safe Schools. Working with the states, the national government will implement and oversee the creation of a new educational system designed precisely for the difficult child. Students will live on the premises under constant supervision in an environment closely styled after a boarding school approach. They will learn to earn their privileges with mature behavior and be counseled and educated by some of the best minds in teaching and the best minds in the field of child psychology. It will be an environment that is expressly designed to allow problem children to grow to a level of maturity and responsibility needed to contribute to the solution, not the problem.

“With love and discipline, we will help them to abandon their destructive impulses; to find what is the best inside of them. All problem children will be eligible. As parents, it will be your decision to enroll your child, or accept the responsibility yourself. It is your right.”

There was a mixed reaction. The little girl in the front row never took her eyes from his face, never showed any emotion that he could see. He wanted a child’s reaction, but apparently, she didn’t have one. It didn’t make sense and he was beginning to feel uncomfortable with her stare. There were more hands raised but Baylor was through. He grasped the podium between both hands.

“Senator Baylor, may I ask a question?”

It was the little girl, and a curious hush fell over the auditorium. She was standing twenty feet away with the most properly polite expression on her face that he had ever seen. Baylor smiled down at her.

“What is it you would like to know, miss?”

“I’ve lived in this town my whole life and I think I know every single person here. I could go up and down every row and tell you each of their names and where they live. All except those two.”

She turned and pointed with both hands, then spun and stared at him with a strange light in her green eyes.

“Do they work for you? Did you tell them what questions to ask?”

 

Sandra Tucker sat on her back lawn sweating through the first day of July and staring longingly at the swimming pool.

It was just another example of her mother’s behavior that baffled Sandy completely. The swimming pool was there; clean and cool and inviting. She was never allowed to use it. Nobody ever used it.

She had asked her mother once if she was adopted and her mother had lied. Sandy remembered. Sandy remembered everything. She even remembered the moment she started remembering.

There was an old man sitting in front of her. He had sparkling blue eyes and wild red hair streaked with gray. There was the most curious smile on his face, like something was terribly funny but nobody got the joke. It was the first face, and it had a special place in her memory.

“Do you know me?”

It had been an odd thing for someone to say to a three- year-old child. Sandy lived the moment over and over and came to the same conclusion every time. She should have known him.

He had sent her with another man, a large black man, and they had come to a different big house. The black man had left with money and she had stayed behind with her new parents. Then her new parents had moved here. Someday she was going to find the man who had stolen her memories of before.

And then what?

“Sandra, are you alright?”

“I was just thinking.”

“Get up off the lawn. You’re going to stain your dress. I just hope it isn’t totally ruined.”

Her mother continued to look at Sandy until Sandy put a proper expression on her face. Her mother hadn’t known what to say after the events of the night before. It had been a calculated risk and Sandy knew there would be trouble. It was her father’s fault, in a way.

Though Sandy rarely saw him anymore he was always sending her books to read. He had told her all too often that the world was undergoing changes and she better understand them because she was going to have to live with the consequences. Why did she get the feeling that he expected her to do something about it?

“Now come over here and sit down in a chair on the patio. There’s something we need to talk about.”

Another lecture. Sandy crossed the lawn and took the seat, clasping her hands in her lap.

“Sandra, you will be thirteen on the Fourth of July. You are a young lady and soon you will be attracting the attention of boys. There are things you must know.”

Sandy composed her face and waited.

“Sandra, there are things a lady will not do. You must be strong. Someday you will be a wife and your husband has the right to know he is the only man of your life. Marriage is a Sacrament.”

“What if I never get married, Mother?”

“Of course you’ll get married! Really Sandra, I do worry about you sometimes. It is your duty to God to bear children. If you can.”

Her mother faltered and looked quickly aside.

“If you scorn the laws of God you will be punished, Sandra. The disease is no accident. I know they have explained it to you in school, but you must remember, The Virus is God’s way of punishing the wicked. Do not question God, Sandra. His wrath will fall upon you and destroy your life. I don’t want to see that happen.”

There was a long pause.

“Are you listening to me, Sandra Tucker?”

“Yes, mother.”

Her mother looked back doubtfully.

“Sandra, it is evil.”

“Isn’t it fun?”

Her mother’s lips curled back in distaste.

“Don’t believe what you hear, Sandra. Most men are animals and they will say anything to weaken your resolve. Listen to me. Someday you will be married and your duty will be clear. Endure it as a lady.”

 

Jefferey Lassen put down the Department of Motor Vehicle report and grinned. He had been standing near the door listening to the end of Senator Baylor’s powwow and getting ready to be gone before the parking lot became a war zone. After Sandra Tucker’s question, the meeting had quickly become a much more interesting event. The questioners had sat at nearly opposite sides of the room, but they had left in the same car.

Had Sandra Tucker been telling the truth about knowing the name of everyone there? And where they lived? The Tucker’s were a prominent family in town, but everybody?

She could have asked any question. She could have asked about any of the laws or about The Virus or about Baylor’s intention to run for President, all of which Baylor would have answered in a way that made him sound like God. But she hadn’t. She had asked the exact question that would prove most embarrassing for Baylor to answer. How had she known?

Jefferey turned on his word processor and began writing an article about Baylor getting caught with his pants down by a little girl in a white dress. After three false starts, he shut the machine off and stared at it.

There had to be more to it. Sandra Tucker was a cute kid and she had made a fool out of a man who cut his teeth on hard ball politics. A lot of people would want to know more about her.

A lot of people.

 

“Hey, Slash? You hear about that Tucker kid who made Baylor look like an asshole last night?”

Slash took a jump shot from fifteen feet and watched it pass through the hoop in a clean swish. Clubber was sitting on his ass against a tree and sucking on a beer.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing? Down that shit and trash the can before some jerk gets the cops out here.”

“Fuck’em. They ain’t going to catch the Clubber.”

“I said down it.”

Clubber looked annoyed, but downed the beer and started to toss the can.

“Throw it in the trash, you moron. And stick it in a bag or something. What’s your problem?”

“What’s my problem? What’s your problem? Your mom on the rampage again?”

Slash walked to the ball and started to pick it up. Instead, he kicked it.

Sure, he’d heard about the little rich girl living up on the hill in the fancy house with all the fancy things. She could afford to talk. Nobody was going to throw her in juvie, not with the piles of money her folks had.

He’d heard more about the meeting up on the hill last night than about Sandra Tucker. He’d heard that they were going to turn schools into prisons and lock kids up for no reason except their folks were sick of looking at them. He’d be the first one in.

“Where did you get that beer?”

Clubber grinned and wiped his palms on the front of his jeans.

“Pop has a whole case in the fridge. He told me half were mine if I waxed his pile of shit car.”

“What are we waiting for?”

Clubber headed for the parking lot and his dad’s car that he was always putting down, but drove every chance he got. Slash went after the basketball sitting against the chain link fence. He picked it up and glanced up the hill on the other side. There were too many trees in the way to see much of the houses; almost like they planted the forest there just to keep the poor kids from seeing how much the rich folks had. He was still standing there, staring up through the trees, when Clubber leaned on the horn.

Slash turned and spit, wishing it had landed right in the middle of Baylor’s smiling face.

 

Jefferey Lassen looked the Tucker’s house over. It was enormous. George Tucker owned a textile mill, a steel company, a mining company and who knew what else. He was the town’s wealthiest citizen. Jefferey made his way to the door and pressed the bell. Seconds later the door swung open. The butler was an old man with a suspicious face. He stood and waited, looking Jefferey up and down.

“My name is Jefferey Lassen. I’d like to speak to Mr. Tucker.”

“Mr. Tucker is a busy man, Mr. Lassen. Perhaps if you made an appointment at a more convenient time.”

“I’m sorry about not calling first, but I don’t have much time before the deadline and I thought I’d just try to catch him. You read the Herald?”

The old man didn’t even flinch. The door was shutting in Jefferey’s face when a woman spoke.

“Steven? What is it?”

“It is a reporter, Mrs. Tucker.”

The door swung back open and he was facing Mrs. Tucker. She was an attractive woman in her own way. Jefferey smiled and she frowned.

“My name is Jefferey Lassen, Mrs. Tucker. That was quite a commotion your daughter caused last night. I’m writing a story on the incident and I thought I’d come over and ask a few questions, so I don’t print anything that might embarrass you or your husband by mistake.”

Mrs. Tucker was startled.

“A story? Whatever for?”

“It’s my job, Mrs. Tucker. I have to write something and I wanted to make sure I had all the facts. For example, how did your daughter know that those two people weren’t from around here? She said she knew everyone else, but I find that difficult to believe. There were nearly five hundred people in that auditorium.

“And what made her suspicious that the questioners worked for Baylor? Just because she never saw them before? I have to ask, you understand. When I write the story I’m going to have to ask those questions. I think it would work out best, for all of us, if I also knew the answers. Did somebody put her up to it? People are going to wonder, and I’m sorry to say, the answer they’ll come up with is that her parents told her to ask. I’m not saying that’s true, Mrs. Tucker. I’m just saying that’s what people are going to think. Unless there’s another explanation?”

She was turning pale and pressing a perfectly manicured hand to the base of her throat.

“That’s a totally outrageous lie!”

“I’m sure it was all completely innocent. I’m sure that once your daughter explains this will all clear up and there won’t be any trouble. The explanation is probably so simple that it won’t even be worth writing the story at all.”

Piece of cake. Mrs. Tucker practically fled up the stairs. Almost immediately, they were coming down. The little girl looked as confused as the mother. There was a blank expression in Sandra’s eyes and her mouth was quivering slightly like she was trying not to cry. She stopped several paces away and her head swung nervously from Jefferey to her mother and back.

“Sandra, I want you to tell this man how you knew those two people were working for Senator Baylor.”

Mrs. Tucker was standing behind the girl or Jefferey thought the little girl might turn and run. Was this the girl who had embarrassed one of the most powerful men in the country?

“Do I have to, mother?”

“Sandra…”

The little girl turned back to him.

“I… I just didn’t know them, that’s all. I thought maybe they were friends of his, so I asked. I didn’t mean to make him angry.”

“Don’t be scared, Sandra, nothing is going to happen to you. You aren’t in any trouble. Just relax.”

She tried, but she couldn’t. Was that all there was to it?

Sandra, You said you could name every person in the room and where they lived. Was that true? Do you know all of those people?”

“I… Well, I guess I don’t know all of them. But I’ve seen them all, I think.”

“You think?”

“I mean I know. Sure, I’ve seen all of them at sometime or another. They live here, don’t they? What’s so strange about me seeing all of them?”

He watched her face and began to get suspicious. She was lying about something and the thought brought a surge of adrenaline.

“Nothing too strange, I guess.”

He smiled and she smiled tentatively in return.

“Can I ask you something else? I was standing in the back of the auditorium but you were sitting in the front row beside your mother. Your back was to the rest of the people there, and even if you turned around, I don’t think you would have been able to see everyone.”

She was scared again, this time much worse. He let the words sink in and waited until she was nearly terrified.

“So even if you have seen all of them at one time or another, you couldn’t really be sure who was there. That wasn’t really how you knew those people worked for Senator Baylor. Somebody told you they did and they told you to ask that question at that time. Isn’t that right?”

She changed so quickly he almost stepped back. Her eyes were anything but dull and lifeless, they were blazing emerald daggers stabbing hatred at Jefferey.

“You leave me alone! You can’t throw me in jail for asking a question!”

“Who was it, Sandra?”

“I don’t have to tell! You’re always picking on him! Always trying to catch him doing something so you can throw him in jail. All you adults just don’t like him because we kids do. You’ll see, he’s going to get Baylor and make you all stop picking on us. He’s going to cut Baylor’s stupid laws into shreds!”

 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, mister. I haven’t even met her.”

“Come on, Slash, how did you know? That was a pretty neat trick you pulled, getting Sandra Tucker to keelhaul Baylor with one simple question. I’m very impressed.”

Apparently Slash wasn’t. He leaned against the door jam and smiled, then spit, missing Jefferey’s pant leg by two inches. This kid was another story, he wasn’t going to get rattled the way Sandra Tucker had. Slash had a reputation with the local authorities that went back several years. Despite their best efforts, they couldn’t seem to catch him at anything. This wasn’t going to be any different.

“Come on, Slash, you’re not in any trouble. As Miss Tucker pointed out, quiet vehemently I might add, there’s no law against asking questions. I just want to know how you found out. I won’t print any names, I promise.”

“Print this – Fuck off.”

The door slammed in Jefferey’s face. He turned back to his car and smiled. He hadn’t really expected much, but it didn’t matter. Sandra’s words could be printed and people could decide for themselves. He would probably never know how Slash had found out about Baylor’s deception. Slash had done him a favor. Jefferey was going to do one in return.

He was going to make him famous.

 

“Sandra Tucker, you are never to see that horrible boy again.”

“I’m sorry, Mother.”

Her mother was furious, wringing her hands and blinking back tears.

“How could you do this to me? Talk will be all over town by tomorrow and everywhere I go people will be whispering behind my back and saying I’m not a proper mother.”

“No they won’t, Mother. They’ll say I’m not a proper daughter.”

Her mother paused and her shoulders relaxed slightly, her eyes far away. Sandy knew that by morning her mother would have the performance down pat, the injured parent. It would work because Sandy hadn’t done anything really scandalous. The blame was going to fall on Slash.

“You get up to your room and you stay there. You hear me, young lady? You stay there.”

“Yes, mother”

Sandy turned and headed up the stairs. So far, everything was working out perfectly.

 

“It doesn’t surprise me one bit, you hoodlum! Big bad Slash is going to take on Senator Baylor. You just keep it up, young man, and you’re going to spend your life behind bars. Senator Baylor is trying to help and he’s not going to be stopped by a gnat named Slash.”

Slash turned away from his mother before he said something stupid. He bounced the basketball a couple of times, then grabbed it and almost threw it down the street.

Why did all the adults hate him so much? He’d never done anything to them except tell them to leave him the fuck alone when they hassled him for no reason. Sometimes it seemed that every adult in town would like nothing better then to see him in prison, getting the crap beat out of him every time he opened his mouth.

He dribbled down the street at a slow jog, getting his muscles loosened up. If they really wanted to screw him they should take away his basketball. Rounding the corner, he passed through the gate and headed for the elementary school court. When he cleared the school building and the court came into sight, he saw her.

She was sitting on the grass against a tree in the same spot Clubber had been yesterday. She was wearing a white dress neatly folded over crossed legs, and she was watching him. It made him mad at first because he’d have rather been alone, but when he got closer, he became curious. She was just a kid, maybe thirteen, but she was fine looking and had the most incredible head of long blonde hair. Slash dribbled up the court not even pretending he wasn’t looking. She stared straight back with a funny smile on her face.

Suddenly he stopped and the ball bounced away.

“You! I ought to kick your ass, you little bitch.”

She smiled and stood, walking toward him. When she was two steps away, she stopped.

“Go ahead.”

“Sure. Sure, that’s exactly what you want. Then you can run home to mommy and tell her that Slash beat you up because you told on him. I’d be in jail before dark.”

“I’m not going to tell my mother. Last night she said to never come near you again, and I’m not supposed to be down here anyway.”

“Again! You lying little…”

But she never stopped smiling. He started to take a step forward then realized what he was doing and instead took two steps back.

“Get out of here. Somebody sees us talking and I’m in trouble. What the hell did I ever do to you?”

“Nothing.”

She took another couple of steps forward, and this time she was in arms reach.

“Can I talk to you, Slash? Will you listen?”

He stared down into her green eyes and almost bit his tongue.

“Go ahead.”

“Not here.”

Slash looked around quickly, then nodded. Her smile spread. She crossed the grass to a fence twice as tall as she was and two seconds later was standing on the other side.

“Are you coming?”

 

They must have walked for an hour up into the forest, scrambling over dead-falls and jumping a couple of creeks. He stayed behind her and let her lead because she seemed to know where she was going and he liked the way she moved. Who would have thought the little rich girl in a white dress could scramble like a cat?

She jumped another creek that must have been ten feet across.

“You some sort of gymnast?”

“Wade it.”

“Bullshit!”

He backed up, took a running start, and almost made it. She turned and followed the creek up the hill through the trees while he tried to figure out what was with this chick. Ten minutes later they came to a small dam made by fallen trees and boulders. Behind it was a pool about thirty feet across and deep enough. She was standing beside a bolder and waiting for him.

“What do you think, Slash?”

“I think we’re a hell of a long way from town.”

“Want to go swimming?”

“Swimming?”

“I haven’t been swimming since last summer.”

“You? You live up the hill and your old man’s the richest person in town. You telling me you don’t have a swimming pool?”

“I’m not allowed to use it.”

“Can’t you swim?”

“My mother say’s it’s not ladylike to wear a bathing suit. She won’t even buy me one.”

“That’s retarded. How are you going to go swimming without a suit?”

She grinned and before he had time to blink, she just reached down and yanked that damn white dress up over her head.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

“Aren’t you going to take your clothes off?”

“Are you crazy? Do you know how much trouble we can both get in for this?”

She didn’t listen. She walked toward him until she was standing chest to chest.

“Trust me.”

 

“Stop that. We better get out of here.”

Sandy stood and walked to her dress and slid it on. When she turned around, Slash was just pulling up his jeans.

“I have to tell you why I did it. Every kid id school thinks you’re the coolest because of the way you tell the grownups off. Baylor doesn’t care who caught him, just that he got caught. But the kids will care. Because they think you did it, they are going to be more willing.”

He finished buttoning his jeans and looked up at her.

“More willing for what?”

“More willing to listen to you when the time is right.”

She could see he was curious.

“What are you talking about?”

“You’re going to help me stop it.”

It didn’t go over well. He was laughing at her and reaching for his shirt.

“I can’t stop Baylor. Maybe when you’re older and you have all your old man’s money, you could do something, but then it won’t matter. I’m just a poor kid who’s going to go to jail for running his mouth.”

“Maybe. But whether you like it or not the other kids look up to you, both the ones who live on the hill and the ones who live below. Now even more kids are going to look up to you and listen to you.”

He stopped in the middle of tying his sneakers.

“That’s why you laid it on me? So the other kids will listen? And what am I supposed to tell them?”

“I’m not sure yet. But things are going to get worse. Kids are going to get angry. They’re going to want to fight back. You’re going to tell them how.”

“You trying to start a war?”

“I’m trying to stop one.”

“You’re crazy.”

He didn’t understand. Sandy wasn’t sure that even she understood. She was smart enough to know what he said was right. If she just behaved, someday she would be rich and she wouldn’t have to worry about anything. But she was worried and she wasn’t sure why.

When she closed her eyes she could see the future rushing in like a real thing, like it was getting smaller and smaller until there was nothing but a point left to squeeze through. She couldn’t explain how things came together from every corner of her mind until they made a picture that felt so real she thought she could touch it. It was only lately that she had tried to change the pictures, to push and prod and see what happened.

Sandy had to find two things that were equally impossible. The first was a cure for the infertility, and she couldn’t stop the machine in her head from evaluating the probability of success. The second might be even more impossible.

Slash was just the beginning. She was going to need to find someone that could command the respect and trust of both sides, someone whose honor and courage were of mythical proportions, someone that would make Sir Galahad look like a wimpy sniveling cur.

Sandy needed a hero…

Chapter Four

The Knight of Swords will see it done.

The Fox’s Notebook

Something bad was going to happen.

Joshua Stone wasn’t sure what was wrong but there was an itch coming on. Through the soles of his bare feet he felt the uneasy rhythm of the North Pacific as it pounded against the rock face of the cliff. There was salt and spray kicked up from the sea fifty feet below and the smells of the forest drifting at his back. To the north, sea gulls screamed as they fought over crabs during their morning feed. And to the south…

There was death on the wind. There was a savage taste filling his head and a fierce tension in the muscles knotting at the base of his spine. Joshua closed his eyes and felt the dawn, then went perfectly still.

The Dragon was awake.

He scrambled back from the cliff and stopped beneath a giant redwood. His pa said that when the Dragon struck you could smell the stink just before his jaws closed. Joshua didn’t believe in dragons much, but something sure stunk, and something always seemed to happen when it started stinking like that. Sweat popped out of his skin like spit, soaking his shirt and making it smell a thousand times worse. Socrates started barking and growling and throwing a fit. Soc jumped to his feet and stared at Joshua like he didn’t even know him, then began spinning in circles and snapping at air.

Everything was pumping and jumping, the Dragon getting louder and louder and nearer and nearer until Joshua could feel him there in the woods all around. Joshua spun just like Socrates, knowing that he had to get someplace but not knowing where. It was worse this time, worse then it ever had been before.

The Dragon roared…

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