The Passage Page 16

Now Lear wanted a kid, a girl. Even Richards had to pause and think about that. A bunch of homeless drunks and death row inmates were one thing, human recyclables as far as Richards was concerned-but a kid? Sykes had explained that it had to do with the thymus gland. The younger it was, he'd told Richards, the better it could fight off the virus, to bring it to a kind of stasis. That was what Lear had been working toward-all the benefits without the unpleasant side effects. Unpleasant side effects! Richards had to allow himself a laugh at that. Never mind that in their former, human lives, the glowsticks had been men like Babcock, who'd cut their mothers' throats for bus fare. So maybe that had something to do with it, too: Lear wanted a clean slate, somebody whose brain hadn't filled up with junk yet. For all Richards knew, he'd come asking for a baby next.

And Richards had gotten the goods. A few weeks of trolling until he'd found the right one: Caucasian Jane Doe, approximately age six, dumped like a bad habit at a convent in Memphis by a mother who was probably too strung out to care. Zero footprint, Sykes had told him, and this girl, this Jane-Doe-approximately-age-six, wouldn't have parted a summer breeze. By Monday, though, she would be in the care of Social Services and you could just kiss her six-year-old backside goodbye. That left a forty-eight-hour window for the grab, assuming the mother didn't return to claim her, like a piece of lost luggage. As for the nuns, well, Wolgast would find a way to handle them. The guy could sell sunlamps in a cancer ward. He'd proved that well enough.

Richards turned from his screen to eyeball the monitors. All the children were snug in their beds. Babcock looked like he was jabbering away as usual, his throat bobbing like a toad's; Richards flicked on the audio and listened for a minute to the clicks and grunts, wondering, as he always did, if it added up to something: "Let me out of here" or "I could go for some more rabbits right about now" or "Richards, the first thing I'm doing when I get out of here is coming for you, brother." Richards himself spoke a dozen languages-the usual European ones, but also Turkish, Farsi, Arabic, Russian, Tagalog, Hindi, even a little Swahili-and sometimes, listening to Babcock on the monitor, he got the distinct feeling that there were words in there somewhere, chopped up and scrambled, if only he could teach his ears to hear them. But listening now, all he heard was noise.

"Couldn't sleep?"

Richards turned to find Sykes standing in the doorway, holding a cup of coffee. He was wearing his uniform but his tie was undone and the flaps of his jacket hung open. He brushed his hand through his thinning hair and spun a chair around to straddle it, facing Richards.

"Right," Sykes said. "Me neither."

Richards thought to ask him about his dreams but decided against it: the question was moot. He could read the answer in Sykes's face.

"I don't sleep," Richard said. "Not much, anyway."

"Yeah, well." Sykes shrugged. "Of course you don't." When Richards didn't say anything, he tipped his head toward the monitors. "Everything quiet downstairs?"

Richards nodded.

"Anyone else going out for a walk in the moonlight?"

He meant Jack and Sam, the sweeps. It wasn't Sykes's style to be sarcastic, but he had a right to be steamed. Garbage bins, for Christsakes. The sentries were supposed to inspect everything coming in or out, but they were just kids, really, ordinary enlisted. They acted like they were still in high school because that's pretty much all they knew. You had to keep riding them, and Richards had let things slide.

"I've spoken to the OD. It's not a conversation he's going to forget."

"You wouldn't by any chance want to tell me what happened to those guys?"

Richards had nothing to say about that. Sykes needed him, but there was no way he'd ever bring himself to like him or, for that matter, approve of him.

Sykes stood and stepped past Richards to the monitors. He adjusted the gain and zoomed in on the one showing Zero.

"They used to be friends, you know," he said. "Lear and Fanning."

Richards nodded. "So I've heard."

"Yeah. Well." Sykes took in a deep breath, his eyes still locked on Zero. "Hell of a way to treat your friends."

Sykes turned to point his eyes at Richards, still sitting at his terminal. Sykes looked like he hadn't shaved in a couple of days, and his eyes, squinting in the fluorescent light, were cloudy. He appeared, for a moment, like a man who had forgotten where he was.

"What about us?" he asked Richards. "Are we friends?"

Now, that was a new one on Richards. Sykes's dreams had to be worse than he'd thought. Friends! Who cared?

"Sure," Richards said, and allowed himself a smile. "We're friends."

Sykes regarded him for another moment. "On second thought," he said, "maybe that's not such a hot idea." He waved the idea away. "Thanks anyway."

Richards knew what was bothering Sykes: the girl. Sykes had a couple kids of his own-two grown boys, both West Point like the old man, one at the Pentagon doing something with intelligence, another with a desert tank unit stationed in Saud-and Richards thought maybe there were grandkids somewhere in the mix, too; Sykes had probably mentioned this in passing, but it wasn't the sort of thing they usually talked about. Either way, this thing with the girl wasn't going to sit well with him. Truthfully, Richards didn't really give a damn what Lear wanted, one way or the other.

"You really should get some shut-eye," Richards said. "We've got intake in"-he checked his watch-"three hours."

"Might as well just stay up." Sykes moved to the door, where he turned and gave his weary gaze to Richards again. "Just between us, and if you don't mind my asking, how'd you get him here so fast?"

"It wasn't hard." Richards shrugged. "I got him on a troop transport out of Waco. Bunch of reservists, but it counts as a federal corridor. They landed in Denver a little after midnight."

Sykes furrowed his brow. "Federal corridor or not, it's too quick. Any idea what the rush is all about?"

Richards couldn't say for sure; the order had come from the liason at Special Weapons. But if he had to guess, he would have bet it had something to do with the sweaty cot and soup-encrusted hot plate and a year without sunshine or fresh air, with the bad dreams and the Red Roof and all the rest of it. Hell, if you looked at the situation carefully-something he'd long since stopped bothering to do-it probably all went back to the bookishly pretty Elizabeth Macomb Lear, long battle with cancer, et cetera, et cetera.

"I called in a favor and had the purge done from Langley. Systemwide, soup to nuts. From a big-box perspective, Carter is already nobody. He couldn't buy a pack of gum."

Sykes frowned. "Nobody's nobody. There's always someone who's interested."

"Maybe so. But this guy comes close."

Sykes lingered another moment at the doorway, saying nothing, both of them knowing what the silence was about. "Well," he concluded, "I still don't like it. We have a protocol for a reason. Three prisons, thirty days, then we bring him in."

"Is that an order?" A joke; Sykes couldn't give him an order, not really. That he could was a pretense Richards only indulged.

"No, forget it," Sykes said, and yawned into the back of his hand. "What would we do, return him?" He rapped the side of the door with his hand. "Call me when the van gets here. I'll be upstairs, not sleeping."

Funny thing: when Sykes was gone, Richards found himself wishing he'd hung around. Maybe they were friends, in a sense. Richards had been on bad jobs before; he knew there was a moment when the tone changed, like a quart of milk left out on the counter too long. You found yourself talking as if nothing mattered, like the whole thing was already over. That was when you got to actually liking people, which was a problem. Things fell apart fast after that.

Carter was nobody unusual, just another con with nothing but his life to trade away. But the girl: what could Lear want with a six-year-old girl?

Richards returned his attention to the monitors and picked up the earphones. Babcock was back in the corner, chattering away. It was funny: something about Babcock always gnawed at him. It was as if Richards was his, like Babcock owned a piece of him. He couldn't shake the feeling. Richards could sit and listen to the guy for hours. Sometimes he'd fall asleep at the monitors, still wearing the earphones.

He checked his watch again, knowing that he shouldn't but unable to stop himself. It was just past three. He wasn't in the mood for another hand of cards, never mind that little bastard in Seattle, and the hours of waiting for the van to pull into the compound suddenly opened before him like a mouth that could swallow him whole.

There was no fighting it. He adjusted the volume and settled back to listen, wondering what the sounds he heard were trying to tell him.

Chapter SIX

Lacey awoke to the sound of rain, fanning into the leaves outside her window.


Where was Amy?

She rose quickly, threw on her robe, and hurried down the stairs. But by the time she reached the bottom, her panic had eased; surely the child had simply gotten out of bed in search of breakfast, or to watch TV, or simply to have a look around. In the kitchen Lacey found the girl sitting at the table, still in her pajamas, forking bites of toaster waffle into her mouth. Sister Claire was sitting at the head of the broad table, dressed in sweats from her morning jog through Overton Park, holding a steaming mug of coffee and reading the Commercial Appeal. Sister Claire wasn't actually a sister yet, just a novitiate. The shoulders of her sweatshirt were dappled with rain; her face was moist and flushed.

She put the paper down and smiled at Lacey. "Good, you're up. We've already had our breakfast, right, Amy?"

The little girl nodded, chewing. Before she'd joined the order, Sister Claire had sold houses in Seattle, and as Lacey took a place at the table, she saw what the sister had been reading: the real estate section. If Sister Arnette had seen this, she would have been annoyed, might even have given one of her impromptu speeches about the distractions of material life. But the clock on the stove said it was a little after eight; the other sisters would be next door at Mass. Lacey felt a stab of embarrassment. How could she have slept so late?

"I went to early services," Claire said, as if answering her thoughts. Sister Claire often went to the 6:00 A.M. before her daily jog, which she referred to as a visit to "Our Lady of Endorphins." Unlike the rest of the sisters, who had never been anything else, Claire had lived a whole life outside the order: been married, made money, owned things, like a condo and nice shoes and a Honda Accord. She hadn't felt the call until she was in her late thirties and divorced from the man she once referred to as "the worst husband in the world." Nobody knew the details except perhaps Sister Arnette, but Claire's life was a source of wonder to Lacey. How was it possible for a person to have two lives, so very different from each other? Sometimes Claire would say something like "Those are cute shoes" or "The only real good hotel in Seattle is the Vintage Park," and for a moment all the sisters would be stunned into a silence that was one part disapproval, one part envy. It was Claire who had gone to shop for Amy, the unstated implication being that she was the only one of them who really knew how to do this.

"If you hurry you can still make it to the eight o'clock," Claire offered. Though of course it was too late; Claire's real meaning, Lacey understood, was something else. "I can watch Amy."

Lacey looked at the girl. Her hair was disordered from sleep, but her skin and eyes were bright, rested. Lacey ran the tips of her fingers through the girl's bangs. "That's very kind of you," Lacey said. "Perhaps, today, just this once, because Amy is here-"

"Say no more," Sister Claire said and, laughing, halted Lacey's words with a hand. "I'll cover for you."

The looming day assembled in Lacey's mind. Sitting at the table, she remembered her plan for the zoo. When did it open? What about the rain? It would be best, she thought, to be out of the house before the other sisters returned. Not only because they would wonder why she hadn't come to Mass; they might also start to ask questions about Amy. The lie had worked so far, but Lacey felt its softness, like a floor of rotten boards beneath her feet.

When Amy had finished her waffles and a tall glass of milk, Lacey led her back upstairs and got her quickly into her clothes: a fresh pair of jeans, stiff with newness, and a T-shirt with the word SASSY stenciled on it, the letters outlined with sequins. Only Sister Claire would have possessed the courage to choose something like that. Sister Arnette wouldn't like the shirt, not at all-if she saw it she'd probably sigh and shake her head as she always did, souring the air of the room-but Lacey knew the shirt was perfect, just the sort of thing a little girl would want to wear. The sequins made the shirt special, and surely that's what God would want for a child like Amy: some happiness, however small. In the bathroom she wiped the syrup off Amy's cheeks and brushed out her hair, and when this was done she dressed herself, in her usual pleated gray skirt and white shirt and veil. Outside, the rain had stopped; a warm, unhurried sun was gathering in the yard outside. The day would be hot, Lacey guessed, a blast of warmth sailing in from the south behind the cold front that had pushed rain over the house all night.

She had a little cash, enough for tickets and a treat, and the zoo, of course, was something they could walk to. They stepped outside, into air that had begun to swell with heat and the sweetness of wet grass. The bells of the church had begun to bong out the hour; Mass would be ending at any moment. She led Amy quickly through the garden gate, through the tart aroma of herbs, the rosemary and tarragon and basil that Sister Louise tended so carefully, into the park, where people were already gathering for the first warm day of spring, to taste the sun and feel it on their skin: young people with dogs and Frisbees, joggers plodding along the paths, families staking out shady tables and barbecue pits. The zoo stood at the north end of the park, flanked by a broad avenue that cleaved the neighborhood like a blade. On the far side, the big houses and wide, princely lawns of old Midtown were forgotten, replaced by shotgun shacks with broken-down porches and half-assembled cars melting into the packed-dirt yards. Young men floated up and down the streets like pigeons, roosting on this corner or that and then moving on, all of it benumbed with idleness and vaguely ominous. Lacey should have felt better about this neighborhood than she did, but the blacks who lived there were different from Lacey, who had never been poor, at least not in the same way. In Sierra Leone her father had worked for the ministry; her mother kept a car and driver for shopping trips to Freetown and the polo matches at the fairgrounds; one time they'd attended a party where the president himself had danced a waltz with her.

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