Badtux the Snarky Penguin

In a time of chimpanzees, I was a penguin.

Religious fundamentalists are motivated by the sneaking suspicion that someone, somewhere, is having fun -- and that this must be stopped.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Dead Children [Chapter 1]

[ This is a tentative first draft of the first chapter of the next novel in the Valley of Lies series. It is cross-posted at Comments appreciated -- does it make you want to read the next chapter? Or when you reach the end of it, do you say "Bore-ing!"?]

Chapter 1

I am haunted by the ghosts of dead children.

I've seen too many things in the short time I've been on this world. Too many things. When the girl brought me another ghost to haunt my dreams, I almost killed her.

Not on purpose, of course. I did not need another ghost. I'd passed out from exhaustion in the threadbare office of my apartment complex, nose stuck deep in a casebook on torts. I was overextended big-time, between law school, running my business, keeping my body tuned up, and handling the occasional, err, "consulting", job, but that's how I like it. If life wasn't a challenge, I'd die from boredom. That's just how I'm built. But the result is that I conk out from time to time when I've hit my limits. Studying for an upcoming exam, I'd run into the wall.

Then the girl tugged on my hair, and while waking I whipped my Glock into her face, finger on the trigger, before realizing that there was no threat.

The girl burst into tears at that. "Don't hurt me!", she said, cringing backward, the fragile-looking bones of her narrow shoulders hunching together as if to ward off a blow. I put my pistol away, wondering, what do I do now? I'm not exactly the maternal sort. Yeah, yeah, so I'm short and cute and female but I'm not built that way. I tried to think about what my father would have done, and tentatively picked something.

"Don't worry, honey, I'm not going to hurt you," I reassured the girl. She was maybe 11 or 12 years old, with honey-colored skin and straight black hair that came down to her shoulders and the cute button nose that kids have at that age, and the fragile look that some girls have when they've started growing but haven't put on the weight to go with their new height. I would have killed for her cheekbones. People say I'm cute, but this girl was beautiful, standing there in her sundress in front of my desk.

"I tried to wake you up, but you wouldn't wake up!" she wailed. She was doing that whole waterworks thing. I could think of a couple of times I'd done the waterworks thing when I was her age, but mostly that involved broken bones or a disappointment at a gymnastics meet. Frankly, at her age, I simply didn't have much reason to cry. I was too damned naive then.

I moved around the desk and sat in one of the wooden chairs, motioning her into the other. She sat down. "I'm Kathy, Kathy Varis. What's your name?"

"Lisa." Her voice was soft, almost a whisper. She was looking at me sideways through her bangs, as if afraid to look at me directly. Tears were running down her cheeks.

"So why are you here, Lisa?" I asked as gently as I could, expecting that her mother, whoever that was, had sent her to report a clogged toilet or something. Instead, she pulled two photos out of a yellow envelope and spread them on my desk.

I stared at the one on the right. Blood. So much blood. I remember the sight of blood, the smell of blood, a young girl lying dead on her bed, a pool of blood swirling, swirling under her outstretched arm... but this was a boy. A boy who was as beautiful as what must be his sister, with the same straight black hair and perfect cheekbones, lying dead in a pool of blood. Blood soaking through his white t-shirt. Mouth open in pain. Dead eyes. Dead. On the left, his picture in a happier time, a slight smile on his face, eyes alive, but looking as if they had seen things, looking somewhat wistful as if pining for a time of innocence that had been all too short. I saw that look on a lot on children's faces in this neighborhood. Innocence was in short supply here on the ghetto side town.

"Where did you get this?" I asked Lisa.

"You do things," Lisa whispered.

"What's your whole name? Where's your mother?"

"Nobody cares," Lisa whispered, and started sobbing. I stared at her, confused. What was I supposed to do now?

I settled for grabbing her hand and squeezing it. It was like grasping a bird, fragile, frail bone under smooth skin. "Lisa. Listen. Listen to me. You're right, nobody cares. That means you have to care, because nobody else will. You know that, right? But you have to help me here. What happened? Who are you? What's your last name? What happened? Help me here, Lisa. Tell me what's going on."

Lisa quit sobbing, and wiped her face with her other hand. She looked at me almost as if in triumph. An alarm went off in the back of my head, but I ignored it. Maybe I shouldn't have, but I did.

"I'm Lisa Almada," she said in that quiet voice of hers. She pointed at the pictures. "My brother Mike." She looked down, then back up at me. "It's been months now, and nobody cares. Police, newspaper..." she shrugged her narrow shoulders and stared at the pictures, a thousand yard stare like I'd seen on the face of some of the Oil War vets who sat on the sidewalks downtown with their panhandling caps out, staring off into the distance at things only they can see.

"So... what do you want me to do?"

"Find who killed him," Lisa said, looking back at me, her eyes looking far too bright and fervant. "Then, you know..." and she smiled. I looked into her eyes. I knew. God forgive me, I knew. She pulled a big wad of money out of a pocket of her dress and shoved it at me. "I can pay."

I stared at the wad of money. "Where did you get that?"

"Mikey gave it to me. I hid it for him. We were going to run away and get married and live happily ever after."

Oh boy, I thought. There was only one way to get that kind of money in this neighborhood. The only question was whether it was black tar or crack that her brother had been hawking on the street corners. Well, that and which of the people running him had killed him.

I took the money. I didn't need the money, but I took it. I'd put it aside for this girl when she got older. If she got older. I'm far too aware that not all children survive here. But I was betting on Lisa. I was betting on Lisa because she might be frail, she might use water works and other people to get what she was going after, but when I looked in those eyes, I saw the same sort of intensity that had gotten me through bad times. And now she was using me. And I knew it. But is that wrong? I didn't think so. Not then. Not now. Not later.

"I can do that," I told Lisa. "Where is your mother? Where do you live?"

She told me an address about a mile away. I was about to ask her, "How did you get here?" but I knew. She had walked, of course. I would have. Instead, I pointed at the photo of her brother lying dead in a pool of blood.

"Where did you get that?" I asked.

"John Ralston. He's a photographer with the newspaper. He's a nice man. When I wandered into his office he gave me some ice cream!"

A nice man, hmm? Giving a photograph like this to a young girl? But I suppose he didn't have any more choice than me in the matter. Probably a sucker for waterworks too. "Well, I don't have any ice cream," I said. "What about water?"

"Okay," Lisa said in that soft voice of hers. She was smiling, waterworks apparently forgotten. Oh who am I kidding, of course they were forgotten. She'd gotten what she wanted, after all. And I couldn't even blame her for how she'd done it. Being small in a big guy's world, you used what you had and did what you could. As someone who was barely 5'2" and weighed a whole 110 pounds, I could empathize. I'd used the blond cute thing a few times myself.

It just seemed a shame to see a kid doing it, that's all.

So I got a glass of water and brought it back to her. She was still sitting in the chair, feet dangling and swinging back and forth. She had pulled out a small notepad and a pencil from somewhere, and was intently sketching something. It looked as if she had learned to be comfortable with solitude.

"I have to study," I told her. "I'll take you home after my secretary gets back from the park. She's babysitting today."

Lisa shrugged. "Okay." She returned to making pencil strokes on her notepad. I started reading another court decision in the torts casebook, I needed to have this down pat by Friday. Okay, so maybe not. I'd survive if I wasn't tops of the class. But that's how I'm built. That's how the young girl that had been me survived when her happy childhood in the Los Altos Hills collapsed and she ended up in a foster home on the wrong side of town. Coach Davis had seen that intensity in the new girl in his gym class, and coached it to being a winner on the track despite the fact that I really don't have the genes to be a track star. I wonder what he would have made of Lisa?

But that opened up paths I did not want to go down, so I concentrated on my book instead.

Some time later the door burst open and Connie and Amanda crowded through it. Connie being my office secretary, and Amanda being the four year old kid she -- well, we -- are babysitting. Both looked flushed from running around outside. Both spotted Lisa at around the same time.

"What's this?" Connie demanded. "Another kid for me to babysit? Are you, like, going for a collection? One Anglo, one Mexican, what's next, an Indian? A Chinaman? Huh?"

"No she's not here for you to babysit," I told Connie. "She's a client."

"Yeah right," Connie said, rolling her eyes.

Okay, so Connie -- Conseula -- isn't exactly Miss Congeniality, and frankly not much of an office secretary. But she's the next door neighbor's kid, and she's cheap. And her family -- as in, Mexican version of the Sopranos definition of family -- is good to have on your side if you're living in my neighborhood.

Amanda, on the other hand, had no such reservations about friendliness. "Hi Kathy!" she yelled at the top of her lungs in my direction. I winced. Amanda's enthusiasm was unending, amazing considering what she'd been through, but I guess kids are resilient at that age. Lisa had stood up when the door opened, and Amanda ran up to Lisa and gave her a big hug. Amanda was at that age when giving people a big hug seemed to be her automatic "hello" response.

"Hi, I'm Mandy!" she shouted.

I had expected Lisa to wince or something, but she seemed to take it in stride. "I'm Lisa," Lisa said in that quiet voice of hers.

"Want to go play in the park?" Amanda yelled.

"Sure," Lisa said.

Consuela scowled. "I'm not going back to the park. I gotta study." She was trying for her GED. It wasn't easy for her -- she wasn't a very fast reader -- but she was working at it anyhow. I guess some of my attitude had rubbed off on her. I just wish she wouldn't snarl at my tenants so much, but what can I say?

"I'll take them," I told Connie. I got up and opened the closet and got out a soccer ball. When I turned back around, Connie had already shoved my books aside, pulled one of her own books from her backpack that was leaning against the wall, and was intently frowning at it, smacking her gum around as if it were a personal affront for this book to be torturing her this way. I sighed. "C'mon, girls," I said to Amanda and Lisa.

I led them to the park, grasping Amanda's hand tightly when we crossed the street, and turned them loose with the soccer ball. They kicked the ball around for a while, then they started looking at something very intently in the grass, Lisa talking to Amanda, looking very much like an ordinary kid playing with a younger child. You couldn't tell that just a few minutes earlier she had been asking me to kill somebody. I guess you really can't tell just by looking.

Which I know better than most, since while my reputation for leaving a trail of bodies behind me in the course of my, err, "consulting", was perhaps a bit exaggerated, it wasn't entirely undeserved. Hey, what can I say? I'm just glad that people usually don't look at a small blond woman with too much "cute" in her genome and think, "killer". I was only a few years older than Lisa when a man laughed at me when I said I was going to kill him. He did not laugh long. So much blood in a human body... too much blood.

Now it seemed that someone was killing children, in more ways than one. Because when I looked into Lisa's eyes, more than her brother was dead. Something there was dead too. That troubled me. But there wasn't a damned thing I could do about it, except make sure that whoever killed her brother never killed again.

Because if I didn't... then there would be more ghosts to haunt me in my sleep. And my sleep was haunted enough already.

Posted by: BadTux / 6/24/2006 06:42:00 PM  


Very nice start.

When you get the rest settled you'll polish. But you are on the way.
# posted by Dum Luk's : 26/6/06 5:58 PM  

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