Chapter 20: Questions
Scarred and cratered by millions of years of impacts, a long thin asteroid, shaped wasp-waisted like a coke bottle, tumbled end over end through space. It had been tumbling for eons, traveling in an orbit as far out as Mars and as close to the sun as Venus. Tilted in an orbit slightly out of the ecliptic, it occasionally approached close enough to the third planet that any inhabitant could make out the clouds and continents below.
Not that there were ever any living inhabitants on the tiny, airless, sun-baked world.
However, filaments of nanobots covered the surface, as invisible as a spider web. The machines listened to the radio signals from the blue world. Among the incomprehensible chatter of voices, a coded signal arrived from others of their kind.
Nanobots didn’t use words, so the strangely structured query was routed and re-routed through the network of organizers that rode in microscopic tunnels all through the miles of rock.
Eventually, the code was recognized as verbal communication—words like the inhabitants of the blue world used. It was unusual that words would be encapsulated inside their own internal code.
That recognition didn’t help. Words alone were useless without the knowledge of grammar. Words alone were useless without a huge network of cultural comprehension that formed their normal medium.
Organizers spent significant computational resources trying to decode these words—but without luck. Eventually other tasks achieved greater priority and the string of words was shuttled off to a datastore, with no meaning attached.
Filed away, never to be examined again, was the string, “What will Mom think of me now?”
Luther looked at Deena. She was chewing her thumb.
He offered, “The instant you change your mind, I’ll find a place to drop you off and you can call your Mom to come pick you up. She’d come in a flash.”
She shook her head, “I need to go through with this.”
Her eyes turned his way. “It would help if I knew more about you—what you’re up against. Who are you, really?”
He put his eyes back on the road, and sighed deeply.
When he delayed, she said, “You aren’t Luther Jennings, are you?”
“No. That’s just a name made up from random pages of a telephone book.”
Luther held up his hand. “Hang on! I owe my life to secrets.”
“But you said....”
“Yes, and I’ll tell you everything, eventually, but give me some breathing room! Please! This isn’t easy.
“Why don’t we alternate? You are bubbling over with mysteries yourself. Answer some of my questions.”
She put a hold on her tongue. She’s the one who had been lied to, repeatedly. I just keep my secrets quiet.
Mara Brooke was furious.
Officer Quinn made a mark on his notepad and asked Bryony again, “And you’re sure Deena decided to go of her own free will.”
Bryony looked very small, sitting on the chair in the school office.
“Yes. I tried to talk her out of it.” She glanced at Deena’s mother, pacing back and forth in the room.
“Aren’t you going to do anything?” Mara demanded.
He looked up from his notes. “She’s eighteen. There’s no hint of coercion.” He shrugged. “I suggest you get an answering machine, like your daughter requested.”
“You have to go after them!”
The policeman asked Bryony, “Did you see them drive off? Which way did they go?”
“Down El Dorado, towards downtown.”
He shook his head, “See, Mrs. Brooke. I have no idea which direction they went. We don’t have the manpower to search all the roads. They may not have even left town.
“We’ve already called his house. We left a message for his aunt on their answering machine, but thus far, there’s been no response.
“Go home, Mrs. Brooke. Your daughter said she’d be back in a few days.
“You have to trust she knows what she’s doing.”
“What is your real name?”
“Luke Haskell. I created all my documents—driver’s license, school transcripts, birth certificate, etc., by scanning in my originals and editing names, dates, cities, serial numbers, and other things in Photoshop. I took a great deal of care trying to find the right kinds of paper for the printer, but they look okay, superficially.”
Deena marveled. Then she frowned, asking, “Dates?”
For the first time since Katy’s call, a smile cracked his face. “Uh, yes. I’m twenty. I was on the run for two years before I came to Crescent City.”
Twenty? After the shock, it seemed perfectly reasonable. He was only medium height, but she had known old men who were shorter.
And he always did seem more mature than the other guys.
“And you went back to high school? What kind of a crazy person are you?”
The smile vanished.
“Fake id’s are only good when no one really checks them. Maybe the government’s witness relocation program can make up perfect replacement identities, but I’m on my own. I can’t count on ever going back to being Luke Haskell.
“Yet, if I want a real life, I’ll need a real job, a credit rating, a social security number, all the trappings of modern American consumer society.
“My plan was to go back to high school, keep a low profile and come out with an unimpeachable diploma and some real teachers who knew me.
“From those I could leverage a social security number and a job, which I could use later to get a real driver’s license as Luther Jennings. Step by step, I could phase out the fake-id’s and build real ones.”
He sighed. “It was a good plan.”
“You can still do that.”
He shook his head. “No. I was safe because, no one checks out documents unless they have a reason.
“I tried to be quiet and never get into trouble. Never get accused of dealing drugs, and certainly never skip town with someone’s daughter!”
Deena’s face paled. “Oh.” Pieces fell into place.
From the moment she had invited herself onto his Saturday day trip, he must have felt a year’s worth of hard work start to fall apart.
Her mother had certainly complicated everything by thinking the worst of everyone, but from the first, Deena knew she had been to blame. And with this last unwelcome invite, she had sealed the doom of ‘Luther Jennings’.
“You must hate me.” She shook her head at the problems she had caused. “I’m so, so, sorry!”
Katy Ferril’s head was spinning from the force of the blow. She tried to lift her head up from the floor, and blood from her scalp crept into her eye. The sting was nothing compared to the pounding in her skull.
Leo Drye said, “That’s enough for now Thompson.”
He knelt on one knee and cradled her chin in his hand.
“Tell me where Mark Haskell hid the things he took from me. I know that you know.”
She tried to shake her head, to deny it, but he just gripped her chin tighter.
“I’m prepared to spend days getting every last piece of information out of you. Each time I ask, things will get worse for you. This has been just an introduction. Thompson has just been saying ‘hello’. He can be much more inventive.”
He stood. “Take her to the guest room below. Let her think about this for awhile.”
Katy stared across the floor at the huge black dog, panting and licking his chops, as if he wondered what her blood tasted like. If the stories she’d heard about Thompson from her days in Las Vegas were true, the dog just might get its wish.
But I can’t tell him anything about Luke, not even if he kills me.
Security guards lifted her by her arms and carried her to a nearby room.
Leo watched her being tossed on the mattress in the sparsely furnished room from his security monitor.
“Any luck on her effects?”
Another guard had emptied her purse and the contents of her car’s glove compartment onto a table and had sorted the items out.
“Perhaps. The return address on the envelope that contained the two gold coins is a post office box in Crescent City, California. In her purse is a single blank check on an account in her name, also in Crescent City. There is also a piece of paper, hand written, with the address of a gold dealer.”
“Her hand writing?”
“It doesn’t appear to be.”
Leo nodded. Mark Haskell’s secretary had always been a long shot. The missing son was the real prize.
“Thompson, I’ll handle her interrogation myself for a couple of days. I want you and Boyer to go fly out to Crescent City and see what you can find.”
Deena looked out the window, where increasing numbers of redwoods were gradually closing out the sky.
“Then who is Katy Ferril, and how does she fit into all of this?”
He shook his head. “We’re trading information, remember? It’s your turn to answer a few questions.”
“Okay, I’ll try.”
Deena tensed. Luther, or was it Luke now, knew more about her changes than anyone else, but even he didn’t know the half of it. How much alienness could he take?