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The keep of ages, p.6
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       The Keep of Ages, p.6

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  “Yes. Quite a few times. I’ve installed a couple dozen, usually for the military, but in a few civilians, too,” she said. “It can be very stressful for people psychologically, like an invasion. This is the first time I’ve heard of anyone having a camera inserted against his will, however. Normally, you’d carry a receiver on your person to relay the signal, but I don’t suppose you had that?”

  “No.”

  “It could have been bugged into your phone easily enough,” she said. “Or while you were at Forge, you could have had any number of receivers in your environment. Do you understand how the camera works?”

  “Not exactly.”

  She held out her hand for the snow globe. Linus turned it over to loosen the snow once more before he gave it back. She set it on the desk and pulled over a pad of paper. She drew a little diagram with an eyeball and a couple of boxes and arrows.

  “The camera in your eye has a lens that was inserted between your cornea and your iris,” she said. “It collects your visual data. It also has a tiny, built-in, wireless transmitter, which sends a signal to a nearby receiver, usually carried on your body. That receiver, in turn, powers up the signal and passes it along to whoever’s watching.”

  “Is the camera always on?” he asked.

  “The camera is, but that doesn’t mean you’re always transmitting data,” she said. “If you’re out of range of a receiver, the camera can stockpile data until you’re back in range and send it then, in a batch.”

  At best, then, some of his visions were delayed, but Berg still saw everything eventually. Even if Berg hadn’t bugged Linus’s cell phone, he had certainly planted a receiver somewhere in Otis’s house, where Linus went back often to visit. Possibly a receiver was in Linus’s bedroom. He searched his room often enough for camera lenses, but he’d never thought to look for a small box that could be out of sight.

  That scene in his bed with Rosie, the one that Berg had a clip of, could have been watched live. Linus seethed. No wonder Rosie didn’t want to be with him. All of their most private moments together had had a voyeur along. He could practically feel Berg smirking. Sick old bastard.

  “How long have you had this? Dr. Keane asked kindly.

  Linus glanced up. “Months,” he said. “Since last September.”

  She made a quick grimace. “Are you sure you don’t want to sue? You’d have quite a case.”

  “I just want it out,” he said.

  She leaned back against her desk and crossed her arms again. “The good news is, I can take it out for you. The bad news is, removing it is far more complicated than putting it in, and I’m booked solid for the next six months. I could refer you to a colleague who might be able to help you sooner, but probably not by much.”

  His heart sank. He couldn’t face Rosie again with the camera still in.

  When he didn’t reply, the doctor moved around to the back of her desk and skimmed a finger over her computer pad. “I can fit you in on September fourteenth, eight a.m. That’s a Wednesday. Does that work for you?”

  He couldn’t wait half a year.

  “Isn’t there anything sooner? Please?” he said. “I can pay double. Triple.”

  She shook her head. “I’m sorry. That’s my first available date.”

  He refused to accept this. There had to be a way.

  “You don’t understand,” he said. “I’d be better off half blind. Can’t you fry the sucker with a laser or something?”

  The doctor considered him for a long moment. “There is one other option. I don’t recommend it.”

  “Let’s hear it.”

  “I could affix a black membrane over your pupil, for now. It would meld to the surface of your eye and block your vision. You’d be completely blind in that eye.”

  Linus felt the first bit of hope he’d had in days.

  “Would it show much?” he asked.

  “It would to anyone looking carefully,” she said. “Your pupil would appear to be always the same size, not changing with brightness. But it’s reversible. When you come back six months from now, I can give you a cornea transplant and a new lens. You’ll be back to normal.”

  That was what he’d been longing to hear. “When can you do this?”

  She looked back at her calendar and shook her head. “I can try to squeeze you in Friday. That’ll give you a little time to think it over.”

  “I don’t need any time,” he said.

  “Nevertheless,” she said, coming back around her desk and reaching past him for the door. “Think it over.”

  7

  TABBY IN THE WINDOW

  AROUND ELEVEN THAT MORNING, I pull into a gas station to fuel up. In the distance, Vegas is a sun-bleached bar graph rising out of the desert floor, with a swatch of blue, faded mountains in the background. The sight of where my parents last were brings my fears forward again, and I reflexively check Peggy’s Facebook profile again. There’s still no update. So frustrating. Her daughter has posted twice, though, so at least the McLellens are okay.

  I suppose it’s possible my parents evaded their kidnappers and they’re continuing to 240 Mallorca Way. If so, I’ll find them there when I arrive. It’s a hope, no matter now slim.

  I put on my hat and pull the visor low over my face before I go in to pay for my gas. I pick out a package of donuts, too, and I’m waiting in line, staring at a box of car lighter phone jacks, when, with a start, I recall that I have Ian’s phone. Of course. It won’t do Berg any good to kidnap my family if he can’t call me and tell me so. He must be trying to reach me.

  I hurry back to my car and pull over to a spot of shade next to a pawn shop. Then I dig through my bag for Ian’s phone. With an anxious rip of wrappers, I stick a Band-Aid over the camera lenses, and then I turn it on. It’s low on power but it’s getting decent bars. The phone icon shows two voicemails: one from an unknown number at 11:58 p.m., and one from OTHER, at 12:04 a.m. Eleven hours ago! My heart beats harder.

  Which first? I take a steadying breath and try the unknown number.

  To my shock, my sister’s voice comes on.

  “Hi, Rosie?” Dubbs says. Her voice is too high, like she’s excited or scared. “This is Dubbs. I’m okay. This guy says—” There’s a muffling noise, and then, faintly, I hear Dubbs say, “What do you want me to say again?” A man’s indistinguishable voice answers her, and then Dubbs comes on clearly once more. “Okay. This is Dubbs. If you get this? I’m okay, and Ma and Dad are okay, too. They’re sleeping here. We’re in a truck. You’re supposed to call Dean Berg. And don’t call the police.” The man’s voice rumbles in the background again. “I said it!”

  A swift bumbling cuts off the connection, and the message ends.

  Fear robs me of breath. Berg has my family! I knew it was likely to happen, but now it’s real.

  I listen to the message again. She’s afraid. I know she is, but she’s also trying to be calm, like that’s the mature thing to do in a crisis. She’s only eight years old! My heart tears around my chest. I listen to the message a third time, hoping for clues. They’re in a truck, but where?

  I want to crush something.

  I switch to the next voicemail, the one from OTHER, also known as Berg, and I give it a jab.

  “You should have a voicemail from your sister,” Berg says. “Call me. The sooner the better.”

  I’ll kill him. For a fierce instant, that’s all I can think. I really will. I suck in a painful gasp of air. I’ll track him down and slash him into bloody pieces.

  Then my gaze lands on Dubbs’s lemony note, and my heart crumples in aching pain. He can’t hurt her. How could anybody hurt sweet old Dubbs?

  I have to think.

  If I call him and he finds me, he’ll no longer need to keep my family hostage, which means he’ll dispose of them, one way or another. It’s just the sort of ruthless thing he’d do. So I can’t let him find me. I can’t call him back.

  But then, what do I do?

  Berg doesn’t know where I am
, so far. That’s an advantage for me. I turn off Ian’s phone again and drop it on the passenger seat. The GPS wasn’t on, but if Berg has a way to track calls on Ian’s phone, he might know I turned it on for a minute. He might know I’ve heard his messages. Still, what can he do? Nothing. He has to wait for me to contact him.

  I take a shaky breath. And Berg doesn’t know I have that address in Miehana, the one Dubbs left me. I notice she didn’t say anything about that in her voicemail. Maybe my family hasn’t told their captors where they were headed. That destination could still be safe.

  Dubbs was smart enough to leave me a secret message. She was brave enough to stay calm when talking on the phone for her kidnappers, too. My little sister! I have to be brave, too. And smart. I’ll find her. I will.

  I wish I could believe myself.

  I curl my fingers around the steering wheel and grip hard enough that I feel all the rest of me is shaking. Is this what you wanted, Berg? I think. He has me sick with fear.

  * * *

  I head west, driving long hours, until my initial horror and panic spiral down into a noxious feeling in my gut. I can’t eat. Not even the donuts. I can’t bring myself to call anyone. Not Linus, not Burnham, not Thea. I’m certainly not calling Berg. All I can do is drive. I’ll get to 240 Mallorca Way, and I’ll figure out what to do next after that. It’s not the greatest plan, but it’s the only one that makes any sense. Fear and anger keep me burning, mile after mile, well into the afternoon.

  Where Nevada meets California, the long road rises through treeless hills. White wind turbines, with their three reaching propellers, dominate the hills like an army of giants. It takes me a while to realize half of them are rusted and don’t spin. Miles later, near L.A., I pass a storage lot filled with trailer classrooms, empty now. Cheery electronic billboards advertise theme parks and tourist attractions, but below them, rows of run-down motels and the ruin of an old mall dispel the illusion of prosperity. I knew California was hurting, but after all the movies I’ve watched, I still thought it would look better than this.

  Late in the afternoon, I reach Miehana and wind through the summery, quiet streets, aiming for 240 Mallorca Way with help from Freddy’s tablet. Spiky green foliage and tall fences give way to a narrow, shop-lined street, and I slow with the traffic, curious. Pedestrians in athleisurewear walk their dogs. Four different coffee shops are open on one block. A Walgreens, an old-time movie theater, a computer store, an Indian restaurant, and a bakery occupy another. A woman locks up her bike, and a mailman steers by with his big-wheeled cart.

  I can’t parallel park, but I finally find a space I can drive straight into. It’s warm when I grab my backpack and step out of the car, and the California air has a different, easy brightness to it, as if the sun prefers not to cast real shadows here. Taking a deep breath, I try to let the beauty calm me down a little, and I stride along the sidewalk until I find the right address on a small, vacant stationery shop. Dead flies cluster in the window well. I step back to look up the building, and above, four narrow windows reflect the sky. One of the top windows is open, and a gauze curtain hangs straight in the opening.

  I try the bell.

  No one comes.

  Come on, I think. I know my family was coming here, and they had to have a reason. Once again, I wonder how Dubbs got this address. The place doesn’t look very promising.

  I try again, several times. I knock. Still no one comes. I take a step backward and crane my neck to look up the building again. Now a tabby cat is perched in the top window, looking down at me like it understands the purpose of a doorbell and would admit me if it could.

  Checking around the corner, I find a narrow, littered gap between buildings where the shady air is cooler. I head down the passage, past a sour stink of urine, and at the far end, I peer over a tall wooden fence into a ratty, enclosed area with a few garbage cans. A fire escape zigzags across the back of 240 Mallorca, and a short clothesline runs across from the second landing to a pole. One pale item has been hung out to dry.

  A meow draws my gaze upward. The tabby cat steps daintily out to the fire escape and watches me expectantly. That’s enough of an invitation for me.

  I push open the gate and enter the fenced area, which has an earthy smell. When I try the back door, it’s locked, too, unsurprisingly, so I take a closer look at the fire escape. The ladder part hangs above me, just out of reach, and it needs to go up several inches before it will release from a hook and come down. I have to haul over one of the garbage cans and brace it against the back wall, but once I climb it, releasing the ladder is easy.

  It crashes down with a clatter and barely misses my head.

  “Yikes!” I mutter, my heart pounding.

  I look up, expecting a zillion people in the nearby apartments to lean out their windows and yell at me, but nobody appears.

  Okay, then. Up I go.

  The iron rungs are warm from the sunlight’s heat. As I grip the metal, my heart kicks with apprehension. I tell myself that this is different from the ladder on the observatory at Forge, the ladder I fell from when I nearly killed Burnham. I remind myself that since then I’ve made it up other ladders without fainting. One ladder, anyway.

  I can do it now. Carefully, being sure to move only one hand or foot at a time so that I’m always connecting with the ladder at three points, I climb eight rungs. When I reach the first landing, I expel a huge breath of relief, and then I hurry up the fire escape steps to the top level, to the open window.

  “Hey, kitty,” I say to the cat, and laugh at the way my hand is trembling when I pet its head. The cat slips inside, and I give the window a little tap. “Hello? Anybody home?”

  I push the window up higher, enough to lean in.

  The room is a small, stuffy space with a large bed and a baby’s crib. An empty birdcage stands in a corner near an upright piano. The piano’s lid is closed neatly over the keys, and pale, wispy feathers rest lightly on the dark rug as if a bird shed them only moments ago. Awkwardly, I climb inside, fully a burglar now, and my eye catches on a dark painting of a seashore with cliffs and big waves.

  “Hello?” I call.

  “Is that you, Marnie?” a reedy female voice answers.

  Startled, I freeze. Then I take a step forward, and the floor beneath the rug squeaks.

  “My name’s Rosie Sinclair,” I call. “I’m just here for a visit. I think you know my sister?”

  A clunk comes from farther in the house.

  I move softly out to the hallway. A door at the far end stands ajar, and light drops on the polished wooden floor. I push the door slowly open to find a small bedroom overlooking the street. It’s even warmer than the first room, as if the open windows do nothing but trap the heat, and it’s laced with a weary scent of lavender. Books and framed photos line a tall bookshelf, and pill bottles fill a woven basket next to a landline phone.

  “Hello?” I say, and step in farther.

  A thin old woman in a lacy bathrobe is poised on the far side of a four-poster bed, aiming a can of Mace my way. Her gray hair winds in a long, thin braid like extra lacework at her collar, and her pale blue eyes are magnified by enormously thick, round glasses. She reminds me a bit of a black-and-white film star, the delicate, elegant type that goes mad and murderous by the end of the show.

  “Well, I’ll be,” she says in a genteel drawl. She lowers the Mace. “It really is you. Now, here’s a surprise.”

  “You know me?” I ask.

  “Heavens, yes. Who doesn’t? How’d you get in?”

  “I tried knocking but no one answered, so I came up the fire escape.”

  Her eyebrows lift. “Naturally,” she says, and comes around to sit on the edge of the bed facing me. She cradles the Mace in her hands. “How’d you find me?”

  “My sister gave me this address,” I say. “Dubbs Sinclair. Do you know her?”

  “I’m aware that you have a sister, but I’m not acquainted with her personally.”

  I’m confus
ed. “But then how did Dubbs get your address? Why would she send me here?”

  “I haven’t the foggiest,” the old woman says. “It seems like a rather cheeky thing to do.”

  Now I’m even more puzzled. The woman is regarding me with a certain amused welcome, like an old friend, and as I study her back, a vague recognition stirs. Her square jaw and broad forehead are familiar, but the connection eludes me.

  “Do I know you?” I ask.

  “I’m Lavinia Jacobs,” she says. “I once taught at the Forge School of the Arts. I believe you’ve seen my portrait in the dean’s office.”

  Yes. I did see that portrait, only Lavinia didn’t wear glasses in it, and she was a good twenty years younger. Lavinia Jacobs was the film teacher who first arranged to have her students filmed around the clock. Her experiments laid the foundation for the current Forge School and The Forge Show. The full magnitude of who she is hits me. She’s an icon. I try to recall when she started the show. In the early 2040s, I think. She wasn’t young then. She must be over eighty now.

  But she’s here, alive, and my sister sent me to this address.

  “I don’t get this,” I say.

  “You thought I was dead, no doubt,” Lavinia says. “You wouldn’t be the first.”

  “No,” I say. “I’m just surprised. What do you have to do with my family?”

  “Nothing, as far as I know.”

  “But then why did my sister give me your address?”

  “That is what we need to divine. I’m not exactly in the phone book, so to speak.” She glances toward a clock on her nightstand and shakes her head. “Four-thirty already? Gracious. What is this world coming to? Get Tiny some food, will you? Down in the kitchen? One scoop’s fine.” She straightens again, sets the Mace on her dresser, and slides open the top drawer. “And start some water for tea. I’ll be down in a minute. On your way!” She dismisses me with a wave of her silvery fingers.

  I’m more puzzled than ever. This makes no sense, but I do what she says and head downstairs, alert for any clues to explain why Dubbs connected me with Lavinia. A grandfather clock ticks on the lower landing, and a living room is separated from a kitchen in the back by a wide, arching doorway. Old, dark furniture and a worn carpet give the place a hushed stillness, and I don’t see a TV or computer screen anywhere. She must watch The Forge Show somehow, though, since she knows me.

 
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