His ongoing appreciation of simian aesthetics was interrupted as the door opened and Hyaki poked his head into the room. “She’s here, Angel.”
Cardenas nodded resignedly. “Has anybody told her anything?”
The sergeant shook his head. “She knows that something bad happened to her mother this morning. She knows that some visitors from outside the Reserva would like to talk to her. That’s all. Sorong escorted her over himself. I’ll send her in.” Withdrawing, he left his partner to contemplate the forthcoming encounter.
Having only seen a picture of Katla Mockerkin, Cardenas had no idea what to expect. The twelve-year-old who joined him in the sitting room of the research facility was tall and slim but in no wise gangly. On the contrary, she carried herself with a poise and maturity that suggested she was no longer on the cusp of womanhood, but had in fact already slipped over to the sweet side. Clad in tropical shorts, blouse, and hiking shoes, already almost as tall as her mother, she had straight black hair and green eyes, a startling combination in a tapered face that was attractive but solemn. The Inspector studied it intently, seeking clues to behavior, secrets of personality, subtle references to the young person he was about to confront. Hers was a beautiful mask, a chador projected from within.
But she was only twelve, and no matter how practiced and perfected the veil she chose to draw across herself, it would not prevent someone like Angel Cardenas from seeing inside.
“Olla-lo, Katla. My name is Angel Cardenas. I am an Inspector with the Namerican Federal Police.” When she remained standing, he indicated the small couch opposite his. “Won’t you sit down?”
“Sorong told me there were people from up north who wanted to talk to me. He was being very mysterious.” Accepting Cardenas’s suggestion, she took a seat, knees pressed tightly together, ankles touching, elbows at her sides and hands clasped together. A bound box, he resolved, as tightly closed physically as she was mentally.
Having done this all too many times before, he knew that postponement only led to the kind of rising anxiety that made everything worse in the end. “We’ve come to take you back to the States, Katla. It’s the only way we can protect you from what happened to your mother this morning. I’m truly sorry. There was nothing we could do to prevent it.” He waited expectantly. There was no way to predict how she would react, but he knew she was smart enough to make the requisite inferences. It was kinder than saying it out loud.
She didn’t move. Just sat there across from him, eyes downcast, thinking. When she finally replied, her preadolescent frame, like her voice, seemed to have grown visibly smaller. “That’s why she wasn’t there to greet me. That’s what LooJoo and Tip and Ripeness were doing at the house with all the. . . cleaning materials. I wondered why they were looking at me so funny.” She swallowed hard, fighting her youth, trying to be very adult. “Can I see her?”
It was so very tricky, Cardenas knew, to be simultaneously firm and compassionate. “It’s probably better if you don’t. Sorong’s people can deal with it. Another time might be better.”
A grim, humorless smile appeared. “Another kind of cleaning crew, huh? Mom always said this might happen. But she didn’t think it would happen here. Not here.”
“I’m sorry,” he repeated consolingly. “She must have been happy here.”
“Happy?” Katla Mockerkin looked up sharply. Sensing what was coming, announced by the subtle movement of her muscles and the slight change in her skin color, he was not as surprised by her reaction as someone else might have been. “Mom was never happy here. I don’t know that she was ever happy anyplace. She wasn’t happy with Daddy, and she wasn’t happy with Mr. Brummel, and she wasn’t happy by herself.” Black hair rippled. “I think she was happy when she was with me, but I was never really sure about that, either.”
“Well then,” Cardenas opined in an attempt to get the subject off her dead mother, “at least you were happy here.”
Katla did not laugh. Scrutinizing that wax-smooth visage, Cardenas suspected it had not been jostled by genuine laughter in quite some time. “What, me* There’s nothing to do here but walk in the jungle and look at birds and swat bugs all day long. Some of the monkeys are nice, but they’re still monkeys. There’s no real dancing, no music, no club, no tech leks. Nobody to swap ideas with except Sorong, and he’s always too busy to spend time with somebody who’s just twelve. Even if they happen to be human. ‘Happy’? I was bored to death from the day we got here. I used to take long hikes in the rainforest and dream of being back in the Strip.” She made a face. “I told Mom they inspired me. And they did. They inspired me to think about leaving here.” Her speech dropped to a mumble. “But Mom— Mom thought we would be safe here.”
“From your father?”
Her entwined fingers were clenched so tight they were turning white. “My father, yeah. My father, ‘The Mock.'” She looked up. “He wants me back. I know that. But I don’t want him back. I didn’t want him back before, and I especially don’t want him back now.”
Keeping his tone as gentle as possible, Cardenas tried to meet the eyes that were avoiding his. “Because he makes you do things, right? Work on things for him?” She looked off to her right and nodded tersely. Anything, he noted, to avoid meeting his gaze. “He wants you back to work on this quantum theft machine.”
Her head snapped around in obvious surprise, and her eyes finally did meet his. Dark and unflinching, she peered into his own— and laughed sharply.
“Is that it? Is that what you think?” Tilting back her head, she rolled her eyes at the smooth, sound-absorbing ceiling. “That old thing!”
For the first time since she had joined him in the room, Cardenas was confused. “You mean, his organization isn’t making an attempt, with your aid, to build such a device?”
“Oh, there’s a plan, all right!” He saw that she was unaware of the true source of the hysteria that was beginning to seep into her voice. “Seguro, there’s a plan. But that’s all it is. You’d need the kind of facilities they have at Livermore or Sandia or Elpaso Juarez just to build the models. It’s lots of yakk, and hangle, and gordo lordo from engineers and techs my father keeps on retainer.” She all but hissed. “I don’t get a retainer, because I’m his ‘daughter,’ and I’m just supposed to help. Out of the goodness of my heart, and respect for my father. Respect! Dirty old men, most of them. And one dirty old woman. I hate them all!”
“Calm down,” Cardenas told her. “You never have to see them again. Ever. I promise you.”
“You?” She looked him deliberately up and down, sizing him up, and was clearly unimpressed. “You’re just a spizzed old fedoco. You’ll take me back and turn me over to Child Protection Services or something, and move on to the next job. The Mock will have me back in less than a month.”
Cardenas shook his head slowly. “No he will not. We’re going to put you in Witness Protection. You won’t go anywhere near the usual CPS people. You’ll get a new life. We can do that for you, I guarantee it. Not even your father will be able to find you, not with all the crunch he can hire. I wish it didn’t have to be that way. You don’t deserve to have your life turned inside out when it’s hardly begun.”
“How do you know what I deserve?” She challenged him openly. “Maybe I’m a bad girl, my daddy’s girl. Maybe I do deserve this.” She slumped back against the cushions. “Maybe I should just go back to him and do what he wants me to do.”
Cardenas leaned forward so suddenly it startled her. “Don’t say that! Don’t think that. You’re an individual human being, with a life of her own that’s just beginning. And it can be a good life. You’re not a feleon. You’re not a ‘bad girl.’ I know. I can tell.”
“Can you?” The sarcasm that dripped from her tongue was disconcertingly adult.
He smiled knowingly. “I’m an intuit, Katla. You know what that is?”
Her eyes widened a little and she looked at him in a different light, as so many people did when they learned that singular and significant truth. “Really? You are?” He nodded. “I’ve never met an intuit. Sure, I know what it is. Can you really read people’s minds?”
“No.” He sighed wearily. “That’s just a street myth. What I can do is look at an individual, study that individual, talk to them, and tell a little more about them than almost anybody else. Doing that here, now, with you, I can tell that you’re not a bad person. You deserve the kind of life that’s been denied to you up to now, and you certainly don’t deserve to be forced to go back to your father.”