She clutched at his words like someone trapped underwater who’d just been handed another cylinder of air. “You really think you can hide me from him?”
He nodded briskly. “The NFP has resources even those who work for it aren’t aware of. But to make use of them, you have to come back with my partner and me. Back to the Strip.”
She nodded understandingly. “At least I’ll be able to catch up on the vits I’ve missed. And dig into a real box. And maybe see some of my friends.”
Cardenas would not lie to her. If she caught him in just one, he sensed, she would cease forever to trust him. “I don’t know about that. We’ll have to see. So you’ll come back with us?”
She shrugged. “What else can I do? I can’t stay here. Not without—without…”
It had been building ever since she had sat down on the couch. Now the tears came, fast and copious, in concert with deep, heaving sobs. He let her fall forward into his arms, and he held her as close and tight and secure as he would have one of his own, had he had any. The young girl’s hands and arms that clung desperately to him were surprisingly strong.
What could he say to help her to stop? he wondered after several interminable minutes of uncontrolled weeping. Something to shift her thoughts, to make her focus her attention elsewhere.
Gently, he disengaged himself from her clinging grasp, though he remained within reach. “Tell me something, Katla. If the quantum theft mechanism is nothing more than talk and theory, then why is your father so anxious to have you back?”
Wiping at her eyes with the backs of both hands, she sniffed repeatedly and tried to focus on the unexpectedly compassionate older man. All at once, she smiled. “I’m s-sorry. I got. . .” She pointed, and it almost seemed as if she might laugh. Almost. “I got your mustache all wet.”
Reaching up, Cardenas felt of his drooping mustachio. It was soaked with her tears and—other fluids. The expression of distaste that wrinkled his face was partially truthful, partially calculated. To his satisfaction, it provoked the desired response. Her smile widened as she continued to rub and wipe at her eyes.
“You really don’t know, do you? My mother didn’t tell you?”
“I really don’t know,” he confessed as he pulled up the hem of his shirt, exposing his slightly hirsute belly, and used the cloth to try and wring out his facial hair.
“I’m not just a tecant. I’m also a mnemonic. My father, The Mock, he doesn’t trust anybody else. Never lets anybody get close to him. Not even my mother. But me . . .” Her voice threatened to trail away, broken by reminiscences of a submissive, unhappy childhood.
Speaking in little more than a calming whisper, Cardenas gently urged her to continue. “It doesn’t matter what it is, Katla. I’ll understand.” Reaching out, he used a forefinger to tenderly elevate her chin. “Look at me.” Once more her dark, grown-up-too-soon eyes met his. “You know that I’ll understand, don’t you?” There was no nod of acquiescence, but she did find her voice again.
“Daddy—The Mock wants me back because …” She stared off in one direction after another. “He calls me his ‘little curly-haired mollysphere.’ ”
Cardenas blinked. “I’m not sure I understand. You memorized some things for him?”
Now she did nod, her black hair bobbing with the vigorous up-and-down motion of her head. “Not just some things. Everything.”
The Inspector was taken aback. “By ‘everything,’ you mean . . . ?”
Solemn-faced, the girl touched her forehead with a finger. “His whole business is right here. I don’t know that I understand it all. Maybe it’s better that I don’t. But everything I was told, or shown, I retain. Names, places, people, transactions, times, dates—numbers. Lots and lots of numbers. Mostly about money, but also about— other things.”
“Transactions,” Cardenas murmured. “What kind of transactions?”
She shook her head. “I can’t tell you. Daddy said that if I tell anybody, it makes me an accomplice to whatever I talk about.”
In as earnest a voice as he could muster, Cardenas murmured intently to her. “You’re a twelve-year-old girl, Katla. Your mother has just been killed. You haven’t done anything bad, and you’re not guilty of anything except having the wrong man for a father. I swear to you, nothing you tell me will make you an accomplice to anything. All you’ve done is memorize things. Facts and figures. Like from a book, or a molly. Can a book be an accomplice?”
She hesitated. “I guess not. I suppose not.” Her face took on a slightly dreamy, distant expression as she proceeded to relate, at random, a handful of the kind of “transactions” she had been compelled to commit to memory.
The small hairs on the back of the Inspector’s neck stiffened as he heard her recollections. Keeping his expression carefully neutral, he listened to a sampling of horrors and transgressions that would have left the typical twelve-year-old trembling with fear. Katla did not appear fazed in the slightest, leaving him to wonder, in spite of what she had said, how much of what she was reciting she really did understand.
Eventually, she returned from wherever it was she had gone, apparently none the worse for the self-induced trance. “Was that enough? Should I tell you more?” For all that it had affected her, she might as well have been describing the contents of last week’s favorite vit shows.
“No, Katla. That’s fine. Tell me: do you know what ‘meroin’ is?” She shook her head. “How about ‘seventy caliberon’?”
She wrinkled her nose. “I think the first one is some kind of medicine. Isn’t the other some kind of machine?”
“It has to do with a certain type of gun,” he told her, holding nothing back. “The first one is— It doesn’t matter.” Since she did not question him as to the meaning of evisceration, he chose not to return to it for discussion.
No wonder The Mock was so desperate to recover custody of his daughter. Better than any spinner, or vorec controller, or para, she was a walking, talking, breathing gram. One he could call upon at any time to confirm the details of a business deal, or recite statistics relating to a previous transaction, or itemize the history and personal characteristics of a friend, an enemy, or a casual commercial contact. Within her innocent, preadolescent self she bore the details of his entire illicit business. What a boon that memorized information would be to a competitor! the Inspector realized. He now had an explanation for the sudden, avid interest shown in the girl by others, such as the Inzini and the Ooze.
Unlike a box or a molly, there was no way she could be hacked, no means of electronically or remotely accessing the information she retained. The Mock’s twelve-year-old “curly-haired mollysphere” could not be corrupted by a virus or copied by a scanner. She could not, as a member of immediate family, even be compelled to testify against him in court.
That did not mean she wouldn’t, he realized. Any lingering friendly feelings she might have held regarding her father had probably perished with her mother’s violent death.
“I didn’t want to do it,” she was saying. “At first it was kind of fun. Like showing off, just to prove that I could. Then I got tired of it. But Daddy kept insisting. So I kept doing it. It was easy for me. When I got older and started to understand some of the things he was telling me to remember—not like the words you just asked me, but other things—I realized that they involved bad stuff, muy malo. But Daddy, he . . .” She paused, gathering herself. “Never mind that. I don’t like thinking about that.
“He made me keep on doing it. He made me! I didn’t tell Mom. I thought if she didn’t know about it, Daddy wouldn’t do anything to her. When she asked me what I was doing all that time with him and his friends, I lied and told her it had to do with the quantum theft project. Then she came to me one night, real late, when I was asleep, and told me to wake up and get dressed. I didn’t understand what was happening until we got in the car and I saw Mr. Brummel. We drove away. We ran.” She looked down at her clenched hands.
“But you can’t run away from The Mock. That’s what Daddy always told me. ‘Nobody runs away from The Mock.’ And he was right, he was right, and now Mom’s gone, and I’m alone, and what am I gonna do?” As she buried her face in her hands, the tears began anew. “Where am I going to go? I don’t have anybody.”
“No aunts or uncles, no cousins?”