The mocking program by Alan Dean Foster

Pangborn also informed him that the janitor Rodrigo’s story checked out: there had been a double fatal accident outside the Brazos Mall in Harlingen in the time period the custodian had specified. Interestingly, neither man had been traveling with any documents, and conclusive identification of both was still pending.

It was good to be back in Nogales, where the humidity fluctuated between low and desiccated and the smell of salt filled the nostrils only when one’s face drew near to the rim of a glass full of sloshing margarita. Hyaki was as glad to see him as the Inspector was to be home.

“How’s the back?” Cardenas spoke as they checked out a cruiser from the NFP’s subterranean garage.

Hyaki rolled massive shoulders. “Good as can be grown. I nearly get fried, you almost get drowned. That’s enough medical for one case. I’m ready for a vacation.”

Cardenas slipped into the passenger seat. “You just had one, remember? Beautiful Costa Rica of the Central American Federation. Didn’t you have a nice, relaxing time in the scenic World Heritage rainforest?”

Hyaki guided the cruiser out of the garage and up into the brilliant Sonoran sunshine. “Oh si, sure. Only problem is, I can’t look at a banana quite the same way I used to.”

Leaving the interminable, unbroken arcomplex of the Strip behind, the highway narrowed as it began to wind through canyon country, leading into the designated parkland that surrounded Boboquivari Peak. Stores and strip malls, cool codo developments, and finally expensive single-family residences gave way to flaming ocotillo and peridot-colored paloverde. Overhead, a trio of buzzards circled something distant and dead. Once, a roadrunner darted across the road, head down, tail outstretched, a dead snake dangling from its beak like scavenged spaghetti. The snake danced and jumped with the bird’s movements like an outsized rubber band.

Entering parkland, they left all commercial development behind. The bored guard at the access gate came to life slightly when Hyaki flashed his ident. A parkland employee, he was far out of the NFP loop, and had no idea what was going on within his own jurisdiction.

A converted ranger outpost, the safe house lay at the bottom of a winding canyon reachable only by air or a bumpy dirt road. Its inimitable modern air suspension notwithstanding, the cruiser still reacted to a few sharp bumps and jolts as Hyaki negotiated the awkward track. They found themselves wishing for the jungle-outfitted 4X4 they had rented in San Jose. Remembering the vehicle fondly, Cardenas regretted leaving it a burned-out hulk.

Both men were grateful when the rambling, single-story structure hove into view. Constructed of gray block, with a white peaked roof and triple-pane, thermotropic, bulletproof windows, it featured its own water and power supply. The communications dish mounted on the roof kept those inside in constant contact with the outside world, with the Strip, and with NFP headquarters in Nogales. A parklands helipad out back allowed for quick arrival or departure, as the occasion demanded. Cardenas had opted to take a cruiser rather than fly in because he wanted the flexibility of having his own transportation, and also because he knew he and his partner would be able to relax and enjoy the drive.

They were not the only ones. An unmarked cruiser stood parked between a pair of larger 4X4s beneath the shade of the carport. Hyaki slowed as they approached the compound gate. The lengths of wire fence it clasped together were not impressive to look at. Cardenas knew that the amount of voltage they carried was rather more so.

As soon as they were cleared, the gate was raised to grant entry. Hyaki steered the cruiser through and into an open space beneath the carport roof. Despite having been cleared at the gate, they were met by two officers wearing parklands uniform. Attire notwithstanding, both men were actually in the employ of the NFP, not the Park Service.

Handshakes and greetings preceded the newcomers’ admittance to the building. A third officer, who met them just inside the door, turned out to be an old friend of Hyaki s. While the two of them headed for the kitchen in search of cold drinks and warm conversation, Cardenas sought out the Department case worker who had been assigned to watch over Katla Mockerkin until her safety had been assured and more permanent living arrangements could be made for the girl.

She found him first.

“You’re Angel Cardenas, aren’t you? I was told to expect you.”

Turning, he found himself gazing into the eyes of an attractive, dark-haired woman in her late thirties. She was as tall as he (or as short, depending on your perspective), with hair cropped short on one side in the fashion currently favored by many civil servants. A single long silver-and-sugilite earring, probably Navajo, dangled from the shaved side of her head. Cosmetics had been applied decorously, to enhance her unusually large eyes and high cheekbones. Her grip was firm and assured, the handshake of an experienced professional.

“I’m Minerva Fourhorses.”

Cardenas smiled engagingly. “Nice to meet you.” His gaze rose to look past her. “Where’s Katla?”

“Katla, is it?” His familiarity pleased her. “You two must have talked a lot, down in Costa Rica.”

“Enough to where I feel as if I know her well enough to talk to her on an informal basis, without having to remind her that I’m federale.” Side by side, they headed down the hallway. The floor, he noted, was reinforced and epoxied Saltillo tile. It clicked loudly beneath the case worker’s shoes, as if she was wearing castanets in place of heels.

“That helps. She’s a quiet girl, though she’s willing enough to talk. Reserved, though. Guarded.” Her tone revealed honest concern, the hallmark of any first-rate social worker. “Hardly surprising, considering her background and what she’s been through. I’ve read the official reports.”

Cardenas nodded knowingly. “Not what you’d call a normal childhood.”

“Having her mother killed like that.” Fourhorses’s lips tightened. “If it wasn’t for box access, I think she would just sit and stare at the walls. The box is her sanctuary. She looks on it as a place of refuge. It’s accepting of her, and she doesn’t have to justify or explain herself.”

Moon-pool eyes met his. “I’ve never seen anyone so proficient with a vorec. Not even the specs downtown.”

“She’s a tecant,” Cardenas explained. “A natural.”

The social worker nodded. “It’s in the report. But it’s one thing to read about it, another to watch that kind of ability in action.”

They turned up another corridor. Seated halfway down the hall, another plainclothes officer looked up from the screen he was reading. Recognizing Fourhorses, he smiled and passed them onward.

“It’s that ability that has caused so much trouble for her,” Cardenas explained. “It may also be what guarantees her future.”

Fourhorses’s apprehension was palpable. “You’re not going to ask her to do anything that will stress her further, I hope. Outwardly, she may look and sound like she’s in good health. My own take these past few days is that she’s actually quite fragile.” Her voice took on a harder edge. “I couldn’t give my approval to anything that would risk further damage to her mental well-being. What she needs now is stability, and reassurance. Most of all, she needs hope.”

“That’s what I want to give her.” He smiled at the visibly concerned woman. “We both want the same things for her, Ms. Fourhorses.”

“Minerva.” The case worker spoke absently as she stopped outside a double set of wooden doors. “She’ll be in the tunnel, working. She always is.” Reaching up, she knocked three times.

For a long moment, Cardenas thought no response was going to be forthcoming. Then came a soft, girlish voice that he remembered well from his recent southerly sojourn. “Come in, Ms. Fourhorses.”

Leading the way, the case worker opened one of the two doors. Cardenas listened as he followed her in. “Good morning, Katla. There’s someone here to see you.” Stepping aside, Fourhorses watched with obvious interest to see how her charge would react to the visitor.

Spinning in her chair, Katla Mockerkin recognized the swarthy, heavily mustachioed federale immediately. If not overtly welcoming, her smile was still somewhat more than just polite.

“Hello, Inspector Cardenas. I remember you.”

“Hoh, Katla. It’s nice to see you again.” Entering farther into the room, he set himself down in an empty chair and wheeled it over to her side. “I’d like to chat for a little while—if that’s okay with you?”

She shrugged and set down the vorec she was holding. Sensing the movement, the vit pickup of the box she was working darkened the tunnel she had been facing.

“You don’t have to talk to Inspector Cardenas if you don’t want to, Katla,” the watching woman reminded her.

The girl smiled shyly. “That’s all right, Ms. Fourhorses. I know Mr. Cardenas—Angel. He was nice to me when I was—when I had to leave the Reserva. He’s a good man.” Her smile turned to a sly grin. “Even if he is a spizzing federale intuit.”

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Categories: Alan Dean Foster