One Door Away from Heaven

Page 39

The apex of the sky lies east of the sun, for noon has come and gone while they have been at rest under the tree.

Refreshed, Old Yeller ambles along the stream bank, sniffing yellow and pink wildflowers that nod their bright heavy heads as if conferring on a matter of importance to flowers everywhere.

A vagrant breeze, seeming to spring first from one quarter of the compass and then from another, lazily wanders the meadow.

Suddenly Curtis finds the scene to be dangerously lulling. This is no ordinary day, after all, but day three of the hunt. And this is no ordinary meadow. Like all fields between birth and death, this is potentially a field of battle.

As before, the threat will approach from the east, trailing the sun. If sanctuary can ever be found, it lies in the west, and they must at once ford the stream and move on.

He whistles the dog to his side. She is no longer his sister-becoming. Call her sister-become.

Chapter 37

LEAVING WITHOUT EXPLANATION, F. Bronson closed the office door behind her.

From every side, feline stares fixed Micky with the intensity of security cameras. She felt as if the absent F still watched her magically through the unblinking eyes of these photo familiars.

The issue had become not the danger to Leilani, but Micky's reliability, her integrity or lack of it.

Now the heat wasn't just a condition, but a presence, like a clumsy man too eager in his passion, all moist hands and hot breath, pressing and persistent, suffocating in his need.

She would have sworn the sultry air was thick with the scent of fur, a musky redolence. Maybe F had cats at home, real cats, not just posters. Maybe she carried their dander on her clothes, in her hair.

Micky sat with her hands tightly clutching the purse in her lap, and when a minute had passed, she closed her eyes against the stares of the cats. She closed them also against the false yet convincing perception that the office was rapidly growing smaller, that it had become correctional in design, with the sterility and the restrictive proportions known to inspire either rehabilitation or suicide.

Claustrophobia, nausea, and humiliation steeped Micky with more debilitating effect than did the heat, the humidity, and the scent of cats. But what distressed her more than all these things was an anger cooking in her heart, as bitter as any brew concocted in a cauldron full of goat blood, eye of newt, and tongue of bat.

Anger was a reliable defense, but one that allowed no chance of final victory. Anger was a medicine but never a cure, briefly numbing the pain without extracting the thorn that caused the agony.

Now she could afford anger less than ever. If she answered F's bureaucratic arrogance and insults with the double-barreled blast of sarcasm and ridicule that she had used to cut down formidable targets in the past, her petty satisfaction would come at Leilani's expense.

F had left the room most likely to instruct the receptionist to call the police to check out Micky's story of an early release from prison. After all, she might be a dangerous fugitive who had come here, dressed in a coral-pink suit and pleated white shell and white high-heeled shoes, to steal the office coffee fund or to abscond with an entire carton of that electrifyingly well-written pamphlet about the link between secondhand cigarette smoke and the alarming rise in the number of child werewolves.

Trying to dampen her anger, Micky reminded herself that her choices-and hers alone-had landed her in prison and had led to the humiliation that now both humbled and galled her. F. Bronson hadn't hooked her up with the deadbeat document forger who had taken her down with him. Nor was F responsible for Micky's bull-headed refusal to turn state's evidence on that useless man in return for probation instead of hard time. She alone had made the decision not to rat out the bastard and to trust that the jury would see in her the misguided but innocent woman that she really was.

The door opened, and F entered the office.

At once Micky raised her head and opened her eyes, loath to be seen in a humbled posture.

Offering no explanation for her absence, F returned to her desk and settled in her chair without making eye contact. She did glance at Micky's small purse as if nervously wondering whether it contained semi-automatic weapons, spare ammunition, and supplies necessary to endure a long standoff with the police.

"What's the child's name?" F asked.

"Leilani Klonk." Micky spelled both names-and decided not to explain that the surname had evidently been invented by the girl's deranged mother. Leilani s story was complicated enough even when condensed to the bare essentials.

"Do you know her age?"

"She's nine."

"Parents' names?" '

"She lives with her mother and stepfather. The mother calls herself 'Sinsemilla." Micky spelled it. ,

"What do you mean-'calls herself?" >

"Well, it can't be her real name."

"Why not?" F asked, staring at the keyboard on which her poised , fingers waited to dance.

"It's the name of a really potent type of weed."

F seemed baffled. "Weed?"

"You know-pot, grass, marijuana."

"No." F plucked a Kleenex from a box, blotted her sweat-damped neck. "No, I don't know. I wouldn't. My worst addiction is coffee."

Feeling as though she had just been judged and convicted again, Micky strove to keep her voice calm and her response measured: "I don't do drugs. I never have." Which was true.

"I'm not a policeman, Ms. Bellsong. You don't have to worry about me. I'm only interested in the welfare of this girl."

For F to bring to the case a crusader's determination, she had to believe Micky, and to believe Micky, she had to feel a connection between them. At the moment, they seemed to have nothing in common except that they were women, but shared gender alone didn't generate even the most feeble current of sisterhood.

In prison she had learned that the subject in which dissimilar women most easily found common ground was men. And with some women, sympathy could be earned most quickly when you mocked men and their pretension. So Micky said, "A lot of guys have told me dope expands your consciousness, but judging by them, it just makes you stupid."

Finally F looked away from the computer. "Leilani must know her mother's real name."

F's face and eyes were as unreadable as those of a mannequin. This studied vacancy and refusal to be charmed conveyed more contempt than might have been seen in the most vivid expression of disdain.

"No," Micky said. "Leilani never heard her called anything but Sinsemilla. The woman's superstitious about names. She thinks knowing someone's true name gives you power over them."

"She told you this herself?"

"Leilani told me, yeah."

"I mean the mother."

"I've never exactly spoken to the mother."

"Since you're here to report her for child endangerment of one kind or another, may I assume you've at least met her?"

Quickly plugging the dam of anger that sprang a leak in response to F's rebuke, Micky said, "Met her once, yeah . She was real strange, doped to the eyeballs. But I think there's also-"

"Do you have a last name for the mother," F asked, returning her attention to the computer, "or is it just Sinsemilla?"

"Her married name is Maddoc. M-a-d-d-o-c."

Flatly, absent the slightest note of accusation, F asked, "Do you have a history with her?"

"Excuse me? History?"

"Are you related to her, perhaps by marriage?"

A bead of sweat slid down Micky's left temple. She blotted it with her hand. "Like I said, I just met her once."

"Ever dated anyone she's dated, fought over a boyfriend, been involved with an ex-spouse of hers-any prior history she'd be sure to bring up when I talk to her? Because everything comes out in the open sooner or later, I assure you, Ms. Bellsong."

The cats watched Micky, and Micky stared at F, and F appeared to be prepared to gaze forever at her computer.

The ignorant, cruel, and stupid people to whom F had referred earlier, the rabble that motivated her to paper her walls with cat posters, now included Micky. Maybe it was the prison record that put Micky in this category. Maybe it was an offense she had given without intention. Maybe it was just a matter of bad chemistry. Whatever the reason, she was on F's list now, and she knew the woman well enough to suspect that F made her list with a pencil that had no eraser.

Finally, Micky said, "No. Nothing personal between Leilani's mother and me. I'm just worried about the girl, that's all."

"The father's name?"


F's face at last became marginally more expressive than the screen in front of her, and she looked at Micky again. "You don't mean the Preston Maddoc."

"I guess he is. I'd never heard of him until last night."

Eyebrows arched, F said, "You'd never heard of Preston Maddoc?"

"I haven't had a chance to read up on him yet. According to Leilani . . . well, I don't know, but I guess he must've been accused of murdering some people, but he got away with it somehow."

The light texture of surprise in F's face quickly smoothed away under the trowel of bureaucratic neutrality, but the caseworker was not entirely able to soften her voice, which cut with a honed edge of disapproval: "He was acquitted, Ms. Bellsong. Not guilty in two separate trials. That isn't the same as 'getting away with it.' "

Micky found herself on the edge of her seat again, hunched in that supplicatory posture once more, but she didn't straighten her shoulders this time or slide back on the chair. She licked her lips, discovered they were salty from perspiration. She felt as if she'd been basted. "Ms. Bronson, I don't know about him being acquitted, but I do know there's a little girl who's been through a lot in her life, and now she's stuck in this godawful situation, and someone has to help. Whatever Maddoc was supposed to have done, maybe he didn't do it, all right, but Leilani had an older brother, and he's gone missing. And if she's right, if Preston Maddoc killed her brother, then her life is on the line, too. And I believe her, Ms. Bronson. I think you'd believe her, too."

"Killed her brother?"

"Yes, ma'am. That's what she says."

"So she's a witness to a murder?"

"No, she didn't actually see it. She-"

"If she didn't actually see it, how does she actually know it happened?"

Counting on patience to prevail, Micky said, "Maddoc took the boy away and then came back without him. He-" > Took him away where?"

Into the woods. They were…

"Woods? Not very much in the way of woods around here."

"Leilani says this was in Montana. Some UFO contact site-" "UFO?" Like a nest-building bird worrying threads from a scrap of fabric, F seemed determined to pick relentlessly at Micky's story, though not with the intention of building anything, seemingly for the sheer pleasure of reducing it to a scattering of scrambled fibers. In the service of this goal, she seized upon the mention of UFOs. Her eyes sharpened a hawk glare fit to pin a mouse from a thousand feet; and if she'd had slightly less self-control, her next two words would have come out as a birdy screak of cold delight. "Flying saucers?"

"Mr. Maddoc is a UFO buff. Alien contact, that weird stuff-"

"Since when? Seems if this were true, the media would've made a lot out of it. Don't you think? They're pretty merciless, the press."

"According to Leilani, he was into this UFO stuff since at least back when he married her mother. Leilani says-"

"Have you asked Mr. Maddoc directly about the boy?"

"No. What would be the point?"

"So you're operating entirely on the word of a child, are you?"

"Don't you often do the same in your line of work? Anyway, I've never met him."

"You've never met Mr. Maddoc? Never met him or the mother-"

"Like I told you, I met the mother once. She was so high, she was bumping her head on the moon. She probably wouldn't even remember meeting me."

"You saw her actually taking drugs?"

"I didn't have to see her take them. She was saturated. They were virtually squirting out her pores. You ought to remove Leilani from that home if only because her mother's wrecked half the time."

On F's phone, the intercom beeped, but the receptionist didn't say anything. Another beep. Like an oven timer: The goose is cooked.

"Be right back," F promised, and again she left the room. Micky wanted to tear the cat posters off the walls. Instead, she hooked a finger in the scooped neck of her pleated shell, pulled it away from her body, and blew down the front of her blouse, on her breasts. She wanted to take off her suit jacket, but somehow it seemed that to remove it would put her at an even greater disadvantage with F. Bronson. The caseworker's black outfit, in this heat, seemed to be an endurance challenge to visitors.

'This time F was out of the office only briefly. Returning to her desk, she said, "So tell me about the missing brother."

Warning herself to check her anger but not able entirely to heed her own counsel, Micky said, "So did you call off the SWAT team?"

"Excuse me?"

"You checked to see if I'm an escapee."

Unruffled, not in the least embarrassed, F met her eyes. "You'd have done the same in my position. There was no offense intended."

"That's not how it looks from my perspective," Micky replied, dismayed to hear herself pressing for an unnecessary confrontation.

"With all due respect, Ms. Bellsong, I don't live from your perspective."

A slap in the face couldn't have been more to the point. Micky burned with humiliation.

If F had been gazing at the computer, Micky might have snapped back at her. But in the woman's eyes, she saw a chilly contempt that was a match for her hot anger, obstinacy as unyielding as cold stone.

Of all the caseworkers she might have drawn, she'd been brought head-to-head with this one, as though the Fates were amused by the prospect of two women butting like a pair of rams.

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