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Authors: Laurie R. King

Keeping Watch

BOOK: Keeping Watch
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LAURIE R. KING

KEEPING WATCH

Bantam Books
NEW YORK  TORONTO  LONDON  SYDNEY  AUCKLAND

To all the children who fight in wars not of their making

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

—W. H. Auden
“September 1, 1939”

Thanks to John Tiley, who tried to make sure I took the right equipment with me into the green; to Jason and Jeff of Media Associates in Mountain View, who put Allen's equipment up in the tree; and to Nathan King, gamer extraordinaire.

And with thanks to all the men and women who wrote about their experiences in Vietnam, that those of us who come after might understand.

And for those who like to know the meaning of words, a glossary of war terms lies at the end of the book.

 

Before

Chapter 1

Allen Carmichael balanced on the precariously slim branch of the vine maple, pawing aside the soft new greenery and cursing the incompatibility of most trees with the human body. Particularly a six-foot-one-inch human body with a stiff leg, working its way through a sixth decade. Too old for this kind of stunt, he grumbled to himself. No doubt about it: It really was time to turn this side of things over to some younger maniac.

The house over which he was keeping watch—or rather, which his machines had been watching for him—lay slightly lower than his current treetop perch and at the other end of half a mile of well-maintained driveway. It was a solid house, big, with double-glazed windows and a lot of fake stone wrapped around a confusing number of rooms and a three-car garage. The sort of house Allen disliked, even without the things that went on inside it. Showy, unsuited to the climate, “Tudoresque” (whatever the hell that meant), and with no personality to show for its vast expense. It was also irritatingly well situated for defense. With good reason, Allen knew, but it made life no easier for a man trying to pry it open.

He downloaded the information stored in the treetop receiver, gave it a new battery, and paused to check the area around the tree for onlookers. He was grateful, always, when his targets were not dog owners. Remarkably few of them were—for the simple reason, he'd always supposed, that dogs demanded a kind of affection they had no time for. Their interests lay elsewhere.

He clambered down through the unfurling April leaves, reaching the ground without breaking any of his middle-aged bones, and set off for the motorcycle buried in some bushes half a mile away. The surveillance on AmberLyn's stepfather was nearly finished; time to break up the party.

Late that night, back in his barely furnished residential-hotel apartment, Allen Carmichael dropped his pack on the kitchen table and got himself a beer. Half of it went down his throat before he bothered to shut the door on the fridge.

He set the bottle down next to the pack and shrugged off the leather biker's jacket he wore, taking it to the apartment's single closet, where he winced at the smell of cat piss that wafted out. He worked one of the flimsy hangers into the coat's shoulders, hung the heavy garment up gingerly on the chipped paint of the metal bar, and closed the door, then remembered the smell and left the door ajar a few inches so his clothes wouldn't be quite so pungent in the morning. Sitting on the end of the wobbly mattress, he picked open the laces of his scuffed steel-toed boots, placing them precisely under the corner of the bed, then unbuttoned the grubby, paper-thin flannel shirt he wore and tugged it free from his jeans. He pushed the garment into the dresser drawer that he used in lieu of a dirty-clothes hamper (unconsciously adjusting the ill-fitting drawer so it lay precisely flush to the frame), then scratched his grease-rimed fingernails through his scalp, loosing hair matted by the day's headgear of knit cap and helmet, before stretching hard in an attempt to rid his body of the day's tiredness. The attempt was not a success.

He walked out of the bedroom, limping slightly, dressed in stocking feet, jeans, and the spotless army-green T-shirt he had worn beneath the plaid flannel. In the apartment's tiny bathroom (which was still pretty grim even though he'd got down on his hands and knees the day he moved in and scoured every surface) Allen ran the rust-stained basin full of cold water, splashed and dried his face. He used the toilet, then went back to the basin, using hot water and soap this time to scrub his hands, his bearded face, and the back of his neck. He'd rather have taken a shower, to rid himself of the indescribably oily feeling of his day, but he knew he'd really need one later and he couldn't permit himself to have two showers in one evening—a little compulsiveness was okay, but let's not let it get out of hand. So he washed his face and hands, and when every inch of exposed skin was clean and glowing, he arranged the thin, damp towel foursquare on the peeling chrome of the bar and switched off the light.

At no point had he looked into the dim mirror over the basin.

In the kitchen again, Allen frowned at the contents of the refrigerator, glanced over the meager supply of pasta and canned goods in the cupboard, and in the end fried up a pair of thick ham and provolone sandwiches with tomatoes and onions on week-old bread. He carried his plate with the remains of the beer into the cramped living room and propped his feet up on the massive pseudo-wood table in front of the musty sofa, allowing the greasy food and the mindless television to carry him through to the half-hour break.

With a sigh, and another beer, he then sat down to his work.

In the arc of experience that had brought him from a scorching runway in Saigon to this fetid apartment among the winos, Allen had picked up a number of skills. Primary among them, then and now, was the ability to disengage. Going through the pockets of a long-dead enemy soldier, dropping down to check a bunker they'd thought was empty but which a fragmentation grenade had proved was not, watching a brutal interrogation, loading a ville's weeping inhabitants into a Chinook like cattle—you had to stand aside mentally and let your hands and eyes do their job. Like a flak jacket on the emotions, disassociation made it possible to carry on even if you were hit.

Now, it made it possible for Allen to watch his illicit videos of blond, curly-headed, six-year-old AmberLyn McKenzie with the least possible involvement of the mind. If he stopped to let it all in, if he allowed his eyes to dwell on the child's face or let his ears hear her stepfather's clever cajoling, he knew damn well that he'd put down his beer and just go murder the bastard. Which wouldn't help anyone, least of all that little girl whimpering on the television screen. Instead, he fast-forwarded parts of what the bedroom spy camera had recorded, although truth to tell, it was rarely the actual rape that got to him on these sorts of cases. No; the part he found truly unbearable was, he'd long ago decided, the very same part that the pedophile loved the most: the seduction. Most pedophiles weren't interested in merely overpowering a child, but rather found their greatest pleasure in the game of domination, keeping the child just this side of outright panic by first discovering and then manipulating each particular victim's individual needs, fears, and nobilities. The subtle interplay of threat and cajoling, pressure and affection, always hit Allen the hardest: the terrible intimacy involved, a predator's complete understanding of his prey, a knowledge such as, more often than not, no other human being in the child's life came anywhere near to possessing. It was this terrible familiarity with the victim's very soul that made Allen crave the simplicity of murder.

When the bedroom tape was over, he got himself a third beer by way of reward before settling down with a pad of paper to watch the scenes from the three other cameras he'd planted. He made the occasional note and replayed one or two parts before labeling the recordings precisely and sealing them into a padded mailer; only then did he go and take his shower. Afterward, he sat in the dark room for nearly an hour with his feet on the table and his fingers laced together over the front of his fresh T-shirt.

Thank God this time there was a mother. It made life so much easier, having an adult to take charge of the child once he'd gotten the victims free—even if the mother was a large part of the child's problem, which was usually the case. But at least Allen didn't have to act alone, at least he avoided the soul-withering need to ingratiate himself into the child's life like the molesters he watched. He always felt . . . cleaner, when there was a mother on board.

A few minutes after midnight, Allen got up to fetch a cell phone from his bedside table. He thumbed in the numbers and put it to his ear, standing at the bedroom window and looking through its dirty glass at the deserted street below. As he'd expected, the phone was answered after the first ring. He spoke. “Tomorrow, I think. He'll be out of town until late. So plan A looks good. Everything ready at your end? Fine, see you then.”

He closed the phone and climbed between the clean-smelling sheets, where he slept the sleep of a middle-aged adrenaline junkie on the eve of action, whose only dreams were cool and green and quiet as April leaves.

Chapter 2

The boy sat without moving before the multicolored screen of his computer, head bowed, pulling the room's silence around his bony shoulders as if harnessing the billowing cloak of a superhero. As if by wrapping himself head to foot in the fabric of silence, he might become invisible as well.

The boy thought of his cloak as
The Quiet,
imagined it to be woven from ever-shifting tones of gray and blue, mistlike colors of peace and invisibility. He was, in truth, still nearly halfway convinced of its actual existence, a portion of his heart even now almost certain that if only he could concentrate intensely enough, like some Chinese martial-arts master—if he could just find the precise area in his brain from which
The Quiet
flowed—he would be able to trigger it at will, pulling it up over himself like a blanket so that he simply winked out, into another dimension or something, vanishing from the world's sight.

He knew this was nonsense, of course. He was twelve years old now, and he'd lost his belief in fairy tales a long time ago. The problem was, sometimes it seemed to work. Sometimes he'd sit really, really still, so motionless he could feel the blood slowing in his veins, hear his mind turning within its skull; when he reached just that right place, he could reach in and summon
The Quiet
. He would feel its cool fabric brush lightly across his skin and snug down against his clothes, as firm and protective as a mother's arms. When that happened, when he got it right, Father's footsteps would continue on past his door, as if he had lost sight of the boy wrapped in his cloak of silence.

Other times, however, the boy would just think he'd got it right. He'd sit without moving a muscle, his breath so low it did not hide the slow
lub-dub
of his heart, stilling his mind until he felt
The Quiet
begin to creep up over him, clothing him in the knowledge that tonight's footsteps would go on by, since he was not there for Father to see. Only, incomprehensibly, the approaching footsteps would turn and come through the shattered doorway, and the real world would crash over him with the shock of a bucket of ice water.

He'd seen a television program one time about a dog trainer, and although the woman herself was stupid and ugly he'd left it on for a while because he couldn't take his eyes off one of her dogs. It was a small brown-and-white animal with soft-folded ears and intelligent black shiny eyes—a terrier, she'd called it. It was a compact dog, sharp of feature and round of belly, just the right size to fit into a boy's lap and wriggle around to lick his chin with that pink tongue, but the woman acted like it was a lab rat or something. The terrier had been mistreated by its owners, she'd told the camera—and he knew just what she was talking about, oh yeah. But, she said, from the terrier's point of view, the worst part was not the physical abuse it had suffered, or even the lack of affection. It was the unpredictability of it all, the way the owner would one day kick the dog and another day pick it up and feed it treats and spoil it, so the poor animal (those were her words:
poor animal
) never knew what to expect. That was what had made the dog vicious, so that he couldn't be trusted not to bite.

The dog lady hadn't said anything about the opposite result of being treated unpredictably: the hope, constant and tenacious, that insisted on whispering in the back of a person's mind,
If only . . .
If only I could find the right spot in the brain, I'd be able to enter
The Quiet
anytime I wanted. If only I could figure out what I do that sets Father off, I could stop doing it. If only . . .

Maybe it didn't work that way with dogs. Maybe dogs didn't hang on to hope like people did. Maybe they just gave up thinking that life might make sense one day, so when they looked up and saw a hand reaching out to feed them or to hit them, they just bit it without waiting to see which it would be. Because they
Couldn't be trusted. Not to bite.

Maybe only little kids hung on to the hope that they could
do
something—like they clung to the idea of some superhero cloak of invisibility. Lately, he'd begun to think it was time he grew out of the fantasy, that basically there was not a thing he could do to avoid Father when Father was in one of his moods.

Or maybe there wasn't all that much difference between a boy and a terrier. (Great name that, somehow like
terror,
only friendly, like the dog looked, his ears cocked at the camera and at the stupid woman who hadn't even said his real name. The boy had decided the dog's name was Terry, and concluded that Terry
Couldn't be trusted
only when it came to stupid women and unpredictable owners.) Maybe, the boy thought, it was time for him to start growing up, time to become more like the mistreated white-and-brown dog.

Time for him to become vicious, and snap those sharp white teeth down into flesh and bite and tear and—

When the sound of feet came on the stairs, the boy jabbed the
SAVE
button on the keyboard and subsided into motionlessness, trying not to breathe, searching desperately for
The Quiet,
for the tiny button in his brain that would render him invisible.

BOOK: Keeping Watch
9.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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