|A Year and Change|
Patterson had vanished before September was over and he did not turn up again until nearly the end of October. He had three fingers in splints and a bandaged nose, making him sound rather comical. Aunt Lucy didn't laugh though, a sign Benicia took to mean she should not ask about Patterson's injuries.
Benicia protested that she had been sending reports to her father. "Encrypted email. I do know a thing or too—"
"You know just enough to get into trouble, girl," said Patterson. "Tell me what you've learned, and what you expect to learn."
<Doesn't Father read my reports?> wondered Benicia, but she said nothing of it to Patterson. "I haven't found out exactly where the children are hidden, but I may be able to find out soon."
"Do you have a real reason for this hope?"
"Yes. I've been invited to stay with Pleione Umino's family over the Halloween weekend. The Urawas lived with them before the Younts tried to get their children back."
Patterson nodded. "That does sound promising. Are you sure they don't know who you are?"
"Of course, I came right out and told them. Don't treat me like a baby, Mr. Patterson. What the hell have you found out?"
"You may not want to know."
"I know Daddy's big secret, Mr. Patterson. You can't have a bigger one, can you?"
Patterson was off-balance for a moment. Finally he said, "I've been looking out for you and your brother since you were born. I think I can judge what you should and shouldn't know."
"I won't have forever to work with them, you know. The more you tell me now, the less time I'll waste finding out stuff Daddy already knows." She lit up a cigarette, more as an act of independence rather than a nicotine fix. "What do you know about them that they would want to keep from me?"
Patterson shook his head. "All right. First, tell me what you know from your father."
Halloween fell on a Saturday that year. Friday was a football night, a game in Antioch, a town at the far end of Contra Costa County, at the edge of the Sacramento River Delta, more than an hour from Orinda in Friday afternoon/evening traffic. Pleione went, of course; she'd made cheerleader again, although there were some whispers that it was a political decision, a sop given to make her forget about her pursuit by the Holy Johnnies.
Johnny Brown kicked three field goals, the only scoring Orinda managed against 22 points by Antioch, blessed that year by a killer running back who weighed about twice as much as Johnny. Even so, it was a very large upset. Seeing some money changing hands near the locker room, Benicia Swainson had an inkling how this surprise might have come about. It distracted her from her purpose. She said almost nothing to Pleione on the bus ride back to Orinda; Pleione spent most of her time talking to Johnny, anyway. At least Johnny was innocent; he was really disappointed that the team had blown so many plays. "Should have won this one. Coach is gonna be down on us hard this week. We got practice tomorrow and Sunday!"
"So you won't be coming over tomorrow night?" asked Pleione.
"We'll see. Probably be real late; Coach always runs us as late as he can after we lose."
From Orinda they took the GBATA train to El Cerrito Plaza, where they were picked up not by Mrs. Umino, whom Benicia had met briefly, but another woman. It was one of the Mrs. Jones, the housekeeper. Benicia knew she was also the widow of Marvell Jones and she would have loved to find out more about that, but patience was in order . . .
From the outside, the Alvarson mansion looked just like that: a mansion, at least from Arlington Avenue, where the news cameras always set up. Benicia discovered that the back of the place looked far less formal, with the remains of a couple of smaller buildings, a rather crude open carport, and a back façade with its symmetry marred by a long ramp. The fencing was in good repair, though, chain link topped with coils of razor wire once the iron-and-masonry fence ended. "Did you put that razor wire in because of the Holy Johnnies?" said Benicia, peering out of the back of the van to see if the picketers were following. "I didn't think they would still be here."
"No," said Mrs. Jones. "Mr. Alvarson put in new wire last month, but old wire was rusty."
"Yes," said Pleione as they got out. "The fences have been like this ever since I can remember."
"What's so interesting about the fences?" asked a voice Benicia hadn't heard before, except . . .
"You're Sarah , aren't you? Sarah Chiba?" asked Benicia.
"Guilty as charged," said the girl. "And you're Betty?"
"Yes. Betty Beringer," answered Benicia.
"You seem to recognize me, Betty," said the petite strawberry blonde, much shorter than Pleione.
"Well, I remember you from the White House when you came out with your mom."
"Oh . . . Well, what's so interesting about our fences?"
"I wonder if it's safe here," replied Benicia "The only places I've seen razor wire are jails, military bases, and really bad neighborhoods."
"Well . . . It's safe enough now."
"Sarachan," said Pleione, followed by some rapid Japanese.
Benecia was very tempted to try to read Pleione's old friend, but she held back. What she got was resentment and some jealousy, quite natural and expected emotions from what Pleione and Valentina had told her about Sarah.
The awkward moment passed when another voice called out from inside the house, also in Japanese. Sarah answered briefly, and then said, "Come on in, guys."
Pleione had remarked more than once to Benicia that her home seemed empty with so many gone, not only "Auntie Mako" and her children, and of course the men who were killed at the White House, including her own father. But the house didn't seem very empty to Benicia, and she found there were other guests. One of them was Michiru, famous enough so that even Benicia Swainson knew who she was before the White House affair. Benicia was very surprised to see Michiru. Pleione had said nothing about Michiru visiting, and when Benicia asked, Pleione said, "We weren't sure she could make it. Don't tell anyone. Auntie Michiru would rather the press not know she was here."
This was another thing Benicia Swainson wondered about, but it didn't seem important enough to risk probing. Besides, Michiru wasn't the only guest in the "empty" house. Her companion had come, and another "Auntie" named Setsuna. All of them had children. Pleione alone had seven sisters and a brother; Mrs. Chiba had four daughters; Mrs. Kumada two; the two Mrs. Jones had five girls between them; Dr. Mizuno had three. The house was certainly big, but empty?
Actually Benicia forgot her purpose for a long while, mostly because she was struck by what a different person Pleione was in her home. She often slipped into Japanese, and her behavior was certainly changed. At school Pleione was 100% All-American, remarkable only for being smarter, taller, and better-coordinated than average. Seeing her with her family was a revelation to Benicia.
Another thing that distracted Benicia was the interplay between Mrs. Kumada, and the others, especially Mrs. Chiba, the mother of Pleione's oldest friend Sarah, and the two Mrs. Jones. Mrs. Kumada was a semi-invalid now and her friends had contrived to move her into this house from her own so they could care for her. She was a very stubbornly independent woman, though, and Benicia had not been in the house for ten minutes before she witnessed one of her arguments. Mrs. Kumada was representing Mrs. Urawa, so she was perhaps Benicia's best chance of finding out where the Yount children were, but it was clear she was never left alone. One of her friends was always close by, with an eye and an ear out for trouble.
Still, she did manage to get Sarah to open up a little, starting with the topic of the formidable fences.
"Something happened a long time ago, just after I was born, I think. My mom and her friends won't talk about it, but it must have been scary. But don't worry. Dr. Alvarson's put a lot of security on this place. I don't think you'd be any safer in a police station."
Benicia responded, "Why don't you ask your mom about it now? I would think nothing would scare her after what happened to her at the White House." Benicia was immediately sorry she had made that remark, because not only Sarah but Pleione and all the other girls around her tensed, and Benicia added lamely, "Uh, sorry I brought that up. I guess—"
"That's all right," said Pleione rather carefully. "You haven't asked about it before."
"Well, yeah, I figured you were sick of hearing questions about it." <True enough.> "You don't have to talk about it now. Sorry."
Sarah looked at Benicia very closely for a long moment, and Benicia began to feel something . . . and then one of the girls Benicia had trouble telling apart said something in Japanese. Sarah said, "Hai, Ishichan," turned, and walked away. Both of the dark-haired almost identical girls followed her. So did Pleione, leaving Benicia among strangers except for Valentina Petrov, who had been talking with two other friends until Benicia's faux-pas.
This was why Benicia wasn't with Sarah and Pleione when her father appeared on TV.
"We're talking tonight with the Reverend Dr. John Lee Swainson, the head of the New Gospel Church . . ."
The Reverend Johnny Lee Swainson went on: "The case of the Younts illustrates so much of what has gone wrong with the American system under the regime of secular humanism, Ted. Not a thought was given about the religious affiliation of these children. This is a completely different issue from whether or not the Younts were fit parents. Even if they were not—I believe they were never unfit, but even if I were to concede this point—even if they were not fit parents, couldn't the courts at least taken care to place the children with a Christian family?"
Johnny Lee Swainson watched himself—it was three hours after the original interview, live in the East Coast and Midwest time zones but delayed for the Pacific Coast states. He also kept an eye on his own small audience—he worked best with an audience, and was never sure how a cold broadcast like this one would be received. Patterson was as unreadable as ever, but Fine seemed absorbed. If he had affected a skeptic like Fine, he had done well. "So, Michael, what do you think?"
"Good job, I suppose." Fine shook his head. "You would have done better with some real opposition, I think."
"You know, I believe you are right. But I didn't pick the other guests, you now. Still, better than I expected. Better than I expected . . ."
Benicia could only take a few minutes of her father's performance; she slipped out of the house for a smoke. The weather had turned unpleasant outside, with cold gusting winds and showers. But it had been a long time since her last cigarette, and she smoked three before she felt sated.
The kitchen light came on while Benicia was on the back porch, but no one came out. When she went back inside, Benicia heard a bit of conversation. It was in Japanese. Curious, Benicia looked in the kitchen. Inside she found Mrs. Chiba, Sarah's mother, and Mrs. Kumada—Mrs. Urawa's attorney, the person most likely to know where the Yount children really were. They did not seem aware of her.
It was an opportunity she had to take. Benicia Swainson reached out and tried to comprehend the thoughts of Mrs. Kumada. Not unexpectedly, Mrs. Kumada thought in Japanese. But they were talking about Mrs. Urawa and the Yount children; images of them were strong in Mrs. Kumada's mind, along with images of the Younts and her father.
Benicia could not read much more; she had learned it was better to be close, but she couldn't get closer without letting Mrs. Chiba and Mrs. Kumada know she was there. She caught some very curious images and sensations just before her powers faded, but she could not make much sense of them.
Benicia Swainson, or "Betty Beringer," slipped quietly away, making her way up to the room she had been given for her stay. It wasn't private; there were a couple of little girls there too, but they were both asleep. So was Benicia after a few minutes. She was getting better and better at using her strange powers, but it could be very tiring, as it had been this night.
Breakfast in the Alvarson mansion was based on rice, although the younger children went in for the same heavily-advertised cereals most other kids in America still insisted on. "Al," one of Pleione's sisters, said pointedly that she really missed the American-style breakfasts "Auntie Mako" used to fix.
Benicia got up too late to catch the martial-arts exercises she had heard about from Pleione, but she saw evidence of how vigorous they were in the elder Mrs. Jones who hadn't changed out of her leotard. Benicia asked Minako Jones some questions about martial arts, but did not bother to read her; she was just satisfying her own curiosity while making polite conversation. Mrs. Kumada took her meal in her room, so Benicia didn't have a good opportunity to get close to her yet.
After breakfast, Pleione and the older children went off to Japanese School. Benicia declined their invitation to come along, saying, truthfully, that she would feel lost.
The house was still buzzing with activity, getting ready for the party, and also for the arrival of several more people, including Dr. Alvarson. It was chaos; Olivia Jones was the only official staff and while she was efficient and energetic to a terrifying degree, she had a baby to worry about. Everyone had a baby to worry about, and three of the women had twins to mind. It was amazing that they got anything done, but they did.
Mrs. Kumada was out of action altogether, though she tried to pitch in at one point, bringing on an argument that ended in tears, lots of tears. Benicia couldn't bear to watch this.
A little after three, before Pleione and the others had returned, there was a great commotion outside. More pickets and TV vans appeared just before the owner, D.A. Alvarson, arrived—and her father was outside, confronting the reclusive multibillionaire.
Benicia wanted to crawl inside herself, watching her father perform from an upstairs window. It was not only a disgusting publicity stunt, it was stupid, liable to blow her cover, for they were going to wonder how the Reverend Johnny Lee Swainson knew that Alvarson was coming today.
"How could they have known you were coming?" asked Mizuno Ami, the widow Suuri.
Alvarson shrugged. "It could have been someone in my holdings here, or someone involved in air traffic control. Or just someone keeping an eye on my movements."
"None of us would have told anyone, sir," said Olivia Jones.
"One of the children might have said something," said Naru.
"Perhaps," said Alvarson, turning to Usagi. "Did you try to read my thoughts? While I was with our holy man?"
"No, Alvarson-sama. Do you think I would risk such a thing?"
"Someone tried to read my thoughts. Where is the First Moon?"
"She won't be back for another hour. And she knows better!"
"Yes, she knows better, you have taught her . . . " Alvarson trailed off, a sign that vast old mind of his was trying to recall something. His wife led him off after a few moments, knowing as the others did he could be lost in thought for hours.
Benicia Swainson caught little of the exchange except the tone; it was all in Japanese. She was surprised that Alvarson seemed to be fluent in Japanese. She knew only enough to recognize it.
Some of the pickets stayed on after the Reverend Jimmy Lee left—it was clear they intended to intercept and harangue each and every person coming and going from the Alvarson mansion, which chased off any arriving trick-or-treaters. The party seemed well-enough attended, though.
Mr. Alvarson may be a dwarf, but his libido is giant-sized. I can't remember anyone undressing me with his eyes like this little man. Pleione warned me but I still wasn't prepared for it. I couldn't help avoiding him as much as I could. The others notice how he acts it and I think they make a lot of remarks on it, though never in English, at least in front of me. Mr. Alvarson speaks Japanese very well, apparently.
Mr. Alvarson and a lot of the other grownups went somewhere after midnight. I didn't notice they were gone for a long time.
The two girls staying in my room were Lily Chiba and Mimi Han. Lily was a good friend of Philip Yount but she hasn't heard from him since Mrs. Urawa fled the house. She's just five. Lily and Mimi have been living with their grandparents in Singapore and I suppose they are back there by now.
This was sure a big event for them all. Michiru and her companion Haruka brought their children all the way from France; another woman came from Florida. Since when is Halloween a big thing for Japanese? The one from Florida only has one child, only 10 months, so she couldn't have come so her kid could go to the party.
It was very hard to ask anything about what you're interested in, Father, after your little visit. All the adults and most of the kids close to my age were upset and wondered how you knew Mr. Alvarson was coming. I couldn't say anything to them without reminding Pleione that I knew he was coming. I hope it was worth it!
I didn't find out anything else about the Yount children or Mrs. Urawa. At least, nothing about where they might be. They aren't at Alvarson's place in Switzerland. I talked with Mrs. Alvarson quite a long time and I would have picked up something if they had been there.
Alvarson has a couple of grandchildren; they called him "grandpa." Pleione didn't mention them to me. I only saw their mother for a few moments; she's very tall, but her children are quite diminutive, though neither of them seems to be a dwarf like Alvarson. I thought the older one was maybe twelve on the outside, but she's sixteen.
Mrs. Kumada had some kind of crisis the next morning and went to the hospital. That's what was on the minds of everyone for the rest of my stay.
If you really want to find out where the Yount children are, Father, you'd better call off your true believers and let me get closer. And I wish you wouldn't send your instructions through Patterson. He's really creeping me out. I can't read him and I don't trust him. It's bad enough what I'm doing, but with Patterson, I wonder if I'm even doing it for you.
"What'cha up to, Princess?" asked Aunt Lucy.
"Just writing to Father." Benicia sent off her encrypted report, wondering again if her father would actually be reading it. Patterson wouldn't like it if he saw it.
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