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The wrong person would not be one who merely giggled at him or made a rude remark about his looks or his condition. He feared a more profound encounter with someone who strongly affected him in ways for which he was not prepared.


He didn’t want to be affected. What had an affect caused an effect. Affect was another word for change, and Tom Bigger didn’t want to change.


He was what he was, and he didn’t know how to be anything else. At forty-eight, he’d been this way twice as long as he had not.


In the motel office, behind the registration counter, a white-haired guy, maybe seventy-something, was sitting at a desk, engrossed in a book. Wearing a gray cardigan over a white shirt, sporting a red bow tie, with a pair of half-lens reading glasses halfway down his nose, he looked as if he had been born an old man.


“Good morning, sir,” he said, setting his book aside and rising. “What may I do for you this glorious morning?”


“Need a room,” Tom said.


“Used to be bustling this time of the day, folks checking out, all in a hurry to settle up and hit the road. As you see, I’m not at risk of breaking a sweat this morning.”


“Walked all night,” Tom explained.


“That’s the smart way. When it’s cool. And when traffic’s light, so you aren’t breathing exhaust fumes every step of the way.”


The old man put a pen and a registration form on the counter.


“Don’t have a credit card, don’t have ID,” Tom said. “Cash in advance is how I do it.”


“Saves us both some bother. I’ve been hearing for forty years how cash money will soon be obsolete. There’s not much of it floating around these days, but it’s sure not obsolete. Just go ahead and print your name on the top line, sign at the bottom.”


Tom did as instructed. Then he counted out the cash.


Presenting a key, the old man said, “Number twenty-four. Out the door here, turn left, and go to the end. Twenty-four is the last room in the north wing, so your sleep won’t be interrupted this afternoon when all the big movie stars are checking in with their entourages.”


“You have soda and ice machines?” Tom asked.


“End of the south wing. Enjoy your stay, Mr. Bigger.”


In his room, Tom took off his backpack, dropped it on the bed.


He stared out the window at the empty parking lot.


He watched the fast traffic on the coastal highway.


He shut the draperies.


He looked at the TV but didn’t switch it on.


On the bed lay a complimentary copy of USA Today.


He didn’t pick it up.


He stared at his big bony hands.


He went into the bathroom.


He looked at his face in the mirror.


The old man in the cardigan had been reading a book, so he couldn’t be blind.


Forty-nine


For a preliminary interview with his potential client, Liddon Wallace wore a dark-blue Ralph Lauren Purple Label suit, a shirt and tie from Costume National, shoes from Gucci, a Rolex watch—and just a touch of Black by Kenneth Cole, a fragrance for men.


Although his primary offices were in San Francisco and he lived in Marin County, across the Golden Gate Bridge from the city, Liddon was also a member of the bar in three other states, including the state of Washington. The amount of wealth in Seattle and environs, crossed with the tendency of the high-tech rich in particular to think they were wizards of the Web and above all laws, could from time to time lead to the kind of trouble that allowed a stylish lawyer to expand his closet space to infinity.


The potential client lived in a 28,000-square-foot Georgian Revival-style house on six walled acres. The guard at the gatehouse admitted Liddon to the property. A doorkeeper came outside to wait for him while he parked in the two-lane driveway. Once inside, the doorkeeper took his Ralph Lauren topcoat and turned him over to a butler, who led him to a drawing room where the future defendant waited for him.


If Liddon accepted the case, he would be compensated for his services by the client’s father, Bob Marlowe. The twenty-two-year-old son, Swithen, was still making his way through college at a measured pace that had brought him to his junior year, and of course he had no job. The young man waited alone in the drawing room because Liddon always conducted the initial interview one-on-one.


Swithen was entirely outfitted by Costume National, head to foot, which suggested that he lacked the imagination to have an eclectic taste or that he was supremely self-confident. He was a handsome lad with a slightly pouty face; his thick and naturally windswept hair would be the envy of any male model.


During their initial chitchat, it became clear that Swithen understood how exemplary manners could be useful for crafting a good first impression. Evident as well was that his careful deportment was based on no underlying philosophy, only on self-interest, and that in fact he had disdain for society’s rules.


Getting down to business, Liddon said, “So the charge against you is assault with intent to kill. Tell me about this boy, Branden Jones.”


“He’s no boy, sir. We’ve been friends since we were both six. He’s a man like me.”


“Yes, of course. Why would anyone think you did this to him?”


“Do you want to know if I did it?”


“I believe you’ve told the police you didn’t do it.”


“But as my defense attorney, sir, don’t you want to know?”


“It’s immaterial to me whether you’re innocent or guilty.”


“Really?”


“The way I work, it would only complicate my job to know.”


Swithen visibly relaxed, slumping in his chair. “How long is this interview going to take?”


“Usually an hour or two.”


“Let’s not dance. Let’s be two guys here. It’s all about a bit.”


“Excuse me?”


“A bit, a piece.”


“Elucidate.”


“A piece, a bit, a bitch, this girl—Rain Fishman.”


“Her name is Rain, like the weather?”


“Yes. So tight and right.”


“Tight and right?”


“Rain. She’s mine and everyone knows it.”


“You’re engaged to her?”


“Who does marriage anymore?”


“What does Branden have to do with Rain?”


“He’s a notorious poacher.”


“You mean he makes moves on other guys’ women?”


“He’s poached more than the egg cook at a country-club brunch.”


“Do you think he poached Rain?”


“What do you think I think?” Swithen asked.


“If he’s gone after a lot of women, a lot of men must hate him.”


“Oh, he’s well and widely hated.”


“So someone assaults him. Why did the police come to you?”


“Branden told them I did it.”


“The victim says he saw your face?”


“You’ll demolish him in court.”


“How will I do that?”


“He’s brain-damaged.”


“The brain damage came from the assault?”


“Funny how a lug wrench can muddle your thinking.”


“The weapon was a lug wrench?”


Swithen blinked slowly. “Or maybe a fireplace poker.”


“What do the police say the weapon was?”


“They don’t say. They don’t have it.”


“They’ll have pictures and measurements of the victim’s blunt trauma.”


“The police are very professional here,” Swithen agreed.


“They find the lug wrench, they’ll match it to the wounds.”


“And there’s the blood on it, too,” Swithen said.


“Lug wrenches aren’t porous. The assailant would wash it clean.”


“What if it didn’t belong to the assailant?”


“Are we playing what-if now?” Liddon asked.


“Like on a TV mystery,” said Swithen. “What if this would-be killer used some poor innocent bastard’s lug wrench?”


“You mean, what if he took it from Poor Bastard’s car trunk and put it back with blood on it?”


“It could be like that. Poor Bastard might be someone whose bit Branden poached and he even threatened Branden publicly.”


“What-ifs are tricky to think through,” Liddon cautioned.


“Yeah, like then how does the real assailant get the police interested in Poor Bastard?”


“Especially if he’s already a suspect himself.”


“Right. They have to think he might’ve set up Poor Bastard.”


“The tip on Poor Bastard has to come to the cops from a third party who’s paid a bundle to do it but has no connection whatsoever to the real assailant.”


“What-ifs are tricky, though,” Swithen said. “If the real assailant tries to pay somebody to blow the whistle on Poor Bastard, he’s asking to be blackmailed.”


“There are safe ways to do it,” Liddon said. “Several ways.”


Neither of them spoke for a while.


Then Liddon said, “In court, are you sure you’d never use a word like bit, piece, or bitch?”


“Sure I’m sure. This was two guys talking. Court is serious.”


Liddon nodded. “You’ve hired yourself a defense attorney. You’re pretty much my ideal client.”


Sitting up straighter in his chair, grinning, Swithen said, “I can’t wait to see justice done.”


“Even as imperfect as justice often is.”


Neither of them moved to shake the other’s hand.


“My dad’s waiting to see you. I’ll take you to him.”


They crossed the drawing room, but before Swithen could open the door, Liddon said, “Wait. I have a what-if of my own.”


“I’m getting good at this.”


Liddon said, “What if you experienced something so astounding that it could turn your concept of life upside down, blow apart your idea of how the world works.”


“Astounding—how, what?”


“Doesn’t matter. Just say there was something that happened, something so difficult to get your head around, you needed to think hard about it.”


“You have a close encounter of the third kind or something?”


“No. Something more astounding. Just say it’s something, once you experience it, you need to think hard about it. But suppose you saw that chances were, if you thought about it enough, you would have to change almost everything about yourself.”


“What’s everything?”


With a sweep of his hand, Liddon indicated the elegant room with its priceless antiques and by extension the house and the inheritance.


With a wry contempt for the very concept of being astounded by anything, Swithen said, “And if I don’t think hard about this experience? If I just say ‘Screw it, I don’t care what it means,’ and instead I just keep on keepin’ on?”


“Then nothing changes for you. You lead the life you always wanted to live.”


“Then why is this even a what-if? I’m not that big a fool, and for sure, you’re not.”


Liddon didn’t reply.


Frowning as though having doubts about his defense counsel, Swithen said, “What does this have to do with me, you, and staying out of jail?”


“Nothing,” Liddon said. “If I hadn’t already decided to say ‘Screw it,’ I wouldn’t have come here. We both know what we want, and there’s no reason we can’t have it.”


Clearly puzzled by this entire exchange, Swithen said, “You sure you’re all right?”


“I’m more than all right,” Liddon assured him. “I’m the best there is in a courtroom. If I put my mind to it, damn if I might not convince a jury that Branden Jones is the one who ought to be on trial for assault with intent to kill himself.”


Fifty


After recovering from the jalapeño, Riddle apparently decided that the pantry might contain additional dangerous items that made another snack too risky. He turned out the light, closed the door, and sat with his back to it.


On the floor with her veterinarian, Puzzle seemed to think that she was the recipient of a most relaxing massage, for she purred and sighed as Cammy pressed firmly on all the joints of her hind legs in search of some indication of how Riddle could have performed as he did.


The previous evening, when she’d first seen the creatures, they impressed her as sophisticated mammals with some of the qualities of primates. By the time she had gone home, she regarded them more as primates. The complex and sustained curiosity they displayed by so methodically examining the contents of the living-room desk, the reasoning they revealed in their raid on the pantry, and the upright running posture that Riddle exhibited in his reaction to the hot pepper argued that they were hominids. But the only hominids on Earth were human beings and the extinct races of ape-men from which it was thought they had evolved.


Except for their well-articulated hands, Puzzle and Riddle did not look much like hominids. In truth she didn’t know enough about evolutionary biology and anthropology to adequately classify any unfamiliar species or to properly compare this one to human beings.


While Cammy was still on the kitchen floor with Puzzle, Merlin padded in from the hallway.


Grady followed him, having quickly showered and dressed in expectation of the authorities. “While I was out of the room, did they suddenly reveal they can fly?”


“No wings yet. And I can’t find anything odd about their joints by palpating them. I’d love to get X-rays. But what would they show, anyway? It’s just not possible what happened—pretty much a dog-form leg straightening into a leg with an entirely vertical humanlike line of extension—and then back again. It’s not simply a matter of two different structures for each ankle, knee, and hip joint. Muscles and tendons serving one kind of joint wouldn’t likely stretch or torque perfectly to serve another kind.”


“You ever see one of those crazy movies about cars and trucks that turn into robots?”


“Transformers. The science, technology, and mechanics of those things are ridiculous, just fantasy, they’d never work in the real world. What Riddle did shouldn’t work in the real world, either, but we saw it happen.”


“Maybe we’re not in the real world.”


“It seems more unreal by the hour,” she agreed.


Pointing to the memory stick from his camera, which Cammy had put on the table, Grady said, “I’ve thought about it, and I’m with you on the photos.”

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