Page 6

Janet Marco parked her brokendown Dodge at one end of the alleyway.

With her fiveyearold son, Danny, and the stray dog that had recently attached itself to them, she walked along that narrow backstreet, examining the contents of one garbage can after another, seeking survival in the discards of others.

The east side of the alley was flanked by a deep but narrow ravine filled with immense eucalyptus trees and a tangle of dried brush while the west side was defined by a series of two- and threecar garages separated by wroughtiron and paintedwood gates. Beyond some of the gates, Janet glimpsed small patios and cobbled courtyards shaded by palms, magnolias, ficuses, and Australian tree ferns that flourished in the ocean air. The houses all faced the Pacific over the roofs of other houses on lower tiers of the Laguna hills, so they were mostly three stories tall, vertical piles of stone and stucco and weathered cedar shingles designed to make maximum use of the expensive real estate.

Though the neighborhood was affluent, the rewards of scavenging were pretty much the same there as anywhere else: aluminum cans that could be returned to a recycling center for pennies, and redeemable bottles.

However, once in a while she found a treasure: bags of clothes that were out of style but looked unworn, broken appliances that would fetch a couple of dollars from a secondhand shop if they needed only minor repairs, unwanted costume jewelry, or books and oldfashioned phonograph records that could be resold to specialty shops for collectors.

Danny toted a plastic garbage bag into which Janet dropped the aluminum cans. She carried another bag to hold the bottles.

As they progressed along the alleyway, under a rapidly darkening sky, Janet repeatedly glanced back at the Dodge. She worried about the car and tried never to get more than two blocks from it, keeping it in sight as much as possible. The car was not only a means of conveyance; it was their shelter from the sun and the rain, and a place to store their meager belongings. It was home.

She lived in dread of a mechanical breakdown severe enough to be irreparabler irreparable within their means, which was the same thing.

But she was most afraid of theft, because with the car gone they would have no roof over their heads, no safe place to sleep.

She knew that no one was likely to steal such a rolling wreck The thief's desperation would have to exceed Janet's own, and she could not conceive of anyone more desperate than she wad.

From a large brown plastic trash can, she extracted half a dozen aluminum cans that someone had already flattened and that ought to have been separated for recycling. She put them in Danny's garbage bag.

The boy watched solemnly. He said nothing. He was a quiet child.

His father had intimidated him into being the next thing to a mute, and in the year since Janet had cut that domineering bastard out of their lives, Danny had become only slightly less withdrawn.

Janet glanced back at the car. Still there.

Cloud shadows fell over the alleyway, and a soft saltscented breeze arose. From far out over the sea came a low peal of thunder.

She hurried to the next can, and Danny followed her.

The dog, which Danny had named Woofer, sniffed at the trash containers, padded to a nearby gate, and poked his snout between the iron bars.

His tail wagged continuously. He was a friendly mutt, reasonably wellbehaved, the size of a golden retriever, with a black and brown coat, and a cute face. But Janet tolerated the cost of feeding him only because he had drawn so many smiles from the boy in the past few days. Until Woofer came along, she had almost forgotten what Danny's smile was like.

Again, she glanced at the battered Dodge. It was all right.

She looked toward the other end of the alley, and then toward the brushchoked ravine and peeling trunks of the huge eucalyptuses across the way She was afraid not of just car thieves, and not merely of residents who might object to her rummaging through their garbage. She was also afraid of the cop who had been harassing her lately. No. Not a cop. Something that pretended to be a cop. Those strange eyes, the kind and freckled face that could change so swiftly into a creature out of a nightmare...

Janet Marco had one religion: fear. She had been born into that cruel faith without being aware of it, as full of wonder and the capacity for delight as any child. But her parents were alcoholics, and their sacrament of distilled spirits revealed in them an unholy rage and a capacity for sadism. They vigorously instructed her in the doctrines and dogmas of the cult of fear. She learned of only one god, which was neither a specific person nor a force; to her, god was merely power, and whoever wielded it was automatically elevated to the status of deity.

That she had fallen under the thrall of a wifebeater and control freak like Vince Marco, as soon as she was old enough to escape her parents, was no surprise. By then she was devoted to victiinhood, had a need to be oppressed. Vince was lazy, shiftless, a drunkard, a gambler, a womanizer, but he was highly skilled and energetic when it came to crushing the spirit of a wife.

For eight years they had moved around the West, never staying longer than six months in any town, while Vince made a subsistence livingalthough not always an honest one. He didn't want Janet to develop friendships. If he remained the only consistent presence in her life, he had total control; there was no one to advise and encourage her to rebel.

As long as she was utterly subservient and wore her fear for him to see, the beatings and torments were less severe than when she was more stoical and denied him the pleasure of her anguish. The god of fear appreciated visible expressions of his disciple's devotion every bit as much as did the Christian God of love. Perversely, fear became her refuge and her only defense against even greater savageries.

And so she might have continued until she was no better than a shivering, terrorized animal cowering in its burrow... but Danny came along to save her. After the baby was born, she began to fear for him as much as for herself. What would happen to Danny if Vince went too far some night and, in an alcoholic frenzy, beat her to death? How would Danny cope alone, so small, so helpless? In time she feared harm to Danny more than to herselfwhich should have added to her burden but which was strangely liberating. Vince didn't realize it, but he was no longer the only consistent presence in her life. Her child, by his very existence, was an argument for rebellion and a source of courage.

She still might never have become courageous enough to throw off her yoke if Vince had not raised his hand to the boy. One night a year ago, in a dilapidated rental house with a desertbrown lawn on the outskirts of Tucson, Vince had come home reeking of beer and sweat and some other woman's perfume, and had beaten Janet for sport. Danny was four then, too small to protect his mother but old enough to feel that he ought to defend her. When he appeared in his pajamas and tried to intervene, his father slapped him repeatedly, viciously, knocked him down, and kicked at him until the boy scrambled out of the house into the front yard, weeping and terrified.

Janet had endured the beating, but later, when both her husband and her boy were asleep, she'd gone to the kitchen and taken a knife from a wall rack near the stove. Utterly fearless for the firstand perhaps lasttime in her life, she returned to the bedroom and stabbed Vince repeatedly in the throat, neck, chest, and stomach. He woke as the first wound was inflicted, tried to scream, but only gurgled as his mouth filled with blood. He resisted, briefly and ineffectually.

After checking on Danny in the next room to be sure he had not awakened, Janet wrapped Vince's body in the bloodstained bed sheets.

She tied the shroud in place at his ankles and neck with clothesline, dragged him through the house, out of the kitchen door, and across the backyard.

The high moon grew alternately dim and bright as clouds like galleons sailed eastward across the sky, but Janet was not concerned about being seen. The shacks along that stretch of the state route were widely spaced, and no lights glowed in either of the two nearest homes.

Driven by the grim understanding that the police could take her from Danny as surely as Vince might have done, she hauled the corpse to the end of the property and out into the night desert, which stretched unpopulated to the far mountains. She struggled between mesquite shrubs and stillrooted tumbleweeds, across soft sand in some places and hard tables of shale in others.

When the cold face of the moon shone, it revealed a hostile landscape of stark shadows and sharp alabaster shapes. In one of the deeper shadowsan arroyo carved by centuries of flash floodsJanet abandoned the corpse.

She stripped the sheets off the body and buried those, but she didn't dig a grave for the cadaver itself because she hoped that night scavengers and vultures would pick the bones clean quicker if it was left exposed. Once the denizens of the desert had chewed and pecked the soft pads of Vince's fingers, once the sun and the carrion eaters got done with him, his identity might be deduced only by dental records. Since Vince had rarely seen a dentist, and never the same one twice, there were no records for the police to consult. With luck, the corpse would go undiscovered until the next rainy season, when the withered remains would be washed miles and miles away, tumbled and broken and mixed up with piles of other refuse, until they had essentially disappeared.

That night Janet packed what little they owned and drove away in the old Dodge with Danny. She was not even sure where she was going until she had crossed the state line and driven all the way to Orange County.

That had to be her final destination because she couldn't afford to spend more money on gasoline just to get farther away from the dead man in the desert.

No one back in Tucson would wonder what had happened to Vince. He was a shiftless drifter, after all. Cutting loose and moving on was a way of life to him.

But Janet was deathly afraid to apply for welfare or any form of assistance. They might ask her where her husband was, and she didn't trust her ability to lie convincingly.

Besides, in spite of carrioneaters and the dehydrating ferocity of the Arizona sun, maybe someone had stumbled across Vince's body before it had become unidentifiable. If his widow and son surfaced in California, seeking government aid, perhaps connections would be made deep in a computer, prompting an alert social worker to call the cops.

Considering her tendency to succumb to anyone who exerted authority over hera deeply ingrained trait that had been only slightly ameliorated by the murder of her husbandJanet had little chance of undergoing police scrutiny without incriminating herself.

Then they would take Danny away from her.

She could not allow that. Would not.

On the streets, homeless but for the rusted and rattling Dodge, Janet Marco discovered that she had a talent for survival. She was not stupid; she had just never before had the freedom to exercise her wits.

From a society whose refuse could feed a significant portion of c, the Third World, she clawed a degree of precarious security, feeding herself and her son with recourse to a charity kitchen for the fewest possible meals.

She learned that fear, in which she had long been steeped, did not have to immobilize her. It could also motivate.

The breeze had grown cool and had stiffened into an erratic wind.

The rumble of thunder was still far away but louder than whenJanet had first heard it. Only a sliver of blue sky remained to the east, fading as fast as hope usually did.

After mining two blocks of trash containers, Janet and Danny headed back to the Dodge with Woofer in the lead.

More than halfway there, the dog suddenly stopped and cocked his head to listen for something else above the fluting of the wind and the chorus of whispery voices that were stirred from the agitated eucalyptus leaves. He grumbled and seemed briefly puzzled, then turned and looked past Janet. He bared his teeth, and the grumble sharpened into a low growl.

She knew what had drawn the dog's attention. She didn't have to look.

Nevertheless she was compelled to turn and confront the menace for Danny's sake if not her own. The Laguna Beach cop, that cop, was about eight feet away.

He was smiling, which is how it always started with him. He had an appealing smile, a kind face, and beautiful blue eyes.

As always, there was no squad car, no indication of how he had arrived in the alleyway. It was as if he had been lying in wait for her among the peeling trunks of the eucalyptuses, clairvoyantly aware that her scavenging would bring her to this alley at this hour on this very day.

“How're you, Ma'am?” he asked. His voice was initially gentle, almost musical.

Janet didn't answer.

The first time he approached her last week, she had responded timidly, nervously, averting her eyes, as excruciatingly respectful of authority as she had been all her lilexcept for that one bloody night outside of Tucson. But she had quickly discovered that he was not what he appeared to be, and that he preferred a monologue to a dialogue.

“Looks like we're in for a little rain,” he said, glancing up at the troubled sky.

Danny had moved against Janet. She put her free arm around him, pulling him even closer. The boy was shivering.

She was shivering, too. She hoped Danny didn't notice.

The dog continued to bare his teeth and growl softly.

Lowering his gaze from the stormy sky to Janet again, the cop spoke in that same lilting voice: "Okay, no more farting around.

Time to have some real fun. So what's going to happen now is...

you've got till dawn. Understand? Huh? At dawn, I'm going to kill you and your boy."

His threat did not surprisejanet. Anyone with authority over her had always been as a god, but always a savage god, never benign. She expected violence, suffering, and imminent death. She would have been surprised only by an exhibition of kindness from someone with power over her, for kindness was infinitely rarer than hatred and cruelty.

In fact, her fear, already nearly paralyzing, might have been made even greater only by that unlikely show of kindn Kindness would have seemed, to her, nothing more than an attempt to mask some unimaginably evil motive.

The cop was still smiling, but his freckled, Irish face was no longer friendly. It was chillier than the coolish air coming off the sea in advance of the storm.

“Did you hear me, you dumb bitch?”

She said nothing.

“Are you thinking that you ought to run, get out of town, maybe go up to L.A. where I can't find you?”

She was thinking something rather like that, either Los Angeles or south to San Diego.

“Yes, please, try to run,” he encouraged. “That'll make it more fun for me. Run, resist. Wherever you go, I'll find you, but it'll be a lot more exciting that way.”

Janet believed him. She had been able to escape her parents, and she had escaped Vince by killing him, but now she had come up against not merely another of the many gods of fear who had ruled her but the God of fear whose powers exceeded understanding.

His eyes were changing, darkening from blue to electric green.