Hatch became aware of a softer scraping between each of the hard sounds.
Thud! Sccccuuuurrrr … Thud! Sccccuuuurrrr …
As the sounds grew nearer, their effect rapidly increased, until Hatch's mind was filled with images from a hundred old horror films: the-thing-from-out-of-the-lagoon hitching crablike toward its prey; the-thing-from-out-of-the-crypt shuffling along a graveyard path under a gibbous moon; the-thing-from-another-world propelling itself on God-knows-what sort of arachnoid-reptilian-horned feet.
The windows seemed to rattle.
Or was that his imagination?
A shiver went up his spine.
He looked around at the alarmed attorney, the head-shaking priest, the wide-eyed younger priest, the two pale nuns, then quickly back at the half-open door, wondering just exactly what sort of disability this child had been born with, half expecting a startlingly tall and twisted figure to appear with a surprising resemblance to Charles Laughton in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and a grin full of fangs, whereupon Sister Immaculata would turn to him and say, You see, Mr. Harrison, Regina came under the care of the good sisters at Saint Thomas's not from ordinary parents but from a laboratory where the scientists are doing some really interesting genetic research.…
A shadow tilted across the threshold.
Hatch realized that Lindsey's grip on his hand had become downright painful. And his palm was damp with sweat.
The weird sounds stopped. A hush of expectation had fallen over the room.
Slowly the door to the hall was pushed all the way open.
Regina took a single step inside. She dragged her right leg as if it were a dead weight: sccccuuuurrrr. Then she slammed it down: THUD!
She stopped to look around at everyone. Challengingly.
Hatch found it difficult to believe that she had been the source of all that ominous noise. She was small for a ten-year-old girl, a bit shorter and more slender than the average kid her age. Her freckles, pert nose, and beautiful deep-auburn hair thoroughly disqualified her for the role of the-thing-from-the-lagoon or any other shudder-making creature, although there was something in her solemn gray eyes that Hatch did not expect to see in the eyes of a child. An adult awareness. A heightened perceptivity. But for those eyes and an aura of iron determination, the girl seemed fragile, almost frighteningly delicate and vulnerable.
Hatch was reminded of an exquisite 18th-century Mandarin-pattern Chinese-export porcelain bowl currently for sale in his Laguna Beach shop. It rang as sweetly as any bell when pinged with one finger, raising the expectation that it would shatter into thousands of pieces if struck hard or dropped. But when you studied the bowl as it stood on an acrylic display base, the hand-painted temple and garden scenes portrayed on its sides and the floral designs on its inner rim were of such high quality and possessed such power that you became acutely aware of the piece's age, the weight of the history behind it. And you were soon convinced, in spite of its appearance, that it would bounce when dropped, cracking whatever surface it struck but sustaining not even a small chip itself.
Aware that the moment was hers and hers alone, Regina hitched toward the sofa where Hatch and Lindsey waited, making less noise as she limped off the hardwood floor onto the antique Persian carpet. She was wearing a white blouse, a Kelly-green skirt that fell two inches above her knees, green kneesocks, black shoes—and on her right leg a metal brace that extended from the ankle to above the knee and looked like a medieval torture device. Her limp was so pronounced that she rocked from side to side at the h*ps with each step, as if in danger of toppling over.
Sister Immaculata rose from her armchair, scowling at Regina in disapproval. “Exactly what is the reason for these theatrics, young lady?”
Ignoring the true meaning of the nun's question, the girl said, “I'm sorry I'm so late, Sister. But some days it's harder for me than others.” Before the nun could respond, the girl turned to Hatch and Lindsey, who had stopped holding hands and had risen from the sofa. “Hi, I'm Regina. I'm a cripple.”
She reached out in greeting. Hatch reached out, too, before he realized that her right arm and hand were not well formed. The arm was almost normal, just a little thinner than her left, until it got to the wrist, where the bones took an odd twist. Instead of a full hand, she possessed just two fingers and the stub of a thumb that all seemed to have limited flexibility. Shaking hands with the girl felt strange—distinctly strange—but not unpleasant.
Her gray eyes were fixed intently on his eyes. Trying to read his reaction. He knew at once that it would be impossible ever to conceal true feelings from her, and he was relieved that he had not been in the least repelled by her deformity.
“I'm so happy to meet you, Regina,” he said. “I'm Hatch Harrison, and this is my wife, Lindsey.”
The girl turned to Lindsey and shook hands with her, as well, saying, “Well, I know I'm a disappointment. You child-starved women usually prefer babies young enough to cuddle—”
The Nun with No Name gasped in shock. “Regina, really!”
Sister Immaculata looked too apoplectic to speak, like a penguin that had frozen solid, mouth agape and eyes bulging in protest, hit by an arctic chill too cold even for Antarctic birds to survive.
Approaching from the windows, Father Jiminez said, “Mr. and Mrs. Harrison, I apologize for—”
“No need to apologize for anything,” Lindsey said quickly, evidently sensing, as Hatch did, that the girl was testing them and that to have any hope of passing the test, they must not let themselves be co-opted into an adults-against-the-kid division of sympathies.
Regina hopped-squirmed-wriggled into the second armchair, and Hatch was fairly certain she was making herself appear a lot more awkward than she really was.
The Nun with No Name gently touched Sister Immaculata on the shoulder, and the older nun eased back into her chair, still with the frozen-penguin look. The two priests brought the client chairs from in front of the attorney's desk, and the younger nun pulled up a side chair from a corner, so they could all join the group. Hatch realized he was the only one still standing. He sat on the sofa beside Lindsey again.
Now that everyone had arrived, Salvatore Gujilio insisted on serving refreshments—Pepsi, ginger ale, or Perrier—which he did without calling for the assistance of his secretary, fetching everything from a wet bar discreetly tucked into one mahogany-paneled corner of the genteel office. As the attorney bustled about, quiet and quick in spite of his immensity, never crashing into a piece of furniture or knocking over a vase, never coming even close to obliterating one of the two Tiffany lamps with hand-blown trumpet-flower shades, Hatch realized that the big man was no longer an overpowering figure, no longer the inevitable center of attention: he could not compete with the girl, who was probably less than one-fourth his size.
“Well,” Regina said to Hatch and Lindsey, as she accepted a glass of Pepsi from Gujilio, holding it in her left hand, the good one, “you came here to learn all about me, so I guess I should tell you about myself. First thing, of course, is that I'm a cripple.” She tilted her head and looked at them quizzically. “Did you know I was a cripple?”
“We do now,” Lindsey said.
“But I mean before you came.”
“We knew you had—some sort of problem,” Hatch said.
“Mutant genes,” Regina said.
Father Jiminez let out a heavy sigh.
Sister Immaculata seemed about to say something, glanced at Hatch and Lindsey, then decided to remain silent.
“My parents were dope fiends,” the girl said.
“Regina!” The Nun with No Name protested. “You don't know that for sure, you don't know any such a thing.”
“Well, but it figures,” the girl said. “For at least twenty years now, illegal drugs have been the cause of most birth defects. Did you know that? I read it in a book. I read a lot. I'm book crazy. I don't want to say I'm a bookworm. That sounds icky—don't you think? But if I were a worm, I'd rather be curled up in a book than in any apple. It's good for a crippled kid to like books, because they won't let you do the things ordinary people do, even if you're pretty sure you can do them, so books are like having a whole other life. I like adventure stories where they go to the north pole or Mars or New York or somewhere. I like good mysteries, too, most anything by Agatha Christie, but I especially like stories about animals, and most especially about talking animals like in The Wind in the Willows. I had a talking animal once. It was just a goldfish, and of course it was really me not the fish who talked, because I read this book on ventriloquism and learned to throw my voice, which is neat. So I'd sit across the room and throw my voice into the goldfish bowl.” She began to talk squeakily, without moving her lips, and the voice seemed to come out of The Nun with No Name: “Hi, my name's Binky the Fish, and if you try to put me in a sandwich and eat me, I'll shit on the mayonnaise.” She returned to her normal voice and talked right over the flurry of reactions from the religiosities around her. “There you have another problem with cripples like me. We tend to be smart-mouthed sometimes because we know nobody has the guts to whack us on the ass.”
Sister Immaculata looked as if she might have the guts, but in fact all she did was mumble something about no TV privileges for a week.
Hatch, who had found the nun as frightening as a pterodactyl when he'd first met her, was not impressed by her glower now, even though it was so intense that he registered it with his peripheral vision. He could not take his eyes off the girl.
Regina went blithely on without pause: “Besides being smart-mouthed sometimes, what you should know about me is, I'm so clumsy, hitching around like Long John Silver—now there was a good book—that I'll probably break everything of value in your house. Never meaning to, of course. It'll be a regular destruction derby. Do you have the patience for that? I'd hate to be beaten senseless and locked in the attic just because I'm a poor crippled girl who can't always control herself. This leg doesn't look so bad, really, and if I keep exercising it, I think it's going to turn out pretty enough, but I don't really have much strength in it, and I don't feel too damned much in it, either.” She balled up her deformed right hand and smacked it so hard against the thigh of her right leg that she startled Gujilio, who was trying to convey a ginger ale into the hand of the younger priest, who was staring at the girl as if mesmerized. She smacked herself again, so hard that Hatch winced, and she said, “You see? Dead meat. Speaking of meat, I'm also a fussy eater. I simply can't stomach dead meat. Oh, I don't mean I eat live animals. What I am is, I'm a vegetarian, which makes things harder for you, even supposing you didn't mind that I'm not a cuddly baby you can dress up cute. My only virtue is that I'm very bright, practically a genius. But even that's a drawback as far as some people are concerned. I'm smart beyond my years, so I don't act much like a child—”
“You're certainly acting like one now,” Sister Immaculata said, and seemed pleased at getting in that zinger.
But Regina ignored it: “—and what you want, after all, is a child, a precious and ignorant blob, so you can show her the world, have the fun of watching her learn and blossom, whereas I have already done a lot of my blossoming. Intellectual blossoming, that is. I still don't have boobs. I'm also bored by TV, which means I wouldn't be able to join in a jolly family evening around the tube, and I'm allergic to cats in case you've got one, and I'm opinionated, which some people find infuriating in a ten-year-old girl.” She paused, sipped her Pepsi, and smiled at them. “There. I think that pretty much covers it.”
“She's never like this,” Father Jiminez mumbled, more to himself or to God than to Hatch and Lindsey. He tossed back half of his Perrier as if chugging hard liquor.
Hatch turned to Lindsey. Her eyes were a little glazed. She didn't seem to know what to say, so he returned his attention to the girl. “I suppose it's only fair if I tell you something about us.”
Putting aside her drink and starting to get up, Sister Immaculata said, “Really, Mr. Harrison, you don't have to put yourself through—”
Politely waving the nun back into her seat, Hatch said, “No, no. It's all right. Regina's a little nervous—”
“Not particularly,” Regina said.
“Of course, you are,” Hatch said.
“No, I'm not.”
“A little nervous,” Hatch insisted, “just as Lindsey and I are. It's okay.” He smiled at the girl as winningly as he could. “Well, let's see … I've had a lifelong interest in antiques, an affection for things that endure and have real character about them, and I have my own antique shop with two employees. That's how I earn my living. I don't like television much myself or—”
“What kind of a name is Hatch?” the girl interrupted. She giggled as if to imply that it was too funny to be the name of anyone except, perhaps, a talking goldfish.
“My full first name is Hatchford.”
“It's still funny.”
“Blame my mother,” Hatch said. “She always thought my dad was going to make a lot of money and move us up in society, and she thought Hatchford sounded like a really upper-crust name: Hatchford Benjamin Harrison. The only thing that would've made it a better name in her mind was if it was Hatchford Benjamin Rockefeller.”
“Did he?” the girl asked.
“Who he, did what?”
“Did your father make a lot of money?”
Hatch winked broadly at Lindsey and said, “Looks like we have a gold digger on our hands.”
“If you were rich,” the girl said, “of course, that would be a consideration.”
Sister Immaculata let a hiss of air escape between her teeth, and The Nun with No Name leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes with an expression of resignation. Father Jiminez got up and, waving Gujilio away, went to the wet bar to get something stronger than Perrier, Pepsi, or ginger ale. Because neither Hatch nor Lindsey seemed obviously offended by the girl's behavior, none of the others felt authorized to terminate the interview or even further reprimand the child.
“I'm afraid we're not rich,” Hatch told her. “Comfortable, yes. We don't want for anything. But we don't drive a Rolls-Royce, and we don't wear caviar pajamas.”
A flicker of genuine amusement crossed the girl's face, but she quickly suppressed it. She looked at Lindsey and said, “What about you?”