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During the following two weeks the Eel's bruises faded, and the bandage came off his ear to reveal angry red stitches where that flap flesh nearly had been torn off. He continued to keep his distance from Laura. When he served her in the dining hall, he no longer saved the best dessert for her, and he continued to refuse to meet her eyes.

Occasionally, however, she caught him glaring at her from across a room. Each time he quickly turned away, but in his fiery green eyes she now saw something worse than his previous twisted hunger: rage. Obviously he blamed her for the beating he had suffered.

On Friday, October 27, she learned from Mrs. Bowmaine that she was going to be transferred to another foster home the following day. A couple in Newport Beach, Mr. and Mrs. Dockweiler, were new to the foster-child program and eager to have her.

“I'm sure this will be a more compatible arrangement,” Mrs. Bowmaine said, standing at her desk in a blazing yellow floral-print dress that made her look like a sun-porch sofa. “The trouble you caused at the Teagels' better not be repeated with the Dockweilers.”

That night in their room, Laura and the twins tried to put on brave faces and discuss the approaching separation in the equanimous spirit with which they had faced her departure for the Teagels'. But they were closer now than a month ago, so close that Ruth and Thelma had begun to speak of Laura as if she were their sister. Thelma even once had said, “The amazing Ackerson sisters-Ruth, Laura, and moi,” and Laura had felt more wanted, more loved, more alive than at any time in the three months since her father died.

“I love you guys,” Laura said.

Ruth said, “Oh, Laura,” and burst into tears.

Thelma scowled. “You'll be back in no time. These Dockweilers will be horrid people. They'll make you sleep in the garage.”

“I hope so,” Laura said.

“They'll beat you with rubber hoses-”

“That would be good.”

This time the lightning that struck her life was good lightning, or at least that was how it seemed at first.

The Dockweilers lived in a huge house in an expensive section of Newport Beach. Laura had her own bedroom with an ocean view. It was decorated in earth tones, mostly beige.

Showing her the room for the first time, Carl Dockweiler said, “We didn't know what your favorite colors were, so we left it like this, but we can repaint the whole thing, however you want it.” He was fortyish, big as a bear, barrel-chested, with a broad, rubbery face that reminded her of John Wayne if John Wayne had been a bit amusing looking. “Maybe a girl your age wants a pink room.”

“Oh, no, I like it just the way it is!” Laura said. Still in a state of shock over the sudden opulence into which she had been plunged, she moved to the window and looked out at the splendid view of Newport Harbor, where yachts bobbed on sun-spangled water.

Nina Dockweiler joined Laura and put one hand on her shoulder. She was lovely, with smoky coloring, dark hair, and violet eyes, a china doll of a woman. “Laura, the child-welfare file said you loved books, but we didn't know what kind of books, so we're going straight to the bookstore and buy whatever you'd like.”

At Waldenbooks Laura chose five paperbacks, and the Dockweilers urged her to buy more, but she felt guilty about

-pending their money. Carl and Nina scouted the shelves, plucking off volumes and reading cover copy to her, adding them to her pile if she showed the slightest interest. At one point Carl was crawling on his hands and knees in the young-adult section, scanning titles on the bottom shelf-“Hey, here's one about a dog. You like animal stories? Here's a spy story!”-and he was such a comical sight that Laura giggled. By the time they left the store, they'd bought one hundred books, bagsful of books.

Their first dinner together was at a pizza parlor, where Nina exhibited a surprising talent for magic by plucking a pepperoni ring from behind Laura's ear, then making it vanish.

“That's amazing,” Laura said. “Where'd you learn that?”

“I owned an interior design firm, but I had to give it up eight years ago. Health reasons. Too stressful. I wasn't used to sitting at home like a lump, so I did all the things I'd dreamed of when I was a businesswoman with no spare time. Like learning magic.”

“Health reasons?” Laura said.

Security was a treacherous rug that people kept pulling out from under her, and now someone was getting ready to jerk the rug again.

Her fear must have been evident, for Carl Dockweiler said, “Don't worry. Nina was born with a bum heart, a structural defect, but she'll live as long as you or me if she avoids stress.”

“Can't they operate?” Laura asked, putting down the slice of pizza she had just picked up, her appetite having suddenly fled.

“Cardiovascular surgery's advancing rapidly,” Nina said. “In a couple years maybe. But, honey, it's nothing to worry about. I'll take care of myself, especially now I've got a daughter to spoil!”

“More than anything,” Carl said, “we wanted kids, but couldn't have them. By the time we decided to adopt, we discovered Nina's heart condition, so then the adoption agencies wouldn't approve us.”

“But we qualify as foster parents,” Nina said, “so if you like living with us, you can stay forever, just as if you were adopted.” That night in her big bedroom with its view of the sea-now an almost scary, vast expanse of darkness-Laura told herself that she must not like the Dockweilers too much, that Nina's heart condition foreclosed any possibility of real security.

The following day, Sunday, they took her shopping for clothes and would have spent fortunes if she had not finally begged them to stop. With their Mercedes crammed full of her new clothes, they went to a Peter Sellers comedy, and after the movie they had dinner at a hamburger restaurant where the milkshakes were humongous.

Pouring catsup on her french fries, Laura said, “You guys are lucky that child-welfare sent me to you instead of some other kid.”

Carl raised his eyebrows. “Oh?”

“Well, you're nice, too nice-and a lot more vulnerable than you realize. Any kid would see how vulnerable you really are, and a lot would take advantage of you. Mercilessly. But you can relax with me. I'll never take advantage of you or make you sorry you took me in.”

They stared at her in amazement.

At last Carl looked at Nina. “They've tricked us. She's not twelve. They've palmed off a dwarf on us.”

That night in bed, as she waited for sleep, Laura repeated her litany of self-protection: “Don't like them too much, don't like them too much ...” But already she liked them enormously.

The Dockweilers sent her to a private academy where the teachers were more demanding than those in the public schools she had attended, but she relished the challenge and performed well. Slowly she made new friends. She missed Thelma and Ruth, but she took some comfort from knowing they would be pleased that she had found happiness.

She even began to think that she could have faith in the future and could dare to be happy. After all, she had a special guardian, didn't she? Perhaps even a guardian angel. Surely any girl blessed with a guardian angel was destined for love, happiness, and security.

But would a guardian angel actually shoot a man in the head? Beat another man to a bloody pulp? Never mind. She had a handsome guardian, angel or not, and foster parents who loved her, and she could not refuse happiness when it showered on her by the bucketful.

On Tuesday, December 5, Nina had her monthly appointment with her cardiologist, so no one was at home when Laura returned from school that afternoon. She let herself in with her key and put her textbooks on the Louis XIV table in the foyer near the foot of the stairs.

The enormous living room was decorated in shades of cream, peach, and pale green, which made it cozy in spite of its size. As she paused at the windows to enjoy the view, she thought of how much better it would be if Ruth and Thelma could enjoy it with her-and suddenly it seemed the most natural thing that they should be there.

Why not? Carl and Nina loved kids. They had enough love for a houseful of kids, for a thousand kids.

“Shane,” she said aloud, “you're a genius.”

She went to the kitchen and prepared a snack to take to her room. She poured a glass of milk, heated a chocolate croissant in the oven, and got an apple from the refrigerator, as she mulled over the ways in which she might broach the subject of the twins with the Dockweilers. The plan was such a natural that by the time she carried her snack to the swinging door that separated kitchen and dining room and pushed it open with her shoulder, she had been unable to think of a single approach that would fail.

The Eel was waiting in the dining room, and he grabbed her and slammed her up against the wall so hard that he knocked the wind out of her. The apple and chocolate croissant flew off the plate, the plate flew out of her hand, he knocked the glass of milk out of her other hand, and it struck the dining-room table, shattering noisily. He pulled her away from the wall but slammed her into it again, Pain flashed down her back, her vision clouded, she knew she dared not black out, so she held on to consciousness, held on tenaciously though she was racked with pain, breathless, and half concussed.

Where was her guardian? Where?

Sheener shoved his face close to hers, and terror seemed to sharpen her senses, for she was acutely aware of every detail of his rage-wrenched countenance: the still-red suture marks where his torn ear had been reattached to his head, the blackheads in the creases around his nose, the acne scars in his mealy skin. His green eyes were too strange to be human, as alien and fierce as those of a cat.

Her guardian would pull the Eel off her at any second now, pull him off her and kill him. Any second now.

“I got you,” he said, his voice shrill, manic, “now you're mine, honey, and you're gonna tell me who that son of a bitch was, the one who beat on me, I'll blow his head off.”

He was holding her by her upper arms, his fingers digging into her flesh. He lifted her off the floor, raised her to his eye level, and pinned her against the wall. Her feet dangled in the air.

“Who is the bastard?” He was so strong for his size. He lifted her away from the wall, slammed her against it again, keeping her at eye level. “Tell me, honey, or I'll tear your ear off.” Any second now. Any second.

Pain still throbbed through her back, but she was able to draw breath, although what she drew in was his breath, sour and nauseating.

“Answer me, honey.”

She could die waiting for a guardian angel to intervene. She kicked him in the crotch. It was a perfect shot. His legs were planted wide, and he was so unaccustomed to girls who fought back that he never saw it coming. His eyes widened-they actually looked like human eyes for an instant-and he made a low, strangled sound. His hands dropped away from her. Laura collapsed to the floor, and Sheener staggered backward, lost his balance, fell against the dining-room table, folded to his side on the Chinese carpet.

Nearly immobilized by pain, shock, and fear, Laura could not get to her feet. Rag legs. Limp. So crawl. She could crawl. Away from him. Frantically. Toward the dining-room archway. Hoping to be able to stand by the time she reached the living room. He grabbed her left ankle. She tried to kick loose. No good. Rag legs. Sheener held on. Cold fingers. Corpse-cold. He made a thin, shrieking sound. Weird. She put her hand in a milk-soaked patch of carpet. Saw the broken glass. The top of the tumbler had shattered. The heavy base was intact, crowned with sharp spears. Drops of milk clinging to it. Still winded, half paralyzed by pain, the Eel seized her other ankle. Hitched-twitched-dragged himself toward her. He was still shrieking. Like a bird. Going to throw himself on top of her. Pin her. She seized the broken glass. Cut her thumb. Didn't feel a thing. He let go of her ankles to grab at her thighs. She flipped-writhed onto her back. As if she were an eel. Thrust the jagged end of the broken tumbler at him, not intending to stab him, hoping only to ward him off. But he was heaving himself onto her, falling onto her, and the three glass points speared into his throat. He tried to pull away. Twisted the tumbler. The points broke off in his flesh. Choking, gagging, he nailed her to the floor with his body. Blood streamed from his nose. She squirmed. He clawed at her. His knee bore down hard on her hip. His mouth was at her throat. He bit her. Just nipped her skin. He'd get a bigger bite next time if she let him. She thrashed. Breath whistled and rattled in his ruined throat. She slithered free. He grabbed. She kicked. Her legs worked better now. The kick landed solidly. She crawled toward the living room. Gripped the frame of the dining-room archway. Pulled herself to her feet. Glanced back. The Eel was on his feet as well, a dining-room chair raised like a club. He swung it. She dodged. The chair hit the frame of the archway with a thunderous sound. She staggered into the living room, heading for the foyer, the door, escape. He threw the chair. It struck her shoulder. She went down. Rolled. Looked up. He towered over her, seized her left arm. Her strength faded. Darkness pulsed at the edges of her vision. He gripped her other arm. She was finished. Would have been finished, anyway, if the glass in his throat had not finally worked through one more artery. Blood suddenly gushed from his nose. He collapsed atop her, a great and terrible weight, dead.

She could not move, could barely breathe, and had to struggle to hold fast to consciousness. Above the eerie sound of her own strangled sobs, she heard a door open. Footsteps.

“Laura? I'm home.” It was Nina's voice, light and cheery at first, then shrill with horror: “Laura? Oh, my God, Laura!”

Laura strove to push the dead man off her, but she was able to squirm only half free of the corpse, just far enough to see Nina standing in the foyer archway.

For a moment the woman was paralyzed by shock. She stared at her cream and peach and seafoam-green living room, the tasteful decor now liberally accented with crimson smears. Then her violet eyes returned to Laura, and she snapped out of her trance. “Laura, oh, dear God, Laura.” She took three steps forward, halted abruptly, and bent over, hugging herself as if she had been hit in the stomach. She made an odd sound: “Uh, uh, uh, uh, uh.” She tried to straighten up. Her face was contorted. She could not seem to stand erect, and finally she crumpled to the floor and made no sound at all.

It could not happen like this. This wasn't fair, damn it.

New strength, born of panic and of love for Nina, filled Laura. She wriggled free of Sheener and crawled quickly to her foster mother.

Nina was limp. Her beautiful eyes were open, sightless.

Laura put her bloody hand to Nina's neck, feeling for a pulse. She thought she found one. Weak, irregular, but a pulse.