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Laura tried to speak but could not. She edged backward until she came up against the wall beside her bed.

He stood with his arms at his sides, motionless, hands fisted. The McIlroy Home was not air conditioned. The bedroom windows were open, but the place was tropically hot. Yet Laura had not been sweating until she turned and saw Sheener. Now her T-shirt was damp.

Outside, children at play shouted and laughed. They were nearby, but they sounded far away.

The hard, rhythmic rasp of Sheener's breathing seemed to grow louder, gradually drowning out the voices of the children.

For a long time neither of them moved or spoke. Then abruptly he turned and walked away.

Weak-kneed, sweat-soaked, Laura moved to her bed and sat on the edge of it. The mushy mattress sagged, and the springs creaked.

As her thudding heartbeat deaccelerated, she surveyed the gray-walled room and despaired of her circumstances. In the four corners were narrow, iron-framed beds with tattered chenille spreads and lumpy pillows. Each bed had a battered, Formica-topped nightstand, and on each was a metal reading lamp. The scarred dresser had eight drawers, two of which were hers. There were two closets, and she was allotted half of one. The ancient curtains were faded, stained; they hung limp and greasy from rust-spotted rods. The entire house was moldering and haunted; the air had a vaguely unpleasant odor; and Willy Sheener roamed the rooms and halls as if he were a malevolent spirit waiting for the full moon and the blood games attendant thereon.

That night after dinner the Ackerson twins closed the door to the room and encouraged Laura to join them on the threadbare maroon carpet where they could sit in a circle and share secrets.

Their other roomie-a strange, quiet, frail blonde named Tammy-had no interest in joining them. Propped up by pillows, she sat in bed and read a book, nibbling her nails continuously, mouselike.

Laura liked Thelma and Ruth Ackerson immediately. Having just turned twelve, they were only months younger than Laura and were wise for their age. They had been orphaned when they were nine and had lived at the shelter for almost three years. Finding adoptive parents for children their age was difficult, especially for twins who were determined not to be split up.

Not pretty girls, they were astonishingly identical in their plainness: lusterless brown hair, myopic brown eyes, broad faces, blunt chins, wide mouths. Although lacking in good looks, they were abundantly intelligent, energetic, and good-natured.

Ruth was wearing blue pajamas with dark green piping on the cuffs and collar, blue slippers; her hair was tied in a ponytail. Thelma wore raspberry-red pajamas and furry yellow slippers, each with two buttons painted to represent eyes, and her hair was unfettered. With darkfall the insufferable heat of the day had passed. They were less than ten miles from the Pacific, so the night breezes made comfortable sleep possible. Now, with the windows open, currents of mild air stirred the aged curtains and circulated through the room.

“Summer's a bore here,” Ruth told Laura as they sat in a circle on the floor. “We're not allowed off the property, and it's just not big enough. And in the summer all the do-gooders are busy with their own vacations, their own trips to the beach, so they forget about us.”

“Christmas is great, though,” Thelma said.

“All of November and December are great,” Ruth said.

“Yeah,” Thelma said. “Holidays are fine because the do-gooders start feeling guilty about having so much when we poor, drab, homeless waifs have to wear newspaper coats, cardboard shoes, and eat last year's gruel. So they send us baskets of goodies, take us on shopping sprees and to the movies, though never the good movies.”

“Oh, I like some of them,” Ruth said.

' 'The kind of movies where no one ever, ever gets blown up. And never any feelies. They'll never take us to a movie in which some guy puts his hand on a girl's boob. Family films. Dull, dull, dull."

“You'll have to forgive my sister,” Ruth told Laura. “She thinks she's on the trembling edge of puberty-”

“I am on the trembling edge of puberty! I feel my sap rising!” Thelma said, thrusting one thin arm into the air above her head.

Ruth said, “The lack of parental guidance has taken a toll on her, I'm afraid. She hasn't adapted well to being an orphan.”

“You'll have to forgive my sister,” Thelma said. “She's decided to skip puberty and go directly from childhood to senility.”

Laura said, “What about Willy Sheener?”

The Ackerson twins glanced knowingly at each other and spoke with such synchronization that not a fraction of a second was lost between their statements: “Oh, a disturbed man,” Ruth said, and Thelma said, “He's scum,” and Ruth said, “He needs therapy,” and Thelma said, “No, what he needs is a hit over the head with a baseball bat maybe a dozen times, maybe two dozen, then locked away for the rest of his life.”

Laura told them about encountering Sheener in her doorway.

“He didn't say anything?” Ruth asked. “That's creepy. Usually he says 'You're a very pretty little girl' or-”

“-he offers you candy.” Thelma grimaced. “Can you imagine? Candy? How trite! It's as if he learned to be a scumbag by reading those booklets the police hand out to warn kids about perverts.”

“No candy,” Laura said, shivering as she remembered Sheener's sun-silvered eyes and heavy, rhythmic breathing.

Thelma leaned forward, lowering her voice to a stage whisper. “Sounds like the White Eel was tongue-tied, too hot even to think of his usual lines. Maybe he has a special lech for you, Laura.”

“White Eel?”

“That's Sheener,” Ruth said. “Or just the Eel for short.”

“Pale and slick as he is,” Thelma said, “the name fits. I'll bet the Eel has a special lech for you. I mean, kid, you are a knockout.”

“Not me,” Laura said.

“Are you kidding?” Ruth said. “That dark hair, those big eyes.”

Laura blushed and started to protest, and Thelma said, “Listen, Shane, the Dazzling Ackerson Duo-Ruth and moi-cannot abide false modesty any more than we can tolerate bragging. We're straight-from-the-shoulder types. We know what our strengths are, and we're proud of them. God knows, neither of us will win the Miss America contest, but we're intelligent, very intelligent, and we're not reluctant to admit to brains. And you are gorgeous, so stop being coy.”

“My sister is sometimes too blunt and too colorful in the way she expresses herself,” Ruth said apologetically.

“And my sister,” Thelma told Laura, “is trying out for the part of Melanie in Gone With the Wind.'' She put on a thick Southern accent and spoke with exaggerated sympathy: ”Oh, Scarlett doesn't mean any harm. Scarlett's a lovely girl, really she is. Rhett is so lovely at heart, too, and even the Yankees are lovely, even those who sacked Tara, burned our crops, and made boots out of the skin of our babies."

Laura began to giggle halfway through Thelma's performance.

“So drop the modest maiden act, Shane! You're gorgeous.”

“Okay, okay. I know I'm . . . pretty.”

“Kiddo, when the White Eel saw you, a fuse blew in his brain.”

“Yes,” Ruth agreed, “you stunned him. That's why he couldn't even think to peach in his pocket for the candy he always carries.”

“Candy!” Thelma said. “Little bags of M&Ms, Tootsie Rolls!”

“Laura, be real careful,” Ruth warned. “He's a sick man-”

“He's a geek!” Thelma said. “A sewer rat!”

From the far corner of the room, Tammy said softly, “He's not as bad as you say.”

The blond girl was so quiet, so thin and colorless, so adept at fading into the background that Laura had forgotten her. Now she saw that Tammy had put her book aside and was sitting up in bed; she had drawn her bony knees against her chest and wrapped her arms around her legs. She was ten, two years younger than her roommates, small for her age. In a white nightgown and socks Tammy looked more like an apparition than like a real person.

“He wouldn't hurt anyone,” Tammy said hesitantly, tremulously, as though stating her opinion about Sheener-about anything, anyone-was like walking on a tightrope without a net.

“He would hurt someone if he could get away with it,” Ruth said.

“He's just . . .” Tammy bit her lip. “He's . . . lonely.”

“No, honey,” Thelma said, “he's not lonely. He's so much in love with himself that he'll never be lonely.”

Tammy looked away from them. She got up, slipped her feet into floppy slippers, and mumbled, “Almost bedtime.” She took her toiletry kit from her nightstand and shuffled out of the room, closing the door behind her, heading for one of the baths at the end of the hall.

“She takes the candy,” Ruth explained.

An icy wave of revulsion washed through Laura. “Ah, no.”

“Yes,” Thelma said. “Not because she wants the candy. She's . . . messed up. She needs the kind of approval she gets from the Eel.”

“But why?” Laura asked.

Ruth and Thelma exchanged another of their looks, through which they seemed to debate an issue and reach a decision in a second or two, without words. Sighing, Ruth said, “Well, see, Tammy needs that kind of approval because . . . her father taught her to need it.”

Laura was jolted. ''Her own father?''

“Not all the kids at McIlroy are orphans,” Thelma said. “Some are here because their parents committed crimes and went to jail. And others were abused by their folks physically or . . . sexually.”

The freshening air coming through the open windows was probably only a degree or two colder than when they had sat down in a circle on the floor, but it seemed to Laura like a chilly late-autumn wind that had mysteriously leaped the months and infiltrated the August night. Laura said, “But Tammy doesn't really like it?” “No, I don't think she does,” Ruth said. “But she's-” “-compelled,” Thelma said, “can't help herself. Twisted.” They were all silent, thinking the unthinkable, and finally Laura said, “Strange and ... so sad. Can't we stop it? Can't we tell Mrs. Bowmaine or one of the other social workers about Sheener?” “It wouldn't do any good,” Thelma said. “The Eel would deny it, and Tammy would deny it, too, and we don't have any proof.” “But if she's not the only kid he's abused, one of the others-” Ruth shook her head. “Most have gone to foster homes, adoptive parents, or back to their own families. Those two or three still here . . . well, they're either like Tammy, or they're just scared to death of the Eel, too scared ever to rat on him.”

“Besides,” Thelma said, “the adults don't want to know, don't want to deal with it. Bad publicity for the home. And it makes them look stupid to have this going on under their noses. Besides, who can believe children?” Thelma imitated Mrs. Bowmaine, catching the note of phoniness so perfectly that Laura recognized it at once: “Oh, my dear, they're horrible, lying little creatures. Noisy, rambunctious, bothersome little beasts, capable of destroying Mr. Sheener's fine reputation for the fun of it. If only they could be drugged, hung on wall hooks, and fed intravenously, how much more efficient that system would be, my dear-and really so much better for them, too.”

“Then the Eel would be cleared,” Ruth said, “and he'd come back to work, and he'd find ways to make us pay for speaking against him. It happened that way before with another perv who used to work here, a guy we called Ferret Fogel. Poor Denny Jenkins ...”

“Denny ratted on Ferret Fogel; he told Bowmaine the Ferret molested him and two other boys. Fogel was suspended. But the two other boys wouldn't support Denny's story. They were afraid of the Ferret . . . but they also had this sick need for his approval. When Bowmaine and her staff interrogated Denny-”

“They hammered at him,” Ruth said angrily, “with trick questions, trying to trip him up. He got confused, contradicted himself, so they said he was making it all up.”

“And Fogel came back to work,” Thelma said.

“He bided his time,” Ruth said, “and then he found ways to make Denny miserable. He tormented the boy relentlessly until one day . . . Denny just started screaming and couldn't stop. The doctor had to give him a shot, and then they took him away. Emotionally disturbed, they said.” She was on the brink of tears. “We never saw him again.”

Thelma put one hand on her sister's shoulder. To Laura, she said, “Ruth was fond of Denny. He was a nice boy. Small, shy, sweet ... he never had a chance. That's why you've got to be tough with the White Eel. You can't let him see that you're afraid of him. If he tries anything, scream. And kick him in the crotch.”

Tammy returned from the bathroom. She did not look at them but stepped out of her slippers and got under the covers.

Although Laura was repulsed by the thought of Tammy submitting to Sheener, she regarded the frail blonde with less disgust than sympathy. No sight could be more pitiful than that small, lonely, defeated girl lying on her narrow, sagging bed.

That night Laura dreamed of Sheener. He had his own human head, but his body was that of a white eel, and wherever Laura ran, Sheener slithered after her, wriggling under closed doors and other obstacles.

Sickened by what he'd just seen, Stefan returned from the institute's main lab to his third-floor office. He sat at his desk with his head in his hands, shaking with horror and anger and fear.

That red-haired bastard, Willy Sheener, was going to rape Laura repeatedly, beat her half to death, and leave her so traumatized that she would never recover. That was not just a possibility; it would come to pass if Stefan did not move to prevent it. He had seen the aftermath: Laura's bruised face, broken mouth. Her eyes had been the worst of it, so flat looking and half-dead, the eyes of a child who no longer had the capacity for joy or hope.

Cold rain tapped on the office windows, and that hollow sound seemed to reverberate within him, as if the terrible things he had seen had left him burnt out, an empty shell.

He had saved Laura from the junkie in her father's grocery, but here was another pedophile already. One of the things he had learned from the experiments in the institute was that reshaping fate was not always easy. Destiny struggled to reassert the pattern that was meant to be. Perhaps being molested and psychologically destroyed was such an immutable part of Laura's fate that Stefan could not prevent it from happening sooner or later. Perhaps he could not save her from Willy Sheener, or perhaps if he thwarted Sheener, another rap**t would enter the girl's life. But he had to try. Those half-dead, joyless eyes . . .