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Seventy-six children resided at the McIlroy Home, all twelve or younger; upon turning thirteen, they were transferred to Caswell Hall in Anaheim. Since the oak-paneled dining hall would hold only forty, meals were served in two shifts. Laura was on the second shift, as were the Ackerson twins.

Standing in the cafeteria line between Thelma and Ruth on her first morning at the shelter, Laura saw that Willy Sheener was one of the four attendants serving from behind the counter. He monitored the milk supply and dispensed sweet rolls with a pair of tongs.

As Laura moved along the line, the Eel spent more time looking at her than at the kids he was serving.

“Don't let him intimidate you,” Thelma whispered.

Laura tried to meet Sheener's gaze-and his challenge-boldly. But she was the one who always broke the staring match.

When she reached his station, he said, “Good morning, Laura,” and put a sweet roll on her tray, a particular pastry he had saved for her. It was twice as large as the others, with more cherries and icing.

On Thursday, Laura's third full day at the shelter, she endured a how-are-we-adjusting meeting with Mrs. Bowmaine in the social worker's first-floor office. Etta Bowmaine was stout, with an unflattering wardrobe of flower-print dresses. She spoke in cliches and platitudes with that gushy insincerity that Thelma had imitated perfectly, and she asked a lot of questions to which she actually did not want honest answers. Laura lied about how happy she was at McIlroy, and the lies pleased Mrs. Bowmaine enormously.

Returning to her room on the third floor, Laura encountered the Eel on the north stairs. She turned at the second landing, and he was on the next flight, wiping the oak handrail with a rag. An unopened bottle of furniture polish stood on the step below him.

She froze, and her heart began to pound double time, for she knew he had been lying in wait for her. He'd have known about her summons to Mrs. Bowmaine's office and would have counted on her using the nearest stairs to return to her room.

They were alone. At any time another child or staff member might come along, but for the moment they were alone.

Her first impulse was to retreat and use the south stairs, but she remembered what Thelma had said about standing up to the Eel and about how his type preyed only on weaklings. She told herself that the best thing to do was walk past him without saying a word, but her feet seemed to have been nailed to the step; she could not move.

Looking down at her from half a flight up, the Eel smiled. It was a horrible smile: His skin was white, and his lips were colorless, but his crooked teeth were as yellow and mottled with brownish spots as the skin of a ripe banana. Under his unruly copper-red hair, his face resembled a clown's countenance-not the kind of clown you'd see in a circus but the kind you might run into on Halloween night, the kind that might carry a chainsaw instead of a seltzer bottle.

“You're a very pretty little girl, Laura.”

She tried to tell him to go to hell. She couldn't speak.

“I'd like to be your friend,” he said.

Somehow she found the strength to start up the steps toward him.

He smiled even more broadly, perhaps because he thought she was responding to his offer of friendship. He reached into a pocket of his khaki pants and withdrew a couple of Tootsie Rolls.

Laura recalled Thelma's comical assessment of the Eel's stupidly unimaginative gambits, and suddenly he did not look as scary to her as he had before. Offering Tootsie Rolls, leering at her, Sheener was a ridiculous figure, a caricature of evil, and she would have laughed at him if she had not known what he had done to Tammy and other girls. Though she could not quite laugh, the Eel's ludicrous appearance and manner gave her the courage to move swiftly around him.

When he realized she was not going to take the candy or respond to his offer of friendship, he put a hand on her shoulder to stop her.

She angrily took hold of his hand and threw it off. “Don't you ever touch me, you geek.”

She hurried up the stairs, struggling against a desire to run. If she ran he would know that her fear of him had not been entirely banished. He must see absolutely no weakness in her, for weakness would encourage him to continue harassing her.

By the time she was only two steps from the next landing, she allowed herself to hope that she had won, that her toughness had impressed him. Then she heard the unmistakable sound of a zipper. Behind her, in a loud whisper he said, “Hey, Laura, look at this. Look at what I have for you.” There was a demented, hateful tone in his voice. “Look, look at what's in my hand now, Laura.”

She did not glance back.

She reached the landing and started up the next flight, thinking: There's no reason to run; you don't dare run, don't run, don't run.

From one flight below, the Eel said, “Look at the big Tootsie Roll I have in my hand now, Laura. It's lots bigger than those others.”

On the third floor Laura hurried directly to the bathroom where she vigorously scrubbed her hands. She felt filthy after taking hold of Sheener's hand in order to remove it from her shoulder.

Later, when she and the Ackerson twins convened their nightly powwow on the floor of their room, Thelma howled with laughter when she heard about the Eel wanting Laura to look at his “big Tootsie Roll.” She said, “He's priceless, isn't he? Where do you think he gets these lines of his? Does Doubleday publish the Perverts' Book of Classic Come-ons or something?”

“The point is,” Ruth said worriedly, “he wasn't turned off when Laura stood up to him. I don't think he's going to give up on her as quickly as he gives up on other girls who resist him.”

That night Laura had difficulty sleeping. She thought about her special guardian, and she wondered if he would appear as miraculously as before and if he would deal with Willy Sheener. Somehow she didn't think she could count on him this time.

During the following ten days, as August waned, the Eel shadowed Laura as reliably as the moon shadowed the earth. When she and the Ackerson twins went to the game room to play cards or Monopoly, Sheener arrived within ten minutes and set to work ostensibly washing windows or polishing furniture or repairing a drapery rod, though in fact his attention was primarily focused on Laura. If the girls sought refuge in a corner of the playground behind the mansion, either to talk or play a game of their own devising, Sheener entered the yard shortly thereafter, having suddenly found shrubbery that had to be pruned or fertilized. And although the third floor was for girls only, it was open to male staff members for the purpose of maintenance between ten in the morning and four in the afternoon on weekdays, so Laura could not escape to her room during those hours with any degree of safety.

Worse than the Eel's diligence was the frightening rate at which his dark passion for her grew, a sick need revealed by the steadily increasing intensity of his gaze and the sour sweat that burst from him when he was in the same room with her for more than a few minutes.

Laura, Ruth, and Thelma tried to convince themselves that the threat from the Eel lessened with every day he did not act, that his hesitation revealed his awareness of Laura as unsuitable prey. At heart they knew they were hoping to slay the dragon with a wish, but they were unable to face the full extent of the danger till a Saturday afternoon late in August, when they returned to their room and found Tammy destroying Laura's book collection in a fit of twisted jealousy.

The library of fifty paperbacks-her favorite books, which she had brought with her from the apartment above the grocery-were kept under Laura's bed. Tammy had brought them out into the middle of the room and in a hateful frenzy had ripped apart two-thirds of them.

Laura was too shocked to act, but Ruth and Thelma pulled the girl away from the books and restrained her.

Because those were her favorite books, because her father bought them for her and they were therefore a link to him, but most of all because she owned so little, Laura was pained by the destruction. Her possessions were so meager, of no value, but she suddenly realized that they formed ramparts against the worst cruelties of life.

Tammy lost interest in the books now that the true object of her rage stood before her. “I hate you, I hate you!” Her pale, drawn face was alive for the first time since Laura had known her, flushed and contorted with emotion. The bruiselike circles around her eyes hadn't vanished, but they no longer made her appear weak or broken; instead she looked wild, savage. “I hate you, Laura, I hate you!”

“Tammy, honey,” Thelma said, struggling to hold on to the girl, “Laura's never done anything to you.”

Breathing hard but no longer thrashing to break free of Ruth and Thelma, Tammy shrieked at Laura: “You're all he talks about, he isn't interested in me any more, just you, he can't stop talking about you, I hate you, why did you have to come here, I hate you!”

No one had to ask her to whom she was referring. The Eel.

“He doesn't want me any more, nobody wants me now, he only wants me so I can help him get to you. Laura, Laura, Laura. He wants me to trick you into a place where he can get you alone, where it'll be safe for him, but I won't do it, I won't! 'Cause then what would I have once he's got you? Nothing.” Her face was a furious red. Worse than her rage was the awful desperation that lay behind it.

Laura ran out of the room, down the long hall into the lavatory. Sick with disgust and fear, she fell to her knees on the cracked yellow tiles before one of the toilets and threw up. Once her stomach was purged she went to one of the sinks, rinsed her mouth repeatedly, then splashed cold water on her face. When she raised her head and looked in the mirror, the tears came at last.

It was not her own loneliness or fear that brought her to tears. She was crying for Tammy. The world was an unthinkably mean place if it would allow a ten-year-old girl's life to be devalued to such an extent that the only words of approval she ever heard from an adult were those spoken by the demented man who abused her, that the only possession in which she could take pride was the underdeveloped sexual aspect of her own thin, prepubescent body.

Laura realized that Tammy's situation was infinitely worse than her own. Even stripped of her books, Laura had good memories of a loving, kind, gentle father, which Tammy did not. If what few things she owned were taken from her, Laura would still be whole of mind, but Tammy was psychologically damaged, perhaps beyond repair.

Sheener lived in a bungalow on a quiet street in Santa Ana. It was one of those neighborhoods built after World War II: small, neat houses with interesting architectural details. In this summer of 1967, the various types of ficus trees had reached maturity, spreading their limbs protectively over the homes; Sheener's place was further cloaked by overgrown shrubbery-azaleas, eugenias, and red-flowering hibiscus.

Near midnight, using a plastic loid, Stefan popped the lock on the back door and let himself into the house. As he inspected the bungalow, he boldly turned on lights and did not bother to draw the drapes at the windows.

The kitchen was immaculate. The blue Formica counters glistened. The chrome handles on the appliances, the faucet in the sink, and the metal frames of the kitchen chairs all gleamed, unmarred by a single fingerprint.

He opened the refrigerator, not sure what he expected to find there. Perhaps an indication of Willy Sheener's abnormal psychology; a former victim of his molestations, murdered and frozen to preserve the memories of twisted passion? Nothing that dramatic. However, the man's fetish for neatness was obvious: All the food was stored in matching Tupperware containers.

Otherwise, the only thing odd about the contents of both the refrigerator and cupboards was the preponderance of sweets: ice cream, cookies, cakes, candies, pies, doughnuts, even animal crackers. There were a great many novelty foods, too, like Spaghetti-Os and cans of vegetable soup in which the noodles were shaped like popular cartoon characters. Sheener's larder looked as if it had been stocked by a child with a checkbook but no adult 3 supervision.

Stefan moved deeper into the house.

The confrontation over the shredded books was sufficient to drain what little spirit Tammy possessed. She said no more about Sheener and seemed no longer to harbor any animosity toward Laura. Retreating further into herself day by day, she averted her eyes from everyone, hung her head lower; her voice grew softer.

Laura wasn't sure which was less tolerable-the constant threat posed by the White Eel or watching Tammy's already wispy personality fading further as she slid toward a state hardly more active than catatonia. But on Thursday, August 31, those two burdens were lifted unexpectedly from Laura's shoulders when she learned that she would be transferred to a foster home in Costa Mesa the following day, Friday.

However, she regretted leaving the Ackersons. Though she'd known them only a few weeks, friendships forged in extremity solidified faster and felt more enduring than those made in more ordinary times.

That night, as the three of them sat on the floor of their room, Thelma said, “Shane, if you wind up with a good family, a happy home, just settle down snug and enjoy. If you're in a good place, forget us, make new friends, get on with your life. But the legendary Ackerson sisters-Ruth and moi-have been through the foster-family mill, three bad ones, so let me assure you that if you wind up in a rotten place, you don't have to stay there.”

Ruth said, “Just weep a lot and let everyone know how unhappy you are. If you can't weep, pretend to.”

“Sulk,” Thelma advised. "Be clumsy. Accidentally break a dish each time you've got to wash them. Make a nuisance of yourself.''

Laura was surprised. “You did all that to get back into McIlroy?”

“That and more,” Ruth said.

“But didn't you feel terrible-breaking their things?”

“It was harder for Ruth than me,” Thelma said. “I've got the devil in me, while Ruth is the reincarnation of an obscure, treacly, fourteenth-century nun whose name we've not yet ascertained.”

Within one day Laura knew she did not want to remain in the care of the Teagel family, but she tried to make it work because at first she thought their company was preferable to returning to McIlroy.

Real life was just a misty backdrop to Flora Teagel, for whom only crossword puzzles were of interest. She spent days and evenings at the table in her yellow kitchen, wrapped in a cardigan regardless of the weather, working through books of crossword puzzles one after another with a dedication both astonishing and idiotic.

She usually spoke to Laura only to give her lists of chores and to seek help with knotty crossword clues. As Laura stood at the sink, washing dishes, Flora might say, “What's a seven-letter word for cat?”

Laura's answer was always the same: “I don't know.”