Lee Chen, who had designed and now operated their electronic data-gathering system, would not arrive in the office until around nine o’clock. Bobby did not want to wait nearly an hour to start putting the computer to work on Frank’s case. He was not a primo hacker, as Lee was, but he knew all the hardware, had the ability to learn new software quickly when he needed to, and was almost as comfortable tracking down information in cyberspace as he was poring through files of age-yellowed newspapers.
Using Lee’s code book, which he removed from a locked desk drawer, Bobby first entered a Social Security Administration data network that contained files to which broad public access was legal. Other files in the same system were restricted and supposedly inaccessible behind walls of security codes required by various right-to-privacy laws.
From the open files, he inquired as to the number of men named Frank Pollard in the Administration’s records, and within seconds the response appeared on the screen: counting variations of Frank, such as Franklin and Frankie and Franco-plus names like Francis, for which Frank might be a diminutive—there were six hundred and nine Frank Pollards in possession of Social Security numbers.
“Bobby,” Frank said anxiously, “does that stuff on the screen make sense to you? Are those words, real words, or jumbled letters?”
“Huh? Of course they’re words.”
“Not to me. They don’t look like anything to me. Gibberish.”
Bobby picked up a copy of Byte magazine that was lying between two of the computers, opened it to an article, and said, “Read that.”
Frank accepted the magazine, stared at it, flipped ahead a couple of pages, then a couple more. His hands began to shake. The magazine rattled in his grip. “I can’t. Jesus, I’ve lost that too. Yesterday, I lost the ability to do math, and now I can’t read any more, and I get more confused, foggy in the head, and I ache in every joint, every muscle. This teleporting’s wearing me down, killing me. I’m falling apart, Bobby, mentally and physically, faster all the time.”
“It’s going to be all right,” Bobby said, though his confidence was largely feigned. He was pretty sure they would get to the bottom of this, would learn who Frank was and where he went at night and how and why; however, he could see that Frank was declining fast, and he would not have bet money that they’d find all the answers while Frank was still alive, sane, and able to benefit from their discoveries. Nevertheless, he put his hand on Frank’s shoulder and gave it a gentle reassuring squeeze. “Hang in there, buddy. Everything’s going to be okay. I really think it is. I really do.”
Frank took a deep breath and nodded.
Turning to the display terminal again, feeling guilty about the lie he’d just told, Bobby said, “You remember how old you are, Frank?”
“You look about thirty-two, thirty-three.”
“I feel older.”
Softly whistling Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll,” Bobby thought a moment, then asked the SSA computer to eliminate those Frank Pollards younger than twenty-eight and older than thirty-eight. That left seventy-two of them.
“Frank, do you think you’ve ever lived anywhere else, or are you a dyed-in-the-wool Californian?”
“I don’t know.”
“Let’s assume you’re a son of the sunshine state.”
He asked the SSA computer to whittle down the remaining Frank Pollards to those who applied for their Social Security numbers while living in California (fifteen), then to those whose current addresses on file were in California (six).
The public-access portion of the Social Security Administration’s data network was forbidden by law to reveal Social Security numbers to casual researchers. Bobby referred to the instructions in Lee Chen’s code book and entered the restricted files through a complicated series of maneuvers that circumvented SSA security.
He was unhappy about breaking the law, but it was a fact of high-tech life that you never got the maximum benefit from your data-gathering system if you played strictly by the rules. Computers were instruments of freedom, and governments were to one degree or another instruments of repression; the two could not always exist in harmony.
He obtained the six numbers and addresses for the Frank Pollards living in California.
“Now what?” Frank wondered.
“Now,” Bobby said, “I use these numbers and addresses to cross reference with the California Department of Motor Vehicles, all of the armed forces, state police, major city police, and other government agencies to get descriptions of these six Frank Pollards. As we learn their height, weight, hair color, color of their eyes, race ... we’ll gradually eliminate them one by one. Better yet, if one of them is you, and if you’ve ever served in the military or been arrested for a crime, we might even be able to turn up a picture of you in one of those files and confirm your identity with a photo match.”
SITTING AT the desk, catercorner from each other, Julie and Hal removed the rubber bands from more than half of the packets of cash. They sorted through the hundred-dollar bills, trying to determine if some of them had consecutive serial numbers that might indicate they were stolen from a bank, savings and loan, or other institution.
Suddenly Hal looked up and said, “Why do those flutelike sounds and drafts precede Frank when he teleports himself?”
“Who knows?” Julie said. “Maybe it’s displaced air following him down some tunnel in another dimension, from the place he left to the place he’s going.”
“I was just thinking.... If this Mr. Blue is real, and if he’s searching for Frank, and if Frank heard those flutes and felt those gusts in that alleyway ... then Mr. Blue is also able to teleport.”
“So Frank’s not unique. Whatever he is, there’s another one like him. Maybe even more than one.”
“Here’s something else to think about,” Julie said. “If Mr. Blue can teleport himself, and if he finds out where Frank is, we won’t be able to defend a hiding place from him. He’ll be able to pop up among us. And what if he arrived with a submachine gun, spraying bullets as he materialized?”
After a moment of silence, Hal said, “You know, gardening has always seemed like a pleasant profession. You need a lawnmower, a weed whacker, a few simple tools. There’s not much overhead, and you hardly ever get shot at.”
BOBBY FOLLOWED Frank into the office, where Julie and Hal were examining the money. Putting a sheet of paper on the desk, he said, “Move over, Sherlock Holmes. The world now has a greater detective.”
Julie angled the page so she and Hal could read it together. It was a laser-printed copy of the information that Frank had filed with the California Department of Motor Vehicles when he had last applied for an extension of his driver’s license.
“The physical statistics match,” she said. “Is your first name really Francis and your middle name Ezekiel?”
Frank nodded. “I didn’t remember until I saw it. But it’s me, all right. Ezekiel.”
Tapping the printout, she said, “This address in El Encanto Heights—does it ring a bell?”
“No. I can’t even tell you where El Encanto is.”
“It’s adjacent to Santa Barbara,” Julie said.
“So Bobby tells me. But I don’t remember being there. Except ...”
Frank went to the window and looked out toward the distant sea, above which the sky was now entirely blue. A few early gulls swooped in arcs so huge and smoothly described that their exuberance was thrilling to watch. Clearly, Frank was neither thrilled by the birds nor charmed by the view.
Finally, still facing the window, he said, “I don’t recall being in El Encanto Heights ... except that every time I hear the name, my stomach sort of sinks, you know, like I’m on a roller coaster that’s just taken a plunge. And when I try to think about El Encanto, strain to remember it, my heart pounds, and my mouth goes dry, and it’s a little harder to get my breath. So I think I must be repressing any memories I have of the place, maybe because something happened to me there, something bad ... something I’m too scared to remember.”
Bobby said, “His driver’s license expired seven years ago, and according to the DMV’s records, he never tried to renew it. In fact, sometime this year he’d have been weeded out of even their dead files, so we were lucky to find this before they expunged it.” He laid two more printouts on the desk. “Move over, Holmes and Sam Spade.”
“Arrest reports. Frank was stopped for traffic violations, once in San Francisco a little more than six years ago. The second time was on Highway 101, north of Ventura, five years ago. He didn’t have a valid driver’s license either time and, because of odd behavior, was taken into custody.”
The photographs that were a part of both arrest records showed a slightly younger, even pudgier man who was without a doubt their current client.
Bobby pushed aside some of the money and sat on the edge of her desk. “He escaped from jail both times, so they’re looking for him even after all these years, though probably not too hard, since he wasn’t arrested for a major crime.”
Frank said, “I draw a blank on that too.”
“Neither report indicates how he escaped,” Bobby said, “but I suspect he didn’t saw his way through the bars or dig a tunnel or whittle a gun out of a bar of soap or use any of the long-accepted, traditional methods of jailbreak. Oh, no, not our Frank.”
“He teleported,” Hal guessed. “Vanished when no one was looking.”
“I’d bet on it,” Bobby agreed. “And after that he began to carry false ID good enough to satisfy any cop who pulled him over.”
Looking at the papers before her, Julie said, “Well, Frank, at least we know this is your real name, and we’ve nailed down a real address for you up there in Santa Barbara County, not just another motel room. We’re beginning to make headway.”
Bobby said, “Move over, Holmes, Spade, and Miss Marple.”
Unable to embrace their optimism, Frank returned to the chair in which he’d been sitting earlier. “Headway. But not enough. And not fast enough.” He leaned forward with his arms on his thighs, hands clasped between his spread knees, and stared morosely at the floor. “Something unpleasant just occurred to me. What if I’m not only making mistakes with my clothes when I reconstitute myself? What if I’ve already begun to make mistakes with my own biology too? Nothing major. Nothing visible. Hundreds or thousands of tiny mistakes on a cellular level. That would explain why I feel so lousy, so tired and sore. And if my brain tissue isn’t coming back together right ... that would explain why I’m confused, fuzzy-headed, unable to read or do math.”
Julie looked at Hal, at Bobby, and knew that both men wanted to allay Frank’s fear but were unable to do so because the scenario that he had outlined was not only possible but likely.
Frank said, “The brass buckle looked perfectly normal until Bobby touched it ... then it turned to dust.”
ALL NIGHT long, when sleep made Thomas’s head empty, ugly dreams filled it up. Dreams of eating small live things. Dreams of drinking blood. Dreams of being the Bad Thing.
He finished sleeping all of a sudden, sitting up in bed, trying to scream but unable to find any sounds in himself. For a while he sat there, shaking, being afraid, breathing so hard and fast his chest ached.
The sun was back, and the night was gone away, and that made him feel better. Getting out of bed, he stepped into his slippers. His pajamas were cold with sweat. He shivered. He pulled on a robe. He went to the window, looked out and up, liking the blue sky very much. Leftover rain made the green lawn look soggy, the sidewalks darker than usual, and the dirt in the flowerbeds almost black, and in the puddles you could see the blue sky again like a face in a mirror. He liked all of that, too, because the whole world looked clean and new after all the rain emptied out of the sky.
He wondered if the Bad Thing was still far away, or closer, but he didn’t reach out to it. Because last night it tried to hold him. Because it was so strong he almost couldn’t get away from it. And because even when he did get away, it tried to follow him. He’d felt it hanging on, coming back across the night with him, and he’d shaken it off real quick like, but maybe next time he wouldn’t be so lucky, and maybe it would come all the way, right into his room with him, not just its mind but the Bad Thing itself. He didn’t understand how that could happen, but somehow he knew it might. And if the Bad Thing came to The Home, being awake would be like being asleep with a nightmare filling up your head. Terrible things would happen, and there would be no hope.
Turning away from the window, starting toward the closed door to the bathroom, Thomas glanced at Derek’s bed and saw Derek dead. He was on his back. His face was bashed, bruised, swollen. His eyes were open big, you could see them shine in the light from the window and the low light from the lamp beside the bed. His mouth was open, too, like he was shouting, but all the sound was out of him like air out of a popped balloon, and he would not have any more sound in him ever again, you could tell. Blood was let out of him, too, lots of it, and a pair of scissors were stuck in his belly, deep in, with not much more than the handles showing, the same scissors Thomas used to clip pictures from magazines for his poems.
He felt a big twist of pain in his heart, like maybe somebody was sticking scissors in him too. But it wasn’t hurt-pain so much as what he called “feel-pain,” because it was losing Derek that he was feeling, not real hurt. It was as bad as real hurt, though, because Derek was his friend, he liked Derek. He was scared, too, because he somehow knew the Bad Thing had let the life out of Derek, the Bad Thing was here at The Home. Then he realized this could happen just the way things sometimes happened in TV stories, with the cops coming and believing that Thomas killed Derek, blaming Thomas, and everyone hating Thomas for what he’d done, but he hadn’t done it, and all the while the Bad Thing was still loose to do more killing, maybe even doing to Julie what it’d done to Derek.
The hurt, the fear for himself, the fear for Julie—all of it was too much. Thomas gripped the footboard of his own bed and closed his eyes and tried to get air into himself. It wouldn’t come. His chest was tight. Then the air came in, and so did an ugly-nasty smell, which in a while he realized was the stink of Derek’s blood, so he gagged and almost puked.
He knew he had to Get Control of Himself. The aides didn’t like it when you Lost Control of Yourself, so they Gave You Something For Your Own Good. He’d never Lost Control before and didn’t want to lose it now.
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