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Income and stability. I stared at Cynthia's throat. In this hot weather, when everybody else was trying to wear as little as they could without getting arrested, Cynthia had on a pink-checked blouse with the collar pinned closed. I remembered hearing her say, at some point, that she was cool-blooded by nature.

"How soon would this have to happen?" I asked.

"It will take two or three weeks for the paperwork to get to a place where it's going to get noticed. After that, someone from Child Protection and Placement will be in touch with you."

The pin at her throat was an ivory and flesh-colored cameo that looked antique. As Turtle and I were leaving I asked if it was something that had come down through her family.

Cynthia fingered the cameo and laughed. "I found it in the one-dollar bin at the Salvation Army."

"Figures," I said.

Lou Ann had a fit. I had never seen her so mad. The veins on her forehead stood out and her face turned pink, all the way up to her scalp.

"Who in the hell do those people think they are? That they have the right to take her out of a perfectly good home and put her in some creepy orphanage where they probably make them sleep on burlap bags and feed them pig slop!"

"I don't think it's quite that bad," I said.

"I can't believe you," she said.

But I was ready to give in. "What else can I do? How can I fight the law?" I asked her. "What am I going to do, get a gun and hold Turtle hostage in here while the cops circle the house?"

"Taylor, don't. Just don't. You're acting like it's a lost cause, and that I'm telling you to do something stupid. All I'm saying is, there's got to be some way around them taking her, and you're not even trying to think of it."

"Why should I, Lou Ann? Why should I think Turtle's better off with me than in a state home? At least there they know how to take care of kids. They won't let anything happen to her."

"Well, that's sure a chickenshit thing to say."

"Maybe it is."

She stared at me. "I cannot believe you're just ready to roll over and play dead about this, Taylor. I thought I knew you. I thought we were best friends, but now I don't hardly know who in the heck you are."

I told her that I didn't know either, but that didn't satisfy Lou Ann in the slightest.

"Do you know," she told me, "in high school there was this girl, Bonita Jankenhorn, that I thought was the smartest and the gutsiest person that ever walked. In English when we had to work these special crossword puzzles about Silas Marner and I don't know what all, the rest of us would start to try out different words and then erase everything over and over again, but Bonita worked hers with an ink pen. She was that sure of herself, she'd just screw off the cap and start going. The first time it happened, the teacher started to tell her off and Bonita said, 'Miss Myers, if I turn in a poor assignment then you'll have every right to punish me, but not until then.' Can you even imagine? We all thought that girl was made out of gristle.

"But when I met you, that day you first came over here, I thought to myself, 'Bonita Jankenhorn, roll over. This one is worth half a dozen of you, packed up in a box and gift-wrapped.' "

"I guess you were wrong," I said.

"I was not wrong! You really were like that. Where in the world did it all go to?"

"Same place as your meteor shower," I said. I hadn't intended to hurt Lou Ann's feelings, but I did. She let me be for a while after that.

But only for a while. Then she started up again. Really, I don't think the argument stopped for weeks, it would just take a breather from time to time. Although it wasn't an argument, strictly speaking. I couldn't really disagree with Lou Ann-what Cynthia and the so-called Child Protectors wanted to do was wrong. But I didn't know what was right. I just kept saying how this world was a terrible place to try and bring up a child in. And Lou Ann kept saying, For God's sake, what other world have we got?

Mattie had her own kettle of fish to worry about. She hadn't been able to work out a way to get Esperanza and Estevan out of Tucson, much less all the way to a sanctuary church in some other state. Apparently several people had offered, but each time it didn't work out. Terry the doctor had made plans to drive them to San Francisco, where they would meet up with another group going to Seattle. But because of his new job on the Indian reservation the government liked to keep track of his comings and goings. Mattie always said she trusted her nose. "If I don't like the smell of something," she said, "then it's not worth the risk."