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Authors: Timothy Zahn

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BOOK: Coming of Age
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The rest of the righthand's confession was routine and uninteresting, and Omega listened with half an ear until he had finished. “You must strive to maintain the Truth within yourself,” he said as the pre-teen bowed his head for the cult's version of absolution. “And as the Truth requires you to work for your own growth, it also requires you to seek out those who are in need of the Truth's power; those who fear for their future.” He paused and then deviated slightly from the usual script. “And he who must now be fearing the most is the child, Colin Brimmer. You must seek to learn all you can of the case and bring such knowledge to me. Together, the Truth within us will deliver him.”

“Yes, O Prophet,” the other said. Bowing deeply, he left the confessional.

After all,
Omega thought as he watched the pre-teen's indistinct figure heading for the door,
every potential danger is also a potential opportunity.
If he could locate this fagin before the police did, the other's kids would likely have been well drilled in obedience and discipline—prime candidates for conversion to his cult.

And if the fagin turned out to be a newcomer to the game and Colin his first recruit? Omega smiled grimly. In that case his best bet would probably be to blow the whistle and get the case closed before any of the heat spilled over onto him. Such a thing was normally unthinkable, but Omega had no sympathy for a fagin who was so brazenly obvious in his acquisitions. And such an amateur would probably have no way of retaliating against him, anyway.

The next confessor was outside the booth now. “Enter,” Omega said.

“Oh, yes, I remember her very well,” Tasha Chen said, peering at the copy of the hospital record sheet Tirrell had handed her. “Miribel Oriana. Had her baby all alone—no husband or friend in for support. Had a boy, didn't she?—oh, yes, there it is. Three point-two kilos—yes, I remember him being small.” She gave the paper back to the detective. “What do you want to know about her?”

“Everything you can remember, Mrs. Chen,” Tirrell said. “We're especially interested in any visitors she may have had while she was in the hospital, anyone who may have asked about her, or any names she may have mentioned.”

“Whumph!” The woman made a face. “That's all, is it? You don't want shoe size or favorite hobbies, too?”

Tirrell smiled politely; the comment might have been humorous if he hadn't heard a hundred variants of it in the past week and a half. “I know; after five years it's pretty hard to remember details about a patient you had for two days. But it's very important that you try.”

Mrs. Chen's eyes narrowed, suddenly thoughtful. “Does this have anything to do with the kidnapping down in Ridge Harbor two weeks ago?”

“Miribel Oriana's son was the one taken,” Tirrell said, ignoring Tonio's startled look. The police weren't releasing that information to the public, but Tirrell had had enough experience with people of Mrs. Chen's type to know that beating around the bush would be a waste of time.

“I see.” The thoughtful look remained. “Well, as it happens, Detective, I
do
remember a visitor Ms. Oriana had the morning after the baby was born. He went in and talked to her for a few minutes and then just walked straight out without stopping to chat with any of us who were on duty.”

“Any idea what they talked about?”

“No, but I remember she seemed upset when I went in afterwards. She nearly snapped my head off over something completely trivial.”

Tirrell made a note. “You have a good memory,” he told her.

She colored slightly. “As I said, she was a rather unusual case.”

“True. Do you remember anything of the man's appearance?”

Not a thing. Sorry.”

“Any idea as to his relationship with her—friend, relative, husband?”

“None whatsoever.”

“Did you ever see either Ms. Oriana or the man again?”

“Not that I remember. Of course, I was only at the hospital another few months before coming here and setting up my clinic. I haven't been back to Ridge Harbor more than a dozen times since then. Perhaps one of the other nurses could help you, or Dr. Kruse—”

“We've already talked to all of them,” Tirrell interrupted, closing his notebook and standing up. “Thank you for your time, Mrs. Chen, and if anything else should occur to you, please call me. The number's on the card I gave you.”

“Of course. Good luck, Detective; I hope you catch this man.”

“Well, that was as pleasant a way as any to waste an hour or two,” Tonio commented when they were once again driving along the coastal road that joined Cavendish and Ridge Harbor. “Is that the whole list, then?”

“Of the hospital people, yes,” Tirrell said, inhaling deeply of the salt-laden air coming through the car windows. Having spent the first half of his life in the mining town of Plat City, he hadn't yet acquired the native coastlander's indifference to the smell of sea air. “And don't knock Mrs. Chen's contributions—her story meshes very neatly with everything else we've got on Miribel's mysterious visitor.”

Tonio shrugged. “Which is not a whole lot. Average height and build, nothing remarkable in appearance, and stayed just long enough to have an argument.”

“Which is an interesting point all in itself,” Tirrell said. “If he was interested enough to visit her in the hospital, why didn't he at least take an extra minute to go see the baby in the nursery?”

“Um … okay, why?”

“My first-blush guess is that he didn't want to be seen by any more people than necessary, which automatically suggests he had something to hide.”

“If he's our fagin, hanging around nurseries would be a dangerous thing for him to do at any time,” Tonio suggested. “If the staff suspected he was picking out future prospects, they'd have the police on him in nothing flat.”

“True. But with Miribel's collusion he'd have had a perfectly reasonable excuse to do so in this case,” Tirrell said, scratching his chin. “That may be a strike against him having anything to do with our fagin.” He stared through the windshield, keeping the car on the road by pure reflex, as he tried to get all the facts to jell into something that would hold water. Dimly, he realized Tonio was talking to him. “Sorry—what'd you say?”

“I said we're back to start again,” the righthand said with the tone of exaggerated patience preteens often seemed to use when they felt they were being unjustly ignored. “Or have you changed your mind about one of the hospital people being involved?”

“No, not unless one of the background checks turns up something.” Tirrell shook his head. “Tonio, this just doesn't make any sense. Look. The kidnapper—Oliver—almost certainly knew Colin's birthday. If we rule out the hospital staff and various records keepers, we're left with Colin's mother, her hospital visitor, and someone close to the Brimmers as Oliver's possible informant. Most of the Brimmers' friends are above suspicion, and Ms. Oriana might as well have fallen off the planet on her way out of the hospital for all the traces we can find of her. That leaves her visitor, and we both agree the brevity of his walk-on appearance is at least mildly suspicious. But if he
is
Oliver or Oliver's informant, why didn't he at least case the nursery while he had the chance? Even worse, if he was Colin's father, why didn't he petition for custody of the child sometime in the past five years? He probably could have gotten him and dispensed with the kidnapping entirely.”

“But then how would the fagin have gotten him?” Tonio asked.

“Dad could have handed Colin over to Oliver and disappeared somewhere,” Tirrell shrugged. “Or they could have set up a fake kidnapping that would have been just as plausible and infinitely safer than the real thing. But even if we can somehow hammer all of
that
into a reasonable theory, we're still stuck with your old question: why would a fagin bother with a child as small as Colin in the first place?”

Tirrell ran out of words and shut up, and for a long moment they drove in silence. Ahead, the road branched twice, and Tirrell kept his attention on the red-and-yellow striped markers that indicated Ridge Harbor. A wrong turn would wind them up in a farm cluster somewhere instead; hardly fatal, but certainly embarrassing. “I suppose it doesn't help to assume there's no fagin involved at all, and that Colin's father simply decided he wanted his son back?” Tonio suggested hesitantly.

“If you do, you also have to assume the father is crazy,” Tirrell said. “The average adult can't discipline a kid with teekay—why do you think the hive system was set up in the first place?”

“Then I give up,” Tonio said, with a touch of exasperation. “Maybe he is crazy—then all of it could make sense.”

“Maybe. But I doubt it.” He glanced sideways at the preteen. “You ever been to Barona, partner?”

Tonio frowned at him. “Yeah, we went to see the university there once. Why?”

“Because that's where we're going next. Colin's mother was from Barona, his father was probably likewise, and the kidnapper was almost certainly not a Ridge Harbor resident—all those Saturday visits, remember?”

“Okay, but why go to Barona ourselves? The police there can handle that part of it better than we can.”

“Maybe,” Tirrell grunted, “maybe not. Besides, there's not much left for us to do here. We'll check with Alverez as soon as we get back and see if he can wangle us a temporary transfer.”

Tonio shrugged. “You're the boss. I just hope it won't be a complete waste of time.”

Tirrell smiled grimly. “Somehow, I don't think there's much chance of that.”

Across the room Sheelah was sitting in front of the wardrobe mirror, amusing herself by rearranging her hair into a completely outrageous and elaborate mass that wouldn't have lasted half a second without teekay support. Lying on her bed, Lisa watched her roommate with an absorption that owed less to real interest than to simple fatigue. “I like that one,” she told Sheelah as the other's hair drifted into a confused-looking bubble surrounding her head. “You can call it the Frolova Light-Socket Special.”

Sheelah made a face in the mirror and teeked a pair of dirty socks in Lisa's direction. “If I were you, I wouldn't make any cracks about personal appearance,” she said. “That bailing nest of yours looks like it hasn't been brushed in a week.”

“I just brushed it this morning, when you were in the bathroom,” Lisa objected mildly.

“Well, it doesn't look like it.” Swiveling around, Sheelah gave Lisa's head a closer scrutiny. “I'm not kidding, Lisa. If you don't get to work on that mess, some of those snarls may have to be cut out.” She glanced over at Lisa's dresser, teeked the hairbrush lying there over to land on the bed. “Get busy; I want to see some improvement by the time I get back from my shower.”

“Yes,
Senior
Sheelah,” Lisa said dryly, levering herself up on one elbow.

“Never mind the sarcasm—just brush.” Slipping on her robe, Sheelah teeked a towel to her opened hand and left the room.

Sighing, Lisa sat up and began to run the brush through her hair. It
was
a mess, she realized, wincing as a particularly large tangle tried to take a piece of scalp out with it. Normally, she took at least passing interest in her appearance … but these days there were more important things on her mind.

She glanced at the closed door, then reached under her pillow for the flat object hidden there. Sheelah wouldn't be back for at least fifteen minutes, and there was no sense in wasting the privacy. Opening the book Daryl had given her, she turned past the last section they'd worked through together.
The man is walking,
she read, sounding the words out carefully.
The man is ca
—
cahri
—carrying—
the man is carrying a
—she studied the picture with a frown.
Box? Box, probably.

Slowly, she worked her way down the page as, unnoticed, the hand holding her hairbrush came to a quiet halt.

Chapter 9

T
HE SECRETARY IN THE
university's Physiology Department was rather young and quite attractive, with a set to her jaw that Tirrell took as evidence of an uphill battle to prove she was competent as well as decorative. Tirrell himself had no doubts on that score; she'd looked at his badge without batting an eye, informed her boss of his unexpected visitor, and calmly gotten on the phone to do a little appointment juggling. Watching her covertly as he and Tonio took seats near her desk, Tirrell fantasized stealing her away to Ridge Harbor for a few weeks to straighten out the paperwork mess down at customs.

The inner office door opened and a balding man strode briskly out. “Detective Tirrell? I'm Dr. Ramsden—head of the department. Won't you come in?”

“You've got a clear half hour, Dr. Ramsden,” the secretary murmured as Tirrell and Tonio stepped past her. “I can get you more if you need it.”

“Thank you, Meri,” Ramsden said and closed the door. “Won't you sit down?”

Tirrell settled into the single chair in front of Ramsden's desk; Tonio teeked a second over from under the window and joined him. “Dr. Ramsden, this is Tonio, my righthand,” Tirrell said when the scientist was back in his own chair. “We're investigating the Colin Brimmer kidnapping in Ridge Harbor last month.”

Ramsden nodded. “Yes, I heard about that. A real tragedy. How may I help you?”

Tirrell pulled out his well-worn artist's drawings and pushed them across the desk. “We're looking for a man who may look something like one of these. Do they strike any bells?”

Ramsden's eyes shifted between the drawings. “Not really. Are they all supposed to be the same man?”

“Yes. He was wearing a wig and false beard at the time, unfortunately, which is why the hair and facial shape vary so much. They're our artist's best guesses.”

BOOK: Coming of Age
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