Wednesday, November 21, 2012


by Sean Manseau

June clutched his arm. “Lyle, I don’t think that’s—”

“As they say, Trooper Shepherd, we can do this the easy way, or the hard way.” An ingratiating smile broke across Price’s face, like dawn on a dark plain. “We’d like to meet the boy. Talk with him for a bit. Get a sense of who he is, how his surroundings do or do not accommodate his needs.” His eyes hardened. “But if we leave now, be assured we’ll return with a court warrant, and a police escort. Nicholas will be coming with us then, to stay at Las Cruces Home for Boys until such time as this matter is sorted out…and as you know, the wheels of bureaucracy can turn quite slowly.”

“Sir, that’s not going to happen." Shepherd gave Price his best cop glare, but the words came out strangled. "You are not taking my nephew to that hellhole.”

“He’s upstairs. I’ll get him.” They both turned to look at June. She gazed steadily back at Shepherd, squeezing his hand. “He’ll be fine, Lyle. I’ll explain to him who these people are, and why they want to talk to him. He’s a smart kid. He’ll understand.”

Shepherd said, “You know how imaginative he is. He hears about Las Cruces, it’ll give him nightmares.” But by the time the last words were out of his mouth, he knew—he was hoping—that she was right, that Nicky would grasp what was at stake and play his role convincingly.

“It’ll be fine,” June repeated, and walked into the living room, headed for the stairs. And then she said, “What are you doing to my television set?!”

Shepherd pivoted on his heel to step back into the living room. Dr. Price followed. In the corner next to the fireplace, the console TV had been pulled away from the wall, the back removed, and the gangling kid and the Mohawked girl were kneeling amidst its disassembled innards.

Some of the parts, the vinyl-coated wires, the capacitors, the vacuum tubes, Shepherd recognized from high school electronics class. Other parts, though, he couldn’t place, like an hourglass that seemed to contain a tiny sun burning in each bulb, and a crystalline structure that gave every appearance of breathing. Above these the girl held her little device at different angles. Flashes went off, as if she was taking photos, but Shepherd heard no click of a shutter, and she wasn’t winding film.

The gangling kid grinned at them over his shoulder. “Got some bona fide early-era Nicholas tech here, Cosmo.”

“Lyle?” said June, her hand on the banister.

“Go ahead and get Nicky,” Shepherd told her. “I’ll handle this.” He rubbed the 5 o'clock stubble on his cheek and turned back to Price. "Sir, I'm trying to be cooperative here, but why is my TV being taken apart?"

Price waved a hand at the detritus covering the floor. “Would you mind telling us what that is, Trooper Shepherd?”

“Goddammit, it was my goddamn twenty-seven inch Magnavox," Shep said, and his voice was rising, a bad idea when you're dealing with bureaucrats, but he was beyond caring. "You’d better hope your department has the budget to—”

Somewhere toward the back of the house, a door squealed open and slammed shut. From the kitchen came the sharp report of boot heels on linoleum, a man rasped “Cosmo! Hey, Cosmo! Out in the shed there’s—” and then the door to the dining room swung open, admitting a short, barn beam-shouldered man who stopped dead when he saw Shepherd.

The man’s eyes widened. His nostrils flared. His mouth tried on and discarded surprise, disgust, and trembling rage before settling on a sort of fearsome half-smile. He began to unzip his coveralls, muttering, “Well, I’ll be dicked!” while covering the floor between himself and Shepherd in strides that were nearly a charge. Without time to think, instinct took over. Shepherd dropped into a wrestler’s crouch, bracing for impact, and then the girl with the pink Mohawk was between them, intercepting the short man with her forearms against his barrel chest.

“Duncan! Duncan!” she said, as the man tried to force his way past. “We’ve got a plan, right? In and out and don’t leave a trace, right? We’re on a schedule, remember?”

“What's your problem, man?" Shepherd said. Obviously this Duncan thought he knew him, but nothing about the man’s features—broken nose, blond crew cut, sharply dimpled chin—jogged any recollection. The main thing was that look he had—grunts coming out of the jungle after combat had that look. The thousand yard stare. Shep looked to the CYFD supervisor. "What is this, Price?”

“I apologize, Trooper Shepherd,” Price said, inserting himself into Shep’s line of sight. “Mr. Lawless...appears to have mistaken you for someone else. Isn't that so, Duncan?"

"Yeah," the man mumbled, not turning his eyes from Shepherd's. "Yeah, that must've been it."

"A regrettable misunderstanding," Price said. "Now, please, Trooper Shepherd, answer my question. This device in your television. It's obviously homemade. Potentially dangerous, a fire risk. Can you explain it?”

“I think I’m pretty much done explaining anything to you,” Shep said. The hell with the CYFD and any court order they might obtain. At this point, Shep was angry enough to take to the hills and fight it out. Unconsciously his right hand fell to the butt of his gun. “Except maybe that if you and your people are not out of here in ten seconds, things are going to get ugly.”

Someone cleared their throat loudly. June was on the stairs. “Lyle,” she said, “I’m sure you can show Nicholas that grown-ups settle their problems with their voices, not their fists. Can’t you?”

“Jesus,” said the pink-haired girl under her breath. She was staring up at Nicholas, who was crouched with his face pressed between the banister rails to stare back.

Glancing around, Shep saw all the CYFD workers were looking at Nicholas with something close to awe. All except the man Lawless. Shepherd returned his glare, thinking this was the strangest damned crew of social workers he’d ever heard of.

But staredown or no, Shepherd knew he had to calm his temper. June was right. If they played nice with the CYFD people, answered their questions politely, there was still a chance Shep could get Nicholas into the system, and secure the boy's place in their lives.

“As far as the TV goes,” June said, leading the boy by the hand into the living room, “Nicholas likes to tinker. We’re considering home schooling him, so he can apply for early admission to MIT or Cal Tech. I think he could be a famous inventor. The Thomas Edison of the 21st century, maybe.”

“I don’t want to be an inventor, though.” Nicholas hadn’t grown any taller in the six months since he’d come to live with them, although he’d put on about ten pounds from June’s cooking. He was wearing his favorite t-shirt, the one with the iron-on of the Eagle shuttle from “Space: 1999”, and green Toughskins that were worn at their reinforced knees. Under his arm he held a cardboard portfolio. “Not all the time, anyway.”

“No?” asked Price, his voice unsteady. “What else would you like to do?”

“Make comics!” Nicholas said. He brandished the portfolio before him. “Wanna see?”

Shepherd groaned inwardly. The kid wasn’t going to show them the books, was he? Price perched at the edge of the love seat and patted the coffee table. “I would love to see, Nicholas.”

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Archive of Stories
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