"I speak the Truth," the Prophet Omega said solemnly, hands raised palm outward to the group of kids sitting cross-legged in the sun-drenched glen.
"The Truth," they repeated in unison.
"Search your souls for that which is impure," Omega said. He stole a glance upward as a small shadow passed over them: four more kids arriving, from the direction of Tweenriver and Ridge Harbor. "Replace the impure with the Truth."
"To remember my words is to learn; to learn is to grow; to grow is to rise above Transition. The Truth shall set you free."
"Meditate, all of you, on the Truth."
"The Truth," they repeated one last time and fell silent, their heads bowed.
Omega brought his hands together, checked his watch. He'd timed things well; there would be just enough time to turn the initiates back over to an acolyte and get back to the tabernacle. "Amen," he intoned.
There was a rustling as the kids got to their feet and glanced around, surreptitiously easing the kinks out of their muscles. Omega looked beyond the circle and nodded, and the preteen acolyte standing silently in the shadows came forward. "Heirs of the Truth," she said, her voice causing them to turn. "You have glimpsed the future as it can be, the inner power that can survive even the dark evil of Transition. Now you must show your sincerity, for the deeds of the body mirror the Truth in the soul—"
Omega didn't wait to hear the rest of the spiel but slipped away through the trees to the side of the glen and began working his way back up the small ridge that separated Initiate Grove from the main part of the site. He could trust Camila to do a good job; unlike some of the other senior acolytes, she was genuinely and uncynically sold on the work ethic he preached, and was therefore the best person to sell it to new converts.
He stopped for a moment as he topped the rise, ostensibly adjusting his royal blue robe but actually admiring his handiwork. By anyone's standards it was an impressive sight. Nestled halfway up one of the most majestic peaks in this part of the Tessellate Mountains, the site of the future Temple of Truth was a raw wound in the tree-covered stone. Flitting around it were perhaps two hundred kids, teeking chunks of the stone out of the mountainside and taking it to a dump site two ridges away where it wouldn't mar the natural beauty of the valley below. They were working with a will, digging out the chunks as if their future happiness depended on it. The work ethic is such a useful tool, he thought with satisfaction.
The tabernacle—a large tent divided by internal partitions into various smaller rooms—was set up almost directly beneath the temple site. Omega had ordered it put there as a mark of trust in his Followers' skill with the loose boulders overhead, a little touch that had encouraged them to be careful to catch even the gravel the digging generated. Omega's quarters were in the tabernacle's rear, accessible through either the main part of the tent or a private entrance. Entering via the latter, he quickly changed from his blue robe to a dazzling white one and donned an elaborately embroidered, gilt-edged stole that had once belonged to a genuine priest. Exactly on time, he stepped out into the main meeting room.
A small crowd of kids waited for him there, grouped near the far end under the watchful eyes of two senior acolytes. Omega raised a hand in the Sign of Truth and intoned a few appropriate words of blessing before walking over to the "confessional," two chairs facing each other surrounded by a gauzy curtain.
Senior Acolyte Axel Schu was waiting there for him. "Good afternoon, O Prophet Omega," he said, the slightest twitch of his lip showing how seriously he took the title. "A full quota of confessors for you today, mostly from Ridge Harbor and Barona."
Omega nodded. Saturdays were always like this, as kids who were too far away to come on weekday evenings flocked in by the dozens. Of course, the extra workers were good to have, but having to spend a full three hours in confession was a pain in the butt and usually a waste of time besides. "Fine," he told Axel. Stepping into the gauze booth, he settled himself in the fancier of the two chairs and composed his brain and face for the task ahead.
It wasn't really anything like work, of course—he'd seen to that when he'd set the whole thing up—and the first four confessions went by as smoothly as pur?ed oatmeal. Unlike the standard Catholic confession, Omega's concerned itself less with personal shortcomings and more with the way the world around the confessor either demonstrated or denied the "Truth" he taught. That particular emphasis was always harmless and occasionally netted him a nugget or two of useful information.
Today turned out to be one of those times.
The fifth confessor—a police righthand from Ridge Harbor—had hardly begun when he dropped a small bombshell into his monologue: "...and they think a fagin has kidnapped him."
Jerking his mind back to full attention, Omega quickly replayed his short-term memory. A child taken from a park in broad daylight? Unbelievable... and dangerous. "It is evil to steal children away, to hide them from those who may show them the Truth," he put in solemnly. "Do the police know who is responsible for such a foul act?"
The preteen shook his head. "Detective First Tirrell is still talking to people who knew him."
Tirrell. Great. Omega felt a gentle shiver work its way up his back. Putting Tirrell in charge meant Ridge Harbor was deadly serious about getting this fagin... and he knew from experience how often intense investigations turned up the wrong thing entirely. So far his cult had largely escaped official notice, and it would be the height of unfairness for him to get caught in a net meant for someone else. He would have to find some way to caution his pupils to be extra discreet without having to tell them why it was necessary.
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 preteen 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 preteen'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?"
"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 batling 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.