Authors: Robert K. Tanenbaum
ROBERT K. TANENBAUM
ACT OF REVENGE
To those most special,
Rachael, Roger, Billy, and Patti
and in memory of our friend,
Homicide Detective Don Baeszler
IN AND OUT, WAS HIS THOUGHT AS HE stood in the dusty storeroom of the Asia Mall. The targets would be
, and I'll be
, and the Vietnamese guy would come in through the rear entrance, off of Howard Street, down that little hallway, and do it. Then the Vietnamese guy would leave the way he came in, and I'll walk out through the store. The man strolled back and forth, pacing off the distances, humming softly. He was a slight Chinese man in a cheap blue suit and a white nylon short-sleeved shirt buttoned to the top. On his feet he wore twelve-dollar Kinney loafers over white cotton socks. Nobody would have looked twice at him on any street in Chinatown, which was one of the things he now counted on. Walking out through the mall, through the throngs of Asian people buying cheap clothes, household items, and fabrics, and out into Canal Street. No one would ever have seen him with the men from Hong Kong.
A rattle announced a stock clerk coming in from the store with a hand truck. The man in the blue suit stayed where he was, and the stock clerk looked right through him, hoisted a carton of woks onto his truck, and departed. The stock clerk had seen the man any number of times, on the street or in the mall talking to the boss, and he had also never seen him before in his life, depending on who was asking.
After the stock clerk left, the man clapped his hands hard, three times, as they do before a shrine to frighten the demons who tend to lurk by shrines, and listened carefully after each clap. This section of the stockroom was composed largely of ceiling-high shelves made of steel pipes, rough planks, and chicken wire, stuffed plump with pillows and beanbag chairs, making effective baffles for loud, sharp sounds. It was likely that no one in the mall would hear anything out of the ordinary. Smiling a vague and modest smile, the man in the blue suit came out of the storeroom. He asked the girl at the front counter for a pack of Salems, and she gave it to him. She did not ask him for any money, nor did he offer any. She was another of the very many people who did not recall ever seeing this man while doing him various favors. He walked out onto Canal Street, crowded with shoppers on this sunny Friday in early June, crowded by American standards, near empty by the standards the man had grown up with in China. This afternoon, in the back room of the Asia Mall, he would complete a plan five years in the making, a tower of mahjong tiles that required the delicate placing of a last exquisitely balanced piece to hold it together. With that last ivory click, his life would change.
The man walked down Canal toward Lafayette, smoking, his mind calm. He knew he was good at this, that his plan was sound and would bring forth the results he desired. Of course, the men from Hong Kong might not come at all, but that could not be helped. Everything else had been considered and accounted for, and it all would have worked exactly as planned, except for the little girl. And who could have imagined such a girl?
The girl, at about that moment, was up at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons getting her head examined. Dr. Morris Shadkin, a small, youngish, plump man with a friendly pop-eyed look and unfashionable black sideburns, was doing the examining. The girl said, in an exaggerated nervous voice, “Okay, doc, don't beat around the bush. Am I . . . am I . . . going to make it?”
Shadkin looked up from the sonogram strips he was studying and adopted a grave mien. “I'm afraid not, Lucy,” he intoned in a good replication of the voice used by the elderly scientists in fifties monster movies. “I'm afraid your brain will have to be removed for further study. I'm sorry.”
“Oh, no problem, doc,” said the girl. “Could I say good-bye to my dollies first?”
He laughed. “Yes, but be quick about it! This is big science. What do you think of this?” He handed her a couple of sonogram strips stapled together. “Check out 102 and 102b.”
The girl looked at the patterns. “They look the same,” she said.
“Yeah. Those are phoneme prints corrected for pitch and timbre. One of them is a native Cantonese speaker, and the other is you.”
“So I speak perfect Cantonese. We knew that already.”
“Hey, who's the doctor here? Now look at these, wise guy.”
“What's this, the Russian?”
“Yeah, which you don't speak at all. Look at the sequence down the page.” He pointed with a pencil. “This is the tape, this is you. See: rough at first, but you got a learning curve like a rocket, kid. Down there on the bottom it's nearly a perfect match.”
“Oh, yes, I'm this big prodigy,” said Lucy in affected boredom, “but will it bring me true happiness?”
Shadkin twiddled an imaginary cigar and bounced his eyebrows Groucho-like.
“Stick with me, kid, you'll be wearing diamonds. Want to see the EEG results?”
“From the thing with the green shower cap and the wires?”
“Yo, that.” He tapped with the pencil at various places on a life-size plaster model of a human brain. “You seem to have an unusually active Wernicke's area. That's the chunk of brain we think is responsible for comprehension of language. Same with Heschl's gyri, which is right here. Now, we're no longer strict localizers, that is, we no longer think that there's a little smidgen of brain meat with âcar' on it and another with âsassafras,' but it's pretty clear there are, even at this gross level, some differences between your EEG output and those of ordinary mortals. It's hard to explain right now. It's not a simple bilingualism. But as I understand it, you've always been bilingual in Cantonese.”
“As far back as I can remember.”
“This was a child-care workerâthe one who taught you?”
“Sort of. It's a little more complicated. My mother dumped me on the Chen family starting at about six weeks. She's very career-oriented, my mother.”
“And why did the Chen family take you in? I bet that's an interesting story.”
She shrugged. “One of my mother's heroic deeds. She was running the rape and sex crimes unit at the D.A. Mrs. Chen's younger sister came over from China, and she was in the country about ten days when some guys snatched her off the street and gang-raped her. The next day she jumped in front of a train.”
“Yeah. Chinese people don't like to mess with the cops, and the Chens didn't tell anybody about the rape, or even report it. But my mother figured it for a rape and found the guys and put them away. It was a big case.”
“How did she . . . ?”
“The vic had bite marks on her,” said Lucy shortly. She changed the subject. “So my brain is different, huh?”
Shadkin took the hint and picked up a sheaf of EEG printouts, and began to point out what the various peaks and flats meant about the busy neurons beneath the electrodes. After a bit, the girl found out more than she wanted to know. It was good that Shadkin treated her like an adult, but there were limits to her interest in neurophysiology, even that of her own brain. Her attention wandered as he went on summarizing what was known about the neural substrate of language formation (not a hell of a lot, apparently) and the importance of studying someone who had preserved so late in life something close to the language-absorptive capacities of very young children.
Her gaze drifted around the small office, a typical academic's rat holeâpapers and journals piled on every available surface, strips of EEG and sonogram paper hanging from the ceiling, odd bits of handmade machinery, posters from drug companies on the walls, along with diplomas and framed awards.
“Are you married or anything?” she asked abruptly, catching him in the middle of a trip down the Fissure of Rolando.
He said, “No, I'm not. Why do you ask?”
“Just nosy. How come? Are you, like, gay?”
“Nope. I guess I was just waiting for someone like you to come along.”
She rolled her eyes and blushed charmingly. “You know, you could get arrested for stuff like that,” she said primly.
“Hey, I can wait. Listen, it'll be great. After I describe your brain and make you famous and win the Nobel prize, you can push me around in a wheelchair for twenty years. Trust me, you'll love it.”
At that point the phone rang. Shadkin picked it up and said, “Hello. Yeah, it went great. Yeah, we're just about finished for today. Uh-huh. Yeah, here she is.”
He handed the receiver across the desk. “Your mom.”
While Lucy spoke on the phone, Shadkin took the opportunity to study his electroencephalograms, but his eyes kept sliding over to study the girl. This was their first session, and already he was making plans to write up a major grant, with her as its chief object of study. Ronnie Chau, his post-doc, had found her; apparently she was quite a figure in Chinatown, where a lot of Chau's relatives still lived. Even from the scant data he had already, he could see that she was a true linguistic prodigy, possibly the rarest quirk of which the human brain was capable, far rarer than math whizzes or plain vanilla geniuses. It really seemed as though in Lucy Karp's head the hard-wired apparatus that enables babies to learn their native tongues, and which switches off in most people at about age five, had stayed on. She claimed that she had learned French in a couple of weeks and, from what Shadkin had already heard, she was perfectly fluent.
The talent seemed to have affected the rest of her personality, too. Shadkin liked children and, as a student of the development of language, he naturally had much to do with them. He could tell that there was something odd about Lucy Karp, fascinating-odd, not annoying-odd. The body language: straight in the chair, hands folded and still on her lap, none of the extravagant slumps, tics, and gestures normally associated with American kids. Her look was direct, remarkably so, as if she had contrived to let a thirty-year-old woman peer out from her twelve-year-old eyes. Funny eyes, too, the color of cigarette tobacco and set slightly aslant in the face, richly lashed above prominent cheekbones. But aside from those eyes and the good cheekbones, an unlovely child, unnaturally thin and dull of complexion, with a nose and mouth too large for the pointed little face. Not what he would have called a cute girl in his own dimly recalled adolescence, no, nothing cute about Lucy Karp. There was also a certain air of neglect about her. She wore baggy black cotton trousers, cheap black high-top Asian sneakers, a red T-shirt with Chinese characters in white on the front, and a worn black velvet vest over it, covered on the front with ragged embroidery. Her hair, which was dark, neck-length, thick and curly, and not terribly clean, was parted severely in the middle and drawn back over her broad forehead by two barrettes, green plastic alligators, a little remnant of childhood there, Shadkin thought, and thought further, this kid has something negative going with the mom. Lucy was answering whatever her mother had to say in tense monosyllables, and a sharp, deep line had appeared between her brows. Another short volley of uh-huhs and yes, moms, and she hung up the phone, looking pinched around the nostrils.
“A problem?” Shadkin asked.
Her expression resumed its neutrality. “Oh, not really. She's involved in a case and can't come to pick me up. She wants me to take a cab home.”
“Do you have cab fare? I'd be glad toâ”
“No, thank you, I have enough,” she replied quickly. “So, what now? Do you want to examine me some more?”
“Oh, yeah. In fact, I was just thinking about writing a grant, just for you. How would that be? A couple, three times a week? I mean, you'd have to check with your parents . . .”
“They won't mind. Is there folding money involved?”
Shadkin let out a startled laugh. “For you? Yeah, I guess. What did you have in mind?”
“How about twenty-five an hour? Plus expenses.”
He whistled. “That's pretty steep for a kid.”
“A unique kid. You said it.” She looked at him coolly.
I wonder where she learned that look, he thought, and then he agreed, and they shook hands. Her grip was firm and strangely hot. A metabolism like a vole, he thought. No wonder she can't put on any weight.
She said good-bye and left. Shadkin let out a long breath, laughed, and sang “Sank heav-ahn for leetle gurrls . . .” and the rest of the verse in the same stupid accent. Then he rummaged out a lined pad and a pen from the clutter and began the process of asking the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for an enormous shitload of cash.
Lucy Karp had no intention of taking a cab, although a slow cab caught in midtown traffic was going to be part of the cover story. Instead she slipped into the subway at 168th Street and took the A train downtown. She would pocket the cab fare, of course. Money had lately become more significant. She was assembling a trove, for what purpose she could not quite articulate, but it had something to do with her mother, with breaking away. At some level, ofÂ course, she understood that she was twelve, thatÂ she was not, in fact, going to light out for the territory anytime soon, even that her lot was not in the least comparable to that of kids with serious problems, but still there was that itch to have a little secret pile. Shadkin's money, which would remain a private matter to the extent possible, would make a nice addition.
When the train came roaring in, she boarded the first car and settled herself in the corner seat across from the motorman's booth. She amused herself by memorizing the appearances of the other people in the car, closing her eyes and describing them to herself, then checking to see if she'd got it right. She was pretty good at it by now. She had learned it a year or so ago from a middle-aged Vietnamese gentleman with an interesting past, an employee of her mother's. It was an art useful if one is liable to be followed by people of evil intent. Lucy had not to her knowledge ever been so followed, but given her mother's activities, it was not excessively paranoid to think that she might one day be on some psychopath's list.
At 125th Street the first wave of rush hour boarded the car, ending her game, and she took a worn yellow-covered paperback book from her backpack. One of her great disappointments had been the discovery that facility in learning to speak foreign languages did not mean that she could automatically read them as easily. She had to learn to read French and Chinese and Arabic with sweat, just as little French and Chinese and Arab children did. Most pedagogues would not have started a young girl off with
Claudine Ã l'Ã©cole
, Colette's racy account of sexual silliness at a girls' school circa 1890, but Lucy had rifled it from her mother's bookshelf, attracted by the title, and had thereafter fallen under its spell. The book had immediately become her favorite, alongside
, for it supplied the girl-specific material in which the Kipling novel was lamentably void. Lucy had consigned
Catcher in the Rye
, her favorite of the previous year, to the closet bottom; compared to Claudine and Kim, Holden was a gormless dickhead. The problem was how to combine the two into a model for life. It was rather easier to imagine a turbaned, filthy Claudine slipping through the alleys of Lahore, speaking all the languages of the bazaar, the Little Friend of All the World, than it was to imagine Kim having thrills in the washroom in the Montigny school, but the problem remained. That her own mother had confronted the same quandary at about the same age and had solved it, after a fashion, was an idea that did not occur to Lucy, for her relations with that woman had degenerated into a series of border skirmishes, with the prospect of a major battle to come.