My son is a doctor, and I have three grandchildren. I always carry pictures of them. Do you have any children, Mrs. Cannon?"
Alice glanced at her inquisitive dinner companion. The woman's thin, dark face and elongated nose reminded Alice of a hawk hovering above a dying mouse. "Yes. I have a son."
"Oh, how nice. What does he do?"
Alice looked down the long banquet table at the other guests. Each suddenly became extremely interested in the contents of his or her plate. None looked at her, but the steady hum of polite dinner conversation ceased abruptly. She felt her cheeks flush slightly. It had been a long time since anyone had dared to ask that question. She had almost forgotten--almost. "He is in law enforcement," she answered quietly and reached for the wine glass.
Hushed, relieved sighs whispered down the length of the table, and the hum of conversation resumed.
"Oh really? How exciting. Is he on The Force?"
Alice faced her inquisitor. "No. He works at the prison for the criminally insane."
"Oh. Is he a guard?"
"No. Not a guard." Stillness fell over the 1000 dollar a plate banquet table again. This time there was no pretense of studying the food. Twenty four sets of eyes focused on Alice. She placed the wine glass carefully on the table, dabbed at her mouth with her napkin, folded it neatly and placed it beside her plate, then her ice blue eyes caught and held the hawk woman's. "He is an administrator."
"An administrator! But, that means he's...he's..."
Alice finished for the flustered woman. "It means he is a homicidal maniac. It means that his blood lust is kept in check by allowing him to administer punishment to murderers. It means he exchanges an eye for an eye--a sin for a sin. It means he does to them what they did to their victims. Yes, Mrs. Gilbert, he tortures and kills criminals in exactly the same way that they torture and kill innocent people. Only he does it with society's permission. And yes, Mrs. Gilbert, he thoroughly enjoys it! Would you like to see some pictures of him at work? I carry them instead of pictures of grandchildren, which I, of course, do not have."
The hawk woman's face paled, she gasped, covered her pinched, crimson mouth with a pale hand, stumbled from her chair, and rushed from the room.
"Damn it, Alice, did you have to be so graphic?" her sixth husband, Chuck, hissed under his breath at her from across the table.
"She shouldn't have been so damn nosy. The woman is a total idiot. She should have known who I am." Her voice was purposely loud enough for the other guests to hear. "Any more questions?" Her defiant gaze met each face at the table. One by one they turned from her fiery disdain and concentrated on their meals.
"I'm leaving, Chuck. Are you coming?" She arose imposingly and gracefully nodded toward the other guests.
"But, the charity foundation--the dinner--you organized it. Should we leave?" her husband whispered.
"We've paid our dues. I'm going. You can stay if you like."
She turned and marched toward the door as a general might stride as he led his troops into deadly enemy fire. Chuck followed her. He looked back at the guests and, with an embarrassed shrug of his shoulders, disappeared though the door.
Moments later, another figure followed, unnoticed, through the same door.
"Mrs. Cannon, Alice Cannon, may I speak to you for a moment?" The young man who had followed them out shouted breathlessly as he raced toward their retreating backs.
Alice halted mid stride, turned, and in a glacial whisper said, "No."
"Mrs. Cannon, please. My name's Jake Roman. I'm a reporter. It's about your son."
"It always is, young man. Now go away."
Her husband grasped the reporter's arm. "My wife said to leave. Perhaps, you'd better go."
The young man winced in pain.
"Chuck, forget the valet. Go get the car."
"But, this guy--"
"I've been handling reporters for years. Just go get the car."
The boy rubbed his forearm. "Look, Mrs. Cannon, if you'll just listen--"
"I said I do not wish to speak to you, and I never say anything I don't mean. Now leave. Or next time, I won't stop my husband." She stepped off the curb as her husband arrived with the car and got in with curt dignity.
"That's not your son at the prison," the reporter said quietly.
Her clear gaze scrutinized his face for an instant. "Well, you get an 'A' for originality and cruelty," she said calmly as she slammed the door.
"What did that little punk say?"
"Nothing, Dear, nothing. Let's go home." She patted his strong hand then laced her delicate fingers together in her lap so she wouldn't clench them into fists.
Jake Roman waited patiently outside the estate's massive, iron gate for three days before Alice agreed to see him.
"Young man, you are persistent. I should have called the police." She poured coffee into antique china cups and offered him one.
"Why didn't you?"
"I admire persistence."
Jake looked around the opulent room nervously. "Your husband--is he here?"
"He is out of town on business."
He relaxed. "Mrs. Cannon, when was the last time you saw your son?"
"That is a personal and imprudent question. What difference does it make? I've said all I intend to say to the media years ago. Surely this is old news?"
"Ma'am, this conversation is not for my newspaper. At least, not yet. No one would believe it anyway."
"Then why are you here?"
"That's good coffee. Is it real?"
"Yes, it's real. I have it shipped from Brazil."
"I've never tasted real coffee--too expensive."
"Mr. Roman, why are you here?" Her forced civility was fast fading into anger. "Why did you say what you did about my son that night?"
"Because I believe it's true. I think your son, and others like him, have been artificially induced into becoming...uh....what they have become. That the public has had this punishment thing forced down their throats--that they don't really want it--that a highly secret society had enough power and hate to force this legislation."
"My, you do have an active imagination. Don't you? Just how did you uncover this ridiculous scheme, young man?"
"I'm doing a piece on criminal justice. During my research, I came across some facts that didn't add up. It's not really important how I found out. What's important is that it's true. Your son isn't the only one, Mrs. Cannon. All 132 of the administrators came from only ten schools. They were all diagnosed psychopathic before they were 16 by the same doctor. They all spent time in one hospital--St. Luke's--in a town no one ever heard of in the southwest. When they were released, they were all sent to work immediately in different maximum security prisons for the criminally insane. They all--"
"Young man, you are telling me nothing that anyone who reads a newspaper doesn't already know." Her thin patience had finally evaporated completely. "Now if you have no more startling information for me, I suggest you leave." A flick of her jeweled hand brought the burly butler to stand beside Jake's chair.
The massive man's hand reached for Jake's shoulder. He felt himself being hauled up, and strong hands began to lead him toward the door.
"Mrs. Cannon. I have seen the medical reports." he shouted over his shoulder. "Proof of illegal experiments--of--of--"
"George. Release him."
The butler stopped and let go of Jake's shoulder so suddenly that the momentum sent him stumbling toward the massive oak doorway. When he recovered his balance and turned around, the other man was gone as rapidly and quietly as he had appeared.
"Proof of what?" Alice asked quietly. She rose gracefully and strolled to the coffee buffet with her back to him. Her posture never lost its aristocratic stance. "Would you like something a little stronger, Jake? It is Jake, isn't it? Wine? Or are you a beer drinker?"
"No, Ma'am. Look, those kids' brains were all embedded with a--a parasite or something--it eats the rational parts of their brains and makes them homicidal--changes their personalities--changes them into--into monsters."
"Yeah. Well, they look human, but they crave violence--blood--they can't get enough of it. But it's not really them. It's what they were made into! Christ! Not one of these kids is over eighteen, and they have tortured and mutilated hundreds of people!"
"Not people, Jake. Murderers."
"Murderers or not. None of those executed by the administrators had killed as many people as the administrators themselves. I'm telling you, society was forced into accepting this as much as the kids were forced into becoming what they are!"
"Forced? By whom?"
"I'm not sure yet. The legislation for capital punishment executed by the administrators was pushed through over the objections of almost every member of Congress and against the overwhelming majority of voters."
"Don't be ridiculous. The public has been clamoring for the legislature to do something about the relentless growth of violence for years. They have been begging for tougher penalties since the 90's. They got what they asked for. Thieves work in prison sweat shops for minimum wage until they pay back every dime they stole. Rapists are raped. Killers are killed. Eye for an eye. Society wanted it, and society got it."
"But, not this way. They didn't want this."
"How could you know what all the public wants? Do you speak for everyone?" An edge of hostility crept into her carefully controlled voice, "And, even if your allegations were true, how could such a thing happen?"
"Power. A small group of people who are so powerful they can manipulate the law to suit themselves. I got a glimpse of some files in Washington that prove it."
"How did you accomplish that?"
"I hacked into the master web, but the security is tight. My access shut down as soon as I touched the files."
Alice moved from the buffet to stand directly in front of Jake. Her cold, blue eyes held his. "Do you know who this hypothetical group is?"
"No. But, I'm close. That's why I came to you. I figure your son is one of their victims, and you are rich and powerful enough to help me. As a retired Supreme Court Judge, you have pull that few others have."
She sighed, beckoned him to be seated, and settled into the facing antique brocade love seat. Leaning toward him, she touched his hand in an uncharacteristic show of emotion. "You are right about one thing, young man, I do have a certain amount of influence in high places. You have uncovered part of the truth, but it seems you were stopped short of the most important facts. Bureaucracy is like that."
"You - you knew?" His young face reflected incredulous shock.
"Do you remember the serial murders in Utah about two years ago?"
He recovered from his shock to stare at the cultivated woman across from him, then disconcerted, he answered quietly, "Yeah - yeah I remember. They never found the killer."
"Oh, but they did."
"What? Who? When? Why didn't the media--?"
Alice interrupted quietly, "Jake, do you have children?"
"No. I--I'm not married. What does that have to do with....oh shit!" He became suddenly aware of the importance of her seemingly pointless question. "It was your son!"
Ignoring Jake's surprised accusation, she said, "John was always a precocious child. A genius, you know. He scored off the charts in every IQ test. He did have a few unusual idiosyncrasies, but that is expected of children as bright as he is. I had to protect him, you see. I couldn't bear to see him unhappy. When he was small, I felt he would outgrow his little habits. I gave him mice and later rabbits and other small animals to, um, play with, but he kept wanting more. I drew the line at humans of course. But he managed to find a few homeless waifs. There are a lot of homeless people now, Jake. Starving people who will do anything. Sell anyone for a meal or drugs. He is very creative, my little Johnny."
"You! It was you." His voice was a hushed whisper.
She smiled patiently at him, as if she was telling a slow witted child a story. "You were right about the power push for legislation, but it wasn't a group. It was only one person. One very rich, very powerful person. And I wasn't motivated by hate. It was love. A mother's love."
"But, why? Why the others? What about the brain parasite? How did you--?"
"It's not a parasite, you silly boy." She shook her head and smiled indulgently at him. "We live in the twenty first century, Jake. Haven't you ever heard of nanotechnology? Tiny little robots so small they can be injected into human bloodstreams? No? Well, it is a rather new field. Anyway, originally they were designed to detect foreign elements in the human body. You know, like cancer cells. When they find them, they destroy them, leaving the body clean and purified. They can be programmed to seek out other types of cells too."
"Like...like brain cells? But why?" His ashen face begged for her to tell him that none of it was true.
"Because the law would never have passed, even with all my influence, if John was the only one allowed to play his little games. There had to be others. True psychopaths are very difficult to control. You never know who they will attack or what they will do. Artificial killers follow commands because they have no independent thinking process above the minimum required to perform simple, physical tasks. Control is the key to administrators. And they are very comfortable. They have luxurious rooms, holovision, plenty of food, all the comforts that anyone could ask for."
"But your own son. How could you do that to your own son?"
She looked at him in surprise. "Oh we didn't do it to him. He is the only one that is doing what he really enjoys. He is the reason for all the others. Don't you see that? I just couldn't stand for him to be unhappy, and if he had been caught in Utah, he would have been terribly annoyed. After all, boys will be boys, won't they?"
"I--I have to go." Jake had risen from his seat and was backing slowly toward the door.
"Of course you do, young man, we both know that."
She fluttered a delicate hand, and the butler appeared from nowhere again. His huge paw gripped Jake's arm.
"George, call the police. Tell them we have found the Utah serial killer. Tell them I will send them a tape of his full confession, in his own voice, tomorrow morning." She removed a large diamond ring from her finger and lifted the stone revealing a minuscule tape recorder inside. "Cleopatra had a ring similar to this," she said. "Only hers was filled with poison. Modern science is amazing, you know. Just a little editing and your recorded voice will say whatever I want it to say."
"Bitch! You crazy old woman! You'll never get away with this!" Jake's voice was heavy with fear.
George tightened his hold on Jake's arm and spoke as calmly as if he was asking to take his coat, "Sir, please remain quiet, or I will be forced to use violence to restrain you."
Alice turned toward the elegant, spiral staircase. "Oh yes, George, offer our guest some more Brazilian coffee while you wait for the police. He is quite fond of it, you know. Now, if you will excuse me, I have a number of phone calls to make. We must see that this sort of security breach does not happen again, and we want to make sure you get to the right prison. Don't we, Jake? I wouldn't want you to miss the opportunity to meet my handsome son." She was humming softly as she glided up the stairs.
Held in the iron grip of the giant beside him, Jake Roman stared incredulously at her retreating back. He thought he recognized the tune she hummed. It sounded like a nursery rhyme."...John, John, my son John..."
Introducing the author, S. Joan Popek
S. Joan Popek describes herself as an age challenged grandmother with one foot placed firmly in the Dark Ages and the other in the Twilight Zone. She lives in Roswell, NM with her husband, Joe, and says that her family is often her inspiration. She began writing for publication about five years ago but has been addicted to science fiction since she learned to read. She has worked as a waitress, clerk, small business owner, teacher, handyman (okay--handywoman), administrator/counselor in adult education and as a bartender. She says she acquired most of her training in psychology behind the bar and attended college later, "just to make it legal."
Today she is publisher and editor of The Roswell Literary Review, and co-publishes Millenium Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine, (an on-line and hard copy magazine). Her credits include: Prose and poetry editor for a local magazine, FYI. She has had poetry in several national magazines including The Candlelight Poetry Journal and Feelings, and in two anthologies. Her personal essays have appeared in The Candlelight Poetry Journal, Southwest New Mexico On-Line Magazine and Southern New Mexico Magazine. Her fiction has appeared in Millennium Science Fiction & Fantasy Magazine, The Roswell Literary Review, (before she owned them),Chaotic Reflections, Eternity, two in anthologies, and another will appear in Exodus in December 1998.