Cadel Piggott was just seven years old when he first met Thaddeus Roth.
Dr. Roth worked in a row house near Sydney Harbor. The house was three stories high, its garden shrouded by a great many damp, dark trees. There was moss growing on its sandstone window ledges. Curtains drawn across all its windows gave it a secretive air. Its front fence was made of iron, with a spike on top of each post; beside the creaking gate was a brass sign bearing Dr. Roth’s name and qualifications.
“That’s it,” said Mrs. Piggott. “Number twenty-nine.”
“Well, we can’t stop here,” her husband replied. “No parking.”
“I told you to park back there.”
“It doesn’t matter. We’ll try down this street.”
“Stuart, that’s a one-way street.”
“I knew we’d never find a space. Not around this area.”
“Just shut up for a minute, will you?”
Mr. and Mrs. Piggott were not Cadel’s real parents. They had adopted him when he was not quite two years old. Mrs. Piggott was thin and blond, Mr. Piggott fat and gray. They almost never agreed about anything, but that didn’t matter because they almost never met. Their busy schedules kept them away from home, and one another, a good deal of the time.
At the suggestion of the police, however, they had both agreed to attend this interview.
“We’re going to be late,” Mrs. Piggott warned her husband after they had circled the block four times in Mr. Piggott’s big, gleaming Mercedes Benz. “Just let us out, for god’s sake.”
“I’ll park here.”
“Stuart, you’ll never fit in there!”
Cadel said nothing. He sat on the backseat, dressed in his good brown cords and a lamb’s-wool sweater, staring out the window at Dr. Roth’s house. He didn’t like the look of it. He thought it had a murky, ominous appearance.
“I don’t want to go,” he said flatly when Mrs. Piggott got out and opened the door beside him.
“I know, honey, but we have to.”
“No we don’t,” Cadel retorted.
“Yes we do.”
“There were no formal charges,” Cadel pointed out, in his high, clear voice. “It was just a suggestion.”
“That’s right,” said Mr. Piggott, yanking Cadel out of the back of the car. “And when the police make a suggestion, you always follow it. Rule number one.”
“Be careful, Stuart, you’ll wreck his clothes.”
Cadel was so small—even for a seven-year-old—that he didn’t stand a chance against Mr. Piggott. Though he dragged his feet and hung off his adoptive parents’ hands like a sack of melons, he was forced across the street and through the front gate of number twenty-nine. The path beyond the gate was mushy with wet leaves. There was a rich smell of decay. The door knocker was a ring in the mouth of a snarling lion’s head, painted black, like the rest of the ironwork.
Cadel noted with interest the switchboard near the door. It was obviously ancient, full of porcelain fuses and dial meters. The Piggotts’ own house was only three years old, with a state-of-the-art electrical system, so Cadel was fascinated by this dusty old relic.
But he was not permitted to gaze at it for long.
“Come on,” Mr. Piggott barked. “The door’s open.” And he pushed against it, causing it to swing back and reveal a long, dark hallway carpeted with dingy Persian rugs. About halfway down this hallway, a staircase the color of walnut swept up to the next floor. There were several doors to the right of the front entrance, but only the closest stood ajar.
“Hello!” said Mr. Piggott, marching straight through it. He wasn’t a man who normally waited for anything. “We’ve an appointment with Dr. Roth. For ten thirty.”
Gripped firmly around the wrist, Cadel had no choice but to follow Mr. Piggott. He found himself in a reception area: two rooms divided by a pair of folding mahogany doors. There were two marble fireplaces and two chandeliers. Cadel noticed cobwebs on the chandeliers.
A woman sat behind an antique desk.
“Good morning,” she said calmly. “What name, please?”
“Piggott,” Mr. Piggott replied, in pompous tones. “Stuart, Lanna, and Cadel.” He looked surprised when the woman rose, revealing herself to be almost as wide and as tall as he was. She had a broad, square face and small blue eyes. She was wearing a suit the color of dried blood.
“I’ll just go and tell Dr. Roth that you’ve arrived,” she declared, before lumbering out of the room. Cadel didn’t watch her go. He was more interested in the computer that she’d left behind, with its alluring glow and contented hum. The screen saver was one that he’d never seen before: a pattern of falling dominoes.
“Don’t even think about it,” Stuart rasped when he realized what was attracting Cadel’s attention. “Sit down. Over there.”
“Look, honey, there are toys for you to play with,” Lanna said, nudging a large basket with the toe of her expensive Italian shoe. Sulkily, Cadel eyed the basket’s contents. He was used to the broken activity centers and torn books offered for the amusement of younger patients at his local doctor’s office and wasn’t hopeful about the distractions provided here.
But to his astonishment, he quickly spied an old voltmeter, together with a book on flies, a plastic human skull (life-sized), a Rubik’s Cube, and a Frankenstein mask. Further investigation uncovered a dead spider embedded in a resin paperweight, a shark’s tooth, a Galaxy Warrior complete with Thermopuncher torpedoes, and a very curious fragment of puzzle bearing the picture of a staring, bloodshot eye over a set of claw marks.
He was puzzling over this macabre image when the sound of heavy footsteps reached his ears. It seemed that Dr. Roth’s receptionist was returning, clumping down the stairs like someone wearing ski boots. Lanna, who had flung herself onto an armchair, immediately jumped to her feet.
Stuart glared at the door.
“Dr. Roth will see you now,” the receptionist announced when she finally appeared. “You can go straight up.”
Stuart and Lanna exchanged glances.
“Are you sure?” Lanna objected. “I mean, does he want to discuss things in front of Cadel?”
“Oh yes,” the receptionist declared firmly. Something about her voice made Cadel look up. He studied her with care, from the top of her permed head to the soles of her brown shoes. She smiled in response, and the Piggotts all recoiled.
Her mouth looked as if it belonged to an older, harsher century.
“Why are your teeth black?” Cadel wanted to know.
“Why are your teeth white?” the receptionist responded, wending her way back to her desk. Lanna snatched at Cadel’s hand and hustled him out of the room. She and her husband whispered together as they climbed the stairs, which creaked and groaned beneath them.
“Stuart, what was the matter with . . . ?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you think this is a good idea?”
“Course it is.”
“But what about that woman? Her teeth?”
Stuart shrugged. They had reached a landing, but it wasn’t the right one. From above their heads, a voice said, “Up here.”
A man was draped over the second-floor banisters. He was tall and thin and wore a tweed jacket. His thick, dark hair was going gray.
“That’s the bathroom,” he remarked in a soothing voice with a cultured English accent. “I’m afraid my office is at the top, here.”
“Dr. Roth?” said Stuart.
“We’re a bit late,” Lanna offered a trifle breathlessly. “No parking.”
“You should turn that front yard of yours into a parking lot,” Stuart added, climbing the last flight of stairs. Gracefully, Dr. Roth moved to push open the door of his office.
“I would,” he said, “if the local council would let me. Heritage listing, I’m afraid.”
Stuart grunted. Lanna smiled a meaningless social smile. They both passed into Dr. Roth’s office ahead of Cadel, who stopped on the threshold. He gazed up at Thaddeus.
“Why does she have black teeth?” Cadel inquired.
“Wilfreda? I’m not sure,” Thaddeus replied. “Poor dental hygiene, I should think. Her parents had very strange ideas about diet and doctors. Maybe they didn’t believe in toothbrushes, either.” He cocked his head. “So you’re Cadel.”
“Come in, Cadel.”
Dr. Roth’s office surprised Cadel, because it was full of modern furniture and computer equipment. There were a number of glossy cabinets, some full of filing drawers, some with cables running out of them. Cadel’s eyes gleamed when he spotted those cables.
“Sit down, please.” Dr. Roth gestured at a cluster of couches placed between his desk and a pair of French doors. Lanna chose the crimson couch, settling down onto it very carefully, her bare knees drawn together. Stuart dropped into his seat like a stone.
“We brought this referral . . .” said his wife, passing an envelope to Dr. Roth. Thaddeus opened it, removed a folded sheet of paper, and smoothed the paper flat without taking his eyes off Cadel, whose attention was fixed on a modem attached to an inline filter.
“The police suggested we arrange some counseling for Cadel,” Stuart explained. “They also suggested that he shouldn’t be allowed to use a computer except under supervision. Responsible supervision.”
“He’s far too young to understand,” added Lanna, smoothing down her short skirt. “His emotional maturity hasn’t caught up with his intellect.”
“He has a genius IQ,” said her husband gruffly. “We had him tested.”
“It’s not his fault. We would have said something if we’d known what he was up to.”
“He’s not a bad kid.”
Thaddeus raised an eyebrow. By this time he was glancing through the referral, nodding to himself. When he had finished, he refolded the paper and tucked it into his jacket pocket. “Right,” he said, then cleared his throat. “Cadel? Would you like to use my computer?”
Cadel whirled around. Stuart and Lanna both gasped.
“But he can’t!” Stuart spluttered.
“He’s not allowed!” Lanna cried.
“Oh, I think he’ll be all right,” said Dr. Roth. “I’ll be interested to see if he does make a nuisance of himself. There’s some very tough security software installed on that computer.” He smiled indulgently at Cadel. “Knock yourself out, kid.”
While Cadel scuttled over to the desk, his adoptive parents looked at each other in dismay. Dr. Roth sank into the couch opposite them, his long, bony hands pressed together under his beaky nose. “So,” he began, “Cadel has been hacking into high-security computer networks, is that it?”
“The power grid,” Stuart interrupted. “And a bill-paying service.”
“He likes the challenge,” said Lanna, sounding worried. “I’m sure that’s it. He’s bored at school.”
“He knows he shouldn’t have,” Stuart growled, “but I don’t think he’s aware—”
“That it’s against the law,” his wife interjected, at which point Stuart turned on her.
“I was going to say that he’s probably not aware of the full implications, if you’d let me get a word in edgewise,” he snapped. “It’s not against the law—not when you’re seven years old. That’s the whole point. You can’t charge a kid of his age.”
“But the police thought that measures ought to be taken in any case,” Dr. Roth remarked smoothly. “I understand. And may I ask whether you’ve discussed these matters with the school he attends? What’s it called?”
“Elphington Grammar,” Lanna supplied. “We live on the North Shore, you see.”
“They’ve expelled him,” Stuart said flatly. “Don’t want him there. Too much like hard work, designing special programs for a genius.”
“So we’ve enrolled him in Jamboree Gardens. They believe in small classes, and they nurture potential on an individual basis.”
“It’s one of those tree-hugger schools,” Stuart concluded, without much enthusiasm.
Again Thaddeus nodded. In the brief silence that followed, the click-clack of a hardworking computer keyboard filled the room. Cadel sat perched on Dr. Roth’s chair, his small feet dangling, his gaze fixed.
“Can you tell me anything else about your son that might be useful?” Thaddeus said at last, and Lanna leaned forward.
“We’re not his birth parents,” she revealed in a low voice. “If that matters. He knows, of course.”
“This wouldn’t have happened if his nanny hadn’t left.” Stuart sighed. “No supervision.”
“Why did his nanny leave?” Dr. Roth queried, whereupon Stuart rubbed the back of his neck in obvious discomfort.
This time Lanna’s voice was so low that it was barely a whisper.
“He used to charge things to her credit card. She used it so much that of course he picked up on it.”
“He’s a funny kid,” Stuart admitted. “He’s not normal.”
“Well, he’s not. You can’t pretend he is.”
But Cadel didn’t seem to be listening. He was peering at the computer screen, his lips pursed, his brow furrowed.
“You know what he said to me the other day?” Stuart continued. “Lanna and I had been arguing—”
“We don’t often argue,” his wife broke in, smiling nervously at Thaddeus. “You’re giving Dr. Roth the wrong idea, honey.”
Stuart snorted. “Yeah, well, whatever you say. Anyhow, he looked me straight in the eye, and he said, ‘You’re like a malfunctioning modem with her. You need to locate the right initialization string.’” Stuart blinked. “Can you believe that?”
His wife tittered. “Oh dear,” she said. “That is so Cadel.”
“He carries the strangest things around with him,” Stuart went on. “Not yo-yos or rubber frogs or stuff like that. He carries circuit boards and thermostats and ignition coils. God knows where he gets them.”
“Out of my computer.” Lanna grimaced, her face falling suddenly. “That’s where he gets them. Or he dismantles the security system.”
“We have a circuitry room,” Stuart confessed. “It controls the security system and the phone system and the air conditioning—”
“We can never get him out of there.”
“Half the time, when you turn on the television, the garage door opens.”
“Whatever kind of lock you put on that damned circuitry room, he always cracks it sooner or later.”
“Like you said, Lanna, he can’t resist a challenge.”
All three adults turned their heads to study Cadel, who ignored them. He looked just like a little angel, with his huge blue eyes, chestnut curls, and heart-shaped face.
“We were wondering if he was a bit autistic”—Lanna sighed—“but he’s not. We checked it out. He’s just not very interested in people.”
“Especially other kids,” said Stuart. “Well, what other kids anywhere near his age are going to be interested in information protocol settings?”
“Quite,” said Thaddeus. “And what do you hope to gain from having Cadel visit me here, Mr. and Mrs. Piggott?”
“Well . . .” Lanna cast a hopeless glance at her husband, who shrugged.
“We’re just doing what we’re told,” he mumbled. “So this whole business won’t happen again.”
“Perhaps you can teach Cadel some social skills?” Lanna proposed brightly. “Help him to understand that he can’t do whatever he wants just because he’s smarter than everyone else?”
“Because he thinks he’s smarter than everyone else,” Stuart amended. And he narrowed his eyes, his jaw muscles working.
Thaddeus surveyed him thoughtfully
“Ye-e-es,” said Thaddeus. “I see.” All at once he surged to his feet, taking Mr. and Mrs. Piggott by surprise. “Well, thank you very much for that input,” he remarked pleasantly. “You’ve been most helpful. I’ll keep it in mind when I talk to your son—it might be interesting to have some more tests done, but I’ll discuss that with you later. Could you give me, say, twenty minutes? Twenty minutes alone with Cadel? It should be enough for today.”
“You mean now?” said Stuart.
“If that’s all right with you.”
“Well, I . . . I guess so.”
“If it’s all right with Cadel,” said Lanna. “Cadel? Honey? Do you mind if we step outside for a few minutes? Dr. Roth wants to talk to you.”
There was no reply. Cadel didn’t appear to have registered the fact that Lanna was addressing him.
“He won’t even notice we’re gone,” her husband muttered. “You watch.”
“We’ll be right downstairs, honey. We won’t be far.”
“You’d think he was deaf,” Stuart complained. As he nudged his wife from the room, she threw Dr. Roth a toothy smile.
“He’s not deaf, actually,” she assured the psychologist. “We’ve had tests done . . .”
Bang! The door slammed shut. Thaddeus waited until he could no longer hear the tramp of feet on stairs before strolling over to where Cadel sat in the typist’s chair. Cadel ignored him. Suddenly, Thaddeus yanked at the chair, making it spin around until it was pointing toward him. Then he grabbed each armrest and leaned into Cadel’s face.
Cadel’s hands jumped up in a startled reflex.
“I’ll make a deal with you, Cadel,” said Thaddeus. “Can you keep a secret?”
Solemnly, Cadel nodded.
“Good. Then this is what we’ll do. If you don’t tell your parents about it, I’ll let you use my computer whenever you come here. Does that sound good?”
Again, Cadel nodded.
“And all I ask in return is this.” The corner of Thaddeus’s mouth rose, revealing one yellowish, pointed canine tooth. Through the lenses of his spectacles, his eyes were as black as a snake’s. His voice dropped to a throaty whisper. “Next time,” he murmured, “whatever you do, don’t get caught.”