Crouching behind the wooden tool shed along the back fence, the man watched the little strawberry-blond girl at play in the yard. Perspiration blotched the featureless weave of the black veil that obscured his face, and sweat oozed under the Latex of his gloves as he flexed his fingers.
It hadn't rained in Los Angeles for almost six months, and the haze of accumulated smog cast an amber pall over the pink bungalow house and its tiny back yard. The late September heat wave had dried the grass to brittle yellow needles, and patches of bare dirt mottled the lawn like mange. An inflatable wading pool decorated with Winnie the Pooh characters sagged in the center of the yard, and the girl squatted in its shallow water, wearing a one-piece bathing suit with Tigger on the front. Her wispy hair hung in horse-tail tangles about her freckled face as she made her naked Barbie doll swim in big circles around her.
The man's breath quickened, the air hot and stifling underneath his mask of crepe. The child's mother was at work, and the babysitter had gone into the house more than twenty minutes ago. It was the first time in three days that the man had seen the girl left unattended. Nevertheless, he hesitated.
Then he saw her begin to twitch.
She dropped the doll in the water and clapped her hands over her ears. "Somebody's knocking! Somebody's knocking!"
The man tensed, and mouthed words under his breath. He imagined that he could hear the soundless whispers now sifting into the girl's skull.
They had found her.
The girl stumbled out of the pool, still clutching her temples, jerking her head as if in the throes of a seizure. "Somebody's knocking! Somebody's knocking!"
The man shot a wary glance toward the back door of the house and lunged toward her.
Seeing him, the girl yelped and broke into a zigzagging run toward the house. He blocked her, but she dodged his grasping hands and doubled-back on him, scrambling toward the back yard gate. When he cut her off, she scampered to the chain-link fence that bordered the neighbors' yard, locked her fingers on its wire mesh, and shook it, screaming.
As he took hold of her shoulders, though, a sudden exhaustion seemed to overwhelm her, and she drooped against the fence. Her face pinched with concentration, she whispered the letters of the alphabet like a rosary. "A-B-C-D-E-F-G...H-I-J-K-L-M-N-O-P...Q-R-S-T-U-V..."
Her voice trailed off. The contours of her face subtly changed, her expression darkening.
Strength surged back into her small frame, and she whipped around, snarling, and clawed the fabric of his mask, trying to pull it from his face. Anticipating that she would do this, the man caught hold of her arms and forced them down.
"Who are you?" The girl's voice resonated with adult authority. "Why are you doing this to us?" She glared at him with gleaming violet eyes.
The smooth, shallow hollows of his masked face betrayed no emotion, but the man trembled visibly. Holding the struggling child at arm's length, he clasped her head with his rubber-skinned hands in an almost tender caress.
And then, with a single brisk twist, he snapped her neck.
Traffic clotted the Hollywood Freeway that morning, and Dan missed the start of the Muñoz murder trial. By the time he arrived at the Criminal Justice Center, the prosecution was already preparing to summon the victim to testify.
Despite the oppressive heat, spectators and television news crews clustered around the courthouse entrance, the crowd held at bay by a cordon of uniformed guards from the Sheriff's Office. A Violet was due to take the stand today, an event so rare that it made headlines. Usually, the mere threat of a Violet's testimony served to force a plea bargain, yet Hector Muñoz had insisted upon his "Not Guilty" plea and demanded his day in court.
Dan nudged his way through the crowd to the roped-off area surrounding the entrance and flashed his I.D. at the beige-shirted officer standing there, who waved him toward the door.
Relieved to be in the building's cool foyer, Dan showed the Bureau badge again at the lobby's security checkpoint. "Okay, Agent...Atwater." The white-shirted guard, a beefy Hispanic man, read the badge and handed it back. "If you like, I can keep your gun for you until you pass through the detector..."
Dan gave him a tight-lipped smile. "No need. I'm not carrying." He emptied his pockets into a wooden box and strolled through the door-shaped booth without setting off the alarm.
A placard beside the elevators warned him that "All Persons Will Be Searched On 9th Floor," and he discovered that even his Bureau badge couldn't save him from further delay. Dan didn't mind, however. Violets creeped him out, and he would be spending enough time with this particular Violet in the days to come. No need to rush it.
Superior Court 9-101 exhaled a cold, air-conditioned draft as Dan eased open one of its double doors and stepped inside. The room was nearly filled to capacity, but Dan located a seat near the back of the gallery while the judge finished her mandatory admonition to the jury.
"The statement of the victim should be considered as carefully, and with as much skepticism, as that of any other witness when you decide upon your verdict." The matronly black justice peered at the jurors over the tops of her spectacles, her furrowed face stern. "You must weigh the testimony of the deceased against the other evidence presented by both the prosecution and the defense in order to determine the truth for yourselves. Do you understand your responsibilities as I have described them to you?"
The jurors murmured their assent, although several of them seemed apprehensive. Compulsively drumming his fingers on the defense table, Hector Muñoz shifted in his chair and leaned over to whisper something to his attorney. She merely shook her head, a drawn look on her face.
"Very well." The judge nodded to the assistant D.A., a tall, studious man with flawlessly-combed black hair. "Mr. Jacobs, you may call your next witness."
"Thank you, Your Honor." Jacobs rose from his chair. "Bailiff, would you show in Ms. Lindstrom?"
A stocky man in uniform opened a door to the left of the judge's bench and ushered a gaunt, pale young woman with a shaved head into the room. Dan craned his neck for a better view of the Violet he'd be living with for the next few weeks.
She wore a long-sleeved shirt and slacks which both seemed a size too large for her, making her appear frail in the antiseptic illumination of the courtroom's fluorescent lighting. Nevertheless, she spoke with a quiet, understated strength as the bailiff swore her in.
A high-backed, reclining chair had been placed in the witness stand for her testimony. Heavy nylon straps dangled from the chair's back and legs. "Please state your name for the record," Jacobs instructed the woman once she'd seated herself.
"And you are a licensed member of the North American Afterlife Communications Corps?"
"And do you intend to serve the court today with complete honesty and to the best of your abilities?"
Jacobs turned to a portly, bespectacled man who stood to the right of the witness stand. "Mr. Burton, would you prepare the conduit for testimony?"
Pulling a penlight from the inside pocket of his suit coat, Burton shone the light in both of Lindstrom's eyes to make sure she wasn't wearing colored contact lenses. Although there were now more sophisticated ways of verifying the authenticity of a "conduit," this method had become traditional, for, as their nickname implied, all Violets were born with violet irises.
Burton wheeled a pushcart bearing a SoulScan unit up to the witness stand and connected Lindstrom to the device by attaching a series of electrodes to her bare head with surgical tape. Like most Violets, she'd had the twenty contact points tattooed on her scalp as a constellation of tiny, bluish spots.
Jacobs explained to the jury how this sophisticated electroencephalograph could detect the electromagnetic presence of the victim's soul as it suffused the conduit's brain. "You'll be able to see for yourselves the precise moment of inhabitation," he said, indicating a large, greenish monitor mounted on the wall above Lindstrom's chair. Dan noted that Jacobs failed to mention the function of the large red button on the SoulScan console. Known as the "Panic Button," it would send a powerful electric shock through the wires to the Violet's head and forcibly eject a soul that became violent or refused to leave the conduit's body. Through rigorous mental discipline, trained Violets could usually evict an unruly soul at any time, but the Panic Button was there as a safeguard, for the dead were always unpredictable.
Burton stepped away from the witness stand, leaving Lindstrom with a forest of wires sprouting from her brow. These wires twisted into a rope-like bundle that snaked down to a port on the SoulScan unit. Burton flicked on the machine, and a series of green lines appeared on the monitor. The rhythmic little zigzags of the top three lines represented the alpha waves of Lindstrom's conscious thought. The bottom three lines lay flat, awaiting the inhabiting entity.
"Are you ready, Ms. Lindstrom?" Jacobs asked.
"Yes." She leaned back in her chair and closed her eyes, while Burton fastened the nylon straps around her legs and torso and bound her wrists together with a ratcheted plastic band.
It's for her own safety, Dan reminded himself, but the thought failed to reassure him. Painful as the restraints were, Lindstrom would soon suffer worse.
Jacobs unsealed one of the prosecution's clear plastic evidence bags and pulled out a baby's bib printed with teddy bears. He displayed it to the jury, then placed the bib in Lindstrom's hands.
Dan grimaced and shook his head. This D.A. pulled no punches. He could have selected almost any item touched or worn by the victim to serve as the touchstone. A hairbrush, a house key, a driver's license -- all of these items would retain a faint quantum link to the dead woman and would draw her electromagnetic essence to the conduit like a lighting rod. Instead, Jacobs had chosen to use her child's clothing for the emotional impact it would have on the jurors. Why Muñoz would want to put himself through the torture of a Violet's testimony, Dan couldn't comprehend. To look into those eyes and see the life you took staring back at you...
Lindstrom shaped silent words with her lips, and the alpha waves that scrolled across the top of the SoulScan monitor became more measured and even. Soon, she would withdraw into her own subconscious and cede control of her body.
Jacobs glanced over his shoulder at the crowd in the gallery. "Please remain quiet," he admonished them. He needn't have bothered. The silence made it seem as though everyone in the room had stopped breathing.
Dan's sweat dried to clamminess in the air-conditioned room, leeching the heat from his skin. He was shivering by the time the first squiggles appeared on the bottom half of the SoulScan monitor. The hair stiffened on his scalp, and he imagined that the entire room was charged with the static of dead souls.
Lindstrom's body became rigid, her back arched, her belly straining against the straps that held her to the chair. Her bony hands constricted on the bib, and she bucked and twisted with epileptic fury.
This is a bad one, Dan thought. If the touchstone summoned more than one soul, the conduit needed to fight to stave off the other entities so the desired individual could inhabit her.
Untrained Violets had been known to bite their own tongues off during such a fit.
Her head thrashing from side to side, Lindstrom let out a raw, throat-grating scream, and Dan saw several of the jurors blanch. No doubt most of them had only seen Violets in movies or on T.V. cop shows. The real thing was an entirely different experience. Dan had probably seen them fifty times or more during his career, and each time seemed worse than the last. Particularly during the past two years.
Lindstrom's eyes snapped open, and she gaped around the courtroom like a rabbit in a wolves' den. Without changing in any physiological way, the muscles in her face had reconfigured themselves to suggest a new countenance, knitting the brows, thrusting out the chin, inflating the cheeks. She whimpered and tried to wriggle free of the chair's restraints. Then her gaze fell upon Hector Muñoz, and she fell silent, staring at him.
Muñoz clutched at his temples with trembling hands, unable to look away. "Rosa..."
Jacobs stepped forward to address the woman in the witness stand. "Do you remember me?" he asked her.
She glanced at him and nodded. No doubt the prosecution had previously summoned the victim in order to question her.
"Please tell us who you are," Jacobs instructed her.
"Rosa Muñoz." She said the name with a Spanish accent, and the soft soprano of her voice had lowered to a gravelly alto.
"Let the record show that the witness has identified herself as the victim." Jacobs attempted to reestablish eye contact with her. "Do you know where you are?"
Her eyes remained fixed on Hector Muñoz as she shook her head.
"Do you recognize anyone else in this room?"
The woman in Natalie Lindstrom's body didn't respond, for she was looking down at the bib she held in her hands. "Oh, God -- Pedrito!"
"Pedrito...he was your son, wasn't he?" Jacobs prompted.
"He killed him. My cerdo of a husband." She thrust her bound hands forward to point at Muñoz. "He killed my baby!"
Muñoz slumped over the defense table as though he'd been shot. His lawyer patted him on the shoulder, but offered no words of encouragement.
"You and your goddamned speed!" Trembling with grief and rage, the woman in the witness stand glared at Muñoz with Lindstrom's fathomless violet eyes, her face wrinkled with contempt. "And Pedrito crying, getting on your nerves. 'Shut up! Shut up!'" She mimed a shaking motion with her hands. "Well, you got him to shut up, didn't you, Hector?"
Muñoz didn't look up.
"And then what happened?" Jacobs asked.
"And then I started screaming. Called Hector the asesino he was. The last thing I remember was him grabbing my throat and yelling at me: 'Be quiet, bitch! They'll hear you!'" She pressed the bib to her face and shut her eyes, shuddering. "He follows me everywhere. I'm the only one he knows there, and he follows me everywhere. Do you know what that's like, Hector? Just the two of us, crying in the dark."
Hector Muñoz raised his head, his face streaked with tears. "Oh, God, Rosa, lo siento, lo siento!" Before his attorney could stop him, he clambered over the defense table and bolted toward the witness stand, hands reaching out in supplication toward his dead wife. Two guards lunged forward and grabbed him before he got there. "Perdóneme! Perdóneme!" Muñoz sobbed as they wrestled him to the floor.
He knew all along he couldn't win, Dan realized. He'd wanted a trial simply because it was his only chance to beg forgiveness of the wife he'd strangled.
The woman in the witness stand strained forward in her chair, and Dan could hear the nylon straps stretch to the point of breaking. "Never," she rasped. Her voice rose to a shriek, and the air vibrated with the force of her hatred. "You hear me, Hector? NEVER!"
On the SoulScan monitor, the smooth, measured waves of Lindstrom's dormant consciousness turned spiky and frenetic. Her facial features contorted.
With a worried look, Burton reached for the Panic Button.
The corners of the Violet's mouth stretched wide to expose gritted teeth, as though she wore a mask that had been pulled too tight. Then her quivering flesh settled into a melancholy composure, and Lindstrom straightened her posture in the chair, breathing deeply.
Burton withdrew his outstretched hand. Jacobs nodded to him, and the assistant began removing the straps and wires from Lindstrom's body.
The guards handcuffed and chained Hector Muñoz, who moaned inconsolably as they led him out of the room. His attorney, a seasoned public defender appointed by the state, had apparently anticipated such an outcome from the beginning, for she calmly asked for an adjournment to allow her time to revise her client's defense in light of recent developments. Although the prosecution objected to the delay, the judge granted her request. The bailiff helped an exhausted Lindstrom shuffle out the courtroom's side door.
As the people around him filed out the courtroom's double doors, Dan discovered that his eyes had become dry and sticky from staring so long. His tongue seemed wrapped in gauze, and he popped an Altoid into his mouth to try to work up some saliva. Rosa Muñoz's final word still reverberated in his head.
He dawdled in the courtroom for more than five minutes before he felt ready to meet Natalie Lindstrom.
As long as she doesn't touch me...
Straightening his tie, Dan made his way to the courtroom's side door and showed his I.D. to the guard standing there. He passed through the door into a private waiting room, where he found Lindstrom stretched out on a sofa, one arm folded over her eyes. Her wrists were red from where the plastic bands had rubbed the skin. The knotted tension in her cheeks and brow still bore an afterimage of Rosa Muñoz's expression, like a photographic double-exposure.
Startled, she sat up and regarded him with suspicion.
"Sorry to bother you." He almost gave her his hand to shake, but put it in his pocket instead. "Special Agent Dan Atwater, F.B.I. Investigative Support Unit. That was...quite a performance out there."
She slumped back on the couch. "If you say so."
He knelt until he was almost eye-level with her. "I know you must be tired, but we really need your help with one of our current cases. When you hear the details, I think you'll
"I know the details." Her eyes shifted to meet his. "They told me."
The hair prickled at the nape of Dan's neck. "'They'?"
She half-closed her eyes. "You know who I mean."
He chewed on his lower lip. "How many of 'them' have you talked to?"
"Four. Why? How many are missing?"
"As of yesterday, seven." Dan stood and paced the room, giving himself the excuse to avoid her violet stare. "If we don't act soon, you could be chatting with a bunch more."
"Mmm. And if I refuse to help?"
He pretended to examine the shine on his Florsheims. "Then I'll have to take you into protective custody. You're a prime target, after all."
She sighed. "I didn't think I had a choice, but I always like to make sure." She swung her feet off the couch and sat up. Pawing through her purse, she pulled out a portable makeup mirror and a contact lens carrying case.
"How long you been working for the Feds?" she asked as she placed a colored lens in each eye.
"Five years. Before that, I was a detective here in L.A."
"You must be a glutton for punishment." Pulling out a roll of double-sided tape, she tore off strips of the sticky plastic and applied them in an arc across her scalp and down to her temples. She then opened what looked like a hatbox and took out a long, straight, copper-colored wig, which she carefully arranged on her head. "So, where do we go from here?"
"The LAPD admin building -- we've set up a meeting there for your convenience. We can take my car to avoid the press."
"Nah. Let's walk." Examining her reflection in the mirror, Lindstrom pressed the wig into place and combed out its tangles with her fingers. "They won't recognize me."
With some rouge and red lipstick from her purse, she added color to her pallid face. The change in her appearance was startling. The long hair hid the skeletal starkness of her tattooed scalp and softened the planes of her cheeks and chin, while the contacts lightened her eyes from dark purple to crystal blue. Not a trace of Rosa Muñoz remained.
"Anyone ever tell you you look good as a redhead?" he asked with a tentative grin. It wasn't simply a lame ice-breaker line, either. He meant it. If she weren't a Violet...
Lindstrom's face may have changed, but her expression didn't; it remained resentful, resigned, and a trifle sad. "Here. Make yourself useful." She held out the wig box. "Let's go out the back."
Dan remained quietly courteous, but took great care to make sure his fingers didn't brush against hers when she handed him the box. He knew that Violets could use people as touchstones, and unlike Hector Muñoz, Dan had no desire to speak to ghosts from his past.
It's only for a few days -- a week or two at most, he reminded himself. As long as she doesn't touch me...
From the Paperback edition.