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Ronald Reagan Elementary had been recently renovated, no doubt by a squad of janitor bots. The brick façade had been cleaned and repointed; the long row of windows gleamed like teeth. The asphalt playground had been ripped up and resurfaced with safe-t-mat, the metal swingsets swapped for gaudy towers and crawl tubes and slides and balance beams and decks. The chain link fences had been replaced by redwood lattice through which twined honeysuckle and clematis. There was a boxwood maze next to the swimming pool that shimmered, blue as a dream. Nothing was too good for the little girls -- our hope for the future.
There was no room in the rack jammed with bikes and scooters and goboards, so I leaned my bike against a nearby cherry tree. The very youngest girls had come out for first recess. I paused behind the tree for a moment to let their whoops and shrieks and laughter bubble over me. My business didn't take me to schools very often; I couldn't remember when I had last seen so many girls in one place. They were black and white and yellow and brown, mostly dressed like janes you might see anywhere. But there were more than a few whose clothes proclaimed their mothers' lifestyles. Tommys in hunter camo and chaste Christers, twists in chains and spray-on, clumps of sisters wearing the uniforms of a group marriage, a couple of furries and one girl wearing a body suit that looked just like bot skin. As I lingered there, I felt a chill that had nothing to do with the shade of a tree. I had no idea who these tiny creatures were. They went to this well-kept school, led more or less normal lives. I grew up in the wild times, when everything was falling apart. At that moment, I realized that they were as far removed from me as I was from the grannies. I would always watch them from a distance.
Just inside the fence, two sisters in green-striped shirtwaists and green knee socks were turning a rope for a ponytailed jumper who was executing nimble criss-crosses. The turners chanted,
"Down in the valley where the green grass grows,
there sits Stacy pretty as a rose!
She sings, she sings, she sings so sweet,
Then along comes Chantall to kiss her on the cheek!"
Another jumper joined her in the middle, matching her step for step, her dark hair flying. The chant continued,
"How many kisses does she get?
One, two, three, four, five …"
The two jumpers pecked at each other in the air to the count of ten without missing a beat. Then Ponytail skipped out and the turners began the chant over again for the dark-haired girl. Ponytail bent over for a moment to catch her breath; when she straightened, she noticed me.
"Hey you, behind the tree." She shaded her eyes with a hand. "You hiding?"
I stepped into the open. "No."
"This is our school, you know." The girl set one foot behind the other and then spun a hundred and eighty degrees to point at the door to the school. "You supposed to sign in at the office."
"I'd better take care of that then."
As I passed through the gate into the playground, a few of the girls stopped playing and stared. This was all the audience Ponytail needed. "You someone's mom?"
"Don't you have a job?" She fell into step beside me.
"What is it?"
"I can't tell you."
She dashed ahead to block my path. "Probably because it's a pretend job."
Two of her sisters in green-striped shirtwaists scrambled to back her up.
"When we grow up," one of them announced, "we're going to have real jobs."
"Like a doctor," the other said. "Or a lion tamer."
Other girls were joining us. "I want to drive a truck," said a tommy. "Big, big truck." She specified the size of her rig with outstretched arms.
"That's not a real job. Any bot could do that."
"I want to be a teacher," said the dark-haired sister who had been jumping rope.
"Chantall loves school," said a furry. "She'd marry school if she could." Apparently this passed for brilliant wit in the third grade; some girls laughed so hard they had to cover their mouths with the back of their hands. Me, I was flummoxed. Give me a spurned lover or a mean drunk or a hardcase cop and I could figure out some play, but just then I was trapped by this giggling mob of children.
"So why you here?" Ponytail put her fists on her hips.
A jane in khakis and a baggy plum sweater emerged from behind a blue tunnel that looked like a centipede. She pinned me with that penetrating but not unkind stare that teachers are born with, and began to trudge across the playground toward me. "I've come to see Ms. Jones," I said.
"Oh." A shadow passed over Ponytail's face and she rubbed her hands against the sides of her legs. "You better go then."
Someone called, "Are you the undertaker?"
A voice that squeaked with innocence asked, "What's an undertaker?"
I didn't hear the answer. The teacher in the plum sweater rescued me and we passed through the crowd.
I didn't understand why Najma Jones had come to school. She was either the most dedicated teacher on the planet or she was too numb to accept her daughter's death. I couldn't tell which. She had been reserved when we met the first time; now she was locked down and welded shut. She was a bird of a woman with a narrow face and thin lips. Her gray hair had a few lingering strands of black. She wore a long-sleeved white kameez tunic over shalwar trousers. I leaned against the door of her classroom and told her everything I had done the day before. She sat listening at her desk with a sandwich that she wasn't going to eat and a carton of milk that she wasn't going to drink and a napkin that she didn't need.
When I had finished, she asked me about cyanide inhalers.
"Hydrogen cyanide isn't hard to get in bulk," I said. "They use it for making plastic, engraving, tempering steel. The inhaler came from one of the underground suicide groups, probably Our Choice. The cops could tell you for sure."
She unfolded the napkin and spread it out on top of her desk. "I've heard it's a painful death."
"Not at all," I said. "They used to use hydrogen cyanide gas to execute criminals, back in the bad old days. It all depends on the first breath. Get it deep into your lungs and you're unconscious before you hit the floor. Dead in less than a minute."
"And if you don't get a large enough dose?"
"Ms. Jones …"
She cut me off hard. "If you don't?"
"Then it takes longer, but you still die. There are convulsions. The skin flushes and turns purple. Eyes bulge. They say it's something like having a heart attack."
"Rashmi?" She laid her daughter's name down gently, as if she were tucking it into bed. "How did she die?"
Had the cops shown her the crime scene pictures? I decided they hadn't. "I don't think she suffered," I said.
She tore a long strip off the napkin. "You don't think I'm a very good mother, do you?"
I don't know exactly what I expected her to say, but this wasn't it. "Ms. Jones, I don't know much about you and your daughter. But I do know that you cared enough about her to hire me. I'm sorry I let you down."
She shook her head wearily, as if I had just flunked the pop quiz. One third does not equal .033 and Los Angeles has never been the capital of California. "Is there anything else I should know?" she said.
"There is." I had to tell her what I'd found out that morning, but I wasn't going to tell her that I was working for a devil. "You mentioned before that Rashmi had a friend named Kate."
"The Christer?" She tore another strip off the napkin.
I nodded. "Her name is Kate Vermeil. I don't know this for sure yet, but there's reason to believe that Rashmi and Kate were married yesterday. Does that make any sense to you?"
"Maybe yesterday it might have." Her voice was flat. "It doesn't anymore."
I could hear stirring in the next classroom. Chairs scraped against linoleum. Girls were jabbering at each other.
"I know Rashmi became a Christer," she said. "It's a broken religion. But then everything is broken, isn't it? My daughter and I … I don't think we ever understood each other. We were strangers at the end." The napkin was in shreds. "How old were you when it happened?"
"I wasn't born yet." She didn't have to explain what it was. "I'm not as old as I look."
"I was nineteen. I remember men, my father, my uncles. And the boys. I actually slept with one." She gave me a bleak smile. "Does that shock you, Ms. Hardaway?"
I hated it when grannies talked about having sex, but I just shook my head.
"I didn't love Sunil, but I said I'd marry him just so I could get out of my mother's house. Maybe that was what was happening with Rashmi and this Kate person?"
"I wouldn't know."
The school bell rang.
"I'm wearing white today, Ms. Hardaway, to honor my darling daughter." She gathered up the strips of napkin and the sandwich and the carton of milk and dropped them in the trashcan. "White is the Hindu color of mourning. But it's also the color of knowledge. The goddess of learning, Saraswati, is always shown wearing a white dress, sitting on a white lotus. There is something here I must learn." She fingered the gold embroidery at the neckline of her kameez. "But it's time for recess."
We walked to the door. "What will you do now?" She opened it. The fifth grade swarmed the hall, girls rummaging through their lockers.
"Find Kate Vermeil," I said.
She nodded. "Tell her I'm sorry."