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Evil Geniusby Catherine Jinks
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. Roths name and qualifications.
“Thats it,” said Mrs. Piggott. “Number twenty-nine.”
“Well, we cant stop here,” her husband replied. “No parking.”
“I told you to park back there.”
“It doesnt matter. Well try down this street.”
“Stuart, thats a one-way street.”
“I knew wed never find a space. Not around this area.”
“Just shut up for a minute, will you?”
Mr. and Mrs. Piggott were not Cadels 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 didnt 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.
“Were going to be late,” Mrs. Piggott warned her husband after they had circled the block four times in Mr. Piggotts big, gleaming Mercedes Benz. “Just let us out, for gods sake.”
“Ill park here.”
“Stuart, youll never fit in there!”
Cadel said nothing. He sat on the backseat, dressed in his good brown cords and a lambs-wool sweater, staring out the window at Dr. Roths house. He didnt like the look of it. He thought it had a murky, ominous appearance.
“I dont 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 dont,” Cadel retorted.
“Yes we do.”
“There were no formal charges,” Cadel pointed out, in his high, clear voice. “It was just a suggestion.”
“Thats 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, youll wreck his clothes.”
Cadel was so small—even for a seven-year-old—that he didnt 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 lions 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 doors 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 wasnt a man who normally waited for anything. “Weve 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.
“Ill just go and tell Dr. Roth that youve arrived,” she declared, before lumbering out of the room. Cadel didnt watch her go. He was more interested in the computer that shed left behind, with its alluring glow and contented hum. The screen saver was one that hed never seen before: a pattern of falling dominoes.
“Dont even think about it,” Stuart rasped when he realized what was attracting Cadels 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 baskets contents. He was used to the broken activity centers and torn books offered for the amusement of younger patients at his local doctors office and wasnt 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 Rubiks Cube, and a Frankenstein mask. Further investigation uncovered a dead spider embedded in a resin paperweight, a sharks 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. Roths 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 Cadels 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 dont 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 wasnt 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.
“Thats the bathroom,” he remarked in a soothing voice with a cultured English accent. “Im afraid my office is at the top, here.”
“Dr. Roth?” said Stuart.
“Were 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, Im afraid.”
Stuart grunted. Lanna smiled a meaningless social smile. They both passed into Dr. Roths office ahead of Cadel, who stopped on the threshold. He gazed up at Thaddeus.
“Why does she have black teeth?” Cadel inquired.
“Wilfreda? Im not sure,” Thaddeus replied. “Poor dental hygiene, I should think. Her parents had very strange ideas about diet and doctors. Maybe they didnt believe in toothbrushes, either.” He cocked his head. “So youre Cadel.”
“Come in, Cadel.”
Dr. Roths 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. Cadels 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 shouldnt be allowed to use a computer except under supervision. Responsible supervision.”
“Hes far too young to understand,” added Lanna, smoothing down her short skirt. “His emotional maturity hasnt caught up with his intellect.”
“He has a genius IQ,” said her husband gruffly. “We had him tested.”
“Its not his fault. We would have said something if wed known what he was up to.”
“Hes 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 cant!” Stuart spluttered.
“Hes not allowed!” Lanna cried.
“Oh, I think hell be all right,” said Dr. Roth. “Ill be interested to see if he does make a nuisance of himself. Theres 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. “Im sure thats it. Hes bored at school.”
“He knows he shouldnt have,” Stuart growled, “but I dont think hes aware—”
“That its against the law,” his wife interjected, at which point Stuart turned on her.
“I was going to say that hes probably not aware of the full implications, if youd let me get a word in edgewise,” he snapped. “Its not against the law—not when youre seven years old. Thats the whole point. You cant 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 youve discussed these matters with the school he attends? Whats it called?”
“Elphington Grammar,” Lanna supplied. “We live on the North Shore, you see.”
“Theyve expelled him,” Stuart said flatly. “Dont want him there. Too much like hard work, designing special programs for a genius.”
“So weve enrolled him in Jamboree Gardens. They believe in small classes, and they nurture potential on an individual basis.”
“Its 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. Roths 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.
“Were not his birth parents,” she revealed in a low voice. “If that matters. He knows, of course.”
“This wouldnt have happened if his nanny hadnt 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 Lannas 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.”
“Hes a funny kid,” Stuart admitted. “Hes not normal.”
“Well, hes not. You cant pretend he is.”
But Cadel didnt 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 dont often argue,” his wife broke in, smiling nervously at Thaddeus. “Youre 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, ‘Youre 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. “Thats 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 cant 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 hes not. We checked it out. Hes 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.
“Were just doing what were told,” he mumbled. “So this whole business wont happen again.”
“Perhaps you can teach Cadel some social skills?” Lanna proposed brightly. “Help him to understand that he cant do whatever he wants just because hes smarter than everyone else?”
“Because he thinks hes 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. “Youve been most helpful. Ill keep it in mind when I talk to your son—it might be interesting to have some more tests done, but Ill 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 thats all right with you.”
“Well, I . . . I guess so.”
“If its 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 didnt appear to have registered the fact that Lanna was addressing him.
“He wont even notice were gone,” her husband muttered. “You watch.”
“Well be right downstairs, honey. We wont be far.”
“Youd think he was deaf,” Stuart complained. As he nudged his wife from the room, she threw Dr. Roth a toothy smile.
“Hes not deaf, actually,” she assured the psychologist. “Weve 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 typists 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 Cadels face.
Cadels hands jumped up in a startled reflex.
“Ill make a deal with you, Cadel,” said Thaddeus. “Can you keep a secret?”
Solemnly, Cadel nodded.
“Good. Then this is what well do. If you dont tell your parents about it, Ill 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 Thaddeuss mouth rose, revealing one yellowish, pointed canine tooth. Through the lenses of his spectacles, his eyes were as black as a snakes. His voice dropped to a throaty whisper. “Next time,” he murmured, “whatever you do, dont get caught.”
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