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26

RAPHAEL VERY SLIGHTLY lowered the speed of tape number two, and the Tibetan temple bells took on a fogbound aura, mournful tolling lost in a gray swirl of nothingness, and a shadow moved across the table.

Oh, not again. Were those four people back? I will not permit distraction, Raphael promised himself. This is a critical moment, a critical

Was he going to get pinged again? The memory of the large man returned to him, that finger cocked, then fired, ricocheting off Raphael's skull. Through the clouded temple bells, he could almost hear again that painful ache in his head. Should he give it up for now and hope to get back to Voyij once the four had left, hope he was still at that point in the zone? What a shame.

A balloon face appeared, very close, coming in like a dirigible from the right. It was sideways; it was smiling; it was speaking; its glasses were starting to drop off its head; it was female

It was his mother.

"Hiy!" cried Raphael, recoiling. But it wasn't as though he'd sprung back; it was as though that dirigible had abruptly receded, still smiling, still talking, becoming somewhat smaller but also regaining its body, bent sideways in a pretzel shape over his table, dressed in a high-neck white blouse and loose golden slacks, twisting down to get that balloon into Raphael's line of sight.

Raphael's bounce had taken him, on his castered chair, immediately to the limit of the cord attaching his earphones to his editing equipment, which gave him an immediate choice: reverse, or lose your ears. Meanwhile, his mother was definitely losing her glasses, and then, in an effort to grab them before they hit his control panel, her balance.

Mother and son did quick, separate dances of survival, and then stopped, she with her glasses on, he with his earphones off. "Ma!" he cried, shutting everything down with both flailing hands. "What are you doing here? What are you doing here?"

Because his mother had never set foot in this house before. No member of his family had ever set foot here, or even close to here. This was his retreat, his nest, his safety net. But now, his mother. Here?

Wildly staring around, still shutting things down, not waiting for an answer to his first two questions, he stammered, "I was about to sweep, uh, laundry, I figured tonight I'd get, uh"

"Raphael."

"It isn't always like this, Ma, I've been working very"

"Raphael."

"A lot of times the place looks just like any"

"Raphael, I've come to get you, dear."

He blinked. "Get me?"

"You'll want to dress nicely," she said.

He gaped at her, trying to understand what she was talking about, trying to read her mind, but of course that was doomed to failure, because of the smiley face.

Raphael's mother always smiled, day and night, in sickness and in health, in warm sun or wintry blast, stuck in a traffic jam or just sailing along. Apparently, she'd started taking the medication for stress way back when she was carrying Raphael, and somehow had never quite stopped taking it, and quite obviously was still taking it today.

There had been times in Raphael's childhood when he had envied the other kids he knew whose mothers lost it, went ape, freaked out, dissolved into bitter tears, screamingly accused their children of everything from leaving the toilet lid up to attempted matricide, threw things, slammed doors, drank before lunch. There was none of that at Raphael's mother's house. In her house, everything was serene.

And now she was here, in his house, talking about getting him, talking about "dressing nicely." The way he dressed, in fact, was so that he wouldn't feel his clothes and wouldn't be distracted by them. He liked his loose T-shirt and baggy shorts. What could be nicer than that?

The question he asked, though, was slightly other: "Why do I have to dress nice?"

"Because you're going to court, dear. Come along," she said. "Your father is waiting in the car. He's afraid people will steal it. This is not a very nice neighborhood. Come along, Raphael."

"Court?" He'd said that word three or four times, while his mother had just kept calmly speaking on, and when at last she finished, he said it again: "Court? Why? What court?"

"Well, it's all to do with your uncle Otto's bar," she told him. "You know the one, you're taking care of it now that Uncle Otto lives in Florida."

"Everything's fine there," he said, but he did feel a moment of queasiness, thinking again about those four people.

They'd been here because of something to do with that bar, too. Oh, why couldn't the O.J. just go out of business and leave Raphael Medrick alone?

Meanwhile, his mother smiled and said, "Well, there does seem to be a little problem, dear, and Uncle Otto has flown up from Florida to do something about it. As I understand it, if this problem with the bar doesn't get fixed, your Uncle Otto will have to stay up here and not go back to Florida, and move in with your father and me."

"Why would he do that?" I'm not frightened, Raphael assured himself. There's nothing really wrong.

"Let's hope he doesn't have to," his mother said. "So, to help, your job is to go to this court and explain everything to the judge."

"What judge?"

Ignoring that, she said, "And remember that nice Doctor Ledvass, from when you were on probation? He'll be there, too, and he'll help you with the questions."

"Doctor Ledvass?" A droning, yawning, boring man, who'd been assigned by that other court, and couldn't have cared less about Raphael, and was only doing it for the money, and made no bones about it. He and Raphael had come to an understanding of mutual disinterest at once. Why would he come to help?

There was something wrong here. "I don't want to go," Raphael said.

"Oh, dear, darling," she said, but the smile never faltered. "If you won't go, they'll just send state police officers to come and take you there, and that might make the judge think you had something to hide or you didn't want to help or I don't know what judges like that think, but you'd better come along with your father and me."

Raphael looked mournfully at his equipment. "I'm in the middle of something here."

"Oh, it'll keep, dear, don't you worry, everything will be just fine. Now, let's not keep your father waiting, dear, go get dressed. As nicely as you can, dear. Socks, if you have them."

"Sure I've got socks," he said.

"Oh, good. Put them on. Go on, dear."

Reluctant but unable to refuse, he got to his feet and padded barefoot toward his bedroom, and his mother called after him, "And bring your toothbrush, dear."

He looked back at her. "Bring my toothbrush? To court?"

"Oh, just to be on the safe side, dear," she said, and gave him the most reassuring smile in the world.


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