Garth stared at me for some time before he finally answered. 'Janet came to you and I think that's significant. It's not going to hurt you to spend a few extra days around here, Mongo. You've got a lot of relatives you haven't seen or spoken to since you were a kid. They're very interested in you, but they're also very sensitive about your feelings. You have to make the first move, show them you're not as crazy or arrogant or whatever as everyone thinks you are.'

'Is this what the NYPD calls 'sensitive social management'?'

'Classes at the university don't start for a month, and I know you don't have any big business pending because you've been goofing off for the past three weeks. Spend some time here. Ask some questions, satisfy yourself that everything's been done that can be done. You put Janet's mind at ease. While you're at it, you'll spend a lot of good time with Mom and Dad and get to know the rest of your family. They're part of you, brother. Fill in your empty spaces.'

It should have been time for me to come up with something appropriately sarcastic. Instead, I said: 'Okay.'

'Anything you want me to do for you when I get back to the city?'

'Yeah. Check with my answering service. If I've got any important calls, touch base for me. Tell them I'll be back in a week.'

'Will do.' Garth smiled, tapped me on the shoulder with a big, meaty fist. 'This is going to be good for you, Mongo. Now I'm going to sit with Mom and Dad for a few minutes.'

3

A quote from Edward Teller was typed on a card taped to the door.

Science Is a fable which has been made consistent.

Tommy Dernhelm's 'room' was half of a spacious farmhouse basement, and he'd used every inch of it. The walls were papered with fantasy posters and artwork from what looked like every Lord of the Rings calendar ever published. There were multiple copies of everything J. R. R. Tolkien had ever written. The three volumes of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit stacked next to a Radio Shack TR4100 computer terminal looked worn to a point just this side of dust. Attached to the computer terminal were a display screen, printer, and banks of arcane computer components.

'Expensive hobby,' I said.

Janet walked across the room to the computer terminal, caressed the back of the rickety swivel chair sitting in front of it. 'He was so bright, Robby. He never wanted to spend money on the things other kids do, so John and I wanted to help him get everything he did want. Tommy did little odd jobs for neighbors to earn money, and for the past couple of years we've had extra money from the test plantings. We believed Tommy would be a great scientist one day.'

'What 'test plantings'?'

'The Volsung Corporation,' Janet replied absently. 'It's a private company that's trying to develop new disease-resistant strains of wheat, sorghum, corn, and soybeans. When they first started building they mailed out a brochure to everyone in the county explaining what they were doing, but I didn't understand a lot of it. It talked about DNA, gene splicing, enzymes, things like that. They had a name for what they were doing, but I don't recall what it was.'

'Agrigenetics?'

'That sounds like it. Anyway, they lease a certain amount of acreage from just about every farmer in the county, and they use the plots for test plantings. I must say they pay very well for the privilege-much more than we would have asked for if they'd asked what we wanted for the land instead of making an offer straight out.'

'Interesting. Where is this Volsung Corporation?'

'About twenty miles west of Duck Pond, out on the prairie. Why?'

'Just curious. What did the cops take out of here?'

'Nothing,' Janet said, a look of surprise on her face. 'They never even looked down here.'

If Janet was surprised at the question, I was even more surprised at the answer; it was a little tidbit Garth obviously hadn't picked up during the course of his phone conversations. 'You're sure they didn't even look down here?'

My sister nodded. Her fair hair, drained of its usual brightness by fatigue and tension, bounced listlessly on her shoulders. 'Jake came to tell me the bad news, but he never really asked me any questions.' She quickly put a hand to her mouth and stifled a sob. 'I suppose he felt he'd found all the answers he needed out at Coop's place.'

'Uh-huh.'

'Everything here is just the way it was when Tommy ran away. As you can see, he was very good about keeping his room clean, and he didn't like anyone to touch anything. He stored a lot of books and magazines in a shed out back, but I think it would take you a year to go through it all.'

A year was a conservative estimate. Three-quarters of the shed was stacked to the ceiling with taped cartons. I opened a couple, found textbooks, magazines, computer journals, some science fiction novels and a lot more fantasy novels and comic books. There were two editions of the fantasy game Dungeons and Dragons, with half a dozen accompanying worn manuals. I thought I could safely presume that anything that might be connected with Tommy's death was back in his room, and we returned there.

John Dernhelm was waiting for us. Janet's husband was in his mid-forties and, like most farmers, in good shape from clean air and hard, clean work. I'd met him for the first time three days before, and it hadn't taken me long to see that we weren't going to find many interests in common. Still, in light of the fact that Janet had seen fit to marry him, I assumed he had something going for him. He was a nice enough fellow, but I had a strong feeling that my dwarfism, combined with Tommy's eerie, incandescent brilliance, had confirmed his suspicion that he'd married into a family with more funny genes than the Volsung Corporation.

He was carrying a large glass tumbler filled to the brim with a delicious-looking amber fluid and lots of ice; Dernhelm was looking better and better to me.

'Janet told me you like Scotch,' Dernhelm said with a thin smile, 'so I went out and bought some. I meant to offer you a drink before dinner, but I forgot. I thought you might like one now.'

'Thanks,' I said, reaching for the glass like a drowning man clutching at a life preserver, downing a quick swallow. It was good Scotch, smooth and mellow but with just enough bite to remind you that it wasn't iced tea. My throat was still raw from the firewater my father had given me in the afternoon. I took a second sip, looked at him. He was staring at me with an expression on his face that was very difficult to read. 'John, I understand you lease out some land to the Volsung Corporation?'

Dernhelm shot a quick, irritated look at his wife. His dark brown eyes flashed, and some of the color went out of his sun-scorched flesh. 'I guess that's so, Robby,' he said, obviously annoyed. 'Just about every farmer in the county leases out acreage. They tell me there are differences in the soil throughout the county, and they like to check every variable.'

'Does each farmer tend the crop that's planted on his land?'

Dernhelm's jaw muscles clenched; he was a man who didn't like answering questions, personal or otherwise. 'No,' he said at last. 'We sign a contract that says we won't interfere with the crops in any way. We're not even allowed to look at them. They're all important scientists connected with the place, and I guess they have their own way of doing things.'

'Do you mind my asking how much they pay you to lease the land?'

He flushed, jammed his hands into his pockets. 'What does this have to do with Tommy's death?'

'Probably nothing,' I replied evenly.

'Then I guess I do mind, Robby,' he said tightly.

'Okay, John. I didn't mean to pry.'

'If you don't mean to pry, how come you ask so many questions about my business?'

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