Audiobook excerpt (for a diffrent section).
“Mom is still alive, but she’s going to be murdered at midnight on Good Friday,” Amanda Martín told the Deputy Chief, who didn’t even think to question the girl since she’d already proved she knew more than he and all his colleagues in Homicide put together. The woman in question was being held at an unknown location somewhere in the 7,000 square miles of the San Francisco Bay Area; if they were to find her alive, they had only a few hours and the Deputy Chief had no idea where or how to begin.
They referred to the first murder as “The Case of the Misplaced Baseball Bat”, so as not to insult the victim by giving it a more explicit name. ‘They’ were five teenagers and an elderly man who met up online to play a role-playing game called Ripper.
On the morning of October 13, 2011 at 8.15am, the fourth-grade students of Golden Hills Elementary School raced into the gym to whistle blasts from their coach in the doorway. The vast, modern, well-equipped gym - built using a generous donation from a former pupil who had made a fortune in the property market before the bubble burst - was also used for graduation ceremonies, school plays and concerts. Normally, the fourth-graders would run two laps around the basketball court to warm up, but this morning they came to a shuddering halt in the middle of the hall, shocked by the grisly sight of a man sprawled across a vaulting horse, his pants pooled around his ankles, his buttocks bared and the handle of a baseball bat inserted into his rectum. The stunned children stood motionless around the corpse until one nine-year-old boy, more daring than his classmates, bent down and ran his finger through the dark stain on the floor and realized that it was not chocolate but congealed blood; a second boy picked up a spent bullet cartridge and slipped it into his pocket, intending to swap it during recess for a porn magazine, while a girl filmed the scene on her cellphone. Just then, the coach bounded over to the little group of students, whistle trilling with every breath, and seeing this strange spectacle – which did not look like a prank – suffered a panic attack. The fourth-graders raised the alarm and other teachers quickly appeared and dragged the children kicking and screaming from the gym, followed reluctantly by the coach. The teachers removed the baseball bat, and as they laid the corpse out on the floor, they noticed a bullet hole in the center of the victim’s forehead. They covered the body with a pair of sweatpants, closed the door and waited for the police, who arrived precisely nineteen minutes later, by which time the crime scene had been so completely contaminated it was impossible to tell what the hell had happened.
A little later, during the first press conference, Deputy Chief Bob Martín announced that the victim had been identified as one Ed Staton, 49, a school security guard. “Tell us about the baseball bat!” a prurient tabloid journalist yelled. Furious to discover that information about the case had been leaked, which was not only humiliating to Ed Staton but possibly damaging to the reputation of the school, the Deputy Chief snapped that such details would be documented during the autopsy. “What about suspects?” “This security guard, was he gay?” Bob Martín ignored the barrage of questions and brought the press conference to a close, assuring those present that the Personal Crimes Division would keep the media informed of all pertinent facts in the investigation now underway - an investigation he would personally oversee.
A group of twelfth-graders had been in the gym the night before rehearsing a Halloween musical involving zombies and rock ‘n’ roll, but they had not found out what had happened until the following day. By midnight - some hours before the crime was committed, according to police - there had been no one in the school building. Three teenagers in the parking lot, who had been loading their instruments into a van, had been the last people to see Ed Staton alive. In their statements they said that the guard had waved to them before driving off in a small car at about 12.30. Although they had been some way off, and there was no lighting in the parking lot, they had clearly recognized Staton’s uniform in the moonlight, but they could not agree on the color or make of the car he was driving or whether there had been anyone in the vehicle with him. The police quickly worked out that it had not been the victim’s car, since Staton’s silver- gray SUV was parked a few yards from the band’s van. It was suggested that Staton had driven off with someone who had been waiting for him and came back to the school later to pick up his car.
At a second press conference, the Deputy Chief of the Personal Crimes Division explained that the guard was not due to finish his shift until 6am and they had no information about why he had left the school that night, returning later only to find death lying in wait. Bob Martín’s daughter Amanda, who was watching the press conference on TV, phoned her father to correct him: it was not death that had been lying in wait for Ed Staton, but a murderer.
For the Ripper players, this first murder was the start of what would become a dangerous obsession. The questions they were faced with were those that also puzzled the police: where did the guard go in the brief period between being seen by the band members and the estimated time of death? How did he get back to the school? Why had the guard not tried to defend himself before being shot through the head? What was the significance of a baseball bat being inserted into such an intimate orifice?
Perhaps Ed Staton had deserved his fate, but the kids who played Ripper were not interested in moral issues; they focused strictly on the facts. Up to this point, the game of Ripper had revolved around fictional nineteenth-century crimes that took place in a fog-shrouded London where characters were faced with scoundrels armed with axes and icepicks, with archetypal villains intent on disturbing the peace of the city. But when the players agreed to Amanda Martín’s suggestion that they investigate murders in present-day San Francisco – another city shrouded in fog – the game took on a more realistic dimension. Celeste Roko, the famous astrologer, had predicted a bloodbath in the city and Amanda Martín had decided to take this unique opportunity to put the art of divination to the test. To do so she enlisted the help of the other Ripper players and her best friend Blake Jackson - who was, coincidentally, her grandfather - little suspecting that the game would turn violent and her mother, Indiana Jackson, would be among its victims.
The kids who played Ripper were a select group of freaks and geeks from around the world who had first met up online to hunt down and destroy the mysterious Jack the Ripper, tackling obstacles and enemies along the way. As games master, Amanda was responsible for plotting these adventures, carefully bearing in mind the strengths and weaknesses of the alter- egos created by the players.
A boy in New Zealand who had been paralyzed as the result of an accident and was confined to a wheelchair – but whose mind was still free to explore fantastical worlds, to live in the past or in the future – created the character of Esmeralda, a cunning and curious gypsy girl. A shy, lonely teenager who lived with his mother in New Jersey, and who for two years now had left his bedroom only to go to the bathroom, played Sir Edmond Paddington, a bigoted, cantankerous, retired English colonel – an invaluable character, since he was an expert in weapons and military strategy. A nineteen-year-old girl in Montreal who had spent much of her short life in hospital suffering from an eating disorder had created Abatha, a psychic capable of reading minds, manipulating memories and communicating with the dead. A thirteen-year-old African-American orphan with an IQ of 156 and a scholarship to an academy in Reno for gifted children, decided to be Sherlock Holmes, since logic and deductive reasoning came effortlessly to him.
In the beginning, Amanda did not have her own character. Her role was simply to oversee the game and make sure players respected the rules; but given the impending bloodbath, she allowed herself to bend the rules a little. She moved the action of the game from London, 1888, to San Francisco, 2012. Furthermore – in breach of the rules – she created for herself a henchman named Kabel, a dimwitted but loyal and obedient hunchback she entrusted with obeying her every whim, however ridiculous. It didn’t escape her grandfather’s notice that the henchman’s name was an anagram of his own. At sixty-four, Blake Jackson was much too old for children’s games, but agreed to participate in Ripper so he and his granddaughter would have something more in common than horror movies, chess matches, and the brainteasers they set each other – puzzles and problems he sometimes managed to solve by consulting a couple of friends who were professors of philosophy and mathematics at Berkeley.
Lying face down on the massage table, Ryan Miller was dozing thanks to the healing hands of Indiana Jackson, a first-degree Reiki practitioner, well versed in the techniques developed by the Japanese Buddhist Miko Usui in 1922. Having read sixty-odd pages on the subject, Miller knew that there was no scientific proof that Reiki was actually beneficial, but he figured it had to have some mysterious power since it had been denounced by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2009 as dangerous to Christian spiritual health.
Indiana Jackson worked in Treatment Room 8 on the second floor of the North Beach’s famous Holistic Clinic, in the heart of the San Francisco’s ‘Little Italy’. The door to the surgery was painted indigo - the color of spirituality - and the walls were pale green, the color of health. A sign in copperplate script read “Indiana, healer”, and beneath it was a list of the therapies she offered: Intuitive Massage, Reiki, Magnet Therapy, Crystal Therapy, Aromatherapy. One wall of the tiny waiting room was decorated with a garish tapestry bought from an Asian store of the Hindu goddess Shakti as a sensual young woman with long raven hair, dressed all in red and adorned with golden jewels. In one hand she held a sword, in another a flower. The goddess was depicted as having many arms, and each hand held one of the symbols of her power – which ranged from a musical instrument to something that looked like a cellphone. Indiana was such a devout disciple of Shakti that she had once considered taking her name until her father, Blake Jackson, managed to convince her that a Hindu goddess’s name was not appropriate for a tall, blonde voluptuous American, with the looks of an inflatable doll.
Given the nature of his work and his background in the military, Ryan Miller was a skeptic, and yet he gratefully surrendered to Indiana’s tender ministrations and left each session feeling weightless and euphoric – something that could either be explained by a placebo effect combined with his puppyish infatuation for the healer, as his friend Pedro Alarcón suggested, or, as Indiana insisted, by the fact that his chakras were now correctly aligned. This peaceful hour was the most pleasurable in his solitary existence and Miller experienced more intimacy in his healing sessions with Indiana than he did in his strenuous sexual gymnastics with Jennifer Yang, the most regular of his lovers. He was a tall, heavy-set man with the neck and shoulders of a wrestler, arms as thick and stout as tree-trunks and the the delicate hands of a pastry chef. He had dark, close-cropped hair streaked with gray, teeth that seemed too white to be natural, pale gray eyes, a broken nose and thirteen visible scars including his stump. Indiana Jackson suspected he had other scars, but she hadn’t seen him without his boxer shorts. Yet.
“How do you feel?” the healer asked.
“Great. I’m starving though, that’s probably because I smell like dessert.”
“That’s essential orange oil. If you’re just going to make fun, I don’t know why you bother coming.”
“To see you, babe, why else?”
“In that case, my therapies are not right for you,” Indiana snapped.
“You know I’m just kidding, Indi.”
“Orange oil is a youthful and happy essence - two qualities you seem to lack, Ryan. And I’ll have you know that Reiki is so powerful that second-degree practitioners are capable of ‘distance healing’; they can work without the patient even being present - though I’d probably need to spend twenty years studying in Japan to get to level two.”
“Don’t even think about distance healing. Without you here, this would be a lousy deal.” “Healing is not a deal!”
"Everyone’s got to make a living. You charge less than your colleagues in the Holistic Clinic. Do you know how much Yumiko charges for a single acupuncture session?”
“I’ve no idea, and it’s none of my business.”
“Nearly twice as much as you,” said Miller. “Why don’t you let me pay you more?” “You’re my friend, I’d rather you didn’t pay at all, but if I didn’t let you pay, you probably wouldn’t come back. You won’t allow yourself to be in anyone’s debt. Pride is your great sin.”
“Would you miss me?”
“No, because we’d still see each other as friends. But I bet you’d miss me. Come on, admit it, these sessions have really helped. Remember how much pain you were in when you first came? Next week, we’ll do a session of magnet therapy.”
“And a massage, please. You’ve got the hands of an angel.”
“Okay, and a massage. Now get your clothes on, I’ve got another client waiting.” “Don’t you find it weird that almost all your clients are men?” asked Miller clambering down from the massage table.
“They’re not all men - I treat women too, a few children and one arthritic poodle.”
Miller was convinced that if Indiana’s other male clients were anything like him, they paid simply to be near her rather than because they had any faith in her dubious healing methods. This was what had first brought him to Treatment Room #8, something he admitted to Indiana during their third session so there would be no misunderstandings, and also because his initial attraction had blossomed into friendship. Indiana had burst out laughing – she was well used to come-ons – and had made a bet with him that after two or three weeks, when he felt the results, he would change his mind. Ryan accepted the bet, and suggested dinner at his favorite restaurant: “If you can cure me, I’ll pick up the tab, otherwise dinner is on you,” he said, hoping to spend time with her somewhere more conducive to conversation than these two cramped cubicles watched over by the omniscient Shakti.
Ryan and Indiana had met in 2009 on one of the trails that wound through Samuel P. Taylor State Park among thousand-year-old trees three hundred feet high. Indiana had taken her bicycle on the ferry across San Francisco bay, and once in Marin County had cycled the twenty or so miles to the park as part of a training program for a long bike ride to Los Angeles she planned to make a few weeks later. As a rule, Indiana thought sport was pointless, and she had no particular interest in keeping fit; but her daughter, Amanda, was determined to take part in a charity bike ride for AIDS and Indiana was not about to let her go alone.
She had just stopped the bike to take a drink from her water bottle and had one foot on the ground when Ryan Miller raced past with Attila on a leash. She didn’t see the dog until it was practically on top of her; the shock sent her flying and she ended up tangled in the bike frame. Miller apologized, helped her to her feet and tried to straighten the buckled wheel while Indiana dusted herself off. She was more concerned about Attila than her own bumps and bruises. She’d never before seen such a disfigured animal: the dog had scars everywhere, bald patches on its belly and two metallic fangs worthy of Dracula in an otherwise toothless maw; one of its ears was missing as though hacked off with scissors. She stroked the animal’s head gently and leaned down to kiss its snout, but Miller quickly jerked her away.
“Don’t get your face too close! Attila’s a war dog.”
“What breed is he?”
“Pureblood Belgian Malinois. They’re smarter and stronger than German Shepherds, and they keep their backs straight so they don’t suffer from hip problems.”
“What on earth happened to the poor thing?”
“He survived a landmine explosion,” Miller said, dipping his handkerchief in the cold water of the river creek where, a week earlier, he’d watched salmon leaping against the current, in their arduous upstream to spawn.
Miller handed Indiana the wet handkerchief to dab the grazes on her legs and suggested that in future she wear kneepads, like any sensible cyclist. He was wearing trackpants, a sweatshirt and something that looked like a bulletproof jacket – it weighed 45lbs, he explained, making it perfect for training because when he took it off to race, he felt like he was flying. They sat among the thick tangled roots of a tree and talked, watched over by Attila who studied Miller’s every move as though waiting for an order and, from time to time, nuzzled the woman and discreetly sniffed her. The warm afternoon, heady with the scent of pine needles and dead leaves, was lit by shafts of sunlight that pierced the treetops like spears; the air quivered with birdsong, the hum of mosquitoes, the lapping of the creek and the wind in the leaves; it was the perfect setting for a meeting in a romantic novel.
Miller had been a Navy SEAL – a member of SEAL Team Six, the unit which in May 2011 would launch the assault on Osama Bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. In fact, one of Miller’s former teammates would be the one to kill the Al-Qaeda leader. When he and Indiana met, however, Miller could not have known this would happen two years later; no one could, except perhaps Celeste Roko, by studying the movement of the planets. Miller was granted an honorable discharge in 2007 after he lost a leg in combat – an injury that didn’t stop him continuing to compete as a triathlete, as he told Indiana. Up to this point, she had scarcely looked at Miller, focused as she was on the dog, but now she noticed that he wore only one shoe; his other leg ended in a curved blade.
“It’s called a Flex-Foot Cheetah – they model it on the way big cats run in the wild,” he explained, showing her the prosthesis.
“How does it fit?”
He hiked up the leg of his pants and she studied the contraption fastened to the stump. “It’s carbon fiber,” Miller explained. “It’s so light and perfect that officials tried to stop Oscar Pistorius, a South African double amputee, from competing in the Olympics because they said his prostheses gave him an advantage over other runners. This model is designed for running,” he went on, explaining with a certain pride that this was cutting-edge technology. “I’ve got other prosthetics for walking and cycling.’
“Doesn’t it hurt?”
“Sometimes. But there’s other stuff that hurts more.”
“Things from my past. But that’s enough about me, tell me about you.”
“Sorry, but I haven’t got anything as interesting as a bionic leg,” Indiana confessed, “and I’ve only got one scar, which I’m not going to show you. As a kid, I fell on my butt on some barbed wire.”
Indiana and Ryan sat in the park chatting about this and that under the watchful eye of Attila. She introduced herself – half joking, half serious – by telling him she was a Pisces, her ruling planet was Neptune, her lucky number 8, her element water, and her birthstones were silver-gray moonstone, which nurtures intuitive power, and aquamarine, which encourages visions, opens the mind and promotes happiness. Indiana had no intention of seducing Ryan Miller because for the past four years she had been in love with a man named Alan Keller and had chosen the path of fidelity. Had she wanted to seduce him, she would have talked about Shakti, goddess of beauty, sex and fertility, since the mere mention of these attributes was enough to overcome the scruples of any man – Indiana was heterosexual – if her voluptuous body was not enough. Indiana never mentioned that Shakti was also the divine mother, the primordial life-force, the sacred feminine - since these qualities tended to have an off-putting effect on men.
Usually, Indiana didn’t tell men that she was a healer by profession, since she had met her fair share of cynics who listened to her talk about cosmic energy with a condescending smirk while they stared at her breasts. But somehow she sensed she could trust this Navy SEAL, so she gave him a brief account of her methods, though when put into words they sounded less than convincing even to her ears. To Miller it sounded more like voodoo than medicine, but he pretended to be interested since the information gave him a perfect excuse to see her again. He told her about the cramps he suffered at night, spasms that could sometimes bring him to a standstill in the middle of a race. Indiana prescribed a course of therapeutic massage and a diet of banana and kiwifruit smoothies.
They were so caught up in the moment that the sun had already begun to set when Indiana realized that she was going to miss the ferry back to San Francisco. She jumped to her feet and said goodbye, but Miller explained that his van was just outside the park and offered to give her a ride – after all, they lived in the same city. The van had a souped-up engine, oversized wheels, a roof rack, a bicycle rack and a tasseled pink velvet cushion for Attila which neither Miller nor his dog had chosen – Miller’s girlfriend Jennifer Yang had given it to him in a fit of Chinese humor.
Three days later, unable to get Indiana out of his mind, Miller had turned up at the Holistic Clinic just to see the woman with the bicycle. She was the polar opposite of the usual women of his fantasies: he preferred slim, Asian women like Jennifer Yang, who as well as having perfect features - ivory skin, silken hair and a bone structure to die for - was also a high- powered banker. Indiana, on the other hand, was a big-boned, curvaceous, good-hearted typical American girl of the type that usually bored him and yet, for some inexplicable reason, he found Indiana irresistible. “Creamy and delicious,” was how he described her to Pedro Alarcón, adjectives that were more appropriate to high-cholesterol food, as his friend pointed out. Shortly after Miller had introduced them, Alarcón commented that Indiana, with her ample diva’s bosom, her blonde mane, her sinuous curves and long lashes, had the larger-than-life sexiness of a gangsters’ moll from a 1970s movie, but Miller didn’t know anything about the goddesses who graced the silver screen before he was born.
Miller was somewhat surprised by the Holistic Clinic – having expected a sort of Buddhist temple, he found himself standing in front of a hideous three-storey building the color of guacamole. He didn’t know that it had been built in 1940 and for years attracted tourists who flocked to admire the art-deco style and the stained-glass windows inspired by Klimt, but that in the earthquake of 1989 its magnificent façade had collapsed, two of the windows had been smashed and the remaining two had since been auctioned off. They had been replaced with those tinted glass windows the color of chicken shit favored by button factories and military barracks.
Meanwhile, during one of the many misguided renovations the building had undergone, the geometric black-and-white tiled floor had been replaced with linoleum, since it was easier to clean. The decorative green granite pillars imported from India and the tall lacquered double doors had been sold to a Thai restaurant. All that remained of its former glory was the wrought- iron banister on the stairs and two period lamps which, if they had been genuine Lalique, would probably have suffered the same fate as the pillars and the doors. The doorman’s lodge had been bricked up and twenty feet lopped off the once bright, spacious lobby to build windowless, cave- like offices. But as Miller arrived that morning the sun shimmered on the yellow-gold windows and for a magical half hour the space seemed suspended in amber, the walls dripped caramel and the lobby fleetingly recovered some of its former splendor.
Miller went up to Treatment Room #8, prepared to agree to any therapy, however bizarre. He half-expected to see Indiana decked out like a priestess; instead she greeted him wearing a white coat and a pair of white clogs with her hair pulled back into a ponytail and tied with a scrunchie. There was nothing of the sorceress about her. She got him to fill out a detailed form, then took him back out into the corridor and had him walk up and down to study his gait. Only then did she tell him to strip down to his boxer shorts and lie on the massage table. Having examined him, she discovered one of his hips was slightly higher than the other and he had a minor curvature to his spine – unsurprising in a man with only one leg. In addition she diagnosed an energy blockage in the Sacral Chakra, knotted shoulder muscles, tension and stiffness in the neck and an exaggerated startle reflex. In a word, he was still a Navy SEAL.
Indiana assured him that some of her therapies would be helpful, but that if he wanted them to be successful, he had to learn to relax. She recommended acupuncture sessions with Yumiko Sato, two doors down, and, without waiting for him to agree, picked up the phone and made an appointment for him so see a Qigong master in Chinatown five blocks from the Holistic Clinic. It was only to humor her that Miller agreed to these therapies, but in both cases he was pleasantly surprised.
Yumiko Sato, a person of indeterminate age and gender who had close-cropped hair like his own, thick glasses, a dancer’s delicate fingers and a sepulchral serenity, took his pulse and arrived at the same diagnosis as Indiana. Miller was advised that acupuncture could be used to treat his physical pain, but it would not heal the wounds in his mind. He flinched, thinking he had misheard. The phrase intrigued him and, some months later, after they had established a bond of trust, he asked Yumiko what she had meant. Yumiko Sato said simply that only fools have no mental wounds.
Miller’s Qigong lessons with Master Xai – who was originally from Laos and had a beatific face and the belly of a Laughing Buddha – were a revelation: the perfect combination of balance, breathing, movement and meditation. It was the ideal exercise for body and mind and Miller quickly incorporated it into his daily routine.
Indiana didn’t manage to cure the spasms within three weeks as promised, but Ryan Miller lied so he could take her out and pay for dinner since by then he realized that her financial circumstances bordered on poverty. The bustling yet intimate restaurant, the French-influenced Vietnamese food and the bottle of Flowers pinot noir all played a part in cementing a friendship which in time Miller would come to think of as his greatest treasure. He had lived his life among men: the fifteen Navy SEALs he’d trained with when he was twenty were his true family; like him they were inured to rigorous physical exertion, to the terror and exhilaration of war, to the tedium of hours spent idle. Some of his comrades he had not seen in years, others he had seen only a few months earlier, but he kept in touch with them all; they would always be his brothers.
Before he had lost his left leg, the Navy vet’s relationships with women had been uncomplicated: sexual, sporadic, and so brief that the features of these women had blurred into a single face that looked not unlike Jennifer Yang’s. They were usually just flings, and when from time to time he did fall for someone, the relationship never lasted since his life - constantly on the move, constantly fighting to the death – did not lend itself to emotional attachments, less still to marriage and children. He fought a constant war against his enemies, some real, others imaginary; this was how he had spent his youth.
In civilian life, Miller was awkward, a fish out of water. He found it difficult to make small talk and his long silences sometimes seemed insulting to people who didn’t know him well. The fact that San Francisco was the center of a thriving gay community meant it was teeming with beautiful, available, successful women who were very different from the girls Miller was used to encountering in dive bars or hanging around the barracks. In the right light, Ryan Miller could easily pass for handsome and his disability – aside from giving him the martyred air of a man who has suffered for his country – offered a good excuse to strike up a conversation. He was never short of offers, but when he was with the sort of intelligent woman he found attractive, he worried so much about making a good impression that he ended up boring them. No California woman preferred to spend the evening listening to war stories, however heroic, rather than going clubbing – no one, that is, except Jennifer Yang, who had inherited not only the infinite patience of her ancestors in the Celestial Empire, but the ability to pretend she was listening when actually she was thinking about something else. And yet, from the very first time they had met among the sequoias in Samuel P. Taylor State Park, Miller had felt comfortable being with Indiana Jackson and, a few weeks later, when they had dinner at the Vietnamese restaurant, he realized he didn’t need to rack his brains for things to talk about because half a glass of wine was all it took to loosen Indiana’s tongue. The time flew by, and when he checked his watch, Miller saw it was past midnight and the only other people in the restaurant were two Mexican waiters clearing tables with the disgruntled air of men who had finished their shift and were anxious to get home. It was on that night, three years ago, that Miller and Indiana had become firm friends.
For all his initial skepticism, after three or four months the ex-soldier was forced to admit that Indiana was not just some crazy New Age hippie; she genuinely had the gift of healing. Her therapies relaxed him, he slept more soundly and the cramps and spasms had all but disappeared. But the most wonderful thing about their sessions together was the peace they brought him: her hands radiated affection and her sympathetic presence stilled the voices from his past.
As for Indiana, she came to rely on this strong, silent friend, who kept her fit by forcing her to jog the endless paths and forest trails in the San Francisco area and who had bailed her out when she had financial problems and couldn’t bring herself to approach her father. They got along well, and though the words were never spoken, she sensed that their friendship might have blossomed into a passionate affair if she wasn’t still hung up on her elusive lover Alan Keller, and Miller wasn’t so determined to push away love in order to atone for his sins.
The summer her mother met Ryan Miller, Amanda Martín had been fourteen, though she could have passed for ten. She was a skinny, gawky girl with thick glasses and a retainer who hid behind her mop of hair or the hood of her sweatshirt to blot out the unbearable noise and glare of the world; she looked so unlike her mother that people often asked if she was adopted. From the first, Miller treated Amanda with the exaggerated courtesy of a Japanese gentleman. He made no effort to help her during their long bike ride to Los Angeles, although, being an experienced triathlete, he had helped with her training and her preparations for the trip, something that won him the girl’s trust.
One Friday morning, all three of them – Indiana, Amanda and Miller – set off from San Francisco at 7am with two thousand other keen cyclists wearing red AIDS awareness ribbons, escorted by a procession of cars and trucks filled with volunteers transporting tents and provisions. They arrived in Los Angeles the following Friday, their butts red-raw, their legs stiff and the minds as free of thoughts as newborn babes. For seven days they had pedaled up hills and along highways, past stretches of beautiful countryside and others of hellish traffic. To Ryan Miller - for whom a daily fifteen-hour bike ride was a breeze - the ride was effortless, but to mother and daughter it felt like a century of agonizing effort and they only managed to arrive at the finish line because Miller was there, goading them like a drill sergeant whenever they flagged and recharging their energy with electrolyte drinks and energy bars.
Every night, like an exhausted flock of migrating birds, the two thousand cyclists descended on the makeshift campsites erected by the volunteers along the route, wolfed down five thousand calories, checked their bicycles, showered in trailers and rubbed their calves and thighs with soothing ointment. Before they went to sleep, Ryan Miller applied hot compresses to Indiana and Amanda and gave them little pep talks about the benefits of exercise and fresh air.
“What has any of this got to do with AIDS?” asked Indiana on the third day, having cycled for ten hours, weeping from sheer exhaustion and for all the woes in her life. “What do I know?” was Miller’s honest answer. “Ask your daughter.”
The ride may have made only a modest contribution to the fight against AIDS, but it cemented the budding friendship between Miller and Indiana, while for Amanda it led to something impossible: a new friend. This girl, who looked set to become a hermit, had precisely three friends in the world: her grandfather, Blake Jackson; Bradley, her future boyfriend; and now Ryan Miller, the Navy SEAL. The kids she played Ripper with didn’t fall into the same category, since she only knew them within the context of game and their relationship was entirely centered around crime.