"aimforthe<3" - by Leah Bobet & Emma BullAct I | Act II | Act III | Act IV | Act V
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
Boston, MA, January 2012
The moment before their faces crumple is where the magic is.
"What do you mean?" she says, and she's Lucy: chin-length black hair, soft brown eyes, lips open just wide enough to let out one short breath. She'll feel like that breath was punched out of her. It'll move up through her chest and into her throat, leaving everything behind it shock-stiff and cold.
You met up with Lucy at a party: a Christmas event in Harvard Square. You leaned against a wrought-iron rail under mistletoe and cheap lights that swayed in the wind, and talked movies and politics together until last call. By the next Saturday you were spending more nights together than apart. By Thursday you had toothbrushes at each other's walk-up apartments. By Tuesday she didn't hesitate anymore when you reached out for her hand.
And now it's Friday again. Now it's time.
Her head's tilted just an inch to the left. You could take it in your hand, lean her face against your palm. Instead: "You're perfectly lovely," you say, hands carefully by your sides; body language kept far, far away. "But I'm just not feeling it, you know?"
Her arms wrap around herself, reflexive; holding that heat in. Holding in that thing she can feel ripping out of her, roots trailing. Holding in her soul.
"I'm sorry," you say, as if it's an afterthought.
And her eyes widen, and her mouth opens, and--
Washington, D.C., April 2012
Hafidha Gates was early for her lunch date. Even so, her date had beaten her there.
Virginia Greenwood sat at one of the outdoor tables, beside the black iron railing that divided the restaurant patio from the sidewalk. Her sherbet-orange shoulder bag filled her lap, and her arms folded tightly over it. Her gaze skittered over pedestrians, passing cars, the double doors leading inside. But since surveillance wasn't part of Ginny Greenwood's skill set, Hafidha spotted her first, before she could adjust her face or body language.
Scared, honey? But you're the one who invited me.
She resisted the temptation to sneak up from behind, because she really did want to know why Greenwood had called her and not, say, Reyes. Instead she angled herself into Greenwood's line of sight and smiled and waved, then cut into the restaurant and came out the patio doors.
"Professor Greenwood," she said. "Nice to see you again."
Greenwood had herself under wraps now, smiling, shaking hands. "Thank you for coming. I... I asked the waiter to bring appetizers right away."
Feed the jammer. She's got one in the family, after all. The ACTF had put poor little Susannah Greenwood in a pretty cell in Idlewood almost four years ago.
Sure enough, the waiter brought boiled edamame, spring rolls, a tray of sashimi, and miso soup. Hafidha popped a slab of oily-rich, bloodred tuna in her mouth while Greenwood said, "I'll have the vegetable tempura."
In Idlewood, no one was surprised at the amount anybody ate. Hafidha was a little spoiled now; she'd forgotten the glazed look the waitstaff got when she did things like order the tempura and the chef's choice nigiri for two and a few kinds of maki on the side. After the waiter had pressed his lips tight, written it all down, and left, she said to Greenwood, "Don't worry. We're going Dutch."
"No. I asked you to meet me. The least I can do is buy you lunch." But Greenwood was squeezing her purse again, and Hafidha didn't think it was to protect her wallet.
"You want to ask me something," Hafidha said, and claimed a spring roll.
Greenwood looked down at her empty plate. "My daughter--Susannah--she's making progress. She's young, and she doesn't have a history of psychological issues. Dr. Ramachandran says those things make her more responsive to behavioral therapy and emotional counseling than...than some of the patients."
"I don't know anything about her treatment plan--"
"She's a good candidate for the...the implants. According to Dr. Ramachandran." Greenwood lifted her gaze to meet Hafidha's and kept it there as if she'd fallen overboard and Hafidha were a lifeboat.
Deep Brain Stimulation. The chip in Hafidha's head. Zap. "You want to know what it's like."
Greenwood nodded and swallowed visibly. "It's not an easy decision. Oh, of course, you know that. But she's all we've got, and we're weighing the possibility of permanent loss of brain function against a cure--"
Hafidha must have done something to stop Greenwood in mid-breath. An expression, maybe, or a movement. "A cure? Did Dr. Casey say that?"
"You've been released, and gone back to your job..."
Hafidha speared a piece of yellowtail with her chopsticks and held it up admiringly. "A diabetic with an insulin pump is still diabetic." She nibbled the end off the raw fish and watched Greenwood for the moment when comprehension happened. Not until she saw it did she say, "Trust me, Professor. I'm still a monster," and suck the rest of the yellowtail into her mouth.
J. Edgar Hoover Federal Building, Washington, D.C., April 2012
"Charles," Hafidha Gates said, and she was angry.
She was; not the Bug. Chaz Villette didn't need the mirror to tell the difference. There was a thin, bright viciousness in Hafidha's familiar brown eyes when the anomaly shoved its way forward, and today, hands crossed across her chest, chin tipped, glaring down at him in his desk chair, she was nothing but flat frustration.
Nicolette Lau quieted, just for a moment, at her desk. Reprocessed air blew through the bullpen up above: across Daphne Worth's empty workstation, and Solomon Todd's abandoned one.
Chaz tabbed away from the report he was stringing together, and took his hands off the keyboard.
"What's up?" he asked. Careful to keep his voice even and friendly. To not react to the sarcastic twist to Hafidha's mouth as if it were a shark fin broaching water.
"I can't," she said, deliberately, "find my picture."
Right, he thought, and sucked in his breath, and knew she saw his chest constrict. The picture.
They had all cleaned up Hafidha's office together, on a Monday afternoon: undoing three years' worth of dust and neglect, the kind that happened when no one quite wanted to open the door. The picture of Erik sat where she'd left it before leaving for North Dakota: in a black glittery plastic drugstore frame snugged next to her dead computer monitors. The glitter had long since fallen to the dusty desk and atrophied.
Chaz had weighed it in his hand, stared down at the face inside it, let the shock of its forgotten familiarity wash over him and away. He hadn't known what to do with the picture. That grief. That crack.
He'd looked up, and Falkner had been watching him, with the photo in his hand.
"Want me to take it?" she'd asked, and he shook his head. Walked it to his desk and put it in the bottom drawer.
Suspects did things when they were primed to remember the location of an object. He knew his eyes had flickered to that drawer handle. Lightning-fast. And back.
Chaz reached down and opened it. Felt through the papers, the spare socks, the nothings until the prickly picture frame came into his hand and he could lift it out. He wiped the dust off the cheap pane of glass. Erik Holt's face emerged, faded, smiling.
"I wasn't going to keep it," he started, awkwardly.
"Don't," Hafidha said. She held out her hand and took the thin black frame. Her fingers closed around it for a second, too tight. And then she turned and walked back to her office, Doc Martens squeaking softly across the institutional floor.
Lau did him the courtesy of not letting out her breath.
Chaz looked at her; got the standard-issue federal poker face in return. "Just say it," he said tiredly.
She snorted softly. "It wasn't a bad decision."
Chaz looked over at the door to Hafidha's lair, firmly shut. Ostentatiously shut. "It wasn't a good one." He paused. The air system droned on. "I didn't think she'd want to see it again."
Lau flipped hair out of her face, turned a crisp page. "Because she wouldn't want to? Or because if you were in her place you wouldn't want to?"
Profilers, he thought, ruefully. Rueful and not angry. Rueful and not bitter, and that spoke volumes all by itself, didn't it? "Yeah," he said when she paused to look up at him. "Yes. Column A and B."
"I don't have to tell you," Lau said, and turned back to the file she was thumbing.
"You don't," he agreed. People coped in different ways. People wanted different things.
You could still be a good profiler, and mean well, and be a shitty friend.
Chaz leaned down and pushed his desk drawer shut.
When he sat up Esther Falkner was there in the door of her office, and who knew how long she'd been there? She gave him a small nod--nothing to say she'd overheard that little mess, but she wouldn't have tipped that hand anyway--and cleared her throat. "We're almost ready?"
"Yes'm." Lau turned the last page of the file she was going through, closed it, and held it up. "Briefing room, five minutes."
Falkner and Lau exchanged a look. Cast it, together, at the door of Hafidha's office.
"I'll go," Chaz said, and pushed out of his chair.
There was no latch on the door to Hafidha's Sanctum Sanctorum, but there might as well have been: that, two KEEP OUT signs, and a rope ladder pulled up as high as it would go. He tapped on the door with two knuckles. Again.
"Wabbit," he said through the crack between door and frame.
The answer was muffled by the thick wood door. "Not. Now."
"Wabbit," he repeated, and let out a breath. "We've got to work."
Hafidha yanked the door wide after a long moment, her face tight, lips pressed into one fat line. She brushed past him into the bullpen, strode long and lanky to the conference room without one look back.
Chaz shut the door behind her, behind him. Not before he saw the picture frame, face down, on her desk.
The photo of the girl was already on the briefing room screen when Chaz stepped into the room and closed the door behind him. Beachside, a woman in her late twenties: light brown skin, bright eyes, a small and pointed chin. The classic young urbanite vacation picture: margarita in one hand, and the other arm wrapped around someone who had been cropped out of the picture. It was unfair that every happy smile that crossed his desk inevitably belonged to a cadaver.
"So, this is Lucy Jones-Mercado," Lau said, nodding to him slightly. Hafidha was in the seat nearest the front. She did not turn his way. "She was found in her apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, three months ago. The local coroner confirmed ingestion of a whole extra-strength bottle of painkillers and no signs of a struggle."
"Suicide," Falkner said from the back corner of the room, and Lau nodded.
"Three weeks before, Lucy ended a relationship with a man her sister Tessie says she met on an online dating site. And said sister is alleging that Lucy was targeted and controlled in some way, because she never would have taken her own life otherwise."
Reyes straightened a barely perceptible half inch. "That's a common attitude with friends and family after a suicide. That it must have been someone else's fault."
"Sometimes it's true," Chaz said. "William Melchert-Dinkel was convicted in Minnesota last year for targeting people in chat rooms and encouraging suicide."
"Usually," Reyes replied curtly, "it's not."
Chaz glanced at him. Wondered who in Stephen Reyes's life had danced with a bottle of pills.
Not much time left to find out, now. The job posting for ACTF chief had gone up two weeks ago on the Bureau intranet, because federal law required open posting of jobs within the agency, even when the job description was necessarily incomplete and there was only one ideal applicant. He'd read it with a guilty fascination, and then five minutes later reality kicked in: Whether he was a good or bad parent, Dad was leaving the building.
"In this case, though," Lau put in, "she may have a point. Our White Collar Crime Unit's investigating said dating site for illegal acquisition and release of personal information. Apparently they've been data mining in places they didn't belong: credit reports, medical records, all sorts of wonderful stuff."
In front of Chaz, Brady blinked. "Why?"
Hafidha snorted. "I'll bet you five dollars it's for targeted ads."
Brady scowled. "Where'd we even get this?"
"Special Agent Pavelko of White Collar Crimes brought it to our attention," Falkner said.
Brady's face fell. "And you didn't make him do the class presentation himself?"
Falkner fixed Brady with an intense lack of expression which probably meant, I don't know what you're talking about, but if I did I bet I'd disapprove.
Hafidha clasped her fingers demurely in front of her. "It's fun to work with White Collar. They're terrified of us."
Brady shot her a grin, as if, just for a second, he'd forgotten what she was now. Chaz watched him; watched her. There were still flecks of a very human darkness behind her smile.
The sober dignity on Lau's face looked as if it was cloned from one of Falkner's expressions. Mom in training, Chaz thought. Mini-Mom. If I said that out loud, she'd fill my desk drawers with rubber cement. She said crisply, "Agent Pavelko has seen us in action, more or less. Sol consulted on the Tampa pyramid scammer case, which was why the agents in the field knew they had to open fire on Drummond."
Hafidha's lower lip stuck out like a cash register drawer. "White Collar hates the shooty bits."
"The point," Falkner said, stepping up to herd the cats, "is that Pavelko is aware of our brief. When he reviewed Jones-Mercado's death, he thought it was suggestive. He gave it to us to evaluate."
"Lucy's sister claims that the site must have leaked certain pieces of information--their mother's death a year ago, Lucy's treatment for depression after that--that marked her as a target for a predator. And they did have that information when White Collar seized their servers. And apparently," Lau paused, "Tessie Jones-Mercado has been extremely insistent on her story."
"So we got it because they don't do murder," Brady said.
"And because I bet they don't have the first idea how it was done," Hafidha replied.
"If it was done," Falkner added. "We need to stay with the chain of evidence here. 'If' is going to be our big question."
"Which means we don't have an official invitation," Lau said. "Special Agent Pavelko's vouched for us to Boston PD, but as far as they're concerned, it's an open-and-shut suicide. There's no crime."
"Go Fish," Reyes murmured, and she nodded.
"Everything White Collar gave us is in the files," Lau said, and Chaz flipped his open: a basic stats sheet, age and build and job description. That photo again, clipped to it, of a pretty dead girl, smiling. A small sheaf of correspondence between White Collar's liaison agent and the pretty dead girl's sister, which was only small, he realized, because it was double-sided.
A printout, not unlike the stats sheet, of Lucy Jones-Mercado's online dating profile.
Falkner stood. "All right. Lau, Hafidha, Brady, Villette: We're heading to Boston once the jet's ready for us."
Hafidha stood up--reflex; stopped, and blinked.
Chaz didn't need the mirror to double take right with her.
Falkner looked around the cramped room; quirked an eyebrow at the fully shocked Hafidha Gates. "I hope you didn't think you could stop packing a go bag," she said, not unkindly, and strode efficiently out of the room.
Esther Falkner tapped on Reyes's open door and let herself in without waiting. He was perched behind his desk like a graying gargoyle, one hand on the keyboard and the other pinning paper down against his standing fan's roaming breeze.
"All set," Falkner said, heels together, still ingrained with the habits of crisp speaking, crisp living even after years out of the military. "We're going wheels up in half an hour."
Reyes brushed away a stack of paper like specks of dandruff. It scattered white across his desk. Retirement apparently involved paperwork: reams and stacks of it. All notarized. "And you're bringing Hafidha," he said.
"It's the kind of case where she'd be useful on the ground," Falkner said carefully, and Reyes just nodded.
He looked tired. Falkner supposed it had been a long time since he had looked anything less than tired, but it had been better concealed, once. He's made the decision, she thought, grimly. And now there's nothing left to pretend for.
She loosened her posture slightly. Rubbed the old ache in her back. "How are the girls?"
Reyes leaned back with a long, thin sigh. "Settling in. Amber's starting at Georgetown in the summer semester. And Autumn--" His fingers strayed to the bridge of his nose.
"And Autumn," she repeated, gently.
"I've never had to find an elementary school for a beta with the mind of a thirty-year-old," he said, and raised a weary eyebrow. "I'd homeschool her myself, but socialization is important. It's especially important, given her first few years. And the kind of school she needs? You thought heart transplants had a long waiting list."
"Both," he said.
Falkner tucked herself into one of the once-plush, now just functional chairs opposite. Right. Three marriages come and gone, but Stephen Reyes had never once been a father.
The stakes were always the highest when it was a child placed in your hands: all the responsibility for who, what, how they were going to be, sitting every day in your throat. But it was worse when they'd already been hurt.
It was worse when they had the capacity, already, to do unspeakable harm.
"We went through this with Deborah," Falkner said carefully. Remembering that cautious kid who alternated like clockwork between greedy, enthusiastic affection and pulling all the way back into a shell that was much too hard, too young. "She was in two schools before she settled into this one."
Reyes leaned forward, steepled his fingers. "What did you do?"
Argued with administrators. Sat in on classes. Applied for transfers. Did exhaustive research, night after night, on where in a small, high-income school district there might be resources for a shy and traumatized kid. "Everything we had to," she said, "to find her a safe place. But not so safe that she'd never learn to build her own safety."
Reyes regarded her for a long moment. Nodded, slowly. "I don't know why I thought this might ever be easy."
"I'm sorry," Falkner said. "It's never going to be easy again."
He snorted, sharp and dry. "So Kay keeps telling me," he said, and straightened up. "We'll be at the ready once you're on the ground."
"Thanks," she said, and meant it. "I'll check in when we land."
"No, it's your show," Reyes said, and Falkner caught his eye. She tucked her head in acknowledgment, and walked the U-turn loop out his door and into her own, darkened office.
Her go bag was underneath the desk, tucked trimly behind the footrest she'd had to put in last year. She tugged it out in three practiced jerks. Your show.
"It is nothing," she told herself, quiet and firm, "compared to a child."
Falkner hefted her go bag onto her shoulder. If she hurried, there was just enough time to call Ben and the girls before she left, so she could tell them, once again, that she loved them.
Boston, MA, April 2012
"Hi," he says, and softly, uncertainly, smiles.
He's tall, skinny, balding in a way that dips down the sides of his crown and which he's tried to hide with buzzed-short hair. New blue jeans; a checked shirt open casually over a ribbed white tee. The folds in it are too crisp: It's the illusion of carelessness at work. The illusion that means he cares all too much.
First-date jitters. The smell, faint and unmistakable, of someone who really, really wants this.
You vault yourself up from the wall where you're leaning: brick, half-height, surrounding a park next to the coffee shop where you'd said you two would meet. Peer at him. Shuffle your feet once, deliberate.
"Brad?" you ask, and beam your brightest, happiest smile. "Hi."
The Boston field office curved tall and red-brick bright through the center of downtown, one bridge and a tangle of streets away from Logan Airport. Lau uncurled from the backseat of the Bureau's motor pool car and stretched the cramps out of her legs. She knew better than to sit behind Chaz Villette. Even for fifteen minutes.
She had spent the thirty minutes before takeoff on a few quick phone calls, and here were the results: a stocky, brown-skinned, navy-suited field office agent, regulation haircut and regulation shoes, awaiting them at the front desk, her posture one of casual attention. She straightened as they approached; took Lau's hand.
"S. A. Kim Bollinger," the field office agent said. Her handshake was strong and professional: one of the top five things they taught you in Unofficial Law Enforcement School for Women. Lau returned it in kind: an assertive squeeze and a smile. "I'll be your tour guide."
Lau felt her polite smile widen. "We'll try to be good sightseers. Sorry for the short notice."
Bollinger gave a little shrug; a fractional relaxation. "Crime fighting doesn't wait on us," she said, and offered that hand to Falkner.
"I did a little more background on your possible victim," Bollinger said, leading them through halls and past cubicles that looked about as different from city to city as the local IHOP. "Ms. Jones-Mercado was a bit of a go-getter: worked in the IT department at Boston U., and was active in a few volunteer organizations. She was taking salsa dancing."
Lau nodded. Falkner shot an inquiring glance her way. "Salsa lessons are to singles what soccer is to moms," she explained.
"Ah," Falkner replied, with a little chuckle. "I always knew I was a bad mother. I put them in softball."
"Football," Brady added.
"All I got was rowing," Hafidha put in dryly.
"In the Pacific. Poor baby," Lau said. Hafidha was cracking jokes again. That was a good sign.
Lau deliberately didn't turn to gauge Chaz's reaction. Nobody liked a busybody. Or at least a busybody who wasn't courteous enough to pretend to cover their tracks.
Bollinger stopped at yet another anonymous wood door, and pushed it open. "Here's your home base," she said.
The Boston field office had followed the whole rider: conference room, dedicated internet access, a whiteboard, and coffee on the boil--more than enough, for a unit flying in on a few hours' notice, with no official invitation from local law enforcement. Table, PowerBars, whiteboard markers lined up on the ledge below the wide blank board. Every room Lau had ever worked from, in every city.
"Thanks," Lau said, and dropped her bag onto the first chair.
Bollinger lingered beside the door. "I also took the liberty of calling up Tessie Jones-Mercado. I assumed you'd like an in-person interview."
Lau caught Falkner's quirked eyebrow: the Oh? model, and not the You have disappointed me very much. "That's helpful," Falkner said, mild and professional. "When's she available?"
"She's here now," Bollinger replied. "Interview Room Two."
Falkner glanced at Lau. She nodded, and pressed two hands down the front of her regulation Woman in Law Enforcement black suit. "Just let me get a coffee first," she said.
Tessie Jones-Mercado didn't seem to have minded the waiting. She perched straight-backed on an interview room chair with a half-full, lipstick-stained cup of coffee within reach, and she had brought a box.
Falkner glanced over the jumble visible inside: a bright blue wallet with a big-eyed anime something on the fold. A tiny, disoriented school of crocheted sharks, with magnets glued inexpertly to the bottoms. A darkened, deactivated smartphone. Framed photographs.
Lucy Jones-Mercado's things. Her leftovers.
"I'm Agent Falkner," she said, holding out a professional hand. "This is Agent Lau. Thanks for being willing to come in on such short notice."
"You've come to talk about Lucy," she said, flat as the gray table, the gray walls. Restraint, Falkner decided. Restraint so she didn't appear too eager. Restraint in case the FBI agents weren't actually here to help.
"We have," she replied, and slid gratefully into the chair opposite.
Lau followed suit, resting her arms gently on the table. "We've read your correspondence with Special Agent Pavelko, but we'd like to hear the whole thing from you."
The flat defenses in Tessie's eyes wavered. "Lucy always--she took things harder than me. We both got picked on in school, racist mixie come-be-my-nanny bullshit." Tessie's hands closed, briefly, around the corners of the box. "But she took things harder. So she took it worse when mom died."
"And that was last year?" Lau said, quietly. "Yeah," Tessie answered, and for a moment she looked the tiniest bit lost. "A year and three weeks."
"What did Lucy do?" Falkner asked in her most encouraging, active-listening voice.
Tessie sighed; her shoulders came down. Her hands held on to that box like it was a parachute. "Went nose-diving into her own life. Started volunteering at this canning group. Took dance lessons. She was always talking about how busy she was, all these things she was involved in. But," she said, and looked up, and there was a glint of something sad in her eye, "there was always this edge to it, y'know?"
Lau nodded. Falkner reminded herself again of how many months it had been since Nikki Lau's father had died; how many volunteer hours she'd racked up since at that women's shelter, or the progress of the carefully covered circles under her eyes. How many push-ups little Esther Falkner had learned to do the month her Bubbie Yetta had passed away.
There was a kind of busy you forced yourself to stay so you didn't stop, or think. So the despair at your back never had a chance to catch up.
"And that didn't change until she met this Brian guy. Brian Casey. She was happy," Tessie said, and the echo of a dead woman's bewilderment leaked through into her voice. "That's the thing I don't get: It was only a few weeks, but she was so happy again. Just deep down, quietly. She was finally starting to think that maybe the other shoe wasn't going to drop this time."
"And then he left," Lau said.
Tessie nodded. "She said he said he wasn't feeling it or something, some bullshit reason. And I thought, okay, asshole doesn't know what he wants. He jumped in too fast and dragged her with him, and then he sits up, looks around, and freaks out. And then I found the toothbrush, and the stuff he gave her, and the text messages..."
She reached into the box and lifted the smartphone out. Set it on the table. "He was texting her every day. Talking like when she met his parents, not if. After a whole week." Reached in, took out the card from a florist's shop. "And that's when I got thinking: What if this wasn't just some asshole not knowing what he wants? What if it was one of those sick bastards who picks out people who are depressed and pushes them over the edge?"
Out came the pictures: Lucy's familiar bob haircut on a ballroom floor. Holding up a wineglass in what looked like Faneuil Hall. Candid snaps of a happy woman. But the person she was with must have been on the other side of the lens.
"And that," she said, "started to make more and more sense."
Tessie Jones-Mercado, Falkner admitted to herself, would have a bright future as a trial lawyer if she ever wanted it. She had the presentation skills down. She unpacked the box slowly, ending two-handed with the last thing: a white, slim laptop, charger plugged in and coiled on the lid.
"Her laptop?" Lau said. Her ears visibly perked.
"I took it to a friend who's good with computers," Tessie said. "We read all the e-mails they sent each other. But the stuff on the dating site we can't get."
"If you'll consent," Lau said, "we have someone on staff who can access Lucy's files on the offsite servers with the laptop. It would go a long way to helping us reconstruct what may have led to her state of mind."
Tessie still needed to work on the courtroom poker face: Falkner watched her grasp onto their interest, hang up on the word may, think about being insulted, and come right back to hope again. "You can have it," she said, sharp and quick.
"I'll draw up the paperwork," Lau said, and ducked out of the room. Practically dancing, if you knew what to look for.
"Tessie," Falkner said, not at all professionally now, "no matter what happens with this? I want you to know that you should be really proud of yourself. You've been the best advocate your sister could have had. The best sister."
All that sharpness and poise wavered for a minute, and then crumpled like a missile crater. "Thanks," she said, barely audible; chin tucked so suddenly behind her hair that Falkner had to look for the moving of her lips. "I-- Thank you."
Falkner swallowed. "We'll be in touch," she said, and left Tessie Jones-Mercado to her box, and her grief.
It turned out Hafidha's hands could forget things, given enough time and not enough practice. She hadn't even finished setting up her rig when Nikki Lau came back through the conference room door, scanning like a searchlight. "Any idea where Bollinger got to?"
"Sorry," Brady said, busy with a squeaky green whiteboard marker. "Your interview get all uncooperative on you?"
"Got super-cooperative," Lau said smugly. "She brought the entire contents of Lucy's desk and wallet, including her cell phone and laptop."
"Jackpot," Chaz said, wrestling with a map of the city of Boston and environs on the other side of the table. The map was winning this round. Hafidha tried not to cheer it on. "If it's still got her receipts, I can narrow down what neighborhood he might have lived in."
"Unless he paid," Brady added.
"Unless he paid," Chaz acknowledged. Hafidha untangled her monitor cords, combed through them with long fingers until she hit a snag, and swore.
"Need a hand?" Chaz said. The room went abruptly quiet. She connected laptop to dock, dock to monitor, and said absolutely nothing.
Brady glanced at them sidelong. Lau didn't move. "I'll get Bollinger," Chaz said, thin and closed, and left the room.
Hafidha stabbed the power button with one finger. The laptop whirred moodily. Both of her monitors flickered to life.
"Hey," Brady said, capping his whiteboard pen. "We need to chat about anything?"
Fifteen answers snarled through her head, each worse than the last. Hafidha reached back, rubbed her scalp. Pretended she could feel the chip embedded somewhere deep below. "I'm still allowed to get mad," she said, and slammed her computer cases shut.
Brady obviously agreed. Because he most intelligently left her alone.
I want sugar, she decided. Chocolate. Caramel. Bad, bad tooth-destroying substances. She could send Brady to fetch. Was he supposed to stay and keep an eye on her? Brady didn't know the good stuff from a damned Hershey bar, probably.
"Be right back!" she called, and whisked out the door before he could make a discussion of it.
She could find a break room by following her nose, but she needed a vending machine. Would they be in the same place?
Before she had time to decide if accessing the building floor plan was a violation of the terms of her parole, she spotted Bollinger walking toward her down the long gray aisle between gray cubicles.
"Can I help you... I'm sorry, I don't remember your name."
"I'm Special Agent Hafidha Gates, Special Agent Bollinger. My, we're all so special."
Bollinger's eyelids fluttered, which might be a sign of surprise. "Now I'm really sorry. I hadn't realized you were an agent."
"What didn't tip you off? That I dress too well, or that I get to play with the really good toys?"
Bollinger's grin flashed out. "I'd say the boots were my first nonclue."
Hafidha looked admiringly down at her mid-calf black patent Docs. "They ought to be standard issue. Engineered for kicking ass. Not that I will be doing that here."
"You don't think this case will pan out, then?"
It was Hafidha's turn to be startled. "What? Oh, no. There's a bad man out there, and we'll find him if we have to live in your conference room till the end of time. But I'm not allowed near asses with my kicking boots on at the moment."
Bollinger studied her while trying to pretend otherwise. Hafidha realized she'd posed the nice Fibbie an insoluble puzzle. Administrative leave? Suspension? No, or Hafidha wouldn't be in the field.
She relented. "I need a large quantity of good chocolate. Preferably with other sugary substances mixed in."
Bollinger lit up all over. "I don't know about the boots, but around here that's a crime-fighting essential, girl. I've got a box of my sister's homemade chocolate almond toffee in my desk. Will that do?"
"Lead the way, Very Special Agent."
Bollinger's sister knew her way around a candy thermometer. Hafidha crunched down on her second piece of toffee as Bollinger said, "So you don't think this was suicide."
"I'm sure it was suicide. I also think somebody messed so hard with Miss Lucy's little head that she couldn't help herself."
Bollinger sighed. "Proving it will be a bitch."
"Depends on whether he did it the old-fashioned way, or if he just stuck his nasty fingers in her brain and stirred."
"I'm...not following that at all," Bollinger admitted.
I think I'm making her nervous. Hafidha licked chocolate off her fingers and tried to decide how she felt about that. At the very least it was a lousy return for the candy.
That was when Chaz found her. He had a sheaf of receipts in his hand and a hitch in his breathing, and Hafidha thought he was showing a bit more white around the eyes than usual.
"Ooops!" she chirped. "Time to get back on my treadmill. Thanks for the yummies!" She slid past Chaz at the cubicle entrance and swept back to the conference room.
Chaz came in two minutes later with Bollinger. Did you grill her about me, Platypussy? His face was neutral, professional. She couldn't even guess at his composure.
Deep in her head, the Bug giggled.
"Thing is," he was saying to Bollinger, to whoever, "I don't understand why Jones-Mercado would be a target. I mean, it seems like she was out there, doing things she enjoyed, all the usual advice. And she sounds like a catch."
"The problem with this city," Bollinger answered dryly, "is that everyone's a catch."
Lau snorted--and that wry edge to Bollinger's smile surely wasn't just imagination. Hafidha glanced down, surreptitiously, the way you learned to after a few years of being terminally single: no wedding ring. "L.A.'s like that," Lau said. "The town that invented the model/actress/whatever."
And now Bollinger was doing the glance: to trim, accomplished, gorgeous Nikki Lau's bare ring finger.
Lau caught it. Of course she did, but she wasn't the sort to get her shorts in a knot about that, or to show it. "Agent Bollinger, where d'you keep your property forms?" she asked instead, and Bollinger beckoned her down the hall. Chaz trailed after them like Linus's blanket.
Doesn't want to be in the room with you.
Shut it, she thought right back. Hafidha massaged her own fingers, joint by joint--around chunky plastic rings, nail polish about to chip--and logged into her mobile office. "What do we want first?" she asked cheerfully, instead of all the other things moving through her head like eels. "Victimology, or straight to our possible gamma?"
"Not sure how we'll get to either," Brady said. "The problem is, White Collar seized the whole company. Everything that even beeped. It's all offline now. No getting to those profiles without an interdepartmental request and a three-page book report on what kind of airplanes we plan to fold the printouts into."
Hafidha shot him an amused glance. "Baby, that isn't even work," she said. "If we can't go to that server, we'll go right around it. There'll be footprints all over the place."
"In official records?" Brady crinkled up his forehead. "Nobody actually gets 'broken heart' on their death certificate unless they're in Little Women."
Hafidha resisted the urge to stick out her tongue at a professional colleague. "Nobody dies from falling, either. It's landing that's the problem." He snorted. "Sadness doesn't leave much of a paper trail," she added, "but even try to commit suicide and there's bureaucracy all over your shit."
"That, then," he said. "We'll start with pulling hospital records."
Hafidha flicked open her browser with the bat of one eyelash. "And may I just say that sadness leaves a trail of ones and zeros all over the place? The Internet is one big damn Lonely Hearts Club."
Brady waved a hand: fine, fine. "How do we cut our gamma out of that herd?"
Hafidha laced her fingers together and stretched them lazily. "Oh, you leave that to me, my pretty."
But of course it wasn't as easy as she pretended. Pretty colors didn't pop every time gamma fingers hit keys. If her prey wasn't using his superpower on the Internet, she was screwed.
Except she wasn't.
She knew how it felt, the soul-dead-in-the-body sensation. She knew how the pit opened up, kept opening as you fell, so there was never any bottom, just less and less light. Until you forgot what light looked like.
Fear, physical pain, sorrow, anger, those were tasty Bug-snacks, and it wouldn't turn them down. But that black despair was its true, perfect food. She knew it from the inside.
That's what she was looking for.
Chaz shouldered back into the conference room, balancing a tray of hot coffee. Hafidha reached out for one without speaking; drained half the mug in one long swallow. Put her fingers on the keys.
Death records, autopsy filings, hospital admissions. Cross-referenced with credit-card billing for X-Seeking-Y personals in the free weeklies, membership dues in singles clubs, and yes, online dating sites that served the greater Boston area. Which was all of them. Bollinger was right; this town was full of people who, anywhere else, would have a date for every Saturday night from now until world's end, and here were just part of the sparkly shoal of fishies.
She tried to think about what she was doing the way a real person would: Information was either relevant or not, available or unavailable, connected to another fact or a dead end. But the data itself was a delicious immersion, nourishment and environment and indulgence all at once. She could strain that data through her gamma teeth and taste the misery-flavor she was hunting for.
You're in a Fibbie conference room in Boston. Don't go all supervillain now.
Or ever, ever, but you could only swear to one day at a time, to now, because saying you'd never be bad again was like promising to dig up your backyard with a spoon, and you'd get one square foot done and fall off the wagon in despair. Just do the job. Worry about being evil on your own time.
And there, shining on her laptop screen, were three names.
Hafidha pushed back from the table a smidge and announced, "Rhonda Castellano. Admitted to the ER six months ago, attempted suicide. Neighbor smelled gas walking by her apartment door. She lived, though. Elizabeth Kline. Arrested for reckless endangerment when she walked into the street in front of a taxi. And Pavel Breslov, law student at the Big H, who drove his motorcycle into a tree. Blood alcohol level of point-oh-nine, but he told the medics he meant to do it, and to leave him alone. Smashed his pelvis all to hell."
Lau spoke up from where she hunched over the property forms. "And they're all--"
"Lonely Hearts Club. Castellano had signed up with Precious Yoke, which ought to be about B 'n' D, but is in reality a Christian online dating service. Kline subscribed to StrikeAMatch, a site so admirably open-minded they almost scare me. And Breslov was listed with New In Town, which does both social and romantic meetups."
"Three very different sites," Falkner observed.
Brady made a tiny growly sound in his throat. "Three very different victims. Not likely they're all ours, is it?"
Lau dropped the forms in a wire basket beside her. "Let's go ask."
Rhonda Castellano had short, dark, curly hair, olive skin, and enormous hazel eyes that widened even farther when Falkner and Lau introduced themselves and mentioned that ER visit. From the way her thin fingers clutched the frame of her apartment door, the Bureau might have been a division of Hell, Incorporated.
"May we come in?" Falkner asked, and Lau had to admire the way she projected confidence in spite of clear signs of Will Not Cooperate.
"No." Castellano shook her head, as if the word might be misconstrued. "I'm sorry. It's not something I'm comfortable talking about."
Lau shifted slightly, emphasized the contrast between Falkner's military authority and her own lack of it. Hard cop, soft cop. "Ms. Castellano, we understand how painful this is for you. But we're trying to find someone who may have caused a woman to take her own life, and who may be targeting others."
"Despair is a sin, Miss..."
"If you despair, you're doubting God. I sinned, but He stretched out his hand and rescued me. That's all anybody needs to know."
God, your neighbor, and the paramedics, Lau thought irritably, but kept it off her face. Humans were usually how miracles got done. "You were a client of an online dating site at the time of your hospitalization."
Castellano's lips pressed together, bleached with the pressure. "What I did had nothing to do with anyone else. I made a mistake, but I was saved to become a better Christian. I'm trying."
Falkner tipped her head lower--a recognition of virtue, and a gentle admonishment. Lau would have bet Falkner's daughters could recognize that head tilt. "You may have information that could help us save lives, Ms. Castellano. You're not in any trouble. You won't be called on to testify..."
But as Falkner spoke, Castellano's head swung slowly back and forth. "I'm sorry. There's nothing I can do for you." She didn't wait for a response. She just stepped back and closed the door. They could hear the safety chain slide home.
They walked all the way down the stairs and out the building door, into soft light and the scent of the narcissus ranked along the pavement, before Lau said, "This is me not commenting on other people's religious beliefs."
Falkner seemed to be studying something in the middle distance. "She's internalized the blame for what happened. Not just the suicide attempt--whatever prompted it, as well."
"She tried to kill herself because she was a bad person." Lau let out a low whistle before she could stifle it, but Falkner didn't seem to think it was an inappropriate reaction.
"If her faith can convince her otherwise..."
Lau shook off the gloom that threatened to fall on them. "Let's see if our next person of interest gives us treats."
Pavel Breslov used a cane.
He used it to walk, now, and he used it as a crutch: Even sitting, he grasped for it the moment Brady and Villette showed their badges at his office door. Blond hair fell untidily across his pale, sharp-boned face in what was, nonetheless, a professional and expensive haircut. Not taking care of yourself anymore, Brady noted, and pocketed the badge. "Might we speak with you a moment?"
Breslov blinked rapidly. Straightened up, his hand hard on the cane. "Officers, do you have a warrant?"
Brady bit back the should I get one? just in time. Jumpy as a squirrel, he decided. No, as a white-collar embezzler.
"Mr. Breslov, we're hoping to speak to you as a witness," Chaz said soothingly, and dammit, it was gonna be his day to be Bad Cop again.
"What is this regarding?"
"A possible identity fraud case. It may have led to a young woman's suicide."
Brady watched the skin stretched over Breslov's architectural face go white, then red.
"I don't think I know... That does not sound familiar."
"You probably didn't know the woman in question," Brady said, sneaking a little self-satisfied drawl into his voice. "We believe you may have met the con artist, though."
"I will help, of course. If I can. Please, come sit, and close the door."
Brady imagined this was an archetypal Ivy League T. A.'s office. It barely held Breslov's desk and chair, a pair of metal folding chairs for guests, and a cheap MDF bookcase with sagging shelves. It would have looked bigger if Breslov had ever returned a book or a piece of paper to wherever it belonged. Also, from the smell, Breslov ate half a tuna salad sandwich for lunch three days ago, threw the other half out, and hadn't emptied his trash can since then.
Brady dropped onto the metal chair as if it were an oak church pew. The chair whimpered, and Breslov winced. "From the way you're using that cane, you must be in a world of hurt. What happened?"
"I had an accident with my motorcycle." In spite of the pain, he said it proudly. I ride a motorcycle.
"Those things'll kill ya," Brady said, and Breslov paled and flushed again.
Chaz didn't frighten his chair, or their host. Yet. "Mr. Breslov, you joined an online dating site not long before your accident."
Brady didn't think Breslov's face could have closed harder. It must have had storm shutters tucked away somewhere. His hand tightened around that cane like it was a shotgun. "Not a dating site. It was for meeting friends. Maybe going to a ball game, or to find a workout partner. Just for making friends."
Brady cocked his head. "Did you make any?"
"No." Breslov met his eyes and looked down. "Not really."
Chaz looked thoughtful. "I'd have thought you'd meet lots of people here on campus. You must work with interesting people."
"I was new to the city. The department is competitive. I was looking to make friends." There was a crackle to his voice that Brady recognized, and it had nothing to do with a new town, or not being able to bond over study group.
This was not going to go well.
Breslov shot a sudden, pleading glance at Brady. It said, You wouldn't know how it is. Put yourself in my place. But that wasn't a place Brady wanted to visit again. "Pavel, we need you to help us, as a witness. We think you met the guy we're looking for. If you can give us his name, his address, phone number, where he liked to hang out, anything you remember about him, we might be able to keep him from hurting anyone else."
Breslov perked up at the use of his first name, but the rest of the speech brought the shutters back out. "I didn't meet anyone. I didn't find anyone who was built to be a good friend for me. That's all."
"That's all," Brady echoed.
"And when you told the paramedics at the scene of your crash that you meant to hit the tree, and they should just let you die?" Chaz said quietly.
The kid was getting awfully good at this.
But Breslov just changed color again. "I think it's time for you to leave."
Brady leaned forward and clasped his hands between his knees. "Pavel, what will we find if we get a search warrant for your dating site records?"
As soon as the sentence was out of his mouth, Breslov's face did something that told him he'd fucked up. "Agents, I am a law student. To get a search warrant, you must show probable cause of evidence in a crime. What crime will you cite?"
After that, there really was nothing to do but leave.
"He's lying," Chaz said, as they paced through the hall, down the stairs, to the door that led back to campus parking.
"Thank you, Great Detective," Brady said, and pushed the door wide open.
"He's ashamed," Chaz added.
Brady snorted. "Well, yeah. You know why they keep saying gay men go into interior design?"
"Will I be sorry if I bite, here?"
"Because we've seen the inside of enough closets to last a lifetime," Brady said. "Our boy there spent that whole interview denying he had anything like a feeling for our UNSUB and I don't think his eyeballs moved once from my ass."
"You were sitting down."
"Then he was imagining my ass."
"More than that, though," Chaz said. "It's about being rejected. Everybody's been shot down, but nobody likes to talk about it. It makes them feel--" he paused, hopped onto a curbside planter to dodge someone's front bumper and dropped down to the asphalt, "--vulnerable. Unloved."
"I don't get rejected," Brady said blandly, and sauntered around to the driver's side.
"Mm-hmm," Chaz replied, and opened the passenger door of the black SUV.
"His name was Mike," said Elizabeth Kline. "Mike Darrow."
She was small and pretty in a rounded Victorian way, with nearly colorless skin that flushed with every change of emotion and dense tawny-red hair. In her straight back and edge-of-chair perch, Falkner saw a woman determined to watch life's worst moments come at her and not blink.
And yes, she was expecting the worst.
"We met at a museum for our first date. I thought that was...perfect. Maybe that was my first warning, huh?"
"Why so?" Falkner asked.
"There's no such thing as perfect. And if you do meet someone who's perfect--well, why is he hanging around with you?"
"You don't think you deserve a perfect guy?" Lau spoke quietly, gently, as if she were trying to talk a feral cat out from under a house.
Kline sighed slow and deep. "You know I was arrested, right?"
"Probably saved my life. I thought Mike was wonderful. And when he broke it off--the things he said, it seemed like he was still wonderful, but he'd realized the truth, that I wasn't. I could have had wonderful, but I wasn't good enough to keep it. I was just... I felt like a stain. On his life, on the planet."
"So you stepped out in front of a taxi," Falkner said, so Kline wouldn't have to.
But Kline met her eyes. "I can't believe I didn't think. I hurt so much it was all about me, and I didn't think about the driver or the passenger."
"When you broke up, did Mike mention hurting yourself, or suicide?"
Kline leaned back, putting her maybe an inch farther away from them. "No! He was nice about it. Which made it ten times worse, you know? Like even then, he was being such a sweet guy."
Lau clasped her hands in her lap. "Why are you glad you were arrested?"
"I got probation, and the court ordered me to get counseling. I've been in group therapy for eight months. Sometimes I still feel like I'm not worth anything, but when it happens, I've got things I can do, people to call. I'm getting better."
"Did Mike ever talk to you about other people he'd dated?" Lau asked.
Kline shook her head. "It sounded as if I was the first person he'd ever been serious about."
"Do you have his address or phone number?"
"I did. But the number was disconnected, and when I went to his place, his name was off the mailbox and nobody answered the bell."
Single life in the big city--it was so easy to appear and disappear, and the neighbors wouldn't remember who'd lived next door.
"If you can find his old phone number and address, we might be able to use them." Falkner looked around the room, at the untidy, overstuffed bookshelves and the bright slipcovers and the lamps from Ikea. "Do you have a photograph of Mike?"
Kline frowned down at her kneecaps. "I'm not sure. I had a bunch on my computer, but I deleted... No, I know where I have one." She sprang to her feet, as if they'd given her energy by asking, and hurried out of the room toward the back of the apartment.
"I think," Lau said softly as they waited, "that I'd kind of like to beat this guy with a two-by-four."
Falkner thought she wouldn't mind doing it, either, but it wouldn't do anyone any good to say so. "We still have no evidence of a crime."
"Inciting people to suicide is a felony."
"But he didn't do that, as far as we know."
Kline came back with a sheet of photo paper and a one-gig thumb drive. "You can keep the stick; we buy them by the gross at work. Here's his picture."
The man Elizabeth Kline knew as Mike Darrow stood close beside Kline; one arm circled her back and cupped her opposite elbow, supporting it. He was maybe six-two, towering next to Kline, with brown hair flying in cheerful disarray around his forehead and ears. His face was smooth-shaven and lightly tanned, his eyes were clear, and his wide mouth was parted to show straight white teeth. His extreme slenderness made his cheekbones melodramatic and his fingers scalpel-sharp.
He was smiling, beaming into the camera, proud and happy, while Kline held a full-grown Canada goose in her arms.
"We volunteered doing wildlife rescue," Kline said, looking down at the print. "We got to release that one back into the wild. That photo was in a folder that... I just really loved doing that."
The man she called Mike looked as if he loved it, too. As if he loved her.
"You know that thing people say? 'It's not you, it's me?' It doesn't matter. What matters is that happily-ever-after just died. Whose fault it is doesn't change how that feels." Kline twisted her hands together. "You think Mike is the guy you're looking for. That he's done this to other people, not just me."
Falkner weighed the look in Kline's eyes, the tension in her shoulders. "We do. The person we're looking for may have hurt a lot of people, including a woman who committed suicide."
Kline shut her eyes; for the first time since they'd arrived, she didn't want to see. But she said, "That could have been me. I don't understand, though. Why would he do that? He didn't want money..."
Falkner watched Kline struggle with the idea, and knew she couldn't tell her, He just wanted you to hurt. "We won't know until we talk to him." Falkner slipped her card out of her pocket and laid it on the coffee table in front of Kline. "If you think of anything else that might help us find Mike, call me, please. Day or night."
"I will. But everything we did, or talked about... I mean, we liked to go to used book stores. But maybe he only did that because that was what would make me love him. How do I know what will help?
Lau's voice sounded tight in her throat when she answered, "You let us worry about that."
"Jeremiah Brown." Hafidha snapped her fingers idly at the printer in the corner of the conference room, and it coughed to life.
"That sounds like a bourbon." Brady half-turned where he stood at the coffee maker. He'd made a straight line to it as soon as he'd come in, as if he needed to get the taste of something else out of his mouth. Chaz was still somewhere out in the offices. Hunting and gathering, Hafidha hoped. She didn't need to talk to him to take a donut out of his hand.
"It's another potential victim, Bubba-man."
Brady padded over and picked up the pages as the printer spat them out: printouts of a driver's license, LinkedIn profile, home address. And then the dating site, complete with pictures of a young black man with a tipped bowler hat.
"Oh ho. This is not a just-friends kind of site."
"Ah, no." She blinked forward in Brown's records. "Oh, hell. We won't be interviewing Jeremiah. Took him off life support last week."
They shared a moment of silence for a man they'd never met, and hadn't heard of five minutes ago. Dying really wrecked the mood of a room.
"Our guy's definitely playing for both teams, then." Brady said, thoughtfully. "There's a nasty kind of logic to that."
Hafidha looked up at him. Quirked her eyebrow. "If you say 'predatory bisexual,' I'm going to go looking for where the pod people stored your real body."
Chaz banged the conference room door open with his hip; his arms were full of bags with tasty-looking grease stains on them. Hafidha smelled pasta and garlic and something seafood-y and resisted the urge to just reach.
Brady snorted and waved her off with one big hand. "It's like a rape profile," he said, ruffling the pages. "The payoff here has nothing to do with sex or who he likes to sleep with. This is all about power and pain."
Chaz winced, faintly. "Which means we throw out race, gender, orientation. He's aiming for the widest victim pool he can get." He plunked the packages down on the conference table, too hard for the health and welfare of tasty soft contents. The look on his face was readable in fifteen languages, plus Braille: This is going to suck.
"Targets of opportunity," Brady said thoughtfully, and drummed his fingers on the table. "But he's selecting them somehow."
Chaz picked open a greasy paper bag and lifted a warm takeout container from its clutches. The smell of delicious fresh, hot things redoubled. Hafidha's stomach growled. "How do you feel about a breakup?" Chaz said.
Brady shrugged. "Depends on the breakup."
"Miserable? Relieved? Angry? Helpless? Offended?"
"Any or all of the above?"
"But all our victims feel the same way," Chaz said. His long fingers laid out plastic forks, plastic knives, plastic cups. "Devastated. Crushed. None of them are healthily pissed off. Why is that?"
Hafidha's voice sounded like a cracked bell in her own ears. "Because anger doesn't hurt enough." Two heads turned. She swallowed, and went on: "Because the point is maximum damage. So he's picking targets based on whether he can do that much damage by walking away. He's picking targets entirely because they're not healthy."
Silence puddled in the room like leftover grease.
"Dating's all about building profiles," Brady said. "That's why every piece of stupid first-date advice in the world gets repeated: Don't talk about your exes, because it makes people think you're not over them. Don't drink, because they'll think you're a cheap lay. Don't dress too sexy, same. Everything you do on a first date is a profiling countermeasure. It's a short trip down the road to looking for people who apologize for their own damn opinions and take every kindness you give them as proof of a loving God."
"Where did you even get all that?" Chaz asked.
Brady blinked, blandly. "Cosmo."
"Good Lord," Chaz said, and went looking for the napkins.
Hafidha took off her glasses; rubbed the bridge of her nose between two fingers. Her stomach hurt. Her rewired cyborg brain hurt. Whatever she had for a soul hurt. "I'm not the only one who can go hunting for the sad online. He's your store-brand, generic-ass, cheap-shit abuser. All he wants is people who're gonna respond when he kicks. And because we all tell ourselves this story about true love where you know it when you see it, and if you think it's something else, you were fooling yourself, or stupid, or wrong, he just goes from victim to victim."
"And they blame themselves," Chaz said, quietly.
"And they don't talk," Brady added.
Hafidha let out a breath. The thing in her head boiled over and hissed: Filthy world. Filthy people. Wipe his ass off the map.
"I need," she said, to no one in particular, "something to eat."
J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington, D.C.
Reyes knew who was at his office door without looking up. That was the knuckle-rap of a superior on formal visitation, one who preferred to be the destination and not the traveler in the hallways. Well, impending retirement had its perks as well as its obligations. This time Celentano could afford to come to Reyes. And Reyes could afford to be nice about it.
"Come in," he called across his layers of sorted files.
Celentano stepped in, smiling genially under the glare of the fluorescents off his bullet-head scalp. "You know, if you change your mind and stay, you won't have to finish all that paperwork."
"Have a seat and watch me suffer." Reyes waved him toward a chair. Falkner had sat in it last, to have a conversation nothing like this one. He hadn't had to look cheerful for Esther. "Did you come to say you'll miss me?"
Celentano lifted his chin, square under the softness creeping up on his jaw and neck. "Since when do I have to say it out loud? You created this job. No one can do it like you."
Which was probably a relief for Celentano. "Victor, I hope that's not true for all our sakes."
The chair creaked as he settled into it. Under the light veiling of chin and belly fat, Celentano still had a lot of hard, heavy muscle. "If you're really worried, don't retire yet."
Reyes had a new job, and there really was no one else who could do it. The ACTF had been part of his apprenticeship for it. "I'm not worried. Esther Falkner could have taken over any time in the last three years without a hitch. If she turned it down today, Lau or Brady could run the show; they've got the authority and the experience to make it work."
"So your legacy is safe," Celentano said, smiling.
"Maybe safer. You trust them. You'd hesitate to pull the plug on them."
Celentano's foursquare seated posture, with his feet flat on the carpet and his hands braced on his thighs, said more than the bland arrangement of his face.
So Reyes went on, because his boss had not, in spite of himself, pretended to ignore that last speech, bid him a happy retirement, and left. "I know Falkner was tasked with holding my leash. I know Nikki Lau was under orders not to release certain information when acting as liaison to law enforcement and the public, even when that information could help apprehend suspects. In spite of the limitations they’ve had to work under, they've committed everything they had to the job, and performed beyond what could be expected of any six ordinary agents. They'll accomplish as much or more than I did, and they'll spend less time fighting with you. I'd say we both win."
Celentano held Reyes's gaze for a long breath, in and out. Then Reyes saw his neck muscles relax, and his fingers stretch and loosen on his legs. "You and I only seriously disagreed on one position."
"I could hand you files from these stacks with names in them of people who would be alive if we had been able to release information about the anomaly."
"And I can't show you the reports on the deaths of people caused by the misunderstanding and misuse of that information. Because there aren't any."
"If we hadn't intervened in Tennessee, you'd have had a report on Patricia MacIntyre. And it would have been the result of too little information, not too much."
"You think I should judge policy on the basis of its implementation by one hick deputy sheriff?"
Reyes leaned back hard in his chair; it smacked the wallboard behind him. "Do you believe that's why we're keeping everyone in the dark? Because there'll be a panic? Is that the only reason why shit will rain down on us if we have a press conference?"
Victor Celentano had perfect control of his expression and his voice when he said, "I have my orders, Stephen. The people who give them to me have their reasons."
Reyes felt he was allowed the exasperated exhale; he was retiring, after all. "I'm still an agent of the FBI, and I'm still faithful to the job, the chain of command, and the safety of the nation. So in service to all that, I'll make you one last big speech. Get out in front of this, Victor. Go public about the ACTF and what it does, and make it clear to the world that this is a public safety issue we're already handling. The facts about the anomaly are going to come out. The myths will be hard on their heels. Once that happens, you'll never catch up. If you don't control the release of the information, it will control you."
Celentano nodded--thank you for your input--and rose. It was a surprisingly smooth action for such a big man, one who couldn't be too many years from retirement himself. "Good luck, Stephen. And don't be a stranger."
Oh, I won't, Reyes thought behind a blank face. I most decidedly will not.
It's warm for April; doubly warm beneath your tangled cotton sheets. Good warmth; soft as the breath you let out against the back of his stubbly neck, and the way its humidity splashes back at you, full of another person's smell.
"You're so damn sweet," he says, soft and sweaty and glowing. Not just from the sex; with a half-smile on his face that you've seen so many times before.
You pitch your voice just right: happiness and awkwardness and wonder. "I didn't exactly plan on this," you say, all rushing hesitation. I'm not just a dog. I was swept up. You're just too incredible.
"Neither did I," he replies, not turning. Plants a lazy kiss on the join between your wrist and hand.
"We should get some sleep," you say. Say without saying, I am not kicking you out.
Stay. Stay as long as you want to.
You feel the short exhale through his back, against your stomach, when he smiles. The first little tendrils of affection, safety, trust sprouting from wherever inside we keep our breakable hearts.
The second you care about something, you're opening up your belly; you're fusing their body to yours, side by side, on the most tenuous of joins. And all the naturalness of reaching for their hand, or their hip bumping yours and staying, doesn't make up for the fact that when that join's ripped apart your guts will be wide open. Exposed to the stinging air. Falling to the floor.
What most people don't understand is that the second you care about something, truly care about it, you die.
"And done," you murmur to yourself, with a rising, piqued satisfaction.
"Hm?" he asks. Perfectly sleepy. Perfectly content, balled up with his knees to your knees; his back warm against the curve of your chest, your stomach.
"Nothing," you say, and wrap him in your arms.
"Here," Nikki Lau said, slapping a printout of a photograph on the table, "is our guy. Maybe."
Hafidha looked up from her mess of destroyed lobster fettuccine. "Maybe?"
"Probably," Lau said, and pushed the picture toward her.
It was a tall man, white, broad-shouldered, curly dark hair just messy enough to be wildly charming. Straight nose. Big friendly grin. The kind you'd see on a dating site and wonder how in the Good Lord's name he was still single. "Figures," Hafidha muttered.
Lau raised an eyebrow.
"It's always the hot ones who are possessed by brain-eating evil," she said. "And yes, I am including me."
Lau didn't flinch. She loved how much Lau didn't flinch.
The Bug hated it.
Falkner and Brady stepped into the conference room as Lau pulled the photo back. "Elizabeth Kline said his name is Mike Darrow. At least, for her."
Hafidha rolled her chair back to the laptop. "Aaaand I'm finding his profile on StrikeAMatch. Oh, look here: 'Somewhere out there is the person I'm meant for. I want to banish her sorrows and shelter her with love.' When we find him, can I puke on him?"
"Can you find him in meatspace?" Lau was twitching like a greyhound with a stuffed bunny just beyond her nose.
The profile was archived; the linked credit card was dead. But she knew some of his on-line tells now, and could start worming back to an ISP, previous or current. "On it."
Chaz stood at her right hand; she had no idea where he'd come from. He set a foam clamshell on the desk beside her laptop and opened it. Not one, but two cannoli.
"Those'll come in handy."
Falkner picked up the photo of Mr. Lying Liar Who Lies. "Meanwhile, Brady, Lau, go back to Breslov and Castellano. Show them this and see if it jogs their memories."
Rhonda Castellano seemed stern and self-possessed, defending her apartment doorway with her body. Until Lau held up the photo.
Her grip on the door frame slipped, and her hand rose to press against her mouth. Keeping in physically the words she didn't want out in the world.
"You know him."
Castellano just stared at the photo.
"Rhonda. You dated him, didn't you? Then he broke it off. And the way he did it made you feel like no one could love you. That was when you tried to kill yourself, wasn't it?"
Somewhere in the apartment behind Castellano, music was playing. A woman sang, sweetly, inoffensively, though Lau couldn't make out the lyrics. The singer got through what sounded like a whole verse, and Lau's hopes for the interview were melting like summer hail.
"His name is...Adam. Adam Bonaventure. He said--" Castellano swallowed, made a glottal sound, swallowed again. "He said he couldn't be with someone who...who loved him more than she loved Christ."
By the time she finished the sentence, her voice was faint and frail as a deathbed confession.
When Brady showed the photo to Pavel Breslov, it snapped the girders in his face. The whole structure collapsed on itself, and he turned his back on Brady.
"I guess this means you did meet someone through that Internet site," Brady said, but it came out gentler than it had sounded in his head. "Why did you lie to us, Mr. Breslov?"
Breslov ignored him. Fair enough; it was a dumb question.
"Will you tell me now what you know about the man in the photograph?'
"Hugh Morgan." Breslov's voice was tight and unsteady. "What you want to find him for. This fraud and a woman dead. He would never do something like that. He was honest even when it wasn't good for him. We found a wallet once with money in it, and he took it back into the restaurant so they would call the man who lost it. He worried all night about that man he didn't know."
After enough years on the job, some statements gave you a feeling. "Where did you find the wallet?"
Breslov slumped into his chair, but he was at least willing to look at Brady now. "In the parking lot, by the car. We had dinner. I found it when we came out."
"His car? He drove?"
Breslov frowned, confused. "Yes."
Fussing with getting the car keys back in a jacket pocket in a dark parking lot... "Was there ID in the wallet? Do you remember the name?"
"A driver's license? I didn't see one. I think...there was an airline card, for miles, you know. And I think the name was like the one, the railway engineer in the song."
Not John Henry, damn it, who-- "Casey Jones?"
The thing that moved Breslov's mouth almost counted as a smile. "Casey. I think it was."
Brian Casey was the name of Lucy Jones-Mercado's demon lover.
Lau and Brady came into the conference room together, with Bollinger close behind. Hafidha searched their faces and found the mixture of gotcha and disappointment in their species that meant Breslov and/or Castellano had had a change of story.
"Looks like our boy's name should be Legion," Brady said, and sank into a chair.
Lau laid a page of notes on the conference table and veered off toward the coffeepot. "He was Brian Casey to Lucy Jones-Mercado, and Elizabeth Kline insisted his name was Mike Darrow. To Pavel Breslov, he was Hugh Morgan. And Rhonda Castellano knew him as Adam Bonaventure."
"Hugh Morgan," Hafidha said, and brushed through layers of encryption like they were her hippie mother's beaded kitchen curtain. The profile flickered onto both screens. "Apparently a cocky fucker who does not shut his burned identities down."
"Or knows enough to realize that might tip his marks off after the fact," Bollinger added, and Hafidha tilted her a nod: point, the local kid.
She pried the locks loose on Hugh Morgan's on-site inbox and rifled through it one-handed. Whistled low through her teeth. "Look at all the people he messages," Hafidha said. "There are dozens of them. Ten a day on this site alone. And most of them, he never tries to meet."
Brady huffed. "We were right: He's screening. He's looking for anyone breakable."
She skimmed; stopped. Stopped hard. "Oh, God. 'As much as I wanted to continue our conversation, I was let down by the "tell me about yourself." It's a question I dread hearing in interviews and shows the other party was too lazy or boring to construct a real one. It is late and not that I know you well but from what I read thus far, I know you can do better; call it tough love but I'll give you another chance for creative questions.'"
"You're kidding me," Falkner said.
"I wish," Hafidha spat. "And the worst? She answered."
"Set him," Chaz added, "on fire."
"Is this that Game thing?" Bollinger said icily. "Insult the woman you're trying to pick up and see if she comes back anyway?"
"Or he," Brady added. "That's a universal test for not actually liking yourself enough."
"It's Go Fish," Chaz said, brooding. "The same way everyone else does online dating. Why does that disappoint me?"
"Because it makes finding out where he is now that much harder," Lau said, and leaned over Hafidha's shoulder in a way that only halfway made her want to snap at the air. "Who else has he been talking to?"
Hafidha yanked up the cluster of dating sites she'd been incubating in her bookmarks file. "This guy has hundreds of online profiles. Not just on the dating sites--he has backup web presence for all those identities." Hafidha rubbed her too-short hair and huffed out a breath. "Blogs, Facebook, Goodreads--hell, they all have Amazon wish lists."
"But they're all him?" Falkner asked. "You can identify them?"
She nodded. "They're all the same IP address, and some of the same pictures. He's not hiding from law enforcement. He's hiding from his victims-to-be."
"And we still can't find him in meatspace," Bollinger growled. "Dating sites are designed to be just anonymous enough. They don't even ask for proof of identification."
"Which brings up a point," Falkner said. "Lucy Jones-Mercado died three months ago. If these profiles have been active since, we are probably on a clock right now."
Chaz's breath hissed out. "Right. Regular, repeating trail of victims. There's a new one. Someone he's working on right now."
"And probably one we've missed," Brady added grimly.
Falkner was hoarse when she said, "Check any new activity on the identities we've got. Maybe we can get ahead of him."
She'd already begun to scoop that data. But there was no reason to think he'd be using one of the profiles she'd spotted so far. Even if they lucked out, they'd only have one of his fake selves by the tail.
"Oh, screw this," Hafidha said, and wiped one screen blank with a swipe of her hand. Reached out the better way, her way.
Photos, numbers, data flowed through her head. Flickered on the screen like an afterimage aquarium. Went careening through the cable between monitors, through her left brain and her right, matching up names and addresses and pictures and sorting them away.
Far away, over her shoulder, she heard Brady's voice say, "Agent Bollinger, will you show me what you have on-site for surveillance gear?"
Oh, right. Don't blow our cover. Now Brady puts on his shades and hits her with the neuralyzer.
It didn't matter. What mattered was the data stream. Push it. Sieve it. Quicker.
"What's that?" Chaz said quietly.
"Massachusetts DMV," she snapped, and leaned in harder. DMV, and library cards, and loyalty cards, and everything else in the world. The photos scrolled faster, her left hand spidering for dummy profiles, snatching and matching them with every piece of ID that bore Evil Romeo's face. Took every hit and threw it right out.
You're gonna burn out, the Bug whispered. She gritted her teeth and moved faster.
Until there was one.
One piece of ID that didn't match up with an online piece of bait. One state driver's license with no Amazon, no LinkedIn, no thinly veiled Twitter account leaving a bright deadly trail for whoever was guaranteed to find it.
"His name," she said, "is Drew Pennicuik." The arm of the chair dug in under her rib cage on the right side. She should sit up straight, maybe. "And he lives in Somerville."
The printer sputtered. Spit out a tiny sheaf of pages: Drew Pennicuik's license, photos, 2011 tax return. "Onward, Keystone Kops," she said, and grabbed the armrests of the chair with both hands. The room seemed too far away for her to be inside it.
Lau made a noise like someone's disapproving mother. "Dammit," she said. "Food."
"Food," Hafidha agreed; caught the edge of Lau's shoes bolting out the door in search of Boston field office's finest and closest leftovers.
"You all right?" Chaz said quietly. She waved him away. He hovered for another second before stepping back, somewhere out of view. Before Lau came back in with a double handful of protein bars and unwrapped one in a shower of crinkling foil wrapper.
"I got this," she said, and pressed it into Hafidha's hand.
Falkner was by the printer, looking over their spoils. "This is close in. We might be able to catch him at home."
"Suit up, then?" Brady asked, with a thoroughly unprofessional eagerness. Hafidha put the protein bar in her mouth and bit. Tried to not think about it too hard, or too much.
"We'll go in soft. He doesn't get his hands dirty. Brady and Chaz in front, and I'll grab some of the locals to back you up. Lau, get an interview room ready for us."
Brady nodded and went out the door. Probably to find Bollinger and some vests.
"Right," Falkner said, brisker than your average drill sergeant. "Let's bring him in."
You've just sent him the text when the doorbell rings: Hey, is it okay if we grab a coffee tomorrow? Grab a coffee; not your place, not mine. Hesitant. Stripped of endearments.
He'll already know something's wrong.
The door goes again, followed by a hard triple knock. Impatient, you think, irritable, sharp. Someone selling something. Someone you don't want. You peek through the peephole at the two men outside. You've never seen either before.
You open the door with your smile fixed in place: bored and terribly charming. "Can I help you?"
"Special Agent Daniel Brady, FBI," the tall blond thing says, all shapes and textures to your eyes: here a half-masked discomfort with his masculinity; there the hangnail handhold of a vicious, lashing privacy, years of keeping secrets and the terror of having them revealed.
The angular one next to him is harder. You stare a moment too long, prying around for focus: Everything about him is bright and blank and hard. "Special Agent Charles Villette," he says crisply, and you give up. Not worth it. Apple too high up the tree. "Mr. Drew Pennicuik?"
You smile at them both: bewildered, bemused, affable. "Yes, that's me."
"We need you," the big one says tightly, "to come with us."
Interview Room One was the classic cop-shop model: one door, no window, a table bolted to the floor with a discreet but sturdy bar beneath the tabletop where a shackle could be threaded, two flimsy stacking chairs. All it lacked was the one-way glass, but a video camera in each corner corrected for the shortage.
Drew Pennicuik wasn't shackled; at least, not beyond the restraints of the room itself, which were mostly psychological. Even those didn't seem to weigh on him. He sat at the table with the bored patience of someone waiting for his number to be called at the Motor Vehicles Division.
Brady gave voice to what Falkner was thinking. "Innocent guys in interview rooms are not relaxed."
Pennicuik was, strictly speaking, innocent of a crime, at least as far as they were aware to date. But it took a deep-seated ruthlessness to face the justice system and not squirm, even a little, at the memory of a red light run, a fence tagged, an act of trespassing or minor theft or property damage.
"He doesn't know about us," Lau said suddenly, staring at the center monitor.
Falkner turned to look at her, drawn by the aha in her voice, and saw that the rest of the team had turned, as well.
Hafidha finished Lau's thought. "Cops look for motive. He thinks he's safe, because why would anyone do what he does? But we know why."
Falkner considered Hafidha's half-focused expression and half-dreaming tone. Chaz, she saw, was considering it, too. How much incentive did he need to use the mirror? Which side would he err on?
She trusted him to judge, because she had to. "Villette, I want you to question Pennicuik."
Chaz blinked. "My, ah, particular brand of evidence isn't admissible."
"You don't need to use that--not yet, at least. I want to see how he reacts when he finds out we know what he does. That he's not the only one."
They watched the monitors as Chaz came through the single door, an unmarked manila folder under his arm. Pennicuik gave him a single swift evaluating look. Then he raised his eyebrows and smiled, and lifted his hands a little above the table surface with the palms halfway to up. Universal gesture of question and supplication.
"Am I under arrest for something?"
Falkner wondered what Pennicuik had seen when Chaz came in. She knew too much to see Chaz as other than he was. But had Pennicuik seen the competent, relentless professional, or the awkward, wounded feral child? And which had Chaz wanted him to see?
"No, Mr. Pennicuik." Chaz sat in the chair across the table, centered the closed folder in front of him. "But we are engaged in an investigation you might be able to help us with."
"Sure." Maybe Pennicuik relaxed, but it was hard to tell.
"You use a number of online dating sites, correct?" When Pennicuik only frowned and tucked his chin, Chaz continued. "StrikeAMatch. Heart to Heart. Precious Yoke. New In Town. Date Nite. Randy's Place." He rattled them off, ostentatious in his lack of anything like a list to refer to. "And quite a few more."
Hafidha had found twenty-six sites so far, and over two hundred personal profiles.
A muscle twitched in Pennicuik's jaw. He wasn't much thinner than he should have been, even given the width of his shoulders. Did he have a manifestation? He didn't seem to use one to get what he wanted. If he weren't noticeably underweight, she'd wonder if it was possible to feed the anomaly and never ask anything of it.
Anthropomorphizing. Reyes would say the metaphors block the view of the real thing.
"That's private," Pennicuik snapped. Chin up and thrusting in righteous outrage. "There's no law against signing up at multiple sites."
Chaz grabbed the advantage he'd been given. "As I said, Mr. Pennicuik, you're not under arrest. I notice none of your memberships use your own name."
"Those sites can attract scammers and creeps. It makes sense to be careful, at least at first."
"You're worried about identity theft."
"Among other things, yeah."
"People who are searching for intimacy can be very vulnerable, Agent..."
Chaz's smile was small and slow. "So to protect yourself, you used pseudonyms. Adam Bonaventure. Mike Darrow. Hugh Morgan. Brian Casey. But why so many?"
To Falkner's surprise, Pennicuik blushed. "Sometimes... Agent, maybe you wouldn't understand this. But you don't always...want the same things all the time. It's easier, sometimes, to just pretend to be somebody else than it is to find one person who can give you everything you want."
At the other end of the row of monitors, Hafidha gave a short, angry twitch, and Falkner recalled Hafidha's last romantic relationship.
Chaz didn't react at all. "And what is that?"
"What you want. From these sites."
"I really don't think that's any of your business."
Chaz leaned forward confidingly. If he was doing anything anomalous it didn't show up on the monitors. "Humor me, Mr. Pennicuik, please. This will help our investigation."
Pennicuik's face softened; his eyes widened and focused somewhere past Chaz's shoulder. "I want...a real connection. It sounds hokey, but I want true love." He laughed, and sounded nervous and embarrassed. "Man, I hope you're not taping this. I meant it, but that doesn't make it sound less like a greeting card, you know?"
"Is that what you were looking for with Lucy Jones-Mercado?" At last Chaz opened the folder and slid a photo across the table to Pennicuik. "She knew you as Brian Casey."
Pennicuik stared down at the photo and nodded. "She was awfully sweet."
"But the connection wasn't there."
"You can't force it to happen."
"Did you and she ever discuss suicide?'
Pennicuik reared back in his chair, lip curled. "What, like a...a pact?"
"Did you ever say anything to her about suicide?"
"Why the hell would I? And how did we get from falling in love to, to suicide?"
"That was the progression for Ms. Jones-Mercado."
Pennicuik's face was fixed and blank. "Lucy killed herself?"
Chaz slid the photo back into his folder. "You didn't know Lucy Jones-Mercado committed suicide?"
"No. After we broke it off, I never saw her again. There wasn't any point." Pennicuik seemed baffled that he had to explain it.
Chaz thumbed another photo out of the folder and pushed it toward Pennicuik. "What about Jeremiah Brown?"
Pennicuik shot Chaz a quick sideways glance. Looking for judgment, Falkner realized. Revulsion, disapproval. He didn't see any, of course, so he allowed his face to soften as he looked down at the photo. "Jer and I--"
Falkner could almost hear the click as Pennicuik matched the previous subject to this one.
"Wait. Did Jer... Him, too?"
"Him, too, what?" Chaz sounded genuinely confused, but Falkner knew he wasn't.
Not like Pennicuik. He hadn't known.
"Goddamn," Pennicuik breathed, staring down at the photos. "They killed themselves. Goddamn."
It might have looked and sounded like regret to other people. But with a deep dismay Esther Falkner heard newborn wonder beneath those words. In the instant before Pennicuik schooled it away, she saw his expression: avid.
Chaz caught it, too. "Mr. Pennicuik, I'm sorry to have misled you. We know why you created so many profiles on so many dating sites, and why you chose the people you did."
"I told you--"
"You have an illness. You're not the only one who has it. It makes you want to hurt people."
Pennicuik sat with his mouth open for a moment. "That's... Excuse me? If I have some kind of psychosis, I'll get diagnosed by a doctor, not a glorified beat cop."
"There are physical symptoms, as well. You have trouble keeping weight on, don't you? No matter how much you eat. And you eat a lot." Chaz stretched his own bone-sculpture hands in front of him. "That gets worse over time. Eventually the metabolic stresses lead to chronic organ failure. Dialysis is a turnoff for a lot of dates, I hear."
"You can't prove a word of this," Pennicuik growled.
"I don't need to. You already know I'm telling the truth. You couldn't always feel other people's pain the way you do now. It didn't always feel so very good. To someone else this would sound crazy. But to you and me, it makes sense. Doesn't it?"
Pennicuik's fingers closed around the table's edge, and the knuckles were white.
Chaz leaned in across the table, so kind and confiding that Falkner half expected him to touch the other man. "Drew, you're not controlling this. It's controlling you. And it'll kill you quick if you don't know what to do about it. But we can save your life. Let us help."
Falkner felt light-headed; she realized it was because she was holding her breath. Pennicuik's handsome features twitched with one aborted expression after another: fear, outrage, anger, lust. He would break. He had to. The only life Pennicuik cared about was his own. He would do anything to save it.
He had to surrender. He had to.
Drew Pennicuik shoved himself back from the table, making the chair screech along the floor. His voice shook as he said, "I have no fucking idea what you're trying to do. Charge me with something or let me out of here." He folded his arms across his chest.
Chaz took his time getting out of his chair, tucking his folder under his elbow, and walking out of the room.
"Jesus fuck a truck," Brady muttered fiercely. Lau slumped and raked both hands through her hair. Hafidha sat staring at Pennicuik in the monitors, opening and closing her hands.
When Chaz came in, his first words were, "I'm sorry."
"Sorry?" Hafidha burst out, then bit her lower lip and turned away.
"You almost had him," Falkner said. "It was a good strategy. He just couldn't be sold."
"So, what do we do now?" Brady asked.
"There's not much we can do," Falkner said. "Mental cruelty is grounds for many things, but not, last I heard, an FBI investigation."
Brady leaned across the table. "We can't walk away. That guy in there? That's a gamma."
"One who hasn't committed a crime. Even if I thought we should lock people up because they might break the law, there's no practical mechanism for doing it."
"But think of the best part, kids," said Hafidha suddenly, bright and brittle as chrome plastic. "We just showed him how to level up."
Esther Falkner could keep her face immobile under trying circumstances. She kept it still now, in spite of the pain in her throat. She watched Chaz.
"Hafs?" Lau frowned. "We what?"
"He didn't know about the suicides," Chaz answered. He could have been a recording. "As soon as he heard about them, he wanted them."
"And it's just that easy, boys and girls." Hafidha smiled at Lau, at Brady, and finally at Chaz. Chaz stared back, but he looked away first.
"No," Lau snapped. "No, no, no. We can't let him walk."
"We can't charge him." The words seared Falkner's throat.
"Fuck this," Brady spat out. "We stick these motherfuckers in Idlewood like it's Guantanamo for gammas, and nobody kicks. It's where he belongs." He flushed and turned to Hafidha. "Sorry. Present company and all."
"No problem, sugar cookie." She seemed almost pleased.
Falkner clenched her hands on each other, because she was afraid if she closed them on anything else she'd break it. "We belong to the Justice Department. That still means something. And maybe Celentano or the assistant director or the director or someone else up the chain of command would be prepared to whittle away a little more of that integrity. But don't ask it of me."
Lau turned back to the monitors where Pennicuik's image sat, impatient but unperturbed. Brady's face was closed and dark. Hafidha drummed her fingers on her knee, back and forth, back and forth, in some indecipherable rhythm. Chaz stared at the gray commercial carpet as if he could read it.
Falkner pushed her chair away from the monitors and stood. "We can't hold him," she said, surprised at how calm she sounded. "Let's turn him loose."
"Great." The word was an explosion from Hafidha's mouth. Her lips curled as if she'd bit down on an aspirin. "We can be home before the cherry blossoms are done."
Falkner spread her hands on the back of her chair and leaned forward, watching Hafidha across the four-pane flat-panel window of the lit monitors. "Do you have a suggestion?"
Hafidha's face worked for a second more, a wrestling match between expressions or lack thereof. Suddenly she covered it all with her hands. Falkner had never seen her do that before in just that way, and she sent a question-glance at Chaz. All his attention was on Hafidha.
"I just don't have to like it. All right? I could wash the bastard out of the Internet like the itsy-bitsy fucking spider because it's the thing I'm made for, but I'm not going to. And I'm not fucking happy about it." Hafidha's breath sucked past her teeth and hit the back of her throat, an audible blow. Her fingers curled as if reaching for her eye sockets.
A water cooler stood in the corner by the door. Falkner filled a paper cup with water and set it on the table in front of Hafidha.
"Fuck you," she groaned without taking her hands away from her face.
"You wouldn't like that, either," Falkner replied, mild as milk.
Hafidha dropped her hands, picked up the cup, and drained it.
Chaz had said, "Set him on fire," and he'd meant it. Looking now at Hafidha's shaking hands and set jaw, he wanted something worse than fire. She'd forged herself a chain to contain the Bug, and that was the right thing to do. But he wanted to destroy the person who was making her throw her weight against the links.
He knew how that felt. He'd had a real chain, after all.
He scrabbled in his head for something to say, something she wouldn't fling back at him. After all, if Pennicuik had caved, she wouldn't have to hurt. He'd failed her.
He touched three fingers to the top of her wrist. A turn of her hand, and her wrist wasn't there anymore.
Falkner straightened slowly, as if her back needed consideration. A muscle jumped in her jaw. "All right. Nikki, would you bring Agent Bollinger in here, please? I'd like her to be up to speed on this."
Lau flicked a glance around the room, and Chaz knew what she was looking for: Anyone know what "this" is? Chaz couldn't help her, either. She slipped out the door.
Brady stood up and stretched. "I'll book us a ride to the hotel from the motor pool."
"No," said Falkner. "I want you here, too."
Maybe Brady would have had an answer. But Lau ushered Bollinger into the observation room and closed the door.
"Thank you, Agent. I'll be back in a minute." And Falkner left the room.
They were interrupted in their universal exchange of What the fuck expressions by movement on the monitors.
Falkner walked empty-handed into Interview Room One.
Pennicuik tipped his head to one side and gave her an undisguised once-over. Could he see through Falkner's highly refined stone face? No way to tell from his reaction.
Falkner didn't sit down. "Mr. Pennicuik. I'm Supervisory Special Agent Esther Falkner of the Anomalous Crimes Task Force. I'd like to thank you for coming in today. In a few minutes someone will come to escort you out of the building. Before you go, I'm going to share some information you should know."
Pennicuik donned a politely curious expression. But he didn't reply. He's off balance. He has no clue what's next, Chaz thought. Hey, join the club.
"We know who you are, where you are, and what you are, Mr. Pennicuik. We will never lose track of you. That's the job of Anomalous Crimes: to recognize and monitor people like you."
Pennicuik's teeth worked behind his lips. No, it wasn't just the freaky-looking skinny guy who thought there was something wrong with him. The woman who might be able to kill him with a paper clip was on board with it, too.
Falkner continued. "We have the list of your identities online. If you create more, we will know them before you stop typing. We know your methods and your preferences. Should you resort to even more dangerous behaviors, like inciting to suicide, well, we call that 'escalation.' We'll know about that, too. And your first criminal act will be your last.
"If you're careful and use your...talents as little as possible, you may live to see fifty. I should warn you, that's not the way to bet. Not without help. But as long as you're a law-abiding citizen and a very good person, Mr. Pennicuik, you will never see us again. And that's the way you want it."
Esther Falkner turned with military precision and left the room.
Pennicuik stared after her, at the shut door, for a long moment. Then his head swiveled, his eyes at once searching and blank. He clasped his hands on the tabletop and lowered his gaze at last. Maybe he was looking for a sign that he was the exception to everything.
It was Bollinger who broke the silence in the observation room. "What did she mean, that bit about talents? What makes this guy special, and what kind of special do you folks track down?"
Hafidha was still staring into the monitors, not quite focusing. Chaz didn't want to take his eyes off her. So he was grateful when Nikki Lau drew a long breath and said, "Agent Bollinger, I'm going to tell you as much as I'm allowed to." At the corner of his vision, Chaz saw her glance back at the monitors and straighten her shoulders. Not unlike Mom. "And then I'll tell you a little bit more."
Falkner came in as Lau was leading Bollinger out. If they exchanged anything significant, Chaz missed it. "Brady," Falkner said, "you can call the motor pool now."
Hafidha swiveled her chair and gazed up at Falkner. "Es. Thank you." Calm face, cracked voice.
Chaz owed her a thank-you, too. He'd get it out later, when he didn't have to force it past the truckload of jealous.
Hafidha was supposed to be packing up her rig. Disconnecting cables. Breaking her prosthetic senses, her Voltron, down.
It wasn't enough.
She wanted to hurt him.
She paced the small washroom one more time. Somewhere, deep in the bowels of the FBI, specially trained agents were wondering exactly how long it took that twitchy girl to pee. Her shoes landed with an echoing thump; good acoustics. Bathroom acoustics.
Prison cell acoustics.
"You are not," she said to the thing inside her head, "going to do anything about this."
It doesn't have to be now. It doesn't have to be here.
And on the back trail: Crazy girl talking to herself in bathrooms.
"I said I didn't have to like it," she told it bitterly, and turned on the faucets on both the sinks, to drown out the noise of her muttering through the crack in the locked washroom door. The intangible pressure in her head shifted. Satisfied. Damn.
You also wanted to wipe him right off the Internet. Wipe it clean.
"I was wrong," she told it. Her hands on the side of the white chipped sink wavered.
He was wrong, the Bug snipped.
"Well, there's more than enough damn wrong to go around, isn't there?" she told it, and shut off the tap. If James Singh had been willing to say, "I was wrong," and live with the consequences, Daphne would be beside her. Cracking wise about how technically heartbreak had nothing to do with the circulatory system. Breathing, messy-haired. Alive.
But living with the consequences was always the bitch part, wasn't it?
Right. She was a peace officer. She was there to enforce the peace; to reduce harm.
There was more than one way to reduce harm in this situation.
Hafidha strode into the conference room, jaw set, and put her fingers on the keyboard keys.
Chaz's chin clicked up from the files, maps, debris he was packing away like a safety coming off. "What're you doing?"
"Looking something up," she snapped back. Her hands flew over the keys, hunting through snags and tangles of Internet traffic: of those hundreds of dating site profiles, one of them would have been active most recently. One of them would have a blot of messages exchanged, and a meeting time, and a place. One more twist of colors, visible across the cables, of someone lonely enough to die.
Peace officers weren't supposed to avenge. They weren't supposed to murder. But they could find them some law-abiding citizens and move them right out of the way.
Dating sites were designed to be anonymous. And Brady had called for the car, and there wasn't much time. She had to be quick.
"Hafs?" Chaz said, tightly.
"Everything all right there?" Brady asked from the corner.
She opened the door in her head and let the numbers flood in.
--and there. There.
Bradley McClellan, thirty years of age, a journeyman carpenter living in Burlington, Massachusetts. License and registration; a tug sideways to address; somewhere, somewhere in that thicket, a working phone number--
She saw the mirror go up.
There was supposed to be no telling when Chaz was jamming; no telling if he was pointing it at you. But she'd been under the microscope enough to see it: the afterimages of her every emotion registering on his face nanoseconds after they leapt onto hers. Surprise. Violation. Betrayal.
Chaz's face abruptly twisted: purest outrage.
Hafidha stood up hard; knocked the chair back spinning and careening across the carpet. Sound, light crackled in her ears: the snapped strands of data fading out. "Chaz," she said, "Turn. That. OFF."
Brady was on his feet. Hands out, and she didn't want to find out what they were out for. Chaz's mouth pinched; his face flushed. His own expressions, not hers. He reached out a skinny hand to Brady, waved him off. "It's not. It's fine."
Hafidha stared at him levelly. "It's fine," Chaz repeated, and looked away.
The conference room door opened, and Agent Bollinger came three steps in before screeching to a stop. She looked at Chaz, at Brady, at Hafidha all on their feet, and took her first step back.
"Agent Bollinger?" Hafidha said, edged and sweet. "One more person we can bring in, if you wouldn't mind. As fast as we can."
"Right," Bollinger said, her forehead crinkling with confusion, and strode quickly through the door and into the hallway.
Hafidha closed her eyes and resisted the urge to look for any stray surveillance cameras near Bradley McClellan's office. To make sure they were in time.
Unlike his lover, Bradley McClellan looked around Interview One nervously; the jumpy terror of the pure-hearted. Hafidha wiped her hands on her pants. She hadn't done an interview in years, now. Hadn't interacted with people who weren't law enforcement officers, or medical staff, or family.
Ooh how you'll fuck him up, girl. How you'll eat his little heart.
"Shut up," she mouthed to the Bug, and rubbed her head over the spot where that microchip lay asleep against her grey matter. Opened the door, and went inside.
He looked up abruptly as she entered: afraid and eager, all at once. If that's how he'd looked at Drew Pennicuik the first time they'd met, or the second, or the third, then he'd been doomed. It was written all over the poor guy.
"Officer," he said, staring apprehensively at her folder. She didn't bother to correct him. "Is everything all right? I don't understand what's--I don't understand," he finished awkwardly.
"You're not in any trouble," she told him in her best unused soothing voice. Not from us, anyway. "We asked you here to talk about a person of interest in an ongoing investigation. As a witness."
The flutter of emotions over his face was genuine: worry, anxiety, sheer relief. "I don't know what I might have seen," he said, and she opened up the folder.
"It's to do with a man going by the name of David Lucas."
"I've only known Dave a few weeks," he said, and even under the alarm, he couldn't hide the edges of the smile. The way his chin tucked just a little.
In love. Head over heels. Besotted.
"That's not his real name," she said, and oh man, here we go. "It's Drew Pennicuik." And she lays down Exhibit A: that printout of his driver's license, complete with picture.
"That's not--" he said, and stopped cold. Reached out a finger to trace the lines of that wildly curly hair, the chin. The nose.
"It's him," she said, and hated herself. "He isn't telling you the truth."
Bradley McClellan looked up at her urgently. Like a kicked puppy. Like a beaten child. "But we were--" he said, and his mouth shaped something further. Something inaudible, inexpressible: a hand reaching out to hold another, and finding only dead air.
"Bradley," she said, firm and urgent. "Brad. He has a history. Every month or so he picks up someone new and drops them the second they get comfortable. This was the last one." She slapped down Jeremiah Brown's driver's license picture in front of him like a poker dealer. "And this was the one before that." Lucy Jones-Mercado. "These here were all last year's batch."
"People have exes," he said uncomfortably.
"Bradley," Hafidha said, in her mother's voice; the voice you didn't gainsay. "Drew Pennicuik's last two exes are dead."
He caught his breath.
Not quick enough. He wasn't surprised. Hafidha sat back for a second, before she realized: He'd been waiting for the other shoe to drop; waiting all along. And now that it had, now that it was here, he was finally, in some terrible way, safe.
You're hurting him, she realized, and it wasn't the nasty little voices this time. It was her.
God. She had to finish it. Just finish it.
"They killed themselves. He finds people who are lonely," she said, looking directly into his eyes; looking so he would not dare to look away. "He sweeps in and romances them, treats them like gold, waits until they fall in love. And then he leaves."
The young man's mouth worked. Young indeed; so damned young. "Why?" he said, like a six-year-old child.
"Because, honey," Hafidha said gently, "he likes to hurt people."
There was nothing to describe the look on his face. She kept her eyes open, and watched it. She owed him at least that.
The tiny monster in her head wanted, needed that.
"I'm sorry," she added miserably, even though he would never, ever know why.
Bradley McClellan looked at all the profiles, all the identities, all the suicide reports spread out on the table in front of him. He spread his thick hands wide. His thumb blocked out Lucy Jones-Mercado's face.
"Oh," he said, softly. The sound of a face going slack. Of something ripping out, sharply, by the roots. "Oh."
They'd be wheels up from Logan in half an hour and Chaz was pushing his belongings into his duffel before the thing that muttered uneasily at the back of his mind finally spoke up.
It was the hotel's laundry bag that did it. He snagged it off the closet floor, found the exposed bits of the plastic draw tape, and pulled them. The bag wrinkled...
...and there he was, the loop of plastic stretched between his two hands, the plastic bag constricted by it. Strangled.
The law could do nothing to Drew Pennicuik. But the person who'd strangled Viv Paliotto in Seattle, who'd caught up with Hope Mitchell when the ACTF couldn't--
Their very own jammer housecleaner. Now that they'd found Pennicuik, the housecleaner would, too.
And they couldn't protect Pennicuik any more than they could charge him with a crime.
He fumbled his phone out and speed-dialed Falkner. Even though there was nothing she could do, either.
Esther Falkner got back to the office at three in the afternoon. She kicked her go bag under the desk and checked the mail tray on her desk. A slim white envelope, sealed and thick enough to block the most dedicated snooping, lay lonely inside. The return address was the FBI seal, and Office of the Director.
The seal ripped satisfyingly under her thumb. The paper inside was thick too, and heavy; embossed official letterhead on the very top.
To: Supervisory Special Agent Esther Falkner
From: the Office of the Director
This communication is to offer you the post of Agent In Charge of the Anomalous Crimes Task Force, reporting directly to SSA Victor Celentano within the Behavioral Analysis Unit. Your federal employee grade and reimbursement will be increased commensurately.
I know you will continue to show the high standards of duty and performance the people of the United States expect from those who uphold the law.
Sincerely, et cetera, et cetera.
Falkner swallowed. Walked slowly down the hall, one door over, to Stephen Reyes's office.
He was at his desk as usual, as always. Surrounded by stacks of unending things to be done, and wearing a focused frown. He looked up at the sound of her shuffling footsteps, and put his pen down. "You're back," he said.
He studied her. Eyebrows knitting just slightly together. "How did it go?"
Falkner let out a thin breath. "It," she said, "was terrible."
They used to burn love letters. Back when we still exchanged physical things just to talk, to reach across the distance, there was something left after to burn.
Deleting his e-mails, his text messages, his number from your phone doesn't feel even close to the same.
The first day or two aren't terrible. The shock insulates you. You throw yourself into your work, your friends, all the things you've neglected restlessly, thinking, in those moments when you let yourself do any thinking, Actually, I might be all right. I didn't need him. I didn't want him.
It's the third day, and after, that the ache sets in. He didn't want me. I will never smell him in my hair again. I will never see that smile and get to kiss it, corner to corner.
After that, you don't sleep.
For the first time since they moved in together, taking up uneasy space and building their uneasy routine, Hafidha does not come straight home after work.
Chaz picks his nails and frets and tries not to glance at the clock more than three times a minute. It could be a delay on the metro. It could be she's finishing her paperwork, documenting for the less-technical in the room--read: Victor Celentano--the web of names and impostures and impact wounds that Drew Pennicuik created in such a short time. Or tagging each and every one of them with some string of code like an informer, to let her know immediately if they're ever touched again.
He could call her at the office. He could call Falkner. He could call building security, and have them surreptitiously check for a line of light at the bottom of her closed door.
"You need to not do this," he mutters to himself, and continues to wait.
She doesn't get home until ten past eight, her short hair spangled with fallen petals and spring rain. Puts down her big purse by the door, nonchalant; hangs her keys ringing on the rack above it. Play it cool, Chaz tells himself, and then promptly and totally fails: "Where have you been?"
Hafidha stops mid-step; slowly, deliberately sheds her lace-up boots. "I went to see the cherry blossoms," she says coolly. "They won't be out for much longer."
He swallows. And can't make it come out not accusing, not plaintive, not scared to death. "You didn't call," he says.
Hafidha sizes him up. A Bug look. A look that's fight-or-flight, measuring the distance between his feet and hers.
"Charles," she says, "we have to talk."
You're not new at this. You know all the tricks: don't look at his Facebook profile. Don't look at his Twitter. Don't think about what he's doing, or who he's talking to, or why his dating site profile was reactivated three days after it ended, and then went dark a scant week after. Don't think about what you could have done better, or right, or different. Don't rewrite those conversations in your head.
Talk to your friends if you need to. Don't talk about him if you don't.
The ache lives like a bear cub under your ribs. It gnaws at you all day and worse at night, looking for an escape from behind those bone bars. You lie awake in too-cold, empty sheets, having wild arguments in your head with anyone, everyone who's ever wronged you. You go through your daily activities with heavy eyes and heavy feet; with what online depression tests call "less than normal enthusiasm." You hurt.
Your friends notice the absence of his name from your conversation and turn away, or watch you sidelong, or tell you tentatively that they're there if you want to talk.
You don't want to talk. You don't want to talk to anybody. You'll never utter a sound ever again.
"We've got a problem," Hafidha says, and Chaz nods, is nodding, although he's not sure the problem he thinks is there and the one she's putting on the table are the same problem at all.
Luckily she's not finished; she's going to tell him what the problem is anyway. "We've got a problem with how you and I are acting toward each other. 'Cause Baby Brother, I'm resenting you like fuck right now, and that means this is going wrong."
A lump solidifies in his throat like a handy internal garrote. He thought he could do this. He thought they'd pull through this together, that he could be enough support and keep what's left of his family, his real family, alive--
"Because y'see, I keep thinking about that pretty little boy I talked to before we left Boston," she says.
"Bradley," he says faintly.
"Bradley," she says, and nods. "And how much he didn't want to know that someone was using him. How much he decided it was okay to be hurt if he might get some scrap of love."
"He cut Pennicuik off," Chaz said.
"We think," Hafidha snapped. "Who knows? He might go back. He might wake up one night and decide he doesn't care what the cost is, he wants that pretty fantasy back. People sell out for half-assed love all the time."
Chaz has been the person who laid awake at four in the morning. Who hid his cell phone to keep from texting exes for whole days at a time. He just nods.
"And the thing is?" Hafidha says, rubbing that spot on her head she always touches when she's really, truly upset. "If I decide it's okay to live with someone always checking up on where I am or what I'm thinking, where we assume that I'm always wrong, then I'm just as bad." She heaves a breath, lets it out. Her hands, Chaz notes clinically, are shaking. "I'll be just as bad as those poor sad bastards who Loverboy Drew sucked in and spit back out."
He doesn't need her to pull that subtext out into the plain air: And then you're just as bad as he is. He's had lots of practice at keeping that flinch from surfacing; from giving the thing in his Wabbit's head any satisfaction. That's just the Bug talking. But it isn't. It's not. Hafidha's eyes are calm and mild and utterly resolute. Hafidha Gates is in the building.
"It's not like that," he says, although he knows how stupid, how stereotypical it sounds. Yeah, that's what every piece of nasty caught with their fist all over someone else's face says. He backs up. Tries again: "I'm not trying to do that."
"Yeah," Hafidha says, "but we're gonna be doing that soon if this ride keeps riding." She looks up at him, jaw set. "Y'know what happened last night?"
"What?" Chaz asks faintly.
"I had a dream where he was holding me," she says. "He just picked me up like a kid and put me in his lap and kept telling me how it'd be okay. He rocked me 'til I woke up."
Chaz swallows past a dry throat. He's never had those dreams. When the people he loves are gone, they're gone away for good. "That sounds...really wonderful."
She smiles, and it's not a smile: it's a parody, thin and sad. "Honey," she said, "I didn't want to wake up. Not ever. I've lost him," she says, and looks down at her hands. "He's gone."
Chaz clenches his hands tight. Resists the urge to comfort. To say he'll make it right. To take her space away. To protect. To smother.
Hafidha looks up again, and her eyes are bright and hard. "I'm not losing you too, Baby Brother," she says. "And I'm sure as hell not losing any more of me."
The worst of it is you don't want him. All the wanting in you withered and died the second you saw those photos, those faces, understood deep down that the love you felt coming from his eyes, his mouth was just a shallow reflection of what you were aching to give.
He was never the one for you. He never will be. He was a dream.
You go back on the online dating scene while you're too needy, while you're not ready, and you still don't want him back. You sleep with a bearded, slick-mouthed grad student from MIT who's not looking for anything but a thrill, and it doesn't fix the hurting, and you still don't want him back.
A week goes by. Two weeks. You were together barely three.
It isn't fair how the hurt's still haunting you. You don't even want him back.
Chaz Villette is rooted to his own hardwood floor. Chaz Villette is, rare as it is after years of practice, onion-layers of professional training, scraps of maturity, in tears.
Hafidha doesn't have a mirror. You broke him, the Bug says gleefully. And she can't tell if it's lying, telling lies just to feed on her, or if it's entirely true.
The panic starts to rise like hangover in her throat.
"What," he says, controlled and ragged, "do you need me to do?"
Name your terms, she hears. She spent all night walking, practicing for this. She thought she was going to be ready.
"I need you to not hover over me," she says. It comes out right: good and strong. "And not check up on me. And not--not keep from me what is mine because you think it might maybe, somehow, somewhere make me cry. I'm thirty-six years old, Chaz, and I'm not dying of Victorian consumption, and I might be full of God knows what in my head, but I'm still a person."
He says nothing. He's as pale as Chazzes get. He does nothing but nod, once, sharp.
"If you're going to trust me," she says, weakly, frustrated, "you need to actually trust me. That's it. That's all."
When he speaks, she can barely hear him. It takes a second for the words to register, untangle themselves in her ears: "I can do that."
Hafidha's breath ghosts out, slow. It's not true, the Bug says, leaden in the space between her throat and collarbone. Or maybe not the Bug. Maybe just the voice you always hear when you're brokenhearted, knowing quiet that you'll never be loved again.
But Chaz Villette is a mind reader. Or doesn't have to be: Maybe it's just the way people you've loved, hated, cried with, mourned beside know what it means when that light goes out of your eyes.
"I can do it," he says, again.
"Yeah?" she says.
"Okay," she says. And then shakier, hardest of all. Like pushing a rock all the way uphill with the anomaly and anger and habit and her own lifelong pride pushing from the other side: "I forgive you."
They used to burn love letters, and maybe you'd heal quicker if you had something left to burn. Some symbol, something representative. Some way to leave him too.
You don't want him back. What you want back is yourself.
You're not okay. You're not going to be okay until some invisible timer goes off; until some statute of limitations is up, and you can't see the clock, and the schedule is blank. But there's a clock, and there's a schedule. And somewhere ahead you will be better, and whole, and sane, and throw yourself wholeheartedly into some shy-smiling man's arms like you've never, ever known pain.
Chin up, you tell yourself, day after day. Morning after morning. Every time it hurts. Keep moving.
You're not okay. But you will be.
"We're not okay, are we?" Hafidha says, and her hands interlace, worry at each other like they haven't since she was very, very young.
"No," Chaz says, drained. Turns his head to watch her, over one bony shoulder, scarred-up beneath his shirt. "But we'll make it okay. I swear." And extends a hand, pinky out, like it's teatime. Pinky-swear. He wants to pinky-swear.
Peace officers, FBI agents, are trained to never make a promise they're not dead sure they can keep.
Hafidha nods, once, slowly. Takes his pinky in hers. Feels the tug of his bony finger on hers.
He goes into the kitchen, hides under the clatter of pots and the thunk of a chef's knife on wood. And Hafidha lets him go. Away from her need for comfort, and away from the thing in her head that likes so very much to hurt people. To gash itself like a dirty blade into her own skin.
She wraps her arms around herself. Conjures up a dying smell, a dying voice, and rocks herself like a child.