Asylum - by C.L. Polk and Elizabeth BearAct I | Act II | Act III | Act IV | Act V
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
Ashton, VA, April 30, 2014
"So here you are again," Saito says. "Danny-boy. With your trampled-on fear all muddled up. Got anything new for me?"
"Stubbed my toe this morning," Brady replies.
"And you had sex," Saito complains. "Snuggly wonderful dawn-time cuddling. You had a good lunch. You're not even hungry. Must you antagonize me like this?"
"Unexpected consequence," Brady says. "Desensitization."
"You're not living up to the deal. Give me something."
"Doing my best."
"I hate slow periods," Saito complains. "Waiting for the other shoe to drop. For you to break up with your boyfriend or have a teammate die. That grief felt good, Dann-O. Felt like the first time. But-- Not today. You're in a good mood."
"It's been good lately," Brady says. "Sorry."
"You have something in there," Saito says. "Something you're covering up in all that fluff. Nobody knows you like I do. How's your monster on work release?"
Screw you, buddy. "She's fine."
"For now. Until she isn't fine. And it could happen in a blink."
"You're boring today," Saito complains. "Can't even get you past worried about your team monster. I could do that. Be on your team. I have a knack for interviews. I can really get down deep."
"You're never getting out of this room, Jason."
"And you're not the deal I bargained for. Give me Dallas. Chicken in the bread pan, picking out dough... No," Saito says, and jerks backward against his chair in frustration. "Give me Hafidha Gates."
"She's fine," Brady repeats.
"Have you stayed at the office while she was in the field? Have you let her out of your sight yet?"
"She's been in the field without me there." That's a mistake. Defensive.
"Ooh. There's something," Saito says. "Give me that."
"Liar." Saito sits up, settles back. "She did something that makes your spine crawl. Give it to me. It'll do."
Her shroud wasn't even finished yet.
Ash had started it right after seeing an episode of Six Feet Under with a green burial. People thought it was morbid and creepy. "Way too goth, even for you," Jessica had said, while Ash searched for undyed linen cloth and researched plant dyes for the silk floss she'd dye herself. But you understood. Death is a part of life, and abstract at nineteen.
Ash hadn't abandoned it as a teenage fancy. She cut the linen, stitched it by hand, dyed the thread with berries and leaves and bark, stitched pictures and words and signs. She took it out on each of the sabbats and on her birthday to stitch on it. If she only got a little done, she'd shrug, smile, and put it back in its box to wait for the next time. There's enough time left when you're nineteen, when you're twenty-four, when you're not even married yet, when you're only twenty-six.
But it wasn't finished. The needle had still been threaded through a line of madder-dyed silk; at the spring equinox she'd been stitching a glyph she'd designed herself that meant gentleness. You don't know how it was supposed to finish, and so you pushed the needle through in a simple running chain to write the date of her death, and to mark the approximate places where her heart, kidneys, and eyes would have been--what the transplant people took, before they disconnected her from the machines. The sun, the scales, the ram's head. This was your job: Even though you didn't believe anymore, you knew the signs and symbols, you knew her meaning.
You couldn't bear to help wash her body, or to braid her long, long hair into the crown she liked the most. Couldn't bear to look at the bruises and the fractures that would never heal, the sutures from the transplants raised and ugly on her skin. No one minded that you couldn't. And so you sat in the room outside and stitched the last clumsy marks that weren't enough. Someone always came to touch your shoulder to see how you were doing, if you needed anything. Ash's brother, Connor, came to help you pack herbs in the pockets of the shroud, and Ash's mother, Sandra--that name was awkward on your tongue, she'd always been Mrs. Campbell--walked you to your car parked under the magnolias and gave you one more hug before you went home to sleep before the ceremony.
They arrange to fetch you in the car hired for the family. No one wears black. Ash would have hated it. Most wear green, her favorite colour--you're wearing a deep loden green shawl around your shoulders, fastened with her favorite shawl pin--a copper lance and a knotwork ring. Connor takes your hand to help you out of the car and holds it as you walk. You squeeze it because that's what you're supposed to do. Because it's supposed to feel comforting.
You leave your shoes outside the place marked as the entrance to the circle, and walk the spiral, turning inward. Ashley's mother respected her religion the way your parents wouldn't have, back when you believed it, too. She had talked to the people in Ashley's circle, and let them do everything the way they thought Ash would want it. Your bare feet grow cold as you turn widdershins through the spiral and find your place in the inner ring of mourners. Her family. Her circle. And you.
You're cold. Everything sounds far away, unimportant. The shroud isn't finished, but it's wrapped around her body, small and motley with the embroideries of wheels and constellations, a map of Ash's own meaning and what she wanted to set down to mark her life.
There should be more. There shouldn't be an inch of beige left unmarked, and the wrongness of that latches hold surely as Connor's hand and scrapes at the edges of emptiness, the unreality.
This shouldn't be happening.
Then there's a soft press just over your left shoulder, a wisp of honey and sandalwood teasing through the air, and the batting over your senses peels away--the moisture in the air, the cool bluegrass under your bare feet, Connor's hand holding yours tight and the brilliant blue sky and oh, deep in the center of your chest, it hurts and claws up your throat in a horrible jagged sob, the first you've cried since that first denying scream over the telephone
a car crash
the other driver killed immediately, Ash airlifted out with a massive head injury, unable to breathe unassisted
She had been coming to your house.
Work had been the absolute shits. Even knowing that you were walking straight into a universal PMS zone didn't make it any easier to handle. When Sam and Tyrone had laughed just as you'd gone around the corner--it probably hadn't been about you but fuck it made you want to turn around and demand to knowwhat was so fucking funny and even a run through the trail and splitting wood to refill the wall of split logs didn't take the tension out of your shoulders, didn't dull the need to start a fight.
You had complained to Ash as much as your nondisclosure agreement would allow, and your best friend, your heart-sister, said, "Take a shower, use the salt scrub, we're going to unblock your cramped-up energy and then we can watch any Jane Austen movie you want."
"I love you," you'd said, not knowing it was the last time. "And your crystal-hugging bodywork."
When she wasn't there a half hour later, you assumed she'd decided to pick up something to eat.
After an hour, you sent her a text.
The phone rang ten minutes later.
You can't stop crying now. Connor and Sandra have their arms around you, and you can't stop, she's gone, because she was coming to your house because you couldn't even stop sulking long enough to make the drive from Purcellville to Leesburg to make good on your weekend plans, she's dead
because of you
They get you back to the car somehow, and you try to take slow breaths that don't hitch, and when your sinuses clear, you smell honey and sandalwood again, and wonder if you're going crazy.
Sandra takes you home to the big house surrounded by deep Virginia woods. She tucks you into bed as if you were sick and reads Sense and Sensibility to you until the pills take hold and you fall asleep.
You dream of Ash teaching you to dance the strathspey in this house. You dream of the first day you met at your new school. You are both fourteen, and you never want to wake up.
But you do.
Hell is beautiful in the spring.
Dice bumps the driver's-side door closed with his hip and balances a grocery sack and a cardboard box on one hand and double-checks the lock. Actually two boxes: one destined to stay at the door for Leon and his partner after the mandatory search is done, the other to go upstairs, not down, up to the activity room, where Eddie and a guard will wait.
They might play chess, with Eddie able to move his pieces himself. Dyson's read up on sports scores, but Eddie may have already seen them himself on the television, and he'll listen.
Leon takes the boxes of kolache with thanks, you shouldn't have, I could never eat two boxes by myself and a big laugh before they go do the usual search. Leon doesn't ask the question again, and then Dyson Cieslewicz heads in a new direction from his usual route to the high security area and the support group meeting in the vast and empty cafeteria--to a smaller wing, with only a handful of residents.
Two of them are standing out by the nurse's station, accompanied by the usual complement of quiet, watchful staff. Dice smiles at the first, a slender young woman.
She smiles back, after a delay and a half-halted wave, then she slips into a room and shuts the door quietly, avoiding any further contact, but the other woman turns around and smiles widely.
"Dice," Natalie Summers says.
"Natalie," Dice answers, and up his arms come, a mirror of hers as they step closer together and hug. it's a close squeeze, though Dice is one-armed because of the second box of kolache and the grocery sack, but when they step apart Natalie's got a light in her eyes. Her red hair is natural, from the soft fuzz on her head, but not as vivid as he was used to seeing it, and she reminds him of a young Sinead O'Connor, with huge eyes and the hollows of her cheeks filling in a little.
"It's so nice to see you," she says. "I've met your brother." She acts like the guard standing just out of reach and to her right is personal security. She's probably used to having personal security.
"And now you know everything." Dice laughs.
Natalie lays a tan-gloved hand on his arm as she laughs along.
"Hardly. Kylie was just here," Natalie says. "Last Sunday."
"Oh, good! Good," Dice says, and sets the box down at the nurses' station occupied by Sam, who isn't a nurse but was studying to be one, and rocks back on his heels. "I'm glad."
"Me, too. She never stopped being my friend, Dice."
Dyson already knows. Kylie wrote him a message on Sunday. "That's good."
"Is your brother okay?" Natalie asks, and Dyson can't hide the expression that goes with his stomach dropping to the floor. "It's probably nothing," she says quickly. "He's not in observation, but he's been keeping to himself today and yesterday, and you can't usually get him away from the windows in the recreation room. He sits in the sunlight," Natalie says.
"Should I tell him that you were wondering if he was all right?" Dyson asks, and she shakes her head--and then changes her mind and nods.
"It's good to know that somebody's thinking about you," she says. "Susanna was, too."
"I'll tell him," Dyson promises.
Natalie goes off to the TV room. Eddie comes out not long after, smirking at Dice.
"The rich girl talks about you, brother."
"She asked if you were doing all right. She says Susanna was worried about you, too."
"The kid? No fooling. Wasn't feeling social. Let's play some chess."
Dice plays because Eddie likes to. They start a Catalan opening by silent agreement, and leave the clock off. Eddie doesn't rest his left arm on the table, doesn't talk much, glancing at the other end of the room where Natalie sits and watches a show with vampires of some kind.
"You sure there's nothing going on there?" Eddie asks, and Dice nods.
"Not like you could go on dates with her anyway. She's got the treatment already."
"She's already going for walks," Eddie goes on. "I'm not even at walks yet."
"When you get there, do you want to take a spin around the gardens?"
"You should go on a spin with her."
"Okay, okay. But she likes you, man."
"I know she likes me, but it's not like that."
"Like you and that tattoo babe you date."
"We go to the movies together sometimes."
"But it's not like that," Eddie grumbles, and his left shoulder rises until he notices it and shoves it back down. "Can't you just get laid?"
"Okay, okay. You're seriously into this sensitivity cra-- stuff. Why not get your leg over?"
"How would Natalie feel if I used her like that?"
"Fucksake, Dice. You never fucking quit. It pisses me off."
"I don't know what you mean."
"Yes, you do," Eddie says. "Never mind. Let's do some chess."
Dice reaches for his knight, and squeezes the horse head, resisting the urge to take his hand away. "J'adoube."
"No kidding j'adoube. I wouldn't have let you make that move when I was twelve." But Eddie doesn't give a suggestion or hint, letting Dice figure out an alternative.
Eddie wins eight moves later, shakes his head at the hint of another game. "Eat one, or you won't get one."
He means the poppyseed, their favorite. They eat in silence, watching the last minutes of the visit tick by, and Dice knows that he can't tell Eddie. Not yet.
"Well, I better get going," Dice says, and Eddie dusts crumbs off his hand.
"Yeah, you wanna get home soon. You doing that--that polo thing, with your bicycle?"
"Yeah." Eddie approves of bike polo. It's daring. He's proud of every scrape and bruise Dice gets, because a funny story about pain is one of the ways he takes the measure of a man.
Dice swipes his hands over a paper napkin before he shakes hands with Eddie. Good firm grip. Look him in the eye. Half a smile.
"Take it easy," Dice says, and turns to go. He makes it to the door before Eddie speaks again.
"I'm sorry I hurt your hand."
"It's okay," Dice says. It's out before the surprise at the apology even hits. "It's okay, little brother."
Leesburg, VA, May 1, 2014
You know you're awake, but you can't move because sharp, heavy claws are digging in and holding you down. You don't want to look at the mirror to the side of Ash's bed, but all you can move is your eyes and they track inevitably to the closet doors.
There's the hump of your hip, and the sharp drop of your shoulder. No beast digging painfully into your ribs, crushing your breath. But it's there, pressing the breath out of you, and you can't remember the words of protection, you can't call the white light to you so you think, Help me, Ashley. The tingling warmth touches the crown of your head and melts the beast away.
All at once you're ... awed. The tingling brushes over you and you shove down the thought that it's just ASMR and not what you feel when magic happens. You were wrong. You doubted, when you lost the feeling after--
No. Hold the light. Hold the magic. You've got it back, and that warmth and light and radiance just behind you is Ash.
She's come back, to save you. To show you that it really is real. Even though it's your fault she's dead.
It's not. I'm here. I'll leave you your privacy but I'll come when you need me.
It feels so good. As good as it felt when Ashley did Reiki with her hands just over your skin, as good as it felt when she would whisper you through a walk through the forest. Ashley could always stop the fear. Ashley could always make it safe. You keep your back to her, because if you turn and can't see her it will be harder to believe.
You keep believing until you fall asleep again.
When you wake up, you're starving. But now you're not alone.
Somewhere in Virginia, May 4, 2014
The road to Hell is in bloom.
Dice drives, Tyler rides shotgun, circular needles in his lap and his knitting pattern clipped to the passenger visor. They're on a Sunday drive to their support group, one where everyone is coming in.
"So how's Eddie enjoying being upstairs?" Tyler asks, watching the country road go by.
"I dunno. Mixed signals. Apparently he stays in his room a lot. Then he got on my case about how I should date Natalie."
"You should not do that," Tyler answers. "What on Earth."
"She's beautiful, she's rich, and she's doing really well, and Eddie is the sort of person who thinks a woman paying sincere attention to you wants you in bed."
"Yow. Okay! So I'm guessing you didn't tell him."
"I didn't tell him," Dice agrees. "I kind of pitched it out the window. I don't think it was a good time."
"Nothing says you have to come out to anyone, you know. You get to decide who you want knowing that," Tyler says. The knitting ends up in his hands, yarn wound around his fingers.
"I know, but it seems wrong. You guys all know. My brother? He doesn't know. I ought to tell him."
"Because he's your family?"
"Yeah. But he's, you know, he's--"
"Lacking in social empathy."
"That's so nice it swims under the point. But he's different. He doesn't say so much of that stuff lately. I wondered if he figured it out."
"Don't tell him until you feel like you're ready."
The miles wind by--some in silence, but Tyler mentions his workload at school, and Dice tells him about his new project at work to bring in a bottled beer from each state and territory, until Dice has to ask.
"Still don't want to see Natalie?"
"I still don't," Tyler agrees. "I dunno. I worry that she'll see it as a sign that all is forgiven and it's not. I don't know how much of that school year was real. I don't know how much she pushed me."
"I get you."
"I can't trust her. I hope she's getting better, but she's an alleged serial killer. I'm not even sure I want to encounter another one."
"You're going clinical, though."
"Irony, right?" Tyler chuffs out a laugh and digs around for his water bottle. "Oh, hey. Do you think Rupert Beale will be there? I want to ask him about how he decides what to write and what not to write. When it comes to the anomaly, I mean."
"I almost want to listen to that. I don't know if he'll be there or not, though."
Purcellville's gentrifying. You've watched it happen ever since you moved into your house, tiny on its big lawn compared to the houses that have gone up around it. When the new neighbors move in, they don't talk to you, till one by one everyone you knew on the street is gone, to foreclosures or simply an offer they couldn't refuse, and the pressure for you to follow suit is on. They don't see you when you mow the lawn. They don't see you when you rake the leaves. They don't see you when you shovel the walk and the drive. Their eyes slide off your Jetta, snug in the driveway.
But somehow, you can't mow that lawn now without feeling the eyes. You're out in a singlet and work pants, a trashed pair of ex-work boots. You know what they think of your man's job, the easy loping pace you set on the trail run, the cuts and curves of your shoulders, your arms. A woman living alone, her only visitor another woman, a woman with no makeup and a bodybuilding habit, a woman of speed, strength, endurance. You push the manual mower the same as you shovel the drive and the corner lot's stretch of sidewalk--at a patient pace you can keep up for twenty minutes, hydrate, and back at it. The neighbors use contraptions they can drive around--the neighbors who do their own landscaping and snow clearing, anyway.
You know what they think of Ash and you. It's no different than what they thought in school, what they thought at the dances, what they thought at the coffee cauldrons and open circles and spirit gatherings.
Who cares what they think? And who would care even if they were right?
You stop in your tracks. You stand up straight and inhale slowly, trying to catch the smell of sandalwood and honey. It's just cut grass, that's all, but you swear you heard it, like Ash was just there--and you're sure that she is, just behind you. You can feel her. You can--smell her.
She can't be there.
But she is.
"You're not there," you whisper, and an oriole sings above your head.
Because I'm dead? Em. Do you think I would leave you alone? I know you haven't reached out to anyone. Not even Connor.
"Connor's got his own thing. He doesn't want me hanging around."
Connor loves you.
"I know," you say, and start pushing the mower again, grass blades flying into heaps.
Not like a brother.
"I can't," you say, and turn with your eyes shut.
The sense of Ash follows you back toward the house.
"I can't," you mutter again, but there's no answer, and after a while the feeling of Ash goes away. You push the mower until your phone buzzes the time, and you stop right where you are and drink a glass of water from the pitcher on the porch, the ice in it melted to little floating pebbles.
"All that yard with a push mower," a voice says, and you turn around.
The man halfway down your driveway smiles. He's tan, wearing a crisp white shirt, no jacket, no tie, but those pants have a jacket somewhere. His hands are in his pockets, no briefcase, no bright brochures.
"Shovel the walk by hand, too," you say, and put one hand on your hip.
"A dedication to lower emissions, or fitness?"
"Spend an hour a day working out," you say. "Reckon yardwork's like Zumba."
"I can't see you in a Zumba class," the man says, and sandalwood tickles your nose.
"Don't look light on my feet, then?"
What's he want? Ash says, and you take a long breath in through your nose trying not to let your shoulders fall in relief. You know she's not real.
But having her there feels so good.
I don't trust him.
I don't either, Ash says in your mind, but it's not a thought-voice, it's her voice, clear and light with a little air in it, and you're hearing it, but this man doesn't, this man who looks at everything like he's recording it with his eyes, eyes that come back to you and don't smile right when he says, "Not much like Regency dance, is it? But you haven't been into that, lately."
"I think it's about time you start explaining why you're on my land, mister."
"I'm a friend of a friend," the man says.
He's lying, Ash says.
"Good to hear. Our mutual friend should introduce us," you say.
"I would give a lot for that to be possible."
He's lying, he's lying, Em, he's full of it I don't know him I never did.
I know, you think, and you shake your head. "I didn't see you at the ceremony."
"I don't think you were looking around much. You were in the inner circle. You were wearing Ash's lace stole, the one her cousin knitted for her for Christmas two years ago. Though Ash would have called it Yule, or Sol Invictus. And you would have, too, at one point."
How does he know that? How--
Aunt Irene, you and Ash say in unison. Ash giggles. You always did that--say the same thing at the same time.
"I didn't know her well," the man goes on. "Not like you. You went to school together? Ten years ago?"
"Thirteen," you say.
"Fast friends," he says. "You did everything together, the Regency dances, the spirit gatherings--but you quit. Four years ago, wasn't it?"
How does he know this I don't know him Em I don't what does he want? Get him out of here he just wants to hurt you
"What paper did you say you worked for, again?" and the way his face flattens out you know you hit it.
"I didn't," he says, but that smile's shiny plastic. You don't believe it.
"Get off my land," you say, and you go into the house, lawn half done, and you snap the lock behind you. You want Ash to soothe you, but she doesn't say anything.
Then it slides over you. You can't feel her.
There's a feeling, like someone is right behind you. You know the feeling. You have it when Ash is there, a soft body-heat warmth and the feeling when you try to force two magnets together, the feeling between your hands when you do Tai Chi, the same feeling you put into spells when you believed in them...
Fourteen minutes of her there, eight spent denying it, and now she's gone and it's like a hole ripped open all over again. She's gone and that... man asking questions, that's why and you hate him suddenly, hate him with a rage and pain you couldn't feel for the other driver, dead, too, dead to her steering wheel just not working and the panic rising up as she shoved the brake down to the floor, never thinking about the drivers behind her...
Stop. Focus...you can't. You're shaking and dizzy when you go into the kitchen--the heat, the stress, some juice will help--and the carton of orange juice is gone in a few swallows, it seems, and you've got an apple in your mouth while you go rooting around for more.
You can't feel her. You can't feel her. She's supposed to be there, but she's gone and the spot just where you feel warmth from her is cool and empty and you're going to faint if you don't keep eating, the juice wasn't enough, the apple wasn't enough. You drop a scoop of protein powder in a shaker and top it with milk. It's supposed to be a meal replacement but it's not enough, not from the odd tingling in your hands and ears.
There's a mini microwave lasagna. You poke the film with shaking hands and wait for the microwave to beep with your head between your knees. You're halfway through the third, well enough to sit up and eat slowly, washing down pasta, tomato sauce, and ground beef with long swallows of protein powder and milk when you catch a whiff of honey and sandalwood.
It's all right, Ash says. You're safe. He won't ever come back.
It's all right now.
You don't look at the other two containers while you finish the third.
J. Edgar Hoover Federal Building, Washington, D.C., May 5, 2014
Daniel Brady pops into Hafidha's office on the first Monday of May with an invitation to have two dozen red velvet cupcakes to go with Chaz's coffee.
She leads the way into the kitchen and plucks up a cupcake, peels the paper liner down, and eats it while pouring a milky coffee. "Chaz better get 'em while they're hot, all I'm saying."
"Up the hall, helping with a geographic profile. They think they've got a serial abductor but no pattern, but Doc is a bright girl and thought they'd better check with Chazzie and make sure." Her eyes flick up, a bit left of center. "Yeah, he found something interesting, at least."
The cupcake's gone in a blink, paper wrapper tossed out with a napkin. Brady's barely gotten two bites. "Oh, yeah? Our kind of thing?"
"Doesn't seem so, no fnords, but that just means if there is a gamma they're not messing around with computers."
"Well, that's a relief."
Brady refills his coffee. "I know Nikki wasn't going to be in today anyway. Where's Mom?"
"Do we even have the Gulfstream?"
"That's a good question. I can check for you. Just give me a second with these patient records."
Hafidha walks out of the kitchen with a little plate bearing a cupcake on top of her coffee mug. Brady stares after her. She's cheerful. Complimentary. No claws in a word she said.
She's allowed to have a good day, Brady tells himself, and he takes a cupcake along with him to the bullpen.
Sol Todd strolls in at about eleven. "Oh good, you're all still here."
"No case for us. I'm not even sure we have the plane," Brady says. "Hafidha said she'd tell me after she was done looking through patient..."
Solomon watches half amused as Brady slows down and swivels his head toward Hafidha's office. "Something wrong?"
Brady gets up and sticks his head in Hafidha's office, and Sol follows. Hafidha stares at her monitors and a tablet, each of them scrolling forms. Sol catches the word "Inova" on the tablet and huffs a bit.
"Hafidha, are you hacking a hospital?"
"Only a little bit." The tablet switches to a home screen, but the other monitors keep scrolling. "I have a hunch."
"What's the hunch about?" Todd asks.
Her right shoulder goes up, a shield. "Motor-vehicle accidents."
"You have a hunch about motor-vehicle accidents, because..."
"I'm looking for a connection, if there is one, between motor-vehicle accidents in a radius around D.C. But I'm not Chaz, and there are no fnords. But still."
Brady nods, half to himself. If he had a glass of water Sol imagines that he would take a sip, just to give him a bit more time to think, but he forges ahead. "Hafs, I know I don't have to tell you--"
Hafidha puts up one long hand. "That Erik died from being smacked by a car? You don't have to tell me. That Daphne got mowed down by a semi? You don't have to tell me. That the actual details of the accidents were different and there wasn't a James Vijay Singh around to cause a stroke or aneurysm in the driver who killed Erik? You don't have to tell me that, either. That I'm probably obsessing over this because the Bug loves it? Loud and clear, baby. But I have a hunch."
"Okay," Brady says. "You want to talk about it?"
"No," Hafs snaps, and then leans back and kneads her forehead. "But I ought to. And I've been jamming all morning. I should eat something that isn't cupcakes. Cheeseburgers and pie?"
"Cheeseburgers and two pies."
"Okay, but what will you eat?"
"I'll think of something. Do you want anyone else with us?"
"No--ahh, Arthur. I'm feeling gentle today. Let's bring the new kid."
"I'm still the new kid?" This from Arthur Tan, who leans against the doorjamb, one foot in and one foot out.
"Until someone supplants you, New Kid. Cheeseburgers and pie?"
"Cheeseburgers and two pies."
"You know how it feels to go where everybody knows your name?" Hafs says. "Well, here I am. And I need you to tell me if I'm going crazy over this."
"I-- Sure," Arthur says. "Why me?"
"You're a comics nerd, and this is totally your-power-is-your-undoing stuff," Hafidha answers. She stands up, tablet disappearing into an eggplant-colored satchel. "Also, lunch with handsome scenery? Bonus."
Arthur backs up and lets the parade file past him to the hall. "Were we just objectified?"
"Damn straight we were," Brady says.
"Report me to HR?"
"Eh...Naaah," Arthur-as-Bugs-Bunny says, and Hafidha giggles as she pushes the elevator button.
Todd catches Arthur's eye and winks.
"Somebody ought to make a Gettysburger, you know that?"
Todd feels the chuckle, swallows it. Deadpans, "Hafs. Scandal?"
"Twitter exploded every Thursday night," Hafs says, making the lace hem of her skirt bloom with a turn in the elevator. "Damn if I didn't get sucked in, too. I'm still mad about James Novak."
"Okay, so this research. How long have you been doing it?"
Arthur sticks his hand out to hold the elevator doors open. "Research?"
"Just started this morning. Anyway. My parents were in this weekend. Gone on Tuesday after we had my birthday lunch. They were here to go to a meeting over at Arkham."
Sol knows Hafidha's parents were in town, but Hafidha usually keeps a wall between her and the survivors's meetings. The elevator doors open and admit a pair of agents, and they all shift to let them in, conversation halted until Sol asks, "Where to?"
"You said burgers? Ollie's," Arthur volunteers.
Hafidha purses her mouth sideways. "The Styrofoam plates get me down."
"Elephant and Castle," Brady says.
Hafidha considers as the doors open onto the lobby, then nods. "I can live with it. Don't think they have pie, though."
"There will be cake," Sol says. "Chocolate cake."
They settle into a flying wedge, Hafs breaking the floes of traffic. "We had a nice weekend, but yeah, my parents witnessed a car accident."
"Oh, that's not good," Arthur says. What kind?"
"Single car. They were driving with the top down and he passed them at top speed screaming no, no, no, and then he went right off the road and plowed into a stone wall. Freaky, right?"
"Freaky," Brady agrees. "Our-kind-of-thing freaky, though?"
"Your spidey senses tingled," Todd says.
"Yes. Erik died because of a freak accident," Hafidha says, and Sol watches Brady suppress the urge to look directly at her or react in any way. "The car's airbags spontaneously deployed, knocking the driver unconscious, and the car hit Erik at a crosswalk."
"That's also terrible. Hafidha, I am so sorry," Arthur says.
"Me, too, Arthur," Hafidha says. "Thanks. But enough sharing and caring for a minute."
They plow straight through crowds on the street, past signs advertising specials for lunch.
"Okay, where was I?" Hafidha says. "Right. Car accidents and connections. I wondered what actually killed the guy, and my spidey senses did indeed tingle. I've been looking into hospital records about car crashes with fatalities all morning--"
"Just to make sure?" Arthur asks.
"Because I can't not think of purple elephants. Now that I'm thinking about it I can't stop," Hafidha says. "And I don't know why but I thought if I could find this one victim...I don't know. I've got nothing but a hunch, and ... all the other stuff. That makes me worry that I'm seeing the monster that isn't there."
"I'm glad you told me," Brady says.
Arthur Tan nods. "And me."
"Vulnerability still sucks, though," Hafidha mutters. "I keep thinking I've seen it all, why should this scare me?"
Todd puts a hand on her elbow. Her failure to flinch puts a twinge of warmth in him. "You've never seen everything," he says.
She kicks him lightly on the shin.
Hafidha orders double pub pretzels before they even sit down. Brady waits while she, Todd, and Tan choose their seats. He takes the one remaining, on Hafidha's right so their eating hands don't cross up elbows. He remembers when they used to stick Reyes and Hafs on the same side of the table, so the lefties could coordinate. The more things change, the more they keep on changing.
The waitress looks at them oddly when they each ask for a starter dish and menus.
Hafidha demolishes a pretzel and shares the basket around before resuming. "So, tax records--"
"Because you're hacking the IRS, must be Friday," Arthur says, and Hafidha snakes one hand out to steal one of his regular potato skins.
"Tax records show," Hafidha continues, "that Matthew Sheehy was a reporter who sorta kinda got laid off from the Loudoun Times-Mirror, but was still making money from them and a few other papers by writing puff pieces, usually about local businesses in the county and personalities. On speculation. Times are tough for everybody."
"The death was ruled an accident," Brady says. Gently.
Todd breaks off a bite of pretzel, dips it in grainy mustard, and stuffs it into his open mouth. He's obviously much too busy chewing to say a damned word, and Brady is grateful.
She swallows and says, "Yes. It was. Single car. Lost control. But the post-mortem examination says cardiac arrest."
That wasn't a congruent cause of death for a car accident, was it? Daphne would know. Brady shoves the thought down. "Okay, I'm waiting for it."
"No heart disease, clean tox screen, no embolism, and he was twenty-six years old." Hafidha has a bite of stuffed Yorkshire pudding and looks at Brady.
"Died of fright, is what you're guessing. On one death."
"Well, I can assume he was afraid, from what my folks saw on their way back up from Idlewood."
"We can't follow it up officially," Arthur says.
"And it doesn't fit Erik's accident, if cardiac arrest was the cause of the accident," Brady says.
"One sparrow doesn't make a summer. It doesn't fit with Erik's accident, but it's still weird and I'm looking for more. That's why I'm hacking hospitals."
"Any more unusual cardiac arrests?" Brady offers a coconut shrimp, and Hafidha accepts.
Sol Todd tears off another section of pretzel. "Well, they could be usual-appearing cardiac arrests, natural deaths..."
"People go to the emergency room for anxiety attacks," Arthur says.
"You're buying in?" Hafs asks.
"I'm being helpful," Arthur replies. "Though technically you don't have a warrant for any of this and there's no official notice or anything like that and shouldn't be doing it at all."
"Which is exactly why I'm not doing anything. Doing what? Okay, so admissions for emergency rooms that wound up being anxiety attacks. Should look for Xanax, Klonopin, my little buddy Ativan ... Oh." Hafidha blinks at the air. "There are hundreds. This could take a while. I should probably add it to the file."
"That isn't on the FBI servers."
Hafs gives Brady a look. "Of course it isn't. It's on the server at home."
"Have you looked into insurance claims and lawsuits?" Sol asks, and Hafidha shakes her head. "Freak mechanical failures would lead to lawsuits by the survivors. A lot of the stuff is on paper, though. You mind sharing what you've got with me?"
"That's an offer I can't refuse," Hafidha says. "I can send you the files, too, no problem."
"I'm not much help with research," Brady says. "But I can give opinions."
"Thanks, Danny. But more work later or else we'll need three pies. You gonna eat the rest of those, New Kid?"
Hafidha follows Todd into Esther's office, because it's never a bad idea to let Solomon Todd take point. Falkner quirks up an eyebrow, but she's smiling her welcome.
"There is no way I can even pay you consulting fees, Sol. What are you doing here?"
"Hafidha had an idea. I'm helping her check it out," Sol says.
"There's cupcakes," Hafidha says.
"They're parve," Brady says.
"And I didn't eat meat for lunch, because I saw those cupcakes," Esther says. "How about we have our meeting over a few?"
"Arthur, will you get plates and forks? I'll make a fresh pot of coffee, since Chaz is..." Hafidha stares at the air. "Not going to be here for another fifteen minutes at least. Seems he figured out the hot zone for their UNSUB."
"Tell him to tell them to let him eat before he falls down," Esther says.
"He had a Clif Bar. But he knows there is cake. He says that gallon of milk in the fridge is to go with."
"Then let's put this off. Say ten minutes?"
"Ten's good," Hafidha nods, bringing her focus back into the room. "I'll go take care of that coffee."
"So, you can text us with your brain?" Arthur asks, following Hafidha into the kitchen.
"You kidding? I have to remember to play with the screen half the time."
"Yeah, if I could do that I'd probably do it without thinking," Arthur says. "And Hafidha? There's nothing wrong with following a hunch."
Hafidha looks over her shoulder at Arthur, the rest of her swiveling around to face him. "You have bought in."
"I think it's worth a look. Because you think it's worth a look," Arthur says. "And I'm not worried, because you aren't trying to keep it a secret. You keep secrets when your power is your undoing."
Arthur walks out with a stack of side plates. Hafida stares after him.
"Knew I wanted you along for a reason, New Kid."
"So I'm guessing that this is about what we talked about at lunch," Brady says, as they all assemble in the meeting room, "and not a case."
Falkner says, "Correct. We're still punching the clock, but the sequester is still squeezing the money. So if any of you have a reason to take a personal day, to make appointments or just to stay home or because you want a three-day weekend for a change, wrestle over what days you want to take."
"I'll take tomorrow," Hafidha says, lifting her fork in the air. "I will of course be reachable but I can stay home and play a video game with ironic content."
"You're not talking about Outlast," Arthur says and Hafidha nods.
"You betcha. I'm going to use it to monitor some tweaks I've made to my bugzapper."
"Outlast is ironic because?" Brady asks.
"You play an investigative reporter looking into shady business at a recently reopened insane asylum. Cue monsters everywhere, and now you have to escape."
"Eat your cupcake."
Hafidha cackles and gets another.
"Did you save any for me?" Chaz slides into his seat. A pair of cupcakes and a tall glass of milk already wait there, and he peels down the paper on one while looking around.
"So it seems you're not going to need to take a personal day, Platypus," Hafidha says.
"Yeah, no. There are two possible hot zones. I think I know which one is the right one but Celentano wants two teams, so I'm headed to Austin. It's really short notice," Chaz says apologetically.
"You don't need to watch over me, I'm okay. I'll check in with you every few hours, and I can have company over--"
"Will you make me a pie?" Sol asks.
"I will make you two pies," Hafidha promises.
"But what will you eat?"
Costco looks about the same everywhere. You walk into a warehouse with the right card, and weave your way through the merchandise that tempts you while you search for what you actually need. You used to duck into the vast cavern only to buy cleaning supplies and whatever would keep for months, consider the nicely discounted electronics, and make a promise to come back later when you had a little more money. Now you're glad you got the membership, because you're here to buy food. Nobody bats an eye at shopping carts full of food. You just have to lie and say "three" when someone asks how many kids you have. It's easy to just nod, smile, and get out.
Ashley's return eases your heart. It's hard to mourn her when she's the angel on your shoulder, ready to whisper in your ear. You wonder if it's real. You can't help it. But she's there, and she's not the only thing that is. The power surges in your hands, so strong you think hard about touching anything lest it arc from you. You can raise it with a thought, with an emotion. You have to be careful.
Work has cut down everyone's hours by one day a week. It's so no one has to be cut off, but you're barely making it now. You make the minimum payments on your credit cards and try not to think of how much peanut butter you could buy for that, or how much pasta, or toilet paper, for that matter. Another cut you can't afford won't help.
But you've never felt the need to eat so urgently in your life. You're no stranger to six-egg-white omelets and protein shakes from the days when you lifted heavy. You worry about that, about how much it costs mostly, but you worry about why you're so hungry and you think you know.
It's the power. The books got it right--expending magical energy is expending energy. So you buy pasta, oats, whole wheat berries, beans and lentils, coarse ground cornmeal in bulk, whey powder, eggs, chicken breasts, pork chops, rice. You buy cream sauces and gallons of apple juice, five pound bags of apples, two-pound blocks of cheese, and you hope it's going to be enough. You buy a stack of two-pound frozen pasta dishes intended for a family of four, and one of your cases of salad greens falls off your cart while you wait in line.
When you straighten up, there's a man standing in front of you. He's got a gallon jug of dishwashing soap and a gallon of milk, one in each hand.
You wonder who goes to Costco to buy two things. "Excuse me, but I'm in line and there's two people behind me."
"I'm just getting a couple of things, it's no problem," he says, and turns his back.
You can't believe it. "Excuse me--"
The man ignores you. He takes a telephone call, or pretends to, since he's got a headset in one ear. He's talking about buying houses. Many houses, not just one. He calls them properties, says something about using the investment for a tax break.
You glare daggers into his back. The power rushes through you. You tell yourself you can't stop it, but honestly, you don't want to. Rich bastard. It builds until it bursts, and you feel coldness just behind you. Even silent, you feel Ash, but in the moments when the power releases she disappears.
The man glances left and right. Apologizes to the phone-- "I thought I heard something, what did you say?" --but he can't stop looking around. You watch his shoulders twitch, a shudder. "I'm sorry, something came up, I'll call you later."
Justice is yours. You push the power again, and he twists at the waist trying to catch sight of something, hugs the jug of milk to him, wipes his hand on his pants.
He doesn't even last a minute. He near-whimpers, "I've got to get out of here," sets down the jugs, and half runs to the exit. The security guard tries to intercept him, but the man cries, "I've got to get out of here!" and shoves him aside in his haste to get out.
A screech of tires and a blaring horn follow his exit. People crane their necks as if they could see through the walls.
You fight the urges to grin and to faint at the same time.
Hafidha and Chaz's condo smells like fresh baked bread and it obeys Hafidha's every gesture. She snaps her fingers and the lights come on, the burglar alarm accepts her code when she points at it. A voice murmurs, "You have no messages," as Hafidha wiggles her nose at an enormous flat-screen TV. It scrolls quickly through menus and Tom Petty plays through the home theater.
Sol puts his elbows on the butcher-block table and sighs contently.
"We've got beer. Your iPad's connected... and there's the file server. Unless you want a laptop, on the shelf there."
"Beer's good. What do you need me to chop?"
"Apples," Hafidha says. "I meant it about the pies. Chaz pulled out frozen leftover stew for dinner today."
He waves at the table in front of himself. "Put the knife and fruit there. How much stew do the two of you have to make to have leftovers?"
"Wow. Talk about your hunch?"
"Sure." Hafidha opens drawers, puts out bowls, finds a bag of apples in a cupboard. "Like I said, the car accident caught my eye. It got me thinking--about Erik."
"But it made you wonder."
"Well it's not a usual thing, is it? Yelling in terror and driving into a tree? There had to be a reason. So I thought, I'll find out what it was, lay this to rest. Only I got--"
"More questions," Sol says, peeling an apple in one long loop.
"More questions," Hafidha agrees. "And the bugzapper only trips when I start worrying that it's the Bug making me fix on this." A heavy pot goes on the stove, and Hafs spoons two containers of thick beef stew into it. The dishes land in the left-hand sink on her way to the fridge.
"Does it work better, or worse, knowing that it's zapping your responses?"
"Mine works great. I've had a lot of time to monitor it. I probably have a scientific paper about my 1.52 revision."
"You gonna write it?"
"Kat--Doctor Allison can do it."
"How much better do you feel?"
"It hasn't un-monstered me. But I trust myself some of the time. I trust Chaz more, of course. And he thinks I can be on my own. So I do not fuck it up, because he trusts me. Neat trick, yeah?"
"Neat trick," Sol agrees. "You want to hear what I'm thinking about with your motor-vehicle accidents?"
"Yeah. First, my guess. We've got a gremlin."
"That's what I was thinking. Someone with the ability to make machines malfunction. That or a witch."
"Throwing hexes?" They both pause for a moment, remembering New Mexico. And Daphne.
"Land of Enchantment," Sol says. Apple wedges splash in acidulated water. Then: "Hexes is vague, and we don't yet have a pattern to put a gremlin on."
"Maybe there's two," Hafida says, rocking the pastry blade though lard and butter and flour. "Because I'm just a barrel of sunshine."
"If we find two patterns, then maybe we'll have two gammas. How do you want to organize this?"
"Do it any way you want to. I can literally pick the data out of the air. Can you make me a cup of ice water, and get me the vodka from the freezer?"
"I can," Sol says, and rises to get both things. "For the piecrust?"
"For the piecrust," Hafidha agrees. "I'm thinking about the panic attacks. Can we eliminate the repeat customers for panic attacks?"
"Probably, but let's just tag repeats and then see if there's nothing. A witch could hex someone they know personally many times. I've got another tag, for the accidents," Sol says, and cores another peeled apple after cutting it in half. "Can you check to see if any of the vehicles were under a recall, and match any of the mechanical failures not just by type of failure but the same car models and years?"
"So say, 2008 MINI Cooper S, circuit board fire?"
"You didn't make that up."
Hafidha grins her wide grin. "I certainly did not. Fresh off recall.gov."
"You're an oracle, Hafs. I would keep you in my pocket."
"You do. I'm on your phone."
Some time later, Hafiha serves them both wedges of apple pie and Sol nods in satisfaction at the balance of sweetness and spices. He put his fork down to linger over the first bite, and Hafidha nods. That's as it should be. And it's as good a time as any to admit that she needs help.
"Actually I wonder if I could ask you to do this unpaid labor," Hafidha asks, and then washes down the bit of pie with some of her pint glass of milk. "I can rob seven hundred banks, bounce the money around the world and buy you stock certificates, if you're low on cash. But that would be a bit like bringing you a dead vole, so maybe I should just shut up and ask."
"Pay me in pie, Hafidha. This is fantastic. Really, what would you like?"
"When I told you all that I was looking into, you came up with better ideas than me," Hafidha says. Can't get right to it, gotta talk around it. "I didn't think of the panic attack thing, and the lawsuit claims compared against recorded parts recalls, that's all really good. I think I'm too close to it. I had a hunch, but it's about Erik. I want to find who's responsible. I never stopped thinking that."
"And now you posit accidents involving weird malfunctions."
"Yes. Well, no. That's what I found, and I'm trying to connect them together."
"But the accident your parents witnessed didn't have a weird malfunction."
"In the car, there was no weird malfunction. But there was in the body."
"You can't connect the two, you know that."
"But I can't shake the idea that I'm looking at a single point on two different graphs. And I will obsess, and I will keep looking... Sol, I can't do this alone. But if you can carry it..."
Sol gently sets his fork down. "That's a lot of trust, Hafs."
"I know you won't just soothe me down and not look. Besides. If I'm right? You want to know, too." Hafidha watches Sol's slow, single nod. "I might be faster at finding a needle in a big pile of needles, but you're better at figuring out which needle used to be in Drama Club in middle school with the other needle I found, and how it makes a story. I'll be your pocket oracle, you be the maestro."
Hafidha can't help the smile she gets when Sol nods. "Can you put everything we have on a server I can access?"
"It's on your iPad. You want it at home, too?"
"The machine's powered off."
"Turn it on when you get home and text me," Hafs says. "You sure you don't want those stock certificates?"
"Scrounging around your place for food and pie is fine." He pauses, pensive. "Hafs, Stephen and I have been working on something that maybe it's time you knew about."
"The thing that eats T. rexes?" she asks.
"Yes. And." The crust is flaky and perfect, but Hafidha watches Sol pick at it nonetheless. "Stephen thinks there's a pattern. One that includes Hope Mitchell and Guy Nadon and Jeffrey Simmons."
"Quantico," she says, eyes closing. "Viv Paliotto?"
"Erik Holt is on his list as well."
She nods, a puppet movement. Deliberate. Artificial. "I'm not the only conspiracy theorist in the house."
"We had reasons not to mention it."
"They were good reasons," she says. "Chaz knows?"
"He's the pattern master," Sol admits. "You're not angry?"
"You give me everything I can handle, Duke. You trust me more than I do. What's to be angry about?" Deliberately, she cuts more pie. Takes a bite, swallows. "Someone's gunning for us. And has been for a long time."
"Evidence suggests," he says gently.
She stands. "Well. I want coffee. How about you?"
"I'll be up all night," he answers, but it's not a no.
Arlington, VA, May 7, 2014
The phone rings just after midnight. Hafida puts the phone on speaker and hooks a finger under her bead bracelet. "Platypus?"
"I'm coming home, Wabbit. We found our UNSUB." Chaz's tired voice sounds through measured breaths.
"You sound like that's not a win. Did the arrest go down messy?"
"We found Chad Wendell Holmes in his apartment. Strangled."
Hafidha shrugs into a cashmere cardigan, and stuffs her feet into slippers. "Strangled."
"We got there too late. I can't order the body up so Frost can examine it, but there was no reason to believe he was a gamma."
"What even the hell, Platypus. This is the worst Moriarty ever. And you didn't get to see any music, did you."
"I am so mad, Wabbit."
"I am, too." Check out the empathy, Hafs thinks. But it's always easy to care about Chaz. "He did it as a taunt. And that'll be the hubris that means we get him. All the reports done?"
"Some of them."
Hafidha opens the fridge and pours herself a glass of milk. "Yoink."
He wasn't actually alarmed, Hafs knew. Just habit."Just don't tell anybody. I'm giving them to Sol."
"Because we have to update you on our acts of private citizenship."
"Sol's looking out for me. And I watered the plants. And I didn't want to hurt them very much."
"And we're on a phone," he sighs, defeated.
"Sol told me about the conspiracy," she says, a rush.
There's a pause. Then: "Good," Chaz answers. "Frankly, I think we can use all hands."
"Are you here or there? I've got half a pie that needs eating."
"I'm here," Chaz says. "I'll be home soon. Do we need milk?"
"We always need milk."
Ashton, VA, May 14, 2014
This time the boxes Dice balances on his left hand are donuts -- brown butter, dulce de leche, orange chocolate, and cannoli from a place on Capitol Hill. Leon takes a cannoli right away and passes the box on to his partner--"Try that kind before I eat them all"--and Dice makes his way up to the unit. Eddie waits for him in the hallway, chessboard and bag tucked under his arm. He's wearing faded jeans with a plaid shirt.
"Regular clothes," Dice says. "Walks yet?"
"Not yet," Eddie says, and something's wrong. He isn't smiling, isn't really interested in the baked goods or his nicotine gum. "Lets play, come on."
Eddie chooses a table that's off to the side, the dim corner by the piano no one plays, not his sunny window in earshot of the TV.
"Something wrong?" Dice asks.
"Natalie got mad at me," he says.
"Oh shit, sorry to hear. Is she still mad at you?"
"She's in observation," Eddie says. "I didn't know, I was just trying to help."
He sets the board up, gives Dice white. He looks down at the pieces with stubborn focus.
"What were you trying to help with?"
"You said you wouldn't use her, so I figured I'd try and get the ball rolling. I told her you liked her."
"Christ in a bucket."
"She got upset. Threw a table at me and then I--" He stops talking.
Dice opens with King's pawn four and Eddie mirrors it. "You didn't fight back."
"No, hell no, I knew I fucked up the second my brain caught up with my mouth," Eddie says, and accepts the King's Gambit.
"You shouldn't have said that to her. Natalie really doesn't need anyone romantically interested in her, and now she's probably not sure she can trust me to really be her friend."
"How do you even do that? Be friends with a girl. What do you even talk about?"
"Natalie's a scientist," Dice says quietly. "She likes to talk about chemistry and biology. She's very interested in the brain."
"Really? But she's... well, she's pretty."
"She's pretty, and she's a scientist," Dice says, and waits for the dismissal.
Instead Eddie settles down to play an open game, and the next thing Dice knows, he can't castle.
"Play it through and then I'll show you what I did," Eddie says. He remembers the games they play, never becomes more animated than when he explains a tactical choice, and Dice listens, remembers maybe half of it.
"I will never be good at this game," Dice says.
"You're better already," Eddie says. "It's just that I am now really good at this game. I've had a lot of time to learn it. I got books and stuff. And you're learning."
"Nah. You get to play me for like half an hour a week, is all. We've done this what, twice? Last time was--shit, I was still in school. You got your own things you're into. Always have."
Maybe this is it, Dice thinks.
"I have to tell you," Eddie says, and he's staring hard at the chess game between them. "When Natalie threw that table at me, I--"
When Eddie falters, Dice just waits.
"I used to think you were too stupid to learn, you know? When we were kids. You wouldn't learn better. You never would. And I thought I was better off because I was the good brother. And you know what I figured out? That's what put me in here. I'm here and you're not. Because you wouldn't learn."
"No. Let me finish. I learned. I learned about evil and sluts and faggots and illegals. I figured it out. You don't think like me. So ... I started trying to be like you. I got the treatment. I played along in therapy. I thought I was doing better."
"You are, Eddie."
"No. No, I'm not. Look at the board."
Dice glances down at the forgotten chessboard.
Black King's Bishop moves. Slowly, wobbling on its felt feet, the resin piece slides across black squares barely an inch to rest in front of the black king, and halts.
"J'adoube," Eddie laughs, low but fearful. "I can't pick anything up with it. Just--push, or hit things. But it's strong."
"I used it to block the table. Week ago? Ten days?"
"You haven't told anyone."
"They'll put me back."
"Let's tell Dr. Ramachandran, okay? We can figure this out."
"I don't want to hurt anybody," Eddie said.
"I know, Eddie. Everyone knows. Come on, we'll talk to the doctor."
He's going to be late for bike polo. But Eddie needs him, and his little brother shuffles along behind Dice as Dice leads the way out to the nurses' station.
Ashton, VA, May 15, 2014
You're on supermax gateway duty and your stomach is already grumbling after lunch, and you had at least a pound of pizza with a quart of milk. You took the earliest lunch, made like you were buying four slices on pizza day for coworkers, and tore through them like a starving jackal before anyone could come in and see you.
It's an hour to your next break, and the green light indicating movement in the hallway is on. Someone's coming. If it's someone who knew you had lunch, then eating cheese, crackers, and an apple won't fly. Eating too much here would flip everyone out, and explaining about magic? You can't do it.
You watch the doors. It's what you're supposed to do. You breathe a sigh of relief when the stocky figure of Rupert Beale resolves into sight.
He's favoring his leg a bit today. You want to say something sympathetic and you know he'd hate it, so you just say, "Hi."
"How's the fort?" Beale asks, and produces a little clear clamshell with a cheese Danish. "Do me a favor? I bought it on impulse."
"The fort's all right," you say, and accept the Danish. "I'll just run an extra fifteen and make up for it."
"No trouble, with being short staffed?"
"Not so far. Everybody knows the routines, and everybody's been quiet. Well. There was an altercation up on four. That was exciting."
"The supervised wing?"
"Yeah. Maybe letting them have their own gen pop isn't so hot. But I'm not the Doctors, am I?"
"They do what they can to make sure the patients on the new program can handle the responsibility."
"Until they start chucking tables at each other," you grumble. The Danish glistens. You can smell the butter that went into its making, the slight creamy-sour tang of the cheese. You want that Danish.
"Tossing tables could be the worst of it," Dr. Beale says. "We still have hope that the stress of the outside world can be handled by the implant surgery."
You once told Beale how much letting that woman Hafidha walk free bothers you. It's wrong. She'll go wrong. Even in a cage she acted like a queen on a throne. She'd sit down and expect the river to move. When you told Beale what you really thought, he didn't disagree. That nice girl Susanna tried it, and she came right back here.
"Anyway, you came to see somebody. Patient?"
"I did. Donatta Fletcher. She's next for the implant."
"How are they even going to-- You can't even touch her."
"Not with your hand," he says. He looks right in your eyes. "But you can touch her with a scalpel."
"Wow," you say, and think about it. "That's fucking brutal. You ever feel like they're moving too fast with that thing?"
"Not that I would admit out loud," Rupert Beale said. "I'll let you get to that Danish."
J. Edgar Hoover Federal Building, Washington, D.C., May 20, 2014
"This is bat country," Hafidha's phone reports.
"Sol," Hafidha says. "How goes the battle?"
"I found something," Sol says.
"What did you find?" Hafidha asks the air. She lifts a hand, and all the monitors halt in their scrolling and streaming, waiting for her smallest gesture.
"Um, Sol? The word 'ubiquitous.' Feeling any association?"
"I looked at the three gremlin cases we found. Two of the three happened within five hundred feet of a Starbucks."
"On a highway with a direct feeder road with a Starbucks on it. Genevieve Howard, the steering failure accident in September, had purchased a decaf nonfat sugar-free caramel machiatto--"
"What is even the point. I'm so confused right now."
Sol makes a small chuff of amusement. "Well, that was what was in her stomach contents."
"So there could be a chance that I'll find the same credit card information at all three locations on the respective days of their accidents?"
"You might," Sol says. "I'll hold."
"Could take a minute to do this all private citizenry... No. But that doesn't mean that there wasn't someone there, using different payment methods on one or more visits."
"Or cash," Sol says. "I'll keep looking."
Purcellville, VA, May 20, 2014
Connor just shows up at your door--on a Tuesday night, after nine. He's wearing the lawn shirt that Ash made for him, with full sleeves and a high collar, meant to be fastened with a stock.
"At quadrille club?" you ask.
He smiles. "We're not supposed to talk about it."
That ritual done, you open the door and let him in. "I wasn't expecting you."
"I thought if I called to ask to see you, you'd make an excuse," Connor said.
"I would have."
He looks so much like Ash. The same brown hair, prone to light auburn in the sunlight. The same narrow nose, the tip up-tilted. The same gold-dusted eyes. He looks at you, reaches to touch your shoulder.
You remember to hold still.
"I know you would have," he says. "I've been worried. I haven't heard from you, Mom hasn't, she worries, too. How are you?"
"I don't actually believe you," Connor says. Ash should be chiding you to relax, but she's just as still as you, just as cold.
"Okay," you say. "I wish she weren't dead. But--"
"It feels like she's still here."
"Oh, Em," Connor says, and you're flush up against him, his arms around you. A hug. He's hugging you.
You remember what to do. You raise your arms, close them around Connor's back. A hug. Connor's shoulders slump a bit as he relaxes, still holding on.
"I still feel her," you say. "That makes it all right."
"Em. She loved you. Mom loves you. I love you."
You know what you should say. "I know. I love you, too."
"Em," Connor says, and pulls back. Looks at you. "I love you."
"I know," you say, and something in his face changes, smooths out as his eyes close. You try to think of what to say.
But he's kissing you and everything in you screams no no and you push him away. Connor leans against your hands, saying, "It's okay, it's all right," and he just slips between your hands and kisses you again.
Make him stop! Ash cries. It's not right it's not right
"No," you say. "Stop. It's not all right. I don't like it."
And Connor leans back, looks at you, steps back. Wipes his mouth. "I'm sorry, Em. I didn't want to scare you."
"I know," you say. Ash is still screaming.
"It's just, we've known each other a long time, since I was a kid. And I never said anything but you had to know."
"I knew. I didn't want you to do that."
"Why, Em? You changed. You quit dancing, and you quit Wicca--"
"I didn't believe in it anymore." But now you have power. So much power, bursting to get out with Ash's screams.
"Ash told me that you and her weren't a thing."
"We weren't." But she was the only one who you could bear touching you. The only one. "Hold on, will you?"
You walk out to your yard, and the breeze that curls around you is cool, welcoming. You fall to your knees and the bruised grass releases its scent under your weight. You press against the ground and beg the power to go into the earth, away from Connor, beg Ash to stop screaming.
She didn't know what happened to you when she was alive, but she knows it now. She's the one reliving it, not you. She's the one with her face turned away, with her eyes shut tight, with broken nails stuck in her palms. Please Ash, it's over, you say. Wipe it away. We're here in Purcellville, in the house my grampa built and we're safe. Please, we're safe.
You vomit onto the grass, but it's nothing but yellow bile. The world spins hard enough to throw you off, but you rise against it and stagger back up the porch, where Connor stands and stares in horror.
"Excuse me," you say, and lurch up the porch steps.
"I'm sorry," Connor says. "Can I come inside?"
"Yes. Help me."
It's Connor who brings you a cup of water and plain saltines. You nibble them, but you need more, and blackness is creeping in on the edges of your vision.
"What happened to you?" Connor asks.
"Feel faint. Haven't eaten enough," you say.
"I'll make you something. Just tell me what to do."
"Get the blender."
You talk him through adding a banana, protein powder, coconut milk, pineapple, and chia seeds to mix into a thick liquid. He finds the homemade energy bars in the fridge and brings you the tub. It's enough. You'll be able to get up and cook your own omelette in a minute.
"Are you going to be okay?" Connor says.
"Yeah, my blood sugar is gonna be just fine in a minute."
"That's good. I meant, are you going to be okay?"
"Sure," you say.
"Something happened to you," Connor said. "I should have seen it before. You changed so much."
"It's okay," Connor said. "But you pushed everybody away. Everybody but Ash, and she fought to stay near you. But Ash is gone, and you're alone here."
"I'm all right."
"I don't really believe you," Connor says. "But okay."
"You had better go," you say. "I have to work in the morning."
"Okay, no more pushing. I'll call you," he says. "Someone needs to check up on you."
You watch him until he drives out of sight. Then you take your phone out of your pocket and block his phone number from your contact list.
You can't ever see him again.
Ashton, VA, May 21, 2014
Dice has strudel this time--apple and poppyseed, and Hafidha Gates swoops in just in time to get one of the poppyseeds. Dice proffers the box to Daniel Brady, who puts his hand up and says, "Can't, but thanks."
"Tank," Dice says. "Did you two come together? Is everything--"
"Everything's fine, Lucky," Hafs says. "I'm here to see the doc, Brady's going to interview a subject. How is your brother?"
"I think he's doing good. He's upstairs now."
"Bugzapper's okay, then." Hafidha looks up as the air shifts with the front door, and if Dice hadn't been looking he wouldn't have seen the impassiveness sweep over her face.
Hafidha takes another bite of her strudel. Dice turns to see who it is.
"Dr. Beale," Dice says.
"Rupert, please," Dr. Beale says, and lets go of his wheeled brief box to shake hands, the other wrapped around an extra-large frappuccino something.
"Strudel while we wait?" Dice offers, and Dr. Beale takes apple, toes his brief box down by the bench.
"Thank you. I was meaning to ask you--" He pauses as Hafidha's service pistol thunks into a plastic tub.
"We're butting in, Lucky. You set off the metal detector."
"I do," Dice says. "Go ahead."
"Catch you later. Thanks for the strudel," Hafidha calls over her shoulder, walking away with high-heeled clicks. Brady follows soon after.
"You were meaning to ask me, sorry?"
"If you'd do an interview. It would be anonymized, of course, but I'd like your insight," Dr. Beale says.
"Uh, okay. If it'll be useful. When did you want to do it?"
"Wednesdays and Sundays are your usual days off?"
"Yeah. I've got bike polo on Wednesday nights, but after the next Sunday meeting?"
"We'll come up with a good time, then."
Dice meant literally after the meeting, but Dr. Beale was already putting his wallet and watch and things in the tub. He lifts that frappucino cup in salute and thanks Dice for the strudel, headed to the upstairs.
Dice sets the metal detectors off, and lets Leon escort him in the room to do the usual search.
Daniel Brady would like to eat a strudel, but he doesn't want it churning around in his stomach while he meets with Jason Saito. Saito will insinuate, and probe, trying to scare him, and Saito's favorite weapon walked next to him, heading for the elevator.
Maybe he could dull that blade. "Donatta had her surgery today?" Brady asks.
"She sure did," Hafs says. "I've got a full plate of visits this afternoon. Donatta, Suze, and Dr. Allison. The doc wants to know how I changed my bugzapper, so I'm going to change one for her."
Hafs put her finger right on the sorest spot. Danny tries to answer like her tinkering doesn't worry him."Will your revision suit everyone?"
"That's what we're wondering. It would be nice if I could stop Donatta's nightmares--she has dreams about the caverns and the river. Along with the rest of it, but it's the river that really gets her."
"I've been in that river. Can't say I blame her for that." Hafidha's boots thud on the vinyl floor as they walk down the hallway to the elevator that waits in the center of all the patient wings. Brady holds a fire door open for her.
Hafida nods and walks through, pressing the down arrow for the elevator. "You can't stop all nightmares, though. It sounds like it would be nice, but I think we need fear." She shifts to stand on one foot, messing with the buckle on the ankle of her boot.
Brady sticks his arm out for Hafs to grab, just in case. "That's philosophical."
"No," Hafida says. she takes Brady's arm, though, and fixes whatever's wrong with the buckle. "That's Bugzapper build 1.21a. Not a good day."
Brady knows that he better not ask. "It was only a day, though."
"Ask Chaz about it sometime," Hafs says. "I'm not sure I'm ready to look back on it and laugh just yet."
"I've got a day from tenth grade like that."
"Subject change time, Brady. You know that side project Sol and I are working on?"
"Yes. You have news?"
She glances over her shoulder at the security guard and drops her voice. "Just an update. Apparently Matthew Sheehy was writing a piece about green burials, but asked for a little more time because he'd stumbled onto something involving one of the people who turned up as recently buried. Her name was Ashley Campbell."
You freeze. Don't look up don't look up
"--Her name was Ashley Campbell. And guess what."
You know that voice. You can't stop your chin from rising. You look across the counter of your security desk and at the speaker. It's the one who didn't come back. Hafidha. The one with the bright yarn and the sharp words. The one who could make computers dance to her will.
"Did she die in a car accident?"
You know him, too. He's one of the FBI team who finds the monsters and brings them here. He's chatting with Hafidha about Ash, about Ashley's death.
Why are they talking about me?
"On the highway where Matthew Sheehy died. Sounds like that thing we don't believe in, right? But wait, there's more."
"Ashley Campbell died because of a spontaneous airbag deployment?"
"No. She died because the driver in front of her had a sudden steering failure, panicked, and slammed on the brakes. Solomon Todd found the lawsuit and the insurance claim."
You wonder who they're talking about. Who was Matthew Sheehy? You pick up a clipboard and move out from behind the desk. You follow them to hear more.
"So you think it's connected. Ashley Campbell dies on that road, and then Matt smells a story and starts investigating--what?"
They know! Ash cries, and your insides clutch. The reporter. He's dead? But you keep walking. Guards and orderlies and nurses are invisible. Just doing their jobs.
"I don't know yet," Hafidha says. "His personal effects were returned to his family. There wasn't anything in his email or his cloud. I think he used paper." She's exasperated.
But then she looks at you, that sharp sidewise look. "Partridge," she says. "How can I help?"
"I just wanted to double-check your visitor authorization. I didn't see your name--"
You look at the clipboard in your hands. It's the sign-up for the department Fourth of July potluck. No paid party anymore. You meant to grab the sign-in sheet.
"Never mind." You manage to smile at the monster. "I was looking at the wrong list."
"No problem. And Partridge? It's nice to see you."
The monster smiles at you and steps into the elevator. You hear her say, "There's more yet, but Sol's getting back to me today. I'll text you--"
The doors close. The elevator's going down, and you have to go back to the desk to clear the trip downstairs.
She doesn't know, Ash says. She doesn't know what you did.
You wonder what you did. We have to stop her. Put her back in the cage.
There's another monster in her old cage. Another one like her. The lightning caller.
There's no help for it. You know what you have to do to stop her.
Calmly you walk back to the desk, put the clipboard back, and sit down. You can't do anything else unusual, now that you know what to do.
"You're early, big brother."
Eddie sits on a long overstuffed sofa, two seat cushions between him and Natalie, sitting on the other end. They were on the sunny side of the room, where tall, many-paned clear windows with a view of Idlewood's biggest garden let light in. Eddie's scalp showed through the short bristle of his freshly cut hair.
"Thought I'd start coming at this time, so I'm not late for bike polo. Hey, Nats. Was it haircut day?" He's teasing, of course. She couldn't grow two feet of hair in a month.
"This is a wig," she says, and reaches up for Dice's hug.
"You ever see bike polo, Nats? There was a match on that YouTube. You gotta be tough to play that." Eddie says it with pride.
"I haven't seen bike polo," Natalie says. "Did you break anything?"
"I've been lucky," Dice says.
"Natalie plays Go," Eddie says. "She kicks my ass."
"Good. Keep him humble, Nats."
"I will, you bet. 'Scuse me a bit, I'm going to find something to eat."
"Have a strudel?" Dice offers.
"I will have a strudel, and I will still find something to eat. Be back in a bit."
Eddie watches Natalie leave before he gives Dice a see? I told you so look. "Board's already set up. You get me cheese strudel?"
"Apple, cheese, poppyseed."
"Best get one while they're hot," Eddie says. "Let's try a Knight's opening today, what do you say?"
"Sure, Eddie. Hey, you get YouTube?"
"We can ask to watch a video on YouTube, but it's restricted. Susanna, the kid, she watches a lot of Netflix." Eddie gets to his feet and they head for the table in the windowed alcove, dappled with shadows cast by a venerable oak.
"All right, so white's opening move is a knight? King's knight or Queen's?"
"You get to pick, big brother."
"You're worried, Dann-O," Jason Saito says, once they're seated in their places.
"Everyday stuff. Time for Dallas, right?"
"No. You're giving it up so fast, I want what you're hiding. Is it your girl monster? She's giving you the crawling doubt. She's...up to something," Saito says. "And you don't know what to do."
"Hafidha is fine." Brady rolls his eyes. "I've just got somewhere to go today."
"Gonna see your man? Have what's cooking on the grill, drink beer from a glass, oh, I've got it. You're going to pick out colors for your wedding buffet!" Saito laughs. "And you'll try not to worry that your Girl Wonder is cracking up? Because you are. What's she doing? Give that to me."
"She's visiting a patient today. Latest candidate for the surgery."
"Another adolescent girl? The board has a soft spot for the women. I hear only one man meets their standards. What's with the sexism?"
Brady shrugs. "We teach girls to think of other people before themselves. Probably enhances their empathy through social expectation, by punishing them for asserting themselves the way boys are taught."
"How can you say I don't have any empathy, Dann-O? I literally feel what others feel. That's empathy plus."
"You get off on fear, Saito. Your empathy is the drug lever on a rat cage. That's why you're not a good candidate."
"But that's my point. The chip can teach me a different reward system. That's what it's for, right? That's what it does, right?"
"You should probably talk to Doctor Allison. She's the one who does the assessments, so there's no getting around her."
"Do you want me to remember Dallas or not?"
"I want you to tell me about Hafida Gates. That chip in her head making her a good girl? Oo. Feel that? I sure did, Dann-O. She's scaring you. Computer girl, with a computer in her head. She can do anything to it, can't she?"
"She's handling the treatment well."
"Liar," Saito murmurs. "You can lie, but why bother? I told you, Dann-O. I'm empath plus."
Donatta Fletcher sleeps for another six minutes before waking, and Hafidha Gates is there, spinning silk beside her bed.
"Arachne?" Donatta says, and Hafs parks the spindle.
She finds the cold water bottle and offers it. "Sip. You're still loopy for a bit yet. Let's do the drill. What's today?"
"May 21st, 2014," Donatta says. "My name is Donatta Fletcher. I'm in Idlewood Hospital just outside Ashton, Virginia."
"Okay, you're sharp, kid. But you're going to fall asleep again. How's the melon?"
"About a five. Pounds. Feels hot."
"That's all fine. You dizzy?"
"Follow my hand and say that," Hafidha says.
"Don't the doctors have to do this?" Donatta asks, and tracks Hafidha's fingers. "Okay, now I'm dizzy."
"I'll get a nurse. Probably you need to sleep more."
"No. Stay. I want to watch you spin. Had a dream," Donatta says. "A weird dream. I was riding a horse inside a long hallway."
Hafidha draws the silk out fine as frog hair. "No river?"
"No river. No underground. Will I dream about it again?"
"Probably. I dream about Erik still. But when you wake up, the chip will activate, and it'll calm you down."
"So I won't be scared any more."
"Only normal scared," Hafidha says, and sends Dr. Allison an email about monitoring fear responses in Donatta's exams.
"And I'll go live upstairs?"
"You'll go live upstairs," Hafs says. "And I'll visit you."
"You said there was a girl my age up there."
"There is. And she knows that you're going upstairs, and she wants to meet you," Hafidha says, and lets the spindle fly. Drafting gives her something to do, so she can be patient.
"What if she..."
"Doesn't like you? You'll get a lot of chances to talk to each other. And she could be worrying exactly the same thing."
"So I should be nice."
"So you should be you, Donna. But I'll give you a tip. Let her show you all her favorite shows. She's really into TV. And I only got fifteen minutes, kid. Try to close your eyes for a bit."
Donna nods, but she's watching Hafidha leave when she looks back.
When your lunch break comes, you deliberately take your tray of lasagna to the women's locker room and eat it in a bathroom stall, where no one can see you eat two pounds of ground chicken, pasta, and three kinds of cheese in a creamy tomato sauce. When you finish you put the knife and fork in the dishwasher and take the path to the electrical room. You'll have to turn the generators off first, and then you have about two minutes to shut down two power junctions on the grounds. You have to move fast.
You have to stop her.
You're nearly at the exit door when you have a better idea. You turn around and head for the supermax wing.
Dyson Ciesclewicz is getting his ass handed to him.
"Think of the positions," Eddie says. "Look at each piece, see its paths. What do you see?"
"That I'm screwed," Dice says.
"Not quite yet," Eddie laughs. "You've actually set up a really good defense. You could play me to a stalemate, I bet."
"Maybe," Dice says. "Think you're just being nice."
"I mean it. You've covered the board pretty well. I have to sacrifice if I want to break through. Like so--" Eddie moves his bishop, taking a pawn on the edge of the board, in place to take Dice's queen.
"So I should..." Dice slides his rook out, taking the bishop.
"See, last week you would have used your queen and the pressure would be off the center board. You took the move that makes your defense even stronger. You are getting better."
"Speaking of last week..."
Eddie shrugs, and a knight floats on its hooked path to threaten Dice's queen. "Dr. Ramachandran says that he'd been expecting it to happen. I don't have to go downstairs. But therapy sucks now. I have to use the hand and talk about what I feel."
"You know, I did that in physio."
"No, I mean emotional feel."
"I did, too. Sucks. You don't have to tell me anything you don't want."
Dice had cried. Cried with his fists clenched and his arms wrapped tight around his middle. Dice didn't think Eddie would want to talk about that. Those are the girl feelings. You must never go there.
"Doc says that it's important to break down the... mythology. Because raised by a superstitious Catholic, no wait, an asshole who used Catholic superstition as an excuse fucked us up, and left-handedness isn't our fault."
"Just something you're born with, like eye color and--and stuff," Eddie says.
Dice holds still. "Eddie, are you talking about homosexuality?"
Eddie shrugs up his shoulders. "That's what they say, right? You're just born that way. It's in the brain."
"It might be, yeah." Dice says, and he couldn't have a better opening if he tried. Now or never, into the breach, etc. "Eddie, there's something I've been trying to tell you."
"Well, shit. Close enough. I like women. I like men. I hid it because I didn't want--I'm the only family you have left, and you're all the family I have and--"
"You like both? But then you can just, you know, be with women. No problem, right?"
The door to the TV room opens, and Natalie walks in, holding it open for Dr. Ramachandran and Susanna Greenwood. Natalie looks at them, then purses her lips up in an "oh." She heads for the couch, browsing through old magazines.
Maybe with this many people in the room, maybe he should stop talking. But he had to get it all out. "Not that easy. And--there's a guy I like," Dice says.
Eddie sits back, tips back on the chair, and when it wobbles he lurched forward and the legs thud on the pine floor, squeal as he stands up and walks away from Dice.
Well. That's it then, Dice thinks.
But then the lights go out.
And they don't come back on.
Hafidha wants to probe at Donatta's bugzapper, but she promised not to. Dr. Allison doesn't stop her from checking out her own chip, and uses Hafidha's work to adjust future response programming in other live applications, but she (and Suze Zettler, because she's been talking about this with Suze on just about every trip to her old room in the basement) insist on the importance of doing the science properly, carefully. Maybe in six months they'd know enough of what Hafidha intuitively did to make changes for others. For now she just tweaks the work on herself and dumps the new code.
Dice's pastry lingers in Hafidha's mind. She cocks her head and sends Dice an email: "Lucky. Where are your favorite bakeries? That strudel was good."
She's on her very best manners. She uses his public email instead of just texting his adorable brick of a dumb phone.
She walks from the wing used for surgery to the lobby, and heads for the cafeteria. They don't have strudel, but since Anna had consented to stay close to Idlewood, there could be a wealth of brownies to be eaten if she'd had the chance to make a batch.
She had. Hafidha bought a half dozen--it had just been lunch hour on the floor where she once lived, but there was always room for chocolate. The clear plastic clamshell rested on top of her spindle and fleece, two cartons of milk tucked in beside them. It would be enough for fifteen minutes with Suze.
"You look distracted," the cashier said. "Have you eaten?"
Hafidha stopped her "I'm fine, thanks," to actually think about that. "Actually, I'm not going to get to eat for a couple hours if I don't do it now. Can I get a BLT cheeseburger, fries, gravy, and mozzarella cheese?"
Hafidha hadn't yet paid for her burger when the lights went out.
Hurry, Ash whispers. Hurry. Hurry.
Sam asks you to watch the station while he goes to the bathroom. You couldn't ask for anything better.Video shows Hakes in his cell, methodically tearing a copy of People magazine into confetti. An empty, soggy plate and fork rest on a cardboard tray. The second the bathroom door closes behind Sam, you open the monster's cage and take off like he's after you, because it could become true in an instant.
You run. Your booted feet pound down the linoleum hallway, and you run faster than you ever lope down the trail, just short of a sprint. You slap the doors open and burst through, cutting a hard left to supermax's power box.
"Hey! Partridge! HALT!"
You're out of reach of the Taser. You think. But you set Ash free with a casting of the power, send her to curse Sam with terror.
When you hear a man screaming a few moments later, you don't know if it's his fear that makes him scream, or if Hakes has made it past the doors to supermax.
You don't really need to know.
You skid to a halt in front of the power room, pull the big switch, and dash out the door.
You can get back to the cage, with the power to protect you. You can get rid of the lightning caller, and if Hafidha Gates manages to survive Hakes, your power can take her down long enough to put her back where she belongs.
Where she can't take Ash away from you.
Solomon Todd stares at his computer screen. A cold heady pressure sits inside him, under and behind the rib cage, as if somebody reached inside him and grabbed a handful of intestine and twisted. Icy fear, cold and sharp.
A credit card transaction. Just one; and it could be coincidence or carelessness or arrogance, but he knows. He knows what it means.
He picks up his phone to call Hafidha, and it rings to voice mail, which by itself is enough to give him a nasty start. But then he glances at the screen when he cancels the call and sees the date. Wednesday, May 21st, 2014.
Visiting day at the monster zoo.
He shoves his feet into loafers on the way out the door, grabs his keys, stops with his hand on the knob. Calls Falkner as he heads back into the bedroom to open the gun safe and get heeled. He'll feel like an idiot if he's overreacting. He'll feel like more of an idiot if he's lying there bleeding out on the floor.
"It was just another day," Brady says. "We thought we had a missing girl, but she'd just gone for a nap outside. Happy ending. So I decided that I would bring home dinner and get some boyfriend points. I didn't know that anything was wrong."
"Sno-ore," Saito says. "So worn out. Gates has gone rogue, hasn't she? She's put on a pretty face and everyone's fooled except you."
Brady doesn't cross his arms. He wants to. "It really didn't hit me until I realized that he didn't have a scalpel in his hand. That's what I thought it was."
"You're the only one who can tell that the monster's loose, and no one will believe you if you try to say anything. I know what you're hiding, Agent Brady."
"But when it did... I trusted Andre. I remembered how many nights I'd just sleep next to him, let him touch me with hands that could do that."
"You let her touch everyone on the team. You have to. You are supposed to believe in her. But she's doing things, isn't she? She's going backward, not forward, and she's going to catch everyone by surprise."
"He could cut. He could stitch it back up. And he didn't use it to help people. He used it to torture. It didn't matter that he believed that he was doing justice."
"You're the one who sees her doing what she thinks is justice. You can see her failing. And you're going to have to kill her. Just like you had to kill Andre."
"If I could go back to that day I'd talk him down. If I'd known about the ACTF, I could have saved him."
"You can't save her. You can't save anyone."
The room went dark, and Brady hit the floor rolling, right and backwards, came up in a crouch. Pure instinct
"Oh..." Saito purrs in the dark. "Oh, Agent Brady. This. Oh yes, this. Perfect. All these years you've been stringing me along, and all we had to do was turn the lights out."
The lights go out and everyone looks up. The generator will kick in. They'll have to wait for the computers running the cash register to reboot. Hafs sighs. That burger she wants rests in its own grease on top of a cooling grill, and right at the minute she's hungry. In another minute she'll be irritable. In another minute after that she'll have trouble remembering that the people around her don't deserve what she'll dish out. A hungry gamma ain't nobody's friend.
The lights still aren't on. Hafidha reaches out, probing for working computers, smartphones, tablets. All she finds are mobile devices, struggling on the shitty data network that passes for coverage. She reaches for the programmable controls on the emergency generators and finds nothing--just a black hole.
And that should not be happening.
"FBI," Hafidha says in a carrying voice. "Please remain calm. Look around, and find someone who could use your help, and use that emergency exit." She spots one guy headed toward the door to the corridor: the wrong way. Toward the monsters. The other monsters. I am the evil that exists to oppose other evils. "Please don't leave this room, sir. Everybody needs to go outside, get away from the building, and take cover."
She reaches out into the wide world, surfing the two and a half bars Sprint offers. A text message to Falkner, a text message to Chaz. Bad things at Arkham. Power out. Evacuating staff such as I can. She is doing okay. Doing okay. She opens the pastry case for the last four brownies, peels the plastic off of one, and starts eating. Between bites: "Everyone, it's very important that you remain calm and leave. Who's in the kitchen?"
She gets people assigned to each other and sends them out the cafeteria emergency exits. No alarms greet the opening doors. She sweeps the kitchen to be sure everyone is out, and finishes the second brownie.
She needs more milk, and the bottles in the fridge aren't doing anything but going bad. She takes one and washes the gooey chocolate treat down, eats her third, and tucks the fourth away with the rest.
The civilians are leaving. Orderly evacuation. She thinks about school shootings, workplace violence. All the things it could be that aren't the monster zoo with its cages wide open. She touches her hip, where her Glock isn't. The only thing that stops a bad man with a gun is a good man with a gun.
She thinks, Well now, there's a simplistic morality for you.
She steps out through the hall door she shooed everyone away from, staying low, moving quick. It's even darker in the hall, just the red glow of the battery-operated emergency exit signs to guide her. She steps out of her boots, snaps the heels off with bare hands. Gamma-strong. She feels a pang when she does it that's not just a shallow attachment to material goods.
The boots go back on her feet. The heels go in her pocket. She knows a cobbler who might be able to fix them, later. Now she walks softer.
She doesn't get very far before she hears fear.
She doesn't get much farther than that before she finds blood.
Jason Saito is a shadow among shadows. He rustles faintly as he stands. "Finally," he says, in a tone that makes Brady imagine a stretching, satisfied cat. "It's my big break. Let's go."
Brady hears his heart in his ears. He forces himself to relax, to feel nonchalant. His best weapon against Jason Saito is never to show fear, which means never feeling fear. "You think I'm going somewhere with you, Saito?"
"I think you are," Saito comes closer, offering Brady his wrist shackles. Brady has a flashlight on his keychain, but he's not about to let Saito know that. Saito says, "I'm your best weapon right now. You got enough bullets for every gamma in Arkham? That's what Hafidha calls it."
"You know I don't have a key for those," Brady says. "I don't have a key for the door, either. We're just going to have to wait it out until the lights come back on."
And there's Saito, looming over him. Danny fights the urge to jump. He was, of course, expecting something like this. Saito coos, "Ooh, Danny. That felt good. Come on now. It'll be worth it just for the expression in your amygdala. You don't have a key, but there's somebody on the outside who does. Who's just waiting for you to ask to be released."
"What makes you think I'm going to let you be my backup?"
"I could make wild threats, you know. Say something like, 'On account of I will kill you right now and then you won't get to save anyone. I'll join the scrum.'" Then Saito sighs, as if he's even bored himself. "You forget, Danny-boy. I know what scares you most. It's your friends getting hurt when you can't help them--or worse, having to hurt them yourself. And your pet monster is out there in the dark, isn't she? Who knows what she's getting up to, in all those miles and miles of twisty corridors. Being in here is boring. I need a change, Dann-O. A catalyst. This is a sign. I'll help you if you help me."
This is a bad idea, Brady thinks, and to himself he answers, No shit, Sherlock.
He stands himself. Saito moves back, gives only a little room. He's still crowding Brady's personal space. Brady looms over him, but he doesn't feel in control.
"The cuffs stay on," he says.
"Talk rough to me, Danny," Saito purrs.
Hafidha crouches in blood, hoping her texts got through. The shoes are really one hundred percent ruined now: she can feel the sticky sliding wetness soaking in through their seams.
The woman lies sprawled on her back, her wild hair spread out all around her and stuck to the floor. She's fallen out of her own towering open-toed shoes. Can't run in those, Hafidha thinks. Shouldn't have had to.
Oh God. Oh, Kat.
Hafidha reaches out a hand in the red-lit dark and touches Katharine Allison's arm. It's warm, and she's breathing--more than breathing, gasping. Because her blood volume is low, and her body wants oxygen.
"Thirsty," Kat whispers.
Hafidha strokes her sticky hair. She says, "It's me, Kat. It's Hafidha."
"Hakes," Kat says.
Hafidha knows. She knew as soon as she stepped into the corridor and caught the thick ocean scent of all that warm, wet blood.
"I'll get him for you, Doc."
"No...." No don't leave you can't leave you can't leave me
Hafidha reaches to the tasseled bead bracelet on her right wrist, yanks it, and lets the elastic snap. "Zap," she whispers, and the heat that prickled across her scalp irons itself out.
Or did Kat mean, No, don't risk yourself--
Hafidha knows she'll never know.
She wheezes. So much blood. Warm, so warm. Chuck Palahniuk always was full of shit. Kat says, "Henry... ran."
Aw, hell. Doc was with Henry Clark. Henry... who isn't well. And he's out there now in the dark alone. At least it's May in Virginia, Hafidha reminds herself. At least it's a sunny day, and the Idlewood climate control is as dead as the generators.
At least Henry's not going to get cold.
Hafidha still feels sick. She's still watching a friend die, and there's nothing she can do.
Except kneel in Dr. Allison's blood, except grab her doctor's hand, slick with her own life coating the tidy nails, the dainty watch on her wrist, except to try and get through to whatever hadn't drained out with the four pints on the floor.
"Fuck professional distance. I'm here, Doc. I'm right here. You're not alone."
Dr. Allison's hand trembles, squeezes once. Yes. But then she lets go, and Hafidha feels through the already thickening blood for a pulse.
Don't be an idiot, you're kneeling in her blood.
Reyes and Todd had taken Hakes down in a funhouse. Reyes nearly died anyway. She didn't have a funhouse. She didn't have Solomon Todd and his peculiar luck. But Brady is--
Brady's with Saito.
Hafidha needs to fetch him. With any luck, Saito will want to take his time.
She can drop Hakes if she can get the shot before he sees her. She doesn't miss. She might even be able to drop him if he does see her, as long as she does it fast enough that she can still aim.
She needs a weapon, first of all. Fortunately, the cafeteria's near the front desk.
She pats Katharine Allison's warm cheek, checks the pockets of her bloodstained lab coat, finds keys, a keycard, a runner's can of pepper spray. She stands up. Weapon. Brady. Hakes. Whoever the hell started this. In that order, and spaced out neatly, please.
Hafidha Gates slips through the crimson shadows, keeping her head low, clearing each corridor before she steps into it. Leaving a trail of blood.
Hafidha knocks on the locked door of the video room and makes sure to stand in plain sight of the reinforced window. She sighs in relief when the door opens and she sees who's on duty.
"Leon," Hafidha says, tone low, hands open. "I know you know me. You know I'm one of them. But I have to ask you to believe me right now."
He doesn't have a weapon out. But he's halfway to reaching for it. He says, very calmly, "Whose blood is that, Agent Gates?"
"Larry's out," she answers. "This--" Her voice catches. She scrubs her hands down the sides of her suit coat. "Kat," she says, miserably, because one syllable is all she can squeeze out through her tightening throat.
"Jesus fucking Christmas," Leon says. "Anyone else hurt? Loose?"
"Clark," she says, getting herself back. "Kat was taking him for a walk when... I don't know if he'll be a threat. Maybe more in danger himself. But Leon, somebody turned off the power, and somebody sprang Bloody Larry, and that somebody is still a threat."
"Right," he said.
"Lend me your tablet and your sidearm, and I will go in there and hunt the monsters. I promise I will tell people I took the gun from you and you couldn't stop me."
"Why the tablet?" But he's already handing it over, Bloody Larry's name like a passkey. He slides his gun along the surface of the desk, and he's trying the bottom right drawer with the toe of his boot.
"Sometimes it helps to have a focus even if you don't need it," Hafs says. She passes her fingers over it, frowning, and then hands it back. "That's a chat window. You can type to me and I can type to you."
"This is the only extra clip," Leon says, and Hafs tucks it up her sleeve for want of a better place.
He pauses. "Wait, those shoes--"
"It is what it is," she says, hearing Brady and Falkner in her own tones. The Army mantra.
"Partridge keeps a pair of Chucks in her locker. They might be big on you, but they have rubber soles." He produces a pair of dikes from his desk drawer and snips the master lock--Hafidha has to help, both of them leaning on the handles to cut the tempered steel. They clear the lock and yank the locker open.
"Shit," Hafidha says.
There are the Chuck Taylors, front and center, on the little top shelf. They're bright green and look nearly new. But other than that, the locker is full of cloth shopping bags, hanging on the hooks where you'd keep your purse, and your coat and scarf in wintertime. And those bags are full of cheap candy: Easter markdowns, the Russell Stover shit.
"You don't know she let Hakes out," Leon said.
"I don't know she didn't, either." Hafidha plunges both hands into a bag and fills a pocket of her bloody velvet suit jacket with Creme Eggs and Reese's Peanut Butter Eggs. Every little bit counts. "Lock the door behind me. Bar it with a chair. Cover the damned window with anything you've got.
The shoes aren't half bad. She wishes she had socks; Chucks give you blisters without them, and she's only wearing stockings. "Perfect. Don't let him see you."
Leon smiles. "I'll watch your purse."
Hafs pulls the extinction-threatened brownies out before she hands it over. "And the video if it comes back on. But Leon. I took your gun. Stay in this room. Stay on comm. Don't move. I need you. And keep calling those ACTF numbers. The landlines might come back first. You need to get my team. Don't let anybody in here."
"No." Hafs bit out. "No one. Do you hear me? Bloody Larry didn't pick the lock with a hangnail. We don't know who let him out, and you are going home today. You are going home today. So don't you let anybody in here. Not even me."
"Whoever let him out might be a monster, too." Hafs jerks her thumb at the open locker. She puts her hand on the knob.
"Wait," Leon says. "You're gonna be working hard out there." He slides the box of strudels over, still three left. "Take those. And my Gatorade."
"Leon, you know how to take care of a lady. Get under cover and hide."
"What's happening?" Natalie asks. "Did the power go out?"
"The emergency lights should have kicked in," Susanna says. "They'll kick in any minute, right?"
"One moment." That's Dr. Ramachandran, and he walks over to the wall-mounted Bakelite phone. He picks it up, listen, and puts it back on the hook. "The internal telephone system is down. This is a full power outage. The phone system should work if the generators are operating."
"Doc? Do you have a cell phone?" Dice asks.
Dr. Ramachandran shakes his head. "Phones demand attention. I left it in the office when I came in here to talk to you."
Dice holds up his Nokia. "Mine's not smart." He powers it on anyway. "I have signal."
"Do me a favor, Mr. Cieslewicz, and turn your phone to silent," Dr. Ramachandran says.
Dice was already cycling through the menu to do just that.
"I've got a bad feeling about this," Eddie says. "Real bad, Doc."
"I'm worried, too," Dr. Ramachandran says. "What will help you, Eddie?"
"If everyone would get under cover, I mean out of line of sight from the door, and away from the windows," Eddie says. "On this side of the door, at least, so the room looks empty--"
"Shh," Dice says, straining to hear. "That's screaming."
"That's close by. Get cover, now. Please." Eddie moves over and stands to the right of the door.
"Who the hell do I call? 911? They'll be lunch," Dice whispers. "Danny Brady and Hafidha Gates are in the building, do I call them?"
"Try a text message," Natalie says. She's got a liter sport bottle of water and she's squeezing it like a baby doll.
Dice runs his thumbs over the keys, typing as fast as he can:
Tank sos no power 4th flr TV rm
The screen lights up when Daniel Brady replies with only one word:
Hafidha found Sam on the way to the interview room where Brady should be with Saito. He's beyond help--beyond even comfort. Now his blood dries on her hands, too, black in the glow of the emergency lights. She moves fast, Leon's pistol at low safe. A ricochet in these old brick corridors could have disastrous results.
The door to the interview room stands open. There's Rufus, sitting against the wall with his knees drawn to his chest. Incapacitated, though Hafidha can't say for now just how. He's alive, though, and when he sees Hafidha backlit by the exit sign his eyes go wide. She starts to come to him, but he shakes his head and jerks a thumb down the corridor. They went thataway.
And not long ago, either, if Rufus pressing his finger to his lips is anything to go on.
At least he's not curled in a puddle of his own red.
She catfoots around the corner in Emily Partridge's shoes and sees two men at the far end of the hall, just coming up on the fire doors. The smaller walks ahead of the larger, in that duck-walk shuffle of the shackled, and Hafidha's heart skips a beat in relief when the larger turns sideways against the hellish glow of the emergency exit sign. She'd know Brady's Robert Redford profile anywhere.
She reaches out to find Brady's phone--she doesn't need a network this close--and pings it.
He raises it without looking away from Saito, and she knows what he reads. I'm in your six.
"Stop," he says, and Saito stops. Brady steps back, creating a triangle and putting Saito in between them now. Hafidha walks forward, leaving her gun low. As she comes up, Brady's eyes widen and Saito smirks.
So much blood all over her.
"So," Saito drawls--he learned his delivery and most of his dialogue from every crappy horror movie you've ever seen, "kitty found a plaything? I told you monsters don't get better, Danny-boy."
Brady doesn't shift his focus off Saito, but she knows he's seen her. And all that blood. "Motherfucker, Hafidha. What did you do?"
It stings. Even though she knows she deserves it--Fuck you, Bug: it's you that deserves it, not me.
"Hakes is out. He got Kat and Sam."
"Danny," Saito says. "Are you going to believe that?"
"What happened to Rufus?" she asks, ignoring Saito and his rattlesnake tongue. Ignoring the fact that Brady's eyes shift, for just a second.
Brady says, "Don't know. Total fear response. I couldn't move him and keep control of Jason, here."
"You have something to do with that, Saito?" Hafidha asks. "New manifestation? Practicing up?"
He shrugs. His shackles rattle. "Would you believe me if I said no?"
"I'm taking him back to his cell," Brady says. "Or I was--"
Something tickles in Hafidha. Sharp pain. Panicky. A splitting murder behind her eyes. She doubles over, nearly jerks her hands up to her face. Remembers Leon's Glock at the last second, keeps her hand down, gives herself a cookie for decent trigger discipline. Massad Ayoob and Solomon Todd would be proud.
Fear now, so much fear. Blossoming. She feels like a car in neutral with the accelerator pressed. Roaring, and going nowhere.
She wants to run. Curl up. Throw herself into a corner and die. Hide under a bed, a desk. Anything.
Shoot it. Shoot everything. There's a gun in her hand. There's a threat right in front of her. A threat that is moving. She hears the clink of his chains. His silky, silky voice.
The monster comes toward her. Shut it up, shut it up, shut it--
Vaguely, she hears grunts. Struggling. Heavy footsteps. Brady makes a noise of pain.
Blindly, groping, the fingers of her right hand find her left wrist. She hooks them through the elastic, pulls, snaps. Zap.
And it is gone. The pain. the fear. Everything. Everything is slick and harmless and ironically interesting and so, so distant and cool. She looks up, a wary animal, and finds herself staring right into Jason Saito's eyes.
His wide, incredulous eyes. His nose inches inches from hers. He'd been leaning in, she realized. Captivated by the aroma of her fear.
Behind him, she glimpses Brady on the floor, heaving one knee under himself. Doubled over as he rises.
"Shit," Saito says. "You're just like me."
She pistol-whips him with the barrel of Leon's gun.
He staggers back, clutching his broken cheekbone--even a gamma notices another gamma's blow. And she would have been on top of him, swinging again, but Brady beats her to it. Barrels into Saito, scoops him up, lifting the smaller man on tiptoe and swinging him around. Hand to hand with a gamma. Hafidha sees Saito bent over, his neck locked under Brady's arm.
"Danny," Saito says, "you wouldn't hold it against me, would you?"
She doesn't follow the next move, exactly. But Brady goes down hard--a backward shoulder roll over Saito's head. And Hafidha Gates thinks that if she lives to be a thousand--world's oldest metabolic freak--she'll never get over the sound of Saito's skull hitting the floor, and the crunch of bone that comes with it.
Brady heaves himself up and shakes Saito by the head like a dog murdering a stuffed giraffe. Something snaps heavily and Saito's feet flop like a doll's. Kick like a hanged man's.
Brady drops Saito on the floor. Heavy, limp, like an armload of wet laundry. He heaves in a couple of breaths. Pushes himself up straight, painfully.
Looks up at her. Face so still.
"You had to," Hafs said. "What were we going to do, tie him up and leave him for Larry?"
Still, Brady shakes his head. "I would have thought that would be a lot more satisfying."
She nods. "I'll try not to enjoy it for both of us, then." A long pause. "You broke his neck."
"Maybe tore his carotid. It's pretty hard to break a neck. We'll ask Frost, if we get out of here."
He's still looking at her. Looking at her bright green shoes, not so green in the exit-sign hell-light. Looking at the blood. He holds his hands away from himself as if they were floury. Greasy.
"You okay?" he asks.
"Somebody put a whammy on me," she says. "Remember the reporter? I think I know why he drove into the tree."
"So we've got a hex and a gremlin." His eyes ask, And you beat it how?
She touches the back of her head, where the bugzapper lives. "I turned off my fear."
"Is that a smart move?"
She shrugs. "No. But it's working for now."
She waits. Eventually, said into the silence of labored breathing, she asks him, "Do you want the gun?"
"How'd you get it?"
"Leon's," she says. "I told him to lock himself in."
Brady stares a little longer. Purses lips. Nods. "You keep it," he says. "You're a better shot."
"Somebody around here," she says softly, "has a panic button. And I think I know who."
She turns around and calls. "Emily? We don't want to hurt you. Why don't you come out, now?"
You run. Though you're dizzy with starving, you run.
You can't stop running. The monster's right behind you. And she's calling your name. She knows, she does know. And Ash can't help you. You sent Ash to her, and she... she's a ghost eater, a soul-eater. She swallowed Ash right up, fought her, shook her off, and won.
The monster is stronger than Ash.
You can't let her be stronger than you.
There's a cage here that can hold, her, though. All you need is to lure her into it.
You need bait.
And the perfect bait already lives in the cage.
Brady shadows Hafs as she slips back to Rufus. He's crawled under his desk. Motion, good. A positive sign.
And it's probably the safest place for him, if Bloody Larry happens to wander by.
Hafs crawls under the desk with him, comes back out with something. Rufus's headset and mic, battery-operated. She hands them to Brady, who puts them on without complaining. He watches as she goes to a locker--cool, efficient, without a wasted gesture--and pulls out a pair of gas masks. She tosses Brady one.
"You planning on--"
"There's the pepper spray," she says. "If we get juice back, I can fog for gammas."
"That's just gonna make Hakes angry."
"Line of sight," she says. "How's he going to target if I blind him?"
Brady mines a slow clap and pulls the gas mask over his head, checking to make sure it's got a filter. He leaves it around his neck for now. He'll hear the hiss if she uses the spray.
Hafidha pulls off her glasses and tucks them in her pocket.
"This is going to fuck up my accuracy," she says. She's been leaving a Hansel and Gretel line of Creme Egg wrappers behind her. Now she adds another to the trail.
She hands Brady her gun for a moment, adjusting the other gas mask on top of her head.
"Hold my gun and watch this," Brady mutters.
She laughs. "Easier without the braids," she says sadly.
He resists the urge to stroke her arm. "I wish Chaz was here," Brady says.
They share a tired smile. "I'm glad he's not," she says through his headset. "Bad enough that we are. Can you hear me?"
He nods. "Where are you going?"
"After Partridge," she says. "If she's opening cages... who's next worst? Say you wanted a WMD..."
"Reyes has been getting through to him." Then her face does a strange thing--startled realization. But without any fear, exactly. "Shit. Mrs. Chow."
Brady nods. "Check on it. I got an SOS from Dice. I'm going to see if I can get the rec room evacuated. Then look for Hakes."
"And Henry," she says.
"Henry's not a threat for six months or so."
"Hakes is a threat to Henry. God, I hope Renee has the sense to stay in her room."
"Oh, very funny." She puts her hand out for the Glock, then pulls it back. "You know what? If you're going to get Larry... You keep the gun."
"Gamma," she says. "And anyway, Gray would never forgive me."
Renee should have stayed in her room. She wishes like hell she'd had the sense to stay in her room. But she didn't, and when she went to look for somebody she could ask about the power outage, she found the old white man wandering alone down a corridor in the dark. She knows by his clothes--scrubs and a bathrobe--that he's one of the patients, and one who should be on a locked ward. He's also wearing two cardigans, a knitted cap, and a scarf that looks like Hafidha knitted it for him.
She knows who this is. Not that they tell the other patients all about one another, but she spent enough time in the bullpen. And she knows she ought to be afraid of him.
But he looks harmless. He looks confused. And scared. And he shouldn't be left to wander around.
So she exerts herself to stay present for him, and she walks up and takes his hand. She's discovered that touching people makes her stay real for longer. It's the next best thing to having a door between them.
"I'm Renee," she says. His hand is cool and papery. He smiles. "Are you Henry?"
"I got lost. Something happened, and--" He looks down.
Her gaze follows his. His paper slippers are soaked in something dark.
"Are you all right?"
"I'm fine," he says. "I'm not cold at all."
That's when the screaming starts, down the corridor to the left. The minimum security wing. Closest to the offices, and Renee's room.
Henry flinches. She holds his hand. "Stay with me, Henry."
He smiles at her mildly. "Hello, sweetheart. Who are you?"
The screaming stopped a long time ago, but Dice still hunches behind a flipped table, covering Susanna with his body. She keeps her hands pressed against the floor, beneath her, so she doesn't touch him accidentally. Next to her, wedged beside the wall, Natalie seems to contract like a shocked amoeba as she pulls herself in. Despite the cramped space, she manages not to let any portion of her body brush anyone else.
Ramachandran is across the room, behind the desk with two staffers. And Eddie--
Dice pokes his head up over the table edge. Eddie stands by the hinge side of the door, swinging his arms like a batter warming up outside the box. "Eddie," Dice hisses. "What the fuck are you doing?"
Eddie gives him a look, and a big fake grin. The same kind of bravado Dice remembers from when Eddie was seven and about to get himself in miserable trouble.
"Don't sweat it, big brother," Eddie says. "I got this."
And then, in the hall, singing.
Ragged, off-key. But cheery. Something from the seventies. Gordon Lightfoot, Dice realizes. "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald."
There are footsteps, too. And the sound of something metal tapped against the wall. This is not the voice of a cheery repairman. Dice realizes that somebody could see him through the window in the door and ducks down, way down. Flattening himself against Susanna.
Cramped though it is, he texts: He's here. Hits send, and puts the phone away as fast as possible. Wishes for a minute that he was still Catholic enough to pray.
Someone tries the door.
It's locked, so the handle rattles. Dice remembers the tapping metal, and doesn't expect that to hold whoever it is for long. He thinks about velociraptors in the kitchen, and stifles a hysterical giggle.
There's a thump. One, then another. Testing. Then a steady, rhythmic beat.
"Fire axe," Natalie says. She sounds so calm, a little exasperated. Like a supervillain chopping the door down is an everyday nuisance.
Dice's gaze fixes on a chair. Just one of the plastic garden chairs the residents get to use. Not a weapon, which is why they have it. It's close enough to grab and throw--but would it do any good?
It might buy Eddie a second. It might buy Natalie a second, and Dice can see from the look on her thin pretty face that she's not going to go down without fighting. But she has to get close, and the door is all the way across the room--
The chopping stops, is replaced by a prying creak and crackle. Then a hesitation. Then a hard, hard thump--the impact of foot on wood. These doors are as old as Idlewood, oak and chestnut, solid core. Cut from trees of a size that haven't been seen on the East Coast in over a century.
It holds for a second, and buys them all another second of life.
Dice hears a frustrated, animal sound through the door. He squeaks, like a mouse, and Susanna gives him a comforting little headbutt since she can't squeeze his hand.
"Don't worry, Dyson," Natalie says. "I've been in worse spots."
That's when Dice notices that she's taken off her gloves.
The door crashes open, rebounds, is caught. Dice hopes Eddie blocked it with his Hand rather than taking it in the face, but he doesn't have time to think about it now.
"Hide-and-seek?" says a shockingly ordinary voice. "That's one of my favorite games."
Dice jerks himself to his feet, not daring to think. He grabs the featherweight plastic chair and slings it overhand, screaming, then leaps over the table to follow it up with a charge.
He makes it two steps. And then he stops, not because he runs into some enormous wall of anomalous energy, but because what he sees is Eddie swinging out from behind the broken door and piling into the side of the brown-haired, balding, middle-aged guy who stands there lazily swinging a fire axe. It's the Hand that Eddie hits the other guy with, and the other guy--skinny, unprepossessing--bounces off the doorframe and staggers a step.
The walls shake. Plaster dust sparkles in the sunlight through the window.
But the other guy comes back swinging. Definitely a jammer, to take a hit like that. He's got the axe, and he knows how to use it. It loops into the air. Eddie blocks it with the Hand. The axe doesn't rebound; Eddie's grabbed it, grabbed it with thin air. He rips it out of the other guy's hand and swings it around--
Eddie screams. He clutches his gut, though the other guy hasn't touched him, and doubles over. Blood--so much fucking blood, everywhere, suddenly, pouring from his nose and eyes, soaking his trousers. Dice screams, too, "Leave my brother alone!" and plunges forward again. Eddie's dropped the axe, and Dice is aiming for it. But he skids in the blood, scrabbles, clutches the damned thing's handle and finds himself flailing on his back like a turtle.
He looks up, and sees the man who has to be Joseph Lawrence Hakes--Bloody Larry, though Dice isn't supposed to know about that--looming over him.
"You're adorable," Hakes says, and lifts up one hand to make a goddamned finger-gun. A sharp cramp spears Dice's middle.
The axe is wrenched from his hand and whirls through the air. For a moment, in passing, Dice would swear he felt the brush of his brother's nonexistent fingertips. Hakes ducks; the axe thumps into the doorframe; the seething feeling in Dice's gut eases. He tastes seaweed and copper. He sees Eddie straighten up, ripping the axe free with the Hand.
Dice hears Hakes' howl of outraged fury, and the slippery horrible thump as Eddie crumples and falls.
Dice lifts his head. The axe is all the way over there--
A blur. Red hair, quick hands. Natalie, wielding her bottle of water like a sword. Clear fluid splashes from it, a bright arc, slashing across Hakes' face. Washing into his eyes. His wordless rage turns into a scream of pain; he clutches his face, then casts about blindly.
Acid, Dice thinks, but some of the fluid splashed him, too, and on his lips he tastes the unmistakable fizz. It burns worse than he's used to. It must be very concentrated.
"Peroxide," he says.
"Chemically, very similar to water," Natalie remarks. She grabs his collar and his belt loop and drags him back, away, toward Ramachandran and the staff. "I need a better trick. He isn't down."
And Eddie is. Lying in the blood, not moving. Still bleeding, a slow well visible between his lips. How fast can you drown in your own blood? If you're a gamma? How fast then?
If you're a gamma, how fast do your eyes clear from a chemical burn?
Hakes has staggered away from the door. He's casting about, groping: a hellish game of blindman's bluff. Dice sees Susanna raise her head from behind the table and begin creeping--tiptoeing--toward the axe. He wants to yell to her to watch out, but that'll give the game away.
Then the part that seems like a hallucination happens. Because Dice sees an old man walk into the room--sedately, unconcerned. And with him, a young mixed-race woman, holding his hand. Except, is she there, or is she not? When he's looking at her, he can see her clear as day. But as soon as he glances back at Hakes, Dice is pretty sure he imagined her.
She leads the old man up to Hakes, though, and the old man stops in front of him. Hakes windmills, and the old man just stands.
"You, fellow," the old man says. "You need to stop that right now."
Hakes stops. Perfectly balanced, suddenly, though his eyes are swollen shut and even from across the room, flat on his back, Dice can see whitish foam bubbling from between the lids.
"Who are you?" Hakes asks. He reaches out, slowly, calibrating on the voice.
The old man draws himself up. "Someone whose home this is, sonny. And you won't take the roof from over my head, or from over these people's heads, either. I won't have it. People need to keep warm!"
Hakes' clutching hands grasp the old man's arm, twisting in layers of robe and cardigan. Dice tries to start to his feet, but Natalie gives his clothes a yank and he falls back down again. Susanna has forgotten she was going to get the axe and is just crouched now, staring.
"Don't call me sonny," says Joseph Lawrence Hakes. He reaches blindly toward the old man's head.
"Respect your elders," the old man answers. He lifts up his free hand--clad in a fingerless mitt that Dice recognizes as Hafidha's knitting. He presses the tips of his fingers to the side of Hakes' head.
Hakes jerks, recoils. But the old man is holding his sleeve now, and he can't pull away. Hakes' hand seems to be stuck to the old man's cheek as if frozen there, and a bluish rime is spreading up his hand, up his arm, along his temple, down his throat. He gasps, shivers violently, sags to his knees. He falls, and the old man bends over him. His teeth chatter. His heels rattle against the floor. He screams a long, shivering scream.
No one steps forward until he finally lies still.
The old man straightens up and dusts the frost off his hands. "Ahh," he says, pink and happy. "Who'd like a nice cup of coffee, now?"
Dice yanks himself away from Natalie. He crawls across the floor, the terrible cramps not yet subsiding. He drags himself through the slick of Eddie's blood. He sprawls across his brother's good arm and tries to press his fingers to Eddie's throat.
Eddie's eyes blink. They focus on Dice. Eddie's lips move, and something like the touch of phantom fingers ruffles Dice's hair.
"It's okay," Eddie says. "It's okay, big brother."
The breath finishes coming out of him.
It does not go back in.
Dice puts his head down on Eddie's bloody shirt and wails between clenched teeth, not even able to form the word, no.
"Fuck," says Natalie, behind Dice. "I know this isn't the time or the place, but I need a sandwich right now."
Sol feels a spurt of sweet relief when his phone rings, and he recognizes the number as the main line at Idlewood. It's all okay, he tells himself. Something we'll laugh about tomorrow.
Falkner forwarded him Hafidha's text. He knows Falkner, Chaz, Lau, and Tan are running close behind him. He knows that they're coming in force, and that Falkner's made the decision not to involve the local sheriff's department. He thinks that that turned out to be a good call.
The relief lasts until he answers the phone and hears a tight, controlled voice on the other end of the line, faint Puerto Rican accent, crispness of a professional in an emergency. "Mr. Todd?"
"This is Leon Garcia at Idlewood. Hafidha Gates asked me to call you. We have a big, big problem here."
"Leon," Sol says. "Is Rupert Beale there?"
"He was," Leon says. "He was the last sign-out before the power went down."
Daniel Brady has probably felt this useless once or twice before in his life, but just right now he is hard pressed to think of when. He stands in the doorway of the minimum security rec room and counts bodies. Only two, and it could have been worse. And one of those is the right one, the best of all possible worlds if there has to be a casualty.
But then there's Eddie, and--
Not now, Danny Brady, he tells himself. He looks around at the survivors. At Dice with Eddie's head cradled in his lap. At Natalie stuffing a handful of Cheetos into her mouth, and Henry Clark--what the hell--pouring cream into a steaming mug of coffee. At Susanna, huddled over beside Ramachandran and two staffers whose names Brady doesn't know, offhand, though Hafidha would. And that flicker of movement in the corner of his eye is probably Renee.
He had come into the room at high ready, and now they are all staring at him. Sheepishly, he lowers the muzzle. Stopping Hakes was only half his job.
"Come on," he says. "We're evacuating. There's at least one more on the loose."
The awful fluorescent lights overhead pick that instant to hum violently and buzz back into life.
Somebody was in for a hiding if Sol ever found them. It had taken him a good three minutes to hotwire a switch to replace the smashed controls on the emergency generators, and he'd jammed a wire right up under his thumbnail, deep enough to make it bleed. The good news is, they are humming now. And as he is clearing the area outside before stepping from the shelter of the generator shed, his phone buzzes against his hip.
He glances at it. It's Brady.
He slides a thumb across the glass. "Talk to me," he says.
The lights flicker. Stutter. Go back on and burn steady, and Hafidha pulls the gas mask down over her face and walks a little slower, a little more carefully, now. She's coming up on the doorway to the wing of Idlewood where the old monsters live, and she's wondering just what exactly she, gunless, is going to do if she opens up that door with Allison's passcard and discovers Mrs. Chow crouched in the corridor, chewing on somebody's thighbone like the law of conservation of mass and energy doesn't apply.
Throw the last pocketful of Reese's Peanut Butter Eggs at her and run.
Then there's a crackle in her head, and a few hundred yards away, Leon types on a tablet with his thumbs.
EMILY IS ON CAMERA. HEADED TO YOUR OLD ROOM.
Suze Zettler's room. There's probably a more politic way for Leon to have put it, but Hafs isn't about to pick nits with the man whose pastry is keeping her from fainting.
She types back, STAY FROSTY.
Brady, on the headset. "Hakes is neutralized. Evacuating the minimum security residents. I have Henry, and I think maybe I have Renee, too. One casualty."
She doesn't ask who. If it weren't going to upset her, he would have said already.
She breathes a sigh of relief. "Good work."
Brady says, "Duke says the cavalry is ETA five minutes."
Hafidha says, "Partridge is going after Suze."
There's a pause. Then, "Godspeed," he tells her. Which is fine. If she's going to put up with anybody's God, Daniel G. Brady's is high on the list. And his secret middle name is safe with her.
"Radio silence," she replies.
"For now," he answers.
She turns right back away from the door to the scary wards and heads downstairs. Not that her old room is any less fortified. Not that anything is scaring her, right now.
Maybe she'll be able to talk to Partridge. Maybe she can figure out her mythology. Hafidha remembers that weird interaction this morning and doesn't stop walking, but she bites her lip. Something there, some clue.
She and Brady had been talking about Ashley Campbell, just a moment before, who had died in an accident caused by a bizarre mechanical failure. And the reporter who died, Matthew Sheehy. The reporter whose freak accident had not included a mechanical failure, but apparently something like the fear Hafidha had so recently experienced herself.
Oh. If Ashley Campbell were the victim of a gamma, if that gamma were someone she and Emily Partridge both knew... or, hell, Partridge could have been inoculated at work, just as easily. If she had suffered some sort of devastating personal loss and failed to report it to H.R., as specified in her contract...
The computers are coming to life. Hafs takes the stairs down, not ready to risk an elevator, and reaches out to riffle through Emily Partridge's personnel files. They spill open for Hafs. Including the familiar name of Emily's high school.
And the name of her listed next of kin. In case of emergency, contact Ashley Campbell.
"Oh, sweetie," Hafidha says, a pang of sorrow so sharp she feels the Bug stretch in luxury. "Oh, I'm so sorry, child."
Ashley had been a witch; had requested a green, pagan burial. Which meant it was very possible that that was Emily's religion as well, and that it might have a bearing on her mythology. Harpy, damn it, I need you. And where are you, now?
No. Hafida snaps her bracelet. She pauses at the bottom of the stairs.
SOMEONE HAS CUT THE VIDEO FEED FROM THE FARADAY CAGE, Leon types.
JUST ANOTHER DAY AT WORK, Hafs types back, and opens the heavy fire door.
The hall is silent. The lights burn grimly overhead. The guard who should be on duty at the end of the hall is missing, the desk empty. Hafidha wonders who was on shift today, and hopes whoever they were, they just ran.
She sidles down the hall, moving fast because she doesn't have a weapon. She can't clear rooms; she just has to cover the ground and get out of the line of fire as fast as possible. She has to assume that Partridge has a Taser, a gun. The Taser won't do much more that slow Hafidha down. Startle her. Sting her a little.
Bullets are no fun, even for a gamma.
The airlock door to the Burrow isn't locked. Somebody used an override key. Hafs glides it open and steps inside. She pauses behind the second door, also partially open, and listens.
"I'm not going to shoot you," Partridge says. "Because that would make a hole in the mesh. But I'm going to open the door and come inside, and I want you to know before I do that that I am armed."
Suze's voice answers, wary. "What happens then, Emily?"
"You need to be evacuated," says Partridge, sounding oh so reasonable. "Everyone has to leave the building."
Hafidha checks the seal on her gas mask.
"Okay," Suze says. "You're my guard."
"Right," says Partridge. "Just step back into the corner. Away from the door--"
Hafidha hears the pistol cocking. She doesn't wait another second. Suze is safe inside the burrow, safe for seconds more. Safe as long as the door stays closed.
She reaches out, wireless girl, and triggers the in-room pepper spray remotely, dosing everything outside of Suze's cage. She hears a scream, coughing. She kicks the door aside and charges in--
Right into the sights of Partridge's gun. Partridge stands, coughing, tears streaming down her face. Feet planted in a modified Weaver stance, hands braced on her gun. Barrel locked on Hafidha.
"You're the monster," Partridge says. "Doesn't the FBI do pepper spray training with its agents anymore?"
"Budget cuts," Hafidha says, voice muffled through the gas mask. "Stuff costs a mint. Look at what we've hit up the taxpayers for today alone."
"Get in the cage," Partridge says. She gestures with her head, not her pistol. More's the pity. And the room's big enough that Hafidha is at least twenty feet away. Advantage to the gun.
"Get in the cage?"
"You never should have gotten out of it. Monsters don't get better."
"I know about Ashley," Hafidha says. "I know somebody took her away from you."
"All right," Hafidha says. She takes a step closer to the door of the burrow. "See? I'm going. But the thing is, I think we're on the same side."
"Walk. Shut up."
"Somebody killed somebody I loved, too."
The gun levels. Partridge squints over the sights, her face glossy with tears and snot. "We are not the same."
"A car," Hafidha said. "A freak accident. Nobody to blame. It broke me, Emily." She waves around. "You know how long I spent in this room."
On the other side of the glass, Suze is watching. Waiting? Gauging. But what can she do from back there? And Partridge is still being very careful with that pistol. She backs away as Hafidha advances, keeping her space buffer. Keeping control.
Hafidha is halfway to the Burrow's double door. She has her shoulder to Partridge now. She stops and turns to her. "I saw conspiracies everywhere. I couldn't accept that sometimes awful things just happen. I had to have a reason, and then I had to find the person behind it. The person who made me suffer, and make them pay."
The hair on Haf's neck prickles. The hair on her arms rises, as of its own accord. She doesn't dare look at Suze, look away from Partridge. Suze wouldn't hurt me.
But she could. She might. She's a monster, too. Or the habitat of a monster, anyway.
But even if she would, how could it happen here? How could Suze call lightning inside a building, when she herself is contained inside a Faraday cage?
"Do you want to know what the funny thing was, Emily?"
"No," Emily says, but the muzzle of the gun droops slightly. She relaxes her grip to wipe her nose on the back of one hand.
"I think you do," says Hafidha. "The funny thing is that I was right. Somebody did kill my friend. The same somebody who--"
"NO!" Emily yells, and in the moment Hafidha sees she's overplayed her hand, or maybe this was one of those games that no hand could have won for her. Maybe Brady could have done better. Reyes.
Emily raises the pistol. Levels it. Hafidha takes a breath and braces herself to run forward into the bullet, to keep going, To trust her superhuman body to take the shot and carry her onto Partridge anyway.
She hopes it won't be a head shot.
"I'm not like you!" Emily screams. "Ashley takes care of me!" And the bullet is coming, Hafidha knows it's coming, she can already feel her skin trying to crawl out of its way--
The room fills with smoke. With the scent of seared flesh. Hafidha blinks; she's on her ass against the glass wall of the burrow, and the gas mask has been knocked askew. Her eyes burn from leftover pepper spray. She has a memory of brilliant light, of booming sound.
She can't find Emily. No, there she is, sprawled on the--
Outlets across the room are smoking, scorched black. Spitting tiny tongues of flame. A sprinkler kicks on.
Hafidha looks away from what was Emily Partridge. She heaves herself to her feet. Her ears ring. The room spins. She should go try CPR.
She turns over her shoulder and looks at Suze.
Suze stands near the inside of the glass, one hand pressed against it. The fine lines of the Faraday cage wires gleam golden against her palm.
"You could do that all along?" Hafidha asks stupidly. Her voice sounds tiny and distant.
"It's just an ionized pathway," Suze says. "It never had to run through me."
"Oh," says Hafidha. "You could have said something."
Suze smiles. It's not a happy one. "You were all very proud of your Faraday cage."
Ashton, VA, May 21, 2014
Tyler picks up on the first ring, jovial. "You're late for bike polo, man, we already started. Where are you?"
"Tyler," Dyson says, and jams the Nokia against his ear a little harder. "Tyler, I--"
"Wait," Tyler says. "No, not you, Dice, them. You sound...are you okay?"
The laughter and conversation on Tyler's end fades, gets farther away. Dice can hear the sea in his other ear, a roaring. "I'm sorry I'm late," Dyson says, and the sob breaks out of his throat. Sharp edges of gravel stab into his knees as he lands on them. The ambulance blanket falls away; the wind crawls up his back.
"Dice, it's okay," Tyler says. "I'm walking away from everyone. Signal's good. I can wait. Something happened. Are you still in Virginia?"
Dice lives in Arlington, but to Tyler and him, Virginia means Idlewood.
"Oh, fuck," Tyler says. "Dice, I am so sorry."
Dice, it's okay.
It's okay, big brother.
But Dice can't stop crying now that it's all come out.
"He'll come around. You said he was changing. I believe that."
Oh. "No. Tyler. He's dead."
If only Eddie was just mad at him. "He's-- He died. I just told him, and then--" And then Hell rose up. "He died, to save my life. I'm alive and he's dead."
Tyler doesn't need to hear about what Natalie did. How brave she was. Not today. Not yet.
"What the hell happened out there. No, later. Are you okay? Are they taking you to the hospital?"
"Maybe. I...kinda feel weird."
"It's shock. You should tell someone there. There's an ambulance, right?"
There were four. And something that looked like a SWAT team. "Yeah. I--"
"I don't wanna be alone," Dice says, and the wind wraps around his throat.
"I'm coming," Tyler says. "I'll be there."
Brady sits down next to Hafidha on the bench beside the rose garden. It creaks under his weight. They lean together in companionable silence for a few moments, watching as Falkner and Tan direct the rescue and recovery teams. Lau was last seen bringing Susanna a cup of tea and a phone so she could call her mother.
Brady tilts his head after a while and says, "If I were knitting gloves for Henry Clark, I'd close off the fingertips. Just saying."
Hafidha shrugs. "He likes to feel the warmth of the coffee cup. He's got mittens that go over them when he's cold. You complaining?"
Brady made a noise that might have been a laugh before it died. "Not today."
The silence resumes. Hafidha looks around, and doesn't see Chaz. She had given him three big hugs and sent him off to talk to Suze. She doesn't have the energy just now to deal with him.
Todd, though. Todd sounds restful. He wanders past, and Hafidha raises a hand to wave him over.
"Want a Creme Egg? Only slightly past the expiration date."
"They expire?" Todd accepts the candy. He holds the brightly wrapped oval in his hand as if it were an offering.
Brady settles and resettles himself, like he can't get comfortable. "Did anybody find Beale?"
Todd licks his lips. "Leon said he signed out a few minutes before the lights went out. Like he knew it was coming."
"Wait," Brady says. "What the hell?"
"It's him," Sol says. "That son of a bitch. It's him. Rupert Motherfucking Beale."
Hafidha feels a little dizzy. She stuffs a Creme Egg in her own mouth and bites it in half. Emily Partridge's last act of charity. "That's going to require some evidence, Duke."
Todd raises his hand, ticks off on fingers, some of which are partially missing. "He's close to the team, he's connected. He wrote a letter of recommendation for Jeff Simmons when Simmons applied to the FBI, thereby setting the stage for the Quantico outbreak. He once paid Guy Nadon as an informant--off the books, but I managed to trace a postal money order. He had a book signing in Portland around the time Viv Paliotto was killed. No credit card trace for plane tickets because his publisher footed the bill, but I got Homeland Security to pull the passenger records. Hope Mitchell met him at a book signing. I can place him in Leesburg for at least three hours before Ashley Campbell's accident."
"Circumstantial," Brady says, but not like he believes that means anything.
Todd nods. "And the kicker? He made a six-dollar purchase at a Starbucks less than two hundred meters from the intersection where Erik Holt was killed, not five minutes before."
"Fucking Starbucks," Hafidha says, feeling as if the earth under her feet has just dropped a meter and then caught her hard when she followed. "You know how many calories are in one of those things? And he's always drinking them. Always."
"Might keep even a gamma stocky, if he was crafty," Brady said.
"He's crafty," says Sol. "You know how he left the Chicago P.D.?"
"Medical," Brady says. "Line of duty, right? Other than that--" He shakes his head. Hafidha is already looking it up.
"Car accident," she says. "During a car chase. His partner was killed."
"Freak accident," Sol says. "So there's your gremlin. What if he can just... nudge probability? Get the result he wants when he wants it? Or get a better chance of it, anyway? He pushed you, and he pushed Emily Partridge. He made it happen, Hafidha. But that's not all."
Hafidha looks at the remaining half of the Creme Egg. It tastes, suddenly, like chalk and stale sugar. "Life is too short to eat crap chocolate," she says, and tosses it over her shoulder into the rosebushes. "Hit me."
Todd rubs his forehead with the palm of his hand. "Correlation is not causation. But I can put him on a bunch of plane flights that coincide with some of our ligature deaths. And I can put him in New Richmond, Wisconsin, of all the godforsaken places. Or at least, driving through it, because he had a signing tour eight years ago where he drove himself from Madison to St. Paul."
"Autumn," Brady says. "You're saying he taught that creep--"
"I'm saying it's possible."
"Holy balls," Brady says, and falls silent, staring. Hafidha realizes she's not worried, and that reminds her to reset the bugzapper. Which reminds her of Jason Saito's surprise and delight.
You're dead now, she thinks. Shut up. But when did Saito ever listen to anybody?
"I think he was hunting gammas all over the country. He's the thing that eats T. rexes. Rupert Beale."
Todd turns around and sits on the bench on the other side of Hafidha. He rests his elbows on his knees and tilts his head back to stare up at the flawless sky. All around them, the sultry scent of roses hangs on the late spring air.
"I do not have enough ammunition for this," Hafidha says, and looks at the blood on a dead woman's green shoes.