1.05 "Ballistic" - by Sarah Monette, Emma Bull, Elizabeth Bear & Amanda DownumAct I | Act II | Act III | Act IV | Act V
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
You aren't supposed to be in Grandma's room when she isn't there. It's dark inside, the heavy curtains drawn tight, and the air smells of camphor and lavender potpourri and furniture polish. Your stomach feels too small as you peer through the cracked-open door, like it did when Tommy Wilson dared you to crawl into that abandoned woodshed all full of spiders. Making Grandma mad scares you more than spiders, but this morning she went to the store and left you alone watching cartoons and eating Cocoa Puffs.
And now you've abandoned your cereal, even though it'll be soggy when you go back, the milk all warm and brown. Because you dreamed about the pistol again last night, and who knows when you'll get another chance to look at it? So you pretend Tommy and his nasty scabby-kneed friends are right behind you, teasing and egging you on till you can't back down.
The door swings open quiet and you creep over the threshold. The orange shag swallows your footsteps. No lights, in case you need to run away fast, but the glare from the hall is enough to see by. Back in the living room, Elmer Fudd is hunting rabbits.
The guns are on Grandma's special table, the old vanity she dusts and polishes every Sunday. Pictures cover the mirror--your father and grandfather and great grandfather standing straight and proud in their uniforms. Ribbons and medals and dried flowers hang there too, and you smell the dust that feather dusters can't reach; your nose itches.
The gun you dream of was your great grandfather's, that he gave to Grandpa before he died. A revolver--worn wooden grip and dull grey metal, cool under your cautious fingers. Heavier than you expect and you nearly drop it; your heart races sick and dizzy before you tighten your grip. A lighter space remains on the yellowing lace doily, the ghost of a gun.
You stare at the pistol in your hands, SMITH & WESSON written down the barrel. It leaves a funny taste in your mouth. You're not supposed to touch guns because they're dangerous. Because they kill people. Your great grandfather got this gun in a war. The war, Grandma says, like there was only one, but even in second grade you can name four.
This gun must have killed people in its war. Your father did in his--he never talks about it to you, but you heard him fighting with Mom, before Mom left.
Grandma says that Mom is afraid of guns and that's why she ran away. She says lots of other things, too, that you're too young to repeat. You don't know if they're true, but you don't want to be afraid of guns. You've never told anyone about the dreams.
...proximate cause of death is a penetrating injury of the pleural cavity and heart...
J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington, D.C., September 2007
Cases reached Shadow Unit by tortuous paths. The shootings in Brattonville, Maryland got there by what the BAU at large called the Houdini Clause. If it looked like a stage magician's trick, it went Down the Hall.
And the Brattonville shootings did look like stage magic, the kind of thing Penn and Teller would do on the Tonight Show. According to the local medical examiner's report, there were five dead, all male, all Caucasian, and that was where the victimology stopped making sense.
One twelve-year-old boy, Thomas Wilson. Gunned down in a schoolyard with a single perfect shot. One Air Force Major, Calvin Henley, 35, killed on a Saturday afternoon while grilling chicken in his backyard, while his wife and two daughters set up the badminton net. Again, a single perfect shot to the heart. One truck mechanic, Steven Glennie, 31, shot on the job on Tuesday afternoon at two forty-five, as he rolled out from under a disabled Kenworth. One Gulf War veteran, James Furtick, 28, shot through the heart as he entered his regular tavern on a Friday just before happy hour. He normally spent a couple of hours there with his old high school buddies, playing an arcade bowling game at which he excelled, despite having lost both arms below the elbow to an IED. And finally, one retired general practitioner, Otto Hollinger, 69, killed while watching a softball game at a local park. Also with a single bullet.
All killed since August 27th. All within four square miles.
Daniel Brady, frowning down at the case file on the table before him, said, "No bullets recovered?"
Nikki Lau flipped gory, glossy photos, mouth slightly open as her tongue worried the center of her lower lip. Because he was a cruel man at heart, Brady not only noticed how carefully Chaz Villette was not watching her--he also allowed himself to enjoy it. She said, "No bullets, no casings, no traces of powder, no nothing."
Hafidha Gates tapped a ballistics report with an inch-long fingernail, painted with stylized circuit diagrams in copper, green, and white. "How the hell do you get a front-to-back trajectory on a guy who's lying on a mechanic's dolly? And no bullet in the dolly or the asphalt underneath?"
Daphne Worth glanced at Stephen Reyes before she spoke, which Brady guessed was an improvement from when she only looked at him out of the corner of her eye. She said, "You'd have to be standing right over him. And there are three eyewitnesses. Somebody would have seen that."
Which got Chaz's attention. "Glennie was lying down when he was shot?" He flipped scene photos, a responding officer's hand-drawn map. "There are no tall buildings for a sniper to get vertical in. Maybe a tree, but I'm going to guess there's not a big old tree in the parking lot of a truck repair shop."
Lau said, "Shooter could have been on top of the rig."
Worth shook her head. "Same problem as with standing over the guy. Roof of the shop?"
Esther Falkner shook her head, an understated sideways gesture that Brady considered diagnostic, in her case. It meant she was frustrated, perhaps a little offended by the facts of the case, but playing the level-headed officer. "The angle's no good. From these, it looks like Glennie was shot standing up and fell over, but he was already bleeding when he tried to stand, and he never made it past half-sitting before he fell back. No one reports hearing a shot."
Hafidha snorted. "Maybe it's the ghost of Lee Harvey Oswald."
"It gets better," Falkner said. With her fingertips, she squared the sheets of her own copy. "Otto Hollinger, the M.D. killed in Lafayette Park. He was standing in the middle of a crowd of people when he was shot. The shooter either doesn't care if he takes out a bystander, or he's capable of making his projectile miss anything other than the intended target--both going in and coming out."
Brady said, "And all five bodies showed both entrance and exit wounds."
He wasn't asking, exactly, but Lau said, "Correct."
"Houdini clause," Stephen Reyes said, the first thing he'd offered since they sat down. "How do you make a bullet disappear?"
Chaz's eyes widened, which made him look like one of those Scandinavian novelty trolls. "That's one hell of a tidy-minded UNSUB."
"I can see why Pauley dumped it on us," Brady said.
"And why we," Falkner said, with a flick of her hand to indicate Reyes as part of that "we," "are dumping it on you. You and Lau head out to Brattonville. Nikki, we need damage control. Some local police has been shooting off his mouth. It's not too far to commute, so we'll stage out of here. Chaz, start the geographic profile. Hafidha and Daphne, work the victimology and paper trail."
"Peachy," said Lau, and as soon as Falkner's back was turned, rolled her eyes at Brady.
Falkner paused by the door. Lau froze like a rabbit in mid-driveway. But Falkner turned, smiled, and said, "Oh, and take coats. It's supposed to rain."
Brady wondered how many rural scenes in calendars were shot in Constance County, Maryland. Even under the threatening sky, every turn in the road was a photo op: white farmhouse, big red barn, spreading oak with tire swing, rolling fields of seed corn drying on the stalk, or pumpkins, or grass with dairy cattle eating it. Turning from the scenery to the case photos and back made both of them look faked.
Lau drove the motor pool sedan so Brady could do victimology out loud. It was better than conversation, because he knew the questions Lau was itching to ask. She was a Californian at heart: the concept of personal privacy was a little beyond her. If she wondered about something--your credit rating, your childhood trauma, your weight, your health problems, your income bracket, your sexuality, whether you knew a good therapist--she asked.
The irony was that Lau knew all about hiding secrets under a flawless front. Her own surface was so deceptive he'd almost stopped seeing it. She was just Lau, adrenaline junkie, immaculate liar. And then he'd glance at her sideways, like this, looking up from the unwieldy stack of case files in his lap, and he'd see her like a stranger: this gorgeous china-doll woman with her sleek hair and her delicate features, who looked like she shouldn't have a thought in her head beyond making sure her fingernails didn't chip on the steering wheel. Except that Lau kept her nails as short as a man's.
Cognitive dissonance was the technical term, and Lau worked it like a pro.
So don't give her an opening, Danny. And the files on the Brattonville shootings gave him plenty to talk about. Five victims: a twelve year old boy, one man in his late twenties, two in their thirties, and one who would have turned seventy in another three months.
"Well, they're all white males," Lau said.
"Yeah, because that's helpful. An UNSUB in rural Maryland might be white," Brady grumbled. "The age progression is interesting, but I'm not buying that the next victim will be a white man in his eighties."
"Well, it could happen." Lau tossed her hair at him, deliberately provocative, and then had to blow her bangs off her forehead.
He grinned. "You wanna stake out the nursing homes?"
Her swipe was halfhearted, because she was driving. But because it was Nikki, and he appreciated her playing along with the pretense that nothing had changed, he let it connect. She said, "Well, what do they have in common? Aside from all being white, male, and resident in Brattonville, Maryland."
"Two of them served." Awkwardly, balancing a pile of paperwork on his left arm while trying not to intrude too much in the space Lau needed for driving, he flipped open two more folders across his lap. And where was Chaz when you needed a pile of paperwork chewed through, as if with an industrial shredder? "Christ in a Corvette, can't these hick towns afford a scanner? I'd kill to have this on my PDA. No, wait. Three served. Henley was Air Force, Furtick was National Guard--stationed in Tikrit, poor motherfucker--and Glennie was Army."
"What about the 70-year-old doctor? Korea?"
"M.A.S.H. unit, maybe? Hang on, that'd have to be in here somewhere. Military service doesn't just vanish."
"Unless you're Todd." Which made Brady snort. She said, "Just to be totally clear, we have no record of military service for Dr. Hollinger?"
Brady grunted. "Oh. Here it is. He was 4F."
"Four eyes." He rattled the form. "Practically legally blind. Which leaves both him and Thomas Wilson without that connection to the others."
"Tommy wasn't even from a military family."
"Too much to hope for, cupcake. Which brings us to the next question. How much can a twelve-year-old and a seventy-year-old have in common?"
"They could be related."
"Jeez," Brady said. "Insert joke here about the definition of a virgin in Western Maryland."
Lau gave him a sidelong look, eyebrows raised.
"A girl who can run faster than her brothers," Brady said, and was rewarded by Lau's half-horrified hoot of laughter.
"That wasn't what I meant! Jesus, Brady, you've got a dirty mind."
"I like to play to my strengths."
Rain flecked the windshield, and she flipped the wiper lever once. "Anyway--sheesh--it's a small town, right?"
"Population two thousand and some."
"So they could be related."
"Could be," Brady said. "Though if it was a Hatfield and McCoy thing, the penny should have dropped for somebody in Brattonville by now."
"They would have known each other."
"Or if they didn't know each other, they knew of each other. Or know somebody in common. My high school in Plano had about that many students. And you can be damned sure everybody knew everybody else, at least by rep."
She took her eyes off the road long enough to shoot him a sideways glance. Danny Boy, you have just been profiled. But then she shrugged and said, "They were all shot in places they frequented. In their comfort zones."
"Suggests the killer knew them. Possibly stalked them."
"Or they were targets of opportunity who happened to be where they usually happened to be. Most accidents happen in the home."
"Because most of us spend a lot of time in our homes. Lies, damned lies, and statistics." Brady frowned at the list of victims. "In a place that size, it's almost impossible the killer didn't have some knowledge of the victims. This isn't random. His targets aren't faceless to him."
There was a pause, and then Lau rattled her nails on the steering wheel and said, "Huh. Since August 27th."
"First day of school," Brady said, feeling tightness across his scalp as his eyebrows rose. "Got a plan for the PR situation?"
She shrugged. "Hope it's not as bad as Dad thinks?"
"Hope is not a plan," Brady quoted, and looked down at his files again.
"There's a heartening slogan."
"Unofficial motto of the U. S. Army."
"Boys' clubhouse," she said. He saw her grin out the corner of his eye. "There's always a secret password."
You're not supposed to take the gun out of the house, but you've been doing it for weeks. You're not supposed to take it to school, either, but who'll ever know? It fits snug in the bottom of your lunchbox, wrapped in a handkerchief so it doesn't rattle. It's heavy, especially with an apple and two sandwiches, but it makes you feel better.
You don't eat with Katie and Crystal that day, even though you haven't seen them in weeks--Katie really would be afraid if she saw the gun, and you don't want to hear her fuss. Instead you find a picnic table behind the gym. Usually the older kids come out here to smoke, but today it's empty.
August heat weighs on you, thick and sticky even in the shade, but your hands are cold as you open the lunchbox. It was your dad's--solid metal, just a little rusty around the hinges now. Paint worn and chipped, the cartoon faces scraped away and only bits of the G.I. Joe logo and red-white-and-blue left.
And there it is, that familiar cloth-wrapped shape under a squashed sandwich and a bruised apple. Waiting. It itches at the back of your neck like a sunburn. Your stomach rumbles, but you don't reach for the sandwich.
You can hear it all the time now, not just in your dreams. A man's voice, stern and curt like a soldier's on TV, like Daddy's when he got angry. Telling you to pick up the gun. Telling you what you can do with it.
Sometimes it makes you mad that even the voices in your head are soldiers. But at least it doesn't sound like Grandma--that would really drive you crazy.
Footsteps in the grass, and you shut the lunchbox so fast you nearly catch your fingers. Maybe Katie came looking for you, but no--it's Tommy Wilson, grinning that nasty grin.
Crystal thinks he's cute. Grandma says boys pick on you because they like you. But you know better--Tommy is mean. Spiteful to the bone.
It wasn't so bad when you both were little, when you wore grubby jeans and ran fast as the boys and did every dumb thing he dared you to. You could hold your own then. But Grandma thinks young ladies should wear dresses and not play in the mud, so now your tomboy armor is gone.
So when he starts in on your dress from Sears, it's no surprise. It's where Grandma shops, after all. Your dress and your cheap shoes and your hair that Grandma cuts herself. You can handle that, though. You eat your first sandwich and drink your chocolate milk, even though it's warm now. Sweat trickles down your back, itches under your bra strap--Tommy'd make fun of that too, if he knew about it--but you just stare straight ahead.
But then he starts in about Daddy.
"He left you because you're ugly," he says. "He left you because he didn't love you. Nobody loves you. Your mom left, and your dad left too, and it's because they hated you."
And you know better, but you turn around and look him in the eye. "My dad was a hero. He died in the war. He was a hero." Tommy's bigger than you now, and runs faster, but Daddy always said there were some things you can't just take.
Your hand is in your lunchbox, the battered lunchbox with the faceless G.I. Joes, because Grandma says this one is good enough and you don't need a High School Musical one like Crystal has. It was good enough for your daddy, and it's good enough for you.
"Oh yeah," Tommy says. "He was a big hero like G.I. Joe. Well, your stupid lunchbox is gay, and your Dad was gay too. He probably got shot in the back trying to run away."
That sunburned feeling is back now, itching and stinging all over and your skin feels too tight. "He did not," you say, but you can't hear your own voice over the gun. It's cool and heavy in your sweaty hand and it whispers--not stern and demanding anymore, but sweet and comforting like Daddy when he tucked you in at night.
"He did not. He did not."
Your daddy didn't get shot running away.
But Tommy does.
And even though Grandma always said the gun isn't loaded, there's still a crack and Tommy falls, and blood spreads through the grass in the shade of the old oak tree. You shake all over. You've never been so hungry.
You wait for the screams and shouts and sirens, but nothing happens. You put the gun away and take your lunchbox and empty milk carton and you walk back to the cafeteria to find Katie and Crystal.
Katie asks what's wrong, but you tell her it's cramps and she believes you. In the last fifteen minutes of lunch you eat your other sandwich and the apple and swipe half of Crystal's chips. You're still hungry when the bell rings, but your hands have stopped shaking.
You're not scared anymore.
As an oracle, Nikki Lau thought disgustedly an hour later, she made a pretty good toaster oven. If things in Brattonville weren't precisely "bad," then they were very definitely messy, not at all helped by the fact that the person in local law who'd been shooting off his mouth was the Constance County sheriff.
Sheriff McCutcheon was in his fifties; he'd been sheriff for ten years, and Lau bet he'd been an alcoholic for at least seven of those. He had all the signs, and his deputies were covering for him as if they'd been doing it for a while. McCutcheon also had a theory, and it was this theory he'd been expounding to every microphone he could get near.
Sheriff McCutcheon was convinced Brattonville had a sniper.
"A sniper?" Brady said, doing that politely disbelieving thing where he never quite raised his eyebrows.
"We got plenty of vets," the sheriff said, as if a dearth would be an insult to the county's manhood. "Korea, 'Nam, Persian Gulf. We got boys with training."
"And you think one of them has, what? Run amok?" Lau said.
"Men crack under the pressures of war," the sheriff said, giving her a look that said he'd used the word "men" on purpose.
"I'm sure any of my brothers would agree with you, Sheriff," she said gravely.
McCutcheon had the sense to look faintly embarrassed. "Your brothers soldiers?"
"Air Force. When I think of Major Henley's family, I remember my own." There, maybe that would remind the sheriff there was more than enough pressure and cracking to go around.
"So do you know of any veterans in Brattonville who have a history of emotional instability?" Brady flicked Lau a glance of his own, as tightly packed as a .zip file.
"Course not!" the sheriff said, even more offended. "I reckon it's somebody new. A drifter maybe."
"So have there been any newcomers in the past six months?" Lau said and watched resignedly as the sheriff hemmed and hawed and blustered and finally said sulkily that he didn't know of any.
Brady stopped on the way out to take a hard look at the map of Constance County posted on the wall, so Lau took the opportunity to smile at the deputy on duty and say, "How seriously are people taking Sheriff McCutcheon's theory?"
"The crazy sniper theory?" Deputy Raintree said. "Ma'am, I'm a veteran myself, and I wish to hell he'd shut up about it." He was dark-complexioned, about the same age as Lau's oldest brother Bob. It was easy to imagine him in uniform. "I know most of the vets around here. They wouldn't do this. Sheriff watches too many Rambo movies, and that's a fact."
"Mmmm." Lau had heard "but Johnny would never do something like that!" too many times to buy it, even from a level-headed man who had all the calm authority the sheriff lacked. "Did you know any of the victims?"
"I knew all of them," Raintree said. He rubbed the back of his neck with one blunt-fingered hand. "I shoot pool with Tommy Wilson's dad. Steve Glennie was on my bowling team, and Jim Furnick used to be."
"Before he lost his arms?"
"Hell of a thing, war," Raintree answered. "We got together on Fridays anyway. All the gang. Well, everybody except Brian. Brian Newman. He was serving in Afghanistan."
"Was?" Don't go jumping at conclusions, Nikki. But she readied the condolence-face anyway, just in case she needed it.
Raintree grinned shyly. "He comes home today. Welcome ceremony at the middle school this afternoon."
Brady looked over from his map. "You were there when Furtick was shot."
"Inside the bar," Raintree said. "I didn't see anything. Didn't hear a gunshot either, just heard Jim yell. Turned around and he was lying in the doorway."
Lau nodded. "What about the others?"
"I didn't know Cal Henley all that well, but he helped raise money for a new patrol car last year. Otto Hollinger, though," Raintree said. "Oh, I knew Otto all right. Everybody knew Otto. Something of a local legend. But he was like the sheriff. Not a veteran of anything except hunting season." He sucked his teeth and added, "Speaking of hunting, I'm not sure if it signifies, but he was involved in a little fuss a few years back. Colonel Grossman got himself shot in a hunting accident, and Otto was along. Having an MD in the party didn't change the way it came out, though."
"D.O.A," Raintree confirmed. "Before you ask, there was an inquest, and Hollinger was cleared. Grossman tripped and shot himself."
"No chance Hollinger was killed in revenge?"
"Grossman's got no family left to speak of," Raintree said. "There's a widow. She's sixty or so. Their son Ethan was career Army, married late. Ethan's wife couldn't handle the military spouse thing, took off five or six years ago. She dumped their little girl on Ethan's mom. And then Ethan got killed in Iraq."
"So the Grossmans were a military family?" I wonder if the daughter was a disappointment for her career Army dad.
"From way back."
"Huh," Lau said, and this time it was her turn to send Brady the hypercompressed glance.
He said, "I know this sounds like a crazy question, Deputy, but has anybody associated with the case dropped a lot of weight all of a sudden?"
"You mean like obsessed, schizophrenic, not eating?"
They almost always came up with some logical rationale, if you gave them half a chance. "Exactly like that."
Raintree thought for a moment--hard and honestly, or Lau missed her guess. And then he shook his head. "Couldn't say," he said apologetically.
She shrugged. "It's okay. It was a longshot, and you've been great. One last thing before we start on the crime scenes. What's been the disposition of the bodies?"
"County coroner." Raintree had a habit of sliding his wedding ring back and forth over his knuckle. Lau wondered if that were a symptom of discomfort with the marriage, or a subconscious attempt to remind himself of its existence when confronted with an attractive stranger. "They haven't been released to the families."
She reached into her billfold and tugged loose a crisp white card, one of several like it. "Have him--her?--him contact Doctor Frost, at Johns Hopkins. She's our consulting forensic pathologist. The remains will need to be forwarded to her for examination."
"Autopsy." The ring-fiddling stopped, replaced by a grimace and hands stuffed awkwardly in pockets. That would limit his ability to get to his gun.
"It's a capital murder investigation, Deputy."
"I understand that. But it's a small town, and some people just aren't real comfortable with the idea of their loved ones getting sliced up for a second time, when they've already had to go through that once."
"I know." Lau nodded, reassuring. "But they'll be less comfortable with a growing pile of bodies on their lawns. Look, before we start on the crime scenes, I'm going to talk to the reporters, all right? See what I can do for damage control?"
He said, "I'll keep the sheriff off you."
Maria Henley sat on the end of the bed in her motel room, ankles, knees, elbows, and shoulders pressed tight and close. She seemed even smaller than she normally would be, all wide shallow-set blue eyes and bird-skull bones. Her daughters sat on either side of her. They were sturdier, brown-eyed, round-faced.
Still, the Henleys looked alike now. They were united by their expression: the pretense of calm, built on unfinished grief and a new knowledge that nothing was sure.
"I can't imagine how you're feeling," Lau said. The ritual opening of the interview with a victim's family. The thirteen-year-old, Natalie, teared up, but she swallowed the reaction. Fifteen-year-old Andrea checked her mom's face. Ms. Henley just nodded.
"We need to ask you a few questions about Major Henley. The more we know about him, the better chance we have of finding the person who killed him." Refer to the victim with respectful formality. Avoid jargon like "victimology." The people she talked to had no idea how much complexity lay under the conversation.
Ms. Henley scratched at her left index finger with her right thumb, over and over. "We thought it was an accident. Until the others, and the sheriff said on the news they'd been shot the same way. Everybody liked Cal."
Lau exchanged a quick look with Brady, an invisible eye-roll. The Henleys shouldn't have heard that first on the six o'clock news.
"Officers give orders, enforce discipline," Lau said. "Did anyone serving under your husband make trouble for him?"
"No." Ms. Henley pursed her lips. "No. Of course, there's always complaints. But Cal was fair. Everyone agreed about that."
In other words, yes, no, maybe. Lau kept that off her face.
Brady asked, "Had your husband argued with anyone recently? Were there any locals he disagreed with?"
"Oh, no." She gave a shaky little laugh. "He'll cuss out the talk radio fellows sometimes."
Natalie spoke up. "If Andrea or I were in the car, he'd get red and apologize. You know, for swearing."
Lau used the opening. "Were there any of your friends he didn't like?"
Natalie shook her head. Andrea replied, "He says we're smarter than he was at our age, about who to hang out with."
Ms. Henley smiled at that. "Cal was a little wild in high school. But he straightened up senior year." The pink across her cheeks said, When we met.
Natalie looked down at her knees suddenly. "What is it, Natalie?" Lau asked.
Natalie raised her head and clutched her arms across her ribs. "He did have a fight with someone."
Ms. Henley frowned, but Natalie continued, "He did, Mom. Coach Pendergast--the track coach. Dad said he was spending all his time on Maddie Cavanaugh and Karen Pfitzer and ignoring the rest of us."
"Did you agree with him?"
Natalie's mouth set in a line before she answered. "Karen... She's totally amazing, and she's got to get an athletic scholarship. She doesn't say so, but everyone knows." Again the tight mouth, the downward look. "Maddie..."
"The Itsy-Bitsy Spider," Andrea muttered.
"Andi, shut up. Maddie's okay." Natalie met Lau's eyes as if daring her to deny it.
Lau felt Brady behind her, taking mental note. A complex of tiny signals told her so--his drawn breath, the slip of jacket fabric across his shirt as he settled his shoulders. It was armor and fuel. Brady had her back. She didn't have to stand tall by herself.
"Ms. Henley, was your husband active in any servicemen's organizations? Any veterans' clubs?"
Ms. Henley took her daughters' near hands in hers. "Our free time is--was all about the girls. Military families--so many things take you away from home. Cal wanted to spend as much as he could with us."
Natalie took in a hard breath, chopped short, and scrubbed at her eyes with the hand that wasn't in her mother's.
Time for the difficult request. Brady picked it up as if she'd signaled him. "We'd like your permission to look over your house and yard."
Ms. Henley stared blankly at him.
"We'll be careful," he said, as if he were asking to hold a child. Or the collected reminders of a broken life.
...The immediate injury did not in this case result in cardiac arrest. However, damage implicating the lungs (a so-called "flap-valve injury") resulted in tension pneumothorax...
The Henley's house was a white two-story colonial, generously proportioned for two adults and two teenaged daughters. In the family's absence the house reminded Lau of a bride abandoned at the altar.
Brady went up the two front steps at a bound, then turned and held out his hand for the key.
Lau sighed. "Why do you always have to be the one to unlock the door?"
"Even if the UNSUB is lurking in the hall waiting to pounce, wouldn't it be better if he pounced on me and you clobbered him?" An instant too late, Lau wondered if that would remind him of what had happened in Dallas.
But Brady grinned. "You kidding? If anything pounces on me, I know you'll kick the shit out of it."
"Aww, vote of confidence." It gave her a little spark of warmth, though, to hear him say it.
He held the door wide and, full of stage gallantry, let her precede him--which was also the way it always worked.
She could feel the emptiness of the house as soon as they stood inside. It smelled like wool rugs in damp air and the earliest hint of mildew. Someone had shut down the AC and furnace fans, and the dehumidifier was connected to those.
Stairs to the second floor ahead on their left, hall to the kitchen straight back, living room to their right. They turned to the living room without having to consult.
A bright, pretty room, done in country style with taste, if not with a lot of money. A couch covered in navy plaid homespun, a high-backed wing chair and a lower Mrs. chair. A few good simple wood antiques, a few reproductions, but no clutter. Of course not; even if the Air Force is paying for your relocation, you have to pack things, and worry over them, and find a place for them when you get there.
Brady stood in the archway surveying before he stepped into the room. "She chose the furniture, but she kept it masculine enough for him."
"Duh." When Brady looked over his shoulder at her, she said, "The spouse keeps the home fires burning. A military significant other sets up camp upon reaching the bivouac and strikes it when the marching orders arrive. She decorated."
"Outside my area of expertise." His carved lips shaped themselves into an expression five minutes past irony.
Lau pretended she hadn't noticed. "Well, that's why you have me. Photos," she added, and pointed with her chin to the maple sideboard.
The largest frame held a formal portrait of the four Henleys. Three round, grinning faces, brown hair, brown eyes--Major Calvin Henley flanked by his daughters, all fearless with joy. Maria Henley, pale and delicate, seemed physically outside the compass of her family. But, at the center bottom of the group, she was the pivot point of their fan. Her happiness was quieter but strong enough to tether them all.
Was it Tolstoy who'd said that all unhappy families were unhappy in their own way? What about happy families who'd been wrenched into unhappiness through no effort of their own?
Smaller photos surrounded the portrait. Father and daughters at Disney World, all in mouse ears, sticking their tongues out for the camera. Natalie in a warm-up suit, beaming and clutching a trophy. Andrea dressed as the Cat in the Hat, maybe for a school play, laughing.
One photo showed the family before Henley was a Major. He wore his dress blues. Maria Henley stood beside him with a toddler on her hip; the toddler was staring, open-mouthed, at the squinting infant in the crook of Henley's elbow. Henley wore the dazed smile of a lottery winner clutching a giant ceremonial check.
"You okay?" Brady asked.
"Yeah." With enough practice, you got the "Of course, why shouldn't I be?" voice almost every time.
"I'll go see what the second floor has to say."
"I'll be right up."
She heard the stair treads creak under him, and the squeak of the wood floor as he started along the upstairs hall.
Lau's parents' living room was full of photos of young men in blue uniforms. Her own high school graduation picture stood among them like a footnote. On the mantlepiece was the photo Dad had taken four Christmases ago, of the rest of the family posing on the front porch. Her three brothers, her mom on the far right with her arm around Tim's waist and her eyes on her sons, and Nikki, on the left, close but not leaning in, chin up, smiling straight into the lens.
She passed through the dining room to the kitchen. The calendar beside the wall phone was dense with notes: A--choir 4 pm. N--Orthodontist 3:30. Send A's perm. for Span. Club trip!!! Bake sale 4 track team. Cal--eye appt. 1 pm. The refrigerator was a mosaic: three tickets to the school musical, a photocopied schedule of varsity girls' track meets under an enameled F-16 magnet, a flyer for a squadron reunion in South Carolina in November. A notice for a one-day seminar on UAV deployment for ground surveys.
Lau couldn't tell from the evidence if Cal Henley had been a good officer. But it suggested he might have been a good father.
She found Brady in a home office off the master bedroom. "No hate mail, no sign that he knew the other victims," he said, looking up from the papers on the desk. "His gun safe's in the bedroom closet, locked, and there's no handgun near the bed, so he didn't feel threatened at home."
"Should we get the lab on his guns?"
Brady frowned, a dissatisfied god. "Without ballistics to match, it wouldn't prove anything. And what the hell kind of mythology makes that evidence disappear? I can see policing your brass, but how do you get rid of the bullet?"
"Exactly. Everything about the Henleys I've seen so far says they don't believe in miracles. See anything downstairs about church or prayer group?"
"Not a thing. Or any connection to the other victims."
He sighed. "Let's get to the outside before it starts raining again."
The French doors in the dining room opened onto a deck overlooking the back yard. Brady fetched scene and autopsy photos from the car and spread them out on the deck rail, weighted with pebbles. He frowned over them, then walked out onto the lawn.
Lau stood on the deck, beside the place where the grill would have been if it weren't in an evidence locker somewhere, and thought, Watching Daniel Brady profile a crime scene ought to be a spectator sport. People would pay good money for this.
He picked his way around the yard like a great sleepy tiger, glancing this way and that, frowning. Thinking, because there was a lot more to Brady than a pretty face and a neck like a carthorse's.
Lau contemplated the blood spatter soaked into the weathered redwood, the foundation plantings, the photos. The badminton net, half-set-up when Major Henley died, sagged now, tangled with two weeks of rain and blowing leaves. From the way Brady walked, the yard was soggy, and from the clouds blowing up from the southwest, Maryland was about to prove the weather report right again.
Somebody had planted willows at the bottom of the slope, to take up some of the moisture. Somebody who planned to live here for a long time. How long had the Henleys lived here? Had they planted willows, thinking they'd be here to watch them grow into shady rooms with leaf-curtain walls? They would have lived in base housing long enough to value permanence.
Her own family's days of living on base ended before Nikki was born, but she'd heard the stories; how there wasn't room in their four-plex apartment for a crib for Bobby, so he slept in the bottom dresser drawer; how the mothers on base babysat each other's kids in a herd, like some tribal society.
Maybe Ms. Henley had done that. And Major Henley would have come off duty, come home to news of the tribe as gathered and passed on by its women and children. Nikki wondered if he was proud of his daughters, thirteen and fifteen. The house suggested he was.
Brady paused beside the unraised side of the badminton net, in the shade of an oak, and turned over his shoulder to look up at the house. "Great line of sight from here. I've got you clear as day."
"You think it's Henley's wife? Or one of his kids? In spite of the magic?"
"First victim and last victim are the most important, generally speaking."
"So that's Brady for No?"
He flipped her off. "Nikki, can you move two feet right?"
"Stand where Henley would have been standing." She glanced down, found the scar marks of the grill wheels on the deck, and shuffled into the footsteps of a dead man. "The tree's in the way now. Though it's easier to shoot around than the engine block on a semi."
"Yeah, but it doesn't do my theory any good. Look around. Tell me what you've got."
It was her turn to rotate slowly in place. "Willow trees. A cold breeze on my neck. Line of sight into the next yard--hello."
"I heard that penny drop. Whatcha see?"
"Treehouse in an apple tree two backyards over. Suddenly I feel awful naked up here."
Brady smoothed a hand down the front of his jacket, on the side that covered his holster. "Let's go find out if the neighbors are home."
As they headed for the street, Lau called Hafidha and asked her to see whether Calvin Henley had past memberships in any servicemen's clubs.
"You like the military angle," Brady said.
"Yeah. And no. It's three of the five victims. And nobody loves an officer." She was pleased when he grinned. "But it's only three. And they served in three different branches. They didn't serve together, and only two of them socialized." She had to stretch to match his stride, which she knew he was shortening for her sake.
"Still, three out of five. As Chaz would say, statistically significant."
The widower in whose yard the somewhat tumbledown treehouse lived was happy to allow them access, especially once he heard they were investigating the death of Major Henley. Neither Lau nor Brady thought it was a great idea to trust the tree with Brady's weight, or to trust the rotten ladder nailed to the trunk at all. So Lau handed Brady her jacket, and Brady made a stirrup of his hands and hoisted Lau. She slithered on moist wood across the floor, edged up to the wall of the treehouse that faced the Henley's property, and peered through a gap in the boards.
The gap framed a view of the Henleys' deck. And there was a gouge in the silvered wood, a yellow patch bright as paint, as if somebody had jammed something metal in there. "Got you, you son of a bitch," she muttered.
Brady must have heard her, because he made a throat-clearing noise below. "You ready to come down yet?"
"Found it," Lau said, the adrenaline singing in her veins as a light rain began to rustle the leaves and patter on the tarpaper roof overhead. "Brady, he was here."
Brady didn't need to give her a lift down. She just swung and jumped. When she was on the ground again, she dusted her blouse and looked up, down, sideways, then circled the tree. Wet grass soaked her trouser hems, and half-green windfalls rolled beneath her shoes. Twenty feet away Brady was making a slow rotation in place, frowning at the scenery.
At the foot of the ladder, Lau stopped. The top edge of two of the old wood slats had splintered away, as if someone had put weight on them. Recently; like the gouge in the treehouse wall, the exposed wood looked fresh.
Rain dripped faster. Brady pointed his patented glower at the sky, exactly as if it might be impressed by his bravado. "Isn't their latest war hero coming home today? Guess it's going to rain on their parade," he said.
Lau groaned. "Even Schwarzenegger couldn't pull off a line that bad, Action Guy."
The yard was overgrown along the fenceline. The house had reached that stage of its life when it had become too much for its elderly owner. When he passed on or moved out, it would go on the market at a loss--to some young family who would fix it up and brighten it up, and prepare it for the next fifty-year cycle.
Houses, Lau thought, knew all about the wheel of fortune.
She was distracted from her moment of introspection when Brady said, "Jackpot."
He was pointing to the huge green mass of a weeping shrub that had devoured a quarter of the yard. Its borders edged up to the shade of the cobby old apple tree that supported the treehouse. Lau said, "It's a bush."
"It's a forsythia bush." He strode forward and plunged both hands into the drooping canes. With a sharp tug, he shifted them aside, revealing a green, four-foot tall vegetative cavern, floored with bare dirt, roofed with the arching limbs of the shrub. Lau crouched for a better look. Back in the cool shadows, as rain dripped down her neck, she could make out the square-mesh wire fence.
And the place by one of the tall green metal posts where it had been snipped or wiggled loose, and the wire bent up in a triangle.
Brady said, "How do kids get around a town? They have trails through the woods and breaks in the neighbors' hedgerows, that's how."
"Limited geographic area," Lau said. "Small enough distances to bike or walk." She closed her eyes. "And someone light enough to climb that ladder. Shit, Danny. It's a kid."
"First victim," he said. "Daily contact. Come on. We need to talk to Tommy Wilson's people. And get a Bureau forensics team in here, if the rain's left anything. I'm not leaving this to the local CSIs."
The rain had become a downpour before they made it back to the car, thick fat drops that gave no hint of tapering. They splashed on the windshield, slapped aside by the wipers. Lau's punching the buttons on the satellite radio was going to drive Brady to run off the road into a tree before too much longer. "Family," he said, to distract her.
She shook her sodden head. He hoped her blouse wasn't dry-clean only, and briefly amused himself picturing Chaz's reaction to its current state of transparency. "Teachers," she said. "Then classmates. Then family."
He wasn't any drier, and the car was turning into a swamp of damp fabric and fogged windows. "Heat or AC?"
Well, yeah, with her body mass, she didn't retain heat well. He could suffer through it. He cranked it up all the way, his reward her sigh of comfort as she kicked out of her shoes and stretched her feet to the vent.
"First day of school," he said, resuming the argument about where to go. "The teachers and students would barely have met Tommy."
"Au contraire, mon ami. School system as small as Brattonville's? The sixth grade teachers are the seventh grade teachers. And the more foundation we've got going into the parent interviews, the better. Because you know those are going to suck."
Something was under her skin. The case, maybe. It was worst when it was kids--kids as victims, or kids as gammas. The weapon on his hip dug in under the ribcage, as if choosing that moment to remind him of its existence. The problem with letting go of convenient untruths is that they're convenient.
He bit the inside of his cheek. Change the subject. To one at least marginally less uncomfortable. "Thanks, Nik."
She'd been staring out the window, watching the watercolor roadside glide by. "For climbing trees for you?"
"For--" he shrugged. "Not making a fuss."
She rolled her eyes. "Like I didn't know."
"All of it?" A dump truck hauling a backhoe clogged the road in front of them. He kept his hands off the horn, but he didn't mind swearing in front of Nikki, so he muttered, "Oh, fuck this noise," and thumped the steering wheel.
"Careful, there, Anger Management Man." She elbowed him. "I knew the important bits. Come on. Not even one tiny little pass even once? You were either gay or racist, and I knew it wasn't the latter. And anybody could tell you'd lost something to a gamma. Are you gonna pass that guy or what?"
"I was waiting for the dotted yellow." He pulled out. "I'm not Chaz." As they slid back into their lane, he said, "All right, you win. Teacher. But your punishment is that you have to call Hafidha for addresses, and then call the witnesses and set up the interviews."
"Harsh punishment," she said.
He answered, "Hey. I'm driving."
...which would have resulted very quickly in the death of the patient, as emergency response was delayed.
You're not supposed to go into the teacher's lounge, but the door is open and you hear the TV, and you really don't want to go to the gym for the stupid speech, even if it is better than Social Studies with Mr. Burns. So you stop and poke your head in and Katie leans in with you, though she makes that nervous we're not supposed to do this noise of hers.
A few teachers are inside, their attention on the news. The news is always stuff in Baltimore or DC or somewhere else you've never been and you almost leave, but then you recognize the pictures behind the reporter's frosted blonde hair.
She's talking about Brattonville. She's talking about you.
Your stomach gets all funny and small, and you move closer. Katie makes the noise again, but follows you.
"...Constance County sheriff has called in the FBI to consult on the Brattonville shootings," the reporter says in her serious voice, her face calm as a mask under her perfect makeup. "The Bureau's Nicolette Lau says they've rejected the sniper scenario put forward by the Sheriff's Department."
Katie tugs on your sleeve, but you take another step. The news cuts to another woman, a dark-haired woman who's prettier than the reporter, prettier than anyone you've ever seen in Brattonville. The caption says she's Special Agent Nicolette Lau.
"After detailed analysis of the forensic evidence, we were able to rule out a long-distance shooter. We believe these are targeted murders, not random acts, and that Brattonville residents in general are not in danger. If you have information about the circumstances of the victims' deaths or their connections to each other, please call the tip hotline on your screen."
Katie scuffs her shoe loud enough that the teachers turn to look at you, and you want to kick her. You clutch your backpack tight to your chest, and the gun inside must weigh fifty pounds, and they must see it--
But Ms. Jorgensen, the librarian, makes a sympathetic sound in her throat. "It's awful, isn't it? But don't worry, the FBI says we're not in any danger." Her throat works, and you don't think she believes that, but she's trying so hard to be cheerful that you nod.
"You should go on down to the gym," she says, "or you'll be late."
"Sure thing, Miss J," Katie says, and tugs your sleeve harder. You let her pull you out, fall in with the last of the stragglers dragging their feet toward the gym. You're holding your bag so tight your elbows might crack if you tried to let go.
The gym is hung all over with streamers and balloons and "Welcome Home Brian!" banners, the floor polished shiny. Somebody even repainted the cartoony red and white Corbit Heights cougar, and it snarls at everyone from the wall.
The bleachers are full, the air thick with voices and the drumming of bored feet. You don't see Crystal--she probably snuck outside to kiss Aiden Marks again, and you don't even want to think about that.
You pick your way to an empty corner on the top row. Katie gets distracted by some other friends on the way, but that's all right. You don't think you could talk to her right now anyway.
The FBI is in Brattonville. The FBI is looking for you. It's like a movie, like Silence of the Lambs, which you watched at Crystal's last year even though Grandma said it was too scary for you. You'll have to be careful, not listen to the gun for a while. Sometimes it talks so loud you can't think, and when you get angry it's always there.
You feel bad for Andrea and Nat--they were never mean to you. But when you saw them so happy in their yard with both their parents there... With their dad, who came home when yours didn't...
You dig in your bag for some cookies, even though you feel a little queasy, trying not to touch the gun at the bottom. You can't listen to it for a while, no matter how angry or sad you get. Not until the FBI goes away. The Oreos taste like sugary chalk, but you eat them anyway--you're always hungry now, eating second dinners with Katie so your stomach doesn't hurt all night long.
The principal is on the stage now, talking about why you're here today, about your Armed Forces and why they're so important, and you wish he'd shut up. He sounds like Grandma, saying things like freedom and honor and duty. More like never home, always gone, dead. Like your mother's gone. Like your daddy isn't coming home. Dead and gone and left you all alone to grow old and crazy like Grandma.
Plastic crinkles under your hand and the last Oreo crumbles to dust and paste inside the package. Keep reaching down, past the books, past the tangle of gym clothes, till your hand closes on the handle of the gun. Cool and slick, warming quickly against your palm. You shouldn't, you shouldn't, but it's so comforting. The gun won't leave you, it promises. It won't run away, won't die. It will always be there for you.
The doors open and a man walks in and everyone starts cheering. Like thunder, shaking the bleachers, rumbling through your bones. The man waves, his uniform neat, boots shiny. A medal flashes on his chest as he turns to smile at everyone.
Your neck prickles, cheeks warming; your mouth tastes like tinfoil. Nobody did anything like this the few times your dad came home. Nobody did anything when he died, except mutter condolences to Grandma and avoid your eyes. Why is Brian Newman so damn special?
The gun is nearly free of your backpack now, and you should let go. There's too many people in here. The police are here. Someone will see you. Except they're all looking at Brian Newman, at his shiny boots and shinier medal. All they care about is the flash and shine, the movie special effects and explosions where nobody important gets hurt. And if somebody dies, then they must not have mattered after all.
The gun fills your head with its promises. Nobody's looking at you as Brian Newman climbs the steps of the stage, and the applause hurts your ears. He's not so damn special.
Your finger convulses on the trigger.
Newman stumbles on the last step, falls forward onto the stage. The principal frowns, says something you can't hear over the thunder. Then blood threads across the polished boards.
Then the screaming starts.
You shove the gun back in your bag as nauseous hunger-spit floods your mouth. Your head is too light, sick and spinning. Teachers run for the stage, shouting at each other. The policemen in the front row stand up, some reaching for their guns. They all look like they're moving through molasses.
You can't keep the gun. They'll know it's here--they'll search everyone, worse than when the drug dogs come. But you can't just throw it away. It was your great-grandfather's. Grandma will never forgive you for losing it.
But she's not going to forgive you if you go to jail for shooting people, either. And if the gun had just shut up and not made you use it, you wouldn't have to get rid of it. There's a big trashcan right below you, and everyone's still watching the stage, where the principal is trying to stop Newman's bleeding.
You scrub the pistol against your dress trying to get rid of the fingerprints, but there's not enough time. A shove and it falls into the trash in a grey and brown blur, vanishing into the mess of soda cans and chip bags.
Katie scrambles up the bleachers, her face all pale and splotchy. Your hands are shaking and you feel sick, but everyone else is scared too and no one notices.
The gun promised not to abandon you, but now you've abandoned it. Maybe it will leave you alone now--the thought makes you sad and nervous and relieved all at once.
But as you put your arm around Katie, you can still feel it in the back of your head.
It was still only late afternoon when they made it to the white frame house down the block from Corbit Heights Middle School. Lucky contestant number one was a Kendall Givens, who--as Lau had predicted--served as Brattonville's sixth, seventh, and eighth grade English teacher.
He let them in and offered hot tea--Lau said yes, Brady no, pretty sure from Givens' L.L. Bean slippers that 'tea' would turn out to mean something frilly imported from England--and settled them in the living room. Judging by the heavy wooden furniture and a bit of stage business involving tarnished silver sugar tongs, Brady would bet that Givens wore a lot of tweed.
"You've caught me playing hooky," Givens said on a nervous smile. "I'm supposed to be at the celebration at the gym. But grading essays waits for no man, eh?" He jerked a hand toward the untidy pile of papers on a gateleg table under the window.
This was Lau's gig. Brady settled back, comfortable in his role as a placeholder for Bad Cop--a reminder that Bad Cop could be along any minute, if Good Cop wasn't getting the right kind of cooperation--and read the titles of Givens' books as if he weren't paying any attention to the conversation at all. "You've probably guessed," Lau said, leaning forward, "that we're here to ask you a few questions about Tommy Wilson. It's all routine. Well, as routine as anything can be in a murder investigation."
Givens, biting his lip, nodded and picked up his tea. "Anything I can do to help."
"Can you tell me what Tommy was like? Who his friends were? What crowd he hung with?"
"Oh." Givens sat back in his chair, arms crossed. Lau stayed open, though, head tilted slightly, nonthreatening.
Lau said, "I realize it can make you uncomfortable to speak frankly of the dead."
"He wasn't a bad kid--" Givens started, but he interrupted himself with a snort. "No, he was a bad kid. He used to be just a rough kid. But. Adolescent hormones and lack of supervision. He was mean, Agent Lau. And he was fourth of five, with a divorced mother. He didn't get a lot of love at home." Givens' face pinched. "It's why the body wasn't found until classes let out; everybody just assumed he was cutting class again. If we had searched promptly-- I could have insisted. This is not TV. People survive gunshot wounds in real life. Maybe there was time."
Lau touched his hand. "Mr. Givens."
"Sorry," he said. "I'm really sorry."
"You're doing fine. How well do you know his friends?"
"I know them all," Givens said. "English is required for every year. They all come through my class."
Lau nodded. She sipped her tea. Brady hid a smile when Givens mirrored her. Ahh, the old Nikki Lau magic touch. The mouthful of tea seemed to settle Givens.
She said, "Have any of your students experienced a personality change lately? Or exhibited an unexplained illness? Sudden weight loss? Acting out? Violent to others? Anything out of the ordinary?"
His cheeks blanched. "You're talking about signs of abuse," he said.
Lau didn't answer. Brady leaned forward, though, and rested his elbows on his knees. "We're not questioning your reporting, Mr. Givens. Or your professional ethics." Which of course reinforced his sense that that was exactly what they was doing.
Lau smiled, Encouraging Smile #25a, reserved for floundering witnesses and survivors. "Just think back," she said.
He hooked the tip of his tongue over his front teeth and looked up and to the right, which encouraged Brady to think he might be working on a truthful, considered answer. No obvious tells. Nothing striking.
"Madelyn Cavanaugh," he said. "I'm not sure enough yet to intervene, but she's changed since last year. Of course at this age they're all changing--discovering boys and girls, going into adrenal overdrive, minds on anything but schoolwork. But I've been wondering about anorexia. I think there's something going on with her at home."
Madelyn, Brady thought. Maybe it goes with the name.
Brady kept his eyes on Givens' face, on the faint flush of embarrassment coloring his cheeks. Inconclusive, but there wasn't an obvious reason for him to lie. "Thank you," Lau said. "Are there any students whose schoolwork has--"
Another standard question. She and Brady were both feeling the chase now, and intent enough on the answer that they jumped like shocked rabbits when Lau's phone rang. Just the generic ring, so it wasn't anyone on the team. She held a finger up to Givens, flipped it open, and said, "Lau."
A brief pause, during which her brow grew steadily more creased. Then she said, "We're enroute. Thank you." and cut the connection.
Before the phone flipped closed, she was on her feet. "Thank you, Mr. Givens," she said. "I'm afraid something's come up. We may be in contact with you later."
Ninety seconds later, from the passenger seat of the car, in the still-driving rain, Brady said, "What's up?"
Lau triggered the behind-grille lights on their motorpool sedan and hit the accelerator, burning through gathering evening like the California driver she was. "Somebody just shot that homecoming soldier in the middle school gymnasium, and Deputy Raintree has recovered the gun."
"This kinda thing doesn't happen here."
Most law enforcement professionals had heard that before. Lau wasn't used to it from a police officer, though. The cop was a young patrolman standing by the gym door. He was talking to--based on her encouraging look and her notebook--a reporter. Not Baltimore Sun; Lau knew most of them by sight. County seat paper, probably.
Sheriff McCutcheon's face was waxy with nerves. His hand rested on the butt of his pistol, and his gaze darted around the gymnasium, across the stunned residents in the bleachers, the flag-hung stage occupied by borrowed crime scene techs, the frightened town council members herded and huddling under the basketball net. "One shot straight to the heart, just like the others. Your shooter's in here right now," he told Brady and Lau. "We locked this place down soon as it happened."
McCutcheon looked over his shoulder again, clearly expecting someone with a ski mask and a rifle to materialize behind him. Brady murmured in Lau's ear, "Which doesn't mean the horse hasn't left the barn."
He was right. Half the local police had been here when Sergeant Brian Newman, who must have dodged a lot of gunfire in a long deployment in Afghanistan, walked up the steps to accept his hero's welcome home. But they wouldn't move as fast as the killer would. And, like McCutcheon, they might have expected Death to look the way it did on the evening news.
Not like a neighbor's kid. Who might, in fact, still be in the gym.
Deputy Raintree came out from under the bleachers, crossed the room to Lau, and held out an evidence bag. "Photographed in situ. It's all yours, agents." His face was tense and hard, but his eyes were red. He'd told them when they first arrived: Newman was an old friend.
"I'm sorry," Lau said, but briskly, because it would be cruel to break Raintree down again. He bobbed his head once, sharply, and she took the bag.
It was an old revolver, and had seen some hard use. The steel was dulled and faintly pitted, and the grips were scarred. The backstrap was dented, as if someone had once pounded a nail with it. She handed the bag to Brady.
The reporter had lured McCutcheon away for an interview. Lau resolved to snag the reporter and trade an FBI statement for a chance to hear and rebutt the Sheriff's comments.
"I assigned officers to talk to everyone here," Raintree said. "They're not half done. But there's something about this doesn't make sense."
Lau leaned forward, and realized it was the same pose the reporter had struck with the patrolman. "Tell me, Deputy."
"Nobody they talked to heard the shot. Didn't matter where they were in the room, they all said it. But that old repeater would have sounded like the crack of doom in this echo chamber, even with these people and the PA and all."
Lau carefully didn't look at Brady. "What do you think happened?"
"Damned if I know. Because you can't put a silencer on that S&W. And I can't see why someone would shoot Brian with one gun and leave a different one for us to find."
Lau opened her mouth to ask him not to speculate in public, but he added, "I know. I won't say anything. May as well let this sonofabitch think he's played us."
"We can't hold these people indefinitely."
"We're getting the names and addresses of everyone here, and searching if it makes sense." Raintree shrugged. "They're local folks. We know almost all of 'em. It won't take long."
When he'd gone, she looked up at Brady. He was holding the bag in both hands, but his eyes were on the room. He wore the still, focused hunting-cat face that said he was running the scenarios: lines of sight to the stage, places of concealment, exit routes. How the UNSUB could have entered, hidden, fired. Where the gun was found relative to everything else.
He dropped his gaze to the evidence bag, as if his mental movies had led him there. "I'm breaking the seal," he said. She nodded. She'd be able to swear, when it was resealed, that he hadn't tampered.
Brady opened the bag, held it to his nose, and sniffed. He frowned and handed it to her.
It smelled of old metal and oil and not a hint of smoke.
Brady pulled his cellphone out and thumbed a number. "Frost," he said as he put it to his ear. "Think it'll bother her if Newman's still warm?"
Madeline Frost often had the luxury of scheduling BAU-related work for hours when the autopsy room would be empty of other pathologists. Because it was afternoon, a more commonplace hour for postmortems than she preferred, today she had to share the autopsy theatre with one other prosector. However, Dr. Hutchins was unlikely to disturb her with idle conversation.
She nodded to him, as was polite, and then walked past him to the far corner of the gleaming white tile and stainless-steel theatre with its four perforated work surfaces on their spotless oval pedestals and its four towering free-standing scales. By coincidence, the bench she selected was nearest the enormous marble slab of the hospital's original, primitive autopsy table, which hung on the wall in a monument to sentimentality.
Madeline Frost preferred not to work with a diener--the German word for a pathologist's assistant meant servant, which amused her in an orthographic sort of way--in cases where her own physical strength was adequate to the task of positioning the decedent, once a pair of aides--or Boris the morgue attendant, unassisted--had placed him or her on the autopsy table. When the size, obesity, or musculature of the decedent required the help of an aide, she preferred Boris's quiet and unobtrusive assistance, and would schedule such dissections around his availability.
In a case such as this, with the decedent so small and light, she could handle the entire process unassisted, which she found pleasing. Self-sufficiency should be a comfort to any sentient creature.
When Thomas Wilson's nude body was positioned to her satisfaction, chest expanded by the body block beneath his back and the long whip-stitched Y-incision of his previous, incompetent autopsy delineated by the glare of the brilliant overhead lights, Madeline selected her scalpel, long-handled and with a #22 blade, for reaching deep into the body. The tissues penetrated by the projectile--if it were a projectile--had been sectioned out and preserved in formalin. However, she was not yet prepared to believe what they indicated without a closer inspection, and that began with examining the rest of the decedent.
She knew what she would find within the body cavities: an inelegant jumble of dissected organs, dumped back in at random when the original pathologist had finished with them. It frustrated her to think how much potential information had been lost to the proddings of an overeager amateur. She wished she had a fresh decedent to work with.
Still, she would make do.
She was neatly nipping the stitches along the Y-incision near the decedent's pubic bone when her BAU cell buzzed at her belt. Because her double-gloved hands were still clean, she laid the scalpel down across Mr. Wilson's abdomen--the blade pointing away from any potential passers-by--and fumbled with the case.
Special Agent Daniel Brady.
She thumbed the green button, and identified herself.
Brady kept one hand cupped around the mouthpiece of his cell to reduce noise, but Lau heard him clearly anyway. "He's all yours," he said. She suspected that it was a point of pride for him to interact with the aptly-named Dr. Frost exactly as if she were something resembling a normal human being. "We're sending him back express. I'm coming with. I want to hand-deliver the weapon the sheriff's office recovered to the lab, and then I plan to loom over them until they I.D. and print it. So don't say I never gave you anything."
Whatever Frost said in reply, he answered, "See you in the morning, Doctor," and folded away his cell. And then grinned at Lau. "The break in the case," he said. "Are you coming back to Suck Central with me?"
The Hoover Building, in Brady's own inimitable style. "I've got Madelyn Cavanaugh to track down," she said. She flicked his arm. "Try not to provoke Frost. You don't know what she's capable of."
Brady made a face. "Actually, I provoke her because I do."
There were no Cavanaughs on the list of people in the middle school gym. But as Brady had pointed out, that didn't mean there hadn't been any during the shooting.
The average household income in Brattonville was above the national average, but judging by the sprawling, immaculate faux Tudor house and the BMW sedan in the drive, the Cavanaughs were loaded. As Lau walked past the car, she put a hand on the hood and listened for the tick of cooling metal. The car had been there a while. But the gym was only six blocks away. No problem for a thirteen-year-old on the middle school girls' track team.
On the other hand, when she answered the door Ms. Cavanaugh--Deanna--looked as if she were ready to go out or had just come back. Either she had great taste in makeup and clothes, or she took the advice of the Clinique ladies and the Bloomie's personal shopper. Her hair was feathery-short and frosted-tan. Careful was the first descriptive word that popped into Lau's head. The second was rigid.
Cavanaugh's smile was perfectly judged for greeting a high-end law enforcement rep at the front door. "Agent Lau? Come in, please. Sit down." She barely glanced at Lau's I.D. as she stepped back and made the universal enter-of-your-own-will gesture.
Deanna Cavanaugh was not nervous about a visit from the FBI. It wasn't normal.
House and Garden, Lau thought when she saw the living room. It was like Cavanaugh's exterior: as if it had come as a package. Unlike the Henley's living room, there was no family here. There was certainly no teenage daughter.
"Ms. Cavanaugh, did you know about the welcoming celebration for Sergeant Brian Newman this afternoon?"
Cavanaugh sat and pinched her trouser creases straight over her knees. "I saw it in the local paper, yes."
"Were you there?"
"No. I'm afraid I'm not very patriotic."
Curious thing to say, curious way to say it. "What about your husband and your daughter?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"Were they there?"
"My husband is out of town. He travels on business several days a week. And it doesn't sound like something Madelyn would be interested in."
If there was one constant in Lau's experience, it was that parents--military spouses on military bases, classmates' parents in public schools--kept each other informed. Sharing information was the best defense for your children. And yet, Cavanaugh wasn't out there in the rain with the other parents, parked at the curb in her glossy sedan, wearing out the airwaves passing rumors on her cellphone.
No one had called to tell Cavanaugh that there had been a shooting at the gym, and that the school was locked down.
"Where is Madelyn, Ms. Cavanaugh? I'd like to ask her a few questions."
Cavanaugh straightened in her chair and closed her hands on the armrests. She wasn't nervous about talking to the FBI. But her daughter talking to them bothered her a lot. "What could you have to ask my daughter?"
"Is she at home?"
"Of course not. She's in school today."
Of course not. There was something so wrong in that house that Lau wanted to reach for the Taurus on her hip, just to know it was there. If Brady had been with her, he would have vibrated like a tuning fork.
At the rear of the house, out of sight, a door opened.
Deanna Cavanaugh flushed under her mineral foundation. "Madelyn!" Her voice was high, out of a tightened throat. She half turned her head toward the archway behind her, that by the relentless logic of houses must lead to the dining room and kitchen.
No footsteps heralded her arrival; Madelyn Cavanaugh simply appeared in the opening, as if she'd solidified out of the air.
It wouldn't have taken much air. The Itsy-Bitsy Spider, Andrea Henley had called her. She was so thin Lau could see the shape of her shoulder joints under her t-shirt. She hunched her head down between them, and folded her hands in front of her like a child in a recital.
The t-shirt would be too big by several sizes even if Madelyn were her ideal weight. So would the sweatpants she was wearing. Her eyes, sunk in her skull and surrounded by dark, unhealthy-looking skin, were fixed on the floor.
Lau's stomach clenched at the shape of the half-finished puzzle in her head. Sudden massive weight loss in a teenaged girl. Exercise bulimia? Anorexia? Or conversion?
Cavanaugh looked toward her daughter, but not, Lau thought, quite at her. Denial could prompt that. Or fear. "Where were you? Why weren't you in school?"
"I didn't want to go to the rally. I was running."
"You need to tell me where you're going to be, Madelyn. It's for your own safety."
" I t--" Madelyn's lips cut off the word "told," like a fragment of a stutter.
Cavanaugh blinked and smiled at Lau. Lau could feel the distance she'd put between herself and the room, as if Lau and Madelyn were on the other end of a video conference. "I'm sorry, I should have asked. Would you like some tea? Coffee?"
Madelyn jerked her face toward Lau, as if noticing her for the first time.
There was a young woman at Idlewood named Jessica Kelly. Just Chaz's age, a few years younger than Lau, and a sexual abuse survivor. One of the first hosts brought in alive, back in the days when there was no Shadow Unit; just Reyes and sometimes Todd, working half in their spare time on the cases nobody else really wanted. Lau had interviewed her extensively.
Sweet kid, if you weren't Stephen Reyes, whom Lau was reasonably confident Jessi would kill on sight if she could.
Signs of abuse led into signs of the anomaly; one fed into another, and you couldn't always draw a bright line. Trauma opens all sorts of cracks.
And parents lie for their children. And for themselves.
"I'd like a glass of water, actually," Lau said. Good--steady voice. A glass of water might buy her time to observe, but not alarm.
"Madelyn, dear, bring us two glasses of water."
Madelyn disappeared like a magic trick. Lau heard tiny sounds from the kitchen. The girl had practiced not making noise, not drawing attention.
Cavanaugh said, "My daughter wouldn't know anything about your investigation. She's very solitary. She doesn't make friends with other children. When she's not in school, she's in her room." Cavanaugh flushed again, remembering that Lau knew better.
Madelyn came back with water in blown-glass goblets, walking carefully even though they were only two-thirds full. She walked behind Lau's chair--the back of Lau's neck prickled, suddenly cold--and set the glass on a ceramic hunting-scene coaster on the end table. It made no sound when it touched.
Lau wished, sharp and hard, for Daniel Brady.
"Thank you, Madelyn." Lau turned and laid her arm along the chair back. The sudden intimate move made Madelyn step back. "I'm Nikki Lau, with the FBI. Natalie Henley mentioned you to me. She called you Maddie. Do you prefer that?"
Cavanaugh cleared her throat. "Madelyn's always called by her full name at home."
Lau swiveled back to Cavanaugh, and her face was neutral and pleasant by the time she said, "Does your husband not like nicknames?"
Cavanaugh shook her head and pinched and pinched at her trouser creases.
Madelyn's a beautiful name. Beautiful and sweet, like you. Why would you want to be called something else? When your girlfriends come here to play, they can call you Madelyn.
Two women, careful and rigid, who didn't meet each other's eyes.
"May I speak to your daughter alone, Ms. Cavanaugh?"
"No. No, I don't think that would be very responsible of me, do you?"
All right, then. "Maddie, I was talking to Natalie about her father's death. Did you meet Major Henley?"
Madelyn clutched her arms as if she was cold. "You're here to find out who killed him."
Lau heard Cavanaugh shift in her chair. "Yes. And Tommy Wilson, too. Did you know him?"
Madelyn raised her head, met and held Lau's gaze. "Tommy Wilson was a dickhead."
Lau pressed the air with one hand, and Cavanaugh fell silent. "Mr. Givens, your English teacher, agrees with you. Did you know any of the other people who were shot?"
Madelyn shook her head.
"Why do you think someone would kill Tommy?"
"He liked to hurt people. He figured out the worst thing anyone could say to you, then he'd say it. He told Melinda Grossman that her dad died in Iraq because a missile hit the rock he was hiding under."
"Do you know anyone who hated Tommy?"
Madelyn's shoulders rose a half-inch higher. "We all did."
"Madelyn!" Cavanaugh said again. But Maddie never took her eyes off Lau.
"We believe the killer may have been a child," Lau said, as gently as she could.
"Madelyn, don't say another word. Go upstairs."
"Where were you this afternoon, Maddie? You didn't go to the rally. You skipped school and went--where? Who did you see?" Please have an alibi. Jessi doesn't need a friend that badly.
"At the Pendergasts'. Mrs. Pendergast makes tea. We just talk." Wide, direct gaze, hands open against her thighs. When Lau called Mrs. Pendergast--and Lau was going to call Mrs. Pendergast--Maddie's story would check out.
Maddie Cavanaugh's clothes didn't just hide her body; they tried to erase it. And Maddie ignored Deanna Cavanaugh's warnings. Because she didn't trust her mother to keep her safe.
Lau felt the tension run out of her like someone had pulled the plug. Not a host. Not a gamma. Thank Cavanaugh for her time and go back to hunting what you came for. It wasn't here. What was here might be a law enforcement issue, but Lau had no warrant to look for it. But anger had replaced the adrenaline buzz of the hunt.
And what the hell good were a badge and a gun if you couldn't go after the bad guys?
Lau straightened in her chair. "Maddie, you need to tell someone what's happening to you. You haven't done anything wrong. If someone told you it's your fault, that person is lying to you. Tell Mrs. Pendergast, and ask her to help you tell the school nurse and your doctor and the principal. They'll go to the police. They'll make it stop and get you help."
"What are you talking about?" Cavanaugh's voice was high and thin.
"Maddie, would you leave your mother and me alone now?"
Madelyn looked from Lau to her mother. Then she walked back out through the dining room. The back door closed softly.
"You had no right to question my daughter--"
"Ms. Cavanaugh. I'm a behavioral analyst. A profiler. Do you know what a profiler does?"
"Frighten children? Brainwash them?"
"I'm not what frightens Maddie. Ms. Cavanaugh, you daughter is in terrible pain."
"She acts out. She's just trying to get attention. My husband says--"
"Maddie's being sexually abused." Lau watched the words hit Cavanaugh's perfect façade and crack it. "There are teachers at her school who suspect it. Other children suspect. I'm legally bound to report it, and I think Maddie will speak up. When that happens, if you're smart, you'll already be on Maddie's side."
Cavanaugh stared, her carefully-maintained face forgotten at last. Lau wasn't really there for her, she knew. What was passing before Deanna Cavanaugh's eyes were the things she'd seen and not seen, the evidence she'd insisted on reading as proof of something else. Her husband loved his daughter. He was so caring. They were always close.
"Oh, God. No," Cavanaugh groaned, the earthquake grinding of a life as it fractured and slid.
Lau left the perfect Cavanaugh house, walked past the expensive sedan, and stopped at the curb to look back. Enough pain under the mask to break minds and hearts. But not to make a gamma. Not yet. She had to let the rest of the world do this job, because it couldn't do hers.
She pulled out her phone to update the team.
...Despite this initial injury and complicating factors, it is the opinion of this pathologist that the thoracic wound was not the immediate cause of death.
Daphne didn't think Brady was surprised to find he had company in the bullpen when he came back an hour after sunset. The corner of his mouth curled up just a little when he saw her poring over Frost's new and improved autopsy reports. Chaz hunched at his monitor doing something baffling with timetables, maps, and school attendance records. Hafidha, Daphne knew, was in her cave spinning electronic straw into gold.
It might be Brady and Lau taking point on this one, but the team was there to back them, because the team was always there.
Brady smelled of rain and cold coffee and cold wet car and very faintly of blood, which made her think he must have brushed a cuff or coatsleeve through it without realizing. He threw his saturated raincoat over the back of his desk chair, and said, ostensibly to Chaz but in actuality to the room at large, "It's coming down out there like a pissing mare. Did Lau call in with the Cavanaugh interview? Is there any fucking coffee?"
Chaz seemed to be too deep in his calculations to notice, so Daphne answered. "She says dead end. She's going to do some more families and then find a hotel."
Chaz looked up at Brady and frowned. "Like a what? And I think there's coffee." He glanced back at his screen. "Oh, damn it." He began to type again as if whatever was wrong was the keyboard's fault.
Brady raised his eyebrows at Worth, but all she could do was shrug back. Chaz was hyper-aware of everyone's coffee needs. And he always snickered when Brady came out with a cowboyism. In fact, he usually paid attention, period. Whatever was on his monitor must bother him more than a little. If so, they'd hear about it eventually.
"I'll go surveil the coffee," she said. She had the next desk to Brady's, anyway. She'd worked places where she wouldn't fetch and carry for the local grumbly self-absorbed male, but those were places where the local grumbly self-absorbed male actually expected her to fetch and carry. And after the initial shock of his presence, she'd noticed something about Daniel Brady. He might have torn her a new asshole on her second day on the job, but since then, he'd also made a point of snagging her coffee cup every time he got up to fill his own, and without being told, he'd noticed how she took it.
So it was reciprocity, and not really a bribe. Even if, when she came up to where he slumped in his desk chair, she set the cup down by his elbow, cleared her throat and said, "May I ask a totally inappropriate question?"
He looked up, ran his left hand through water-spiked hair, and yawned. "My defenses are down. What the fuck."
It sounded like permission. She lowered her voice anyway. "When did you figure it out? I mean, it took me forever. College, I didn't know what I wanted. There was this guy-- your prototypical lying sack of shit. So then I thought, okay, men are scum, maybe I'll try girls." She shrugged. "Finally figured out I liked, you know, people. Specific ones. And I was fussy about it. And I just... wondered what it was like for you."
His eyebrow arched. Just one. He might have learned the trick from Hafidha.
Coming out stories. The Where were you when the Shuttle blew of the queer set. Daphne bit her lip on laughter, but couldn't keep back a flicker of smile. She hoped it was encouraging rather than creepy. Or pained.
And still, Brady looked at her, lips pursed, full wattage stare that hadn't lost its power to make sweat break out across her palms even though she knew he wasn't interested. He was hard to look at and talk to at the same time. The face was too distracting. She wondered if being Danny Brady meant thinking the world was full of people who avoided eye contact .
She could feel him considering the flip dismissal, and wondered what it was that made him answer in even tones, "No. I knew in high school. You ever see Heathers?"
Daphne nodded. "I love my dead gay son?"
"I laughed. Couldn't stop laughing. Oh God. I could just hear my dad's voice saying that line. If he ever found out, I knew I would rather be dead."
It's the culture, Danny, she wanted to say. The only good queer is a tragically loveably dead queer. But you couldn't say something like that to Brady. He'd just shrug, like it didn't have any bearing on him. So she said, "Yeah. Coming out to my dad was an experience. I think he blames my mom."
"She dressed you like a boy?" He was teasing. Teasing was good. It meant she hadn't blown the fragile connection.
"She died when I was in high school," Daphne said, because there were times for bald honesty. He flinched, but it was a sympathy flinch, not rejection. Feeling greatly daring, she brushed his shoulder with the side of her hand. "So you're not out to your family?"
He shook his head, a piece of copy paper crumpling in his hand. "I dunno. Seemed like it would be selfish to make him see that about me. Cruel." He glanced aside, thoughtfully rather than backing down, but it enabled her to look at his face again. When he lifted his gaze, she held the eye contact by force of will. "Michael Tolliver and me. I've never kissed a girl. Well, okay, kissed. Didn't like it. Too squishy. Smelled funny."
Daphne said, "I'm shocked."
"That I've never been attracted to women?"
"No, that you read Armistead Maupin. Hello. 360 of my mental image, man."
"Hey!" His sharp bark of laughter drew Chaz's attention; across the aisle, Chaz swiveled awkwardly from his ongoing argument with his computer and raised his eyebrows.
Brady took a deep breath. Daphne recognized the expression of a man preparing to brazen it out. "You know how many sympathetic novels about faggots you found in a Dallas public library in 1989?"
That made Chaz wince. Daphne shot him a sympathetic glance, but his attention was on Brady.
Brady shook his head. "Actually, I got into theatre to meet guys. It seemed like the natural place."
Chaz frowned, maybe at the stereotype. "Did it work?"
A broad-shouldered shrug, like a mountain settling its coat. "Met tons. All of them had joined to meet girls." He grinned. "College was better, though."
"Theatre?" Daphne asked, because--all irony aside--she knew a cue for a straight man when she heard one.
Brady shook his head, clipped hairs glinting at the nape of his neck. "Hell, no." Slowly, and with relish, he drawled: "ROTC."
Brady hated being this tired. It made him want to drink, or talk, or play twenty-questions head games with himself. It made him want to give up and let someone else try to do the right goddamn thing every waking minute.
If he hadn't been tired, he'd have figured out a nice way to dodge Worth's interrogation. Not fair--that wasn't what it was. Worth made connections, compared notes. That was how she did the job, sure, but she hadn't made an UNSUB of him. Without knowing it, she'd invited him into the company of people who didn't mind talking about themselves.
And damned if he hadn't taken her up on the invitation. And lived. Maybe tired was good for something besides telling you to knock off for the night.
The phone on Brady's desk buzzed; the display identified a call from Hafidha's extension. He hit the speaker button without lifting his head from his other hand. "You're on the air."
"We got a match on the Smith & Wesson," she said, without preamble. "It belonged to a Raymond Grossman, Captain, U.S. Army, retired. He's deceased. No record of a current owner."
"Grossman," Brady said. Adrenaline washed the fuzz from his head. He pushed back in the chair. "Wait. Hollister--one of the vics--was involved in a hunting accident with a Colonel Grossman. The captain's son?"
Hafidah hummed six notes of the Jeopardy theme. "Accidental deaths for two hundred. Colonel Henry Grossman. That's him."
Brady hung up and waved in the general direction of Chaz and Worth. "Somebody call Lau, tell her she's got to interview the Grossmans in the morning. Chaz--"
Chaz was hunched forward in his chair, arms crossed on the desk, his forehead on his knobby wrists. Brady sighed. "Kid, for chrissake. Go home and sleep."
Chaz muttered something Brady couldn't make out. Chaz's keyboard was pushed back to make room for his arms; a file folder, pinched between it and the monitor, bowed upward.
"You okay?" Brady asked.
"Yes." Not loud, but enunciated fiercely. A drop of sweat trickled out of Chaz's hair and disappeared into his collar. Then another.
"Sure, you are." Brady stood up.
Chaz pushed himself upright, but his arms slipped, and shoved the keyboard farther. It bumped into his coffee mug. His left hand shot out, too far, too fast. The mug spun off the desk.
It bounced, trailing coffee across the carpet. Chaz leaned to reach for it, to stand. He clutched the edge of the desk. His chair rolled backward.
Brady caught him under the arms just before he lost his grip.
Chaz began, "I'm--"
"Fine, yeah," Brady finished, and lowered him to the floor.
Chaz's face shone with sweat; his hair stuck to his forehead. His eyes were closed tight as fists and his breath hissed through his nose, hard and measured. The pulse in his neck jumped as if he'd been running. His right hand rose, trembled, dropped.
"Shit," Chaz whispered. "Shit shit shit."
Brady yelled, "Worth!" He couldn't reach the phone to dial 9-1-1 and she'd been right there a second ago, hadn't she? Chaz, propped on Brady's knee, faded and clammy and cold, weighed less than one of Brady's boots and was most definitely not okay or he wouldn't have put up with lying helpless in the aisle for half a fucking second.
He heard Worth behind him. "Oh. Oh, damn." He felt her running steps through the floor, heard the fridge door bang open in the kitchenette.
Chaz's eyelids stopped squeezing, but stayed closed. "Chaz, come on, man," Brady said. Stupid. What did he expect that to do?
Worth knelt on the carpet beside Chaz. She had a carton of orange juice and a glass, and poured from one into the other with her whole concentration. Brady watched her, because she was temporarily oblivious to him, and because it beat the hell out of looking down at Chaz, wet and gray and skeletal, panting irregularly as if all his internal rhythms had been scrambled.
"Chaz, are you awake? Worth said. Her voice was steady and firm, the sort of voice you had to return an answer to. Medics and officers.
Chaz's lips parted, slow and sticky. "Yeah. I-- Yeah." He didn't sound scared or hurt; he sounded as if he was a long way away, and none of this was about him.
"Good. Stay awake for me. I need you conscious so you can swallow. Can you do that?"
Brady felt Chaz's head tense against his hand. But nodding seemed to be too much work. "Yeah."
It was a little like the last time Brady had been present when Worth saved Chaz's life. At least then I got to be useful and shoot something.
Worth looked from the glass to Chaz. "Crap." She bolted for her desk, came back with a plastic straw that still dripped frou-frou iced coffee drink. She dropped it in the orange juice and pressed the end to Chaz's mouth. He didn't seem to recognize at first what it was. But Worth said, "Drink," and he did.
Low blood sugar. Why had Brady only just now figured it out? A friend in the Highway Patrol had told him once about a traffic stop. He'd thought the driver was drunk or high--irritable, shaky, sweaty, his attention wandering. Turned out he was a diabetic whose blood sugar had dropped.
Chaz was always eating--and burning through what he ate damned near as fast as he could chew it. Brady felt like an idiot for not seeing the possible consequences.
Worth refilled the cup and put the straw back in Chaz's mouth. From the way he sucked the O.J. down, Chaz was recovered enough to know what was wrong and how to fix it. Then why the hell had he let it happen in the first place? Brady muzzled himself before he said so. Standard tough-guy response: get angry so no one knows you were scared.
Other standard tough-guy response: when caught in a moment of weakness, reject anything that had a passing resemblance to sympathy and avoid all the witnesses. Brady looked down at Chaz's closed eyes and knew what was going on in there. Funny to think of the kid as a tough guy, but he was. Tough and proud and prickly.
When Worth filled the cup a third time and held the straw up, Chaz pulled his head back a little. "I'm going to slosh."
"Good. I don't tend to have a syringe of glucagon on me nowadays. You good to sit up yet, if I hang onto you?"
Chaz still looked like hell, but at least he looked like Chaz looking like hell. "Mm. Finish the juice."
Worth was prepared to help, but propping Chaz against the side of his desk was no big deal. Brady felt how stiff he was even through his jacket. All Chaz's muscles saying, "I can do it myself," except they couldn't, just then. Without thinking, Brady said, "Sorry."
Chaz gave him an unreadable glance, which seemed like all he had the energy for.
Worth said, "I've got a tuna sandwich in the fridge, and there's a quart of milk in there, I think. Would you get them for me?"
When Brady came back with the milk and the sandwich, Chaz was the right color again, and strong enough to blot sweat off his face with a tissue that left bits of stray white fiber in his lame excuse for five o'clock shadow. It seemed to require all his attention.
No, Chaz was just stalling until he could figure out what expression to use when he looked up, what easy, dismissive, no-big-thing speech to give them.
Brady almost laughed. He'd been trying to decide what the witness ought to say in a case like this. Two halves of the same problem. He held up the milk carton and said gravely, "It's got Duke's name on it. Don't expect me to lie for you when he comes looking, man."
Surprise, and a smile, and a jerk of his head at Worth. "Uh-uh. It was Daph's idea."
She unwrapped the sandwich and handed it to Chaz. "So, hypoglycemic unawareness?"
He swallowed the first enormous bite. "Not un. It has to get pretty low before I feel it, though."
"So by the time you noticed, you couldn't stand up. What were you going to do, raise your serum glucose by sheer force of will? Why didn't you just say, 'Yo, bring me some carbs?'"
Chaz glared at the sandwich and took another bite. "Impaired judgment."
It seemed Worth had tough-guy coping mechanisms, too. Brady couldn't tell her to lay off without making Chaz even more self-conscious. Any day that included involuntarily sitting on the floor in the workplace was probably already not a self-esteem builder.
What would he want in Chaz's place? Necessary help, and afterwards, business as usual. Maybe Chaz would want something else. Well, if so, Brady would find out.
Chaz sent the sandwich to its doom and downed half the carton of milk before he gave Worth one of his flat-mouthed grimaces. "Sorry. That was your dinner."
"She can send out for pizza and not give you any," Brady said. He put his hand out. "Help up?"
"Yeah." Not at all like the last time he'd said it. Brady felt the knot in his stomach dissolve.
Chaz's hand was cool and dry now. As Brady levered him up, Worth watched like a hawk over a rodent hole, ready to pounce if Chaz wobbled. Chaz dusted himself off--the human equivalent of a cat washing after falling off something--and said, "Bathroom. Be right back." He shot a look at Worth and added, "Really."
"I know." She scrambled up off the floor. If Worth had stopped worrying, Brady figured he could, too.
"If you're not back in five," he called after Chaz, "I'm phoning the Grossman tip to Lau. And you'll have missed your chance."
"Hah!" Lame comeback, but it would do.
Chaz threaded between the desks, cautious but still quick, and disappeared through the kitchenette.
The suspect fled the scene, Brady thought. I can sympathize with that.
The next morning, Brady was just putting his coffee on his desk when his cellphone rang--three short, three long, three short. He thumbed the green button and pressed it to his ear, already knowing what came next. "Brady."
"Hello, Agent Brady. This is Madeline Frost."
Of course it was. Either Frost didn't believe in caller I.D., or she'd been taught telephone etiquette at age eight by a nun with a ruler. And even over the phone, her voice was still identifiably affectless and metallic and unmistakably hers.
Brady drew a fortifying breath. "Dr. Frost. What did you find?"
"It looks like a duck and walks like a duck," Frost replied, "but it quacks like a wolverine."
"Excuse me?" Brady said.
There was a pause. He knew the look Frost wore at that exact second, as clearly as if they were face to face, and what it conveyed: Why do you even bother to get out of bed in the morning if you're going to be this stupid?
She said, "You can't find the bullet because there isn't one. There never was."
He glanced around the bullpen. Hafidha was in her sanctum, but no one else had arrived yet. "Are you still working, Doctor Frost? Do you mind if I come to the theatre?"
"I'd prefer you did not." Which was what he had expected her to say. "But if you must, yes, there are certain aspects of this I could demonstrate more efficiently firsthand. I understand the case is time-sensitive. Can you be here promptly?"
Which, Brady suspected, was Frost for, Somebody is still out there killing people. Maybe you could get your overmuscled ass in gear?
"I'm leaving now," Brady said.
"I'll delay dissecting the heart until you get here," Frost answered. "Goodbye, Agent Brady."
As he shrugged on his raincoat, Brady wondered, Was that Madeline Frost's idea of a joke?
Lau eyed the Grossman home from the street and wondered how many dissimilar lives Brattonville could hold. This had been a farmhouse on the edge of town before suburbs were invented. It was never as grand as the Cavanaughs' mock Tudor; once it might have been the equivalent of the Henleys' pretty Colonial.
Now it had sprouted a surrounding neighborhood, ranch houses and sidewalks and streets with "Lane" in the name, like a dead tree hosting a crop of mushrooms. Its white paint was chalking. The gutter downspout was missing on the front right corner, and the rain had pounded a muddy hollow beside the foundation there.
The lawn was green because lawns in Maryland mostly were, not because it got fussed over it spring and fall. But someone was keeping it mowed. A big maple showed around the back of the house, and two spindly birch trees marked the edge of the lot in front.
Lau stepped up onto the wide low porch and rang the bell. She heard it chime inside.
The woman who came to the door was tall, big-bosomed, with muscled forearms, thin lips in a long face, and brown hair gone two-thirds gray in swathes. She wore it in a chin-length page boy clamped back with two plain steel barrettes. She'd probably worn it that way when she was twenty.
Now Carol Grossman was 58, according to Hafidha, and employed in the high school cafeteria kitchen for the past five years. Five years ago, her son's wife left him; Carol Grossman would have needed a job that let her be home when her granddaughter got out of school. Two years later, that was her orphaned granddaughter. Staff Sergeant Ethan Grossman caught a sniper's bullet in Iraq.
"Mrs." Grossman tucked her chin to be able to look at Lau through the tops of her bifocals. "I think they still call widows that."
"Yes, ma'am. I'm Special Agent Nicolette Lau. May I come in?"
Mrs. Grossman nodded and stepped aside.
Lau found herself at one end of a long central hall. At the other she could see the white-painted newel post of the stairs to the second floor. A pair of panel doors stood open on her left into a dining room barely large enough for the table and six chairs and the corner cupboard. The tablecloth was sun-faded on the top, and a cobweb looped from the hanging light overhead to the ceiling.
On the right was an equally cramped living room. It looked as if Carol Grossman had moved into her in-laws' era: the old television on the circa-1960s rolling cart, the electric fireplace that did nothing but make the flowery upholstered furniture hard to arrange. In the back wall another door stood closed.
The kitchen would be beyond the dining room; the light that banded the far end of the hall must be from the kitchen window. What was the back room on the right, behind the living room, with its doors shut?
A slender figure--a girl--stepped into the hall from the kitchen and stood sidelit in the bar of cloud-dimmed sun. Her long brown hair hung straight and limp over the shoulders of her puff-sleeved white peasant blouse. Her calves and feet showed bare below her too-big plaid skirt. Both her hands were visible and empty.
"Grandma?" The girls's voice was high and hesitant.
"You ready for school?" Mrs. Grossman said, as if she knew the answer.
"I just wanted to see--"
"Do your duty, Melinda, everything else takes care of itself."
I need two of me, Lau thought. No, I need Brady. If Melinda Grossman was their gamma, she knew the FBI was at the front door. If she wasn't the gamma, there was a good chance it was someone she knew. Someone she might want to warn. Lau had intended to interview Mrs. Grossman alone, but she couldn't let Melinda out of her sight.
"I'd like to speak to both of you, actually," Lau said. She pumped warmth into her voice, and TV-human-interest-reporter, and turned her hands palms-up and soft to gesture at Mrs. Grossman and Melinda. Who, me? FBI? Just public liaison. I'm here to calm your fears.
"Melinda's got school--"
"I'll make it all right with her teachers." Lau smiled a dazzling conspiratorial smile--she hoped--at Melinda. "I won't keep you long."
Mrs. Grossman stepped into the living room. Melinda stood, opening and closing her hands at her sides.
There had to be a back door. If Melinda was a gamma, she would run. Or she would attack Lau, somehow. Her hands were empty, but did she need a weapon? The gun hadn't been fired.
Or she'd follow her grandmother into the living room and wait for her chance.
If she wasn't a gamma, she might still do any of those things.
Lau smiled at Melinda and tilted her head toward the living room. "I hope first period isn't your favorite. You go to Corbit Heights?"
Melinda took a step toward her, another. Her skirt had twisted so the front seam was off-center. She shrugged with one shoulder. "English. It's okay."
Was her skirt loose enough to twist because she liked to wear it low on her hips, or because she'd lost weight? There were so many normal reasons teenagers lost weight. "Mr. Givens's class?"
Melinda stepped the rest of the way down the hall, delicate as a deer, and looked into Lau's face. "You met him?"
Lau nodded. She didn't add to it for fear of turning the subject the wrong way. Because for some reason, Melinda was interested in this.
"Do you think he might be sick or something?"
The jolt of surprise didn't make it to Lau's face, because she was good, damn it. "I don't know."
Melinda frowned, pursed her lips; worry, not dislike or revulsion. "I thought...since he didn't serve. My dad said the recruiters won't take people who've got things wrong with them."
She thought she'd have trouble getting Melinda to open up. "My brother did eye exercises, he was so afraid he'd get nearsighted and be turned down."
"Your brother was in the Army?"
"Air Force. All three of my brothers and my dad."
"They're all alive?"
Melinda's father, her grandfather, the great-grandfather who died before Melinda was born. Was she trying to imagine it, a house full of soldiers? Did she imagine herself the center of their world, or they as the center of hers? And which did she want?
"Come and sit, Melinda," Mrs. Grossman called from the living room. "Agent Lau has work to do."
Mrs. Grossman occupied one end of the sofa. Melinda sat at the other. Their usual spots, Lau thought. She half-reached for the painted Windsor chair near the door--easiest to move. But that was the chair any un-guest would take. Salesman. Evangelist. An officer come to deliver bad news.
Lau slid the upholstered ottoman away from the end of a chair and in front of the TV and sat on it, across the coffee table from the Grossmans. She leaned forward, elbows on knees. Now her head was lower than either of theirs.
"I'm sure you know what happened at the middle school yesterday afternoon." Talk to Mrs. Grossman. Watch Melinda. Mrs. Grossman could never have climbed into that treehouse. But Melinda was Lau's height, and weighed less.
"That someone shot Brian Newman. Terrible thing. Melinda was there. All the school children were. You'd have to be a monster to do that in front of children."
"There was a gun recovered at the scene."
Melinda's head jerked up. Then her gaze dropped to her lap. An instant later she looked up at Lau again. Too late to look innocent, hon, Lau thought. If Melinda wasn't the shooter, she knew who was. She knew who'd had the gun.
Melinda Grossman didn't seem like a gamma--but what did that mean?
"That's good, isn't it?" said Mrs. Grossman. "They'll catch the man, then."
Lau pressed her palms together in front of her. It signaled concern; it said, "We're together in this." "It was a Smith and Wesson revolver registered to the late Captain Raymond Grossman. Was that your father-in-law, Mrs. Grossman?" Carol Grossman stared. Lau added, "Did he have a revolver like that?"
"You made a mistake. It's not his gun."
"I don't think so."
"It's right here. It's in my room." Mrs. Grossman flung up her left hand, as if tossing something over her shoulder, toward the closed door behind her.
"May I see it, Mrs. Grossman?" And all the time Lau watched Melinda, who flushed, turned pale, flushed again, her fingers rolling the hem of her blouse, her eyes everywhere but on her grandmother or Lau.
You don't know what she's capable of. A joke, when she'd said it to Brady. Now it was true.
Mrs. Grossman stood, crossed the room, opened the door. The bed was directly opposite, decked in a brown-and-beige comforter, pillow shams, bedskirt. Bed in a bag. The orange carpet, faded and flattened, belonged to the decade of the TV cart. She turned right once in the room, and the door blocked her from where Lau sat.
At the corner of her eye Lau could see Melinda, motionless. Don't look at her. Don't push her.
"Melinda!" Mrs. Grossman snapped. Melinda rose as if the sofa had pushed her off, stood between it and the coffee table, and watched the bedroom door.
Mrs. Grossman stepped back into sight, gripping the edge of the open door. "Melinda, did you take it?"
Melinda's voice cracked when she said, "I didn't touch it!"
"May I see where it was?" Lau beckoned to Melinda to go in first. After a wild-eyed moment, Melinda went.
It was a shrine, like the ofrendas Mexican families made for departed loved ones on Day of the Dead. This one was permanent. Mrs. Grossman had spread a crocheted lace runner across the top of an old Deco-style dressing table, and laid her memories out on it, taped them to the tall oval mirror.
Photos on the glass, formal portraits and snapshots, of Raymond Grossman solemn in World War II dress uniform, in his officer's field jacket, one on the occasion of his retirement when his hair was white. His son Henry, Carol Grossman's husband, in a formal photo in uniform with his colonel's insignia, snapshots from Vietnam, one of him graying, uniformed, beside a shining new car. Henry again, out of uniform--but next to his son Ethan, Melinda's father, and Ethan wore dress uniform and the brutal haircut of boot camp, and both were smiling. Ethan again, in desert camo, leaning on the flank of a Humvee.
On the table top, dried flowers from funeral wreaths, rank insignia, dogtags, discharge papers--or in Ethan's case, official notice of his death in action. The pistols. A .45 caliber M1911 for Henry Grossman; a Beretta M9 for his son. The sidearms of their respective wars. And an empty space, its outline faded into the lace, for the Smith & Wesson revolver.
None of the men in the photos had his arm around a wife, a sweetheart, a daughter. The world on the mirror was a world without women.
It was a world without civilians. Its people lived in uniform or not at all.
Lau fought back a shiver. Why hadn't she spotted this in the living room? The time-capsule amenities were good enough for the living. It was only the dead whose needs had mattered. Now they had no needs. Now nothing changed in the Grossman house.
"Melinda." Mrs. Grossman's voice was high and thin, as if she couldn't draw enough breath.
"I didn't take it."
"I told you never to touch these things. Never."
"Grandma, you're away all day. You don't lock the back door. I bet everybody knows there's guns in here." Melinda was red-faced, her breath hard and uneven, as if she wanted to cry.
Mrs. Grossman stood between Melinda and the guns. Lau took a chance, laid her hand lightly on Melinda's shoulder. Melinda shuddered, but stood still. "It's all right. What happened in the gym when Brian Newman was shot, Melinda?"
"He walked up on the stage and everybody's cheering and clapping, like he'd won the whole war by himself. And then--bang, he fell, somebody said he was dead--" Melinda stopped on a swallow of air and looked down.
Lau's hands were cold; her pulse was was bass-drumming in her ears. ""Did you see anyone with a gun?"
"No. But it-- Somebody shot him. Somebody must have snuck in and taken the gun and shot him."
"Not with the Captain's gun," Carol Grossman said sharply. "It won't fire."
Melinda stared at her grandmother, her mouth hanging.
"Firing pin's broken," Mrs. Grossman added.
If Melinda was the gamma, she would know the gun didn't work, wouldn't she? But the gun at the gym hadn't been fired.
Melinda's shoulder trembled under Lau's hand. She took a step back, for balance, to get away--Lau couldn't tell. "I didn't break it," Melinda whispered.
"Ethan broke it off. Your father. He said the gun wasn't safe."
"No." Melinda shook her head. She squeezed her eyes shut, but tears leaked out the corners still. "It wasn't safe."
The girl wobbled; Lau helped her to the foot of the bed. Melinda sat as if she'd never have the strength to stand again.
"Melinda didn't shoot anybody." Mrs. Grossman looked pleased; she'd been right all along. "She just took the gun. I'll have to punish you for that right enough, Melinda. But this isn't a police matter."
Lau managed the bright smile again; she felt as if she were dragging it up out of the ground through her feet to get it all the way up to her mouth. "Then it's all right, Melinda. I'll just let the sheriff's office know what you've both told me, check to see if there's anything else they need to know. Sorry to take your time like this."
Melinda nodded, blank-faced. Mrs. Grossman said, "Phone's in the kitchen."
Lau patted her pocket. "Cell phone. I've got them on speed dial." Because she didn't want to make this call where the Grossmans could hear.
She called the sheriff's office first, and told Deputy Raintree to send backup. Then she thumbed in Brady's number. Inside the house she heard Mrs. Grossman's voice rise, warming up to a thorough tongue-lashing.
"Where are you?" Brady said. She hadn't known how keyed up she was until she heard his voice. Reaction made her shake.
Melinda's higher voice answering back, barely audible, and Mrs. Grossman again.
"I just talked to the Grossmans. It's circumstantial--"
"But you think it could be Melinda."
She was about to say yes when memory played back Melinda's words: And then--bang, he fell, somebody said he was dead...
"Brady, it's Melinda. She heard the shot."
The argument had stopped.
Brady was saying something as she cut off the call and drew her pistol. She sprang onto the porch, put her back against the wall by the door. "Melinda?"
A harsh, wet, hissing sound.
Lau peeked around the doorframe. The door in the hall that let onto Mrs. Grossman's bedroom was open. At the far end of the hall, the light was brighter. As if an outside door stood open.
Be cautious, she thought, and ignored the thought, flying through the cramped living room to the door behind the sofa.
Mrs. Grossman lay just inside the door, scrabbling weakly at her chest with both hands. Blood spread across her blouse under her fingers, into the orange carpet under her. A faded outline showed on the lace runner where the M9 had lain.
"What is your emergency?" said a voice in her ear. Cellphone. 9-1-1. When had she done that?
Mrs. Grossman died as Lau snapped instructions to the dispatcher. I left them alone. I left her here.
Lau bolted into the hall, pistol at high ready, sidled along the wall. Back door standing open. The back yard was bordered in overgrown lilacs, and the big maple's trunk was easily wide enough for a thin girl to hide behind.
A girl with a gun who never missed.
You're not supposed to cry in front of people, but you can't stop the tears and snot dripping down your face. Bad enough that Grandma's here, but the FBI lady saw you too. It's nobody's rule--nobody's duty--but your own; you have to be strong, be proud, like Daddy. But you've already broken all the other rules, so why not this one too? Daddy isn't here to be disappointed anymore.
Grandma's still tearing into you, but you can hardly hear her over your own sniffling and the gun's constant rising mutter. No, it didn't abandon you, just like it promised. But you wish it would leave you alone just for a minute, just to let you think--
Grandma's hand closes hard and heavy on your shoulder, gives you a little shake. "Are you listening to me, Melinda Jane?"
"All of you leave me alone!"
You flinch as Grandma's scowl deepens. You think she's going to slap you for sure, but instead she crosses her arms tight under her chest. "You mind your tone, young lady. And go wash your face--there's company here. What is that woman going to think of you?"
You scrub a hand across your face and clench it in your skirt, leaving a slimy-wet smear behind. What would she think? No taller than you, but so pretty, so sleek, with her nice clothes and shiny hair. She wears a gun like any soldier. Did anyone ever tell her she couldn't? That guns aren't for girls. That guns are too dangerous.
"Why would you even care?" Your voice cracks once, but anger steadies it. "You never cared what Mom thought. You sure don't care what I think. All you've ever cared about is them." One hand jerks toward the mirror and all the staring faces; your watch slides too-loose against the bones of your wrist.
"That is enough! You wash your face and go to your room. We'll talk about this when you remember your manners." She shakes her head once, sharp and angry. "What would your father think of you like this?"
Your eyes blur again and you can't tell if it's tears or the hot rage rising in your head. You're on your feet before you realize it. The carpet swallows the sound of your bare foot stomping. "It doesn't matter! He's dead! He's dead and so's Grandpa and all the rest of them. They're dead and it's just you and me and why can't you ever admit that?"
Too blurry-eyed to see the blow coming in time. The sound of her palm on your cheek is as loud as any gunshot, and the strength of it staggers you and sends you stumbling against the dresser.
She sounds surprised, maybe even sorry, but it doesn't matter any more. Your sweaty tear-sticky hand lands on your father's pistol. Black and shiny, the hatched grip rough against your palm. It fits just as easily as the revolver did. Your father may have broken that one, but this one will work just fine.
"They're dead." Your voice is soft and steady now. "It's just you and me."
The trigger moves like water under your finger. And then it's just you. You and the gun.
Brady knew the way to Autopsy Pathology, and Frost had left instructions that he be admitted to the theatre. He stood well back, nonetheless. The reek of raw lamb didn't bother him, but there was something about dumpy little Dr. Frost, her plump small-boned hands elbow-deep in a dissected corpse, her cherubic cheeks behind the Plexiglass face shield, that made Brady feel like at any moment he could be the next demonstration to cross her table.
The meat scales, slimed and sticky with blood like something out of Sweeney Todd, really didn't help, nor did the way Frost always looked at him, that first glance every single time, like she was thinking about the derrick and crane she'd need to get him on the table.
"I was wishing for another victim," Frost said; her mouth twisted on the word wishing, as if it was something it pained her to admit. "Before you called, I was contemplating how much easier it'd be to determine the nature of anomalous effect from a fresh autopsy. If one were inclined to superstition, one might say the anomaly was most accommodating."
Brady hesitated. Human outreach, from Dr. Frost? Her way of showing that something--a senseless death--had left her hurt and confused? Or a simple reporting of an interesting coincidence. "How does that make you feel?"
Frost raised her age-softened chin, to see him eye to eye. "Irritated."
"Just think how Brian Newman feels," Brady said before he could stop himself.
Frost snorted. It was the nice thing about Frost--if there was a nice thing about Madeline Frost. She always got the joke, and she never seemed to mind, even if she considered his sense of humor puerile.
Brady shook himself. Enough comic cross-talk with the Demon Barber. "You said there wasn't a bullet. But there is a gun."
"Was it fired?"
"The gun we found wasn't. But we think--"
"No. There was no gun. Because there was no bullet."
"Entrance and exit wounds," Brady said, because she already thought he was an idiot. Nothing to lose.
"Perfectly lined up," Frost retorted. She raised the body into a sitting position. Brady would have moved to assist her, but she didn't seem to need his help--until she stared over the top of her glasses, at which point he hurried to support the naked body of the deceased. By the shoulders, because his chest flopped open like double doors.
Frost pushed the gaping sides of the Y-incision closed and held them together with one gloved hand. She took a number two pencil from the case clipped to her belt, where it rested beside a blue plastic-handled scalpel, a pair of scissors, and a roll of adhesive tape. "Watch."
Obediently, Brady watched as the bright yellow pencil slid into the circular hole in Sergeant Newman's back. Frost picked up a slender steel rod from her instrument tray and fitted it into the hole after the pencil. Which, obscenely--no longer bright yellow--slid out the circular hole in his chest as Frost pushed it, without wiggling. It fell without a clatter because it landed in the corpse's lap.
"That's impossible," Brady said. He knew too much about gunshot wounds; even a through-and-through, no matter how aptly named, couldn't travel in a perfectly straight line.
"Yes," said Frost. She almost seemed pleased with him. "Ergo, this man wasn't killed by a bullet. He was killed by a hole manifesting through his body. The idea of a bullet, if you will."
"We think the UNSUB's a kid," Brady said.
Frost considered that--not in the least shocked, and Brady would have been surprised if she had been. "Very likely. It is very much the way a child would imagine a gun to work. Point and click."
Brady's phone rang and he went for it, he realized, like a Golden Retriever after a tennis ball. Any excuse to put Brian Newman down. "Brady."
"It's me," said Nikki Lau.
"Where are you?"
"I just talked to the Grossmans. It's circumstantial--"
"But you think it could be Melinda."
Her voice rose. "Brady, it's Melinda. She heard the shot."
"The shot that--" nobody heard? he was going to say, but Lau disconnected, leaving him staring at his phone. Lau never hung up on anybody.
"A problem, Agent Brady?" said Frost.
"I, um." He shook himself. "I'm afraid Agent Lau may have just landed in the middle of something bad. I need to get out there. Is there anything else I need to know?"
"Having looked at the crime-scene reports," Frost said, "I strongly suspect that the UNSUB believes that he or she--"
"She," said Brady. "Melinda Grossman. A classmate of Tommy Wilson."
"Ah. That Miss Grossman believes she has to have a clear line-of-sight in order to 'shoot' her targets. A child's idea of how a gun works."
"Right," said Brady. "That's actually really good to know."
"It's a hypothesis," Frost said.
"Gotcha." He knew she wouldn't have said anything at all if she hadn't been close to positive, and it made sense.
He was almost at the door of the autopsy theatre when his phone rang again. Lau.
"What the hell happened?"
"Carol Grossman's dead. And I don't know where Melinda is. I fucked up."
He didn't like hearing that tone in Lau's voice, flat and just a little too high pitched. He turned and started back toward the table and Frost and the body of Sergeant Newman. "Is it the same M.O.?"
"Shot through the heart," Lau said. "No gunshot. And one of the other guns is missing. Did I mention I don't know where the host is?"
"Frost thinks Melinda believes she has to have a clear line-of-sight to kill somebody. So don't give her one." He wanted to say, It's okay, but that wasn't proven yet. "Did you say other guns?"
"Jesus, Danny, you should see this woman's bedroom. It's like a shrine to the U.S. Military. Three generations of dead men and their guns. We've got the Captain's, but that still left her two to choose from. Oh, and that .45? Mrs. Grossman said it doesn't fire and hasn't for years."
"Well, Frost just explained to me how Sergeant Newman wasn't killed by a bullet, so it makes sense that it came from a gun that doesn't fire."
"What?" said Lau, and that was better. She sounded sharper, more in focus. Also annoyed, but annoyed was good. Annoyed was thinking.
Frost looked up at him, eyebrows raised.
"There's a new body," Brady told her. "Should I have them send it here or--"
"I want to see the body in situ," said Frost.
"You what?" said Brady.
"Brady, what?" said Lau.
"Nikki, is the scene secure?"
"As secure as a scene can be when there's an active host in the area. I've got cops and a local coroner all over the place, but I'm fending them off for now."
"It, um, it looks like Dr. Frost and I are on our way to you. Don't let them move Mrs. Grossman, okay?"
"Daniel Brady, are you putting me on?"
Not unless Madeline Frost is putting me on. "I'll be as quick as I can. Keep to cover."
He hung up the phone, still staring at Frost.
"Really, Agent Brady," she said. "I don't grow in the theatre like a kind of mold."
Brady pulled into the cracked concrete drive of the Grossman house with Frost silent and self-possessed in the passenger seat. He'd run the party lights under the grille and busted speed limits all the way from Baltimore to Brattonville, so conversation wasn't an issue. Frost seemed perfectly happy with whatever haunted-house company she had in her own head.
Brady's head, in contrast, was not his friend. It had kept feeding him the image of Lau dead of an imaginary bullet. When she stepped out the door onto the Grossman front porch, he had an attack of mixed feelings: She's okay! and She's making herself a fucking target! At least she'd put her vest on. Would a ballistic vest stop an imaginary bullet? Depended maybe on whether Melinda Grossman believed the "bulletproof" misnomer.
He reached his own vest out of the back seat and pushed it at Frost. "Put this on."
Frost gave him a stare. "Melinda Grossman's victims were males, before her grandmother."
He yanked the vest on, his face hot. Out-profiled by the pathologist. Jesus, Danny, show up to play.
He followed Frost up the walk anyway, covering her back, though her short, careful stride drove him nuts.
"Dr. Frost," Lau said. No sign of the agitation he'd heard on the phone.
"Special Agent Lau. Just point out the body, please. You needn't go with me."
Huh. Was that Frost being peculiar, or Frost recognizing that Lau needed to download? He couldn't tell. Behavioral analysis only worked on humans.
Brady stepped into the hall and closed the door, and felt just a little less as if he had a target on his back. He smelled blood, but no lingering bite of burned powder. The other smells he remembered from his great-grandparents' home: potpourri, mothballs. Someone still used mothballs?
Yes. He took in the hall, the half-visible dining room, the living room. Here people still used mothballs. Girls wore pink and played dolls and house. Boys played cowboy and soldier. If he turned that television on, Gunsmoke would be airing, and not in reruns.
This was the foundation of Melinda Grossman's mythology.
"She's conflicted." He was surprised to hear his voice, loud in the hall. "She'll only act in the heat of the moment. When she cools down, she's scared, because she lost control. She's ashamed of her anger, afraid of it. Guns, power--they're not for girls. She's rebelling against that, and the anomaly is egging her on." He looked down at Lau, dragged himself back from his vision of Melinda's world. "What makes her angry?"
Lau's eyes narrowed. "First victim to last--there's a progression. Tommy Wilson--Maddie Cavanaugh said he called Melinda's father a coward. Then one remove: Hollinger killed her grandfather. Then she escalates from the personal to the general. She kills the other men because they came home. Her dad didn't."
Brady peered through the living room to the open bedroom door, where Frost squatted beside the body like a patient vulture. He wondered what Grandma had said to Melinda.
That brought him entirely back to the present. "You okay?" he asked Lau.
She bit her lip. "I shouldn't have left them alone together."
"You didn't kill Carol Grossman. You made a call, that nothing was likely to trigger Melinda in the next five minutes, and you made the responsible decision to call for backup. It should have been fine. It just wasn't. Let it go."
She opened her mouth. He half-expected "Easy for you to say" to come out of it. But she gave a little sharp shake of her head instead. "After Melinda shot her grandmother, she bolted out the back. I lost her in the yard; you could hide linebackers in the goddamn lilac bushes."
For now, she'd tough it out. Brady nodded. "Let's go look."
They passed a kitchen like a faded page from a 1950s Good Housekeeping, and the other door to the bedroom, still standing open. Brady looked up the stairs in the back hallway and raised his eyebrows at Lau.
"I cleared it with Raintree and his guys. If she went up there, she can do more than make magic bullets."
That didn't bear thinking about. The back door was closed and locked with an old-fashioned surface-mount box lock. The knob grated when he turned it to shoot the bolt. Damned small towns, where nobody locked the back door.
If Melinda had left any trail through the short grass, the searchers' tracks had spoiled it. He stepped off the stoop and imagined being a twelve-year-old girl afraid of everything, herself most of all. Where would she go?
"No," he said. "This is it. She grew up in this wayback machine, and there's no place else like it. This is the only place she'll feel safe."
"Then we wait for her to come back."
Lilacs, maple tree, and around the foundation, a bed of perennials that had gone to jungle. Daylilies, mildewy phlox, some shrub he didn't recognize. One of the daylily stems was broken and hanging.
Behind it the basement window stood open. Just wide enough for a skinny, desperate twelve-year-old.
"She already has," he said.
Lau sensed Brady breathing hard in frustration behind her as they descended the basement stairs. She wanted to explain, to justify her error--we cleared the house and posted uniforms--but she and Raintree had both missed the open window, and when it came to gammas a small mistake could be a final one. There was no justifying this error, and even if she could, now was not the time.
And kicking herself over it now was a good way to get her or Brady killed. Mind on the war.
The lights were on--there was no advantage in darkness when Melinda had known they were coming from the instant they opened the door. She paused on the steps just when her feet would have been coming into view and looked at Brady.
"Left," he mouthed.
Nikki nodded and edged over on the steps so he could come up alongside her, facing in the opposite direction. It felt good to have him at her back, even if the space was narrow. He shifted his weapon to his right hand, drew a telescoping mirror from his coat pocket, and scanned the basement for motion.
At his nod, they moved in tandem. One step down, and then another, crabwise, quiet. Stop before the bulk of your body comes into view and duck beneath the floor for a quick glimpse, semiautomatic at the ready. "Nothing," Brady said.
"Clear," Lau answered, and they moved a few more cautious steps.
A significant portion of Nikki Lau's life had been spent in basements with Daniel Brady. She had yet to develop an appreciation of them, but she had assigned a few categories.This one was clean, cobwebbed a little between the joists, and looked like it wasn't dry in spring. The washer and dryer were elevated on whitewashed shipping palettes; the furnace and boiler had been concealed in a white sheet metal enclosure, to and from which fed mysterious pipes and wires.
"Danny," Lau said. When he turned, she directed his eyes with her gaze.
The sheet metal enclosure on the furnace stood open, a crack easily wide enough for a child to wedge herself into. It was open enough that Lau could see clearly, no one hid inside it now.
"That wasn't like that when we cleared the basement," Lau said.
"Shit," Brady said. "There's an outside door."
She'd seen that before too--deadbolted, painted green, with well-oiled hinges at the top of a short concrete flight. The deadbolt was no longer locked.
She got around us.
"Frost," Brady said, and--all pretense of stealth abandoned--charged back up the stairs.
You're not supposed to return to the scene of the crime, but where else can you go? Not to the neighbors', not to Katie's--there's no one to help you now.
The furnace presses cool and solid against your side, your arms and legs all pretzeled up to fit inside the cover. Mud dries itchy on your bare feet, cracks between your toes when you move. Sweat prickles your scalp and back. Outside the morning will be coming on warm and muggy, but the furnace and the cement floor are cold and you can't stop shivering.
Your cheek throbs, already swelling, and you wince as it brushes metal. Your hand aches from clenching the gun, but you don't dare put it down. Your heart echoes, and every breath, every rustle of cloth, every rumble from your empty clenching stomach sounds like a shout. You thought for sure they would find you, but the footsteps and voices died eventually. By the time you opened your eyes, you were alone in the basement.
You're not sure how long you sit there. The light dims while rain splatters on the leaves, then brightens again. Eventually your shivering stops. Your stomach doesn't stop growling, though--so hungry it makes you queasy, makes your head hurt. Your lunch is already packed upstairs, sitting on the counter. You should eat something. Then you can figure out what to do.
The thought makes you feel better. You can't hear anyone moving upstairs. The police must be looking someplace else. You can eat a sandwich and pack a bag and go...somewhere. You'll figure it out.
The gun weighs in your hand. Quiet, for now. You have to put it back. You can't listen to it any more. There's no more angry left in you--you're cold and empty as the furnace.
Go upstairs. Put the gun back. Eat something. You can manage those things. You'll think of something else afterward.
Metal scrapes on cement as you push the cover back and you wince, but no one shouts, no one comes bursting down the stairs. Just you and the gun.
Up the stairs quick and quiet, and you ease the outside door open. The day is hot and sticky, rain still shining on the lilacs. Footprints press the wet grass down--big heavy ones and a few not much bigger than yours. The sound of birds and the neighbor's cat and distant traffic carry through the air--normal everyday noises.
You dart inside quick and ease the door shut, for once not mindful of the mud you're tracking in. The kitchen is empty, your lunchbox sitting on the counter where it always is. You swallow a mouthful of spit and nearly grab it. No--put the gun back first. Discipline.
As you creep toward Grandma's room you hear a sound on the other side of the house--people moving. Panic makes your hands tingle. They're still here. The gun tells you what to do, but you aren't going to listen. You're going to put it back. You're going to follow the plan. Then you can grab your lunch and run.
The hall outside of Grandma's room smells funny--lavender and mothballs like always, but something else too. Like pennies, like meat, and something sweet and nasty under that.
You step through the door and freeze as you see Grandma. You didn't think they'd leave her there-- She's all grey and splotchy, and the orange carpet is splattered dark rusty-brown.
Then you notice the other woman kneeling beside her. Soft-faced and grey-haired, watching you with cool eyes. Something glitters in her hand.
The gun rises in yours before you can even think about it. Inside your head it sings.
Brady's back filled the bedroom doorway in front of Lau. She almost ran into him as he stopped short, but managed to keep both her balance and control of her nine millimeter. Brady sidestepped, clearing the door for her, and she came up beside him.
Face to face with Melinda Grossman and her daddy's gun.
Frost still crouched beside Carol Grossman's body, one knee dropped, the other foot planted as if she had been arrested just in the moment of rising. Her right hand rested on the case at her belt, the left one splayed on the floor. Melinda Grossman still held the empty M9 pointed at Frost's chest, but her head had swiveled to focus on Brady. She barely acknowledged Lau's arrival with a sideways flick of her eyes.
Heart shot won't stop a gamma fast enough. Head shot might stop them using their manifestation until the blood loss takes them down. Brady trained his pistol right between Melinda's eyes, and Lau did the same.
"Melinda," Brady said, "I'm Special Agent Brady. Daniel Brady. I want you to crouch down to the floor, honey, and put down the gun. We know you didn't mean to hurt anyone. We can help you stop."
The crosshatched grip of Lau's pistol wore at her palms. She thought about the push-pull of her arms, the muscle tension steadying the gun. She slipped her finger inside the trigger guard.
Melinda's pupils seemed to eat away at her irises as if the blue were collapsing into them. A tremor ran the length of her arm; the gun wobbled visibly. "She was doing something to my grandma--"
Brady shook his head. Lau heard the creak of the trauma plates inside his ballistic vest as he breathed in deep, and tried not to wonder if real armor would stop an imaginary bullet. Brady said, "She's a doctor, honey. She was trying to help."
The gun quivered, swung as if it had a mind of its own. Rose to point at Brady's heart, just at Lau's eye level. "You're not a soldier," Melinda said. To her side, Frost dropped her right hand to the floor.
"Madeline, stay down," Lau said, softly. Don't draw the gamma's attention away from Brady. From the movement of Frost's mouth, she knew Lau was using her first name to personalize her to the host, and it amused her. She looked curious, interested. Not frightened at all.
Brady smiled at Melinda. "I was a soldier."
Christ, Danny, don't tell her you were an officer.
"So how come you're not any more?"
"It was before the war," Brady said. "I served. I didn't fight." He shrugged. "I missed it."
She winced. "I'm sorry," she said.
He nodded, as if her sympathy were exactly the right thing. "Your dad fought, didn't he? That's his gun."
Lip bitten, Melinda nodded. Lau saw her gaze flicker over Brady's ballistic vest. The semiautomatic rose in her hand like the head of a snake. Now it pointed at Brady's eye.
That would certainly sidestep any question of body armor.
"Melinda," Brady said. "Honey. We can take care of you. We can make it okay."
"Can you bring my dad back?" Little-girl voice, lost-child voice. The voice of the monster. Almost a whisper, and it squeaked and broke.
Beside her, Frost rose slowly to her feet. "Madeline," Lau said, warning.
But Frost leaned forward a little, across Carol Grossman's body, her stubby frame balanced on its toes. Her hands hung by her sides, pressed into her plain tweed jacket. "Melinda," she said. "Look at me."
Frost was only a little taller than Melinda, who was just about Lau's height. Brady loomed over all three of them. And yet, when Melinda turned and stared Madeline Frost in the eye, Lau almost forgot Brady was in the room. Only the line of Melinda's gun reminded her.
"If they brought your father back," Frost said, her face relaxed and curious, an expression Lau had never seen her wear before, "do you think he would be proud of what you've done?"
"The gun--" Melinda said. Her breath came quick and fast, her face paling.
"The gun didn't make you do anything," Frost said. "You killed all those people, Melinda. You did it all yourself. Do you think your daddy would be proud?"
"No," Melinda said. Firmly, with resolve, as if coming to a realization. Brady leaned forward against the pressure of the M9 trained on his eye. The floor creaked with the shift of his balance, and Melinda glanced at him. Lau felt the motion of her own finger on the trigger, arrested it just in time. Because Melinda was lowering her father's pistol, dragging it down Brady's body and off to the side.
"No," she said. "He wouldn't be proud."
With her peripheral vision, Lau caught the flash of silver metal and blue plastic as Frost slipped the surgical scalpel she'd been holding concealed in her right hand back into her beltcase. Brady was already lunging for Melinda as she turned the gun around.
Brady slammed his sidearm into its holster, fumbled Melinda's weapon, and peeled her limp fingers from the trigger guard. Some dissociated corner of his mind noticed as he pushed the weapon across the floor that the safety was down and engaged.
Hot, slick, thickening already to stickiness: Brady knew by the flow of red over his hands that he was too late. "Towels!" he said. "Dammit, call 9-1-1." But he could tell from the beeps that Lau was dialing.
Blood pulsed slowly between his fingers. He leaned on the wound, trying to apply pressure, and felt a small hand on his shoulder.
"I am a medical doctor," Frost said, in the tone one would use to calm a small, panicked child. "Agent Brady. My patient, please."
Running footsteps as Lau moved outside. How long before an ambulance came, out here, in a town like this? Did Melinda have a better chance than Madeline Frost?
He lifted his hands off the host's chest, expecting a spray of blood. But there was just the slow well. Frost shouldered him aside. He stood, holding his sticky hands away from his body. "She's not bleeding much."
Melinda still breathed, eyes closed, face graying as if she had been submerged in bleach. But every breath seemed a little shorter than the one before. "She's a gamma," Frost said. "If it's like the others, this is a single puncture wound. It may be possible to save her."
She cocked her head as if listening, turned to the side, opened Melinda's once-white puffy blouse, and pressed her ear to Melinda's bloody chest with no evidence of squeamishness. A fine line of concentration appeared between her eyes as she shifted her ear to the other side.
Brady moved around her. Secure the gun. Sticky with blood; he snapped on a glove before picking it up with his fingertips.
Lau reappeared in the doorway, cell phone in hand, a uniform at her shoulder. "The ambulance is inbound. They say fifteen to twenty minutes. There was a car wreck in the rain, and they're sending the volunteer from one town over." She raised her eyebrows at Brady.
Brady looked down at the women on the floor: one dead, one dying, the third trying to do something about it, arranged in a row as if a set-dresser had tried to balance the room with bloody bodies.
Frost's lower lip bulged with her frown--deep thought, not frustration. "She's breathing on her own. But something's not right. There's almost certainly damage to the heart, and decreased breath sounds. I think she may have a collapsed lung."
Lau crouched beside her, on the opposite side of Melinda. If this were a horror movie, Melinda would open her eyes right now, Brady thought, and lunge up off the floor. But she stayed quiet, each breath tighter and shallower than the last. And in any case, she was harmless without the useless gun.
With one fingertip, Frost poked the side of Melinda's throat. A bulging vein dimpled. "Tension pneumothorax," she said, but she didn't sound certain.
"Can you do anything about it?" Lau reached out to stroke Melinda's blood-sticky bangs off her forehead. Melinda responded with a drawn breath, a small desperate gasp that sounded like it hurt. When the air came out of her again, it came with a tiny puff. Was she entirely unconscious? Brady couldn't tell, but was certain her state of shock was extreme.
"I can try," Frost said. She reached into her pencil case and came up with a scalpel with a blue plastic handle. When she spoke again, she sounded as if she were lecturing, or perhaps reminding herself--disinterested, dissociated. As if she were speaking by rote. "If I'm right, the puncture has created a... flap valve in her lung. When she breathes in, air is forced from the lung into the pleural space. When she breathes out, the valve closes, and the air cannot escape. The resulting pressure is collapsing her lungs."
Brady wanted to cross the room and crouch beside her. But she needed room to work. "What does that mean?"
"It means she's suffocating on her own breath. Agent Brady, I need you to find a ball-point pen, break off the ends, and pull out the ink. I need a tube."
There was a newspaper on the nightstand, folded over to the crossword. But people did crosswords in pencil, didn't they?
People other than Carol Grossman, apparently. A clear plastic pen lay across the page, and Brady started pulling it apart with his teeth before he even turned back. "This isn't sterile," he said.
Frost... laughed. And then looked up at him, and he realized she thought he had been making an intentional joke. Her usual expression of irritated disapproval replaced the amusement. "A sterile field is the least of Miss Grossman's problems, Agent. Agent Lau, please restrain the patient's arms."
Lau moved around to press them to the floor. Brady handed the plastic tube over her shoulder, and Frost laid it on the skin of Melinda's chest.
Frost lifted her scalpel in her right hand, felt along the top of Melinda's narrow chest, where the rib bones arched above her childish breasts in their training bra, and placed the point of the blade immediately below Melinda's collarbone. Now Melinda whimpered, as a fresh trickle welled from the scalpel tip, but Lau's strength was sufficient for what little struggle she made.
With expressionless precision, Frost moved the knife several careful centimeters. Blood followed.
Frost slid the pen in below the blade. Blood and escaping air sprayed across Frost's hands, and Frost's and Lau's faces. Only Lau flinched.
Melinda's breaths seemed to come easier. Frost removed the scalpel then, and laid it well aside. When he saw she didn't mean to move again soon, Brady said, "Now what?"
"Now we wait for the ambulance." Her eyes flickered up behind the red spatter across her glasses. "If it makes you feel better, you could go boil water."
Biting her lip, Lau pushed Melinda's hair from her eyes once more.
In the absence of emergency personnel and due to immediate threat to the patient's life, this physician made the decision to attempt to relieve the tension pneumothorax.
It's not supposed to hurt this much. You thought it would be quick--it always was before. But it seems like you're lying there forever, the carpet sticky beneath you and people shouting all around. Hands on your chest. You can't open your eyes to see, but you hear the soldier's voice, and the FBI woman's, and the doctor's. It hurts to breathe, and you wish they'd leave you alone.
The gun still sings, but you can hardly hear it now. Your hands are empty, anyway.
Hands on your chest again, pressure and more pain and you'd cry if you could, but you don't have the breath. Just leave me alone, you want to say. You're cold now, and tired, and it hurts and you want to rest--
A hand brushes your hair. Not rough like Daddy's or Grandma's. Soft and small, like you remember Mom's. Maybe she came back for you--
The pain dulls and rolls back as the dark pulls you in. You can't hear the gun anymore.
...it is the opinion of this agent that further loss of life was averted by the heroic actions of Dr. Frost.
--Special Agent Nicolette Lau, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Injuries to the decedent were insufficient to cause instantaneous death. However, they were exacerbated by a bleed into the pleural cavity caused when this physician's attempt to relieve pressure on the cardiopulmonary system lacerated the decedent's subclavian artery. This bleed is the immediate cause of death.
It is probable that a competent medical intervention could have saved the victim's life.
--Madeline Frost, M.D.
The writers would like to thank Ed Uthman, M.D., for his website, http://web2.airmail.net/uthman/Autop.html, and John Schoffstahl, M.D., for his help with the medical details in the last scene. Any errors, of course, are ours and not theirs.