"Basilisk Hunt" - by Emma Bull and Holly BlackAct I | Act II | Act III | Act IV | Act V
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
Greensboro VA Medical Center, Greensboro, NC, June 2009
Jennifer Padula's new white clogs squeaked on the floor as she did her rounds. That was a shame. They were new, from one of those mail order places that stocked leopard-print scrubs and other silly stuff the younger girls wore. So far they didn't hold a candle to the sneakers she'd tossed.
Ignoring the sound with difficulty, she made her way down the hall. Robert Norkantas was sleeping quietly, drooling a little, his hand clutched around his remote. Gerald Johnson's machines showed no change, although his daughter curled up on a nearby cot as if she expected him to wake from his coma at any moment. Morgan Ross wheezed and grunted all night, reaching for a leg no longer there. Peter Alvarez had just come in the week before. His television was on, turned low while an infomercial played. She saw the shine of his eyes in the dark.
"Would you like something to help you sleep?" she asked softly, standing in the doorway of his room.
He blinked at her a few times, as if he was surprised all over again to find himself there. "No," he said finally. "I'm good."
They came in like this sometimes, the kids. Veteran's hospitals saw lots of sleepless patients. Jennifer made a note on the clipboard at the end of his bed and kept walking. She looked in on two more patients, Gabriel Cordoza and Domingo de Gonzalez. Domingo had a saline drip--he'd come in very dehydrated--and she changed it without him coming out of his painkiller-induced haze.
Everything was very still this time of night, just her echoing, squeaking steps, the buzz of low voices on the television talking about pills that promised to melt off weight, the staccato of uneven breaths, and the beep of machines. She got to the nurse's station and looked back, more out of habit than anything else.
The hall seemed dim. She'd have to call maintenance, get them to replace the fried-out fluorescents. Except she could see the white stripes of the tubes behind the diffuser panels in rows along the ceiling: all burning. She ground her fingers into the inside corners of her eyes.
When she opened them it was darker still. She could hardly see the doors in the walls of the corridor. Even the emergency lights along the baseboards were fading, and they were meant to get brighter when the power went out. Where were Jason and Paniz? Somebody needed to call this in, before it raised hell with the patients' life support--
The walls were growing branches and leaves in the darkness. A vine looped across the hallway. She heard big leathery leaves brushing together, smelled mulch or compost. Damp, cool air brushed the back of her neck.
"No," she said out loud. It was supposed to be strong and certain, but it came out a whisper.
Behind her she heard the clink of metal on metal. She turned, grateful, because this would be someone else on staff, maybe Jason with the towels, and things would turn real again.
She could barely see the nurses' station through the night, and trees, and dark shapes, maybe human, slipping through them. Toward her. She staggered sideways, banged her hip on what might be the edge of the counter or a broken branch.
Shrieking, so loud, all around her, and the shapes charging, and they weren't human after all, they were all mouth and clawed fingers with guns and knives--
She couldn't move. She was going to die. No, she wasn't that kind of woman, the kind who waited. She wrenched herself around and ran for the exit doors.
She threw her weight against them and lunged for the stairs. One of her new white clogs flew off her feet and her ankle turned.
It was only as she fell that she finally remembered to scream.
Greensboro, North Carolina was close enough to D.C. that Daniel Brady and Nikki Lau decided to drive. Just five hours and change down and then--hopefully--five hours back tomorrow night, Brady told himself. This was the kind of case that could go fast.
He hoped for signs that would be easy to spot. Weight loss, of course, although this was a hospital; lots of sick people lost weight. But no one had died yet and that augured for early days of the manifestation. They were building on good police work; local PD had combed the scene and the witnesses and ruled out the nice ordinary things like food poisoning and doping the water supply. Of course, that was why he and Lau were headed for Greensboro, because the cops had run out of ordinary. But this was clearly a two-man team case. Keep the FBI and its Anomalous Crimes Task Force low profile, and find and box the gamma for mailing to Idlewood.
Maybe no one had to die. That would be a refreshing change.
And monkeys could fly out Stephen Reyes's butt. Cases that went fast tended to do it downhill. But they had a contained location and limited damage so far. It wasn't unrealistic to hope this might work almost sort of like normal police work.
Normal police could tell whoever they were dating, "Sure, honey, get us tickets to that play. I'll cook dinner." Brady remembered Gray's voice on the phone, after Brady had to tell him exactly the opposite.
"Are you avoiding me, Danny?" Gray'd made a joke of it by the way he'd delivered the line. But that was something you only said if you thought it might be true.
He'd answered, "Hell, no." Because that was what you said if you weren't sure.
Lau fiddled with the dial of the radio and leaned back, folder open on her knees. She unwrapped a candy bar and held it out to Brady reflexively. He took a bite and let chocolate and caramel coat his mouth.
"Not exactly the glamour of a private plane," she said.
He snorted. "Road trip has lots to recommend it. Wind in my hair. Music blasting. You reading out the details of the case..."
"Right," said Lau, rolling her eyes and opening the first folder. "We have at least four separate reports of a ghostly manifestation spotted at the veteran's hospital. All sightings were on the third floor. One nurse became so terrified that she fell down a flight of stairs and injured her spinal cord, resulting in C4 quadriplegia." Lau looked at the page a moment longer than she needed to and sighed.
There was a nightmare, right there: fully aware, able to see life coming at you, and nothing you can do but watch. "Do we have any statement from her?"
"She said that she 'saw a ghost.' But it's unclear if whatever it was actually meant to cause her harm. She was running when she fell. Nothing pushed her or even touched her.
"The other manifestations are similar. Translucent figures, sometimes seeming to be carrying weapons. The impression of darkness, even in a well-lit area. A doctor working in the dispensary room reported seeing what he thought were people who rushed past him. Then screaming seemed to come from the walls. A patient requested a transfer to another hospital after spending a single night on the floor, claiming the place was haunted." She blew air through her lips and slapped the folder closed. "Hospitals are full of trauma. A VA hospital is a fucking trauma minefield. We could be looking at a lot of suspects with gamma potential."
"Only on the third floor."
"It's not a locked floor. Twenty patient rooms, based on the hospital directory. Nursing staff, doctors, orderlies, physical therapists, visitors, ambulatory patients from other floors..." She gave him a shrug that looked apologetic in his peripheral vision. "We can has interview."
And Brady could suck it up and stop thinking he might get home soon enough to make everything right. The job came first. "Unless it really is a ghost."
Lau gave him a long look. "You believe in them?"
He shrugged. "I bet more people believe in ghosts than believe in God."
"Chaz would know," said Lau with a smile.
Brady kept his eyes steady on the road. "Maybe you should call and ask him."
She glanced over at him oddly. He could see out of the corner of his eye. "Just in case you were thinking in terms of what we euphemistically call my sex life--"
"Not even what we euphemistically call your love life." Okay, maybe a little. But Lau swatted his arm, and he said, "No hitting the driver," and they were past the potentially embarrassing moment when she might point out that paired-off people were always trying to pair off everyone else.
Brady felt paired off...and he didn't. It was bad for his balance, bad for his concentration. For the sake of his work he should go back to picking up guys in bars.
He'd offered to put off testifying at a trial to work the Yardston, Ohio case with the team. But when Reyes turned him down, he'd been relieved. He could stay in D.C., go home at night. Or go somewhere else at night. He'd called Gray as soon as the briefing was over.
So he didn't go to Yardston, and everything went to hell. I wasn't there. He'd never know if his presence would have changed that. He only knew he should have been with them.
"You never said, though." Lau had gone back to flipping through the file. "About ghosts. And whether you believe in them."
"I guess I don't know," said Brady. "Grandma Gilmer used to tell this story about how when her sister died she visited in a dream a week later. Gram said her sister sat down on the end of the bed in the dream and told her that she had to do something about the rose bushes."
Lau laughed. "Rose bushes? Was that supposed to mean something?"
"Gram didn't know. But when she went to see her nephew who had inherited the old house, he had torn out all the hedges around the property and put down fresh green sod for lawn. That's my family ghost story. Every family has one."
"Huh," Lau said. "This is what they think we do, you know. The other units."
"What's that?" Brady asked.
"Bust ghosts. With proton pack and Ectomobile. I bet you wish we had an Ectomobile."
"I do," said Brady. He gave himself up to here, now, the work, his best friend. "Who you gonna call?"
"Exactly," said Lau. "Exactly."
The Greensboro Veteran's Administration Medical Center was a series of big, modern buildings, white concrete and pink stone in a lake of kelly-green lawn and fresh-coated black asphalt. It looked like a nice enough place to be sick. It sure as hell didn't look like a haunted house. Cover, book, judgment thereof, Lau thought. Wasn't careful observation one of a profiler's skills?
Melinda Grossman and her grandmother were dead. Hafidha was locked in a wire-lined cage in Idlewood. And for all the good she'd done any of them, Lau might as well have been stone blind.
"Knock, knock," Brady said. She realized the engine was off and Brady's seat belt was unfastened, and he was studying her with that direct, head-tilted blue stare that could be so damned disconcerting. "You in there?"
She clicked herself free of the passenger-side belt. "Yep." She slid the case file into the outside pocket of her bag, shook her hair smooth, and gave him a confident nod and a quick grin. "Let's go, Egon."
They slid out their respective doors. Across the hood, Brady frowned at her. "So who does that make you?"
"Dr. Venkman, naturally. Interpreter for the eggheads."
He snorted and let her lead the way up the curving walk toward the covered entrance.
Heroes have snappy patter so you can tell they're heroes, she thought. Maybe observing the conventions would make the hero materialize.
The admissions desk and waiting area looked a little faded and hard-used, though Lau judged the furnishings to be only a few years old. The sand-colored fake-granite flooring showed where hundreds of feet had worn away the shine, from door to desk, from desk to chairs, from chairs to elevators or down the hallways to other wings. There were about twenty more pairs of feet in the waiting area as she and Brady came in, attached to elderly men, young men, and a few women, most of whose body language suggested they were wives or girlfriends.
The military was an able-bodied culture; Lau knew from her father and brothers how much could be riding on good eyesight, a quota of push-ups, miles run every morning. How did it feel to be forced out of that? To go from warrior to invalid, from swift and strong to barely able to move at all?
It could happen to her, to any of them. The FBI was another cult of fitness, after all. One bad call, one error in judgment, and everything she'd worked so hard to get could be snatched away. Or worse, one of her team could take that hit for her. So don't make a mistake, that's all.
Lau and Brady were only halfway to the desk when a brown-haired man in a khaki suit heaved himself up off a chair and came to meet them. "Agents? I'm Detective Sam Radvila." He thrust out a hand.
She watched Radvila's flushed face relax around the edges, saw the half-squint of tension let go at the corners of his eyes. The cavalry was here. She was always happy to let Reyes take point in greeting their local contact, and not just because he outranked her. That first wave of someone else's relief could break against the rock of Stephen Reyes and have no apparent effect. Lau, however, felt the weight of it and was guiltily aware of her own damned fallibility.
"Special Agent Nicolette Lau," she told him, because it was what one did. "We spoke on the phone." She stayed straight-faced through a ferocious handshake and added, "This is Special Agent Daniel Brady."
"We did what you wanted," Radvila said, as he led them to the elevator and pushed the button. "Third floor's been kept free of visitors and new admissions. Even staff's been restricted to people who were already working that floor when the incidents started. About all we can do without shutting things down completely."
"Thanks, Detective. All right, let's see if there's a spare janitor's closet they can lend us."
Radvila shook his head. "I figured you'd want sort of a command center. Got a little visitor's sitting room at the end of the floor that'll maybe work."
The elevator came. Lau stepped in first and watched as Brady managed the physical voodoo that placed him last in line.
Radvila pressed "3" and they rode in the ordinary uncomfortable silence of strangers in elevators. Radvila wasn't smiling. Lau liked him immediately. Closing the floor of a hospital because of supernatural doings wouldn't fly with everyone, but he seemed to take the situation entirely seriously.
The elevator doors opened on the third floor and a thoroughly normal hospital corridor. Well, normal if hospitals were usually lightly staffed by people who looked as if they expected to be pounced on every time they passed a doorway. But the lighting was fluorescent, bright, and general, the hall wide enough to pass two gurneys and a couple of wheelchairs, and the walls were medical-building sage green and beige. The two staffers in scrubs at the nurse's desk stared at the opening elevator door like deer hearing a twig crack.
"Has anything happened on day shift?" Brady asked Radvila as they walked down the hall, getting wary side looks from a man wheeling a blood pressure cart, a patient on crutches and his PT nurse, a doctor and nurse consulting over a chart.
"Nope. Just nights."
Lau caught the look Brady fired at her. Everyone jumpy without apparent cause. Of course, staff probably rotated shifts, so some of the people working now might have pulled nights during one of the manifestations. But once you started expecting boogeymen off-schedule, you were likely nervous enough to make mistakes, trouble, a mess. "Detective, would you ask the nursing supervisor on this floor to remind the staff to double-check medications and treatment before administering them? Or I can do it if you'd rather. We'll try to keep our investigation from disrupting routine, but the distraction..."
And Radvila was no slouch. "I'll do it. He's an old buddy of mine. Used to be a fireman. So I can say right to his face that if his people get any twitchier, they're gonna be picking up the wrong bottle at the wrong time."
The visitors' sitting room was furnished with a four-top table and chairs, a couch, and a mini-fridge and coffee maker: a room where relatives came to pretend to play cards while they waited for news, where doctors brought families to advise them whether or not to hope, out of sight of the strangers in the hall.
They sat at the table, and Radvila handed them a folder of photocopied incident reports--new information. "We went over the dates and times when the sightings were reported along with staff logs. One nurse was in the building all four times, but she was on this floor only once. None of the rest of the staff overlapped. All the patients currently being treated were here for the, uh, disturbances--new patients haven't been given beds. And one family member--Hang Johnson--has been at her father's bedside pretty much the whole time. Said she wasn't going to leave."
Brady paged through the reports and logs. "Thanks, Detective. We'll fax these to our office and get some background checks started."
"Look," Radvila said, lowering his voice. "What is this? I mean, what are we dealing with here? I know the government doesn't investigate--well, you know what I'm asking."
The temptation to say aliens rose up in Lau, but it was a grim joke. Her lips didn't so much as quirk. She thought of Hafidha and wondered how anyone was supposed to protect themselves when here Lau was--here they all were--withholding information. No, be precise: lying. Could Radvila do his job better if he knew the truth? Unit Chief Celentano was certain the answer was "no." Lau used to believe he was right. After years of cleaning up after the anomaly, of never getting ahead of the damage it did, she wasn't so sure.
How many people had that first crack? A lot, she guessed. Just a matter of time, part of her whispered.
"Well, we don't know yet," said Brady with the slight drawl of Texas in his voice. He seemed utterly trustworthy. "But there's a rational explanation for everything."
"It's been hard to get anyone to cover this case since one of my men asked for a reassignment. Cops are superstitious. Word got around."
Brady nodded. "What did he see?"
Radvila shrugged. "No official report and nothing unofficial either. Let's just say I'm glad to be dumping this in your lap. I've got two plainclothes officers on the floor. Let me know if you need anything."
"Thank you, Detective." Lau stood and got the mighty handshake again. Radvila shook Brady's hand, too, which earned him one of Brady's kindly smiles, and tramped out of the room and down the hall.
"Need any fingers splinted?" Brady asked with a nod at her right hand.
"Showoff. Did I wince? Huh?"
"You're tough as a buffalo's ass." Brady bent over the list of names of staff and patients. "How do you want to split 'em?"
"I'll take all the scary ones."
He looked up at her past his eyebrows and grinned. "Because my nerves," he drawled like Blanche fucking DuBois, "are so delicate. Just for that, you're getting the nurse with the rotten luck."
Paniz Sabanal, the nurse who'd been working during all four incidents, was a small Filipino woman in pink scrubs. Her hair was dusted with gray and permed into short, unfashionable curls. Lau wasn't sure how old she was without looking at the report. Younger than fifty. Older than thirty.
"Get a priest," she said, scowling at Lau. "What are you going to do--arrest a spirit?"
Brady had ceded her the visitors' lounge for an interview room. Sabanal looked out of place perched on the edge of the faded chenille-upholstered couch, her white shoes planted square on the commercial carpeting, her fingers drumming on her kneecaps, her shoulders hunching irritably. I have work to do, her body said. And this is not it.
"I don't believe in ghosts, Ms. Sabanal," Lau said.
"Jennifer Padula is a good friend of mine," said Sabanal. "We did a lot of night shifts together. Took coffee breaks. Talked about our grandchildren. Now she's never going to walk again. She can't even feed herself. " Her jaw worked, and her fingers clenched in the cloth of her scrub pants. Holding back the things you wanted to say at times like this, Lau thought: It's not fair. She didn't deserve this. Sabanal would have learned on the job, if nowhere else, that it wasn't about fair. "Something attacked her--something no one else saw. Something you can't just pretend away." Her voice went high and unsteady at the end.
At the mention of grandchildren, Lau nudged the slider on Sabanal's age toward the higher number. "We're taking this very seriously, Ms. Sabanal, I promise you. "You were in the building during all of the reported incidents. Did you see anything?"
Sabanal shook her head. "Naisha--she's one of the aides--she was coming out of a patient room when she saw somebody running and heard gunfire, and she ducked back and locked herself in there. I was at the nurse's desk. I didn't see or hear anything. I was downstairs when Dr. Kelso started screaming in the dispensing area. Joseph Showalter, the patient who asked to be transferred? There's nothing wrong with his brain. He's a smart man. He said he woke up in the middle of the night, and somebody was pointing a gun at his face. He said it must have just been fired, because he could feel how hot the muzzle was."
"You must see a lot of patients with post-traumatic stress, anxiety disorders--"
"Yeah, we do. We get guys who have their nightmares wide awake, Agent. That's why I know that's not what this is." Sabanal's mouth pressed into a flat, tight line.
Alienating the witness, Lau scolded herself. "Have any of your co-workers experienced something traumatic recently? An injury, an accident, a death in the family...?"
The question surprised Sabanal out of her ire. "You mean, before this started? I don't... No, I don't think so. Why?"
"We want to make sure we've followed every line of inquiry." Law enforcement gobbledegook. When had she learned to rattle it off like that? "Is there anyone else who might have witnessed the incidents, the attack on Ms. Padula?"
Sabanal frowned, but this time not at Lau. "Talk to Peter Alvarez. He can't sleep. Anything that happened on the hall, he probably saw it."
Peter Alvarez occupied a room by himself halfway down the corridor. The foot of the bed pointed toward the door, but Alvarez didn't look toward it when Sabanal knocked on the frame and stepped in. His attention was nailed to the wall beside it. Lau heard the rise-and-fall chatter of a television.
Bad feng shui, Lau thought. A bed pointing toward the door was a deathbed. She shook off the thought. Radvila's right. Cops are superstitious.
"Peter?" Sabanal called.
Alvarez looked away from the television, but didn't speak. He wore the same blank, passive look he'd given the screen.
He was in his early twenties, with black hair cut deployment-short. His tan skin had a gray tinge from lack of sun, and the tightness in his jaw and neck and hands seemed almost unconscious, as if he was tensed against something he didn't know was there. He looked wrung-out, leached of color and energy, and the desire to get them back.
On the screen, an animated cat chased an animated mouse with a hammer.
"Peter, this is Agent Lau. She's here to find out about the...the things that have been happening on the floor."
Lau was used to navigating male-dominated cultures, where guys responded to the sudden appearance of an unfamiliar woman with an evaluating look and, if the evaluation called for it, a little mating display in their greeting. Alvarez merely looked, unengaged, unchanged. As if people came and went like commercials.
Lau crossed the room and sat in the chair wedged in next to the bed. Sabanal stayed by the door; there was barely room for both her and Lau in the room. "Mr. Alvarez," Lau began, "while you've been here, have you observed anything unusual? Outside your room, in here, anything that seemed...out of the ordinary?"
"You mean about the nurse that died?" Alvarez asked.
Sabanal sucked in her breath. "Nurse Padula's fine, Peter. She got hurt, that's all."
"Oh," said Peter. He looked back at the television. The cat had somehow managed to hit itself with the mallet. Tiny yellow birds circled his head. "They're just shadows."
"What are just shadows, Peter?" Lau asked.
Alvarez didn't even frown. "Out there. In the hallway."
"You saw shadows in the hallway?"
"Did you ever hear Plato's Parable of the Cave?"
Lau longed suddenly for Brady: someone to exchange a glance with, to see if her surprise was mirrored there. According to the patient records, Alvarez had dropped out of high school; he wasn't the person she expected to discuss Plato.
"Yes," she said. "I've heard of it." Not all surprises are bad ones. It was important to remember that.
"You see shadows, but never what makes them. It doesn't matter. Whatever you guess, you're going to be wrong. That's the problem with shadows."
Lau drew a long, careful breath. "Sounds as if you have some experience with shadows."
"Sentry duty. Ask anybody." For the first time he raised a hand. It was heavily bandaged, and from the shape, might not have had all its fingers. He wiped at his eyes with his knuckles, back and forth until the skin around them was flushed.
"You better get some rest, Peter," Sabanal said. "I'll bring your meds a little early, so you won't be disturbed."
"I'm not tired," said Alvarez. He watched as the cartoon mouse grabbed the cat's tongue, stretched it like a rubber band, and let it go.
Sabanal led Lau out of the room and half-closed the door. "Morphine drip?" Lau asked her, softly.
Sabanal nodded. "Shrapnel from an IED perforated his small intestine. The surgeon had to remove six feet."
"When he said Ms. Padula was dead--" Lau said, and realized she wasn't sure how to continue.
"I think that's how he sees things," Sabanal replied. She wiped her hands on her scrubs as if they were sweating. "Either you're okay, or you're dead. I think he forgets there's things in between."
"Even though he's in between?"
"Yeah." Sabanal's expression stiffened, shifted back to the tough, distant face she'd first shown Lau. "You got more questions?"
"Not right now. No. Thank you, Ms. Sabanal."
Brady had seen more than a few men like Robert Norkantas in his life, starting with his Grampa Gilmer. Norkantas was forty-two, which from where Brady stood seemed younger than his grandfather could ever have been. But he'd likely age into a dissatisfied, contentious, self-righteous old man.
"If you've come about the goddamn taxes, you can get the hell out."
"No, sir," Brady answered. He felt himself slide into the voice and expression he'd used in his days as an MP busting drunk privates. "The Federal Bureau of Investigation doesn't give a rat's ass about your taxes."
Norkantas blinked, watery gray eyes in a ruddy face. "Don't give me shit. I pay your salary."
"Which is too small. Lucky I'm not here about that, either. You heard about the nurse, Jennifer Padula, who broke her neck on this floor. Maybe you've heard stories about other people seeing or hearing things here."
Norkantas's jaw worked. "Crazy shit. She had new shoes, you know."
"The nurse. People think I'm not paying any goddam attention, but I notice plenty. Squeaky new shoes. Woke me up making her rounds that night. You can't get any sleep in a goddamn hospital." Norkantas scrubbed his heavy-jointed hand across his mouth. "She was all right, though. Mean as an old sergeant. She didn't take shit."
"Did you hear anything besides her shoes?"
"Nope. Was I supposed to?"
Maybe Norkantas was too far from wherever the gamma was. Or maybe he just wasn't a target.
Or the old bastard was doing it himself.
"You're wasting your time with this crap," Norkantas continued. "Psych cases hearing things, orderlies smoking a doobie on break, doctors stealing dope to shoot up--that's all this is."
"You believe the staff is on drugs."
"It's a hospital." Norkantas shrugged. "What the hell do you think it is, ghosts?" He went on before Brady had to answer that. "How about doing your damn job instead? Somebody's stealing from me. My sister brings me nightshirts so I don't have to wear this hospital gown shit. Eight times now. Every damn time they go missing. That's a crime committed on Federal property. I've written my Congressman. You bust whoever it is before he brings it up before the House, and maybe the VA won't have so much shit on their shoes."
Brady longed to ask, "Have you been working on that speech for long?" Instead he said, "We'll take it into consideration in our investigation. You think of anything else that might be connected to the incidents, just ask the staff to call for me or my partner, Agent Lau."
Norkantas squinted at him, as if searching for signs he was being brushed off. Maybe he got "Answer hazy, try again later." "Get out of my room. It's time for my PT."
When Brady knocked on the doorframe of Morgan Ross's hospital room, he was sitting up on the side of the bed about to attach a prosthetic lower leg to his left thigh. His quick look toward the door contained the painful mix of embarrassment and guilt Brady had seen before in many amputees: I'm not supposed to be like this. I'm sorry I couldn't hide it better. But Ross packed that away almost as soon as Brady recognized it. Instead he waved the prosthesis. "Diabetes," he said. "Eats you like a shark, one bite at a time. What can I do for you?"
"I'm Special Agent Daniel Brady of the FBI. My partner and I are investigating the accident that happened to Jennifer Padula, and the other disruptions here."
He got a crooked eyebrow-raise from Ross. "Spooky hospital hijinks, eh?"
"Think there's anything to it?"
Ross's dark brown face sported a week's worth of white stubble and a gold tooth to accent his grin. "Maybe. Never heard of G-men doing a seance, though. So I'm betting you think it's something else."
After Norkantas, Morgan Ross was so good-tempered Brady suspected him of hiding dead co-eds under his hospital bed. "You heard or seen anything out of place while you've been here? Anything outside the regular routine?"
"Well, there's a lot of routine around here, that's for sure. But this isn't like working at the post office. Things come up. You want to be a little more specific?"
Brady suspected Ross just wanted to hear him say "ghosts" out loud. "Other people on this floor have heard voices, seen figures with weapons. Anything like that happen to you?"
Ross contemplated the wall across from him. "Sure it has. They call it 'flashbulb memory.' Used to happen to me all the time when I came home from the 'Nam. But now I can go a year or so without it happening. And I never had it here."
"You've been diagnosed with PTSD?"
Ross snorted. "The U.S. Army just lately allowed as how that exists. And there's guys still waiting for 'em to admit that's what they've got. After all these years, why take the time and trouble to diagnose an old fart like me?"
Lau was right: VA hospitals were a trauma minefield. If the WTF ever came out from under cover, they could establish a satellite office in every fucking one. "If you remember anything about the incidents, or if you hear or see anything unusual, I'd like to hear about it."
"Sure." Ross fastened the last strap on his prosthetic and reached for the cane beside his bed. "Be a hell of thing if it was a ghost, though, wouldn't it? Man, would I like to see that."
Brady didn't think there was any point in arguing with him.
The door to Gerald Johnson's room stood wide open, so Lau took a moment to survey the terrain before she knocked. Johnson lay neat and straight on the slightly-elevated bed; the white sheet and cotton blanket were beautifully smooth over his sunken chest. Johnson, in the fifth week of a coma, didn't move enough to disarrange them.
His ashy skin lay slack over the bones of his face, where Lau thought she could trace what must have once been an attractive mixture of African and Native American features. Now his facial muscles were atrophying, like the rest of his body. He was connected to what looked like every form of medical monitor imaginable. Daphne would be able to tell her what the obscure ones were, if she were here. From where Lau stood, she could see heart rate and blood pressure. The oral airway apparatus snaked out of his mouth like an anteater tongue, and an IV drip fed and hydrated him through the needle in the back of his hand. The room hissed and clicked and chirped with the technology of assisted life.
She set aside the memory of Chaz Villette in a room that sounded like that. He'd lived. That was a different room.
According to the hospital records, Gerald Johnson had sustained a head injury during his tour in Vietnam. He'd recovered, though afterwards he'd had emotional problems--or rather, he'd had problems with other people's emotions, understanding and predicting them. Maybe that had something to do with the bleeding in his brain that had dropped him face-first on a supermarket floor, or maybe not. Now he was unconscious, unresponsive, and slowly sinking toward death.
But he wasn't doing it alone.
The Asian-looking woman who'd pulled a chair up close to the bed was wiry-small. She wore her graying black hair in a neat, smooth ponytail wrapped with a black and white striped scrunchie. Her clothes were cheap but well-chosen: blue knit slacks and matching cardigan over a black top. She leaned over Johnson, murmuring almost in his ear.
Some experts thought talking to comatose patients was therapeutic, that it increased activity in the brain. Some patients, waking from coma, claimed to remember hearing the words, though that might have been because their relatives told them about it. In Gerald Johnson's case, at least it couldn't do any harm.
Lau rapped on the doorframe.
Startled, the woman jerked away from Johnson and snapped her face around toward the door.
"I'm sorry to disturb you," Lau said. "I'm Special Agent Nicolette Lau of the FBI."
The woman seemed even more startled by that. Lau couldn't blame her; if the Feds showed up in her father's hospital room, she'd be pretty taken aback.
"You're Hang Johnson, Gerald Johnson's daughter, aren't you?"
"Yes, I am." Ms. Johnson relaxed into her chair and folded her hands in her lap. "Is there some problem?" Johnson looked nothing like her father, with her small flat nose and pointed chin. Her speech had only a suggestion of a Vietnamese accent.
"We're investigating the disturbances on this floor. Have you been here since your father was admitted?"
Johnson shook her head. "I came to the U.S. to look for him after my mother died. I found him here three weeks ago. I'm sorry he'll never know I was here."
"You say you came to look for him?"
"When he left Vietnam, he didn't know about me. I knew his name and rank, and what insignia were on his uniform." Johnson's smile was faintly satirical. "You can look up almost anything on the internet. And there are people in the U.S. State Department whose job is to answer questions about...servicemen's foreign families."
What would it have been like, growing up part of a forgotten family, daughter of the enemy? Shame, anger, self-doubt. Had Hang Johnson made it all the way here in spite of that, or because of it? "You were here when the nurse, Jennifer Padula, had her accident?"
"Were you here in your father's room?"
"Did you hear or see anything unusual when it happened?"
"I heard the nurse walking in the hall. Then I heard her run, her footsteps. I thought she was hurrying to a patient. That was all, until they found her on the stairs."
Very concise. But then, Detective Radvila and his people would have asked her the same question. "Other people on the floor have seen...disturbing visions, illusions, heard voices. Have you seen or heard anything you'd describe that way?"
Gerald Johnson's heart monitor beeped slow and steady in the space after Lau's question. "Do you believe in ghosts, Agent Lau?" Hang Johnson asked at last.
"No, I don't."
"I believe the world is full of them. Our memories of the dead are ghosts. They want us to do the things they can't, they speak to us in our imagination. They're common as grass."
Lau could remember a lot of dead people. She supressed a shiver. "Did you see or hear anything that wasn't from your memory or your imagination?"
Johnson pursed her lips, deepening the lines around them. "I don't think so."
"If you recall anything, will you let me know?"
Johnson turned back to her father: interview over. Beep, beep, beep, said the heart monitor.
Orderly Jason Kamarcek was the person who'd found Jennifer Padula on the stair landing. He was a big, broad-chested man in his twenties with a golden-blond brush cut and a pleasant, soft-looking face. He sat on the couch in the visitors' lounge in his blue scrubs, hunched over as if the ceiling was too low for him, his left thumb massaging the palm of his right hand as if working out an ache. When Lau identified herself and asked about Padula, his expression drooped like a bassett hound's.
"I was running behind. I was supposed to bring linens up from the laundry to third floor, and if I hadn't been behind--" Kamarcek lifted his big hands and let them fall back on his knees. "Maybe I could have stopped her." He swallowed. "She bitched about things. But once you got to know her, she was really funny." He winced as he heard what he'd said. "Shit. No, she's still funny. I mean, she can be."
Lau dodged around the morass of past-present-future Kamarcek found himself stuck in. "Did you hear or see anything unusual before you came upstairs?"
He shook his head.
"Or when you found Padula, or after? I know you would have been concentrating on her, but do you remember noticing anything else?"
"Not around then. No."
There was a qualifier in there. "What about before then, or since?"
Kamarcek's already-pink face flushed darker. "I-- It didn't seem like anything. I mean, not like the other stuff that's been happening."
Lau leaned forward in her chair, elbows on her thighs, hands clasped in front of her. Mirroring. Jesus, it's a reflex now. "Tell me anyway. You never know what might turn out to be helpful."
"It was, I guess, two nights ago. I was stocking the bathrooms on third floor. Pretty mindless, you know? Like weight reps or running laps. Nobody's life depends on it, so you can kind of zone. And I thought I heard people behind me."
"In the next room?"
"No, it was like they were in the woods. Rustling, you know? Like they were going through brush. And somebody whispered something."
"That was it?"
"Well, that's when my pager buzzed. I had to go help turn a guy up on four." Kamarcek shrugged. "Like I said, it wasn't much. Maybe I was hearing somebody's TV."
"But you didn't hear it after you got paged."
Kamarcek shook his head. "Sorry."
"No, thank you. That may be useful."
Kamarcek looked distinctly less bassett-hound-like at that. He promised to let her or Brady know if he remembered anything else.
When he left, Lau sat with her chin in her hands, trying to assemble a picture of the evidence in her head. Was Hang Johnson right, that ghosts were only memories? Then why didn't these ghosts belong to the victims?
By the time they left the building, Brady was starving. It was easy to forget meals on a case. Things got bad and you worked until you collapsed from exhaustion or everything got wrapped up. Without Hafidha or Chaz around needing to eat, he found himself only now remembering that it was nearly eight at night and he'd had a bite of a candy bar and three cups of coffee, not counting the one he was currently cradling in his hand.
Of course, thinking of Hafidha--hell, thinking of Chaz--made him want to keep going, do something even though nothing he did now could change the past. Low blood sugar's getting to you, he told himself.
Lau climbed into the SUV on the driver's side and poked the key in the slot. She smiled at him across the between-seats console, but it was the smile of someone who was keeping all her thoughts to herself.
"It could be any of them," said Brady, leaning his head back against the headrest. After a moment, he turned toward her. "Or none of them. Someone a floor down. Someone on the cleaning crew. All the evidence we have is the kind that adds up to absolutely nothing."
"I saw a flyer tacked up on the corkboard in the nurse's station," said Lau. "A pizza place on Grant Street. That's not far from our hotel."
Brady sighed and pointed to where the keys dangled from the ignition. "Pizza," he said. "Then self-recrimination. Good plan."
She laughed and started the car, strapping her seatbelt across her. Warm air vented into the passenger compartment as the air conditioner struggled with the engine.
Brady took out his phone to see if the office had called. Nothing. He tucked it back in his pocket.
"Tell me it's worth it," Lau said as they pulled out of the hospital parking lot.
"Relationships." She must have misunderstood who he'd been expecting messages from. "I mean, all that time and effort, and what am I going to get from nine out of ten men that I can't get better and with less trauma from Hitachi?"
Coffee stung the inside of Brady's sinuses, but with a heroic effort he kept from spraying the windshield. A glance over at her, chewing her lower lip and drumming on the steering wheel as she stared straight ahead, told him she deserved a sincere answer. Problem was, he wasn't sure he had one.
"I dunno," he said. "Shoulder to cry on? Lawn mowed? Coffee made in the morning when you stagger out of bed?"
She removed one hand from the wheel, but only to rake it through her glossy, asymmetric bob. When she turned to appraise him, she stared for long enough that he became uncomfortable.
"Damn," she said. "I think I envy your fucking boyfriend, Dan."
He laughed. It sounded harsh from inside his skull. "What, you think he wakes up to fresh coffee and the sound of the lawn mower? I thought we were talking hypotheticals."
"He must get something out of it," she said lightly.
"God knows what." He had no idea whether or not she'd gotten the answer she was looking for, but his own words echoed in his ears. No wonder he wanted to go back to picking up men in bars. He had a good thing. He knew it. And he was going to neglect and mistreat the relationship until he messed it up. He was going to make a whole bunch of bad boyfriend decisions, because the alternative was a lot of bad cop decisions, and someone might die.
Gray got something out of it, but not enough. Not for long.
They parked in their hotel lot and checked in. It was one of those places geared toward businesspeople marooned far from their offices. The rooms were functional, generic, and smelled a little bit like formaldehyde, but the fax in the room was never broken and the photocopier in the lobby would even compile and staple for you.
Brady dumped his suitcase on the dull brown bedspread.
"Meet you in ten?" Lau asked, duffel over her shoulder in the hallway. She was two rooms down.
He nodded. First things first. He used the extremely convenient machine to fax all the files to Solomon Todd, along with a quickly scrabbled note to see if there was any background information the local police couldn't access. Once he'd fed all the sheets into the machine, Brady sat down on the bed next to his suitcase.
He should call Gray. That's what people did, right? Called their lovers from the road. Just a quick check-in to let him know he's on your mind. Lau had thought so, enough to think him bringing out his phone meant something. But the thought of actually doing it was suffocating.
He was keyed up to chase down manifestations, his nerves shocky. He became a different person in the field and it felt impossible--even dangerous--to become the person he was with Gray even for a few moments. But it was what people did. And not calling might be one of those bad decisions that later, thinking back, he would wonder why he made.
"Hey," Lau said from the doorway. Her hair was wet. She was wearing a different shirt. Blue. "Have you just been sitting here the whole time?"
"I guess so," Brady said, blinking. His phone was cradled in his fist. "I sent the files to Todd."
"Let's get some food in you," said Lau. "We've got a long night ahead of us."
He stood up and gathered his things. He hadn't even unpacked his bags. Maybe some part of him was still thinking there was a chance they would go home.
They walked together to the pizza place a couple of blocks over. The setting sun sloped across parking lots and threaded through the buildings of office parks, glowing with a warm flush you couldn't get with stage lighting, and he'd tried. The temperature was starting to drop, and a little breeze rustled the leaves of the scrawny boulevard trees. It was the kind of night when you were supposed to go out for walks with your lover.
Back in D.C. it's probably a fucking steam bath. Lousy walking weather.
The pizza was crisp and hot. Brady washed three slices down with yet another cup of coffee--this one tasting of long hours burning on a hotplate.
Lau pulled a piece of mushroom off the top of her second slice and popped it in her mouth. As she chewed consideringly, she reached into her handbag and came out with a pen.
"Okay," she said, dragging a napkin toward herself and making a bullet point. "People still in the running. Not Jennifer Padula. There haven't been any manifestations in her current facility and there have been manifestations since she's been gone. I'd eat my hat if it was Paniz Sabanal--the mythology doesn't fit--but we can't entirely eliminate her. Then there's Peter Alvarez. No evidence either way there."
"What was your impression of him?"
"Wounded," said Lau.
"Robert Norkantas is pretty angry," Brady said. "Bitter about the government. And he was annoyed with Jennifer Padula the night she saw the manifestation. Her shoes were keeping him awake."
"That's a pretty slim reason to nearly kill her."
"Not if what he's doing isn't conscious. He was annoyed; his subconscious lashed out. Besides, she slipped on the stairs. There's no reason to think that was deliberate."
"No reason to think it wasn't." Lau bit off a piece of her crust and washed it down with a slug from her water bottle. "And Morgan Ross?"
Brady shrugged. "I just don't know. Same thing with Hang Johnson. She's the right age to have been alive in Vietnam during the war, so the mythology isn't impossible, but that would have been a very long time ago."
"Her father's dying. Her mother's dead. Any of that could be the second crack."
"Sure," said Brady, taking another sip of charred coffee. It sat badly in his stomach.
"Kamarcek, the orderly, seems to be pretty motivationless. Duke may turn up something in the background checks."
"Thank God for Papertrail Guy." Brady wished Todd was here. A third set of eyes would be nice. His interview skills would be even better. And Brady could stand to hear a few of Todd's shaggy fish stories, to take the ache out of dealing with so many hurting people.
They always dealt with hurting people. Suck it up, Danny.
Lau swallowed another neat bite of pizza. "Something Kamarcek said that got me thinking. He was stocking bathrooms at the time of the manifestation. He compared what he was doing to running or lifting weights."
"So everyone who experienced a...a thing was in the middle of doing something they do often. You know how routine puts you into a sort of meditative state?"
Brady grinned. "You're asking me? I'm from Texas, remember?"
"Do not make me sock you. Again." She flipped her hair behind her ear, and didn't seem to notice when it started sliding free almost immediately. "It may be that our gamma's manifestation is opportunistic. It may fasten on people whose brain activity is, I don't know, appropriate. Welcoming. Something."
"Whew. Until that last bit, you were starting to sound like Reyes." He reached for a slice of pizza on Lau's side, to give her an excuse to growl. Instead she pushed the pan toward him.
Brady bit into the last veggie slice. He pulled her napkin closer, looking down the list of inked names. "One thing Norkantas said stuck out to me. He didn't hear anything the night Jennifer Padula fell. Anyone report seeing or hearing a manifestation who wasn't directly affected by it? Any groups of people seeing ghosts?"
"No. Interesting." Lau wrote the word "alone" on the paper and circled it.
Lau got up and dumped her remains into the garbage. "Time for our hospital slumber party stakeout. Should we get some coffee?"
"Not here," said Brady, looking into his cup with a shudder. Then he grinned at her. "So, what do you think? Did I change your mind about relationships?"
"My mind's not made up," she said. They walked back to the SUV together.
"Oh good," said Brady. "Tonight we can make mash notes with the names of all the boys you like. You know, to pass the time."
She punched him in the arm, but not too hard. Just hard enough.
Lau rubbed the bridge of her nose. She was tired. Coffee wasn't working so well at two in the morning. This was like the awful waiting of any stake-out, the odd combination of anxiety and boredom, except she had to do it on her feet.
It was easy to miss a manifestation that only a few people were able to witness at all. So Lau and Brady had paced the hallway, back and forth, watching for anything unusual. Passing patients' rooms and pretending not to notice which of the patients were sleeping. Trading jokes with the new plainclothes cop whose name she's already forgotten and who had fallen into a doze about an hour ago, only waking enough to sleepily nod to them when they passed his chair.
So far, she'd perceived nothing out of the ordinary. Nada. Zip. Just background noise of machines, of television turned all the way down, of Hang Johnson whispering out her heart to her dying father.
Brady had gone all the way to the other end of the floor--to their makeshift office in the visitors' lounge where cell phones were allowed--to check if Todd turned up anything. She kept on pacing. All the way to the end of the hallway and then back again. Click of her kitten heels on linoleum.
When she was midway down the hall, gooseflesh pimpled her arms.
She shuddered. The dimness suddenly seemed ominous. The lounge seemed very far away.
Lau thought of what Brady had said about every family having its own ghost story. No personal story had come to mind and it occurred to her unpleasantly that this could be it. This could be hers. And, just her luck, it was no amusing anecdote about beloved rosebushes.
Darkness condensed in the ceiling corners, crept down the walls, breathed out from under closed doors. Like a nest of ants on the march, millions of them, the shadow getting thicker and darker as the nest emptied. Lau watched it happen and knew this was what she was supposed to be waiting for, but all she wanted to do was close her eyes and pretend it away. This was good, this was evidence, she told herself, as the shadows lengthened, crept up over her feet, darkening her legs.
A scream shivered on her lips but she forced herself to swallow it. Her right hand twitched with the need to reach for her weapon in its holster, to react as she was trained. She held her arms out from her sides instead. This was an illusion. Only an illusion.
Diagonally across the hall, Hang Johnson leaned over her father's bed. The signal from his heart monitor quickened, as if it were sounding in time with Lau's speeding pulse instead of his. Beep beep beepbeepbeepbeep.
Lau felt cold breath on the back of her neck. She turned, stepping out of the dark. For a moment, everything seemed normal, but then the breath was back, colder than ever and accompanied by the press of the barrel of a gun between her shoulder blades. Run, her instincts screamed at her. They're coming for you. Run.
But she was frozen in place, limbs locked, muscles straining with the tension of holding herself as still as possible.
"You all right?" The plainclothes cop's voice cut through the fog of her terror.
He stood six feet away, frowning, still blinking sleep out of his eyes.
And suddenly he wasn't seeing her anymore.
"Drop it! Drop it and freeze!" he screamed. He had his gun out, had his sight picture, finger in the trigger guard.
In the closed hall, the shot was so loud it almost wasn't a sound at all.
Brady spread the police reports across the table in the visitors' lounge, pulled his phone out of his pocket, and thumbed "7" to dial Solomon Todd. It didn't ring for long. It was comforting to know that he and Lau weren't the only ones losing sleep over this one.
"Aren't you in a hospital?" Todd asked, in the same tone he might have said, "Don't you think you'd like to move away from the edge of that cliff?"
"Visitors' sit-around-and-fidget area. Cell phone use permitted. How goes the background checks?"
"In a way guaranteed to make me miss Hafidha more than I ever thought possible, which is quite a trick. You ready?"
Brady scribbled a line at the top of one of the photocopies to make sure his pen worked. "Shoot."
"First off, so you won't be kept in suspense, nothing conclusive. It'll come as no surprise that you do have some promising candidates, however. Paniz Sabanal has no obvious potential cracks in her background: moved to Atlanta from the Philippines with her family when she was eight; good grades; no police record; married; husband alive, healthy, and employed; both parents still living."
Brady wrote down her name and put an "O" beside it, knowing it was conditional.
"Peter Francisco Alvarez is an egg of a different color, however, and if it's not actually oozing yolk, I wouldn't count on it staying that way. His father went to prison for armed robbery when he was a kid, leaving his mother to raise him and his older brother. His brother was in and out of juvie. Alvarez was a smart kid with bad grades, until he dropped out to go to work at the Nissan plant. Nissan plant cut a slew of jobs, and Alvarez joined the Army. Which sent him to Iraq, where he did three back-to-backs before he got blown the hell up."
Alvarez got a "+" beside his name.
"Robert Norkantas has two failed marriages, an estrangement from his son, and is on his second heart attack. He has a history of misdemeanor charges from fights with neighbors. His sister is divorced and unemployed, and moved in with him a year ago."
"Why am I not surprised by any of that? Doesn't sound like anomaloid material, though." Brady wrote "Norkantas" and "+?".
"I just report 'em, sonny. Your orderly, Jason Kamarcek, is a local boy who washed out of a football scholarship at NC State. Came home, started the pre-nursing course at the community college, and is paying his tuition working at the hospital. He'd have a clean bill of anomaly-friendly trauma, except his twin sister died in a car crash their senior year in high school."
Brady sighed and wrote, "Kamarcek--+?" "Except Kamarcek says he heard spooks. Which makes him a victim, not a gamma."
"He says." Brady could hear the grim smile in Todd's voice.
"God damn. You ever get the feeling this line of work could make us cynical?"
He missed Todd's reply. The sound from the hall behind him was so big it blotted out sound, sight, everything in a white burst.
"What was that?" Todd, stacatto in his ear, as Brady said, "Gunshot" and ran for the hall.
The stink of ignited powder filled the corridor, wrong for the place and time. Lau stood wide-legged, braced, hands frozen in mid-air to either side, in the middle of the hall. No weapon in her hand. If she wasn't the shooter, she could be the target.
Six feet further down the hall the plainclothes cop still held his modified Weaver stance, his service weapon pushed ahead of him in both hands. Smoke breathed from the bore. It wasn't pointed at Lau. It was pointed--
Morgan Ross leaned in the door of his room, wearing a look of mild irritation. He put a hand to his ribs. A stain spread slowly out from under it.
"Oh, Jesus," the cop whispered. He registered his finger along the barrel of his pistol and pointed the muzzle at the floor. No safe direction in here, Brady thought, but at least the guy was falling back on his training. His eyes stared and his lips were parted and slack. Not a young man, Brady realized. Old enough to have had a long career on the force without ever having to fire his gun.
Lau had her pistol out now at low ready. Because if the cop started seeing things again, started shooting, they'd have to take him down.
"Put the safety on and holster your weapon, officer," Brady ordered. It came out firm--voice of command--even though Brady could feel the adrenaline shakes starting up.
The cop did as he was told. Brady felt the twanging-tight tension go out of his spine, and out of Lau as well.
Ross slid down the doorframe to the floor. Brady and Lau lunged in tandem to catch him, laid him down. Brady shouted, "Get a doctor!" and sprang for a supply cart pushed against the wall. Wound dressings--there.
By the time he turned with his fistful of cotton batting, a nurse was there to grab it from him. And a doctor, good.
In the next room down the hall, someone was screaming.
"Alvarez," Lau breathed.
"Go," Brady told her. She bolted toward the sound.
He realized Ross's hand was clenched in his, which he couldn't remember doing. Through gritted teeth, Ross muttered, "Didn't see a ghost."
"Good. You'll be okay. If you're going to get shot you should do it in a hospital, right?"
Ross twitched out a tight grin before the doctor said, "Please step back, Agent."
Brady rose and crossed the corridor to the plainclothes cop, who still stood where they'd left him.
"Jesus. Jesus fucking Christ. I didn't-- That wasn't what---" It sounded as if the cop was strangling on the words.
Brady grabbed his shoulders and half-dragged him to a chair by the nurses' station. "What did you see?"
"I wasn't shooting at--"
"I know. What did you see?"
The cop scrubbed his hands over his face. "I heard...automatic weapons fire. Several males, armed--too dark to count. At least three. They charged me."
Brady squeezed the cop's shoulder. Experienced police. He may have been frightened, but not too frightened to give evidence.
"Oh, Jesus. It wasn't real, was it? And I shot that guy." The cop stared into Brady's face, his eyes pleading, as if Brady could make it not true.
"You made the best call you could," Brady said. Though it wasn't the best, was it? Radvila had to have warned his men, told them not to trust their eyes and ears. But he'd warned Brady and Lau, too: cops are superstitious. "Call Detective Radvila. Tell him what just happened. Get him down here."
The cop clutched Brady's sleeve. Brady understood the impulse: hang onto something proven to be real until the next real object comes in sight. "Where are you going?"
"To see if my partner needs backup." Brady tugged away and sprinted back down the hall.
Alvarez had stopped screaming. When Brady got there, Lau stood squeezed against the wall, wedged there by the orderly who was restraining the man in the bed, and the nurse who was adding a sedative to his IV drip. Lau's face was gray-green and rigid.
"I think," she said, her voice oddly distant, "he was trying to fight his way out of the Humvee." She closed her eyes. "Shadows on the goddamned wall."
"Come on," Brady said, bracing his arm against her back and holding her upper arms with both his hands. "Staff commissary. You're going to sit down, drink a big-ass glass of milk, and debrief me."
Lau's eyes snapped open. "Milk?"
"Can you find brandy in a hospital?"
Her laugh was partly groan, but he felt her spine stiffen and her weight pull away from his hands. Still bulletproof.
Lau sat at a table in the staff break room holding her head up with both hands, while Brady fed the vending machines. He scored two cartons of milk and a bottle of orange juice. He could almost tell by looking that the egg salad sandwiches in the cooler were bland and dry; he passed them up for two packets of cheese-and-peanut-butter crackers.
"I should have stopped him," Lau said, when he dropped his booty on the table and sat down.
"Who, the cop? How exactly do you figure you'd have done that?"
"I don't know. But I was right there, damn it."
"Was there time between when the spooks got out of your head and when they got into his?"
Lau slid her fingers into her hair and yanked on it. "Probably. I think."
Brady leaned over and stared at her through the space between her wrists.
"Shit. I don't know. God, I got a civilian shot, Danny."
Brady opened the first carton of milk and pushed it at her. "No, the gamma got a civilian shot. If you're going to beat on yourself, I'll declare you unfit for duty and send you the hell home."
As she slugged down the milk, Brady felt his phone vibrate. He slipped it out and checked the caller ID: Todd. Fuck, he'd been on the phone when the shot was fired, and hadn't called back. He answered the call with, "Brady, and we're both okay, and yes, I suck like a hundred-dollar blowjob."
Lau choked and wiped her mouth. On the other end of the line, Todd was silent for a moment, which Brady took as appreciation. "What went down?"
"Our plainclothes detail got haunted. Unfortunately, he fired his weapon and hit a civilian. No report on how the civilian is doing yet. Hold on, let me put you on speaker."
"You'll be happy to hear I've got intel for you." Even over the phone's tiny speaker, Todd sounded cheery, the sort of cheery that made Brady think of a dog about to close his teeth on a rat. "There's no such person as Hang Johnson. This may come as no surprise, since I imagine we've all been expecting verification that Johnson has no legally-binding marriage to a Vietnamese woman in his past. Immigration from Vietnam to the U.S. is in three figures per year nowadays, and less than half of those are women. So I sorted out the ones who fall into approximately the age range you describe for Hang Johnson, and checked to see if any of them had left footprints in North Carolina.
"It boiled down to Phan Thi Hang, age 48. I've e-mailed you her passport photo. She entered the U.S. in December of last year."
Across the table, Lau scrambled her phone out and thumbed buttons. After a moment she turned the display so Brady could see it. "That's her," she said.
"Well, then, children," Todd continued. "Here's the rub. Phan Thi Hang was born in 1961. Gerald Johnson was sent to Vietnam in 1972."
"She's too old," Brady said aloud. He felt as if he had to say it, to make it real. "She's not his daughter."
Lau thumped her forehead with her knuckles. "Crap. I'm an idiot. When I was questioning her, she told me about herself, about Johnson, things I didn't ask her. As if she'd rehearsed it. When I asked her about the incidents in the hospital, she only answered my questions."
"Then why's she here?" Brady asked. "Because you don't sit at the bedside of a total stranger waiting for him to die, now, do you?"
"Think she's our bogey?" Todd suggested.
"Guess we'll go find out. Anything else?"
"Nope. But do keep in touch this time, won't you?"
Brady disconnected and put the phone away. "Let's go." He pushed himself to his feet and brushed his fingers across his holster. Not that he doubted it was there.
Lau stood and swept the crackers into her jacket pocket. "We'll want these later. Unless, of course, I die of a terror-induced heart attack, at which point you can fish them out of my pocket and eat them." She took three steps toward Brady...and stopped. "Wait. Wait, wait, wait. When I was having the hallucination-- Oh, hell, adrenaline fucks with memory. Yes, I heard Gerald Johnson's heart monitor. Danny, it sped up."
Brady met her eyes. "His heart rate went up during the manifestation."
"And there's been no instance of two people at once being affected by the gamma."
"We need to check the output of Johnson's monitors against the times reported for the incidents."
"Nursing station," he agreed, and followed her as she swept from the room like a roadrunner.
Lau hated how shaky she felt. What counted was how you reacted in a crisis.
You had to keep your head. She'd lost hers and Morgan Ross got hurt. She'd noticed the monitor but failed to think about what it meant. And now, riding the elevator back to the third floor, she was getting the creeps all over again. Pull yourself together, Lau.
They were halfway down the hallway before they heard the scream.
"You've got to be kidding me," Brady said as they both took off toward Johnson's room in a run.
Hang stood beside the bed of the man who wasn't her father, slashing the air with a pair of suture scissors as if she thought she was wielding a straight razor, screaming.
A night-shift nurse tried to catch her flailing arms, but the scissor points flashed, stabbed downward, and the nurse darted back. "Oh my God. Hang! Hang! Put those down, honey."
Lau pulled the nurse away as she and Brady edged into the room. Hang didn't seem to notice them. "Get a sedative," Lau ordered. Johnson's manifestation had a range. They had to get Hang out of it.
"She must have gotten them off my tray," the nurse insisted. "I just turned around for a minute."
"Sedative," said Lau firmly. "Now. Go."
The nurse fled the room.
Hang spoke a flood of Vietnamese as she moved toward Johnson's bed. Lau couldn't understand the words, but the tone was clear. She was pleading.
Johnson's heart monitor beeped so fast, it was one long note.
Brady grabbed Hang's wrists and tried to cross her arms behind her back. She screamed like a trapped animal and stabbed the point of the scissors into Brady's hip. Brady grunted. Blood darkened the cloth of his pants.
Lau twisted the scissors out of Hang's fingers. Then she added her strength to Brady's to drag Hang out of the room. It was like holding a cat against its will; Hang was small, but she thought she was fighting for her life.
The nurse ran up to them in the hall. "I need a doctor's authorization. They're busy on other floors. I can't--"
"Never mind. We need a bed." Pain and shock had made Brady's face go ashy. "Away from Johnson. The farthest you've got."
"Three-nineteen. It's across from--"
But Lau and Brady were already pulling Hang toward the room across from the visitors' lounge. Three doors away from Johnson's room, she went suddenly limp.
Brady lifted Hang onto the empty room's bare mattress and straightened her limbs and clothes. Her eyes were closed. Was she unconscious? "Does this door lock?" Lau asked.
The nurse shook her head. "We can strap her down--posey her--but this ward isn't set up for anything more than that."
"No, never mind. I'll wait here with Hang," Lau told Brady. "You better get the hole in you looked at."
"We'll both wait here." Brady turned back to the nurse. "But I was wondering if you could bring me some records from your station."
The nurse gave him a long look. "You can look through any papers you want, but we're dealing with your stitches first."
"Stitches?" Brady gave Lau a pitiful look. She laughed, though it felt like coughing up clay.
"Why don't you bring me the records," Lau said. "And I can take a look at them while he gets taken care of."
"He'll have to undress," the nurse warned.
"You promise not to watch?" Brady asked Lau, deadpan.
"Oh, shut up." Despite everything, Lau had to try very hard not to smirk.
"Pants down," the nurse said to Brady.
The nurse--whose name turned out to be Dolores and who brought them coffee along with the paperwork--cleaned and Steri-stripped Brady's wound with a minimum of fuss. He made a few faces and winced a little, but seemed mostly to be complaining for the fun of it. Or maybe for Dolores's benefit. When she was done, she seemed calmer.
Lau turned her attention to the patient records, cross-referencing the dates and times with the police reports. It all lined up. Johnson's heart rate spiked during each manifestation. His EEG showed that his neurons were firing like crazy.
"We got him," Lau said softly. But what it meant to find a vegetative gamma, Lau wasn't sure.
"Can we have a couple minutes?" Brady asked Dolores.
"Of course." Dolores picked up the unused portion of gauze and tape and left them alone with Hang.
Lau turned the reports around, so Brady could read them. "We should call Todd," she said. "We're going to want to move Johnson."
Brady pulled out his phone just as Hang gave a shuddering gasp. Big, racking sobs shook her chest and she slammed her closed fist against her breastbone.
"Hey," Lau said, grabbing her hand. "You're okay now."
"He was coming for me. It was just like before --" she broke off, sobbing again.
"Hang," said Brady. "Who is that man in the bed to you? We know you're not his daughter."
Even her laugh sounded like crying.
"I hated him," Hang said. Her face was red and swollen with tears. "I hate him. I came here to kill him."
FBI agents didn't often get to hear people say things like that, but Hang seemed beyond caring. She turned her head toward the wall, then back to them, like she was trying to focus. The skin around her eyes looked bruised and her hand trembled when she reached to wipe her tears with a corner of her cardigan. No wonder she had been convincing as a doting daughter. She looked authentically worn out.
"A patrol came to my village when I was ten. I remember them, loud and stinking of cigarettes and I remember him--Johnson--most of all. They wanted my father to tell them where the weapons were. Johnson killed him because he wouldn't cooperate. Johnson killed my father, in front of our whole village, as an example."
"That must have been very hard for you," said Brady.
She snorted, whether contemptuous of his pity or of her own hardship, Lau wasn't sure.
"So you came here last December with the intention of killing Gerald Johnson?" Brady asked.
"After my father died, nothing was ever good again for us. My older brother disappeared in the fighting. My mother died of an infection--an infection--because she wouldn't see a doctor. I promised her on her deathbed that I would destroy this man who had destroyed her life.
"It was easy to track Johnson down, once I came here. And even though I never had any proof, everyone at the hospital was happy to believe I was his daughter. No one wanted to think an old, sick man had no wife, no family. Every time I lied, I hoped I would get caught. I hoped someone would say 'get away from him; you don't belong here.' Then I could go. I could have said that I tried. But they all wanted him to have a daughter, even though he didn't deserve one."
"A daughter like your father had," Lau murmured. To avenge her father, Hang took his killer's name and shed his. How hard had that been to do?
"My father deserved a better daughter than me. I kept telling myself that I would do it soon. I even told him, Johnson. Every day I would tell him I was going to kill him tomorrow. I told him how much I hated him and how happy I would be once I turned off his life support. You can arrest me if you want. It doesn't matter. I never had the courage to do any of the things I promised."
Lau looked at the woman on the bed and had no idea what to say to her. Lots of cowards killed people. It took something to have a moral compass keen enough to keep you from doing the truly terrible, but Lau was pretty sure Hang didn't want to hear that.
"You'll have to tell your story to Detective Radvila," Brady told Hang. His air of authority figure seemed to steady the woman. "He'll be the one to recommend whether the state should bring a charge against you, and whether you'll be taken into custody."
Hang shrugged and half-smiled. "I have nowhere else to go. And he's going to die. So I'll never--I'll never--" She hid her face in both hands.
Never murder him. Never make up her mind. Never have to.
Radvila arrived to load Phan Thi Hang into the back of a patrol car and take her to the station. She'd end up being deported, Brady was sure, back to a country where she had nothing but her own ghosts.
He was packing up their paperwork in the visitors' lounge when Lau came in. When she was in the public eye--which meant almost anyone's eye--she walked and stood flexibly erect, shoulders back, head up. Confident, you're-in-good-hands posture. But he knew her pretty well now. So he watched for the tells that would convey the news before her mouth did.
Mixed, he thought.
"Morgan Ross is going to be fine," she announced. "They say he was about as lucky as you can get and still have a gunshot wound."
"Good. What about Gerald Johnson?"
Lau shook her head. An IV couldn't supply enough nutrients for a gamma, not for long. Between that and the earlier damage to his brain, there wouldn't be enough of him to save. Gerald Johnson was failing fast, all his lashing out at shadows weakening his body against the shadow growing within him. "He can't be moved far. But hospital administration has agreed to isolate him in another building until it's over."
"Hospital staff can't be left to deal with him by themselves." So much for getting back home. Was he regretful or relieved? A little of both.
Lau touched his shoulder, just a brush. "It's okay. I told Radvila I'd sit death watch. He's a smart cookie, that copper. When I started in on the 'mass hallucinations' routine, he said he didn't take bullshit from the government if he could help it."
Yeah, Brady could imagine it. "I'm not going to leave you here solo."
"Yes, you are. I didn't get this job on my looks, buddy. You've had your head in the game, but there's other parts of your anatomy that never left D.C." She shook her head. "I'll have local backup, better briefed this time. And if nobody's whispering death threats into Johnson's ear, he may not manifest again. If he does..." She gave her shoulders a little self-deprecating twist. "I'll deal."
Brady thought about the office, the empty space they all maneuvered around. It would be worse with two more agents gone.
"Will you be okay to drive back by yourself, though?" Lau nodded toward his injured hip.
It was sore and stiff, but he'd had worse. "I'll make sure to stretch at the truck stops. And this way I don't have to wrestle you for the stereo."
Lau stacked file folders absently. "We didn't even need the proton packs." He heard the tension threading her voice.
"Our courteous and efficient staff is on call twenty-four hours a day to serve all your supernatural elimination needs," Brady quoted, to make her laugh.
Which she did, but not easily. "And nobody got killed."
Ah, there it was. The thing she wasn't saying. I didn't get anybody killed. "Nope. Didn't even have to shoot the gamma."
"Hang couldn't get past the death of her father. Her own past nailed her feet to the floor."
Brady left off looking for his jacket to focus on her. "What are you getting at?"
"The strain of that--pulled between "I have to move on" and "I can't move on"--we've seen that kind of thing turn people into monsters."
Lau rubbed the side of her face and poked her hair behind her ear. "I just wonder. When we got in the way of Hang's life's work. Did we prevent a gamma? Or produce one?"
Brady gave it a moment to simmer in his head, so he'd be sure it was true when he said it. "Or neither. People get pulled like that all the time. Some of 'em stretch. Some of 'em break. A few get anomalized. And no matter which group they fall into, there's still a chance things will work out all right." She was staring out the window, onto green treetops and an empty strip of sky. "Jesus playing paintball, woman, it's not all about us."
It was just a little smile, the one that crossed her lips, but it made her face relax. "No. Nope, it's not. Thank god."
He'd called it on the goddamn steam bath. The change in climate between his truck's AC and the night air outside the pub turned his shirt clammy against his back. Brady chirped the locks and limped across the street, pushed through the door into more blessed air conditioning and the bubbling noise of jukebox and conversation.
Grayson Putnam sat at a table behind what was probably a Guinness. Don't drink the black beer, Brady thought, not for the first time, and the fact that it wasn't the first time gave him a twinge in his gut.
Gray looked up and saw him, and got that cheerful, satirical expression, the one that said there was a damned good joke going, and even if it was on the two of you, you had to laugh. But by the time Brady got to the table, Gray was frowning.
No, that was not where Brady wanted to go. Position of strength, not asking for sympathy. "Got hurt on the job. Nothing significant." He pulled out a chair and sat down across from Gray.
He opened his mouth, but nothing he wanted to say appeared to be ready to leave his brain.
Gray raised one dense dark eyebrow. "Shall I order you one of those things you call a beer?"
It was the wrong answer, the stupid answer. Because they were in a bar, for Chrissake, where people go to drink, and if you weren't there to drink the other person would have to wonder why you were there. And if they were smart, they'd get there before you could say it.
Gray leaned back in his chair. "Are you breaking up with me?"
His voice was cool and steady--no scenery-chewing, no broken-hearted wobble. Brady had never seen him look so much like a granite-faced Yankee.
"Yes," Brady said.
"Any chance I get to hear why?"
"I haven't had a steady thing in... I don't know. Years." He did know, exactly, but he didn't want to clutter this up with too much past. "I focused on work instead. I've... I can't split myself up anymore. I can do my job, or I can..."
"...do me," Gray finished. It was hard to tell by bar lighting, but it seemed as if his lip curled a little.
This wasn't how it was supposed to go. He'd rehearsed it on the drive from North Carolina, and in the truck on the way up to the District, and it had sounded mature, sensible, bittersweet, sure, but clearly the right thing to do. Now he'd blown all his lines, and the other actor was picking up the scene, and it was going to hell.
"Gray, if I fuck up, people die."
"You going to pass a law that cops, firemen, doctors--hell, construction workers--can't get laid?"
"It's not about getting laid," Brady snapped. "I've got no problem with getting laid."
"Just with sticking around afterward?"
There it was. You're commitment-phobic, Danny Brady. This is good, so you're going to run. And you can't even hide it.
He slid his chair back from the table. "Sorry, Gray. I have to do this."
Gray reached across the table and clenched his fingers on Brady's wrist. Breaking a hold like that was one of the first things they taught in self-defense classes. He sat and let Gray think he was keeping Brady there. "Danny. I deserve to at least have this fight with you. Bad enough that you're being a fucking moron, but not giving me a chance to make that clear to you is fighting dirty."
"There's more at stake here than either of us being happy."
"So you'll sacrifice happiness to save the fucking world. You get to be a hero. What do I get?"
That's not why, Brady wanted to say, but he was too angry. "I guess you get to be the hero's ex-boyfriend."
It made Gray let go of Brady's wrist. "You are a dumb, self-flagellating, self-righteous, conceited son of a bitch. And I say that in all love. I hope someday somebody kicks your ass for it."
Brady could feel his heart hammering in his chest, the old fight-or-flight response. Apologize. Tell him he's right. You'll have make-up sex. And in the morning you'll bring him coffee.
And they could have this argument again next month.
Brady stood up. He'd already said he was sorry. Nothing much left. "Goodbye, Gray."
"Oh, no. I want to be the one to walk out of here first. It's good for my pride. You should understand that." Gray unfolded neatly from his chair. He wore a light blue cotton buttondown shirt Brady recognized; he'd teased him for looking like a goddamned preppy in it. The memory pinched at Brady's stomach.
Then Gray was gone, out the door and gone, and Brady stood alone at the table. He sat down again, because he didn't want to go outside and find Gray still on the sidewalk, or getting into that fucking Audi. He reached for Gray's glass and turned it absently in the ring of condensation on the tabletop. He lifted it, sipped from it.
Like drinking sieved mud.
He drained the glass.