2.05 "Wind-Up Boogeyman" - by Elizabeth BearAct I | Act II | Act III | Act IV | Act V
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
Glenwood Cemetery, Washington, DC November 2008
November was the perfect month for a funeral.
Hafidha Gates shoved her hands into the pockets of her violet coat, squeezing it against her ribs with her elbows, and leaned her shoulder lightly on Gail's. The contact did nothing to attenuate a raw wind that cut through purple velvet, the black silk blouse underneath, and the silk longjohns she didn't leave home without between September and May. Hafidha had no native insulation of her own. She might as well have been standing there naked, while tattered leaves blew past her feet like calendar pages in an old movie.
Straps as red as a fireman's suspenders bent under the weight of the coffin as the winch put in slack. The coffin itself--matte-black under all those roses--would have amused Erik. It was the one Hafidha would have picked out for him, the way she had picked out this purple coat for his funeral. She would have paid for it out of her own pocket if it hadn't turned out that his family--wonder of wonders--had money. And taste.
And approved of their crude, funny, hair-dyed, pierced-and-ink-marked son. And the decidedly unconventional women in his life.
Erik's mother Caroline, a doe-eyed blonde impeccable in black wool, had smiled at Hafidha and Gail over the bridge of her elegant nose and said, "I'm so sorry that I only get to meet you now. He spoke so highly of you both. You'll sit with the family, of course."
His father--a small, generous, bearded, balding man who looked unaccustomed to grieving--introduced himself as Frederich-call-me-Fred. The pinch of sorrow at the corners couldn't hide the fact that his eyes sparkled like Solomon Todd's behind his bifocals, as if in argument with his stern continental accent. When Hafidha came to stand beside him, he reached out and patted her wrist, slipping a pressed linen handkerchief into her hand. "I'm so sorry we had to meet like this, my dear."
As if Gail and Hafidha shouldn't have been comforting him and Caroline.
Hafidha wondered, for a moment, what she would have done--where she would be today--if the people who had nearly been her in-laws and the man she had nearly married had shown half this much concern for her. Frederich Holt's solicitousness couldn't bring the tears, though, and if that hadn't made her cry, Hafidha thought she'd be dry forever.
Not so Gail, small and buxom in her corset, high-necked dress, and Victorian mourning jewelry paved with glitter-black hematites, who stood beside Hafidha with her fist stuffed against her teeth so hard she'd split her lip, staring blind through a mirror of tears. Hafidha leaned a little harder, until Gail ducked her head down and made a horrible stretched small noise, pressing back. Hafidha pulled her hand out of her pocket with that handkerchief knotted in it and waved the square of linen under Gail's nose.
Gail grabbed it as if it were a lifeline. Since Hafidha had her hand out of her pocket now anyway, she put it on Gail's shoulder and pulled her into an awkward embrace, glad of the warmth even as she wondered if her own bony self was capable of giving comfort.
Maybe not. She turned her head, needing some comfort of her own.
Chaz Villette, Tricia Andreoli, and Daphne Worth huddled shoulder by shoulder on the opposite side of the grave. Tricia, blond and comfortably curvy, round-faced, snub-nosed, had one arm around Daphne's waist, and Hafdha could tell from here that both of them needed it. Daphne wasn't holding on to Tricia, but that was because her arms were wrapped around each other as if to keep her from flying apart.
They both glared down at the tips of their shoes. But Chaz's stare was aimed right at Hafidha, his mismatched face all scrunched up around his mismatched eyes, and when she caught his gaze the eyebrows lifted. Hafidha nodded.
She let her arm fall from Gail's shoulders. "Are you gonna be okay, cherie?"
Gail nodded, gulping air through Hafidha's handkerchief. "It's just so damned... random," she said. "He was twenty-seven."
Hafidha thought about what Chaz would say--or, these days, restrain himself from saying. That misadventure and suicide were the leading causes of death in males under thirty, with homicide a significant contributor. She shook her head, her braids too tightly dressed today to snake over one another the way they should. There was too much coincidence, and she didn't believe in coincidences.
"If it is random," she said, and stepped away from Gail while Gail was still reaching after her. Caroline and Fred had each other for now, and for now that would have to be enough.
Chaz's embrace--when she got to him--was just as bony and awkward as her own. He wrapped long arms around her as if fencing her in with sticks. Between the cold air and the beta metabolism, he wasn't any warmer than she was, but she leaned into the protection with a sigh. Daphne patted her hair, and Hafidha let her forehead fall forward against Chaz's shoulder.
"It sucks," he said, a dry admission, and she could have kissed him for not saying "It's all right."
She turned back to the coffin, safely out of sight under the rim of the grave now. More curled leaves slid past Hafidha's ankles, some slipping and swirling down to where Erik lay. She thought of water running into a sinkhole.
As Caroline walked forward to cast down the first fistful of dirt, Hafidha's phone buzzed against her thigh. She jumped, not sure if she were furious or relieved for the distraction. She knew already who was calling and what the text message would be before she slid her hand into her pocket and pulled out the device. Still, she held it up where Daphne and Chaz could see it, because she could sense their phones buzzing silently too. It was awfully creepy when they all went off at once.
The LCD screen said, Wtf. Sorry. It cant wait.
Hafidha closed her eyes, just for a second. A distraction. Somebody is having a worse day than me. Thank God.
"I'll--" Daphne started, but Chaz cut her off, his car keys ringing softly in his hand as he drew them from his pocket.
"Drive. Your car needs to get Tricia home."
"Damn," Daphne said, and kissed her wife on the corner of the mouth before dropping her keys into Tricia's open palm.
"Shotgun," said Hafidha. She turned away to take her leave of Gail and the Holts, deciding that she felt enough guilt over her relief that for another ninety seconds, the FBI could just bloody well wait.
Behind her, Daphne was trying to lighten the mood. "Back seat of the Blue Beetle? I'll take fates worse than death for a thousand, Alex."
Hafidha glanced over her shoulder, but Duke wasn't there to finish the cathecism. And Chaz wouldn't answer so glibly, any more. She sighed and folded her arms across her shivering torso. "There are no fates worse than death."
J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington, DC
Daniel Brady hadn't expected to arrive in the Briefing Cabinet before half the team, but he accepted his luck--and the corner seat between Nikki Lau and Stephen Reyes, sliding it a little closer to Reyes as he settled into it. Lau caught his eye with a small stressed-out nod. Reyes didn't glance up from the display of his BlackBerry, but Brady knew Reyes had registered his presence. Reyes' frown-lined face stayed impassive, making it impossible to tell if Brady's intentional invasion of his personal space was working. Briefly, bitterly, Brady thought he'd be happy if the string-tugging son of a bitch would just look at him, or even lean away subconsciously in his chair.
He wanted to drive his nails into his palms. Instead, he laid his unclenched hands gently on the table before him, ready for the folder Esther Falkner slid into his grasp.
So much for that pressure tactic. But two could play the ignoring game.
Or three, Brady amended, as Chaz entered the room. Hafidha and Worth flanked him like the director had set it up that way, their square-shouldered presence another line drawn in the sand. Chaz sat at the corner of the table diagonally farthest from Brady, across from Lau so he would not be facing either Brady or Reyes. Hafidha and Worth dropped into chairs on either side of him, Hafs at the end of the table and Worth across from Brady, beside Reyes.
Daphne Worth, human shield.
All three of the new arrivals were dressed formally in somber colors, good fabric, ironed and lint-brushed. Worth had on a black pantsuit, Hafidha a queenly velvet frock coat and a ruffled blouse, hematite jewelry all cold and wrong against the warm tones of her skin. Chaz was brittle as fatigued metal in a tailored charcoal suit that Brady hadn't even known he owned, sleeves of a shirt that actually fit him buttoned close at his wrists. He still wasn't wearing a watch, and Brady wondered if he'd ever start again.
Chaz breathed in, breathed out, and flipped his file open with a thumbnail. Hafidha opened her laptop. Daphne glanced once around the group and then trained her attention on her own folder as if she planned never to look up again.
A couple of months ago, Brady would have grinned at Chaz and asked him where the funeral was. But he'd lost that privilege. Nor could he shake the uneasy suspicion that whatever had brought three of his teammates out all dressed up on a Saturday afternoon--it might very well be a funeral. One no one had seen fit to mention to Danny Brady, because Danny Brady did not deserve to be told.
Brady's coffee slopped, a color printout wrinkling in his other hand. Lau, on his left, silently handed over a napkin and continued flipping through scene reports, frowning over each one as if it had been calculated to offend her. She gnawed a thumbnail, flakes of polish decoraing her lower lip until Brady handed her a ballpoint to chew instead. The briefing closet door swung open one more time, leaving Sol Todd framed in the aperture.
"Sorry I didn't make it," Todd said, laying a hand on Hafidha's shoulder as he passed.
"Thank you for wanting to come," she answered, ignoring the contact as if by force of will she could make it cease to exist. Todd was hip to the social signal. His hand dropped away just before he too accepted a folder from Falkner and went to lean against the wall.
Okay, so yeah. If it wasn't a funeral, Brady would eat his Tony Lamas.
That realization came with a sudden, profound urge to turn around and beat the everliving bejesus out of the wall behind him. Or, preferably, his superior officer.
Christ, this was bad. Half the team wasn't talking to the other half. Factions were being drawn up, lines in the sand. Secrets being kept. This was about as bad as Brady cared to imagine it. Maybe there was some percentage in punching Reyes after all.
Daphne cleared her throat. "I think we're all here?"
"As a matter of fact," Reyes said, "We're not." He lowered the palmtop he'd been angling up before him like a shield, staring at Daphne over the case.
She stared right back for three measured seconds. "Who are we waiting for?"
"Me," said Pete Pauley from the door. "I'm sorry to keep you, folks. I'm afraid Celentano wants me to liaise on this one."
And at a glance, Pete Pauley could see why. The air of distrust and misery in the tiny WTF briefing room was palpable; he felt it wadding up in his lungs like cigarette smoke every time he took a breath. Pauley nudged the door shut with the heel of his shoe and accepted the folder Falkner extended to him without meeting her eyes. That was the problem, in a room full of people like this. Avoiding eye contact could be just as damning as significant glances.
For a moment, Pauley wondered what he'd done in this life or the last one so awful that he deserved to find himself in a position where his job required he withhold information from Stephen Reyes. And then he shrugged and flipped open the folder, even though he'd already seen everything in it. Reyes would probably figure it out. He'd probably figured it all out already. The only question was if it would change his behavior any. Things had been damned weird Down The Hall since Villette got himself half-killed, and Reyes had to know his people were attracting administrative attention.
Pauley wasn't real surprised that Reyes often didn't seem to like people much. It had to be easy to despise them when you habitually saw through them like so much window glass. It couldn't be easy to like yourself under those circumstances, either.
"Welcome to Chillicothe, Missouri," Lau said. "Where you have a higher than average chance of becoming the victim of a serial killer."
Villette cleared his throat. "Chil-ih-co-thee," he said. "Sorry, the E isn't silent. It's a Shawnee Indian word. It means 'Big town where we live.'"
Lau blinked at Villette. But he was still a thousand miles away, affectless and staring straight into space as if he was reading off the wall behind her head. Pauley liked the kid--had liked the kid, anyway: now he felt like he barely knew him--but he did understand why some of the gang found him just a tad creepy. His thinking face doubled as one heck of a thousand-yard stare.
"It's a rural community, population around nine thousand, in Livingston County. Faye and Ray Copeland, an elderly married couple, were arrested there in 1989 for murdering an unknown number of transients."
"Unknown?" Falkner said.
"Five bodies recovered," Villette clarified. "At least five victims." He craned his gawky neck around to look at her. Pauley didn't miss the way his narrow gash of a mouth twisted before he said, "Faye Copeland made a patchwork quilt out of the victims' clothing."
"According to the city website," Gates interrupted, "Chillicothe is the home of sliced bread."
"So now we know who to blame," Todd quipped from his corner, dry and forced.
"So that was 1989," Brady said. He was still turning pages. "1989 is not an emergency meeting now."
"No." Falkner pressed a button on the remote in her right hand. As the screen at the back of the room brightened, she said, "This is."
Pauley knew what to expect of these images too, but that also didn't make it easier. Which was fine; you didn't want it to get easy. First, the information on the three known victims, as Falkner introduced them one by one, just as Pauley had introduced them to her that morning.
Darrel Edwards, Caucasian, Baptist, married, three sons. Age 43, master carpenter. Civic volunteer. Washed-out blue eyes and hair sun-bleached brown, with a ruddy jowled face that looked like it spent a lot of time smiling. In the photo, he leaned against the door of a muddy pickup truck, grinning, in jeans and workboots.
Karina Christopher, Caucasian, Protestant, married, one son and one daughter. Age 45, school secretary. Her photo was a yearbook portrait that showed black frizzy hair shot with gray, brown eyes smiling at the corners even while her mouth stayed professional.
...and Jane Doe, Caucasian and in her late forties or early fifties. There was no image to go with this information, even a scene photo, and Pauley knew the next slide would explain why, when he got around to explaining the next slide. A typical Missouri roadside, the black interstate sizzling along between fields broken up by narrow lines of cottonwood trees. A couple of heavy-duty orange waste bags dotted the sunburned grass.
"This is likely not the dump site," Falkner said.
"Likely?" That got Brady's attention. "Why the slide, then?"
Pauley leaned forward, paper crinkling under his elbows. "Because the dump sites have not been precisely identified."
Worth swiveled in her chair and gave him a skeptical look. "How can you not know where the bodies were dumped?"
"Because the bodies were recovered from a tertiary crime scene. At the local landfill," Pauley said, and waited for one of them to figure it out.
Villette glanced from Pauley to Falker to Reyes. Guiltily? Fearfully? They looked a lot alike. Whatever was going through his head, he seemed to make up his mind to say what he thought anyway. "The DOT garbage bags. Work crews--convict crews?--come through and clean up the roadside, bag the trash. Then later another truck comes along and loads up the bags. Then they all get trucked to a processing facility and dumped in a big pile, don't they? Except sometime between A and B, somebody else is coming along and adding a few bags."
"Bingo," Pauley said. "The first victim was badly decomposed by the time they turned her up."
Lau was chewing on the end of her pen. She put it down carefully across the open folder, as if she'd just noticed, and said, "Sounds garden-variety so far. So what makes it ours?"
"Well," Pauley said, with a grimace. "The two victims we have identified had children who attended the same school, which was also the school Christopher worked at. They were both associated with a parental networking website. So they knew each other. Moved in the same social circles. Which is not much of a trick in Chillicothe, Missouri, I'll grant you--"
It earned a ring of tepid smiles, the widest one Nikki's. "That's a heck of a coincidence."
"C word, fifteen yard penalty," Hafidha said, glancing up over the tops of her glasses. "We don't believe in those."
Nikki also tossed Pauley the lifeline of a prompt. "And?"
"And forensic evidence--bite marks on the recovered portions of the victims--indicates that Darrel Edwards assaulted Karina Christopher. There are also bite marks on Jane Doe from Christopher, another set on Edwards. Dental records indicate that the person who left them on his body is one Roze Cutler, who has a daughter attending classes in the same school."
Brady closed his file on his hand. "Is Cutler in custody?"
Reyes stood up so fast his chair banged off the wall. "Hafidha. Get to work on that website. Lau, Falkner, Brady." He paused. "Villette. Get your things. Todd, you and Worth are the home team this time. Todd, papertrail. Find out if there's a missing person associated with the school who could be our first vic. Worth, get on the horn to whatever passes for an ME in Livingston County and get the victims released to Frost."
Pauley folded his arms over the file in his hand. A shiver of tension had run around the room when Reyes said Villette, and it had included more than one sidelong glance at Brady. Villette, however, had no more reacted than a stone dashed by waves. He just shuffled his papers together and stood, head bowed as if deep in thought.
"Twenty minutes, people," Reyes said, as Falkner folded her hands over the remote in a manner Pauley thought was meant to mask clenching them. "Go."
As soon as he walked up the steps, Brady realized: the jet felt weird with Pauley on it. Not bad, just weird. Like they were all on their company manners. Well, everybody except Reyes, who had abandoned his usual seat for one at the extreme front of the plane, his shoulders jammed in the corner beside the window and his laptop and papers spread on the table before him. Everything about his body language said POLICE LINE DO NOT CROSS.
Well, fine, then. Brady didn't particularly want to talk to him. Not when Chaz had dropped into his habitual seat across from Lau, then bounced out again as if his ass were made of rubber before Falkner even had a chance to sit down beside him. He lunged toward the back of the plane. Falkner, who had stepped out of the way against the couch across the aisle, settled down on it instead, her back to the windows.
She seemed to be moving better these days, which Brady hoped was the result of a kickass physical therapist. He suspected it was more likely to be good old Oxycodone, but that too was a step in the right direction. Or something. Keerist. Did any group of assholes ever spend this much time hovering over each other?
Rattling sounds followed from the galley, and Chaz's voice wafted forward a minute later. "Pauley, you drink coffee?"
"Black," Pauley said like a cowboy, as he slid into Chaz's vacated seat. He fit in that corner better than Chaz had, but the ergonomics--and the politics--were going to get complicated if Chaz and Brady tried to sit opposite each other.
Brady plopped down on the couch beside Falkner and stretched his legs into the aisle. Belatedly, as the aroma of brewing coffee filled the cabin, he asked, "You need any help with those?"
"I've got it," Chaz said
Brady closed his eyes. "I didn't mean to suggest you didn't, kid." Yeah, he should have kept his mouth shut instead, but apparently he was still failing Diplomacy. When he looked up again, Chaz was coming back down the aisle with five cups in his hands, and Pauley was staring at Brady. Fucking profilers. He looked down quickly when Brady cocked an eyebrow at him, though, and then Brady realized that Pauley hadn't been looking at him so much as through him at Falkner, as if some message in semaphore were passing between them.
Chaz set Brady's coffee in his hand without meeting his eyes, but as neatly as if he'd worked his way through grad school waiting tables, then served Falkner, Lau, and Pauley before putting himself down in the chair beside Pauley, his own mug resting on the table.
From where Brady sat, he could watch the top of Reyes' head do absolutely nothing in reaction. We can't keep on like this, he thought, as rich, bitter coffee filled his mouth. Nobody made better coffee than Chaz. Somebody's going to get killed.
You can't get there from here, Hafidha thought, her internal monologue taking on a distinct twinge of Tricia's mother's northern Vermont accent. Her hands laced together under her chin, images flickering across her monitors as fast as the liquid crystals could change. She didn't look up when a rap on the frame of her open door rattled it slightly. By way of announcing herself, Daphne said, "I wonder if we can convince Frost that if she just checks her email hourly, she'll cut the incoming phone calls by ninety-five percent."
Hafidha wrinkled her nose under her glasses and spun to face her visitor. "I'd sure never call her again. How did it go?"
"Three bodies in transit," Daphne answered, coming through the doorway. Hafidha kept a bike mirror clipped to the top of her central monitor so she could keep an eye on the hallway behind her. In it, she watched Daphne step closer.
She came up beside Hafidha and let the heat of her body saturate the space between them. No actual physical contact happened, and to all appearances, no breach of professionalism. Also, nothing Hafidha had to admit she'd noticed happening. Apparently, an entire team of task force could play at that game.
And if Hafidha just ignored the gnawing ache in her chest long and hard enough, it would cease to exist.
Daphne concluded, "Frost should have them tonight. At least she never minds coming in on weekends."
"Well, it's not like she has a social life," Hafidha said. "Or--wait, don't tell me. If she does, I don't want to know about it."
"You and me both," Daphne said, with an eloquent shudder. "What have you got?"
"Well" --Hafidha spun back to her monitors, beckoning Daphne with one beringed hand. "Surprising nobody, Reyes was right on with his hunch about the website."
Daphne's reflection gave that little bounce off the tips of her toes that made her look like an enthusiastic thirteen-year-old. "So you've got somebody?"
"Damn it," Hafidha said. Her funeral blouse itched her neck, but she wasn't going to yank at the collar, or deign to notice the way the coat bound across her shoulders. I am Eleanor, she told herself. And I can look at anything. "Not exactly. See, here and here--I got into the server logs--"
"Is that legal?"
"Well, it won't be part of our official evidence trail, let's put it that way. Not until Sol can pull a warrant, anyway, but he's on it. There won't be any record that I looked at this, though, so it's all right."
Hafidha felt the weight of Daphne's gaze on the back of her neck, but didn't turn around. Daphne didn't need to say what she was thinking, and honestly, Hafidha agreed with her. Mostly. The rules were there for a reason.
But while there was a chance Roze Cutler was alive, Hafidha was willing to decide they didn't apply. "Besides," Hafidha said, because the silence was killing her, "it is both helping, and not helping."
"That's very Zen," Daphne said. Rather than leaning over the back of Hafidha's chair, she hunkered down beside it, all strength and easy athleticism. "Can you show me what you mean?"
Hafidha turned her head to look down at Daphne. She grabbed a handful of yogurt-covered raisins off her desk and offered the bowl to Daphne. Daphne picked out five or six and popped one into her mouth, tucking it into her cheek like a hard candy.
"You know," Hafidha said, "maybe I can. Here, watch this."
She reached out to tilt her monitor slightly so Daphne could see clearly, and thought about what she wanted it to show. The server logs flickered up, characters delineated in shimmering color. Hafidha squinted at them. "You're going to have to tell me if this works."
"If what works?"
It was just a stretch, a twist, reaching out through her own vision and into the machine, her awareness of it. Proprioception, as if the monitors were an extension of her own body. She wondered what chameleons and octopi felt when their chromatophores contracted or enlarged, and if it was anything like this.
Daphne said, "Oh."
"You can see that?"
Her hand stretched out, hesitantly, and Hafidha knew what she was seeing. The same text, but now illuminated with rippling Technicolor veils.
"Yeah," Daphne said. "That's what it looks like to you?"
"Every bit of it," Hafidha said. "Pretty cool, isn't it? So from this, you can see that our gamma has been accessing the server regularly, for--months, it looks like, and jamming while he did it. I'm going to go out on a hypothesis and say this is how he's been selecting his victims, all right."
"And you can trace his ISP? And while Duke is pulling warrants, he can pull a warrant for the ISP and get them to give him up."
"Bah," Hafidha said. "That's the sticky bit. No. His ISP doesn't exist."
"See this?" She pointed at a series of numbers. "Here, let me show you the trace. Okay, what he's doing is, he's using an offshore anonymizer to cover his tracks."
"But you can crack that."
"Already done, honeybunch. I caught him online fifteen minutes ago."
Daphne looked up at her, eyes hopeful. It made Hafidha want to take her by the shoulders and shake her, tell her not to be so trusting, not to let her guard down, or the universe would get her. Hafidha didn't want to be responsible for putting that hope in anybody's mind.
Daphne said, "And?"
"And he's relaying through hacked machines. I'm working that now, but careful as this guy is...." Hafidha shrugged. "I bet he's on an open wireless network. And by the time I get back to him, he'll have moved on."
"Fuck," Daphne said.
"Yeah." Hafidha patted her on the shoulder. "A worthy opponent. But never you fear. I'll get him with his pants down sooner or later. If I have to go to East Buttfuck Missouri myself and bring the carnival."
She wondered if she was lying. She wondered if it was fair to be comforting, when she knew too well that there were no guarantees in life. But Daphne expected her to be confident.
She was Hafidha Gates, flying ace. God dammit. Never let them see you sweat. And they were everywhere. Under every rock. Just waiting for you to let your guard down. To take away anything precious you might bring home.
Daphne stood. "Better make it sooner," she said. "Hey, Hafs?"
"What you need from me, Peaches?" Please, as God made little fishes, have the sense not to ask how I am doing.
Daphne hesitated, glanced at her hands. "What do you think about Pauley?"
"Pistol Pete? You and he saved our bacon that time in Vermont, I remember. Are you asking if I trust him with our team's back? Because he's definitely field-ready "
"Field-ready and not brooking any argument about whether he's coming into the field." Daphne folded her arms together.
Sometimes, it was better to get stuff out in the open air where you could walk around and get a good look at all angles. Hafidha said, "I love conspiracy theories. You think Celentano is stalking us? Because if anybody's working for the Cigarette Smoking Man, you know it's Vic."
Daphne shrugged, a gesture that somehow wound her arms tighter around her than they had started. "I think he's keeping tabs on somebody. Chaz? Dad? The Cowboy?"
"I think you're right," Hafidha said. She turned resolutely back to her monitors. "And you know what's the best thing we can do if he is gunning for them?"
Ignoring, for the moment, the question of whether either of them really wanted to help Reyes, right at that juncture.
Daphne nodded. "Our jobs. Ten times better than we have to. So there's nothing to complain about. I'm going to go help Todd with the warrants, okay?"
"Good idea," Hafidha said, and blew her a kiss as she was leaving.
Farmer's Landfill, Chillicothe, MO
By the time Falkner turned into the knotty dirt road leading up to the landfill, Brady was seriously considering just opening the rear door and throwing himself out of the moving vehicle. Odds were it would hurt less than staying inside, and it might break the tension.
Reyes, in the front passenger seat, hadn't said a word since the briefing room. Pauley and Lau, in the third row of the Tahoe, shifted restlessly in their chairs, as if they might begin kicking the backs of Chaz's and Brady's seats at any moment.
Brady turned his head to get a look at unmarked vehicles parked along the roadside, along with a selection of cop cars and a shiny new crime scene van. "Tax base must be doing okay," he muttered. "How many towns this size have that much police equipment?"
Reyes grunted. Falkner kept driving.
Brady settled back in his seat. Pity that thing about it being the effort that mattered was crap.
"Fourteen miles per gallon," Chaz said, out of nowhere. It was better than pained silence, though, and Brady was so grateful he forgot Chaz wasn't speaking to him. "City. Twenty highway."
"Chevy Tahoe?" Brady guessed. Anything to keep the conversation flowing.
Chaz nodded. "I was just trying to work out if it would have actually been less gas to take two subcompacts."
"And the verdict?" Nikki leaned forward over the seats, one wrist brushing Chaz's shoulder. Chaz sat up a little straighter as her hair swept by his cheek.Was that a sign of improvement? A few weeks ago, Chaz wouldn't have noticed if she'd dropped into his lap stark naked. Brady had done some reading in the past months: one of the first things to shut down in a starving person was the romantic impulse. No point in perpetuating the species when you couldn't feed the mouths already around the table.
"The Tahoe's marginally more efficient," he admitted, sounding so much like the old Chaz that it made Brady's gut tighten. He didn't have to close his eyes to see--vividly--the front sight, the squint of Chaz's regard just beyond. And the way Chaz had looked back at him. Unafraid. Accepting. As if he wasn't at all surprised. As if he welcomed the view down the barrel of a gun.
Brady clenched hard, involuntarily, on the seat-edge, but he couldn't restrain his hands from feeling the things they'd almost done. Muscle memory nauseated him. The next thing could have been the ear-shattering detonation of gunpowder inside cartridges, blood and brains soaking the grass all around. Tim fucking Miner and his weasely gloating voice full of sick glee--
Chaz cleared his throat and turned towards the window. "But only marginally."
Gravel crunched under the suburban assault vehicle's tires as Falkner pulled it up beside a mustard-yellow earth mover that hulked unmanned under a cheerful layer of filth. The sun was sliding down the western sky, but beyond the smooth side slope of an earth-covered pile of rubbish burned a harsh glare of floodlights. Brady saw figures moving along the top of the currently in-use landfill cell; the locals were still looking for additional victims. Or additional parts of the ones they'd already recovered.
Falkner hit the door before the engine had quite finished turning over, stalking toward the plainclothes officer standing just at the foot of a great, sloping, stinking pile of garbage, intent in conversation with a thin woman whose black and white dog sat on her feet, watching her hands as she spoke and gestured.
Brady and Reyes had both been waiting for the usual three-count, so the agents following Falkner looked undisciplined and unchoreographed piling out of the car. Brady, hitting her footsteps five feet behind, gave himself a moment to wonder at what he'd just witnessed; Esther Falkner's stiff-shouldered fuck you to a superior officer.
The agents made their way forward in a faltering flying V until Falkner clicked to a halt, Brady at her heels and Reyes a few steps to the right. She put out her hand. The detective accepted it, meeting her eyes, and said, "Zeke Browning."
"Like the shotgun," Falkner said.
He nodded. "Distant relative." He shook each hand in turn--except Chaz's, because Chaz had done his inevitable fast fade--as she went around the semicircle, pronouncing names. Another fluttering leaf from a world turned upside-down. It should have been Lau making the introductions.
Behind Browning, the thin woman folded her arms. Her dog never budged from her feet, but Brady watched the plumed tip of her tail stir the dust. A border collie with a black side on her face and a white side. She had lashes like a girl and mismatched eyes like Chaz's, but more dramatic. The one on the white side was blue-yellow split and the one on the black side was doggy brown. Brady almost glanced at Chaz to see if he'd noticed the heterochromia. But then he heard his own voice saying sheep-dog eyes, and kept his attention on the dog.
Brady grinned at her, showing her the back of his hand, and she grinned back and laughed at him a little. She didn't budge, though, and when they were done passing notes she glanced up at her handler to make sure she'd been off-duty enough to say hello. Her handler ruffled her ears.
Left-handed. Keeping the right one free for handshaking? Or left-handed because that was her dominant hand?
Having gotten through five names, Falkner stopped. She turned from the hips and said, "And I think you've spoken with Agent Pauley."
"Yes," Browning said. He gave Pauley a hearty grip. "Thank you for coming all the way out here to the middle of nowhere. Nothing brightens up the career of a small town cop like a second set of serial killings, let me tell you."
"You caught the Copeland case?" Reyes leaned forward, reminding Brady of a hunting dog himself, one who was straining at the leash.
"Well, I brought coffee to the guys who caught the Copeland case," Browning said, with a shrug. "I wasn't a detective then." He turned back to the skinny dog handler. Her dust-dulled brown hair was stripped back into a stubby ponytail. "This is Marie Lawrence. And her partner is Cookie. Our go-to dog for recovering human remains."
"She's a cadaver dog?"
This time, with a glance at Lawrence for permission, Brady extended the hand, offering it to the dog. Cookie leaned forward gently, until Lawrence said, "Okay, Cookie." Then her butt popped up off Lawrence's shoes and she pranced the three steps to Brady, her body arched in an ecstatic comma. Brady squatted down to riffle her ears. She leaned her head against his arm with a happy moan, shedding white hairs on his suit jacket.
"Best one I've ever had," Lawrence affirmed. It was the confidence of a mature professional. Brady studied her a little more closely. Sun-leathered face and sunglass lenses clipped on over prescription frames--despite the girly hairdo, she was closer to fifty than forty. Unlike Browning, who was underdressed for the falling night, she wore a suede jacket with brush-scarred sleeves, her feet encased in stained Red Wings.
She cleared her throat. "Border collies are disgustingly smart. Do you have dogs, Agent Brady?"
"Not lately," he said. He gave Cookie's head one last rub before rising reluctantly to his feet. In return, she licked his fingers, and then dropped back down on Lawrence's feet. She must be trained to return there to wait, so she'd do the minimum of wandering around a crime scene. "I live alone. But I miss them."
Brady could just about feel his team's eyes burning through his back. Reyes was mid-sentence with Browning. Brady didn't bother to tune in the conversation. He wiped dog spit on his trousers cheerfully. Lately dogs struck him as a whole hell of a lot more rewarding than people. "Have you and Cookie located any more victims?"
"Just the first three," she said. She turned to look at Browning. " 'Just.' " She drew the sardonic quotes in the air with her fingers. "With your permission, detective, Cookie and I are going to start working roadsides tomorrow. Maybe we can find one or more of the dump sites."
"I have a list from the DPW of recent road cleanup sites," Browning said. "I'll email it to you tonight, and find a uniform to take you around tomorrow. Do you need anything else?"
"That'll be great. Thanks. Cookie, home!"
The dog bounced up an instant before Lawrence strode forward. They vanished around the earthmover, back toward the parked vehicles. A sharp blue glow and the jingle of metal told Brady Lawrence had pulled out a keychain LED.
He turned back to Browning, only to find Lau at his elbow. "I didn't think she was your type," she said.
"Who?" Brady gave her the corner of a crooked grin he'd nearly forgotten how to bend his face around. "Cookie? That's my kind of girl."
As Browning and Reyes led them up the slope of the landfill, Pauley let himself fall back in the group, observing them from behind. Lau and Brady, side by side--Mutt and Jeff, Federal edition. Villette, off to the right, had stuffed his hands into his trouser pockets, ruining the line of a suit that otherwise would have made him look like a politician. And then there was Falkner, trudging along in the rear like a pack mule carrying too much weight. Except whatever she was hauling, it was invisible. It bent her shoulders pretty good, though.
Pauley fell into step beside her. As they came up to the top of the cell, Browning was telling Reyes how the first body part had turned up completely by chance, and then Cookie-- "and Marie, of course" --had located the rest, and the other two victims. Browning gestured into the excavated pit below them. "Number three, the Jane Doe, was pretty far down."
"And pretty far gone?" Villette leaned out over the pit until Pauley was sure he and his nice suit were going snowboarding down the slope, but he never even teetered.
Grimly, Browning nodded. "Our ME figures at least three weeks. The bags kept scavengers out, which was the only reason she wasn't skeletonized."
Reyes said, "In a community this size, there can't be too many missing persons."
"There aren't," Browning agreed. "And Jane Doe isn't one of them. We've cross-checked every local possibility. So either nobody's reported her missing, or she's not from around here."
"Your ME's report said her dentition had been destroyed."
Browning winced, as if feeling it himself. "He thought, with a hammer. And he couldn't get prints. She was a little too runny."
"Our pathologist is a specialist," Reyes said. "We'll see if she can pull something together. In the meantime, that the UNSUB went to such great lengths to conceal her identity tells us that it's important, and possibly a link to him. In cases like this, the earliest victims can tell you the most. The killer hasn't had time to develop his M.O. So we're going to do everything we can to put a name to Jane Doe. Were all three bodies found in this single pit, Detective Browning?"
Pauley leaned his head close to Falkner's ear. "Celentano said he talked to you."
She nodded, eyes front like a soldier. He wished she'd look at him. She said, "I don't deny we've got problems, Pete. It's been a bad six months. But we can put it back together."
"Reyes is off the rails."
He always had been a little questionable. Maybe old enough to have let the sexy maverick G-man image go to his head. Definitely old enough to have endured the Bureau's epidemic of racist hazing in the eighties, though as far as Pauley knew, Reyes had never filed a lawsuit or a complaint.
But he'd also been a genius, a good agent. And Pauley knew as well as Victor Celentano did that if Reyes hadn't gotten sidetracked into his boojum-hunt, Reyes might have been the one to carry the job as BAU Unit Chief. He also knew that the doors hadn't closed on Esther Falkner--yet. She'd earned a lot of credit keeping a leash on Reyes, and Celentano was ambitious. The BAU would need another leader after Celentano was gone.
Falkner was ambitious too, and it wasn't out of the question that she'd step up to become the BAU's first female Unit Chief.
If she ever made it back from her exile Down the Hall. Pauley didn't mind working for women--widows ran ranches--but he didn't have any illusions about how tough a row she'd have to hoe, coming back from here.
That was the killer, Pauley thought--and he thought Celentano knew it too, unless he was projecting his own attitudes on the boss. Always a hazard in this line of work, when so much relied on politics. The gang Down the Hall were outstanding cops. Celentano might be a little peeved that agents like Brady, Worth, Lau, and Villette had been siphoned off to work on Reyes's pet project. On the other hand, it kept them out of the headlines, and left the career-making cases for the regular BAU.
Pauley, frowning at the back of Brady's head, wondered about the sort of passion that led a good cop, a good profiler, to waste his life chasing boogeymen.
He realized that Falkner had been silent quite a while, and turned to find her staring at him. She'd said something, and he'd failed to answer. "Sorry," he said. "I chased a rabbit off the trail. What were you saying?"
She shook her head. "Doesn't matter. Did you find the rabbit hole?"
"Not even a run," he admitted. "Falkner--"
"Off the rails," she said. "You're not wrong."
"Brady and Villette are a mess. Two separate messes. Neither one of them should be in the field."
She shrugged. "Take them out right now and you'll kill them. They need to get back on the horse."
When she said it, it didn't sound like hyperbole. "Reyes," Pauley said. "Victor didn't put you out here to abet him."
"No," she said, and shook her head. "He put me out here to protect the rest of the team. It's a good team."
He didn't argue. He turned away from her and looked at Villette, standing there, arms cupping his elbows, surrounded by colleagues and friends and lonely as a lighthouse despite it. Pauley thought about hostage situations, post-traumatic stress. The way the kid was haunting the firing range these days. He was going to get somebody killed.
Pauley sighed heavily. "What do you want me to do?"
"Buy me a little time."
"Celentano's gunning for your bossman."
The look she gave him was cold and flat as a knife blade leveled to slip between ribs. "If you have to throw him Reyes to protect the rest," she said, "throw him Reyes. I won't fight you." She took a deep breath, one that sounded like it cost her. "But I'm begging you, don't end his career if you don't have to. I can save this team, Pete. The Bureau needs these people."
Pauley hated himself for it, but he was still the first to glance down.
They started the family-and-associates visits just after suppertime, when folks in a small town would be likely to be relaxing at home on a Saturday night, and Pauley drew Lau as his partner.
Falkner had looked like she was about to match him up with Villette, but Reyes pulled rank and claimed the kid's services to go meet up with the missing woman Roze Cutler's next of kin. It was likely to be the most important series of interviews, but Villette reacted by reacting not at all. Another mystery Pauley would have to sort: what, exactly, was the backstory here? Why was the team keeping Reyes away from the young, hand-picked agent everybody had expected to become his protégé?
And what led a good agent like Esther Falkner to think this team could be patched back together? Or even that it was worth patching?
Pauley watched her frowning as she gestured Brady over instead and decided he was just as glad he wasn't going to be privy to the conversations in either of the smaller unmarked vehicles they'd borrowed from the local police department. Instead, he turned to Lau. "Which one do you want?"
"Dibs on the website administrator," she said promptly, reaching down to snag the strap of her handbag. "Race you to the car."
Lynn Van Metre--who was a male Lynn, not a female one, according to Browning--lived on the west side of Chillicothe, north of Clay Street. His house was a modest ranch featuring peeling dark green paint and a browning lawn nearly as shaggy, as if it had grown into its landscape. There were no lights on inside, and no car in the driveway. Pauley turned to try to catch Lau's eye as they stopped under a streetlight, but she was staring at her knuckles where they bent around the wheel.
"Want to go up anyway?"
"Maybe he's early to bed," Lau said. "Can it hurt to bang on the door?"
Pauley grinned. "Only if he's got a shotgun behind it on a pressure trigger. Come on."
She pulled the keys from the column and glanced over her shoulder like a pro before she let her door swing open. Pauley came around the car to join her, and they checked both ways before crossing the street. There was no outside light, either at the bottom of the path or over the door, which made Pauley think that if Van Metre wasn't home, he also wasn't expecting to come home tonight.
Lau, a head shorter and one step ahead, paused with her thumb over the bell. "You got me, Pete?"
They'd been pretty close before she went Down the Hall, and he wouldn't have minded getting even closer. And staying there, which had proven to be the tricky bit. He still liked her--even more than he liked Worth and Brady, and he liked Worth and Brady. Though of the lot of them, Lau was most comfortable in her own skin. For a would-be superwoman. He let his right hand drift to the butt of his weapon. "Any way you want me, honey."
She snorted and kicked him in the ankle. And then was all business again, as if the mischief had been nothing more than the flash of sunlight off water. She laid her thumb against the buzzer and pushed.
Pauley was mildly surprised when a friendly voice hailed them from within, and was followed by footsteps. The door opened, rattling on a chain, and a middle-aged white man spoke through the gap. "Hello. Who is it?"
The chain, Pauley thought, was pretty unusual for a small friendly town. He extended his credentials, left-handed, as Lau was presenting hers. "I'm Special Agent Pauley," he said. "This is Special Agent Lau. We're with the Federal Bureau of Investigation."
"You're here about the murders," he said. He made no attempt to examine their ID, but the door swung mostly closed and there was a rattle of chain before it opened again, wide this time. "Come in," he said, stepping back. "There's a light switch on your right by the door."
Pauley found it and flipped it, filling the entryway with light while Lau stayed by the homeowner, studying his face. "Are you visually impaired?"
Van Metre laughed. "Honey, I'm blind. But whatever you want to call it. Are you Special Agent Lau?"
"Yes, sir," she said, and let him shut the door behind them.
Now that the lights were on, Pauley could make out the scars disappearing into Van Metre's hairline on the left temple, the fixed and unreactive pupils. Van Metre put his hand out. Pauley reached past Lau to shake it.
"That's not Lau."
"No, sir," Pauley said. "Do you mind if we sit down? We'd like to talk to you."
"Sure." Moving with perfect ease, one hand trailing on the entryway wall, Van Metre led them into the living room. There was a conversation pit, the furniture worn but clean, and a workstation in the corner without a visible monitor. The perforated-looking black device at the bottom of the keyboard must be a Braille display, Pauley guessed, though he'd never seen one before.
Van Metre slid between the coffee table and the couch and settled into it, leaving the loveseat and an armchair to Lau and Pauley. Lau picked the loveseat. Pauley stood alongside the armchair. "Mr. Van Metre, how were you acquainted with the victims?"
Van Metre's mouth thinned, as if he wasn't happy with the word. "Karina and Darrel? They were both in the PTA. I met them through the organization, when it contacted me about building and administrating a website." His gesture took in the workstation.
From where he stood, Pauley could see two other computer cases alongside the first one. "Do you run your own servers?"
"I do." Nothing in Van Metre's face or aspect gave the lie to his apparent sightlessness. Pauley allowed himself to relax a notch.
"As a courtesy, would you mind arranging a little unscheduled downtime for the rest of the weekend? If somebody is using your site to identify vulnerable individuals...." Pauley let his voice trail off suggestively. He could come back with a court order, of course. But he'd rather save the Bad Cop routine for days when he needed it.
"Of course," Van Metre said. "They're salvaged systems. It's not unusual for something to get a little bunged up."
On the loveseat, Lau leaned forward, open and compassionate body language that must have been a practiced reflex, because when she caught herself doing it she rolled her eyes and sat back. "Do you have any children, Mr. Van Metre?"
"No," he said. "Your next question is going to be, then isn't it odd that I volunteer at schools? I'm on disability, Agent Lau. Since my accident. It's very boring. And the school is within walking distance. And yes, of course you may access my computers, although for my own protection, I must ask you to return with a warrant."
Lau smiled. "Of course. Thank you, Mr. Van Metre."
"My pleasure," he said. "Would you like some tea? I have lapsang souchong."
Karina Christopher's husband Walter was not only at home to visitors; he had a house full of them. Mother, father-in-law, two sisters, one sister-in-law, one brother-in-law, and more nieces, nephews, and cousins than Brady could comfortably keep track of. His family had folded around him and his children like a wallet, tucking him away safe and protected, and from the moment Adrian Genoese, the sister-in-law, opened the front door Brady was aware of a tiny, unworthy worm of envy. Nobody should lose what Walter had lost, the way Walter had lost it. And Brady didn't honestly think that a table groaning with casseroles and condolence cards made anything easier.
But it sure as hell didn't make it any harder.
The house was well-kept, cheery, though the carpets were worn. If Brady had been staging it, he would have kept the cabbage roses in the wallpaper and the fussy window treatments that echoed their colors. Somebody who lived here had been particular about things, had had a definite personal style. He'd bet, if he looked in Karina's closets, he'd find broomstick skirts and tunics and cute little flat-heeled shoes from Coldwater Creek.
It hurt to look at Walter and think about him cleaning out those closets, boxing everything up for Goodwill.
Brady stuck at Falkner's shoulder throughout. He let her conduct the interviews, listening to the way her voice got less East Coast Educated and more Middle American Armed Forces, and how nobody but him seemed to notice that she was doing it, or that it put Karina Christopher's survivors very much at ease. This was victimology, all part of the process, which Falkner explained in exquisite detail to Walter and to Karina's father, Harlan Genoese. "Everything you can tell us about her may help. Any detail of her movements, her friends, her hobbies."
They'd spent the entire evening talking about almost nothing but Karina, it turned out. And they remembered a daunting amount. Her love of rabbits and marigolds. And songbirds. The time she broke her wrist kayaking and Walter and she wound up stuck in the woods overnight without supplies, until next morning gave them the light to hike out. How she'd miscarried a third child, and she and Walter had decided not to try again, having had a late start on the first two. How much she'd loved her job, and how it had driven her kids crazy to have her working at their elementary school.
By the time they left the house, shown to the front step by Walter and several of the niececousins, Brady felt like he'd gone to high school with her. The door swung shut behind him and Falkner, sealing them out in the cold night air. When they got back to the car, she leaned her head back and drank it in, great swallows, as if she hadn't gotten any in a long while and needed it desperately.
Brady watched until she stopped. When she dropped her head and fumbled for the car keys, he said, "You did a good job of sounding like a local in there."
She chuckled. "I grew up in St. Louis."
He never would have guessed it. But he also knew Falkner wasn't much for leg-pulling. It wasn't much of a segue to the next question, but hey, that's what actors were for, right? To build in the stuff that fell between the lines. "Falkner--"
The locks clicked up. "I'm listening."
"What the hell is Reyes playing at? Is he trying..."
"To push Chaz over the edge again?" She sighed and opened her door. End of conversation. "I wish to hell I knew. Maybe he's groveling. Maybe it's a show of confidence. In the mind of Stephen Reyes, it could be all three."
"Hmph," Brady said. "Think he'll come grovel to me next?"
Falkner laughed, but not like somebody who has heard something funny. As she was reaching to shut her door, her phone buzzed. She had it on vibrate, but Brady saw how she jumped, how fast her hand moved. She was wound as tight as any of them. Maybe more so; at least Brady wasn't expected to drive this bus. And for all the times he'd wished he had the final call--
--tonight he was grateful.
"Falkner," she said to the phone. "Right. No, sure. Are you certain? All right. Catch a commercial flight. Call and let us know when you'll be in and I'll have somebody meet you at the airport. Yes. I'll tell him."
"Hafidha," Brady said, when she closed the phone.
Falkner slipped the phone into the pocket of her tailored houndstooth jacket. "She thinks our UNSUB might be using public wifi access points. She wants to check it out on the ground."
He shouldn't have said it. Add it to the list, long and growing, of things he should not have said. "You know the only person you're protecting by running messages is Reyes."
Falkner turned the key in the ignition. "You want me to stop?"
Johns Hopkins Hospital, Baltimore, MD
On this particular Sunday morning before sunrise--even before the Beltway and Baltimore traffic became unnavigable, which more than anything told him it was goddamned early--Sol Todd decided that discretion was the better part of valor. He skipped breakfast.
But he finished his third cup of coffee as he pulled into the Johns Hopkins garage, washing down Zantac and musing on the nature of irony. He left his travel mug in the cup holder of the government car and popped an Altoid into his mouth as he locked the doors. The rules of common courtesy might be all different around Madeline Frost, but there was no reason to believe that she liked coffee breath any better than human beings.
He could smell the patient from the hall, and as he came through the swinging doors into the autopsy suite he thought longingly of mentholatum. But Frost would be less than pleased if he interfered with her finely honed senses when she was engaged in a postmortem. She didn't look up as he came along the aisle between the six steel tables, though he knew she registered his presence. He stopped a respectful five feet from the autopsy table. "Doctor Frost."
"Agent Todd," she said. He caught the flash of eye motion under her goggles. She held something that looked like a miniature turkey baster in her right hand, the tip inserted into a slit in the wrist of what was barely identifiable as a dismembered human arm. The limb ended in a discolored and saclike hand, and upon cursory inspection, it seemed that she was slowly injecting whatever was in the irrigation syringe under its skin. A slow stream of cloudy fluid ran down the grooves in the table.
He noticed that she was wearing tissue-thin surgical gloves, not the heavy duty nitrile more usual for a postmortem investigation.
She said, "I've discovered some interesting anomalies."
She had been up all night, but it didn't affect the crispness of her delivery. Or the gentle dexterity with which her own gloved hands supported that of the murder victim.
Despite his better judgment, Todd leaned forward for a clearer view. "What are you doing?"
"After some weeks of decomposition, the body begins to deliquesce. The skin detaches from the underlying flesh. This is a well-decayed body, and it's possible that slippage will allow us to deglove the skin of the hands intact."
He'd seen animals skinned--one quick motion, a couple of flicks of the knife, and the cook held a naked carcass in one hand and an inside-out animal pelt in the other. This was similar, and just as effortless. A sliding motion, and the dead woman's skin lay across Frost's palm like a second, delicate, translucent glove.
Todd thought of isinglass, of parchment, of shed snakeskins reproduced in gelatin. His eyes watered, gorge rising at the smell. It wasn't the worst body he'd ever waded through, but the stench of cadaverine wasn't free of unpleasant associations, and the aroma of this one had added elements of sulfur and methane, which he guessed must be eau de landfill. He covered the rest of the distance between himself and Frost while she tenderly laid down the denuded arm.
"Please bring me the fingerprint cards and ink from the bench over there? And glove."
He gloved first. Her hands were smaller than his, and her nitrile gloves would never fit. But other pathologists used this theatre. Todd found size medium in purple and pulled them on. He didn't think she wanted the cards on the dripping autopsy bench, so instead he laid them on her instrument table, opening the ink pad for her. It was brand new, but she'd already slit the seal. Frost was nothing if not a planner.
Todd suffered a moment's uneasy premonition that he knew how the next bit of story went.
Her eyes trained unflickering on the flayed skin, concentration like a chess master's. "Now would be a fine time to assess your deities for luck, Agent Todd."
As gingerly as if sliding her hand into tissue-thin lace, Frost drew the glove on. A centimeter at time, with careful adjustments, until she wore the dead woman's skin over her own. "Please stand back," she said, and turned to the ink and cards he'd laid out for her.
It didn't occur to him until later that a normal human being would have looked away in dismay while Frost fingerprinted the dead woman. Todd stood as close as he could, watching the perfect, pristine prints transfer to the card. He shouldn't have been surprised that Frost knew how to roll a finger. Every attempt looked good to him, but she frowned over two cards before nodding at the third.
"There," she said, with what Todd was tempted to imagine as a note of satisfaction.
He picked up the card she deemed best--and the other two, just in case--and watched her divest herself of her macabre accessory. The process of removing the skin was even more intricate, ending when Frost deposited it in a jar reeking of formaldehyde. She dropped her gloves into a biohazard receptacle and stripped off her decay-streaked gown.
Todd asked, "Do you have any further information on the discrepancies between Jane Doe and the two named victims? Other than the lack of bite marks and the destruction of identifying characteristics, I mean?"
Frost frowned at him through her goggles. As if only now remembering them, she slid them off her face and frowned at him through the spectacles she had been wearing underneath instead.
"I have something else. You know how to use a microscope?"
"Tolerably," Todd said.
She gestured him to the bench with a jerk of her chin. "It's focused. Don't crack the cover slip."
"Yes, ma'am." Holding his hands ostentatiously wide, Todd picked his way to the microscope stand. He had to push Frost's footstool out of the way to reach, but once he bent to the eyepiece he saw a reddish smear of what must be tissue. "What am I looking for?"
He tried to remember the diagram of a cell, but it had been a long time since Biology 102. Nucleus, cell wall. Some other stuff in between. Mitochondria. "Huh," he said. "It looks... smushed. Something broke all the cell walls."
"Very good, Agent Todd."
He looked up. She didn't seem to be yanking his chain. But then, Frost never seemed to be yanking anyone's chain. Perhaps she was merely waiting for him to indicate that he understood the implications, or ask for further clarification. He said, "What does it mean?"
She said, "It's freezerburn." When Todd stared at her, head tilted, considering the many and varied implications of that announcement, she clarified impatiently: "He stored this one."
Kansas City International Airport, Kansas City, MO
East Buttfuck, Missouri, here I come.
Kansas City International Airport was dead enough at four o'clock in the morning that the jingle of Hafidha's cell almost made her jump out of her trippy little Doc Marten ankle boots. She'd been expecting Chaz, so when her phone announced "This is bat country!" in Johnny Depp's voice, it took her by surprise--but then provoked a smile that cut through sleeplessness and repressed grief. She touched her headset with a fingertip. "You're up early, Duke."
"I'll sleep when nobody's dead," he replied. "I just got out of a confab with Doctor Frost. It looks like somebody kept Jane Doe on ice for a while. Frost got prints, though, and we're running them through AFIS."
The present tense meant still no hits, so she didn't ask. "On ice? Does she have any idea how long?" If they had a time range, they'd at least know when to start looking for missing person reports.
Todd's sigh hissed across his phone mike. "Apparently it's impossible to tell. It depends on how cold the freezer was, whether the body parts were tightly wrapped or air could get at them, and all sorts of other variables. But we know the body was dismembered before being frozen--"
"--and we know it's been thawed for--Frost estimates--between three and six months in the landfill, but she says that's a very rough guess."
"The local ME said three weeks?"
"Frost mocks the local ME. Or she would, if she cared enough for mockery. She did point out that landfills are warm, and heat encourages bacterial growth. However, apparently the bottom of a landfill is an anaerobic environment, which in addition to lack of insect access is likely to offer a slower rate of decomp."
"She was turning into natural gas." Hafidha rose up on her tip-toes, revolving in a semicircle. Where was her ride? Screw this, she thought, and reached out into the airport's network, flicking through security camera feeds until she spotted the legs of a tall, lean man protruding from behind a pillar in baggage claim. It was hard to tell from the angle, but it looked as if Chaz had wedged himself into the corner of a row of chairs. His hands lay slack on his thighs. He might be napping.
He still slept a lot more than he used to. Stamina was the last thing to come back. Hafidha glanced up at the signage and strode off in the proper direction.
In her ear, Todd said, "Bingo. But that does lead us to a series of very interesting questions."
Hafidha glanced over her shoulder to make sure nobody within earshot was likely to mistake her for a terrorist. "Sure. Assuming for the moment that Roze Cutler is a victim and not our UNSUB, we have a stack of them. Such as: if he was pulling not-very-freshly-dead people out of the freezer three to six months ago, what has he been doing in the intervening time? And what was he doing with the time between when he dismembered Jane Doe and when he thawed her out again? Did he kill her? Did he just chop her up? Was her death his trigger? And why has he waited all this time and then grabbed three victims within a fortnight? Oh, hang on, Duke, I found Chaz."
She'd been right. He was crammed behind the pillar, shielded behind his legs like a hermit crab drawn up into a too-small shell. His chin had drooped to his bony chest, coils of hair falling across his eyes. Tight-buttoned shirt cuffs had pulled up over the liver-colored scars on his wrists, something he would never allow to happen if he were not sleeping hard and fitfully. Hafidha stopped for a moment at the corner of the pillar, fighting the sting in her eyes, the speech-canceling pain in her chest.
"It's okay," Todd said. "That's all I've got. I already passed it to Falkner. Sayonara!"
"Sayonara," Hafidha whispered to the dead air. "Chaz--"
He jerked awake, left hand spasming toward the holster half-hidden under the hem of the suede jacket she'd made him buy, half a year and half a lifetime ago. She raised both hands, showing them empty except for her go bag and the laptop backpack with the multicolored stars. "At ease."
He let go of the breath he'd grabbed in the midst of his startle response and let his head and shoulders loll back against the pillar. She watched him assemble his welcoming smile from a kit.
"Hafs. Hey. Sorry. Reyes had me out all night doing interviews with the missing woman's family. Did you wait long?" His chatter covered for the moment when he nerved himself and moved his hand away from the weapon, tugged his shirt cuffs down until they covered the tops of his hands. It was one of the shirts she'd ordered for him, a rich burgundy cotton that made his skin look golden. It couldn't flatter away the hollows under his eyes, though.
He rubbed those eyes and unfolded easily from the chair. Some of the old balance and poise was returning. He was so gangly and attenuated that she'd never realized how strong and graceful he really was until he'd lost those things. Like a giraffe: elaborate, ungainly, ridiculous... and, when you stopped to actually watch it, elegantly engineered. He eyed her speculatively, then swept her into an unprofessional but heartfelt hug. "Holding up? Have you eaten?"
"It only hurts when I laugh."
"I know it's not the same," he said. "And I don't want to appropriate your grief. But I miss him, too."
I'll think about that tomorrah. Was quoting old movies a defense mechanism? Hell, it was becoming a reflex. She didn't want to talk about it. Think about it. Mind on your job, Special Agent Gates. She was a bad person for being so grateful that somebody she didn't know was dead. She gave him a squeeze and stepped away. "How far is it to Chillicothe?"
He grinned, holding out his hand for her go bag, knowing better than to reach for the laptop. "Oh, eighty minutes... the way Mom drives."
Hafidha rolled her eyes. "Give me the keys."
Hafidha had Googled directions to the Chillicothe cop shop, but Chaz surprised her by directing her to the landfill. "They've set up an on-site Incident Command," he said, and as they crunched up the frozen, unimproved road in the predawn, she could see that he'd understated. Lights blazed through the windows of the single-wide trailer on cement blocks, which must have previously served as the landfill's administration building. The surrounding area was a used-car lot for unmarked cop cars and a few vehicles that looked like family conveyances. A space had been left next to a Chevy Tahoe with federal plates. Hafidha slid into it, killing the engine almost before the car stopped moving. She cracked the door and slapped the seatbelt release, but didn't step out.
Chaz sat still beside her, hands folded in his lap, staring out the windshield as the car filled with cool morning air. You'd expect more bird noise, but on the other hand it was nearly winter.
He said, "You okay?"
He didn't look over, so she let her own eyes glide back to center. "Pretty far from it, actually," she said. "You?"
He shrugged. "No. I'm not." The door handle clicked when he pulled it. He slapped the belt release and got out of the car.
Hafidha followed him up to the door of the double-wide, which somebody had propped open to let in a little air. Brady, of course, stood casually just beside, arms folded, at an angle where he could keep the approach in his peripheral vision. He ghosted back as she and Chaz approached, so they could step up into the trailer without having to cross through his personal space, but other than that he acknowledged them only with a nod.
Poor Cowboy. It was hard to reject a nod.
But Chaz actually nodded back, though he didn't make eye contact. He didn't even look at Reyes, in the far corner with a mug of tea and a laptop. Falkner and Pauley stood at the head of a Formica table in the midst of a cluster of four or five male police officers and what must have been some of their wives. Judging by the evidence, the women had brought breakfast. Hafidha smelled coffee, pastry, fruit. Blessed carbohydrates.
"Oh, god," she said, beelining for the table. "I hope they brought extra."
Falkner and Reyes both looked up as she closed. Reyes folded his laptop shut and stood.
"Hafidha," he said. "We have a driver ready to take you out as soon as you've eaten something." He gestured to the spread.
Hafidha was already grabbing a napkin.
Falkner leaned across the table to touch Hafidha's sleeve. She tipped her head at the tired-looking cop beside her. "Hafidha, this is our local liaison, Detective Browning. Detective, Agent Gates, our computer wizard."
"Good to meet you."
He stuck out his right hand, angling his body to edge through the crowd of hungry cops. Hafidha juggled the paper napkin and two kinds of Danish into her left hand so she could return the clasp. He had a good grip, dry, respectful of her rings so he didn't mash her fingers. She gave him an encouraging smile.
He spoke up to be heard over the chatter in the room. "Agent Gates, I'm sure glad you're here. I hope you can help get a little more traction on this."
"I hope so too." She took her hand back and filled it with a doughnut. Old-fashioned cake, with cinnamon sugar. She was stuffing a quarter of it between her teeth when Chaz set a coffee cup down beside her. Mouth full, she improvised a thank-you with her eyebrows. He winked.
And Browning's phone began to ring.
He had the knack of it, unholstering and flipping it open one-handed. "This is Browning."
The expression crawling across his face silenced Hafidha, who had just been about to turn and ask Chaz to hand her a couple of apple turnovers. She watched the ripple of uneasy attention spread through the trailer, as one person after another noticed that something was amiss and turned to identify the problem.
Browning spoke for the first time since identifying himself. "Yeah. Can you trace--oh, hell. Is it digitized?" He turned, scanning the room, and caught sight of Reyes' laptop. Gesticulating, he managed to indicate that he'd like to have a file sent there.
"Right. Have her email the sound file to Agent Reyes. No, he's right here. No, I have the whole task force. We hadn't split up yet. Yes. Yes. Thank you. Bye."
Browning pulled the phone away from his ear and stared at it for a moment, as if he had to search for the little red button. "Damn."
"He called," Reyes said.
"He called 911. Five minutes ago. They're sending you the digital recording."
Reyes had already picked up the laptop and flipped it open. "He called 911 and they didn't get a trace? How'd they manage that?"
"He called from a deactivated cell phone," Browning said. He was still staring at his own, but as Hafidha dropped half a cheese Danish back onto her napkin and started to reach for him, he shook it off, flipped the phone closed. "Fucker."
"I don't understand," said Falkner. "If it's deactivated--"
Hafidha realized she'd just lost her appetite. She picked up the other half of the Danish anyway. She was going to need it. Reyes bent over his keyboard, and she reached out to boost his transfer rate. The wireless in this trailer was a joke. She said, "Even a cell phone with no carrier will still dial 911."
"It's a safety feature," Browning agreed. "But--"
Pauley crossed behind Hafidha, coming to lean over Reyes's shoulder. Reyes seemed oblivious, intent on his keyboard.
Hafidha said, "But a deactivated cell phone has no number. So you can't trace it. Reyes--" --El Jefe-- "--do you have the file yet?"
"Loading," he said, and jabbed at the keyboard.
Hafidha heard the crackle of static, the blur of background noise. A woman, crisp, saying "Nine one one. What is the nature of your emergency?"
And out of the noise, a male voice, smug and comfortable through the distortion of some sort of electronic device. Hafidha hated him from the word go.
He said, "I'm calling about Roze Cutler."
"I have information on her whereabouts. But I'm afraid you were too slow. You'll find her in several places."
Hafidha heard the change in the 911 operator's voice, the professional realization. It could be a hoax call. But you could never afford to take that chance. Like two oxen in a yoke, Pauley and Reyes leaned forward, listening. "What happened to Ms. Cutler, sir?"
"Somebody killed her. You can find her out by 36. Past the airport."
"Somebody, sir? Did you kill her?"
"Somebody sure did."
"Sir, can you tell me your name? What is your location? Sir?"
There was a click, and all the little sounds went away. Before the recording ended, Hafidha heard the operator murmur something, almost too soft for her headset to pick it up. It sounded like "Sweet Jesus."
"He's engaged," Reyes said. "He's engaged us. Where's Lau? I need a live press conference for the lunchtime news. If getting the better of us means something to him, then by God we've got a handle on him. Browning, somebody call the dog handler--"
"Lawrence," Falkner supplied. "Lau's got the sleep shift. I'll fetch her." She vanished through a connecting door that Hafidha had assumed led to the outside. There must be another, tiny, room at the end of the trailer.
Reyes said, "Get Lawrence on the phone. Tell her we've got a change of plan. Also, Browning, I'll need to talk to your 911 operators. He'll call back. When he does, I'll give them techniques to keep him talking, string him along. He wants to be recognized for what he's done. He wants our attention, and he won't be able to walk away from it once he's got it. I'll be very surprised if he doesn't have a police scanner or some other means of obtaining inside information--"
Lau appeared in the doorway, hair unmussed and shining. Her eyes burned red and she blinked hard, covering a yawn, but she was still shrugging into a suit jacket that looked like somebody had just pulled it off a dry-cleaner's rack. How the hell did she do that? "What do you need?"
"Assuming the male voice isn't a misdirection, the UNSUB is a male. And he's taunting us," Reyes said. "He's just bursting at the seams with how clever he is, and he wants somebody to appreciate him."
Lau nodded. "Okay. Leakage."
"Leakage?" Browning said.
Pauley, back still against the wall beside Reyes, said, "He won't be able to hide his interest in the case. He'll talk about it to friends, relatives, people he meets in the grocery store. He'll seem obsessed with it. He might be able to hide it from law enforcement, but somebody who knows him might notice something. So Special Agent Lau, the Great Communicator, gets on the air and starts asking for community help. We'll show you how to set up hotlines and how to work the calls when they start coming in."
"Right," Lau said. "I'm on it. Also, maybe we can provoke him to call back. If he knows we're listening."
Reyes hid it behind his hand when he smiled, but Hafidha couldn't have missed the pride in his expression. Hafidha bit viciously into the pastry. Flaky crust, gooey cheese, sweet brittle icing. It shed crumbs down her front. She chewed, swallowed, reached for the coffee. When her mouth was clear, she said, "If we can recover the phone, we can find out which cell tower the 911 call was routed through. But first we have to identify a suspect. So we can recover the phone."
Chaz reached past her to snag a bagel, then retreated so his back was against the trailer wall. "Right," he said. "Guess I'll get back on that geographical profile."
Hafidha folded her napkin around the remaining danish and dropped it into her pocket. "And I guess I'll get started on that wardriving. Browning, your guy ready to go?"
"Sure thing. Let me introduce you."
Still over by the doorway, Brady straightened up. "Reyes?"
Brady said, "I'm going to see a woman about a dog."
Brady occupied the passenger seat while Marie Lawrence drove, and Cookie, secure in a doggie seatbelt, relaxed across the back seat with her nose raised to a partially open window. Brady had often wondered what dogs got out of the wind that rushed past moving vehicles. He imagined it must be the doggie equivalent of a kaleidoscope, a chaotic mobile of scents and impressions. Like kids at carnivals, he thought, and grinned.
Lawrence wasn't a talker, which was a relief. She drove and drank her coffee and left him alone with his thoughts. He had a lot of them, too. He was trying to keep an eye on the landscape, but his gaze kept coming to rest on the marked car ahead--their guide, like they could possibly miss the search party when they got up on it--and sticking there, as if his wheels were spinning too hard for him to process anything his eyes were trying to tell him.
36 east of town was a flat divided highway that ran through harvested fields and scattered lines of trees. You couldn't even really call them woods; like the houses and silos, they were just enough to break up the horizon a little. The flat earth on either side was cut by roads into surveyed half-mile squares. The airport appeared on the left, a tiny facility with one paved runway and a turf one, suitable for small propeller planes.
"Should be coming up on it now," Lawrence said.
Brady pointed down the highway. "Party lights. He said 'past the airport.' "
"There's a lot of past."
"It's a personal referent," Brady said. "Chances are, he's coming from in town. Driving out. Which tells us some things."
"Like?" She pulled off the road expertly, tires rolling smoothly over the gravel on the verge, and parked on the far side of a police car. Its scrolling flashers were washed out in the morning light.
"Well," Brady said, "he has access to a car, for example." He opened the door and levered himself out of the car as she put it in park. "God damn, that's a lot of orange bags."
They stretched along the roadside as far as Brady could see. Lawrence, Cookie's leash in her hand, walked up beside him. "That's why we have The Magic Nose," she said, with a grin. "You know, we know something else about our guy."
"He's got some way of getting hold of DPW trash bags."
Brady nodded, ambling forward. "Well, it's a swell means of getting rid of a body, I'll give the bastard that."
"Ironic, too," Marie said. "In addition to the convict crews and the DPW trucks, local businesses go out and do roadside cleanup for charity. Guess who was the guy who organized it last year?"
"Aw, no," Brady said. "Darrel Edwards?"
She nodded. "He gave away prizes to the teams that collected the most trash. And he wound up in one of those same orange trash bags. It isn't fucking poetry."
Brady held up his hand, thumbing speed dial for Reyes. Now was no time to be squeamish, but he couldn't quite stop the adrenaline shakes in his arm. When Reyes answered, Brady said, "Hey, I know where the UNSUB got the bags. Edwards did roadside cleanup. Yeah, and it explains why the UNSUB couldn't dispose of the first body until he'd taken Edwards, why he had to hold on to her so long. Because he obtained the means of disposal--right. Yes. All right, Brady out."
When he closed the phone, Lawrence was frowning at him thoughtfully. He cleared his throat, turning away, and said, "Sorry. And thank you. Shall we get to work?"
"One sec. Brady?"
He turned. She looked nervous, and it wasn't just the cars sailing past on the highway a few yards away. He was glad that she was keeping the dog leashed.
She swallowed. "Hey. I make it out to the east coast once in a while. Do you want to get some coffee sometime?"
Oh, such a complicated question. Sure, he'd love to. But he didn't want any of the other things the coffee implied. And there were other issues.
"I'm flattered," he said. "But I'm sort of seeing someone."
"Of course you are," she said, with a resigned glance away. "All the good ones are. Only sort of?"
He looked at her. At the dog. Around at Missouri, full of cops and crops and orange garbage bags that might be stuffed with dead people. Oh, what the hell.
"It's kind of on the DL," Brady admitted. "He works for the State Department."
Almost worth it for the array of colors and expressions that crossed her face, speaking of kaleidoscopes. And then she choked, tears starting, and laughed like he'd told her the funniest joke she'd ever heard. When she stopped, she wiped her eyes on the back of her hand and said, "All right then. Offer of coffee stands?"
"Under those terms," he said, "offer of coffee accepted."
Lawrence walked away ahead of Brady as they came up on the first of the orange bags, but he thought she was amused and maybe a little disappointed instead of angry. He rubbed his fingers against damp palms as Cookie sniffed diligently but disinterestedly around the margin of the first bag. Was it really seeing someone when you had his cell phone, but not his home number? If you'd never been to his house? If you weren't sure if he thought he was seeing somebody, or just getting laid on the weekends?
The dog snuffled along the verge, white plume fanning gently. Happy to be working, glancing over her shoulder once in a while to make sure Lawrence was still on the other end of the leash. Happy to be serving a purpose. Wasn't that supposed to be enough? Was it disloyal or greedy to want more?
"Check it," Lawrence said, as Cookie came to the next bag. Cookie trotted forward, checked around the edge, and looked up at Lawrence to say, "Nope. What's next?"
Brady sighed. It was going to be a long morning.
It didn't get any shorter when, on the 78th bag, Cookie's sniffing grew serious and concentrated. She dropped down onto her elbows, tail laid flat against the ground behind her, ears pricked.
Brady didn't need anybody to tell him that they had found Roze Cutler.
Hafidha kept her laptop open on her knees as the black and white prowled slowly down the ruler-straight streets of Chillicothe. A Boy had told her once that St. Paul was the last Eastern city, having been laid out along a random spiderweb of cow trails, and Minneapolis was the first Western one, with its regular grid of numbered streets and avenues. At the time, she'd asked him where in California he thought he could locate Manhattan. Now, belatedly, she wondered if maybe he was on to something.
And so, she thought, was she. Chillicothe was hardly a hotspot of unprotected wireless nodes. She found more than a few in residential neighborhoods, where it seemed as if nobody locked their internets (maybe in case their neighbors needed to untraceably download kiddie porn?), but the only commercial enterprise she located that also boasted a wifi hotspot was a McDonald's on route 36, and that was an iPass-authenticated site.
"Great," Hafidha muttered. "So either he's wardriving suburbia, or he's doing something else. And neither one of those helps me a damned bit."
The uniformed officer detailed to drive Hafidha was a young woman with a severe brown ponytail and freckles across the tops of her cheeks from time spent in the sun. She seemed almost indecently excited to be stuck ferrying around a female FBI agent, and Hafidha--who had missed her name--was torn between wincing at her innocence, and wanting to take her by the shoulders and shake it out of her. She glanced over quickly before returning her eyes to the road. "Sorry, Agent Gates?"
"Talking to myself," said Hafidha. Her stomach rumbled, and she was out of trail mix and Ring Dings. "Look, we're not going to catch him this way. I have a better idea. Take me back to incident command? No, wait, find me a sandwich shop first, please, and then take me back to incident command."
"Your wish is my etcetera," the officer said, without the faintest trace of irony. Hafidha closed the laptop on her knees and leaned back against the seat, propping her head on the window frame. Maybe she could catch a brief restorative nap in the time it took to drive over there.
As it turned out, she got close to half an hour, divided up into two chunks, because while there were two Subways in Chillicothe, Missouri, Officer Her-name-turns-out-to-be-Vogel--Hafidha snuck a look at her badge when she got out of the car--showed a little human decency and kindness and brought her to a place called the Country Kitchen instead.
"Trust me," Vogel said as she turned into the cracked driveway. "You'll like this better."
"I'm learning to trust already," Hafidha said fervently. She tucked her laptop under the seat and followed Vogel inside. When she came out again twenty minutes later, clutching a bag that smelled like happiness to her chest, she was practically purring. The roast beef piled with mashed potatoes and onion "tanglers" wouldn't be piping hot when she got it to Chaz.
But she was a good provider.
Vogel dropped Hafidha off at the trailer, where she climbed the steps with an ostentatious tread. "I don't know if I'm going to make it, carrying all this food up this mountain..."
Chaz appeared in the doorway as if invoked, and plucked the bag from her arms. "If some of this is for me I'll have your children," he said. "Just tell me how many and what kind."
"Only if you promise to raise them, too, and only bring them around for my blessing before their bedtime prayers." Her laptop in its backpack swung free as she passed through the door. Chaz seemed to be alone in the trailer for now. Still, she set the backpack gently under the table, tucked behind one leg. "Tell me there's coffee. The nearest Starbucks is in Kansas City. It's like finding yourself in a DeLorean aimed squarely at 1980."
Chaz lifted foil and styrofoam containers out of the bag, arranging them on the table. "There's six different things here. How do you want to--ooo. Potato salad."
"I figured we'd just cut everything in half," she said, hunting on the sideboard for a clean mug. "You want some?"
"I filled my mug when I made the pot, thanks." No fake manners between betas. Chaz dragged two folding chairs down to the bottom of the table, away from his pile of maps and folders and index cards, and plunked into one of them. He pulled over the nearest container and slid Hafidha a fork like he'd learned the technique from a baccarat dealer.
Heck, he was from Vegas. Maybe he had.
Three bites into the meatloaf sandwich, he raised his head and said, "Any luck?"
Hafidha shook hers. "Well, okay. It served for purposes of exclusion. He's really not using a local public wireless node, though he could be stealing from the Joneses. How about you?" She snagged another forkful of potato salad, estimated that she'd gotten about half, and slid the container towards Chaz.
He said, "Take another bite."
"Really?" She looked at it again.
"This is me you're talking to. Take another bite."
She did, a bit of onion crunching between her teeth, then traded him for the meatloaf. He speared potatoes and mayonnaise. "Well, I managed some exclusion, too. We'll know more when Lawrence and Cookie find more dump sites--Brady thinks they tracked down number two this afternoon--but just based on the two we have and where the three known victims played, lived, and worked--and when they disappeared--the geographic profile is all weird."
"Whoa. Technical term. Define all weird." After meatloaf followed grilled cilantro chicken. Hafidha surreptitiously reached down to unsnap her pants. Sometimes you had to make a little room for expansion. Hey, that was whyfor the jacket.
"I think he's intentionally skewing it. Taking countermeasures against geographic profiling."
"You think he's that sophisticated?"
Chaz shrugged. "This place probably has a CBS affiliate."
"Touché." She hesitated, but this was Chaz. And he'd put up with things from her he wouldn't tolerate from anybody else in the world. Well, that cuts both ways, doesn't it? "Platypus?"
"What did Dad want? When you did those next-of-kin interviews? Nikki said he kind of stacked the deck six ways from Sunday to get you alone all night."
He set his fork down, for that one. Drank coffee, wiped his mouth on a napkin, and got up to fill his cup. As if he couldn't look at her while answering. Oh, baby bruddah. Don't you know I can tell when you're lying to me?
He'd put those locked posts in his LiveJournal for her, she was certain of it. So he could tell her things he couldn't tell her, and so she could know them without having to act on them. It was a Chazzian sort of solution to an intractable problem. Just fold yourself up and step aside.
"He wants to be understood," Chaz said, with his back still to her. "No. He thinks he wants to be understood. But nobody really wants that. What they want is for you to buy into their mythologies, not to understand who they really are." He said, "It's why nobody likes profilers," and drained half the coffee in his mug and refilled it without bothering with more cream or sugar. It wasn't an answer, not even halfway, and she decided to let it slide.
She could read between the lines. Reyes had made some sort of apology, some sort of a peace offering. And Chaz was trying to decide if he could force himself to accept it. Once Chaz had made his decision, Reyes would have a plan for how to approach Brady.
He probably had a plan already, or three, or ten, like strands in a spider's spiral house. He was just waiting until he had the information that would let him select one and implement it.
Hafs wanted to tell Chaz that Reyes wasn't worth it, that the job wasn't worth it. That he should find something else to do with his life. Save yourself. Run for Witch Mountain.
When he sat down again, he picked up his fork as if nothing had happened, then looked dubiously at the utensil and tossed it into the nearest Styrofoam container.
"You don't want any more?" She nudged it toward him.
He made a face. "No, I'm done. Thank you."
"It's not your fault, Hafs. Too much variation, maybe. I thought about it too much and it stopped being food. It's okay. I got enough."
Enough to keep a bird alive. Small bird. Barely. "So Dad wants you to buy his mythology?" It had been a conversation that was going somewhere, and maybe she could get it back. "Is that the mythology where he's not a wholly-owned subsidiary of Celentano & Sons, Ltd.? Or a different one?"
Chaz fiddled his coffee cup then got up and wandered around a little, but didn't go out of easy conversational range. "Someday you're going to tell me how far back you've chased the money behind the ACTF, Miss Gates."
"Miss Gates takes her security clearance seriously, Doctor Villette." That got a grin wide enough to show his crooked teeth. "...mostly."
"Dad's mythology is that there is an answer, and that if we find it, we can save everyone." Chaz shrugged--a real shrug, his shoulders rising and falling--and only winced a little.
"And what's your mythology?" She tilted her head up to look at him square. Come on, baby bruddah. What's so awful you can't tell big sister?
He rattled his fingertips on the table. "That some things are past saving."
"He did save my life." The last bite of mashed potatoes was gluey. She swallowed it anyway.
"Mine too." His frown dragged his gaze down to his hands. His lips moved, but he didn't say it out loud. She thought they shaped, For what it's worth.
She wasn't going to call him on it. She stalled with food while she thought. She might have figured out something to say, the right thing, maybe. She might have saved the day, if he was giving her that much of a crack. But abruptly, her phone said "They can bill me!" in Sigourney Weaver's voice.
Hafidha swallowed chicken and said "Falkner" to Chaz's quizzical look, then put the device against her ear while he swallowed a laugh. "Hey, Es."
Falkner's voice snapped so tight it stung. "Where are you?"
"Incident command. With Chaz."
"I've got Reyes. Are Brady, Lau, or Pauley back yet? I'm not getting a cell signal on any of them."
Hafidha held the phone away from her mouth. "Chaz--Brady? Lau? Pete?"
"Out on the highway," he said, around a forkful of salad. At least he'd found enough appetite for that. "Supposed to be back by five. It's getting darkish."
"They should be inbound," Hafidha said. "Do you need me to relay a message?"
"I'm emailing you a file," Falkner said. "He got back in touch."
"Oh," Hafidha said. El Jefe and the Wonder Woman strike again. "That's probably a bad sign, isn't it?"
"We need to get a bead on this guy," Falkner said. "Anybody comes through the door, doesn't leave until Reyes and I get there. You'll see what I mean when you play the file. You and Chaz start on the phone call, okay? Maybe you can get something out of it."
"Roger, Es," Hafidha said. "See you soon." She punched the red button and reached under the table for her bag while relaying to Chaz what Falkner had said. A moment, and she had the device on the table, open and powering up. After that, she didn't need to use her fingers.
The file was small, which worried her. She cued it with a thought.
"Nine one one. What is the nature of your emergency?"
"Sir? Where are you located? Who is missing?"
"Look around you," he said. "I bet you can figure it out."
Dusty and gritty with roadside filth, Pauley was not surprised to walk into a council of war comprising Villette, Gates, Reyes, Falkner, Brady, and Browning--but he wasn't quite prepared for the ring of grim looks that met him and Lau when they came through the trailer door. He brushed rust from the railing off his palm and waited for Nikki. Her team, her move.
She made it confidently, stepping forward, tossing her hair behind her ear in a way that still kind of made his fingers itch. Not in any kind of a bad, painful way. Just... a little nostalgic. He smiled, watching her take charge of a room almost by accident.
He wouldn't mind working for Nikki Lau, either. Not that you'd get him into the WTF permanent-like with a couple of good stiff taps with a mallet.
"What's up?" she said.
"Pull up a chair." Falkner pointed to the last two folding chairs unoccupied. Lau perched herself on the edge of the farther one, leaving the nearer for Pauley. "We've got another brief 911 call suggesting he's taken a fifth victim. But that's all."
His reflexes didn't seem to give a damn if goose pimples were a cliché; Pauley felt the hairs rise on his neck. "Have we analyzed the recording for background noise?" he asked. "Maybe that could help us narrow down a location."
Gates spun her computer like a top. Reyes, beside her, flinched at the sudden movement. To Pauley's eye, his face looked gray and ill. I might be doing him a favor if I got him out of the Bureau. It was an uncomfortable thought: leaving the FBI was not supposed to be a favor for anyone. There was a mystique.
"If we get a close enough location, we could figure out what cell tower he connected to," Gates said. "We do that, we have the time of the call--"
"I could tell you where he was calling from," Villette said.
Browning looked from one agent to the other. "We can put cars on the street. And the next time he calls, we can be ready for him."
Brady shook his head in bemused delight. "Damn, you guys are good. That's ass-backward. Run a cellphone trace without the phone number--"
"Sure." Pauley grinned. "It's not the easy way. But it's the cowboy way. Now hush up and let Hafidha play us some songs."
They leaned forward, eight listeners intent behind frowns. Pauley restrained the urge to cup his hands like bunny ears to concentrate the background noises.
"I got as much white noise out of it as I could," Gates said. She must have hit play, but Pauley didn't see her hands move.
He heard the crackle of static, the 911 operator identifying herself. The cryptic threat.
Pauley caught something mechanical sounding. "That rumble could be a dishwasher. Some kind of machinery."
Reyes turned his head to one side. "There's a hiss," he said. "With an irregular period. Like surf but not rhythmic."
"The rumble's a car engine," Falkner said, with confidence. She had drawn her shoulders back and thrust her face forward like an intent setter, the high bones of her cheeks hard under drawn sallow skin. She looked like shit, too.
"Traffic," Chaz said. "Passing traffic. Moving at an average of seventy-three miles an hour." Like he could tell that just by listening. "He might have pulled over to make the call. On the side of the highway."
"Right," Reyes said. "It's a start. Detective Browning, we need somebody to liaise with Highway Patrol. If one observant trooper saw a stopped car at the right time--"
Falkner's phone burst into a Grateful Dead tune: the tinny, attenuated strains of "Truckin'." "Todd," she said, as Gates killed the playback. Falkner answered, eyebrows rising. Whatever Todd said was short and to the point. "Thanks," she said, and cut the connection. "Browning, how fast can you pull an arrest warrant?"
"Tell me what to dictate," he said, pulling out his phone.
"Todd and Worth IDed the Jane Doe. Her name is Lynn Van Metre, of Colombus, Ohio. She's never been reported missing, but she had a record for soliciting and petty larceny."
Browning's eyes widened. "But Lynn is a man. And--"
"Lynn is blind."
Lau glanced over at Browning sadly. "Welcome to our world, man. Are you on the warrant?"
He nodded, dialing. Around the table, chairs scraped back. Brady glanced over at Pauley. "Did Cookie find anything like a dump site for you?"
"The cadaver dog. Her handler left me around noon, to go meet up with you and Lau on the west site."
"I never saw her," Pauley said, his cheeks growing chill as the blood fell out of them. "Oh, shit--"
"Van Metre's residence," Reyes said, heaving himself to his feet so abruptly he rocked the table back. "Pronto. Browning, call whoever you have to call to get a chopper up and looking for Lawrence's car. Hafidha, you stay here and coordinate. Call Todd and Worth, tell them to get on the victim's backtrail."
Pauley couldn't have missed it that Hafidha reacted as if Reyes had stung her.
Sure, Hafidha. You just stay back at the ranch while everybody else goes out and has fun. "Reyes--" she protested, and saw Lau's, Pauley's, and Brady's heads swivel in unison. Chaz folded his arms and withdrew, vanishing into the shadows without seeming to move. Falkner, on the other hand, made an arrested gesture forward, her eyes on Reyes.
Hafidha sucked in a breath. Was this it? She could call Reyes' judgment into question now and the team would back her.
Another man might have cowed the room with a sweeping glance, but Reyes kept his gaze on Hafidha. She still didn't think he'd missed anything that transpired. Reyes said, "A word in the back?"
She chose to follow him through into the room she hadn't seen when Lau came sleepily out of it, and found it as plain and cramped as she had expected. A convertible loveseat in rough, tweedy brown and tan had been hastily folded back together, and gray filing cabinets were shoved against three walls. On the fourth was a battered steel desk, which filled the available space below a dirty louvered window.
"Sir?" Hafidha shut the door with the back of her boot.
He raised his eyebrows at her, betraying hurt with a little grimace. "I didn't call you in here to ream you out. I just don't want to say this in front of the officers, and while I can brief the rest of the team and Pauley on the way to the house-- There's a chance this guy is not going to be at the house."
"What do you mean?"
Reyes rocked on his feet, stretching out the tendons. "Presuming the UNSUB is a gamma--which seems like a pretty good assumption at this time--he'll think he has an advantage. He doesn't know we know he has extrahuman abilities. He's exceptionally computer-literate and he's getting his kicks from manipulating people. Getting his victims to participate in the mutilation of the previous corpses. He's found a way to structure his crimes so he doesn't have to inject himself into the investigation--we came to him. And he's got to have a police scanner. Otherwise where's the fun of specifically targeting people we'll miss?"
"He's already in the wind," Hafidha said, understanding.
"It's likely. And if he is, we've probably lost him. I think the best odds for us to play are that he's sitting in his house, surrounded by booby traps, waiting for us to come to him so he can go out in a hail of gunfire. Or--"
"Or he's coming here."
Reyes nodded, raking one hand across the short brush of his hair. "It's a slim but real possibility. And you're the agent I have who stands the best chance of taking down an armed gamma singlehanded. I'd leave you Todd if I had him, but--" He shook his head. "So I need you here, Hafidha. Just in case."
Hafidha wanted to fold her arms and stomp like a sixteen-year-old, but that would put her hand too far from her gun. So instead she took a deep breath, held it, let it out, and said, "Thank you for explaining your reasoning, Stephen. I'll be where you need me to be."
"We go in hard," Reyes said, and that was that. Brady thought Reyes and Chaz looked out of place in their body armor and helmets, but Falkner seemed at home with a shotgun laid across her forearm. When she breathed in, she filled up her Kevlar. When she breathed out, it seemed as if the larger outline remained there, calm and competent, superimposed on the woman he knew.
Brady hefted one of the Halligan tools. Pauley picked up the other. Lau stepped in between them, arm lifted so Brady could tighten her straps, and Brady found himself the object of a certain amount of scrutiny before Pauley abruptly turned away and went to ally himself with Falkner and Chaz. Okay, so that was one team. That meant Brady and Lau got Reyes at the back door, and Browning's men would have the perimeter.
Brady seriously hoped at least one of the local cops was a competent sniper.
"He likes you," Brady said softly.
"I like him," Nikki answered, with a quick glance over her shoulder at the other group, though Brady couldn't tell if she was checking on the location of Pauley, or Chaz. "I could like him a lot. We... dated. When I was Down The Hall. But the last thing I need right now is men in my life. I've got that T-shirt. It never ends well. Look at fucking Hafidha, what she's going through."
Brady shrugged. Lau went out with the betas sometimes, though not too often. She wasn't inside the magic bubble the way Worth was. But she couldn't help knowing more than he did. "What's she going through?"
Lau's chin came up. She boggled. "Oh man. You know her ex dumped her when she converted, right?"
Lau dropped her voice even lower, but Brady could still pick out the identification, sympathy, and a healthy dose of self-mockery. "She just started seeing this new guy like last year. First one who's lasted more than a month. Sweet kid, all spiky hair and black eyeliner, stompy boots, attitude problem, filthy jokes, heart of pure marshmallow--"
"Oh, Jesus fucking Christ," Brady whispered, his stomach plunging until it swung somewhere down around his knees. He thought he might have met the guy in a bar once, from the description. He hadn't thought much of it: Hafidha never brought the same Boy back twice. "What-- I mean, how did it happen?"
"He got hit by a car," Lau said. She snapped her fingers. "In a crosswalk in the middle of the afternoon. The driver took off. Some fucking planet, huh?"
"Yeah." Brady's mouth was dry and painful, but he had to say something. "Some fucking planet."
Lau looked away. She bit savagely at her thumbnail. "Come on. Let's get on the bus. Reyes looks ready to roll."
Brady broke open the back door with the Halligan tool before standing aside to let Reyes take point. He felt like kicking it in, but unlike in the movies that didn't always work the first time, and they didn't need to give any warning. They moved in shouting, every nerve straining, shivering fingers registered alongside cool barrels. The house was dim, even in daylight, but they found none of the anticipated booby traps, and no sign of life.
Brady tried not to strain his ears for the imagined sound of a dog barking.
The kitchen was plain, mostly clean, without too much food in it. Mismatched plastic cups and plates stacked the drainboard. The table was scarred, the hall dingy and painted beige. The bedroom might have been a set dressed as a hotel room, it was so devoid of color or personality. Of course, Brady thought, there would be no paintings on the wall. But you'd expect knickknacks, Braille newspapers scattered beside the bed, interesting textures. Something. Instead, there were two shelves of Braille technical manuals and nothing else. This was the room of a person who had erased himself, whose personality had been consumed by a purpose.
Lau vanished into the bathroom, firearm at low ready. A moment later, her voice floated out--"Clear!" and Brady heard her opening cabinets.
Reyes said, "Whatever happened to him, nobody noticed. And nobody noticed what happened to Lynn Van Metre, either. I wonder if that's why he took her identity."
Brady turned to look at Reyes. "I wonder what he did with his own."
Hafidha paced. Her footsteps echoed hollowly on the flimsy floor of the trailer, a sound that would have irritated her on her best day. Today, it made her want to kill the motherfucker who was making all that stupid pointless noise.
Her fury did not help her stop pacing. She wanted to be there, be out there. But Reyes had looked right into her eyes and said what he had said.
There were a multitude of possibilities encoded in that just in case. She'd known he was right, known she was the only possible option to run ops in case Van Metre wasn't at his house. Chaz was still too fragile; Lau was tough enough but she wasn't an anomaloid; Brady was too fucked up and also too invested in the girl and her dog to be trusted to stay behind; Pauley wouldn't quite get it; and right now, nobody would listen to Reyes without Falkner. Hafidha hated that he was right. But he was right.
While she was pacing, she didn't forget to check her Glock in the paddle holster or make sure she had a second magazine handy. And her restless energy didn't stop her from keeping an eye on the webcams she'd set up over the trailer doors, either.
She still heard the crunch of gravel under tires before anything came into view, however. She'd thought of dousing the trailer lights, but if Van Metre--no, the UNSUB; Hafidha wasn't going to sully the memory of Lynn Van Metre by letting this bastard get away with appropriating her identity--was blind, then he was using some other set of senses to navigate and she'd only be incapacitating herself. Instead, she left them glowing, and slipped through the room off the rear of the trailer to find the back door.
She pushed speed dial; Reyes' number went directly to voice mail. He was probably in the middle of a SWAT expedition right now. "He's here," Hafidha said, and silenced the phone before she put it away. A ring at the wrong time could be tragic.
The Glock rested comfortably in her palm. She flattened against the filing cabinets, aware by the itch between her shoulder blades that the aluminum walls of the trailer wouldn't stop a bullet.
The car stopped at the curve in the driveway, and the webcam over the door showed two people sliding out. The one on the passenger side moved awkwardly, fumbling, groping along the edge of the door. She came around the side of the car, feeling her way, her hands splayed on the fender as if she might pitch forward at any moment. Not drunk, Hafidha told herself. Possibly drugged. You'd want to keep your victim disoriented.
The other stepped confidently, a semiautomatic in his right hand. He caught the woman's arm left-handed and turned her bodily toward the trailer, speaking in low tones that might have been comforting or menacing. His voice didn't carry, but the camera showed the movements of his mouth.
Suddenly, her staggering, stumbling made sense. He's using her eyes.
Hafidha closed her own for a moment, a purely reflexive gesture, to calm the adrenaline. It didn't matter; she still had the digital of the UNSUB's approach projected between her ears. The Glock was heavy and reliable in her right hand. Solid. A good friend. She wished everything were as simple.
Hafidha nerved herself and slipped through the back door onto the tramped dirt path. Chill November evening stung her ears and breathed across the nape of her neck. The cold braced her, awakened her. Reminded her that she was alive.
He had the dog handler as a shield; Hafidha would have to shoot past her with a handgun. That meant getting closer, because she was good, but it was still a handgun. Wildly inaccurate beyond nine inches, she thought, and considered that it was a hell of a time to be quoting Doonesbury.
Getting closer probably meant opening herself up to the UNSUB's power. She couldn't assume that he needed line of sight--how could he, when he was blind? Just knowing she was there might be enough. A sound. Something to target on.
Reyes would want her to take him alive. There might be answers for Lynn Van Metre's family--the ones who hadn't bothered to report her missing--if he was alive.
Reyes, as far as Hafidha was concerned, was welcome to trade his own goddamned life for as many gammas as he felt necessary. Whatever his reasons were, whatever it was in his life that drove him to that obsession, Hafidha was not going to risk her own life or that of a bystander to bring home another formerly-human guinea pig for the bossman's bosses. How high up does the conspiracy go?
So the UNSUB could steal sight. But Hafidha had an ace in the hole, unless he could also steal that away from her. It would all depend on the mechanism, she guessed, and whether he was enough of a scientist to have justified his power with a mythology about tapping into the visual cortex directly.
She didn't think so. But thinking had gotten her into trouble before.
It would probably be best to test her theory before she actually had a gun trained on her. She worked the slide to chamber the first round, and the world went blank.
Being right about him not needing line of sight was the coldest of comfort. The darkness hurt. But her feeds were still there, the tiny cameras shedding their images wirelessly into the night and from there, directly to Hafidha's central nervous system. Through them, she could see herself by the back door made two-dimensional by a spill of light. She could see the UNSUB and his hostage approaching from the front. All she had to do, then, was cover the ten or fifteen feet between the two cameras. Blind. Without shooting herself in the foot, or anything else she might need later.
And then make a tricky shot while aiming from a vantage point over the door of the trailer.
Okay, piece of cake.
Wireless girl, Hafidha thought, wondering if this sort of thing was why Lau felt it necessary to pretend to herself that she was a superhero. Flesh was too weak for this, humans too prone to error. You needed ancient Mayan Gods on your side, special powers, radioactive spiders.
"You know," she said out loud, "I was expecting that."
The timbre and range of the voice that answered were nothing like the processed voice she'd hated over the phone, but she recognized the gloating, the smug satisfaction. "Come out now and I won't have to shoot this nice lady," he said. "I know where you are. Tell her to come out, Marie."
He must have jabbed Lawrence with the gun. From her vantage over the door, Hafidha saw the sharp jerk of his elbow. Lawrence cried out between her teeth, then gasped, "I don't know who she is. Who's there? I can't--"
"I can't come out," Hafidha called back. "I can't see."
"Awww. A little too challenging for you, getting through the world without eyes? Never fear, sweetie, I'll talk you through it. I'll be your eyes. Did you ever see anything, even when it was right under your nose?"
Gah. Hafidha's palm slicked the grip of her weapon. She shuddered, but managed to keep her voice more or less stable. "I'm a Federal agent," she said. "I'll make a great hostage. You don't have to hurt Ms. Lawrence. Just tell me where to go."
"Three steps forward," he said. Based on the camera and her own memory, that would keep her on the packed earth path beside the door. She did as he said, groping with her toe before taking each step.
"Now turn left. Ten steps."
That would put her right in a rose bush. A test, or a little petty cruelty? It didn't matter. She fumbled her way into the wall of thorny canes as if she had no idea it was there. Oh, no, Brer Fox. Not the briar patch.
"Ow," she said. It wasn't as much of a challenge as she would have liked to get the tearful quiver into her voice. The thorns scraped her face, her throat, the backs of her hands. "Ow, help. I'm stuck. Dammit. Help me."
"Aw. Poor girl. Don't worry, Daddy will be right there to help you. All you have to do is call."
He hadn't been like this when Lau and Pauley interviewed him: they would have mentioned it. Everything was different when he had a little power, then. Insecurity, massive inferiority complex. Polite and helpful until he had the upper hand. Just like Ted Bundy.
She watched him from a high angle as he kissed Marie Lawrence on the cheek and stepped away from her, leaving her standing in the driveway facing Hafidha, her hands spread wide as if for balance. As the UNSUB came toward her, Hafidha realized her mistake. She was past the corner of the building. Lawrence--meaning the UNSUB--could see her from here. And Hafidha--meaning the UNSUB--could see Lawrence. But the cameras didn't cover most of the path of his approach.
"Shit," Hafidha said. "I'm so fucked."
She told herself it was for the UNSUB's benefit, but a great cold had taken root in her belly. She'd either have to shoot blind, at the sound of him moving--and risk a wounded gamma, or striking Lawrence, who was still in her line of fire--or she'd have to wait until he got close enough to step into range of the rear camera. At which point, he would be close enough to touch.
He couldn't see her with his own eyes, and she couldn't really see him. But she felt his attention on her with all the dinosaur malevolence of an ostrich. Something that can only see you as a rival, or as prey. His footsteps crunched closer. He walked quickly, confident. "You and me," he said. "We're going to go for a little ride. Drop the gun, sweetheart."
He came into the angle of the camera, and Marie Lawrence was no longer in Hafidha's line of fire.
Hafidha raised the Glock, rose canes dragging lines of pain across her skin. She could shout to Lawrence to close her eyes, cover them with her hands. She could close her own. But shouting instructions would alert the gamma.
Hafidha could choose to take the risk anyway, with her own life and with Marie Lawrence's. It was what Reyes would do. Reyes would try to save as many lives as possible. Even the lives of monsters. He'd risk himself, Chaz, Brady. Lau--to bring a Tim Miner in alive.
The camera did not show the UNSUB's face, or any of the answers that might be locked inside his head.
"I see you," Hafidha said. "You drop the gun, sweetheart. You can still stay alive."
He stepped back, or maybe staggered. She couldn't quite tell. But he was bringing the gun on line, and she had a bead on his shape, his voice, his smell.
"You're like me," the UNSUB said. "You're another one like me."
"Oh, no," Hafidha said. "I'm so much better than you. You have no idea."
With the roar of the first shot, her sight returned. She still didn't stop until the clip was empty.
Shortly after Hafidha broke into the police chatter to tell them that the UNSUB was dead and ambulances were enroute to take care of Marie Lawrence, Pauley, Villette, and Falkner found Cookie in the UNSUB's empty garage, chained to a loop sunk in the wall and barking her fool head off. They also found power tools, blood-stained cement, and a supply of orange heavy-duty trash bags.
"Kee-rist," Pauley said after Falkner had checked in the stand-up cabinets and shouted clear back up the hall, sliding his weapon back into the holster. Any minute now his hands would start to shake with adrenaline letdown, and that would make it harder. He crouched down beside the dog and fumbled with the chain clipped to her collar. There were three more chains like it spaced along both long walls of the garage. The space seemed cramped because the inside walls had been reinforced with plywood and layers of Styrofoam soundproofing.
"Jesus fucking Christ."
Falkner turned in place, taking the room in. "He had to have one alive, didn't he? To see what he was doing to the previous one. I wonder how he got them to bite--"
"Don't," Pauley said. "Don't even think about it."
"I've got to," she said, softly.
He realized she'd stopped scanning and was staring at him. He raised his head. The dog leaned against his chest, shaking.
Villette looked from the dog to the agents and said, "I'll go tell Brady his girlfriend's okay."
Because of the soundproofing, Pauley couldn't hear his footsteps vanishing into the house. But Brady would be here in a minute. He'd take charge of Cookie then. Pauley stood up, one hand still on the dog's collar.
Falkner said, "What are you going to tell Victor about my team?"
Yeah. He'd known that was coming. He stroked the dog's soft ears and shook his head. "I'm going to tell him Reyes is still one hell of a field agent, and that he has control of his team even when they don't like him much. I'm also going to tell him that you should be supervising this circus, not Stephen."
She thought about it, nodded, pursed her lips. "Chaz and Brady?"
He shrugged. "They're doing the work."
She grinned. It looked like it hurt her. "You think Victor will listen to you?"
"Fuck," Pauley said. "He hasn't fired Blaze Murchison yet."
Brady'd been ten steps from Reyes' office, his hands full of Frost's autopsy reports for the John Doe gamma in Chillicothe, when Chaz brushed past him, stepped inside the door, and shut it behind him hard enough that Brady lost the click of the latch in the slam. Brady dropped into a comfortable resting stance.
Something about the set of Chaz's shoulders--up around his ears--told Brady this wasn't going to take too long.
The voices started low, and Brady didn't strain to hear. When they rose--or when Chaz's rose, because Reyes's stayed a steady rumble--he wasn't surprised. He glanced over his shoulder to see if anybody else had noticed. Worth's head was bent over her desk, every line meant to demonstrate abject concentration. She was still a lousy liar. Todd, the only other person in the bullpen, waggled his eyebrows at Brady. It's about time.
Yeah. It really was.
Chaz said something sharp, rising, loud enough that by the end Brady heard it quite clearly. "I'm not your protégé, Reyes. I'm not your fucking legacy. You treat everybody on the planet like they're a goddamned pawn. And you know what? Maybe I am going to wake up a monster tomorrow. But at least I have a fucking excuse."
Reyes must have tried to interrupt, because Chaz's voice went up half an octave, and another few decibels. "Shut up. If you want to use me, fine. For whatever you want to use me for. But I'm here to tell you right the fuck now that you get to do that because I have decided to let you, not because you're running me. I'll be your wind-up boogeyman. But it's on my terms, and unless you're going to stick me in Idlewood, you'd better get used to it."
Three beats, and then the door jerked open and Chaz stalked through it, breathing hard, eyes rimmed with white all the way around the iris. Brady winced in anticipation of the slam, but the door closed softly, softly, and Chaz stood holding the handle for a second, breathing like he'd just run a couple of miles. He clutched a manila case jacket defensively across his chest.
Chaz looked over at Brady and straightened up, shoulders back. Brady braced for impact.
Chaz took his hand off Reyes's doorknob and said, "You might want to give him five minutes before you bring him those autopsy reports."
Brady looked down at the thumb drive and the folders. "There's nothing in it anyway. Blind as a result of a gunshot wound to the head approximately five years ago. Still no ID. Still no idea, either, where he's been or what he's been doing since he killed Lynn Van Metre. If he's even the one who killed Lynn Van Metre. Maybe somebody else did, and he was just... keeping her around. There was a little shrine to her in the attic crawlspace. A fireproof box with an old yearbook photo, a pair of earrings, and a bullet." He shrugged. "A riddle wrapped inside an enigma."
"Bet the gunshot wound was the primary trauma," Chaz said, with a faraway expression.
Almost dreamy, Brady thought, and killed that line of conjecture with extreme prejudice.
Chaz continued, "Thus the mythology. Bet he lost his family. Bet nobody cared."
"That gives us the victims." Brady weighed the folders in his hand. "Maybe we'll find out someday."
"I hate not knowing."
"Todd said he'd try for a backtrail. He's got a theory that the UNSUB is somehow connected to Van Metre."
"If it's there," Chaz said, "he'll find it." He started forward, but when his hand dropped to his side he blinked, as if only now remembering the jacket in it. He stared at the oaktag folder for a moment before thrusting it at Brady, abruptly as a kid offering a lick of his ice cream cone. "You want to read this."
Brady raised an eyebrow, but juggled the stuff in his hands until he could take it. He read the name on the label out loud, superstitiously. "Miner, Timothy. Our favorite rasher of turkey bacon."
"Idlewood intake report," Chaz said. "It looks-- It looks like he does have an external manifestation after all."
Brady could have opened the folder and read, but Chaz was talking, and that was a precious commodity. "Might as well spare me the suspense."
"Staff who come in close proximity to him report irritability, frustration, snappishness, despair. Even violent or self-harming urges. Doctor Casey arranged for some tests: it looks like he's somehow elevating levels of cortisol, GH, norepinephrine. It lasts for about seventy-two hours, just like any crisis response."
"Let me guess. Coupled with a crash in serotonin levels?"
"He's a one-man gender-nonspecific PMS epidemic."
That was a real smile, not a grimace. Brady couldn't remember the last time he'd seen one of those on Chaz. He picked up the riff: "A personal fucking stressfest. A full moon during finals week all by his lonesome."
"The full moon thing is probably an urban legend," Chaz said distractedly. "Anyway, I thought you should know." Awkwardly, without any of the usual signals of social disengagement, he lurched forward, as if to brush past Brady, to go back to his desk. He made it three steps before he stopped. He lowered his voice below the range where Todd and Worth would be able to pick it out, and without looking over his shoulder, he said, "You know, you saved my life in Texas."
"I kept thinking about the arguments we were going to have when I got back. And about how things could be worse, even if they were bad. It kept me going."
How did you answer that? Brady settled for a simple, unhelpful, "Oh."
"I thought that too."
"No. About how--when I saw what he'd done to you. What you--"
"What I did to him."
"Yeah." Brady looked down at his hands. "I thought it could have been worse, what ha-- what Andre did to me."
And that was Chaz's turn. "Oh."
What the hell, Brady thought. It was working out for him so far. "What you said to Reyes in there--"
"Chaz, the moon heard."
"Promise me something."
Now Chaz turned back, and even met his gaze. "Let me know what it is first."
"If you think--if you suspect something's happening. Ask for help?"
Chaz just looked at him, mismatched eyes flat and surfacy, his smile giving away nothing at all. "You mean, if I'm turning into a monster."
"I guess I do. Yeah."
"You can't save Andre by saving me, Brady."
"Do you think I don't know that?"
Chaz snorted. "I am a monster. I am the monster who exists to oppose other monsters."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Chaz straightened up, then collapsed. His shoulders hunched forward defensively as he dusted his hands on his corduroys, elbows pressed to his ribs. "I read it in a book once. What's the matter, don't you like it?"
He started to shuffle away, carpet rubbing under his footsteps, but Brady stopped him with his voice. And then was a little surprised it worked, that Chaz wasn't already gone beyond calling back. "Chaz. I'm sorry."
This time when he looked back, he smiled. "Yeah. Me too."
Brady offered the next sentence as if coaxing a wild thing closer. "It could have been worse."
Chaz looked back over his shoulder just once before he moved away. "It always could."
In his car, Brady reached for his cell phone without even thinking about it. But it was Monday night. The rule was, he didn't call until Thursday. The rule was, they saw each other once a week.
How'd that rule gotten written, anyway? Was it his rule or Gray's? It occurred to him that he didn't know. And there was probably no point in trying to figure it out.
He typed in the number, wondering why he hadn't put it in his contacts yet.
It rang twice, three times. I'm interrupting work. He's going to let it go to voicemail.
"Danny? Everything okay?"
A warm voice, a little concerned. Businesslike, of course; he was breaking Rule One, and calling a weekend shag at work.
Oh, that Massachusetts prep-school accent. He was dating a Yankee. Congratulations, Danny. You might have found something your dad would hate more than finding out his son was gay.
"Fine," Brady said. "Look. We're back from Missouri. I'm knocking off early. I wondered--"
A listening silence. Voices in the background, which told him he'd better make it fast and clean.
He nerved himself. "Do you want to get together tonight?"
There was a beat. Sound of papers rattled. Gray said, "I'll book a hotel room."
"I've got a better idea. Come to my place."
"I cook, Gray."
"Tomorrow is a weekday."
Brady clenched his free hand on the emergency brake so hard he heard the vinyl creak. "So bring a change of clothes."
This time, there was a hint of hesitation in the pleasant professionalism. "You mean that?"
Did he? Too late now, if he didn't. "Yeah."
The silence stretched long enough that Brady was ready to take it back, chicken out himself. And then Gray laughed, just one low chuff, and said, "Email me the directions, Agent Brady. I'll be talking to you soon."