1.01 "Breathe" - by Emma BullAct I | Act II | Act III | Act IV | Act V
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
Breathing comes first.
It's a scalp wound. There's a lot of blood. The water thins it to run and smear across his face and trickle outward from his hair on the wet tiles.
But what matters is breathing. His chest doesn't move. His lips are turning the color people call blue, that isn't.
She should be doing chest compressions--the heel of her hand should be right there. She's holding the thing down instead. If she doesn't let go, he dies. If she does, they both die.
Breathing first. His, hers, its.
Breathe, she begs, as if begging ever helped. Breathe.
Daphne Worth meant to be the last one through the briefing room door. New kid gets last pick of the chairs, after all. The others would have habits, and know each other's. She'd take what was left.
But she had firehouse nerves--when the bell rang, you jumped. Not that everyone else hadn't jumped, too. But to them, Falkner's "Briefing room, please," appeared to mean send-email-then-briefing-room, or fetch-coffee-then- briefing-room, or make-one-more-phone-call-then- briefing-room. So Worth walked into the briefing room with Reyes and Falkner--the two whose places she least wanted to sit in by accident--somewhere behind her. She looked around for something to pretend to be distracted by.
She didn't have much to work with. It's symbolic, she thought. Shadow Unit is in the closet, after all.
"Closet" was exaggerating--about the room, at least. But it could have passed for a good-sized storeroom, and it had no windows. Maybe they test for claustrophobia when they evaluate applicants. There was space for the rectangular dark wood table, six rolling chairs, a built-in cabinet on the short wall to the left of the door with a big LCD monitor in it, a whiteboard on the opposite wall, and walking room around it all. Barely. The pale ash-blue paint on the walls was probably soothing. Worth wondered how frantic she'd be feeling if it were yellow.
Nicolette Lau was already there, dropping a pile of manila Bureau-logo jackets full of case documents on the table. One side of her smooth layered black hair was tucked behind her ear. She wore a scarlet boat-neck sweater and narrow gray trousers; she made the room look like part of her accessorizing strategy.
Lau had shown Worth around the unit the day before. She'd talked fast, moved fast, and grinned like a kid who'd scammed her way into Six Flags. She'd managed to convey that the FBI was passable, and the Behavioral Analysis Unit (of which they were part) was pretty good, but Shadow Unit was the cool kids' party.
Lau had probably never been afraid to sit in the wrong chair in her life.
She smiled at Worth. Outside the door Esther Falkner said, "You know he's right. And you know it's not fair to him."
Lau looked toward the door. Worth followed her gaze, but there was nothing to see except a view of the desks in the bullpen.
"'Right' isn't my first concern in this. Or 'fair.'" That was Stephen Reyes, and from the sound, he and Falkner were at Reyes's office next to the briefing room. Worth heard Reyes's door close.
She turned back to find Lau half-frowning at the doorway. "Everything okay?"
Lau shook her head and put the grin back on. "Mom and Dad using the serious voices. It'd be wrong not to at least try to eavesdrop." She tipped her head toward the chair at the whiteboard end of the table. "Reyes gets to watch the door. Otherwise it's general admission."
New kid also doesn't get told everything. Worth rolled out the nearest chair and sank into it. "How do you prefer people to discharge their enormous debts to you?"
"Chocolate? Spa weekends? Phone numbers of smart, funny, good-looking single guys?"
"Cheap at twice that."
"Here, have a case file," Lau slid a folder across the table.
Before Worth could open it, Daniel Brady sauntered in and dropped into the chair beside her. The chair creaked. Muscle weighs more than fat. There was a lot of muscle on Daniel Brady, and a lot of Daniel Brady, at noticeably over six feet and a door's width of shoulders, to wear it on. Add the sand-blond hair, coldpack-blue eyes, and a well-tailored light blue dress shirt and dark silk tie, and he took up more than his share of the room.
"Hey, New Kid." He smiled, which at close quarters was overwhelming. "How you feel?"
Worth cast her eyes around the room, waved at the case file, and grimaced. "How many points do I lose if I say, 'Scared'?"
"Yeah, I remember that." Lau tapped another folder before she slid it across to Brady. "You've caught a good starter, though."
Brady opened it and flipped past the first pages. "Hey, no lie. It's even blood-free."
"I can manage blood." Hackles down. Nobody cares about your macho here, Daphne.
Brady raised his eyebrows. "That's right, you were a paramedic. Not a lot of people go from emergency med to law enforcement. One buzz is enough for 'em."
"Well, first responder is all about nasty surprises."
Out of the corner of her eye she saw Lau's head tilt forward. Brady's reaction was a lack of reaction. "We still get a few of those around here," he said.
Apparently her new coworkers could spot a dodge when they heard one. Of course they could.
A tall pencil-thin woman with burnished brown skin and long dark-copper braids swept in the door. She wore oversized glasses with steel frames that dwarfed her fine-boned face. Under her arm she carried a laptop that matched the glasses; she balanced it with an enormous coffee mug in her other hand.
"You must be the new fish," she said, clunking the mug (which was embossed with Chinese bats and full of coffee, extra-light) on the tabletop next to Worth. She set the laptop down carefully after it and stuck her right hand out. "Hafidha Gates. Not that Gates. I can actually code. I am, among other things, Priestess to our electronic demon-gods."
Worth shook her hand. "Pleased to meet you. Daphne Worth."
"Which, of course, I knew, but hey, we observe the forms."
Gates's eyes were an improbable violet, her nail polish was cobalt, and her braids were wrapped with thread in stacked bands of color. Rainbow...but with black and brown? Gray, white, gold, and silver--oh. "Bad beer rots our young guts, but vodka goes well; get some now," Worth said, all in a rush. Brady's head turned; Lau's eyes widened. Worth felt her face heat up.
But Gates bounced happily in her chair. "You know resistor color coding?"
"My dad's an electrical engineer. Retired."
"Old school. I'm surprised you don't know the politically incorrect mnemonics."
She drew breath to recite them and thought, Easy, girl. "Not from my dad. I thought nobody used that stuff anymore."
"Mostly not. But I am prepared for any eventuality. Chaz," Gates called past Worth's shoulder, "one of those had better be for me."
Worth turned to see a young, brown-haired, sallow-skinned man, taller than Brady and even thinner than Gates, slide into the room and around the end of the table.
My God, thin. She'd once delivered an anorexic kid having a heart attack to the ER. This man was almost that skinny, from what she could see of his face, neck, and wrists. The rest of him was hidden by a wool jacket, a heavy crewneck sweater, a limp shirt collar, and corduroys going pale at the seams. It's March, for pity's sake. Cherry blossoms on the Mall in a week or two. It's not that cold.
His attention was on his coffee cup, as if he expected it to spill. He got it safely to the table before he looked up at Gates and shook his hair absently out of his eyes. His cheekbones looked as if he'd borrowed them from a larger head. "One of what?"
"There are muffins in your pockets."
His eyes widened almost painfully. "No, there aren't."
Gates lowered her chin, glared, and held her hand out.
Brady shook his head. "She's got radar. Give it up, kid."
"Before she jacks my Dove minis again," Lau added.
The skinny man sighed. "Morning glory or chocolate chip?"
"Duh." Gates wagged her extended hand.
"You suck." He pulled napkin-wrapped bundles out of his jacket pockets and tossed one to Gates. When she caught it one-handed, he smiled. It stretched his wide mouth even wider, and showed white slightly-crooked front teeth.
"Fiber's good for you," Gates said firmly. "Have you met Daphne Worth?"
He gave Worth a startled look and turned to Gates. "I'm not going to be Shaggy."
Worth thought she kept the annoyance off her face.
Gates snorted. "'Course not, Smarty-boy. You're the dog." She made it sound like a compliment.
"Duke can be Shaggy," Lau added.
Brady nodded. "Good choice."
The skinny man turned back to Worth. "Sorry." He managed to smile and grimace simultaneously. She thought of a Discovery Channel special on frogs, and smiled weakly back. "Hi. I'm Charles Villette. Chaz." He subsided into a chair as if his bones were dissolving. He peeled the napkin back from his king-size muffin, broke it in half, and ate one half in two bites.
Gates had already made the chocolate chip one disappear.
Esther Falkner swept in the door, snagged the folder Lau held up without breaking stride, and pivoted to lean against the wall next to the whiteboard. She made leaning look formal, and her navy trouser suit and crisp white blouse looked as if they could hold a lesser mortal upright by themselves. Her dark hair was pulled back hard and anchored with a tortoiseshell clasp. The style made an aggressive display of her pale handsome face, the creases around her eyes and mouth. It made her look as if she had nothing to hide.
Falkner caught her staring. Worth felt as if she were looking into a pair of surveillance cameras. But Falkner's lips quirked at one corner. "Agent Worth. Finding your feet?"
"I...think so." Worth cleared her throat. "I don't really know yet. I guess." Oh, the avalanche of stupid.
Gates patted her shoulder and said to Falkner, "It's okay. We've got her."
Which was embarrassing and comforting, all at once.
Falkner nodded. "It's only a little weirder here than Down the Hall, really." "Down the Hall" was the BAU. The BAU referred to Shadow Unit the same way. When they didn't refer to it as the WTF.
"Except when it's a whole lot weirder," Brady said.
"Except then. Feel free to ask if anything seems especially odd." Falkner's expression was serene, her voice level. Worth wondered how she managed to seem ironic anyway.
Falkner surveyed the table. "Is Duke--Todd--in yet?"
"Still on the phone," Villette answered, licking muffin sugar off his fingers.
"We can start without him," Stephen Reyes said from just behind Worth's left shoulder. If she'd had coffee, she would have spilled it. He must have got in the door while Worth's attention was on Falkner. Had he noticed her twitch? Probably.
Lau handed him a case file across the table, and he squeezed along the wall behind Brady, Worth, and Gates to get to the chair reserved for him.
Worth had interviewed with him a month ago when she'd put in for the transfer. Usually she could figure out how she was doing in an interview. In that one, all she could tell was that Reyes could have written a policies and procedures manual for Daphne Worth by the time it was over.
Down the Hall, the descriptions of Stephen Reyes included words like "intense," "charisma," "animal magnetism," and "obsessive high-handed son of a bitch." She wasn't sure about the last bit yet, but the first three seemed right.
He was shorter than Villette or Brady or even Falkner. His skin was a shade or two lighter than the dark wood of the table, and bits of silver caught the light in the pruned brambles of his hair. He wore a wine-red v-neck sweater and brushed khakis: Giorgio Armani on Casual Friday.
He laid the folder down in front of him; but instead of opening it, his attention moved swiftly over the team, as if rating each of them on some scale only he knew. Left to right, Gates, Worth (she felt as if she were in an interrogation room, and Reyes was the mirror she couldn't see through), Brady, Lau, Villette--a fraction of an instant longer on Villette, an instant's tightening of his mouth--and Falkner, who eyed Reyes back, perfectly unreadable.
Mom and Dad and the serious voices, Worth thought. That look meant something.
Reyes brought his attention back to the visible spectrum and Worth. "Agent Worth. Introductions all made?"
"Yes, sir." Her voice was steady this time.
"Glad you're on board," he said, and smiled. It made him a different person. Human, for one thing.
"Thank you, sir." She swallowed and tried not to let the rush of gratitude go to her head. If Shadow Unit weren't at the center of a black hole in Bureau hierarchy, Reyes would be Unit Chief. He had created the unit. He'd been doing this four years ago when Worth first learned what Shadow Unit did. What she'd spent the intervening time getting into a position to do now. If she didn't screw up.
"Let's get to work," Reyes said.
Lau rose like a batter stepping into a pitch. She was what, five foot four? She looked taller now, and cool, professional, focused. Worth mentally replayed yesterday's conversations with her for things she'd want to live down. "We're going to Los Angeles," said Lau. "Five cases of death by suffocation in the last six weeks."
"Oh, crap," said a voice from the door. "Not Los Angeles. I hate Los Angeles."
"They did it to annoy you," Falkner said. "Where were you?"
The man in the doorway was somewhere in his early fifties, smallish and lean. He had brown thinning hair and bland blue eyes behind metal-rimmed glasses, and wore a corduroy jacket over an open-collared shirt. His hands were in his pockets.
Lau's face broke from professional mode into the grin. "Hey, Duke." She waved at the chair she'd just left. The newcomer ambled in and dropped into it.
"North Dakota ritual suicides?" Reyes sounded sympathetic. Worth wondered if anyone had ever said those four words in that way before.
The newcomer, whose name couldn't really be Duke, shrugged. "I told 'em what they were looking for. They keep leaving me phone messages saying people don't do things like that in North Dakota."
"Wouldn't that be nice?" Reyes said.
"If I lived in North Dakota," Gates muttered, "I would."
The newcomer leaned up out of the chair and thrust his right hand across the table at Worth. "You must be Agent Worth. I'm Sol Todd."
Solomon Todd. Down the Hall the boys in ties--the new ones--rolled their eyes when his name came up, and sometimes mentioned hippies. Worth had noticed that the older ones didn't. But you look so normal, Worth wanted to say. Instead she shook his hand and said, "Sir."
Todd dropped back into his seat. "I am called by many names. That's not usually one of them. But I swore to uphold the First Amendment along with the others, so I have to leave the matter up to you."
Of all the difficult terrain of the last twenty-four hours, that required the most scrambling. "What...would you rather be called?"
"Oh, I'll answer to anything that doesn't already belong to someone else."
Villette extinguished a laugh with a mouthful of coffee.
Falkner said, "'Todd' for formal, 'Sol' for casual, 'Duke' for Fear and Loathing-related moments. Anything else promotes a disruptive work environment." She nodded to Lau. "It's safe now."
Lau turned her right wrist and the LCD monitor came to life. Worth spotted the little oval remote in Lau's hand. "All five victims died in public places, out of sight of witnesses." On the monitor, a snapshot of a slender, smiling black woman. "LaDona Benson, age 26, in a supermarket parking lot in Studio City.
"Cristina Echeverria, 30, in a stall in the women's restroom of an all-night diner in Hollywood." A plump Hispanic woman sullen in a bad portrait, maybe from a work I.D.
"James Cookson, 38, outside the back door of the bar where he worked in North Hollywood." A white man's driver's license photo, his face sagging, his eyes wide.
"Alonso Morro, 29, at a bus stop near Universal City." Morro looked older than 29. Worth double-checked her case file. Lau was right.
"Gerianne Sussman, 32, another parking lot." Sussman was round-faced, blonde, and grinning; Worth recognized a bit of the Dumbo ride at Disneyland in the photo's background. Lau looked over her shoulder at the team, as if in punctuation. "Of Holy Cross Medical Center, Burbank."
"She died of suffocation outside a hospital?" Todd repeated.
"Brain damage happens in four to six minutes in the absence of oxygen," Villette offered, with relish Worth hoped was academic. "The victim goes unconscious well before that. Any struggle would have been short enough that it could have been missed even by witnesses fairly close by."
He was right, which spared Worth having to say anything. But that was her area of expertise, damn it.
Brady flipped through the pages of the case file. "No crime scene photos?"
"They wouldn't have been reported as crimes," Reyes said.
Lau's gaze flew to him, surprised; then she nodded. "Natural causes. The county medical examiner threw the flag."
MEs were like that. Five unexplained asphyxiations in six weeks would be a personal affront. "The ME knew to call us?" Worth asked.
"Anomalous Crimes Task Force education and outreach," Lau replied. "We try to make sure law enforcement and forensics around the country know what to look for."
Reyes snorted. Unlike Villette's squashed laugh, it didn't sound amused. "To be more precise, we tell them when to call us. We never tell them what they're looking for."
No, Worth knew that from personal experience.
Falkner's chin came up; but whatever she was going to say, she seemed to think better of, and turned the motion into a nod at the monitor. "I still see dead people."
Three women, two men. Two Anglo, two Hispanic, one African-American. Ages twenty-six to thirty-eight. "Do they have anything in common?" Worth asked. "Other than asphyxia?"
"They all lived in the East Valley." Lau shook her head. "Sorry--the east end of the San Fernando Valley. But that's still a big pool to fish in."
"Autopsy results?" Villette asked, hopeful as a terrier.
Lau raised one shoulder. "Just the routine autopsies in the jacket. No sign of drugs or toxins in the bloodstream, no external bruising or ligature marks, nothing in the victims' airways."
Reyes shook his head. "Routine won't cut it."
"Gerianne Sussman died thirty-two hours ago." Villette said it without a pause to do the math.
"See if her body's been released to the family yet," Falkner said to Lau.
"We want it sent to Frost?"
"Unless she's backed up. Is there a pathologist on the Left Coast we've worked with?"
"Brunelli at UCLA. I'll check with Frost first." Talking families into letting their loved ones be sliced 'n' diced: high on Worth's list of jobs she wouldn't want. She wondered if Lau was good at it. Probably. From what she knew, they were all good at what they did.
What am I doing here?
"Catholic hospital," Todd said. "Could be a religious component."
Villette shrugged. "Hospital, period. Could be a medical connection."
Brady leaned back in his chair, frowning, hands laced behind his head. Worth dodged his elbow as inconspicuously as she could. "If we don't know the mechanism for the suffocation, we've got nothing to read mythology from."
Worth almost didn't ask. But there are no stupid questions. Only stupid new kids asking them. "Mythology?"
"The host's understanding of how the world works and his place in it." Reyes talked with his hands: the circle of the world, an upright palm and fingers edge-on for the hypothetical subject. If Reyes were ever allowed to lecture at Quantico on gammas--on the anomaly and its hosts--this was what it would sound like. "Hosts justify their anomalous abilities according to their mythologies. I am a special agent of God. The aliens experimented on me. I was bitten by a radioactive spider."
Across the table Villette gave a surprised cough and resorted to his coffee cup again. Todd beamed at Reyes.
Reyes pretended not to notice. "Once the anomaly has taken hold in a host, the host applies past experience of science, nature, religion--their story of the world--to explain what happened to them, what they're doing, and how they're doing it. Just as mythology explained the natural world to early humans."
"So...the mythology determines how the gamma kills?"
"It can." Villette's mouth flattened and stretched, and he frowned. "A blood clot, for instance, suggests knowledge of physiology, affinity for science. Massive bleeding from unlikely sources, especially if the physiological triggers are all over the map--that's usually a little more Old Testament."
Worth wondered if he'd meant to startle her. If so, it hadn't worked. She felt rather pleased.
Reyes leaned forward and folded his arms on the table. "Lau, you're a Valley girl, right?"
"Totally," Lau drawled.
"Good. You and Worth cover the victimology. If there's anything locally out of the ordinary, you'll spot it."
Easy for you to say, Worth thought, but Lau nodded.
"I'll see what I can get on the scenes," Brady said. "Could tell us whether this guy is up close and personal, or likes to keep his hands clean."
Todd raised his shoulders, a constrained stretch that didn't invade Villette's airspace in the chair beside him. "Do I have to choose between Los Angeles and North Dakota, or do I get lucky and there's a case that needs attention in some snake-infested swamp?"
"Hey!" Lau swatted at him. "My home town."
"North Dakota has dibs," Falkner replied. "We'll call if we need you, though."
"Let's get some stats pulled together," Reyes said. "We can look them over on the plane. Hafidha?"
Gates patted her laptop. "On it. You want the usual dirt, extra dirt, or the family-style dirt for six?"
"Residence, work, and medical history first?" Villette suggested. "I can start on the geographic profile--"
"Do it on the plane," Reyes said.
"The--" The stop in Villette's voice was so complete Worth looked up to see if he needed a Heimlich. Everyone at the table looked--first at Villette, then at Reyes. Everyone except Falkner, who was putting much thought into squaring the pages inside her folder and closing it. Villette's eyes were wide, his face flushed like a bad sunburn.
"You're going with us." Reyes stood up. "See me in my office. Everyone, wheels up in two hours. Agent Worth, Brady will fill you in on travel protocol."
"Can do," Brady nodded.
They stood up, all but Villette, who looked as if he were recovering from being hit over the head. Reyes launched himself out the door. Worth grabbed her copy of the case file and stuck herself to Brady's heel.
She followed him out to the bullpen. His desktop was relentlessly neat and almost bare; only the fact that the keyboard, the phone, and the desk lamp didn't line up with the edges suggested he wasn't obsessive-compulsive. "Ex-military?" she said before she could stop herself.
He turned suddenly, so she was too close to him. "Yeah. Trying to prove something?"
For an instant she missed his meaning. "No! I just-- Sorry. I shouldn't say these things out loud."
Another beat; then he dropped his gaze. "But when you see something that talks to you, you forget nobody said it in so many words."
"It's hell on my social life." She shifted her weight backwards, and didn't care if it looked like a retreat.
"I get that. Okay, you've worked in BAU-Normal for a while. We work about the same way, only faster and more often on-site. Mostly because our cases involve more shit and a bigger fan. Got a go bag here?"
"Under my desk." Worth caught her breath and added, "Lau warned me yesterday."
Brady's expression softened just enough that she could tell it had. "It's usually table to tarmac around here, but they sucker-punched Chaz with the news. I'm guessing that two hours is to give him a chance to pack."
As he spoke, Gates came out of the briefing room. Her braids swung as she turned to say something to Villette behind her. Villette's shoulders were raised, his hands in his pockets. Whatever Gates said made his smile flash out and his shoulders drop.
Gates raised a hand, little finger extended and bent. Villette hooked his little finger in hers. Then he half-loped down to Reyes's door and disappeared through it.
Pinky swear? There was something going on there. Romance? Not quite. And the business with the muffins-- "I don't want to pry..."
Brady smiled and sat on his desk. It made his head more or less level with hers. "Sure you do."
Her face heated up. "I just don't want to put my foot in it my first week. Is there anything I should know about Gates and Villette?"
"Yep. Just not what you think."
She closed her teeth on "How do you know what I think?" and was rewarded with an apologetic shrug. He said, "Tell me what you know about basic gamma 4-1-1."
And that, she supposed, was Brady's way of telling her to mind her own business and stick to the job. Rookie status wasn't forever, at least. "Gammas are people affected by the anomaly. The anomaly gives its hosts freaky non-human abilities, makes them unnaturally tough, and motivates them to do very bad things."
Brady laughed. "Jesus, Reyes would burst a blood vessel if he heard that."
"Not for me. But my short version makes him crazier than yours would. No, Reyes complicates it, but that's the gist. So we--the anomaly-free population--are alphas. The monsters are gammas." He leaned back, palms on the desktop behind him. "Far as anybody knows, Hafidha Gates and Chaz Villette are the world's only betas."
Not a change of subject. Not anything she'd expected. "They're..." Worth floundered for a word, exact, scientific, inoffensive. "...They're anomalous?"
"Freaky non-human abilities. You know about the calorie-burn in gammas? Takes a hell of a lot of fuel to do what they do."
"Conservation of energy."
Brady nodded. "Wait'll you see Hafidha or Chaz eat lunch. Almost unbe-fuckin'-lievable."
"But they're--they're not..."
"Dangerous?" He shook his head. "Also, gammas have an external manifestation. Their freak thing affects more than just the gamma itself. With Hafidha and Chaz, it's all internal. Perception and processing. The anomaly doesn't act directly on anything but them."
Brady nodded. "Hafidha says hers is like having perfect pitch for computers. And she can spot gamma activity when it's related to something she's got on the screen." He shifted his feet and frowned. "She says things display in colors, and audio files get flakey. Don't ask me. I have no idea."
"She says it's not."
The big tough guy knows from synesthesia. "And Villette?"
"There are three Ph.D.s in the unit. Two of 'em are Chaz's. Apparently, he moves numbers through time and space." Brady straightened up, surfed his hands toward each other and interlaced the fingers. "He spots patterns."
Worth looked again at Reyes's door, now closed; then at the door to the computer room where Gates had gone.
Villette and Gates weren't monsters. Monsters did nightmare miracles and trailed damage as they walked. Monsters didn't laugh or tease or chatter or show off.
She'd sat in the briefing room and watched them eat muffins. Muffins they needed to eat. The brain drew twenty percent of the body's total energy consumption. When the anomaly reset their neurological clock speed, did the percentage go up? And thin--of course they were thin. Gammas lost weight.
But Villette and Gates weren't gammas. Gammas were monsters.
She turned back to find Brady looking sympathetic. "Makes your head spin?"
If they were dangerous, Brady would say so. "You've just kicked the crap out of my whole concept of the universe."
"Yeah." He levered himself up off his desk. "We get that a lot around here."
Co-workers. Agents. Not any more strange than the rest of these strangers. "This is Villette's first time in the field?"
"He's been on a desk for the past year. He's an SA. He knows the job--he just hasn't done it yet." He opened the bottom drawer of his desk and pulled out the brown leather duffle bag that filled it. His hands hovered over the straps, as if he wanted something to do that wasn't talking.
"So which of us worries you most?"
His divinely-inspired jaw worked. "All right, if you want full disclosure. That's a hard call. It's not your first hunt, like it is Chaz's. But you haven't met our kind of boogeyman." He concentrated on sliding the case folder in the side pocket of his bag. "It can throw you off your game."
Worth thought about correcting him, and decided against it. "Reyes and Falkner must think we can look out for ourselves."
He shrugged. "You're probably right. You've met 'em. They do a lot of thinking."
Reyes watched Chaz Villette cross his office like slow-motion pinball, touching and rebounding from the bookshelves, the window, the Chagall print. Not slow, really; just slow for a pinball game.
"You can sit down," Reyes offered.
Chaz quirked his eyebrows, embarrassed, and dropped into the chair across the desk. Game over.
Body language was one of the mainstays of Reyes's work. He knew how to control his own and read the subject's, so he knew he looked comfortable and relaxed. Chaz looked like a dog ready for a release word.
But since Chaz was in the same line of work, it was hard to tell what that meant.
"I want to know if you're ready for a field assignment," Reyes said.
Unfeigned surprise. Chaz blinked, sat back, and dropped his gaze to his hands splayed over his thighs. What Reyes could see of his face was still and guarded. Good. If he couldn't hide what was in his head, he had no business out there. The momentary pinch of regret Reyes felt was probably because he would have liked an excuse to forbid this trip.
"I thought that was your call." Chaz's voice was unemphatic.
"It is. I also trust your judgment. You know enough to be able to tell me if you should get on that plane."
Chaz's chin stayed tucked, but he lifted his eyes to Reyes's. The light from the window caught the left one, the one with the colors in it, and heightened the difference. "After you announced it to the team? It would look funny if I didn't."
"Not a good basis for a decision."
At the corner of Chaz's mouth, a moment's compression. "Even though you wouldn't have said it in front of the team if you didn't mean to stand by it." He watched Reyes for a reaction.
Reyes raised his eyebrows and let him read what he wanted from it.
"I'm ready," Chaz said.
"Falkner thinks it's unfair to keep you at the desk. That's also not a good basis for this decision, but I mention it so you know your judgment has backup."
"Are you still a lousy shot?"
Chaz blinked again; an uncalculated smile split his face. "Most of 'em go through paper."
He was better than that. But Reyes knew what Chaz's firearms scores were. (And Chaz knew that Reyes knew, but the game had rules, and you broke them only out of need.)
Reyes opened his right top desk drawer, took out a molded plastic box, and slid it across the desk to Chaz. "Carry that."
Chaz popped the latches and laid the lid back. He stared at the taser cushioned in foam, studied it without touching. "Non-lethal force." He tapped the plate on the side where the voltage was displayed, and gaped across the box lid at Reyes. "Except this would be."
"To anyone not affected by the anomaly. So see that you only use it on the host."
"You found someone to build you a custom gamma-buster?" Chaz lifted the weapon out of the foam, gingerly, looked it over, put it back. "You could probably get thrown out of the Bureau for having this in your desk."
"Then don't let the guys at the metal detectors downstairs look too close. Keep it charged, keep it with you. You'll get one full-power burst; that's all the charge it'll hold. If it's useful, we'll be able to make a case for carrying them."
Chaz tilted his head, dubious. Reyes didn't think they'd ever get approval for them, either.
"Strictly close-in." Again, Chaz's voice was neutral. Reyes wondered how hard he'd had to work to keep it that way.
"Not to mention improved odds we'll bring the host in alive."
No one else on the team would have said it aloud. "We don't learn anything from dead gammas," Reyes replied.
Chaz slapped the lid closed and hefted the box. "I'll try to get there first, then."
"Try not to get killed, please."
"That, too." Chaz stood. "Any more tests, Dr. Reyes?"
Busted. Reyes looked up, expecting something hard in Chaz's face. But Chaz was smiling, the wide-open look that shone out with increasing frequency.
"You don't have time for them. Call motor pool and get someone to drive you home to pack."
Chaz was already out of the room, but he caught the doorframe and let it pivot him back to beam at Reyes. "No problem. Go bag's in my drawer."
And the doorway was empty.
Reyes propped his elbows on the desk and leaned his forehead on his laced fingers. Falkner was right. Charles Villette hadn't joined Shadow Unit to ride a desk chair. And the team needed him in the field; his brain could save more lives than a weapon.
There was always a chance someone wouldn't come back; and no loss was acceptable. This time was no different.
His left elbow rested on a folder. He slid it to the center of the desk and opened it.
It was only a sample of the documents; the rest were locked in the bottom drawer of the cabinet across the room. But Reyes knew every detail of the story.
The photo clipped to the third page stared up at him: a formal school portrait of a thirteen-year-old boy. Copper-brown skin tight over jutting cheekbones and long knife-blade nose, without the softness of puppy-fat. Brown hair cut short and severe, eyes staring into the lens, crooked front teeth showing between stretched, parted lips.
Not a smile, though a casual observer might mistake it for one. The eyes said, Keep looking. You won't find me in here. It was a photo of a feral animal looking out through a human face.
It was Chaz Villette, eleven years earlier.
Hard to believe the eager, energetic, brilliant man who'd just left that chair had ever been that wary, calculating child.
As hard as believing the feral animal wasn't still inside.
"We have a plane?" Worth said, stumbling on nothing on the ramp outside the gate at National. At least she'd managed not to squeak the last word. The business jet looked like the star of a photo shoot, reflecting in the rain-glossed pavement, boarding stairs beckoning.
"Gulfstream 450," Lau called back over her shoulder. "Cruising speed mach point-eight, range from here, most of the Western Hemisphere plus Europe and north and west Africa. She don't suck." Lau's family was Air Force, Worth remembered.
Behind Worth, Reyes said, "If we have to go at all, we have to go yesterday. I'm sure the GAO wishes it were otherwise."
Worth bit her lip. Was the right answer to that "Yes, sir" or "No, sir?" But she was at the foot of the boarding stairs, and it was too late to answer at all. She followed Lau and Brady up and through the door.
The cabin was a cross between commercial first class and a hotel sitting room. And unlike the briefing room, eight people could occupy it with room to spare.
Worth's first impression was of a haze of cloud-gray upholstery. She passed single seats to the right and left of the aisle, then a pair facing each other on the right side with a fold-out table between them, like a two-person booth in a restaurant. Across the aisle on the left a full-size couch followed the cabin wall under the round windows.
The last four seats were arranged two and two, facing across a larger table, on the right of the aisle. Lau settled by the window in the far front-facing pair. Brady stood in the aisle leaning over her. The filtered morning light glowed on them: Apollo and an unaccountably Asian Diana, faces unlike but related in beauty. Worth felt herself flushing again and fiddled with her messenger bag to hide it.
Brady nodded at something Lau said and straightened up. As much as he could, at least; he was an inch or two taller than the cabin. Lau beckoned Worth and patted the seat back next to her.
"Am I stealing your spot?" Worth asked Brady.
"Not today." He smiled and squeezed past her as she slid into the aisle seat next to Lau.
She had a good view of Villette as he came aboard, leather backpack on one shoulder, for what was obviously the first time. He was also too tall for the available headroom, and ducked more than he needed to. His gaze skittered around the cabin, nervous and penetrating. Then he smiled cautiously.
Brady flagged him on. "You get the window. Damned if I'm going to wedge myself between you and the wall."
Villette looked from Brady standing in the aisle, to Lau and Worth, and back to Brady. "Or I could sit right here." He pointed his chin at the first seat inside the door, isolated from the others.
Brady stood his ground and looked patient. Villette shrugged, slouched down the aisle, and folded himself into the rear-facing window seat across from Lau. Brady settled in the aisle seat across from Worth.
"Aww," Lau said. "I was going to let him sit in Reyes's spot."
Villette tucked his chin and blushed. "I had good intel."
"Hafidha spoiled your initiation? No fair."
"What's my initiation, then?" Worth asked.
"It's no fun if we tell you in advance," said Brady.
As he did, Reyes came down the aisle and took the forward-facing seat in front of them. Falkner took a cushion off the couch, propped it against the back of the seat across the table from Reyes, and sat down. The "fasten seat belts" lights came on as if they had been waiting for her.
Then the thunder of the trip down the runway, the downward pressure of takeoff--and the disturbing sight of the Potomac close beneath them, as if the plane had jumped off the runway to throw itself in the river. It bothered Worth every time she flew out of National. She hoped it wasn't an omen this time.
When the seat belt lights went out, Falkner clicked hers open and stretched. "Make yourselves comfortable. We're non-stop and high-priority, but it's still a big damned continent."
"'Scuse, gang." Lau slipped easily past Worth's knees and headed for the front of the cabin, where she tapped on the cockpit door. Brady unrolled and headed for the bathroom, and Falkner followed as far as the galley.
Villette--Chaz--a Villette ought to be sleek and polished, and he wasn't--eyed her warily from under a sagging lock of hair.
Worth scrambled for a conversational opening other than, So how's this beta thing working for you?
Chaz canted his head to the right, which on his long neck looked just short of spinal fracture. "Did someone explain about Hafidha and me?"
Well, then. "Brady told me about betas."
"Does it bother you?"
His eyelids dropped before he looked toward the window, where nothing showed but sky. "It's a little like bringing the monster along, isn't it? I mean, I'm an anomalous individual." He turned to her and stared, blank and cold.
Lau came up behind him and rapped his scalp with one finger, hard.
"Ow!" said Chaz, and the mask fell off.
"Stop trying to spook the new kid." Lau slithered back into the window seat.
Chaz grinned at Worth. "Sorry. But you didn't fall for it, so point to you."
Another sentence or so, and I might have. "You're sitting back to back with the guy who wrote the book on this stuff."
"Yeah, but he doesn't scare easy."
"Am I not supposed to be able to hear you?" Reyes said without turning around. Worth could see the corner of a photo from the Los Angeles file on the table in front of him.
"Also, he's not deaf," Brady said, sinking down on the near end of the couch across the aisle. Reyes pretended to ignore him.
It gave Worth the nerve to say, "Then betas are hosts, too?"
Chaz pressed into the cabin wall so he could look over the back of his seat at Reyes.
The silence got Reyes's attention. He twisted to stare over his seat back, first at Worth, then at Chaz. Window light reflected off his reading glasses. "You can answer that," he said to Chaz.
Chaz hiked a shoulder. "I don't like to talk about myself."
Reyes took off his glasses and laid them on the table before he turned to consider Worth. Worth didn't think he was as reluctant as he pretended. "We don't know what the anomaly is. But we have models for how it interacts with humanity."
"Genetic mutation. Virus," offered Chaz.
"Brain injury," said Brady, in a tone that made Chaz glare at him. Brady grinned back.
"Demonic possession," Lau said.
"Or parasite and host," Reyes finished. "But that model suggests that the organism is co-opted by the parasite. In betas, the human is in the driver's seat, keeping the anomaly under control. So the host-parasite model doesn't hold there."
Chaz bobbed his eyebrows at Worth. See? You're perfectly safe, they said.
"That's probably why betas have no external anomalous manifestation," Reyes added. "The anomaly doesn't have enough control over the body's resources to divert them to extranormal function."
"Besides the brain activity," Chaz added. "What that comes down to is, all our superpowers are up here." He tapped his temple.
"Coffee's up." Falkner set a cup in front of Reyes and stood sipping hers. Chaz looked longingly at it. "You're young and strong," she told him. "Get your own."
Worth turned Reyes's lecture over mentally. "But you can't know any of that for sure. You've only identified two betas."
Reyes gave her a quick, sharp look. The professor was pleased. "The sample isn't large enough. Chaz and Hafidha's manifestations are internal and benign. Gammas have an external manifestation, and the host isn't strong enough to keep the anomaly from doing harm."
"Assuming the host wants to," Lau added.
Reyes nodded. "Assuming that. But you're right, that's only speculation based on what we know about anomaloids so far."
"Anomaloids?" Worth repeated.
"Individuals affected by the anomaly." Chaz's mobile face was stiff, and his voice flat.
"It sounds like a breath mint," Worth blurted. Reyes frowned.
But it made Chaz's face come back on line. "Curiously strong."
"No, no," Lau said. "They're action figures. You feed them teeny tiny plastic food and they turn into airplanes."
Chaz made an alarming noise, as if he were choking on a lung.
"I thought it was a muscle group," Falkner said, unsmiling over her cup.
Brady rummaged in a pocket of his carryon. "No, isn't that the stuff dentists fill cavities with?"
Chaz snorted. Reyes sighed and turned back to the case file.
"Who wants coffee?" Worth asked. Lau and Brady raised their hands.
Chaz popped up, flushed. "I'll help."
Falkner's two cups weren't the only real ones; the cupboard above the coffeemaker held a set of white china mugs. "Oh, thank God," Worth sighed. "I hate the taste of styrofoam."
Chaz frowned and tapped the can of coffee beside them. "Got to fix that for the trip home, though. Some of that grew on a coffee bush, but that's all we can say with certainty."
Worth set out four mugs. While Chaz poured, she said, "Brady says you have two Ph.D.s. Are you older than you look?"
An intent stare. "How old do I look?"
His substantial bones and shortage of body fat skewed his face older. But his skin was fine-textured, the shadow of his beard was faint and patchy, and his squint lines disappeared when he wasn't squinting.
Chaz blinked. "Wow."
"Years of experience figuring out what to tell the ER dispatcher about unconscious people in transit."
"How many years?"
"Four. Straight into Quantico from there."
"Why the Bureau?"
She thought about the complicated and sometimes-unpleasant story, and wondered if she wanted to try to tell it. Then she remembered the start of the conversation. "You don't like to talk about yourself, do you?"
His face-splitting smile broke out. "Busted." He picked up two mugs and headed back to the seats.
Lau had her case documents laid out on the table. Chaz set cups beside them and fetched his backpack from overhead. By the time Worth got her messenger bag out, his laptop was open across the table.
"Chronological order?" she asked Lau as she flipped open the file of victims' records.
LaDona Benson was married, a receptionist for a dental lab, mother of two boys, ages five and three. Her husband was a mechanic for a car dealership in North Hollywood.
Cristina Echeverria was divorced, had joint custody of her nine-year-old daughter, and did construction and alterations for a costume company. Her ex-husband lived with his sister in Culver City.
James Cookson tended bar and had two convictions for simple assault, but no wife, or ex-wife, or children.
Alonso Morro worked for a lawn care service. He appeared to have married his wife right after high school, but they had no children. (Worth thought, But aren't they Catholic?, and kicked herself for assuming it, whether it meant anything or not.)
Gerianne Sussman was employed in a studio clerical temp pool, divorced, remarried six months ago, and childless.
Lau sat back and scowled at the files. She made scowling look glamorous. "Well, that's a big help so far. Chaz?"
Chaz blinked at Lau and Worth over the screen of his laptop. "You were right. They all lived in the east Valley."
"Also not helping."
Chaz dropped his gaze and shrugged. "Highly mobile population, lots of unrelated data points. Sorry. The one aberration is Echeverria, who didn't die in the San Fernando Valley. But she lived and worked there."
Brady stretched his legs further into the aisle. "Also the only one who died indoors."
Five heads swiveled toward him in unison.
"We don't believe in coincidence," Reyes said.
"But it exists in spite of us," replied Falkner.
"Correlation does not equal causation," Lau announced. Worth didn't understand why she grinned, or why the others stared. "Well, Duke's not here to say it," Lau added.
Brady nodded. "I'll tell him you took care of it." He raised his eyebrows at Chaz. "Sounds like you get some old-fashioned door-to-door police work for your first one, kid."
Chaz eyed him from under his hair and seemed to weigh responses before he settled on, "Mmm."
Worth flipped through the victim photos again. She imagined searching under that jaw for a pulse, envisioned lifting the quiet body that had been warm and active when the picture was taken. Would she forget, someday, the way those things felt? She'd learned distance years ago. One day it might turn into denial. She didn't think she wanted that.
She looked up to find Chaz's under-the-hair look turned on her.
"There's no good way of doing it," she said. "Dying. And they're alone. Even when you're right there."
"Even the bad guys?"
"Maybe there are some bad enough that--I don't know." She pushed a smile across her face. "I'll keep you posted."
He continued to look for just long enough that she felt uncomfortable. Then he nodded and dropped his gaze to his laptop screen.
"You'd think anyone who'd flown into or out of Los Angeles wouldn't live there," Falkner said, looking out the window at the veil of yellow-brown air over the city below. They were belted back in for final approach.
Reyes shrugged. "People tell themselves stories. Usually boiling down to, 'It can't be that bad.'" His eyes were turned to the window; Falkner suspected his thoughts were elsewhere.
"Not much to go on so far, particularly if the new autopsy doesn't give us a mechanism for the death."
"If they were easy, they wouldn't end up on our doorstep."
"Compliment duly noted," Falkner replied. "Who's our contact? The medical examiner?"
Reyes shook his head. "Donald Bostwick, Homicide Division. He's the one the ME leaned on."
Beyond Reyes, past the side of Brady's aisle seat, Falkner could see Worth, when she wasn't leaning in across the table to listen to Chaz or Brady or Lau. Shoulders stiff, the line of a small, focused frown between her brows, fingers twisting at the buttons on her jacket sleeves.
How many New Kids had she seen? In the army, then as Supervisory Special Agent? They dealt with it however they had to, but you never knew who they were until they quit dealing with it and relaxed into the job. Brady had arrived buttoned-up, stone-faced, and professional. Lau had worn a flawless PR glaze, as if life were a press conference and her future depended on holding a measured smile. Chaz had shown up in an ill-fitting navy-blue suit and and a painfully fresh haircut, moving like a coyote trapped in a pet carrier.
Now Daphne Worth was in the field on her second day of work, nervous and vigilant for her teammates' cues. It was exhausting to watch. With a pre-med degree and a background in emergency medicine and BAU assignments, she could have come in overconfident, cocky, proud. Instead, she was creeping around the fringes of the herd.
Medium height, medium-brown hair cut medium length and worn pulled back, a trouser suit in one of the gray-tan indeterminate shades catalogs tagged "stone" or "bark" as if those things came in only one color in nature, and a high-collared white blouse. Dressed for success, if success depended on perfect inoffensiveness.
Worth wasn't withholding herself, or her judgment. Chaz had done that. She was waiting for the others to judge her, and she was expecting to fall short.
Falkner sometimes thought her heart was a voodoo doll, full of pins. One each for Ben and the girls. One for each member of the team. She felt the new pin slide in and hoped for the best.
They landed at Burbank, since LAX was a ninety-minute drive to any of the relevant locations. Falkner wondered what the team looked like, motley and unified, striding through the terminal with their minimal baggage. Two cops, a film director, a corporate buyout team, and Chaz. Anyone who could invent a story that accounted for them all was probably already in show business.
The two eggplant-black Crown Vics waiting for them in airport security parking might as well have been stenciled "FBI" on the hoods. They'd be Police Interceptor models and ride like trucks. Falkner stretched her twinging back and reflected that this was what God made Aleve for.
Two new agents--it threw off who rode with whom. Before it became a question, she said, "Reyes, you want to take Chaz and Worth? I'll let Brady chauffeur for Lau and me."
"See you at the station." He raised his eyebrows, which said, I saw you do that and Nice work.
In the back seat of the car, Lau popped her cell phone and put it on speaker as soon as they left the lot. "Hafidha, we're on the ground and en route."
"And speaking of routing, I now own a chunk of LAPD server and will be there when you need me. It'll feel just like home. If you see Johnny Depp, give him a big wet kiss for me, will you?"
"Hafs, it's the Valley. We'll be lucky to see Jeff Probst."
"Eeuw. When did that become lucky?"
Behind the wheel Brady cleared his throat loud enough to be heard in the next lane of traffic. But Falkner thought she spotted half a smile, there and gone. Good.
The rookies made him nervous. But even nervous, Brady stayed focused on the present and as much of the future as he could do something about. Two new people could make the team wobble on its axis, but if they did, Brady wouldn't be where it showed up first.
Brady felt a little of the tightness go out of his jaw as they passed through the doors of the North Hollywood copshop. An angular newish building, designed full of contemporary ideas about community policing, but still palpably a copshop. Dallas stations had never posted air quality alerts in the front hall, but that was just dressing the set. When the lights went down and the curtain up, you knew where you were.
Reyes introduced himself and the rest of the team to Lieutenant Bostwick, and Brady shook hands when called upon.
Bostwick was small, strong, red-cheeked, snub-nosed, about forty, and not happy. "We can talk in the briefing room," he said, and Brady doubted that anyone in earshot expected him to break out in Hallelujah when they got there.
What Bostwick actually said when they got there was, "I want you to know up front. I don't think this is a real good use of your time."
Brady leaned against the frame of the closed door and folded his arms. Chaz pretended to do something with his watch, but Brady was pretty sure it was self-correcting for time zones, and he noticed that Chaz never dropped his gaze far enough that Bostwick was out of field of vision. Falkner assumed perfect parade rest at Reyes's right shoulder; Lau stuck her hands in her trouser pockets and stared at Bostwick as if waiting for the stunt show to start. Worth clutched the strap of her messenger bag and watched everyone at once. Her gaze crossed Brady's, but she didn't react. Good for her.
Reyes tilted his head. Not the bug-on-a-slide look, but the potential for it. "You think we're on a snipe hunt."
"I think this is bullshit by any name. You BAU people have helped us put a lot of murder cases to bed, and I'd be the first guy to call you in on one. But these aren't murders."
"Possibly not." Reyes sounded mild. "Your medical examiner only flagged the deaths as suspicious."
"If we sent you every suspicious death in L.A. County, you'd never get shit done. Look, my understanding is, the gold standard for spotting strangulation is a broken hyoid bone. None of these people had that."
"Other way around, actually." Worth's voice cracked with nerves. "Broken hyoid is usually the result of strangulation, but strangulation doesn't always break the hyoid. And strangulation isn't the only way to asphyxiate someone."
Bostwick frowned at her. She looked back, wide-eyed and unblinking. Brady managed not to smile. Well done, Grasshopper.
"Whatever. We waved you in, because better safe than sorry. But I really hope you can do what you do without a lot of local assist. We're gonna be working homicides, and there's not many of us and a whole lot of them."
"One officer per 426 residents," Chaz said. Bostwick blinked. Chaz looked up at him. "New York City's ratio is one to 225." He grimaced. Bostwick seemed to register it as sympathetic. Brady wondered if it was.
"We're fine on our own, Lieutenant," Reyes said. "As long as we have an office to work out of, we're self-contained."
Which, thought Brady, was a nice way of putting it.
Worth resisted the temptation to wipe her palms on her jacket as she followed Falkner through the front gate and up the walk to the Benson house. It was a 1950s single-story, that might have been called a rambler except that it didn't ramble far. But it was well-kept, with a shaved-looking lawn and mounds of shrubby jasmine in bloom around the foundation. The scent made her slow down and breathe deeper.
Falkner rang the bell. The door opened promptly on a stocky black man in his early 30s, wearing a Lakers t-shirt and gray warmup pants.
He nodded. The thing that crossed his face was gone so quickly that Worth almost missed it. The FBI was on the doorstep. No, his wife LaDona was never coming home. It took longer than six weeks to learn that lesson.
Worth half-listened to Falkner introducing herself, to Benson inviting them in. The living room was Target and IKEA and a little Pier One, plus a corner hutch that might be an heirloom. It was a comfortable room, one you could host the playoff game party in. The television was the tube variety, and must have required some determined carrying. She smelled cooking smells, and the jasmine through the screen door.
"I know this will be difficult for you," Falkner said. "But we'd like to ask you a few questions about your wife."
Benson's face stiffened. "You think she did something wrong?"
"No, sir, not at all. We're investigating the possibility that someone caused her death--that someone might have attacked her and several other people in the same way. In cases like this, we study the deceased, to see if they have anything in common. It can tell us a lot about the kind of person who might harm them."
Worth watched Benson as Falkner spoke, watched him relax, watched him moving toward trust. Falkner's voice was as perfect a thing as Brady's face--resonant, flexible, conveying more than the words themselves.
"You mean like one of those poisoned-Tylenol deals?"
Falkner showed nothing but concern. "We can't discuss that yet, Mr. Benson. The investigation is in the early stages."
Motion at the corner of Worth's vision. She turned to find a little boy peering around what must be the door to the kitchen. He wore a red-and-blue striped rugby shirt and clutched a red plastic race car to his chest as if it were a teddy bear. One sneaker was in the process of coming untied. About five--he would be the older son.
Benson saw him, too. "Vaughn? You finish your sandwich?"
The boy nodded.
"Your brother still sleeping?"
Again a nod. The boy's eyes slid over Falkner and Worth, then away.
"My son, Vaughn," Benson said, and held out one arm. Vaughn scurried into it and hid his face against his father's body, and Benson's extended arm curled around him. "Come on, now, say hello. You know how to be with company."
Vaughn shook his head. Benson pressed his lips together and brushed his fingers over Vaughn's hair.
Vaughn had learned company manners. Then his mother died. Now both he and his father were struggling to remember how to be with company.
They sat in the living room while Falkner took Benson's statement. LaDona Benson was well-liked, friendly. She hadn't been sick at or just before the time she died. She hadn't seemed nervous or upset, and hadn't mentioned meeting anyone new, particularly anyone who worried or frightened her.
"She called me from work that day," Benson said, staring out the front window. "She said she was stopping at the market on the way home, and did I want something." His eyes and mouth closed tight; then he recovered. You got better at it with practice.
"Would you mind if we looked at her things, at the rest of the house?" When Benson looked startled, Falkner added, "It could help. We won't be searching, only observing things already in sight."
He considered it. Worth would have, too, if strangers with badges wanted to walk through her house without a search warrant. Easy to say "We're not looking for evidence of wrongdoing." But it would be foolish not to wonder if they might, anyway.
"All right," he said at last. "I'll go wake up Ray."
Worth's throat ached as they moved from room to room. Every corner had life in it, planned days, a future. Next to the little TV in the bedroom, three exercise videos and a pair of two-pound hand weights. Makeup in a rack on the dresser. Hair shine serum and a stretch bead bracelet on the shelf above the sink, lightly filmed with dust.
"No aerosols," Worth said aloud.
Falkner, at the open closet, turned and raised her eyebrows.
"No hairspray, spray deodorants, or spray cologne. In fact, no cologne or aftershave."
"Hmm. Come here and tell me what you get."
LaDona Benson's clothes hung on the left side of the closet, divided by category. Office clothes, knockaround clothes, party clothes. The last included a bright flowered slip dress, and an orange-and-white sundress with the tag still on. "Borderline OCD?"
An almost-smile bumped Falkner's lips askew. "Smell."
Cigarette smoke. Not a lot, but enough to have penetrated any clothes that required dry cleaning and hadn't had it yet.
"Huh. But no ashtrays. No smell in the house in general." Worth sniffed the air of the bedroom to double-check. "She didn't smoke at home."
"Or she did, and it's dissipated."
Worth shook her head. "Even in six weeks--it would take carpet shampoo and a lot of laundering. Unless her husband wanted to wash that part of her away?"
"Let's finish the circuit."
There was less of LaDona Benson around the kitchen; Benson had to go on feeding his kids, even if he couldn't do it the way he used to, or the way his wife had.
Worth went to the phone on the kitchen counter, looking for notes or numbers. On the counter beside it was a metered-dose inhaler.
Falkner came up behind her, and Worth pointed.
"LaDona Benson had asthma?"
Worth picked up the inhaler and shook her head. "See the tube on the end? That's an asthma spacer. Inhaler sequence can be hard for little kids to master. The spacer mixes the bronchodilator with air in the tube, so a child can inhale the correct dose even without getting the sequence down."
"So no aerosols, no perfumes. And she didn't smoke at home."
Worth looked up to find Vaughn in the hall, hugging the wall and watching. She squatted down and held out the inhaler. "Hi, Vaughn. My name is Daphne. This is yours, huh?"
He dropped his eyes and nodded.
"These can be tricky to use. Like a really hard video game. Was it hard to learn?"
"Have you had it a long time?"
Vaughn looked up, shook his head. "I had to go to the hospital."
"Did you go in an ambulance?"
"I used to drive an ambulance. It was fun, but it was scary, too, because the people I was driving needed help. Were you scared?"
Vaughn nodded, staring at her. "I couldn't breathe."
"That would have scared me, too. You know to keep this with you all the time?"
Vaughn nodded again, solemn with responsibility. Another thing to make Worth's throat hurt.
"Do you remember the name of the hospital you went to?"
He didn't, so they found Benson, sitting in the living room with his three-year-old son on his lap. "Mr. Benson," Falkner said, "How long has Vaughn had asthma?"
"We only found out first of the year. We went to the Rose Parade, and he was running around looking at the floats. And then that night he was coughing, and he couldn't breathe right, and we called 911."
"What hospital was he treated at?"
"In Burbank, the big one by the 134. Holy Cross."
Worth managed, barely, not to shoot a look at Falkner. "Was he treated in the ER and released, or did they keep him overnight?"
"Overnight. They let LaDona stay with him. Then he had another trip, end of the month. He forgot his medicine at daycare, and we had to get him some help."
"Holy Cross again?" Falkner asked.
"Did your wife smoke?" Worth asked. It was the thing you took for granted that tripped you up, after all.
Benson looked startled. "She never smoked much. But after Vaughn got sick she didn't smoke at home. She was trying to quit." His throat worked, a hard swallow, and he looked down when his younger son yanked on his wristwatch.
Falkner said the polite things that led to getting them out the door and restoring Benson's privacy. The scent of jasmine followed them down the walk.
"It could be coincidence," Worth offered once they were out of earshot of the house.
Falkner flexed her neck and shoulders and winced. "You heard Reyes on the subject. A victim who dies of asphyxiation, whose child has a respiratory illness and is treated at the same hospital where another victim dies in the parking lot."
Worth bit the inside of her lip. Coincidence was possible; it just wasn't likely. "Put that way, it almost sounds obvious. But if the medical examiner hadn't spotted a pattern... There'd be more and more LaDona Bensons."
Falkner unlocked the driver's door. "We were lucky this time."
Lucky. "The Bensons weren't. And the other four families."
Falkner stood still in the open car door. "Go on."
Oh, God, she should shut up. But it was too late now. "We count on luck. And five people die. We explain to local law enforcement what they're looking for without telling them what they're looking for, and nobody's sure when to blow the whistle, and by the time the unit gets here there's a trail of bodies. That's how it works, right?"
"It still bothers you, doesn't it?"
Worth opened her mouth. Tone it down, girl. She changed, God damn right to "It bothers me that we don't tell them. That we cover up."
"That we covered up after the incident you witnessed."
Falkner's voice and face were calm, but Worth felt it like a blow to the throat. You buried things, you sank them in the lake of the past. But they bobbed to the surface.
Quick thinking, everyone had said to her afterward. The man who'd shown his FBI credentials and taken pity on her and explained a little of what had just happened, had said it. But really, she'd been lucky. Vin and Josh hadn't been.
She was angry. She must have been angry for a long time. She pressed her hands hard against the side of the car, low down out of Falkner's line of sight, until the joints hurt. A deep breath, so she wouldn't sound angry. "If we'd been warned what could happen, we'd have been more careful. The guys I worked with might still be alive."
"But you know why we do it," said Falkner. She was relentlessly calm.
"I know why we say we do."
"What happens when the general public looks at any schizophrenic, any shell-shocked homeless vet, any kid with impulse control problems, anyone whose particular variety of strange they don't get, and sees anomaly? And what happens when we tell them we don't know what the anomaly is, or how to reverse the effects? And that, given the available knowledge and resources, they may not be able to do anything about it except shoot the host down like a rabid dog?"
"I understand that--"
"Good. Now picture it. Then imagine how many ambulance crews, knowing those things, would think twice before they stepped in to help a victim, for fear it might be a monster in disguise."
In the rattle of thoughts in Worth's head, one came clear: She knew she would need to say this to me. It shamed her. "I'm sorry. You're right."
"No, I'm doing the best I can with what I've got. We all are. Whether we're right remains to be seen." Falkner opened the door on her side. "We should go. Before the neighbors call to report suspicious loitering." She slid into the driver's seat, out of Worth's view.
Giving Worth a private moment. She took another breath and let it out slowly. I could do worse than grow up to be Esther Falkner.
She got in and fastened her belt, while Falkner started the car. "What's our next step?"
"Sic Hafidha on the medical records. And see what the rest of the team comes up with." Falkner glanced over at Worth. "You did good work in there."
Encouraging the Rookie. Worth clutched at it, even knowing what it was. "Thanks."
Falkner turned into traffic on Lankershim and said, "How would you describe yourself on the job?"
Hopeless. Awkward. Inclined to quarrel with superiors, apparently. "Competent?" Worth said. It sounded like overstatement.
Falkner watched traffic, her face unchanging. Four blocks later, she pulled to the curb along a row of brick storefronts and opened the driver's door.
"What are we--"
"Feeding the troops." Falkner jerked her head at the window stenciled Araz Bakery. "Everybody loves a good quartermaster."
Across the street from the late James Cookson's apartment building, a film crew was shooting. The street where Brady would have parked was filled with grip trucks, wardrobe trailers, and dressing rooms. Power cables looped down the sidewalk like orderly boa constrictors. Scaffolding climbed a gray-block office building and pointed a pair of instruments, like nosy neighbors, in a window to make dawn, or sunset, or whatever the sun itself wasn't up to providing.
In the passenger seat, Chaz craned his neck, which was always a sight. "Wonder what that's like? To wake up and find a movie set in your front yard?"
"No unexpected weirdness in Vegas?"
Chaz's chin came up and his eyelids dropped halfway. Armor. Brady wondered why. "It's mostly quarantined. Fremont Street and the Strip."
"If I'd grown up in Vegas, maybe I could beat you at poker."
Chaz popped his seatbelt and smiled kindly. "Nah."
Better, Brady thought, as they went in search of the manager.
The manager looked about 90, and Brady worried about him on the outside stairs to the second floor. But he arrived intact and unlocked the door. "Tell me when you're done. I get shit from the family if there's anything missing." The old guy ran his hand through the half-dozen hairs he had left. "Though so far there's just the shiksa."
"A girlfriend?" Chaz asked.
"She comes over and they fight. Probably they go to her place and fight, too. Is that what you do with your girlfriend?"
Chaz was still his wintertime unhealthy yellow-gray, so Brady could see the blood climb up his neck to his face. "Do you know her name?" Brady asked the manager.
"And phone number, and address. Like I say, she thinks she's next of kin." The old man crept back down the stairs.
When Brady opened the apartment door, stale air stinking of old cigarettes and old beer and old laundry and a faint dumpster smell of ripe kitchen trash bloomed out onto the balcony. The room beyond the door felt empty. He noted the presence and weight of the holster at his belt anyway; second nature, now. But he was pleased when Chaz unbuttoned his jacket to have access to his own.
On Chaz's belt, on the side opposite the holster, was an open-topped case. And it wasn't for a graphing calculator.
"What's that?" Brady said, though he knew.
Chaz looked past him into the apartment, expressionless. "Taser. Reyes's idea."
Of course it was. Shit. And he gave it to Chaz because Chaz was the only person on the team who would consider something as stupid as using it. Brady must have taken a little too long to respond; Chaz's gaze swiveled around to him and stayed there, like an owl examining the landscape.
So Brady said, "I'm not going to die for Reyes's bring-'em-back-alive campaign. You do as you please. But if you fail to pull your weapon and someone else hurts for it, believe me, there will be no hole deep enough to bury either the investigation or you."
Chaz's mouth skewed, as if he was biting the inside of his lip. "Fair enough," he said.
It seemed Chaz, like Reyes, didn't scare easy. Brady wasn't sure that was comforting.
He stepped into the apartment with Chaz behind him. They didn't close the door--it wasn't an atmosphere you wanted to be closed in with.
A vinyl sofa from Goodwill, a blanket up for a window covering (nothing said "slum" like an apartment building with blankets in the windows), a 19 inch TV with an old cable box on top. Three ashtrays, mostly full. At some point one had fallen and dumped its contents behind the TV stand and never been swept up after.
There was an empty beer can and a dirty plate on the coffee table. Chaz popped a lime-green nitrile glove out of his pocket, stretched it onto his long, knuckly hand, picked up the can, and shook it. "Cigarette butt," he said, uninflected.
"You knew there would be." Under the TV Guide Brady saw the edge of an envelope from a photo developer. He put on a glove of his own and slid it out. Five prints--Cookson, less sullen than in the photo the team had, his arm around a wide-smiling, full-bodied redhead, indoors at what looked like a car show. Brady shook the negatives out of the envelope, held them to the light. A 24-exposure roll. "So where are the other nineteen prints?"
They found them by the bed. They featured the redhead, and were the sort of photos one kept in the bedroom. Chaz raised his eyebrows. "Extroverted."
Brady laughed. It was easier to laugh when you suspected being alive wouldn't have improved the victim.
The bathroom was grubby, but free of prescription meds, illegal substances, or any parole-violating or otherwise potentially toxic items. The kitchen was bleak: an open box of cereal, Hungry Man canned soup, an opened carton of cigarettes, a half-gallon of milk gone sour, and the remains of a twelve-pack of Bud. Brady decided to leave the trash for the CSIs.
Chaz began to open drawers. "Hey," he said. He held up a checkbook.
"Funny place to keep it."
Chaz shrugged. "Cookson doesn't--didn't have a computer. He'd write checks for bills and rent." He flipped open the register and began to work backward. "Huh. $2562 to Bonnie Gilberti, two days before he died."
"That's a chunk of change for a guy who tends bar."
"Let's go ask the mummified Mr. Rogers."
According to the manager, Bonnie Gilberti was, indeed, the girlfriend. He gave them her address.
Gilberti lived in an atrium apartment building in a mixed-use neighborhood wedged between the Burbank airport and the rail line, within hearing of the constant rumble of I-5. When they knocked on her door, she opened it, listened to what they'd come for in silence, then turned and walked back into the apartment, leaving them to come in and close the door.
Chaz rolled his eyes at Brady like a wary dog. Brady shrugged, and followed Gilberti into her kitchen.
In as far as he could, at least, and Chaz sidled in after him. It was a slot of room with shrunken appliances, a shallow, dented single-bowl sink, and no window. Gilberti cranked the hot water handle on the faucet and started--or resumed--washing dishes.
Brady thought Gilberti might have been pretty in high school. She'd frowned a lot since then, and stayed up too late, and worked too hard. His mother would have said she looked "peaked," a word with two syllables that balanced sympathy and superiority in a very small space.
"Jim fucked up, he did time. I know that. And then he turned his life around." Gilberti swept clean plates out of the sink drainer and smacked them on a stack of others in the cheap cupboards. Chaz flinched at the sound. Brady could see the pulse jump in his neck and the muscles in his jaw stand out. What in this sad, cluttered little apartment could wind him so tight? "But it was an accident, him dying. He wasn't on any shit, and he wasn't into anything. So you can go do real F-B-fucking-I shit now."
They'd have to tell Bostwick he wasn't alone in his opinion. "Did Mr. Cookson have any enemies?" Brady asked.
She turned from the sink, her mouth an O of pearlescent lipstick. "God, dozens."
Chaz's eyebrows rose.
"Well, what did you think? He loses his temper. He takes a poke at somebody. Hello, not Mother Damn Theresa. His boss fucking hates...hated him." The muscles pinched around her eyes and she turned back to the sink.
Brady watched Chaz scan and catalog the kitchen. He'd get a download on that once they left. "Ms. Gilberti, Cookson wrote you a check two days before he died. For $2562."
She looked blank. "Oh! Yeah, so I could sign it over to the hospital. I got no insurance, and I had to pay the hospital."
"Hospital?" You could almost see Chaz's ears point, like a dog hearing a can opener. "You've been sick?"
Gilberti's face closed up so fast Brady could hear it slam. "No, I just like to go to the hospital."
"Sorry." Chaz wilted visibly. "Dumb question."
Next time, gag Chaz, Brady thought, and gathered himself to take the conversation back.
But Chaz beat him to it. "It's just... There's been a series of weird deaths, and Mr. Cookson's is one of them. So we're looking for connections. One of the other deaths happened in a hospital parking lot, so..." Chaz shrugged.
"Ohmygod," Gilberti whispered.
Well, well. Witness was off-guard, alarmed, softened up. Maybe an accident, or maybe the kid knew a thing or two.
"What hospital did you go to?" Brady asked.
"Holy Cross--is that where the other guy died?"
Chaz shrugged and did the absurd thing with his mouth. "Not at liberty to say."
"It's all right, ma'am. You're not in danger." Though Brady had no proof of that.
Chaz's gaze wandered vaguely across the kitchen again. "What did you go to the hospital for?"
Gilberti scowled at Chaz. "Something that's not your damned business."
Well, the bloom was off that rose.
Brady wound up the visit with thank you and you've been an enormous help and got them both down to the building parking lot unscathed.
"What next?" Chaz asked, sliding onto the bench seat of the car and buckling up. Brady thought he was working a little too hard to look at his hands, his knees, the dashboard, and the view out the windshield.
"The bar where Cookson worked. I don't think we'll get anything more than confirmation that he was a son of a bitch, but I'd like to see where he died." Brady started the car.
Chaz studied the view a little longer before he said, "She had eight different nutritional supplements on the counter. The bottles were over half full. Either she was diagnosed with a metabolic disorder, or she's pregnant. The open box of Saltines suggests the latter."
"Huh." Nice job. Would Chaz object to being told so? One way to find out. "Nice job."
Chaz's gaze bounced up to Brady, zipped away again. He straightened against the seat back, and the twitchy grimace that might be a smile shot across his face and was gone.
Its head has been underwater for--how long? And it still struggles. It still takes all her weight to hold it down.
Not "it"--host and parasite, and the host is a human being, with a name and a past. But the unnatural strength makes an It of the thing beneath her.
And he still hasn't taken a breath. Injury to brain cells after four minutes. Irreversible brain damage in seven.
The space Bostwick had allotted the team was a small meeting room with a long folding table and no windows. Lau wanted to tell him it felt just like home.
She'd set up her laptop and the portable printer on a metal cabinet against one wall and liberated an enormous whiteboard from a back room at the copshop. When Worth and Falkner came in, Reyes was pulling hypothetically-inaccessible medical records off the printer. (Thank you, Hafidha.) Lau was making columns on the whiteboard, one for each victim and one for their killer. That last one was blank, and it bugged her.
The smell of dry-erase marker always made her think of murder and frustration.
Falkner set a brown paper grocery bag lightly marked with grease spots on the table. Worth did the same with the one she carried.
"The proprietor says hello," Falkner told her. "I got the feeling he didn't ordinarily bake these this late in the day." She asked a question with her eyebrows.
Lau gave her a one-palm-up shrug. "I went to school with his son. Eight cheese-and-pepper beoreks, six cheese, and a dozen mamoul?"
"It's a lot of food," Worth ventured.
"Mmm," said Falkner.
Reyes brought his printouts to the table. "With pepper?"
"That bag." Falkner pointed. "You talked to Echeverria's mother?"
"And the waiter at Stuben's Deli." Reyes pulled out one of the foot-long stuffed breads. Warm yeast smell made Lau's mouth water.
"Echeverria went there to meet her ex," Lau said. "It being about halfway and a public place, thus neutral ground. Not what you'd call an amicable divorce."
The door opened, and Brady stepped in. Lau felt her professional half-smile expand. "Hey, you."
"Back atcha." He lifted one of the metal folding chairs away from the table one-handed, spun it 180 degrees, and set it down. Then he straddled it, let it take his weight gradually, and folded his arms over the chair back.
Lau would bet he'd lost count of the metal folding chairs he'd killed.
Chaz slid through the door with a half-gallon jug of orange juice. "Coffee's still brewing," he sighed.
"Dinner," Falkner said, pointing a thumb at the bags.
In Chaz's face, the sun broke from behind a cloud.
"Talk while you eat," Reyes ordered.
Lau handed the bags around. Chaz took two to start with. Brady, Lau knew, would eat two, but he'd wait on the second one to see what was left. She cut a pepper loaf in half for herself and carried it with her to the whiteboard.
"According to her mother," she said, "Echeverria was meeting her ex-husband to discuss their daughter, and money, in that order. Specifically, increased child support, since the daughter had just been diagnosed with a heart ailment, and Echeverria's insurance wouldn't cover all the care."
"Don't tell me. Diagnosed at Holy Cross Medical Center," Falkner said.
"Oh, good," said Reyes, "it wasn't just us. What have you got?"
Falkner nodded to Worth.
Worth swallowed fast and cleared her throat. "LaDona Benson's son was diagnosed with asthma in early January, at Holy Cross. He went back to the ER there--" she fished her Palm out of her pocket to check, "--three days before Benson's death."
Lau started filling in Benson's column on the whiteboard.
"Any signs that Benson was nervous or afraid?" asked Reyes.
Falkner shook her head. "Well-liked, happy, successful at work."
"The waiter at the deli described Echeverria as nervous. She shredded her napkin, ordered a sandwich and picked it apart without eating it. Then she went to the women's bathroom."
"Where was the ex-husband?" Brady asked.
"In transit, with an alibi. He parked in a garage down the street, and the attendant remembers him."
"Probably half a dozen panhandlers as well, if we could find the right ones," Lau added. "Police pushed them off Hollywood and Sunset for the tourists, but they have to go somewhere. That seems to be one of the spots."
"So, was she nervous about seeing her ex, or something else?" Falkner asked the air.
Lau raised one shoulder; the universal sign for No clue. "She was found in the stall with the door latched. Didn't seem to have used the toilet, though." Lau played that out in her head again. Into the restroom, and a stall...but then what? If you weren't there to pee or shoot up--and there'd been no evidence of drugs--why stand around in a bathroom stall?
"Any idea how long she was in there?" Worth asked.
"Nope. The killer might have followed her. Or been there ahead of her."
"Female, then?" Falkner stretched in her chair.
"Unless the gamma doesn't require proximity to the victims," Reyes said.
"Cookson also had a Holy Cross connection," Brady said. "His girlfriend went to the ER there two days before he dropped dead at work. Chaz thinks she's pregnant."
Everyone looked at Chaz. He was most of the way through his third roll, and his mouth was full, but he nodded.
Lau noted the pregnancy on the whiteboard. Reyes frowned. "Hospital employee, or patient. We need the mechanism for the asphyxiations. Have we heard from Frost?"
Lau looked back over her shoulder, as if it were a casual gesture. "Worth? If she gets technical, you'll at least have a chance of following the conversation."
"Will do. Give me the number?"
Lau did, and watched Worth slip behind Brady and step into the hall with her phone.
Brady tucked his chin and frowned at Lau. She gave him back a shot of wide-eyed innocence. Brady sighed and turned to the whiteboard. "What about the kid connection?" he asked.
Lau shook her head. "Morro didn't have kids. Gerianne Sussman didn't, either."
Chaz swallowed heroically. "Neither did Cookson, until we talked to his girlfriend."
It took a moment to register. Lau was relieved to see that was true for everyone else, too.
Falkner pulled out her phone and pushed two buttons.
"About time you called," Hafidha's voice declared. "This place echoes like hell."
"Hafidha, we've connected three victims to Holy Cross Hospital through the ER, via children or a pregnancy. Comb the records for Alonso Morro and Gerianne Sussman again, will you? Any connection to children admitted to the Holy Cross Emergency Department."
"I was hoping for tough."
"Best I've got." Falkner looked serenely unamused. Lau thought she was amused, anyway.
"Hold the line?"
Worth stepped back in from the hall and shook her head. "Dr. Frost's voice mail."
Lau avoided looking at Brady. "She won't take long to call back."
Reyes rubbed his eyes. "Even narrowing the vector down to the hospital, we still have thousands of suspects."
Lau's laptop chirped.
"Okay, gang," Hafidha said through Falkner's phone. "I've sent you files. Unfortunately, the Morros remain childless no matter what I do."
"So much for the kid connection," Brady grumbled.
"However," Hafidha continued, and even on speaker Lau could hear the hello-not-done-yet inflection, "when Ms. Sussman remarried, she picked a widower, John Bianchi, with three kids. And lo, eleven-year-old Brian Bianchi was admitted to the Holy Cross emergency room with pneumonia. The day before Sussman died in the parking lot." Hafidha sounded grim when she added, "He's not doing well, by the way."
Chaz froze with the jug of orange juice halfway to his mouth. "Did Sussman smoke?"
Reyes's head swiveled. "What?"
"Benson did," Worth said.
"So did Cookson." Chaz leaned forward, eyes wide. "That's why he was outside during working hours. Smoke break. That's why they were all outdoors. No smoking indoors in California in public places. Not even bars."
"Hang on," Hafidha said. "First autopsy on Sussman... Tar and smoke particles in the lung tissue. Ruled out as cause of death. Still, smoker."
Lau looked at the whiteboard again. "One case of asthma, one of pneumonia, and a heart problem...which could be secondhand-smoke related."
"Sussman was at the hospital with her stepson--" Falkner said.
Chaz finished, "--and she went out for a cigarette."
Brady nodded toward the board. "Echeverria wasn't outdoors."
Chaz shook his head hard enough to make his hair flop. "Tough neighborhood--street people, panhandlers. A woman by herself. And she was nervous, jittery--"
"Nicotine fit," Worth burst out. Chaz shot her a grateful look. It was as if there were too many words in his throat, and he needed more people to help him say them. "She went to the bathroom for a smoke, because she didn't feel safe outside."
"That's irony," Lau growled. "So we're looking for someone with a mad on for smokers?"
Reyes pursed his lips. "Breathing problems themselves?"
"The crack the anomaly got through," Falkner said.
"The crack?" Worth said. She looked like a spectator at a tennis match.
"Stressors apply here, just as they do with other serial crimes." Reyes sounded like a lecturer with sixty seconds before the end of class. "That could be the weakness that allowed the anomaly a foothold."
"Like your immune system failing to protect you from a cold virus when you're tired," Lau added.
Hafidha's voice broke in. "Holy Cross has a major pulmonary unit, compadres."
"We'll start there." Reyes left his chair and swept his jacket off the back.
Like an emergency response crew, the team could go from settled to swift almost before Worth could register the change. Her heart rate bumped up as Reyes gave orders. "Chaz, Worth, I want you to interview Alonso Morro's wife. Morro's the only victim without a connection to the hospital. If you can find one, it'll help us narrow this down."
Chaz nodded. His face had gone stiff again; the intensity he'd had leaning across the table was burned out or boxed in.
"Worth, when Frost calls, phone the results to Lau. The rest of us will go to the hospital. Brady, Falkner, check with the staff for long-term patients with respiratory illnesses, dates of admission, and friends or relatives who visit regularly. Lau and I will hit Human Resources and study the staff."
"Yell if you need me," Gates said.
"Thank you, Hafidha." Falkner disconnected.
Before Worth could say anything, the hospital-bound team were out the door, all but Lau. So to Lau, she said, "Good luck."
Lau smiled. "Same to you." And she was gone, too.
Chaz swallowed the last of his--fourth?--sandwich, chugged the dregs of the orange juice, and wiped his mouth and fingers with a napkin. "I'll drive."
"Good. I won't feel guilty about answering the phone." She watched him toss the napkin and pick up his backpack. His gaze stayed low, his chin tucked, his shoulders hunched. "Is it me?"
He raised his head sharply. "What?"
"Reyes paired us up on this interview, and you sort of...toggled off. I wondered if I'd done something."
"Oh. No, it's all good." He smiled without showing the crooked front teeth.
It wasn't all good, but if he didn't want to talk there was nothing she could do. She stood up and slung her messenger bag over her shoulder.
The bakery bag was empty. Not too much food, after all.
Worth buttoned her suit jacket to cover her holster. Chaz, she noticed, hadn't ever unbuttoned his. Well, he probably wouldn't need to get at his gun without warning in a police station.
Outside, the western sky was pinkish-orange with sunset and haze. The dark Crown Victoria was easy to find among the black-and-whites in the parking lot. Chaz unlocked the doors with his whole attention. Then he said, "It really isn't you."
"It's okay. I mean, if it's not me, it's none of my business, right?"
Chaz got behind the wheel, so she did, too. It's Los Angeles, Worth thought. All significant conversations happen in and around cars.
He made a long, flat line of his mouth. "It's not that it's not your business." He frowned ferociously out the windshield and found the ignition by feel. "It's just--they're on their way to the place voted most likely to harbor a gamma." The engine caught with a roar; he gave the gas an extra jab before he put it in gear and the acceleration bounced Worth backwards. "And Reyes sends us to interview the victim's wife."
Worth hadn't thought of it that way. It embarrassed her that she hadn't. "You crave a life of danger?"
The tires squealed a little as he turned onto the street. "Isn't that what we're supposed to have?"
For the last year, he'd been on a desk. Brady doubted him, Worth knew. Brady wouldn't have said so, but Chaz would spot it, and know Brady wouldn't be the only one. She couldn't think of anything to say that she'd want to hear in his place.
He turned, drove another block, and said, "Every time they go out, they take a risk. It's not right that I don't. I can't sit back and not do the job, when they do it every day."
She remembered what she'd heard outside the briefing room, between Reyes and Falkner. What was right, and what was fair. Even Reyes doubted. Chaz would know that, too. "You're doing the job."
And so was she. Wasn't she? He was right: Reyes had sent the new kids out of the line of fire. They had training and useful skills and on-paper rank, but they weren't part of the pack.
He shrugged and jounced them over a speed bump. "Yeah. Like I said. It's all good."
She could leave it there, let him banish the subject. Maybe he was done with it. But she wasn't. "I-- Look, I'm sorry if this is a terrible thing to say, but I'm glad I'm not alone. Except I am, because they know you. I don't have any history here. But at least I don't have to be the only new face at the party."
He gave her a slanting, sideways look.
Way to rub it in, Daphne. "God, it was a terrible thing to say. Never mind. I just--"
"You're serious." His voice said, You're not serious.
"You came in from Down the Hall. Nobody's going to think you're not qualified. When Reyes left us behind, I figured you were assigned babysitting duty."
"Tell that to SSA Brady."
"Brady gave you the man-enough routine?" Chaz startled her by grinning. "Jesus. Nothing short of a one-handed pushup will win that guy's love."
"Can you do one? We could try it and see." She squeezed down the bubble of panicky laughter the picture produced. Maybe in the aisle next to Brady's desk.
"Hah. Competing for favor is beneath me." He took the inside line on a corner without regard for lanes. But it was a residential street, and quiet.
"Does that mean you can't?"
He narrowed his eyes. "Show me yours first."
She smiled at him. It felt good. It felt like the first actual unconsidered smile she'd worn in days.
They found the Morro house, a little stuccoed Cape Cod, and Chaz rang the bell. Worth heard something inside, at the back of the house. They waited, looked at each other, and Chaz rang again.
After a moment Worth heard light, running steps. Someone struggled with the knob from inside. And a little girl opened the door.
She was maybe eight, with big dark eyes in a sandy-brown face with wide, flat Indio cheekbones. She wore red cropped pants and a candycane-striped ruffled top. She stared up in silence at Chaz as if he were a national monument.
Chaz stared back, startled, the color fading out of his face.
"Adelita!" a woman called from inside. "¿Quien es, gatita?"
"Un hombre y una mujér," the girl said, as if that explained everything. She ran back down the dark hall into the house.
"Are you okay?" Worth asked Chaz.
"Yeah." he blinked. "Fine."
A tall, deep-bosomed Hispanic woman came down the hall. Adelita followed. "¿Sí?"
"Mrs. Morro?" Worth said. "I'm Special Agent Worth, from the FBI. We're following up on the death of your husband--"
"This isn't your daughter," Chaz blurted.
"No. She's my niece, Alonso's sister's little one." Mrs. Morro frowned, with her eyebrows and mouth at once. "Her mama is in drug rehab. We're...I'm looking after her." She looked back over her shoulder and dropped her voice. "For all I care, she don't ever have to come out."
Chaz rocked back a little. "Your niece has been seen at Holy Cross Medical Center?"
Mrs. Morro gave him a narrow-eyed stare. "She's not an illegal. She's entitled to treatment."
"Was it a respiratory illness?" Worth asked.
"Bronchitis. She gets it bad."
"Did--was it your husband who took her to the ER?"
Morro's frown was less warning and more alarmed now. "Yeah. I met him there, then I stayed with Adela while he took the bus...took the bus to work. Only--" She pressed her lips tight and threw her head back, and her body swelled with her breathing.
"It's all right," Worth said, trying not to sound too gentle. Too gentle made it hurt more. "Mrs. Morro, did your husband smoke?"
Morro looked at Worth as if she could see the simpler past through the outline of her body. "Yes, he did."
Worth met Chaz's eyes. Smokers and kids, she thought. Five for five.
"Mrs. Morro, thank you for your time. That's all we need." Worth stepped off the porch and headed for the car with Chaz close behind. Open a wound and walk away--but they had to do it. They just didn't have to feel good about it.
Worth's phone buzzed halfway to the car. She flipped it open.
"Frost," said the level female voice, the one on the voice mailbox.
"Hi! This is Daph--"
"I know. You left your name and number."
It was hard to tell if Frost was annoyed, or rushed, or just stating the obvious: her voice held no emotion. "Thank you for--"
"Do you still want the results of my autopsy on the victim?"
"The interior of the subject's airway shows no tissue damage that might have been caused by a foreign object. The original autopsy was unclear on that; it stated that there was no object present, but didn't mention whether one might have been introduced and removed post mortem."
That had the kind of obsessive thoroughness Worth was used to in pathologists. "But that means--"
"Nothing at all, Agent Worth. It's merely the absence of evidence."
"I guess-- No, ma'am. Doctor."
"I found multiple microscopic tears in the muscle of the tongue, however."
Tears in muscle tissue, like the tiny tears that opened in the muscles of bodybuilders straining against a weight. "She strangled on her own tongue while conscious?"
A moment of silence on the phone. "More significantly, she struggled against strangling on her own tongue."
"Mechanical blockage of the airway. With her tongue. The gamma controlled the muscle itself?"
"That appears to be the case." For the first time, Worth heard emotion in Dr. Frost's voice: a chilly, distant disapproval. "Control of the autonomic nervous system through the brain stem would have been more direct and efficient. The best way to cause asphyxiation is to turn off the involuntary impulse to breathe."
Worth shivered. That would be the best way. A gamma who did that would leave no evidence for the police or the pathologist. Just a trail of people who stopped breathing. Don't give them any ideas. "But there would have been less struggling?"
"Done properly, there would be none at all."
The tone with which Frost said "properly" was alarming.
"But that would assume the person responsible knew the neurophysiology of respiration," Frost continued.
"Wait--so someone with a background in respiratory physiology--a doctor, a nurse, an LPN--would have just gone to the source? But a mechanical cause... That could be someone with practical experience but less training. Unless it's someone with a lot of training who wants it to look--"
"My area of expertise is pathology, Agent Worth. The psychology is your responsibility."
There was such a lack of emotion in those two sentences that Worth thought she might get hypothermia just from listening. "Yes, ma'am. No."
"Do you have any other questions for me?"
"No. No, ma'am."
"Good. Good-bye, Agent Worth."
And the connection was silent.
Worth leaned on the car to catch her breath. Across the hood Chaz watched, head canted, eyebrows raised, wearing the long, flat grin that exaggerated his chin.
"What?" Worth said.
"I'll tell Lau you survived your initiation."
"Wha-- Son of a bitch, that was on purpose?"
"You'd have to talk to her sooner or later."
"Jesus!" She recalled the flat, steady voice on the phone and shook herself like a wet dog to break the spell. "So...does she look like that?"
"Oh, no. Cozy. Like a vampire nursery school teacher."
"Get in. You can phone Lau with the report while I get us to Burbank."
Falkner winced as the big purple Ford plunged into the Emergency Department parking area and stopped like a cow pony. Chaz swung out the driver's side: long skinny feet, quarter mile of legs, brown hair falling across his sallow face and brushing his gapping shirt collar, elbows jutting like compasses.
A moment later Worth pulled herself up out of the passenger seat and leaned on the roof. "Chaz, I used to drive an ambulance," she said, with the threat of a squeak in the last word.
Chaz smiled and blinked like a happy cat. "So?"
"I didn't drive it like that."
"Oh, come on. If the car ahead of you in the next lane is doing 68 miles an hour, and the car behind him is doing 75, and you're doing 71, and a Ford Crown Victoria is 212 inches bumper to bumper, you can figure out how much room you need to change lanes in."
"Gah. What do you factor in for the heart attacks of the other two drivers?"
Chaz snorted that one away and loped up the ramp to Falkner. "Lau got Daphne's call?"
Falkner noted the name without comment. "The one with the panicky indrawn breaths?"
Chaz frowned. "I didn't run into anything, and nothing ran into us."
"That," Falkner sighed, "is not necessarily the point of the exercise."
Worth arrived at his shoulder. "But do we have a profile?"
"Certified nurse's assistant or nursing student under supervision, working in pediatric ER, may have a respiratory illness or have lost a child or young relative to a respiratory disorder, or both. Has probably spoken out against smokers, especially parents who smoke, and has quarreled with coworkers who smoke. Impatient, argues with nursing directives, doesn't take criticism well. He--or she--is supremely confident in his own judgment, and justifies what he or she does in terms of removing children from life-threatening situations." She heard Reyes's phrasings coming out her mouth. Well, why not? He led this team for a reason.
"She thinks she's a persecuted hero," Worth said.
"It could be a man."
"Depends on how close the gamma has to be to make the trick work," said Chaz.
Falkner heard the rare confidence in his voice. He'd forgotten himself in the puzzle. "How so?"
"Parking lots are classic danger zones for women alone. LaDona Benson and Gerianne Sussman died next to their cars. If a strange male had approached, they'd have bolted."
"But a woman could have walked right up to them," Worth finished. "Plus, there's Cristina Echeverria in the women's bathroom."
Falkner looked from Chaz's face to Worth's, wildly different, matched in the flush of excitement. Cool them off. They're too wired up to be careful. But they were right. They'd filled in the pieces of the profile. And they needed to prove themselves. "We're interviewing staff in the ER and in Pediatrics and in the pulmonary department. But we're keeping a low profile. If the gamma knows we're close, he--she--may bolt. Be very damned careful, and if you flush our bird, use your heads. They're what you were hired for."
Worth looked solemn, but Falkner caught the pinch at the corners of Chaz's mouth that constrained a smile. She couldn't lecture him in front of the new hire. And she couldn't ask the new hire to look out for him, either. He'll take it seriously when it counts, Falkner told herself. And, You can't sit on them like a hen on eggs.
At least they didn't look like FBI. Worth hadn't thought of it as an advantage. She supposed she might look authoritative enough to be from the Health Department. Chaz looked like a med student interviewing for a summer job.
Worth walked through ER admitting briskly, and hoped Chaz, behind her, was doing the same. "We have a plan?" he murmured over her shoulder.
"Everyone else is interviewing supervisory staff, because they may have noticed things. We're going to talk to the rank and file."
"Because nobody gossips to the boss." He sounded pleased. "We need a cover story if we're not going to spook the gamma."
They were out of sight of the front desk, so Worth stopped and hugged the wall to let an orderly with a cart pass. "Human Resources?"
"Independent health management consulting service hired by Human Resources to study workplace environment and compliance with non-discrimination policies." He said it on a single exhale, without pausing to consider.
Worth nodded. "You're a genius."
He shrugged and grinned. "I'm good at plausible deniability."
Worth resolved to ask later what he'd practiced on.
"You interview, I'll watch," he added.
"Watch for what?"
"For 'which of these things is not like the others.' It's sort of my superpower. Lame, but true."
"Right now, it beats flying."
They collared nursing assistants one by one, whenever they seemed to be between duties. Worth assured them of confidentiality, and asked about the job, about their coworkers: was anyone hard to get along with? Critical? Intolerant?
Chaz pretended to take notes on Worth's Palm. Because she knew he was doing it, she could feel his attention shift, settle, shift again.
It was slow going, through the crowded emergency department. Because of interviewing Benson, Worth noticed smells: the black-haired nurse who wore too much perfume, the volunteer with blonde streaks and hairspray. The hospital itself smelled like floor wax, antibacterial soap, the old-yeast smell of the dispensary. She couldn't explain the occasional whiff of nail polish remover.
Whenever she glanced up she expected to see someone she knew. Wrong city, wrong time. But two paramedics in dark navy hurried by with a gurney, and she looked, even though she knew better.
"Ghosts," she muttered to Chaz, and laughed, and realized he had no idea what she meant. He nodded, but his attention was fixed on the hallways, sharp as a hunting animal.
The entire staff below the level of LPN seemed to have complaints about their supervisors or each other. Worth listened, waiting. Someone would say it, or would complain about a staff member saying it: no one here is competent. No one is intelligent. Only me. I know what's right.
They turned the corner into an older wing of the hospital. Narrow corridors, more traffic--nurses, doctors, patients, visitors, a maintenance guy replacing a ceiling fluorescent fixture. Worth flagged down a skinny Asian nurse's assistant with blue eyeliner and a blue flowered scrub tunic. "Excuse me," she said, trying hard for Falkner's "trust me" voice. "Do you have time to answer a few questions?"
The Asian woman's ID read, "Janet Miyaki." "Lady, I got time for a cup of coffee. And my mom said don't talk with your mouth full." She started to push past Worth and Chaz.
Another woman, a nurse if Worth read the accessories right, hurried toward them. "Janet, they need you to monitor the Bianchi boy." She looked past Miyaki to Worth and Chaz, and seemed to register their civilian status for the first time. "Sorry."
Cigarette smoke. One of these women was a smoker.
"Break," Miyaki said. "Union rules. No can do." She nodded toward an exit sign, fumbling in her tunic pocket. The nurse muttered something that sounded politically incorrect and hurried off down the hall.
Miyaki frowned. Then her mouth opened, wide, wider, a soundless scream with no air. Her hands flailed at her throat and mouth.
"Chaz, she's here. Airway!" Worth yelled. She yanked Miyaki close, swatted her hands away from her face. In the woman's straining mouth, she could see the tongue pulled back, flexed, saliva pooling in the space behind her bottom front teeth.
Worth stuck her knuckles between Miyaki's back molars, just in case, and grabbed at her tongue with thumb and forefinger. It was slick and strong and she couldn't grip it. Mikaki's front teeth scraped her fingers.
They'd used a square of gauze for this, to get friction. No gauze. No supply cart. No god-damned help--
"Shit. Sorry," she said to Miyaki, yanked the sleeve of her jacket down, folded the hem over her fingertips, pinched down on the woman's tongue, and pulled.
The cloth gave her more purchase. A screech of air dragged into Miyaki's throat before Worth lost her grip. "Gauze and a fucking airway over here, now!" Worth screamed.
"Got her," said Chaz, in a voice so low and fierce she almost didn't recognize it.
For an instant Worth couldn't remember what that meant. He stood stiff as a pointing dog, as a cat watching motion in the grass, and his gaze fixed on a woman with short brown hair in a bright print scrub top who stood at the end of the crowded hall. The print was of kids sailing hot-air balloons. The skin of her face was slack over the bones. She watched Miyaki with a fixed and unalarmed stillness.
Two people in white armed with gloves and gauze and an NPA finally, finally shouldered Worth aside and pounced on Miyaki.
The brown-haired woman--the gamma--raised her eyes from Miyaki and saw Chaz. She turned and bolted back down the hall. Chaz plunged after her.
The gamma body-checked a swinging door and banged through. Chaz dodged the maintenance man's ladder and an inattentive resident with a clipboard and disappeared after her.
Worth jabbed numbers on her phone. Turn off cellphones and pagers in hospital. She apologized mentally to any patients whose life support she was reprogramming.
"Lau," said the voice in her ear.
"We've got her. Five foot nine-ish, short brown hair, bright print scrub top, face looks like she's lost weight recently. East wing, other side of the Emergency Department--going through a door labeled A-17. Hall stripes are blue and green. Chaz is pursuing. Send backup." She slapped her phone closed and slammed through the doors.
Chaz, unmistakably, disappearing around a corner ahead, his gun out and low. She could smell, under the antiseptic, a clean dampness, salt, and a little nail polish remover.
It was the physical therapy wing. Worth drew her own weapon as she bolted past a treadmill, a passive-motion machine, and a rack of rainbow-colored hand weights.
She rounded the corner and saw Chaz, and the door ahead of him closing slowly on its hydraulic hinge. He hit it with his shoulder to smack it open.
A swift arc of motion beyond the door, of something primary-blue. It ended at Chaz's head with a shocking thump, and he fell and rolled and disappeared with a splash.
Worth hurtled through the doors, prepared to dodge.
The smell was salt water. In the middle of a green-tiled room, the water in a therapy pool rocked and smashed over the sides from the force of Chaz going under. The hard-surfaced walls echoed back the sound of the blow, the splash, the noise of the blue ten-pound hand weight hitting the wet cement floor.
Chaz's head broke the surface of the pool, and the brown-haired woman knelt and shoved it back under.
"FBI!" Worth yelled, sighting down her Glock. "Let him go!"
And felt her tongue close the back of her throat.
Panic. She'd learned not to panic. She hadn't learned not to breathe. On her knees on the cold cement, her brain screaming We're going to die!
Instinct said drop her gun. Use her hands to tear her throat clear. She fought to raise the Glock. Her arms were weak, shaking. She scrambled her jacket sleeve over the skittering fingers of one hand and tried to grip her tongue. The jacket fabric pulled away as her arm bent, goddamn it, use both hands. She shoved the gun behind her across the floor. But her vision speckled with black--
A rush of water, over the roaring in her ears. She could breathe again. Chaz was out of the pool and struggling with the gamma, who was too strong for a woman that size.
Chaz's gun was in the pool. Hers was somewhere behind her. Chaz was in her line of fire.
She scrambled for her gun anyway. And her throat closed again.
The gamma had pinned Chaz from behind, above the elbows. Blood ran down over the right side of his face from somewhere in his hair, from that first blow. He snapped his head backward, but he was too tall to head-butt the woman. She would strangle Worth, then Chaz.
His elbows were pinned almost behind his back. But he stretched his left forearm hard, fingers reaching, clawing, to draw something from a second holster on his belt.
She realized what it was a moment before he used it. No part of the gamma was within his reach. So he fired the taser charge into his own wet body.
The crack was like a giant bone breaking. The smell was ozone and scorching cloth and skin. The two figures joined in a horrible spasmed curve and flash; then they separated and fell, Chaz to one side, the gamma almost in the pool.
She could breathe.
She didn't bother to stand up; she scrambled across the floor to Chaz. She rolled him on his back, tipped his head to clear his airway, and crossed her hands over his chest.
The gamma raised her head, groggy, glaring. Worth felt her tongue crawl back in her mouth.
Worth launched herself at the gamma, hit her high in the chest and knocked her backward onto the lip of the pool. She slammed the heel of her hand under the gamma's chin, held her head back and down into the water, and put all her weight on it.
All her weight against the muscles in the woman's neck. She saw them cord. They shouldn't be strong enough to push her back. It wasn't right.
Through the threshing water the woman's brown hair waved like fishes' fins. Her eyes glared up at Worth, desperate and fixed.
A gamma was hard to kill. Like the hopped-up robber the police had gunned down, that Worth and Vin and Josh had loaded into the ambulance, no heartbeat, no breath sounds. Who'd sat up and killed them anyway.
She could have saved them. She could have been faster. If she'd known. But by the time she put the defib paddles to the monster's temples, it was too late.
How long, to drown a gamma?
Chaz lay still on the cold floor, his chest motionless. He was cyanotic. He was dying. How long since the taser? How long before the thing under her gave up and drowned?
The woman's eyes pinched tight. Her chest heaved and heaved, and her neck went limp.
Worth gave a last desperate shove to push her further under and scrambled across the wet tiles to Chaz.
Compressions--one hundred per minute. The timing was as natural as her own breathing. Just move the blood around. They were in a hospital, for God's sake, they could save him.
Her tongue closed her throat again.
She didn't look up. Elbows locked, she could keep up the rhythm for a long time before she suffocated, it was just a matter of rocking forward...
"FBI," said someone very far away. It was followed by the shattering noise of a gun firing in a closed, hard room, over and over.
She could breathe. She hadn't lost count. Brady crouched across Chaz's body. His lips moved, but she couldn't hear him; was she going unconscious? No, the gunshots.
"He needs defib," she said, knowing she was shouting. Brady bolted. She kept rocking in rhythm.
Eventually the hospital team took over. They had to drag her off him, because she didn't notice when they came in. She slumped on the concrete while they took care of Chaz. She wasn't certain about the details of that part, but that was all right; she'd seen it done before, when she was clear-headed.
Then they were gone, and she was still sitting on the wet floor. Brady was cross-legged in front of her. "What happened?" he said, and she realized she could hear again.
"He had to taser himself to get to the gamma." She sounded as affectless as Dr. Frost.
"Where were you?"
"Being strangled." Did he blame her for this?
"Which one of those is your gun?" Brady nodded at the pool, and at the end of the room where the Glock had skidded against the wall.
"The one on the floor."
"It should have been in your hand." His voice was tight and thin. "And you should have pulled the trigger until it went click, click, click."
Well, at least she wasn't numb anymore. "Easy for you to say."
Brady leaned forward, and everything about his perfect face was hard. "Easy for me to do. It had better get easy for you, too. You'll hear a lot of shit from Reyes about how we don't learn from dead gammas. But they're monsters. If there's anything left of the person they were, you can assume it would rather be dead." His voice cracked, and he drew air in through his teeth. "Once one of 'em comes at you, you fire your weapon until the magazine is empty, and if you have to, slap another one in. Anything else is suicide. Or, worse case, murder."
Worth folded her arms over her stomach. She was starting to shake. "Is he going to be okay?"
"I don't know." He seemed to reconsider that. "They had his heart started by the time they got to the hall, so that's a good sign. He's tough." He stood up and held out a hand.
There were cops and CSI beside the pool. She hadn't noticed them past his body, and the intensity of his presence. The water in the pool was tinted red.
She let him pull her to her feet. There was no hiding the shaking, really. It was normal, but she was ashamed of it anyway.
He took off his jacket, wrapped it around her, and left his arm around her shoulders. "Come on. Let's go hear the prognosis."
Cora Marie Pace, 40, had watched her husband die of lung cancer. Six months later, her eleven-year-old daughter was diagnosed with emphysema. No one had diagnosed Pace's contact with the anomaly. Falkner wondered if it had whispered to her, a voice on her shoulder, or if it had seemed only a series of natural conclusions, one growing out of another. Until she was moved to murder, and had the power to do it.
Brian Bianchi, whose new stepmother Pace had killed, was winning his battle with pneumonia.
The medical examiner who'd first asked for the team got Frost's autopsy, and as much of the facts as was reasonable.
"Enlightenment, one file cabinet at a time," Reyes grumbled as he dropped into his seat on the plane.
"That's one more than you had last week." Falkner shoved her carryon under her seat with her foot and turned to study the rest of the team. "Once we're in the air, take the couch," she ordered Chaz.
"I'm fine," Chaz growled. The Steri-strip at his hairline contrasted nicely with his grayish-pale face.
"Did I end that with a question mark?"
He bit his lip. He wouldn't fall over, anyway; the rest of the kids had him stuffed up against the window again, with Brady on the aisle. This time Worth was sitting across from him, where she could watch for signs of distress. Falkner wondered if Chaz knew that.
And having to watch Chaz--or feeling she had to--gave Worth something to center on. There was some internal wobble in Worth, Falkner was certain. Well, if she needed to, she'd step in.
Lau had made sure there was food in the galley's mini-fridge and cupboards, and had restocked the coffee. Falkner checked them again, because she had to do something, and nothing needed doing. In about twenty-four hours her body would realize the job was done, the emergency was over, and she could let go. But her internal spring was slow to unwind.
Besides, from this vantage point she could examine Brady. She assumed he knew she was doing it. Brady would understand that, no matter how justified the shoot, his bosses would watch for how he took it. The requisite administrative leave was purely paperwork. It had nothing to do with psychology.
Behind her, Worth said, outraged, "Your eyes are two different colors!"
"It's called heterochromia." Chaz was still grumbling.
"Do you realize I've been sitting here worrying that you're concussed, and all the time it's just that you're weird?"
Falkner held her breath; that wasn't the sort of thing just anyone could say to Chaz.
But he snorted. "Ow. Don't make me laugh. Ow."
"You just noticed that?" That was Lau.
Worth protested, "The light has to be right."
"And you have to be staring at me," said Chaz. "Which you're too shy to do."
"That's blackmail," Lau observed. She made it sound like a feature.
"He's got sheepdog eyes," said Brady blandly. "Like a blue heeler. Man, they're great dogs. I had one when I was a kid."
"Brady," Chaz said, "are you saying I'm a dog?"
"I'm saying you're a great dog. Loyal, smart, hard-working, eat you out of house and home--"
"Ow ow ow ow."
"Suck it up, kid."
The seat belt light came on. Falkner straightened and turned back toward her place. As she did, Brady looked up and caught her eye. She gave him half a smile, on the side where the others couldn't see, and went to buckle in.
By the time they reached altitude, Chaz was too tired to fight against the couch. Brady took one of the solo seats up front, and Lau the other; they reclined them and went to sleep on either side of the aisle, Lau curled like a kitten, Brady with his jacket pulled over his head.
Nobody ever slept on the way out. They'd learned to sleep on the way back, though. You slept when you got the chance; it was like the Army in that respect, at least.
Worth was awake, looking out the window at nothing.
Falkner stood up--the stretching was only partly pretext--and went back to sit across from her. She kept her voice down when she asked, "You okay?"
"Yeah." Worth scrubbed at her face with both hands and murmured, "But I could have not been."
"Any landing you walk away from."
"No, I don't mean me. I-- If I were going home and he weren't..." She looked across the aisle to the couch and Falkner followed her gaze. Chaz had pulled the blanket to his chin in his sleep, and his feet showed at the other end, vulnerable and foolish in brown wool socks.
"That could happen. It doesn't happen often, thank God. The Bureau is not in the habit of losing expensive field agents. But it's not impossible."
"It came pretty close this time."
"He's tougher than he looks." Falkner didn't say, It's one of the anomaly's gifts.
Worth looked down, and her bangs slid to hide her eyes. She was worrying the adhesive bandage on her scraped fingers.
Worth looked up.
"'Competent' is not an insult," Falkner said.
Worth looked blank for an instant; then she flushed. "No, ma'am."
Falkner stood up. "Get some sleep. Or you'll be amazed how rotten you feel by the time you get home."
Everything looked different: the hall, the bullpen, the color of the walls. The monitors in the computer room changed all the time, but the context of the room seemed altered. Worth knew it wasn't true. She was different. If this had happened when she worked Down the Hall, she didn't remember it.
It was early, and quiet. Brady would be out until the inquiry was over, and Chaz was taking a sick day. Reyes' office was dark. Todd and Lau were nowhere in sight. There was light beyond Falkner's door.
"Boo," said a voice behind her.
It was Gates. "Sorry," said Worth, and got out of the doorway.
"Being in your way?"
This morning Gates's hair was doing something complex and knotted on the back of her head, and her glasses were cat's-eye shaped and blue. "Peaches, if you're in my way, I'll probably say something like, oh, 'Excuse me, you're in my way.' Now, come into my lair and let me give you chocolate."
"Ordinarily, I would tell you to never look gift chocolate in the motivation. But in fact, I have a reason." Gates sat down at her desk, pivoted the chair to face Worth, and said, "Chaz is my totally-unrelated-by-blood little brother. You saved his life. I owe you chocolate."
"I didn't really--"
Gates spun, tapped a monitor, and spun back. "I have the initial case reports and the hospital records. Sweetie, you're trying to bullshit the Oracle at Delphi." She leaned sideways, stretched out an arm, and snagged a box with the Jacques Torres logo on the lid. "Bring this back when it's empty."
Worth wanted to stick her hands in her pockets. "That's not why I did it."
"I know. That's just one more reason why I love you and want you to have chocolate." Gates sighed. "The blood is draining from my arm."
Worth took the box, opened it, and held it out. "You start."
Gates grinned. "I knew you were a right 'un." She plucked a truffle. "Also, in case it comes up, call me Hafidha. Even His Eminence only calls me 'Agent Gates' when he's extra-peevish."
"If I say, 'Call me Daphne,' do I get more Scooby jokes?"
"Probably. But only with respect and affection."
"That's okay, then. Um, wander by at regular intervals and help me eat these, okay?" Worth started for the bullpen.
"Daphne? Did I actually say 'thank you?' Thank you."
Worth looked back over her shoulder. "Any time," she replied, and meant it.