"Closet Monster" - by Leah BobetAct I | Act II | Act III | Act IV | Act V
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington, DC, November 2009
Danny Brady was not in the habit of coming into the office to hide.
Chaz did, and Todd occasionally. Some mornings Brady came in to the debris of several pots of coffee and the tucked-away leavings of six a.m. breakfasts, shoved under shredded paper in one's wastebasket like a bad evidence dump. Lau did it sometimes too, though with Lau a bout of drowning her demons in report-writing was statistically indistinguishable from plain old All-American work ethic. But Danny Brady didn't crawl into the WTF bullpen like a kid under the bed at midnight; he preferred diners, or bars just before last call. Quiet, comradely, anonymous.
Or had. Relationships...changed things.
So this morning he was in the office at a heroic five-thirty ayem, and now six of America's top profilers were going to know that something was wrong.
By eight the paperwork on Memphis was finished and there was no more avoiding it. Danny Brady tidied his desk twice, straightened his tie by feel. Picked up the phone.
It was seven in Texas; not too early to call. Rosemary Gilmer Brady had been out of bed at six every morning for years to be at the Baylor University Hospital pharmacy by eight sharp, with breakfast on the table for her ingrate son to boot. She picked up on the second ring.
"Mom," he said, to that compressed long-distance Hello?
"Danny!" she said, and he couldn't pick between a grin and a wince at the way her voice brightened. "How are you?"
"Happy birthday, Mom," he said, and went through the ritual thank-yous, the filtered sounds of coffee cups and songbirds and a still-familiar kitchen drifting in over the line. Almost enough to mask the noise of shoes on industrial-grade office carpet: Worth appeared at the desk opposite him and dropped her bag beside the chair; waved hello absently before shuffling into the kitchen. "You doing anything nice?" he asked, and leaned into his phone.
"Oh, your father and I are going out for dinner. It's just another day, really. Nothing fancy," she said, which meant that Dad was taking her out somewhere fancy indeed and her blue-collar, Pentecostal, just-this-side-of-backcountry upbringing needed a few hours to handle it.
"Well, you have a good time now," he said, and let out a breath. So far, so good. He might just make it out alive.
The hope was short-lived.
"How about you?" she asked. "You meet anybody nice?"
He let it dangle for just a minute. She asked, statistically speaking, about one Sunday in four; she knew better than to ask that every time. But often enough. Oftener lately. Mothers, like tracking dogs, had an exquisite nose for the thing you wanted them into least.
"No," he lied. "Things are busy at work lately."
She knew. He knew she knew, at least on some level, and they'd happily gone through years of Sunday calls on a sort of refined Don't Ask, Don't Tell. The questions had started up again about six months past, right about when he and Gray had--
Well. Either the profiler gene was hereditary or it was the other thing rearing its head. Danny Brady was an only child, and his mother wasn't getting any younger.
"Well," she said, hiding the way her voice flattened into a habitual disappointment. It only lasted a moment, though, and for that Danny Brady was grateful and loved his mother. "You're a good-looking boy. That can't last."
No, it couldn't. Didn't. Hadn't.
Oh, Jesus on a piece of county fair pie.
"Oh Danny Boy," Worth said, materializing at her desk. Hafidha's words, not hers, and for that reason they rang extra hollow. He covered the mouthpiece on his receiver and raised both eyebrows, inquiring. The office was awful quiet all of a sudden--quiet before he'd noticed that there'd been anything to quiet down--and it sure wasn't to ride the seesaws in the bathroom.
"Case," she mouthed, and strode to the half-full briefing room.
Case. The terrible, mundane knotting in his gut mixed with a brief Hallelujah.
"Mom?" he said, breaking into the stream of a story about her retired women's group and some seminar they were doing at the Nasher Sculpture Center. "I'm sorry. I've got to go."
He set the phone down carefully and shoved out of his chair, scrubbed sleep out of his eyes. Through the screen in that cubby of a briefing room, someone was assuredly dying in the worst possible way; ways that could put him and his at extreme physical risk.
Brady pushed into the briefing room and shut the door behind him.
Safe for another week.
It was bad.
"Jacob Ellroy, aged nine." Nikki Lau said. The picture flicked up on the screen: small body, dumped face-down in a muddy Mississippi culvert after a fresh rain. The mud blackened what the bruises didn't. "Contusions to the torso, three broken ribs. Strangulation by ligature, which was the actual cause of death." She paused. "Also, signs of sexual assault. As in, they've recovered semen."
"Great," Daphne Worth muttered. Great, Chaz Villette's hands said in the way they held the case file tighter. Brady shifted his weight, crunched up against the briefing room wall behind Worth's chair. Eight-thirty in the morning and his legs already ached. He was going to need another coffee.
"Adams County sheriff's deputies found him yesterday outside Natchez, Mississippi. He went missing from his home in town Sunday night: the parents came in Monday morning to get him up for school and he wasn't there. No family trouble as far as local PD has it. They issued an Amber Alert right away, but nothing came up on the tip lines. The dump site's about twenty miles from Natchez. He's the third in four months." Lau's voice was crisp and expressionless. "The other two are Jason Sanchez, age ten, and Angelo Birks, nine, both also of Natchez. Jason disappeared four months ago and was missing for three days; Angelo two months ago, and missing for a week. Similar dump sites, and one difference in the MO: our first vic was beaten to death."
Lau added their pictures to the screen: one Hispanic kid in Sunday best on the steps of a church, looking like he'd give anything to trade them in for a tee-shirt; one black kid grinning with a baseball bat held out in classic bunt position.
Nobody winced, but the urge was strong.
"What's our angle?" Brady asked. One kidnapping made it a federal case. Three kids were enough to trigger the BAU's procedural tripwires. It took a little more to get the ACTF involved.
Lau tipped him a nod, slight. "They can't figure out how he's getting into the houses."
Across the table, Villette's eyebrow rose.
"Jacob Ellroy disappeared from his bedroom four days before he was found, after a few nights' worth of nightmares. Standard stuff: monsters in the closet and in his room, but he'd never had a problem with them before. No forced doors, no open windows, no prints on the doorknob. The alarm system was still engaged."
"Motion detectors?" Esther Falkner asked.
"Motion detectors." Lau glanced at her file. "Property crime was a hobby in Natchez even before the recession. Anyone who's still got money down there seems to want to keep it. Violent crime in Natchez, however--" she flipped another page "--not traditionally all that high."
"Until four months ago," Worth kicked in, and sighed.
Lau nodded. "Local PD are pretty sure they have a serial. And Down the Hall is pretty sure there's no way to circumvent that many locks and security systems. Which is why we're here."
Brady mentally ran the list of possibles: invisibility, teleportation, walking through walls. God knew what else. No way of knowing until they got on the ground. God, he was tired.
Stephen Reyes seemed to catch that thought out of the air. "Lau, Brady, Falkner, Worth, Villette: wheels up in an hour," Reyes said. "We'll continue this on the plane. Todd, you're holding down the fort."
He rose. Todd nodded from his own chair and followed: to double-check when the kids should be in bed and the plants watered, no doubt. Brady stood back and let the rest of the team get their hustle on. He was a little too tired to hustle this morning, and it's not like they were going to leave without him.
"Hey," Lau said, files gathered in a shedding stack against her chest. She bumped his elbow a little on the way out the door. "Gotta watch all that gettin' laid. You look like a raccoon."
Danny Brady briefly thanked God for women who grew up with brothers. "I couldn't find my concealer this morning."
Nothing on her face changed, but something in the catch of her next few steps told him to cut that shit out. "Oh," she said, covering it well. "I don't think mine'll match." Super-secret code for Spit it the hell out.
He couldn't fault her. It hadn't been too long ago that none of them had pushed enough, and look how that turned out.
"My mom's birthday," he said, shortly. Shut the briefing room door behind them and started for the desks. "She's been after me about, ah. Settling down."
"Ah," Lau said, in the way that Vietnam vets said Ah to jumping at gunshots. "What're you gonna do?"
Danny Brady still remembered the rhythm of Andre's breath on the rare mornings he'd slept in; the way it slowly quickened and surfaced to the smell of coffee and the hiss of good bacon. The way he never gave his parents a key to his apartment, even though they'd lived not half an hour away, because then he might have to explain the extra toothbrush. The way he'd sat all the way down the table from his lover at parties, or going out for drinks. Andre had been--and Danny was, back then--so deep in the closet you couldn't see them for the plaid bell-bottoms.
Blissful married life.
He raised one eyebrow. "I don't know. Go into hiding. Change our names to Adam and Steve and start a new life as interior decorators."
"Fibbie blue and gunmetal gray a specialty," she said, and dropped the files onto her desk, then leaned under it to retrieve her go bag. It muffled her next words: "You should talk to Worth."
That's what he needed. Intra-team profiling. He reached under his own desk for his brown leather overnight bag, checked the zippers, and said nothing.
"She's done this before," Lau said.
The main pocket zipper pull was fraying. He'd have to get that fixed when they got back. "Don't you know that it's different for girls?" he deadpanned.
"I didn't think you knew who Joe Jackson was."
"Hey," he said, and now he could look up again without his face all disarranged. "Radio technology reached Texas over the frontier railroads just in time for me to make it to junior high." He shouldered the bag, and managed a grin. "I built my first one out of cow teeth, but we're a rugged lot."
The completely indelicate snort Lau let out told him he was safely away from the actual topic. And then they were in the hallway, crowding onto an elevator with Worth and Chaz and Falkner, and however tired he was, whatever might be waiting when he got back home, SSA Daniel Brady was on the clock.
They landed at Natchez-Adams midafternoon and drove convoy down Highway 61, tree-lined and shady, into the downtown. Daniel Brady rolled down his window and leaned his elbow on the sill, soaking up glorious fall heat; D.C. in late November still felt like running an ice machine directly into your collar, no matter how many years he went through it. Lau tucked her window down a touch to get a crossbreeze going, and in the back seat, Chaz Villette shifted and squirmed.
"I told you to go on the plane," Brady said mildly. Perhaps not mildly enough; the look on Villette's face when he glanced in the rearview was at least half surprise.
"I'm counting houses," he said. Turned his head again to peer out the other window. "One in ten've been foreclosed."
"Hang a right," Lau cut in, flicking the map another inch on her PDA screen, and they turned onto a broad major street, busy with trees; drove into thickening subdivisions.
The Ellroy house was pretty: white siding, green trim, tall inquiring windows. The family was out, and they'd left in a hurry: two pairs of shoes were kicked and scattered across the front hall, and a cup of coffee had been left to cool on the dining room table. An officer with close-cropped military curls let them in and moved the shoes aside, delicately, with his foot. "The boy's bedroom's at the back," he said, and led them down a dark-stained, wood-floored hallway, past doors half-closed and listing, to the scene.
"Did they preserve the scene?" Brady asked, easing one hand into a stretched blue nitrile glove.
The officer--Jackson, his name tag said--shook his head. "No, sir. We couldn't keep the parents out." The man's lips were thin with embarrassment.
Brady nodded, once. That wasn't a couldn't that involved riot barriers or heroic college football tackles. He let the glove sag and opened the door.
Danny Brady had no metric for normal in children's bedrooms anymore; he'd not been around many on a regular basis for a stretch of years, with the obviously exceptional exception of crime scenes. But by that shaky logic, this bedroom was aggressively normal: light blue wallpaper sporting fighter planes, a rickety plastic basketball hoop mounted over a child-sized desk, a scattering of little green army men embedded into the rug. Aggressively normal, but not defensively so; there was an unnaturalness to rooms posed this way by parents or guardians or the discriminating trophy-keeping UNSUB. That nylon basketball net would have never been left unhooked just so. The sheets would have been taut, not creased by sleeping bodies. Jacob Ellroy had, it seemed, just had an honest-to-Jesus love for all the things that made a seven-to-eleven-year-old demographic
The three of them fanned out, leaving Jackson head up and at-ease outside the door. Brady poked a plastic machine gunner with a toe. "Didn't think kids had these anymore," he said.
Lau stooped, picked one up between two fingers. "My niece and nephew go through them like water." She turned it around, set it upright on a white particle-board dresser. "I think they just like to destroy them."
Villette nodded, absently cataloguing toys: a dusty tee-ball bat, wrinkled miniature jeans. "It's the only toy nobody gets mad at you for breaking. You're supposed to melt them on the sidewalk."
Brady let his eyes wander. The ways into a room were doorways, tunneling, windows--there. "Alarm sensor on the window," he pointed out.
Lau nodded crisply from where she stood, bent over a desk scattered with three-ring paper. "Local PD will have the monitoring records."
The bed was low to the floor, the walls solid. He stomped on the floor in a few likely places; no trapdoors, no tunnels, no entrances or exits. The closet was double-doored, and Brady swung it wide. "Nice deep closet," he noted. "I don't blame the kid for having nightmares. You could get a hell of a monster into this." It was big enough that it had probably been a Murphy bed once. The little corner alcoves ducked behind the walls and were lined with immovable shelves of clothes: kid-sized football jerseys and elastic-waist jeans. He tapped the back wall: solid.
"My mom put those closet organizers in all the closets," Lau said, coming up on Brady's right. "You know, the wire racks with two levels and shelves and baskets and built-in shoe thingies? So the monster just moved under the bed."
Brady snorted and crouched down on his haunches, inspecting the floorboards. "Mine didn't give a fuck about the closet. It waited in the hall. You wanna know what that does to your bladder, you're seven years old and there's a monster between you and the bathroom?"
Villette's fingers were gloved and quivering an inch from a tacked-up crayon drawing, his head turned just so to the wall. Lau grinned. "Brady was a bed wetter!" Her elbow connected light with his side. He obligingly oofed. "Hey, Danny, did you start a lot of fires?"
"Killed every goldfish they ever gave me, too," he said, and pulled himself up with the side of the closet door. No good to touch the inside handle; they'd have to check it for prints. Maybe they were lucky, and nobody'd run fifteen herds of football players over the thing yet. "How 'bout you, Villette?"
Villette ran one nitrile-gloved finger over the drawing, tracing the lines of something that looked like a big red robot. "I didn't have one," he said, surprisingly offhand, reasonable.
Lau quirked one dark eyebrow. "No closet monster? Really?" He dropped his hand, nodded. "Where did you keep your insecurities, then?" Villette didn't move. When he turned, though, his eyes were here, and not back far away. "Everywhere else, I guess?" He came unfrozen after three long seconds: shrugged, one-shouldered and stilted, and roamed across the floor to peer inside the closet. "I slept in the closet myself when I could get away with it. With a pillow and blanket. On the floor."
"Well," Brady said, getting a whiff of something like the bad old days, "you could have had a summer and a winter house in this one. Makes me wonder if someone else got the same idea."
Thank all the stars and little fishes, the tension of the bad old days went out of the air. To be replaced with the tension already in progress. Brady resisted the urge to rub the bridge of his nose, like Gray did; nobody'd mentioned those little changes in his body language, but that just meant they were being polite.
"It's big enough for two," Lau said, stepping back out into the room. "How would he hide, though?"
Villette's lips tightened as he swung one of the doors shut. "However he wants," he said, surprisingly wry. "That's the problem."
Daphne Worth, Esther Falkner, and Stephen Reyes arrived at a Natchez police station that had coffee fresh-brewed, a whiteboard set up in the conference room, and photocopied pathologist reports in stiff orange folders at every empty seat. Either Lau had made additions to their backstage rider or someone in Natchez was possessed of a great and uncommon kindness.
The nearest candidate was waiting just inside that conference room with tightly-cornrowed hair, a wilted navy pantsuit, and enough bags under her eyes for a dyke's second date. She stuck out a hand immediately, not quite caring where it ended up. "Mahalia Davis. I'm half of Natchez Homicide. Thank you for coming in."
Reyes took it firmly, shifting Worth and Falkner into taking his flanks. Worth fell back obligingly and scanned the station. There were a lot of shut doors in here, and it was very, very quiet. "SSA Stephen Reyes. This is SSA Falkner and SA Worth." He indicated them with two brisk nods. "Let's get right down to it, shall we?"
The other half of Natchez Homicide didn't look much better for wear. Detective Rick Croft came in as Davis dealt out a poker hand of last month's dump site photos, and he was pale and heavy in those ways that civilians were discouraged from noticing. He took a long pull of coffee from a lukewarm mug before sitting down next to his partner. "Thanks for coming," he said, with a nod across the table. "I've got the Ellroys in room three and four if you need to speak to them directly."
Falkner nodded quietly and slid out of her chair. Worth cast a questioning eye up at her, but Falkner shook her head and slipped out the door. Stuck with the bodies again.
Which was maybe better than being stuck with the parents.
"We've got your timeline," Reyes said, tapping the folder with one crisp finger. "Where's the prevention sitting?"
Croft straightened. "We've got alerts out to all the schools about any strangers approaching, and it's been on the news. The Neighborhood Watch people have formed up and are walking the kids to and from school. And there's a town meeting scheduled for this week."
Reyes nodded at each; his finger was still tapping the cardboard idly. Processing, processing, Worth thought. "That'll help if he's picking targets out in public. Agent Lau will give you some statements about preventing break-ins to disseminate. I assume the whole community's already aware of the serial nature of the crimes."
Detective Davis whuffed air out her nostrils. "That's the problem."
Croft winced. Reyes raised an eyebrow minutely, and blood came up under Detective Croft's skin. "Ah," he said. "There have been some incidents."
"They're working up to go lynching," Davis said, mild and flat. Croft turned even redder and kept his eyes on the scarred brown wood of the table.
"Who're they lynching?" Reyes asked.
Davis's lips were pressed into a steady, thin line. "There aren't a lot of gay men in this town, but there are sure as hell enough rumors."
Worth swallowed past a familiar, dry throat. "Actually," she said, keeping it good and casual, "most child sexual abusers don't choose their victims based on their own sexual preference. Men who molest boys frequently have relationships with adult women. They're rarely gay men."
Her poker face, her bland profiler's face must have been good. Croft looked at her with nothing but a professional's eye and said, "That so?"
Worth's shoulders unwound just a touch. "There's a large body of literature on child sexual abuse."
"The original study was 1978," Reyes cut in smoothly: calm FBI man, not a hint of emotion, butter wouldn't melt inside five miles. "But if your people don't know that, that doesn't change the problem. How much trouble do you think there could be?"
The silence stretched for two moments too long. Then: "People are angry," Croft said quietly. "And they're scared."
"Well," Reyes said, as if it didn't turn a hair on his head, "your officers will need to actively keep a lid on that. Confusion and accusations will just give this man cover to work under. The community needs to keep calm and keep to its normal routines to maintain the integrity of the investigation."
Worth nodded, catching the thread and holding onto it with both hands. "Every police officer out there breaking up a fight is an officer not finding this killer." There. Now sell that to them.
Both members of Natchez Homicide took it like a lifeboat. "Right," Croft said, and squared his shoulders. "We'll disseminate that."
A door flicked open across the station house and spat out Esther Falkner, back straight and head high in a way that meant she was trying very hard to keep them there. She held the door for a plainclothes officer, who stepped inside as gingerly as a babysitter going into the nursery. She wasn't across the room before Lau, Brady, and Chaz came through the door like a funerary parade, quick and sharp and serious. Brady looked just as tired as Natchez Homicide. Worth took in the fine smudged shadows under his eyes, the straightened tie. He'd been at his desk early this morning. Which could be nothing. She looked away before he'd have to admit noticing her watching.
"The house is mostly clear," he said after the necessary introductions. His voice was brisk but courteous; nothing that'd tell her anything. "We've got the crime scene tech going over one more thing, and we're hoping to see the alarm system logs."
"I can get those for you," Croft said, and shoved his rolling chair back.
Falkner claimed it almost immediately and planted her elbows on the table, framing the orange folder. "Geographical profile, please," she murmured to Chaz, and started listing off addresses and names.
Worth flipped through the folder in front of her: birthdates, deathdates, scenes of crime. "It doesn't say if the other houses had alarms."
"Sanchez family wouldn't," Davis said, frowning slightly. She missed it, Worth realized. And isn't happy. "I'll get someone on the rest."
"Thank you," she said, to try to take the edge off, and kept the smile in place until Davis was out of the room.
"What're we looking at?" Reyes asked quietly.
"Something's definitely hinky," Brady said.
Lau nodded. "No standard way of getting in or out of there undetected. Not without some serious monkey business."
"I'm sure the people paying for that plane will be glad to hear," Falkner said drily, and called off another address for Chaz to mark on the map.
When the door opened again, it was hard enough to bang into the conference room wall. Six heads shot up and stared at Detective Croft's red face, big eyes, the folder in his hand.
"Those the alarm logs?" Brady asked.
"No," Croft said, breath heavy with running. "We've got another missing persons report."
The house was in a different end of Natchez, as much as there were ends and neighborhoods and districts to a city you could drive across in fifteen minutes flat. Brady pulled up in the driveway with hands tight on the wheel as Lau dispatched instructions from the passenger seat: close the roads, lock down the university, send out an Amber Alert. It wasn't a big town. There weren't that many places to go.
The local PD--Davis and Croft--were ahead of them in an unmarked squad car. They parked and hit the pavement striding, two-step perfect as a pair of ballroom dancers. Those two had been partners for a long time; you could tell. It was like how people and their dogs grew alike.
"Check out the roof," Lau murmured as Brady put the car into park and drew the keys from the ignition. He craned his neck and scanned the faded brown roof tiles, noted the cracks in them, the small windows, the way the stains on the fat white siding blotched darker in the evening light. No, the Ellroys hadn't exactly been serving caviar for dinner, but this was a whole other side of the tracks, and their guy apparently didn't mind crossing them. He dropped Lau a nod--it was a good catch--and scratched the class struggle off his list of possible anomalous triggers.
Which could actually be helpful, for the first time all day. The funny thing about living in a city that was poor was how it sharpened up that difference between poor and dirt poor.
"So, you bet they didn't have an alarm system installed?" he said.
"Uh-huh," Lau replied, and opened the car door.
The house was small inside: tiny and thick-tiled in a way that said it'd be a heritage property in a rich town and in a poor town was just old. Croft and Falkner were in the plaster-walled kitchen with a couple who could have been anywhere from their early thirties to fifty-two with faces that twisted and tired; Lau paused at his side, then peeled off wordlessly to join them. Detective Davis waved him past, quickly, and he followed her down a hall thick with family photographs in dollar-store tin frames, into the child's room.
This time there was police tape. Brady slipped on a pair of nitrile gloves--extra large, thanks--and ducked underneath it.
Jacob Ellroy's bedroom had been big enough to rate a walk-in closet, but this one was a shoebox. The single bed was pressed up in the far corner of the room, and the bedclothes were plain brown, rumpled; no headboard or desk in sight. Toys were stacked haphazard in a wicker hamper that might have been for linens once, and there were handfuls of them, bright and plasticky. More than there were clothes, or furniture, or books.
"They moved here from uptown a year back," Davis said, catching the way he lingered over that mountain of toys. "Steve Butler lost his job in the last big layoff at the paper mill."
"Ah," he said. Yeah. He wouldn't take away a kid's toys either. Not that it mattered, the way they were stuffed under the wicker lid, the bed, into the corners. Emmet Butler knew the score.
Worth and Villette were casing the room like a pair of professional jewel thieves. "Where's the boss?" Brady asked, and Worth looked up from where she knelt on a worn rag-knotted rug, peering under the bedframe.
"Outside checking the perimeter," she said, and brushed bangs out of her face. Of course: for footprints and the like. Brady wondered if he should join him. There was barely enough room for them all in here even with Davis hanging back in the doorway.
"Looks like we have a time frame," Davis said from her perch. "Steve Butler brought Emmet home from school at four-thirty; left him in his room doing his homework at five, and then went outside to mow the yard. They noticed he was gone when Althea came home from work and called him for dinner at six-thirty. Call to the station came within ten minutes."
"Two hours," Worth said. "That's not a lot of time."
"How old is he?" Brady asked.
"Seven," Chaz replied, like he was memorizing the word. He was crouched in the closet doorway, balanced on his toes in a way that made him look more like a kangaroo than an agent of the Bureau. He looked up, shifted back without even wobbling. "I think something's been in here."
He shifted over--not one hand laid on that precious potential source of fingerprints, the closet door--and Brady crouched beside him, balancing one hand on the floor. It did look like someone had been leaving footprints in the piles of clothes spread across the closet floor; someone much bigger than a kid. He traced the air above one with a gloved finger. "What would you call that? Upwards of a size nine shoe?"
Villette squinted. "Eleven and a half," he said. "Give or take a half."
"Not a small guy, then," Brady remarked, and glanced up. The ceiling of the closet was low; the dangling wire hangers left it even lower. "Hey. All those hangers are empty."
"Someone doesn't like hanging up laundry," Worth suggested.
"The room's messy. But it ain't dirty," he replied, and eased himself back onto his feet. "Hey, Detective Davis? How'd you rate this on the messiness scale for a seven-year-old kid?"
In profile from the hallway, her mouth quirked. "Actually," she said, "it's not bad."
Worth had come up behind them and was peering over Villette's shoulder. "What're you thinking?"
"I think a guy tall enough to have a size eleven shoe--"
"Eleven and a half."
"--give or take a half," Brady continued smoothly, "Would probably knock down all kinds of stuff if he was trying to fit in that little shoebox. How's your nose?"
Worth made a face, then duly leaned in close to the fallen clothes; gave them a solid sniff. "Still detergent fresh."
Villette nodded, once, and teetered to his feet. "We have to check the other crime scenes."
"Do you need the addresses?" Davis asked, flattening herself against the wall in his wake.
Chaz Villette smiled a bit bashfully, tapped his forehead, and strode down the hall at speed. Brady trailed after him. They could touch base with the rest of the team out front, and Davis's crime scene techs probably wanted at that bedroom the day before yesterday.
A voice rose and lowered as he came down the hall: female, unfamiliar. "--he was napping. He's still little, he does that a lot after school--"
Almost pleading. Then Falkner, smooth and calm. "It's all right. Go on."
"I knocked twice, and he didn't answer. He's a light sleeper, Emmet. It took him a whole month to get used to the new house; the street noise kept waking him up. And then I got worried, and opened the door, and--"
Daniel Brady opened the front door, stepped outside, and let his ears fill with evening wind.
Villette was already out of sight: likely around the corner, looking for Reyes and official permission to dig his fingers into two more children's closets. The door shut behind him, halfway out of his hearing. He didn't turn.
"Getting desperate," Worth said behind him, and he couldn't have said right away why his heart skipped an anxious beat.
"Me, you, or Villette?"
Worth whuffed a laugh that wasn't. "This isn't his usual MO. This kid's too young. And none of the others were grabbed during the day or with a parent awake."
"Devolving," Brady agreed, and the word still gave him a little shiver of adrenaline after all, but it was a familiar one. Comfortable. "It still doesn't answer the question of how he's getting in."
"No," she agreed. "But we have the start of his mythology."
Daniel Brady stopped cold on the front walk, bathed in darkness and a quavering porch light. "He's the monster in the closet," he said, horrified to the bone in that distant place where he could still be horrified even when he was on the job.
"We need to find out if the other kids were having nightmares," Worth said. "And what those nightmares were about."
Brady turned to face her. "Are you seriously proposing a Nightmare on Elm Street setup?"
Worth shrugged, one-shouldered. "I don't know yet. There are lots of other ways for someone to find out if that's connected."
"Child psychiatrist," Brady mused. "School nurse. Trusted friend. Shit."
"It's something for us to get on," she said, and then Falkner and Lau emerged grim-faced from the house. Reyes and Villette rounded the corner a few moments later, trailed by a pair of uniformed officers who looked like they'd just been busted down to understudy and kicked out of their dressing rooms. "Not much by way of footprints," Chaz Villette said. "But the neighbors keep enough hedges to provide all the cover he'd need."
"Not much by way of an entry point either," Stephen Reyes added, and lifted a half eyebrow at Brady and Worth. They shook their heads practically in unison.
"He kept the last one two days," Lau put in. "Or that's the estimated time of death."
"He's devolving," Falkner replied quietly. The rest went unsaid: All bets are off.
"Right," Stephen Reyes said, and smoothed the creases in his pantlegs with two careful palms. "We have twenty-one hours. Go."
Daphne Worth had set her hotel alarm clock for four in the morning, but Chaz Villette's soft knock on her door beat it by ten whole minutes. She opened up blurrily--no peephole on the door; very, very dangerous--and he held up a paper bag positively reeking of fresh pastry without a word.
There was a coffee in his other hand when she opened the door wider, and she accepted it and took three long gulps before she could manage a "G'morning."
"I am your breakfast and briefing," he replied wryly, and shut the door behind him. "Eat and be enlightened."
That was right: when Stephen Reyes said that they were to be sleeping in shifts, back on shift happened the second you were conscious. "Urgh," she mumbled, and took another drag of coffee. She settled into the hard hotel desk chair; the bed was way too comfortable to even look at right now. "Go for it," she said, and opened the paper bag with clumsy fingers.
"Lights," Chaz said, and let her squinch her eyes shut before flicking on the assemblage of pastel hotel lamps and bathroom mirror bulbs. "We've run down the nightmares," he said when they were open again, and waved away her silent offer of what smelled like warm croissants. "Good call. Both Jason Sanchez and Angelo Birks had monster nightmares the night before they were abducted."
Daphne bit into a purely serviceable pile of stiff pastry and butter, and waved her hand impatiently. Bring it on.
"It was all too recent for the schools to notice sleep dep or to get a psychiatrist involved. At this point we're thinking manifestation, not a vector for contact. Kid has nightmares about the monster in the closet and the next night, monster comes out of closet." He paused. "You eat like a beta."
"I run with a bad crowd," she said around her fourth mouthful, swallowed, and went for the coffee cup. There were crumbs on her pajamas. Oh well. "That doesn't fit with Emmet Butler, though."
This time the pause was longer. "No," Chaz said, half-distant, and rubbed one eye with a long finger. "It doesn't."
Worth thought fuzzily about hot showers and opening the curtains wide, about real sunlight. Won't help, she reminded herself. Still dark out. "You don't like it," she said.
He looked up at her almost gratefully. "No. We've never seen a mythology devolve before. By all rights this guy should only hunt at night, period, no exceptions. There's no such thing as closet monsters when it's light out."
"Not since Jason Saito, anyway," Worth said, and smacked the back of her own hand lightly. "Sorry. Bad joke. Not-a-joke."
"Not a joke," Chaz agreed, and now he looked uncomfortable, and this time she wasn't quite sure what she'd said.
"Oh, well. Tag," Worth said. "You're it. Want me to make the bed for you?"
Chaz shook his head. "I'm not it. I...the beat cops just brought in one of the dozen gay men in Natchez who's actually out of the closet. And the six guys who hit him across the head with a broken beer bottle."
Daphne's skin abruptly went goose-pimple cold. Not a joke. Oh.
"Sorry," he said, quieter. "But we're all up and on duty."
The clock radio alarm went off, blaring a blast of bluegrass music distorted into static by the volume and bad signal. Daphne Worth slapped it quiet with one quick hand and grabbed for a scratchy towel.
"Ten minutes," she said, and looking slightly sallow under the fluorescent lamplight, Chaz nodded.
"Kids," Daniel Brady muttered, and ran a hand through carefully-combed hair. "Why's it always kids?"
Lau glanced up from the file; the thin cardboard was up high enough to cover her mouth. He couldn't see if she was smiling or frowning. The lack of sleep blurred such fine distinctions anyway. "It's not always kids."
"Cape Cod was kids," he pointed out. "And Omaha, and Sullivan College."
Lau put the file down. All right, so it definitely wasn't a smile. "College students. They wouldn't even call themselves kids."
"San Diego was kids," Brady continued. "La Befana."
"Mr. Friendly was kids," Chaz Villette put in from the doorway. He looked a little less rumpled; he'd somehow grabbed a change of clothes while Worth was putting herself together. She stood behind him, looking a hell of a lot more bright-eyed than everyone except Falkner, who'd stolen an hour on the Natchez police break room couch after making the team swear to wake her up if anything came together.
"You," Lau said, mock-serious, mock-joking, mock-something, "are not helping."
Nobody mentioned Yardston, or North Dakota. Nobody had to. Yardston crouched on the wall like a stain.
"D'you think that's a pattern? Kids?" Chaz said, much too calm and mild to just be talking about this case, this town, this all-nighter. He ambled into the room and straddled the chair he'd left just an hour ago, leaning both arms on the eye-wateringly orange top of its back.
"That's not about gammas." Worth put in. She ran a hovering hand over the file of paperwork, looking like a pelican trying to decide where to dive. "People get funny about kids."
"Funny?" Brady asked. It was good to prompt. Prompting made you the interviewer, and it meant people would neglect to point those nasty questions at you.
Worth shuffled one file off another. They'd gone to the piling system sometime in the last two hours. Her brow scrunched into thoughtful lines. "In general," she said. "Why's pedophilia a bigger deal than rape? Society makes all kinds of excuses for rapists, but call someone a pedophile and we get the torches." She jerked her chin in the general direction of the holding cells, where Davis and Croft had stuffed their half-dozen drunken good ol' boys. Shit. Guess Villette didn't wake her up gently.
"Nobody blames us for that. That's," and she paused as her mouth twisted into a private distaste, "the kind of lynching no one has a problem with."
"That's hardwired human instinct," Falkner said quietly. Turned a page. Smoothed it. "Children are vulnerable. You have to protect them."
"Have to?" Worth pressed. There was a glint in her eye Danny Brady didn't like. Villette had definitely not woken her up gently.
Falkner took it, unruffled. "Parenthood changes your brain chemistry. Literally. It's the hormones."
"Not just parenthood," Lau said. Brady raised an eyebrow, and she shrugged. "The niece and nephew."
"It's what that baby smell is for," Villette said, and his voice was a little odd. Brady looked up. He was quite carefully watching an unoccupied corner of the conference room. "Kin identification."
Brady felt a sudden need to deflate the tension out of the room, and he didn't even know where it had come from. "So the take-home lesson today is to be careful which babies you sniff."
"Not a problem I generally have," Worth muttered. Falkner glanced at her, a look full of yet more meaning he couldn't grab out of the air.
"Maybe it is more than that," Villette said too fast, and yeah, he'd picked it up too. "Maybe gammas do select for kids."
"Well, it's predator tactics," Lau said, much too slowly. "You find the place in the herd where you'll do the most damage with the least effort. This is definitely doing the most damage."
They'd all been warned about personalizing. Brady warned himself about personalizing the anomaly daily. They all let it pass. "So," he said. "Kids."
"This kid," Lau picked up.
"Kids are fragile. Kids are protected. Kids--" Brady rubbed the bridge of his nose with two imprecise fingers. "Kids get to keep all their toys even when daddy's lost his job and they can't afford a new roof."
"And the only thing kids can't be protected from, in their worlds--in their mythologies," Worth added, "is monsters."
Chaz's lips were pressed together slightly. "Ideally," he said.
"Ideally," Falkner agreed. "But kids also have to be taught to be afraid of violence, or hunger. Or, hell, other kids. It's just games unless it happens to them. And our UNSUB's not targeting the kids who are afraid of things."
"Army men," Lau said softly. Brady glanced at her, and she shook her head. "He's targeting the kinds of kids who still melt army men on the driveway."
"So what've they got that he doesn't?" Falkner asked. It was a teacher's question. They all knew the answer.
Serial killers, gammas, UNSUBs, people who fixated on the repeated destruction of innocence had had their innocence destroyed. People who imitated monsters to hurt someone else felt like monsters, felt they had been treated monstrously. We never do anything to anyone else that isn't actually just picking our own scabs. Psychology 101. Profiling kindergarten.
"That's prosaic," Brady said, and the dry bite of his own voice surprised hell out of him.
"Well," Worth said. "We never said that every gamma has to be imaginative."
He snorted, and covered it up with his hand as the conference room door opened and spat Stephen Reyes and Detective Davis into their unique little paperwork paradise. Not fast enough: Reyes's glance lingered on him, and one black eyebrow went up just so. Hell, who knew he hadn't been listening at the door. Not even high school principals had that much of a superpower for a timely entrance.
"The gentlemen," Reyes said, with a glance over his shoulder, "have been charged with assault."
Falkner sat up straighter in her chair, nodded crisply. "And we've got something. "
They outlined it. Reyes hesitated, and then sat. Shuffled paper one hand to the other. The lines in his face drew down; not tension. Recognition. Fatigue.
He was silent for a moment when they finished, and then looked at his watch. Brady snuck a glance at his own: twelve hours. Maybe.
"All right," Reyes said. He planted his hands on the conference room table and stood. "Let's give the profile."
"The suspect we are looking for," Stephen Reyes told the entire police department of Natchez, Mississippi, "is a male in his late thirties or early forties. He's at least five foot eight inches and wears a size eleven shoe. He has access to a private building, a house or business, where he can keep a child undetected, but can operate effectively in a working-class neighborhood and in both black and white communities. He will be solitary, unobtrusive, organized to the point of being meticulous. He'll have no children of his own; he has trouble forming intimate relationships and he's not sexually assertive with women."
An eyebrow quirked in the back of the room. "Yes, with women," Stephen Reyes said, mild and unhurried.
"This is not about sex," Falkner said firmly, somehow more firmly than Reyes might have managed. "It's about power and fear."
"He's not picking victims for sexual attraction," Villette added from the opposite corner. Brady blinked. He'd almost faded into the woodwork there. "He's picking them because they remind him of himself."
The owner of the eyebrow ducked her head.
Reyes picked up the cue; spread out an arm to include both sides of the room. He was much too experienced at this to pace. "Our UNSUB experienced a trauma as a young child: around seven to ten, about the age of the children he takes. Abuse, or sexual assault, or violence. Something that made him feel as if he would never be safe again. His innocence was destroyed, and that's his driving force. He's reenacting that trauma with his victims."
"He feels he's showing them," Falkner said, "that the world is not safe."
Brady leaned back against the wall, arms crossed, off safely to the side, and watched a handful of foreheads crinkle; a handful of pencils still on their notepads. A handful of people run their fingers through the weave of their social circles, casual acquaintances, nearest and dearest, and try to come up with a killer.
It came up empty, of course. There were things people never asked each other, unless it was across a bed. Even when it was across a bed. There are so many things--he shifted his weight, lightly--we don't actually want to know.
A uniform cop in the second row stuck up her hand. "So how's he getting into the houses?"
"We're still gathering data on that," Reyes said. His eyes didn't even flicker; nice dodge, but not nice enough. Seven-point-five from the Russian judge. "The important thing is this: We know what the man we're looking for has in his past, what he'll look like, and how he'll behave. Find the person who fits this profile, and blocking his entry points will be immaterial."
It was about as much of an answer as Taco Bell was an authentic Mexican dining experience, but the Natchez PD seemed to catch that it was the one they were gonna get. Detective Croft stood and clicked his notebook shut, and then all of them were up, hurrying in every direction not blocked by a stained white plaster wall.
Reyes straightened imperceptibly, adjusted his silk tie. "Villette? Give Todd a call. Get him hunting down any record of child abuse cases going twenty-five, thirty years back that fit our parameters, child protective services files or criminal charges."
Falkner stood, fist knuckled into her lower back. "I'll hit up the older officers for gossip."
Reyes nodded. Falkner's low heels clicked steady across the station floor, a slowly accelerating heartbeat. Chaz palmed his cellphone and retreated, soft-shoe, into their conference room office.
"You want this out to the local media?" Lau asked, and Reyes shook his head.
"I have something else for you and Worth. And Detectives Davis and Croft, if you're available."
Detective Davis came around her desk cautiously. "What's that?"
Reyes threw another glance at Holding Three; one definitely meant for public consumption. "I think it'd be better if we moved up that town meeting, please," he said to Davis. She blinked with understanding and went to a cluttered, busy desk. Picked up the phone.
"Press conference?" Brady asked.
Stephen Reyes shook his head. "Firebreaks."
The people of Natchez, Mississippi crowded into the gymnasium at Alcorn State with a restless enthusiasm that made Daphne Worth think of pep rallies. Or a hospital on the afternoon you heard budget cuts were coming down. Or maybe that bit from Birth of a Nation, but with a generous sprinkling of tired-looking mothers holding their curious toddlers with an undistracted deathgrip, and the way the teenagers in the corner huddled together, and the slight smell of unwashed hair--
Okay, Harpy. That wasn't fair. Let's try to fling a little less poo, now.
Worth ran a hand through her hair and sighed. It needed washing too. It was much, much too humid today.
Lau came up beside her, half-visible against the sunlight streaming in from the high plastic windows. Wrong angle; she shifted, and Lau's carefully impassive working face came into view. "Ready?" she said.
Worth nodded. Ready as she was ever going to be. No sense in starting up a conversation about otherwise at this stage of the game.
"Right," Lau said, and sat down beside her. The college had provided a gross of folding chairs, lined up in crooked rows along the sweeps of colored lines painted for basketball, tennis, sprints. The speakers behind the podium--Lau, Worth, Davis, and an older man from the communications end of Natchez's suddenly very overworked PD--had another row of the same. The front row spectators in the audience were watching them with a wary curiosity, but nobody had come up to attempt an ID. Yet.
The communications man tapped the microphone lightly, and Worth came to attention.
"Thank you for coming," he said gently, and the room quieted down in a way worthy of an educational institution. "I'm Phil Moreland, from the Natchez police department. We're here today to answer some questions about the recent abductions, and we're here to talk about your safety.
"This is Detective Mahalia Davis," he said, over the inevitable, restless stir, "and we have Agents Nicolette Lau and Daphne Worth from the FBI here today. The microphone's in the front aisle, and once we make sure everyone has the background, we'll start taking questions there."
Davis took the podium and started outlining the case in a dry, nervous tone: three dead boys, one missing, black and Hispanic and white, poor or richer. Six men locked up in the municipal holding cells.
Worth bit the inside of her cheek and scanned the crowd for a male, between thirty and forty years of age, solitary, apart. Leaned slightly forward to take it all in.
The dig of a small elbow in her ribs broke her concentration. She looked over, and Lau was watching her out of the corner of her eye; slow, steady expression. "They're on your side," she said, and Worth blinked.
"We're on their side," she repeated. "And they're on ours."
"The important thing," Davis was saying, "is to remember that your neighbors are still your neighbors and your families are still your families." Moreland stood just off to the side, behind Davis, arms crossed. He nodded.
The woman across from her in the front row fidgeted in her seat, baby in lap. Her arms tightened around the sleeping kid.
Worth let out a breath, and then nodded. "Thanks."
Lau nodded and stood, hands smoothing her pencil skirt, with a calm, professional smile.
"Agent Lau," Moreland said by way of introduction, and Nicolette Lau tucked the microphone down to reach her chin.
"I'll take questions now," she said, and the floor exploded with upraised hands.
Daniel Brady was on his fifth coffee of the day when Stephen Reyes opened the conference room door. Detective Croft was on his heels, and they were both of them loaded down with fresh stacks of white paper. "The Ellroys' alarm logs," Croft said, looking pouchy and hassled, and handed out the fresh kill. "Finally."
"Alarm logs!" Sol Todd crowed through the phone in the center of the table.
"How are you not tired?" Brady said.
"Son, I was pulling all-nighters before you were born," came back through the echoing phone line.
Falkner, perched on a filing cabinet, turned toward the phone where Solomon Todd was connected full-time now, and damn the long-distance charges. "Did they explain the delay?"
Croft's heavy mouth turned sardonic. "Property crime's been up the past six months. A lot of families in town looking into alarm systems, too much paperwork and money to dig through, woe is them. Nice to know something in this town is making money."
Villette dipped a hand into the mass of white paper. "The fences are probably doing okay too."
Croft snorted. It didn't sound too amused.
Brady riffled through the stack of paper--it was that thin kind where you had to separate each page and peel the hole-punched edges off like opening up a banana--and squinted at times, dates, columns of numbers going back and back. "It took them a whole day to get us this? How far up are the B and Es around here?"
"Up," Croft said. "The paper mill's been bleeding jobs since the economy went bad, and there weren't all that many to start with. People are getting desperate. Anyone who's not looking at their neighbor's stuff is looking into protecting their own stuff."
Brady closed his eyes; flashed on a small mountain of toys, stacked haphazard and incongruous on a brown-carpeted floor. "Including the Butlers?"
Reyes looked up, and if he hadn't looked grim before he sure did now. "Todd? Check on whether Steve or Althea Butler put in a call to a home security company sometime in the last few months?"
"I'll call them," Croft said. "It'll be faster."
"How about our other victims?" Reyes asked, and Croft nodded on the way out.
The door shut, and Reyes turned back to the phone. "And Todd, pull the alarm company's staff records."
Brady poked through the printed sheets until he found the week before the Ellroys' son disappeared. The alarm system was armed, disarmed with clockwork regularity: the morning paper, the school bus time, their arrival home in the evening all clearly delineated.
"You can get their whole routine here," he said, and waved the paper. "And Swiss trains probably run on it."
"No reason to vary it," Falkner said. "They felt safe."
Croft opened the door, poked his head in. "The Butlers got a quote. Thomson Home Security." He pulled a champion face. "It was too much, so they held off."
Falkner looked up, studied his face. "Blaming themselves?"
Croft nodded. "Unfortunately. Going to try the Birkses now."
Villette was already on his feet. "That's a different company. The Ellroys are"--he waved his hand for the printout, and Lau handed it back--"Pitbull Alarm Systems."
"There goes that," Brady said.
"No, it still makes sense. It's the easiest way to get inside," Villette said. Brady looked up, and he shrugged, half-shoulder. "Already be on the inside."
Worth leaned forward. "On the inside of which company?"
"Um," Villette said. "Sol? Can you find any employees who have worked for both Pitbull Alarm Systems and Thomson Home Security in the last six months? Someone who got fired, or changed jobs, or contractors, anything. Anyone they both refer business to."
Paper rustled. Brady stared down the barrel of his coffee mug. It was cold.
"Here we go," Todd said. "One Clayton Alexander Maxwell, thirty-eight years of age, white, never married. Resident of Natchez as of January 2002, hailing originally from Baltimore, Maryland. And he's a contract installer for both Pitbull and Thomson on all kinds of interesting things, the most interesting of which are--tada--alarm systems."
Brady put down the coffee cup.
The sound of clicking keys came over the line. "If he's going to install things for these people he'll have had to provide a driver's license before they let him drive a company truck. Drug test, too. And--hold on. It appears our boy Maxwell has a history. Check this out."
Six phones blipped in unison, overlapping like church bells. Brady dug his out and thumbed open the message. It was a child services file, scanned with bonus rumples and tears included, and if that wasn't a coffee stain he went out Sundays in a tutu. The picture appended was a young boy, white, looking maybe seven years old at the outside even though the file said ten. He was turned away from the camera. Or was maybe just avoiding whoever was behind the camera.
"Youch," Worth muttered, and Brady had to agree. The kid's stepfather had put him on a ventilator for a week. And then--"They sent him home?"
"They sent him home," Todd said.
"What about the rape?" Brady said. "He wouldn't just add that in himself. There's nothing about that in here."
"It was inside a family," Lau said, and he was not imagining that edge in her voice, the way she held it low. "It's still hard enough to get a rape kit ordered for little girls half the time, never mind the boys. And this was almost thirty years ago."
"So it could have gone on," Villette said evenly, "after he went back."
"Well, that's more than enough initial trauma," Worth said, and scrubbed her eyes with the back of one hand. "What's the second hit? And what's the manifestation?"
"Getting in and out," Lau said. "That's what Down the Hall couldn't explain."
"Getting an extra key made for a door is something anyone can do," Villette said.
Worth looked up. "It is."
"So is circumventing an alarm system and hiding in a closet."
"What're you saying?" Brady put in.
Villette spread his hands. "We don't have an awful lot to say this is actually anomalous."
"That's all theoretical until we know if Emmet Butler's still alive," Stephen Reyes said, and stood. "Todd, home address?"
Todd rattled it off like a mug scraping across cell bars.
"All right," Reyes said. "Let's suit up and pay a visit."
Brady caught up with Reyes in the parking lot, jacket halfway on, to find Chaz had beaten him to the punch. "So there's no reason for this to be anomalous," Chaz was saying. The lines of Reyes's face drew down into a sour mask. Maybe not the best time to push it.
"We work the case as if it is. There's no sense in taking chances."
The silence that followed was awkward. No sense in taking chances with your people unless you decide there is, right?
It was an old beef. Almost gone stale. Brady whuffed out a breath, and they both turned around. "How long do we work it that way?"
"Pardon?" Reyes asked.
"Well," he said, keeping it cool, keeping it offhand. "An awful lot of our cases end a certain way."
Reyes pursed his lips. Villette turned away studiously to inspect something on the wall, and even under all that melanin, Brady saw the flush.
"We'll cross that bridge when we come to it," Reyes said. "Just stay careful." He paused, again. "Use your judgment."
It was just as good an answer as It doesn't matter how he's getting in.
Use your judgment. Right.
Daniel Brady shrugged on his jacket, rested his hand on his sidearm, and patted the safety like a good-luck charm.
There was mail piled up in the mailbox on Clay Maxwell's front stoop. Brady flicked through it with one gloved finger: a full week's worth of junk flyers and bank statements and bills. No catalogs: no such luck as that. Catalog subscriptions were always great for prying into someone's mental underwear drawer.
No catalogs, and no lights on inside.
"Looks empty," he said.
"Looks it," Lau agreed, and her hand went to her sidearm.
He pulled his own out, hefted the weight. Beckoned Reyes and Villette forward with a jerk of the chin. Falkner crooked a finger at a uniformed officer off to the side, and they moved, careful feet crushing browned-out grass, around the side of the house. Brady knocked on the door, three strong raps. "Clayton Maxwell? FBI."
A bird whistled down the street. Tires sounded, swishing and calm, on asphalt. Brady looked at Lau, raised an eyebrow, and she nodded.
He reared back and kicked the door open.
The house sharpened into a blur of darkened hallways, cracked floor tiles, walls painted a standard buyer's beige. Lau hustled in before him, gun trained and ready, and after them poured in a ration of local PD, Reyes and Villette in the rear. "Clear," Lau called, and kicked another door open for him to hurry through, firearm ready. Living room, cramped downstairs bathroom, a kitchen at the back of the house with a thick sheen of dust on the counters and dirty stove. A fly buzzed, frightened, into a greasy windowpane and dropped.
"Clear," Villette called down the stairs, and Lau let out a breath. Falkner and Worth came in through the back door, holstering their weapons.
"No one here," Brady said, and let his outstretched arms sag. "Not for a while."
"He's in the wind," Worth said.
Reyes and Villette joined them, rustling bits of broken floor tile. Reyes tossed something on the kitchen table: the mail in hand. "This goes back before the Ellroy murder. It's not us that spooked him."
"So he can't be too far," Falkner said. There were shadows under her eyes. Fatigue, or the dim light, or whatever; they made her look old. "Put an APB on his vehicle. I don't care what you threaten, you can't transport an abducted kid in public on foot. Not in a city this size."
Worth slipped out into the hallway to find a uniformed officer. A radio crackled, far away.
"All right," Reyes said. "While we're here, let's take a look."
Brady roamed back through the living room--resolved it from a blur of emptiness, a threat rating, to dingy couch, carefully manicured newspaper rack, clumped, stiffened carpet--and walked up the narrow, creaking stairs to the upstairs hall. It was small for a house that'd bothered with a second story: two rooms and a bathroom, the thin beige doors of each huddled together like prey. The curl of dirty laundry identified the bedroom easy enough. He snapped on a pair of gloves and pushed open the lolling door.
There was nothing there.
Okay, not nothing; there were heaps of laundry, maybe once dirty and clean but mostly just dirty now. There was a mattress flung out across the floor like an afterthought, unsheeted, askew. A scarred desk hulked in one corner of the room, dying under drifts of paper, every drawer pulled and left lolling open. Brady frowned. This didn't look right: someone this sloppy would've already been dragged to the station house, or at least have made himself obvious enough to acquire a brand-new crown of beer bottle glass.
Someone this sloppy didn't find three separate yet equally out of the way dump sites for his bodies.
Villette came out of the other room and stopped in the doorway. Brady heard him hesitate; turned full. There was, held out like an offering, a little green army man in one gloved palm.
"There are hundreds of them in there," he said. "Thousands."
Brady took it, turned it over. The plastic was dark green, unfaded and unfazed by sun or water or time. "New."
Villette nodded. He stepped back to let Brady through, into the hallway, into the other room.
There were thousands. They were arranged row on row, in concentric circles, faced out bravely around an empty scrap of carpet. No: around a wall, and a double-doored closet.
Brady picked a path over green plastic, careful. Opened the closet door with two careful fingers.
Clayton Maxwell's blankets were light blue. They were edged with something satiny that might once have been shiny, like a baby blanket would be, and was now just ripped and scuffed. The pillows were uncased, stained with sweat. The habitual imprint of a head, a neck, pressed into them ghostly.
He's hiding, Brady thought, fleeting, and closed the door like it had been an intrusion. "There's got to be another place. A business, another house. Somewhere he feels protected."
"Ten percent of the houses in this city have been foreclosed on," Villette said softly.
Brady's throat was dry. "He could be anywhere."
The search for Clay Maxwell's electrical van went door to door, block by block, in squad cars cruising silent with their lights taken down. It was a small city. It was still slow fucking work.
Worth turned up the radio calling another block clear while Chaz drummed his fingers on the conference room table, putting fat markered Xes over block after block on a map of the greater Natchez, MS area. "This is ridiculous," he said. Tap tap tap. He probably didn't even know he was doing it. "He's got to be watching for cop cars. And we can't just run through every empty house inside five blocks of wherever we find the van; he'll spook."
"They need to do something," Worth said. She knew the feeling. She needed to do something.
"Mom and Reyes should have told them no. We're not working the profile. We're just reacting."
Daphne Worth did not disagree. "Kids," she said instead.
After a second, Chaz nodded. "Kids. Okay. So it's normal. But it's still not going to work."
"So what d'you want to do?"
She saw him scrub his face with long fingers out of the corner of her eye. "Where would you go to hide out with your new toy if you wanted to keep him three whole days and couldn't afford to put money down? Where would you feel safe?"
Worth chewed her lip. Tasted coffee and that ridiculous strawberry lip gloss of Tricia's she'd found in a drawer the week before and promptly kidnapped. "Somewhere as far away from cops or his family or other threats as possible. Somewhere I'd be able to scout in advance and lay in supplies. Somewhere I knew."
Chaz nodded. "I bet he didn't have time to work up soundproofing or anything. He moves fast, and that house was too sloppy. I can't see him, well. Holding off long enough to renovate."
"No prep, then," Worth said, feeling a relief at it that wasn't so obscure. No dungeons. No elaborate setups. Nothing inventive, terrible, anomalous to find later.
The conference room door opened and spat in Esther Falkner like something out of the last war. "No other properties," she said, and sank into a chair in a way that looked decidedly off-kilter. "He rented the house, and that was it. How's the van?"
"They're looking," Worth said. The radio sounded. Chaz pursed his lips and crossed another X onto the map. "We're trying to narrow it down for them."
Falkner eyed the coffeepot with a kind of caution usually reserved for tropical snakes. "What're you thinking?"
"That it's worth looking up houses Maxwell was familiar with," Chaz said, and snagged the beige conference room phone off its cradle.
"Houses he worked on," Falkner said, and nodded sharply. "Forget the alarm companies; call Todd."
Solomon Todd sounded only slightly more subdued than he had that morning. "The silver lining on all this?"
"Mm?" Chaz replied.
"Alarm companies have terrible database security. All right, here it comes."
Worth's phone pinged. She thumbed a few buttons and a scroll of names, dates, addresses, filled the screen. Falkner reached for her own; Chaz Villette's was already in his hand.
Worth scrolled down five entries and blinked. "Hey, hold on. That's the Ellroys' place."
Falkner whistled through her teeth, softly. "So he'd been in the house before. That makes sense. He leaves himself loopholes."
Chaz was already paging through the list. His cheeks flushed a little, but he didn't look up. "There's our first victim. Not the second--Todd, did Maxwell do an install at that address?"
Keys clicked. The line crackled. The radio sounded, and another Natchez city block came in clean. "No, he didn't," Todd said. "But he did one down the street the same week. That'd be the Wallaces at 5708."
Falkner nodded, brusque but not sharp. "So maybe he sees Angelo Birks on the street, passing by. Or the kid goes over to play."
Chaz stood, phone balanced in one hand; lifted the other one over their map with a bright red marker. "So what's far away?" He paused. "Todd, what on that list is vacant?"
"Hrm," Sol Todd said, and rattled off a list of addresses. Seven, maybe eight. Much fewer to check than the whole of the downtown Natchez area.
Worth's heart sped, anticipatory. She closed the e-mail and went for her speed dial.
"Brady." The air behind his voice was all wind, and tires, and silence.
"Hey. We have something for you. Eight addresses he worked on, vacant houses. Places he's familiar with."
She could have sworn Danny Brady almost purred. "I'll call off the canvas, then. Give 'em over."
She listed addresses. The litany on the radio broke off, replaced with Unit to 255 Main; unit to 1701 Martin Luther King Avenue. Remember, just look, don't touch. "Thanks," she told Brady, and snapped the phone shut. The silence that followed oppressed.
Chaz had marked neat little red Xes on the map; he was tracing them, their trajectories, eyes flicking back and forth and over. Falkner had picked up the land line's receiver and was talking to Todd in a low voice. Worth laced her fingers together and mentally sat on them. Wait. Just sit tight and wait.
Natchez was a small city. It wasn't ten minutes before the radio crackled, and "Control," a tight voice said. "Vehicle sighted."
Worth leapt out of her chair and grabbed the two-way. "This is Control," she said. "Location?"
The address was meaningless. Some house on some street in some city in America, functionally like all the other ones. She put down the radio, snugged her weapon in its holster. The vests were in the car. They could put them on on the way.
Chaz stabbed the map with one thin finger. The paper shook. "There."
Abandoned houses, Daniel Brady realized, weren't really all that abandoned. People left things: rugs, stacks of crusted dishes. Photographs, hanging on the wall, or the spaces where photographs should be. No matter what you did, there was always a trail. You never really wiped anything clean.
He reset his grip on the Glock and stepped quiet down the hall. Dust rose from the carpet with every footstep. He reached up, pinched his nose until the sneeze was past. The reassembled team, FBI and locals both, paused behind him. He breathed out. Glanced right, left. Moved on.
"Clear," Reyes murmured through the earpiece. Nobody upstairs.
Brady snapped around the corner into the family room, wordless, weapon trained. The marks where a couch had sat for years, maybe decades, were stamped into the faded brown carpet. Sunlight slanted through dirty windows. Nothing.
"Clear," he echoed, and glanced over his shoulder at Chaz. Tilted his head to a door they hadn't opened. Basement. Down.
Chaz nodded, backed up behind the door, reached out for the dingy fake brass handle. If the door creaked they'd be sunk. If the stairs creaked, they'd be sunk. Best to just charge the thing. "We're going downstairs," he muttered into the tiny microphone, and "Copy," came over the earpiece.
He held up his hand, gave a three-count.
Chaz yanked open the door and they stormed down the basement stairs.
It was dim upstairs, but here it was dark; he'd known it would be. That still didn't give his eyes enough time to adjust before he had to swing his weapon in a wide, covering arc; shout, "FBI, freeze!" into the gloom. The basement was musty. It smelled like abandoned things, half-rotted foundations, sweat.
That hard-to-pinpoint reek, sour and pheromonal, that meant fear.
Right place, Brady registered, clinically, before Chaz slipped past him to a dangling chain-pull fixture and flooded the room with light.
His eyes focused on ancient rebar shelves; an abandoned orange toolbox; a stack of discarded bathroom towels. He couldn't pick out Maxwell for a full ten seconds; not until the man moved.
Clay Maxwell was skinny; medium-tall in a faded blue denim shirt and clean-pressed khaki pants that were slowly losing their crease. He was balding in a totally nondescript way, a touch at the front and sides; the topography of every receding hairline that ever lived. His hand was up, shading his eyes on pure instinct, and the tanned, thick knuckles were bruised. Red.
He knelt on the edge of a blue plastic-covered mat, the kind they used in elementary school gym classes so you didn't break your neck. There was a little lump of fabric beside him: hunter green on the top, denim on the bottom, splotched dark with Maxwell's shadow. It wasn't moving.
His eyes were very big. Very white.
"Stand up," Danny Brady told him, lining up the sights automatically. "Step away from the boy."
Maxwell's mouth opened and shut like any of this was rightfully a surprise.
"C'mon," Brady said, and kept the gun trained on Maxwell's center of mass. The walls down here were concrete. Not the best place to be firing a shot anyway, but Maxwell didn't know that. He stood.
Brady registered a shuffle behind him; Villette, taking aim. Maxwell looked up sharply, and Brady sucked in a breath and steadied his elbow. "He's dead, isn't he, Clay?" Villette said, soft, warning.
"Yeah," Maxwell said, hoarse whisper, and scuffed a foot on the poured-concrete floor of the basement.
"Nothing more to say about that?" A beat. "No reasons? No excuses?"
Brady felt his neck muscles tense to keep him from turning his head away from the man next to the dead kid. Oh, Chaz. Don't go off the reservation, today of all days.
Maxwell just blinked: no speak Cop. Off-script. Not how this was supposed to go. Sure's hell it wasn't. Villette moved forward to join him, out of his blind spot. Brady risked a glance. He didn't look like he was necessarily going to blow. Just tired. Really, really tired.
"Right," Chaz said, with a thin intensity that made Brady fight not to step back a foot. "What did we forget about monsters?"
"What's that?" he asked carefully.
"That they're banal. They're everyday," his voice was professional, disinterested. Cutting. "That they're really nothing special after all."
Maxwell flinched. He had thin wrists; so thin. Like an unfed kid's. Like a gamma's, Brady realized, but the fight still hadn't come. No malice, no energy; none of the glint deep down in the back of the eyes. Nothing there but pathetic, knee-jerk fear.
Brady released the safety, shoved the gun roughly into the holster. Reached for his cuffs.
Maxwell's hunched skinny body ducked, broke, and ran.
"Hey!" Brady shouted, and took off.
"Get down!" someone upstairs hollered as Brady thundered up the stairs after him. "Down on the ground!" His sidearm teetered, not quite homed, and tipped out onto the stairs. No time to stop for it; Chaz could scoop it up, and Chaz was behind him, clattering upstairs on a two-second delay. He ducked his head and kept running.
Brady gained the main floor, looked left, looked right, through to the kitchen and the open back door.
It was autumn-bright in the yard, overgrown; knee-high weeds stung through his pantlegs as he strode through them after Maxwell, Maxwell who ran glancing behind him, who couldn't run fast enough to shake Daniel Brady as he jogged four steps, turned it up for two more, and tackled.
They hit the ground hard. It wasn't even close to a fair fight. Daniel Brady had several inches and probably sixty pounds on the guy, and the good Lord had allocated each and every one of them to one of those muscles you used for pinning a man down, pressing his cheek into dusty gravel, bringing his arms up to snap into a pair of cuffs.
Maxwell made a sound like a wail when the first cuff snagged tight around his wrist. Oh, hell. Brady got the hell off him and did the rest standing. Sirens blared, skidding their way homewards, forming circles upon circles upon regiments around the house where Emmett Butler's body was curled up. Too late, Brady thought, and hauled Maxwell's body out of the fetal crouch it was desperately trying for. Too late.
Five long seconds and Esther Falkner was beside him, kitted out, hair tied back, a spark in her eyes. "The kid?"
Danny Brady backed up, let the local PD behind her take Maxwell by each arm, march him through the backyard and into the kitchen, where they could search him for weapons, fall into process and routine and procedure while the prisoner transport van came around back. He shook his head.
Falkner let out a breath, shoulders sagging.
"Yeah," he said. "Too late."
There was already a crowd outside the abandoned house.
Someone must have got word out; local PD or a neighbor, watching the entire Natchez police department close in on the little shotgun house through barely drawn curtains. Way too many people were lined up in clumps across the street, watching the activity. Watching the door.
"This isn't good," Worth said, watching them right back through the dirt-streaked front window.
Brady picked a piece of gravel out of the gap between his vest and his sweat-wilted shirt. The local cops were moving their cars to form up a barricade; police tape wasn't going to do it this time. The crime scene unit lurked down a side street, waiting. Out on the porch, Nicolette Lau and Stephen Reyes's voices were barely audible, rise and fall. There were going to be cameras here soon; out-of-town ones. More hours before they could turn around and go home.
"Davis found something," Worth said, not turning around. "Burglary report out at Maxwell's place, about three months back. Someone got in and tossed the place."
Brady blinked. "So that wasn't mixed signals. The disorganization."
"No," Worth said. Paused. "He just never had it in him to clean it up."
Ah. "Trigger," Brady supplied.
"Why didn't he have an alarm system in?"
Worth shrugged uncomfortably. "Those installers only get paid about ten dollars an hour. Probably couldn't afford it."
The first news van pulled up, doors falling open almost delicately as the brake lights came on. Lau appeared on the walk, out of her vest and helmet, hair pasted to her head with drying sweat. She caught sight of them through the window, raised an eyebrow. It was as impenetrable as Upper Sumerian for a second, and then--yeah. Asked her yet?
Brady resisted the urge to raise a middle finger.
Footsteps shuffled in behind them, deliberately long and scuffed; Charles Villette's way of not making any sudden moves. Worth looked up, flashed him a brief smile.
"We're going to take him out the back," Chaz said. "Once the press conference has started. Mom's getting the van around."
Backdoor fade. Brady decided not to put money on whether that'd been Reyes's idea or Lau's. "Double escort?" he asked.
Chaz shrugged, suddenly stick-thin and uncomfortable, chin canted downwards. "He's not gonna give us any more trouble. He threw the bodies in the ditch."
He threw the bodies in the--oh. "He was projecting onto the kids," Brady said. Profiling kindergarten. Psychology 101.
Chaz nodded. "He doesn't like himself very much," he said, quiet and clipped, and handed Brady's sidearm back, grip first.
He took it, checked it. Snugged it into the usual place, snapped the holster shut. "Thanks."
Chaz nodded again and excused himself without another word.
The news crews were setting up--three of them now. The local police cleared a space: room enough for Lau and Reyes, for Detectives Davis and Croft. Someone switched on a floodlight. It blended with the autumn sun.
"Ask you something?" Brady said. It came out just casual enough that he knew it took Worth point-five seconds to figure out something was up.
"How'd you tell your father?"
He didn't have to specify what. She knew.
Worth wrinkled her forehead briefly; scratched at a smear on the glass. "I didn't."
Brady turned, surprised. She gave him an awkward, slightly shamefaced smile. "I cheated. I told him I liked girls and boys five minutes before I told him I wasn't going to medical school. I don't think he even heard the first bit for a week."
He snorted and ran a hand through his hair. It was limp, a little sweaty. "Don't think that's going to work."
Worth gave him an appraising look. "I heard the John Wayne method gets good results."
He quirked an eyebrow. "Ride into town and blow away anything that looks at you funny?"
She whuffed out a little breath that was the closest he was going to get to a laugh in this house. "Never apologize, never explain."
He nodded slowly. "Thanks," he said, and outside the window, Lau began telling the nation about the capture of the Natchez serial killer.
Falkner came in a minute later, still in her vest. "The barriers are up. It's time to take him out of here."
Brady stood, tested his right arm, then left. Sore. Still good. "I got it."
He could feel just how curious that glance was on the back of his head. Falkner would never ask You sure? but she could sure as hell think it at you.
"It's all right," he said, and clumped his way to the dusty, broken-down kitchen. "I got it."
Clay Maxwell was slumped over the kitchen table in handcuffs, under the eye of two very blank-faced uniformed cops. Brady nodded to them as he rounded the corner, and that expressionlessness didn't quiver. Well. Everybody had ways of dealing with a thing, or not dealing. Or decompensating into a puddle on someone else's table.
"Come on," he said, breathing-close to Maxwell's pressed-together knees. "Time to go."
He wouldn't stand. In the end, Brady had to take him by one arm while the officer on duty lifted him by the other, and between them they paraded him through the back door, down the flattened, browned, knee-high grass, to the swinging-open chain-link gate where the squad car was waiting. The sun hit him direct in the eyes. He squinted through it, spotted the hangover of the crowd, curled round the corner, pointing their way over the humped roofs of police vehicles.
"All right. Let's make this quick now," he said, and the officer quickened his pace.
The squad car door was already open. Clayton Maxwell's knees had no resistance left in them. The driver sat ready to go.
"Queer--" someone shouted, back behind the makeshift, rickety cordon, and Danny Brady laid a big hand on the back of Clayton Maxwell's head and tucked him into the squad car.
Brady's office phone rang an hour after they landed, his go bag full of dirty and unpressed clothes and heavy with the requisite paperwork to send Clayton Maxwell, banal everyday serial murderer, into the American correctional system. The bullpen was quiet; all the chat had been spent on the airplane. The ringer went off into that silence like the Running of the High-Pitched Bulls.
Brady grabbed the receiver before it could strike again. "Hello?" he said. Nobody would be calling him for anything work-related tonight; anyway, all his autopilot professionalism was probably still in the air over the Appalachians.
"Danny," the familiar voice said, mild, careful. Gray. On a landline; Gray at home. "You sound like hell."
"How did you know I was back?" he asked, absently rubbing itchy eyes. Too much recirculated air. Too much anger. Not enough sleep.
"Ways and means," he said, light and cheerful and teasing. "You'll be free sometime soon?"
Which wasn't so light, or cheerful. Gray Putnam still didn't trust him. Not entirely.
He deserved that, he did.
Brady sighed a little, leaned his head into the receiver as if it were a warm shoulder. Let him play G-man if he really wanted to; God knew Brady didn't complain about it in a whole host of other settings. "Soon," he promised. The paperwork needed doing. His paperwork needed doing. He looked down at the death reports for four children, the photocopied alarm logs, the glitches in them, circled spiral in blue ink by Chaz Villette, that showed Maxwell's times of entry: four nights here, three nights there. Hiding in the closet. Watching them sleep and dream the sound of monsters in their rooms, breathing.
Brady swallowed. There were always sleepless mornings for that. There was always tomorrow. "What's up?"
"Nothing," Gray said, and there, the edge was in. "I just thought you might like some dinner."
"I would. I do," he said hastily, and stared down at this hands, the papers on his desk. "I just need to wrap one thing up here."
He didn't say something happened. But here and now, after everything--after Minneapolis--he didn't need to. The bottom fell out of Gray Putnam's voice. "Everything all right?" he asked.
Brady tried to keep his own voice light. "On the relative scale."
"You all right?"
Brady knew what he meant: ten fingers, ten toes, and a healthy squall when you smacked it. "Yeah," he said. "I'm all right."
Gray didn't believe him. The silence on the other end of the line said that quite clearly. But, "All right," he said. "Bring beer if you want it; I'm all out." I got rid of that stuff you drink and haven't yet replaced it.
"All right," he said, and set down the phone, and stared at the sweat from his fingers evaporating on the handset for a good five minutes.
He picked up the phone once more before leaving the office. It was late, but it was Sunday, and Daniel Brady had called his mother every Sunday since he'd moved into the dorms at eighteen. The habits of a lifetime weren't all that easy to break.
He dialed eleven digits, and listened to it ring.
"Hello?" his mother said, and the strain was already in her voice. It was late. She'd been worrying.
"Hi, Mom," he said. "Hope I didn't wake you up." They both knew he hadn't.
"No, no," she said, already sounding easier. "We were just watching the news. Everything all right?"
"Yeah," he said; the question everyone asked and the answer everyone wanted to hear. The answer everyone expected of you, day in and day out. Status quo. "I'm fine. Just tired."
"Good," she said, maybe more easily dissuaded after a lifetime of leaving those silences the hell alone. "How's work?"
"All right," he said, and told her how they'd just got back from a case, and how they'd caught the guy who did it, and didn't tell her about the dead lump of somebody else's child displaying its final terror on a secondhand gym mat. He told her about the neighbor across the way. He asked after his cousins. The knot drew tighter and tighter in the center of his chest, just below the place where his heart would be.
"You meet anyone nice?" she asked finally, offhand. A little too casual for something to not be up.
Daniel Brady tightened his hand around the phone. Hopped the receiver to his other hand; his right hand was sweaty. Wiped it on the side of his jeans.
He closed his eyes and saw that pile of trampled laundry, the dead little body in the corner. Heard Chaz Villette's voice strip the anomalous, the wicked and strange off Clayton Maxwell in layers until all that was left was a pathetic, hunched little man.
"Get Dad on the phone, please," he said through the rock in his throat.
"Danny?" his mother asked again, confused now that they were off-script, apprehensive in the same way Emmet Butler's mother had sounded when she'd described for the officers once again how she'd opened the door and her kid was gone, gone, gone.
"Get Dad to pick up in the other room. I...want to talk to you both."
"All right," Rosemary Gilmer Brady said heavily. Like she'd known this was coming for years.
His father jiggled the old rotary phone when he picked it up. Brady didn't hold the receiver away from his ear like usual, just waited for the noise to stop, the throat to clear, Jim Brady's rusty voice to say, "Hello?"
"Dad," he said, and abruptly had no idea how to go on.
"Daniel," his father said, deep and cautious. Jim Brady had never been familiar with anyone in his life. "Is everything all right?"
Yes. No. Yes. It was all right for the first time in a very long time, but really it wasn't; really it had never been all right, and things weren't going to be all right very, very soon. You're tying yourself in knots, cowboy.
They're gonna have to drag you to the car.
Daniel Brady blinked, wiped a hand across his eyes.
Get up, he told himself, and walk.
"I met someone nice," he said, and the words crackled and echoed through 1,300 miles of phone line, across switchboards and switchbacks, far enough to push through time; to push right through who a person was now into who they were before. "I wanted to tell you both. I've met someone."
"Danny, that's good," his mother said, sounding strange and strained and cautious. "What's--"
"His name's Grayson. He works for the State Department."
"Wait," his father said, as terrible as he always knew it would be, as terrible and hoarse as disappointment or death by drowning. "You say his name?"
The monster in the closet was real. And it wasn't. And it was. Come on, Big Damn Hero.
Danny Brady took a breath. "Yes."
"Daniel, how long has this--" his father managed.
"Always," he said, and held his breath, and shut his eyes against the blow he knew was coming.
He showed up at Grayson Putnam's doorstep without a case of beer, without having combed his hair; without an offering.
"Danny," Gray said when he opened the door. Eyes wary. Wondering, he knew, whether everything was all right after all.
Daniel Brady held up a hand, still shaking. Shaking from holding a phone very, very tight, and then setting it down quietly against the shouting. "I told them," he said.
Gray still hung onto the door, his eyes light and wary, his trim body blocking the way inside. There was an indent on that shoulder where Brady could pillow his head. There was a mole on the arm below it, shaped like a comma, that he could brush idle with a fingertip. "You told who what?"
Brady took a deep breath. "I told my parents," he said, "that I have met someone nice."
Gray stood in the doorway for ten long breaths before he opened it wide, mouth crimped tight because real men didn't cry, and let Danny Brady into his arms.
So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself--nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. -- Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933