1.02 "Knock on Coffins" - by Elizabeth Bear
"Drive on, think positive, get off your butts, knock on coffins, etc."
-- David Berkowitz, 1977Act I | Act II | Act III | Act IV | Act V
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
Each Friday morning, Hafidha brought in two dozen doughnuts. One box contained two plain old-fashioned (Reyes); two sour cream glazed (Falkner); one chocolate dipped and one lemon-filled, no powder (Brady); one blueberry cake (Lau); one glazed and one chocolate-frosted (Worth); and two chocolate crullers (Todd). Because the bakery Hafidha favored considered any proper dozen to contain thirteen, she added two miscellaneous pastries, different every week.
The other box held six Boston custard creme, six assorted jelly, and a single chocolate-frosted with rainbow sprinkles. There was only one house rule regarding their consumption: no one could have the sprinkled one until all the rest were eaten. Hafidha and Chaz schemed mightily after that thirteenth doughnut, even when stragglers remained in the first box. Because the second dozen was the exclusive property of Shadow Unit's anomaloids, and God save any alpha--Special Agent or civilian employee--who wandered too near.
Daniel Brady watched rangy, brown-skinned, floppy-haired Chaz Villette spider across the bullpen from the kitchenette, four pastries balanced on a napkin and a cup of coffee in the other hand. Chaz nibbled at the Boston creme doughnut teetering atop his pile with crooked, functional teeth. Brady ran his tongue across his own even bite, wondering if years of orthodonture had been worth it.
Brady leaned across the divider to Nikki Lau's desk and stage-whispered, "You know, a lot of serial killers are serious sugar junkies--"
"I heard that." Chaz slid into his desk across the aisle. If Brady were a strobe camera, Chaz would have been leaving trails of elbows and knees on the film. Chocolate smeared his upper lip; he sipped coffee and licked it off. "Is that true? I've never seen it in the literature."
"What, you might not have read a book in the English language?"
"It's Truman Capote," Solomon Todd said, from his desk behind Chaz's. He did not look up from a series of pie charts that appeared to hold him engrossed. "In Cold Blood. Our Danny boy is a reader."
Todd was fit, five-seven, bespectacled over dark-ringed gray irises, and somewhere in the indeterminate valley between forty-five and sixty. His dark hair was balding, his long unassuming face defined by horizontal lines: the slash of a concerned frown, the ladder of concentration up his brow. He mostly moved like somebody was puppeteering him. Hafidha called him Duke, after the comics character.
Brady was catching it.
"See? Capote. It must be true." Brady winked at Chaz, then turned back to Lau as she made one of her characteristic thinking fidgets. She wasn't his type, but he could manage an aesthetic appreciation of a pretty Chinese-American woman tucking glossy razor-cut hair behind a seashell ear.
She said, "Just be grateful you don't have to eat like that."
Enter Daphne Worth, stirring coffee, compact and professional in a tan summerweight pantsuit and a burgundy blouse that flattened her pale complexion, brown hair caught back in a short ponytail. "Grateful? I wish I could eat like that. But no, a second plate of spaghetti and you might as well roll me home."
"I'll eat it for you," Chaz offered, licking raspberry jelly off his mouth, one forefinger, and then his mouth again. There was powdered sugar on the lapel of a blue blazer that made him look like an awkward teenager dressed up as an FBI agent.
"Sure, but then I don't get to enjoy it, except as garlic sweat--" Whatever Worth had been about to say would hang forever unfinished on the air, because Esther Falkner--tall, athletic, brunette, olive-complected, reflexively hiding the old sore hitch in her step--swept past with a coffee cup in her right hand and a manila folder upraised in her left, her head tipped slightly toward it. Her loafers made no sound on the industrial gray carpet, and the gray wings of her tailored suit coat flared from her hips.
Chaz accordioned half a doughnut into his mouth and stood, dusting the powder from his coat. Brady held back and waited until Chaz, and Lau, and Worth, and Todd had grabbed cups and pens and notepads and Palm Pilots and Blackberries and fallen in behind Falkner like a row of somewhat flustered ducklings, and only then joined the end of the line.
Because tail-end Charlie was his job, that was why.
The briefing room was already hot and close, prickling sweat across Todd's bare scalp. He scrunched sideways in his seat to make more room for Brady's football-player shoulders, happy enough to have won the daily game of musical chairs. Hafidha Gates was last, having the furthest to walk. But Hafidha always got a seat, on behalf of her laptop--and the preservation of the credit rating of anybody who might try to shark her. And nobody but Reyes ever took Reyes' chair.
Falkner never sat during briefings, and today the other odd woman out was Lau, even though Brady had arrived after her, because Lau was standing outside and availing herself of the breathable oxygen which would soon be in short supply within the room.
As soon as Lau edged inside the door and shut it, Falkner started talking. "The good news is that to the best of our knowledge, nobody is dead."
"Great," said Brady, blocky hands folded. "Then the bad news would be the fate worse than death?"
Falkner's eyebrows were as good as a soliloquy, and Todd hid a responding smirk behind his coffee cup. From the short end of the table, where he could keep his back to the wall, Stephen Reyes replied to the covert gesture with a bushy-eyebrowed stare. His face was the color of an antique walnut table, and his expression about as forthcoming.
Todd saluted with the beverage. After a while, you just got used to Reyes noticing things. He almost never said anything to anyone about what he noticed, and certainly never to anyone whose business it wasn't.
Todd supposed that made him ethical.
There are no fates worse than death, Todd recited. One of the catchphrases they lived by, but he wasn't always convinced. Well, it was a strong theme, and worth exploring. Though maybe it should be an argument and not a statement. Are there fates worse than death? What are fates worse than death? Can you phrase your answer in the form of a question?
"Something like that," Falkner said, humorless. Chaz fiddled with his gadgety wristwatch and Brady abruptly got very interested in his Blackberry. "Someone in Omaha is driving college freshmen crazy."
"Crazy's not exactly a technical diagnosis." Chaz wiped his fingers on his trouser leg and picked up his mug. Milk fat on the surface reflected light.
"All right," Falkner said. "Symptoms of a psychotic break. There's an epidemic of schizophrenia at the University of Nebraska at Omaha."
"Schizophrenia isn't contagious," Worth pointed out.
"It is now. Five victims that we know of. All college-age, two men and three women, who would appear low-risk at the initial appraisal."
"Who's our liaison?" Lau asked. "How did we get an in on this one? Going crazy isn't a crime."
"The university president contacted the local field office directly, asking for help. His theory was that somebody might be spiking the victims, but there's no toxicology to support it. They kicked it up the ladder to the BAU. Pete Pauley says he got it last night, stared at it, shrugged, and decided to hand it to us. Everyone be sure to send a thank-you note."
Brady raised a finger. "Omaha PD?"
Falkner shook her head. "The police have had minimal involvement. We get to walk into this one at the top, which might be helpful."
Todd watched Reyes follow the reactions around the room.
Reyes cleared his throat and spoke. "The victimology is straightforward on the surface, Brady, but the first go-round with the profiles is yours. Find out what they have in common, who they know in common. Look for patterns of low self-esteem, emotional vulnerability, anger or aggressiveness. I don't know if you'll find anything about recent changes in demeanor in the files, but look at their grades. I'll lead the team on-site."
"Regarding the mental illness. If that's what it is. Symptomatology?" Worth asked.
Falkner, with a glance at Reyes for authorization, answered. "Typical of schizophrenia. Auditory hallucinations, conflation, disorganized thinking, flat affect. It's not clear if they're exhibiting consistency of hallucinations from one victim to the next."
Reyes said, "That's one of the things we need to assess when we get on the ground."
Todd said, "You're thinking of the case in Augusta." A year and a half before, a gamma in Maine had been infecting his neighbors with his nightmares. Two had been driven to suicide and a third had attempted it before the WTF stepped in. "Could it be a similar manifestation?"
Reyes shrugged. "They're all the right age for first signs of schizophrenia. Victimology will tell us if they all have troubled backgrounds. And then there's the timing."
"Five victims," Chaz said. "Assuming for the moment that they're all linked, and it would be very coincidental indeed if they weren't." He flipped papers. "One every six weeks to two months, if you need it or not. With time off for the holidays?"
"Or," Falkner said, "a sixth victim off-campus. No classes during winter break means no prey on the ground. He might have had to extend his hunting range. He wouldn't have wanted to break pattern. I'm sure he needs his fix."
"Crap," said Worth. "Hafidha, can you check police blotters?"
Reyes made a gathering gesture, right-handed. "Belay that until Omaha. We'll interview known associates when we get there. Todd, Lau, Gates, you're with me on this one. Hafidha, bring your gun."
He might have been ostensibly talking to Hafidha, but he was looking right at Todd. In response, Todd let the corner of his mouth twitch. There was Reyes, letting him know Reyes knew he had never liked carrying. But he was the best detail man on the team when it came to extracting secrets contained in mounds of paperwork. Professional slogger's skill from his journalist days. Like constructing narratives. Surprising how much carried over.
Reyes finished, "I have no idea what we're walking into, and I want everybody combat-ready."
"Hafs?" Worth, looking startled.
"Universities have computers," Reyes said, intentionally thick-headed. "So do university students."
Worth leaned over to Hafidha and murmured, "You're field-certified?"
Hafidha's blonde-black braids made a whispering sound over one another when she shook her head. Todd looked down at his hands while she answered. "I'm a sworn officer, honey. Six years in the Secret Service. Fraud and counterfeiting, mostly. I know which end to point at the bad man."
"She's a certified small-arms instructor," Falkner said, dryly. "Don't let her yank your chain, Worth. You head out in ninety minutes; Hafidha, show Worth what she needs to run com from here?"
"I can do that," Hafidha said. "But I can't give her my eyes. So I'll start going over blotters on the plane. Maybe a disturbance will come over Technicolor and we can find number six. If there is a number six."
"If there isn't," Falkner said, "there will be soon. It's nearly the end of the term. He'll want to get one more before summer."
"British royal family?"
Hafidha was pleased to discover that Daphne had mastered the gentle art of watching the screen without leaning over Hafidha's shoulder. Good for her. Reyes still hadn't figured it out. "I had detail on Princess Anne, once."
"Sweetie pie, it was the Secret Service, not the staff of People magazine." Daphne looked forlorn, so Hafidha gave her hand a pat. "Be a good girl and focus on the nice database search parameters, and I'll give you a truckload on the Pretzel Incident."
"Oooh!" Daphne poised the stylus over her Palm obediently.
Brady, leaning on the back counter and drinking coffee, looked up from the victim files. "If you compromise national security, I'm telling."
"You pay attention. You might need to know this someday, too."
"Do I look like a search string kind of guy? Or a Pretzel Incident kind of guy, for that matter?"
Hafidha slid her glasses down her nose and looked at him over the top of the frames. "What, you're too pretty to be smart?"
"Okay, okay." Brady sounded grudging, but he grinned. "I'm paying attention."
As Hafidha was setting permissions on Daphne's login, Chaz wandered in, a crisp-creased sheet of paper in one hand. It fluttered with the soft sound of high-rag-content laid. Her overhead light shone through the translucent watermark: Crane's Bond. Spendy.
Chaz looked from Brady to Daphne, frowning for a moment before correcting his face into a smile. Hafidha guessed he'd hoped to catch her alone, but the paper in his hand was a confession of intent, and he wasn't about to back down where anybody could see him. "Hey. Not just Velma, it's Fred and Daphne, too!"
Daphne pointed a finger at him and tipped her head; she packed an effective glower. "That still makes you Shaggy."
"I would still rather be the dog." Chaz smiled disarmingly, then set the paper down on the console beside Hafidha's keyboard. Daphne backed away, giving him room. Chaz hated to be crowded; funny how anybody with any sense picked up on that right away.
He said, "Hafs, I want to know if this is a scam." His fingers moved nervously as he reached to smooth the letter, as if he had to find an excuse to touch it.
It looked real. Letterhead for an attorney in Tyler, Texas, the language just what it ought to be from a law office to notify the beneficiary of a will. Namely, Chaz.
Hafidha leaned back in her chair, hands clasped in her lap. "And this is work-related how?"
Chaz craned his gazelle neck to look over his shoulder, scanning for Falkner or Reyes. He turned back and tapped the paper with fingers that had not left its surface when he turned. "Look, you can have the thirteenth doughnut, okay? Just please can you run the search before you go?"
She cracked her shoulders against the back of the chair, and grinned. "Smarty-boy, you know better than to ask that question."
"You're right. Bad choice of words. I meant 'would you.'"
"See?" She sat up and skittered fingers across keys. "It's all in how you ask. So, property description...aaand title on file...and there you go. Yep, you are the proud owner of forty acres of Tyler County, Texas. Says so right there." Hafidha poked the screen. "Ooh, real estate. I smell money."
Chaz snuck a handful of chocolate--the good stuff; Hafidha didn't hold with slave-labor candy--out of her stash, no doubt to make up for the sacrificial doughnut. He leaned over her shoulder without touching her. "Charles Travis Villette. Would you look at that."
Hafidha read up the screen. Deeded to Adeline Mary Villette (deceased). Previous title holders, Francis William and Mary Perault Villette.
And Chaz said, "Huh. I own a ranch. Small ranch. Real small ranch, for Texas."
Brady said, "Kid, that's East Texas. It's not a ranch. It's a farm."
Chaz chuckled. "Wonder if it comes with a mule."
Hafidha said, "Your grandparents?"
"Dunno," he said. "I guess." The candy pattered back into the bowl. Apparently he'd thought better of it. Hafidha didn't mind; Chaz's hands were always clean. "Adeline was my mom."
He might have said more, Hafidha thought. She could feel his confusion hanging in the air between them. But Brady, the Texas boy, cleared his throat. "You don't sound like Tyler County."
The expectant moment snapped. Chaz straightened up, stuffing his hands into his back pockets. "I've never been there. But my mom sounded like Tyler County. Well, she didn't sound like Vegas."
Daphne cleared her throat. "So what's Tyler County sound like?"
Chaz, shaking his head, picked up his letter even as Hafidha was pulling up Google Earth, Google Maps, TerraServer, and a few less public satellite imaging systems. He said, "Can't do it. Never could. So... the Tyler County seat would be in, um, Tyler?"
She knew a subject change when she heard one. "Oh, you'd think. But the Lord and the state of Texas work in mysterious ways, honey. Tyler's in Smith County. The biggest burg in Tyler County is..." Typing. "Woodville." She snickered. "Population 2,415."
"Good grief. How do you get there?" He'd grown up under the approach paths of the seventh--now sixth--busiest airport in the U.S, she recalled.
Warm plastic smoothed under her fingertips, the action of her vintage M-series keyboard clicking rewardingly with every keystroke. They didn't make 'em like this anymore.
"DFW to a regional airport two hours away. If you drive really fast. Oooh, I bet they have killah speed traps." She turned and caught his gaze, the left eye brighter than the right, with the green streaks in it. Funny to think it used to weird her out, and now it was just Chaz.
"Sweetie, I think you inherited the location where they shot Deliverance. Sshh..." She held up a hand. "Paddle faster, I hear banjos."
"Could you maybe not have quite so much fun with this?" But he was grinning.
"Want me to Google the directions for you?" Her fingers hovered the keyboard. "Want to see the house?"
"Ngh. No, thanks. It's been there since--" Hafidha recognized the hesitation. The date was on the title, which was now in Chaz's head. "--1952. It'll stay there for a while."
She had already started typing. Her fingers stumbled on the keys. "Don't you want to get in touch with your roots?"
"God, no." He backed away. She'd lost him. And the profilers in the room were both looking up curiously as he sidled towards the door. "My mom grew up in a Steve Earle song. I get it. I get it."
He didn't make three steps before Danny went after him, calling, "Hey Chaz. If you're not busy, help me with the victimology!" leaving Daphne and Hafidha standing in an uncomfortable silence in Hafidha's office.
It was hard being the new kid. All these dynamics, all this implied knowledge, and no way in to it unless you picked it up from context, or asked.
Asking was one of the things Daphne seemed pretty good at. "Hafs, what just happened?"
"Ah." Hafidha snagged a handful of chocolate from the bowl and held it up for Daphne, who accepted. "At a guess? Chaz just inherited forty acres of nowhere from a relative he didn't even know he had, and he's a little freaked out about it."
"How can you not know you have grandparents? Everybody has grandparents."
"But not everybody knows their grandparents, honey. Chaz's mom died when he was a wee bitty child. So based on that letter he showed me, I'd also guess his grandparents didn't know their daughter was dead, or that they had a grandson. It'd rattle anybody."
"Shit," Daphne said. "I'm glad I didn't ask him--"
Hafidha shrugged. "Long time ago. Want another chocolate?"
"No, thanks." She popped the last one from her hand into her mouth. When she spoke, the smell of candy followed. "Hafs, can I ask you a question that's totally inappropriate for the workplace?"
"Honey, inappropriate is my internet identity. Unless you're going to ask for a date, in which case, flattered, but I like boys."
Daphne laughed, strained and nervous. Not uncomfortable with Hafidha flirting, but with whatever she was about to say. "No, I'm seeing someone. But while we're on Chaz. And his family. Does Chaz, er, what I mean is--"
"Does he have an ethnic identity?" It was the question everybody asked, sooner or later. Hafidha arched one eyebrow like Mister Spock. She could do the Bewitched nose-wriggle, too, if called upon.
From the way she winced against the red tide rising across her cheeks, Daphne was probably wishing she had an ethnic identity at that particular moment. But she held it together and asked, "I thought he was just white--maybe Mediterranean French, or something--and funny-looking. And then he came to the thing on Memorial Day weekend a different color. In just a couple of days. Most folks don't tan that fast. But Villette isn't any kind of Hispanic name I've ever heard of..."
Hafidha winked. "Well, Reyes is, and the nefarious Doctor Stephen's darker than me--"
"Afro-Cuban. Sure. I get that. I just wondered about Chaz."
"Ah, and you see, sweetie, you're going to keep wondering. Because from what he tells me, nobody knows for sure. When he first got here it was September, and I thought he was a brother. But now I suspect it's something complicated back there. Black, white, Latino, Indian, the other kind of Indian--who knows? Some kind of Creole. He's too pretty not to be mixed--"
"Pretty? Chaz? The amazing frog-boy?"
Hafidha frowned pityingly. "There are none so blind as will not see. Anyway, he's not done getting brown yet. Our Chaz is a sun-worshipper; I bet he spent that long weekend baking on the roof of his apartment building, to which he has--I happen to know--picked the lock. By the end of the summer he'll be caramel-sauce-colored, and you can watch the convenience store clerks try to speak to him in Spanish. It's fun. He goes, you know, like the top of the crème brûlée, when they've burnt it just right so there aren't any black spots, but it's all nice sweet crunchy melty brown sugar?"
Hafidha watched the emotions cross Daphne's face, and guessed that first, she was considering the possibilities. And then, she was considering just walking away from that one. But she said, "Isn't it politically incorrect to refer to people of color as food objects?"
Hafidha laughed. "Just don't expect me to stop calling you Peaches, Peaches."
Through the open door, Hafidha could see Reyes coming up the corridor from his office. Nearly time to go. She kicked off her shoes, scuffed on the flats, and unlocked the lower drawer of her desk. Her jump bag was in there, flowered green nylon wearing a thin coat of dust. And under it, lying beside the holster, was a field-stripped Glock and a box of ammo. She lifted the latter items onto the blotter and began to assemble her sidearm, aware Worth was watching curiously.
When she stood up and clipped the holster to her belt, the weight tugged that side of her slacks down. She sighed and clipped the Treo, the work cell, her nerd-light, and her Leatherman on to the other side, where they counterbalanced it... and further ruined the line of her suit.
At Hafidha's eyeroll and hand gestures, Daphne laughed. And then she looked Hafidha in the eye, all serious, and said, "Hafs? Do you have the hots for Chaz?
Hafidha rocked back on her heels. "Oh, God, no. I have the hots for crème brûlée."
The first notable thing Todd saw on the campus of the University of Nebraska at Omaha was the obligatory phallic obelisk. The second one was a smiling blonde way too young for the Iggy & The Stooges babydoll t-shirt she was falling out of. "The more things change," he muttered, and leaned forward over the back of the driver's seat of the inevitable dark purple 2003 Intrepid to tap Reyes on the shoulder. Briefly, he wondered who in procurement was getting the kickbacks from Dodge.
Then he wondered when purple got to be a government car color.
"We can't stop here. This is bat country."
At least Hafidha laughed. "That's Nevada, Duke."
"Don't let Chaz hear you say that." Lau, from the front seat, without looking up from the dossier in her lap. Sol, to everyone's amusement, puked if he tried to read in a moving car. "Let me guess. You still have nightmares about riding route 80 in the driving rain on a Harley, strung out on reds and megadoses of vitamin C."
"Don't be ridiculous," he said, and sat back, satisfied. "I'd never use nutritional supplements off-label. My God, would you look at all these white people?"
He got Hafidha again, this time just as she was stuffing a doughnut hole into her mouth. It was worth a shower of crumbs, especially since Lau got the worst of it. And despite Hafidha's obvious culpability in the unscheduled flurry, Lau glared at Todd as she dusted cake out of her hair. Oh, the injustice.
"I hate to interrupt the camaraderie," Reyes said, "but once we get Hafidha installed, Lau, you take the victims' known associates. Todd, you and I are going to interview the victims."
"Just like the sixties," Todd said.
The car pulled up--on Dodge Street, synchronistically--in front of the administration building. Just like in the movies. Except here, the spaces were available because the curb was yellow. There was metered parking off to one side, but Reyes just slid an FBI don't-tow-me plaque onto the dash and the occupants exited on an internal count of three. Reyes didn't even have to cue them anymore; they started manipulating the instant they got off the plane.
The funny thing was, no matter how transparent Sol thought the psychological games were, they worked. It's for their own good, he told himself sardonically.
I'm sorry. Could you phrase the answer in the form of a question?
The steeply pitched convex dark roofs over each entryway made the building look as if one of its grandparents had been a merrywidow Queen Anne Victorian, and another a nice block of flats. Campus Security met them halfway up the walk, in the company of a balding and colorless blue-eyed administrator. Todd was in the second rank, behind Reyes, but the man's gaze found him automatically. "Doctor Reyes?"
"Doctor Reyes," Todd said, pointing to Reyes. "I'm Special Agent Todd."
Reyes stuck out his hand, impassive, and watched unsmiling as the administrator wrong-footed, stumbled, balked coming up to the jump, and somehow managed to get over it with only a hard rub and a wobble. "Doctor Reyes. Pleased to meet you."
Todd could almost hear the I presume?
"Sorry," Woodward said. "I assumed from your name that you would be Latino, and-- well, there's no excuse."
As they turned to follow Woodward out of the sun, Hafidha tilted her head to bring her lips to Todd's ear and murmured, "¿De cuál parte de México vienes, Doctor Reyes?"
Todd bit his lip to keep from cracking up. Thank God they had Lau and Reyes along; he really hadn't ever mastered this professional demeanor thing. At least Woodward was still too flustered to notice, and talking fast: "Please, come inside, Doctor Reyes. And your team?"
"You've met Supervisory Special Agent Todd," Reyes said dryly. "This is Special Agent Lau, and this is Special Agent Gates, our technical expert. She'll need access to your network, and mainframe, if you still use one."
"Of course." Woodward rubbed his eyes. "I really hope you can help me, sir."
"So do I." Reyes straightened his tie, then smoothed his palm over tight-clipped curls as they advanced three abreast down a tiled corridor. Fidgeting. Uncomfortable, and Todd didn't think it was Woodward's unconscious, apologetic racism that had done it. Not for the first time, Todd wondered what had happened to get between Dr. Stephen Reyes and a brilliant academic career. He pretended to study a bulletin board which they passed, plastered with pastel flyers for campus clubs and events--the local SCA barony, a student band, a self-defense club, BiGALA. They were exactly like the flyers Todd remembered from his own tenure as an undergrad, except in that computer typesetting and modern printing and copying had vastly improved their apparent professionalism.
They turned into an outer office and walked past a vacant secretary's desk. "We'll know more once we've had a chance to talk to the victims."
Woodward, hand on his office door, hesitated. "Well," he said. "Then I also hope you can get something out of them."
Falkner crossed the bullpen, only two pizzas balanced on her left hand, because half the team was elsewhere. She set them down on the desk in the uninhabited office where the photocopier lived. Todd probably could have planted a flag in it based on seniority, but he claimed he didn't work well without constant supervision. There were pay grade rules about windows and cubicles and who got an actual office with an actual door, but the WTF wasn't exactly the fast track to promotion. And Falkner was proud of her people, who all seemed to think they had important things to worry about.
She didn't need to ding the service bell Brady had mounted on the wall beside the door. Chaz was already standing just outside. "Lunchtime?"
Behind him, she could see Brady stuffing a file into his locking drawer and setting the screen saver to blank his computer. Good man. He stood up, Worth a half-step behind--her hands already full of beverages--and followed Chaz into the room. "Time for the victimology?"
"Red rum and red sauce," Worth answered, while Chaz, with arms like derricks, reached down the napkins and the paper plates. "Thank you, Falkner."
"It's Friday," she said, and opened the first box: half pepperoni and half sausage, with green peppers and mushrooms on the lot. The second one was cheese and veg, and even though Lau wasn't here to help, Falkner thought Chaz would get through at least three quarters of it. Brady wouldn't eat anything that wasn't swimming in animal fat, and since none of the others would let Falkner hold the cheese, one pizza with artichoke hearts, black olives, sundried tomatoes, and garlic was her compromise.
Besides, Chaz liked vegetables. It always surprised her. He could no more live on them than a cat could, but as he'd said to her once when she'd raised eyebrows over his lunch of a Greek salad you could swim in and an entire loaf of garlic bread, "Just because I'm going to die of major organ failure by fifty, doesn't mean I need to hurry the process."
She could have done without the reminder that he and Hafidha were on borrowed time, but nothing ever got won by telling yourself pretty lies. The savage metabolisms that fed their slamming neurons would also eventually poison their livers and kidneys, if heart disease didn't get them first. Chances were, she and Reyes and Todd would outlive them both.
For every gift there is an answering burden.
She slid two slices of artichoke pizza onto the paper plate Brady handed her and took a diet Coke from Worth. Then she pulled out the chair in the corner between the table and the copier and sat, draping two napkins across her lap. "Right," she said. "Victimology. What have we got?"
Brady flipped open a reporter's notebook while he chewed. He swallowed, wiped his mouth, and ran a finger down the page, leaving a grease spot. "Okay, first known victim is Danielle Potter, age eighteen. Her suitemates had her committed in September, after she began acting erratically and they feared for her safety. No family history of mental illness; she was a good kid there on scholarship, first of her family to attend college. Second victim, Peter Gooding. Age seventeen, a week shy of his eighteenth birthday--"
"Young for a college freshman," Worth said.
Chaz hmphed around a mouthful of pizza. Identifying. Falkner made a face she hoped could be blamed on the diet Coke. She could hover over Chaz, but he was here now, and doing all right, and she couldn't change how he'd gotten there.
"Plenty of seventeen-year-olds graduate high school," Brady continued, so smoothly you could pretend you hadn't noticed him taking Chaz's side. He ate another bite of sausage pizza without moving his eyes from the notepad. "Gooding was always a bit of a smart, disaffected underachiever, according to his family. Parents divorced; mom worked full time; father remarried. Sounds like he didn't get a lot of guidance at home. Family became concerned when he didn't return home for Christmas break as planned. He was found wandering, incoherent, and brought into an emergency room on New Year's Eve. Suffering hypothermia and frostbite." A brief silence followed while Brady chewed.
"Did he lose any fingers?" Worth said.
"You mean like Todd?" Chaz said.
Brady snorted. "Villette, if you believe that frostbite story of Duke's, you're not much of a profiler. He wasn't pushing papers in the Quartermaster's Corps in 1973, either."
"There wasn't much of anything involving American troops going on in southeast Asia in 1973, was there?" Chaz asked.
Brady shrugged. "Officially. But it's not like Duke was ever anywhere interesting, to hear him tell it--"
Falkner cleared her throat. "Can we save the rumormongering until after the victimology, or preferably until Todd is here to defend himself?"
Chaz winced--sorry--and helped himself to the final two slices of veggie pizza by way of apology. "So. Gooding. Family history of mental illness?" He flipped the box closed left-handed and slid it out of the way with his elbow.
"Mother is on an SSRI," Brady said. He shrugged.
Falkner shrugged too. So was her husband Ben, and half their friends. The modern world stressed people out, and the medical system was adapted to jack them up, prop them up, and shoot them back out into play. She thought of race horses, doped to run when what they really needed was rest, and nailed that chain of thought before it could get away from her.
"Soma," Chaz said.
Worth gave him an odd look. "Soma's a muscle relaxant."
He shook his head, held up a hand, chewed vigorously, and reached for his coffee mug, only to find it empty. Worth pushed a spare Diet Coke at him, and he made a face and spurned it with his fingertips. "My liver does not thank you. No, not Soma Compound. Soma as in Brave New World. Aldous Huxley. Science fiction novel with a title from The Tempest. 'O brave new world that hath such creatures in't!' Plot revolves around drugging the populace to keep them from noticing a totalitarian regime headed by a charismatic psycho named Mustapha Monde? No? Dang, where's Todd when I need him--"
"Alphas, betas, and gammas," Falkner said, remembering the social ranks in the book, and was rewarded with a wink as Chaz started on piece number six.
"Victim three," Brady said. "Jeremy Hansen. Eighteen. A working-class kid, mother dead, father not remarried. Two siblings, attending college on savings and student loans. His girlfriend back home became concerned when he stopped answering her emails, sometime in March. No--"
"--family history of mental illness," Worth said. "Four and five?"
"Melanie Wosczyna," Brady said. "Nineteen. Commuter student, local family, worked nights at a doughnut shop. Her father's an alcoholic. In intermittent recovery, it sounds like. No schizophrenia, though, or family history of major mood disorders. She was found by Campus Security, holed up in the basement of the Fine Arts building in mid-April, hugging her knees and shivering. Sounds like she's a pretty good candidate for a PTSD case even beforehand. Her dad put her mom in the hospital at least once, and who knows what else went on?"
"I sense a trend," Falkner said, while Chaz started in on the first of the remaining four slices of meat pizza.
"You should consider doing this professionally," Brady said, and if Falkner hadn't been in a position of authority she would have flicked a spitball at him. "Victim number five, Hanson Cape. Age 19. Who is the only vic whose family has money, by the way, which could be a coincidence or could be a significant break in victimology. Mom is an eye surgeon; dad is a patent lawyer."
"Why's he going to a state school?"
"He washed out of Lawrence, in Appleton, Wisconsin. His grades were shall we say a little less than exceptional, so he was coming back for a second pass at his freshman year in the hopes of being readmitted to Lawrence as a transfer student later. It sounds like Mr. Cape likes girls, pot, and crew, not necessarily in that order. He attacked a T.A. in his Intro to Drama class in late May. Ten stitches in her face and two broken teeth."
"Ow." Worth's hand pressed her lips in sympathy. "Where's she?"
"Went home on a leave of absence," Brady said, checking his notes. "Hope she makes it back."
"Drug related psychotic break?" Chaz paused to pick a fennel seed from the sausage out of his teeth with a fingernail, while Falkner reminded herself that it wasn't his fault nobody ever taught him table courtesy.
"Potter's and Hansen's families and associates, at least, are confident they weren't using."
Worth shrugged. "The parents are always the last to know."
Brady sharked a third slice of pizza. Chaz looked at him reproachfully, and Brady defended his plate like a lifer. "You got a whole pizza plus a slice!"
Chaz looked at Falkner. "Did you get any of those cinnamon things?"
"In the kitchen," Falkner said. She couldn't stand the smell of the icing while trying to eat cheese and tomato sauce.
Chaz rose, collecting his coffee mug and Brady's water cup. He appeared visibly thicker through the middle, like the family dog after Thanksgiving dinner. As always Falkner wondered if that wasn't more than a little uncomfortable. "Be right back."
Falkner glanced at her watch. Thirty seconds or less, she estimated, with amusement. He made it in twenty-three, balancing the box of cinnamon twists under one arm. Brady swiped one of those, too, but spurned the icing; Worth just shook her head. Falkner asked, "Do the victims have anything else in common? Club, major, residence, hobby, peer group?"
"Not from the paper," Brady said, while Chaz scooped frosting onto a cinnamon stick. "But they're all disaffected. Lonely, not loners?"
"Easy prey for a charmer," Chaz said. Worth lowered her chin to her hands to watch him eat. "Charismatic type, manipulative, make you feel like the center of the world. Until you'd do anything for him. We could be looking at a cult."
There were two cinnamon sticks left in the box. He pointed to them, and Falkner and Brady both shook their heads. Brady, Falkner noticed, had fallen silent too, and was also watching Chaz slowly and methodically alternate sips of coffee and bites of cinnamon twist.
Thirty seconds later, he broke a piece off the last cinnamon stick, tucked it into his mouth, and looked up, from face to face. Dawning worry lit his expression. He froze, and tried to use his coffee to clear his mouth, but the cup was empty again. "What's wrong?"
Worth shook her head wonderingly, without raising it from the backs of her fingers. "Wow," she said. "It's like watching a snake engulf a frog."
Chaz rolled his eyes and swallowed his mouthful stiffly. His Adam's apple bobbed hard enough to look like it hurt. "Shut up."
Worth stood and collected his cup. "I'll refill your coffee, Python."
"And I'll call the rest of the team," said Brady. "And fill them in on what we have."
"Tell me about schizophrenia," Hafidha said into her headset, while the fingers of her left hand skimmed fluidly on the scroll wheel of her mouse. "And I'll tell you about patterns of victim behavior."
Todd's voice came crisp and clear over her earpiece. "Reyes or Chaz could give you a better précis."
"But Reyes is driving you to the interview," Hafidha answered, reasonably. "And Chaz is eleven hundred and eighty-two miles away, approximate driving distance. So thrill me with your dulcet tones, Duke."
He snorted. "All right then. I'll put you on speaker, Hafs. Reyes, correct me if I'm wrong." He cleared his throat, and continued in professorial tones: "Common to most diagnoses of schizophrenia are a combination of positive, negative, and cognitive symptoms. Positive symptoms include what we think of as the defining characteristics of schizophrenia, such as auditory or less commonly visual hallucinations, delusions--especially paranoid ones--and racing thoughts. Negative symptoms reveal a drop in functionality, such as apathy, flattened affect, poverty of speech, increasing inability to navigate social situations, catatonia. In addition, although this is not yet considered diagnostic, the schizophrenic shows cognitive impairment, such as disorganized thinking, disorganized speech--"word salad"--failures of memory, and so on."
"Good," Reyes said, his voice attenuated by the directional mike.
"I've been reading the DSM-IV," Todd answered, complacently.
"Yes," Hafidha said. "And you have an MS in psych to go with your law degree, and the master's in comparative religion."
"I do? Damned senile dementia. Who can remember these things? Where was I?"
"Reading the DSM-IV."
"Right. Also, anecdotally, schizophrenics may abruptly drop a lot of weight, in part because they may not eat, and in part because--"
"An amped-up brain burns through glucose like whoa," Hafidha said, taking a bite out of a Ring Ding. Hafidha 'the human tapeworm' Gates. If I ever get tired of cop work, I can go into hot dog eating contests. "Maybe he's trying to turn them into jammers?"
"Anomaloids," she explained, reluctantly, sliding the ridiculous word out long and droopy. "Gammas."
She had said it flippantly, but the implication settled in on Todd's thoughtful silence. "Think you could?" he said, when she'd had plenty of time to frown at the other half of the Ring Ding and set it back on the wrapper with its doomed twin.
"Make a gamma? It makes me queasy to think about it. How much does a gamma brain scan look like a schizophrenic one?"
Reyes grunted noncommittally, which Hafidha took to mean, Some.
Todd changed the subject, because Todd did things like that. Unless he was conducting an interview, in which case, he only changed the subject to come back at you from a different angle. "What have you got on the school records and police blotter, Hafs?"
She rolled the mouse wheel again. "Nothing conclusive. Nothing coming up colors. If there's a sixth vic, I'm not finding them, and it's not like college students, even freshmen, have daily homework assignments we could track. I placed a couple of calls and emails to professors, though, and it does seem that each victim's class attendance dropped off for a week or so before he or she cracked. That's--what was your word, Duke?--anecdotal, though."
"Right," Reyes said. "So what do college freshmen do?"
"Try to find a community," Todd answered, promptly. "Look for mentors and friends. Find places to hang out."
"Join clubs," Hafidha said, and felt the click. "Don't even say it, I'm on it already. The thing is, if they'd each just joined some club before It happened to them, they might not be in the computerized membership lists."
"Legwork, Hafs? My heart bleeds."
"Hah," she answered. "Look, I'm going to call Lau and tell her to ask about social groups and extracurricular activities, okay?"
"Okay," Todd said. "I think we're here, anyway."
"Hafidha!" Reyes' voice stopped her, finger hovering over the disconnect.
"Last time I checked."
"Send the brain scans to Doctor Frost."
Oh yes. That would be the logical next step, and if Hafidha didn't tend to class Madeline Frost with the Boogeyman and the Grinch, she would have thought of it herself. She said, "In ša' Allāh, sahib," and hit the disconnect.
And then, after a moment to compose herself, during which she put the wounded Ring Ding out of its misery, she bit her thumb in the general direction of Johns Hopkins and hit 666 on her speed dial.
Madeline Frost, M.D., Ph.D., bent over a microscope, humming Thelonious Monk to herself as she examined a slide biopsied from a forty-month-old male. Histologically, the tumor was well-circumscribed, firm, and pinkish gray. The cells demonstrated a well-defined pattern of rosettes.
She could confirm a primary diagnosis of medulloblastoma.
It was unlikely the patient would survive to his fourth birthday.
She returned the slides to their case, made a note, straightened, and stripped her gloves. She'd call the oncologist from the phone in her office. She expected the news would come as a disappointment, but not a surprise.
As she was dropping the shed blue nitrile into a red bag, what she thought of as her government phone rang. In addition to her hospital phone and pager, Frost kept a separate cell for calls from the BAU.
She did not own a personal cell phone, and never felt the desire for one. People did not call Frost to chat.
She considered that a minor personal success.
The separate cell was not because of ritual, or because she was superstitious about contamination, or because she felt her work as an oncological pathologist needed psychological separation from her work as a forensic pathologist. It was because the instant the device sounded, she knew which set of rules she was meant to be operating under.
There would be a body, or perhaps several bodies, or perhaps parts of several bodies. They would be dead messily or mysteriously. They would present a perfectly intriguing puzzle, a pattern and a set of particulars to be worked out in detail and presented to the team.
It was challenging and satisfying, a welcome diversion.
Frost was fortunate that the chief pathologist was understanding of her sideline, as understanding as he was of her desire never to deal with a living patient as anything other than slides and specimens. Patients were fine, as long as they arrived in pieces.
Frost knew she was not good for living people, and she suspected that living people were not good for her.
Cancer offended her; it did not care for the rules. But it had its own rules, its own patterns. And Frost was very, very good at detecting those patterns, so others could use them to wage war.
It was not, after all, so different from what Stephen Reyes called the anomaly. That was a sort of cancer too, and it also offended her sense of the way the world ought to work.
She permitted the phone to go to voice mail, however. The call to the oncologist would not take long.
Once she had dispensed with it, leaving him to decide how to break the news and discuss treatment options with the family, she unclipped the silver phone from its hard case at her belt and hit redial without checking the time--one forty-three and seventeen seconds--or glancing at the number.
Hafidha Gates answered on the second ring. "Madeline Frost," Frost said.
"Check your email," Agent Gates said, without pleasantries. Frost appreciated that about Gates' dislike for her. It kept the interactions short. "There's a .zip file with some brain scans. Can you see what you can tell me about them?"
"I'm checking now. Living brains?"
"Those are the kind we can scan for electrical activity, aren't they?"
"Not my specialty," Frost said. She slid behind her desk--she'd made her call from the front side--and began to type one-handed. The phone would take a Bluetooth headset. She ought to purchase one. "But I will have a look... These are diffusion tensor images, which record electrical activity in the white matter of the brain. And Agent Gates? These are green across the frontal cortex. All five of them."
"Color code. Assuming these are awake images, it indicates depressed levels of activity in the frontal cortex. And there are other--" She almost said anomalous, and checked herself. Clarity above convenience of speech. "--unusual patterns of activity consistent across all five."
"What does that mean?"
"I'm not qualified to diagnose, Agent Gates--"
"Doctor Frost," said Gates. "Are you qualified to speculate?"
"It's consistent with patterns of electrical activity seen in schizophrenics," she said, assured that Gates would know a speculation from an opinion.
"Show increased frontal lobe activity, in the limited sample available. As do you and Doctor Villette, Agent Gates. It's unmistakable, and this isn't it."
"Thank you," said Agent Gates.
"You are welcome," said Madeline Frost, because that was what one said to conclude a transaction, and severed the connection.
As they sat in a cramped observation room in the first of three mental institutions on their schedule for today, Todd flipped his phone closed. "Well, if he's trying to make gammas, he's doing it wrong."
"Small mercies," Reyes answered, without moving his eyes from the one-way glass they sat behind. Beyond it, curled in an armchair in an interview room, sat Melanie Wosczyna.
She was a tall young woman, hunched now into a spasmed curve, her elbows cramped against her ribcage. She had a long neck and a long nose and a long jaw. The strong architecture of her face made her slack disaffected expression more terrible. Todd thought she should have been working on smile lines by thirty. Over her pallor, her complexion was olive. Fluffy-curly brown hair was matted flat on one side, and her right hand twitched convulsively, first two fingers and thumb pressed together and jerking like the beak of a hungry bird.
Todd would have touched Reyes' elbow, but Reyes had already seen it. "Come on," he said, standing, and Todd fell in behind him, making his sure his footsteps didn't fall in the same rhythm. A whole different playbook with a victim than with a suspect. Here, they came as potential rescuers. As friends. Not to intimidate.
Melanie was medicated. She didn't look up as they entered, but her hand jittered faster. Todd knew his part in the scenario; he was the supportive observer. 'Deferential, glad to be of use, politic, cautious, and meticulous.' A battered couch stood against the wall, perpendicular to the desk and armchair. Todd assumed it, while Reyes moved across the small room silently to the knotted-up girl in the battered, burnt-orange chair.
Todd found himself wondering, as he often did, if institutions such as this one chose their furnishings with an eye towards repeat business. He had an uneasy Socialist inkling that when they reached the private institution where Hanson Cape was being cared for, they would find more appealing surroundings.
Reyes, with every appearance of unselfconsciousness, dropped a knee and crouched beside the victim's chair. "Hey, Melanie," he said, in conversational tones. "I'm Stephen. How are you?"
Not Agent Reyes. Not Doctor Reyes. No, softer and more oblique, an avuncular approach. This was the girl whose father was a likely-abusive binge drunk; Todd watched with respect as Reyes made himself seem small and soft and positioned himself so she had an escape, if she wanted it.
She didn't acknowledge him overtly, but Todd saw the dip of her eyelashes as her gaze slipped sideways. The antipsychotics were having some effect, and so was the Reyes charisma.
Her right hand jittered faster.
"Melanie," Reyes said, "do you understand me?"
Her mouth opened, and she made a sound that wasn't quite a wordless complaint, and also wasn't quite glossolalia. And then she said, with soft absolute clarity, "It's the rats."
"I can hear the rats underground. It smells like a ghost train. Can you smell it? And then there were cigarettes."
Not exactly word salad, either. But when Reyes gave Todd a tight sharp glance over his shoulder, Todd nodded. Disorganized thinking, loose or disassociated chains of speech. As if the subject were having difficulty stringing together coherent logic.
A check mark in the box.
In the meantime, Melanie was staring at Reyes as if she were absolutely captivated by whatever he might choose to impart.
Reyes looked her calmly in the eye and asked, "What are the rats saying?"
Melanie shook her head, jerky as a broken toy. "Baker, baker," she said, voice unresonant. A crushed guitar. "Is that your girl? Think she'll wait? We'll get you home. Hang on. Hang on."
Todd put his fingers to his mouth. Again--or still--with her hand. The motion, distressingly familiar.
"The rats are saying, 'baker?'" Reyes reached out and lifted her left hand, which was not moving in sympathy with the right. She looked at where he touched her--stared at it--but did not draw her hand away.
Todd was reminded of a seductive cult leader he'd known once, among whose disciples he'd lived, briefly and under cover. Reyes had that same charisma when he wanted it, that way of looking at you like you were the only important person on earth and the center of his world.
"I don't understand rat," she said. "It's a language I don't know. But they're talking about me down there. They got baker. They got clement. The ghosts need me. To tell their stories. Nobody cares about the ghosts. Nobody wants to tell their stories. They have to hear. It's for their own good."
Reyes rocked back, allowing her hand to drop back to her knee. Hallucinating schizophrenics not infrequently heard voices, or received strange instructions in code.
Todd hadn't heard of one hallucinating languages she didn't understand. Usually, under schizophrenic patterning, everything made sense. Too much sense, terrible towering inescapable inexorable sense.
"There's more death than on the wall," she said. "Plenty came home dead, just walking. The kids ran through fire. Right through it. And kept running. Burning. Baker, clement, mack. I fell off the wall. And all the King's horses."
Speaking of sense. She made sense, after a fashion. That was a terribly consistent stream of consciousness, when you got right down to it. And okay, she was medicated; she should be able to pull it together. But there was something about the pattern of what she was saying.
"If you crawl in a grave," Melanie said, "you come out dead the other side."
Todd concentrated on the motions of her hand, trying to isolate. No. It wasn't the motion of the hand. It was the motion of the fingers.
"Reyes," he said. "Look at her hand."
Reyes looked. "Give her your pen."
"Great," Todd said. "Let's provide the psychotic with a weapon." He pulled the green disposable roller ball from his jacket pocket and added his reporter's notebook, from the same supply that Brady had recently started filching from. In a moment, they had set up Melanie with both the writing implement and the writing surface, and she was staring at the page as if she meant to eat it. Then she looked away, eyes snapped up as if sighting on the horizon. And her hand began to move as if she had no idea it was tracing letters.
Baker, she wrote painstakingly. Clemente. Mac.
"Automatic writing," Todd said.
"Names," Reyes said, looking at him. "Names."
When it struck Todd, it hit like a lightning bolt, so hot and shocking he could not believe it had taken him that long. His hands went cold; the four walls of the room wobbled woozily as he pushed himself to his feet.
"Names on a wall," he said, and shook his head. "Names on the Wall."
"The Vietnam Memorial." Reyes scrubbed a hand across the tight curls of his receding hair. "And one that fell off it."
"Rats in tunnels." Todd bit off the words. "Speaking a language you don't know."
"Jesus." Reyes rubbed his mouth. "So why is a teenaged girl having post-traumatic flashbacks to Vietnam?"
"I don't know."
She looked up at Todd and blinked, clear hazel eyes, affectless expression. "Don't you remember?" she said. "You were there."
Todd could still taste that bile in the hall, ten minutes later. "Do we check the rest?"
Reyes nodded. "Make sure of the pattern. Oh, and get on the horn to Hafidha--"
"Baker, Clemente, Mac." Todd couldn't help but contrast the tenderness Reyes showed the victim with his current brusqueness, and wonder which was the lie. "MacDonald? MacAllister? MacLeod? Four Marines on a fireteam."
"Who's the fourth one?"
"Yeah," Todd answered. "I was wondering that myself."
"Right," Hafidha said into the phone, grateful that Reyes could not see her roll her eyes. "Yeah, two and a half names, all maybe in the same squad in the 'Nam. All maybe KIA. You need the other name and a half? Well, Kemo Sabe, I'm afraid we have a little problem here. No, the campus network is down. Yes, even a miracle worker needs a network. I'll call Worth and get Quantico on it, though. It's Friday night, Il Professore, how long do you think it's going to take?"
Nikki Lau was really good at the part with the grieving friends and families. She had a knack for it, a gift as absolute as Falkner's perfect pitch or Madeline Frost's time sense accurate to the second.
Being good at it, doing it all the time, didn't make it any less awful.
When she walked back into Hafidha's appropriated office, toting a short ton of Chinese takeout, she must have been showing it, because Reyes, of all people, grunted a greeting and pulled the box out of her arms. Lau stood inside the doorway, chafing her arms, trying to shake off an unseasonable chill. "I hope I didn't get too much," she said. "No Chaz."
"You have me," Hafidha answered brightly, snagging a tray of General Tso's chicken and a carton of rice right-handed while she grabbed up chopsticks with the left. "Paper plate?"
Reyes ducked out into the lounge and came back with Todd while Lau pulled plates from under the pile. She watched Hafidha and the other two scraping food out of containers and folded her arms across her chest. She didn't have any appetite of her own, though Hafidha was already on her second helping.
Lau startled when Todd put a plate of rice and Buddha's Delight in her hands, the partially-missing fingers folded under automatically. He hid it better than James Doohan: she'd known him six months before she'd realized he was maimed, and when she asked about it he'd told some improbable Vonnegutesque story about following a girl who didn't love him to a communal farm in New Hampshire, and nearly freezing and/or starving to death the first and only winter. "Mangia," he said. "Tea?"
"Yikes, yes," she said. He spun a chair for her; she sank into it, and balanced the plate on her knees. Once she started shoveling rice and bean sprouts and bamboo shoots and bell pepper and tofu and cornstarch sauce into her mouth, she almost couldn't stop to accept the tea cup. She realized she was shivering, cold as if she'd managed to get sunburned, but the tea helped.
"You know," Hafidha said, around a mouthful of fried animal protein, "we have an excuse for the blood sugar crashies. What happened to you?"
"Three victim family interviews and four friends in six hours," Lau answered. She realized she was talking with her mouth full, chewed, and swallowed. "I couldn't eat."
"It's easier when they're dead," Reyes said, between bites of spring roll. "What did you learn?"
She'd gotten around another mouthful of broccoli and tofu in the meantime. This time, she had recovered herself enough to hold up her hand and stall for time while she swallowed. "Nothing holds across the board," she said. "No consistent clubs or interests or sports. There's just one thing that, well, it's not exactly a consistency, but it's an echo. Of sorts. Two of the victims, Wosczyna and Gooding, had recently been victimized in other ways. Gooding got mugged at knifepoint on Spring Break in Fort Lauderdale, and Wosczyna had her car broken into, her laptop and some other things stolen."
"Somebody could have tracked her through the laptop," Hafidha said. She reached out sideways and patted her own machine, which sat quietly generating fractal screensavers.
"Hafidha," Reyes said, "check if the other victims were recent complainants in any kind of police report, would you?"
Her eyebrows went up, and her plate went down. She spun her chair around, fingers flying. "Argh. Dammit, boss, the network's still down. Let me try the PC..." She pushed her laptop aside and pulled the flimsy keyboard and mouse of the local Windows machine over with a discernable grimace. "Nope, nothing. I guess it's the old-fashioned way."
She snagged the phone off the desk, pulled a number two Ticonderoga pencil out of her braids, and began pushing buttons with the eraser, mouthing "They had better not assume I'm your secretary" at Reyes while she did.
Todd, Lau noticed, had stopped eating his spring roll. Reyes obviously noticed too, because he was staring at Todd, waiting for him to speak.
"Flyer," he said, as if he had been searching his memory banks for the word, and Reyes' eyes went wide. He stood up, set his plate aside, and barreled out of the dark cramped little room.
Hafidha hung up the phone and said, "All five of them. And before you ask, no, the DOD has not come through with that list of names yet."
Lau stood up to go after Reyes, but Todd held up a hand. "He's coming right back."
And so he was, wearing a single latex glove, a sheet of pale purple paper in the hand it covered. "Bag."
Lau, who had already set her food aside, produced one, and held it open until Reyes sealed up the flyer and two push pins and labeled the bag in indelible marker. He handed it to her, and she turned it around and read what was printed on the front.
BE AFRAID NO MORE
Seeing is believing
Milo Bail Student Center
"That's next door," said Hafidha, craning over Lau's shoulder.
Lau checked her watch. 8:18.
Todd was reaching for his jacket, Hafidha for her reinforced laptop case. Reyes was already out the door.
The four of them jogged in two rows, but didn't quite break into a run. Hafidha's sidearm bounced against her hip; the rest of her gear counterweighted it on the other side. The laptop swung with every stride, and adrenaline buzzed in her ears.
She'd missed this, and she wouldn't admit she missed it. Not in front of Reyes, who'd given her a place when developments beyond her control had converted her from an asset to the Secret Service to the sort of person adjudged a liability.
Most of the time, she had a pretty good line of patter in convincing herself that her new job and her new gifts made up for what they'd cost her: a job she'd loved, a normal life expectancy, reasonable grocery bills, and a guy who couldn't handle it when his lover started seeing and doing things other people didn't.
Most of the time.
The Milo Bail Student Center was a geometric concrete structure in the brutalist style, surrounded in the long north latitude summer evening by strolling and rough-housing undergrads. "We can't get into guns drawn here," Todd said, with a glance over his shoulder.
"No," Reyes answered, which might mean, yes, you're right, we can't have a shootout here, and might mean thank you, I have considered your objections and dismissed them. Todd jerked his head straight and patted his holstered sidearm. He didn't pop the snap, though.
Hafidha kept her own hands well away from the paddle holster of her Glock. "Do we call campus security?"
Reyes shook his head as if Hafidha should have known better than to ask. Stephen Reyes? El Generalissimo? Share authority? He said, "In here."
Todd was last through the door, glancing over his shoulder before he followed, covering their backs. Brady might insist on being the last man in line, but whether he was there or not, Hafidha appreciated that nobody got on their tail unnoticed while Todd was on the job.
As he caught up with them in the corridor, he said, "Guys, if this is a Vietnam vet targeting college students, and he's arranged a mentoring relationship with them, then based on the language in his flyer I think we need to consider the scenario Chaz presented, and be prepared for a charismatic leader situation."
"Charismatic leader?" Hafidha asked.
"Cult," Reyes said. "We have to get him away from the kids."
"Or they might sacrifice themselves to protect him. He will certainly be willing to sacrifice them." Todd's face was paper-colored, his lips bloodless.
"I heard Falkner was at Waco," Lau said, voice taut.
Todd nodded. "You heard right. You ever hear of a place called Jonestown, Guyana?"
Hafidha and Lau both nodded. Before her time, but not forgotten; the site of a mass murder/suicide of almost a thousand followers of the charismatic leader, Jim Jones. Hafidha resolved to google it up when she had Internet access again, and see if she could figure out what exactly was making Todd look like a binge drinker with room-spins. "You're saying he's brainwashed them."
"Common misconception," Reyes said. "It's not really brainwashing, not in the Hollywood sense. It's the imposition of a communal reality. Creating a sense of belonging. In-group versus out-group. Manipulation of the bonding impulse. Everybody wants to feel chosen."
Todd put a hand on Reyes' arm. "Remember," he said. "They're just a bunch of stupid kids."
When they came down the hall, Reyes knew he was already too late. Students stood in clusters outside room 114, chatting in groups of three or four. He took the nearest--a blond boy, five-eleven, one-eighty, gay, probably a Chemistry major by the caffeine molecule on his t-shirt--by the sleeve and turned him away from his boyfriend, ready for whatever reaction might follow. The kid dropped effortlessly into a balanced pose, his left hand moving to intercept an anticipated blow, the right turning to knock Reyes' left hand away.
Reyes, prepared, stepped back before the kid made contact. Whatever else, the potential UNSUB was teaching his students to take care of themselves.
Reyes asked, "Is the instructor still here?"
"Jim?" The boy blinked gray-blue eyes. "No, he went that way." He pointed down the hall. "With the advanced students. The wheelchair ramp, but he left ten--"
Reyes took off running, his team strung out behind him, Hafidha gaining with every stride of her long legs and the rest holding position. Undergrads flattened themselves against the corridor walls as Reyes bawled Coming through! Coming through!
Todd was yelling something too, maybe make a hole, while the women saved their breath for running. It didn't matter. When they reached the sidewalk, there was no one in sight except undergrads, moving industriously in the narrow space between red brick buildings. Evening was drawing up, a gray northern lengthening of the shadows.
"Wheelchair ramp," Reyes said, and Lau turned around and looked at it.
She said, "The self-defense instructor is in a wheelchair?"
"Vets," Todd said, shoving his left hand into his pants pocket in something Reyes thought was an unconscious gesture, "wind up missing a lot of body parts."
Reyes rocked on feet bruised sore from running on pavement in dress shoes. "Hafidha, I need to know who reserved that room--"
She already had her cell to her ear. She held up one finger, mumbling into the mouthpiece, and then said "Thank you" in a tone that didn't mean thank you at all and shook her head. "Network," she said, thumbing the red button, frustration dripping from every word. "Friday night at supper time. Nebraska." That last with infinite bitterness, though Reyes would wager that the IT departments of plenty of east coast colleges wouldn't have acquitted themselves any better. "I'll call Worth, one sec, and see if she has that squad roster for us yet--Daph, any luck? Oh, for the love of Mike. Hey, can you transfer me? No, I'll handle it. No, honey, you're doing fine, they just think they can walk on you because you aren't me. Transfer, please?"
What followed was one of the most polite ass-reamings Stephen Reyes had ever made it his pleasure to hear. By the time Hafidha was done, even Todd was looking at her with respect, and Lau had dilated pupils.
"Macgillivray," she said, finally, after a listening pause. "And the fourth fireteam member was James Cauldwell."
"James," said Lau.
Reyes said, "Jim."
Hafidha continued relaying: "All members of the 258th Marine Brigade; all saw service in Vietnam 1971-1972. The first three killed, the fourth critically wounded in April of 1972. Weren't we out of Vietnam by then?"
"Easter Offensive?" Reyes asked, looking at Todd.
Todd nodded. "Military advisors."
Hafidha looked between them. "I wasn't born yet," she said. "Okay, I have Quantico searching for a local address for Cauldwell. And--nothing. Wanna bet he's using an alias?"
"No bet," Reyes said. He turned, began to pace. "I cannot believe he's out there somewhere with potential vics, and we're stuck here at the mercy of a flaky network."
"It's like those nightmares where you're running up stairs ahead of the monster," Hafidha said.
Reyes whirled at the end of an arc, shook his head. "All right, next step. Todd, Lau. Head back in and interview as many students as possible. Maybe one of them knows where he takes the kids."
Todd and Lau nodded and withdrew. Todd still had his maimed hand fisted in his pants pocket. Reyes thought, Someday, Solomon, I will determine which of your stories are truth, and which are fiction.
"I've got another idea," Hafidha said, unlimbering her laptop. "This is a college campus. Somebody's got a wildcat Wi-Fi set up. And I saw warchalk on the way in."
Hafidha plumped down on the concrete where the building would cast a shadow over her screen, "Quoth Wikipedia, warchalking is: 'the drawing of symbols in public places to advertise an open Wi-Fi wireless network.' As opposed to those non-Wi-Fi wireless networks. They're hobo signs for geeks. Let me see what I can find."
Nothing, at first, though Hafidha was giving herself a headache from grinding her teeth. It had to be out there, though; she could see the paired semicircles from where she sat, chalked in yellow under a protective overhang, and she needed a network that bad. "Come on, baby," she said, petting the contact pad, ignoring the grumbles of her gastric system. "Find it."
Reyes leaned over her shoulder as if fascinated, even though she wasn't doing anything interesting. Hafidha grimaced and scooted a little left, closer to the symbol. If the Wi-Fi node ran off the campus network, she was hosed.
Somebody's baby's mind was at stake. She could not afford to be hosed.
Lau trotted back down the steps, vaulting the rail rather than making the turn. "Todd is getting the names of the five students he took with. At absolute worst we can contact families, get cell numbers, and start calling them. Get APBs out on their cars, if they didn't all travel in the same vehicle."
"Six in a single car?" Hafidha asked, without raising her eyes from the screen.
"Wheelchair," Reyes said. "Van."
Hafidha took a deep breath, shifted her buttocks again, let her fingertips hover over the keys, and prayed. Please just two bars of signal. Please. Just two bars--
As if someone had heard her, or that last scooch to the left had made the difference, blue dots flickered into existence at the bottom of the screen. Two, three, five glorious bars. "Hah!" she said. "Okay, I have it. Ten seconds."
In fact, the entire network seemed to have risen from the grave, and Hafidha silently retracted everything mean she had said about the IT department of the University of Nebraska, Omaha. She logged in, flipped to student activities, and in under six seconds had the name of the student organization that had reserved the room. And the names of its officers. And--
"James Baker," she said, and Reyes slapped his forehead.
"God damn," he said. "He's using the name of one of his buddies. Okay, check all four names, and all potential combinations for local addresses. Lau--"
But she had already vanished inside to fetch Todd.
In the car, on the way to Baker né Cauldwell's address, Hafidha's laptop maintained perfect signal, and--sitting in the back seat, typing away like a mad thing while Reyes drove--she shook her head at the miracle. Reyes was muttering something into his headset. Lau stared out the rear passenger-side window with stern concentration.
Todd, on the horn to one of Reyes' carefully selected sympathetic federal judges, was explaining that they were enroute to the home of a suspect linked to several victims whose families were prepared to swear they had been abused into emotional breakdowns, and would she please be so kind as to have her secretary fax the warrant to this number so Hafidha could print it out en route, yes I know it's Friday night, sorry my cell got dropped, yes that was me, I called back, witnesses place him in the company of five young people right now and there may be civilians in danger in the house as we speak, please send it on? Oh, thank you.
"What would we do without collusion?" Lau asked.
Reyes snorted through his nose.
"Uck," Todd said, staring at his closed phone, a muscle twitching in the corner of his jaw. "I kind of miss the Fourth Amendment."
"I am become Shiva, Destroyer of Worlds," Hafidha said, sympathetically. "El Jefe, honey, do we want to send Omaha PD on ahead?" Her stomach rumbled again. She rubbed it, mourning the half-eaten dinner back at the university. She was still hungry enough to feel dizzy, and she'd gone through her stash of almonds and peanut butter crackers already.
Damned beta metabolism. It sounded like fun until you had to live with it.
"No," Reyes said. "I don't want to send in a bunch of uninformed, unsupervised alphas when this could go cattywumpus in ways we can't begin to articulate. Tactical can meet us at the house. We go in together."
"Six of them," she reminded, and touched her gun. "Four of us."
"One of them," Reyes said. "Five potential hostages. Four of us."
She checked the laptop again, and the GPS. "Five minutes inbound. I wish Brady were here. Okay, more info. Cauldwell, or Baker, has been teaching that self-defense class for seventeen years. Under an assumed name the whole time. Go figure."
"Maybe he was hiding from the government," Todd said, dryly. "He's not registered with the local VA."
"He must have converted over the summer. Oh. Here. Isn't this interesting. Jessica Cauldwell. Age 34. Local resident. UNO graduate, actually. Raped and murdered in her home in June of last year--"
"His daughter?" Lau asked, incredulous. "Please, tell me he didn't."
"No," Hafidha said, and Lau let out a long shuddering breath. "They caught a perp, DNA match. Actually, the BAU were involved; she was his third vic. But none of this makes any sense. Why was he using an alias seventeen years before he apparently converted?"
Reyes said, "He was concealing his identity from his daughter. I bet you'll find he started teaching that self-defense class around the time she matriculated. He wanted to be close enough to keep an eye on her, and she didn't know him and had some reason to think she didn't want to know him. Mom unhappy about getting half a husband back from the war?"
"I won't take that bet," said Todd, shoulders rising around his ears.
Hafidha's stomach clenched. "God, does anybody have a candy bar? I'll pay back with interest."
Todd reached back into the pocket where he'd stowed the cell phone, and came up with a Twix. He handed it to her diagonally across the car with his left hand. Hafidha snatched the candy. Sol had started the wrapper for her, which was the only reason she could manage it with shaking fingers. She shoved chocolate-coated cookie twigs into her mouth, barely chewing, smearing her fingers and face like a child's. "God, not enough. Send peanuts. Anything."
When she lifted her head, she caught sight of Reyes' steady gaze in the mirror. "Doctor Stephen, are you driving?"
"Hafidha," he answered, "what on earth are you using as a Wi-Fi spot?"
"It's the same Wi-Fi spot."
"For the last fifteen miles?"
Hafidha's racing thoughts crashed like the Three Stooges coming up to a flight of stairs. Her hands reached for the keyboard, jerked back, fell to the sides. "Oh," she said, in a very little voice. "Campus network. City network? Omaha have municipal Wi-Fi?"
"I just got off the phone with President Woodward," Reyes said. "He mentioned that the university network is still down. How are you feeling back there, Hafidha?"
Oh god. A catastrophic wave of understanding shook her. She grabbed the lid of the laptop and pulled it nearly shut without powering the machine down.
Reyes' eyes were still seeking hers in the mirror, and how the hell was he driving the car? But he didn't pull over, and he didn't turn around.
It was, on one level, a tremendous display of trust. His back was to her. She was sitting immediately behind him, and even though Lau and Todd had turned to stare, neither one had a weapon in hand.
"I feel like me?" He watched her in the mirror, silent. Waiting for what she'd say next. "Would I know, if--?"
"I don't know," Reyes said. "What do you think is going on?"
"Breakthrough," she said, looking down at the logo on the lid of the laptop on her knees, jammed against the back of his seat. The printer, between her feet, began to chatter. "I'm manifesting. A real manifestation, not a half-assed one like seeing colors. An external ability."
"Hafs," Lau said, back against the passenger door. Todd's hand was inside his jacket. She didn't blame them at all.
She said, "The network is me."
"I concur," Reyes answered. And then he glanced sideways at Todd, and continued, "This could be a normal stage of the beta cycle, okay? Don't freak yourself out."
She held up her hand. Her big silver ring spun loosely on her finger. Her watchband drooped from her wrist. "I'm really, really hungry, man."
"Okay." He turned down a side street. Reflexively, Hafidha checked the GPS. They were still headed the right way. "We're on a timeline, here. I need you. If we don't stop, are you going to eat anybody in the car?"
Not a joke. Not given some of the things they'd seen over the years. Rather, a perfectly reasonable request for vital information. The fact that they had a job where that was a perfectly reasonable request for vital information notwithstanding.
Hafidha's hands tightened convulsively on the edges of the laptop. "No. I think I can survive without resorting to cannibalism. Lau, don't think I didn't see you reach for that gun--"
"Actually," Lau said, and handed Hafidha two fortune cookies, palmed from her pocket. She must have shoved them there on the way out the door.
"Marry me," Hafidha said, and ripped the first one out of the wrapper.
"Eat fast," Reyes ordered, pulling the purple Intrepid to the curb in a semi-rural residential neighborhood on the outskirts of town. Hafidha glimpsed cornfields through the cottonwood trees behind the ranch-style houses. "We're here. Unless you need to wait in the car."
"Not on your life," Hafidha said, through crumbs. "Sorry, chief." In her best Max Smart. He was letting her come with them?
Yes, of course. Where the team could keep an eye on her. Where the guns were, if everything went wrong.
Reyes was a gambler at heart. And you never won big unless you risked big. That was the way the game was rigged.
Hafidha tore the warrant off the printer one-handed. The appropriate house was immediately obvious: half a block down the street, and the only one with a van with handicapped plates in the driveway, and a wheelchair ramp up to the front door.
"Do we go hard?"
"He's a cornered gamma," Reyes said, as two tactical vans pulled up behind them. "What do you think?"
All the shades in the unassuming white ranch were drawn, and behind them, all the lamps in every room seemed lit. In a movie, there might have been a shadow cast against the curtains to tell them where the bad guy was. But all they had was speed and ten SWAT guys in black armor and face masks.
Lau and Reyes went down the street informing the residents to bring their kids and pets inside, though Hafidha was certain that the instant they turned away, faces would be appearing in every front-facing window.
Doors are not as easy to kick down as they look on TV, and Brady was back in Virginia. But nobody needs melodrama when they have a hooligan tool. Todd retrieved the fireman's forcible-entry wrecking bar from the trunk while Hafidha was velcroing her body armor on, and the team split up. Half the SWAT group and two Federal agents each front and back.
Hafidha went to the front, with Todd. Reyes watched her walk away through narrowed eyes. She felt it like a pressure coming off her shoulders when he turned away.
It was okay. Duke would keep an eye on her.
Reyes and Lau reported that they were in position at the back door. Todd inserted the claws of the hooligan tool into the crack around the door and twisted it to pop the lock. The doorframe splintered on the bolt, and the panel swung heavily inward. "FBI!" Hafidha shouted. "Federal Agents!"
She swung left as Todd swung right, clearing the living room--all tile floors and plenty of room for a wheelchair--pushing back, the SWAT guys a widening arc behind them. "Clear," Todd called, and she yelled back an affirmation. A sunporch on her side. Reyes' voice from the kitchen. And then from across the living room, Todd: "Here, here. Federal Agent! Mister Cauldwell, we have a warrant--"
Hafidha spun, crossed the living room, ducking between SWAT guys to reach Todd, silhouetted in a doorway leading to an empty space beyond. She came up beside him, hard hold, front stance, the Glock locked at the apex of a modified Weaver grip. Todd sidestepped to make room. The two of them filled the door.
This must once have been the den.
Now it was an empty room with a white tile floor. A broad-shouldered double amputee of about sixty, cheekbones bright through his skin above the beard, sat in a manual wheelchair at the far end. A young man knelt beside him. Four other students crouched on the floor between Cauldwell and the door like huddled frogs, pens in their hands, each bent over scattered sheets of the same eight-and-a-half-by-eleven paper that was stacked against each wall. Piles of it, all covered over with handwriting, the paper crumpled and randomly arrayed.
They were writing, each one scribbling away as if oblivious to the SWAT officers and the shouting FBI agents, as if writing--relentlessly, with tongues protruding in concentration--were the only way to stop the end of the world.
The student who knelt by Cauldwell, an Asian boy who looked like he should still be in high school, wrote also. His paper was propped on the armrest of the wheelchair, and he seemed oblivious to the fact that Cauldwell held a Ka-bar fighting knife against his throat, stroking his hair with the other hand.
The room was brilliantly lit by torchieres and a hanging chandelier. Hafidha could see the vacant expressions, the tears shining on the student's cheeks. The creak of SWAT officers breathing behind her was almost drowned out by the buzz of adrenaline's ugly, alluring song.
She was an awful human being to miss this so much.
She cleared her throat and said, "James Cauldwell. Federal agents. Put down the knife."
As, beside her, Todd said, "Reyes," and stepped to the side as Reyes and Lau came up through the SWAT team.
The children just kept writing. Hafidha had the shot. Reyes told himself he was only worried about the knife. The knife, and five children scratching words on paper. "James Cauldwell?" he said.
"Don't tell me. You're from the government and you're here to help." Cauldwell stroked the hair of the boy in his lap. He was gray-haired, bearded, his upper body massive from using his arms for everything his legs could no longer do for him. He must have been getting adequate nutrition because he still carried that muscle, though his face had been whittled gaunt by his illness. He had light eyes, framed by a squint, and his button-down shirt was open at the collar.
He looked like Santa Claus.
"James. I'm Stephen Reyes. I'm with the FBI and I need you to put the knife down now, man. Nobody's died. You haven't done anything that can't be fixed." A patent lie, with five children in mental institutions, but you used what you had. "Nobody has to die. We want to get you some help." Reyes had three good agents at his back, and a hallway full of SWAT guys. He tipped his head at Hafidha: tall, implacable, a comic-book heroine in her black jeans and ballistic vest and beaded yellow-streaked this-a-way that-a-way braids. "But you should know that my partner here is a very good shot."
"Bullets," Cauldwell said. "Who cares?"
Carefully, feeling his way, Reyes slipped his semiautomatic back into the high-impact plastic holster on his left hip. It clicked as it settled into place, and he brought his left hand back up slowly. "Is this how you teach your students to defend themselves?"
Cauldwell lifted the restraining hand from the boy's hair, but the boy stayed crouched before him, pressing his throat willingly to the blade of Cauldwell's knife. "I teach them to take care of themselves. I teach them to fight. It's for their own good. It's a jungle out there."
He laughed at his own joke; Reyes schooled himself not to wince at it. "I met one of your students at the college," Reyes said. "You teach them how to defend themselves, all right. And I met another one of your students at a mental institution. Melanie. What did you teach her?"
"I taught her to remember," Cauldwell said. He touched the hair of the boy writing beside him. "This is Peter. His parents were refugees. It might have been me that made them refugees. Peter is a medium. His spirit guides put him in touch with the other side."
"His spirit guides," Reyes said. "Baker. Clemente. Macgillivray."
"They can teach you about the jungle. They try protect us all," Cauldwell said. "But there are too many of us. They would teach you, too."
Cauldwell used Peter's name. He personalized him. Not just for Reyes. For himself. "James," Reyes said. "Listen to me. Put down the knife. You don't want to hurt Peter. I know you don't."
Cauldwell shivered. "Nobody can protect him. You can't protect him, Stephen Reyes. I've tried. I've tried to save him."
Todd and Hafidha still had the door. Lau was right behind them. Reyes gritted his teeth, thought about their line of fire, and said, softly, gently: "The way you couldn't protect Jessica?"
Cauldwell looked into Reyes' eyes, and Reyes feels the reach. The touch, the hard clutch, the black-water calm of the anomaly. And then jungle, sweat, heat, swamp, savagery. The way the knife goes into flesh, the scrape on bone and the suck when you pull it free. The burning children. The trickles of red thin blood left behind when you pry loose the leeches. The young refugee women, so emaciated they look like old men. The hard bulge of a fat tick in your ear, filling the canal, too swollen on blood to pry loose in the field.
You can feel the legs wriggling, sometimes.
"Exorcise it," Cauldwell says. "It's okay. Give it voice. Give them voice. Exorcise them. Here. I'll show you. You have to learn, Stephen Reyes. It's for your own good. You can't save anyone."
He raises the black, glittering, enormous pen, brandishes it with a dramatic flourish. A sheet of white paper spreads, waiting, across his lap, ready to be scribed with red irrevocable words.
"No," Reyes cries, lunging forward, because of course what the gamma has in his hand isn't a pen--
The loudest sound in the world knocked Stephen Reyes to his knees.
The knife rose. Reyes dove, impossibly far. There were still four victims on the floor between him and Cauldwell and the hostage.
Hafidha rolled her finger on the trigger.
She fired once. Twice. Cauldwell's powerful shoulders bulged as he heaved himself up in the chair, lifting the knife. Thrice. A fourth time. He might be dead already, but four bullets would not stop him. Gamma. Hafidha was in front of Lau, and Reyes lunged up into her line of fire. "Dammit!" Somehow, she stopped the fifth shot. Sent it into the ceiling, upward jerk of her hands. Shit. Not gun safety, man. "REYES!"
Not listening. No, both hands on the gamma's knife wrist, scrambling over the Asian kid, who was rolling on the floor, being kicked, clutching his pen, jabbing through paper, still writing.
Cauldwell might not have any legs from mid-thigh down, but he had inches on Reyes across the shoulders, and the Kevlar wouldn't do much against a stab. The gamma tumbled from his wheelchair, pulled Reyes to the floor, rolled atop him. Matte-finished knives don't glint, but Hafidha swore the thing winked wickedly as Cauldwell reared back, kneeling on his stumps, broke Reyes' grip on his wrist. Cauldwell's blood fountained with every breath.
One shot, Hafidha thought, as Todd stepped up beside her.
She took a hard grip on the butt of her pistol, dropped her gaze to the front sight, and pressed off one more as Todd's gun roared on her right.
The gamma jerked. The knife didn't fall.
Follow through. Resight. Press. And again. And again. Todd, too. One more. The gamma's head was a fine red mist now, let's be honest, but once the adrenaline starts pulling the trigger, the trigger gets pulled. She rattled like shaken paper. It was okay.
Cauldwell teetered and the last pair of rounds--hers, and Duke's--caught him square in the chest and knocked him back. The knife in his convulsing hand chinked off the floor.
Reyes rolled to the side and squirmed out from under, pulling his knees up, grimacing behind a mask of blood. His mouth worked. He wouldn't spit at the crime scene, but Hafidha didn't blame him for wanting to.
She lowered the firearm, but kept it ready, listening to the last hiss of Cauldwell's breath through his ruined face. He looked like the autopsy photos of Bugsy Siegel.
"Blood precautions," Reyes said. "How's the kid?"
Todd picked his footing through the room like a stag moving through the woods in autumn. He knelt beside the Asian boy, who curled tight, face to knees, shoulders shaking with panicked breath. Gently, he prised the pen from the young man's fingers.
"He's stopped writing." Todd laid the pen back down beside his hand.
This time, Todd was waiting when she came in. Not behind the desk, in the alpha-wolf chair, or in the nappy burnt orange lounger... but seated leaning forward on the ratty sofa beside the door. She didn't see him at first; she expected the visitor to have taken the position of power, and she scanned the far side of the room, her forehead wrinkling.
"Melanie," he said. Softly, so she didn't jump.
The antipsychotics were probably making her thick-headed anyway, and then there was the schizophrenic suppression of affect. Her eyes were glazed, the blink-rate too slow. But, eventually, she focused on him.
"Sit down?" he said.
She nodded. He expected her to share the couch, but she plunked down on the floor.
Oh, no. I wonder where I've seen that before?
He scooted off the couch and landed crosslegged in front of her, corduroy binding his thighs. "I just came to see how you were doing. I'm--"
"Agent Todd," she said. "I remember you. You're one of the FBI guys."
She said, "My mom brought me newspaper clippings. She said Jim used drugs to make us see things that weren't real?"
Todd looked down at his hands, at the hangnail on his right thumb. "We're not exactly sure how it worked."
"I liked him." She closed her eyes. "He was nice to me. Not like--"
Yeah, kid. Todd wanted to reach out and put a hand on her shoulder, but that would be inappropriate. Sorry your surrogate father-figure turned out to be a monster, too. And it wouldn't help her at all for him to tell her it wasn't Cauldwell's fault. Go ahead and hate him for a while. It makes it easier. "It wasn't your fault," Todd said.
Sometimes, all you can offer is absolution.
She licked cracked lips. Her eyes stayed down. "The doctor says I'm making progress. But I can still feel--"
The heat. The brush of leaves against your face. The way your foot slips in mud inside a waterlogged boot.
"He broke my life," she said. "I want it back. I want it--"
"Hey," Todd said. "Melanie. Look at me."
She lifted her chin.
"It's like a car wreck, okay? It happened. You got hurt. But the war is over, kiddo. You made it through. Everything is going to be okay now."
And Todd took a breath and smiled, and lied like a fox. She'd figure it out eventually, the lie and the reasons for it, after she didn't need so badly to believe it anymore. "Really. It just takes time, is all."
Upon due consideration, Chaz concluded that the real reason Reyes usually didn't bring Hafidha into the field was that they missed her too much during the administrative leave, should she happen to shoot somebody. Todd was out too, of course, also due back today. And Worth, Brady, Falkner, and Lau were on a case in Seattle, leaving Chaz and Reyes to mind the ranch, keep the home fires burning, and wrangle clichés.
Fortunately, so far the field team had been getting by on old fashioned street-pounding, but Chaz had been quietly terrified that the call would come in for some heavy database herding and he'd be the only one available to do it. So when somebody said from the doorway, "Hey, Platypus, get out of my chair," he almost crowed with joy.
Instead, he blanked and locked the screens--reflexively: Falkner was a bit of a martinet about it and Hafs was worse--rose awkwardly and said, "Hey! It's Eliot Ness! There's still six doughnuts in the kitchen."
She tipped her head and smiled. "You wrote it on your calendar."
He tapped his forehead. And went to fetch her food.
The doughnuts delivered, Chaz leaned a hip against the desk a few feet from where Hafidha sat and watched her eat the first two. "How did it go with Dad?"
She shrugged, and washed down jelly doughnut with a swallow of milk. "I think Il Dottore would like to put a tracking collar on me, and maybe a microchip in my butt so they know where to ship me home to if I stray. But since I've spent the last three weeks jumping through every hoop he can devise, my veto held. Did we figure out the mechanism in the Omaha case?"
"It was catharsis," he said, when her mouth was full of doughnut again. "They thought he was teaching them to contact spirits. But he was just channeling his own trauma through them, over and over again. Slamming neurons to induce hallucinations. Retraining their brains to operate like the minds of schizophrenics. And one by one, they were going mad."
"We say 'experiencing a psychotic break,'" Hafidha said, swilling coffee.
Chaz took a deep breath. "How much of it do you think was the anomaly, and how much was Vietnam, and how much was just James Cauldwell?"
She stared, and he backtracked hastily.
"You did the right thing," he said. "I didn't mean to suggest otherwise. You doing better on the food front?"
She lifted her chin, still staring. He saw it from his peripheral vision, because he wasn't looking at her directly. "Starting to gain some weight back," she said. "There were a couple of bad days there. I honestly couldn't eat enough to keep up. You're worried. About you."
"Well, duh." He looked at his wristwatch. "Breakthrough. It's scary."
She shrugged. She was still staring, so he figured he might as well stop faking inattention. When his eyes slid over to her, she said, "Well, except for the part where I did it without even noticing. Seriously. It's a great toy, Chaz. I have wireless. Everywhere. And hey, look at this!"
She turned to the computers. She wiggled her left hand as if on the mouse. Screens lit up, data scrolled.
Chaz felt his pupils dilate. "I am totally sick with envy, you know."
"I know," she said. "I would be too. That's why I'm buying you lunch today."
"I just cancelled my broadband, smarty-boy. I've got thirty-nine bucks a month I've got to blow on something, and my closet's already full of shoes."
It was hard to stay jealous around somebody so damned pleased to be themselves. "You really like this, don't you?"
"I really, really do." There was an edge on it, though. A kind of melancholy. Chaz was a good enough profiler to catch it when it hit him between the eyes.
And he was a good enough profiler to defuse it, too. "Man, why do you get all the good stuff? If I got a manifestation, it would probably be miraculous projectile vomiting." His voice wobbled. He hadn't realized it wasn't a phrase you could say with a straight face.
"Bah. You have your uses."
He grinned, but she wasn't over being half-sad. Her fingers moved, a little twitch, as if she were keyboarding. They never left the arms of her chair. Screen savers blossomed everywhere. She turned and gave him a look. "I liked the field, too," she said. "I miss the heart-racing thing, sometimes."
"Even when you wind up shooting somebody?"
Okay, way to go, cowboy. Smooooth. He waited for her face to crumple, for the shakes in her hands. It's what he would have done.
But she just looked down at them and shook her head. "He was trying to put a knife in Reyes, honey. I feel okay about it, actually." And then she took a big deep breath and said, "Hey Chaz?"
"If... if anything bad happens?" She held up her pinky, crooked. "Promise me you won't let me do anything like that to anybody, man? You'll do what you have to? Pinky-swear?"
"You won't." He hooked his own pinky around hers, feeling the dry warmth of her skin. He hoped she wouldn't notice that he hadn't promised. "Pinky-swear."
She looked at him for a long time before she nodded and pulled back her hand.
"People," Chaz said, shaking his head. "You think you know a girl, and she turns out to be a gunslinger." He was angling for a laugh, and didn't get it. Dammit, this had not been supposed to be an awkward conversation, all sharp angles and obliques. He swallowed. And then he stepped away from her chair. "Like this thing with the will, and my mom."
Oh, there it was. The track he'd needed to get around to the thing he had to say, and didn't know how: You're not what I thought you were, Hafidha. But it doesn't matter, because you are still and will always be my friend.
Still, and always. The only person in the world who got it, or ever would.
He could get there from here. He could tell, because she made a circle with one hand and asked, "You going to go to Texas?"
"Eventually." He shrugged. "In my copious spare time. But yeah, I think I can face it. It's just a house she used to live in, right?"
"It's just the place where she grew up," Hafidha said. She picked up a third doughnut and took a bite, and handed him the fourth. "It worries you."
"I thought I knew who she was," he said. "I remember her really well. Nobody in the foster system believed that, you know. They thought I was making things up. And I know--" He shook his head. It took a deep breath to get through the pain trying to lock his throat. "--I know she didn't leave me on purpose. But that's the way addiction works. The addiction is more important than anything else, in the end. It's like cancer. It eats everything it touches. Oh, damn. "
The tension in the muscles of his face made his head ache, all the way around to the back. Hafidha reached out, softly, and touched his hand. "Can't do that with the wireless in my head," she said, to make him smile.
He blinked rapidly, and got the stinging in his eyes under control.
She pulled her hand back. "While we're on the topic, c'mere. Wanna show you something. I got nosy while I was out. One more fucking Minnesota Multimoronic Personality Inventory and I was going to bite somebody. Probably El Jefe. "
Chaz turned to see her screens. The screensaver zipped off and a page of text popped up front and center. It looked like a scanned magazine article, dated early 1978. "'One Thousand In Guyana.' Solomon Todd. Oh, my."
"You knew he was a reporter before he was FBI."
"I didn't know he was a reporter in fucking Jonestown."
"Well," she said. "I guess he got out before."
"Before," Chaz echoed. She meant: before nine hundred and nine people died in a mass-murder/suicide of Biblical proportions. Chaz shook his head. "You'd never guess it to look at him, would you?"
Hafidha looked at Chaz, and shook her head, smiling. "No. You'd never guess." And then she said, very carefully, "You think you understand people, you know? You know what they eat, you know how they take their coffee." She gestured with the pastry in her hand. "You know what kind of doughnuts they like. So you think you know them. You think you know yourself."
"Yeah," Chaz said, understanding. "You think so. And then you don't. You really don't."
He touched her shoulder. She laid her cheek against his knuckles briefly.
He said, "But that's okay."
He who makes a beast out of himself gets rid of the pain of being a man.
-- Samuel Johnson