2.06 "Cuckoo" - by Emma Bull, Elizabeth Bear, & Leah BobetAct I | Act II | Act III | Act IV | Act V
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
January 2009, Highway 301, Potomac River
In the shadows below the Governor Harry Nice Memorial Bridge, a small figure in an aluminum rowboat poled up to a bridge piling. The thin, strong arms that worked the pole showed bare below t-shirt sleeves, pale as the underside of a snake in the light off the cloud cover. A particularly forceful jab-and-push bounced mouse-brown hair off a pallid face; eyeglass lenses reflected for an instant before the hair shuttered them again.
A bundle filled the bottom of the boat end to end, humped over the benches, leaving just enough room for the person with the pole to sit. It was wrapped untidily in what might once have been someone's living room drapes; the dim light showed hints of stripes and flowers where the bundle rose above the rowboat's flanks.
The figure leaned out of the boat to grab a twisted stalk of rebar left poking out of the concrete by some past repair and loop the painter clumsily around it. The current swept the boat around, three o'clock to six o'clock, pointing its stern downriver.
Large as the bundle was, it seemed no work at all for the person in the boat to get those skinny arms under it and lift. It rolled onto the gunwale, and the boat tipped steeply toward the rushing water. Whatever its contents, the bundle wasn't light.
There was no splash when it hit the water, not with such a short distance to drop. For a moment the fabric bloused, catching air on the river's surface. Then it disappeared into the clouded Potomac.
The figure clambered over the prow of the rocking boat onto the bridge piling, untied the painter, and--one-handed against the current--pulled the boat in close. Bare fingers wedged under one of the boat's aluminum ribs and pulled. The rib tore upward with a screech and pop of rivets. The same fingers pried apart the sheet metal seam underneath.
Water pushed shining and dark up through the split. The figure let go of the painter. The rowboat was already sinking as the current whirled it away.
The figure plunged into the river and swam awkwardly, swiftly, across the current toward the nearer shore. Close to the bank the swimmer found the silted, shifting bottom underfoot and rose, just as a half moon broke the cloud cover. It showed a woman emerging from the river--scrawny under the soaked and clinging t-shirt and water-dark jeans.
She stalked out onto the beach, high-stepping like a heron, the narrow margin of ice crunching under her canvas high-tops. On level ground she plucked the glasses off her nose and shook herself like a dog. Water showered from her hair. If she felt the cold, she didn't show it.
She walked a quarter mile through coarse brush and trees to a white panel van parked on the dirt access road. As she unlocked the driver's door she hummed softly; the tune came and went, uncertain in the meandering notes. Careless of the faded upholstery and her wet clothes, she climbed in and shut the door.
On the passenger's seat beside her lay a scuffed blue spiral notebook labeled "197" in heavy black marker, and a fine-point gel pen. She propped the notebook on the steering wheel, flipped to a half-filled page, and began to write in the faint light off the clouds. Her movements were quick, sharp, graceless and efficient as a typewriter smacking metal against its platten. The pen pressed hard on the paper, nearly through it, though her face was calm. She continued to hum as she wrote, softer and with less tune.
The notebook was college-ruled; she fitted two lines of tiny, spiky handwriting between each blue line, ignoring the printed margins and writing from the wire spiral to the paper's edge.
At the bottom of the page she finished the line with a flourish, and the point dug a hole in the sheet. She slapped the notebook closed.
The passenger footwell held an open-topped cardboard box of fat manila envelopes. Their top edges were labeled, illegible in the shadow under the dash. She pulled out the first one, folded up the metal clasp to open it, and dumped the contents on the passenger seat.
A photocopy of an Albuquerque Journal article from 2002: "Suspect arrested in high-rise bombing," with a photo of a handcuffed man between two FBI agents: a sturdy, graying-blond, smiling white man and a smaller black man whose grave expression looked comfortable on his face.
A printout of a Maxwell's Grove Online article from 2007: "MG's Old Dogs win league," with a photo of fit, sixtyish men in softball uniforms. The one on the far left was the smiling man from the newspaper photo.
College transcripts. Pages from a phone bill. A two-gig thumb drive. Photos of the smiling man--surveillance photos, showing him unaware, unalarmed. In several he was with a red-headed woman in her late fifties, well-dressed, also smiling, usually at him.
A half-dozen credit cards. A New Jersey driver's license, the photo emphasizing the man's square face and the gray in his hair.
The driver smoothed her thumb over the smiling face in the photo, as if petting it. Her eyes narrowed, and her humming rose in volume.
She stacked the collection of documents and added the spiral notebook. Then she slid everything into the manila envelope. The label at the top edge was incomplete; a name, and "1952 --." With her gel pen, the driver filled in "2009" after the dash and tucked the envelope into the cardboard box in the footwell.
There were over two dozen envelopes in the box.
Twilight sloped down the streets of the Federal District. Quitting time for the U.S. Government. Pedestrians bustled like ants for the nearest Metro stop. Cars queued like cattle in a loading chute, leaving parking garages. Limos double-parked or waited at red curbs or intimidated lesser vehicles to press into traffic bound for the on-ramps. Commercial trucks and vans brought work to the night shift, or slipped a delivery into a mail room just under the next-day wire.
No one would notice another white van.
The woman had to stretch her spine to look into the viewscreen of the camera braced on the steering wheel. Its long lens watched the entrance of a parking garage reserved for federal employees. The woman and the camera were equally, inhumanly patient.
In the passenger seat lay a new spiral notebook, "198" printed thick and precise on the clean cover.
At the sight of a black 2007 Cadillac CTS-V passing the rising gate, the woman stiffened and drew a quick breath through her teeth. The car paused for foot traffic on the sidewalk, and she focused and clicked. She kept clicking as the car turned right toward the van, passed it, turned left at the end of the block.
Her focused stillness was gone. She pushed the camera into the passenger's seat and snatched up the notebook, flipped three pages in to the first blank sheet. She wrote; like automatic writing, the gel pen travelled hastily, ceaselessly, across the page, two lines of writing for each ruled space. It was as if a library of information was stored in the woman's brain, moved into ink on paper at a desperate speed. As if outrunning fire or flood or some other menace that ate knowledge.
She hummed some fast, unrecognizable song. There was no emphasis to mark the beginnings or ends of measures.
Outside the kitchen it was dark. Inside there was no day or night, only the hundred-watt bulb in the ceiling fixture and the cut-up army surplus blankets stapled tight across the window over the sink and the panes in the back door.
The formica-and-steel-tubing kitchen table was once a place to prepare meals and eat them. The small woman ate standing up at the counter, straight from the saucepan, though the canned ravioli were hot enough to burn. Then she turned to the table, with its photo printer and the cardboard box stuffed with folders.
She pushed the camera's memory chip into the slot in the printer and jabbed buttons. The printer clunked and whined pages out, like a girl in a fairy tale who spat toads when she spoke. The room smelled of canned tomato sauce and waterproof ink.
When the printer subsided, the woman pulled the sheets off its tongue, sat down in the single chair, and fanned the photos on the table top.
Sometimes the glare off the Cadillac's windshield hid the driver's face. But most of the shots were clear. The person behind the wheel was the grave-faced dark-skinned man from the newspaper photo of the FBI agents. His hands rested at ten and two o'clock, and his collar and tie were still precise even when he thought no one could see him.
The woman smoothed her thumb across the imaged face, as if she could feel the shape of it. Her lips moved, turning her humming into words hung on the ruins of a tune and a scrambled rhythm: "...air you breathe, food you eat, friends you greet in the--"
Her mouth snapped closed. She sat motionless, silent, as if waiting for an answer, or listening to one. After a deep breath that might have been relief, she began to hum again. She yanked the first envelope out of the box, squared the printed photos' edges on the table, and slid them in.
With her gel pen she wrote across the top of the envelope, "Reyes, Stephen S. 1958 -- "
"There's no one here to witness and appreciate your diligence."
The voice startled Stephen Reyes, dragged his eyes away from the view of the building across the street.
Esther Falkner stood in the door of his office in a blue pullover sweater and jeans, a slightly lumpy crocheted scarf draping her neck, a quilted coat he didn't recognize hanging from one finger over her shoulder. Her dark hair was pulled back above her temples, but otherwise lay loose down her back.
Mr. Hoover would not approve. Good.
"You realize that, don't you?" she added.
He considered a moment before he said, "You're here."
It got a one-cornered smile out of her. Lately he rejoiced every time he caused someone to do anything other than frown or look blank.
"All right." She shrugged the shoulder under the coat. "I bear witness."
"That depends on why you're here. If it's just showing off..."
"For whom? There's no one here."
That earned him a larger smile, and a nod that substituted for a laugh, and a general unbending that encouraged him to say, "Come in. Sit. What are you doing in the office on the Sabbath?"
"Bekk's spending the weekend with her cousins--learning to ski, and I hope, not learning to break any bones. To preempt sulking, Ben took Deb on a day's worth of father-daughter bonding."
"Which explains where they are." Reyes tried hard to look expectant but not satirical.
The satire was all in Falkner's voice. "I suppose I could have gone for a facial and a pedicure."
She would, but only if he ordered her to. Falkner lived by duty, and the duties she observed most faithfully were to her family and her work. She knew as well as Reyes, so there was no point in saying it aloud, that she had a duty to herself as well. She only acknowledged that one if ignoring it threatened to interfere with the other two. Reyes doubted the philosophy, but Falkner's application of it had always been effective.
So he leaned back in his chair, pressed his fingertips together (and thought, My Magneto pose, but it was too late to change it), and told her, "Nonni Peretti called me this morning at home."
Falkner's head pulled back, and she frowned. She also tossed her coat on the hook by the door and sat in the chair on the other side of the desk. "I haven't heard from Nonni since... I thought she didn't like you?"
"No one likes me, remember?" He smiled, to tell her she didn't need to respond one way or the other to that. "It took a bit of chitchat before she nerved herself to ask if I'd seen Larry."
"What?" The furrows between Falkner's brows were as deep as he'd ever seen them.
"He goes to the gym every Wednesday. Wednesday before last, he kissed her goodbye--I assume, knowing Larry--and went out the door with his gym bag. Nonni was away all day working the Red Cross blood drive. When she came home, he wasn't there. No notes, no message on the machine, no sign he'd ever come back."
"A week and a half. She's just now asking?"
"As soon as the police would take one, she filed a missing persons report."
Falkner's mouth twisted, as if she'd found something sour on her tongue. "Priorities," she pronounced, infinitely dry.
"It happens. A husband or wife goes out to fetch the Sunday paper, a quart of milk, to move the car around the block, and just...never comes home."
"And knowing Larry...?"
Reyes wanted to say that anything was possible, that we never really know the people we work with, that people change. Those things were true, but right now he hated every one of them, and didn't want to give them voice. "Larry, that infinite source of sexist jokes and just-us-guys bullshit, loves Nonni to distraction. If she predeceases him, he'll wither away in a week from sheer lack of will to live."
Falkner breathed in and sighed. "You sound certain. I thought a good scientist hedged his bets more than that."
"I'm tired of science. And damned tired of not being certain."
The little turn of her head made him play the words back. For someone else, they were nothing special, but for Stephen Reyes, Man of god-damned Bronze, they were practically raving.
We can't control anything but ourselves.
"What did you tell her?"
"That I'd invent a reason to put it in the Bureau's jurisdiction, if I had to. What did you think I'd tell her?"
"It's not ours. It's not even Down the Hall's, unless a behavioral pattern turns up."
It would be easier not to say it, not to share what he'd been thinking. Especially since almost certainly nothing would come of it, and no harm would fall on anyone because he failed to speak up.
In fact, all his instincts said, Don't share. But his instincts were demonstrably flawed.
"Esther. A former FBI special agent disappears. And not just any agent--a former member of the Anomalous Crimes Task Force. We are the people who go where the weird shit is. We have good reason to say we don't believe in coincidence."
He watched what little her face gave away while she thought it over. At last she said, "Do you mind if I hope this time it is one?"
"Not a bit. I'd like the company."
She rose from the chair. She did it more easily these days. He hadn't realized how much watching her pain hurt him until he didn't have to.
"You didn't say--what did bring you in on a Saturday?"
Falkner snorted and shook her head. "They found another body in Chillicothe."
Reyes could almost smell rot in his indrawn breath. "That's eight, then."
Falkner nodded. "I wanted to call Browning, see if we could help with anything."
But she wouldn't call from her home phone. She fenced the monsters out of her house as much as she could. It was an act of ritual cleanliness, like keeping kosher. "What did he say?"
"He'll call us if something turns up. I think it helped to know we're here."
Esther Falkner, crime-fighting mom. Her caretaking instinct extended to cover her family, her team, and the lead detectives of cases they'd closed months ago. He wanted to tease her about it, and once he would have. Now he'd rather not presume. He didn't want to see the professional shutters go up on her face.
"And you came in on a Saturday," Falkner continued, detached as a lecturer in a level-100 class, "because you're worried about a man who said 'No offense' to you at least three times a week the entire time you worked with him."
Reyes raised his eyebrows. "He really didn't mean any offense, you know."
"And because you feel sorry for a woman who's been barely polite to you for ten years."
"Some days you just feel sorry for everybody."
"Maybe those are the days you should stay home."
Reyes smiled tightly. "It's the days you don't give a damn about anybody you should stay home."
When she hesitated, he realized what she was wondering, so he said, "I'm not interrupting anything in the off-duty life that I work hard to keep the kids from believing I have."
"Actually, the kids think you have four girlfriends and swap off every forty-eight hours."
"I wonder what sort of vitamins they think I'm taking." He shook his head and moved folders from one pile to another. Working. See? I should get back to it. "I'm girlfriendless for the weekend."
The silence lasted, and he knew what response that was supposed to elicit, but he responded anyway. He looked up, so she could judge his face when she asked, "And if you weren't, you wouldn't have come in?"
"Remind me again why everyone likes you? We're not that different."
"Sure, we are. I'm leaving." For emphasis, she plucked her coat off the hook. "I might even stop at the mall on the way home and buy a pretzel."
"I'll go, I'll go. As soon as I read these reports."
"Stephen." She came back to his desk in three long strides and leaned forward, palms braced on the front edge. Intimidation: only one of the top-of-the-line items in Esther Falkner's toolkit. "If anyone else on the team said that, what would you tell them?"
Reyes sighed and leaned back further in his chair. "I hate shopping mall pretzels." Villette used to bring in fresh ones, homemade. He missed them. And that's another thing you probably shouldn't say.
"However. I haven't finished the latest Walter Mosley novel, there's a recipe for adobo sauce I've been meaning to try, and I haven't checked anything off my list of god-damned feel-good rental movies since August."
Falkner released her claim on his desk. "Very good."
"Go home, Stephen."
He dropped the last folders on the pile, tidied the edges, and stood.
I'm trying, he wanted to say. I don't know if I'm trying the right things, or if they're doing any good. I'm the last person they'll give that feedback to. And I don't blame them.
Her family, her team; the responsibilities lay nearly visible on Falkner's shoulders. He wasn't going to hang his troubles there, too. He'd go talk to Kay, but she'd raise one lovely arched eyebrow and say, "Exes are still family. Remember our little talk about ethics?"
"I promise to stay out of the office until Monday if you do the same," he said instead. He locked his office door behind them.
"Scout's honor." She gave the salute as if she didn't have to think about it first.
They took the elevator together in silence, because it was a fast elevator and they weren't the sort of people who needed to fill the empty spaces. Falkner logged out first. When he stepped up to the desk, she turned, head canted and smile crooked.
"And if you spend all your time at home thinking about work, it's cheating."
He puffed breath out his nose. "Do we not believe in cheating, now, either?"
"That depends," said Falkner, "on who you're cheating."
Reyes had lived his whole life as a thoroughly urban creature, but he'd never been conscious of it until he settled in Washington, DC. As a kid in Chicago, and later as a student, he'd ridden buses and the El, gone to the Field Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry, concerts at McCormick Place, ballgames at Wrigley Field, or the zoo or Grant Park or Lake Michigan. He'd bought things from stores that fronted on streets. He'd had neighbors down the hall rather than down the block.
But it seemed when most government employees in the District went home, they went to the suburbs. The expectation was that as you moved up in pay grade, you moved outside the Beltway, got yourself a stretch of lawn and a driveway and a house that purported to mimic French or English or Italian or Spanish architecture and was unmistakably North American Suburban.
Reyes's self-image had never included mowing the grass. It also didn't include hiring people to sweat in his front yard. He'd bought a condo in Dupont Circle. It had a wealth of tall, narrow windows, skylights, and exposed brick walls: a city dwelling inside and out.
For all the time he spent in it, it could as well have been a tract house out past Rockville.
This afternoon he could address some of that deficit. He could put on sweat pants and a Cubs t-shirt, park himself in the black leather recliner with his copy of Blonde Faith and a Negra Modelo, and listen to Juliette Greco sing about resignation. He could relax.
He could try, at least.
He hadn't exactly lied to Falkner. He was girlfriendless for the weekend. Delphine was in New York, hanging a show, and it wasn't like they had an exactly formal arrangement. He didn't expect her to call.
So he wasn't cheating anyone but himself.
Larry Peretti wasn't, objectively, a big man; he was bigger than Reyes, but that could be said of almost everyone Reyes had worked with. But his personality entered the room first and left last. He liked to talk to people, and they liked to talk to him. The only better public liaison in the Bureau was Nicolette Lau.
Peretti had an adaptable mind, or Reyes would never have recruited him into the WTF. He'd had a lot to adapt to. The idea of the anomaly, of course--but Peretti had joined up Down the Hall when it was still the Behavioral Science Unit and located elsewhere--even before the legendary John Douglas changed the name to Investigative Support Unit and split off a practical team from teaching duties.
Monsters had been Peretti's day job for years. The new part was working under a black man and a Jewish woman. The closest thing Shadow Unit had to Peretti's idea of an FBI agent at the time was Solomon Todd, sometimes referred to by agents in other units as That Damned Hippy.
Peretti got the hang of it, though. Until the day he took early retirement, he was still telling jokes that annoyed Falkner. That could have griped the Stephen Reyes who had spent a good part of his time in a Philadelphia field office in the eighties picking dried black beans out of his computer keyboard and proving he was a better agent than the ones who whispered behind their hands about affirmative action and raised their eyebrows over how articulate a black man could be.
The Stephen Reyes who was AIC of the Anomalous Crimes Task Force, who had built it with his own sweat and hand-picked Peretti to work under him, chose to understand the distinction Peretti made: the black men in his jokes were archetypes, and his boss was a real human being. As long as it wasn't the other way around, Reyes also chose not to take offense.
Besides, he'd heard Larry, the Italian, talk about the damned Swedes.
A case on Long Island was the last for Peretti. Reyes had sat by him in his hospital bed. (And that's something I'd like to not have to do anymore, thank you.) Peretti, still hoarse, had whispered, "My goddamn lungs full of water, everything going black, and all I could think was, 'Nonni'll be so mad.' She tells me she knew marrying me was dangerous when she did it, and I believe her. But I realized I can't do it, Steve. I can't leave her to get on alone."
Reyes had felt a little spike of jealousy at that. What was it like to love someone so much that you'd stay alive, not for you, but for them? That you'd change the destination of your life in order to get off at the same station?
He'd loved, but not like that. If it was something one could learn, he hadn't learned it yet. He'd barely started on becoming a decent human being, for godsake.
You didn't expect recognition for behaving like a decent human being. Operating at the baseline didn't get anyone champagne and cake and a day off. He did wonder, though, when he would reach the marker and how he'd know. He understood so much about the mental workings of his species, but his own behavior was harder to analyze.
Not that he could pitch a no-hitter every time. Villette's declaration of independence had taken him by surprise. He, who was almost never surprised. And in the midst of anger, fear, a storm of adrenaline and testosterone, he felt--not pride, because he couldn't claim any responsibility--admiration. If Reyes had stood up for himself, back in the day, as well as Chaz had stood up to him, Stephen Reyes might be tenured faculty, a senior professor somewhere.
Would he still want it?
The front door buzzer sounded. Reyes looked down at the open novel and realized he'd read and understood less than half a page since he'd sat down. There's Falkner's answer: I'm cheating Easy Rawlins. Besides, the narrative was too close to things that were scraping at Reyes. He should have picked up something in which talk show hosts were murdered with knitting needles or ferrets solved mysteries.
The buzzer again, which meant it probably wasn't someone pushing all the buttons in hopes someone would answer. He balanced the book on the chair arm, stood, and crossed the room to the security system. The little monitor showed a woman in a dark blue uniform, holding an envelope and an electronic clipboard. The image was contrasty from the building's entry lights.
"Who is it, please?" he asked.
"Globe Express. Delivery for Stephen Reyes." Her voice was almost without inflection, as if she'd identified herself too often for one day. Reyes buzzed her in.
He and Walter Mosely were clearly doing each other no good. Time to rent some videos, cook something long and involved, fill the empty corners with soundtrack and explosions and the smell of peppers and onions.
Reyes opened the door at the knock. The courier was small--smaller than the security camera had made her look--and thin, and so pale her skin had a bluish translucence, like skim milk. She peered at him, eyes sharp behind an impromptu veil of limp light-brown hair. They were brown and startlingly dark, out of balance with the indeterminate rest of her.
'You Stephen Reyes?" The words came out like nails from a nail gun. Her voice was deeper than he'd expected. She had what some linguists called the Nerd Accent: it suggested she'd learned to speak in complex words and sentences before her facial musculature was fully developed. Reyes heard traces of it every day at the office, though Chaz modulated better than the average MIT graduate.
"Sign, please." She thrust the pad at him, the stylus balanced across the top. Her fingers were callused, cuticles split as if working with dusty boxes dried them out. Her forearms were skinny, but ridged and strong. He spotted a series of bruised parallel scrapes on her left wrist, and wondered about domestic violence.
If he asked her, she'd have an innocent explanation.
When he looked up from his electronic signature, he found her staring past him into his apartment, tilting her head for a better view. "Thank you," he said, putting the suggestion of an edge on it.
Either she didn't notice, or she didn't care. That went with the accent. Asperger's? She took the pad back from him and handed him the thin next-day-delivery cardboard envelope. "Nice place."
"Hey, you! Delivery girl!"
The woman's head snapped 'round to look. Reyes leaned out into the hall. His neighbor Max stood outside his door, freckled pink scalp shining under the recessed ceiling lights, bifocals halfway down his nose, long-sleeved polo shirt tucked into the elastic waist of his old-guy jeans.
"Did you see a newspaper out there as you came in?"
The woman narrowed her eyes at him, as if looking for something other than an old white man with lousy manners. "No."
"Some kid probably swiped it as a novelty item," Reyes offered. "They're going out of fashion, Max."
Max glowered and snorted. "Like all the rest of us, I suppose. Damnation." He snorted again and pulled back into his apartment like a startled turtle.
The little courier turned back to Reyes and tilted her head. "Have a nice day," she said in her surprisingly gruff voice, and grinned. Her teeth were small and not quite regular. After a last look over his shoulder, she marched down the hall and into the stairwell.
Reyes closed and locked the door. He examined the envelope carefully--the UNABOMB case was not such a distant memory--but it was too thin to have anything inside but paper. The return address on the waybill was faint and smudged by pressure on the top copy of the multipart form. A P.O. box in Newark, he thought. He zipped the pull strip on the envelope as he walked toward the kitchen, then shook the contents out on the counter.
Two sheets of paper: photocopies, several generations removed from the original, of what looked like newsletter articles. The running head on the well-designed one read Conceal This! Vol. 7, No. 3 October 2003. The other appeared to have been produced on an electric typewriter, complete with double spaces after the periods, and the serif on the upper left corner of the capital W was missing. It looked like the first page of the newsletter. The name of that one was America Watches, and the date was June, 1987.
The article text seemed to be the same on both, excepting typos. "US Government Human Experimentation," no byline. Secret government agency kidnapping exceptional individuals from hospitals, schools, and mass transit in the service of a project to produce superhumans. Mysterious disappearances, unidentified remains.
Lost time, strange lights in sky, Reyes finished, since the article seemed to have forgotten those touchstones of extra-natural conspiracy theory. He wasn't sure if he'd seen the article before, or just the dozens that flew the same ideas, like paper airplanes, over the map of Nutcakeia.
He'd be amused, if only the residents of Nutcakeia hadn't decided to put him on their mailing list. It was the price of trying to get information on the anomaly in and out past the Bureau's radar, the price of the stories he told Dr. Beale--off the record and under the table. He also slipped pointers to cases and documents to the most reputable members of the fringe press. Sol could have done a better job of it, and might have been glad to, but if the FBI was going to fire someone over it, the someone ought to be Reyes.
The stories were picked up and passed on from one publication to another, usually down the food chain of sanity rather than up. There were now enough people out there who associated Reyes with stories like these that they tried to drag him into whatever theory they'd concocted: High-ranking FBI agent confirms secret alien invasion!
Gammas weren't the only humans who developed mythologies, and the human brain was well-adapted to building conspiracy theories.
But Reyes had a much nicer apartment than Fox Mulder, and a bigger TV, and wouldn't eat a Banquet Frozen Dinner if it got down on its knees and begged him. He was also pretty sure his cause of death was likely to be something other than autoerotic asphyxiation. He had more of a life. All right, that wasn't saying much, but nobody would quibble with it.
He slid the recycling bin out from under the sink and dropped the pages into it. The envelope had a stick-on plastic sleeve for the waybill, so he tore that off before the envelope followed its contents. He tossed the sleeve and the waybill in the kitchen trash and dusted his hands on his sweats. Time to get back to that life he was so proud of having.
The clerk at Beltway Video was perfectly civil, but Reyes was aware in a prickly way of being the last customer in the store and the proximity of closing. All he could do was smile when the man--the kid, really, still living at home and sporting blue-black hair and ebony rings through his earlobes big around as bears' claws--handed him the DVD boxes and his rental receipt.
The clerk locked the door behind him when he stepped out, the red tint of the "open" sign suddenly subtracted from the street lighting.
He zipped his jacket against the chill and jogged across the empty street and halfway down the block to the eight-car lot carved out for the benefit of local businesses. The Caddy sat in solitary state, its nose to the low cinder block wall that separated the lot from the alley.
The price of personal safety was eternal vigilance. When Reyes joined the Bureau he'd been aware nearly to the point of paranoia of the times and places when people were vulnerable to robbery, kidnapping, murder, carjacking. He could imagine his name somewhere under a headline reading "FBI agent shot with own gun," and thought if the bullet didn't kill him, the embarrassment would.
Now that awareness worked in the background. Not unlike reading music: you started with a painstaking association of that mark on that line standing for that note produced by that position of the fingers for that length of time. Eventually you saw a series of marks and formed those sounds, and everything between seeing and sounding was background processing.
He was aware of the empty street, the empty parking lot, the uninterrupted span of gravel under the car, the lack of motion in the alley beyond the wall, as background information one needed before thumbing the button to unlock the driver's side. When he opened the door, he checked the back seat in the glow of the dome light.
He slid behind the wheel, locked the door again, and tossed the DVDs into the passenger seat. He turned the key in the ignition. The fluttering whine of the engine turning over, over, over, and not catching made his stomach drop. If this were a movie, I'd have just enough time to realize that it was about to explode. But it didn't.
Why did people feel like this about their cars? It wasn't a child with measles. It was a machine, it wasn't in pain, you called a tow truck to haul it to the garage and fix it. Still, he patted the dash before he popped the hood lock and stepped out to see what he could see. Before he wedged himself into the narrow space between the wall and the Caddy--Don't park so damned close next time, Stephen--he gave the alley one more glance. Through the darkness, no sound. No sign of a soul, and no sense of being watched.
The little work light for the engine compartment was barely enough to check the oil by. He set the prop to hold the hood up and fished again in his jacket pocket for his keys and his LED pinlight.
A creak. A savage blow across the back of his head. Pain, pressure, his vision gone to black and red and a blaze of white. The hood fell on me? The thought, muzzy.
As he tried to stand he realized his head was on the engine block and the pale shape in front of his nose was a small, light-skinned hand. He levered himself half up, but something behind his head slammed him down again, again, and he didn't know anything else.
Falkner was usually the first of the team in, especially on Monday morning. This morning she'd found Bekk hunched over the Washington Post -- open on the breakfast table -- like a sick cat preparing to eject a hairball.
Bekk wasn't, it turned out, physically sick. She was only trying to puzzle out right and wrong from the coverage of the shelling of Gaza. Falkner had needed to cut a half hour of parenthood out of the FBI agent's time, like the nub on a jigsaw puzzle piece that claimed the hole in the next piece over.
The team were adults. They could manage without her for half an hour. She hoped.
When she stepped out of the elevator she found herself shoulder-to-shoulder with Pete Pauley, their liaison with the Behavioral Analysis Unit. With his conservative dark suit, close-cropped glinting hair, and stern, sunburnt face, he hardly needed the Bureau ID clipped to his pocket. Then he saw her and grinned, and ten years and a bushel basket of authority dropped away from him.
"Agent Falkner," he said, with a nod that managed to sketch in the respectful tipping of a cowboy hat.
"Morning, Pauley. Any update on Larry Peretti?"
He shrugged. "Whole lotta nothin'. Maybe this is your kind of show, and he disappeared into thin air."
"No Penn and Teller gamma yet, thank God." So far they'd dealt only with the slightly impossible, not the outright miraculous. Falkner was grateful for the small favor.
She continued down the hall to where the respectability of the BAU stretched and grew thin, and Pauley walked beside her. He said, "I tell myself, 'We're going to feel stupid when he shows up with a good excuse.'"
"Depends on your definition of a good excuse. None of mine sound any good now." Pauley stopped at the door to Shadow Unit's bullpen.
"Do you know him?" Falkner asked.
"I know his rep. Both before he started with your team and after. Seems like, well, once you retire under those circumstances, you should be in the clear. Like you've used up all the bad shit that can happen in a lifetime."
Falkner gave him a small smile. "You should."
Pauley's gaze over her shoulder passed through the wall to somewhere at least three states away. "A man ought to be able to go down to the bar on a Saturday afternoon and watch the game with his friends. Think back to what went right in his life. Shrug off what went wrong." His shoulders rose in unison with his vision, and he brought his eyes back to Falkner. "Guess that's why I want to think he found a sympathetic waitress who's great in the kitchen."
She had always thought she would be glad when Peretti left. But it seemed when someone went missing, you missed them, even if you only missed wishing they would go away. "When he wasn't joking around, he was entirely a by-the-book man. I think he would've left his wife a note, at the very least. Even if it was just to say, 'Don't look for me.'"
Pauley gazed back the way they'd come; she suspected it was only to increase the effect when he swung back to meet her eyes. "That doesn't leave much besides misadventure."
Well, someone had to say that out loud. "Let me know if anything turns up, will you?
"Will do." He continued on, bound for whatever errand she'd interrupted.
Chaz Villette and Daphne Worth were in Hafidha Gates's high-tech lair, doing something on the computer. It could be World of Warcraft and she wouldn't mind right now. Hafidha was still being brisk and professional and brutally cheerful, the shell over her grief a mile thick and polished like a Mercedes. Chaz and Daphne were good for her.
In the kitchenette, Daniel Brady was pouring coffee into a blue mug. She hooked down one for herself, and Brady held the pot ready without her asking.
As he poured and the divine-smelling steam rose up in her nose, she said, "Did you talk much with Larry Peretti before he left?"
Brady quirked one eyebrow. "Kind of what we do around here."
"About personal things. His home life, emotional conflicts--"
He blew across his black coffee to cool it, but that didn't disguise the wary turn of his head. "We're guys. We communicate stuff like that in grunts."
She wanted to respond with a dry joke. But that was a luxury. "Peretti's been missing since Wednesday before last."
Brady opened his eyes wide, but didn't interrupt.
"If he told you anything he might not have mentioned to me..."
"As in, did he have a secret life? Would he abandon his wife? No."
"He's a good Catholic, but he and Nonni never had children."
Brady sipped coffee and frowned. At last he said, "He was drunk one night and said she couldn't conceive, and he hated that she blamed herself for that, because breeding is only about breeding, but love is about love."
"Peretti said that?"
"He was really drunk."
"Still." Why hadn't she wondered what it would be like to be a conservative Italian who didn't have kids?
"Yeah. I almost said something about me. But I didn't want to push his enlightenment."
Falkner carried her coffee and her coat to her office. It was strange to come in with her team already present and busy. Chaz wandered into the bullpen as she stopped in her doorway. Nikki Lau headed him off at his desk and engaged him in a conversation that seemed to demand broad gestures and competing diagrams on scratch paper. Brady rattled out sentences on his keyboard and frowned at his monitor. Worth threaded between the furniture by invisible proximity sensors, apparently, since she never raised her eyes from the handful of printout she was reading. Solomon Todd was using the windows at the end of the room as a light table, holding a strip of 35 millimeter film in its protective sleeve against the glass and examining it with a loupe.
She checked her mail, but found no updates on Peretti. So she strode out of her office to the next door that opened into the bullpen. "So there's nothing new--?"
The chair behind Reyes's desk was empty.
The office wasn't big enough that he could be in it and she not see him as she came in, unless he was hiding behind the door on purpose. Still, she surveyed it and the top of the desk for any sign Reyes had arrived and stepped out again. No cup of tea cooling on the blotter, no sign that the stacks of files had been moved since he'd fiddled with them on Saturday. His monitor was dark.
Reyes always came in after her, and usually stayed later. He wasn't a morning person. Still-- He might have had an appointment elsewhere, or an early meeting. Wouldn't he have mentioned that on Saturday, when they talked about coming in? He was just late, that was all. It was nothing.
And Larry Peretti hadn't been seen for nearly two weeks.
Falkner ducked back into the bullpen. Lau was walking back from Chaz's desk when Falkner flagged her down. "Have you seen Reyes?"
Lau shook her head. "Could be traffic. Maybe a reroute for a motorcade. Want me to check?"
"No." Falkner reinforced it with a head shake. "It's not that late." Then she wondered, Why shouldn't she check? What am I afraid I'll find out? Since what happened to Chaz--and even in her head, Falkner found herself still using those comforting, euphemistic phrases--if the team was going to be late for something, they called. Even Reyes.
Lau nodded a little too quickly and went on to her desk.
Falkner gazed past her and saw Todd had turned away from the window; he was keeping her in his peripheral vision. Falkner raised her chin, and he stopped pretending he wasn't watching. She flicked her gaze toward her office, then went in and sat down. A moment later, Todd closed her door behind him and slid into the seat across from her desk.
She said, "Peretti's missing, but that doesn't mean we should be paranoid."
"Am I hearing a 'but'?"
Todd leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. "Actually, you're hearing a 'nonetheless.' Paranoid is the word for 'survival instinct' used by people who've never had to survive."
Falkner sighed. She picked up her phone and pressed four digits. While she waited for an answer, she muttered to Todd, "Pollyanna."
"Security," a female voice said in the phone receiver.
"This is SSA Esther Falkner. Has Stephen Reyes signed in?"
"One moment, please." Quiet on the line, before the woman came back on. "No, he hasn't. Shall I call you when he does?"
"That won't be necessary. Thank you." She hung up, met Todd's eyes, then dialed Reyes' number. After four rings, she heard, "This is Stephen Reyes. Leave a message."
"Reyes, it's Falkner." Now what do I say? "You've disappeared, please call if you get this?" She settled for, "I'm at the office. Call me back." She hung up.
Todd said, "He's probably stuck in traffic."
"From Dupont Circle."
"Accident, suicide, amnesia, mad dash for the border..."
"Because correlation isn't, et cetera, et cetera. What's the 'survival instinct' version?"
"Someone's hunting the people who hunt gammas."
For a man who'd just said what he'd said, he looked almost serene. Falkner met his eyes, and he met hers, for a good six seconds.
"He'll be annoyed," Todd said finally.
"Do it anyway."
His head hurt.
Not like the tension headaches, not a strap tightening, tightening around his skull. This was throbbing all over, radiating from somewhere near where his hairline used to start. The pain itself blurred the location.
When he tried to raise his hands to feel out the problem, his arms wouldn't lift. That worried him, and worry made him swallow reflexively, even though his mouth was dry. When his throat worked, he felt it press against something circling his neck, like a too-tight collar band but thinner. It pressed harder if he leaned forward, until he gagged. Even asleep, he seemed to have learned not to do that.
Open your eyes, open your eyes. He would, and maybe he had, but it wasn't helping, and the skin of his nose and temples and the hairs in his eyebrows pulled and stuck against something--
His eyes were covered with tape, his arms were tied behind him, and there was a cord around his neck holding him upright.
Panic emptied his mind for who-knew-how-long. Maybe he struggled or made noise; he didn't remember. He must have thrashed against the ligature, because he felt himself about to vomit, and it pulled him back into himself. Panic wasn't effective, and he needed effective, so he grabbed for facts, observations, patterns, and piled them up like sandbags for protection.
The blindfold was encouraging; it suggested he was meant to be released unharmed. His hands were tied efficiently, but not so tight that he was losing circulation. Also encouraging.
The binding at the throat was a bad sign; it spoke of unnecessary torment, sadism, torture. The blitz attack--
No, it wasn't an unplanned, disorganized assault. He'd been lured out of the car, maneuvered into turning his back. He remembered the parking lot, the engine not catching. A careful predator, one who thought subtly and in advance about how to take prey.
Victim chosen by opportunity. Not put off by the available prey being male and thus typically more difficult to subdue. And he hadn't been hard to subdue, had he? No time even to reach toward his pistol. God, his head hurt.
He was cold; the flexible armor of his leather jacket was gone, and his t-shirt failed to hold his body heat. But he felt no strong currents of air, and heard no outdoor sounds, so he was probably indoors. The floor was hard. His legs, he realized, were stretched out in front of him and tied at the ankles. They weren't tied to anything but each other. He lifted them and brought the heels of his running shoes down just firmly enough to make a noise. Wood, not concrete or thin carpet.
He still had his shoes.
He stretched his fingers downward behind him (it was a square pillar he was tied to, because the corners dug into his shoulder blades and forearms) and felt the seams between planks that were smoothed only by age. The wood jabbed a splinter into his right middle finger. A barn or garage loft, or an attic--not the ground floor, or the planks would be damp and colder.
If he was concussed--and he probably was, from a blow hard enough to knock him unconscious--it might not be too bad. Head injuries. It was hard to tell. His brain could be swelling inside his skull, and he wouldn't know it until he pitched over in a coma. God, his head was splitting.
He wasn't confused, though. Okay, maybe a little bleary and muddled. But functional. Probably not a depressed skull fracture, then. Gift horses, receipt of. Move on.
Unfortunately, "on" got him to a full bladder and a dry, sticky mouth. Beer before kidnapping is probably a lousy idea.
Sense of humor, intact. Score one for the home team. He could hear traffic sounds, intermittently and far away: a diesel truck, the harsh popping roar of a motorcycle or a street racer. No voices, no breathing, no human noises except his own. He hadn't been gagged, which was interesting.
"Hello? Is anyone there?" Nothing, so he repeated it, shouting. Shouting was a bad idea. It kicked up his adrenaline, and the panic response, and next thing he knew he was screaming instead of thinking.
Focus. There were no fates worse than death. There were worse ways to die than thirst and cold. Weren't there? Chaz could tell him. Think of the fierce will to live that had got Chaz off the floor of his grandparents' dining room and out the front door. He could show a little of that. If I hadn't studied kidnappers and serial killers, would I be more afraid, or less?
Focus on the moment.
But the moment lasted forever.
When he heard car tires crunching over gravel outside, he told himself to feel relieved. Even if it was the UNSUB--and it most likely was--he might get the chance to learn more about where he was and why he was there. At the very least, maybe he'd be able to change position. The throbbing of his head competed with the creeping aches and numbness in his arms, neck, ass. Changing position would be good.
The sound of a closing door downstairs made him more sure this was his captor. A rescuer would either come in with force or stealth. Firm steps on groaning wooden stairs off to his right told him the new arrival was confident and unhurried. After that, silence fell, and he couldn't tell where the UNSUB was.
Of course. That was the point. This was a calculating hunter.
Reyes said as calmly as he could, "I'm awake."
The cord around his throat jerked. Before he could react, the cord was loose, and a foot against his shoulder pushed him forward onto the floor. He grunted to show the UNSUB was in control, and had the power to reduce his pain.
A woman's voice, with a Midwestern accent: "Waiting long?" She spoke rapidly, each word a burst of sound, but with very little inflection. Hadn't he heard a voice like that recently?
Reyes said tentatively, "I don't know. I remember Saturday."
"That's nothing. Try waiting as long as I have."
Female UNSUB--facts about violent female subjects unspooled in his head. This one had subdued a fit male victim and transported him from the site of the attack. Unless she had a partner...
"It's been hard for you, hasn't it?" Reyes said. Build the connection. Be the one who understands.
But she rolled him onto his back, again with her foot, and the pain in his arms stole his voice for a gasp. He felt her approach, heard her breathing come closer as she squatted beside him and lifted his shoulders to fold him upright. He thought the surface she gave him to lean against was her knee, bony against his spine. Her breath stayed slow and easy: lifting him was no work for her. But she might be a big woman, though her hands felt no larger than his own.
She hooked her fingers under his armpits and stood. The shift in weight dragged his arms back and out against the cords, compressed his painfully full bladder, and made his head throb to a salsa beat. He grunted, then bit his lip to still complaint. If she was a psychopath or a gamma, the evidence of his pain would only encourage her. A baseline might feel human sympathy. Too soon yet to tell. He wished he could see her expressions.
She dragged him up onto something--bump, bump. Waist-height and heavy enough not to rock under his weight. Bolted to the floor? Possibly: he didn't feel it move at all. There was a sick, thick, awful scent he recognized--stale blood, dried brown and flaking. Machine oil, too, and sawdust. I'm in a workshop. Oh, fucking hell. Something cool pressed either side of his skull. His own weight pinned his arms and wrenched his shoulders back as she held him down with an improbably strong hand. Another cord cut his throat, snugged tight--no, a wire: he heard the metal creaking as she tightened it.
"You don't have to kill me," he said. "My name is Stephen Reyes. I can be valuable to you. I--" The hand left his chest and shoved down on his face. He tried to bite, and felt a moment of horror at the texture between his teeth before he realized it was leather, a leather glove. He arched his back, but the wire choked him.
When the cool surfaces at his temples tightened with a greasy clicking of gears, he realized it was the maw of a leather-wrapped vise.
She lifted her hand from his face. He made a sound. He meant it to be a word, a plea, but it came out a kind of whining inhuman whimper. He gathered himself, found his voice, made it as reasonable and calm as he could--under the circumstances, not very. While she bound his ankles down, he said, "I'm worth more to you alive. I can help you. I want to help--"
She grabbed his chin and yanked. Mouth open--strongest muscles in the body--head immobilized, he could not resist her. Something went into his mouth. Hard, round. Huge enough to strain his jaw. It pressed his tongue back in his mouth and for a moment he was afraid he would choke, but then it popped behind his teeth and nested there snugly.
He felt her move, the creak of floorboards under her feet, the drag of cords across his cheeks pulling down snug on either side. He wanted to protest, but the sounds he made around the ball gag were a muffled mewing. His words were his only weapon, and she'd disarmed him as easily as that.
"This will hurt," she said, her voice moving from below him to above. Crouching to standing? "You shouldn't have woken up so quickly. Most normal people wouldn't have." She spoke with the calm assurance of expertise and experience. He heard metal rattle, the clink of forged steel, the rustle of cloth.
His heartbeat thudded in his ears, at the pulse points under his stretched, aching jaw, in the bruised wound on his head. If the hypertension was going to kill him, he could think of worse times than now. The woman slid her thumb under his lip, prying it up as if she were inspecting the mouth of a horse, a show dog, a slave on the block. The vise and the wire held his head still. he could not pull away. He felt her picking at the edge of his bridgework, scraping the surface of a molar with her glove. "Transmitters," she muttered.
He knew what was coming before the cold edge of the chisel touched his gum.
Reyes came back to consciousness on the floor, his hands numb and his head splitting. Nausea racked him. Oh, God. He couldn't think of vomiting. By texture and the sound, the object she pressed to his lips was a styrofoam cup. "Drink. Your kind can go without food for a long time. But dehydration'll kill you like that." He heard a snap of fingers.
He'd never thought of his sense of smell as particularly good, but apparently it could identify water. Even through blood and the piss with which he'd soiled himself, it could identify water. There might be something odorless in the water, but his reptile brain couldn't be bothered with that now. When she tipped the cup, he parted his lips and let the contents flood across his sticky tongue, thankful that it was tepid. It still hurt, hurt beyond him having words for the hurt. Experimentally, he probed with his tongue. She'd taken out two molars, a bicuspid, and the bridge. Left the three thousand dollar crown, though, which was sort of reassuring: she couldn't tell an enamel veneer from a real tooth, apparently.
And he knew something about her mythology now.
He swallowed, his own blood sharp and cloying on the back of his tongue, and let her fill his mouth with water again. He imagined it soaking into the tissues as if they were garden soil.
William Villette made his son drink from his hands.
He got several swallows before she took the cup away. He heard her finish what was left, then set the cup down.
She was caretaking. That could be a good sign, depending on why she was doing it. "I'm afraid I need to piss again," he said, trying to sound apologetic about it.
Not the answer he was hoping for.
He was silent long enough for her to notice. "It's a bitch to be housebroken, isn't it? Do you pee in a cup at work?" He heard a finger tap styrofoam. "You people think you can't trust anybody including you. There's tests and samples when you don't know to look for it. And watching."
He had heard that voice. Something about her words--someone had said something like that to him recently. No, that wasn't it...
You people. Alienating, creating distance between herself and him. Making him Other. It could be for his race or gender or class, but the phrase came packaged with what sounded like paranoia, so he'd bet on Other Equals Government.
"I trust you," he said. "You gave me water. My name is--"
"I know your name."
Something coarse scratched along the side of his face, from the tape over his eyes down his cheek, where it felt like fire. He flinched involuntarily. Natural reactions are fine. She wants natural reactions.
The woman said, "I went back for your toothbrush. Red handle, the angle kind. Do you replace it every three months?"
The bristles of a toothbrush on his face. He could see it, red and white and clear plastic, dangling in the holder in his bathroom. The irony would have made him bark with laughter if the swelling in his jaw hadn't precluded it. She said she'd gone back--
The Globe Express delivery. The copies of the newsletter articles. The courier, the small woman who talked like bursts of automatic fire.
Not an opportunistic choice of victim. An organized and intelligent offender, one who took pleasure in her control over her victims, and their awareness of that control. Her prey was identified, stalked, surveilled. Had she meant to attack him at his apartment, but Max's appearance made her wary? Or had that been counting coup, proof of her superiority over him, an opportunity to prove she could approach him whenever she pleased?
A small woman couldn't have raised him to a sitting position effortlessly. Unless she was host to the anomaly.
Something small and hard, a blunt point, pressed suddenly against the pulse point in his throat. The end of the toothbrush handle. She's going to kill me with my damned toothbrush.
She wouldn't have knocked out his teeth if she meant to kill him right away. Right now, he wasn't sure that made him happier. Your team will find you, he told himself sternly. They're the best in the business. All you have to do is trust them and stay alive.
If his mouth hadn't been so swollen, he might have smiled, despite the threat of the toothbrush handle. Trust was the one thing he was demonstrably ass at.
Then the pressure was gone; the knee under his back jerked, and he heard something small clatter across the floor. "Your apartment's a show room, Steve. Is it you? Or is it what America wants you to be? Was that really a picture of your mom? Or just a photo of some woman we're supposed to think is your mom?"
Reyes said, "She's going to be worried about me. I'm her only child. You know my name is Stephen. Will you tell me yours?"
"No." Her hand clenched in the front of his t-shirt. It pulled him up, punched down on his breastbone, slammed his back against the floor. He fought to get the air back in his lungs, to stay alert past the bolt of pain through his head, the grinding of shattered tooth fragments in his jaw.
"What do you want?" he asked, when he thought he could speak without whimpering.
She said, "Do you like your job?"
There was an unofficial network of "just in case" keys within the WTF. Even in that bullpen full of hard-headed realists, nobody was ever explicit about the occasions that might call for that extra key. When Todd had passed his to Chaz, he'd said, "Your sympathies may urge you otherwise, but don't overfeed the fish."
Todd knocked at the door of Reyes' condo, then used the key he'd been given just in case.
His pistol was in his hand, beside his right thigh. No point in alarming the neighbors if he didn't have to. He pressed the door open lightly and switched to a two-handed grip.
Daylight filled the space beyond the door. Todd heard his own breathing and nothing else. "Steve? Are you here?"
He wanted to find Reyes sleeping off a hangover on the couch, or trapped in his bathroom by a busted door latch. He'd settle for finding him with a broken ankle and no phone in reach, or even delirious with the flu. No reason to think he wouldn't find him alive.
Maybe Reyes would be embarrassed. Maybe he'd say, "If you thought I was in danger, why did you come alone?" And Todd could explain that Reyes might not have been in danger, and Todd and Falkner, who'd given the order, were just protecting Reyes's privacy, and Reyes could point out that in an emergency, privacy was a luxury.
Except if he was there and arguing, it wouldn't be an emergency.
Todd stepped in and closed the door. "Steve?" No answer. He went straight for Reyes's bedroom, clearing spaces without analyzing them until he got there.
The covers on the bed were pulled tight, without a wrinkle. The master bathroom was clean and empty. So was the half bath in the hall. The queen of bloody England could come to visit without notice, and think Reyes had a well-kept, pleasant, manly, modern home. Did he use a cleaning service? Had he spruced up for a visitor? What was Reyes like when no one was around?
Stephen Reyes, the tree that falls in the forest.
Todd pulled on a pair of nitrile gloves. This is going to look pretty odd if Reyes walks in right now. But looking odd was a price he'd pay cheerfully to have that happen.
What would have been the second bedroom was Reyes's office. Todd felt a ridiculous pang, looking at it. It was the home office of a man who never went home, but wished he could.
A Spider-man bendable toy clung to the gooseneck of the desk lamp. A bookcase beside the desk held up a collection of references on psychology, criminology, forensics, and physiology. (Frost would make her little sinus-clearing noise and observe, austerely, "For non-physicians.") Travel and history stood on those shelves as well.
The bottom shelf was dedicated to comic book reprint volumes--Superman, Batman, The Avengers, The Fantastic Four, Wonder Woman, Spider-man. Superheroes fighting monsters, because somebody had to do it. These were the old stories, the ones in which the heroes always won eventually. They would have been published originally when Reyes was a kid. The volumes looked pristine; either Reyes didn't read them, or he read them with ridiculous care. Todd wondered where the boxes of bagged and boarded originals were.
The desk occupied the space in front of the paired windows. On the walls to Todd's left and right, two framed movie posters hung like boxers glaring at each other across the ring. One was for the original Shaft. The other was for the remake with Samuel Jackson.
The trash basket held some empty envelopes from utility bills, but nothing else. The desktop was tidy, and the laptop on it was shut. Todd thumbed the catch and opened it. Powered off, and though he might have a key, a laptop password was a little more access than he'd been given. If necessary, Hafidha could deal with it.
He looked back on his way out the door, at the toy on the desk lamp. Spider-man, not Batman. It seemed an important distinction.
Todd went on to the living room. One large shelf unit filled with LPs and another with CDs flanked a collection of stereo equipment ranging from an old reel-to-reel tape deck to an iPod. The flat-panel TV was mounted to the wall above. A black leather recliner, something more high-style than a La-Z-Boy, and wine-red velour couch and armchair grouped around a glass-and-black-iron coffee table like animals at a watering hole. The warm-colored patterned rug underneath was an island in the golden wood of the floor. An empty Negra Modelo bottle sat on the end table next to the recliner; a novel lay open over one of the arms.
Todd wandered into the kitchen. Sleek, modern, well-equipped, and very clean. If Todd hadn't known better, he'd have said no one cooked in it. He played back the messages on the phone. Falkner's was the only one.
In the recycling, on top of the newspapers, bottles, sales flyers, and cans, he found two photocopies and an express envelope. They all bowed and wrinkled the same way, as if they'd been punched in the bin together. Todd laid them on the counter and frowned at them. Had the copies come in the envelope? If so, who paid for express delivery for photocopies of old woo-woo theories? If not, where were the contents of the envelope? And where was the address label? He could see the torn square where it had been.
He found it in the trash. It was dated Saturday.
It didn't look important, and it didn't look connected. But a journalist sometimes developed a sense for what to chase, just as a cop sometimes did. Todd felt that faint hindbrain itch, looking down at his collection of trash. He gathered the debris up to take with him.
Back in the living room, Todd spotted a video rental receipt on the shelf below the television. Two DVDs, Belle de Jour and Iron Man. He searched around the TV, but didn't find either title. He pulled out his cell phone and punched in the number on the receipt.
A cheerful woman said, "Beltway Video."
"This is Special Agent Solomon Todd with the FBI. I'd appreciate information on two DVDs you rented."
The resulting silence wasn't unexpected. "The FBI?"
"Yes. I know this is unusual, but it may be urgent."
"I think... I think you have to get a search warrant. I won't tell you who's renting what."
Good for you, he thought, in spite of a jab of frustration. "I only need to know if a couple of DVDs have been returned, and if so, when."
"How do I know you're for real?" The woman still sounded stiff and careful.
"You don't. But this would make a very lame prank call."
A pause, while she considered what misuse the government could make of that information. He didn't volunteer that any information could be misused somehow; he just waited.
"If you've got the stock numbers..." she said slowly.
"131254 and 220855, rented a week ago Thursday." It was a good thing Reyes didn't use Netflix, like the rest of the civilized universe. If this were Todd's disappearance, they'd be trying to track him by mail pickups.
"Let me check." She put him on hold. Todd imagined her consulting the other employees before looking the numbers up. But at last she said, "Hello? Those came back on Saturday."
"Can you tell me what time?"
"Eleven-oh-two p.m. Right at closing."
"Thank you," said Todd. He thumbed the red button, then dialed Falkner.
Reyes sat up in the middle of the floor, his knees folded nearly to his chest, the knuckles of his bound hands braced on the floor behind him to keep him upright. It wasn't a sustainable position, not for long. But he felt less vulnerable this way than lying on his side, which was his only choice. That felt too much like asking to be kicked again, and it hurt his face.
The fabric of his sweatpants had dried, which was one way to judge the passing of time, at least. The smell of piss became a constant after a while, and was no use.
The woman moved quietly behind him. He only heard her because he knew what he was listening for: the whisper of breath, easy to miss in the sound of distant traffic; the creak of a floorboard just a hair louder than the ticks and groans of a settling house.
Still, he was startled when, on his right, she said, "Tell me about the Anomalous Crimes Task Force." She said it as if tasting it, a slow, deliberate mouthing of the words. It was the first time he'd heard her speak in anything but little verbal explosions.
It wasn't unreasonable for a civilian to know the team's official title. It was how they identified themselves to the public. When they had to identify themselves. Which wasn't often.
He was in the hands of a maybe-gamma who knew in advance about the gamma-hunters. Was this the worst of all possible situations? Probably not. They'd been half-expecting it, even. Funny how that didn't address the suffocating racing of his heart, or how that sent splinters of pain through his head. He clenched his teeth reflexively and regretted it.
"It's quiet in here," she said, down by his feet now. "Yeah, too quiet. Tell me about the Anomalous Crimes Task Force. The FBI's secret recipe."
What should he give her? The truth? What did she want to hear? He needed control of this situation, and he was doing abysmally so far. A concussion could only excuse so much. "What about it?"
"You don't know your lines. You're supposed to say, 'How do you know about that?' Come on. Underestimate me."
"When I'm the one who's tied up?"
"That's good. See, now you sound like the guys on TV." She kicked the sole of his shoe, probably playfully. His knee throbbed, and his jaw and skull, and the impact pushed him back against his knuckles, jammed them against the splintery floor.
She spoke into his left ear, abrupt and soft. "We've got a mutual acquaintance. He said on this stuff you call the plays."
She'd talked to someone. No, someone had talked to her. And that might be a humanizing connection. "I'm just a government flunky. What acquaintance do we share?"
His voice was mushy, like the mouth he spoke with. Who's articulate now? No. Stop that. She doesn't need any help depersoning you.
Cloth rustled. Then her voice came again, in the careful cadences of a child reading aloud. "Lawrence Peretti, 1237 Hanson St., Maxwell's Grove, New Jersey. He gained weight after this picture."
Peretti. This was where he'd gone--here or somewhere like it. Let him still be alive. Because fear made him honest, he added to himself, Because if she let him live, she might do the same for me.
Something small and light fell into his lap: Peretti's driver's license, Reyes guessed. Her hand closed hard around his upper arm, and he forgot and clenched his teeth again. Yes, she's strong. Normal strong? Steroid strong? Gamma strong?
Too loud beside his ear, she demanded, "I answered your question, so you think you can weasel out of mine?"
Her grip tightened past anything that could be human strong. Tissue pinned against bone, bone stressed to its limits. "I want to help you," he said. "God, please stop. Tell me what you need, and I can help you."
She twisted his arms up and shook him like a wolf snapping the neck of a rat. "Stephen Reyes, keeper of the FBI's secrets. Tell me. How many of us have you helped capture or kill?"
Daphne Worth stood on the beach at Coles Point, surrounded by things she'd seen too much of: police cars, mobile crime lab, coroner's van, and people in uniforms with the bored-busy look of doing familiar jobs well.
The Potomac River was gray under a gray sky, with wind helping the outboard motor of the rescue squad's boat kick up a little chop around the pilings of someone's dock.
The pilings from which they'd untangled Larry Peretti's body. If it was Larry Peretti's body. Floaters didn't look very much like the people they used to be.
The odds were pretty good, though. He'd been wearing an engraved wristwatch and a wedding ring.
She knew from the sound of the steps and from the way he stopped just inside her "friends" perimeter that the person behind her was Chaz. "You okay?" he asked, carefully, as if he was afraid asking would make things worse.
"Yeah." She bit the inside of her cheek. "He's the reason I joined up, did you know?" Chaz maintained a sympathetic silence. She honestly couldn't remember if he'd heard it already or not. "Peretti's the one who told me about the WTF. Probably so I'd quit asking questions, but still. He's why I'm here."
"He was retired by the time I came on."
She swallowed down the memories and regrets and anger. "So what have we got?"
"There was a torn plastic garbage bag tied to his waist. As if he was weighted down but the bag caught on something."
"Cause of death?"
"Maybe skull fracture. But there's a lot of visible damage."
"From being in the water?"
"No. He was worked over. Frost will have to tell us if it was before he died, but it wouldn't make sense to do it after. No guess as to time of death or how long he was in the river."
"Or where he went in."
"I'll call Falkner."
He must have heard the hardness in her voice, because he brushed her forearm with his fingertips. "I'll do it if you want."
Worth shook her head. Peretti got her into this. She could see him out. She slid her phone from her coat pocket and pushed buttons.
"Falkner." Esther Falkner never assumed her caller ID was right. Life might not be that simple.
"It's Peretti. Time and cause of death are still not certain, but Chaz says he was seriously banged up, probably antemortem."
"What the hell was he doing in the Potomac?"
Worth stumbled over that. "I'm sorry?"
"Peretti was last seen at his home in New Jersey."
Suddenly she was colder than the weather could account for. "He was dumped at our doorstep. But he was weighted down, he couldn't have been meant--"
"Worth. Reyes didn't come in today. Todd just reported that he's not at home. He hasn't been seen since Saturday night."
Chaz had circled around where he could see her face, though he made it look as if he was only studying the site. Whatever her expression was, it made him frown and thrust his head forward like a listening bird.
Worth drew the connecting line out loud, so Falkner would know she saw it. "Whoever did this may have been in the area when Reyes went missing."
Chaz's eyes grew round, pupils dilated.
"We don't know if anyone else is involved in Reyes's disappearance. But we'll act on that hypothesis for now. I've sent Brady and Lau to try to pick up his trail."
"What do you want us to do?"
"Return to the office. And watch each other's backs."
Worth fumbled her phone off, awkward with cold and fear.
Chaz's face was grayish, more hollowed-out than usual. Worth was about to ask him when he last ate when he cleared his throat and said, "This is-- Was it like this? When--" He blinked and finished, hoarsely, "In May?"
Her throat closed up. "You don't have to work this if you don't want to. Mom'll understand."
"No. I want to. I didn't--" He shook his head. "I wouldn't wish this on him."
"Jesus." It burst out of her more fiercely than she'd meant it to, and Chaz leaned back, almost stepping away. She got her voice under control. "Chazzie. No one would think that."
Because wanting Texas to disappear in a hurricane was different from wanting a specific sonofabitch you actually knew to go through whatever happened to Peretti.
And they didn't know Reyes was in danger, anyway.
She must have said it aloud. Chaz replied, "Don't make me bring up the C word."
"Correlation, causation, or coincidence?" she asked, like a string of swearing. "We've got plenty to go around." She tossed him the car keys. "Use the party lights. Mom won't want us stopped for speeding."
He couldn't breathe. She asked questions, and gave him no time to answer. The first blow had driven the breath out of him, cramped his diaphragm into spasm. The second set him retching, curled on his side, knees drawn up to shield his abdomen from the kicks that followed. There was nothing in his stomach to vomit: the water was gone, soaked up almost instantly. Frost or Villette or Worth could have told him how fast he had metabolized it.
It didn't stop his body from trying.
There were so many new, painful places, but as he cringed from the expected blow, Tinfoil Hat Woman--he needed a better name for her, but that would work for now--stomped on the floor like a petulant child and shuffled back, one step or two. "Think about it," she said. He heard the door slam behind her, her footsteps descending stairs. More evidence that he was above the ground floor.
He wasn't sure how long he huddled there. The door opened once or twice. He heard the lock turn, felt the draft of air. The air was warmer and felt like day. Monday? Tuesday? Blessed Mary, don't let it be Sunday still. He didn't hear her enter or leave, but that didn't mean she hadn't. It was all so dark without his eyes.
What he was supposed to think about, she hadn't said. He straightened his legs slowly, waiting to be hit or kicked. When nothing happened he said softly, "Hello?"
He dragged himself up, on his knees, shoulders and face pressed to the floor. It all hurt, cheeks, forehead. It didn't matter. He was leaving smears of blood behind when he moved; he felt them slicking the splintery planks. This was a sort of yoga pose, wasn't it? What could he make of that?
When he listened, he heard silence, except for the rasp of his own ragged breathing. With an effort that made him grunt, and sometimes hiss air through his teeth, he inched his bound arms down past his hips, until he was bent double with his hands behind his thighs rather than his back. The cord savaged his wrists. Were they swelling around it? He imagined his hands thickening and darkening with trapped blood, and cut that image away, picturing it drifting off on the winds of his thought. He tipped onto his right side again, trying to muffle the fall. The impact shattered his thoughts into pain once more.
He paused to pant, and to let the burn in his shoulder joints subside. When it had, he tucked his knees tight against his chest and worked his legs through the circle of his arms. As soon as his wrists cleared his feet, he sat upright and peeled the tape off his eyes. It took bits of his eyebrows and lashes with it; he smothered several outbursts at those small, intense hurts.
And now he could see.
He was alone in the room. An attic, with the slope of the roof above, and the walls rough-finished. A thin, faded curtain stretched tight over a window frame in the end wall, but no light passed through it. Did that mean it was dark out, or that the window was blocked? The light came from a bare incandescent bulb in an overhead fixture.
In the wall opposite the window was a wooden paneled door with light-green moulting paint. That would be the door to the stairs. Next to it rested an old dinette chair, the kind made of chrome tubing with a vinyl-covered padded seat. The styrofoam cup sat upright on the floor beside a chair leg. The work table was still there, still bolted to the floor, still caked in blood, but she'd removed the vise and the tools.
He untied his ankles (she'd used electrical cord) and massaged some circulation back into his legs. He might be able to untie the cord around his wrists with what was left of his teeth, maybe, with time. He might not have time. He might not have the guts to endure that much pain. She might be in the house. He needed to get out, get to a road and flag down a car, find a nearby dwelling--maybe just find a hiding place.
He stumbled to the window. The curtain was stapled to the frame with demented thoroughness, but he managed to pinch enough fabric at the edge of the staples to pull and tear it free. The destruction revealed wood-panel shutters, closed, the hinges on the inside. Who the hell put shutters on the inside?
The latch was rusty. He scrabbled at it with his bound hands. How high up was he? Two stories? Three? Would there be anything he could climb down or fall on? And how long did he have before Tinfoil Hat came back?
The latch grated back, and the shutters swung toward him.
There were bars on the windows. New, sturdy, made of steel, and the emergency escape handle had been snapped off. Light glittered off the irregular planes of fatigued, broken metal. Reyes wondered if she'd done it with her bare hands.
Outside he could see the clouded night sky, a dirt lane, the lights of traffic passing on the road less than a mile away. Another planet away. What would Spidey do?
He clutched one bar with his bound hands, tried to shake it, banged at it with his fists, realized at last he was gasping for air and fighting against the little percussive noises in the back of his throat that wanted to escape. Escape. He pressed his aching forehead to the cool steel and counted his breathing: four beats in, four beats out. So hard to concentrate.
Downstairs, a door opened.
He crossed the attic floor in as few light strides as he could and grabbed the dinette chair. Then he pressed himself against the wall behind the door and waited.
He heard the creaking of the attic stairs. When she stepped through the door, he had just time enough to register the small, skinny woman he'd last seen in a delivery uniform. He brought the chair down on her head as hard as he could and shoved past her to the stairs.
He heard her right behind him as he half-fell down the narrow attic steps, grazing his bound hands on the wall for support. He came out into an uncarpeted hallway smelling of mildew. On one side, a bannister guarded the open staircase to the first floor. He used the newel post to slingshot himself onto the landing. Beat her to the bottom of these stairs. Find something else to slow her down. Then you're out. He lunged downward.
Above him, a howl like an angry dog, and a terrible mechanical screech of wood and iron. He had just enough time to look up and see the bannister crashing down on him, the woman in the hallway above with her arms still outstretched. The oak top rail struck his face, sent him sprawling across the stair treads.
He was barely aware of the weight lifting off him. She dragged him to his feet and backhanded him. His head bounced off the wall, threw his vision into sparks. Then she hauled him back up with two fistfuls of his t-shirt, cotton threads popping as it cut into his armpits.
"I won't let you go!" she screamed in his face, and he squeezed his eyes shut, because he couldn't shut his ears. "Not until I know everything! I'll nail you to the wall and rip the truth out of you! Do you understand me?"
He nodded--or maybe his head just fell forward, he wasn't sure which. He hoped it looked like a nod.
"You will." She let go, and he slid down the wall. He felt her grasp his ankles and pull him back up the stairs, through the ruin of the balustrade. He tried to lift his head so it wouldn't hit the edge of each stair as she dragged him over it. He tried to ask her to let him stand, sit, rest. Those things didn't seem to happen.
I am not playing well. Not well enough to win.
Was she angry? No, she was humming. He listened as she hauled him feet-first back up the attic stairs, listened to her voice echo off the walls. For a moment he almost recognized the song, but the tune disappeared in a shift of key, a muddle of rhythm, the graying-out of his awareness.
Falkner met Daniel Brady as she came out the door of Beltway Video. "The clerk who closed on Saturday night described Reyes pretty clearly. He was alone, and didn't seem to be in distress."
Brady gave her a thoughtful look that might have been the product of trying to imagine Reyes in distress. "CSIs are processing the car," he said. "Lau's canvassing residents across the alley in case anyone saw anything."
They walked down the street to the parking lot, where Reyes's black Cadillac was barricaded in with police tape. Falkner had seen him arrive in it one day, shortly after he bought it, and raised her eyebrows. Several hours later, when they were both at the coffee maker, he'd said, "My father always wanted a Cadillac."
Oh, Stephen, she'd thought, but of course, hadn't said.
Now she tried to see the Caddy as a piece of evidence. She stood on the gravel and looked back at the video store, imagining night, an empty street, a trim, smallish black man crossing diagonally toward her. There would be someone else here, too, but out of sight, or not threatening. Would Reyes have fallen for a Ted Bundy scam? The crutch, or a flat tire, or a dead battery?
The CSIs, Maher and Reindl, were pulling prints off the driver's side door handle. Falkner peered in the window on the passenger's side. "Are you done with this one?" she called over the roof.
"Go ahead," Reindl called without raising her head.
Falkner pulled on the nitrile gloves from her pocket and tried the door. Locked. But she could see two DVD boxes on the seat. He'd gotten into the car, then, at least long enough to drop off the new rentals.
She spotted a heap of brown suede on the back seat. It was a jacket of Reyes's that she recalled seeing; it was tossed across the seat as if the driver was done with it.
It had been cold last night, and was brisk even now. Why hadn't Reyes wanted his jacket?
She walked slowly around the back of the car, and Brady joined her. "Wheel wells," he said.
Falkner squatted and looked into the left rear one. "Lot of dirt."
"Given Reyes, I bet this goes to the car wash once a week. So in the last week, where the hell was he off-roading?"
She half-straightened, her hands on her thighs, and studied the ground around her. The lot was gravel, not dirt. The alley was paved. And even if the car had rolled almost straight from dirt into the parking lot, the marks wouldn't show on this surface.
Brady called from the front of the car. "Something up here, maybe. Like a truck backed into him with a pole sticking out of the bed."
Lau came back as Falkner finished her circuit of the car. "No one saw anything at eleven p.m. Saturday night. No strange vehicles in the neighborhood. Someone did notice that Reyes's car was here all weekend." She made a face. "They thought it must belong to the Russian mob."
Falkner saw what Brady had spotted: a ragged hole in the front grille, about three inches across. She crouched and turned her pocket flashlight on the damage. Slowly she put her hand into the hole, careful not to touch the edges. The widest part, at her knuckles, wouldn't clear the metal. She drew it out again.
Brady said, "What is it?" Falkner felt him and Lau tense and focused behind her.
She stood up. Inside the engine compartment, the hood prop would be on the right. You'd lift the hood with your left to free it, then lower the hood with both hands. Which meant an overhand grip there, two hands there and there.
She turned to the CSIs, who were watching her. "Dust the hood," she ordered. "The whole front edge."
"Talk to us," Brady said.
She walked around to the driver's side door, with Brady and Lau trailing after. "Reyes came back to the car, unlocked it, got in, and put the DVDs in the passenger seat. He put the key in the ignition." She peered in the window, trying to see past the steering wheel.
"Not there," Brady told her.
"Okay. But he tried to start the car, and it wouldn't start."
"If it was the battery, the door locks wouldn't have worked."
"So we know it wasn't the battery. He gets out, pops the hood latch, and goes to see what he can see in the engine compartment."
"Does Reyes... Is he much of a motorhead?" Lau asked, with restrained skepticism.
"He'd do it anyway, I think. It's what you do." She walked back around to the front of the car, careful to keep out of the way of the fingerprinting. She faced the car with its damaged grille. "It was dark. He might not have noticed the damaged grille. His back was to the alley. The UNSUB must have been waiting for that."
"How did the UNSUB know the car wasn't going to start?"
Falkner nodded toward the hole in the grille. "That was done to get at the hood latch."
Lau frowned and leaned past the CSIs for a better look. "Pry bar? Crappy chrome, if so. Except I don't see any scratches."
"If somebody reached through that hole, they have a mighty small hand," Brady said. "Remember Eddie Cieslewicz? He wouldn't have needed a pry bar."
"They're there," Maher called, pointing to the hood. "Two different sets."
Falkner looked where she pointed, while the techs photographed the prints. When they finished, she said, "Let's get it open."
Brady went around to the driver's side door. "This one's unlocked." Falkner heard the glower in his voice over that. He leaned in and pulled the latch with a gloved hand, and Falkner lifted the lid.
Lau added her pocket flashlight to Falkner's. "What are we looking for?"
"Anything out of place."
"Mm. The usual, then."
"Well, hello," Falkner heard herself say as her light played over the relays.
Brady ducked and peered at her through the gap between fender and hood.
"Look at this," Falkner said, and held her flashlight on the relays while the other two studied.
"The dust is smudged away on one of them," Lau said.
"I'll bet you a pizza that's the fuel pump relay."
Brady looked at her admiringly. "Now who's the motorhead?"
"You MPs never had to keep anything running," Falkner said, which made him grin. "So someone pulled the fuel pump relay."
"And put it back," Brady added.
Lau was still passing her flashlight over the engine compartment. Suddenly the pool of focused light stopped. "Tweezers, somebody?" Lau asked, and the note in her voice brought Falkner and Brady on the alert like a pair of pointers spotting quail.
Reindl stepped forward and handed her a pair. She leaned into the compartment, heedless of what it might do to the front of her jacket, and plucked something off the engine block. She held it up in the beam of her flashlight.
"Fuck," she said softly.
In the tweezers were a few short, dark, curling hairs, clotted with blood.
Falkner was driving, so when his cell phone rang, Brady slid it out of his pocket and checked the caller. "Frost," he told Falkner and Lau, and poked the green button.
"Good afternoon, Agent Brady," Frost said, her voice rasping over the little speaker. "I've completed my examination of Agent Peretti's body."
Interesting how everyone gave Peretti credentials, even after years of retirement. Well, plenty of folks in Texas lived and were buried with the handle of "Colonel" decades after their military days were over. "I've got SSA Falkner and Agent Lau in the car with me. Can I put you on speaker?"
Frost's voice wasn't improved by the speaker phone amplification. "Agent Peretti's cause of death was head trauma; specifically, he sustained symmetrical damage on either side of of his skull that crushed the bone inward and placed direct pressure on the brain."
"And the other damage?"
"Antemortem injuries are consistent with physical torture. He was hit with a blunt object, or possibly a fist or foot, which produced contusions in the orbits of both eyes, a broken left eardrum, a cracked collarbone, damage to the kidneys, and extensive lacerations. Whatever hit him was wielded with great force. He was also missing his partial plate, and had six teeth broken out at the gumline."
Lau spoke up from the back seat. "Any chance some of this happened when he was in the water?"
"No, Agent Lau." Frost sounded as if she was trying to be very, very patient with the amateurs. Brady grinned out one corner of his mouth, and Lau rolled her eyes.
"Thank you, Doctor Frost," Falkner said, apparently imperturbable.
Brady disconnected and rode in the passenger seat in silence. No point in saying aloud that what happened to Peretti could be happening to Reyes at that moment. There was such a thing as too much empathy, it turned out.
The shutters were still open; the light through the grimy glass was soft and hazy, like morning. Reyes felt the woman's footsteps through the floorboards. Get up, he ordered himself, be aware, be ready. He struggled up onto his knees and elbows. She hadn't tied his feet while he was unconscious, or untied his hands. Dried blood flaked around the electrical cord twisted at his wrists, but his hands hadn't swelled any further. He must be getting some circulation, then. She'd refined her M.O. with practice. Larry Peretti hadn't been the first.
Reyes waited crouched, forehead on his wrists, until the dizziness lessened.
Shock of sensation, so intense he didn't know what it felt like, only that it felt, and all his nerve endings screamed alerts and warnings. Hard things skittered across the floor. When he saw they were ice cubes, he realized what had happened: she'd thrown ice water over him.
Shaking, cold in the cold room, he turned warily to find her. She held an empty blue plastic bucket and watched him, her head turned sideways like a robin listening for insects.
She said, "My stepdad would do that, back when he thought I couldn't talk. He wanted to help. Does it make you feel chatty?"
He didn't try to fight the need to shiver. Shivering would warm him, and she knew he was weak. Better she thought he was weaker than he was. If that was possible. She'd just offered him a personal connection, and he snapped after it like a spider along a shaken strand. "How old were you?"
With an effort, he sat back over his heels, straightening up, pulling together a neutral expression, clenching his teeth so they wouldn't chatter. "Why did he think you couldn't talk?"
"Because I didn't."
"Do you know why you didn't talk?"
Open-ended questions. "Why don't you tell me about that?"
She blinked at him, still birdlike. Birds are dinosaurs. They would eat you if they could.
He tried again. "You asked me if that photo was my mother. It is. My father is dead. I don't keep his picture out. He didn't come home a lot."
Sorry, Papá. But it wasn't like it was a lie.
She still didn't answer, but she didn't move away either, and Reyes left the silence there so she might fill it. An old interviewer's trick. He had learned its practical applications the hard way, from the wrong side of the desk, in the midst of a personal and professional betrayal that--as a young man--he'd found incomprehensibly huge. Why on earth would a laurel-wreathed elder statesman of the field have a need to steal research from some wet-behind-the-ears colored boy? And who would believe the word of a junior associate professor over that of a tenured legend?
The FBI had seemed like the farthest thing from academia, and his first marriage hadn't survived the transition. Clara was still teaching organic chem at the University of Illinois. She was assistant department head. She had two daughters by a well-regarded poet. He hoped they were happy.
Sometimes, Reyes suspected his other two marriages were casualties of the same conditioning event. His professional relationship with his team... definitely was.
And now he had to trust them anyway. They were coming. He'd failed to rescue himself, but the team would get him out. His team, the wacky misfits in Hoover's white, uptight, and outtasight FBI. Hand-selected by Stephen Reyes because they were superior agents, every one.
They would rescue him. All his other faith had failed him. This one would not. He held to that--intellectually, when he could not believe it in his heart--and tried to think of another, better, more leading question.
Abruptly, the woman spoke. The sound dragged him back to here and now. "You lied about your name," she said. "Just like everything else. Does anybody really know who you are?"
He blinked stinging eyes to try to clear them, but the blurriness seemed to be there to stay. "I told you my name."
"Did you? Esteban." She hissed it, with a terrible flat Midwestern accent, and flicked a piece of plastic at him.
He knew what it was without looking. His driver's license.
"Stephen is a nickname," he said, another half-truth. It was professional camouflage. Another fragment of his identity sacrificed to the machine. The American bureaucratic system was set up to handle English names. Period. God forbid you had a matronymic, a patron saint's name, an Indian-style patronymic and village-of-origin like his beautiful friend who had chopped her long, fascinating appellation to the brief, acceptable, unthreatening Amrita Srinivasan.
"It doesn't all fit on the driver's license," he said. Something that knows your name has power over you. He nerved himself and recited it like a rosary. "My full name in Spanish is Esteban Santiago Miguel Domingo Reyes Fomosa y Ibarra. Santiago was my grandfather. Miguel is my godfather. Domingo is the saint on whose day I was born. Reyes is my surname. My father's mother's surname is Fomosa, and my mother's surname is Ibarra."
She blinked at him, her face softening into a human expression. "They don't want to admit that you exist either," she said. "They took away your name."
After a moment, Reyes said, "I don't know your name. I don't have anything to call you by."
She pulled up the battered dinette chair and sat. "Don't you want to know why I didn't tie your feet up, Steve?"
"Do you want to tell me?"
"I know that shrink question thing. Questions, questions, just when you're ready to ask one of your own, boom! Another question. You don't fool me."
"I don't want to fool you."
She stood, moved restlessly around the room. "None of the others ever got loose."
Others. And past tense. His stomach dropped. "Maybe they never did yoga. How many others were there?"
"I'd have to check my notes."
"What kind of notes?"
"Who they were. How they were connected to the experiments. What they told me."
"Peretti was connected?"
She said, scornfully, "If there's something to cover up in America, the FBI is in on it. So I needed FBI agents."
"He didn't know enough. I wanted him to tell me about the place where you keep them, the prison, but he never did."
Then Peretti was dead. Reyes couldn't say he was surprised.
Reyes shook his head carefully. "If there's any cover-up being done, it's at the top. Anomalous Crimes is just odd stuff. We're effectively the cold case unit of the FBI." It was the usual lie. Had she heard it? Had she heard more than that?
She knelt in front of him, licked her thumb, then used it to rub something off his cheek. "I've read whatshisname's books. Rupert Beale."
Give her more. Reinforce the connection. "We find some terribly weird stuff. Sometimes people like you. We try to help them when we do."
"Like Beale said in Curious Crimes. Some of your cases are enough to make people believe in gods and demons."
"Beale's popular books lean toward florid." Grinning god, what was he doing critiquing literature?
She laughed. "I don't believe in superstitious crap. I believe in science and reason. You can't hide the truth, Steve. Dinosaurs lose. That's just how it is."
Hafidha knew Brady was walking across the hall to her sanctum before he knocked on the door. She figured tapping into the building's video cameras was just a wider-ranging version of the bicycle mirror fastened to the side of her monitor. If the precaution never had to earn its keep, so much the better.
"Entrez, s'il vous plaît," she called, and Brady came in like the big brash ray of sunshine he was. Such a contrast to Chaz, who opened the door only as far as necessary and kind of slithered through it.
"Have we got a hit on those prints yet?" Well, not exactly a ray of sunshine today. There was a crease between his eyebrows that would have made a stranger find something else to do, maybe on the other side of town.
"See, I knew you were going to ask that. And sadly, the answer is no. In all that Homeland Security budget, you'd think someone would have included a processor upgrade for IAFIS. But it's only ten years old, why would it need one? say the people who wouldn't be caught dead driving a ten-year-old car."
That should have raised a grin. Brady just stared over her shoulder at her monitor as if it were a vegetarian hamburger. She spun her chair to face him. "Sit," she ordered.
He shook his head. "Got work on my desk."
"Sit. You will be good for exactly shit at your desk in this mood. Now, talk to me."
The yellow couch sucked Brady down into its broken-springed maw as it did everyone else. He leaned stiffly back against the cushions. "You've known Reyes longer than most of us. Does he have any long-standing enemies?"
"Lots, but not the kind who kidnap him in the dark of night. Professional rivals, disgruntled woo-woo theorists, ex-wives, and every asswipe in the FBI he got promoted over. Luckily, he's also got some backup with impressive creds. And he's got us."
"See, you've got good intel. My snap answer would've been that Stephen Reyes's only known enemy is himself."
"Yeah, I left that one off the list. Come on, lollipop, tell Mama. You think someone's hunting us, don't you?"
He lifted his chin and fixed her with those astonishing blue eyes. Aquamarines? Blue zircons? He makes me want to head for a jewelry store. "Peretti," he said, "and now Reyes. And whoever dumped Peretti came all the way from New Jersey for something."
"You think Peretti gave us up."
"I think that's the way to play it."
Hafidha sighed, gathered her braids up behind her head and tugged on them. "I can handle having a target painted on my chest. But I prefer to know it's there."
"Pretend you do. I can't think of any other precaution to take and still get the goddamn job done." He scowled off into the corner of her sanctum. If he'd had laser eyeballs, he'd have burned a hole in the wool of her coat on its hanger. "That and praying."
Hafidha studied his face in profile. "Are we talking one god, a son, something involving a ghost, and Romans seriously over-reacting? You're proposing that as an actual real option."
He shrugged and looked down at his knees. "Not for everyone."
"But for you--?"
She thought, during the long silence, that he wouldn't answer. Fair enough, since it was none of her business. But at last he said, "It's not all snake handlers and talking in tongues and hysterical cures. I like Jesus. I like what he said."
"There are an awful lot of people out there who say they love Jesus and would not love you," Hafidha said. Carefully, but she said it, because hey, it was the Federal Bureau of Investigation, after all.
Brady surprised her with a sideways look and a grin, like a little boy with a firecracker. "Yeah, too bad for them. I figure I'm in there with Samaritans, centurions, and Greek women."
"And Greek men?"
He was still smiling, so she said, "You think God will help Reyes if you pray?"
"No, God'll help me handle not having a goddamn thing to do to help Reyes right now."
Suddenly, surprisingly, she was jealous, just a little. "God and I are so not speaking right now."
The smile faded. He pushed out his lower lip thoughtfully and nodded.
Bad Wabbit. No fishing for sympathy. We hate sympathy. "Hey, have you met Rupert Beale?"
"The secret master of Xtreme Profiling? I've heard him lecture at Quantico. And read his textbooks."
"Including Malfeasance and Miracles?"
Brady rolled his eyes. "Last time I looked, they were still saying life is short."
"It's a hoot, pumpkin. Especially if you know what we know and read for what he's loudly not saying. Anyway, you may get some face-to-face. Es is asking for authorization to bring him in on this."
Ah, she loved that startle reflex. He said, "Since when do we hire contractors?"
"Sugarplum, Beale's been on our tab for ages. He knows El Supremo. Possibly there's some friendly rivalry there."
"Damn. Well, he knows his stuff on criminal psych. We can use the extra eyes. And if he doesn't think we're batshit, I promise not to think he is, either."
Hafidha dropped her voice to its lowest register and intoned, "Judge not, that ye be not judged."
Brady rolled his eyes and stood up.
Her system tapped her on the mental shoulder with an alert. "Stay right there," she said, and thought up her mail. "IAFIS."
In a step, he was behind her chair and leaning over her shoulder. Which she hated, but in this case, she could sympathize. "Match?"
"I just kicked it to everyone's e-mail. Go read."
He was out the door before she got to the D.
She read it herself. Hope Mitchell. A woman. Fingerprinted while resident in-- Oh, let's not mince words. An insane asylum..
If anyone could talk a crazy woman out of killing him, it was Reyes. If he had the chance.
If he didn't... No, no, no. Now and then she felt the urge to club Stephen Reyes like an adorable baby seal, but that was an exasperation of equals. She appreciated it. She wasn't going to see Reyes bobbing up in the Potomac on her watch, damn it.
She really, really needed to not have anyone die right now.
After his usual manner of volunteering (something an old soldier should have had beaten out of him by now), Todd had declared he missed New Mexican food. Falkner, after an inscrutable stare, had ordered him to Albuquerque and the Adler Long-term Care Facility, which had been Hope Mitchell's home thirteen years ago. Now he sat across a desk from Dr. Janet Kennedy, the facility director, a pale, freckled woman in her late fifties, wearing a navy cardigan and a long gray tweed skirt.
He'd called ahead, so he suspected the file under her spread fingers was his quarry's. "What do you want to know about Hope Mitchell?" Kennedy asked, chin lifted.
"Background. She may be involved in an ongoing FBI investigation." Grave, but friendly, to impress her with the importance of this interview without seeming prepared to steamroller her. He was, of course, but no point in starting out that way.
Kennedy looked down at the file under her hands, thinking, maybe wondering how much harm she might do Mitchell by talking or keeping silent. "You know she was questioned by the police while she was here."
Sol nodded. "She was suspected in the death of an orderly in 1984."
"Can you tell me what you're investigating?"
"A case involving the murder of a federal agent and the kidnapping of another. Ms. Mitchell's fingerprints were on the missing agent's car."
Kennedy reached for her reading glasses, unfolded them, and put them down again. "Poor girl."
"Why 'poor girl,' Dr. Kennedy?"
Kennedy pushed back from the desk, rose, and walked to the window. She had a nice view: a stand of pines, a distant mountain topped with snow. "It would be unprofessional to describe this place, circa 1984, as a hellhole. I was doing my psychiatric residency here."
It probably was unprofessional. Todd liked her better for it. It was the kind of character detail he'd include to ensure reader sympathy. "What was Hope Mitchell diagnosed as?"
"Autistic. In light of what we know now about autism, her symptoms aren't a good fit. But we're still reluctant to diagnose schizophrenia in very young patients. And there was almost certainly physical abuse before she came here."
"You remember her?"
"I was her therapist during her last years here." Kennedy returned to the desk chair and sat, as if resigned to the inevitable. She pushed the file across her desk toward him.
"Thank you," he said. She didn't smile or speak.
He consulted the sheets at the front of the packet, the documents from Mitchell's intake assessment; then he thumbed through. Therapists' reports, activities, medical evaluations, and finally, Mitchell's discharge docs. "She was released in 1995."
"To a board and care facility. She was able to get a part-time job, care for herself and her belongings, save some money. She was on medication, of course. Eventually she was approved for independent living."
"Did you have any doubts about that?"
"You say that as if someone else did."
"One of the doctors felt that on the basis of her interests, she was delusional. That seemed a strange basis for suggesting someone wasn't fit for release, when there are people in the world who hold jobs and pay mortgages who don't believe in the moon landings."
Todd blinked at the heat in Kennedy's words. Long-standing disagreement, from the sound of it. "What was Hope Mitchell's interest?"
Kennedy opened her mouth and closed it again, and frowned over his shoulder. "She believed... She talked about people living among us who were...enhanced."
Kennedy misread his confusion as disbelief. "Agent Todd, I don't make judgments about my patients' worldviews. Only their mental health. Believing in aliens or angels or unicorns doesn't by itself interfere with leading a normal life."
Todd breathed deep. Kennedy was fighting a battle she'd had many times before; never mind that she didn't need to have it with him. He'd lived amicably with people who believed weirder things than Kennedy's list. He nodded and sat forward in his chair, imagining sitting with this woman around a campfire telling stories about their personal Abominable Snowmen. "Like my job, in a way. I try not to judge worldviews or mental health. All I can determine is whether someone's actions broke a law. Anything else is bias."
Kennedy studied him, narrow-eyed. He must have looked harmless. She folded her hands before her and said, "Hope believed that humans could be made smarter or stronger by science. That experiments had been done, and that the results were living secretly among normal humans." She met his eyes and shrugged. "It boiled down to something like eugenics, and heaven knows she's not alone in that one."
"Did she believe she might be one of them?" Todd asked gently.
Kennedy shrugged. "Children want to know why they're different. Can you blame them for preferring to believe they're special rather than accepting that they're broken?"
No, he couldn't blame anyone for that. Sol re-read the summary sheet in Mitchell's file. "The matter of the orderly's death was dropped. Why was that?"
Kennedy snorted. "Have you ever seen a locked-ward orderly, Agent Todd? They're like professional wrestlers, only bigger."
"It doesn't seem to have helped him. This says his neck was broken."
"Exactly. Whatever provocation she might have had, Hope Mitchell didn't kill anyone. She was four feet tall and weighed eighty pounds. She was a ten-year-old girl."
It was ridiculous, so of course the investigation was dropped. Then why had it been started at all? Sherlock Holmes was right, about the impossible and the improbable. And they may look alike, but they're two different animals.
He thought about a small, hand-shaped hole punched in the front grille of a black Cadillac. The first victim tells you the most. "What was the orderly like? Did he get along with the patients?"
"He...often undermined treatment plans."
Kennedy sighed and looked down at her fingers. Of course; she'd been here, finishing her residency. If the hospital had overlooked patient abuse, she should have reported it. Easy for a medical board to say. "He ridiculed the younger, weaker patients. Gave them offensive names. When they had difficulty with daily tasks, he assumed they were opposing his authority. Like many people with self-esteem issues, he belittled others as a defense."
"'What makes you so special?'" Todd murmured.
"Just so. He should have been fired, but as I said, this was a badly-run facility in 1984."
So instead of getting fired, he got murdered. And Hope Mitchell had an answer if anyone asked what made her special.
Reyes leaned against the cold brick chimney, partly for support, partly so the woman could not circle around him. He sat cross-legged, because his outstretched legs might be too tempting a target for a kick.
But his captor seemed not to be in a kicking mood this--evening? Morning? He'd lost track. She sat relaxed in the dinette chair. The part of his mind that always watched from a distance saw a weirdly domestic little scene, with the sound off, at least, and ignoring the cord around his wrists. He was winning her over.
He would have tried to work the knot loose with his broken teeth by now, but she rarely left the attic any more. And given her strength and speed, he wondered if having his hands free would make a difference. The ringing in his head and the spottiness of his memories made it hard to be sure, but in the parking lot, he didn't think he'd even heard her slipping up behind him.
He rested his head against the chimney. It would be nice to sleep. Terrible idea. His skin chafed under the cord, and he thought of Chaz. Believe me, the irony is not lost on me, he said to the memory of Villette's closed face.
She said, "You keep track of the experiment subjects, don't you? Do you know where they all are?"
"The changed ones. The next generation. Is the government holding them prisoner, the ones you've found?"
Yes. And we're doing terrible experiments on them. Because it's the only way we can think of to try to save them from the hell you live in. Not that that's an excuse."I'm not sure."
"What does that mean, you're not sure? How sure do you have to be before you can say, 'I know?'"
That was the question, wasn't it? When would he know enough about what he was chasing to be able to say, "I know?"
He shifted his rear on the hard floor. "I'm not sure what you're asking. May I stand? Do you mind?"
"Do whatever you want, Steve. Except try to get out the door."
He stood, took a few stiff steps away, and raised his bound hands to rub his face. He hit a span of abraded skin and winced. His cheeks felt like liquor-soaked pound cake, squishy and swollen. "Why are you interested in experiments?"
"Why are you? You volunteered for your job." When he didn't answer: "You know where to find them. Don't you? The other FBI guy said you keep them locked up somewhere. Was he lying? Do you just kill them as you find them?
Reyes kept her in his peripheral vision. On the left side. His right eye was close to swelling shut. She looked serious, intent. Volunteer information. We're on the same team, you and I. Believe it. Stay there. "No. We don't want anyone to die. We're trying to find a cure for the ones who are sick. The ones who can't control what they do. That's all."
"He said you had changed ones on your team. Using them like dogs to catch the rest of us. Your cure is brainwashing, Steve. Isn't it?"
Jesus and Mary. It's the fucking X-Men. Her mythology was the same as his. "They help because they want to help," he said. "They want to help other people like them. We're the good guys."
He wished he knew her name. It would be so much more effective if he knew her name.
She rose, lifted the chair in one hand, and advanced on Reyes. She held the chair out in front of her, legs first, like a lion tamer.
He caught the edge of the seat, but she pressed forward, pushing him against the wall, pinning him between the chair legs. Still she pushed toward him. With a metallic groan the chrome tubing of the chair back crumpled and folded, the chrome legs bowed. She pushed until she was face-to-face with Reyes, the wrecked chair pinched between them.
"When the government finds them, do they kill them?" Her voice was too loud for the little distance from her mouth to his ears. Her breath was hot on his bruised skin. "Is that your job? Protecting your kind from my kind?"
"We're police officers. We investigate criminal activity. If we can help the people we find--"
She leaned closer. Spittle struck his cheek. "Help. Right. I've read 1984. V for Vendetta. I know words lie."
He'd bet his life she'd been institutionalized. He was betting his life. "I'm telling you the truth. We only want to help. We don't just lock people away."
She lurched backward and threw the chair at his head. He raised his arms and ducked; the blow shoved his forearms into his face. The pain made him wobble, sent him staggering back into the wall, spitting the blood from fragile, broken scabs.
Her voice rose to a shriek. "I'm not walking into your trap! You have answers alive in your own Guantanamo! What are you breeding in there, Steve? If you're the good guys, who the hell do you work for?"
He pressed back against the wall, panting, longing to shut his eyes but knowing better. "I have questions. Some of them are the same as yours. But I have so few answers. I don't know what causes the--what causes your people's difference. My superiors won't let me talk about you. If I could...maybe I--we could learn more."
She watched him, her eyes narrow and hard. "You really don't know."
"I know you're hungry all the time. You eat twice as much as anyone you know, but you lose weight. You know you're stronger than most people. You want to know why. So do I."
"What happens to the ones you've caught?"
The truth was complex. He could lie. Couldn't he? He'd been a good liar in a good cause, but his skills were dried up. "It depends. On the host--the person. Some go free. Some--" Don't say "of them," Stephen. "--only want to kill. They don't see beyond that. For the others, it's like a college." Right. Xavier's School for Gamma Youngsters. He closed his eyes after all; they felt scorched and sanded. "We teach each other."
"Like a college. You mean like a hospital."
Crap. Divert her. "The food's better." He wondered where the strength to make jokes was coming from.
"Where you learn."
"It's not like a hospital."
"By shocking them and injecting them and cutting out pieces of their brain."
"No!" But her flat, relentless voice made it sound normal and inevitable. He added, "No. I've been there. I can tell you--"
"Fuck, fuck, fuck. You were supposed to know everything. But you're just one of the tools."
He didn't see her cross the space between them. Fast, yes. Insanely fast. Her hands were around his neck, her features twisted with rage. He swung his fists up to shove her, and kicked her in the stomach.
She stumbled backward, more surprised than hurt.
Reyes shouted, "If you kill me, you get nothing!" His voice came out rough from his aching throat.
If she'd wanted to kill him, he'd be dead, windpipe crushed, spine snapped.
She rubbed her ribs absently where his blow landed, then smiled. "Maybe you know more about your bosses' business than you think, Steve. I'll find out. I always do." She picked up the ruined chair and turned toward the door.
No. Keep her here.. The still small voice of his training and experience, telling him to regain control when everything animal in him screamed for her to leave, to let him huddle and bleed in peace. His mouth full of blood, Reyes called after her, "Most people call me Stephen."
She turned back, hesitating. He spat out a clot and said again, "Most people call me Stephen. Not Steve."
Her nod was slow. "You see? I didn't know that. Now I do."
"What do they call you?"
She blinked. She was thinking about the answer, hard. At last she said, "You little bitch. Freak. Not my friend. Batty. God."
He winced. Yes. He remembered calling her that.
"I'll be back," she said. She slung the ruined chair over her shoulder and went out the door. As she left, she was humming again, a familiar rhythm and an alien tune.
He heard the lock turn, and her steps on the stairs.
He wanted to pace. But his strength was limited, so he had to be sensible about using it. Knowledge, reason, self-control would get him through this. He could go to the window and look out, though; that was reasonable.
The dense gray winter sky hid the clues; he still couldn't tell what time it was. He clutched one of the bars, pulled on it to test it. He shook it. Then another, and another, with more force, with all his strength, fighting the urge to scream for help or just to scream.
Exhaustion stopped him eventually, and left him gripping the last bar so hard he quaked. He let go and slammed his bound fists against the window frame. Very smart, Stephen. Break a bone in your hand, why don't you. He wouldn't do that. He wasn't brave enough to break his own bones trying to free himself.
He was too tired to lie down. He pressed his face into his upraised arms and leaned into the bars. Cold metal cooled his abused face. If he lived, he'd have scars.
From the looks of it, Martha Bell ran Adobe Air Courier with the precision of a military supply depot. The hangar-like metal pole barn on the outskirts of Prescott, Arizona served as both processing center and manager's office, and the one was so perfectly organized there should have been labels on the desk drawers of the other.
Todd craned his neck to be sure.
Bell hunched over the keyboard of an old HP desktop computer on the front counter, typing hunt-and-peck. She was in her forties, with a cowboy complexion: lined heavy around her mouth and gray eyes, tan as a saddle, early age spots mottling the backs of her hands.
"Hope Mitchell--yep, she worked here '96 to '98. Voluntary quit. She had family she wanted to see in Tulsa."
"Tulsa?" Mitchell's mother had died of liver cancer in Oregon in 1989; her stepfather had gone to work for an Alaskan mining outfit, and even Todd couldn't find a current address for him. As the only child of two only children, Mitchell was a little short of near relatives.
"I sent a letter of recommendation to an express service for her. Don't know if they hired her. She wasn't quite right, you know--" Bell gave her left temple a tap with one finger, "--but she worked like a draft mule. Never slowed down."
A stocky twenty-something man worked a hand forklift under a pallet beside the counter. His hair was so short it was only a shadow on the brick-colored skin of his scalp. He had an eagle tattooed on the back of his neck, half-visible above the edge of his t-shirt, and his face and posture were focused and intense, like a cat watching a bird through a window. He watched Bell and Todd without meeting their eyes.
"Got the name of the service in Tulsa?" Todd asked.
The man with the forklift said, "Martha? You talking about Hope?"
She looked over her shoulder at him. "Yeah." To Sol, she added, "This is Harry Fish. Harry, Agent Todd."
Todd said, "You knew Hope Mitchell? Do you know where she is?"
"No." Fish looked at Todd's shoes. "But I want to find her, her address."
"She lent me some stuff to read. She might want it back."
"What kind of stuff, Mr. Fish?"
"Non-fiction. I don't read stuff that isn't real."
"Do you remember the titles?"
Fish looked up, frowning, so surprised he looked at Todd's face before he jerked his chin down again. "Why?"
"It could help me find her. This may be a life or death situation, Mr. Fish."
Fish's shoulders jerked, as if his whole taut body had been plucked like a string. "She said that. Before she left. Life or death." He hurried over to a row of half-a-dozen old school lockers and opened one.
Martha Bell looked up from her computer terminal. "Mister--Agent Todd. I sent that letter to Donning Express Parcel in Tulsa."
Harry returned with two beat-up paperbacks and a newsletter. Todd read the titles of the paperbacks: We Are Not Alone and Genome: the Secret Agenda. The newsletter was an old copy of America Watches, creased from being mailed folded in half.
Todd took the newsletter and turned it over. There was a torn spot on the back where the mailing label had been pulled off.
Nice try, child, he thought, rubbing his thumb over the rough patch on the paper. But you're playing the big kids now.
They would find her, and they would do it in time. There was no point in telling himself anything else.
Reyes alternated between walking slowly around the room and leaning against a wall. If he sat down, he nodded off, and the woman hit him. He didn't think she objected to him sleeping; if he could have kept up his half of the conversation while he dozed, she might have let him do it.
The woman walked with him. He was too tired to tell if she was following him or driving him. "Don't be stupid," she said, and he realized with a jab of fear that she was replying to something he'd said that he couldn't remember. "Do you think they'd let you near the secrets if you weren't under their control?"
"If someone were hiding things from me, there would be places I wouldn't be allowed to go."
"You haven't found the doors they won't let you through."
He was so impossibly tired. So thirsty. His voice was a kind of mechanical whisper. Stay with it. The team is coming. Keep her interested. Stay alive. If he were Solomon Todd, he'd spin her a story that would convince her they were on the same side. That this was a Hong Kong cop-and-criminal buddy flick, and they were going to take on the corrupt government all on their own.
The photocopied articles. She might deny it when he offered help, but that's because he was offering help on the wrong terms. As an authority figure. She was looking for allies. He just had to come to her as a supplicant. As a convert, willing to repent and make good on his sins.
Reyes softened his voice, made it questioning, and said, "Do you really think so?"
The change in her was almost instantaneous. She leaned forward, her expression electric. "There's no other way it can work. You think you're helping the changed ones live in a safe place. How long do you think you'd stay alive if you came close to the truth? You have a dangerous job. You could die at it. You could go deposit your paycheck and get shot in a bank robbery. If you're alive, they want you alive. Because you serve them."
Reyes nodded, though it made the room spin. It was hard to approximate open body language with your hands tied. "A...a friend of mine says paranoia is what you get when your intuition has to run on automatic." Not stretching things too much to call him a friend. Better not to talk about teammates. To say the kinds of things Peretti must have said to her, that got Reyes into this attic. No offense, my ass, Peretti.
"He's smarter than you."
Who? Oh, yes. Todd. The room was still spinning. Maybe his brain was swelling up in there. It would be fitting if that was the thing that killed him, after all the trouble it had gotten him into over the years. Clara could fend for herself: he had trusted her, way back when, and look where that had got him. But there were other people he owed apologies. Sorry, Kay. Sorry, Vivian. Sorry, Delphine. I'm sorry you're going to have to find out I'm dead from the news, because I never even bothered to tell Todd I was dating somebody. No, not bothered. Trusted.
He dragged himself away from reading his obituary. Focus on now. "I'm not claiming to be smart. Maybe I'm not as smart as you."
"You're not smart enough. Nobody's smarter than they are but us."
There was a different tone in her voice, something confidential and conspiratorial. Not like when she talked about her fellow supervillains. Trembling with the need to sound casual, Reyes asked, "Who's 'us?'"
She stepped back. For the first time, he saw fear and suspicion on her face.
It woke him up. A short-lived burst of adrenaline, but he'd take what he got. Get back inside the schizophrenic delusion. "I told you, I want these answers, too. How can I help if I don't know as much as you do?"
"No. I tell you everything I know, and you lie. You let them cut into my brain. That's how it works. I know."
"I haven't lied to you. I wouldn't lie to you any more than you would lie to me. I need your help. I need to understand how they're using me."
"You're not worth lying to." Her voice quivered with fear. She wasn't scared of Reyes; who was she scared of? As if he'd spoken his thoughts aloud, she lunged at him. "Shut up!" She backhanded him. It bounced his head off the wall, and he slumped to his knees in a haze of vertigo. "I'm asking the questions!"
He tasted blood across his tongue. He swallowed and croaked, "If you hit me, I can't answer."
"You're trying to make me angry. So I'll kill you and keep your secrets for you."
His vision wobbled. A shard of tooth worked loose: he spat it, and more blood, on the floor. The blood just made him thirstier. His nose must be swollen shut, because he couldn't smell piss anymore. "You got the wrong guy. Just as you did when you took Peretti. You can't change that by killing me. You can only lose my help. I need your help, and you need... you need mine."
Beyond her ankles, Reyes saw his toothbrush, the one she'd taunted him with and thrown aside. It lay in the corner, half hidden behind a wall stud. So absurd, the sight of his toothbrush in this place. It violated the dramatic unities. It had escaped from a comedy. It was wasted here.
Suddenly she laughed and squatted in front of him. "Aren't you supposed to be careful what you say? So I'll stay calm?"
He probably shouldn't have talked about what came after killing him. It might make the visualization more concrete. "Do you think that would work?"
She dabbed blood off his mouth with the hem of his t-shirt, then whisked her fingers over his hair, maybe to brush out dust. Her fingers swept the dried-blood gash in his forehead where she'd banged his head on the engine block, and he flinched. "Shrinks don't believe in the changed ones," she said. "'Delusional,' it's called."
"I believe in you," he rasped. So much easier to lie down, let her kill him. Let himself die. But the team was coming. He trusted them. He chose to trust. "Why do you believe?"
"Because it explains everything."
She smiled. "Like why your kind is doomed. Say hi to the dodo for me."
America Watches was published out of what Nikki Lau was pretty sure was an illegal garage conversion on a split-level in a development on the fringes of Atlanta. L. Pearce Nelson, Jr., who sat behind the scratch-and-dent steel desk in that former garage, didn't strike her as the sort of person who bothered with building permits or code inspections.
The office smelled faintly of mildew, and was crowded with old office furniture, out-of-date computers, a budget-brand laser printer, a fax machine, and a tabletop copier. Articles, notes, and photos were tacked on the unpainted drywall. Beside her she saw a page torn from an issue of Newsweek, an article about climate change, with marginalia in red. She wondered who the writer in red ink thought was really behind global warming.
Behind Nelson's desk, a big American flag was stretched and tacked on the wall with pushpins. Lau suspected that, like the garage conversion, that method of flag display wasn't an approved one.
She smiled and offered her ID. "Special Agent Nicolette Lau, FBI. Thank you for seeing me, Mr. Nelson."
Nelson hadn't looked up since he buzzed her in the door; he pretended to be reading the copy in front of him. "No problem. Anything else before you leave the premises?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"You wanted me to see you. I saw you. So leave."
Permission to treat the witness as hostile, Your Honor? Lau nodded, as if Nelson had said something perfectly reasonable. "Mr. Nelson, I'm investigating the disappearance of a federal agent. One of your subscribers may be involved."
"Well, good for him."
"I don't think you understand--"
"Yeah, I do, Agent. You want to get your hands on my records. Well, go call one of your bought judges and get a subpoena, and I'll let you talk to my lawyer about it."
Lau hid the clenching of her fingers in the fabric of her jacket. "Mr. Nelson. There may be more than one life at stake."
Nelson shrugged with his shoulders and mouth at once. "I don't know any federal agents, or any other un-American bastards, for that matter. So excuse me if I don't give a damn when some government flunky sticks his--or her--nose where it's not wanted and gets it cut off." He gathered up the papers on his desk and tapped them upright against the surface to straighten the edges of the pile. "There's the door. I'd hold it open for you, but I hear you career women think that's an insult."
She'd had plenty of practice smiling when provoked. She gave Nelson the one that meant, I'm smiling because you have no idea how dead you'd be if I weren't in a hurry. "That's very considerate of you, Mr. Nelson. Have a nice day."
As Lau walked down the driveway to her rental car, she slid her phone out of her jacket pocket and dialed Hafidha.
Falkner watched the faces in the room as Chaz told them what the team knew about Hope Mitchell. It was a useful distraction; it kept her from dwelling on how much they didn't know.
Victor Celentano leaned back in his desk chair, a frown pulling his features down like a pendulum weight. The pink undertone seemed to have migrated out of his skin and been translated into bloodshot eyes. He stared at Chaz; Chaz was being decent about it and not staring back.
Rupert Beale looked comfortable in one of Celentano's white chairs. Falkner wondered if he was. His law enforcement career had been ended by a shattered pelvis, which was the sort of thing that resulted in a lifelong inability to sit through entire meetings and dinners. But he'd entered the room with only a slight limp, and no cane.
She couldn't help contrasting him with Reyes. Stephen was relentlessly, consciously sleek, always perfectly groomed and dressed. Beale's bits and bobs of untidiness and apparent inattention to his appearance seemed equally conscious. His salt-and-pepper hair stuck out in wisps over his collar; the long, blunt fingers that curled over the chair arms ended in ragged nails; the knot of his tie was crooked. A venti Starbucks something-or-other sat on the floor beside him. He looked perfectly professorial. Given his grasp of what people saw and how they saw it, and what they thought and did on the basis of it, it was a good bet none of those things were accidental.
Which meant he was very like Reyes, after all.
"A county sheriff's deputy died under mysterious circumstances near Prescott in 1998, during Hope Mitchell's residence," Chaz was saying. "The body of a Federal marshal was found in Tulsa in March of 2000, shortly after she left there.
"The deputy had been first responder to an anomalous crime a mile north of the U.S.-Mexican border near Nogales. We haven't found a connection between the Tulsa victim and an anomalous incident. But we believe Hope Mitchell targeted Reyes through information she got from Larry Peretti, because of Reyes's involvement in the ACTF."
Celentano pressed his palms together under his chin. "You think Peretti would've put another agent at risk?"
"You've seen the photos," Falkner answered, because she could say to Celentano what Chaz wanted to say, and shouldn't. "He looked as if he'd been attacked by a trash compactor. Under those circumstances, I'd answer anything I was asked. Torture is a very effective means of getting people to say what you want them to say, whether it's true or not."
It was Beale who leaned forward and asked Chaz, "Have you placed Mitchell in the Washington area?" When he spoke, his epic eyebrows lifted and fell. He had a pleasant, slightly-rusty voice and the crisp elocution necessary to make himself understood all the way to the back of a university lecture hall. It was almost a shame he didn't do interviews.
"She started as a part-time driver for Globe Express last Monday. She didn't show up for work on Thursday afternoon, and hasn't reported in since. The address they had for her turns out to be a dry cleaners." Chaz pulled his shoulders up a little and cleared his throat. "The office manager was surprised that she hadn't called in. Mitchell's performance was excellent until last week, and she was hired with a string of recommendations from previous employers."
Falkner's stomach grew a good-sized lead brick. "She's stayed in control of her daily life until now. She thinks she doesn't need to do that anymore."
Beale caught her eye. It wasn't a sympathetic look, exactly, but Falkner was grateful for the comprehension in it even as she wondered how much she'd given away.
Celentano turned to Falkner. "We have the detailed autopsy on Agent Peretti?"
"Yes, sir. In the water at least 48 hours. Cause of death, cranial fractures, right and left hemispheres. Multiple secondary fractures, contusions, no evidence of the instrument used. The water took care of anything else, except for a thorn found in one of his shoelaces. It's from a rugosa rose, possibly a wild variety." She raised her eyes from the report. "Apparently someone in forensics is big on roses."
Celentano said, "Which may be lucky for Agent Reyes. A--Doctor Beale, can you add anything so far?"
Beale shook his head. "Your team is on top of the evidence. And if anyone on the planet can handle himself in this situation, it's Stephen Reyes." Falkner saw Beale's gaze shift to Chaz, but he didn't say what he was thinking. She added four more points to his people-reading score. Chaz didn't need to hear that last year's ordeal had been observed and discussed by strangers. "Mitchell's manifestation is unsubtle and oddly uncomplicated, from what we know. It appears she's simply more than human. Stronger, faster, better, more. She was capable of punching through the grille of an automobile without apparent harm to her hand, and capable of overpowering a trained, fit, vigilant federal agent with a blitz attack, effectively enough to leave no sign of struggle. Based on Special Agent Todd's report, she manifested early--by age ten at the latest--and she has used her powers to kill almost from the start. If her special abilities extend to her senses as well as her musculo-skeletal structure, she may be difficult to apprehend."
This time it was Chaz's eye Falkner caught; his look said, only for her, No shit.
"If she can be lured away from wherever she's dug herself in, away from Reyes, we have the best chance of taking her alive with no harm to her hostage. But her apparent schizophrenia--Agent Falkner, you agree with me on that supposition? Thank you--is likely to make her suspicious of any attempt to move her out of what she considers safe space. If she believes she's being forced out, she will make it a priority to hide her trail and eliminate witnesses."
"She'll kill the hostage."
Beale looked apologetic; whether for the message or the roundabout delivery of it, Falkner wasn't sure.
"What's our next move?" Celentano asked her.
"Agents Lau and Gates are pursuing a line of inquiry," she answered blandly.
So she got a third wordless exchange, this time with Celentano. Because he knew when she put it that way, it was better he didn't know the details.
He stood, announcing the meeting was done. Falkner, Beale--stiffly--and Chaz followed his lead. "All right, people. Bring him back. Whatever it takes."
That was Hope Mitchell's death sentence, pronounced in case of need. Falkner hoped they wouldn't require it. Or wish they did.
In the hall outside Celentano's office, Beale said, "I'm sorry for the occasion, but I'm glad to have met you both. Reyes isn't stingy with praise for your work."
Chaz gave him a grave and decorous nod. I should remember to tell Bekk about that, the next time she declares that the only good reaction is a brutally honest one. "Thank you, Mr. Beale. We appreciate any help you can give us."
Beale looked at the floor for a moment, gathering thoughts, most likely. They were of a height, so when he lifted his head again she had a good view of slightly up-tilted brown eyes and a crooked, short nose. "The information you've gathered about Hope Mitchell suggests she's highly intelligent. But the simplicity of her manifestation might indicate limited creative intelligence."
"You mean, she's a brute-force type." Falkner didn't know why Beale's careful academic periods made her want to translate him into Master Sergeant. Certainly not for Chaz's sake.
Chaz cleared his throat again. "That's not very comforting."
"But Agent Reyes is very creative indeed," Beale said quickly, turning to Chaz. "Like you. If he can put it to good use, as you did, there's an excellent chance we'll find him alive."
Chaz's face changed color several times, which was easy to see under his winter plumage. It settled at flushed. His expression and posture were stiff when he said to Falkner, "I'll go see how Hafs is doing." He spun on one heel and half-loped down the hall.
Beale looked stricken enough that Falkner's reflexive irritation faded. "I'm sorry," Beale said. "I shouldn't have brought it up. Of course he's still raw there."
Falkner found she liked him better in his less-perfect form. "It's like a recovering alcoholic spotting a Jack Daniels billboard. It's going to happen sometimes."
"Well, I'm sorry, but don't tell him so. It'll only make him self-conscious."
Falkner smiled, and hoped he spotted it. "You know where we are. If you have any insights, we want 'em."
Reyes was too dizzy to stand and too stubborn to lie down. He knelt instead, his elbows on the floor and his head cushioned on his forearms. He dozed and dreamed of pillow-top mattresses and clean sheets.
When he woke, he thought, Nice to know what my mysterious unconscious thinks is important.
If he were his captor, he could wrench the bars off the windows, or yank one of the shutters off its hinges and use it as a bludgeon. He could prise the bolts out of the work table with his fingernails and swing one of the legs like a baseball bat. But the attic was otherwise empty and swept bare.
Except for his toothbrush.
Well, one never knew. He crawled across the splintery floor to the corner where he'd seen it. Still there. She'd forgotten it. Because really, what could anyone do with a toothbrush?
He heard her tread on the staircase to the first floor. (The stairs he'd been on when she dropped the balustrade on him. He'd like to see those stairs again. What with the circumstances, he didn't remember them very well.)
As she climbed the narrow stairs to the attic, he heard her humming. What was that song? He could almost work it out. The woman couldn't carry a tune, but she got the rhythm right often enough that it tickled something in Reyes's memory.
He tucked the toothbrush into the waistband of his sweatpants and pulled his t-shirt down to hide it.
"So L. Pearce Nelson is a sexist jerk who gets his rocks off interfering with a federal officer doing her duty. Besides being a crappy speller and a worse page designer."
In Hafidha's Bluetooth headset, Lau said, "That sounded kind of like a list."
"I like to have a list. It strengthens my resolve when the time comes to do something I'm not supposed to do in the service of the things I am supposed to do." Hafidha slid down in her chair and propped her red patent leather boots on the desk beside her monitor.
"Ah." The pause was short, but even Wonder Woman needed a little time to process a sentence like that. "So you're strengthening your resolve?"
"Good dog, no, sweetness. I did that minutes ago. I just have the list left over afterward."
"Does that mean--"
"--I have the complete downloaded subscriber database of America freakin' Watches here on my screen." She brought it to the top, so she wouldn't be lying. "You know, I bet a lot of these people would be very, very sorry for the world to know they pay money to get a right-wing nutbar conspiracy flake newsletter."
"Blackmail 'em after we get the boss back, all right? Is she--"
Hafidha rolled right over her, which was just fine. "Hey, holy shit. Guess who I found under C?"
"That thing we don't believe in?"
"Dyson fucking Cieslewicz. Eddie's brother."
Hafidha pictured Lau hugging herself in the silence that followed. Bullets and bracelets, lady. Be strong.
Lau's voice sounded tight. "You cope however you can."
Hafidha nodded slowly, beads clinking. "Hope Mitchell rents post office box 2825 at Mall Station in Fredericksburg."
This pause was longer. "Shit. God damn it. Okay, beats the hell out of nothing. You need all kinds of ID for a PO box. Maybe some of it will be useful. You'll give that to Mom and tell her I'm on my way back?"
"Even before I send this anonymous tip to the IRS about Nelson's undeclared donations?"
"...You're kidding, right?"
"Of course I am, cupcake. Gates out." She broke the connection, and murmured, "I can do way better than that."
Reyes lifted his face off his forearms. The pressure made his mouth--not hurt less, exactly. But somehow it made the pain more bearable. He still couldn't shake the feeling that his head had ditched his body and was making its escape down a washboarded gravel road.
"You people need too much sleep," his captor's voice whispered--her unmodulated whisper, which was more like a bark. It wasn't until she let go that he realized she'd gripped his scalp with her splayed fingers and shaken him like a dog with a chew toy. Playfully. She was being... playful. "One of your weaknesses. This is for another one."
She dropped something beside him. It clinked. He sat up and lifted it. Cold. Ice in a plastic bag, wrapped inside a white terrycloth towel. He weighed it in his hands a moment, trying to decide where to press it first.
"What are the rest?"
"You're not strong enough, or fast enough, or smart enough."
"That's true. Then why haven't the...the changed ones taken over?"
His jaw, he decided. He laid the ice pack alongside his face. It was marginally better than any of his three wedding nights.
She hunkered down, arms wrapped, hands on her elbows. "How should I know? Maybe they will. You'll be glad you helped me then. I'll be able to protect you."
"They haven't told you their plan?"
"They left me to be born. They were coming back for me. But you people found them first, so they didn't come back. There was nobody to rescue me from..." Her affectless voice stopped abruptly.
Reyes swallowed. He laid the ice pack across his knees, trying not to see the bright and dark blood on the towelling, and fished inside it for an ice cube. He slipped it into his mouth and spoke around it. "Left you to be born?"
Her face grew dreamy and far away. "Momma said my father was a beautiful man who came out of a bright light. She fell in love with him by magic. Next thing she knew, she was pregnant. I was always special. I always knew I wasn't like other people."
"Then it wasn't your mother's choice to have you?"
She stood like somebody had jerked her strings. "You know all about that. You work for the ones who did the Tuskegee Experiments. Gave LSD to people without telling them. Lied about the Gulf of Tonkin. And that's just what you're willing to admit. What other experiments are there? Are there mass graves next to your secret prison? Do you know where the bodies are buried, Stephen Reyes?"
"I don't work for them any more. I work for you now. You helped me. You rescued me from them. You showed me the truth."
"You hate and fear the changed ones. That's how it always is. I've heard all about it. You steal us and kill us and lock us away, and that's why no one came for me." She stepped away from him. "I always knew what I am. I was born knowing."
"You said your mother was--was human."
"He was a monster, black dressed in leather, she was a princess--" Even taking into account her machine-gun verbal style, that sentence ended like a drop off a cliff. Her eyes cut quickly to either side, and she shook her head. "She wasn't my real mother. She was a surrogate. An incubator. But she was good to me. She was made to think I was hers. So she'd take care of me."
"Your kind, is that what they do? They prey on my kind?" He'd put it in her terms, thought of it as she did, without deciding to. Her kind and his kind. That shocked him, like walking into a wall of glass. Her mythology, not mine. But hers fit the facts as well as his. Didn't it?
"It's a war between the future and the past. You're a prisoner of war."
"Then so are you."
She stood frozen for a moment in the face of this idea.
He used it. "I can help you. We can work together. I know where they're keeping the prisoners. I have the codes to get in. Will you do that with me?"
She shook her head. "I do what I have to."
"Do you have to kill me?"
She paused again, and spoke slower when she said, "That's what happens to war criminals." She didn't seem to relish the thought.
The map of the DC area on the briefing room monitor was marked with a circle. Falkner nodded at it, though she knew everyone in the room was looking already.
"The circle represents approximately a one-hour radius from the Fredericksburg Mall Station where Hope Mitchell has her post office box. Even if it's on the way to work, she's not likely to travel more than an hour to get the mail. But as you can see, that's a hell of a search area."
"Even sticking to the serial killer home-buyer's guide," Hafidha said. "Isolation, privacy, security, space, access, and evidence disposal."
Brady, Worth, Chaz, and Todd swiveled to stare at her.
Hafidha stared back. "Just because he's our victim doesn't change the facts, kids."
"She's right," Falkner told them. "Don't make this personal and lose perspective. We need to narrow the search, or work it differently."
"Stake out the post office," Brady suggested.
Todd nodded. "Undercover's there now. But she might only come in once a week."
Worth said, "What about her vehicle? Still no report of a strange car in the alley or the parking lot?"
"Zero," Chaz replied. "And since it's probably a van or something else large and easy to load and unload, that's kind of unexpected. She may be strong, but you can't walk down the street with an unconscious guy over your shoulder, even at that hour, and expect nobody to notice. She had to be parked practically next to him."
Brady said, "All right, do-overs. They're in the parking lot, she's knocked him out, she closes the hood of the car--because leaving it up would draw attention to it."
Falkner thought through his scenario step by step. "No. She puts the fuel pump relay back first. Then she closes--"
"Why?" Chaz burst out. "Why did it matter if the fuel pump worked? The grille's broken. As soon as the car's found, we're going to figure out--"
Because the car wouldn't start without it. Because the car had to run.
Chaz said, "What?"
"Worth, call Evidence and make sure no one's touched Reyes's car. Then get them to vacuum the hell out of it to find out where it's been. Get samples off the wheel wells and tires."
"She kept her vehicle away from the scene and free of evidence, and reduced the chances of being spotted." Todd's voice was dreamy, pulled out of here and now by the visualization in his head.
Worth was already on her phone. It was Brady who summed up for all of them: "She took him in his own car."
Chaz lunged for the laptop that was serving as their projector. He stared into space, eyes scrolling as they did when he was rereading the text that lived in his head. A moment later, he started typing feverishly. A second circle, partially overlapping the first, appeared on the map. Chaz raised his hand and pointed. "The blue circle is a 90-minute radius from where Reyes' car was recovered. That's an estimate based on the time difference between when he returned the videos, and when witnesses again place his car at the scene. The overlap is our target zone."
Why is it, when you get a song stuck in your head, it's almost always one you don't like much? If he was going to have to listen to The Doors on his inner jukebox, he'd rather it wasn't "Break On Through."
He sat on the floor, his back to the wall, because it was a position she seemed to approve of. The toothbrush dug into his belly and thigh, but at least he knew it wasn't slipping free to clatter on the planks at the worst possible moment.
She crouched in front of him, just beyond his outstretched legs.
"Why did you chase after us so hard?" she asked. "Have you ever asked yourself why?"
"Because no one else was doing it."
She laughed. "Anti-lemming. Nobody was running for the cliff, so you jumped off."
Villette would tell her lemmings didn't actually do that. What would happen if Reyes said it?
She stood and walked around the attic, restless, touching the walls in some pattern that must have made sense to her. And she hummed. dum dum de-um dum dum dah. dee dum dum de-um dum dum dah. Three notes, but the intervals changed as she moved between them, because she really couldn't carry a tune if she used both hands--
It was "Riders on the Storm." The second verse, the killer on the road one, which wasn't comforting. And that's why he couldn't get "Break On Through" out of his head: she'd been humming it on the way up the stairs.
And when she'd told him about her mother and father, the sentence that ended so abruptly--it was from "Queen of the Highway."
"You're a Doors fan," he said.
She froze, as if she'd forgotten he was there, and alive. In two strides she crossed the attic. She jammed her palm against his mouth. His broken teeth cut the inside of his lip. "Shut up. The music is okay, but if you say the words, they know."
She took her hand away, but slowly, as if she was prepared to slap it over his lips again if he said the wrong thing.
"Who is 'they?' And what will they know?"
"They killed him because of the words," she whispered. "They. You. Used to be you. They wouldn't have known he was one of us if it wasn't for the words. They were too late, though. He got the messages out there, and now we can talk to each other. But they can find us by the words, so I only use them when I have to. I knew what I was because I heard him telling it to me in the songs, when I was little. But when I sang them, they punished me."
Who had punished her for singing Doors lyrics? The stepfather who'd thrown ice water on her? Her mother, who hadn't protected her? Someone else? "But you told me you were born knowing what you are."
Her eyes narrowed, and he thought she might hit him again. Then she laughed. "How do you know which is right?"
"I don't." Reyes took a deep breath and let it out. "I have to trust you to tell me. You don't have eyes that lie."
She recognized the reference to the song lyric, and her hand sprang up to cover his mouth again.
He shook his head. "I'm just making conversation. They won't notice that." He didn't think he could have an entire conversation in Doors lyrics. Jim Morrison had never made that much sense for more than two lines at a time.
"You're not one of us. Maybe they don't notice you."
"If that's true, I might be able to talk for you. I might be able to say the things you can't say, because they'll find you."
She stared into his face, mouth slightly open, brown eyes wide. She must have looked like that when she was a little girl, before the anomaly took root. Unless she'd told him the truth about always having been this way. Another one who grew up like Chaz, alone and strange. Another one Reyes had missed helping.
Then she closed her mouth, sprang up, and began to pace the room. This time he couldn't pick out the song she hummed, though he tried until his head swam.
Brady drove past the sign for Dahlgren, Virginia as Worth studied the list the home rental agency had faxed them. They'd crossed off twenty-seven properties. Brady told himself it was all right if they ran out of listings. There were other cars out, the team plus local police. If he and Worth didn't find a likely hideout for Mitchell, someone else would.
But the steering wheel was slick under his palms. "Okay, this neighborhood's got a good soil match for what the lab found in Reyes's treads and wheel wells. Tell me again what else we're watching for."
"Road repair and Japanese maples." Worth juggled the rental agency list and the highway department list with the report from forensics in her lap. "The dried-mud samples off the car showed leaves, tar, and gravel a lot like what the highway department uses for fill."
Brady made the dogleg turn the GPS told him to. The asphalt in front of him was seamed and studded with dead-black patches. He stole attention from the road to glance at Worth, and found her looking at him. Neither of them said anything, though.
When the GPS directed him onto a dirt road with sandy margins, he didn't look at her again, but he knew from the shape of her in his peripheral vision that she was poised like an actor waiting for the line before his entrance.
The road petered down to something he would have called a track at the bottom of a little rise. On top of it stood a peaked-roof house, built in the first quarter of the 20th century. Its last paint job had been yellow, but there wasn't much of it left. They were looking at the back side, probably the kitchen door. Two windows on the first floor back, one a bathroom or pantry from the size, both blank with curtains or blinds. Two second-floor windows, likewise. An attic window in the roof peak. Someone had worn a path down the overgrown slope to the dirt road, which dead-ended beside the house at a wide spot with a white van parked in it.
Brady stopped the car and clenched his hands on the steering wheel to keep from touching his holster. "Would you recognize Japanese maples if you saw 'em?"
"My mom planted two in our back yard." Worth raised a not-completely-steady finger and pointed to the rank of little trees along the roadside. "That's them."
"No roses," Brady observed, and was pleased when he couldn't hear his racing heart in his voice.
"So she never brought Peretti here. She killed him in Jersey. If this is in fact the place we're looking for."
It was, though. They both knew it. If Reyes was alive, he was in there.
The woman held out the styrofoam cup for Reyes to take. Wary, he studied her face. Holding the cup had always been her privilege.
But she frowned and pushed it at him, making a little water slop over the lip and splash the floor. He took it from her. Half a cup. He sipped, to make it and the conversation last. When he lowered the cup, the water was tinted pink. "Thank you. Thank you for taking care of me."
She shrugged it off.
"When did your mother tell you about meeting your father?"
"Before I was in the hospital. I don't remember a lot from before the hospital, because they changed my memories."
"When I was a kid. That's where they put me for the experiments. I didn't get out for a long time."
He looked into the cup, where the overhead bulb reflected on the surface. "But you remember your stepfather throwing cold water on you."
"Maybe. I told you they changed my memories. I'm not lying." But she didn't say it angrily this time, just reflexively. They were friends now. Allies.
He wondered what would happen if he did lead her into Idlewood. If he pulled the handle and gave her the whole fucking loony bin.
Clemson McCain would kill her in a heartbeat, if Joseph Hakes didn't do it first.
He set the cup down so he could pat her hand. "No, of course not. Do you want me to help you?"
"In the hospital they said they wanted to help me. Is that what you mean?"
"No one will hurt you." Was that true? She'd killed a former FBI agent. He'd have to fight the whole damned Department of Justice to keep custody of her. Well. With great power comes great responsibility. "But I can't do anything for you from in here."
She leaped to her feet and began to pace. "They'll cut out my organs and weigh them. They'll feed my brain to rats to make them smarter. They'll pump out my blood to make poisons. I can't let you give me to them."
"Listen to me! I won't give you to them. I want to help you get the rest of your kind free. They lied to us both, remember?" He'd had his cell phone with him in his jacket. Where was his jacket? "Just let me make a phone call."
"You can hear everything I say. I won't tell anyone where you are. Just let me talk to someone."
She stood stiffly with her back to the wall, studying Reyes, considering. "You can't protect me. You can't even protect you. No."
"It's what you wanted," he offered, softly, picking up the cup again. "To get your people back."
The rescue team assembled where the dirt road curved toward the house on its little rise of land. They'd come down the track with headlights out, with vehicle dome lights turned off for when the doors opened; now SWAT armored up by penlight, and uniforms checked orders by the light of phones and PDAs. The ambulance was a dark open box, with only the indicator lights on the equipment inside showing light. Radios clicked instead of crackled; the hush was barely broken by the whisper of "Unit two in position, over." "Copy unit two, over."
Brady found Falkner by her FBI jacket and her position as stable point in the center of the whirlpool. He took up his stance behind and to the left of her, a little visual muscle and a tall object for everyone else to steer by. He'd left Hafidha, Lau, and Chaz keeping watch over the house. Todd and Worth caught his eye from the crowd before Falkner. Present and accounted for. Who's the sheepdog now?
Falkner was briefing the SWAT and uniform lead officers. "Evidence suggests Mitchell is abnormally strong and probably unusually fast. She's certainly emotionally unstable. Don't come within reach of her, and for your own safety and that of the hostage, act to keep a lid on the situation rather than escalate it. My team will try to talk her down. If we can keep from ending this in a hail of bullets, everybody gets promoted, trust me."
One officer said, "Is she armed?"
Falkner inclined her head. Her command voice made you feel like you could fly and walk through an artillery barrage, if only she asked you to. "She's taken an active and a retired federal agent captive. We have to assume she has their weapons. No one goes in without a vest."
The cop said, "Best we can do. Let's get it done, people."
As the group broke up, Brady approached through the dispersing officers. A paramedic dodged past him to the ambulance and proceded to check connections on oxygen tanks. Like bringing your umbrella. Maybe that'll keep us from needing them. "Where do you want us?" he asked Falkner.
"You go in with me, back door. Todd and Worth take the front. SWAT will clear the first floor, because I don't think that's where she'll be."
Brady shook his head. "She'll tuck him away, as far from the doors as possible."
"Exactly. Basement or second floor, or the attic if it's accessible. Lau and the betas have the basement--"
"Legion of Superheroes," he cracked, to see her smile. "I'd pay to see Chaz slither in one of those tiny windows parkour style."
Smile she did, a little, tightly. Gratefully. Good noncom, Brady congratulated himself, even though that was Todd's job. "We need to be first up the stairs."
"Let's hope we don't have the wrong house and scare someone's granny to death."
The paramedic slammed the ambulance door like a gunshot.
"Christ on a bike," Brady gasped.
Falkner was already running up the slope. She yanked up the binocs hanging on their cord around her neck, peered through them, and dropped them to use the mic on her wrist.
"Now!" her voice cracked like a whip in his earpiece. "Move in now! We've been spotted!"
The woman turned from the window. "You told them where we are."
Reyes pressed his shoulders hard against the wall and kept his face blank. What had she seen out there in the dark? A fleet of police cars, riding to the rescue? One lost motorist, coming to ask directions?
She said, "You got word to them. Some kind of tracking device? I should've pulled out all your teeth."
Reyes shook his head. "I didn't get word to anyone. I want to help you. We should go now, go and free the others."
She crossed the room to him. "Bait. They dangled you in front of me. To lure me out where they could find me. I should've known. You were too perfect."
"How could they have done that? You found me yourself. Tell me how you did that. We'll see if they could have interfered." Distract her with a puzzle. He tried to remember a relevant Morrison lyric, or an irrelevant one, but his memory was emptier than the attic.
"My name was Hope," she said. She inhaled deep, and her expression might have been a little sad as she declared, slow and measured, "A cold girl'll kill you in a darkened room." A line from a Doors song. So he knew she meant it.
A crash as the front and back doors were broken in. Shouting voices. He couldn't make out the words. A few seconds. A minute at most. Trust them. They came.
Reyes gasped, ducked away, talking so fast the clotted blood broke from his mouth. "If you do that, there's no way they'll let you live. Please, just let me talk to them--"
She swung her clasped hands in a blow meant to break his neck.
He threw himself sideways. The toothbrush dug into his thigh. His shirt was in the way, he couldn't find the hem, couldn't get at his waistband. She sprang at him, arms reaching, and the toothbrush was in his hand, the bristles scraping his palm. He lunged to meet her. He drove the toothbrush into her belly as hard as he could.
She screamed, but it sounded like rage. She grabbed at the neck of his t-shirt, grabbed a second fistful over his shoulder blades, and swung him at the window.
He had an instant to see the bars rushing toward his face, to get his hands partway up.
His vision whited out. When she dropped him, he slid down the wall, because he had no legs.
It seemed like a long, dark trip to the floor.
Falkner felt Brady behind her as she hit the stairs to the second floor, pistol at the end of her arms. "Hope Mitchell!" she bellowed. "FBI!" Stairs two at a time, Brady at her hip like a sword. She heard Todd's voice and Worth's, knew them like a hunter knows her dogs.
She sprang over the ruins of a stair railing, pushed to one side of the second-floor hall, noted the raw newness of the splintered wood with the part of her mind she wasn't using. Crime scene analysis was later. This was incursion in force into enemy territory, move fast and keep moving. Two soldiers and a first responder at her back because they understood without being told.
The door at the bottom of the attic stairway stood open. There was another door at the top, also open. Framed in its rectangle, harsh-lit from above and behind, stood a small, skinny woman. Her shoulders rose and fell with panting, her feet were braced hip-wide, her empty hands hovered ready at her thighs. Her fine, tangled hair hung forward over one dark eye; the other burned down at Falkner. A long smear of blood marked the front of her sleeveless shirt.
Falkner's front sight picture was the middle of Mitchell's chest. "FBI--don't move! Hope Mitchell, you're under a--"
"I killed him!" she shouted, each word flung staccato down the stairs. "You're too late, he's dead! Now I'll kill you."
She felt the trigger under her finger.
"Esther!" A horrible, mangled, garbled voice. But a voice she knew.
Mitchell took one step back from the stairs and looked back into the room. She hadn't been frightened of Falkner, and Brady, and Todd and Worth, guns drawn. Stephen Reyes's voice, coming from behind her, had frightened her.
"Hold your fire!" Falkner shouted. And because they were hers, because they trusted her, they did.
"No!" Mitchell's scream had grief in it, a terrible loss. She spun and ran back into the attic room.
Falkner bolted up the stairs.
Mitchell had bent one of the bars over the attic window and was yanking desperately at a second. Reyes lay at her feet, his eyes squeezed closed, too much blood on his face to see where it was coming from. He was alive. "Don't shoot," he croaked.
"Don't do it, Hope," Falkner said.
Mitchell cast a frantic glance over her shoulder and pulled harder at the bar.
"If you make the drop to the ground without breaking your legs, the police outside will shoot you as soon as you stand. They're not used to people like you. They'll try to kill you, but they'll only wound you. Then they'll take you into custody. I won't be able to stop them."
Beside her, Brady shifted his weight. That was all the sign she had that he understood. Mitchell had lied about killing Reyes, because she'd rather die than be arrested.
"Listen to her," Reyes croaked. "You'll be helpless. They'll find you. This is my team, Hope. They'll do as I say. Remember what I promised?"
Falkner heard him lean on the pronouns. He'd connected. He'd learned her mythology and used it. He'd stayed alive. He wanted Mitchell to stay alive, too.
"No no no no." With each repetition, Mitchell flung her strength and her little weight into bending the bar in her fists. It sagged inward.
"Let us handle your arrest," Falkner continued, her eyes never leaving Mitchell. "We'll keep you safe. We'll listen to your story. We can get you what you're looking for." Since it was a reasonable bet she was looking for something.
"Please," said Reyes. Falkner could barely hear him. He'd used his last strength on that shout. "Please trust me. I trusted you."
Mitchell let go of the bar and stood stiff as a tree, her head bent down. Then she turned with a jerk so sharp Falkner almost shot her in surprise. She stuck her arms straight up like a child playing cops and robbers, never raising her head. "Okay."
It was a second before Falkner believed she'd heard right.
Brady and Todd stepped forward to put cuffs on her. Falkner and Worth hurried to Reyes.
"Are you okay?" Falkner asked as she untied the zip cord and peeled it carefully away from his puffy wrists.
Reyes swallowed with an effort. His face was swollen and mottled with bruises. "Yeah."
Worth made an angry teakettle noise. "Just once, when someone asks that, could one of us say 'No?'"
That startled Reyes's eyes open. Then he closed them again, and his mouth twitched up at one corner. "Probably not," he whispered. The words were blurry, as if he were talking with his mouth full. "Esther. Don't let her be processed, or we'll never get her out. She's..."
"I know. She's a cop killer. Why do you want this one so badly?"
Reyes's eyes opened again, and again from surprise. He frowned. "Just don't..."
"I'll try." Because she could only promise to do her best.
There was only room for three once the paramedics flowed into that stained, metallic attic room; room for two once they wrestled the stretcher up the narrow stairs. Daphne Worth took herself outside.
The ambulance lights were on now, painting the bleached siding of the house in ice cream stripes of red and blue. Lau stood, arms crossed, halfway down the dirt path, chin ducked into her cellphone. It was back in her hand and holstered by the time Worth caught up.
"Todd and Brady?"
"Looking over the house," Lau said. Deceptively mild, once you knew what you were looking for. "Chaz is securing the van for Evidence. And we are?"
Worth looked beyond her, to the two parked ambulances on the road. One was growing a tumour of law enforcement that looked more malignant by the minute. "Calling shotgun on our gamma."
The growth was eight officers deep by the time Lau and Worth reached the ambulance doors. Two paramedics -- neither the one who had slammed the door, who was clever enough to get out of sight if nothing else -- had Hope Mitchell seated in the back. "Let's see your eyes," Worth heard; the male one produced a flashlight and flicked it on. Mitchell's jaw twitched. She turned away.
Worth didn't even have to think, some days, to see the body sit up on the stretcher in the back of her old ambulance.
She hefted herself up into the back of the bus only a second slower than she would have back then. One of the paramedics turned--
She wasn't a paramedic. Dominica Magdziak, BAU. New kid before Worth had been the new kid. "Worth," she said, nodding. "Don't worry. We'll take it from here."
Worth gritted her teeth. There was no polite way to say Get your hands off my collar.
"It's an ACTF arrest," she said.
"Bossman asked me in here," Dominica said, and shrugged. Worth risked a glance at Hope Mitchell. She was sitting very, very still indeed.
"Right," Worth said, and backed out, down to the ground. Lau eyebrowed a question at her, and she answered, "Celentano."
Victor Celentano was around the side of the other ambulance, choreographing a remote number between the nearest available hospital and two of his ballistic-vested agents. He glanced up when Worth and Lau approached him, nodded. Finished his phone call.
If there was no good way to pry another agent's hands off your collar, there were even fewer to do the same with your boss's boss. "Sir," Worth said, and floundered.
She felt more than saw Lau settle at her side, smooth and professional. "We wanted to find out when we can officially assume custody of Hope Mitchell."
Celentano crooked a smile. "Very smooth, Agent Lau. We'll be keeping her in BAU custody for the present time."
Bastard, Worth thought, sudden. "She's one of ours, sir. Agent Reyes will want her remanded to Idlewood."
The humor was still on Celentano's face. That was probably good. "Agent Reyes can discuss the disposition of the suspect when he's released from the hospital and returned to active duty. In the meantime, Hope Mitchell is suspected of killing a retired federal agent. She almost killed another. It was your team that established her as a suspect in the killing of a federal marshal eight years ago. Those crimes aren't the ACTF's purview."
The crowd of officers was pushing in closer.
"Sir, we promised her we would personally oversee her arrest and transport," Worth said. "She surrendered to us under those conditions."
Lau shifted forward. She might not have heard the conversation upstairs, but she didn't need that to pick up her cue. "Hope Mitchell's a paranoid schizophrenic. Consistency of contact would go a long way to ensuring further cooperation, as would an escort by the officers she surrendered to."
"I read that book too, Agent Lau," Celentano looked between them. "Even wrote some of it."
"I don't know what deal you have with SSA Reyes," Worth said, formally; her mouth didn't even get to open on the but.
"No, you don't," Celentano said, and Worth's stomach sank. Conversation definitely over.
Celentano nodded at his right- and left-hand minions. "Hastings and Magdziak will ride along. Any further discussion on this will have to come from your supervisors. Thank you for your work today," he said formally, and they were dismissed.
Lau waited until they were out of earshot to say, "I guess someone thinks this will generate a nice press conference and photo op." She sounded as outraged as Worth felt.
They rounded the back of Mitchell's ambulance as the doors closed, a quick double bang that made Worth almost nostalgic. Oh, for the days of manageable crises. It peeled off right as the second opened its big red-and-white arms to receive Reyes's stretcher into the loving embrace of professional medical attention. The paramedics hoisted and hustled him in, and as Falkner climbed in behind them, she looked down at Daphne. And?
"Celentano will consider a formal custody transfer request from our supervisors," she said dryly, and clamped her mouth shut.
She didn't think Mom's face could get any grimmer. "All right. Stay by the phone, please."
That was a given. Saying it meant This isn't over.
The paramedics secured the ambulance doors and revved the engine, peeled off onto the bumpy road. Worth looked at Lau. Lau looked at Worth. They let out twin long breaths.
Stephen Reyes would have won that argument.
Esther Falkner sat in the waiting area of the emergency department, wishing that her team would stop doing this. Because she wanted to stop doing this.
As soon as the staff finished with Reyes here, they'd admit him, because the head trauma alone was enough to guarantee he'd be wearing a hospital gown for the next few days. Falkner would wait at his bedside for him to be coherent enough to want to talk. Because he would want to talk. She felt a sudden exasperated fondness for her boss.
Her phone played the first line of "Ghost Riders in the Sky," and she answered with, "Falkner."
"I'm at..." She heard Brady ask someone nearby for landmarks. "218 and Caledon Road. The ambulance's here, wrapped around a tree. Agent Hastings has spinal cord injuries. Agent Magdziak's dead. So are both EMTs. Mitchell's gone." His brisk, flat delivery said, better than words, We told them so. It was a way to push away anger and grief.
Falkner's hands were cold, and her head was filled with long lists of things that needed doing, some of them mutually contradictory. Other people could take care of most of them. She gave voice to the one that definitely fell to her. "She knows who we are. If she doesn't know where we live yet, she can find out. Tell the team. They get police detail whether they like it or not."
"God damn," Brady said wearily.
"And Brady--family and friends, too. Even if they think no one knows who their friends are, make sure they warn them and get them to someplace safe if necessary."
A beat, then Brady said, "Got it." Falkner hoped he did; that was as close to poking into his business as she felt comfortable with right now.
Ben and the girls could go out of town. Maybe she could even think of a destination that would console them for the necessity.
Reyes would love waking up to this.
When the blood was cleaned away, Chaz found Stephen Reyes unrecognizable. Broken nose, eyes swollen almost shut, three cracked ribs and a cracked jaw, not to mention the teeth Hope Mitchell had knocked out with a hammer. Also dehydration, exposure, a sprained knee, a fractured toe, and a smorgasbord of head trauma. Some of that would scar.
That was okay. You had to be alive to grow scar tissue.
The team were taking it in shifts to watch him, as they had Chaz, and Chaz was pretty sure they noticed when he volunteered for double duty. He noticed that nobody tried to talk him out of it. Not even Daphs.
When Reyes was taken off sedation more than forty-eight hours later, it was Chaz who arranged to be in the room when he opened his eyes . His cracked lips moved. He winced. Chaz was ready with the lemon swab.
So this is how it feels, he thought, clinically, and forgave Danny Brady all sorts of things.
What he said was, "Welcome back."
The swab came away bloody, but it was old blood. Chaz dropped it in a biohazard bag. "Hope?" Reyes asked.
Yeah, he'd known that would be the first question. "We lost custody. Celentano took her. She escaped. She killed Magdziak and broke Hastings' neck. I'm sorry."
The heart monitor accelerated. Reyes looked as if his pulse were suffocating him. He tried to lift his head and it fell back against the pillow, but his crushed-looking mouth framed another word. "Team?"
The fear was in his eyes, and Chaz could read it there. Please let her not have come for one of us.
Chaz shook his head. "A woman's body was found in a fire in a board-up in Baltimore. She fits much of Hope Mitchell's description, and the remains of the clothes on the body appear to be the ones Mitchell was wearing when she escaped. Firemen found a broken pair of handcuffs in the same room."
Reyes closed his eyes. Chaz touched his hand to get him back. "Reyes?"
The hiss of words spoken but unvoiced. Chaz leaned forward to pick it up. "Fits much of the description?"
Chaz paused too long. He knew he did, but he had to force himself to speak. "Her head and hands are missing. Frost estimates ten days for DNA confirmation. Cause of death--" He shoved his hands under his armpits, knowing Reyes would see and read it. "Ligature strangulation."
Some part of him half-hoped Reyes would ask. And how would he answer, if so? I don't know. I have these dreams where I kill people. Where I kill people who are me.
"Oh, Christ," Reyes said. There was sound in it this time. He stopped to breathe, harsh pained sucking noises.
Chaz remembered how his throat had felt after the NG tube came out, and he hadn't been ventilated. While Reyes dragged at air, Chaz unwrapped another lemon swab.
This time, Reyes lifted his hand to receive it. When he had wet his mouth, he added, "When I was...talking to her. She said 'us.' Not as if she meant--" He drew a shaky arc with one hand before it dropped back to the sheet. "Maybe an accomplice."
Chaz tilted his head, but stopped when the gesture made Reyes flinch. "The anomaly usually doesn't play well with others."
"If it's Mitchell, someone wanted her dead and hard to ID. If it's not, someone wants to convince us it is."
"Could be Mitchell herself, covering her disappearance."
"Feels wrong," Reyes said. "She's... she was not organized enough for her plans. Paranoid schizophrenia. I think somebody was helping her."
He rubbed his face cautiously with a hand dripping monitor and IV leads, avoiding the Steri-Strips and gauze as if the sensation brought him back to the attic room and the landscape of Mitchell's mind.
It was Chaz's turn to wince in sympathy. Weird, feeling that, when he wasn't actually any less angry. "We won't stand down yet." He rose from his chair, working his tight shoulders. Reyes would see him do it, but if Reyes couldn’t already figure out he was twitchy, the apocalypse was at hand, and he had more to worry about than looking invulnerable in front of his boss.
Reyes's pained mocking smile widened enough that Chaz could spot a black gap between his teeth. "Can you--can you call someone for me? Explain? Apologize profusely?"
Chaz winked. "Delphine White? Don't worry. Mom already did that."
Reyes closed his eyes. Was that surprise or relief? While Chaz was debating, Reyes gestured at himself, vaguely. "How bad?"
"You're going to need dental surgery. I bet you knew that." Chaz took away the latest besmirched swab. "But they didn't have to drill a hole in your head. Figure three weeks to light duty, though the betting pool has you back in two. Now get some rest. I'm going to let the gang know you're among... us again."
Reyes reached out to him, but he backed away, because it was getting too hard to hide the trembling. Being in a hospital room with a badly injured agent wasn't easy. Being in the same room with Stephen Reyes and no work to talk about wasn't easy either, even now.
Chaz was working on forgiveness. This would help, though it made him feel sick to think so.
There was no hurt in Reyes's expression; only acknowledgment, acceptance. Compassion. Because he knew too much about people to hold their weaknesses and frailties against them.
Chaz stayed in the room until Reyes's eyes closed, though when he turned away he knew the Old Man wasn't sleeping. Reyes was humming under his breath. Odd; Chaz never would have figured him for a Doors fan.
Thank you to Jeff Gibbons for finding out what Stephen Reyes drives, and to the Service and Parts departments of Don Mackey Cadillac of Tucson for helping me disable one of their cars.
Bits of Doors lyrics quoted in dialogue come from "The Changeling," "Queen of the Highway," "Break On Through," and "Cars Hiss by My Window."