Teasers & Deleted ScenesJ. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington, D.C., April 2009
Hafidha smelled the coffee and heard the footsteps before they accompanied Chaz into the Sanctum Sanctorum. She leaned back, raising one hand to accept the mug he settled in it. She sipped, and sighed.
"Jellybeans," she said. "You always know how many are left in the jar." She didn't have to glance up at the top of the filing cabinet below Robert Smith's painted glower: he also knew where she kept them. And did his share of keeping the jar stocked.
"Five hundred," he said, "and sixty three." He perched himself on one arm of her sway-bellied office sofa: she really ought to bring in a piece of plywood to fix up the sagging springs. "Vegas is just full of weird little tourist promotions. You know those guess how many jellybeans contests?"
"Sure," she says. "Since we're talking about your mom, I'm also going to guess: you won 'em all for her?"
"Won her a car once," he said. "It was a Toyota Celica. She sold it and bought a Rabbit and paid the rent and groceries for almost six months. That was Lifesavers, though. We got to keep the candy, too. Wintergreen."
In her bicycle mirror, she saw his jaw work. "Wintergreen and butterscotch are the only ones that are worth anything."
"And the wintergreen ones spark in the dark." It gave him something to smile about, at least. "We ate out on promotions a lot, too. I'd count; she'd fill out the card. ''Cause you must be 18 to enter.'" He shook his head.
She wondered, if she turned to face him, he'd vanish like mist. Like everyone else she loved and tried to hold on to. It was enough to make you think somebody was doing it on purpose.
Maybe it was just her not looking--or not looking like she was looking--that made it possible for him to talk. He still leaned forward on the arm of the sofa, hands dangling between his knees, not so much sitting as lighted, temporarily as a hummingbird.
She said, "You don't do that now. Enter contests like that."
"I cheat by breathing, Hafs."
"Nothing wrong with a little cheating. We can still go to Vegas and wipe out the slot machines when we want to retire." She waggled her fingers: obligingly, her desktop speakers cascaded chimes.
"And you can still get your kneecaps broken. We've talked about this. They won't wait to prove you're hacking the system."
Poor platypus. Still trying to play by the rules. "So I won't let 'em catch on."
In the mirror, she saw him frown.
"Don't worry. I'll save it for an emergency. So you cheated then: you don't cheat now?"
"They bug me." He rose from his perch, pacing from one side of the room to the other. The jellybean jar was an excuse, but he took it down anyway and rattled a handful out.
"Five hundred and fifty," she said, holding her hand up for a tithe.
"Forty-one, actually. Also, it's not a matter of keeping my mom and me fed anymore. I have a good job. And my only dependent is an invisible cat." He dropped a dozen Jelly Bellies in her palm. The top one was buttered popcorn and must have gotten into the jar by mistake. She ate it anyway. "So there was this one time when she handed in the entry, and they called us back after the contest was over to tell us we'd won. And I remember that the restaurant manager said something like, 'Wow, that's amazing! You came within two of the correct number!' I was five, and totally offended. My mom had to pull me outside and tell me, 'Honey, no. Don't say anything. 5,627 is a really big number. He couldn't hardly help but lose count. Don't you make him feel bad about it.'"
He popped a jelly bean into his mouth and sucked on it, hollow cheeks hollowing further. "That was her all over. Although that one was gummi bears. They squish. I could have missed one or two." He sighed. "You still got the cool superpower. I wish I had special effects."
"Dude. Invisible man! That's a special effect." Even though he hadn't told her. She folded her arms over her chest. Everybody had secrets. Even her.
And he had told her, kind of, hadn't he? He'd hinted. Those locked posts weren't for anyone else.
He'd also gone to see Daphne when he came back from Vegas, not her. But everybody had secrets. Everybody was on the outside of everybody else's life. It was just the way things were.
Finally, she turned in her chair. Watching him over her shoulder was giving her an eyestrain headache. "I wish I had a ChazCam. I wanna see what that looks like." It clicked in her head all of a sudden. "Hey, wait a minute. What if we do it together?"
"Did you turn into a mind reader while I wasn't looking?"
She waved a dismissive spiral in the air. "Your countie, my computer magic. I got what I was seeing on a screen for Daphs: I bet I could get what you're seeing on a screen for me. I'll start a model, you correct it, and we refine it until it looks right."
His expression suggested that he was the most dubious of platypuses. After a long stare at her eyebrows, he shrugged and said, "All right. I'll try."
"Okay, I'm ready with an .avi file. Here's what the jellybeans look like to me."
She spun back to face the desktop, feet tucked up under the mesh seat of her overpriced chair. Her monitor flickered, shimmered, then showed an image that might have come from a video feed: the jumble of bean shapes, the confusion of colors. She felt Chaz start.
"But that's just a--a random pile of colored things. Seriously? It really looks like that in your head?"
"It really does. What does it look like in yours?"
He stared from the screen to the side of her face, aghast. "But then you're crip--errrr, I mean... That can't be the way it looks to everyone?"
Oh, honey, if only you knew. "Well, I'm not everyone, but--No, sweetie-pie," she said. "You're special." Reaching up sideways, she patted him on the head.
He didn't wince.
"Tell me what you see."
"Empty jar," he said. With a flicker of thought, she gave him an empty jar.
"Then fill it up."
"Just fill it up? Boom?" Easy enough, but she felt him shaking his head before the image really settled.
"No, um. One layer at a time. Put a bean in and model where the next bean goes. And run a tally."
"Oh," she said. "Okay."
Across the bottom, the first layer of jelly beans ticked into place, then the next, and the next. All the while a running tally scrolled up off the screen to one side. Five hundred. Five hundred and eleven. Five hundred and twenty-four.
It was over in a split second. She'd have to slow it down to watch it with her eyes, rather than the function in her head that handled machine code.
But the file was saved, and now she could run it at her leisure. Which she did, twice, while Chaz crouched beside her chair, too polite to lean over her.
"There's no real, you know, stock ticker. I just kind of know. How many, how much they weigh, what the volume is. But yeah, more or less."
"Dude," she said. "That's a special effect. Right there."
He nudged her with his shoulder. "Yeah," he said. "I guess it is."
Next week on Shadow Unit...
"I've reviewed the photographs of the mutilated bodies," Frost said. "It would be better if I had the actual materials to work from, of course, but the local medical examiner is passably competent, and the images are detailed. Based on the way the bones are broken and the tissues stretched and torn, I would say that your subjects were forced into postures of prayer. Kneeling, hands outstretched and clasped together."
"Creepy," Daphne said, momentarily forgetting who she was talking to.
"Intentionally so, I would imagine," Frost said, surprising her. "If Agent Reyes has any questions, he knows where to find me. Have a pleasant day, Agent Worth."
Falkner narrowed her eyes. "You're saying you think there's more than one host? Based on the tissue and the gum?"
"Based on Tameka and Carrie-Ann. Based on Chaz and me." Hafidha gestured back and forth between them. "Based on Hope Mitchell and her mysterious partner and possible murderer." She looked around the room, took a deep breath, and looked right at Lau when she said three words everybody in the WTF hated. "Evolving anomaly model. There's evidence in this case to support it."
"I swear to God," Chaz said in someone else's voice, "Pearl, if you turn that boy into a sissy--"
Brady sat back hard enough in his chair that it left a scuff mark on the wall behind him. "Chaz, do not fucking do that again. Or I'll hurt you."
Sandy Cramer lifted her gaze. She smiled, leaning forward across the table, her hands spread flat on it now. "Oh, sweetheart," she said. "You really understand. You're like us. You understand."
Lau saw the moment before it happened. Half a moment. Half an instant. Not enough time even to draw breath, let alone cry out.
After that, she couldn't have been heard over the gunfire.
-- From "Not Alone," by Holly Black, Elizabeth Bear, Emma Bull, & Chelsea Polk