"Ligature" - by Elizabeth Bear, featuring Emma Bull
"Someone else's rain comes down but no rain can touch me now."
--The Magnetic Fields, "Smoke & Mirrors"Act I | Act II | Act III | Act IV | Act V
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
The murdered woman's scream sounds like a teakettle. It starts high and gets higher, a sound nothing human--nothing living--should be able to make.
It tears from your throat. It savages your ears. The flesh of her face pulls and peels around the scream, coming apart like something out of nightmare, those anxiety dreams where your teeth are wobbling loose and the skin slides off your skull.
She's dying. She's dying, and you hate her for it.
Because while she's dying, you are being born.
It was kind of weird coming in to work on a Monday morning to find Stephen Reyes' office dark, the door locked, the blinds drawn. Even though she knew he was on leave, Daphne Worth hadn't quite reconciled herself to the reality of it.
She dropped her bag and jacket on her chair and meandered towards the kitchenette, from whence emanated reassuring sounds of coffee grinding. By the time she arrived, Chaz Villette stooped like a comma over the counter, measuring grounds into a filter with a steady hand.
"Hey," she said.
"Hey," he answered. He pulled a small brown vial from his pocket and measured a capful into the grounds. The smell of vanilla filled the little room. "What are you doing here so early?"
"T. had to get up early to finish some grading," she said. "So I opted for domestic solidarity. I like a man who travels with his own spices."
He flashed a smile over his shoulder. "Something to make up for the decaf."
The smile went through her like the sharpest knife you'd never feel. She punched him on the shoulder so he wouldn't see the flinch. It wasn't that his liver and kidney function were coming up bad, exactly. But not great was new, and she resented it bitterly. "How's the diet coming?"
"It's the field that's going to be tricky. Trying to get enough calories and stay off the caffeine when I'm jamming full-time, eating takeout, and not sleeping enough should be fun. Other than that--" He shrugged, and she stuffed her hands in her pockets so she wouldn't hug him, "--it's just more of what I was already doing. And I don't... " he trailed off into a noise like a drowning man. "I don't miss the doughnuts. You know?"
His phone jingled the Wonder Woman theme a half-second before hers started in on Vienna Teng's "The Tower." They both jumped, Chaz reaching for his pants pocket with a grimace. Daphne pulled hers out, already knowing what she would see--a text message from Nikki Lau that read simply WTF.
Daphne glanced over her shoulder. "She's in?"
"Maybe she's Down The Hall?" Chaz hit the button on the coffee pot and turned around, moving past Daphne to cross the kitchenette in one and a half quick strides. He leaned out, scanning the bullpen. "No sign of her at her desk--"
But then a trim, dark-clad figure stood framed in the hall door as Lau paused to swipe her badge. She entered the bullpen with crisp footsteps, head still bent over her phone, but Chaz's movement must have caught her eye. She glanced up.
"Oh, hey. I was just--"
Chaz held up his phone. "WTF."
"Falkner just called," Lau said. "Looks like you picked the wrong week to quit drinking coffee."
A glance between Chaz and Daphne read the whole litany of "Airplane" jokes into the brief pause that followed. Lau saw it too, but the twist of her mouth told Daphne that nothing was funny this morning.
"Bad?" Daphne asked, because Chaz was folding his armor around himself like a porcupine's spines.
"Vitriolage," Lau said, lips thinning white after the word. "Four cases. All in public. And nobody can give a description of the perp. Including the women. All of whom survived."
"Shit," Daphne said, as Chaz's left hand pressed his face.
Lau looked down at her phone again. "'Scuse me," she said. "I'm calling Duke in."
Twenty minutes later, Daphne sat in the briefing closet with her back to the wall, arms folded, trying not to feel as if there was too much space on either side of her. Without Hafidha, with Reyes in Chicago, a space that should have felt cramped seemed to echo. At least Solomon Todd was here, casually dressed in a cardigan and corduroys, looking more rested than Daphne could remember having felt in ages. It filled up a little of the void.
Esther Falkner moved around in front of the white board and projection screen while Lau dealt out file folders. Brady was already going through his, face professionally impassive as he assessed 8.5" by 11" printouts of clinical photos Daphne could imagine. The dull, grayish dead color of a full-thickness chemical burn. The clouded corneas. The stretched, shiny, burn-scarred skin.
Falkner said, "Harriett Rutz. Loraine Ippolito. Sharron DeGarmo. Liza Ruland. Four women with nothing, apparently, in common--except that over the course of the last six months, every one of them was accosted in a crowded public place in Seattle--Pike Place Market, the Seattle Aquarium, Seattle Center, Waterfront Park--by an unknown assailant and doused with sulfuric acid."
"It's called vitriolage," Chaz said. "It's exceedingly uncommon in the United States."
Todd rattled pages. "But not so elsewhere. In India, Pakistan, Afghanistan--" he took a breath "--southeast Asia, it's a popular way of punishing romantic rivals."
"Or a woman some asshole thinks has spurned him." Brady slurped coffee, swished it around in his mouth as if killing a bad taste.
Daphne dug her fingernails under the edge of her jacket and flipped it open. Nothing inside surprised her, except--
Daphne said, "These women were beautiful."
"Exceptionally," Todd said. He pulled the photos out and lined them up in front of himself. "And I'd say it's the only demographic link. One African-American, three white. Various socioeconomic backgrounds and lines of work. Two from in and around Seattle. Two who were in town, one on business, one as a tourist. Do we think the UNSUB is choosing them at random?"
"Way too early for a solid hypothesis," Chaz said. "But I'd guess, given the public nature of the locations in which they were attacked--"
"High-risk," Lau said.
"--I suspect the most likely answer is that the UNSUB is choosing targets of opportunity. Which is weird, because vitriolage is an intensely personal crime. And Down The Hall thinks this is ours because nobody is getting a good look at him or her?"
"Eyewitness reports," Todd said. "Notoriously--"
"--unreliable." Falkner nodded. "No, Down The Hall thinks it's ours because in two of the cases, the eyewitness reports indicated that the woman who was assaulted was assaulted by someone who looked just like her."
Daphne swallowed. "Doppelganger."
"These places have to be under video surveillance," Chaz said. Daphne admired the way he didn't glance toward the empty chair closest the door. "Who's our inviting agency? Can we get the footage before we get on the plane?"
"Seattle P.D.," Lau said. "And yeah, I already have it. Celentano's been downright helpful." She sighed. "Unlike the--well, you'll see."
"Right," Falkner said. "We fly in an hour. Brady, you're anchorman this time."
Brady's chair creaked as he lifted his head, but it was the only sign of a reaction. "Right," he said. "What do I tell Reyes if he calls?"
Falkner sighed visibly. "If he calls," she said. "Tell him where we went."
Celentano. Helpful. Unlike the footage. Chaz sat, chewing his finger, watching the grainy digitized images of Sharron DeGarmo and Liza Rutland being assaulted for the fifth time running. Finally, he sat back, rubbing his eyes. Across the plane's comfortably wide aisle, Todd and Lau were drawing up victimology charts, correspondences and differences.
Chaz cleared his throat, waiting until they turned to him before he said, "Well, it tells us something about the UNSUB's manifestation."
He gestured to the image he'd frozen on the screen: a person of average height, slender, wearing a hoodie and sunglasses over baggy, concealing clothing.
"It doesn't fool the cameras," Lau said, as Falkner and Worth came over to join the conversation. "And I'm guessing you can tell us something about the UNSUB now, too?"
Chaz nodded. "Female," he said. "Five foot five. Medium-large frame, skinny enough to be a gamma. I'm guessing one hundred ten, given how big her hands are. I could do better in person, but. Skin tone is fair. She's left-handed, unsurprisingly. And here's a thing."
He hit play on Sharron DeGarmo's footage. An African-American woman stood in the midst of a crowd, a purse looped over her arm. She shifted from foot to foot, obviously waiting for someone as the Pike Place Market crowd swirled around her. Chaz's abdominal muscles tensed helplessly as a figure in a gray hoodie approached her and touched her arm.
DeGarmo turned, stepping back. And Chaz forced himself not to watch her, to watch instead the slighter figure clinging to her sleeve. His finger followed the arc of the UNSUB's left arm as it came up, the shift of motion, the moment when she leaned away from her own movement.
"There." He paused again, drew circles and arrows with his forefinger on the laptop's screen. His own left shoulder ached in sympathy. "Daphs, do you see it?"
"She can't move the shoulder joint properly," Daphne said. She stepped back, involuntarily crowding Falkner. Falkner put a hand on her shoulder to steady her.
"The hoodie," Todd said. "You think--"
"I think she's a victim of some disfiguring and disabling injury herself," Chaz said. "And I bet it's chemical burns."
"Industrial accident?" Falkner asked.
Todd nodded. "Domestic abuse. All kinds of possibilities."
"Now what?" Lau asked.
"Now I send ahead to Seattle for hospital records," Daphne said.
Todd tapped his palmtop. "And I start reading back issues of Sulfuric Acid Today."
Falkner said, "You're kidding."
Todd's eyebrows rose. "Trade rag. When would I ever kid?"
Detective Sergeant Christian Lattimer met them at SEATAC. He was a dry, balding, willowy sort of guy who reminded Daphne a lot of Minneapolis's bulldog-brained Saul Zingermann, and as they walked through the airport she spent a few minutes trying to figure out when she'd been doing this for so long that all the cops started to look like each other. He ushered them into a minivan with municipal plates; there was plenty of room for the five of them.
"We got something new this morning," he said, as he pulled onto the highway. "I figured you'd want to know before we got to the house."
Falkner, in the front passenger seat, said, "What is it?"
"Communication," he said. He handed her a sheet of notepaper, grimy with fingerprint powder, in a plastic page protector. Daphne leaned forward over her shoulder to read.
Or rather, view.
It looked like a page torn from a high school girl's notebook--hanging chads still attached along the margin, smudgy idealized pencil-sketches of pretty girls. And their names, written in round schoolgirl letters. Sharron. Harriett. Loraine. Liza. There was a second page protector, with a hand-addressed envelope. Seattle postmark.
"If this is from her, and not a fan, she bothers to learn their names," Falkner said. "From media, afterwards?"
"Or she's not choosing them at random," Lattimer said. "But from the video, it looks like she's wandering at random until she encounters somebody who triggers her."
Chaz said, "I spent some time tracking her on that footage, and I concur. May I see the drawing?"
Falkner handed them to Daphne, who passed them back. Chaz was scrunched up between his knees like a cricket. She heard him sigh as he leaned back. "This is really immature handwriting," he said. "Big round bubble letters. Is dotted with circles. And these ligatures look like they're right out of a copybook."
"I didn't think the FBI believed in graphology," Lattimer said dubiously.
"We don't," Chaz said. "Forensic document analysis isn't quite the same thing. In this case, juvenile handwriting tends to suggest that the UNSUB is emotionally or physically young, inexperienced, or hasn't spent a lot of time writing. They suggest she hasn't really differentiated, in other words. And she's repaired her victim's faces. That suggests remorse. Assuming it's actually her work. Which I think is a fair bet."
"So she doesn't want to scar people for life?"
"She could be acting under a compulsion," Chaz said. "Did you pull any good prints?"
"Several," Lattimer said. "No matches."
Daphne said, "What are the odds she wants to be caught?"
Falkner's shoulders rose and fell. "Pretty good, I'd say. If this was really her work." She craned her neck, sweeping her team up with a glance. "Sergeant, is Liza Rutland still in the hospital?"
"Can we swing by there on our way to the house? I'd like for Worth and Todd to start by interviewing her."
"Me?" Todd said. "I'm just a consultant."
"Interview a witness," Falkner said. "Not the same thing as going in with a tac squad, Sol."
They had a small side room with the usual complement of white boards, cork boards, dry-erase markers, push pins, and a conference table without enough chairs. Falkner handed out interview assignments and chose, herself, to go with Lau to meet DeGarmo and Rutz. Chaz asked if he could stay behind--"I have an idea I want to chase," he said--and Falkner knew enough about the fragility of unformed hunches to nod judiciously and leave him there, going over still more security camera footage, looking for glimpses of their UNSUB hunting on days when she had not found a victim.
Serial killers, like any predator, hunted far more often than they killed. It was a metric likely to apply to this UNSUB as well.
Sharron DeGarmo and her husband Ray had an apartment in a complex of circa-1950s three-story brick buildings in Ballard. They'd warmed the off-white rectilinear living area with squashy oversize furniture in autumn colors, a bright quilt hung on the wall, and photos in clever handcrafted frames. Lots of photos. Falkner catalogued them while pretending not to notice them: wedding photo; both sets of parents; Sharron with two women who had to be her sisters; Raymond with his father and either an uncle or a much older brother. Travel photos. A professional portrait of Sharron and Ray, against a backdrop of coastline and ocean.
Early days yet. But Sharron hadn't immediately deleted the images of her old face from her daily life. Was that a sign of courage, or of denial?
"What a beautiful quilt," Lau said. "Where is it from?"
"Sharron made it." Falkner could hear the pride in Ray DeGarmo's voice. He looked at Sharron as he said it, and rubbed his big thumb over the back of her hand as he held it on his knee, his dark olive skin a subtle contrast to her more ruddy brown. She had lovely cared-for hands, with oval nails. Raymond's fingers had rough, whitened cuticles and one red scraped knuckle.
Look, Falkner ordered herself. She'll spot it if you don't. So she gazed square into Sharron's half-ruined face.
Burns from flame had graduated edges: blackened to blistered to scorched, and beyond, healthy skin where the heat hadn't reached. Flesh burned by a hot object took the impression like paper marked by a destroying rubber stamp. But the acid had splashed and spattered, and the damage recorded the liquid like a negative of a coffee stain on white linen. It had missed the left half of her mouth and chin. The left side of her nose was untouched, but her left cheekbone was streaked with scarring.
The right side of her face was a shroud of thickened, curdled gray.
Sharron's throat worked. "The doctors say it's not as bad as it looks." Her words were blurred by the stiffness of the right side of her lips. "Nerves and muscles underneath--some are okay. I'm a candidate for reconstructive surgery."
Ray thrust out his chin and watched Falkner's face for her reaction. It's going to be okay, that chin said. And Please make it be okay.
Nothing she could say would answer either of those. She nodded, crisp and matter-of-fact, and settled into the rituals of her work.
Halfway through the unrewarding and gutwrenching interview, her phone played a tinny version of "Viva Las Vegas." She winced. "I'm sorry," she said. "One moment--"
She left them with Lau, who'd do just fine, and stepped out into the hallway of the apartment building. "Chaz?"
"I can pull anonymized cell phone GPS tracking records from much of greater Seattle," he said, his voice throbbing with tension and excitement. "I need your okay to do so."
He was five steps ahead, and he didn't always recognize when other people needed the gaps filled in. She said, "How's that going to help us?"
He made a noise she recognized, one that meant he was organizing whatever multidimensional information lattices inhabited his mental space into linear strings amenable to transmission through that inadequate medium, language. It was a noise of equal parts frustration and acceptance.
He said, "Seattle is one of the cities where carriers provided anonymized cell phone data to researchers studying the daily movements of urban populations. The researchers didn't care who they were studying, just how any given individual moved around. They discovered that ninety-three percent of most people's motions follow a daily pattern. Even the most random of us--the outliers--are predictable eighty percent of the time. But the important thing is, this data exists. I can pull a warrant for it. And I can't do it as fast as, as Hafidha could, but I can brute force my way through it and find out if any of the people tracked were in all the right places at all the right times."
"We still won't know who it is, though," Falkner said.
"No," said Chaz. "But we'll know where she hangs out. And we can be there too."
"Do it," she said. "Dammit, I wish--"
"Me too," he said. "It's taking me forever to go through these videos. Are you getting anything from DeGarmo?"
"She said she got a good look at the woman who attacked her," Falkner said. "She didn't see anybody in a hoodie and glasses. A blonde, she said. Very pretty."
"Visual illusions," Chaz said. "She changes her own appearance. She steals the faces of the women she disfigures. People look up when they hear the screaming, and see the stolen face. DeGarmo saw a previous one."
Falkner lowered her voice. "I think so, yes."
He said, "I have Daphne's medical records dump here," he said. "Want me to call her?"
"She can do those after she interviews Ippolito," Falkner said. "I'll tell her when she calls with her report. Anything else?"
Her phone blipped. Call waiting. Brady.
"Nothing," he said. "Goodbye."
He hung up, and the call from Brady connected. "Falkner?"
"Right here. If you're looking for work, Chaz has some medical records he and Worth could use help with."
"I'll get on it," he said. "But that's not why I'm calling."
She sucked on her cheek. It tasted like old coffee. "Reyes checked in."
"He said to tell you he'd be there by suppertime. You should send him to his room without any."
"If I had the pay grade," she said. "You know I would."
Brady's sigh gusted. "I'll call Chaz. Oh, Todd emailed me a list of industries that use concentrated sulfuric acid. The stuff is schedule II as a drug precursor. I'm gonna run down thefts and missing inventory. Maybe we can figure out where the UNSUB is getting it from."
"If she got hurt at work," Falkner said, "that would make sense. Where are you starting?"
"Electronics and paper manufacture," he said tiredly. "In Washington State."
It was impossible to tell what Liza Rutland had looked like before the attack--or what she was going to look like when the bandages came off. She lay crumpled up in her hospital bed, awake but on a ventilator to compensate for the pulmonary edema brought on by her savage burns. Her face and upper body were a swathe of bandages; she peered at them through one swollen eye.
Daphne kept her expression sympathetic, neutral. Without looking, she knew Todd's was the mirror of her own. She knew too much about sulfuric acid, how it burned because it drew the water out of any carbohydrate, from sugar crystals to human skin, converting warm flesh to gray peeling rot and charred carbon.
She let him start the interview. Odds were pretty good he'd bring it home all by himself, as well.
He pulled up a chair beside the bed and settled down. She admired the way he kept his nostrils from flaring at the stench of antiseptic and whatever else.
"Dr. Rutland?" He touched her unbandaged hand, lightly enough that she could pull away easily if she didn't want the contact. "I'm Solomon Todd. I'm working with the FBI investigating your case. This is Special Agent Daphne Worth."
From the way he glanced down at his hand, Daphne could tell she'd squeezed his fingers. He smiled encouragingly.
Rutland's eyes found Daphne's. Daphne waved. "We're going to do everything we can to find the person who did this to you."
Rutland closed her visible eye. She was a thoracic surgeon, Daphne knew from the file. Unmarried, considered brilliant by her peers. The before photos had shown a high-cheekboned woman with flyaway light brown hair, a dimpled chin, and freckles across cheeks crossed by laugh lines. Vivacious. Outdoorsy, in that wholesome manner you found all over the Pacific Northwest.
Gorgeous, Daphne had thought upon seeing her, in a Title Nine catalogue model kind of way. She looked like she kayaked.
That, at least, the UNSUB had not taken away from her. That, or her medical knowledge, or her strength.
Just her pretty face.
It could have been worse, Daphne thought, and felt ashamed. She held up a pen and a narrow hard-backed notepad, one of Duke's everpresent reporter's pads. "Do you feel well enough to write?"
The way Rutland's eye lit up made Daphne want to hit a wall. And hit, and hit, and hit again.
Chaz swam through pages of printouts, skimming line after line of data, looking for a few simple patterns: date, place, time; date, place, time. Whenever he found one, he pulled that sheet out and set it aside. He had four piles, theoretically, though there were only pages in two of them so far: the one for records with one hit, and the one for records with two.
The no-hitters went on the floor.
The data merged into a string of numbers, a matrix in his head. He tuned out, letting his eyes and his gift do the work for him, tasting the tinny metal flavor of too much jamming. Every so often, somebody came in and brought him food--Daphne with a loaf of bread and peanut butter; Todd with a gallon of milk and several boxes of Newtons in assorted flavors.
His eyes grew gritty. He drank more milk. He had to finish it before it got warm. The unchecked pages towered around him in several piles. The discards piled in drifts around his chair legs.
Chaz glanced up as the door swung open. He blinked at the brown, dignified countenance of Stephen Reyes. "You're on leave."
"Thought you could use some help," Reyes said. He pulled a chair over. He sat down.
Chaz blinked at him for three whole seconds before he thought to push a heap of unsorted files in front of him. "I'm highlighting hits," he said. "This pile for one. This pile for two. Here's a list of the tower codes we're looking for, and the time frames. I've found some other windows when the UNSUB showed up on security tapes, when she must have been hunting but she didn't find what she was looking for."
"There's only three twos?"
"Well, that's a small mercy." Reyes scrubbed a hand across his thinning hair and lifted the first printout off the pile.
He didn't get through them as fast as Chaz did, having to check each line against the list of codes instead of holding them all in his head. But he did get through them, and pretty soon they were working side by side, heads bent, Reyes tapping out a complicated syncopation on the tabletop with the fingers and thumb of his left hand.
When Daphne and Todd arrived back at the cop shop, Stephen Reyes was skulking in the shadows between the floodlights by the front doors, arguing with his cellphone in low, urgent tones. Daphne looked at Todd. Todd nodded, and they stopped a polite ten feet away as Reyes held a finger up to them and turned his shoulder.
"Yes, Victor," he said. "I understand that. But the difference is, MAOA-L isn't actually killing anyone. Don't you think if we could just broadcast an accurate profile, it might--"
Victor Celentano very rarely raised his voice, and he certainly hadn't now. But whatever he said must have had the air of finality, because Reyes rocked his head back, sighed silently, and said, "Yes, Victor," one more time. "All right. I'll keep you apprised."
He thumbed the thing off and stared at its glowing screen until the power-save blanked it. That was apparently enough time for him to get his temper under control, because the muscle in his cheek had stopped jumping creepily in the stark light from below.
"Unit Chief Celentano," he said quietly, sliding the phone into his tailored trousers, "still thinks that any public acknowledgement of the existence of the anomaly puts us somewhere between the men who stare at goats and the hysteria over the so-called Warrior Gene. And he doesn't seem to accept that But Victor, people are always violently stupid about science: just ask Hypatia and Galileo! is a valid argument."
She and Todd stared at him. He smiled wryly back. The silence stretched.
"Hypatia was flayed alive by Christians with potsherds," Daphne said, more in a tone of apology than explanation. But she still wanted to clap both hands over her mouth a split second after the words were irrevocable.
Reyes still watched her, and for a moment her heart sank. Until that bitter smile cracked into an even more bitter chuckle, and he said, "You know, when I hired you, I did a hell of a lot better than I figured on."
Chaz was pulling out his AOP to call Falkner when Reyes came back in from his phone break with Daphne and Todd. Daphne was on her phone; he heard her say, "Bye, sweetie," before she thumbed it off.
"Eating?" she said.
Chaz nodded at the crumpled bagel bags strewn across the table between the piles of reports. "All the Husnak. Everywhere. Well, except I saved a blueberry bagel for Lau, and salt for you and Falkner. Reyes already ate his."
Todd made a hound-dog face. Chaz threw him the emptiest bag. "Onion bialy."
"Bless your heart," Todd said, and went rummaging for some cream cheese and a plastic knife. "Tell me you found something."
"No," Chaz said. He reached out and pulled a sheet from an otherwise barren stretch of table. It was the one with all the pink highlighter on it. "Reyes did."
He held it out to Todd, but Todd was peeling the lid off a single-serve cream cheese tub with his teeth and Daphne intercepted.
"Shit," she said, as Chaz found the bag with the salt bagels and pulled one out. "This has gotta be her. This is fucking awesome. You've got her down to what, an acre or so all day long."
"She is hunting in tourist areas, outside of her normal range as a townie," Chaz said. "She lives in Capitol Hill. Not the rich part, unfortunately, because the population density is lower. We've got it down to three or four blocks of apartments, though--"
He didn't say, Hafidha would have nailed it. Neither did Daphs. Their eyes just met, with that electric shock of perfect understanding he used to mistake for chemistry before he figured out it was something older, and deeper, and less complicated. He wondered, for just a second, if she remembered that first trip to Los Angeles, remembered the totally reprehensible way he'd tried to fuck with her on the plane. Or if it was washed out of her merciful human memory by now.
"I smell a stakeout," Todd said.
"We don't have a warrant," Worth said. "And we don't know where to get one for. Not that we could, without a lot more probable cause than we've got going for us."
"Under control," Todd said. He ducked under the worktable Chaz and Reyes had been sharing. Chaz heard the sound of go bags sliding. His voice was muffled as he continued. "Some of us learned to do this without warrants. Though I suppose a FOIA request bears some similarities."
When Todd came up, he had something pink and rubber in his hands. Daphne's eyebrows lifted.
"Journalism 101." Todd stretched one of the dishpan gloves over his left hand until it snapped. Slow and savage, he smiled. "At last! My right arm is complete again!"
"What, you never dove in a dumpster before? When I was after the Argentinian racehorse, it was stable middens. Which are actually less horrible in a lot of ways."
Chaz pulled around the map he'd marked up while Reyes was fighting with Celentano. "She's here, here, or here--and if she isn't, she will be."
"Tourist traps?" Todd asked.
"She's been hanging out at the Ballard Locks," Chaz said. "Mornings and afternoons. I deduce she doesn't hold down a day job."
"Sleep," Reyes said.
As one, three heads swiveled. For a moment, Chaz wondered if they had been choreographed. "Dumpster in morning," Reyes said. "Hotel. No excuses. Sleep now. It's 9 p.m. Pacific and I know when you lot swiped in this morning. Or am I sending you out on upwards of twenty hours awake to get killed by a gamma you're too tired to see coming?"
"Are you calling in Falkner?" Todd asked.
Reyes snorted. "If she and Lau aren't already at the hotel, I'm putting a reprimand in both their files."
The sun rose behind wet clouds, failing to shine down on a Daphne Worth up to her elbows in other people's rain-soaked garbage, the rest of her team--and Lattimer, and a cadre of uniforms--spread out all over the block. Reyes and Falkner were handling interviews, armed with a profile of a quiet woman, striking in appearance, who kept to herself.
Daphne was really, painfully aware that there was no way on earth the UNSUB could miss law enforcement crawling all over four square blocks of Seattle. She was even more painfully aware of Lau and Chaz, a functional million miles away from backup, playing tourist couple and staking out the Ballard Locks.
She overhauled the contents of dumpsters, flipping through discarded mail and old food and--the absolute worst--bags of diapers and kitty litter. At one point she found herself across a parking lot from Todd. She looked up at him and said, "You did this for a living?"
"I love the smell of sour milk in the morning," he said.
"That's not what victory smells like, Duke," she answered. He burst out in punch-drunk laughter.
They tended to leapfrog each other, because the instructions they had given Lattimer and the uniforms were necessarily vague. Lunch was a hurried, unpleasant affair: everybody stank, except Falkner and Reyes, and of course Brady, who was on speaker on Falkner's phone.
Between bites of his salami hero, Lattimer said, "She didn't hunt near home." Count on Brady. Three thousand miles away, and he still managed to comment dryly: "Smart UNSUBs don't wipe their asses on their sleeves." Lattimer grimaced. "But she's not a serial killer."
"UNSUB doesn't just refer to serial killers. And even if it did, Christian," Daphne said, "the horrible thing is that serial killers are just like everybody else."
"Wednesday Addams," said Latimer.
"No, it's not that they look like everybody else. But--well, here, let me give you an example. Did you ever spend time psyching yourself up to call somebody you were romantically interested in? Thinking about it, imagining the conversation, thinking about how it would be? Building fantasy scenarios in your head and planning it out so you'd have the courage to ask for the date?"
Todd shifted in his seat.
Lattimer said, "Well, sure. It's gotta be a universal human experience. Fear of rejection and so on."
"Did you plan out the first kiss, too? Imagine what it would be like, dwell on it? Think about how the object of your affection would smell and feel?"
"Maybe a little."
"Your serial killer does the same thing. Except he's building a fantasy world in which he's imagining what your entrails will smell and feel like when he shows them to you. He builds that fantasy, and he plays it over and over again in his head, and eventually he tries to duplicate it. Just like somebody falling in love, projecting a romantic fantasy on their partner. Exactly like that. And then when he tries to duplicate it, the experience inevitably falls short of the carefully honed, perfected fantasy. So he has to do it again. He has to try to make it better. He keeps working on it, because it's his great love, his masterpiece. And he has to make it perfect. It's all about the expectation."
"You make it sound so normal."
"Well," she said, frowning, "in a way, it is. It's just that through a combination of nature, nurture, and experience, the brain of a psychopathic killer has gotten shaped in particular ways, and the things that give him satisfaction aren't... quite... right anymore."
"So that's what we're looking for?"
"No. We're looking for something that mimics that. Which is what makes it so tricky."
It was Todd who hit the jackpot, four and a half hours later. One dumpster absolutely stuffed full of Hefty-bag-loads of pizza boxes, Chinese takeout boxes, cereal boxes--recyclables mixed in willy-nilly with garbage.
"I got something," he said, and Daphne came running.
After that, it was a simple matter of getting the clean members of the team to interview the apartment building's tenants to find out who was always ordering takeout and hauling out bags of trash.
By then, there was no chance of surprising her. And Daphne herself was not particularly surprised when Brady confirmed that Viv Paliotto--age 27, alienated from her family--had used to work in a fertilizer factory until she was laid off, back in the dark days of early 2009. Once they had an address, it took less than fifteen minutes to pull a warrant--and for Brady to phone them with the information that Paliotto was twenty days late on her rent, and facing eviction.
"You can't afford rent and gamma chow on unemployment," Brady said.
One mystery remained: there was no record of workman's comp, and no record of her ever going into a hospital for any kind of burns at all.
"Maybe we were wrong," Chaz said over the phone.
"Maybe she never sought treatment," Daphne answered, trying not to think about what that would be like. "Dad says come on back. We're going to clear the scene. We've probably put her in the wind."
The team entered Viv Paliotto's apartment the same way they would come into a war zone. And it was a war zone--empty food containers piled on every flat surface, a freezer stuffed with ice cream, counters stacked with loaves of cheap white bread and store-brand peanut butter. Daphne headed for the bathroom, the bedroom. Something struck her as she turned slow circles in the middle of the room.
A double bed, and not pushed up against the wall on one side. But the tops of dressers, the margins of bookshelves, were swept curiously clean.
Daphne shouldered aside a SWAT officer and half-crouched, nose level with the top of the dresser.
Dust, and marks in it.
"Did she pack her photos?" Falkner, a half-step behind her.
"Looks like it," Daphne said. "Car's in the parking lot. But if she took these, she's not coming back--"
She wasn't yet sure herself what she might have said next. The shout from the kitchen interrupted it. She traded a glance with Falkner and they hustled side by side down the short hallway to the living room.
Lattimer and Todd were beside the electric range. Lattimer's hand hovered over the surface.
"Warm," he said. He pointed. "And the self-clean lock is on."
Daphne looked at Todd. Todd looked at Falkner. Falkner said, "Somebody was incinerating something."
Chaz and Lau arrived at Viv Paliotto's apartment as the C.S.I.s were pulling handsfulls of curled black paper ashes, photo albums, and the carbonized remnants of a half-dozen picture frames out of her oven. Melted plastic reeked; charred drips of what had been a cell phone and probably a wallet full of credit cards. Paliotto was smart enough to know they could be tracked and she didn't need them anymore. There was nobody she wanted to talk to. Chaz wondered if she'd figured out by now that she could dine-and-dash and never be identified.
Daphne stood watching; Chaz sidled up beside her while Lau went to find Falkner and let her know they were on the scene.
"Fahrenheit four five one," Daphne said.
"Self-clean mode is closer to nine hundred."
She nodded. "Brady pulled her paperwork with the state."
"Driver's license photo?"
She held up her Blackberry. Even in a flatly-lit, full-front DMV photo, the woman on the tiny screen was stunning. Long dark hair hung in curves that framed electric-blue eyes and cheeks like ripe peaches. Chaz sucked in a breath.
Falkner and Lau edged past, making eye contact with no words necessary, on their way to the door. Out to continue interviewing the neighbors. The door stood open; there wasn't even the sound of the latch to mark their passing, just the hush of dress shoes you could run in over hall carpet.
"Not that the photo's going to help much, when she can look like anybody. But her car's dual registered," Daphne said. "There were two names on the apartment lease until six months ago. Paliotto and Rosenda Villao. And we have a photo of Villao too."
She displayed it: short hair, pockmarked cheeks, an intense expression. "Villao is employed at the same fertilizer factory where Paliotto used to work."
"They met on the job."
"Seems likely. Uniforms are on their way to pick her up. Whoever did this--" she jerked a thumb at the stove "--was in a hurry."
Chaz nodded. It took a lot of work to expunge somebody from a place where they had lived. It wasn't the sort of thing you could do in an afternoon. And while room-mates might share a lease, it was a one-bedroom apartment--and two names on a car suggested a closer relationship. "I wish Brady were here." The scene would unravel before his appraisal like a witness under interrogation, giving up all its secrets and surprises.
She tipped her head to point down the hall, "Reyes is in the bedroom. Todd's going through the computer. The book shelves and art tend to indicate that they are a couple, too. Sarah Waters. Leslie Feinberg. Straight girls don't read Stone Butch Blues unless they're getting class credit for it."
Chaz wanted to put a hand on her shoulder, but he wouldn't do it in front of the scene team. He knew what she was feeling; it was always hardest when you could identify with the victims. And what were gammas, except another class of victim?
"Hey," Todd said, coming in from the living room with something large and flat and mostly the color of skim milk cradled in his lavender-gloved hands. An L.P. record, lovingly preserved in a plastic sleeve. "Somebody's an audiophile. You should see the sound system in there."
Chaz leaned down to get a better look at the cover image. "My god. What is that? A really weird looking gamma?"
Daphne snorted. "David Bowie, circa 1973. Cocaine, milk, and bell pepper diet will do that for you."
"Cocaine has no nutritional value." When Daphne and Chaz turned to stare, he waited a careful beat and said, "What? I read it somewhere. But Aladdin Sane aside, I noticed that this one sat funny in the rack...."
He slipped the album from the protective sleeve and reached inside it, drawing forth a thumb drive. "Think she was hiding something from her ex-girlfriend?"
Photos. She'd been hiding digital photos: photos of bruises, mostly, and photos of the full-thickness burns that covered the left side of her face, her shoulder, her ribcage. Photos taken in the bathroom mirror, over the course of healing. Daphne stood shoulder to shoulder with her team--and Lattimer--in their allotted conference room while Todd pulled the photos up one by one and projected them onto the whiteboard. Black char edges, peeling gray ropes of dead skin. There was a series, showing months of healing; months of elapsed time, until the wounds were shiny planes of scar.
"Shit," Lattimer said. "How the hell did she survive that without medical intervention?"
Daphne heard Chaz swallow. He hugged himself as if cardigan and suit-jacket and the Smartwool undershirt she knew he was wearing weren't enough to keep the chill out of his bones. "The anomaly kept her alive," he said, as if it was the most self-evident thing possible, and when Lattimer looked at him, and so did Reyes, he shrugged. "Living hurts more."
Lau took Lattimer by the elbow and led him aside. "There's something we should probably explain--"
Daphne didn't follow them. Instead she stood, looking at Reyes with his hands in his pockets and his head cocked to one side, chewing his lower lip. "Two-Face," Reyes said, by way of explanation. And then, after a longer pause, "Her lover did this to her."
"We're the only monsters we need," said Chaz.
Todd's fingers moved over the keyboard and skid pad of the laptop into which he'd plugged the thumb drive. More images flickered. "She was collecting evidence," he said. "She was trying to find the courage to press charges against the girlfriend. She got up the gumption to throw her out--"
Falkner said, "The neighbors said they fought a lot. They said there was a long time when they stopped seeing Viv at all."
"I want this one alive," Daphne said, surprised at how clear her voice was, how much stronger than a whisper. "It's not a dangerous manifestation. She's not--she just wants her face back. We can help her."
Chaz said, "The Bug isn't going to let her stop."
Reyes nodded. "Tomorrow morning. Ballard Locks. First light. We stay until we find her, or have a reason to go elsewhere. I need you all as rested as possible. Start sleep shifts now. In the meantime, Todd--"
"I'm going to go see if they're done booking the girlfriend," Todd said, rising. He pulled his hands away from the laptop keyboard as if it were crawling with roaches. "And then I'm going to see where she thinks Viv might go if the FBI were on her trail."
He was gray as Death himself as he sidled through the group. They turned, as one, to watch him leave--even Lau and Lattimer looking up from their hushed, incredulous-on-his-part conversation in the corner--but no one put out a hand, and no one followed.
"In Seattle," Todd said, folding his hands before him, "it's the City Attorney who decides whether to press charges in domestic abuse cases. You're going to jail, Ms. Villao. The only question is what the charges are."
He paused. She looked at him levelly, out of glittering dark eyes. Twenty-five, and likely to see thirty from the other side of bars. She had a plain, pleasant face, an olive complexion, pouchy cheeks under light acne scars. A handsome nose. Her hair was cut in an updated version of what they used to call a D.A.
If he saw her on the street, he'd think she was an adorable baby dyke and hide a smile.
She didn't say a word.
He said, "It's difficult to prove murder without a corpse. But not impossible. And given your history of abuse towards Ms. Paliotto, and the evidence indicating that she intended to press charges against you, I think a verdict of aggravated first degree murder is not out of the question, and that's the death penalty."
He let that sink in.
"The lowest possible sentence is life in prison. You're young. That could be... sixty years. If I come to your parole hearings. And if you don't help me right now, I will."
Villao shifted against the handcuffs that chained her to the underside of the table. "I didn't kill the bitch."
Todd leaned forward. He made his face open, pleasant. Avuncular. He dropped his hands into his lap and drove the nails of his right hand into the palm of the left, where the crescent-moon marks would not show. "Then tell me where to look for her alive."
"Get me a lawyer." Villao looked down, picking at her cuffs with her nails. "And I'll tell you everything you want to know."
Reyes's order to sleep in shifts meant Chaz got a solid six hours between dinner and midnight. The rest of the time, he was out with plainclothes officers and team members in pairs, trying to look like anything but cops and possibly even succeeding.
Paliotto was smart enough to burn her phone. And she was smart enough to stay away from every place Villao knew to look for her, or at least to stay out of the way of the closed-circuit cameras they commandeered. It was Lau who hit upon the trick of watching the viewfinders of digital cameras and phones, keeping an eye out for a medium-height woman in concealing clothes, but it wasn't exactly subtle.
So Chaz was indispensible. Because he and Daphne could stroll along through the Olympic sculpture garden arm-in-arm, or examine the Fremont Troll by flashlight, and he could bite his lip and still his face and every time they passed a pretty girl, he could let the mirror brush her surface and come back with all sorts of horrors he had no business knowing.
His boundaries had been improving. He didn't reflect friends and colleagues by accident anymore, or people on the Metro, or a neighbor passed on the stairs. It was an effort, now, to disassemble those walls, to unshutter the windows in them, to edge the mirror up to what shone through and let it reflect.
There were happy people in the world, and some of them were even beautiful women. There were people who had never watched a parent die of cancer, or a lover die of substance abuse; never been raped in a dorm room by somebody they thought they could trust; never shot a bb gun at a songbird and watched the resultant ruin pump blood onto the grass; never held the arm of a screaming child to keep her from plunging into traffic after a runaway puppy. And every time he found one, he wanted to sit down and write a letter of thanks to everyone they had ever encountered.
Most of the time, the answer was something else.
Chaz was ferociously glad for Daphne's steadying presence by his side, the strength of her arm, the voices of his team on his earbud. He caught himself leaning on her, more than once, and instead of just bearing him up she leaned right back. "I got your rope," she said, when he staggered with tiredness. And when he would have pushed on, she dragged him over to a nondescript brown van with Lau and Todd and a pile of electronic equipment in the back, and shoveled Clif bars into him until he said, "You know those things contain caffeine, right?"
"Shit," she said, looking down at the one in her hand. Mint chocolate. Funny what you noticed. It was four a.m. He'd lost track of exactly where they were, and where they were supposed to be next. "I knew that, Platypus. I just--"
"We're all tired," he said. He waved to the empty streets. Hour of the wolf. Hour of the coyote. Fremont, they were in Fremont. There was the statue of V.I. Lenin, and the sushi bar would be down that way. "We're all the fucking walking wounded, you know that?"
Daphne looked down, lip-chewing. Lau fiddled with her headset.
Todd pulled his off. He sighed and turned his head. Light fell across his profile. "I look at it this way. The important thing is, how many of us keep walking."
The Hiram M. Chittenden Locks--also known as the Ballard Locks--were familiar to Chaz after his having spent most of early Tuesday there with Lau. Now he had the whole team behind him, spread out like innocent tourists, watching the screens of their digital cameras. Chaz leaned over a silver railing in between the large lock and the small, beside a double line of boats--from one hardy soul in a kayak to fishing boats and cabin cruisers--moored and waiting for the pumps to lower them to sea level and Puget Sound. Lau was apparently snapping photos of the shining metal coils of the art installation, and Reyes loitered near the gray block of the administration building. He heard the voices of the others in his ear, checking in, constantly updating position and situation.
It was a chill September day in the sixties, a fine drizzle falling, but the breeze off the sea made it feel colder. Chaz huddled into the warmth of the cardigan he'd bundled around himself under his coat. He hunched under a disreputable all-weather canvas hat and his feet squelched in a pair of Vans, in case he had to run. At least the raincoats helped hide their sidearms.
He'd expected the locks to be deserted on a day as miserable as this--gray mist hung around the drawbridge like grubby veils, and even the hunting ospreys looked disgruntled--but a little rain in Seattle wasn't enough to keep tourists or boaters home. Chaz noticed a few umbrellas and a lot more raincoats, and a surprising amount of good cheer despite the weather. Apparently, only people who didn't mind getting rained on came to Seattle.
"I am not a duck," he grumbled, turning to watch a blonde in a pink raincoat splash past in bright yellow boots, letting the mirror brush her as she bopped through the crowd. She was one of the good ones, surprising him, full of the pinprick-powderpuffs of a litter of new kittens at a friend's house, and the anticipation of which one would be hers.
"Coyote can dress up as a duck," Lau said in his ear. He heard Daphne snort.
"My dignity, if I had any--"
A gay couple went past arm in arm. Chaz, looking past them, accidentally caught the eye of the taller. He smiled, to let them know he wasn't Disapproving, and the other guy winked, making Chaz's cheeks burn with embarrassment. He couldn't look down, though, because here came a woman in London Fog, meandering purposelessly, twirling a red-and-black checked umbrella over her head. But no, she was just an accountant who was conscience-tormented about embezzling and sleeping with an underling, and not overly concerned about taking a 90-minute lunch.
Chaz hid his mouth with his sleeve as if he were coughing. "It's a good thing there are no psycops," he said. "Everybody on the planet would be in jail."
"Head up, Chazzie," Daphne said.
He turned casually and saw her on the far side of the small lock. She made no gesture of recognition, but he saw her holding a hand to her ear as if she were talking on a Bluetooth. Special Agents were probably a lot less likely to get run in to the local looney bin these days, when everybody talked to themselves all the time.
"Redhead," she said. "Coming toward you. Just about to hit the V in the lock gate walkway. I didn't get a look at her through the viewfinder, but something about the way she moves--"
"Got her," he said. She was too far for the mirror. But as he watched her walk--rain-beaded braid falling down her back from under a black wool cap that shaded her features, shoulders knotted with tension under her peacoat as she searched the faces she passed, hands shoved into the pockets--he knew.
"That's Ippolito's hair. It's her," he confirmed. "And I think she's got the H2SO4 in her pocket. Reyes, how do we take this? She's moving toward you and Falkner."
"Coming in toward Reyes," Falkner said. Todd's agreement followed moments later.
"Too many civilians," Reyes said. "We need to tail her without her noticing until we can isolate her, or else we'll lose her in the crowd. Or somebody's going to get acid dumped over her head. But we need to be ready to move if she seems to have identified a target."
Chaz kept turning, making it seem as if his eye had just passed over her enroute to the view of the spillway. She was still inspecting every woman she passed, and he thought she didn't see him. He saw Daphne turn and begin walking not too fast toward the lock gate. "I see you, Daphs," Lau said. She came into sight, hustling as she crossed the spillway, deceptively fast for somebody who never quite broke into a run. She must have started moving as soon as Daphne identified the target.
A target who, just shy of Chaz's side of the small lock, turned toward the railing as if indecisive or confused, and moved to the railing to look down on the decks below. "Crap," Chaz said. "She may be targeting somebody on one of those boats--"
But no. Instead she turned back the way she'd come, now moving directly toward Lau and Daphne, and Chaz--already stepping forward at a brisk pace, saw exactly the moment when her gaze hit on Lau. "Nikki," he said urgently, as Paliotto's shoulders dropped and her head came up and her hands slid out of her pockets. "She's coming right for you."
"Got her," Nikki said. Chaz watched her step aside, getting the railing on her right---remembering, as he did, that Paliotto was left-handed--as Daphne slid sideways, through the crowd, her hand under her coat. From the direction of the administration building, Reyes, Todd, and Falkner were coming at a run--a run that was going to alert Paliotto to their presence in seconds, if she wasn't already aware.
They were too far away. They'd been hanging back, waiting for her to come to them. It was Chaz, and Daphne, and Nikki--and Chaz was also too far away to do anything. Unless--
Paliotto was closing on Nikki. Chaz saw her twisting the lid of the glass jar in her gloved hands. Her hair shortened, darkened. She seemed to shrink--
Daphne raised her gun in her right hand, badge in the left, moving to flank the gamma. Someone screamed. Someone scrambled back, out of the way, dragging a little boy in a navy-blue coat. People scattered from the gun like geese before a fox.
"Vivian Paliotto!" Daphne yelled. "I am a federal agent. Freeze where you are!"
"Villette," Reyes said, each syllable gasped between breaths and pounding footsteps. "Fetch."
Chaz was already in midair.
With the wide-edged vision that took in her target and focused beyond her, that kept Chaz and Nikki both at the edge of her awareness, and all the civilians too, Daphne saw him leap. She saw him hands-and-feet, cat-running along the wet railing, and--her heart in her throat--she saw him vanish over the edge.
No time for that now. No time to worry about Chaz. Gamma on a crowded walk; gamma with a jar of concentrated sulfuric acid in her hands.
"Viv!" Daphne shouted, as the woman turned, and the crowd between them vanished away like a wave hissing back into the sea. "Please. I'm Daphne Worth, and I want to help you. Please just put that jar down--"
She looked at it. She looked at Nikki, armed now too, blocking her exit back toward the sluiceway and the fish ladder. Rain streaked her stolen face as she pushed her hat back. She raised both arms, brandishing the jar.
"I'll drink this," she said, in a voice Daphne knew she'd be hearing in her dreams if she lived to be eighty. "God help me, I will"
The wet rail squeaked under Chaz's Vans, slipped under his palms. He made himself move. Speed was safety: speed and momentum. It was just like riding a bike.
Just like riding a bike on a tightrope, anyway.
This is what I was made for. Calculating velocity and trajectory. Moving. Not effortless, but rather total focused effort.
There--the deck of the fishing boat below, the lock just beginning to drain. His breath and his blood thundered in his ears. He kicked off from the rail and dropped.
He rolled to his feet, conserving momentum. Ship's decks are built for non-skid when it's wet. Chaz had time for four good running strides before he hit the rail of the last one in line, lunged up onto it--shit, that's far--with no room for hesitation as he kicked off and extended his arms.
He struck the gate below the walkway, too low to reach the rail. He'd planned for that and got one foot out, shoved down, smearing against the gate. Running against it as you'd try to run up a wall. Momentum was all he had, and for a moment he thought it wouldn't be enough, and he'd slide down into the gray water below.
But his hand caught the base of the rail, and that was enough to let him get some opposition against the gate and keep moving his feet up. He felt his trousers tear. He felt the metal cut his palm. His hat was long gone, his hair hanging in drenched coils across his face and ears.
He caught his balance atop the rail, crouched, stabilizing himself with one hand. Facing Paliotto, seven feet away from her.
"Boo," he said.
Viv Paliotto whirled away from Daphne and hurled the jar of acid at his head.
No boat immediately below, and nobody on the decks of the boats anyway, given the miserable rain. He dodged low and forward so it sailed over his head. He feinted toward Paliotto. She cringed back against the rail, disarmed, both hands clutching.
"Viv," he said. He spread his hands so she could see they were empty. Nikki and Daphne had him covered. "Viv, I know. I know how badly she hurt you. But please. We're friends. We're friends."
The syncopated drumbeat of three pairs of running feet drew up some way behind him, paused. He knew Reyes was holding Falkner and Duke back with an outstretched hand as surely as he knew that Falkner's gun was in her hand, a sight-picture being drawn that ended between Paliotto's eyes.
"Kill me," she said.
"Nobody's going to hurt you," Daphne said, having somehow covered the distance between them. Her gun, too, was holstered, her raincoat flapping loose and hooked behind the strap. They were in the team's hands now. As always. Daphne held up her hands to show them empty. "Nobody's ever going to hurt you again."
He saw Paliotto consider it. He saw the flicker of her eyes right and left. And he saw the moment when she broke, and whirled, and went barreling towards Nikki.
"She's not armed," Daphne yelled, as Chaz forced himself to move against the awful cringing dread of waiting for the flat echoes of the gunshot. But Nikki held her fire, stepped in, moved like a snake and struck for Paliotto's neck.
It would have taken her down, too. Chaz saw the way she reeled. But Ippolito was a taller woman that Paliotto. Lau's perfect, incapacitating throat-strike nailed Paliotto right between the eyes.
She heaved Lau aside--Chaz wished he had time for a wince as Nikki bounced against the rails--and bolted back along the sluiceway, lost in the fleeing crowd.
He chased her. Of course he did. But no matter how many running women he caught up to and mirrored, none of them were the right one.
Daphne dove to her knees beside Lau, pushing her back though Lau was already trying to roll to her feet and give chase. She had barely reached her when Reyes and Falkner went thundering past, backing up Chaz. He would be okay with them, Daphne told herself firmly. She was needed here.
But Nikki, through some miracle or the art of falling well, was unhurt--no head trauma, no broken bones, just bruised and shivering and trying to fight Daphne off to get back in on the chase. A chase Daphne could hear through her headset was growing more and more fruitless.
Todd dove into a crouch beside them with the elasticity of a younger man, and for a moment Daphne looked at him wide-eyed, unable to understand why he wasn't chasing Paliotto.
"No gun," he said, and put a hand on her arm. "I'll stay with Lau. You go."
"The hell you say," Lau said, shaking off Daphne's hand. "We'll go. You coordinate, Sol. And make sure everybody keeps talking."
But Daphne wasn't surprised when they caught up with the team and found them limping back, drenched and steaming and empty-handed.
"Shit," Nikki said.
"Shit," Chaz echoed. Reyes looked Nikki up and down. "What have I told you about going hand to hand with a gamma?"
Nikki poked awkwardly at what must be a sore place on her elbow and said, "Look who's talking, Stephen Reyes. What now?"
"Food," he said, looking at Chaz. "And then back to the dragnet, I guess. And hope we can reconnect with her before she strikes again."
They split up, and reconvened at a taqueria. Chaz was just finishing his third bean and brown rice burrito when Reyes's phone rang. The whole team knew from his expression that it wasn't good.
"That was Lattimer," he said, putting the phone down. "Somebody's broken the seal on Paliotto's apartment. And the officer on guard duty didn't see anyone enter. They're waiting for us before they go in."
Somebody had slit the seal with a knife, in fact. Chaz looked at Reyes; they were first in line, the rest of the team except for Todd arrayed behind them, weapons in ready positions and fingers registered beside the trigger. Lattimer stood beside Lau in the place that should have been Duke's, and Chaz wasn't sure why it seemed so damned unnatural.
"Go," Reyes said, and pushed open the door. They crept cat-foot, not splitting up until they'd cleared the kitchen. A chair was missing from beside the table, Chaz noticed, but that was all.
Or not quite all. The air smelled rancid, outhouse-sharp. That was different from before.
Chaz and Reyes headed toward the bedroom, while Falkner and Worth went for the living room and the other two played rear-guard. As Chaz and Reyes covered each other down the hall, the shouts of "Clear!" "Clear!" followed them.
Viv Paliotto was in the bedroom. Stripped down to a t-shirt and jeans, barefoot, seated in her own wooden kitchen chair. Wearing her own burn-scarred, ruined face. Or rather, her body was.
"Oh, hell," Chaz said, holding on to his discipline just long enough to clear the closet while Reyes checked behind the door and under the bed. Reyes shouted "Clear!"
Chaz moved towards the dead woman, through the now-unmistakable stench of voided bowels and stale urine.
The body slumped in the chair, hands zip-tied behind it, a once-shining wire buried in the flesh of its throat. A blackened tongue lolled. No pulse. No breath. He stepped away.
Chaz swallowed. Peristalsis caught and ached as if the garrote tightened over his own esophagus.
"He's evolving," Chaz said, and felt himself frown and look around as if wondering where the words had come from.
Reyes turned, lowering his gun. "Say that again."
"I've seen this before," Chaz said.
He would have pushed himself to say the next thing, too, but Daphne came down the hall, gun holstered, chin up, and the rest of the team walked behind her. "Shit," she said, and turned away, arms folded across her body.
Reyes said, "Let's clear this room for CSI."
He came back to Chaz outside, when they were waiting in the hallway. Preserving the scene. He hadn't holstered his gun. In a low voice, he said, "You didn't want to talk about that in front of the others."
This time Chaz felt the swallow go all the way down. He should be comforting Daphne, who was standing at the end of the hallway, staring out over the parking lot and the dumpsters and the rain. He had to do this first, he knew. Or he would never do it at all. "In a case file. And in an... in a dream. Where I was the killer. And the victim. Except he--I--used rope, and the victim wasn't a gamma. Reyes--"
"Joshua Lynch," Chaz said. He glanced back down the hall, but the CSIs weren't coming yet and Daphne hadn't moved. But Todd was standing beside her now, so Chaz could wait his turn. "Raped and murdered an adolescent girl before somebody tied him to a chair and garroted him. In Baltimore. A case I reviewed for down the hall."
"So somebody killed Viv Paliotto. And somebody killed Joshua Lynch. And I've had some other dreams about dead people, too, where the only ligature strangulation was in the dream--remember Jeff Simmons?"
Reyes's arch expression made it pretty plain he considered it pretty unlikely that anybody could forget chasing a gamma through Hogan's Alley at Quantico. "Did you tell anyone about the dreams?"
Chaz paused. He should probably tell Reyes about the one where Reyes had been the victim. But he couldn't quite work his brain around how to say that. "I think it would be a good idea if I were taken into custody. Just in case--"
"Villette." Reyes tilted his head back and stared up at him, uncowed--and unconvinced. And Chaz didn't have the guts to press the issue. Reyes continued, "Dissociative Identity Disorder is a controversial diagnosis."
Chaz snorted. Of course he didn't have to explain his fears to Reyes.
"If you haven't converted to a gamma by now--I for one am ready presume you're immune. You're not going to."
"You remember what you said to me after Memphis? You can't prove a negative. Please don't be certain I haven't. Stephen. Please."
After the pause Chaz didn't fill, Reyes said, "I know where you've been."
"Unless the invisible man gave you the slip."
"Unless. But I'm not ready yet to arrest you on the evidence of your dreams. Now, I'm going to ask you again: at the time it happened. Did you tell anyone?"
"Hafidha. Indirectly." Her name was terrible in his throat. He laughed a laugh that wasn't. "Doctor Baylor."
Reyes shrugged. "I trust Kay's judgment. And I say that of a woman who divorced me. Do you think we have a vigilante hunting gammas? One who isn't you?"
"Two is a very small sample," Chaz said. "And Lynch wasn't a--"
"I think it's possible," he admitted. "I think it's... possible."
Reyes nodded. He rubbed his lower lip with the ring finger of his right hand. "Hope Mitchell," he said, "was strangled with a ligature."
"Three is still a small sample."
"So who's got the physical strength to kill an anomaloid with a garrote?"
Compulsively, Chaz's hand went to his neck. A thin leather belt cutting his throat, the edge of the heavy glass table cutting his arms.
"Another anomaloid." He got through the hated word before he choked up, remembering something else. Tameka Santiago, bulging eyes splintered with hematomas. The reek of illusory smoke and real urine. "Duke's done it."
"Duke's done a lot of things," Reyes said, and put away his gun.
When Chaz walked into the little room in the copshop that was, nominally, still theirs, he found Lau sorting documents into files and tucking them in a portfolio case. Daphne gathered dry-erase markers and poked them back into their box, and every line of her body said she was concentrating completely on that one stupid thing. The chairs were stacked, the white board was clean; soon there'd be no sign they'd been here.
Except that Viv Paliotto was dead, and it was possible that might have happened even if they'd never left D.C.
"Hey," he said. Daphne and Nikki both raised their heads and smiled at him. "We've got three hours 'til wheels up. Want to get dinner?"
Nikki shot a glance at Daphne; Chaz saw her make a decision. "I thought I'd stay and help Dad do the exit briefing with the locals. You guys go."
Chaz hoped she could decode his expression of crypto-gratitude. Because she was right: Daphne was more likely to talk it out if it was just the two of them.
Daphne snorted. "You just say that because it's the middle of the night and you know we'll end up at IHOP or something." But she snagged her jacket off the stack of chairs.
"Don't let Dad do anything I wouldn't do," Chaz said.
"Oh, that establishes some firm boundaries." Nikki shook her head. "Go eat before your timer pings."
Chaz led the way to the parking lot and stopped by their borrowed minivan.
Daphne spoke for the first time since they'd left Nikki behind. "Oh, no. How about a taxi?"
"Come on. Hardly any turns, even!"
"At least my stomach's empty," she said, and climbed in on the passenger side.
Chaz had the city map in his head, including the one-ways, so he didn't add to his reputation by turning the wrong way on Fifth. He slingshotted onto James, then Fourth Avenue, and glanced across the console to find Daphne white-knuckling the Jesus bar above her window.
"Hardly any turns," she muttered darkly.
"Just at the beginning and end. Now you're safe for blocks."
"So we've got a destination? You realize we're downtown and it's late."
"And suddenly she doubts my awesome powers." Chaz stole a second from driving to sneak a look at her. She was staring out the far side of the windshield, her face closed and locked. Be here now, he thought, and meant it for both of them. "I have a destination. And if I can find a parking--aha! Close enough."
Daphne braced herself on the dash as he braked hard enough to make the van bounce, then curled it up to the curb. He hurtled out the driver's side door and around the front bumper, and got there in time to hand her out with a little flourish. That, finally, made her smile.
"I don't doubt your awesome powers," she said. "I'm sorry to be...."
When it was clear she wasn't going to find an end for that sentence, Chaz said, "I know."
Her hands clenched at her sides. If she'd been Brady, she'd have punched the hood. He hugged himself against the urge to pull her in under his chin and give her a totally unprofessional squeeze. If he stood up straight, she would just fit, with a bit of tucking. She said, "We could have brought her in. We should have."
"Yeah." He swallowed, which took effort, and added, "In the monster hierarchy, she was at the low end."
"In spite of what she did." Daphne shook herself, opened her fingers, and stuffed her hands in her pockets. "Okay. Let's go eat all the things."
Chaz led her around the corner and right up to the sandwich-board sign on the sidewalk before she spotted it, with its outlines of cooking implements standing in for the Seattle skyline.
She stopped in front of the sign. "The Night Kitchen. Oh, duh! The Night Kitchen! And we talked about it and everything."
"Duh, indeed, silly harpy. One of your imaginary internet friends runs a late-night restaurant in Seattle."
She gazed sharply up at Chaz, suppressed panic on her face. "Oh, god, I really don't want to answer questions about the case."
"She won't ask. And if she does, I'll block for you. I'm prickly, remember?" Chaz held the door and waved her through it.
He got an impression of a narrow room with wine-red walls and shining black tables, and read the back of a server's black t-shirt--"We fry by night"--before he heard a voice say, "Chaz?" It came from a woman at the bar with scarlet hair, cateye glasses, and a thoroughly cuddly figure. When he met her gaze, she changed the intonation to "Chaz!" and shot across the room with apparent disregard for potential collisions.
Chaz felt himself stiffening, preparing to deal with a hug. But the woman stopped short at exactly the edge of his personal space and beamed up at him. "You're here, you're here! There's one piece of key lime pie left. I'll tell 'em to put it-- Ohmygod, you're Daphne! I'm Rebecca." She stuck out her hand, and Daphne took it, smiling.
"I was thinking maybe you were."
"This is great! How's your wife?"
"She's fine. I mean, unless I have to tell her that she missed an awesome dinner..."
Rebecca gave the impression of bouncing, without actually moving up and down. "Welcome to my restaurant. And no, I don't get tired of saying that. Do you want the tour now, or after dinner?"
Chaz consulted his stomach. "After?"
Rebecca grabbed two menus and seated them herself at a table along the wall. "You guys are here on work, aren't you?"
"Yeah," Chaz said before Daphne could look nervous. "We fly home in a few hours, though."
"Did you get to see any sights? A serious foodie needs to visit Pike Place Market. Giant whole salmon! And you could get crabs."
Daphne snickered, and Rebecca gave her an approving grin.
"We saw bits of stuff." Chaz replied. "Not nearly enough, or for long, though." That was easier than saying, Sure. Pike Place Market was one of our crime scenes.
"You'll have to come back. But for now I get to feed you!"
Rebecca left them with their menus. Daphne bent over hers. "Oh. Oh, my. Mac and cheese. How embarrassed would you be if I burst into tears?"
"Tears of joy?"
"Well, sort of mixed joy, sorrow, and self-pity. Comfort food can backfire like that."
"In that case, better get the banh-mi. No associations." He ought to get the banh-mi himself. And it looked good, but.... "Or we could just cry on each other's shoulders. I'm getting the burger. And sweet potato fries. And the cheese curds."
Daphne eyed him slantwise. He saw her considering responses, weighing should against just this once. "We'll need the mac and cheese, then. And chicken wings? With barbeque sauce, or hot sauce?"
"They make their own barbeque sauce."
"Ah, that makes it easy."
He hadn't wanted her to lecture him. But now that she hadn't, he felt a little itch of resentment. "You don't have to enable, you know."
She studied the tabletop with sudden intensity, and the tilt of her head threw her face into shadow. "Healthy is--it's complex, isn't it? Marathoners still get heart attacks. But happiness is a component, they're pretty sure of that."
"Food will make me happy?"
"Food, or just giving the end of the world the finger. We see so much of the end of the world." She turned sharply to fish in one of her jacket pockets, and Chaz pretended he hadn't heard her voice crack on the last word.
So when Rebecca returned, Chaz ordered one of everything on the late-night menu.
Rebecca sighed, clasped her hands over her breastbone, and sagged at the knees. "Oh, god. Best foreplay ever."
Blood scorched under Chaz's cheeks, and he winced. But Daphne laughed. "You'd fight over who got the front burners. This relationship is doomed before it starts."
"Yeah, you're right. But oooh, until that next meal...."
Chaz's palms were blessedly cool against his face when he hid behind them. "No ganging up!"
Rebecca whooped, and Daphne said, "Now, now, he's a quart low. Have mercy."
When Chaz came out from behind his hands, it was just the two of them again.
"Thank you," Daphne said.
He raised his eyebrows.
"For making it better." Her lips kinked, as if one side of the lower one was between her teeth. "When people on TV say they've got someone's back? They kind of miss this part."
He felt himself flush again, and tried not to squirm in the chair. He didn't need to be thanked. That wasn't why you were there for your your friends. He realized his shoulders were hunched and defensive.
She was silent; when he looked up, her smile was crooked. "Don't worry," she added. "I'm still gonna make you pay half the bill."
"Hey, that lets me off easy."
"Sometimes that happens. Nothing you can do about it."
He let her pretend it was just a joke. Mostly because he didn't know how to answer.
The wings and deep-fried cheese curds came out first, borne to the table by a dark-skinned man with a silver spiral winding through the piercings along the edge of his ear. Chaz dabbed a wing into the sauce and crunched into it, letting hot juices and spice light up his taste buds like a pinball machine. Daphne sank her teeth into a cheese curd and gave a gurgling groan.
"Oh my god," she said after she'd swallowed. "If deep-fried cheese is wrong, I don't want to be right."
"Fat," he declared. "It's what's for dinner."
Rebecca was more or less everywhere: in and out of the kitchen, consulting with the staff, touching base with the other diners. Even so, she managed to swing by their table each time they tried something new, asking, "What do you think?"
After they told her the key lime pie made them painfully happy, Daphne said, "So, restauranteur. Not for the faint of heart, huh?"
Rebecca hooted. "I knew it would be a lot of work. But you know what?" She looked right and left, like a snitch in an underground parking garage. "I had no freakin' clue! Seriously!"
"D'you regret it?"
"God, no. I mean, I'm stressed like a stressed thing. But people come in, eat food, and go away happy. And we have regulars. How great is that?"
Chaz wondered what that would be like, making a living feeding people and sending them away happy. Wonderful. Well, except for all the other parts of the job. "Tour now?" he suggested.
"You got it." Rebecca smiled, shy and proud. A career you could show off to your friends. Yeah, that would be okay.
Something must have showed on his face, because he caught Daphne watching him. She swiped the last of the oily goodness off her fingers with her napkin and stood up. "Waugh. Just roll me down the aisle, would you?"
Rebecca showed them the black-and-white photos on exhibit in the dining room, let them peek into the steam-and-stainless cave of the kitchen, and urged them to poke their heads into the bathrooms. "At last, the lounge," she announced, and directed them with a flourish through a doorway framed in swags of black curtain.
The room didn't have windows, and didn't need them; the fantasy Seattle skyline silhouetted on the restaurant's logo, the one made of cannisters, milk and wine bottles, a giant eggbeater, a funnel, rose in detail and color on one wall, like a view from a penthouse in a universe full of food. On other walls, mostly purple, there were more paintings, more art. A cozy mismatched herd of upholstered furniture gathered in clusters, dotted with loud print pillows. Chaz saw a stack of books and games on a corner table. Nikki should have come after all, he thought. She'd have loved this.
"That's it," said Daphne. "I'm moving in."
"Wait--you haven't pressed The Button yet."
Before Chaz could feel more than slightly alarmed, Rebecca bounded to the far corner of the room and pointed to the wall. Or rather, to a sculpture mounted on it. Or maybe it was a machine. Four upright rods, a bike chain and sprocket, a crank, and what looked like a strip of metal plates hanging in the middle of it all. Oh, and a bright red button.
"If we cause an industrial accident, the Federal government takes it out of our paychecks," Daphne said gravely.
Rebecca giggled. "But this is for Science." Chaz could hear the capital S.
"I'm going in. Cover me," he said, leaned over Rebecca's head, and pushed the button.
A motor hummed. The sprocket revolved, the chain advanced, the crank turned...and the metal plates at the center seemed to somersault over each other endlessly toward the bottom of the strip. "Jacob's Ladder!" Chaz crowed.
"And that's its real name--'Jacob's Ladder Number One.' We just like to call it The Button."
It was silly and steampunkish and wonderful in its ominousness. It would have delighted--
"Did...is Hafidha in town, too?" Rebecca asked. As if she'd plucked the name out of his head.
Of course Rebecca would ask. He'd been so concerned with looking out for Daphne that he'd forgotten Rebecca knew about Hafs, too--or rather, didn't know. Now here he was, caught unprepared for either the question or the arrow of hurt when he thought, She should be here.
"No," Daphne said. "Hafs is on medical leave. She's got a chronic condition she's been hospitalized for."
Chaz had said he'd run interference for Daphne. So of course, here she was, doing it for him.
"Oh, hell. I'm so sorry. Is it...is it treatable?"
Chaz pressed his tongue against the roof of his mouth while Daphne said, "We don't know yet," and avoided meeting his eyes.
"Hell," Rebecca repeated. "Tell her I said hi, will you?"
Chaz nodded, because he still couldn't find his voice.
"And that she missed a great late-night dinner," Daphne added. She checked her watch. "Oops. I'd say the plane can't leave without us, but I've never tested that theory."
"I wish you were staying another day. I want to give you the food tour of Seattle."
"We'll come back," Chaz promised. "Off the clock. Hey, where's our bill?"
"It's on me," said Rebecca, beaming.
"No way! Expense account. Your tax dollars at work. You can treat next time."
They settled up, and Rebecca wrapped Daphne in a vigorous hug. Then she stepped back and cast an evaluating eye on Chaz.
"Not much of a hugger," he warned.
"Yeah, I figured as much." She grabbed his outstretched hand in both of hers and shook it firmly. "Travel safe! Come back soon!"
Then they were out on the sidewalk, with the streetlights turning the wet pavement to patent leather, and nothing between them and home but the drive to the airport and several thousand miles of flying.
Daphne yawned a yawn the size of Rhode Island, so suddenly she barely got her hand up to cover it. "Oh, man. Time for my post-adrenaline crash."
Chaz chirped the locks on the minivan. "Recline your seat. I'll wake you up when we get there."
"Deal." She climbed in the passenger side, fastened her belt, and dropped the seat back.
He eased away from the curb and accelerated gradually. She trusted him. He wanted to keep it that way.
"Did the Devil make the world while God was sleeping?"
-- Tom Waits, "Little Drop of Poison"