2.01 "Lucky Day" - by Elizabeth Bear & Emma BullAct I | Act II | Act III | Act IV | Act V
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
Washington, D.C., June 24, 2008
Gray Putnam was reaching for his door handle when the semi went past, rocking his Audi on its shoes and drowning the driver's side in a wall of water. He watched taillights vanish behind a curtain of rain and twilight, and thought Maybe I'll just slide over and get out on the passenger side.
But another truck roared through in the slow lane, and the Audi wallowed like a sailboat in a trough. Gray looked down at the drained cellphone plugged into the dead dashboard and cursed. So much for Triple A.
"Piece of shit," he said to the Audi conversationally, and thumped one hand on the steering wheel.
He was just trying to figure out the best way to get his knees past the shifter when something large pulled up behind him, a glare of headlights and blue and red flashers running behind the grill all he could see in the rear window, through the rain.
Thank you, Jesus, Gray thought, as a big dark shape swung down out of the tall vehicle--did cops drive pickup trucks now?--and crossed behind the Audi to approach on the passenger side. His rescuer, a powerfully-built man in a dark suit--Gray caught a glimpse of a blue shirt getting soaked and a black leather belt snugged around a trim waist--paused by the Audi's center pillar on the passenger side and leaned down to rap on the window. Off-duty, then, and just playing the good Samaritan?
Gray hit the button to roll the glass down and cursed. Of course the electric windows didn't work. He leaned over and indicated with gestures that he was going to open the passenger door a little. The cop waved permission, displaying blunt hands with neat fingernails. Don't cruise the Rescue Ranger, Gray.
He cracked the door. Rain spattered the leather seats, but Gray didn't care. "Boy, officer," he said. "You have no idea how glad I am to see you. I think it's the alternator. My whole electrical system just died, and my phone isn't charged."
Even in the watery glare of headlights, the face that appeared under the top edge of the frame when his rescuer ducked down just about made him stammer like a kid. The cop was gorgeous. Thick hair--plastered-wet and indeterminate in color now--dripped down over a classic nose, stuck to cheekbones right out of a cowboy movie poster. Gray's mouth went dry; his palms squeezed tight on the steering wheel.
"I'm not a cop," the cop said. "Okay, not that kind of cop. Aw, shit--!"
Another big truck, and an arc of filthy water slammed into the Audi and, incidentally, drenched the guy crouched by the open passenger door. "Bleh," he said, shaking his hands like a tiger flicking dew off its paws. He looked up at the sky in disgust. "Fuck me sideways."
"Oh, Jesus," Gray said. "I'm sorry--"
The not-a-cop laughed. "Well, you weren't driving the truck. Look, I'm Danny. Brady." His expression dared Gray to say something about it. "You want a ride?"
"Gray," Gray said. "Gray Putnam. And oh, brother, do I."
Was that a flirting eyebrow in response? Too much to hope for, maybe, but Danny's gaze was lingering. And not just on his face.
Gray extended his hand, meaning to shake, but somehow Danny got ahold of his wrist in callused fingers and slid him out of the car effortlessly, so he was on his feet in the rain before he knew it. Strong, he thought, and felt an answering kick in his belly.
"Grab your stuff," Danny said. "Let's get out of here before we attract another fleet of trucks." And then, as if he'd only just realized he was still holding on to Gray's wrist, he let go like it was hot, cleared his throat, and looked down.
Gray grabbed his keys, wallet, and the dead cellphone and charger. As he was shutting the Audi's door and locking it, he patted the automobile surreptitiously on the roof. Maybe he owed the car one, after all.
Falkner's work phone only managed the first three notes of "Viva Las Vegas" before her hand wrapped it. She quelled a shock of adrenaline--worry, excitement, relief--and pressed the phone to her ear. "Chaz? What are you doing up?"
His laugh sounded tired, which hurt but did not surprise her. "I'm not up, exactly. What are you doing up?"
Falkner sat back in her chair, surveying a kitchen table awash in sheets of newspaper, white glue, and flour paste. Across the surface, her younger daughter peered up at her through a banner of glossy hair and waved. "Helping Deborah with a papier-mâché project. She says hello."
"Tell her I said hi. Look, I had a--sort of an insight into one of Reyes's pet projects."
Falkner didn't like the bright, brittle tone, but she knew better than to let him hear her unease. Part of effective leadership was the appearance of calm, the ability to wrap your subordinates in the sense of being needed and safe.
"Tell me whose arm I should break for bringing you work," she said, and kept it dryly humorous. Deborah, recognizing the underlying tone, suddenly found a need to slide out of her chair and wander towards the bathroom. "Wash the paste off your hands before you touch the towels!" Falkner called after her.
In her ear, Chaz chuckled. She heard the bedcovers rustle. He wouldn't be shrugging, not without wincing.
The wince was in his voice when he answered, "The work was already in my head. I mean, I had all the pieces. I maybe just needed a little down time to work it out in."
"You're supposed to be resting, Chaz."
He laughed again. "I was resting! I dreamed it! Look, remember the cluster of deaths by misadventure that Reyes has had us dogging all over the f-- the Southwest? Weird, completely random stuff. A woman killed when the glass in her kitchen door shattered and sliced her carotid artery. A guy who literally--literally--slid on a banana peel and fell under a bus. And Hafs and I have been saying it was nothing, there's no connection, his hunch is a dud. They're just accidental deaths. Right?"
"I'm hanging up the phone now, Chaz. Go to sleep."
"Falkner, wait. Wait. I think we were wrong. A statistically significant fraction of the most suspicious-looking non-suspicious deaths--the really freakish freak accidents, the ones that are just weird enough for Final Destination part twenty, whatever, have a consistent victimology."
"All right," Falkner said. "I'm listening."
"They're all assholes, Falkner. They're the sort of people where, when you hear something terrible has happened to them, you kind of shake your head and think well, he had it coming. The kind of people you really wouldn't mind seeing fall under a bus."
"Nobody deserves to fall under a bus--" She was, she knew, speaking for her own outrage and wrath.
And she also knew Chaz was going to call her on it, so she grinned when he did: "Falkner. Stop it with the reaction formation for a minute and listen to me. You don't have to Mom my aggressive impulses into more socially acceptable forms."
"It was sublimation," she said. "Not reaction formation."
"Of course. Your defense mechanisms are sublimely healthy. But here's what I was saying. It was almost impossible to pick out because there's so much background noise, but the really weird deaths that fit that victimology all happened in clusters."
"Clusters in time." He was tiring already. She could tell by the sound of his breathing, which rasped across the cell pickup. "There'll be a cluster of five or ten, all within two or three months, each cluster eight months to two years apart. Here's where the geographic profiling comes in, though--if you apply it to those particular deaths as clusters they suggest a progression--a route--within that time, though the route isn't the same from one time-cluster to the next."
"Salesman," she said. "Trucker."
"Drug distributor," he suggested. "Senior citizen with an RV. Do I have permission to generate the profiles and email you?"
She was pressing the cell too tight to the side of her face. She could feel the sweat puddling between the plastic and her skin. "No hauling bricks," she said.
"Only in my sleep," he answered. "Call me if you need me."
He cut the connection, leaving her leaning on the hand that cupped around her phone.
Solomon Todd ground his fingers into the inside corners of his eyes. As if I could dig out the tired, he thought.
He stretched his spine against the padded back of a chair rolled up to the briefing room table. A good, relaxing sensation--just enough to remind him of his underused bed in Bethesda, and how nice it would be to crawl into it and stop taking money from the taxpayers. He could go back to journalism. It had been long enough that the people he'd pissed off now admired him for it. And he'd bet Cokie Roberts had been photogenically snoring since ten p.m.
Who are you kidding? If you weren't in a briefing room in the Hoover Building, you'd find someplace less comfortable to lose sleep in.
Reyes, in his designated chair, looked every bit as rested as he had since Texas, which was not at all. His dark skin had the ashy, drawn look Todd had seen on people who'd been at the front lines of disaster a little too long. "Who are we missing?" he asked.
The moment of twitchy silence, Todd decided, was inevitable.
"Hafs will be here in a minute," Daphne Worth said. Her voice was crunchy and pitched lower than normal, and she clutched her coffee cup like Leo DiCaprio clinging to Kate Winslet. "She's printing out Chaz's stats."
"What?" Nikki Lau looked up from the open file box in front of her and scowled; her strong, small hands clenched the cardboard on both sides. "Who's been letting Chaz get statty?"
"I wouldn't say 'let.'" Falkner stepped into the room, then sideways along the wall as if following a guide wire under the carpet. She was flawlessly crisp, but her pale skin made a nice contrast to the shadows under her eyes.
Good thing we're all looking and feeling our best.
Worth shrugged at Lau. "It's not like we can say, 'Chaz, stop thinking.'"
Quick footsteps beyond the door pushed the conversational pause button. But it was Daniel Brady, and the held-breath sensation lasted only an instant.
Speaking of the climax of Titanic, Todd thought. Brady's hair was darkened to near-brown and flattened to his scalp, his shirt soaked at the collar and down the front where his jacket hadn't covered it. Todd hated to think what the jacket looked like.
Brady, with every reason to be irritable as a cat in bath water, smiled at the room. "Evening, all." He tugged out a chair 'til it bumped the wall and settled into it.
"You were kidnapped and thrown in the Potomac," Lau offered, her eyebrows trying to make contact with her hairline.
"It's coming down like a pissing mare. Maybe you noticed?"
"Aaand...that made you want to stand under a downspout?" asked Worth.
Lau made a noise like an air-filled balloon leaking.
Brady rolled his eyes. "Stopped to help a stranded driver."
"Ah." Todd nodded. "Which involved deep-water rescue. Damn those freeway culverts."
"Don't any of you quit your day jobs," Brady said, but mildly.
Hafidha Gates swept into the room. She wore a staggering verdigris-colored short dress under a black coat--No, rewrite for vivid and accurate--under the red-headed stepchild of tails and an eighteenth-century highwayman's greatcoat, in black. Her braids were joined at the ends with a daisy chain of beads, and her eyes were an unlikely grass-green. She must have been clubbing when Falkner's call reached her.
Hafidha dropped her sheaf of paper on the table in front of Brady. "Take one down and pass it around. Nikki, sweetie, you pull the case jackets?"
"Right here." Lau tugged folders out of the file box and made five stacks of them in the middle of the table. "Five ranges of dates, forty-two deaths ruled accidental. Chaz tagged all of these?"
"Just the ranges of dates," Falkner corrected. "Some of these cases will fall off the list when we look hard at them. We'll start with geography and victimology."
Brady dealt Hafidha's printouts to the team. Todd studied his copies. A list of accidental deaths, grouped by dates and locations. And an annotated map of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah.
They'd plotted these cases by location before, trying to spot clusters, proximity to a single area, common industries, shared past trauma. Now connect-the-dots constellations overlaid the map. Possible routes, five of them, each a different color. 2007 in red. 2005-2006 in green. 2004 in yellow. 2003 in blue. 2001 in Pepto-Bismol pink. They crossed, overlapped, diverged, like the work of a spider on acid.
He looked up from the printouts to the five piles of case jackets and sighed. "I never grudge the Bureau my time and attention. But can't you just bring these up on your monitor and look for pretty colors?"
Hafidha rolled out the chair next to Todd, slid into it, and patted his arm. "Duke, you know I wouldn't make you slave over a hot desk if you didn't have to. The files don't go Technicolor. They're accidents."
"Except Chaz says that's statistically unlikely."
Reyes leaned forward. "Or it's statistically likely they're murders. I know I've been driving you crazy with these cases for months. But Chaz may have given us a way into them." He pulled a folder toward him off the nearest pile. "Let's squeeze these bastards 'til they yell."
They each snagged a case jacket. Todd suspected they all heard what he had, the unspoken statement: Chaz used up a little more of his time for this. Let's not waste it.
Two hours later, they had a preliminary sort of twenty-seven cases and a wheels-up time of five a.m.
"Wow." Lau slumped in her chair and sighed. "Twenty-seven thoroughly unpleasant people dead by accident."
"But given the geographic spread and total lack of anything else the victims had in common..." Worth trailed off and looked around the table.
"...it doesn't seem possible that this can be a personal vendetta," Reyes finished for her. "You're right."
Brady tilted his head. "But we won't rule it out."
"They really don't want to hear about this one Down the Hall," said Falkner.
That pried half a smile out of Reyes. "This is going to be about legwork and data-sifting. Hafidha, Worth, Todd, and I will head out and work the scenes."
"And we'll shuffle paperwork," Falkner finished. She stretched where she stood. As if it were a signal, most of the team gathered notes, files, and belongings and straggled out of the room.
Lau restacked folders with elaborate care. Brady paused beside the door, watching the others into the bullpen and waiting for Todd and Lau. He turned, eyed Lau's bent head, raised his eyebrows at Todd. Todd shrugged. If Lau was waiting for one or the other of them, she'd have to speak up about it.
"Bring back some salsa," Brady said, and stepped into the hall. Lau didn't call him back.
Todd tucked his papers under his arm. Or maybe she just wants to be alone. "Ah, well, time enough for sleeping in the grave."
"Duke." She said it like a cough.
He laid the files back on the table, lined them up with the edge. No hurry. By the time he was done, she could straighten her shoulders and meet his eyes. A lock of shining dark hair swung forward over one cheekbone; she poked it behind her ear.
"Is Chaz going to make it?"
If he'd listed things Lau might want to ask him in private, that wouldn't have been near the top. "Nikki-- Dr. McCoy's line from Star Trek? The opposite of that."
It got him something that was almost a smile. "'I'm a spook, not a doctor?'"
He drew himself up very straight, which was what it took to look down his nose at her from a sufficient height. "I beg your pardon. I'm a law enforcement professional and an employee of the Justice Department. Spook, indeed."
She laughed, but barely, and looked away. "I just wondered if someone...if you'd heard something I might not have." Her copy of the printout, of Chaz's geographic profile, topped the pile of folders on the table in front of her. She rubbed her thumb slowly along the bottom edge, as if smoothing a non-existent crease.
Todd considered for a moment sitting down again. No, too much gravitas. This might, indeed, be the part of the narrative for it, but he was just superstitious enough that he didn't want to invite it in. He hitched one hip onto the table instead and braced his palms on his knee.
Once upon a time, he thought wryly. "My Uncle Phil once had a horse that wouldn't stay in the pasture. Every other horse in the barn would be in there with him, but he'd jump the fence and keep running 'til he wore himself out. As far as anyone could tell, he jumped the fence because he could."
Lau raised her head when the pause stretched and it was clear he wasn't going to break it. "Okay, I live out by the airport. That one went right over my head."
"You can't keep Chaz from doing what he does. Even if he's doing it for us."
A graceless jerk of her shoulders and head, so odd in a woman who made grace part of her professional discipline. "It's going to kill him."
Todd nodded and picked up his files. "That's what kills us all. Doing what we do."
The past Christmas, Daphne Worth's friend Chaz Villette had gone to Hawaii on vacation, and come back with several things. One was a suntan the color of a Hershey bar. Another was a gift for her, the kind of inexpensive, observant present that was far more to be treasured than anything costly and common.
It was a carved obsidian pendant, a woman's face embraced by the crescent moon, beautiful and serene. It had probably told her more than he intended, but it had also made it plain that he'd noted some things she was inclined to keep private these days, like her adopted religion and what in it she identified with.
So when they'd brought Chaz back from Texas, unconscious and flat and crumpled as a sheet, she'd put that pendant on a chain long enough that it dropped into the plunge of her bra and hung it around her neck. It lay there, invisible under her collar, because mindfulness is how the brain changes things, and ritual is a way to reinforce mindfulness.
She'd never say as long as I wear this he can't die. But every time the pendant bumped her breastbone, she remembered for a moment, and focused on his recovery. On Chaz strong enough to stand up, walk across the room, hug her back.
It fell from her shirt when she bent forward to tuck her go bag into the Gulfstream's locker. She touched it, for a moment, slid her thumb over the warm, slightly oily surface.
He was going to be okay.
The plane was a sort of cocoon, Reyes thought, watching his worn-edged and much-abbreviated team hunch in their seats, heaps of case jackets piled around them as they studied like kids at a cram party.
"Gah," Worth said, pushing her bangs out of her eyes with a forearm that popped cables of climber's muscle when she curled her fingers. "Where do we even start with this?"
Reyes sucked on his lower lip for a minute before he answered. It tasted like cold tea and stale pastry. The flavor of the job. "We work each one like an individual murder case."
"Gnaw through it until we get to the delicious creamy center," Todd said. He glanced up from a jacket, frowning. "You weren't kidding about the footwork. Known associates, known enemies, immediate family, business partners, illicit love affairs. Interviews. Lots and lots of interviews. Congratulations: we're a cold case team."
Worth folded one file closed and snaked over another. "Interviews. I wish we had Brady."
"And Es," Hafidha said. Her laptop perched on the table before her, open but untouched, turned so the rest of the team could watch data pile itself into spreadsheets and onto map displays as fast as her eyes could scan paper.
Nobody looked at Reyes. It wasn't anything so formal as a protest of his command decision. Just a little--you couldn't even really call it passive-aggressive, because there wasn't that much hostility behind it--good-natured complaint.
He was the one who'd picked the away team, and he had his reasons. They were still fragile, some of them more than others. Worth and Hafidha might be closest to Chaz, but they were also coping better than Brady or Lau, and Falkner needed to be where the people showing cracks were.
"And Lau," Reyes said, just to let them know he heard them. "I wish we didn't need them back at the office. But we'll manage."
Todd was the rock upon which Reyes had built his church. Such as it was. He ran a finger down a printed page, and grunted. "Somehow we always do. Just pile the paperwork on until I creak."
Reyes watched Worth and Gates pretend not to notice. "What's the first town on our touring schedule, Hafidha?"
"Albuquerque proper," she said. "Chaz'd give you a better answer, probably. But four out of five of our circuits match up there. And there's an outlier, a freaky death with no close calendrical associates to others, and Albuquerque is the only place that happens where there are also associated ones. So maybe it's not associated, and maybe it's associated and it can serve as the statistical outlier that helps crack the code. Did that paragraph make any sense?"
Worth hid a smile behind a jacket. She said, "Who the hell decided to name it Albuquerque? What kind of a name is that?"
Reyes wanted to drop his gaze, but he made himself keep his chin up. If Chaz were there, he would have an answer, detailed and accurate. If Chaz were there, the case files would already be collating in the back of his head, soon to be digested and regurgitated in new and more useful forms.
Hafidha breathed out through her nose to break the silence, as if she needed an entrée before she could continue. "I figure if we don't get a bingo there, we can start picking through smaller communities. Las Cruces has three hits, and it's about a sixth the size of Albuquerque. Smaller subject pool."
"With any luck, we won’t need to work all twenty-seven," Worth said. "It's always in the last place you look, because that's where you stop looking."
"Twenty-seven cold cases," Todd said. He turned his head to stare out the window as the plane banked, beginning its approach. Reyes knew what he saw out there--black-green spills of piñon pine and juniper down the mountain valleys, wheat-brown earth, red tile roofs, a wealth of trees tinting the residential sections verdigris, like the dress Hafidha had changed out of. "Even if we don't have to work them all, I wonder how many interviews that's going to wind up being?"
"Complaint noted," Reyes said, and handed him another file.
Since they were here on their own interstate jurisdiction rather than working a single particular local case, there was no inviting agency. Daphne was not surprised that no liaison officer met them on the tarmac. When Reyes excused himself to see about a rental vehicle to get them as far as the field office on Luecking Park Avenue, Daphne, panting in the desert heat, pulled the other two inside the air-conditioned terminal.
"Why does this look so familiar?" Hafidha asked, shrugging her go bag higher on her shoulder and gawking ostentatiously at the interior architecture. Albuquerque was one of the better airports for looking at, Daphne thought, with an art-gallery air reinforced by Southwestern colors and museum displays of tribal artifacts. "Ohmigod, it's déjà vu!"
Daphne sighed and tugged her sideways by one black-and-white-checked sleeve, just before she walked into an exec-type with a rolling bag and a cell phone. "Don't squash the pedestrians, girlfriend."
"Oh, wait. It looks familiar because I've been here three frikkin' times in the past year. Tell me we're going to find a killer this time? Because if I have to come back here again, I'm just buying real estate."
Todd caught up with them, thumbing his phone off. "New Mexico, Land of Enchantment."
"Land of House Trailers, more like. Georgia O'Keefe wouldn't recognize the place."
"There are some perfectly acceptable trailer parks out there."
"Oh, honey, you haven't seen. Around here they don't put them in parks. They just pick half an acre of scrub and drop a trailer on it. It's like a free-range chicken laying eggs."
Daphne considered Hafidha's canted eyebrows. "Hon, do you need a sandwich?"
"God, I thought you'd never ask."
"Wouldn't you rather have green chile enchiladas at Garcia's?" Todd looked hopeful as a beagle eyeing a biscuit.
"No, I'd rather have a sandwich now and enchiladas afterward."
Todd patted her arm. "Silly me. Of course you would. Airport food, here we come."
"Bah," Hafidha said. "It's not an airport. It's a 'Sunport.' Can't you read the signs?"
"Food court this way," Daphne said, and pulled her partners along.
The street was edged on both sides with old cottonwoods that PNM or the phone company or both had eviscerated to pass their wires through. Hafidha figured it for a good blue-collar neighborhood just before World War II. Now the little square houses came with cracked, stained stucco, rusty swamp coolers, angry dogs, angrier kids, and straggling shrubbery, and graffiti tagged the swaybacked one-car garages.
"I take it," Reyes said from the driver's seat, with no discernible emotion, "Monica Little didn't benefit financially from her brother's death."
Hafidha bolted the last of a bag of potato chips and wiped her fingers on a fast-food napkin. They'd traded the rental car for a pair of Bureau all-terrain gas guzzlers and split up with their interview lists. Well, the elbow room doesn't suck. "Maybe she's just keepin' it real. Not that I have any idea why lousy neighborhoods have more reality than nice ones."
"This was a nice one, once."
"Well, according to Zillow and a few other helpful sources, average assessed home value within four blocks is seventy-nine thousand, which is crap even for Albuquerque. Sixty-two percent of the properties are rentals. Average per-household income is eighteen thousand a year."
Reyes shot her a look, away from the windshield. "You can live on that in Albuquerque?"
"Let me finish, captain my captain. And sixty-five percent of households are on some form of state or federal assistance."
"Hard times, come again no more," Reyes muttered. "And may I ask how FBI teams that don't include you get anything done?"
"They stumble around in the dark and luck out now and then." Hafidha knew her own value. But Reyes was stingy with that kind of sweeping praise. If she accused him of trying to soften her up, would he be proud of her for following in his twisty footsteps? "Got a script you want to play here?"
Reyes pulled the SUV to the curb in front of a house with a topped pine shading the front door and a sun-scorched Chevy Lumina in the carport. "I don't think so. Little is Leroy Valejo's closest surviving relative. She may be able to tell us who he knew, and who knew him. Let's just cast as wide a net as possible and see what swims in."
Monica Little would have been called "stout" in a previous age. The part in her graying black hair sat level with Hafidha's chin, but she probably weighed double what Hafidha did. Not that that was the best metric. But Little was built like a woman designed for a solid connection with the ground.
She worked for a lawn care service, and had the ruddy brown skin, crows' feet, and broken-nailed hands to prove it. She wore Wal-Mart jeans and a clean navy blue t-shirt sporting the words "Indian Country," printed so the letters seemed to be windows onto a view of an American flag. Her cramped living room was a welter of partly-folded laundry, last week's newspaper, and half-finished craft projects. A ceramic plaque of the Virgin of Guadelupe hung over a tiny shelf near the door. The shelf held a lit votive candle. Hafidha wondered if the only thing that kept it from also holding car keys and yesterday's mail was that it was too small. The swamp cooler had the indoor temp down to maybe eighty.
"My brother wasn't the kind of guy they call the FBI on," Little said, once she'd waved them to the dining table at the end of the room and cleared a pile of magazines off a chair so they could all sit.
Reyes tilted his head. "He was a good man?"
She laughed, loud and sharp as a lightning strike. "Hell, no. Wait, you guys go after racketeers and shit, right? Leroy would have done that."
"We didn't hang out. We didn't like each other."
"Do you know anyone who might have wanted your brother dead?"
This time the laughter continued for several seconds. "Everyone who met him. Maybe not the Devil, 'cause he would have had to take him in."
"Do you know anyone who wanted it bad enough to make it happen?" Hafidha asked cheerfully. Reyes was doing enough straight-arrow professional for both of them.
Little turned to Hafidha, frowning. "If they did, they missed their fuckin' chance. Didn't they? It was an accident."
It was a frayed wire on a garbage disposal that routed the wall current through Leroy Valejo's kitchen sink faucet. Saying so would only make him look less murdered. "Then was there anyone who was especially happy about it?"
"Look, my brother was a shit. The only reason he wasn't a badass was because he wouldn't do anything that'd get him hurt. But he didn't care what happened to anybody else. Leroy was crooked as a three-dollar bill--said working for the tribes made you a tourist Indian, but truth was, none of 'em would hire him."
"He cheated people?" Hafidha asked, just to be sure.
"He wanted to get rich, and he didn't want to spend anything to get it. What do you think? You seen his buildings?"
"He owned two apartment buildings, didn't he?" said Reyes.
"I wouldn't keep a dog there. If it cost money to meet code, he didn't meet code. Tenants'd complain to the city and he'd kick 'em out. He'd find an excuse."
Hafidha leaned her elbows on the table and her chin in her hands and projected, Give me the dirt. "Lawsuits?"
"Shit, yeah. But he was good at hiding money from lawyers. There was a kid fell through a busted second-floor railing, cracked his hip in three places. Leroy's own damn lawyer told him to settle, but no, Leroy dragged it out for two years in court. Still at it when he died, I think. There was a grandma in a first-floor, the security door on her apartment wouldn't lock." Little shook her head, glared down at the printed fruit of the oilcloth on the table. "A fucking lock. How much does that cost? Couple of junkies broke in one night, beat her up, robbed her. She laid on the kitchen floor all night. Died in the hospital of pneumonia. Her son sued Leroy, but the son lost."
"He lost?" Oops. That disbelieving squeak might discourage the witness.
Little scowled down at the table as if she could cut through it with her laser vision.
Reyes settled his own elbows on the oilcloth. "For someone who didn't hang out with him, you seem to know a lot about your brother." He had one of his poker faces working, the one that said, I know what cards you're holding. Did I mention I'm psychic? The sweat pebbling his forehead and spotting the front of his dress shirt didn't lessen the effect.
Little raised her head and looked, if Hafidha was judging it right, over Reyes's shoulder. "Family. What else is there to talk about at Christmas?"
"Where did you live before you moved to this house?" Reyes's voice was gentle.
Damn the man. Still faster than me. "For the woman's son to lose that lawsuit, somebody must have testified for Leroy. Somebody who'd swear that lock worked."
Little sucked her lips in over her teeth and stared an inch past Hafidha's face. "Maybe the son hired a crappy lawyer."
Reyes shook his head and laid his small, manicured hand flat, halfway between himself and Little. Comfort, compromise. "Ms. Little, I apologize. You must feel as if you're on trial. We just want to know about your brother."
Hafidha noted he didn't say that Little wasn't on trial.
Little drew breath loudly through her nose and interlaced her fingers, thumbs twisting like snakes. "I asked my ex for help. He came through. He helped me get a job, food stamps, section eight. After the-- After Leroy won that lawsuit, I knew I had to move out."
"You were managing the apartment buildings."
Little nodded shortly, once. "I didn't have anyplace to go."
"And you lied for him."
Now that the truth was out, Little seemed numb. "He said he'd get me busted if I didn't, hide coke in my apartment. And the old lady was already dead, it didn't change that. I tried to fix the lock. He wouldn't pay for a locksmith. He said if I couldn't fix it, it was my problem."
Hafidha studied Little's downturned face and thought, Nothing like on-site interviews to bring those public records to life.
"Did you believe him?" Reyes asked, so kindly Hafidha almost didn't recognize the voice as his.
"That it was your problem."
Little was silent for so long Hafidha had to sneak a look at Reyes for reassurance.
"I was sorry," Little muttered at last. "I couldn't give that guy money, for his mom. I didn't have enough to pay for a mass, but I lit candles for her at San Felipe."
Reyes nodded. "Did that help?"
Little raised her head and met his eyes. "It was kind of like the lawsuit. She was still dead."
They gathered the names of the old woman, the injured boy's family, others Little could remember. It was a formality; Hafidha could get them off the web in five minutes. But the commitment of a witness to a narrative meant something.
As she and Reyes walked back to the SUV, Hafidha asked, "So who has the bigger grudge against Leroy Valejo? The parents of the crippled kid, or the son of the dead mom?"
"Could be either," Reyes said, and chirped the door locks. As they slid into their seats, he added, "But neither has as big a grudge as his sister."
Hafidha stared. "Oh. He told her it was her problem. And she believed him. But is that kind of guilt enough to trigger conversion?"
Reyes started the engine. "Obviously, you've never been a Catholic."
"Very funny. I'll see if I can connect her to any other victims. Though family hate is a very special hate."
"It's the sense of betrayal. They should be there for you. When they fail you, it breaks the whole world."
Hafidha wanted to pull her laptop out of her bag and open it and go to work, because it was the only way to get out of a conversation in a moving car that didn't involve road rash. Instead, as Reyes braked for a light, she said, "You know, I heard you stopped Esther when she started across the yard." When Chaz had staggered out of his grandparents' house in Texas, not dead but in sight of it, and Esther Falkner had started to his aid.
"I was wrong."
"Hello? You were what?"
Reyes gave her the narrow-eyed look that froze other people to silence and gave even her a mild case of air conditioning. "Stupid people refuse to learn from their mistakes. I may be a sonofabitch, but no one ever called me stupid."
"Beg your pardon. I was extrapolating on the sonofabitch part, and went too far."
The corner of his mouth tugged upward. Reyes usually responded well to openness and honesty. Maybe he thought they were funny. "I didn't trust Chaz, and I should have. Unfortunately, trust is not one of the things I'm good at. Chaz took more than his share of the weight of that. I'm sorry for it. I'll try to do better."
Hafidha watched a series of fake-Santa-Fe-style strip malls go by before she said, "I'm not the one you need to say this to."
"On the contrary. He doesn't know I'm guilty. You do."
"And if he finds out?"
"I expect he will. But I'd rather not admit I'm wrong and offer an apology until I'm sure his heart can take the stress."
Hafidha allowed him to drop the subject. Anyone but Stephen Reyes might have thought she was letting him off.
Daphne unwrapped the second half of her turkey pita and ate it off her lap while Todd drove. New Mexico unrolled outside the windows like a panopticon strip of polychromed stucco, saw-tooth mountains, and impossible cobalt sky. The vehicle's interior was full of the scent of Todd's coffee and the sound of eric clapton unplugged, turned down low enough that it became soothing background noise.
She sighed and stretched her legs out, contemplating the art of the nap. "You can put your feet up on the dash," Todd said, without glancing over. "If that would be more comfortable."
"Ever seen a radiograph of somebody who had their feet up when an airbag deployed?" She shuddered.
"If I had, would I keep my feet on the floor?"
She nodded emphatically. "Talk about your really spectacular dislocations." She took another bite of sandwich, chewing thoughtfully, staring out the window at scrub and pale desert. Heat shimmered over tile rooftops and the blacktop before them. Chaz would love this. Desert rat.
She pushed the thought away before it could make her eyes sting, staring down at the sandwich in her hands.
Todd cleared his throat. "How is it?"
"Stale, but meeting or exceeding federal requirements for airport food."
Todd chuckled, which destroyed her own deadpan. She rewrapped up the rest of the sandwich and stuffed it into the door pocket. If she craned a little bit, she could read the GPS, but right now it only showed a straight stretch of highway. Todd, noticing her interest, quoted, "The lone and level sands stretch far away."
"Who's our first stop?"
"Karina Foundline," he said. "The attempted-triple-homicide survivor."
Daphne paged through scans on her Palm, but it was mostly for something to do with her hands. "Right. She identified a suspect, a Michael Parker, but the D.A. failed to get a conviction. He's the one who died on New Year's Day, just after midnight, when a bullet discharged into the air in celebration penetrated his brain. Welcome to the Southwest, where we believe in random gunfire." Speaking of radiographs, here was one, the hole in Parker's skull brightly outlined by metal trace.
"The Mythbusters debunked that," Todd said. "Terminal velocity of a bullet isn't enough to puncture a human skull."
"Ballistic trajectory," she replied. "Apparently the Mythbusters get a few wrong. Wow, it looks like it hit right on the suture point. That's freaky."
"You'd almost think somebody planned it that way."
"Gamma could affect a bullet's trajectory," she said. She gestured at a road warning sign as they approached a bridge. Gusty Winds May Exist. "If a stiff breeze can do it--"
"I always thought those signs were a little weird," he said. "Land of Enchantment? Land of Existentialism."
"More like the Land of Quantum Uncertainty. New Mexico: it's not real. It's just more likely to be here than not be here."
Todd spit coffee back into his paper cup in preference to spraying the windshield. "A palpable hit. So you think maybe the gamma's a small-scale telekinetic, like Desiree Greene in Louisiana in February?"
"Cripes, I hope not." Desiree Greene, who'd dropped a rose window on Reyes's head and nicked his radial artery. Her hands clenched against the vivid tactile memory of sliding on his blood while she tried to keep pressure on the wound. She forced them open again. "You got her, though."
"Yeah," he said. His hand barely twitched towards his service weapon. "We did."
Foundline now lived with her aunt and two nephews in a first-story two-bedroom rental on the outskirts of town. The aunt, Annabel, let them into the living room, which was shabbily tidy and furnished with sagging castoffs.
Foundline waited on a couch before the front window, outlined against the light burning through closed blinds. Her worn colorful clothes were clean and her hair dressed back in tight braids that must have taken her aunt hours, but Daphne understood why she'd chosen to sit there, with the light at her back. She'd sustained--and survived--two close-range gunshot wounds to the face, and the scarring was... significant.
It can't be that easy, Daphne thought. She watched Foundline's thin hands twist around each other because she needed a moment before she looked back at the rucked and furrowed flesh of her face. She shot a glance at Todd and saw him looking back, eyebrow arched, contemplative.
"I'm sorry," Foundline said, her words slurring as if through clenched teeth. "I can't talk so good anymore. But I'm happy to answer your questions."
"I'm Special Agent Todd. This is Special Agent Worth. We’re very sorry for your injury, Ms. Foundline," Todd said, lowering himself to the edge of the chair opposite.
Daphne sidestepped to stand behind him, the back of the chair concealing her right hand and her gun. She wondered for a second when she'd become such a seamless part of the organism, and how it had been decided with a glance that Todd would take point and she would cover his back.
"My own--my own stupid fault," she said. Her hands clenched on her knees, arms straightening, as if to push her through the back of the couch. "I got in with a bad crowd. I got--and Sheila--" She shook her head. "Sorry. Sorry."
"It's okay," Todd said. Everything about him--the tweed jacket, the disarrayed and receding dull brown hair, the pale eyes concealed behind spectacles--said I am small and unassuming. He looked like an actuary. Daphne knew it was a magic trick, but that didn't always stop it from working on her. "Take your time. I know this is hard. You testified that you and Sheila Wilson were at the trailer of a friend. Donyell Douglas."
"My boyfriend," Foundline said. Her fingers pressed to her gnarled cheek as if unconsciously. When she smiled, it stretched her face in unsettling ways. "The bad crowd. He liked guns. He dealt a little coke." She shrugged. "I thought he was sexy. Mike came to talk to him about some money he owed. It didn't go so well. Mike made me and my friend Sheila sit on the couch. When he didn't get what he wanted out of Donyell, he shot him. And then he shot us."
She recited her story with the air of long practice and many repetitions, professionally, detached. Her hand slipped down to press her breastbone. "Me twice in the head, once in the chest. I was--I used to be pretty. Would you believe it?"
Daphne nodded. The aunt was in the kitchen, in earshot and just inside her peripheral vision, fussing with a cheap white plastic coffee maker. "You must have been quite beautiful," she said. "What happened at the trial?"
She knew, and Todd knew, but they had to hear it in Foundline's words.
Foundline closed her eyes. "My momma told me never to use... never to hate unless I really mean it. Unless the person I was hating deserved the worst thing ever. Well, I really, really hated him. I feel blessed to have my life, but I would have given it for my friend. She was pregnant. She had a baby coming."
"I am so sorry," Todd said. He sounded like he meant it. "You loved your friend very much."
It was a good thing he filled the silence, because Foundline's choice of words made Daphne cock her head. She didn't lean forward, but she let herself re-examine Foundline, the room, the things in it. Nothing you wouldn't expect in a poor family's apartment, except--around Foundline's neck, almost hidden in her cleavage, hung a crocheted pouch the size of Daphne's thumb, hanging from a drawstring cord.
Foundline said, "She was my best friend."
"Ms. Foundline," Daphne said. "The trial."
"The jury didn't think I was a what do you call it. Credible witness. Because of the drugs. And because I--" she glanced over toward the kitchen, where the aunt had now vanished out of sight, and lowered her voice. "I got busted once for turning tricks."
Todd nodded, face still neutral and welcoming, and Daphne saw some of the tension drain out of Foundline's posture. She glanced down between her knees, hunching forward.
"Ms. Foundline," Daphne said, "May we see your bedroom?"
"What do you need that for?"
Daphne smiled. "Sometimes, learning a little more about the survivors can tell us a lot more about the crime."
Foundline stood up, stiffly, like a woman three times her age. "Let me ask my aunt. We have to share."
A tiny room, just big enough for the twin bed jammed against one wall and the sofa bed in the opposite corner. Two four-legged stools had been pressed into service as nightstands, and a little end table under the window was draped in a purple cotton gauze scarf, with two candlesticks and a water goblet set on it. Daphne also identified a single white rose in a narrow vase, a tiny brass incense burner, a Georgia O'Keeffe landscape postcard leaned up against the wall, a string of agate beads, and a black-handled paring knife.
Daphne made a moue and stopped herself from nodding. Could be nothing. Could be something. You never knew.
They made their excuses. Outside, while she called to check in with Reyes and give him their twenty, Todd leaned against the door of the SUV, staring west. She clicked the phone off and came up beside him.
"Desert sunset," he said. "Nothing like it."
There wasn't. A pale wash of gold and pink stained the western horizon, light gleaming peach-rose off a crossing jet contrail.
"You think she's a gamma?"
"I think she doesn't eat much because it hurts her to chew," Daphne said. "I also think she's a witch. Did you catch the amulet and altar?"
Todd nodded. "Not a bruja?"
Daphne shook her head. "That's modern Wicca, the crocheted amulet and the altar setup."
He was watching her sideways, with a little smile. Not the condescending one she would have expected from Brady, but something more open and considering. Of course; Duke didn't judge other people's belief systems, and he got weirder things than her free with his breakfast cereal. Still, she felt the need to explain.
"I went through a Lesbian Empowerment phase in college," she said.
"You believe in that?"
"What, Lesbian Empowerment?"
"I believe in the power of the human mind to change its environment," she answered, archly enough that he tapped his forehead and mouthed touché. "Reyes said Brady checked in. He and Lau broke down the patterns and periods of travel, and it doesn't look like a trucker or a salesman. And it doesn't happen with the kind of regularity you'd expect from someone taking vacation from a day job."
"So it's something else," Todd said. He reached into his pocket and chirped the door locks. "Come on. Next stop, the scenic trailer of one Hal Carter."
That night, Todd crossed the hotel corridor and double-tapped a knuckle on the door of room 118, not loudly enough to wake a sleeper. Not that he expected his quarry to be asleep even this late, but he prided himself on his sense of timing, particularly when it came to polite fictions.
Even so, it was long enough that he wondered if he ought to knock again, before the door opened.
Reyes was still dressed. "The day wasn't long enough for you?" he asked. But he stood aside to let Todd pass.
The bedclothes remained as smooth as Housekeeping could make them. Reyes's laptop sat open on the desk, surrounded by neat piles of case jackets and notes. CNN muttered on the television, barely audible. The room smelled like takeout green chile and whatever noxious, flowery substance the hotel used to clean the carpets. "'Will the day's journey take the whole long day?'" Todd quoted absently. "'From morn to night, my friend.'"
"And since I happen to know that's Christina Rossetti, I also know she was a Christian mystic, and the reference is a metaphor."
"I could have quoted Robert Erskine Chalders, instead. '...Simple and inevitable, like lying down after a long day’s work.'" Todd sat on the end of the bed and folded his hands between his knees, a confluence of bony joints.
"That always sounded to me like taking radical acceptance too far. Execution is neither simple nor inevitable." Reyes swung the desk chair around to face the bed, sat, and scoured his face with his palms. "Did you wander by to test the extent of my education, or are you chewing over something a little less nebulous?"
"Oh, it's at least that nebulous. But work-related. I'm concerned about matters at home."
"I shouldn't have to say this out loud, but I had good reason for leaving Brady and Lau in D.C."
"And Falkner?" Todd asked, and knew his face was as unalarming as it had ever been in his life.
Reyes sat very straight, his hands anchored on his thighs. "You think we need two ranking agents in the field on this case?"
"I think you and Esther work very well together, given that there's something busted between you."
The desk lamp was mostly behind Reyes, fringing his cropped hair with light and hiding his expression. "Why don't you ask Esther?"
"Because the snowplows would be working in Hell before she'd tell me."
"And I'm notoriously indiscreet?"
"That, certainly." Todd smiled at the toes of his loafers, and Reyes snorted. "But mostly because I'm guessing it's your story to tell, if you want it told."
On the TV screen, Anderson Cooper looked solemn as a basset hound in front of tan desert and a bit of broken wall. Todd had always been grateful he wasn't pretty enough for broadcast journalism.
Reyes sighed. "I made a bad mistake twelve years ago. I only recently realized how bad. If I had it to do over, I'm not sure I could do better. But I didn't try hard enough to do better at the time."
"It's not like Falkner to hold a grudge. Especially a twelve-year-old grudge."
"There's forgive, and there's forget. It's... changed her opinion of me."
"It's about Chaz, isn't it?"
A particularly bright image on the television cast light on Reyes's face, showed the controlled grimace there. "You're not really asking."
"No. Not really."
"I didn't trust him."
"Yet you trust Hafidha."
"I have plenty of excuses for past behavior. They don't matter." Reyes's words were precisely formed, like someone talking over a bad connection. "The only way I can make up for this is to go forward and behave differently."
"Because you can't make it up to a thirteen-year-old kid who isn't there anymore."
Silence, except for the whisper of a bearded man's voice from the television, the mutter of a translator following behind. "It's nice to be sure we're on the same subject," Reyes said.
"Steve, remember who you're talking to. I'm Paper Trail Guy."
"And after Texas, Chaz doesn't have many secrets left." Changeable as the moon, the TV's light. Todd wasn't sure if it was that, or if Reyes's eyebrows really did twitch downward. "Apparently, neither do I."
"No, no. I'm not, as the kids say, all up in your shit." Todd beamed at him, and made him snort. "But it's enough to have to roll the rock up the hill. You don't have to make sure no one's watching when you do it."
"I'm certain that will seem like good advice, as soon as I figure out what it means."
"I'm full of folksy wisdom. Ask anybody."
"Fine. Sol, we've got twenty-seven people whose deaths were also not simple or inevitable. In..." Reyes glanced at the bedside clock. "...seven hours we're on our way to Las Cruces. Does folksy wisdom suggest a decent night's sleep before a day of work?"
"It does." Todd stood and stretched. "I came to tell you to get one."
"Out," said Reyes, with nothing worse than resignation.
Brady pushed away his empty mug and settled into a pleasant buzz of caffeine and adrenaline, highlighters and printouts spread on the briefing room table. He didn't look up when the door opened, because he recognized the click of low heels. Might as well play the scene the way it presented itself.
The scent of coffee preceded Lau into the room. "Whatcha got?" she said, leaning over his shoulder to set one of the two blue mugs by his hand.
"A psychic partner, apparently," he said, snaking the mug between piles.
"I'd have brought you more yummy Las Cruces interviews, but Dad just called a time-out for lunch." Lau cast a bleak look down the table. "We're running out of flat space."
"It's a good thing Duke types a hundred and twenty words a minute and Hafidha's a human keyboard, or we'd be transcribing recordings of more witness statements than you want to imagine. As it is..." He picked three stapled printouts off the nearest pile and held them over his shoulder. "Grab a highlighter. I'm just going over them for coincidences and consistencies now. If this is all the work of the same gamma, he has to be finding them somehow. Where would you go to meet an asshole?"
"Singles bar," Lau said promptly, dropping into the chair beside him. "Executive retreat."
"Enron boardroom," he answered.
She uncapped a lavender highlighter. "Got anything consistent so far? Socioeconomic class, race, religion?"
"Nope. Age, gender, place of employment, hobbies--"
"Other than being a dick."
"Chaz's theory is panning out so far," he said, hoping she didn't notice the way the kid's name stuck in his throat for a half-second.
But she was Lau, and she did notice. He knew, because he caught her looking to see if he was looking. "Danny," she said.
He flipped pages.
She cleared her throat. "You could go see him."
There. Huh. What was that? Something snagging at the edge of his attention. Chaz would have been on it like butter on biscuits, but not everybody could have superpowers, or they would stop being superpowers.
"You could go see him while he's awake to appreciate--"
"Nikki. Back to the religion thing. You notice anything even a little statistically unusual about the ones you've got there?"
"Of the victims or the associates?"
"You're not getting out of this that easily, Danny boy." But she fell silent, flipping pages, bent over the pile of paperwork with her forehead resting on the back of her left hand. "Asatru? What's that?"
"Google it. But I've got a bet. Here, look at this. Pagan, Wiccan. Dianic? That's got to be some kind of heathen. Catholic. More Catholic. What's that all got in common?"
"Swiping wholesale from other religions?"
"Hah. Ritual magic, you secular humanist."
"In the Southwest? You need to meet a bruja, that'll widen your perception of Christianity."
Her eyes widened. She grabbed her phone.
"What are you doing?"
She punched something on speed dial and grinned. "Calling Hafidha, and telling her to check the credit card histories of the associates for charges to local or online Catholic and New Age bookstores, that's what."
"Smart!" he said, while she tapped her forehead and waited for Hafidha to answer the phone.
"Witchcraft," Hafidha said.
It was a weird word to hear stated plainly amid the grungy orange-and-blue Southwestern décor of the taqueria. Daphne twisted in her chair to see Hafidha's face. "I beg your pardon?"
Hafidha leaned her laptop bag against the side of the booth before she scootched in next to Daphne. Across the table, Todd pressed toward the window to make room for Reyes, who slid into the booth with a grateful sigh and the wince of a man whose feet were not what they used to be. Someday, Daphne thought, I'm going to tell him they've invented orthopedic shoes. As if his vanity would permit that.
Hafidha flattened her hands, fingers interlaced, on the plastic-coated placemat printed with local ads. "Okay, we're not even close to done with these interviews, but even out of our partial data and the old interviews, Brady and Lau picked out a pattern. Seven of the victims--including all five of our Albuquerque possibles--had a close associate who either dabbles in ritual magic, or who we can at least make an educated guess about. I pulled credit card records. A statistically significant number of family-and-associates shop at the kind of stores that sell smudging bundles, prayer bowls, and brightly-colored paperbacks by people with names involving a celestial object and an animal. And--" She spread her hands, Voila! "--every single area with a death, in all four states, has one thing in common. A big enough woo-woo community to support some kind of hippie bookstore or café."
Daphne pushed a basket of tortilla chips and a menu in front of Hafidha and felt the almost physical sensation of a penny dropping. "One of the victims, too," she said. "Norma Cassidy, the abusive stepmom."
"The one who caught MRSA off a cat food can lid?" Todd asked, balancing a salsa-dripping chip over his opposite hand.
Daphne turned on her Palm, and with a few quick gestures had Cassidy's photo up. "See the necklace?" She pointed to the barbed silver circle on a chain. "It's called a horned moon. It's a symbol of the triple goddess. Dianic Wicca, a sometimes radical feminist offshoot of Gardnerian practice."
"I didn't know you were an expert on comparative Paganism," Reyes said, leaning back against the booth cushion as if to get a wide-angle view of her.
"I'm just full of secrets. Imagine a world in which you knew them all."
Reyes frowned. She raised her eyebrows the way Hafidha would if she were sassing Reyes, and waited to see if he was going to let her get away with it. A year ago, she never would have imagined having the courage to tease him, but after seven seconds of his best forbidding stoneface the corner of his mouth twitched upward and he turned back to the menu. Daphne grinned after him until Todd broke the silence with a crunch.
"Imagine a world in which I could order the margarita," he said with his mouth full. "Alas, something tells me we're in for a long day. You know something else that's weird. We don’t have any evidence that the majority of the victims--Cassidy aside--have any connection to ritual magic. And Foundline didn't set my Spidey sense tingling, not that hunches are admissible in court."
"Mine either," Daphne agreed, contemplating tamales de pollo and green chile that wouldn't be as good as Chaz's. "With the same caveats about it not being conclusive."
Reyes closed his menu. "Are you suggesting it's a false lead?"
Todd shook his head as the waitress returned. "I'm just saying correlation is not insert catchphrase here. There are a lot of possibilities. I'd like the posole, please?"He glanced sidelong at Hafidha. "And two orders of queso."
There was a brief conversational hiatus while they completed their orders and water glasses were refilled. Then Daphne said, "So if the witchcraft thing is a red herring, what's our connection?"
"I'm not saying it's a red herring," Todd replied. "I'm saying I'm having a hard time imagining how one gamma managed to meet all these victims, even if a statistically significant number of them have some connection to alternative religion."
Hafidha snorted. "You make it sound like acupuncture. You don't think we've got multiple bogeys?"
Reyes's hands closed on the table edge, not hard. Daphne thought an effort lay behind his gentleness. "Your evolving-anomaly theory?"
Hafidha tipped her head from side to side, making her braids swing. "I'm just trying to be open to the possibilities, kemo sabe. Thinking outside the box. In any case, I don't think we have enough data yet."
Bowls of guacamole, sour cream, melted cheese, and more salsa began arriving on the table, and a plate of nachos the size of an ocean liner made port in front of Hafidha. Daphne tucked her hands under the edge of the tablecloth so she could twist them in her lap, out of sight. Hafidha waved her tablemates in to contribute to the destruction of the nachos, but Daphne found her appetite abruptly fled.
Which also made her think of Chaz. Which removed any possibility that she might regain said appetite in the near future. She pushed her plate away and pretended to scratch her chest, pressing the pendant hard against bone.
"Or maybe we have too much data," Todd said. "No conclusions, anyway."
"Nothing so far," Reyes said. "But tomorrow, I think we start on the book stores."
Brady grimaced down the briefing closet table to Lau, who in turn raised her eyebrows at Falkner. "Okay," Lau said. "So we've got a black magic gamma."
"Argh." Brady rubbed his eyes. "Earworm." He wondered what the radio presets were on that stranded Audi. If he had a few minutes' down time, he could call the number on the business card he'd tucked under the corner of his blotter to dry. Chrissake. Earth to Brady. Focus.
"Sorry," Lau said. "Didn't think."
Falkner, back pressed to the wall, steepled her hands in front of her face. "Got a guess at a manifestation?"
"It's all small shit," Brady said, flipping pages. "Frayed insulation, broken glass, distracted drivers. Gravity. There's no consistent mechanism. It's not like we've got to worry about somebody throwing lightning bolts or balls of fire. Not that that would be sustainable anyway. You might get a burner in breakthrough, but I don't think they could live through it, and this has been going on a long time."
Lau nibbled polish off the edge of her thumbnail. "What if his manifestation is just...luck? Good luck, bad luck. Really, really, really bad luck."
"Weird luck. We have one of those," Brady said. "And Duke's not an a-- not a jammer."
"No," Falkner agreed. She stood away from the wall, hands fisted in the small of her back. For a moment, Brady's profiler-brain kicked in, and he imagined the pain she'd endured while pregnant. No wonder the second kid was adopted.
He shook his head. She cocked hers at him with birdlike interest. "You disagree, Special Agent?"
"No," he said, looking down. "Just shaking off an unproductive chain of thought. Duke's not a jammer. He's just a locus of coincidences."
Falkner nodded agreement. "Excuse the digression. Nikki, please finish your thought."
"What I was thinking was, what if a gamma could affect somebody else's luck? Change it for the absolute worst?" Lau hesitated, but managed to get herself around the words and squeeze them out. "Hex people."
"You think it's something that isn't distance limited?"
"Witchcraft doesn't rely on proximity," Lau said. "The mythology supports a remote effect."
Brady reached for his coffee mug, an excuse to sit silent while the implications worked themselves out in his head. "That would be bad," he said, when he had swallowed.
Mutely, fingers twitching as if she wanted to reach for a tool or a weapon, Lau nodded. She needed to do something about it, and that was Lau all over--the anchor detail of a complex character. Brady felt a rush of affection for her and looked at Falkner so he wouldn't give it away with a smile.
Falkner was frowning at Lau. "Call Reyes. Tell him bullets won’t work on this gamma."
Lau didn't say oh shit, but her face said it for her, lips stretching flat in a scowl of dismay almost worthy of Chaz. "Too much can go wrong with a gun," she said.
Brady sucked in a hard breath. "Christ on a polo pony. We're fighting Murphy's Law."
Daphne disconnected the call from Reyes and looked over to Hafidha, who was driving. A slow desert sunset unwound across the dusty sky to the west, staining the tan earth and pale roofs of Las Cruces pink as a fresh scar. "Did you follow that from my end, or do you need a recap?"
Hafs glanced over. "If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all. Something like that?"
"Expect the worst," Daphne said.
Even in profile, she could see Hafidha's smile. "I always do, Sis. You're not paranoid if they are out to get you."
The storefront was just wide enough for a glass door and a little display window, both trimmed in blue enamel, and the sign over them that read "Libreria de San Juan." In the window, a carved and painted wooden saint smiled stiffly above the covers of a handful of books--Hildegard of Bingen's Spiritual Remedies. Leyendas de la Santeria. Tarot of the Saints. Prayers and Rituals for Catholic Families. Meditation for Manifesting--and CDs--Guadelupe, Virgen de los Indios. Big Medicine. Immortal Fire: Music for Female Saints.
Todd had a sudden itch (of which he was only a little ashamed) to ask Reyes if he was going to be okay in there. He held the door open instead.
The man unpacking a box on the counter beside the cash register looked like a retired Viking, with blue eyes, scorched-tan skin, and receding faded blond hair that brushed his collar. He looked up at the ping of the door and smiled, and Todd saw the white band at the collar of his short-sleeved shirt.
"Can I help you find something?" The priest sounded as if he meant exactly that, rather than, You'd better not be planning to waste my time.
Todd was careful not to flip his ID open in tandem with Reyes. Reminding witnesses of Men in Black tended to set the wrong tone for an interview.
"I'm Special Agent Reyes. This is Special Agent Todd. We're from the FBI."
The priest stared at them in an instant of blank, arrested movement. "Sorry," he said. "I was just searching my conscience for unauthorized video duplication. I'm Father Jay Monaghan." He thrust out his right hand to Reyes, who shook it, and then to Todd. It was large and dry, and the fingers and palm were calloused.
"Did you find any?" Todd couldn't resist asking.
"There, at least, I think I'm without sin. What can I do for you?"
Reyes slid the victim photos from the greater Las Cruces area out of the leather envelope case under his arm and fanned them on the counter. "Do you recognize any of these people?"
As Monaghan studied the photos, Todd stepped back to consider the shop.
It was as narrow as the front suggested, but deep. Two mismatched tables hugged by equally unrelated chairs drew a line down the middle of the floor. The shelves reached to the ceiling on every unbroken wall, studded with labels printed on the store's computer. Palatino, thought Todd, the curse of the information age. But they were readable from where he stood. Lives of the Saints, Women's Spirituality, Native Religions, Church History, Prayer and Meditation, Ritual, Theology, Eastern Religions, Earth-Centered Religion, Wellness, Psychology, Mysticism. Fiction (Shelved by Author). Todd noticed that divine intervention didn't do a better job than Barnes & Noble of producing a set of easily-distinguished categories.
The space between the display window and the front door served as a notice board, and it fluttered with ads for services, flyers for events. AA and NA meetings--a long list, given the size of Las Cruces. A Course in Miracles. Prayer Circle for Peace. Reiki healing. Santa Rosa de Lima pancake breakfast fundraiser.
"I'm sorry," Father Monaghan said at last. "This one--" He touched the photo of Lucas Castro lightly, left index finger to the dead man's shoulder. Castro had been fatally stabbed when a rifle with bayonet fixed, part of his collection of Nazi memorabilia, fell from the wall of his den. "--I might have seen him, but I'm not sure."
"Part of your congregation, maybe?" Reyes asked.
Monaghan smiled. "I'm semi-retired. I let younger, sturdier folks celebrate mass and offer communion these days, so I'm not face-to-face with parishioners much. But it could be." He put his fingertip to the photo again, this time outside Castro's image. "He looks like he has a hard life."
"Not anymore." The bland good-nature in Reyes's voice made Todd glance his way before he could stop himself. Maybe we should have had that little talk outside the door after all. "His death was ruled an accident, but the circumstances were suspicious."
Monaghan's lips moved, and his right hand sketched a small, quick cross on his body. He must have noticed how closely Reyes and Todd watched him; he raised one shoulder, an embarrassed shrug. "The older I get, the less comfortable I am with mortality. You'd think it would be the other way around."
"It's only a return to God," Reyes said.
Monaghan cocked his head and narrowed his eyes. Where had Todd seen that before? He had to bite the inside of his mouth to keep from laughing when he realized Reyes did it, questioning witnesses, before pouncing on an inconsistency in a story.
Monaghan asked, "When the FBI sends you out to investigate, are you content to come home with no answers and your work half-done?"
"What is your work, then?"
"Like most people, I'm not sure. A vocation isn't a to-do list. It's a way to do God's work, not the work itself."
"So you run this place," Todd offered. If this was going to be a good cop/bad cop story, it was time he added some dialogue. "For a Catholic book shop, it's pretty...eclectic."
"Conservatives in the diocese use a different word," Monaghan replied, straight-faced. "But as soon as you declare some areas of thought off-limits, you can't talk about them. People will still seek them out. They just won't discuss them with you. And if they don't, how can you point out the universality of God and redemption through actions?"
"That's a lot to get across at the cash register."
Monaghan waved toward the tables and chairs. "You should see this place on book club nights. Pretty lively for a little burg."
Todd could feel the information change shape in his head, just as it did when he was researching a story and the facts reached sufficient mass to show where their edges touched. Meetings. Book clubs. One gamma... "How often do you host events, and what kind?"
"Several different book discussion groups each month. Saturday workshops. Story time for kids. Book signings, when we can get them. We try to stock regional books, so there's an incentive for New Mexico and Arizona writers to visit, at least. We had a great workshop last month on ritual mask-making, led by a woman down from Taos." Monaghan grimaced. "Called for a bit of cleanup after, though."
Reyes was at Todd's shoulder. He'd caught the lead, too, and Todd could feel him taut and vibrating as a compass needle. "Do you have a list of your events?"
"For the month?"
"Ideally," Reyes said drily, "for the past seven years."
Monaghan blinked. "One of the kids in the work-study program set us up with a public Google calendar...two years ago, it would have been. Before that, I'd have to go through the files..." He looked over his shoulder at a four-drawer file cabinet with scratched black paint and one drawer out of true. His expression suggested finding anything in it might be a heroic job. "May I ask why you want to know?"
"We're investigating a series of murders over the past seven years. We think the killer may be making contact with the victims through local...spiritual groups. Three individuals who were acquainted with people on our list of victims have made credit-card purchases here."
"I knew I should have stuck to cash and checks," Monaghan muttered. He jerked his gaze up to Reyes's bird-of-prey stare and grimaced: Did I say that out loud? "Sorry again. I come from a long line of Irish Catholics. The anti-authoritarian baggage is part of the heritage."
Reyes let him sweat in the headlights for another second before he said, "Let's start with the calendar. Then, if you don't object, Agent Todd and I can help find the records we're looking for." His mouth twitched, one-sided, and Todd thought, Yes, I'm Document Guy. Thanks for the vote of confidence. If I don't retire soon, I'm going to die of chronic paper cuts.
Monaghan crouched and tucked a slab of blank sheets awkwardly into the printer shelved below the counter. Then he turned to the yellowed keyboard and almost-new monitor on a folding patio table behind him. "Printer's kind of slow," he said. A grunt, before he added, "And so am I. I might have to print these one at a... Wait, what does this do--"
While Monaghan clicked at his mouse, Todd sidled over to take a better look at the flyers on the notice board. This was a community nexus, from the looks of it, not just for inquisitive Catholics, but for the neighborhood. He spotted a business card advertising custom sewing and alterations, and another offering licensed child care. And a slightly larger notice, with a fringe of tear-off phone numbers on the bottom, that read, "Prayer is Powerful! We join our hearts & souls to ask for blessings. Why not yours? In numbers there is MIRACLES!" Todd winced at the grammar and tore off a phone number slip.
The printer made chunking, grinding sounds, but, however reluctantly, produced printout. Behind Todd, Reyes said, "As I recall, the author objects strongly to the Church's actions in the Southwest."
Todd turned to find Reyes holding up a hardcover. On the Bloody Road to Jesus: Christianity and the Chiricahua Apaches. A good cover: in vernacular style, a painting of an Apache man on a cross.
Monaghan peered at it and nodded. "And those of other Christian denominations. She's right." He scooped pages out of the printer tray and added, "The Church isn't Christ. It's a community of men and women, with all our flaws and sins."
"I bet your bishop loves you."
Monaghan grinned. "Why do you think I'm semi-retired?"
Jesuits and troublemakers, Todd reflected. A thorn in the Church's side since-- He couldn't remember the date of the first suppression of the Jesuits. Chaz would remember.
That, of course, made grief and fear and anger rise like a bubble of poison in his guts. He pushed them down and said, "Hand me a few feet of the contents of that filing cabinet, and I'll get started on the paper records."
Monaghan struggled with the off-kilter drawer first. Under cover of the rattling, Todd leaned toward Reyes and muttered, "So, did you learn your interrogation style in catechism class?"
Reyes gave him nothing more than a raised eyebrow, but Todd was satisfied.
Daphne stuffed her map of the Las Cruces crime scenes back in her bag, and dropped it into the passenger-side footwell in front of her. No particular correlation of scenes or victim residences with any of the bookstores; Las Cruces was too damned small, too easy to drive across to get what you wanted.
"I turned up something we can use while you were on the phone." Hafidha said, patting the closed laptop on the console beside her.
"I wish you wouldn't Internets and drive."
Hafidha tossed purple-streaked braids. "Pshaw. Nonsense! Do you want to hear it?"
Daphne spread her hands. Of course she did.
Hafidha said, "Three years back, Las Cruces had a witchcraft scare. Desmond Latimer, who is apparently a fire-and-brimstone preacher who will be played by a resurrected James Brown in the movie version, raised a stink after witches of a local coven threatened--get this, in a letter to the editor of the Las Cruces Sun-News--to hex a contractor accused of shoddy building practices that had led to several unprosecuted deaths."
"People actually paid attention to the witches?"
Hafidha snapped with her right hand. "The contractor was Jason Bonneventure. Chain link fence guy."
"Ouch," Daphne said, remembering. He'd been crushed to death under a construction fence when a cement mixer on one of his job sites, uninsured and driven by an unlicensed driver, caught the edge of the chain link and kept going. Unable to resist, she deadpanned, "I guess it made an impression."
Hafidha groaned. "So guess what the name of the high priest of the coven in question was?"
"No, seriously? David Tawayo?"
"The owner of the book store we are en route to," Hafidha confirmed. "None other."
"Think he's our gamma?"
She licked her lips. "I don't think he's not. I think we ought to check out Latimer, too. What's the name of the place again?"
"Silver Wolf Ritual Goods," Daphne said, not bothering to conceal her dismay. "Should be off to the left."
"I see it." Hafidha hit the blinker and waited for a break in traffic, giving Daphne time to lean forward and check out the L-shaped yellow-and-orange strip mall with its much-patched parking lot. The pagan bookstore was in the dogleg of the building, low-angled evening sun sliding under the overhang to illuminate its door and sign.
Hafidha parked the suburban assault vehicle. When she and Daphne opened the doors and stepped down, Daphne thought she shut the door a little harder than necessary. "You okay?"
Hafidha nodded. "Just not looking forward to this. You know how I feel about the woo-woo everything-is-interconnected shit."
"Unhappy," Daphne guessed.
Hafidha grinned at her through braids like a beaded curtain, patting the grip of her Glock. "It's so unscientific."
Daphne got the door, silver metal handle wrapped in a grubby white towel so it wouldn't burn unwary hands, and followed Hafidha inside to the chime of Tibetan bells. It smelled like a pagan bookstore, all right, musty with mingled aromas of frankincense, sage, joss sticks, and dragon's blood. A thin pall of smoke snaked along the ceiling tiles, layering a bitter tang of copal over everything.
Just inside the doorway, Hafidha sneezed. "Smells like a head shop in here," she said softly, so Daphne had to fake a sneeze too or burst out laughing.
A trim dark-bearded white man behind the counter looked up. The store wasn't big, but Daphne didn't think Hafidha's comment had been loud enough to carry over the Tuvan throat singing that played from speakers mounted on the wall behind him. There was one other person in the store, a brown-haired female customer thumbing through a slim red-bound paperback over by the CD-packed bookshelf that served as the music department.
"Welcome," the counterman said as they came forward through a series of gateways formed by glass-shelved display cases.
Daphne brushed past Hafidha and strode forward, secure in the knowledge that her partner had her flank. "David Tawayo?"
"Hello," she said, producing her ID folder. "I'm Special Agent Worth. This is Special Agent Gates. FBI. We'd like to ask you a couple of questions."
She'd expected him to withdraw, to fold up into himself and extrude spines of wariness. She hadn't expected the slam of a suddenly closed expression or the way he physically leaned away from the counter when she approached, and she filed it away for later consideration. He lifted his chin and kept his hands on the counter when she extended the folder, but he did look down his nose to inspect it in a manner that told her he was wearing bifocals. He checked Hafidha's ID carefully, too, glancing from the photo to her face and back again.
It was always nicer when they'd shake your hand, but at least he hadn't bolted for the back door.
"Sure, I'd be happy to help," he said in a tone that could not have made the polite fiction any plainer. "But I'm not sure what I know that could interest the FBI."
"We're investigating the death of one of your customers," Daphne said. "Norma Cassidy. Do you remember her?"
His mouth worked. She could feel Hafidha stepping back, widening her arc of control to include the book-flipping customer. Tawayo had glanced over at the customer, and Daphne's peripheral vision had caught enough movement to tell her that the customer had looked up from her book.
"Norma was a regular," he said. "She died from an infection, though. I never heard there was anything else to it."
His voice went up at the end involuntarily, as if he were asking a question. A thrill chased up Daphne's neck, lifting the fine hairs of her nape. She fought the urge to smooth them with her hand, converting the gesture to slide her folder back into the pocket of her gray blazer.
Jackpot, she thought. When a sideways glance at Hafidha netted her a nod, she decided to push her luck.
She smiled and said, "We have reason to believe it might have been linked to the death of Jason Bonneventure."
Tawayo rolled his eyes. "You don't need to look any farther than his own negligence for that."
Daphne smiled. "Pretty poetic justice, wouldn't you say?"
Tawayo looked down. "Whatever you do comes back to you threefold," he said. "That doesn't just apply to ritual, Agent Worth. It applies to how we live in the world. Everything you do is magic. Do as thou wilt, an it harm none, sure. But there are other laws as well. We're not Christians. Ours is not a religion of victims. We allow for self-defense. But I wouldn't expect you to understand that."
She let her hands rest at her sides, non-threatening. And, incidentally, brushing her holster. She really wanted to reach inside her collar and lift Chaz's pendant out, just to see what his eyes would do, but instead she nodded. "I would expect somebody who was publicly calling for hexes to be more along the lines of Do as thou wilt is the whole of the law."
"A witch who can't curse cannot heal," he said, eyeing her. "But casting hexes isn't illegal. It's prayer. Hecate's justice cannot be legislated."
The first sentence was Z. Budapest, and it surprised her a little that a man had read the work of such an outspokenly feminist witch--or perhaps he'd only heard it quoted. But Daphne had read that last sentence somewhere too, and knew it was also a quote from the radical end of Wicca. She'd have Hafidha Google it as soon as they hit the door.
"We're not here to arrest you," she said. "We're just looking into the deaths. Do you know of anyone else associated with the local pagan community who might have hated both people enough to make arrangements for them to die?"
"The deaths were accidental." He folded his arms.
Footsteps and the rustle of paper as a book closed told Daphne that the customer was coming closer. Hafidha swung sideways, so Daphne had the door and Hafidha had both interviewees, and Daphne simultaneously took a long step back.
"I'm Emily," the customer said. "Emily Davenport. I couldn't help but overhear."
We planned it that way, Daphne thought. But rather than speak, she just nodded.
Davenport addressed Tawayo, not the agents. "So if you believe a hex will work, and you perform it, aren't you just as guilty as if you pulled a trigger?"
"Then why did you come?" he asked. "You helped. You were there. You believed that what we were doing was necessary."
Davenport looked over at Daphne. Her eyes were medium-brown, flecked darker around the irises, very earnest under untweezed brows. "Norma was my ex," she said, straightening her spine. "I knew what she was doing to Beth and Beth's kids because I know what she did to me. And I was there when we hexed her, and it was me who got in touch with the priestess who helped us. I did what I did because it was the best choice I had. But it was done in sorrow, David."
He snorted, but he didn't meet her eye. Daphne, however, caught Hafidha's. Hafidha stepped forward and said the first words she'd uttered since they entered. "Priestess?"
"Morgan Creirwy," Davenport said. "The writer. She's an awesome priestess, and she...helps...covens that need her. I know we raised power that night, the night we cursed Norma. I was exhausted afterwards."
"Morgan Creirwy," Daphne echoed, abruptly remembering the source of the quote about Hecate's justice. "Thank you, Ms. Davenport. Do you have a card? We'll probably want to ask some followup questions."
Silently, Davenport reached into her pocket and pulled out a silver card case. The card she extracted proclaimed her a lawyer for a local domestic violence shelter. Daphne, with a glance at her face, decided neither she nor Tawayo were likely to be a flight risk, especially since they were correct. They hadn't done anything illegal.
She gave them each her card in return, and brought Hafidha blinking out into the still-bright sun, which shone directly in their eyes when she opened the door.
"Why did we bail?" Hafidha asked. "I thought the interview was going well."
"Creirwy's the gamma," Daphne said. "I've read her work. I'll bet you a dill pickle from the good Jewish deli it's her." She halted just as the door clicked behind her. "Shit, I need to go back in and buy one of her books--"
"Don't bother," Hafidha said, striding ahead. "I'll get them off Amazon Search Inside."
"I need a signed one," Daphne said. "I'll be right back. But yeah, get the rest."
It took three minutes, during which not a single word was spoken, and Tawayo was obviously surprised when she whipped out her expense-account card and paid. Back at the SUV, Daphne clutched the crinkling paper bag to her chest.
"Crap," she said. "They recruited a contract murderer. A magical hit man. A gamma for hire."
"Harm none and do as thou wilt," Hafidha said, jingling the keys. "Come on. While you were away, the intertubes told me Ms. Welsh Goddess lives not too far from here."
Daphne scorched her fingers on the door handle when she reached for it. She tried again with her sleeve wrapped over her fingers and had better luck. "Ceridwen was the goddess," she said, swinging into the SUV. "Creirwy was her beautiful daughter."
"Because that's so much less presumptuous. Call Reyes. Tell him to meet us there."
Because it was only Daphne in the car, Hafidha didn't bother with her earpiece. Daphne knew she hadn't needed it for months, but in public it kept people from treating her like a schizophrenic.
Hafidha said, "El Jefe must be in a dead spot. It's going to voicemail. Let me try Spooky Mulder--"
The sun had dipped behind the horizon, but the sky was still soaked in light. Daphne didn't look up from skimming pages on Hafidha's laptop. Once-familiar words evoked vivid memories of sharp incense and the dry whir of cheap paper against her fingertips. Candelight, laughter, wine sipped from a passed cup. The first girl she'd ever kissed.
Somewhere, in a drawer, she still had her athame.
Creirwy's back-cover author photo showed a stern woman in her early thirties, nose and jawline precise as origami. Her blonde hair was parted in the center and draped forward over one shoulder, tied at intervals in a style that suggested Victorian paintings of Medieval subjects. She wore a wide, low v-neck and no jewelry to interrupt the pale skin it showed. Daphne was fairly sure it was the photo from the first of Creirwy's books she'd read.
She found a passage she remembered and read aloud. "'The so-called Threefold Law is patriarchal Gardnerian bullshit, meant to keep witches powerless and harmless. Our foremothers had no threefold law. They brought Hecate's justice down on those who deserved it. Let those who have something to fear, fear us.' Yup. That sounds like the Morgan Creirwy I remember."
Across the console, Hafidha said, "Hey, Duke. We have a tentative ID on our gamma. Morgan Creirwy. She's on Highway 28, Dona Ana Road. Check your Crackberry when we're done. I forwarded the essentials. Yeah, she's a--oh, you know who she is?"
Daphne winced. Of course he did. He was Duke, after all.
There was a longish pause, and then Hafidha said, "Oh really."
Hafidha ended the call. "They were under six tons of paper at the Sufferin' Jesus Shoppe, but they're on the way. And get this: Duke says he met her, years ago. Says she's quote-unquote the water-tower shooter type. He also says she's done book signings there twice, and that: Writers do book tours. Regional writers do regional book tours. And they do them to promote new books."
"...checking the publication dates against the strings of deaths now," Daphne said. A moment later she looked up. It felt portentous, and she tried to lighten her voice so she didn't sound like a bad melodrama when she said, "Confirmed."
Aside from an occasional glance at the GPS, Todd kept his eyes on the road. He was silent, his dismayed scowl smoothing out into the familiar thoughtful mask that gave away nothing.
Reyes waited. Finally Todd sighed and said, "If Lau's right, we can't catch this one alive, Steve."
Of all the people he worked with, Reyes meant least to yank Sol Todd's chain. But it was a reflex, one he wasn't proud of, and sometimes even when he did catch himself in time he couldn't resist it. "Can't?"
Todd licked his lips. "Won't. For safety's sake, probably shouldn't even try. And if we did catch her, we couldn't keep her. You think Bloody Larry is bad--"
Reyes kept his face turned toward the road unscrolling before them. He folded his hands around the paper cup of bad tea in his lap and said, "I've been thinking about the implications for a while now, Sol. And don't forget, all we have is a hunch."
"S.W.A.G.," Todd said. "Scientific wild-ass guess. But it is scientific, and if you and Nikki came up with the same conclusion independently, I'm inclined to trust it. Which means, if you're right, that we have one hell of a monster on our hands."
Reyes lifted his teacup to shield his mouth. "Why do you think I made sure you came along for the ride?"
Todd didn't flinch, nor did his eyes narrow. He just nodded, and kept his attention on driving.
"According to her Wikipedia entry," Hafidha said, "Creirwy was repeatedly raped by her stepfather growing up. Who the hell puts that on the internet?"
"Primary crack," Daphne agreed. She was still skimming text on Hafidha's laptop, ignoring the fact that Hafidha was apparently checking Wikipedia without recourse to a machine. "There's a bunch of reasons to publicize a history of abuse, Hafs. Silence equals death, remember? There's no shame in being a victim."
"Ouch," Hafidha said. "I feel like I just got handed a C in Feminism 101. Okay, snark retracted. Secondary crack? I can't read while I pass this semi."
The lights flashing behind the grille at least made the semi pull over to rumble along the shoulder while they sailed past, half in the oncoming lane. Without looking up, Daphne waved thanks to the driver. He dimmed his lights behind them in acknowledgment. Polite drivers in this part of the world. "Death of her lover about eight years ago."
"Let me guess. Freak accident."
"Better," Daphne replied. "Killed in an SUV rollover in which Creirwy was also injured. Corporate malfeasance suit dismissed. I just found obituaries for the judge that heard the case and the owner of the dealership that sold the car. Freak--"
"--accidents." Hafidha slid back into the proper lane and slapped the blinker off. Windows bloomed open on the laptop screen. "Take a look at those satellite shots of Creirwy's house. Do you see what I see?"
The satellite photos showed an isolated L-shaped structure huddled behind a tatty windbreak of pines, a tumbledown shed alongside, a dusty compact car pulled up in the gravel driveway. Some acres seemed to be fenced, but the fence ran off the shot, and there was no sign of livestock.
"Yeah," Daphne said. "We're not going to be able to sneak up on her. We should coordinate with Todd and Reyes: they're going to come from the other side, and they could just drive in cross-country. Do you think David the not-a-Hopi is off the phone with her yet?"
"Tawayo? I think it's pretty safe to assume he warned her, yeah."
"So she's working on her hex right now."
Hafidha ducked down to look up under the edge of the roof, and Daphne wondered if she was judging the graying sky.
"We've got a lot of light left," Daphne said.
Hafidha grunted. It sounded like agreement. "We're about three minutes out." She steered the SUV to the side of the highway and put it in park. "A brief pause for investiture."
Daphne had already turned around to get their ballistic gear out of the back. Hafidha scooped her hair back into a scrunchie and accepted the blue nylon body armor, tendons showing in her wrist as she took the weight.
Wordlessly, Daphne also handed her a Snickers bar. Hafidha grinned and ripped it open with her teeth.
"Hafs," Daphne said, disconnecting her seatbelt so she could yank her own gear on more conveniently, "I need Creirwy's birth name. Can you get that for me?"
"Ten seconds ago," Hafidha said. "Poor kid. She was born Pamela Priscilla Pocatello. Parents, parents. Just say no to alliterative names. Seatbelt, Sis?"
"Seatbelt," Daphne said, sealing it with a click.
While Hafidha spoke softly to the air, informing Reyes and Todd of their ETA to coordinate the raid, Daphne rummaged in her bag for a pen. She ripped the signed title page out of the copy of The Goddess of War she'd purchased, wincing over mutilating a book, and tossed the bulk of its corpse between the seats.
Balancing the paper on her knee, she wrote her own name and Hafidha's above the title, then frowned and for good measure added Dr. Stephen Reyes and Solomon Todd. She drew a broad triple circle around the four names, taking care to join the ends, then dove into the back seat again, seeking the bag that held the remains of their fast-food second lunch. From under the burger wrappers, she retrieved two paper tubes of salt and tore one open. The scribbled page having been restructured into an improvised pocket, Daphne sprinkled salt into it and folded the whole thing closed. She sealed it with a band-aid from her bag.
On the outside she wrote Morgan Creirwy and Pamela Priscilla Pocatello.
"We're here," Hafidha said. "What are you doing?"
Daphne held up her hand. "Craft produces change in accordance with will. Hush, please."
Hafidha hushed. Daphne held up her crumpled, improvised ward and spoke to it. "Thrice around the circle round, ill fortune cannot pass this bound. Artemis, Athena, Hecate, I invoke thy protection. Triple Hecate, I invoke thy justice. Hecate, daughter of Asteria, I invoke thy grace. So mote it be."
When she looked up, Hafidha was staring at her. "Woo-woo," she said.
"Hush," Daphne said again, and held up her ward. "It's her mythology."
Hafidha's phone said "This is bat country!" in Johnny Depp's voice. She answered it with a gesture. "Talk, Duke."
Whatever he said was brief. Hafidha looked across the car seat. "They're in position," she said.
Daphne nodded, and pulled Chaz's pendant out to swing and flash over her vest.
"She's not charging enough," Hafidha muttered as they closed in on the house. "Hit men can do better than this." The building was a good example of what UV did to aluminum siding. At least it wasn't a trailer. "How close do we have to get?"
Daphne held up the wad of paper. "She has to be able to see this."
"Not good. She's got a hell of a range."
"Only when she can tap into other people. Remember what Davenport said, about being exhausted afterwards?"
Daphne's mouth twisted. "Well, yeah. But remember the guy in Minnesota who was drawing the body heat out of his victims? Maybe she can leech calories."
"She thinks this works like magic. We think it works like the anomaly. If she's focusing on doing us dirt right now, she's not concentrating on any prearranged booby traps, right? But watch out for actual, physical, non-woo-woo ones."
Daphne shook her head. "Creirwy believes."
"So no 'Say your prayers, but keep your powder dry.'"
"Right. Speaking of which, the shooting part, if it comes to that, is mostly up to you." Daphne held up the paper packet again. "But since she'll expect shooting..."
"Try not to do it." Still, Hafidha felt better with her Glock in both hands and her shoulders against the siding to the left of Creirwy's front door.
Daphne took the right, reached across the frame, and knocked on the alligatored paint. "Morgan Creirwy. This is the FBI. We need to ask you some questions."
"All who intend no harm are welcome here." Creirwy's voice was harsh and rough. Hafidha had expected something plummy, like a television preacher; Creirwy sounded as if she'd swallowed a coarse-grade sanding disk. "It's open."
Daphne turned the knob, and Hafidha pushed the door open on the hinge side.
The space was meant to be a living room. But the rug had been rolled tight and shoved against the far wall, and the furniture piled on top of it. The vinyl mini-blinds were down and tilted shut on the wide window. Despite this, the room was full of wobbling yellowish light--from dozens of candles, in wall sconces, in dishes along the baseboards, on the stacked furniture, in a black iron chandelier in the middle of the ceiling.
The finish was worn off the hardwood floor, which must have made it easier to draw the white chalk circle on it. Eight black pillar candles, burning just inside the chalk, marked what Hafidha knew from a quick consultation with the GPS to be compass points.
The room glittered discreetly. She wondered for an instant about doped candle wax-- No. She was seeing glass jars, each nearly full of clear liquid and lidded, keeping the candles company.
Kerosene. Gasoline. Something smart people didn't keep near fire. An accident waiting to happen.
At the center of the circle a low table--maybe a stool--draped in black satin held an unlit black candle, a black-handled knife, and a litter of things Hafidha couldn't identify.
Behind the table Morgan Creirwy sat cross-legged, a box of blue-tip wooden kitchen matches in her lap.
Her hair was thin, the color of bleached winter grass. She wore a loose, wide-sleeved white robe of some shiny fabric; when it was made, it probably hadn't sagged around her shoulders and collarbones like that. At first sight, Hafidha thought her necklace was mostly shark's teeth, but no, those were moon phases, the full moon at the center, carved from something dark.
Neither the robe nor the necklace could distract anyone from the knotted scar tissue on the left side of her neck and chest. And the scars took a back seat to Creirwy's face, with its fierce, crazed stare. Oh, yes, Duke. Water-tower shooter.
Speak of the Devil--she saw Reyes, with Todd at his shoulder, framed in the passage to the kitchen on the other side of Creirwy's circle. Hafidha watched them catalogue the room and come to the same conclusion she had, watched the blood go out of Todd's face so fast she expected him to fall over.
Hafidha felt her pistol grip slick in her palms. If she tried for a head shot, where would it go? Probability said, into Creirwy's overclocked, broken brain. But probability was Creirwy's friend right now, not theirs. A jar could break. A candle could topple.
The Mythbusters proved a hot slug won't blow up a tank of gas. I hope Creirwy watches Mythbusters.
Hafidha sidled left, away from the door, so Reyes and Todd would be out of her line of fire and vice versa. Todd stayed in her peripheral vision, rock steady, two eyes and a textbook stance and a gun. A sight picture and a finger on the trigger, and at that moment he might have been nothing but a machine constructed to contain those things.
Under the stacked furniture beside Hafidha, something scrabbled. Two round sequins reflecting the candlelight, a hiss: Creirwy had a cat. Well, of course.
"Morgan Creirwy," Reyes said quietly. Creirwy didn't start or look behind her. "We're investigating the deaths of twenty-seven people. We believe you caused them."
Creirwy snorted. "Justice Department. Department of Homeland Security. We make our own security. What government protected us during the Burning Times? Never again. He who raises his hand to us will be struck down." Her scraping, ruined voice sounded human as a synthesizer, echoing off the surfaces of the room.
"Because the Threefold Law is a lie, right?" Daphne took a step closer, armed with nothing but her piece of paper. Candlelight glossed the surface of her obsidian pendant.
Creirwy's eyes narrowed. Nearsighted, Hafidha realized. Shit. "Try to pass that line, and you're all dead. Do you know what a circle of protection is?"
"Yes," said Daphne. She took another step. "But you won't use it to hurt us."
"The hell I won't." Creirwy lifted her hands from her lap, struck the match in her fingers on the side of the box. Light flared, reflected off her chin, and sulfur and phosphorus shouldered the smell of candle wax aside. "Goddess, as I will, so--"
"Guess what Emily Davenport gave me?" said Daphne.
"You helped her get justice for what Norma Cassidy did. Now she's helping me do the same to you." Daphne sounded calm and sure. Hafidha wondered how fast her heart was beating under her vest.
Creirwy's match burned down to her fingertips. She dropped it and lit another, quick as a rattler striking. "She wouldn't hurt me."
"She gave me three hairs from your head. She gave me your signature. And she gave me your birth name."
"She doesn't know my name--"
"Pamela Priscilla Pocatello," Daphne said, her mouth shaping each syllable round and crisp. She took another step and held up her paper packet, showed Creirwy's names written across the band-aid seal. "We're warded against you. Whatever you send us will come straight back at you. You know it's true." Daphne was arm's length from the circle. "Give yourself up and come with us."
Everything happened at once.
Creirwy screamed, a noise like lightning splitting a tree, and thrust her match at the wick of the altar candle. The cat bolted from its hiding place under the furniture, headed for the open door. It scrabbled and slid on the hard floor, knocked one of the jars into the circle. Creirwy lunged to catch it. The glass shattered, and the contents pooled shining between the shards. Kerosene stink, gagging-sweet, filled the room.
Creirwy started back, blood rising in a cut across her palm, her wide sleeve dragging through the mess on the floor. She raised her hand to her face. Her sleeve hem brushed the altar candle.
The shiny synthetic fabric, dipped in kerosene--it might as well have been napalm. Creirwy was dressed in fire, and screaming.
"Shit, shit, shit," Daphne said and hurtled across the circle, shouldering past Reyes and Todd. Hafidha smacked her pistol into its holster. God damn, no drapes, the rug is buried under crap, I don't even have a coat-- She lunged for the kitchen and just missed slamming into Daphne, bolting back into the room dragging a bedspread like a train behind her. "Water," she gasped as she went by.
Todd was at the kitchen sink filling a stockpot. He shoved it at Hafidha and grabbed a plastic mixing bowl out of the drainer.
Hafidha ran to the living room, slopping water, and found Daphne and Reyes snugging the bedspread around Creirwy like a cocoon. Creirwy was still screaming, a breathless whistling shriek, steadily waning. Hafidha soaked as much of the cloth as she could and ran back for Todd's mixing bowl.
By the time she made it back, the fire was only steam and the stench of barbecue, and Daphne hunched over Creirwy while Reyes stood aside, holding scorched hands wide as if he hadn't realized he'd burned them. Creirwy moved weakly, her skin sliding off on Daphne's fingers as Daphne tried to press her hands away from her face. Establishing an airway.
Let her go, Daphs, Hafidha thought. There's no way we can keep this one in a cage.
But that wasn't the way it worked, and behind her Todd was already punching 911.
In the end, it didn't matter. The house was isolated, the response time over fifteen minutes, and the internet, through Hafidha, told them the only certified trauma center in the state of New Mexico was in Albuquerque, a hundred seventy-one miles away.
The former Priscilla Pocatello died in the air, fifty minutes later. Daphne got the news from Reyes, who had flown with her to the hospital, ten minutes after that.
She disconnected the call. Just a movement of her thumb, but it felt like drawing a sheet up over a face.
"She killed herself," Hafidha said, low-voiced but firm. "It was suicide. Like a bomber blowing himself up. She killed herself. That's all."
Daphne lifted her chin and tucked the phone into her pocket. She leaned back against Hafidha's hand on her shoulder, feeling each finger warm and perfect through her shirt. "So if you believe a hex will work, and you perform it, aren't you just as guilty as if you pulled a trigger?"
"You don't believe in hexes, Sis."
"I believe craft can produce change in accordance with will. That magic is about conviction and acting on that conviction. I used my craft--profiling or witchcraft or both--to kill. I take responsibility, Hafs. It's cool." She moved to tuck Chaz's pendant back inside her blouse, now that the armor was off, and thought better of it. It was pretty in the moonlight. Let it shine.
Hafidha squeezed Daphne's shoulder hard before she let it go.
On the Gulfstream, Daphne looked up from a copy of The SUN to find Todd sliding in across the table. He pushed a cup of coffee at her, then settled back with his own, staring out the window with a frown.
She recognized an opening when somebody gave it to her, so she took the coffee and sipped. Not as good as Chaz's, but hot and fresh. "Can I ask you something?"
"Anything." She saw him trying to suppress the grin. It just wasn't working. "I can't promise to answer--"
She laughed. "Believably."
"Hey, what you do with the information is up to you."
"Uh-huh. When we first arrived, in the airport. Who did you call?"
"Oh." He blushed, shook his head. "It was personal."
"New girlfriend? Go you."
"No," he said. "I always call the same person."
A silence, which she didn't fill.
Given time, Todd did the work for her. "My dad."
"How come your dad?"
"Because my luck's going to run out sometime, and I don't see him very much anymore."
He glanced out the window again. Daphne thought about her own father, widowed--like Todd's--and already having lost a son. He didn't approve of her, of her life, of her choices and who she was.
And yet suddenly her fingers itched for her cell phone.
She was pulling it out when Todd said, "Thank you, Daphs."
He pushed his coffee mug back and forth with his fingertips. "I'm not just Paper Trail Guy, you know."
"I know." She made a face. "Is it presumptuous to say I'm okay that it didn't have to be you or Hafs, this time?"
"It's not presumptuous."
She looked down at her hands. "Does it ever get easy?"
He shrugged. "Depends on if you're the kind of person those sorts of things get easy for." He stood up, collecting his coffee cup, and started to turn away. "Go ahead and make that call before we're on the runway."
She pulled out the phone, but her thumb hovered over the pad. She put it on the table in front of her and looked up. He was still standing there. She wanted something from him, his benediction, his acceptance into a terrible brotherhood. Something. Something maybe she'd wanted from her father, too, but she had a better chance of getting it from Todd.
"Am I that sort of person, Sol?"
He didn't speak, at first. But when she settled back in the chair, arms folded across her chest, he shook his head and looked her in the eye. "No. For you, it's never going to get easy."
When he left, she picked up the phone.