2.08 "Not Alone" - by Holly Black, Elizabeth Bear, Emma Bull, & Chelsea Polk
"We are born alone, we live alone, we die alone." -- Orson WellesAct I | Act II | Act III | Act IV | Act V
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
Work the steps. That's what they tell you, and even though it's hard it's better than the other way. It's better than the craving gnawing at your belly. It's better than the aching sickness and the fog and your kids crying because they found you passed out on the floor in your own vomit.
The leader's hand is sweaty when he clasps yours as you enter the church basement. There was a time when he would have asked about your daughter, but not anymore. You have new members and only one leader to go around. And there are so many steps for him to guide you through.
You surrender. You are powerless. You surrender.
You scoot your chair into the circle and wipe your hands against your pants. No matter how many times you wash your hands, you still feel like they're dirty. You concentrate on the coffee cake and bright Jello salads and ham sandwiches piled on the table near the urn of bubbling coffee that you'll eat once the meeting is done. In your car, you've got a tray of sugar cookies carefully cut into the shapes of stars and laden with sprinkles. Your stomach cramps just thinking of all the food. Your fingers twitch.
You look around the circle, waiting for the final prayer. It frightens you, but at least you're not alone. By the time the hymn starts, your voice soars with the others. Together, it's harder for all the noise of the world to drown out your voices. Harder to be sucked back down into darkness. Together, you will be heard all the way up in heaven.
Sure and high and bright, like an arrow shot into the sun.
Holy, holy, holy.
J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington, D. C. May 2009
If anyone had asked her--which, of course, they never did--Nicolette Lau would have said she made so many visits to the pistol range in the sub-dungeons of the Hoover Building because her team expected her to keep her skills honed. In fact, she went there to relax.
Shooting required absolute focus on her body, the target, and her immediate surroundings; it was the ultimate exercise of Be Here Now. Distractions upstairs in the sprawl of offices and meeting rooms and hallways, and particularly the corner where the Anomalous Crimes Task Force did its work, had to be left outside the sound-buffer door. She liked to come in early enough to have the range to herself. Isolated in her earmuffs and behind her shooting glasses, pushing herself to fire, reacquire her sight picture, and fire again as fast as she could while keeping her grouping tight and centered in the chest of the man-shaped target, she could push away everything that worried her.
She'd been getting in a lot of pistol practice in the last few months.
When she stepped into the aisle behind the shooting bays and saw that someone had arrived before her, she squashed a burst of irritation. When she realized the highly-reflective head under the tactical hearing protection belonged to BAU Unit Chief Victor Celentano, it turned neatly into what Chaz and Daphne referred to as an Emotionally Complex Response.
Celentano looked up from examining the slide on his pistol and saw Lau before she could decide whether she wanted him to. He was in his shirtsleeves, his tie loosened; the overhead lighting made the white cotton sateen and gray-on-gray silk glow, and the pale hair on his forearms glittered like metal. "Special Agent Lau," he said. He sounded cautious, which silenced her doubts. He damned well ought to be.
Sometimes the universe gave you a parking spot, a break in the weather, a chance for a private chat with the superior officer you'd been trying to corner. It rarely gave you a second one. "Sir. I wanted to talk to you about the Hope Mitchell case."
Celentano let his eyebrows rise a little and ridge his forehead. But the fraction of a second before he did it told Lau he was vulnerable, and knew it. "Could we save this discussion for later in the day, in my office? Or were you thinking of this as a symbolically appropriate spot?" Someone else's eyes might squint and show laugh lines. Celentano's pale gaze was like a pin through a preserved insect, even when he was making a joke.
"Later in the day you're not in your office, sir. At least, not to...everyone. Why did you give the order to pull Mitchell out of ACTF custody?"
Celentano drew himself up--possibly out of instinct, though Lau doubted it--and looked down his nose at her, there below his chin. A Great Dane contemplating a Shih Tzu. She was aware, as he meant her to be, of the breadth of his shoulders and chest, the strength and agility in the long fingers that cradled his unloaded gun. His body language wasn't a threat; just a statement of fact. Then he turned back to his bay and his target and his box of ammo on the counter, dismissing her with a view of his profile. "I don't answer to you, Agent Lau."
Little dogs never quit. "No, sir. But you expect me to do my job. Part of that job is making sure the necessary information passes both ways through my team, so they and the rest of the BAU can support each other's mission." Wow. Miss Junior Air Force. She swept the recognition to one side. Later. Focus on the target.
"And you can't do that without knowing the basis for my decision?" Celentano methodically loaded his magazine.
"Two of your agents and a pair of local EMTs died. Hope Mitchell escaped, and was later found dead. Right now, your guys would like to know how my team let this happen. We're supposed to be responsible for people like Mitchell. As far as they're concerned, we let them down and got two of theirs killed."
Celentano laid the half-full magazine beside his pistol and turned to face her, his hands braced behind him on the counter edge. "And you know this how?"
"Because I ride up in the elevator with them every day," Lau fired back. Anger heated her face. "They need to be able to trust us, and we need to know they're not holding a grudge."
"And how do you suggest I get that across? An inter-departmental meeting? Agent Lau, who I do answer to is the Assistant Director, and the Director, and a hell of a lot of people in the Justice Department. Do you think I wasn't called to account for the deaths of two agents in an agency with a damned low casualty rate?"
He'd made the call, and two agents had died. It ached like a wound. She could see it in his mouth, thin-lipped and folded closed at the end of his question, in the involuntary tiny spasm of a cheek muscle that needed to relax and couldn't, in the opening and closing of his fingers, white-knuckled, on the table edge. He called it a professional failure because the personal one would be too much to bear.
It didn't wipe away Lau's anger. But she remembered the horrible weight of that awareness: your mistake, other people's lives. "Sir, why did you give that order? We had Mitchell in custody. We had her trust, we understood her mythology and were already working with it. We thought we had the situation under control." We thought we had your trust.
Celentano took a breath that swelled the barrel of his chest and made his glossy cotton shirt pull snug, and let it out at a measured rate. "I did it because no one wants me up before the Senate Finance Committee, explaining how the BAU comes to have a budget line item for chasing Stephen King villains."
Lau felt her eyebrows pull together as she worked her way back through that. "Retired FBI agent found murdered, supervisory agent missing, DC area crime scenes--bogey on the news radar? I thought reporters just worked off the press releases nowadays."
Celentano snorted. "I hear cynicism kicks in younger every year. Mitchell was a high-profile collar. If I left her with the WTF, someone was going to notice whose handcuffs were on her. Then they'd check to see who'd been in those cuffs the last time, and where that suspect disappeared to, and the one before that... I had to break the connection between Mitchell and your team."
She stared into Celentano's face, looking for tells. She thought he was speaking the truth, or at least, most of it. "Move along, nothing to see here, we're just regular ol' profilers and field agents."
Celentano nodded--and relaxed, unless she missed her guess. "Luckily, there's only one Solomon Todd, and he's on our side."
Lau realized she'd brushed her suit jacket back from her hips and hung her thumbs in her trouser pockets. Aggressive nonchalance. "Wonder what the media would say if they knew we weren't on their side?"
He was turning back to his shooting bay; understanding reached, conversation over. That froze him in mid-motion. "In the ACTF's case, we're not. You know that."
"Is a low profile important enough that we should buy it with four--no, five--lives?"
Celentano picked up the magazine in front of him, held it up to the overhead light, put it down. Then he swung back to face her, shoulders up and chin tucked, like a bull that had charged the red cape and missed, and wasn't going to miss again. "I see the Reyes charisma has made another convert. You know, don't you, Special Agent Lau, that the longer you stay with the ACTF, the less likely it is that you'll ever move on?"
He used her rank and her name. He would remember this conversation, and what it meant.
"Thank you, sir. I'm glad we had this talk." Lau didn't smile, because he didn't expect her to. She nodded, as if bowing from the neck up, and went on down to the last bay of the row. There she slid the Taurus from its holster, checked the magazine, clipped a target to the carrier, and ran it out to 50 yards.
And thought the sentence she hadn't said aloud to Celentano: What makes you think I want to move on?
Lau looked around at her team and, by an effort of will, kept her mouth relaxed. She closed the door to the briefing room. It was cold in here, but now that they were together it would warm up.
Stephen Reyes sat stiffly upright in his chair that faced the door. His short-cropped hair had always been dusted with silver, but now the grey seemed more pronounced, though the new scars creeping through it were fading. Chaz Villette sat next to Daphne Worth, a little smudge of doughnut glaze on the corner of his mouth. He had his file spread out, studying the photographs inside. Daniel Brady, directly across from Chaz, leaned back on the chair he'd turned around to sit like a saddle.
Hafidha Gates had dropped down next to Lau, sunken eyes on the screen of her phone as her thumb moved improbably fast over the keys. Finished, she dropped the thing into her googly-eyed monster laptop bag. Danny gave that a glance, but let it go, passing Solomon Todd--Duke--a case folder, then one to Esther Falkner, on his left and behind. Esther lightly touched Brady's shoulder. Duke cradled his coffee in his right hand, sipped.
They looked tired. They were tired. All the obvious wounds were sewn shut, the bruises even mostly kissed better. But Lau prayed this case would have something to focus their cleverness and their intensity on so they'd stop focusing it on one another.
Yes, Reyes' outreach initiatives seemed to be working. And just because they weren't sure the sole death was linked didn't mean it wasn't worth bringing in the ACTF. But damn if it didn't feel like Celentano was sending them out to dust the candlesticks.
Nikki gave everyone a moment to take the hardcopy versions of her slide show, and then clicked a button on her oval remote. "Yardston, Ohio. Population just over thirty thousand. It's part of the rust belt. Four bodies have been disturbed in a city cemetery in the past two months."
Brady stirred his coffee, watching the milk bloom. "You're telling me we're looking for grave robbers?"
Lau didn't answer, which was an answer in itself, she supposed. "First, Arron Wakefield. He died on September 25, 2005, at age fifty-eight, and was buried in the Laramie Memorial Cemetery. Then Greg Balezentis, age twenty-four, died June 13, 2008, same cemetery. Wakefield's body was found exhumed on March 4, 2009. Balezentis's body was found six weeks later, on April 17. Then around two weeks after that, on May 1, Cedric McLane and Tabatha Cramer's bodies were found on the same night. Cedric had died at age eighty-seven, on January 22, 1993--over fifteen years ago. Tabatha was an infant of not even twelve months when she died on December 10, 2005; she'd been buried for three and a half years."
Worth frowned. "This is a desecration of human remains case. Why send it to us?"
"Gross abuse of a corpse is a federal crime." Duke shrugged with elaborate disingenuity. "It's a fifth degree felony, admittedly. But it's...our jurisdiction."
"A few things." Lau clicked through three more slides, pointing. The forensics team had done their job: photographed their way into the scene and back out again. Every bit of necrotic flesh and yellowed bone catalogued in crisp detail. "The bodies were removed from both the coffins and the grave. The joints are cracked and broken. Look at the elbows and the jawbone."
Todd squinted at the screen. "As if someone was trying to reposition them."
"Except that it's not clear how." Lau nodded. "The joints are the only areas where there's cracking."
Chaz tilted his head. "It's as if the bodies moved themselves."
The case had wound a leisurely path through official channels before falling on the BAU's desk. No explanation quite fit. Finally, in exasperation, someone sealed up all the bits into a manila folder, tied it up in string and sent it down the hall. Reyes probably would have sent it back except that it came with a letter from Celentano. Not that that made Lau any more disposed to like the case, but she was very aware that the decision was out of her hands.
Chaz Villette leaned over the photographs, tracing the outlines of the shapes; committing each one to memory. "Necrophiliacs are unlikely to dig up a body. There was a necrophiliac in Ohio last year--Kenneth Douglas, who worked both as a coroner and in a funeral home. His method of finding fresh bodies via his workplace is quite common. Considering the stages of decomposition in this case"--he wrinkled his nose--"plus the differences in age and gender of the victims, I think we can rule out a sexual component."
"Someone married the Berlin Wall," Brady said. "You can never rule out a sexual component."
Lau tried not to smile.
"In 2004, a New Jersey cult was discovered digging up bodies to use in rituals," Hafidha said, with a small lift of her lip, like a sneer. "Satanic cults are way oversold by the media and usually turn out to be kids with too much pewter jewelry and too many wine coolers, but we could still be looking for something along those lines."
Worth nodded. "The police find anything interesting at the scene?"
"Multiple shoe prints," said Lau, pulling out one of the photographs from the spread and pushing it toward her. "Inconclusive. The graveyard is a pretty popular short cut between Yardston High School and an arcade of stores. Kids found the first two disturbed graves--Madison Brosnac and Tyler Ranier. Now it's closed off--officially--but you know how kids are, especially in a high-traffic area. Police force did some measuring of shoe prints and it looks like enough adults were present to support the idea of a group.
"After the second set of robberies, local authorities contacted the FBI for the first time. The case didn't get priority, however, until this." Lau hit the button.
The woman on the screen sat on a black and white checkerboard floor, leaning back against a once-white wall, now streaked dark brown. Her head was tilted, as though in sleep, but for the deep black line across her throat and the blood-drenched dress. A chef's knife rested clutched in her right hand.
"Madalyn Basuto, twenty-eight years old. Found April 23rd of this year in her own kitchen. The cause of death is listed as exsanguination due to the severing of the external jugular vein. Basuto was found holding the murder weapon in her right hand. In all ways, this seems unrelated to the exhumed bodies, except for the possibility of joint manipulation. Basuto was found with defensive wounds on her left hand. For that reason, the police initially investigated her death as a homicide. But the blood spatter suggests she cut her own throat with her right hand, and the medical examiner confirmed cadaveric spasm, meaning that the knife was clenched in her fist when she died. Basuto had an uncle with some local political connections, and he asked the Cleveland SAIC to see if there was anything he could do about it. The SAIC is apparently a pretty sharp cookie, because he looked at Basuto, looked at the grave robberies, and Houdini-Claused it up to Celentano's people."
Did she manage to get the name out smoothly, without a trace of her personal opinion? In front of a room full of profilers, it was hard to tell, but not even Reyes looked at her sharply. Bulletproof.
Chaz had glanced down abruptly, though--but when Lau studied him out of the corner of her eye, she thought he was reacting to something internal. Something internal, and something on the screen--
Aw, shit. The carving knife.
"So she was fighting herself off?" Hafidha asked. "Creepy."
"Could they be hesitation marks?" Worth asked. She glanced at Chaz. He must have caught the motion out of the corner of his eye; when she edged a hand toward him he shook it off. "Those would be common in a suicide."
"Or alien hand syndrome," said Brady. "Less common, I admit."
Lau thought of Eddie Cieslewicz. There could be someone else like him--but mythologies were intensely personal.
"Basuto's an interesting case," said Todd. "But the joint manipulation connection between her death and the exhumed bodies seems tenuous."
Falkner hesitated. "Greg Balezentis, the second exhumation, was Basuto's boyfriend. There may not be a connection, but it's starting to look like an awful lot of coincidences. It's possible there isn't a gamma at work here."
Brady raised a single brow. Lau hadn't known he could do that.
"It is possible there isn't gamma involvement," Lau acknowledged. "Maybe chasing fifth-degree felonies isn't a job for us. But messing around with bodies frightens and horrifies people, and these incidents are serial and an attack on the community, and besides, we've been assigned this case regardless, so this is where we're being sent." She shut her mouth with a snap and a sinking feeling. So much for hiding our feelings from our fellow profilers.
Todd leaned forward and cleared his throat. "Considering mythology--say we are talking about alien hand syndrome. Maybe the jammer can trigger the syndrome, perhaps even control the hand. Doesn't explain the graves, but we're still not sure they're connected."
"Somebody's sure," Brady said, with a dark look down the hall that filled Lau with warmth and gratitude.
Chaz raised his head so sharply that Lau thought he was going to excuse himself. But when he opened his mouth, a funny blurring came over him, and Lau had a hurtful, sudden awareness of another presence. It wasn't exactly visual--Chaz was still Chaz--but there was a sense of another man's posture, graying, curling hair and uncomfortably bright eyes.
"I swear to God," Chaz said in someone else's voice, "Pearl, if you turn that boy into a sissy--"
Brady sat back hard enough in his chair that it left a scuff mark on the wall behind him. "Chaz, do not fucking do that again. Or I'll hurt you."
The blank face, the slouch that made his body look uninhabited: Lau recognized them just before Chaz let them go. He cringed. "Sorry. Sorry. Brady. I--"
"Chaz," Falkner said.
He looked guilty. Sick-guilty and maybe a little angry. Brady looked considerably more than a little; Lau was glad the width of the table lay between him and Chaz. Not that Brady would hurt a teammate. Would he? Lau clenched her fist around the remote and tried to keep her face from saying anything, especially not, "Fuck's sake, how about we all get a Valium and twelve hours' sleep and then we go see about the dug-up dead people?"
Falkner released Chaz from the Stare of Death. He and Brady were both avoiding eye contact, and maybe that was the best you could hope for now. Lau told herself it was an honest accident, Chaz's defensive mechanisms triggering by precisely the stimuli that installed them--a black-handled knife and a hell of a lot of blood.
Reyes stood, ending the standoff. Yes, of course he'd seen it. And let it pass, because that's what he expected of them, too. Put the job first. "Villette, Lau, Worth--you work on the disturbed remains. Gates and Falkner, we'll take the recent suspicious death. Brady, I know you're scheduled to testify this week and Todd, you've been requested for a consult down the hall. Everyone else, we'll discuss strategy further on the plane. Wheels up in an hour."
"I can reschedule," said Brady, as the others rose. "Prosecutor says this trial could take longer than global warming."
Reyes shook his head. "We'll call you in if we need to, don't worry."
Lau closed her folder and headed for the door, with the others. Her go bag was packed, waiting beneath her desk, but there were always calls. The local police department to cajole, hotel reservations to make, flight path and landing itinerary to confirm, the cars to rent...
"A moment, Lau," Falkner said, low. Brady looked back at Nikki with sympathy and a shrug of his shoulders.
Falkner waited until the others filed out before saying, "You don't like this case."
Nikki turned one corner of her mouth up, raised the opposite shoulder. "It deserves good work, and we can provide that."
Supervisory Special Agent Falkner was not the sort to fall for Miss Junior Air Force. She waited.
"And I get a certain creepy feeling about the dead being raised from the earth and posed like mannequins. Which might be foolish."
"I don't like that part much either." Falkner did that thing, the commanding-officer unsmile. Miss Junior Air Force might not get past Falkner, but Madam Army Captain Ma'am worked all kinds of magic on Lau. She heaved a relieved breath, knowing it was ridiculous and feeling it anyway. Mom was here and everything was going to be okay now.
"I kind of had a fight with Victor Celentano this morning."
The thing about the team--the entire BAU--was that they were all so good at manipulating people that they understood their own reactions intimately. They were artists, and their art form was the human personality, pathological or otherwise. You almost never got an unfiltered response. So Falkner's amused snort and double-take were a gift, and Lau grinned to let her know she realized it.
Falkner folded her arms--not defensive, but maternal--and said, "Did you win it?"
"I...think so." Lau frowned. "But it's like winning a fight with Reyes. You're never quite sure if he meant that to happen. And then I get upstairs and the thing on top of my desk with an immediate action tag is this..."
"And you're fighting down adolescent rebellion and a concern that the entire point of this is to make us look bad."
"Shit rolls downhill," Lau said, looking at her shoes. "Victor has a career to protect."
Falkner nodded. "Your concern may not be unwarranted. But I also know that Celentano has protected this team when we have made mistakes--" She didn't say Melinda Grossman, and Lau was grateful, because Lau could say it to herself. "--and that in his own way he believes what Reyes is doing is necessary." She paused. "So what did he tell you about Mitchell?"
"That he was keeping Congress and the media out of our pockets."
Falkner sucked her teeth. "It could even be the truth."
"You're suggesting I give him the benefit of the doubt."
"I'm acknowledging that sometimes we have to put our shoulders in the politics and swim." She started to turn; hesitated. "Nikki, I need your understanding of how Hafidha is coping with her loss. And I need you to be honest."
Nicolette Lau's English muffin, two eggs, and locally-grown greenhouse grapes turned over in her stomach. "Chaz or Daphne could tell you more than I could, really." It was technically true. Coward.
"They could. But would they?" Falkner's eye contact was relentless.
Lau felt her shoulders droop under that gaze. "Their judgment is a little compromised. Maybe."
"They want to protect her. We all do. If that's your first impulse, that's admirable. But I need you to act on the impulse that protects all of us." And there was Madam Army Captain, calm professionalism and the safety of a trusted authority figure who would make sure it all worked out okay.
"She's doing better than I would," Lau said, although in truth, she had no idea how she would do.
"Is that all?" asked Falkner.
"She's angry. She's defended. She's withdrawn. She feels unfairly used by the universe and I don't think that's an unreasonable reaction. But she's doing the job." Lau couldn't quite look Falkner in the eye as she said it, but her expression of bland neutrality never wavered. Hafidha had seemed strained, but this was a job that hardened people. You had to get tough to block out that much pain. Miss Junior Air Force would shut up and soldier, but that wasn't the way Reyes and Falkner ran their operation, and deep in her heart, Lau was grateful.
"I see. Thank you."
Lau nodded once, which was apparently enough to satisfy Falkner. Nikki was dismissed.
At her desk, Lau looked down at the careful stacks of papers, the clipped photographs and news stories. There were still calls to make, but not a single one of those calls were personal. Then she smiled. No one counting on her meant there was no one to whom she was accountable.
No one but her team.
Many people came to profiling because they were fascinated with darkness. Maybe even drawn to it. They wanted to know if evil existed. They wanted to know if it was made or born. Others came because of their awareness of something dark inside themselves. They wanted to shackle that darkness into service, catching people who were even worse.
Nikki Lau came to profiling because it made her feel alive.
She'd always been good at reading people's faces; good at hearing the echoes they didn't hear in their own words. Sometimes her brothers thought it was eerie, that she could tell when they were lying or when one of their girlfriends was about to break up with them. They thought it was like mind reading, but really it was just paying attention.
The downside was that people with secrets seemed more real to her than anyone else.
She loved waiting for people to trip themselves up, to reveal themselves in a fleeting wince or a poorly chosen word. Maybe it was the same part of her that loved the adrenaline rush of snowboarding or the physical chess of boxing. The part of her that wanted to turn everything into a contest. But that didn't explain why, in bars and on blind dates that never went anywhere, when she got bored and stared deep into men's eyes, she found herself looking restlessly for a glimmer of madness.
Falkner watched through a plane window as Chaz arrived on the tarmac with his go bag and backpack both balanced over one shoulder and a bulging cloth sack of groceries in the other hand. The last to arrive, he boarded and settled in one of the single seats near the fold-out table. Reyes leaned back on the cloud-grey upholstery of the couch with a comfortable sigh. Worth was already in her usual place, already unpacking her blanket for when the cabin got cold.
It worried Falkner how much the plane was starting to feel like home.
"What're we eating?" Hafidha asked, leaning forward eagerly. Little silver beads dangled from her braids today.
"There wasn't enough time for much more than a trip to the grocery store, but there are some very decent grocery stores," Chaz said.
Out of the bag he produced a small container of shriveled black olives, several wrapped sandwiches, a dozen white peaches, a bottle of cashews, a box of cheese crackers, and a bag of fresh coffee. Oil darkened the paper around the sandwiches. "Mozzarella and roasted peppers for Falkner and Lau, prosciutto and provolone or ham and brie for the rest of you. Take your pick."
"I'll make the coffee," Worth said, grabbing that bag like someone who was prepared to eat the grounds raw.
As the Gulfstream lifted off, Falkner stretched her sore shoulders and back against the chair. The muscle relaxants helped; the painkillers helped. The physical therapy was pure bloody murder, although at least the throbbing aches of the second day were starting to fade now.
Hafidha briefed them between bites on what she'd discovered. "Madalyn Basuto went to Marion Technical College for a year and a half before dropping out. Fortunately, colleges have message boards. A few months prior to her departure, I found several posts accusing Madalyn of being obsessed with one of the instructors there, a Richard Lewis, and warning people about her. Lewis is married. It could have meant an affair, but Basuto also has a rap sheet for petty larceny and took several trips to the emergency room for undiagnosed pain."
"Scamming for a scrip?" Lau suggested. She plucked the end of a pepper out of her sandwich, tipped her head back, and dropped it in her mouth like a seal catching a piece of herring. Falkner didn't miss the way Chaz ducked his head and grinned.
Hafidha blew through her lips. "Ya think? Also notice, please, the pattern of erratic behavior, symptomatic of stress or trauma. She didn't list a next of kin when she entered the hospital, even though she has a sister, Janine, who lives nearby. And then about a year ago, Basuto was enrolled by a relative at the Merias Recovery Center to be treated for methamphetamine addiction. She left early because of a relationship that broke the rules of the facility. Nothing more specific than that in her file and no other patient was given a warning, so I'm assuming her inappropriate relationship was with one of the staff." Hafidha shook her head. "Taste for authority. Guess we all have a type."
"Is that supposed to be public record?" Chaz asked.
"Certainly not." Hafidha smiled and pinched up an olive between glitter-polished nails.
"Frost got the body," said Reyes. "She'll be taking a look this afternoon and letting us know if there's anything the Yardston coroner overlooked. In the meantime, we can talk to the sister and take a look at Basuto's apartment."
"Anybody got a better correlation between the disturbed bodies and our victim?" asked Falkner.
Hafidha looked smug. "Actually, I might. One of the deceased--Arron Wakefield--was a lifelong cocaine addict. He died of liver failure. Never attended any program or rehabilitation facility as far as I can tell. The infant--Tabatha Cramer--tested positive for methamphetamine immediately after delivery. She died of complications due to a defect in her heart. I can't find anything on her mother going into rehab either, though."
"Hmmm," Chaz said, reaching for a sandwich.
The city of Yardston, Ohio was of a type with midsized rust-belt towns. Give it a bigger river, and it could have been Harrisburg. If it were three times bigger and had a gorge and a renaissance, it might have passed for Pittsburgh. The closest field office was in Cleveland, which meant picking up civilian rentals at the Toledo airport and hoping you didn't have to slap a flashing blue light on top like Starsky. Worth drove the navy-blue Mazda from the airport along a highway that cut through stretches of flat land, empty except for prairie dogs darting from mound to mound, while Chaz stretched out beside her and Hafidha leaned against brown vinyl in the back seat, pretending to read something on her Treo. The sky was the perfect blue of a paint chip and even though it was the middle of May, the air was cool enough to roll the windows down.
"Cute," said Chaz, indicating a prairie dog with one long finger. "They live in family units of a single male and three to four females. It's interesting because multiple partners--" He stopped himself as suddenly as if he'd bitten out his own tongue.
In the mirror, Worth saw Hafidha turn her gaze from the air in front of her to look out at the plains. She said nothing.
"They can also serve as a reservoir of the monkeypox virus," Chaz said, after a delay that told Worth he'd scanned his mental databases for a non-threatening silence-filler. "Yardston's demographics are pretty red state and Wonder Bread--working class, white, economically depressed people living lives much lower down the class totem than their parents did. That's a generality, of course."
In the back seat, Hafidha snorted. "It has a Wal-Mart, and people shop there."
"At least they're buying fresh produce," Worth said. The steering wheel felt sticky in her fingers.
They passed a line of billboards advertising restaurants and churches, then the old brick warehouses, welding shops, assembly plants, and a paper mill near a stinking river. Broken windows with lights behind them made it hard to tell whether the buildings were still in use. After that came the promised Wal-Mart ensconced amid its RV suburbs, a short arcade of stores, fast food restaurants, and a steakhouse.
Lots of places to hide bodies, thought Worth. She thought too of Tricia, probably still in her bathrobe, grading tests or reading. Her classes wouldn't start for an hour. Worth could almost see the tangled strands of hair falling across Tricia's cheek and the way she licked her fingers before turning each page.
The memory made Daphne smile. No matter how far away she was, she carried Tricia with her. And when things got weird, as they inevitably would, at least she'd have that.
Worth pulled the rental into the hotel parking lot and the passengers got out. They split up in silence, dragging luggage to their own rooms. Her phone buzzed. Reyes.
MEET IN ROOM 203. TEN MINUTES.
Addiction is lonely. It's standing on a corner and freezing your ass off waiting for your dealer to come. It's convincing the people who once liked you and now just resent you to give you twenty dollars. It's turning tricks and lying to your mom. It's time slips and hurting all over and waking up sick every single day. It's telling yourself that tomorrow will be better, that an hour from now will be better, that it will be better right after one more hit or sip or sleep.
It's looking through cloudy glass because you can't bear the pain the light brings. It's about trying to blot out the pain of the world. It's about trying to blot out the pain of being alone.
You won't go back to that. You'll put yourself in God's hands. God will remove the defects of your character. God will lead you to confront your past, to confront yourself, open yourself up to the light. If only you open yourself to the word of God, you will be made whole and joyful. You will pray and be heard!
I will show you how to kill your addiction before it kills you. I will kill it dead.
After a night spent with the team, going over police reports and brainstorming--strategizing, Reyes reminded himself, while privately rolling his eyes at the human predilection for euphemism--Reyes and Falkner arrived on Janine Basuto's doorstop early the following morning. Hafidha had gone ahead to Madalyn Basuto's apartment with an officer. She wanted to get a start on any computers she found and, besides, three people made for an intimidating interview.
Janine Basuto's ranch house was in decent shape--grass mowed, scraggly spreading junipers around the foundation weeded, gutters rusty but secure--but the neighborhood wasn't exactly the sort of place you expected someone with political connections to live. Still, Reyes reminded himself, an uncle could be distant and still want peace of mind when it came to his niece's suicide.
He rapped on the door twice while Falkner took out her badge.
The woman who answered had close-cropped mahogany curls and a small child on her hip. Even seen through the screen door she looked older than the twenty-three years the Department of Motor Vehicles said she was. Tiny lines around her eyes, mouth, and on her forehead, and the dulling of her skin, suggested the kind of sleep deprivation one got from parenthood. Especially single parenthood. Her earlobes were studded with a dozen or so faint holes per ear, but she wore no jewelry. Little hands grabbed for shiny things; one got out of the habit after a while. Her button-front shirt was clean, washed soft, and only a little too tight through the bust and hips.
The little girl's Hannah Montana t-shirt and flowered pull-on jeans were new, and her hair was brushed shiny and clipped back with a zigzag pattern of tiny iridescent plastic claw-clips. Her nose was running just a bit. If Chaz were here, would he whip an unexpected tissue out of his pocket and wipe it for her?
Reyes gave Basuto his best we're-not-really-cops smile. Her eyes stayed on Falkner's lopsided gold shield with the lopsided eagle.
"Ms. Basuto, we spoke on the phone," said Falkner.
"Yes. I just put on some coffee," she said, thumbing the useless lock on the screen door latch and holding it open. "Come on in. You got here fast." She didn't look happy with the idea of the FBI in her house--hardly anyone ever did--but in a way that spoke of long resignation. She seemed too tired to be nervous.
Janine Basuto ushered Reyes and Falkner in and onto her flower-printed couch. She went into the kitchen and came out with a pot of coffee and mugs threaded on her fingers. In the moments she'd been gone, though, Reyes had noticed plenty. Worn furniture and pages of fingerpainting tacked up on the walls. No photographs. Eventually the little girl's school picture might appear on an end table. But even Sears photo studio portraits cost more than a single mom could afford, especially if there was no one clamoring for copies. A vase with withered wildflowers perched on the TV next to the digital converter box. Mommy, these are for you. Nice place.
"You two live here alone," Reyes said. It wasn't a question.
Basuto's daughter walked behind her with a glass of juice. She looked about four and sat down near her mother's feet when Basuto lowered herself into a chair.
"We do. You take sugar?" she asked. "I've got some of those hazelnut fake cream things too."
"This is perfect," said Falkner. "Can you tell us about Madalyn?"
"She was a good girl. My big sister. Our parents divorced when we were really little and she was always there, protecting me." Basuto looked out the window and then, almost unconsciously, reached out to touch the top of her daughter's head.
"We understand she had some trouble in college," Falkner prompted.
"She didn't like to talk about it, but I guess that was when she got into the drugs. Her using got pretty bad. Something happened, I guess. Probably a man. There's always a man."
The little girl pulled on her mother's sleeve. "Mom, where's my bo-bo?"
"Excuse me," Basuto said. She followed the girl into one of the bedrooms, then came out a few moments later with an apologetic smile.
"I was no angel either," she said. "I'm not judging Lyn."
"Of course," Reyes said.
"She got cleaned up."
Falkner nodded encouragingly. "Did she have any help? Go somewhere?"
Basuto snorted and pointed back toward where her daughter had come from. "We didn't have the cash for that kind of thing. I sent Mary to go stay with her father and locked Lyn in my bedroom with a mattress on the floor. She broke my window and busted the plaster, but she rode out the worst of it. Right there."
Reyes smiled. There was nothing he liked so much as resourceful women. "Old school."
Basuto laughed and her smile seemed sincere for the first time.
"What was Madalyn's relationship to Greg Balezentis?" Reyes added. He watched Basuto's face close up like a body shop in a bad neighborhood and fought back the impulse to apologize. When Basuto's head pivoted a little away, when she muzzled herself by lifting her cup to her lips, he said, "That's old business now, I know. But sometimes it's useful for us to gather facts about the victim's past." Meaning, This is an old hurt. You can tell us, and let it go.
Basuto swallowed, and not just coffee. "She lived with him on and off. They were both using. He died of smoke inhalation from a kitchen fire."
He caught Falkner's eye, so it was Esther who said gently, "She blamed herself."
In a stronger voice, Basuto replied, "That's why she got clean. But it wasn't her fault."
"What happened after that?" asked Falkner.
Basuto shook her head. "My Uncle Mike--he's part of the Governor's staff, funny how my mother and him can be so totally opposite for being brother and sister--found out about something Lyn was charged with over a year ago and told her she had to go to rehab. Imagine that, she gets clean and then goes to rehab. But he agreed to pay. Said she was making him look bad."
Falkner waited, attentive, hands closed over her knees. Reyes realized his pose was nearly identical. Basuto wasn't looking at either of them. Her coffee was cooling in front of her. She was in the throes of the story now.
"Didn't last long in there, but I guess it did her some good. She seemed to be getting her life together." Basuto's eyes shone with sudden wetness and she blinked a few times. "She got a job--she was waitressing. She was even volunteering, teaching Sunday School at First United Methodist over on Main. I don't know why she decided to--I don't know why she killed herself."
Falkner put her hand on Basuto's arm. She expressed empathy differently than Todd or Lau might have: she was solid, sincere, an authority figure who understood and could be depended on to correct the paperwork, expedite the case, return with answers. "Do you know anyone who might have wanted to hurt her?"
Basuto wiped her eyes. "What's this all about? You don't think it was suicide?"
Reyes leaned forward. "We're just trying to investigate all angles."
She looked over at Reyes as though waiting for the real answer. The exhaustion on her face had been replaced by hope. She looked like a woman who'd been carrying around a terrible burden and saw a chance to set it down.
"We don't know what happened to your sister," he said. "We really don't know the answer yet. We don't even know if there's a question. But we treat every case as significant and every victim as an individual of importance."
Basuto nodded. "She didn't have any enemies. She'd met a nice girl at work and they were going together to the Narcotics Anonymous meetings, but it's not like she was even dating. She took her recovery seriously. She said she was on the seventeenth step."
"Seventeenth step of what?" Falkner asked.
"Of the program," Basuto said. "She was really proud."
Reyes glanced at Falkner. Her look of revelation would have been opaque to anyone who did not already know her.
"There are usually only twelve steps," she said.
Basuto looked between them, a slight crease between her brows. "I guess I misunderstood."
Reyes leaned forward, his elbows on his knees, making his body language intimate, confiding. "Did she ever talk about anyone else in her support group? Do you know the name of the woman she worked with?"
Basuto shook her head. "Maybe... Lyn might have mentioned it, once, but--" She shrugged.
"Did you ever meet her sponsor?"
"I didn't. That's not weird, is it? She was very insistent that it was confidential."
That got a sharp glance from Falkner. Addicts in recovery usually talked about their recovery a great deal. Reyes pressed the issue. "Where did Madalyn attend meetings?"
Now the crease was deep enough to wedge a quarter into. "I don't know," she said.
Laramie Memorial Cemetery was a lot less empty than Worth had hoped when she got out of the rental car with Lau and Chaz.
Chaz leaned back on his heels, his long body arching like a drawn bow. His head turned like the turret on a tank scanning for enemies. Following his gaze, Worth saw a grassy sweep dotted with mostly-modern tombstones and carefully preserved trees. A few crypts dotted the top. A local would probably call this a big hill; to Worth's Pennsylvania-bred eyes, it looked like a courthouse lawn.
Three cars from the Hancock County sheriff's office were parked by the stone gates at the entrance and several uniformed officers waited for them. "I think they want to impress us," Chaz said.
"No kidding," said Lau, with a grimace. With her eyes, she gestured Daphne into the lead. Calculated manipulation, exploiting the local demographic, but it didn't make Daphne any happier.
We're not here to confront people. We're here to find a killer. Assuming there is a killer. Pick your battles, Harpy.
And watch your assumptions, she reminded herself shamefacedly as a thickset, grey-haired man with a surprisingly conspiratorial grin cut through a crowd of young clean-cut white male deputies who could have walked right out of any cop show from the 1960s, shook each hand in turn--starting with Lau and ending with Chaz--and introduced himself as Sheriff McKinley.
"Come on," he said. "We're glad to have the help; we don't have much of this sort of thing here. I'll show you what you came all this way to see."
Worth watched as the Sheriff's department peeled back tarps and revealed the gaping holes dotting the cemetery. In the distance, she could hear the cheers from the field hockey game going on in back of the high school.
"Thought it was a prank," Sheriff McKinley said. "We've had a couple of headstones stolen before, a little graffiti. Sick prank, sure, but you know how these heavy metal kids are with their fake Satanism. Like those kids in Texas who dug up a body to make the skull into a bong."
"Right," Lau said, in a tone Worth thought carefully balanced respect and incredulity.
Chaz looked toward the school and then back at the Sheriff. "At night, you can't see this spot from the road, can you?"
He shook his head.
"But that grave over there," Chaz pointed toward where Cedric McLane was buried, higher up the hill. "That would have been visible from the parking lot of the convenience store."
"That's true," said the Sheriff, squinting. "There's not a lot of traffic, but the mart's open twenty-four hours."
"So they weren't choosing these graves at random," Worth said. "These aren't crimes of opportunity. They were taking a risk digging up a grave when they didn't have to. Something connected these four bodies." Addiction. The obvious answer, but could it be that easy?
"Yeah," Sheriff McKinley said. "Addiction." Worth bit back a laugh, and he spread his hands as if he followed her thought process exactly. "But that's half the damned town, begging your pardon, Special Agent. There's not a lot left to do in Yardston except watch the Late Show, make babies, and shoot up."
"You don't seem surprised that the Cleveland field office linked the Basuto death. You must have had a suspicion something bigger was going on to involve them in the grave robberies in the first place. Is addiction also what led you to that conclusion?"
He nodded, but the way his hand touched his throat when he did it was a tell. He didn't really believe what she was saying, but it was the plausible explanation.
Lau saw it too. "Not the trauma to the joints and the posing of the bodies?"
McKinley started walking again, slowly, leading them away from the knot of deputies. "I guess you guys see some weird things," he said, and then hesitated. As one, the three agents gave him a silence to fill. "There's this memo that went around, with a contact number. Suggesting that the FBI has a task force interested in weird crimes in particular, and the earlier the better. Before things--what's the word?"
"Escalate," Chaz supplied reflexively, and then his lips twisted into his frog-face.
"Right," said McKinley. "Before they escalate. So I called the Cleveland office, and it turned out the, what do you call him? The Special Agent In Charge? Was already looking into connections."
Damn, Worth thought. Tell me the outreach is working.
What she meant to say was something else entirely, but Lau beat her to it. "You did the right thing," she said.
Sheriff McKinley sighed like a gust of winter. "You ever seen anything like this?"
"Not exactly," said Worth carefully. She was pretty sure McKinley wanted to know that the FBI didn't think his department were a bunch of idiots for not solving the crime, and Lau had made a good start on establishing a rapport. "Anomalous crimes by their nature tend to be unique."
"The holes are dug with a lot of precision," said Chaz, shaking his head. "The UNSUB had enough strength and endurance not to cut corners and was familiar with a shovel. I think we can conclude the same person dug up all four graves. And brought lifting tackle or a come-along in order to shift the vault lid--"
"No vaults," said McKinley, making all three agents' heads turn.
"Isn't that unusual?" Worth asked, just as Chaz said, "I know they're not required by Ohio law, but surely that's unusual?" Their two voices said the duplicated word at the same time, a little like a chorus, and despite the grimness of the scene Chaz caught her eyes on his mismatched ones and let the corner of his mouth quirk up.
You took your bonding where you could find it.
"It's cheaper to bury without," McKinley said. "None of these families were wealthy, and Laramie Memorial is the old cemetery." He rubbed his hands together like a man dusting dirt from the palms. "It doesn't require them."
"Cheaper to bury." Chaz tucked two fingers inside the unbuttoned top button of his shirt collar and gave it and his tie-knot a loosening tug. Maybe being in a graveyard made it easier to pick out the sound of J. Edgar, revving up for another spin. "Easier to exhume. That could be a factor in selection."
"The bodies aren't the same race, not the same age," Lau said. "Not the same gender. Maybe these are all people the UNSUB knew?"
Worth's phone rang and she picked it up without looking. "Hello?"
She was probably imagining Frost's sniff of disapproval that Worth had failed to properly identify herself. "This is Madeline Frost. I have your report," she said in a tone that made Worth stand up straighter.
"You should probably tell Falkner or Reyes. I'm working the disturbed remains."
"Agent Reyes didn't pick up; I suggest you tell him that if he needs to hear this from me, he's welcome to call. I will spare us both a reiteration of what you've already read in the coroner's report. There were no hesitation marks, which is uncommon in suicides. Each strike, even the defensive wounds, cut all the way past subcutaneous tissue. Additionally, the cadaver presented as emaciated."
Worth winced at the word, looking at Chaz's thin frame as he bent down to sift through dirt. "How emaciated?"
"It's not inconsistent with status gamma," Frost said. "No malnutrition present. Her G.I. tract contained residue, and plenty of it. Candy mostly, but she was eating."
"I'll pass it along," Worth said. Wouldn't it be nice if the problem had already resolved itself? Convenient.
Of course, that made Worth pretty certain it wasn't the case.
"Do. Additionally, I've reviewed the photographs of the mutilated bodies. It would be better if I had the actual materials to work from, of course, but the local medical examiner is passably competent, and the images are detailed. Based on the way the bones are broken and the tissues stretched and torn, I would say that your subjects were forced into postures of prayer. Kneeling, hands outstretched and clasped together."
"Creepy," Daphne said, momentarily forgetting who she was talking to.
"Intentionally so, I would imagine," Frost said, surprising her. "If Agent Reyes has any questions, he knows where to find me. Have a pleasant day, Agent Worth." With that, Frost ended the call.
A pleasant day of corpses. Daphne walked back toward her teammates, feeling her brain already starting to grind away at the new information. Who would want to see the bodies of the dead posed as if in prayer?
"Daphs, Nikki," Chaz called. "Come and take a look at this."
When they came up to him, Chaz squatted in front of Tabatha Cramer's grave, holding a balled-up tissue caught by a long pair of tweezers. "New. I found another one over there and bagged it." He pointed at where the hill sloped down to the road.
"So I'm standing in front of an open grave," Lau said, backing up a little. "I'm crying. Did I really dig up that grave? Doesn't quite play."
"Maybe Tabatha's mother came here after the grave was disturbed. The area was sealed off, but just with crime scene tape and a single patrol car," Worth said. "Kids were moving through."
"Check this out," said Chaz, bending down and then straightening. "Gum." He held it up to the sky. "Nicorette, I think."
Worth shook her head. "Someone cries and someone else chews gum? Who are these people?"
"Whoever dug up these graves targeted them specifically," Lau said. "If seeing the bodies upset them, we have a better sense of the profile. Once we get the DNA off the tissue and the gum, we'll know a lot more."
Worth nodded, looking down into Tabatha's tiny grave. The empty socket of the hole stared back. "That was Frost on the phone," she said. "She's got something interesting."
Hafidha Gates arrived at Madalyn Basuto's apartment armed with a 64 gigabyte flash drive, a set of lock picks, a collection of evidence bags and cards, and a Sheriff's deputy. The deputy was named John Fight, and he was as standard-issue as everything else in the kit--white, late-twenties, blue on blond in a wan Germanic fashion.
Downtown Yardston was a wasteland of once-gracious nineteenth-century masonry, construction cones, and caution tape strung around holes in the crumpled pavement. The few people moving about on a Saturday morning looked as dusty and out-of-sorts as their city, prone to worn feed caps or cheap bright finery from Targét. Hafidha felt like a Dutch Capuchin among street pigeons, and the truth was that more than a few of them turned to stare.
She drew herself up, braids swinging, nails and rings a-sparkle in the morning sun. A credit to the job and yourself.
The lockpicks weren't needed to get in--Fight slit a seal, produced a key, and recorded the entry in a logbook. The door opened into a sort of coat closet-cum-mudroom; immediately beyond that lay a fairly good-sized kitchen with appliances that probably hadn't been updated since 1980. A brown puddle had dried under the refrigerator. Below it, the floor pitched sharply down at an angle that made Hafidha wonder if the joists were really all that.
The apartment itself was more or less what Hafidha had expected. Not exactly grimy, not quite in a state of junkie disarray--Madalyn was obviously making some effort, and the dishes were washed and the garbage taken out--but it had that dingy look of a place inhabited by somebody who didn't have the knack of or the interest for housekeeping. There were a few dead plants, but from the dust on the leaves, they had predeceased Basuto.
"Good thing she didn't have a cat," Fight said, frowning at a withered begonia.
Hafidha looked at him appraisingly, abruptly considering him as something other than furniture. He looked back, then glanced down and blushed. "I'm sorry, Special Agent, I--"
"Was being funny," she said cheerfully, and breezed past him into the living room while he gaped after her. At least he collected himself quickly and followed.
Hafidha Gates, authority figure. What will they think of next?
No computer. She hadn't really expected one. There was a television and DVD player, a telephone and answering machine. No messages. The police would have already retrieved those. No books, no desk. A pile of unopened mail and fashion magazines on the glass-topped coffee table. Something in the pile caught her attention--a ragged edge of a torn envelope. Good paper, pale yellow, not the stuff bills came in.
Hafidha slid a nitrile glove on--those things were brutal on your cuticles--and slid paper aside until she touched the edge. She tweaked it loose. It was a greeting card, stuffed back into the envelope it came in.
She looked at Fight. Fight nodded, an evidence bag in his hand. Carefully, Hafidha shook out the card.
It was white with bold red lettering. On the front it said LET GO OR GET DRAGGED. Inside, it said SURRENDER. Below that was handwritten "Six months clean and sober. Congratulations! Love, Peter."
"Narcotics Anonymous slogans," Fight said. "You think Peter was her sponsor?"
Hafidha nodded. "Good guess." She turned the card over. "Peter Kaczmareck. There's an address. I'll put him on the interview list."
The rest of the apartment presented no new surprises, and wasn't big enough to keep them more than an hour. As the door shut behind them and the deputy dug in his pockets for a fresh seal, Hafidha took a breath. Boys who lived halfway across the country were especially good. "Deputy Fight. Would you like to get a coffee sometime, when this is over?"
He shook his head. "I'm flattered, Special Agent. But I'm engaged."
She felt the thing her mouth did, and knew it couldn't be attractive. "Of course you are. She's lucky."
Falkner stood on the steps of the Yardston Community Center and watched the unmarked patrol car pull into the parking lot. Unmarked or not, anyone in law enforcement could spot one with ninety percent accuracy. Hafidha swept out the front passenger door with a swagger of braids, boots, and big punk-plaid messenger bag, and the car pulled cautiously away and back onto the street.
Hafidha studied the building and rolled her eyes. "Any community that centers on a cinder-block pizza box has serious problems."
"They do seem to have those," Falkner said, "but architecture isn't one of the ones we can help with."
Hafidha's lips twisted, and she dropped her gaze to her pointed toes. Falkner took that to mean the course correction had been noted. "Did you find anything at Madalyn Basuto's apartment?" she asked. She had enough experience with Bekk and Deb to get the tone right, to make sure she wasn't saying, Did you do what you were supposed to?
"Another name to chase: Peter Kaczmareck, and I hope that's even sort of how it's pronounced. Maybe Basuto's sponsor. At least, he sent her a jolly congratulations card emblazoned with a Twelve-Stepper's idea of positive slogans."
"'Let go or get dragged.' But wait, there's more. The inside text said, 'Surrender.' If the thing hadn't been commercially printed, you'd have thought it was manufactured by Precious Serial Killer Moments."
Falkner couldn't suppress a reflexive upward bounce of her eyebrows. "Whatever happened to 'Let go and let God?'"
"Es, you missed the memo. Civility is dead."
Two frowning middle-aged women came out the community center door carrying stiff plastic flower arrangements. "Excuse me," one said coolly, giving both Falkner and Hafidha an up-and-down look, though there was room to pass single-file on the steps. The other woman gazed away and down, as if they were on the other side of the street. Hafidha smiled broadly at them. When they reached the parking lot, she turned to Falkner and said, "I rest my case."
Falkner shrugged. "Let's go see if we can keep anything else from dying." They passed through the doors and into the echoing hard-surfaced guts of the building.
There were two NA meetings advertised for Yardston -- the one at the community center and one at All Saints Episcopal Church. Both of them had the same contact listed: Simon Talliwell. Hafidha had triangulated between Madalyn Basuto's job, her home, and her sister's place. This was the closest meeting.
The young man sitting at the front counter looked clean-cut and conservative, with close-cropped dark hair and a pressed madras plaid shirt. The ladies with the plastic flowers probably approved of him. When he smiled, though, he smiled at Hafidha, while doing a not-very-good job of trying to gawk inobviously at her scoopneck shell and petrol-blue crushed velvet jacket.
"What can I do for you?" he asked her.
Falkner glanced at the nameplate on his desk--Brian Wilson, and he was young enough that his parents should have known better. "Mr. Wilson, we're looking for the person in charge of the NA meetings. Is he here?"
"That's supposed to be confidential." Wilson folded his hands primly on the countertop, lifting his chin with the sort of obstinate helpfulness Falkner associated with receptionists everywhere. It was probably meant to be flirting. The whole business made Falkner feel old.
"Mr. Talliwell's name is on your website," Hafidha said. "It's not that confidential."
He grinned. It stretched his cheeks and made his chin stick out like an unrepentant ten-year-old's. Falkner supposed he got a lot of mileage out of that grin. "I guess not. What are you looking for him for?"
Falkner drew out her badge and showed it to him. "He's not in any trouble," she said. "We're hoping to talk with him."
"He's got a private practice," he said. "Left a couple of his cards here. Let me get you one. But he doesn't run this meeting anymore. I haven't seen him in a couple of months."
"The card would be great," Hafidha said, giving him a smile that could peel paint. Falkner knew Hafidha had already found Talliwell's number, but Falkner was glad she was playing along. Maybe the boy would give up something else in an effort to impress her. Hafidha was a hard lady to impress.
Wilson scribbled something on the back of a business card and handed it over. Hafidha glanced at it, nodded thanks, and rattled the card against her nails.
Falkner cleared her throat to haul Wilson's attention back and held out a snapshot of Madalyn Basuto in happier times. "Maybe you could tell me if you saw this woman? We're not asking if she's in NA. I'm just asking if you saw her here. I'm sure there are a variety of activities she could be participating in."
His gaze flickered from Falkner to Hafidha and back, as if it had just occurred to him that this might be about something large and serious. "That's the girl who killed herself."
Neither Hafidha nor Falkner nodded.
"I've seen her," he said, "but not in a long time. She and a friend of hers used to come here, but I think they found another group. Dr. Talliwell started some other meeting and a couple of the regulars left to join it."
How often does an NA meeting have a schism? Falkner looked at Hafidha, and found Hafidha looking back.
"Friend?" Hafidha asked.
He rolled his eyes. "'Anonymous,' remember?"
"Do you know a Peter Kaczmareck?" Falkner asked, hewing as close as she could to Hafidha's pronunciation.
Wilson's features pulled toward each other as if someone had tightened a drawstring around his nose. It looked like distaste. "Yeah. Now there's a guy who thinks his sh-- sweat doesn't stink."
"That bugs you?" Hafidha asked.
"Some of us remember the Pete that useta was, is all." Wilson shrugged. "But I guess he's an upstanding citizen now."
Falkner tucked the photo of Basuto away. "Does Kaczmareck come to meetings here?"
"Like I say, confidential." Wilson's mouth twisted. "But you gotta hope he goes to meetings somewhere."
Which sounded to Falkner like, No, Kaczmareck doesn't come here.
Hafidha said, "Who runs the regular meetings here?"
"Sally Cotter," he said. "You can contact her through the treatment program at the local hospital, or--" he rummaged. "--I have a phone number here."
Falkner accepted another business card, this one pale peach. She only got her hand on it because Hafidha had stepped back from the desk. "Do you like her?"
He smiled. "She's a lot more relaxed than Doctor Talliwell. He can be--" he shrugged. "Doctors, you know? Ego fiends. And then there's the whole born-again thing."
"Have you heard anything about the other meeting? People must talk sometimes."
"Dr. Talliwell runs it. You should just ask him."
"We will," Hafidha said, holding up the paper he gave her. "We really appreciate this."
"Good," Wilson said, and might have been about to add something else smarmy when Hafidha turned on her heel. His grin followed them down the hall, leaving Falkner momentarily grateful for the invisibility of middle age. Outside, Hafidha handed the card to Falkner like a cartoon housewife picking up a dead rat. Falkner noticed he'd added his own number to the back of Simon Talliwell's card.
"Pork and corn," Hafidha said. "Too much in the diet leads to holes in the brain. And testosterone poisoning."
Falkner grinned at her sidelong. "You know I grew up in St. Louis."
"So you're saying the sensitivity is gender-linked? Ye gods and fishies, what a flatline. Do they really think dumb is cute?"
Falkner rocked back, startled. Hafidha was already stalking away, arms swinging, the heels of her skull-and-crossbones boots clicking on pavement.
She's grieving, Falkner told herself. People act in uncharacteristic ways when they're under stress. They express anger they'd never acknowledge otherwise. They act on impulses they have the sense to suppress when things are normal.
But the anger and the impulses were there all along. Everyone had them, didn't they? It was what one did with them that drew the dividing line between socially acceptable and...not.
Falkner thumbed the phone number on the front of the dead-rat business card into her phone. "Dr. Talliwell's office," a pleasant, male, professionally-bored voice declared. Answering service.
"This is Supervisory Special Agent Falkner of the FBI. I need to reach Dr. Talliwell immediately. It's about the safety of one of his patients." The exact truth. Well played, Esther.
The operator no longer sounded bored, but he didn't sound hopeful, either. "I'll try to get a message through to him, Ma'am--Officer. But he might not check until morning. We don't have an emergency number for him."
Falkner gave him her number anyway, thanked him, and disconnected.
Hafidha slouched at apparent ease against the fender of their borrowed car, her oversized messenger bag slung behind her, arms and ankles crossed. She stared across the street at a row of quaintified renovated storefronts. They neither pleased nor offended her, judging from her expression; they were just something that blocked the view of whatever they were built in front of. Just there.
"Are you all right?" Falkner asked, though she knew better than to expect much.
"Sure." Hafidha's gaze, turned to Falkner, was clear, open, alert. "Talliwell's home address next?"
"You already have it?"
"Tcha. I can't spend all my time playing Bejeweled."
But when they reached Talliwell's townhouse and rang the bell, there was no answer. When Hafidha summoned up his landline and called it, they could hear it ring from the other side of the door, but no one picked up.
His cell phone, of course, was powered off.
By the time Chaz, Worth, and Lau got back to the hotel for First Dinner, Reyes was already present and ordering room service in quantities even Chaz found gratifying. "What Celentano really hates us for is the expense reports," he said, tossing his loafers into the corner of the room he was somewhat awkwardly sharing with the Old Man.
Reyes, boiling his own tea water in the room's small microwave, just snorted.
Lau shook her head. "Oh, you laugh now, but if our budget gets cut, you're going to miss that first-flush Darjeeling."
Chaz felt a near-proprietary satisfaction when Reyes tried to hide a grin.
Falkner and Hafidha arrived at the same time as the food. The kosher/vegetarian option was a runny spinach quiche, over which Reyes looked particularly apologetic.
"We should have tried that little cafe downtown," Lau said. Falkner shrugged and ate what was set before her, and some of Daphne's french fries too. Throwing dietary discipline to the wind, Chaz had pork chops and a burger, both of which were pretty good, though the ice cream wasn't anything to write home over.
"Frost thinks Basuto could be--could have been the gamma," Daphne said. Chaz ducked his chin and spidered his fingers across the shabby hotel bedspread toward her fries. She whacked his knuckles with her plastic fork. "When you get another S in front of your name, maybe you can get away with that."
"Game over?" Reyes said, frowning. "We've seen the host suicide before, but only in situations where there's immediate risk to others. Did Basuto have that?"
"There's her sister and niece," Falkner offered. "But no, forensics believes Basuto was alone when she died. Atypical behavior."
"Let's keep working on our live possibilities, then. If we're wrong, there's no harm done."
Because we can't afford to screw this up. Chaz was hungry enough and tired enough that he couldn't be sure the thought originated with him. He wanted to open the mirror just a hair, just to see if Reyes's frown was all for the case, if Falkner was as calm as she seemed, if Daphne thought Frost was right, if Lau was picking at her food because it was lousy or because grave-robbers were bad for her appetite. Hafidha was sucking linguine through puckered lips, scowling at her laptop screen. Her expression seemed to shift and twitch in the flickering glow of web pages changing like a flip book. If he used the mirror, would her inner display be as impossible for him to read as the outer one? Or would he get it, the way she got the candy-in-the-jar trick?
He wanted to open the mirror, but he didn't. A little insecurity was a small price to pay, to keep these five people.
Instead, he said, "That's a whole two names, then. Simon Talliwell and Peter..."
Before he could attempt it, Hafidha grabbed it away. "Kaczmareck. The internet knows and loves them both, in that internetty way that makes even very nice people look like potential felons."
Worth tried to cackle and swallow at the same time, and had to grab for her water glass, her eyes tearing.
Hafidha beamed at her before she continued. "Doctor Talliwell--and put "doctor" in quotes here--born in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Raised in a strict Pentecostal splinter church east of the snake handlers, which means home schooled and there's almost nothing we can get on his childhood without boots on the ground out there. However, he completed an undergrad and a Master's degree in psychology at the University of North Dakota. End of formal schooling. After that, he moved. A lot. Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, North Carolina... You get the picture. His name's associated with narcotics and alcohol treatment groups all over the Midwest and the mid-Atlantic states. Except he's got no memberships in the professional organizations a psych guy specializing in treatment programs would want on his CV."
"Convictions for anything?" Lau asked.
"Three parking tickets and a speeding fine. He pays his bills, keeps up with his student loans, and has an average-good credit rating."
Worth shook her head. "If I didn't know you, I'd be a little scared right now."
Hafidha peered over the display of her laptop and through her lashes. "Your secrets are safe with me, Peaches."
"Any photos?" Falkner asked.
Hafidha wiggled her fingers toward the television that hogged most of the low dresser, and it lit up with what was obviously a driver's license photo, superimposed over the windows of data she was still scrolling through. "Oooh!" Lau squeaked. "I didn't know you could do that."
"The official monitor of the Commodore 64. Though I wouldn't know about that, being way too young."
Chaz sprawled back on his assigned bed to contemplate the image. Simon Talliwell was a white man in his late forties, who actually bore a passing resemblance to Solomon Todd in that there-are-only-twenty-basic-faces sort of way. He looked plumper than Todd, a little jowly and out of shape. "We need to get eyes on him," Chaz said. "Based on that photo, he's not our gamma." He raised both hands in a starfish-splat, the team's symbol for a conversational asterisk. "But it is a year or two old."
"Scam artist," Lau said, kicked back in the tweedy corner chair, which was somewhere between peanut butter and babyshit in color. She was eating three-bean salad in a sugary vinaigrette Chaz could smell across the room, and grimacing.
"What, a Pretender?" Chaz sat up a little. Pretending to be other people--in his heart of hearts--had always sounded like fun.
"Well, he's not a doctor, Doctor," Lau said. She grinned at him over her bowl of salad, setting his heart racing.
He looked away. Something in the patterns of streams of information scrolling up the TV monitor behind Talliwell's photo-- "Hafs," he said. "Narcotics and Alcohol Anonymous programs at the Living Word Of God Church. Baltimore, Maryland."
Hafidha's mouth dropped open, her braids moving across her shoulders as her chin lifted and her head turned. "By gum," she said. "You might be on to something. Whatever gave you that idea?"
"Elementary, my dear Gates." He pointed. "He worked at programs in Washington, Philly, and Alexandria. Why skip Baltimore when he lived in Maryland? And that Living Word thing has been bugging me for going on two years now. It just kind of clicked." He made a helpless gesture with his hands. Clicked, sometimes, was what he did.
"One moment, please. I've been archiving every change to their website for the last two years. There's no Talliwell listed now, but--" She cocked her head, staring up at the ceiling, and information flashed across the monitor of her laptop and across the TV screen before her, faster now than Chaz could follow.
The Church of the Living Word was a Baltimore storefront operation that Hafidha had stumbled across back in 2007. The website screamed Anomaly. The church itself seemed totally on the up and up, or as up and up as those sorts of ecclesiastical enterprises ever were. The tax situation was a mess, in other words, and it was pretty certain the deacon was skimming and maybe committing various ethical violations with attractive female congregation members.
But there was no sign that anything anomalous was involved, and--even weirder--no sign that anything anomalous had been involved in setting up their addictively terrible website, which is what would have had to have happened for it to register on Hafidha's Fnord!cam, as she explained it. It had shown up on William Villette's activity at a rental car counter because he'd been using his power to influence the clerk while the clerk was entering data, but the mere fact of an anomaloid touching a computer wasn't enough to trigger her.
Otherwise, Chaz thought, Hafidha would find his daily emails really, really trippy.
"Bingo," Hafidha said. "Or rather, there's a Dr. Nathan Tolliver as head of the substance abuse program--a Dr. Tolliver who doesn't otherwise exist, and what are the odds?"
She shared her grin of triumph with Chaz, and he grinned right back. Come on back to the team, Wabbit. You will always have a home here.
"Checking back in with Peter Kaczmaniac for a minute," Hafidha said, "it gets better over there, also. They did not share an address and they were not blood relatives, but Arron Wakefield left Kaczmareck everything. Kaczmareck inherited a medium-good-size life insurance policy. Wakefield's cause of death is listed as liver failure, and a tox screen showed significant concentrations of cocaine in his body. However, no previous history of liver disease. As you know, long-term effects of gammahood include liver and kidney failure. Long-term effects of cocaine, on the other paw, include stroke, heart attack, brain damage--"
"Was he a drinker?" Lau leaned forward.
"Maybe not so much, based on blog entries and so on. And man, this guy's MySpace page, it's a symphony of brain pain. However, it occurred to me that there are any number of poisons that can cause slow liver failure, and some of them are available as inexpensive over-the-counter medications, which if Wakefield didn't know he'd ODed, could have cleared his system long before the tox screen--"
"You think Kaczmareck poisoned Wakefield with Tylenol?" Falkner blinked. It was kind of nice to know that something could unsettle her.
"I think it's a big maybe. A quarter million dollars pays for a few months of a coke habit, anyway."
"I sense," said Chaz, "a Pattern. Lovers?"
Reyes shrugged. "We'll find out tomorrow."
Chaz rubbed his hands together. "How do we like Kaczmareck for a blackmailer? If he's going to kill his friend or boyfriend for an insurance policy, he wouldn't stick at using what he learned in an NA meeting to pressure people for money. Or they could all be being blackmailed by a third party we haven't identified yet. Maybe Basuto's uncle and sister didn't know everything she got up to. That could explain why Basuto killed herself. Cramer might be vulnerable to allegations of murdering her child. Kaczmareck might be equally vulnerable regarding Wakefield. And Talliwell" --he glanced at Lau-- "'Well, you're no doctor, Doctor. And I can make sure everybody in this town knows.' "
"Basis for speculation?" Reyes asked.
"They all had something to hide," Chaz replied. "Plus Basuto's suicide."
Reyes looked at him, really looked, brows drawing together until Chaz cleared his throat and glanced down. Then Reyes nodded, as if there had been a long conversation in that awkwardness, and rubbed his hands together.
"There's not a ticking clock on this one," Reyes said. "More of a ticking calendar. If Basuto does represent the start of a pattern of escalation--which, I admit, feels satisfying to me--and if this is an anomalous case, and if she wasn't the gamma, there's no sign our UNSUB is decompensating. We can afford to be meticulous, to dot all the Is and cross the Qs. And we really need to talk to Sandy Cramer, Peter Kaczmareck--and Simon Talliwell. Pretender, scam artist, or...something else, it looks as if he has a connection to Basuto, a possible link to Kaczmareck who's linked to Basuto and also to another one of our disturbed corpses, and an apparent affiliation with past anomalous activity."
"So, what?" asked Lau, leaning forward.
Reyes steepled his hands. "So tomorrow, we crash some NA meetings."
"Steal," Daphne said. "Steal an NA meeting. And anyway, it sounds better when Timothy Hutton says it."
"I could sneak into one of the meetings," Chaz said. "Stand in the back. Eavesdrop a little."
It felt weird, still, to offer openly. And he was secretly relieved when Reyes looked at him, chewing his lower lip, and said, "I'm not sending you in without backup like that."
Long about the time Chaz started mincing up on the idea of using his superpowers on behalf of the team, Lau gave up picking at the limp beans of her salad and stood up to go steal one of his remaining onion rings. He gave her a dark look, but it wasn't very convincing.
She stuck out her tongue and he grinned his shy grin. She thought about Madalyn Basuto's inappropriate taste in men. She thought about her own. If she had any damned sense, she'd take Chaz up on it, but then, if she had any sense, she'd have stuck with Pete. The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of.
Richard had been a lost cause as soon as she took a hard look at her life and realized that there was no military future for her, either in the Air Force or as an Air Force wife.
Sometimes, she thought Dana was the only person from her childhood who had forgiven her for leaving the tribe.
"I got us a breakfast meeting with Sandy Cramer," Reyes said, getting up to make himself another cup of tea. "Tabatha's mother. Losing a kid's tough--"
"Losing anyone's tough," Hafidha interrupted. When the team, as one, winced, Hafidha held up both hands in a placating gesture. "Just being pedantic. Don't mind me."
There was an almost-smile curling at the edge of her mouth. Lau didn't like it; it felt like Hafidha had been poking them to see if they'd react. Which was normal enough--sometimes people wore grief like a flag, and if they couldn't find ways to ask for attention and support, they provoked to get it. But it still bothered and worried her.
Would it worry her if Falkner hadn't asked about Hafidha, back in DC? Was she hypersensitive because of that? Agggggh. Stupid, stupid profiler brain.
Reyes tilted his head, trying to read Hafidha. She met his gaze and nodded, and whether it satisfied him or not--well, cold-reading Stephen Reyes was a lifetime learning project. He said, "Worth, Villette, I'd like you both to come. Lau, if there is any way you can get the DNA results on the tissue and the gum, that would be great. Sit on them. If those are Sandy Cramer's tears or saliva, I want to be able to call her on it tomorrow morning."
Lau said, "I'm Wonder Woman, not The Flash. DNA will still take... well, a while. Probably at least a week, even if I lean on people. And I will be leaning on people. What about Peter Kaczmareck?"
"He teaches Sunday school at First United Methodist," Hafidha said. "I bet they don't know about his DUIs and drug convictions."
"Madalyn Basuto also taught Sunday school at First United Methodist, didn't she?" asked Reyes. Falkner nodded, and Lau took note: another link. Addiction, recovery, dirty little secrets. Sunday school. Murder made for strange juxtapositions.
"Frost says our gamma might already be dead," Worth reminded the room. "If we're just the trauma cleanup team this time?"
"We thank our stars and do a damned fine job scrubbing and repainting," Reyes said.
"She wasn't left-handed." Falkner dismissed her own words with a wave of her hand even as she enunciated them. Not conclusive.
Worth said, "Based on her history--and this is speculation--if she was sexually abused in the treatment program, that could be a crack."
"What if she wasn't a gamma?" Hafidha blurted. "What if she was a beta?"
"We only know of two betas and I'm looking at both of them." Lau bit her lip, startled by the intensity of her own outburst. Reaction formation, but what the hell was she reacting to? She pressed her forehead, wincing at the pressure of déjà vu, and sat down on the edge of Chaz's bed beside the wreckage of his dinner. "Sorry. Sorry. Headache."
Chaz pushed the tray out of her way and nudged her shoulder "And we're not even sure about them." She glanced at him sharply, but he smiled when he said it. Hafidha didn't.
Instead, Hafidha's hands were pinwheeling in excitement. "If we exist, it stands to reason there are more. What about a scenario where someone is taking betas and turning them into gammas?" Hafidha looked around the room. "There must be lots of people like me who are just better at laying low. So what if Talliwell has been traveling around, using his programs to meet people who have been stressed and traumatized, picking out the likely ones--"
Falkner narrowed her eyes. "You're saying you think there's more than one host? Based on the tissue and the gum?"
"Based on Tameka and Carrie-Ann. Based on Chaz and me." Hafidha gestured back and forth between them. "Based on Hope Mitchell and her mysterious partner and possible murderer." She looked around the room, took a deep breath, and looked right at Lau when she said three words everybody in the WTF hated. "Evolving anomaly model. There's evidence in this case to support it."
"What about the grotesque posing of the bodies?" Falkner asked. "Isn't that intention to harm?"
Hafidha ducked her head, awarding Falkner the point, but said, "It could also be the result of experimentation. I'm not sure we have enough to go on to profile intent, there, yet."
"Based on how long it takes to dig up a body," Chaz said, "Hafidha's right. Even without a vault, coffins are buried at least six feet deep and most of them--Tabatha's notwithstanding--are at least six feet long. They might not all be gammas--remember Susannah Greenwood and Morgan Crierwy?--but unless his manifestation is grave-digging, there's probably more than one person involved."
"God gave him a gift," Lau intoned, desperately needing to break the tension. "He shovels well. He shovels very well."
It got a laugh, anyway. And then Reyes stepped into the slightly less-tense silence that followed, calm and in control with the findings and the summary.
"Hafidha is right. Gamma is a questionable diagnosis at this time," Reyes said. "And we have to consider the possibility that we're looking at the third team in the space of half a year. If Madalyn Basuto was an-- a jammer, she might as easily have been a beta. There's no evidence of intention to harm anyone. And she might have had a partner or partners--or she might have been the victim of another individual or team. Worth, Villette, I want you to travel out to the rehab center tomorrow afternoon, after we interview Cramer, and see if you can pry anything out of them about Basuto's stay."
Daphne nodded. "There goes the weekend."
Long after she should have been in bed, nursing her aching temples, Lau sat up in her t-shirt and panda-and-star pajama bottoms and stared at her cell phone, willing it to ring. She'd called in several favors to get the lab to promise her an inhumanly fast turnaround on the results, but promises sometimes got buried under paperwork. Or mere human frailty.
Daphne could probably tell her exactly how long the testing itself would take, but right now Nikki felt a little like Han Solo. Never tell me the odds. If what she was asking for was actually physically impossible, she just didn't want to know.
A familiar knock sounded on her door, and she got up to check the peephole and open up.
Hafidha stood there, an armful of snacks cradled to her chest with one hand and a bottle of root beer dangling from the other. She was wearing a deep blue satin dressing gown with golden lapels. Gorgeous. And typical. What was atypical was the complete absence of any electronic devices. She could probably just pick up a signal from Lau's Blackberry if she decided she needed one.
"You look dressed up for a better quality of sleepover than you're likely to find in these parts."
Hafidha walked past her to dump her bounty on the bed. "Worth's on the phone with her sweetie, Chaz is in with Dad, and anyway one of them is snoring so loudly I can hear him through the door, and I knew you'd still be up. Where's Mom?"
"Went down to the lobby to talk to her family, I think."
Hafidha's eyes looked a little glassy. Lau pushed a pile of case jackets off the second chair--they made a satisfying papery splat against the carpet--and gestured Hafidha into it.
"I'm thinking of calling the lab to give them a little nudge."
"How many calls will this make?" Hafidha flopped into the chair. "Sorry. It's UTZ. It's what they had at the convenience store."
Lau took off-brand cheese puffs and ripped them open. "Eleventy." She smiled. "Thanks for coming over with these."
Hafidha swigged root beer like Corona and wiped her mouth on the back of her hand. "Jean de la Bruyere. 17th century French moralist. 'All of our unhappiness comes from our inability to be alone.'"
Lau put one of the puffs on her tongue and crushed it against the roof of her mouth, feeling it dissolve into a sharp, greasy glob. "Jayzus. What would he think of the World Wide Web? No, don't answer that. War? Murder? Substance abuse? Compulsive gambling? I'm having trouble coming up with a counterexample." If Hafidha wanted to discuss philosophy, Lau would damned well help her do it. At least she was talking.
"I think it would be easier to be alone if we didn't have to be alone with ourselves."
Lau opened her mouth to ask her to explain, but her phone buzzed. She reached for it and then stopped when she saw the number. Justin, a guy she'd met a week back. A clean-cut securities trader, but the way his eyes lit up when he talked about his weekend hunting (read: drinking) trips stirred her interest. She was smart enough not to date him; she should have been smart enough not to give him her phone number.
Your family would not approve of your taste in men, Nikki.
Well, duh. That was why she had it.
"Are you going to get that?" Hafidha asked.
"Nope." Lau hit END and sent it straight to voicemail. "Being alone is so not my problem. Being with somebody else, I suck at." She wanted Hafs to open up, and sometimes talking about yourself was an invitation. She gritted her teeth and rolled her eyes. "Bad boy disease."
"Pistol Pete is the farthest thing from a bad boy--"
"Exactly," Lau said, and grinned at her.
Hafidha winced. "Ouch. Have you tried hypnotherapy?"
"I was thinking of wearing a shock collar, honestly." Lau scrolled down the phone history and jabbed her thumb on the green button when she got to the entry for the lab.
The lab technician spent a lot of time explaining to her how they usually didn't do anything this quickly. Not for anyone. Not under any circumstances. Nikki listened patiently. Listening to people made them helpful. When she'd been appropriately chastened, he read her the results. She thanked him and hung up the phone. Score another one for the miracle worker.
"Everything okay?" Hafidha asked, day-glo orange cheez powder smeared across her soft, frowning, brown cheek.
"There's a new quick polymerase chain reaction process. This is just a preliminary, but the lab has managed to isolate several VNTRs from the gum and the tissues," Lau said. "They're running it through CODIS and the NDIS. Of course, the odds of our perp having DNA on file are, well, negligible."
"I can expedite the indexing," Hafidha said. "And I'll ask Daphsy to see if she can pick up a DNA sample from Tabatha Cramer's mother tomorrow. Are you prepared to lean on Kaczmareck? If we get a profile on him and on Cramer we won't need CODIS to pull a match--we can just hand the printouts to the Platypus and he can tell us if they're compatible. Better than a mean old FBI tech any day."
Lau smiled. There was something kind of cozy about your friends using their superpowers more or less like a flatbed scanner. "I'll bring my trusty cheek swabs. Sometimes the threat of a DNA test is enough to get people talking. They watch CSI. They don't know it's not magic."
"Magic," Hafidha said, She extended one regal hand for the cheez doodles. "I could use me some of that."
You could have been a better person. You used to be one, you're pretty sure. Hard to tell, when so much is hazy or just plain missing.
You don't like to notice the missing bits. It makes you feel like you're stuck on a midway ride, upside down and swinging, and pretty soon you won't be able to hang on.
But you remember the baseball trophies, little gilded batters leaning into their swing, and being able to think, That's what I look like. It felt good. And the athletic scholarship, that did, too.
It was vodka back then, so no one would smell it on your breath. Everybody did it. Except not everybody wrapped a car around a telephone pole on graduation night. The broken leg, the lost scholarship, the shit jobs: you were in hell. Right where you deserved to be. Pride goeth before crumpled metal and broken glass and nothing will ever feel good again.
You hadn't seen that it wasn't all you, you, you. Coach talked about "team" and you heard "star," and thought you could shine enough to read by. You're smarter now. By yourself you're a drunk, a crackhead, a failure, a mistake. But you're not by yourself anymore. You can feel the mighty hosts, hear the strong voices around and inside you. Lift up your voice with theirs. Now you know what shining is. You're a star among a million stars, one bright speck in Heaven's glory.
Your lungs swell to take in the joy.
Sunday morning Reyes loaded Worth and Villette into the rental Subaru to interview Sandy Cramer, feeling absurdly like a soccer dad. Before pulling out, he made one last check-in with Falkner, who was heading off with Lau and Hafidha to locate Peter Kaczmareck at his weekend job as a Sunday school teacher. Three was big for an interview party, small for a gamma hunt, and ever since Hope Mitchell, Reyes had been unable to shake the bladed apprehension that heralded every potential encounter with a gamma.
"Careful," he said to Falkner unnecessarily, so she would smile and say, "Careful," unnecessarily back to him. He patted the photo of a red-haired, blue-eyed, slender young woman in his breast pocket and winked at her. "You know I always do exactly what you tell me."
She laughed, which was good, and got into her car.
Let's split up, he thought, as her rented Mazda--piloted by Lau--glided out of the hotel parking lot. We can be spread over more ground that way.
Fifteen minutes later, Reyes and his team sat down in a vinyl-booths-and-sun-shaped-sign kind of coffeeshop, Villette and Reyes opposite and Worth beside a woman who looked like a faded image of her photograph. Sandy Cramer was painfully thin and her hands shook. Like a gamma, sure, but she also looked like an addict. One of her front teeth had blackened with rot and dirt caked the underside of her fingernails.
Madalyn Basuto, emaciated. Sandra Cramer, emaciated. Was either one a gamma?
Reyes didn't think so. Cape Cod and Susannah Greenwood were not so very long ago.
"Thanks for meeting with us," Worth said.
"My house is really messy," Sandy said, fretting her fingers together. She gulped. "I don't like letting people see it. I know I should clean up, but sometimes I just can't figure out where everything goes."
Reyes made himself conscious of his stillness, conscious of the receptivity of his body language and expression. Just the awareness helped, he found--if you thought of yourself as listening, people perceived you as listening, and they made the effort to speak.
"Can I get you a coffee? Tea? I'm going up anyway," Chaz said.
Sandy Cramer smiled at him, hesitant and pleased. She wasn't much older than Villette, and quite possibly even less used to human kindness. "Thank you. I'll take whatever. Whatever you're having."
Villette rose, went to the counter and ordered coffee and pastries for the table--and tea for Reyes, Lipton for his sins--while the others watched him. The shop was nearly empty, like everything else in this town, and Villette returned shortly, balancing a tray. The doughnuts and muffins looked a little on the stale side, but Sandy ate three anyway, dipping each bite carefully in her coffee. Meth addicts notoriously loved sugar; so did gammas.
Reyes waited until she slowed down and said, "We're investigating the disturbance of Tabatha's grave. This must be very hard for you."
Sandy nodded. "You would think it'd get easier but it doesn't. I know my baby forgives me and that makes things easier, but the pain never really goes away. If you'd ever lost someone--a family member--you'd understand."
Neither Villette nor Worth batted an eye, leaving Reyes silently, achingly proud of their professionalism. He repaid them the best way he could, by not wasting their strength but instead using it as they had intended--keeping her talking, and not allowing himself to frown over the phrase I know my baby forgives me. "I lost my father, but that's not like losing a child."
"Were you at the site?" Worth asked. "Did the police bring you up to identify the grave?"
Sandy shook her head, but her teeth pressed into her lower lip, and she glanced up, over Reyes' head. "I don't think I could have stood to see that."
"So you didn't come to your daughter's grave at any time after her remains were disturbed?" Worth asked.
"No," she said. "Absolutely not."
Worth was earning her raise today. Reyes leaned forward, elbows on the table, ignoring the pinch of his ribs that was more a habit than a real reminder of injury now. "We found some tissues at the site, Ms. Cramer, and we've isolated DNA evidence from them. You can provide us with a sample now for comparison, or we can get a court order. In any case, we're confident that they will confirm your presence at the gravesite."
She shook her head again, more violently. Her hands clenched on her empty coffee mug, and she rocked against the booth back. Worth turned slightly to face her. "I must have come there before. I visit her grave. I'm her mother."
This is the garden path, Reyes thought. Walk down it. "Do you know a man named Peter Kaczmareck? He's the Sunday School teacher at First United Methodist."
Cramer's mouth pressed thin and grim. Her fingertips whitened on the mug.
"He also attends your support group, doesn't he?"
"That's private," she said. "That's confidential."
"Okay," Chaz said, "but tell me what's the most difficult part of recovery?"
"The hardest one for me was confronting people I've wronged," she said. "But I'm just past the twelfth step."
"And what comes after that?" Chaz asked. The booth was so quiet that Reyes could hear all of them breathing.
"All the other steps," she said. "All the steps that take you up to heaven."
The silence stretched. Reyes sat back and folded his arms.
"I'm afraid there was dirt inside the tissue," said Reyes. "And a microscopic forensic analysis lets us state confidently that the soil was from inside the grave. That's sufficient for me to obtain a warrant for your arrest, Ms. Cramer. But I don't want to arrest you. I believe you're as much a victim in this as Tabatha."
When her pupils contracted, he knew he had her. He wished he wasn't quite so happy about it, but the brain took its endorphins where it could find them. Now, to offer her the door out, and the helping hand to get there. He looked at Villette, but Villette was already on it.
"Ms. Cramer," he said. "I don't think you killed anybody. I think somebody pressured you into activities that seemed more reasonable at the time than they really were. And that is the person we are interested in finding."
He leaned forward, intent and helpful, just as Reyes' phone vibrated in its holster opposite his gun. Unlike so many of his team, he didn't affect tailored ringtones, and Hafidha respected--or pretended to respect--him enough to leave the default unhacked.
He glanced at the readout and stood. "Excuse me. I have to take this."
"Can I go now?" Sandy asked, in the voice of a little girl called to the principal's office.
No one, Reyes understood. No one had ever given her the tools that would have placed her in a position of power in her own life. No one had ever given her the chance to be anybody except a victim. She had been doomed from the first, and whatever experience or genetics might have given her the agency to save herself, to save her daughter--it had never materialized.
It was long gone and too late now.
He answered the phone because FBI agents don't cry.
"I'm afraid not," said Worth. "We can hold you for questioning for up to seventy-two hours. You'll be returning to the Sheriff's office with us."
Reyes put the phone to his ear and turned away so he could hear what Falkner was saying. She was out of breath. Her voice sounded like it was coming from a long way away. "Stephen, ah--I. This is bad. What you said about him not decompensating?"
His first name was a damned bad sign. So was her level of upset, the strain in her voice shining through the static. He felt himself go cold all though his belly, legs abruptly long and spindly and unbalanced, his chest knotting around anxiety instead of expanding to take in air. "Special Agent, I can barely hear you."
Another crackle. "--Kids, a whole classroom of them."
Perhaps she'd stepped outside of a structure, because her voice suddenly and unwelcomely came clear. "Another--Reyes, Kaczmareck. He's dead, And his entire Sunday school class at First United Methodist. All of them. Just like Madalyn..."
Esther Falkner sobbed, a sound that Stephen Reyes would have prayed to God he never heard again in this lifetime, if he were still a praying man. He wondered how many of the dead children were the same age as Falkner's girls.
"Secure the scene," he said, because right this second, Falkner the consummate leader needed a voice of leadership, and that was something he could give her. "We've got Cramer. She's safe for now. We're on our way."
He turned back to the table. Worth was already on her feet and pulling Cramer up with her, Villette at the counter settling the bill. When Worth caught his eye, turning, he just nodded. The kind of nod that was worse than a headshake, and he saw her take it like a punch in the gut.
"Ms. Cramer," he said. "For your own protection, I am afraid you must accompany us to the Sheriff's office. Something's come up, and we will have to continue this conversation in a few hours."
"I want my lawyer," she said.
The basement of First United Methodist smelled like mildew and burnt coffee and freshly spilled blood. Three elderly volunteers and the pastor stood with cops in the coatroom beyond a narrow hallway; one of the women was keening horribly, her voice still rising, and an emergency services worker, uniform dark with a spreading, sticky stain, was attempting to comfort or possibly sedate her. Hafidha hung her ID around her neck, slipped the booties on her feet, and walked past into the doorway of the big room.
The walls were covered in fake wood paneling and kids' art. Crayon portraits of glitter-glue angels, of Adam and Eve holding up apples, and of what Hafidha guessed were locusts were now all spattered red.
Children still slumped at the tables, still stared with empty eyes at a free-standing chalkboard. All of their necks were sliced open, their shirts stiff with drying gore.
"I heard singing," one of the elderly women was saying from down the hallway, out of sight. Thin walls. "A man was singing, but it sounded like there were other voices too. And then just screaming. The door was locked and we tried to break it down. Finally the janitor opened it and..."
At the front of the class, Peter Kaczmareck lay on the blood-saturated carpet. He was a bone-thin man with a mild expression, even in death, that was utterly at odds with the surroundings. To all appearances, he had cut his own throat so deeply that his head was nearly severed from his neck. That took a lot of strength. The kind of strength normal people with his build just didn't have, unless they were deep in the throes of the sort of adrenaline reaction that left you with torn muscle fibers and wrenched tendons... if you lived.
On the board above him, someone had written: GOD SPEAKS EAR TO EAR. YOU DO NOT NEED A PRIEST TO SPEAK FOR YOU. YOU ARE NOT THE PUPPET OF THE MEN WHO WOULD BLAME.
And then below it: OPEN YOUR EYES TO THE SUFFERING OF THE WORLD.
The chalk had skipped in the blood.
Hafidha tried to imagine how something like this could have happened. She tried to imagine how she'd failed in her calling to the extent that she had let it happen. There just hadn't been enough warning. It was too big, too deep, too wide to grow out of one funky death and a bunch of busted-up coffins.
This just wasn't the way the process worked.
She recognized the phrasing from the website of the Church of the Living Word. He'd been out here for years. Years. And she had missed him.
The whole world smelled like blood.
"Hafidha?" Reyes asked from behind her. It was that trained, mellow, measured voice, so reasonable, so full of alternatives and plans of attack, that had given her a reason to keep fighting when he first found her. Now it sounded as flat as the dull thumps of her heart. "You know you can't go in there before forensics."
For a moment, she looked at him uncomprehendingly.
Right. Her team. She'd forgotten about them.
"I know that," she said softly.
"I know you know that," Reyes said. "So how about you come on out of there and we try and figure this thing out? We've got to get the people upstairs."
Falkner was in the hallway, with Lau, talking to the pastor. Worth and Chaz were nowhere in sight; perhaps they'd been left at the police station with the other gamma, or other beta, or other victim. Whatever she turned out to be. Slowly the elderly women were being helped away from the crime scene. The one who had been keening had stopped. Another one was weeping now in silent gasps, tears wetting her face.
"Could this be the thing that Madalyn refused to do?" Reyes asked quietly, as though he was weighing the idea.
She could have said So you don't think this was the gamma? So you don't think this is a team of gammas? Hafidha looked back into the room. "He locked them in with him. Closed the windows. Like a-- god, like a fox in a henhouse. They had nowhere to go, and when he caught one, he killed--" --it. Because how you could think of those as people, and do what he had done? "Then he moved on to the next. He put them back in the chairs when he was done."
Reyes's hand brushed her elbow. "The scene has been affected by EMS activity." Checking to see if any of the victims were still alive. She was glad he didn't say compromised.
She swallowed, and regretted it. "But why the suicide?"
"The host is careful," Reyes said. A muscle in his jaw jumped, like he was talking around clenched teeth.
It got out, this time. "You don't think Peter Kaczmareck was the host?" Hafidha asked.
She couldn't stop looking at the way the blood was matting in the thin brown hair of a girl with pigtails, the way their eyes had not yet clouded though their cheeks paled in death. If only there were the buzz of a fly, this would be perfect. But the church was air-conditioned, and no flies had yet found their way in.
Surely this should make me cry, she thought. Surely this should touch me.
But inside of her was as dry as dust.
She looked up at the blackboard again and saw the letter cards hanging over it. Ringed the top of the classroom, each letter shown in capital and lower case. A is for Apple. B is for Bodybag. C for Catastrophe.
"P is for Puppet," Reyes said, and touched her lightly on the arm. "Come on. Let's go talk to Chaz about Sandra Cramer."
Chaz sat behind the one-way glass in the observation area of one of the two interview rooms in the Hancock County Sheriff's Office, sipping coffee with cream and sugar and listening to his stomach rumble. It was past lunch time, but he was too nauseated to think about eating. Given what Lau had called in about the crime scene, for once he didn't feel left out to be staying behind. And he had something important to do here.
He was watching Sandy Cramer wait for her lawyer.
He wouldn't have expected her to wait well--addicts in early recovery were not renowned for their Zen--but she surprised him. She sat in the floor-bolted chair behind the floor-bolted table, her unmanacled hands resting in her lap, a plastic cup of water by her elbow.
She had closed her eyes, and she was humming.
Fortunately for the WTF, Sunday afternoon in Yardston, Ohio was not peak hour for quickly obtaining a public defense attorney, which meant that Chaz had time to stare. And Sandra had time to sing, a strangely compelling little tune. If it had words, he couldn't quite make them out--or maybe they disappeared as soon as they were sung. It was hard not to sing along with her. Before Texas, he might have found himself humming under his breath. Before Texas, he might not have realized that the urge to join in was anything but natural.
"So if you're not a gamma," he said under his breath, having shaken the song out of his head one more time, "what are you?"
When his Adorable Overhyped Phone played the first notes of the theme from "Shaft," he answered it immediately. "She's still breathing, boss. And singing."
"Puppets," Reyes said in his ear, sounding like a man twenty years older. "They're puppets. Don't let anybody else listen to the music. And you--"
The silence on the other end of the phone was one tired, tired smile.
The door of the observation booth opened and Worth slipped through the crack, light brown hair ponytailed and frown lines at the corners of her eyes. Frantically, with his free hand, Chaz pointed to her and then stuck a finger in his ear.
Her head tilted, expression incredulous.
He opened the right hand, jerking it away from his body. What? Do it!
She was his partner. She took a deep sigh and dug into her pocket, coming up with a pair of custom earplugs in a clear plastic case--for range shooting and hotel sleeping. Indispensable.
"I love you," he mouthed, and she flipped him the finger, but she put the earplugs in.
Reyes cleared his throat. "You still there?"
"Yeah," Chaz said. He shifted the phone to his other ear. "I was just warning Daphne about the siren. There's no guarantee I'm immune to this thing, you know."
"Try not to listen. Look, the host is likely to be Talliwell--"
Chaz felt the song nudging at him, subvocalizing. He swallowed it down. "What about Cramer?"
"I think Talliwell's feeding off and manipulating her and the others. But he's in the wind. We've sent uniforms around to his house, the other support group locations. Nothing."
"Fuck," Chaz said, forgetting for a moment that he was dropping the F-bomb on his boss. "Were there any survivors at the church?"
"No," Reyes said. "Wait, Hafidha is here. She wants to say something. You're on speaker."
"Hi, Hafs. What you got for me?"
"Mythology," she said. On his end of the conversation, Daphne walked over, hunkered down, and pulled an earplug out. She cocked her ear to the phone, and Chaz responded by turning off the sound feed from the interview room, which was what he should have done in the first place, and turning on the phone speaker.
"Daphne is here. Cult leader as a gamma?" asked Chaz. "Addiction, God, what have we got?"
"Christianity," said Hafs. "He grew up in a splinter church. Want to bet there was speaking in tongues? God possessing the faithful? You know there was singing. Add that to a twelve-step program--"
"I'm missing something," Chaz said. "If you could see me, I would be making the international symbol for context."
"The twelve step credo," Hafidha said. "It's supposed to be admitting one's own powerlessness, believing a power outside oneself like God can restore you, turning over your life to that power, making a moral inventory, telling God and someone else the wrongs you've done, asking God to remove all those defects of character, asking God to get rid of shortcomings, make a list of people you've wronged, make amends to those people, make direct amends where possible, continued personal inventory where possible, praying for more guidance from God, and then practicing and carrying on the message. It's all about surrender."
Chaz heard Reyes's intake of breath all the way down the phone line.
"Seventeen steps that take you all the way to heaven," Reyes said. "So, more steps. Singing. Speaking in tongues. Surrendering yourself to the will of God--as personified by Talliwell. Being possessed."
Chaz closed his eyes, the way he had in Texas. He blew air out through his nose, and tried not to feel gentle fingers moving in his hair. I am a poor wayfaring stranger-- "Singing is a way to encourage feelings of loyalty," he said. "It can also create camaraderie without the risk of talking."
Worth set her clipboard on the desk, tracing a line of her own writing absently. "I managed a phone interview with the pastor of one of the churches where they meet. He mentioned the singing. Like a professional chorus, he said. Not like a bunch of addicts who meet a couple of times a week."
That thought shivered up Chaz's spine.
"Killing children is one of our most profound societal taboos," Reyes said. "This murder was designed to horrify, to emotionally maim. To destroy. Not just individuals. The entire community, which is already socially fragile."
"Gamma," Hafidha said like a prayer. "If it's Talliwell, he went from lurking evil to flowering canker in like Maserati time. So what's the trigger?"
Worth swallowed loud enough that Chaz could hear it.
"We are," she said. "Come on, what are the odds that this guy goes postal as soon as we get here? We were lured out here. This is for us."
"I hate you," Chaz sighed.
She flashed him a brilliant, bitter smile.
"Open your eyes to the suffering of the world," said Reyes. "I think Daphne is right. Maybe it's us, maybe it's not us, but he's been setting this up for years. He's an evangelist. He wants us to see what the anomaly sees. All that suffering. And he puts his disciples through a certain amount of suffering too--"
"Confronting the people who've been wronged," Chaz said. His fingers hurt; he realized he was squeezing his AOP like a rescue rope. Nausea was definitely winning out over hunger now. "Sandy said that was the worst part. And she said she knew her daughter forgave her. What if she knew her daughter forgave her because she actually saw the corpse of her daughter tell her so?"
"Puppetmaster," Reyes said. "The manipulated corpses, the alien hands."
Chaz saw Daphne raise her hand to her throat, and with an empathetic flinch that was only half the mirror, knew what she was remembering. Their first case together, the press of one's own tongue into the throat--
"Chazzie," Hafidha said. "You have got to get it out of Sandy lady where her bossman is hiding. If she's singing and he's in her head, you should be able to interrogate him through her, right? This guy's the Puppetmaster; he thinks he's too smart to beat. And he's been baiting us since 2007. Do you think there's any chance that I got that flyer from the Living Word of God by coincidence?"
"That's that thing we don't believe in again," Daphne said.
"Chaz can't interview her," Reyes said. "She lawyered up."
Hafidha said, "Then Talliwell's going to be in Peru or something by tomorrow."
Chaz turned his head and stared as if he could see across town to the church and its freight of murdered children. Even with the walls between them, he knew the direction. "Oh, I can interview her all right," Chaz said. "I just can't ask her any questions."
Daphne turned toward him, saw his expression and put her hand on his arm. It was too late, though. He was already pushing past her, plucking the clipboard out of her hand as he went, out into the hall and around the corner to the locked door to the interview room.
The clipboard clutched in his hand, a pen in the other, Chaz took a breath and stepped inside.
Sandy Cramer lifted her head, still humming, her eyes faded blue. "Mister Villette," she said. "You're one of us, you know. You're not alone."
She had a child's big eyes in a starveling face, and right now they were full of gamine honesty. He waited, arms folded around the clipboard, to see what she would say.
"Haven't you ever just wanted an easy answer? Wanted something to take the pain away?"
Chaz flinched. Leaning back against William Villette's shoulder, thinking how easy, how safe and comfortable, it would be to give in, to be owned... Cramer's stare was hungry, as if somehow she could see the milky remains of hospital opiates waiting to blossom inside him. She might be three years older than Addy Villette had been, when his mother had kicked out her life on a bathroom floor. Addiction runs in families. He thought instead of dead kids and the dead look Hafidha gave him when he asked her if she was all right.
He sat down across from her, the pen creaking in his hands, and let the mirror slide slowly open. Despite his caution, she came into him like a whirlwind. Like a voice speaking out of a fire. She came into him, and she blew him open.
He could feel Sandy under there, feel her confusion and addiction and the helpless clench of her fingers as someone she had never seen before and would never see again lifted Tabatha out of her arms. He felt the sting of smoke and tasted the blessed relief. He would have recoiled from it--too raw, too close--but something else clutched at him, sank ragged claws, drew him close and whispered something like sweet seduction against his skin.
What spilled out of his mouth in her voice was different, new. Organized.
People think of addicts as weak, just because they have suffered and seen. Addicts are the chosen, born unable to look away from the world in all its misery. No poor human can stand looking into the face of God. Is it any wonder that we try to blur the glass? Is it any wonder that we would pass out in bars, in ditches, in the backs of cars? Is it any wonder that we would do anything for a piece of the oblivion the rest of you have every day?
You do not need a priest for God to hear you. You only need to be broken at the heart.
God breaks us because he loves us.
God breaks us so we can let him in.
My parents were addicts and my parents' parents were addicts. Maybe in the old days we would have been prophets.
Damage opens the door. Damage lets in the ability to see.
We are the damaged. We are the chosen. We will show you the steps.
Climb with us and sing.
It hurt. Not staying, getting loose. Getting off the barbs of those loving, caressing claws. He jerked himself together. Folded himself closed. staggered back from the table, scraping his thighs and calves on the chair. Daphne must have come in after him, because she was there, holding his arm, supporting him.
It's mommy's medicine, cowboy. It's so mommy can do her job. That's all.
"Hey," she asked him, as he lurched upright. "You okay in there?"
Sandy Cramer lifted her gaze. She smiled, leaning forward across the table, her hands spread flat on it now. "Oh, sweetheart," she said. "You really understand. You're like us. You understand."
Chaz yanked his gaze away, shuddering. He whispered, just for Daphs, "For now we see through a glass, darkly; for now I know in part; but then I shall know even as also I am known."
"That's that Christian book thing." She was trying to lighten the moment. It wasn't working.
"1 Corinthians 13:12." Chaz licked suddenly dry lips. "She's not alone. He's in there with her. I know where he is, though. I know where he is."
Sandy smiled up at him. "You brought me what I asked for." She slid a hand forward as if reaching out to him, but at the last moment it slapped down. Too late, he understood what she was after.
The clipboard tore apart in her hands, spring snapping, bloodying her fingers. It was only a little blood.
But not for long.
Chaz lunged, Daphne right behind him. He threw himself across the table, got his hands on Sandy's wrist. Pulled.
Too late. Arterial blood, red as currant jelly, gouted. Daphne shoved him aside, scrambling through swamps of sticky blood across the table to follow Sandy down while Chaz dove for the panic button by the door.
"EMS," she yelled, crimson pulsing between her fingers. "Get me a fucking bus right now!"
With Falkner behind the wheel and the party lights running, it wouldn't take long to get from one side of Yardston to the other. From one church to the other. One mass murder scene to...an arrest. They would be in time. An apprehension.
Lau had never noticed that double meaning before. She wished she hadn't now.
Reyes, in the front passenger seat, was on his cell to the state police, making sure they had roadblocks in place. If Talliwell tried to bolt, that might slow him down. Hafidha, beside Lau in the back seat, gripped the grab bar over her door; that was the only sign she noticed their breakneck pace. She gazed forward out the windshield, over Reyes's shoulder, serene, concentrating, as if she was waiting for something to appear on the horizon. One of her braids had worked loose from its scrunchie, and swung across her face as Falkner cornered at something like the limit of rubber's ability to stick to asphalt.
This was the hardest part: where you threw everything you had at a gamma and prayed you'd all make it out alive. She still remembered Frank Scott's inhuman grip in the San Diego copshop, when they'd lured him out of hiding. Two days later, she'd realized the ache in her biceps, the band of purple bruise, were from his fingers. No one was around to hear her swallow a sob, or watch her scrub her arm with hot water and soap until the skin stung. They'd got him. It had taken most of the team and a local police division, but Scott had gone out in the proverbial hail of gunfire, some of it Lau's.
But what if it wasn't just Talliwell? Was Peter Kaczmareck just a conduit for the puppeteer, or had he been a gamma himself? If Sandy Cramer was a gamma, she didn't seem very good at it--but Chaz, calling in as he and Worth followed the ambulance to the hospital, said her singing had a hypnotic effect. What if Talliwell's whole splinter NA group were anomaloids, gathered or converted?
In Miami, it had required Reyes, Todd, Brady, and Chaz to take down two unarmed girls. Until Miami, they'd believed the anomaly didn't play well with others. If that had changed, they might need a lot more firepower than they had in this car.
"They know," Hafidha said and for a moment Lau thought that Hafidha was answering her own thought. "I don't know what exactly they think they're making. More visionaries? More people for their chorus? But they know the anomaly needs the crack. The initial trauma."
"An organism displaying adaptive behavior doesn't necessarily understand the reason for the adaptation," Reyes said, folding his phone away. The Kevlar coordinated with his shirt, a dark steely blue that flattered his skin tone. "Was what James Caldwell was doing in Omaha so very different?"
Lau spotted their goal on the horizon well before they arrived there. Perched on the edge of rolling cornfields like a toy building on a model train board, the church itself was small and white and ringed on every side with white and blue Hancock County patrol cars.
Lau focused down, cleared her head, and thought about her breathing. The knot of anxiety in her gut would vanish as soon as they hit the doors at the church. Until then, she just had to stay on top of it it. Just like surfing--all that thunder down there had the power to pick you up and shake you like a rag doll, but if you could ride it, it could move you fast and far. "Do we think we have a whole church full of gammas?"
Reyes paused. "My current belief is that we have one gamma and a group of disciples. But that's based on--"
"--a lot of assumptions." said Hafidha as they pulled onto the gravel of the church overflow parking lot.
Reyes said go and the team hit the doors in unison, half a step behind him. Sheriff McKinley was already walking forward. Faintly, Lau could hear music.
"What have we got?" Reyes asked, as Falkner walked over to examine a building plan weighted to the hood of the nearest patrol vehicle.
"Five inside, we think. All in the nave. Talliwell's car is in the lot. We held back, as you requested."
"Continue to cover all exits," Reyes said. "Because we believe it may be possible to preserve some or all of Talliwell's disciples, my team will go in first. Stay on the headsets, though, and if we yell for backup come in fast. We're going to try to end this without bloodshed, but in general, the profile for this type of offender does not suggest a good outcome with standard hostage negotiation techniques. Which is why we go in immediately."
It was always the same conversation. Lau didn't really need to listen, but it was professional to do so.
Reyes looked at Falkner. She was ready, and obviously wishing they had Chaz and Daphne. Lau wouldn't have minded Todd and Brady too. This one was going to be ugly.
"There are four ways in. We'll leave them the front doors; Hafidha, you remain with the Sheriff to advise him." The look that passed between Falkner and Hafs spoke volumes. And keep any stray gammas from getting the drop on him. "Lau, you cover the back kitchen door. Reyes and I will come in here and here. We'll try to catch Talliwell in a pincer. Mind your field of fire and target identification, everybody; there will be fellow officers in front of you."
Hafidha nodded. Lau nodded too, though she didn't like it. It felt like someone alien was doing the nodding for her. Was that what it was like when a puppetmaster grabbed your muscles and bones and moved them to suit himself?
Reyes made sure he caught McKinley's eyes. "This is a minimal losses situation, Sheriff. We are going to try to bring everybody out safely, but there are no guarantees, Our first priority right now is protecting civilian and law enforcement lives."
McKinley nodded grimly. Simon Talliwell is expendable.
Lau was flanked by deputies as she walked at a safe distance toward the back of the church. One of them seemed a little dubious that the bitty Asian woman knew how to handle that great big gun, but the other--bigger, blonder, wearing a pocket patch embroidered with the name Fight (No, really? In her head, Lau heard Chaz explaining that that it was an Anglicization of the German name Veight)--dropped a hand on his arm and he desisted.
"Break a leg," Deputy Fight said.
Lau smiled at him before she pulled her helmet and face shield on, because she didn't trust her voice.
Aware of and grateful for the covering guns behind her, she picked her way around the church, her machine pistol at low ready. Whatever Richard flew, this was better. And the FBI wasn't too scared of women to give them guns. She slunk up the steps and swung into the covered porch, the body of the MP5 snug between her two hands, pointing--
Directly at Simon Talliwell.
"Hello," he said.
The gun twitched in Lau's hand. He didn't seem at all worried by it.
Talliwell looked like his picture. Short, balding. Stout. And who ever heard of a stout gamma?
"Mr. Talliwell," Lau said. "I'm a Federal agent. We're here to bring you in for questioning--" She was on mic. The team knew where Talliwell was now.
"Do that, and my congregants will take their lives."
Voices, singing in the sanctuary behind him. Voices in uncanny unison. She couldn't tell how many. "No, Mr. Talliwell. You'll do it, not them."
"Doctor Talliwell," he snapped, his voice rising half an octave. "They put themselves in my hands. But murder is all you people see."
"And what Peter Kaczmareck did? Was that murder?"
Her earpiece hissed, and gave her Reyes's voice, thin and far away in the tiny speaker. "He's prepared to kill the hostages. Lau, keep him talking, keep him outside. If you can, get him to break his connection with his puppets."
She would ask Talliwell for his terms. She'd tell him they'd get him whatever he needed. Except, what if he already had that?
In the shelter of the half-enclosed porch, Talliwell was out of line-of-sight for anyone but her.
"You have never really suffered, have you? I can tell," said Talliwell.
"Everyone's suffered, Doctor Talliwell," Lau said. "You can't compare wounds."
Talliwell's cupid's-bow upper lip curled. "Spoken like someone with no real knowledge of what pain is. I bet both your parents are alive. I bet you have brothers and sisters that love you."
Brothers, Lau thought. "You don't need to harm anyone, Doctor Talliwell. We can--"
"Maybe you didn't get into the college you wanted. Or maybe a boy you liked didn't like you back. And sometimes bad things would happen to people close to you and you would wish they happened to you."
"That's not true," Lau said. Dana's abuse was monstrous. What she faced when she spoke up about it was almost as bad. Lau had been close enough to see what it did to her, and how could she romanticize that nightmare and want to claim it?
But did she ever wish she'd had some pain she couldn't cover up, and had her own Nikki Lau to step forward and help her bear it? Who had ever thought to try to rescue her?
Talliwell must have seen something in her expression, even through her faceplate; the lip-curl became an outright patronizing smile. "Oh, you felt guilty about it, but you wished it. A little trauma, a little drama would have made you so much more interesting. Even then you could see that the damaged had something you didn't."
"What did they have?" she asked.
"They could see. They are the poets and the addicts and the magical. They are God's Chosen."
Why didn't Talliwell just grab hold of her strings and pull them? What kept him from putting her gun barrel in her mouth?
Oh. He can't. It only works on the damaged. On the cracked.
How to tell the team? Had they figured it out already? "So you use them. The ones who are different. Because they were damaged."
He ignored that. "You're drawn to the suffering of others, like a parasite. That's why you only love broken people. But you will never really get what you want until you yourself are hurt."
"What is it you think I want?"
"To be interesting. To be special." He sneered as he spoke the last word. "To fill the void inside you that yearns for you-know-not-what. To hear the word spoken only for you. I could give you the key."
"No thanks," she said.
Talliwell smiled and shook his head, and his plump cheeks quivered with the motion. "Time for us to go inside. You wouldn't shoot an unarmed man in the back, would you?"
She didn't need Reyes's voice in her ear, saying, "Lau, don't do it," to know it was a bad idea. "Doctor Talliwell, stay where you are--"
"Come with me into the church," Talliwell said, his back still to her, "or no one inside leaves alive."
"Stall him." Reyes's words were small and desperate and too damned far away. Talliwell pushed open the back door to reveal a short, narrow hall, linoleum on the floor and scarred pale-green enamel on the walls. At the other end she saw the church's tiny, old-fashioned kitchen. The singing carried through the space, each note strong and sure and chillingly perfect.
She would shoot an unarmed gamma in the back. But if she couldn't stop him with the first bullet, he'd live long enough to take the hostages with him.
She followed Talliwell down the hall and through the kitchen that smelled faintly of decades of tuna casserole and seven-layer salad. She kept her gun aimed at his spine, and held far enough back that he couldn't turn and disarm her in a move. Given the circumstances, her precautions seemed like window dressing.
Under the sanctuary's high acoustic-tile ceiling, huddled before the scratched dark-stained pulpit in the overhead light of ranks of pendant lamps, six of the stacking chairs that served as Sunday seating were drawn up in a circle. Six men and women, thin as junkies, thin as gammas, sat in them, holding hands, their eyes on each other. Singing.
Chaz, from his brief report on their interview with Cramer, thought the song might be hypnotic, might suck the listener into Talliwell's field of control. Lau couldn't imagine how. It was perfect, glassy cold flawless perfect, an alien reconstruction of what human choirs had sounded like made a thousand years after the humans were gone. It was like listening to razor blades and needles singing. It made her shake and want to run. She concentrated on her grip on the MP5, stock hard against her shoulder, the web of her right thumb splayed above the grip and her left hand pulling back against the barrel. Her palms were slick on the steel.
"We surrender," said Talliwell. He swept his arms out to either side, just slow enough that she didn't spook and shoot him. The gesture took in the singers, the room, the town. "We surrender ourselves to God. God will correct our defects. God will give us guidance. God has told us to surrender ourselves to you."
He'd walked her all the way in here, alone, in order to surrender? When he could have done it at the back door? Why?
"Did he, now?"
Lau flinched, and the gun jerked against her shoulder. It was Hafidha's voice, and not through Lau's earpiece. Hafidha, sidling through the double doors at the other end of the little sanctuary, her Glock at low ready, beads shining on her swinging braids. She'd dumped her helmet somewhere.
Talliwell jerked, too, glared over his shoulder, but the singers never faltered.
Hafidha nodded at him as if she were recognizing a friend. "You finally figured out you had to start small. So first you drill a nice little trauma-hole in your toys, here, so you can string them around your neck. Visits with their dead loved ones worked pretty well, huh?" She sounded downright cheerful, but her eyes were narrow, and never left Talliwell.
"Hafs," Lau said carefully, warningly.
"Gates, stand down." Reyes, crisp and certain in Lau's ear.
Hafidha showed no sign of hearing him. She moved down the strip of worn red carpet along the aisle slow and steady, like a stalking cat. "Then you spread the agony around. How many families in town had kids in that Sunday school class?"
Talliwell smiled at Hafidha, a real smile, not the scorn he'd heaped on Lau. "Now you are someone who has clearly known torment. Your eyes are open. Don't worry, our messengers have already gone out. They are practicing and carrying the message. The kingdom of the damaged is coming."
"Now you're done with your little pissant town. You're ready to branch out. To franchise."
Reyes and Falkner shouldered through the double doors at the front of the sanctuary and split to either side, weapons drawn. "Simon Talliwell!" Falkner shouted, her voice ringing big and clear over the singing. Oh, thank God, Lau thought. "Federal agents! You're under arrest!"
"Except you're not going to surrender," Hafidha said, and raised her pistol.
Lau saw the moment before it happened. Half a moment. Half an instant. Not enough time even to draw breath, let alone cry out.
After that, she couldn't have been heard over the gunfire.
Simon Talliwell jerked with each report. Each bullet to the center of mass, to Talliwell's chest and stomach, and he twitched and twitched and seemed to flinch even after he'd fallen, blood spreading outward, soaking in and lost in the stained, shabby red carpet. At the corner of Lau's vision Falkner lunged, and Hafidha grunted. The Glock hit the carpet with a dull thump, muffled and anticlimactic.
Lau closed on Talliwell, front sight a ring on his torso, and was aware of Reyes, on her right, doing the same. She kept Talliwell covered while Reyes felt for his pulse. It wasn't until Reyes rose and stepped back that Lau could see what lay before her as a corpse and not a gamma. Arms and legs askew, head thrown back and eyes and mouth wide, slack-muscled like an emptied bag, Talliwell looked as if he'd been dropped from a great height by a careless hand.
She heard Reyes's harsh panting, even over her own laboring breath and the pounding of blood in her ears, and the small, short sounds of Hafidha trying not to moan. That was when she realized the singing had stopped.
Lau hung up the phone on her borrowed copshop desk and stretched, toes pointed, arms overhead. The motion rolled the chair backward a little, and took a kink or two out of her shoulders. It didn't do anything for the knot of sick in her stomach.
She hadn't realized Sheriff McKinley was in the room until he cleared his throat and said, "How's it going?"
She spun the chair so she could look him in the eye. It was respectful. He deserved that. "Sandy Cramer died. They couldn't stop the bleeding in time." She'd have to tell Chaz and Worth, and wasn't looking forward to it. What she'd also tell them, and wouldn't mention to McKinley, was that Cramer had held onto life against any reasonable odds--until 8:27 p.m., when she'd shut down and died like a normal person.
No one had been present to pronounce on Talliwell's time of death, but Lau would have bet her teeth it was the same.
McKinley didn't close his eyes, but his gaze dropped, and she saw his lips move. The job hardened people, but there was a difference between hard and petrified. "What happens now?"
"We help with whatever cleanup you feel we can be useful for. If you need anyone to talk to the survivors or the victims' families, or if any of your officers have questions about what happened, we can assist. We'll clear the reports with the State's Attorney General. And if you have any subsequent problems, we're always available to consult." Lau knew she sounded professional, assured, assuring--that was what boilerplate was for. But she wished she could say, No one knows. You go from day to week to year never seeing the thing around the corner, just like the rest of us. That much, we're all in together.
McKinley reached out a big, square hand to the back of another chair and swung it around and across the aisle between desks, as if twirling a dance partner. Was he a good dancer? Maybe. Probably. He sat down and leaned his elbows on his knees. "Is there someone to help you folks?"
Lau kept her startle reaction down to a blink. After a breath, she said, "We're used to these cases. We'll be fine."
McKinley didn't bother to hide how little he believed that. "Special Agent Gates maybe saved those six people's lives. Now they can go back to trying to find something to keep 'em from drinking or buying rock or cooking meth."
She bit her lip. "Thanks for the pep talk. They're not dead, and they're not under someone else's control."
"They're addicts, Agent Lau. They gave control of their lives over to whatever they're hooked on, because life was too damned hard. AA says, 'You can't handle it? Fine. Don't give it over to the booze. Give it to the group. Give it to Jesus. Give it to the Man in the Moon. Because we get that you're going to give it away to something.'" McKinley's words were harsh, but his hands were soft and open, hanging at the ends of his arms. His brow furrowed like a bloodhound's, worried and caring. "Some of those six people will wish you'd just let 'em die and saved everyone the trouble."
Lau met his eyes. "No one's as hard on drunks as an ex-drunk."
"There's no such thing as an ex-drunk, Special Agent." He held her gaze, unashamed.
Maybe the reason why she wasn't attracted to men like this one was because she knew she'd never live up to those standards.
McKinley rose, wiping his palms on his trouser legs. "Hard to just walk away from something like that. Look after Special Agent Gates."
"We will. And thank you, Sheriff McKinley."
He laughed a little, down in his throat. "Do they teach manners at the FBI academy, too? Damn, I should send my officers."
This time it was Lau knocking on Hafidha's hotel room door. 103. It ought to mean something in leetspeak. Or maybe an emoticon. At last she heard Hafidha call, "It's not locked!"
Lau opened the door and stuck her head in. "Well, it should be. You know the stats on this stuff. Everyone else is loading the cars. Are you ready?"
Hafidha knelt in the middle of the room she'd shared with Falkner, rummaging in her black patent vinyl go bag. Hafs appeared to have nested like a hamster; one bed was stripped of all but the bottom sheet, the pillows flung at random at the foot, and the blanket and bedspread pooled and heaped on the floor as if they'd been kicked aside. The other bed was made tight and smooth. Falkner's military soul must have been sorely tried.
"Almost," Hafidha answered, a bit muffled by the cascade of her braids. She straightened up and winced, and flexed her right hand. "This would have gone a lot faster if Mom hadn't half broken my wrist. Whatever happened to 'Hold your fire'?"
Lau tried desperately to come up with an answer for that, one that wouldn't sound like an accusation. She seemed to be out of think-on-her-feet. "Where's your laptop bag?" she asked instead.
"Oh, god. Under that towel, I think--yes? Yes. Shit, I am not going without that earring..."
"Bathroom counter?" Lau suggested. In spite of the sore wrist, Hafidha's movements were precise and powerful, big gestures cramped into too-small spaces. Lau wanted to help with something, though she was a little afraid to step further into the room and risk squashing unseen objects under the bedclothes.
Besides, if this was the aftermath of, say, a one-on-one with Falkner, there wasn't much she could do.
"Hah! There it is." Hafidha hung the second of a pair of coral chandelier drops in her left ear and zipped the go bag like Siegfried and Roy disappearing a tiger. "Snag my jacket out of the closet, will you?"
The pressure of not saying it, of riding the current of words Hafidha was using to keep her from saying it, finally broke Lau's reserve. "Hafs, are you okay?"
Hafidha stood up. "You know, I'm getting pretty tired of that question," she said as she dusted off the knees of her wide-legged trousers.
"Who's asked it so far?"
She hoisted the bag easily to her shoulder and let it thump her hip. Then she met Lau's look with a wide-eyed one of her own. "Who do you think? Chaz, Daphs. Es. Reyes would have, if he didn't think he already knew the answer."
Hafidha cocked her head, stared, sighed. She shoved a corner of the blanket aside with the sharp toe of her boot so she could get to the bed and sit down. "Look. I took out the bad guy and saved everybody else. Just like in Kansas and Missouri, and damn, what is it about me and the Midwest? The only difference is, this time my coworkers are tippy-toeing around me like I'm the star in a deathbed scene."
"Oh, bullshit." Hafidha waved the word away, a knife-edged sweep of silver rings and carnelian polish. "He dragged the bait behind him so he could get as big an audience as possible for his next piece of Agony Theater. You know that. Just because you didn't have the stones to cap the bastard, honeycakes, doesn't mean it was wrong for me to do it."
All the easy words were frozen in Lau's throat. Later Hafs would remember this, and apologize. Lau would forgive her. Whatever the ruling on the shooting of Simon Talliwell, that shot at Lau was an accident, and only wounded. "It's not up to me to decide, anyway."
"Yeah." Hafidha's face softened a little, and she studied her fingers, rubbing at some invisible smudge on her thumbnail. "You guys will have to do your own webcrawling for a bit." She lifted her chin and squeezed out a smile. "I wouldn't mind the week of administrative leave so much if it came with pay."
"Hafs. This one... This might not be a week."
Hafidha looked up, mild surprise in her eyebrows and mouth.
"Chaz said Cramer's singing felt like, like a compulsion, but no one else experienced that. Talliwell's puppeteering may have only worked on--on people who had some anomalous..." God damn, how to talk about this without sounding like Hafidha and Chaz were a laboratory experiment? "It'll be in my report, that Talliwell may have affected your judgment without your knowing. They'll take that into account when--"
Lau stopped at the sight of Hafidha's twisted lip and disgusted glare. "You're going to offer my excuses? Maybe apologize for me, and promise I'll never do it again? Talliwell was a mass murderer."
Yeah, he was. Hafidha had been in that Sunday school classroom; Lau hadn't. It wasn't up to her to decide. "I'm sorry, Hafs. I didn't mean to be all..."
Lau shrugged. "Not exactly what I was thinking? But if I sounded like that much of an asshole, I'm extra-sorry. I trust your judgment." Under normal circumstances, anyway, which would be reinstalled soon.
Hafidha's jaw worked. Then she sighed, briskly and audibly, and made a disgusted moue. "Or you could tell 'em I was on the rag..."
It wasn't funny so much as it was a relief, and if Lau had been drinking anything, it would have come out her nose. "Come on, hon. Let's get out to the cars before they send SWAT in."
Lau swung Hafidha's laptop bag onto her own shoulder as an apologetic gesture, and Hafs let her, possibly likewise. They left the room, and Lau led them twining through the loudly-carpeted halls. When the lobby opened in front of her, Lau felt a surge of relief. They didn't need to get lost in the hotel corridors, given that it might be hard to laugh together about it.
Falkner had the Subaru parked under the portico with the trunk open. Chaz idled by the far wheel well, hands thrust in his jacket pockets and shoulders hunched and awkward. Trying, Lau thought, not to worry about Hafidha.
"I was wondering if you'd decided to walk home," Falkner said.
"Only if Chaz won't make coffee on the plane."
His lips stretched in his funny flat grin.
"Here." Lau handed Falkner the laptop bag. "Oh, except--do you want it with you?" She turned as she said it.
Hafidha wasn't behind her.
"Shit," Lau blurted.
The smile in the corner of Falkner's mouth disappeared. "Wrong turn?"
"I'll go see." Lau was breathless with fear; she could barely hear her own voice.
The automatic door to the lobby was still open. She strode through, almost as fast as running. Behind her she felt Falkner and Chaz follow.
Because she was going too fast, she rounded the first corner and tripped over the black patent vinyl bag. The garish carpet burned her palms. The flooring underneath bruised her knee. There was no one else in the hall. "Shit, shit, shit--"
Falkner stood over her, eyes narrowed and searching for movement, while Chaz crouched and unzipped the bag. Lau recognized the red sweater on top.
The wadded-up towels and the phone book under it were new, though.
Chaz's hands hovered over the bag, his fingers shaking, as if he were trying to conjure the contents to be something else. His face was bloodless under his tan.
"Come on, come on," Lau growled as she scrambled off the floor and lunged for room 103. She remembered, as she bounced off the wall at the next turning, that one of the people she'd just ordered around was her boss.
The door of the room had swung closed behind them when they left. Deadbolt, metal frame--could she kick it in?
Falkner laid a hand on her shoulder and nudged her aside. She slid a keycard in the lock, and the green LED glowed. "I forgot to turn it in," Falkner said, and opened the door.
The chaos in the room was just the same. Hafidha wasn't there. Oh, god, Lau wanted to shout "Clear." Everything about this was wrong.
Falkner picked her way to the bathroom, turned on the light, looked back at them and shook her head.
Lau was panting, her shirt sticking in the sweat between her shoulder blades. Her palms and knee hurt like blazes and her legs were quivering under her. "Her stuff," she said, and hated the way her voice wobbled. "Where did she..."
Chaz briskly stacked the pillows on the bed, shook out the top sheet, wadded it, and dropped it beside them. Then he did the same with the blanket and bedspread. He hadn't said anything. He turned to the smooth, tightly-made bed, and Lau met Falkner's eyes. Falkner shrugged with her eyebrows.
Chaz yanked the covers of the second bed down. The violence of the motion made Lau jump.
There were two pillows on the bed, but only one had a case. "A classic," he said. His voice sounded painfully tight.
Falkner strode to the window and slammed it open. "The security lock is pried off."
Chaz moved faster than Lau had known he could, and she knew he was quick. Falkner put out a hand, but he was faster than her as well. He seemed to accordion-fold, one palm on the window frame; then he was through the opening and on the ground, and running toward the only cover in sight: a row of low evergreens at the edge of the parking lot, and a tall wooden fence around someone's back yard.
"Chaz, no!" Falkner shouted. She added, weakly, "It's private property!"
"Hot pursuit." Lau was surprised at her own voice, flat and croaking.
Falkner turned her face from the window. A tear runneled one cheek, then the other, like some ridiculous, unconscious leak. "Pursuit of what?"
They retrieved Chaz half an hour later, sitting hunched on a curb, knees and elbows jutting in four different directions, head hanging, face curtained by his sweat-soaked hair. Falkner climbed out of the car and squatted beside him.
"Chaz," she said, and waited.
His ribcage swelled and shrank three times. Then he lifted his head and pushed his hair back with both hands. Yes, he was present, he was focusing on her, he was there. But Falkner looked at his hollow cheeks and wide, wide eyes and thought of photos of refugees, of camp survivors, of disaster victims. And remembered, No one has ever been there for him always.
The pain in her throat nearly choked her. But he needed--she needed--Supervisory Special Agent Esther Falkner now. "Chaz. Can you stand up?"
He nodded. She put a hand under his elbow, and he let her help. When they walked to the car, he limped a little on his left foot.
Reyes and Lau were at the hotel making phone calls, talking to the highway patrol, trying to find a way to explain why they were to watch for the FBI agent who had stopped Simon Talliwell, who hadn't committed a crime, who was suspected of absolutely nothing except failing to do what she'd always done before. So it was Daphne in the driver's seat. She twisted around when Falkner opened the back door for Chaz, and reached through the space between the front seats. Then she stopped, arm stretched, hand suspended in the middle of nothing.
Chaz stared as if trying to figure out what it was. Then he lifted his arm and brushed her fingers with his.
There would be plenty of talking later. Now, none of them knew what to say. After two blocks, Daphne cleared her throat. "She left her laptop." Reyes had looked in the messenger bag and found it, at least, held its expected contents.
Another block, and Chaz murmured, "She doesn't need it."
They passed a church--not First Methodist, not All Saints Episcopal, not any they'd associated with Simon Talliwell or his victims. A Baptist church, made of red brick and white trim and big glossy-painted front doors. The choir would assemble on Sunday morning. And when they stood to sing, and the congregation stood to join them, would their voices falter and fade?
We gather in Your name, she thought bitterly. We gather as one people, one spirit.
Holy, holy, holy.