1.07 "Overkill" - by Elizabeth BearAct I | Act II | Act III | Act IV | Act V
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
Somewhere in Arlington, VA, the Friday after Thanksgiving, 2007, 3:00 AM EST
It always started with the phone.
Tonight, that was the only familiar thing, because when Chaz Villette woke groaning to its warble the first thing he remembered was that he wasn't in his own bed. The second thing he remembered was to try not to disturb the warm, heavy weight pillowed on his numb left arm as he fumbled for the night stand with his right. Her hair was in his mouth, her breath warm against his neck as he opened the phone without bothering to squint at the name on the display. He whispered, "Villette."
"I'm sorry to ruin your holiday," Falkner said in his ear.
"Mmmph." On his shoulder, Amarilis made a noise of protest and burrowed. He twisted his left hand up awkwardly to stroke her hair in apology. And that, right there--girl in his arms, the need to apologize--was a reason for thankfulness. "No, s'okay. On my way. Office?"
"Airport," she said. "We're going to San Diego."
"Right," he answered. "Thanks." He closed the phone, and set it down as quietly as he could. "Amarilis?"
"Work?" she said, with more resignation than rancor. She kissed the pulse point where his neck ran into his collarbone.
Chaz's visual and spatial memory was good--bordering on the mythical photographic memory--but outside of spy movies, an eidetic memory is not a perfect memory. And in the dim green light of the alarm clock, sight was the sense that least concerned him. So for a stolen second, he closed his eyes and drank in the warmth of coarse hair and silken skin, the smell of the girl, her faint musical lilt you couldn't even call an accent. Categorizing, imprinting, making it true for later.
Please, please don't fuck this up. Then he let out his inheld breath, folded the moment away, and wiggled out from under her. "Don't get up." He swung his feet into the cold air. "I'll call you when I get to San Diego, okay?"
"K," she mumbled, voice still blurred with sleep. "Careful."
"I'll come back," he promised, and had to touch her hair one more time before he could make himself leave her bed.
San Diego International Airport (Lindbergh Field), San Diego, CA, Friday, November 23, 2007, 5:00 AM PST
Nikki Lau met the bulk of her arriving team at the airport, because it seemed like the least she could do for them at 5 am Pacific Time on Black Friday. Lau's credentials won her and her sidearm past Homeland Security. The Gulfstream was too small for a jetway, so she was standing inside the cold glass as Esther Falkner, Chaz Villette, and Daphne Worth humped their go bags sleepily across the tarmac. Brady had arrived from Texas on a commercial flight hours before, and neither Todd nor Reyes was due until midmorning.
Chaz huddled in his coat and stretched-out sweater, but Falkner was apparently impervious to the chill. The paper tray of coffee in Lau's hands warmed her fingers. When the team came up the ramp and through the fire door and saw the cups, Lau honestly thought Chaz might hug her.
"You are a ministering angel," he said, as she handed him the one marked extra cream, no sugar. Falkner drank hers black. It was the hottest cup, though Lau had been holding them for ten minutes now. The skim milk and Splenda was for Daphne, who took in Lau's outfit with raised eyebrows.
"Sun dress in November?"
Lau pushed at the sleeves of the leather bomber jacket she'd thrown on over the dress to stay warm. It dated from her undergrad days, the leather cracked at the joints and creaking, the map-printed lining tattered against her skin. She'd retrieved it from her parents' house. "I was going to Baja to dive," she said. "For the holiday weekend. I got intercepted."
Daphne put a hand on her forearm briefly. "It looks like a bad one."
Lau's team all were hollow-eyed, and Lau suspected that the contents of the file folders tucked under arms and wedged into the web pockets on their travel bags had a great deal to do with that. She knew what was in those folders. She'd seen it all first. It was why she'd sent for them, when she was just supposed to be home for the holiday.
It had kept her up all night, too. "Do you want to stop at the hotel?" Lau asked Falkner, knowing already what the answer would be.
"No," Falkner said. "If the scene is secured, I want to get a look."
Lau smiled. A tight grimace, of professionalism rather than pleasure. "They're waiting for us. I'll have Brady meet us there. He'll want to get a look before we all descend on it, anyway. Our contact is Detective Maria Gometz. Her parents and mine are neighbors, which is how I heard about the case. I've known her since grade school."
"Of course you have," Falkner murmured. She swung toward the semi-vacant corridor, her black coat flaring like a raven's wings. The rest of the team fell in behind like sleepy ducklings.
Because San Diego was the next thing to her home town, Lau drove. It was still too early for heavy traffic, so they reached the scene in under forty-five minutes. Lau parked the SUV at the curb in predawn darkness, then fiddled with the keys to give her passengers a moment to orient themselves.
Party lights scrolled lazily the length of the street--police only, at this point. The paramedics and ambulances had withdrawn. Most of the neighbors had gone back inside to get ready for work or school; only a few, immune to boredom, lingered on the sidewalks waiting for the bodies to be carried out.
There were still three satellite trucks parked beyond the Maginot line of the official vehicles and Lau heard a chopper circling overhead. It wasn't hard to pick out the reporters, lined up out of each other's camera angles, two conversing with their camera operators and the third finishing up a top-of-the-hour live spot. The team would walk right through her shot, and Lau nudged Falkner to make sure Falkner knew it. The 6 am news and traffic report had just gotten a little more interesting.
Falkner, following the line of her gaze out the windshield, nodded. "Do you know any of them?"
"All," Lau answered. "I grew up in L.A., remember? Practically a home-town girl, and I majored in Communications at UCLA with the one on the left. It won't be a problem."
As they appraised a beige two-story stucco home at the center of the lines of yellow tape, Lau pictured a moth in a spiderweb. But the tape-spinners weren't the predators here.
The house was new development from red tile roof to a ground-floor facade consisting mostly of a two-car garage and a large bay window. A block wall isolated the back yard, but the foundation plantings had not been established. One lonely Queen Anne palm sulked in the front yard. Somebody had made a preliminary attempt at a garden, within contracted limits. Not that it mattered: the spattery footprints oxidizing on the brightly-lit front stoop would never have met with a neighborhood association's approval.
"Gah," Daphne said. "If you're paying a half-mil for a house in San Diego, why do you want to buy something like that?"
"Brady says it used to be nice inside," Lau said, and the four of them popped the doors. Falkner took point, Chaz right behind her, Daphne and Lau flanking. Reyes was always on them to think about the cinematography.
Brady played the game too, waiting impassively beside a bomb squad van. His feet were shoulder-width apart, arms folded as if parade rest had gotten crosswired with a State Trooper saunter. The woman beside him was a light-skinned Latina, the corners of her eyes already showing traces of a cop squint. "That's Maria," Lau said. "My classmate. Gometz is actually a Swedish name, but her mother was Mexican. She's fluently bilingual."
"Detective at 29?" Chaz said. "Not bad."
"Invincible woman," Lau answered.
He smiled out of the corner of his mouth. As he leaned down to her ear, she caught a trace of feminine perfume in his hair. Ah, so. He said, "Takes one to know one."
She grinned at him, wondering if he would know that she approved of him dating people who were not Nikki Lau. She didn't have time for a snappy comeback before they reached Maria and Brady.
As they drew up, Maria's shoulders lowered. A deep, relieved breath filled her. "Thank you."
Lau introduced the team while Maria shook each hand. She nodded over her shoulder and said, "And of course I've already met S.S.A. Brady."
"We've done a prelim," Brady said. "But that's all. Detective Gometz, you don't have to stay. I know you haven't slept since yesterday, and you took me through already."
"It's not a problem," Maria said, but Lau caught her eyes and gave a tiny headshake, and Maria pulled her shoulders back.
Lau said. "We'll work better if nobody's hovering. Go grab a nap. We'll meet back at the station."
"Go file paperwork is more like it," Maria said, but she managed a smile as she withdrew.
"Thank you," Falkner said in Lau's ear, when Maria was gone.
Brady turned to fall in on Falkner's left. Worth dropped back to make room. He spoke while they walked, low and even, his voice pitched so all four of the others could hear. "Tactical and the bomb squad have cleared the house while leaving the scene as intact as possible. Forensics is waiting on us. Because of the potential danger, they're asking us not to touch or move anything."
"Yeah," Brady said. "You know the son of a bitch redecorated--"
"We saw the photos." Chaz rubbed his eyes left-handed. "He staged the scene."
"They don't do it justice." Brady's shoulders jerked convulsively, as if he caught them just as they were about to rise up around his ears and forced them down again. All three media crews were now filming. Within the hour the whole city would know the FBI was taking an interest. "He boobytrapped it, like the first scene. We have one officer at the hospital being treated for a needle stick, and the bomb squad found several small explosive devices. There was a Supersoaker rigged up to shoot acid in the face of anybody who opened the master bedroom door. He blinded an officer at the first scene, but they were ready for him this time."
"Jesus fuck," Chaz said. "Two levels of aggression. You think it's a team?"
Brady shrugged. "One gunning for the families, one for the first responders? Fucked up, if it is. All the booby traps are designed to maim, not kill, unless you got really unlucky. Dried peas for shrapnel. He left dirty needles all over the place: the whole house is like a fucking Snopes dot com rebuttal. We can't go in the front."
Suiting action to words, Brady led them around through an access gate into the back yard. The kitchen door stood open.
"Block wall for privacy," Chaz said, disapproving. "Does a great job of ensuring just that for a home invader, doesn't it?"
"Not sure yet how he entered, but this is how he left the scene," Brady said. "Exit upstage, through the backdrop. No footprints in the yard."
"Xeriscaped." Chaz scuffed small white stones. "New development, low water use yard. He wouldn't leave much trace."
"He doesn't," Brady said.
They donned nitrile gloves and blue booties and stepped in past the officer on watch. In contravention of his usual custom, Brady went first, Falkner immediately behind. Lau made sure she was the last one through the door.
Lau heard Daphne's deep breath. It was cold in the house with the door standing open, but the filed-iron-and-sugar stench of blood still filled the place, underlying a sewer smell Lau knew from unfortunate experience as spilled intestines.
Chaz made one of his self-effacing fade-backs, but said, "If he left through the back, why are there bloody footprints on the front stoop and none out this way?"
Brady grimaced. "You'll see."
The kitchen was bad. Lau said, "I pity the crime scene techs."
The double sink lay full of soapy scarlet water and greasy Thanksgiving dishes, knife handles protruding. Apparently the family had not finished scrubbing the roasting pans before retiring to bed, though it looked as though the dishwasher had been loaded. A parasitic tangle of extension cords ran from a pair of power strips sitting in the middle of the floor. Between the power strips and each cord was a nondescript pyramid-shaped white plastic box with a grille in the front. A boom box, plugged into a timer plugged directly into the wall, had been set alongside the power strips.
"What on Earth is that?" Worth stepped forward to get a better look. She leaned down with her hands held awkwardly to the sides, trying to examine it closely without touching.
"The Clapper," Chaz grated.
Brady had a gift for seeming cool and professional under any circumstance, but Lau noticed that his hands were in his pockets. "He had the CD player on a timer. The timer goes off, the music comes on, and every light in the house starts flashing on and off like a disco. Gaffer and lighting designer, all rolled into one sick son of a bitch."
"Somebody on the street was bound to notice." Falkner stood in the center of the room, hands by her sides, turning very slowly. "So he could control when the scene was discovered."
"We've got to assume he's monitoring police band radio," Brady said. "Come on, there's worse. You want to be ready for the dining room."
It was a useless caution. Nothing could have prepared Lau for the dining room.
The table was set for a feast, but the carcass at its centerpiece had been the family dog, and the relish dish was not full of olives. The family members propped up around the table were handcuffed and then nailed to their carved wooden chairs, eye sockets gaping, jaws lolling open on tongueless mouths. Body cavities lay hollow and shining, internal organs conspicuous by their absence.
Brady was not looking at the staging. He'd seen it already, and was watching the team for reactions, as if by filtering their perceptions he could get a second chance at a first impression.
If the smell had been strong in the kitchen, this room reeked. Lau breathed shallowly, wishing for one selfish moment that Reyes and Brady weren't so insistent that all the senses--including smell--were important on a scene.
"Oh, god." She wished she could at least allow herself to close her eyes for a moment, or turn her face away. No one on the team would think less of her, not when--cold as it was--she could see the thin sheen of sweat sticking Chaz's uncombed curls to his forehead from here. But she would know. "That's--"
"Ridiculous," Chaz finished, his voice thin and brittle as fatigued metal. "It's so horrible it's silly. Thanksgiving in Hell."
"Overkill," Falkner said.
"His Fourth Of July picnic was kind of spectacular, too," Brady said. "You got the photos?"
Jaw working, Daphne nodded.
Falkner stepped forward, stern handsome face as impassive as if she were observing an autopsy. "Do we have an order of death?"
"Waiting on the coroner," Brady said. "Preliminary analysis suggests the injuries were inflicted perimortem. Cause of death probably the disembowelment, but that's conjecture at this point."
"And the rest of the remains?"
"Some are in the sink," Brady said. "Some are draped around the living room. He left the front door unlocked. The first responder to walk in fell over a pile of intestines."
"The footprints," Lau said. From the expression on Chaz's face, he'd figured it out a second before she did.
"Kidneys are in the bathrooms, appropriately enough. He tucked the hearts into bed," Brady said. "And wait until you see what he did with the banister."
"Where are the other footprints?" Falkner's gloved fingers clenched. "His footprints? He must have been saturated in blood. How did he move through the rooms to do that and not leave a trail? How did he exit the back door? How did he get home, covered in the blood of five victims?"
"And the dog," Lau said, in a small voice. If she looked at the dog, she wasn't looking at the children. "So you see why I was pretty sure this was ours?"
If this were a movie, this would be the moment when somebody would crack a steely-eyed joke--and I thought my family hated the holidays. But it wasn't that kind of film, and so they each moved white-lipped through the house, in unison but isolated, tracing the steps of the killer--host, or alpha--who had been here before them.
"This is only his second attack?" Worth said, finally, when they had examined the living room, half-bath, garage, and den, and moved on to the upstairs. Bedrooms opened off a long hallway, two on each side, the master bedroom at the back.
"It's a pretty dramatic signature," Lau said. "San Diego PD might have missed one. But I think it's unlikely."
"A holiday killer," Brady said. "What's a fucking escalation going to look like?"
Falkner nodded. "I hope he's Christian. Chanukah is early this year."
"Huh," said Chaz. "Why do you suppose he skipped Halloween?"
Distance yourself, Chaz thought. Sometimes, the worse it was, the faster you could get the professional dissociation kicked in. Make it a comic book.
It could have been. Hellblazer. Miracle Man. Too much for a movie. Even a slasher flick wouldn't show this. Organ meat already dulling, darkening, crusting like steak left on the counter.
Comic books didn't come with the smell, the rust-brown sticky smears and spatters. There was blood, plenty of blood, dripped and splashed, elongated spatters up the stair runner showing him where somebody had made four or five trips carrying dripping bundles. Blood crushed like dried paint in the carpet underfoot, the rug too saturated for Chaz to avoid stepping on evidence. But no shoe prints, no hand prints. No brush-marks from saturated clothing or hair contacting furniture or walls. As if even this carnage could not bloody the hand that wreaked it.
He wasn't the only one thinking so. Brady--incongruous in his blue booties and matching nitrile gloves--caught his eye across the landing and said, white-faced, "Lady Macbeth would love this shit."
Chaz swallowed a mouthful of extra-fluid saliva so he wouldn't drool like a terrified dog. He needed to lift himself out of the reality of death and horror and people who had suffered and died in hideous, pathetic ways. There was another place, an abstract space where this was a puzzle, a complicated game, and he could put himself there, operate on that level, and get through. The blood couldn't stain him either. As long as he maintained that fiction, he could operate.
If he could just get there. Visualize a stair, he thought, and climb it. Climb it out of the blood. Dissociate. It's there for a reason.
If he stopped feeling the pain, would he start to crave it?
He thought Brady was taking it harder, though, and as the big blond cowboy paused in the doorway of the last bedroom--the little girl's room--and rubbed the bristles on the nape of his neck, Chaz stopped beside him. "You look like you've got something."
Brady was playing his own distancing game. "Thinking about the blocking," he said. "If we assume he got them after they went to bed, then before they died, he had to have come through the upstairs several times to collect the family. Dog first, or it would have made a fuss. I wonder how he got into the house: there's a security system, but it's not armed. Then Dad, because Dad is the dangerous one. Then Mom. Or did he get them both at once, make Mom handcuff Dad to the chair, restrain Mom himself?"
"That would work," Chaz said. "He had a means to control them, then. A firearm. Or a manifestation, but I'm going to take a wild guess and say his mythology is more likely related to how little impact he's left on the environment."
Chaz finished, "Or he took one of the children hostage, and made Mom and Dad handcuff the others."
"Handcuffs say law enforcement groupie to me," Brady said, with a glance for confirmation. Chaz nodded unhappily.
Serial killers liked cops. They liked to keep tabs on the investigation, befriend officers, inject themselves into investigations. Craving authority, a significant percentage tried to become cops.
Serial killers weren't all gammas. But there were commonalities.
Brady was still looking sidelong at him. "What does the house tell you?"
"Happy family," Chaz said. Not any more. That was grief he felt, wasn't it? Revulsion, not satisfaction. "The house was reasonably clean, but not obsessively so. Lived in. The children's furnishings are adequate to their needs. Downstairs, family and individual photographs, communal space. Upstairs, privacy, Mom and Dad's shared office. Somebody picked up after the dog, but he'd chewed on the dining room table leg and it hasn't been repaired. Calendar in the kitchen with four people's handwriting on it, two adults and two juveniles." His mouth twisted. He wished he could manage, just once, to keep that expression off his face.
But Brady was still looking at him expectantly.
"Mom was pretty," Chaz said reluctantly. Was. Could you get to hate a conjugation? "Cheekbones, eyes. Athletic. Turn your head."
"Most women turn your head."
Chaz thought of Amarilis, skin the gold of polished beechwood, the dark blur of her lashes against the edge of her eyelid, the flare of her hips and the notch of her collarbone. "What do you get from the house?"
"Notice any commonalities with the first scene?"
"From the photos? That one wasn't new construction. This family is financially comfortable. That one was struggling. This one is American Nuclear. That one was Mexican Extended." Chaz checked his gloves for blood. Finding them clean, he folded his arms. Unwillingly, he said, "Both houses and families were well-cared for. Food in the fridge, clothes in good repair."
Go ahead, Villette. Envy the dead decent parenting. Grow the hell up. We don't take pleasure in other people's misery. Even if human beings do it often enough that they have a word for it: Schadenfreude.
Human beings. Baselines. Chaz had to be better than they were, because they were presumed not to be monsters until proven otherwise.
Chaz swallowed bitterness and made himself continue, "Both mothers were striking. Brunettes, and late thirties to mid forties."
"Odds on, somebody has MILF issues." Brady paused. "Somebody other than you."
Chaz would have thrown something, but they were at a murder scene. But then Daphne emerged from the hall bathroom, Lau right behind her. Lau looked smooth, unflappable, her dark eyes unreadable. But the fault lines on Daphne's face were drawn deep. Chaz could imagine her at fifty. She'd age well.
"Did you see the bathtub?" Lau said.
Stained water and a rubber duckie, floating at a tilt. Tightly, Brady nodded, so Chaz didn't have to.
Falkner tromped inelastically up the stairs, one hand hovering over the blood-smeared banister as if she'd like to use it for balance, folding her phone in the other. "He brought in the timer and the Clappers. The extension cords are from the house. I've got Hafidha looking for anybody who bought sound-activated switching devices by the caseload."
"The boom box is from the boys' room." Chaz jerked his thumb down the hall. "You can see where it was sitting. Footprint in the dust. The CD is the 1812 Overture, though. I don't think that was from the kids' room."
Who was first? he wondered. Who was last? It was important: the last to die would be the gamma's primary victim, the one at whom his rage was directed. He or she would have been forced to watch his or her family tortured and killed, while the anomaly fed off all that delicious fear and pain and despair, the hopelessness and death.
If feeding was what it actually did.
"How the hell did he get through this house, carrying dripping organs, and not leave footprints?" Daphne glanced over her shoulder at the bathroom again. "He spent hours here. He took his time." She winced at the cliché the moment it left her mouth.
"We'll know more when we get Dr. Frost's report," Falkner said. "For this many bodies, she's agreed to fly out. I sent the Gulfstream back for her."
Lau's mouth opened.
Falkner silenced her with a look. "She'll stay in the autopsy suite," she promised.
Chaz stepped over next to Lau. Radiant body heat was as good as a pat on the shoulder, sometimes. Lower lip compressing, Lau nodded to Falkner. She said, "Have we decided it's a host for sure?"
"Houdini clause." Falkner slid her cell into its belt case. "Come on. It's after dawn, and Reyes and Todd are en route. Let's grab some food and some sleep, regroup when they get here, and have a look at the preliminary postmortem findings once Frost has had a crack at the bodies. "
Chaz couldn't sleep, so once he called Amarilis and checked in-- "I saw you on CNN," she said. "Or the back of your head vanishing behind some crime scene tape, anyway."--he grabbed a second breakfast and headed out to pick up Todd at the airport. On Black Friday, it was the only place in San Diego more terrifying than the Horton Plaza shopping mall. Chaz stuck close to a pillar so he wouldn't be trampled.
The plane was on time, and Chaz had a bottle of water and a large coffee ready when Todd came down the jetway in the midst of a wall of holiday travelers. "Am I the last?"
"Dad got in about two hours ago." Chaz lowered his voice and said, "Baggage claim?"
"Completely awkward and unsafe--but concealable!--shoulder holster." Todd downed half the coffee in three grateful swallows. He tilted his head back to look Chaz in the eye. "Extra ammo's in my go bag. I did the TFATP thing last year so I wouldn't have to ship my weapon checked."
"Tactics for Flying Armed Training Program. Absolutely stultifying. Most wasted weekend ever. You should go. Want a sandwich?" He tucked the water bottle under his right arm and let a blue soft-sided lunch cooler slide down the left. "Sal insists on cooking a twenty-three pound turkey, even though it's just the three of us now and Dad barely eats enough to keep a bird alive."
"Sandwich?" The morning suddenly looked a little brighter. "Turkey sandwich? Leftovers?" Then Chaz blinked. "Since when do you refer to yourself in the third person?"
Todd, balancing the cooler between his arm and abdomen and unzipping it one-handed, looked up in surprise and laughed. "Sal. Sally. Salome. My sister. A fearsome creature: an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church and fifth-grade teacher. Who also runs the local gifted-and-talented program, can kick-start a '67 Harley-Davidson XLH Sportster, and refuses to marry on the grounds that matrimony is a tool of the patriarchy. That's her story and she's sticking to it, anyway, although I suspect her continued single state has more to do with a refusal to choose between the devoted gentleman caller she's been entertaining since 1983 and her 'best friend,' a lovely academic poet at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, who also happens to have limpid brown eyes of the first water and write lesbian erotic poetry that's been published in thirteen languages, two of them English."
Chaz took the offered sandwich--thirteen ounces--and didn't protest when Todd handed him a second one. It seemed totally improbable that Solomon Todd had not sprung full-formed from the head of Seuss (who, Chaz happened to know, had spent some time on nearby Coronado), but if he did have a sister, of course she would be named Salome. Chaz wondered if they were twins, or if the parents had just been as cutesy as they were allusive. "You're totally making at least half of that up."
Todd winked. "Believe what you like. It's the Midwest. People can fail to see just about anything if you give them half a chance to ignore it. She also makes excellent snickerdoodles, and nobody wants to get dropped from the holiday cookie list. Would you like one?"
Chaz rolled his eyes, but he nodded. He swallowed a mouthful of slightly dry turkey, tart cranberry sauce, and crumbly home-made bread to say, "Thank you. Do you need anything before we head out to the San Diego Police Department, Northwestern Division? Wait until you see this thing: the cop shop is brand new this year, three-quarters empty, and looks more like a space station."
"No." Todd finished his coffee and looked around for the trash. "Now I'm good. Let's go see the elephant."
"Oh man," Chaz said. "You have no idea."
Back at the brand spanking new Northwest Division of the San Diego Police Department, Lau found a place beside Worth at a row of steel desks in a previously-vacant six-man office with attached conference room. Her first clue that the prodigals had returned was Todd's voice through the doorway. She raised her head from the files on the July murder. At the sight of the soft-sided cooler in Todd's hand, her stomach growled.
On her left, Worth said "Lunch?" hopefully, flipping an autopsy report shut left-handed.
"What's left of it." Todd winked, while Chaz guiltily dusted crumbs from the collar of his tweed jacket.
Lau smiled behind her hand; asking a beta to resist food was like leaving your dinner on the coffee table and expecting a dog to ignore it.
Todd said, "Turkey sandwiches and cookies. And I brought in some mashed potatoes and salad for you. Sorry I couldn't do better; Thanksgiving is a carnivorous affair at my dad's place. I'm going to guess a cop shop has coffee?"
Lau tipped her head at the pot. "Grab it fast. And bring the sandwiches. Reyes and Falkner wanted us in the conference room as soon as you got here."
"Where's Brady?" Todd asked, as Brady appeared around the corner brandishing a thumb drive.
"Frost's first reports," he said, and tossed the drive underhand to Worth. "There's a set still printing, but here's the files. Frost says, and I quote, that a postmortem goes much faster when somebody else has already completed the Y incision. She also says that this is quick and dirty and possibly useless, as it's going to take her a couple of days to sort out which liver goes with which decedent."
Daphne reached beside her chair for her laptop bag and tucked it under her arm. Juggling the thumb drive, manila folders, and her coffee cup, she still managed to be the first one into the conference room, where Reyes and Falkner were working in what passed for quiet and privacy.
"Bring the sandwiches!" Daphne called over her shoulder, as if there were any chance of Chaz leaving them behind.
Falkner and Reyes glanced up from heaps of gory photos and neighborhood canvass reports as the team entered. Lau let Brady bring up the rear as he preferred, though she made sure the door shut behind them. The aroma of overbrewed coffee filled the cramped conference room--which was bigger than the briefing room at headquarters, to give it its due, and had one less person in it.
Falkner got up stiffly to offer Lau her chair. Lau waved it off, though she knew Faulkner was probably looking for an excuse to stretch. Worth dropped into the vacant seat beside Reyes and booted her laptop, and Chaz and Brady claimed chairs opposite.
"I'll stand," Todd said, resting his coffee on the ledge of the interior window. "I've taken enough chances with deep vein thrombosis already today. What did I miss?"
Quickly, Brady gave him the high points of the scene, drawing at least one grimace. He'd already done it for Reyes, and the narrative was becoming polished. "And now we've got the autopsy reports for both groups of murders," he finished. "Worth?"
"Still reading," Worth said. "Stall."
Chaz snorted, but Reyes shot him a glare that pushed him back in his chair and brought his arms up across his chest. "Sorry," he said. "Okay. I got a chance to slam some this morning, and noticed some things that might be significant, though two is a small sample."
Todd, handing out sandwiches and cookies, slid a wax-paper wrapped parcel in front of Chaz. As unconsciously as a hummingbird taking wing, the beta's long bony hands went to work on the wrapping paper while he continued his explanation. Lau watched him. He wouldn't catch her eye except by accident, which made paying polite attention without making him uncomfortable somewhat challenging, but while he was distracted by food and profiling she could look at him directly without making him blush like a fire hydrant.
"While both of these killings involved families, it would seem the families have nothing in common. First, the Diazes. Family of seven. Carmen, widowed female head of household, 39. Her brother Carlos, 32. Her mother, also Carmen, 62." He gulped coffee, as if the next words had gotten stuck in his throat. "Four children, three girls--twelve, seven, six--and a boy, eight. No pets. Latino. Grandmother a legal immigrant, Carmen and Carlos both American-born. The grandmother was primary child care, the mother employed at a print shop, the brother at a Whole Foods Market. Second family, the Wilsons. Father, mother, three children. Two teenaged sons and an eight-year old girl."
If the detail of the children rattled Chaz the second time, Lau couldn't see it. He had torn the turkey sandwich in half on the diagonal, but left both pieces on the wrapper, and his fingers rested open on either side. His eyes were half-hooded, concentration turned inward. The familiar non-expression was his hard-earned camouflage. Making himself seem less than he was. Idiot savant, and all his gifts nothing more that feats of rote memory.
"And a dog," he said, and when he looked down at his hands Lau could see the facade broken. He drank more coffee, though, as Todd handed Lau the reserved salad and a cookie. While she unwrapped it, he continued. "Both parents in their early forties. Both born in northern California and relocated here for employment. Denise Wilson was a programmer. Jason Wilson was a software engineer. There's no victimology in common, except the possibility that the UNSUB is choosing mothers and children, and the other family members are collateral damage. The women do have some superficial resemblances, despite the fact that one was Latina and one white. They were dark. And pretty."
"Any chance the Wilsons shopped where Carlos Diaz worked?" Reyes asked, leaning forward.
Chaz held up a hand. "Anything's possible, but the geography would be weird. And I'm just getting to the geography. Because both of these killings were in one SDPD division--this one. Which didn't exist before March of this year."
"Brand new division," Reyes said. "Brand new butcher."
"It's funny, though," Chaz said. "The reason they put a division out here is because the response time for a priority one call in these neighborhoods was over twenty-two minutes. It's dropped since. Why would he start when the police presence was improving?"
"What's it citywide?" Brady asked, with professional curiosity.
"Fourteen point six."
Brady cringed. "That's a long time to be gunshot."
Worth just closed her eyes and breathed, "Ow."
Reyes broke the silence. "He's struck twice, each time on a major holiday, and in each case arranged his victims in a tableau. We need to be asking the usual questions: how does he enter the dwelling? How does he control the victims? What part of this is script and what part is signature? Who's his primary victim? What is his relationship to the victims? Why does he select those particular families?"
The salad had pecans, blue cheese, raisins, and sliced pears heaped atop the greens. For this, Todd apologized? Lau took a bite of cookie and closed her eyes. It wasn't bliss, exactly, but for a moment she thought she appreciated the Hafidha-Chaz perspective on calories.
"I know why he skipped Halloween," Chaz blurted. He blushed behind his fading tan. "Uh. Um, it's not a family holiday. It's not--"
"No mythology of togetherness," Reyes said. "No pretense of felicity. Nothing to mock."
Chaz nodded, face stretched around a mortified expression.
"Good," Reyes said, as if he hadn't noticed a thing. "That's a good catch."
Worth said, "So that's the purpose of the staging. What about the booby traps?"
"Booby traps?" Todd had a wodge of sandwich tucked into his cheek. He swallowed hastily, leaning forward.
"The posing is the least of it," Falkner said. "He leaves little presents for the responders. Pipe bombs, dirty needles, buckets of blood balanced on door edges."
"Psychological warfare," Todd said. "That's the thing about booby traps. They maim as often as they kill, and you never see them coming. They're death or a ruined life out of nowhere. He's trying to break morale."
"The extended families are already broken," Chaz said. "None of them are ever going to recover from that." But Brady rocked back in his chair, arms crossed, and Lau saw his chest rise and fall rapidly.
"Son of a bitch," Brady said.
Falkner put a hand on his shoulder. She could do it without making him jump. "Brady?"
"This isn't about the families," he said. "It's about us."
"Expand on that." Falkner stepped away, came around into Brady's field of view--a little behind and to the right of Reyes. But Lau could see the rest of the team had already figured it out. Falkner had too: she just believed in making people drag the guts of their hunches out into the sunlight where everyone interested could get a stick into them.
Brady looked at Lau. Lau tapped her fork against her mouth and said, "You mean his primary victims are the cops. He's feeding off their distress and horror."
"Caution," Reyes said. "We don't know for a fact the anomaly feeds off anything. We don't know for a fact this is an anomalous case. We're not even sure there's only one UNSUB."
"Two kinds of victims," Brady said, "But only one goal: hurting the cops. My money's on one guy. Whether it's a host--"
"Lack of blood trails," Lau said. "Those scenes are too clean."
"Too clean for any mortal agency," Brady muttered, and got a strained laugh. He pulled himself upright and continued, "Seriously, y'all. Nikki's right. We're missing something. This guy left no hair, no fiber, no fingerprints. Clean as a professional hit. CSI teams leave more trace evidence. He got in and out of both houses like he had the keys. And he didn't even track blood around the house? It's like shit doesn't stick to his fur."
Chaz said, "Department morale can't be good to begin with. The city is losing an average of fourteen sworn officers a month."
"Cop," Brady said. "Cop groupie. Failed cop. Wannabe cop. Relative of a cop. Victim of a bad cop--"
Reyes picked up his pen and scratched on his notepad. "How is he observing the officers? He'd want to see the results of his actions."
"News broadcasts," Lau offered, but Reyes shook his head.
"This is a guy who sticks his hands in people's eye sockets and body cavities. That kind of a remove is not going to be close enough." Reyes set the pen down and spun it. "He'll want to see their faces."
Chaz said, "There are twenty-one patrol officers in this division, two sergeants, four detectives. Including Maria Gometz. It's still lightly staffed."
"Room for growth," Falkner muttered.
"What about the women?" Chaz nodded to the bulletin board against the back wall of the conference room, the smiling photos of Carmen Diaz and Denise Wilson. Dark hair, fine features, intelligent eyes.
"They catch his eye," Lau said. "They stand out in a crowd. If it's a male--"
"I think it's a male," Brady said. "Attractive women, cop groupie, the manner in which he controls the families suggests male. I think he'd be a case for Down The Hall even if he wasn't one of ours, honestly. This one came bad out of the package."
Lau nodded. "--He's heterosexual. He might be their age. Roughly forty?"
"Or he might be younger and have mommy issues," Chaz said. "That was Brady's idea, at the scene."
Falkner's face had gone crinkled and strange around her lips. After a moment, she hauled herself out of it and turned to Worth. "Crime scene and autopsy reports?"
"He killed the parents first." Worth's voice came softly. She hadn't touched her sandwich. "In both cases. Except with the second family, before the parents, he butchered the pet. So the kids got to live through that, and their parents' torture, before they were killed themselves."
Todd said. "So either the kids are the target--Worth, there's girls around eight in both families. Were they the last?"
She shook her head. "The eight year old was the last in the Wilson case. But with the Diazes, it was the six year old. Youngest last. Son of a bitch."
Reyes' fingers twitched as if he wanted to cross himself. Lau couldn't really blame him. "Those poor kids."
Todd said, "Combined with the booby traps, that suggests Brady's on target. If he wanted to hurt the parents, he'd make them watch the children's deaths."
Worth raised her hand for attention. Her color had faded towards a nearly-luminescent green. "He didn't make them watch anything," she said. Lau felt the bile rising, and steeled her jaw against it. "He took their eyes first. Frost says, As much as two hours antemortem."
"Jesus Christ in a sidecar," Brady said into the silence that followed a collective intake of breath.
Lau was very nearly the last one to leave the conference room, because she was lying in wait for Reyes. She didn't miss the quiet drama across the room, though. When Worth walked out past Chaz, laptop tucked under her arm and eyes front, he reached out and brushed her wrist. "Daphs."
"I'm fine," she said, jerking back, then drew herself up short, and said in clipped tones, "Really. The kids just get to me."
"Hey," he said, very quietly. "Stand up on it." And when she glared at him, he nodded slightly. His eyebrows went right up his forehead in the expression that made him look like an earnest Irish wolfhound.
Whatever traveled across the glance that locked them together, Lau couldn't read it. But Worth nodded back, lips pressed thin, and turned away. After Chaz trailed her out forlornly, clutching stray papers, only Lau and Reyes were left.
Reyes was still head down, a pile of papers bent back against his left thumb as he riffled the edges.
Lau cleared her throat. "Is something going on between those two?"
He looked up, and stared thoughtfully at the closed door through which they had passed. "Worth doesn't strike me as the type who would cheat. And unless I miss my guess, Villette has a new girlfriend. But there are other somethings. You wanted to talk to me?"
Stalling for her, after all. She said, "If Brady's right, I think I know how we can lure this guy out. But I wanted to run it past you first."
Reyes let the papers fall from his hand. He squared them side to side with his palms, top to bottom with palm and back of hand. "Shoot."
"If he's gunning for the officers--if the whole point of this is to damage as many cops as possible--is he going to be able to resist a crack at an elite team of federal agents? We're here, right under his nose. We have to be an absolutely beautiful target. And the only thing cops hate worse than cases involving kids is cases involving fellow officers. A gamma will sacrifice itself to maximize suffering."
"There isn't a holiday coming up."
Lau pushed her hair back. "I think the strategy is implicit in the profile. I think the holidays are a tool, not a signature. I think the host is picking them to be horrible on purpose. And I think if we warn the community, alert the local media, then give him the opportunity to be horrible to us, he might make a mistake."
The pile finally tidied to his satisfaction, Reyes balanced his palmtop on it and settled back in his chair. The heavy lines around his mouth smoothed into a non-expression, and not for the first time, Lau wished he were less adept at hiding what he thought.
"You want to use one of us as bait," he said.
She nodded, smoothing her palms against her thighs so she would not give in to the urge to twist her fingers together.
"Brady?" he asked. "If the host is carrying some sort of grudge against law enforcement, he's the natural choice."
"No," she said. "He likes to kill the pet first."
This time, Reyes actually gave her something. Eyebrows, a considering, respectful expression. "Chaz?"
"Me," Lau said. "The cute one. The public face of the team. Chaz said it--the women are striking. Dark-haired. Ethnicity doesn't seem to be his kink. I'm too young, but that might not matter if we gave him enough other triggers. And the cops are on to his booby traps now, sir. If Brady is right, he's going to have to escalate to get his kicks."
Silence, long and thoughtful, until Reyes reached out with one finger and shifted the Palm a quarter-turn, so it lay horizontally across the pile of paperwork. "We don't get hazard pay."
"I'm bulletproof," Lau said, though her hands were chilling. What would Hafidha say? "I can take a li'l ol' UNSUB, bossman."
Without lowering his eyes, Reyes frowned at her. "To catch a tiger, stake out a goat."
"Right," Lau said.
"You don't have to redeem yourself, you know. We make mistakes. It's a natural consequence of trying to do extremely hard things."
Easy for you to say. "It's a way to catch him," Lau said, stubbornly.
Reyes stood. "I'll take it under advisement."
When Lau emerged from the conference room, thirty seconds ahead of Reyes, Falkner pounced. Lau expected to be asked what the private conference had been about, but instead Falkner said, "Would you call Hafidha for me and tell her she can go home, as long as she keeps her cell on? We're going to be here all night, but there's no reason she has to."
Reyes never would have thought of that. Lau said loyally: "She'd stay."
"I happen to know she has a date," Falkner answered. "Tell her to relax. We're not going anywhere tonight unless something bad happens."
As Lau had expected, Hafidha took some convincing. Her voice tinny over the cell connection, she protested, "It's no problem, honey. I will just call up my gentleman friend and he can bring me over a bucket of fried chicken and leave it at Security. If he thinks I'm worth waiting for, he'll be glad to oblige, and I can make it up to him on Monday."
"Hafs," Lau said, palm to her forehead as Brady walked past en route to the coffeepot, "Go, have fun, go home, get a real night's sleep and come back in the morning, okay? We'll need you rested tomorrow, and you've already gotten us those lists of responding officers and checked every newspaper in Cali for recurring names, right?"
Hafidha sighed. "I hate to think I might not be where I'm needed."
She needed to be indispensable. In an honest moment, Lau would admit complete sympathy. She said, "Drop your iBook in that Sherpa pouch you call a purse and go. If we need you, trust me, you will be called to serve. Now go have fun, drat you. And have some for me too. I need to go catch somebody."
"Gates out, sugar," Hafidha said, and cut the connection. Lau dropped the phone into the pocket of her borrowed suit jacket--one of Worth's, and much too broad across the shoulders, but at least it didn't flap around her ankles as it would have if she'd raided Falkner's jump bag--and took three quick steps after Brady.
"Danny, pour me a coffee, please?"
She barely came up to chest height on him, and she knew they made a thoroughly ridiculous pair--Brady tall and broad and golden as a shield, her dark and slender as a combat knife. Something a comic-book artist would consider a good visual contrast.
Brady was always a gentleman, and the quirk at the corner of his mouth told her he enjoyed the opportunity to be of service. A failing common to the model, she thought. He poured the coffee, added cream, and took the stirrer out before he handed it over. Then he sighed and picked up his own cup. He stared into it rather than drinking, slumped with one hand stuffed in his trouser pocket.
"Kids?" Lau said. She suspected Brady didn't have a soul on earth to talk to. If it got bad, Nikki could always call her mom, her brother Tim and his wife, her ex-sister-in-law Dana--who was still Nikki's best friend, though the marrying Dana's brother thing hadn't worked out so well. They might not get it--nobody who didn't do the job ever really got it--but they assumed she could take care of herself, and they'd distract her with endless tales of normal life until she forgot she was supposed to be invulnerable. But Brady--who did Brady have?
Well, Nikki Lau. For a start.
"Yeah," Brady said. "Well, and using them to get to the responding officers. That's just so fucking evil." His arm pressed to his side, as if at a chill.
"They're all evil," Lau said, in commiseration. "It's what makes them hosts, and Not Chaz. And it's what makes us the Good Guys, right? The good part? Something has to oppose evil, and antiheros are only interesting in Clint Eastwood movies. In real life, you kind of want to hit them with a shoe." She bounced on her toes to draw his attention. "Even if you do think you're the goddamn Batman."
It didn't make him smile, and he still didn't raise the coffee cup. "I dunno why the kids get me so bad. I mean, it's not like--"
She banged him lightly in the ribs with her elbow before the self-pity brimmed over. He rolled his eyes and shook his head, but reinflated a little. "Hey." She checked over her shoulder for eavesdroppers. Out to your coworkers wasn't the same thing as out to any redneck cop who happened to wander by. "You never know. Maybe there's a nice single dad out there with your name on him."
"Nikki!" Scandalized. But at least he was laughing. "All right. All right. And we're going to catch him before he can do it again, right?"
"Right," she said. "You keep bringing me coffee. I'll find the bad guy."
She winked at his mock-irate stare, and ducked before his elbow connected with the side of her head. "Ow!" she protested, though he'd missed her by a mile.
He grinned back. "Hey, Lau. You're a pretty good buddy, you know."
She was about to concur that she did, in fact, know, when Reyes walked by and blasted them with a glare that brought Lau's shoulders up around her ears.
"Guess I'm not the only one taking it hard," Brady said.
Lau turned away, but shot back, "Coffee break's over. Everybody back on your heads."
Sunrise on Saturday found Chaz sitting at the same desk, sucking down coffee laced with heavy cream and powering through four months of duty rosters like a car toiling uphill in heavy snow. The pattern hovered at the edge of his attention, frustrating and incomplete.
He thought of it like balancing blocks, one of those children's games he'd always been too clumsy to manage well. Lousy fine motor control. Too much processing power in use for other things. He shrugged his oversized tweed jacket higher on his shoulders, fighting the early-morning chill, and reached for his coffee.
Empty. He frowned into the mug, trying to decide if it was worthwhile getting up for another, or if he should go in search of food again already. He was out of granola bars, and the breakfast burrito he'd eaten at three AM was only a memory, but he hated to take a break.
If he fell over, Daphne and Brady would glare. And while he could think of something more embarrassing than fainting in front of Lau, the idea was enough to make his face feel hot. Besides, he had to log his caloric intake in his online food journal to keep Daphne and Hafidha happy. Which meant they would know exactly how much he was eating. Or wasn't eating, as the case might be.
A rattle of paper drew his attention. When he looked up, Worth stood beside him, clutching a grocery sack to her chest. She set all fourteen and a half pounds (approximately) down on the empty desk he'd appropriated--a brand new station house meant a lot of available space, for a change--and reached in the top.
She wrinkled her nose. "I can smell you thinking." .
Chaz sniffed his own shoulder and caught the sweetish rotten-fruit whiff of acetone. "Ick," he said. "Sorry. Ketosis."
"Mmm." She pulled things from the bag. A red plastic bowl, like a kid's ice cream bowl. A metal spoon with an even redder handle. A gallon jug of orange juice. A sloshing half-gallon of organic 2% milk, the outside dewed with condensation that wetted Daphne's fingers. "And the pièce de résistance--"
A 21-ounce box of Cinnamon Life cereal. Two thousand, two hundred and eighty calories of mostly-carbohydrate, on the hoof. Added to the milk, somewhere around 3,250. Half his daily requirement in one fell swoop, with a little extra to cover for jamming, and that wasn't even counting the OJ. Chaz grabbed the box before she had a chance to set it down on the table and prised the lid up with his fingernails. "Thank you, thank you, thank you--"
She cracked the milk while he poured out two and a half cups of cereal, then handed him the spoon with a snap as practiced as a scrub nurse presenting a scalpel. Chaz leaned forward over the desk so the milk dripping down his chin would splash back into the bowl instead of across his sweater. When he looked up, Daphne was replacing his coffee cup. "Goddess."
She ruffled his hair. "Consider it a small apology for biting your head off last night."
"Lau thinks we're sleeping together."
It was worth it to see her eyebrows rise. "You and me? She said that?"
"Profiler," Chaz reminded. "She did quite the double-take when you snapped."
Daphne snorted. "I won't tell Amarilis if you don't tell Tricia." She jerked her head at the gray-golden light glazing the windows across the bullpen. "Cop shop with daylight. Who'd have thunk it?"
"I wonder about the defensive architecture. There's a whole bunch of antimeasures built into that facade." Chaz put the bowl down and reached for the cereal box again.
Daphne stopped him, and handed him a paper napkin. "Professionalism, Anomaly-boy."
He snorted, but wiped his chin. "Sorry. I can't get this damned case to snap together. It's maddening. I am getting some interesting stuff out of the duty rosters and responding officer reports. So far, what I've got is that the incidents were reported on different shifts. The actual murders occurred several hours before." He lowered his voice. "Brady thought we should check the responding officers. A cop could get into almost anyone's house."
"Different shifts means different officers."
"Rotation," Chaz said. "Same officers, different shift. The shift that was on evenings in July is on nights now."
"And people remember a cop car parked in front of a neighbor's house."
"Point." He shoveled more cereal, trying to maintain the appearance of decorum. "Especially if the neighbors turn up horribly slaughtered later that night. There's under thirty sworn officers in the division, but that actually slows us down."
He tapped the pile of papers he'd shoved to the side. "Most of the first responders were the same both times. So if he's just doing it for one person, well, trying to narrow it down by Venn diagram isn't as helpful as it could be. Still, it's not like it's that complicated a system. I feel like I'm missing something."
"Do you think he is? Just doing it for one person?" She spun a chair around and settled into it, frowning.
Chaz set the spoon in the empty bowl and wiped his mouth again. "I think I don't know yet." The admission stung. Useless, he thought, which was something he had gotten used to not thinking since he joined the BAU. He shook it off and said, "So the question we have to keep asking ourselves, if the responding officers are his primary target, how did he find the victims? And what's his relationship with them?"
"He hates them," Daphne said. "Though whether specifically or in general, I'm not sure. But that's it with gammas, right? They go after the people the hosts loved most, before, or the ones they hated."
Chaz tasted the coffee she'd brought and changed the subject. "So what are you doing today?"
"Lau and I are interviewing one of the officers injured at the first scene," she answered. "Wish us luck. And finish your cereal."
"People are staring." He pushed the bowl away with his fingertips.
She shrugged. "They're just jealous, Platypus. Let 'em stare."
Her name was Alice Wagner, and she was blind. She sat perfectly composed in the center of a chintz loveseat in her mother's home, her eyes concealed by opaque glasses, hands folded between her knees. A light-skinned African-American woman, broad-featured behind the pale burn scars that streaked her face, she wore her hair cropped close to her skull. She was still fit, forearms muscled below the cuffs of her three-quarter-length sleeves, and Lau wondered how she managed it. Sympathetic workout partner and a lot of determination, maybe.
"I'm Agent Lau," Lau said. "And this is Agent Worth. We're here because we're--"
"Interested in how I got hurt."
"You're working the serial killer case."
"Yes," Lau said.
Alice Wagner licked her lips. "I was a good cop," she said. Hard, firmly, as if it was as important for her to believe it as for Lau. "I was just in too much of a hurry."
"Everyone connected with the case" --Lau paused for emphasis-- "told us you were on your way up, Ma'am."
"It was lye," Wagner said, and Lau winced in horrified sympathy.
It didn't matter. The former officer couldn't see her, and it would have been an imposition to take her hand.
"Son of a bitch," Worth said. And she--fearless, or courageous--did reach out and clasp Wagner's wrist. Wagner turned her hand over, as if grateful, and returned the grip. Her face did something brave and futile--Lau imagined, for a moment, what it would be like to watch Brady's face do that, or Hafidha's, or Worth's--then smoothed as if nothing could touch her. Bulletproof.
"We're going to get him," Worth promised, and Lau saw Wagner's fingers ripple convulsively against Worth's wrist and hoped it was the truth.
Before dinner, Chaz tried to call Amarilis again, but her home line and cell both rang through to voicemail. His job made him reach for the worst-case scenarios, but objectively he knew that on the east coast, it was ten o'clock on Saturday night and if she wasn't at a movie she was out dancing. He left her a cheerful and flirtatious message--on the grounds that he would have liked to get one--and dropped his Adorable Overhyped Phone back into his pocket before trekking down the stairs to meet the rest of the team for dinner.
Because Lau insisted, they wound up on an excursion to a place in the Gaslamp district called The Field. As she pointed out, they all needed the break. And maybe, as Reyes would put it, they all needed a chance to spitball the case without the local PD staring over their shoulders.
The restaurant looked unprepossessing from the sidewalk: what Chaz's old BASE pal Nigel would have called a B.S.I.P.--bog-standard Irish pub--American edition, one each. Nigel would then have embarked upon an explanation of why all the good Irish pubs were in America, and how impossible it was to get a pub salad in Ireland containing anything other than iceberg lettuce. Chaz wondered if Nigel was still jumping, and if not if it was because he'd retired or because he'd made a crater.
When they entered, Chaz began to understand Lau's insistence. The doorway led to a long dim corridor crowded with booths and stools, and savory smells floated on the air. A waiter glided past, balancing a tray with three perfect creamy pints of Guinness. Todd turned to catch Chaz's eye and smile. At the rear of the pack, Brady muttered, "Do you suppose they have Coors?"
"They have Stella Artois," Lau said over her shoulder. "And you will drink it, and not embarrass me."
Chaz didn't think Brady was cowed, but he subsided. Not that you could ever miss his presence back there. It was practical, anyway: Brady was tall enough to shoot over everybody else's head, if he had to.
Except for Chaz's. Which was why Chaz tended to fade to the rear as well. Well, that and getting to walk behind Lau.
The hostess who met them inside cried "Nikki! Hi!" and brought the seven of them up a narrow flight of stairs to a long table with benches on either side, a chair on one end, and a reserved sign.
Chaz stood aside to let Reyes claim the seat on the left end of the table, facing the windows and stair, then plunked down next to him. He could eat left-handed as well as the other way, so his elbow wouldn't bother whoever sat on his right. Daphne, it turned out, and Falkner sat across from Reyes, Todd across from Chaz, and Lau across from Daphs. Brady, in deference to his shoulders, got the chair on the end.
There was brief, cheerful chaos as the waitress--"I'm Liz. I'll be your server."--came by with menus and drinks were ordered (starting with Daphne: Guinness, Guinness, Guinness, Guinness-and-Black, Guinness, Guinness, and a reluctant Stella Artois). Liz was a curvy--some might say chunky--brunette with gleaming cheeks, plump cleavage, and electric blue eyes. She wielded what Chaz presumed was a British--not Irish--accent like both carrot and stick, and the detached analytical portion of his mind wondered if he or Todd was more likely to hurt himself trying to impress her.
Whoa, cowboy. Pretty brown girl at home, remember?
Which made him smile a little wistfully, which made Daphne kick him under the table when it was his turn to order. He grabbed the menu, consulted his internal gauges, and chose nearly at random. "Shepherd's pie, please, and bangers and champ, and a vegetable boxty?"
Liz-the-server blinked, but recovered quickly. "We've a sampler plate. Would you like that?"
Chaz smiled his widest and most disarming smile. "Full orders, please, and all the sides. I'll get through it, I promise. With room for dessert."
Daphne--either riding to the rescue or looking for an opportunity to flirt--raised big eyes and asked. "I'm sorry, miss. What's 'champ?'"
"Mashed potatoes," Todd said. He pretended not to look up from his menu, but Chaz saw him glance sidelong at the waitress. So Chaz corrected, "with scallions."
"Green onions, love," she said with a wink, sidling around behind Falkner and Todd. She slid the menu out of Todd's hand, polished his bald spot lightly with her towel, and said, "And is that what you'll be having, gorgeous?"
Todd actually stammered, but made a decent recovery, and even without recourse to the menu managed, "Guinness beef boxty for me, please."
"God," Lau said, as Liz trotted lightly down the stairs, "I love this place."
Reyes traced a line in the condensation on his water glass. "They import the help as well as the chairs?"
"British, isn't she?" Chaz asked.
Todd shook his head. "Irish. She's a Dub. It's one of those accents that sounds like everywhere else. Sure is musical, though." He paused and drank water. "All right, Lau. Out with it. You've gathered us here tonight for a reason."
Lau tucked the short side of her bob behind her ear, eyes wide and all but gleaming with innocence. "Sol," she said, sweetly. "I'd never--"
Reyes cleared his throat, and Lau laughed and sat back in her chair. "All right, all right. I want to try something tomorrow, to see if we can lure the host out. And I didn't want to talk about it at the station. In case--"
"It's one of them," Brady finished for her.
"Yeah," she said. "How much do I have to sell this?"
"Harder than that," Reyes said.
"Host psychology," she said. "We need to figure out this guy's mythology and work it. We can't stay here until Christmas, and we aren't finding what we need to get him now."
Her voice dropped off as feet climbed the stairs. First to appear was a tray laden with five pearl-topped glasses of Guinness, Falkner's stout-and-blackcurrant-cordial cocktail, and Brady's Stella set a little aside from the others, like a white raven among the black. Immediately after followed Liz's tensed fingers and her arm, then her head, and the rest of her. She turned the corner and said "Whew. For a moment there, I wasn't sure I'd make it."
She came to Falkner's end of the table to serve her first--Reyes grinned at his second-in-command, who was apparently being presumed the matriarch--and set Todd's stout down before leaning over to place Reyes' and Chaz's drinks before them.
Teal blue lace. With a front clasp.
Manfully, Chaz pinned his eyes on Todd's face and asked, "How's the Guinness?"
Todd, licking at a stout moustache, nodded, lower lip quirking. Before Liz straightened, though, he leaned over and said something Chaz didn't catch in her ear. All she answered was, "Of course, love." No help there, and then she vanished down the stairs again. Chaz gulped the first mouthful of Guinness, doing it a disservice: in character, Todd had undersold. Chaz's left leg itched. There was probably some sort of folklore about that.
"She's gunning for a big tip," Brady said sourly.
Daphne picked the paper off her water straw and flicked it at him. "She's going to get it, too. Nikki, your plan. Spin it."
"Television. Media blitz. If we're guessing right about his psychology, he wants to punish the responding officers. The holidays are just another way to make it worse, right? So what could be a more tempting target for somebody like that than a team of FBI agents and their cute little media-face?"
"Nikki--" Brady's voice was heated, and as unhappy as Chaz's instinctive reaction. Chaz bit his lip and let Brady take point. Lau was more likely to listen to the Texan, anyway. Especially when Brady sat back, folded his arms, and tempered his tone. "Are you sure that's your first beer?"
"It's a good plan," Lau said.
"Absolutely not," Falkner said. "We don't risk officer lives."
"It's that or wait for Christmas, Chief," Lau said, eyebrows drawing together. "And hope SDPD can get ahead of him then. The anomaly doesn't care about the host. It's just interested in carnage. If we give it a juicy enough target, the gamma might stop fucking around with innocent families and sacrifice itself for maximum effect. None of the responding officers were badly injured at the second scene. He didn't get his fix. But a shooting spree in a cop shop would fuck up the law enforcement community nationwide. And if I can think of it, he already has."
Chaz's pulse jumped, thrilling in his wrists and throat. A cold tingle of realization chilled his fingers. He interrupted with his beer halfway to his mouth. "Eyes," he said, and watched the team react. "Eyes. I have no idea how the hell I missed it. He blinds the families. He blinded a responding officer. The booby traps at the Wilson house--some, okay, are just gross or play on cop's-worst-nightmare scenarios, like the needle sticks. But the acid in the Supersoaker. The home-made explosives. They might not kill, but if they went off in your face--"
"They were under cabinets and so forth," Brady said. "Head height. It's why the bomb squad got them all without too much trouble; they could see them."
Chaz caught himself rocking excitedly against the table edge, and stopped before Daphne realized she could make him stop by stabbing him with her fork. "Right. So the thing is, is he angry about not being seen? Or is he making sure nobody can see him?"
Reyes bit his knuckle. "He blinded the families."
"Before he did anything else," Daphne said.
Reyes turned his head and winced. He laid both hands flat on the table and said, "He made them listen. His manifestation is something that prevents him from having an impact on his environment. No trace evidence. His mythology, then, is that he's a forgotten man. Somebody who moves through the world unremarkable and unremarked. Fascinating."
"What do you mean?" Brady folded both hands around his beer, effectively vanishing the glass.
"The gamma," Reyes said. "Two different manifestations that conform to the host's mythology. If he passes unnoticed by people who are present and accounted for, that has to be neurologically produced. A different mechanism than the ability to walk through a crime scene toting dripping meat and not leave a bootmark. Two different physical mechanisms... but both consistent with the gamma's picture of himself and his rationalization for what he does. And that's how he enters the houses. Nobody notices he's not supposed to be there. Maybe not even the security system."
Worth's gaze crossed Todd's, but it was Todd who said, "You mean a possible third mechanism. All in the context of the same metaphor. Whoa."
Chaz said, "His metaphor expresses itself variously. Like Spiderman's spider-powers."
Daphne shuddered. "We really really gotta stop this guy."
The itch on Chaz's ankle wasn't going away. Furtively, he hiked up the leg of his corduroys and scratched on both sides of the knotted hemp band around his calf. Long arms came in handy sometimes. He caught Todd's eye and mouthed, "Attention must be paid."
Todd bit his lip and shook his head in frustration. "You're saying he's functionally invisible."
"No," Chaz started, but Reyes beat him to it.
"I'm saying he passes unnoticed." Reyes took a long pull of his Guinness, then set it down and stared at it regretfully. "He's not invisible. You'd notice an invisible thing. You'd walk into him. I'm saying that Brady is right. Shit doesn't stick to his fur."
"And Brady's right about something else," Falkner said. "He's at the cop shop. Which is why we didn't think of any of this there. Because we didn't notice that we weren't noticing him."
Lau nodded and said, "Of course. He tortures the cops. And he's standing right there watching. It's the best of both worlds: he's the center of attention and nobody even knows it. And he can see every reaction to the horrible things he does."
Chaz could tell that Falkner wanted to argue, but she picked up her water instead. Chaz mirrored her with his Guinness, an uncomfortable awareness tickling his stomach. Like the itch, he tried to ignore it. And like the itch, it would not be silenced.
Somebody like that would create a wake. You might not be able to see him. But you'd be able to see what he did to others, in passing by. Like the elongated blood drops spattered on the stair runner: he might leave no trace of himself, but that didn't mean the things he affected would go unnoticed. There would be patterns.
Chaz said, ""He's one of them. I'm sure of it. Dammit. I should have connected before. Both sets of victims had made 911 calls within the last year. Before the Northwest Division opened. The Diazes for a domestic disturbance at a neighbor's house. The Wilsons for celebratory gunfire on New Year's Eve. I just remembered it now."
The idea of a gamma casually rearranging the contents of his skull made Chaz want to wrinkle his nose and mince backwards like a cat confronted with a maggot-riddled corpse. Judging by the expressions around the table, his revulsion wasn't unique.
Into the silence that followed, Lau said, "We have to make him come to us."
Falkner said, "Why don't we just interview everybody who works in the cop shop? We know he's a cop groupie if he's not one of the officers. We can narrow it down, start with civilian employees who at some point enrolled in police training or attempted to--"
"If he didn't bolt," Reyes said, "we just might miss him. He wouldn't show up that day and nobody would think to mention it. Or his name wouldn't get on the list. He's overlooked. It's what he does." He drew short lines in the condensation on his beer. "I'm sorry, Lau. Your plan won't work. We can't protect you from somebody we can't notice coming."
Chaz caught himself twisting his hands together, staring down at the table, and forced himself to stop. These people were his family, the only one he had. To them, he was a co-worker, a useful adjunct to the all-consuming job. If he couldn't be useful to them, what good was he?
Chaz opened up his mouth and--through the sticky dryness of his tongue--said, "I could see him coming."
Every head at the table turned, and every pair of eyes fastened on Chaz.
"Maybe," Chaz qualified, and dropped his gaze to the backs of his hands again. There was still a swallow of Guinness in his glass. He drank it, concentrating on the slightly-stale bitterness of those last few drops, the way the creaminess had evolved into something else. "I'd have to look for the person whose existence wasn't accounted for in the patterns of unconscious communication and eye contact and body language that flow around a room. The guy people avoid without acknowledging."
Daphne said, "Chaz. You'd have to be slamming neurons all the time."
Lau fiddled with her glass right-handed, dabbling a fingertip in the foam. "Christmas morning," she said. "Think about it. A month of anticipation, and then--"
"More dead kids," Chaz said, startled to find himself on Lau's side in this. "Kids who stayed up all night waiting for Santa. Another six-year-old nailed to a chair. Are we going to let that happen?"
Reyes regarded him impassively, hands folded on the table. "Can you do it? Honestly. If you can, we'll roll the dice."
If Chaz had thought his heart was thundering in his ears a moment before, now it was beating out "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." Nine months before, Reyes had been unwilling to permit Chaz into the field. Now he was prepared to make Chaz the crux of the operation.
On the chance that Chaz's broken, internal manifestation could trump everything a full-fledged gamma could throw at them. The trust--or the willingness to gamble--made Chaz's stomach clench. Lau's life would be the bet.
Sweat greased Chaz's palms. He dried them surreptitiously on his napkin and strove to keep his voice light as he answered, "You want to know if my kung fu is superior to his kung fu. Master, I cannot answer that question until battle is joined."
"Chaz--" Falkner leaned forward. "If we do this, it's all on you. You can't let your guard drop. You're our secret weapon. Nobody else stands a chance of spotting him."
"Just keep the ice cream cones coming."
God bless and keep Nikki Lau, she broke the tension with a tapping hand and said, "So he thinks he's the forgotten man. And we put him on television. That's attention, man."
Reyes shook his head. "We put him on television, and we don't give him any attention. That ought to drive him out of his tree."
If he had been about to explain further--and knowing Reyes and his addiction to magic tricks, Chaz could not be sure--it was interrupted by Liz's triumphant return at the head of a caravan of bus boys. Pints and water glasses were pushed aside, plates deposited, and a certain amount of engineering was required to get Chaz's food in front of him. When the plates were arranged to her satisfaction and the bus boys dismissed, she turned her head and studied him like a bird. "I wish I were able to stay and watch this."
He grinned at her and picked up his fork. "Come back and check progress?"
"Don't bother," Daphne said. "You'd spend so much time running up those stairs you'd never get your work done. But trust me, he'll do it justice."
Liz clicked her tongue. "Well, at least it doesn't go to his hips," she said, and beat her retreat while Chaz was still considering his retort.
Instead, he scooped .75 ounces of champ (approximately 18 calories) onto his fork, dipped the lump in pooled butter, and stuck it in his mouth. And closed his eyes and made a happy sound.
Whatever Lau was proposing, with a jammer and three ex-soldiers at the table, eating became a serious business, carried out with dedicated concentration. They took their down time when they could get it. But by the time Chaz was finishing up his boxty--crisp vegetables and creamy white sauce wrapped in a potato pancake--everybody else was slowing down as well. He stacked the third plate on top of the two empty ones, settled back and sighed.
A slow roll of applause from the stairwell turned his head. Liz apparently had returned to check on him, or at least to ask the server's ceremonial question of the table: "Is everything OK?"
Chaz saluted with his fork. Brady was mopping the Irish stew gravy off his own plate with the last of a slice of bread. He had nearly finished the Stella, though he seemed to be eyeing the last few mouthfuls with respect. Chaz wondered if anybody had warned him about the alcohol content.
Liz topped the risers and paused. She didn't pull out her notepad, but then, she hadn't used it to take their dinner orders either. "Who saved room for dessert?"
"Bread pudding?" Chaz asked, hopefully, trying to get a plaintive note into his voice. He wasn't actually hungry any more--not painfully so, anyway--but he had some idea of the amount of calories he'd run through today, and tomorrow looked to be nothing but jamming. "And an Irish coffee with extra whipped cream."
Liz shook her head, impressed, and looked around the table. "Anyone else? When you smell it, I promise you'll want some."
Brady raised his hand, and so did Todd, once he and Lau and Worth had haggled out a quick and dirty contract to split an order. "None for me, but coffee all round," Reyes said. "And one tea."
Liz raised a saucy eyebrow at Falkner. "Nothing for you, love? The bread pudding is lovely. And you know how men are--you shouldn't count on this lot to share."
Falkner, however, just smiled and said, "Oh, they give me pretty much anything I ask for. Just bring me an extra fork, please."
"Yes, ma'am," Liz said, and vanished down the stairs. When she came back with dessert, she served them starting from Falkner's end of the table again, then came back and rested a hand on Todd's shoulder while she handed him the check. "I'll take that up whenever you're ready, gorgeous," she said, but while he was reaching for his credit card, Falkner swiped the black leather folder out of his right hand.
"Hey!" he said.
And she said, "Expense account," and that was that.
Chaz didn't miss it when Falkner extracted a folded slip of paper that had been tucked in with the check, glanced at it, and handed it to Todd--who promptly blushed to the roots of what hair he had left. He slid it into his shirt pocket, all the same.
Reyes did not look up when, on the way back to the SUVs, Chaz shortened his stride to fall back beside him. He sort of thought Reyes had expected it, because he was alone, slightly behind the group, and radiating concentration, which would tend to keep the team at bay. Nobody bugged Dad when he was thinking unless it was important.
Chaz kind of worried that this was important.
"Thank you," he said, when Reyes looked up.
Reyes' stare was more appraising than welcoming, and Chaz didn't blame him. "You keep a lot of secrets, Villette."
A projection that made Chaz wonder what secrets Reyes was keeping. And if they were any of Chaz's business. He lowered his voice. "You don't trust me."
The Gaslamp district was crowded on a Saturday night, the old treelined streets threaded with merrymakers. Enough noise and confusion to cover a quiet conversation, even if someone else on the team was trying to eavesdrop. Nevertheless, Reyes answered in an undertone. "I don't trust the anomaly."
"I'm not a monster, sir."
The stare lingered for a moment before it dropped away. "Nobody's hoping to prove you are."
Melinda Grossman hadn't been a monster either. Dave Schumacher might have been weak, but he'd been trying to do what was right. And how did you know what was right, when the It whispered in your ear with the still, small voice of conscience or schizophrenia? Jessi Kelly thought she'd done the right thing. Eddie Cieslewicz finally figured out that what he thought was right was wrong.
Chaz wondered if part of what made the pain taste good was the host's suffering, too. He reminded himself, but we don't know that it tastes like anything. We just know the anomaly maximizes hurt, and hurt to the survivors as well as the victims.
Some hosts really were monsters. Some reveled in their monstrosity. They were willing accomplices. Hunting them wasn't so different from profiling serial killers. Chaz thought of that as a kind of failure mode: break somebody in the right ways, and they shattered into an UNSUB. And some of those enjoyed their work.
But some hosts--and some killers--were conflicted, driven by a compulsion. An addiction. When he tried to understand it, that craving to play out a script that only ended with somebody else terribly dead, Chaz thought in terms of basic biological drives. The relentless pressure of sexual desire, that could fill up every waking second if you let it. Hunger, and he knew exactly how far he'd go if he were hungry enough. He'd never killed, but he'd cheated and he'd stolen. One more thing to make up for.
You could decide what you would do to meet those needs. And he told himself--he hoped--that the gammas he hunted were the hosts who weren't willing to do what they had to do to control the anomaly. You would be stronger. You would make a better choice.
Everybody believed that until they were tested, of course. One more way hosts--even the ones who weren't also serial killers--were like serial killers. They all had to be stopped. But some would help you stop them.
It was a kind of awful courage, he supposed.
Chaz realized they'd come two blocks since Reyes had spoken, and that Reyes was still stealing glances at him every few feet. Chaz said, "Lau and I are asking for a lot of trust."
Reyes shrugged, and now he stuffed his hands in his pockets and turned away with finality. "Just don't make me regret giving it."
Sunday, in the station house bathroom mirror, Nikki Lau applied her mask. Foundation, contour. Liner open at the corners so it would not make her eyes seem small. She touched up the mascara with a curved brush, followed by a slow blink to settle it. She covered a stray dark brown dot on her eyelid with a dab of maquillage, while sending up a silent prayer of thanksgiving to Connie Chung and the sisters who had gone before. Once she would have had to mix her own, but these days, Lau could buy foundation that more or less matched her skin straight out of the tube. Lipliner, powder, then lipstick last of all, an understated shade.
She faced the mirror under unforgiving light, her immaculate warpaint in place. "Knight in shining armor," she whispered to her reflection, and managed not to jump when the door banged open. It was Maria Gometz, holding up three fingers. "Your public awaits."
Lau glanced at the polish on her short nails one last time--patches would pass, but chips showed--squared her shoulders, and collected the brand-new crimson suit jacket off the hook beside the door. "Ready," she said, and let Maria lead her out.
A once-familiar voice broke through her pregame concentration, snapping her head around. "Nikki Lau! Somebody told me you grew up to be a g-man, but I didn't believe it."
Lau closed her eyes and counted three, checked to make sure her smile felt like it was sitting right on her face, and turned to face Troy Kingman with her chin up.
Tall, with wavy brown hair and a blue-shaved cleft chin, he held his arms out, clearly expecting a hug. Lau leaned in gingerly, careful of her foundation, and gave him an A-frame squeeze. He pressed her back to arm's length a moment later and frowned at her. "So it's true? You're a Fed? What a waste of a face for television."
Saving lives. Way down there under market share in terms of importance.
And if she didn't have the right resources to save these lives? She'd rather not know the answer to that question.
She'd never liked Kingman, but in school he'd come free with Dana and Richard Collier, and wherever they were, Nikki was too. She hadn't seen him since before the divorce, though. You grew up, got a job, got busy-- She said, "You're just lucky I didn't stay in the market. Or I'd be beating your audience two to one."
He shook her teasing off with rolled eyes. And, inevitably, asked, "How's Dicky?"
Lau was ready for it, because any idiot could have seen it coming. "Good, I guess," she said. "We got divorced. We're still in touch, though."
"Oh, I'm sorry--" he started, but she stopped the sympathy with an upraised hand.
"Don't worry. You didn't know. It wasn't ugly."
"I can't imagine it would be," he said, drifting back a step, while Lau wondered what sort of woman used the news of her own divorce to distract an old acquaintance from the scent. "You were both great people."
"We still are," she answered, with a hair-flip.
He grinned. "So have you got any insider information for me, or shall I run with 'police and the FBI are baffled?'"
Lau bit her tongue, hard. It was about the artful lie, and Kingman just wanted to provoke her. So she could appear to be provoked, and give him only what she chose. "You know I can't slip you anything under the table. Even for old time's sake."
Maria, bless her, tugged Lau's elbow. "Special Agent--"
"Right," Lau said. "Sorry, Troy. We should do lunch the next time I'm in SoCal."
"What about tomorrow?"
She shrugged, and didn't say off the record. "Sorry. Can't. We're headed home tonight. There's nothing more we can do here. We don't believe the UNSUB will strike again before Christmas, and at this point we don't have any forensic evidence to go on, or any behavioral leads, so we're handing the investigation back to local police."
His eyes widened, but he got his expression under control. While he was organizing his thoughts, Lau let Maria lead her into the area set up as a briefing room.
The press conference was scheduled to coincide with the local morning show live slots, and in the wake of two gory, sensational crimes, it was packed with reporters. And Chaz and Brady, seated as if insignificant in the far corner. Lau would be alone in front of the cameras, and the rest of the team as inevident as possible. Falkner and Brady had both protested the move, but Reyes had backed her up, so Lau got to play it her way.
So far, the killer had used a knife. But she was wearing a vest under her immaculate blouse. Just in case. So she really was bulletproof. Or bullet-resistant, anyway.
She got behind the podium and was introduced. She hadn't cinched the ballistic vest tight enough, and she felt the Walther shift in sweat against her back and pinch. As she leaned forward to the microphones, her heart hammered and her ears buzzed. It wasn't her job to scan the room; it was her job to hold the room, to make eye contact and connect with each one of them.
Chaz had her back.
And Brady had Chaz's back.
And Brady and Chaz each had a panic-button, in the form of a disposable cell phone with Falkner's number on one-touch dial. That would have to be enough, because it was her job to get up here and make the bastard want to scratch the Teflon right off of her.
"Hello," Lau said. "I'm Special Agent Nicolette Lau, representing the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I'm here today to talk to you about the investigation into a pair of multiple murders that have taken place in the Northwestern District in the last six months. First, I'm going to present a profile of the individual we believe is responsible. Then I am going to be available for questions for as long as you need me."
She paused for breath, and to pace the address, and couldn't stop herself from flicking her eyes once across the gathered crowd. Troy Kingman was just slipping in the back, folding his cellphone shut.
Nikki bit the inside of her cheek so she wouldn't smile. "We are seeking information on an individual who will appear insignificant to acquaintances, the sort of person you barely remember having held a conversation with. He will seem ineffectual, incompetent. He will hold an unskilled job, and will not have completed higher education--"
Saturday night, Chaz reviewed the employee files and photographs of every station-house employee, and every bit of background Hafidha could drag up on them. Sunday, he called Amarilis at lunch her time, and finally managed a five-minute conversation. She mentioned the press conference with relief. "So you'll be home tonight?"
He made a noncommittal noise. "I sure hope so. CNN's still on the story?"
"All over it," she answered. "I saw you sitting off to the side. Are all your colleagues that pretty?"
"I bet your coworkers' girlfriends ask them the same question," he said, to hear her snort: flattered, but unimpressed. Because Amarilis would laugh, he continued, "Never fear. I've been stalking her for over a year, and she has yet to notice my existence. So I traded up my crush for a better model. With racing stripes."
Beat. Beat. "That blond guy you were sitting next to?"
She got him with coffee in his mouth. He spluttered, scorched his throat swallowing the coffee, and when he was done laughing, said "Ow."
Her voice was still concerned, though, when she said, "Do they make you wear your gun inside the police station?"
"I always wear it in the field," he said. "Sorry. What are you up to today?"
"I have to run. Lunch with my father," she answered, which triggered a whole rush of associative images of her scrambling to get out of his apartment one morning so she could change before a Date With Her Dad. Which, in turn, led him to the night before and a particularly vivid suite of memories.
Sometimes, being an eidetiker was more a distraction than a blessing. He pressed his shin sharply against the leg of the metal desk. "Have fun."
"Be careful," she answered, and ended the call.
By lunchtime, nothing had broken. Chaz sat fretfully behind a desk trading blog comments with Hafidha; cramming down cereal, Skor bars, and fried chicken; and keeping nine tenths of his attention on Lau at all times while trying not to appear as if he was doing anything other than killing time on the computer and inappropriately cruising a pretty coworker. Reyes had made a point of removing himself and Worth from the office. Falkner and Todd were conspicuously closeted in the conference room.
And Chaz kept having to restrain himself from dropping his hand to his weapon any time somebody walked toward Lau. He had a headache from slamming that caffeine and Aleve wouldn't touch, and he was managing to feel both bloated and starving simultaneously.
"Lamest superpower on earth," he muttered, as Brady walked by and dropped a king-size mocha java and a stack of chocolate doughnuts on his desk.
"Hey," Brady said. "At least you get one. There's more doughnuts in the office. Todd made a run."
"Thanks, man." Chaz took a long drink of the mocha and sighed. Then he texted Worth to let her know that nothing was happening yet, and by the way, we have doughnuts.
As he anticipated, she and Reyes were back in the office within the hour. A bit later, she walked up, doughnut in hand, and delivered a bag containing a green salad, two pre-sliced apples in plastic bags, a large box of lobster fried rice, and a 2-liter bottle of Coke. "I'll name my firstborn after you," Chaz promised, as she handed him the chopsticks. "I thought I might never see a vegetable again."
"Rule one," she said. "Feed the beta." She leaned a hip on his desk and said, "How's it going?"
"Oh, most of the shift is out on an arson call up in the hills," Chaz said between bites of apple. "Just what San Diego needs. Another brush fire. And I really wish I could just bag on this and go for a hike." A tickle, something--maybe just the practice of belaying, where you always keep your attention on your climbing partner and your hands on the rope--made him keep watching Lau and the space around Lau while he ate. Well, that, and the fact that Lau was hot enough that it was nice to have an excuse to watch her. Which--all telephone teasing aside--was something he probably wasn't going to mention to Amarilis twice if he was smart, unless she brought it up again. Referring back to what he'd told himself Friday morning, and every morning since she'd managed to trip into his arms.
He couldn't just ask a girl for a date, apparently. No, she had to fall on him. "But..."
"One way or another, we'll be home tomorrow," Daphne said.
As he was turning to answer her, Chaz's attention snagged on something--there. Maria Gometz hesitated on the other side of the door, checked for no reason, and turned her head over her shoulder. As if someone had called her name. But Chaz hadn't heard anything.
Daphne said, "We'll go climbing--Chaz?"
Chaz was already rising from his chair, leashed by a broken pattern. This time, his hand did land on his sidearm, and his thumb moved automatically to pop the snap.
And where would Gometz's eye have fallen, if she hadn't turned just then?
Once upon a time, before he was a sworn officer of the law, Chaz had done things he couldn't admit to his coworkers now. Because they had been illegal, done under cover of darkness, with a getaway car waiting at the bottom of the cliff or span or building to bundle the jumpers and their equipment away before the cops or the park rangers arrived. The game had been to squeeze out that extra split second of freefall, to be the guy with the lowest pull. They called it beating the elevator, and Chaz had always been the one to bend his luck the farthest.
He'd been able to do it because he knew. He just knew. How fast he was falling; how long it would take him to cover the distance to the deck; how soon the canopy could brake him. Inexorably, perfectly. It happened the same way every time, inevitable as the bounce of a steel ball around a roulette wheel.
It worked just the same way now. Angles and vectors and lines of force, and he'd never been able to make sense of the fact that he just couldn't convert it into helping him fire a pistol accurately. Poor fine motor control. And he flinched or jerked the trigger, and the bullet didn't wind up where he'd meant to put it.
Halfway across the room was a medium-build Caucasian man of less than average height, his cheeks hollowed under sunken eyes. Blue shirt, conservative tie, brown Land's End penny loafers with actual pennies in them.
Chaz hadn't seen him come in.
"Him," he said. The panic button was on the desk; he remembered where. He hit it without looking. "Nikki!"
Lau turned, hair flaring, shirt untucked over her vest, the tails covering the butt of her gun. Not fast enough; the UNSUB closed those last steps, half-slipping out of Chaz's perception until Chaz clamped down, nauseatingly, held the pattern in his mind and locked it there.
"Where?!" Daphne's weapon was in her hands, high-ready, the line of her gaze everywhere except on the man who now reached out and grabbed Lau's hair, spinning her around. She yelled--"Fuck!"--and fetched up against his chest, arms more or less at her sides.
The weapon in the host's left hand was a black-handled combat knife, not a gun. Chaz froze, pistol leveled, as the host pressed it up under Lau's right breast.
Daphne said, "Chaz, where did Lau go?"
"Right there," Chaz said. His head ached with the pressure of holding the host in his sight. Like a thumbnail gouging in above his right eye. His eyes teared. He wondered if you could pop an aneurysm jamming.
Useless fucking power. Useless, when he was the only one who could see the host and his hostage. A knife would go through Kevlar like cutting a cheese wrapper, and Lau wasn't wearing trauma plates. Anything other than a light vest would have shown through her clothes. "Dammit, right there."
Gun leveled, and he was the worst shot in the unit. Gun leveled, and there was Lau, staring right at him with big dark eyes, her mouth half-open, and the host had three-quarters cover behind her and most of his face shoved into the side of her head. Falkner and Todd were in the doorway from the conference room now, Gometz just inside the hallway door. Reyes and Brady were right behind her. Worth on Chaz's left. All of them with weapons at ready, not aimed. How could they, when there was nothing to aim for?
Chaz blinked watering eyes. The gamma had him beat, was slipping out of his vision again. Nobody had a bead but him. My kingdom for an external manifestation.
The host was looking right at him. "You can see me?" Quick gasps, his voice neither calm nor level.
Lau was. Calm, and level, and looking right at Chaz. "Take the shot."
Until a savage yank on her hair pulled her head back, the knife point digging in. Chaz couldn't see if the darkness it revealed was blood or the black fabric of the vest, but Lau gasped, bit her lip.
"Bitch, shut up! Or I'll cut your fucking tits off and feed them to your boyfriend over there."
Brady. He meant Brady, by the jerk of his head. Brady, who had paused inside the door, confused, casting about like a bloodhound for a scent.
The host had been watching them all along. And he still hadn't seen a thing.
Chaz sucked air in his nose, pushed it out his mouth. A huffing breath, as if for power while climbing. He knew this man's name. He'd looked at close to a hundred and fifty photos and employment files, and all the background information Hafidha could bring. He could remember it if he could just see the page in front of himself. Just remember the image, and the name.
The host was a dispatcher. Third-shift. Both parents still alive, father confined to wheelchair. His father had been a police officer, wounded in the line of duty. The UNSUB's record indicated that he'd been refused admission to the police academy the previous summer, and Chaz--who should have found the link almost offensively obvious--had failed to make the connection before now. Had failed to notice.
The arson call was a decoy. Of course. The host was a dispatcher.
Like his victims, he hadn't needed to see the horrors he was inflicting on the responding officers. Because he could hear it. And whatever he could imagine was so much better--so much worse--than reality that it would ruin half the fun if he could see.
"Frank Scott," Chaz said. "Yes. I see you."
The knife point pierced Kevlar and Lau felt the hot trickle start. No pain yet--not much. She let warmth radiate from that point of contact, loosening her muscles. She found her balance, though the gamma was pulling her back.
Better. Better than if he had the knife to her throat. Her right hand clutched his right wrist, above the fist knotted in her hair. He had the knife-hand arm around her left arm, and probably thought he was pinning her.
Dismissed again. What a pretty little thing.
The gamma's attention was on Chaz. She felt him tense when Chaz said "I can see you," and understood that nobody else in the room could do so.
Chaz continued, "The response time. It's really terrible, isn't it? You could have done better. If they'd given you half a chance."
Lau felt the host's breathing hitch. She stared at Chaz, as if by directing her attention at him fiercely, she could force the gamma to do the same. Chaz was staring at the gamma, past her, as if she didn't exist. His hair flopped in his eyes. He focused along the length of his firearm, but his face was animated as he spoke.
He said, "If anybody had just really looked at you. They would have seen how you could change things. But these assholes don't see what's right in front of their noses, do they? They don't notice. They deserve what they get. It's criminal how they ignore what's right in front of their eyes."
"Criminal," the gamma--Frank Scott--said. "Yes. You understand."
Lau couldn't quite seem to focus on the host, any more than Brady and Todd, braced waveringly by the door, could. But it didn't matter. She could feel him, feel the shift of his balance, and she knew something about him that Chaz couldn't know, from all the way over there.
The host didn't know how to fight.
"If they just paid attention," Chaz said.
Against Lau's back, the host drew a rasping breath. What Chaz was groping for, he was close to finding. The trigger was under his finger, literally and metaphorically. He had to pull one or the other of them any second now.
Chaz said, "If they cared about you at all. Like your family. Like your dad the cop. Did he drink, Frank? Did he hit you or was it just the degradation, the constant put-downs? It was pretty bad, wasn't it, what he did to you. And you could never be good enough, tough enough for him. You could never be what he was. You could never make him see you, could you? And worse than him, you could never be good enough for your mom. If you were, she might have protected you. But she didn't care what he did to you. She didn't protect you. She just wouldn't see. It made you angry, didn't it? All those happy families. All those coddled babies. The little bastards."
The conviction in Chaz's voice could have burned her. True, what he was saying. All true. Passionate. Personal. Who knew the kid had so much bitterness and venom bottled up inside?
Chaz said, "What did they do to deserve what you never got?"
The host shuddered, jerked forward off-balance. "Chaz, now!" Lau hit the crook of the host's arm with the point of her left elbow, driving his knife-hand wide. Something grazed stinging across her ribs.
Chaz couldn't shoot, but he could hit. Lau moved, as Chaz had been expecting her to move, and the instant her weight shifted he dropped his gun behind him and charged. Arms extended, pushing for a running leap. Not stylish--that was Brady's job--but Chaz yelled as he jumped, and the host jerked his chin up and staggered to the side, off-balance from Nikki's strike.
Lau was, as usual, three steps ahead. She dropped, right hand tightening on the host's wrist as she rolled his weight over her shoulder and flipped him.
Chaz missed his grab at the host's knife-arm, stumbled, and fell hard against rattling sheet metal that rocked under the impact.
Something flew past Lau's head; she ducked, scrabbling cross-body for her sidearm. The host had forty pounds on her and gamma strength and toughness. She lunged up to bend his right arm behind him and bring the Taurus online, and felt the shattering, sickening crunch as he dislocated his own shoulder, twisting, lashing out with the knife. There. He had to be on the ground right there. His wrist slipped in her hand. Right there, dammit, where was the knife?
She felt his weight shift, sidestepped. In the dojo, she'd sparred blindfolded. This was the same except the knife. She felt it graze her thigh, twisted the arm again, heard him grunt.
Aimed at the grunt, and fired. And fired. And when he wrenched at her grasp one more time, fired. The team must be able to see him now, because other weapons spoke, bullets that moved past her, aimed with such care she never felt the wind of their passing.
Gamma. Empty the magazine.
Hands on her shoulders, cautious, but she jumped anyway. Almost brought the gun around, but more hands caught her wrist, and she realized that somebody had been saying her name over and over for what seemed like hours. Brady. It was Brady and Worth, and Maria, Brady holding her steady, pulling her back from the corpse on the floor, Maria prying the gun from her numb clenched fingers, and Worth pushing her slit shirt aside, looking for the wound.
"Release the firearm, Special Agent," Brady said.
Lau looked very hard at her left hand, and made the fingers uncurl from the butt of the gun so Maria could take it away from her. The slide was locked open, empty. God bless Massad Ayoob and his insistence that law enforcement officers learn to shoot off-handed. As soon as she got back to DC, she was sending him ten dollars and a thank-you card.
"Chaz," Lau said.
"Ow," Chaz said, from behind her.
She would have turned, but Worth said "Hold still, Nikki," in her First Responder Voice, and there was no arguing with that.
"Chaz," she insisted.
"Fine," he said, from the floor behind her. "Who's got the gamma?"
"I do." Reyes, grim and quiet. "Though I think it's safe now."
Which was a euphemism for dead. Lau wondered what Frost's autopsy would show, and how many bullets it would turn out to have taken. She shuddered, hard. Brady's hands tightened on her shoulders. She put her fingers over his and gave him a squeeze before she pushed him away, because if she let him keep holding her up she would crack, and Nikki Lau didn't crack.
Nikki Lau was bulletproof.
"You're fine," Worth said. "Barely scratched." She patted Lau's hip and stood. Lau turned, Brady still hovering, and let Worth put an arm around her.
Chaz was under a toppled filing cabinet. Todd and Falkner crouched beside him. But he was awake, and cursing, and it looked like most of the weight was supported on a (now broken) office chair.
Falkner looked at Todd, and Todd nodded. "On three," he said. Together, they grasped the cabinet and heaved from the knees, levering it off Chaz's left side and hip.
"Ow, fuck," he said, and curled up as the weight came off him.
Lau winced in sympathy. Worth gave her an anxious glance. "Go," Lau said, and made herself pull her shaking hand off Worth's shoulder.
"Lemme see, Platypus," she said, pushing his shirt up. He pawed at her hands, but she ignored him. "Stoppit. Whiner. You're gonna have a hell of a bruise, but I don't think you cracked anything."
Maria had taken Worth's place at Lau's shoulder. "Platypus?"
"Office nickname," Lau explained. "They eat something like half their own body weight in a day."
Maria stared at her for a second and then snorted. "Oh. I see."
"Okay, you can get up." Worth offered Chaz a hand, and after a moment's consideration, he accepted it. And got to his feet, groaning.
"I told you to take the shot," Lau said.
"Yeah, but I like you." He turned to look ruefully at the filing cabinet. "And I didn't expect you to throw him at me."
Falkner, one hand pressed to the small of her back, said, "You're lucky it was mostly empty."
"If it wasn't unbalanced, it wouldn't have fallen on him," Todd said. But Chaz brushed past him, limping slightly, and leaned around Lau to get a look at the gamma.
His expression silenced everyone in the room. Even Reyes, who seemed to be watching Chaz's face across the body of the dead man with a pained and considering expression. Chaz took a deep breath and rocked back on his heels, arms crossed over his narrow chest, big spider hands hooked over spiky shoulders. Making a breastplate.
"Frank Scott," he said, as if evaluating its flavor and texture. Then he said, under his breath, "You have no kung fu."
Ten minutes later, in the next room, Lau watched Worth put her hand out to touch Chaz, and Chaz--who hated to be grabbed--allow it. Reyes could be wrong, she thought, but there was the perfume in Chaz's hair, and--
No, whatever this was about, it wasn't about sex.
Chaz said, "Well, since I didn't shoot anybody, I don't have any paperwork. Daphs, let's find a wall. I need to do something with this adrenaline."
Worth opened her mouth as if to protest, but his expression silenced her. She nodded and said, "Sol, you want to come with us? You keep saying you're gonna--"
"I have a date," Todd answered, fishing his cell out of his pocket. "Late. After Liz gets off work." He shrugged. "Not being dead permitting."
Maria nodded, with a sidelong glance at Lau. She extended Lau's empty firearm, the slide locked open. Lau took it, exchanged the magazine, and re-holstered the weapon, as Maria said, "O.K. Corral. Bullets flying everywhere, and none of 'em hit you. You're Wyatt Earp."
"Actually," says Chaz, "that gunfight wasn't at the OK Corral. It was a block away--"
"On Fremont Street," Brady finished, with an eyeroll. He punched Chaz in the uninjured arm, and Chaz grinned. "Shut up, kid."
Lau held up her arms, crossed at wrists as if blocking something, hoping her hands weren't shaking visibly. "I am not. See these? Bullets and bracelets. Wonder Woman. Bulletproof."
They stared. Reyes, in his Do Not Mess With Me, I Am Your Father voice, said, "Lau, from here on, you take no risks. None. You don't drive over fifty-five, you look both ways before you cross the street and look again after that, you don't jump off the high dive, you don't eat shellfish, you don't run in heels. First, because I'm getting old and my heart won't take it. Second, because you just used up every last bit of luck you were allotted for your lifetime. All of it. Don't try it again.
"And another thing." He reached out and patted her arm. "Good work, kid."
It was Brady who turned, surveying the room they had left behind through the glass wall and the blinds. He took a deep quelling breath and let it out again. "Jesus. They're gonna need some spackle."
"Good," Chaz said, light tension on the belay rope tugging him gently. Worth was getting better: less weight on the rope every time. Which he was glad of, really. He'd been happy to just send a 5.7 or two and then belay his partner, though he'd had to get one of the other climbers to bring him a wrench to tighten one of the holds halfway up on the second climb.
Whatever he'd told the team, his ribs were killing him. But it had been worth it to come out to the climbing gym and see the desk girl's eyes get big when she looked away from the TV and recognized them. And he'd remembered to bring a padlock, so they could stow their firearms in a locker. "Now stand up on it."
Daphne laughed and yelled down, "Don't make me laugh," then blew her bangs out of her eyes. Her bangs were always in her eyes, and Chaz wondered why she didn't grow them out. From the ground, belaying, the rope moving jerkily through his hands--you never took your hands off the rope, and you never took your attention off your partner--he could see her thigh and calf tense, the cut line in her forearm as the hand she'd jammed into the crack clenched. She had just the edge of her toe on a tiny foothold shaped like an inverted star.
She levered herself out of a deep crouch, and rose.
"Shit," she said, on tiptoe, straining. Her fingertips left chalk smudges at the lip of the hold, but she couldn't get around it. She looked good up there, though, confident rather than hesitant, and that was new. Not afraid of falling. She said, "Three inches too short."
"Nah." He took in slack. "It's okay to be short. Your center of gravity stays closer to the pitch."
"But I can't reach."
He checked her balance, checked his grip on the rope, and said "Jump."
"Jump off that foothold and grab the handhold. It's called dyno. You just need the confidence."
"What if I fall?" Her head twisted as she measured the distance, tried to guess what the top of that handhold might bring. Was it smooth? Was there a good dip to jam your fingers in?
"That's why you have me, and a rope."
"You have a great big toehold there. Jump! Or I'll tell Brady you sissied."
"Drat you," she answered. She crouched a little, coiling as much as she could without losing her balance. "On belay?" Gathering her courage.
"Belay is on," he said. An affirmation that he was there, and that he had her.
"Climbing," she said.
He finished the ritual: "Climb away," and she jumped, hard, all that kick for a meagre four-inch hop.
Her fingertips scrabbled. She swung on that one extended arm until her other hand came up and she flexed her biceps and dragged herself up the wall inch by inch until one smearing foot hit a nice big ledge and she laughed and whooped and hugged close to the wall to rest.
It was enough.
"Good job, Harpy." Chaz grinned, and made sure he'd taken in all the slack she just made.
Lau thought Brady would hover all the way back to DC, but he'd sat up until dawn with her and Maria drinking coffee and telling war stories, so he didn't have much fight left in him when they climbed into the plane before first light. "Go lie down," Lau ordered, as they walked past Chaz, who lifted his head out of his heavily stickerized iBook long enough to nod to both.
Brady opened his mouth, looked at her, looked at the row of chairs she pointed to imperiously, and started unknotting his tie. For herself, she sat down in the first row, by the window, and thought about how soon she would be in DC and her own bed. Flying into the sunrise.
She must have said the words out loud, because as Todd dropped into the chair beside her he said, "Beats riding into the sunset, Wyatt."
"As long as it's not 'Shane! Come back, Shane!'" she answered. She leaned her head against the rest and turned her face to the window. "Did you just get back from your date?"
"Restaurant people stay up late," he said noncommittally. "It's the lifestyle."
His hair--what he had of it--was damp at the back, and he wasn't wearing the same shirt he'd been wearing the day before. As she wrinkled her nose at him, Reyes appeared in the hatchway carrying his own garment bag--and Todd's. "Brought this from the hotel," he said, and stumped past to the lockers at the front.
Lau raised an eyebrow. Todd shrugged. "We talked about Van Morrison. And Christy Moore. Then Falkner called to tell me we were wheels up in an hour, and--I didn't have time to make it back to the hotel."
"I seem to recall that conversation is not prohibitive of other activities," Lau said.
"Gentlemen don't drop hints."
"Most definitely not," he agreed comfortably, leaning his shoulder against hers as if by accident. If it had been Brady, she might have believed it, but Todd was a slender, fine-boned man. She leaned back, just a little, to let him know she'd noticed the gesture and appreciated its facade of happenstance.
"Are you going to see her again?"
He looked down at his hands. "She has my email. And my phone."
"San Diego's a long way from home."
He leaned harder for a second. His shoulders rose and fell and he said, just for her, "So where's home again, anyway?"
Amarilis hadn't called to say she was coming over, and when Chaz opened the door, he knew she hadn't come to surprise him. She wore a sweatshirt and the jeans he had been meaning to tell her looked good on her, and her hair was pinned up in a clip, showing the long smooth line of her neck. Everything about her said he wasn't supposed to kiss her, so he stood aside, wincing with the motion, and let Amarilis into the cramped little apartment.
"Chaz," she said, as he shut the door, "I'm sorry."
"It's really just a bruise--"
"No. I'm sorry I'm not--I can't do this." She looked away, turned toward the window, and for a moment her face was overlaid with a vivid eidetic flash of Lau as Todd murmured to her on the plane.
Her voice came out too high, as if her throat had tightened around it. "I can't keep doing this, because I like you too much, and if I like you any more, I won't be able to live with what you do."
Well, of course. Everybody leaves. It's only a matter of when.
Better now than a year from now, maybe. Better now than after he'd come to put some weight on the relationship. He couldn't file a protest--begging never helps. But at least he could try not to let her leave thinking he was something he wasn't.
"I'm one of the good guys," he said. "For real."
Her mouth worked. Well, at least she wasn't finding it easy, though--perversely--he wanted to make it easier for her, since it was inevitable now. She couldn't look at him. She said, as if to an empty room, "No, it's not that part. It's the part where if we're together, I'm going to feel my hands go cold every time the phone rings."
And he said, "Oh."
Now she looked at his face: that had been the hard part. "It was on the news."
As if being on the news were the worst thing in the world. He thought about it, and thought about knowing that if something happened, chances were that's where your first inkling would come from.
He touched her arm. Her eyes closed, as if in pain. She turned her face away and knotted her fists on the windowledge. He couldn't make her braver, and anyway nobody should have to be brave enough for what he did. That Falkner had Benjamin and Worth had Tricia seemed to him a kind of minor miracle. And too much to hope for, if he was honest with himself.
Which, sometimes, he had to be.
He let his fingers slide from her sleeve and stepped back. "I'm not mad," he said. Then, because he had to be better than baseline human beings, he swallowed hard and said, "If you ever need anything--and I mean anything--you can call. Okay? Don't answer now. Just know it's there if you need it."
She licked her lips. She started to say no. But whatever was on his face when she met his eyes, she stopped and thought and nodded.
"Okay." She pulled her hands from the windowledge. It looked like it hurt, letting go. "Thank you for not making this awful, Chaz."
Says who? But he had to be better than saying that, also, so instead he just walked her to the door.
She let him kiss her goodbye.
Next week: The WTF BBQ, part 5.
In two weeks, on Shadow Unit:
Black and bay, dapple and grey,
Coach and six little horses,
Hush-a-bye, don't you cry,
Go to sleepy little baby.
Way down yonder, down in the meadow,
Lies a poor little lamby,
The bees and the butterflies peckin' out its eyes,
The poor little thing cryin' mammy.
The things people will sing to their children.
"If there's any chance he's still in Tyler County, we could have our work cut out for us. They've got a forest fire." Falkner had to stop, and swallow. "An anomalous wildfire."
Reyes was too dark to turn pale, or flush, or any of the useful Euro diagnostics her own skin offered. But she knew from the set of his mouth that he was biting the inside of his lip.
"Tell the team, wheels up in thirty minutes. We'll brief in the air."
Falkner kept the relief off her face. "I already told 'em."
"The whole team?"
"Can you think of anyone we can spare?"
Reyes let out an unsteady breath. "Not this time."
"What are the odds," Todd said, "that an anomalous fire is unconnected to the disappearance of an agent in the same grid?"
Reyes gave Todd The Look. "It's his fire."
"As much as fire belongs to anyone."
Outside it was deep twilight. Falkner stopped with her hand on the driver's side door latch of the SUV.
"What?" Brady asked.
Until he asked, she didn't know herself. Then she registered the faint winter-night smell of woodsmoke, and the air that made the trees mutter like an angry crowd.
"The wind's rising," she said, and watched comprehension dawn.
Chaz pulled over and rolled the window down. Pine scent, smoke from the wildfires, and warm, humid air wrestled with the aridity inside the car. He kept both hands in sight on the wheel. The trooper's steps grated on the roadside gravel; Chaz mostly registered sunglasses when he leaned down to peer in the driver's side window.
"Driver's license--" The trooper's head turned, sweeping the inside of the car. He jumped back like a cat and snatched at his hip. Chaz froze in the glare of a large-bore, unblinking eye. "Both hands outside the car. Now!"
The season finale of Shadow Unit: "Refining Fire," by Elizabeth Bear and Emma Bull.