1.08 Refining Fire - by Elizabeth Bear and Emma Bull
Day 7: Act I | Act II | Act III | Act IV | Act V
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
When Todd came down the rickety steps of the trailer, the sky was graying--or maybe he should say yellowing--overhead. The light of morning came down a sickly brownish gold, as if from mercury vapor lamps, and unless he had known what way east lay, he wouldn't have been able to tell the orange flare of filtered sun from the reflected glow of fires.
He paused to adjust his mask, not that it did much for his streaming eyes or the fact that the entire world smelled like a billiards-hall ashtray, and located Falkner and Lau standing in a ragged triangle with Pelletier. How convenient.
With brisk steps, hands jammed into his pockets against the predawn chill, Todd crossed cracked asphalt and gravel to join them.
Pelletier sidestepped to open the circle, and Falkner pinned Todd on one of her quizzical stares, that made her look not so much like Emma Thompson as somebody Emma Thompson might play in the movie.
He said to Pelletier, "State patrol at the intersection of 1943 just radioed in. The fuel truck is on its way; they let him through the roadblock five minutes ago. I told your op I needed a walk, and I'd bring out the news."
"Thank God," said Pelletier. "The pumps are about sucking mud. Did they give an ETA?"
Over the subdued comings and goings of the weary fire crews, Todd heard a growing rumble down the highway.
Lau said, "That's probably him now."
He turned to look. It was a pretty straight stretch of road, and though the morning had brightened enough that he couldn't see a cone of light, he could make out the flash of headlamps and the red running lights on the cab. Todd sighed and rubbed the small of his back. "Do we have clock on the go yet?" he asked Falkner.
She shook her head. "We'll head out to the fire line and vulture it from there. Reyes has gone on ahead with Worth; Pelletier had a bright idea that Villette might pop by and bring the hand crew refreshments. He's prepped his guys to keep an eye on each other, but Reyes wanted some of ours onsite if it went down."
Todd lifted his chin to catch her attention, and her eye. He raised his brows, a silent question. How much did you tell him?
She answered with a shrug. He figured it out on his own.
"I'll go tell Brady to grab his kit," he said. "You want your vest?"
"Toss it in the truck," she said. "I'll dress on the way. Lau, go tell SWAT to meet us there."
"Roger," Lau said, and jogged off in the direction of the trailers.
Todd turned away, thinking that the difference between real life and stories was that most of real life was filler. As he turned, though, he squinted into brilliant light.
The fuel truck topped the insignificant rise a quarter mile off, caught enough hard air that Todd saw the lights bounce when it landed, and whined shuddering thunder as the driver upshifted, accelerating off the hill.
Sol Todd had seen his share of wrecks, and attended a few as a guest of honor. Including the time he laid his second Harley down under a flatbed broadside, and never knew how it was that he didn't end his days a fine red mist. Saved for bigger and better things, he'd thought at the time. Pulled out of the fire mid-chapter so he could find his chopping block at the climax.
"Guys," he said, in a calm and interested voice. "He's not gonna stop."
Falkner and Pelletier turned as one, saw, assessed, broke without comment into dead runs on different vectors. Pelletier running toward the equipment and men gathered by the pumps, Falkner shouting into her cellphone as she bolted for the trailers lined up beside the road.
Hafidha and Brady were in there. And a dozen of the fire and law enforcement team.
Todd had one foot lifted to follow her when he jerked to a stop and spun himself around on the ball of his foot, doing the math in his head. Quarter mile. Fifteen seconds. Less if the truck was doing over sixty.
One wasted already. Two as he turned. Three, and he was sprinting, dug in head down and running blind for the convenience store, past a tanker that was roaring to life, pulling away from the pump as men scattered in all directions. He sidestepped a smoke-stained firefighter who tried to grab his arm as he pelted toward the building.
Four. Five. Six.
The glass doors caught the light of the headlights, reflected the roar of the abused engine. Seven. They opened out, dammit, another second lost. Eight, and he plunged through, the eyes of the woman behind the counter glittering as she looked up. Nine. She had one hand up; he grabbed the wrist in both his and hauled her up and over, though she probably had fifty pounds on him. Ten.
Not enough time. She didn't land on her feet, stumbled when he heaved her up. Eleven. "Come on, come on!" He had her up. Twelve. She was moving. "Back door, back door!"
"This way--" Now she had him by the shirt sleeve, dragging. He followed, pushing her forward, thirteen, a stockroom door--
The crunch of something enormous rolling over metal was the last breath of warning they got. Todd pushed--to the left, not in a direct line, shoved her down, fell atop her as the door began to swing shut.
He never remembered hearing it blow. Maybe the shock deafened him. He felt the heat, though, and the way the tile floor rose up and slammed him in the mouth. "Oh, fuck," the woman under him said, as Todd pushed himself off. Gingerly, he touched his back, expecting shrapnel, blood, burns.
Texas and fire. The story of his life.
As he helped the civilian to her feet, Todd could not help but think, one of these days, all of this karma was going to come due.
She led him through the loading door beside the bathroom, where they could see the damage to the front of the store. Glass blown inward, frame burning, flaming debris on the floor. Where the clerk had been standing was glass knives and burning puddles. Lakes of flame.
They dragged each other outside, into Gehenna. Somebody screaming, somebody else shouting orders, the smell of burning gasoline and barbecue. The civilian stumbled when she saw it, but Todd kept her moving, pulling her toward the trailers. The explosion, he realized, had only been the tanker; the superstructure over the pumps was burning, but the storage tanks--nearly empty, by the grace of whatever trickster god watched over Solomon Todd--had not yet gone.
His luck or someone else's, he didn't plan to stay around long enough to find out. The ESRs were scrambling to evacuate; one charged toward him. The trooper liaison, a petite blonde woman whose face was smeared with greasy soot. "Sir, this way--"
"Here," he said, and shoved the civilian into her hands. He didn't see Falkner over by the WTF trailer, though he caught a glimpse of Brady silhouetted in work lights clearing the metal steps in a bound, Hafidha right behind him with her laptop case. "Get her some medical attention. Get somebody to radio the roadblocks and warn them. I need to find my lead."
Falkner. Would have turned back to see to injured near the pumps. Oh, please god, not that. He turned, scanning for her. A tall figure, angular in her black flapping duster. Silhouetted, there. Pushing against the fire.
Toward the burning tanker. What was left of it.
"Esther, don't you fucking dare."
He must have said it out loud, because the trooper jerked back, then gathered herself and pulled away, taking the civilian with her. Todd broke into a run again, asphalt jarring his knees and hips. He caught up with Falkner where the fire had stopped her, the heat so intense he could see her eyelashes curling as she forced herself another step forward.
"The driver," she said, eyes huge in a face black with soot.
"No chance." He pulled her arm. She resisted. "Goddammit, Falkner. No chance. Do you hear me? There are fucking underground tanks."
She hadn't realized, or if she had she'd thought they'd already gone. She let him turn her. He dragged her into a staggering run. She surged ahead of him on longer legs, hauling him after, among the vehicles, firefighters throwing people willy-nilly into tankers and squad cars, Hafidha in the back of a cruiser behind the mesh, Brady shouting an EMT into flight on foot, Lau sprinting for the open door of the SWAT truck, it all making slightly less sense than the fall of Saigon.
He held onto Falkner's arm until she crammed herself into the driver's seat of one of the Yukons, and dove into the shotgun seat. "Get in," he yelled to a passing Statey; the trooper shoved the nearest bystander into the rear seat and climbed in on top of him. Falkner peeled out while the door was still open; the cop yelped and snatched his feet inside.
"Get down," she said, and Todd slid low in his seat, knees scrunched up under the dashboard. Behind them, he could see in the side mirror that one of the tankers, apparently having survived the explosion, was rounding to fight the fire.
For the love of anything holy, he would never know why his brain tossed up scraps of song lyric at a time like this. But as Falkner slewed the SUV jouncing down the blacktop, it wouldn't leave him alone. So he muttered, "You bravos had better be ready to fight, or we'll never get out of East Texas tonight--"
Falkner snorted, both hands on the wheel.
"Jesus God," said the cop in the backseat. "Jesus God."
The longest minute of Daphne Worth's life was the one between the fireball that rose over the treetops and the blurt of her cellphone.
It was Lau. "We're clear," she panted. "We're all okay. Reach you in under ten. Tell Reyes."
Worth drew a long, hard breath. She looked up to find Reyes, chin tucked like a fighting dog protecting its throat, staring at her. "They're all right," she said. "They're on their way here."
His head dropped as if it weighed too much for his neck, and she couldn't see his face. Then he nodded. "There's heavy equipment coming in to help the hand crews clear the fire road out to the county gravel. Once we get that far, we should have a shot at the house."
Which was Reyes's way of saying, Oh, thank God. "If Villette doesn't put it in someone's head to do something."
"I hope he does."
Of course--if he didn't, he was done protecting the house. And, one way or another, Chaz was gone. She crossed her arms over her ribs, because something behind them hurt.
Reyes looked out toward the green water tankers, the helmeted firefighters doing purposeful, incomprehensible things. "The crews have been briefed. And the fire line's too long to police it all. We have to count on them to watch each other."
"You know they hate that." Worth said carefully.
"I also know they hate arson."
And arsonists. Before she could follow that thought, the second Yukon jounced down the fire road at a pace she was used to seeing on TV over a caption declaring "Professional driver over closed course." It stopped twenty feet back from the Forest Service vehicles. State police cruisers, SWAT, and fire crew trucks trailed it like a cloud of dust.
The Yukon's doors opened, and the team stepped out, rumpled, soot-stained, and grim. Falkner strode across the rough ground to Reyes and Worth.
"Fuel tanker truck," she said. "Villette got to the driver."
"Son of a bitch," Reyes said in a strange, mild voice.
At noon, two of the hand crew brought a third firefighter back to the vehicles. They supported him on either side, but he still stumbled. The two who brought him in wore determinedly neutral expressions. Worth thought the side of the third man's face was already swelling.
They hate arsonists. How do we explain that this guy isn't one, no matter what they saw him do? Maybe he could transfer; but he'd never work with these crews again. Another of Villette's victims.
"Accelerant," one of them said. "Got it in time."
Pelletier closed his eyes tight, just for a moment. "Joey," he said to the third man. "Do you remember what happened?"
"I was digging the break," Joey said, words blurred by his swelling jaw. "I don't know why--"
"Do you know what you did?"
Joey frowned up at Pelletier. Then his eyes widened, his face went slack. "Oh, shit. Shit. Mike--"
"It's all right," Falkner said, on Pelletier's other side. "It wasn't you. This morning the man we're after made someone kill himself to try to slow us down. Nothing you could have done would have stopped this." She turned to the two firefighters who'd brought Joey in. "You may have saved your friend's life. Thank you."
Worth watched the three men's expressions change. She thought, She made it better.
I want to be that good someday.
"Let's get this done," Falkner said. "Before he takes another crack at us."
There honestly is a limit to how hungry you can get.
He was pretty sure he had found it.
At first, his strength had waned drastically. Now he felt better. Light, capable, clear-headed. The desire for food had muffled to more of a constant low murmur, rather than the cramping agony it had been. Thirst, that was bad, but dehydration and an empty GI tract meant he didn't have to beg the Relative for the bucket.
Just not having to beg was nearly worth the discomfort.
He'd been hungry before. He'd been hungry most of his childhood: most foster families didn't believe an eight year old kid really needed to eat like a teenaged boy on a growth spurt, and when he had finally been a teenaged boy on a growth spurt--well, he was lucky he'd had the wherewithal to steal and scam and not get caught.
But this was different. He was choosing to starve, and the simple act of making that choice, terrible as the outcome was, gave him back some shred of dignity and autonomy that made it possible to endure the Relative's blandishments and importunings as if they did not exist.
He consulted his list.
Ways this could be worse, by Charles Villette, age 25 and a half
Rats.(Unless they were actively engaged in eating him alive, at this point, he'd take 'em.) Snakes.(What was a snake gonna do? Crawl on him? Bite him? Even a rattlesnake bite would finish him off now, he was pretty certain, and a coral snake would be a welcome relief. He wondered if he stood a chance of getting lucky with a black widow or a brown recluse.)
- Roaches/maggots. (Nope, he'd rather not add roaches. He might be willing to trade for roaches, though.)
- I could be sitting in pee. Or vomit.
- He could be nailing parts of me to things.
- Home surgery.
- He could cut off my feet.
- Ditto hands.
- Flaying alive.
- Extensive second-degree burns.
- Breaking on the wheel--
...no, he was out.
At least it would be over soon. He could feel his flesh vanishing, as if it were deliquescing. As if he were already decomposing, an animated cartoon skeleton, the bones under his skin struggling to poke through, like children's fingers stretching balloon rubber. His jeans hung on his hipbones like bloomers pegged to a clothesline.
He had long since passed ketosis, and his body, having converted from a carbohydrate metabolism to fat and consumed his stored energy, was now working through his muscle tissue. When he breathed in, he could smell the reek of his own filthy body--but overwhelming that, a sick combination of acetone and baking bread. Because the human brain cannot metabolize fat or protein, he was undergoing proteolysis. His body was breaking down its own constituent proteins into amino acids--alanine--which it could then convert to glucose. But in addition, he was converting pyruvate into lactate, and breaking down the lactate--lactic acid--into glucose, too.
Lactic acid was one of the substances the symbiotic bacteria and yeast colony in a sourdough starter--like the one he kept in his refrigerator at home--produced in its efforts to make its environment unfriendly for other, less useful microorganisms.
Because he was starving to death, he smelled of baking bread.
He thought of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and farmers eating their seed corn.
This was it.
Poor orphaned sourdough starter. He was letting it down, too. Maybe Daphne would adopt it. And maybe his neighbors would take care of the feral cat he fed outside his kitchen window.
Like racehorses and hummingbirds, gammas and betas were engineered to narrow tolerances. Somebody like Chaz or Hafidha--or the Relative--needed upwards of five thousand calories a day just to maintain weight and keep their overclocked brains functioning. Physical activity cost what it cost, and slamming neurons... cost even more.
There was a point at which even if he was alive when the team found him, no one would stand a chance of saving his life. His body would not be able to absorb the nutrition necessary to bring him out of starvation, and he would die of heart failure when the strain of processing calories was placed on his already-critically-stressed system. It was called refeeding syndrome, and it usually occurred in patients who had endured famine and privation for months on end. But nobody knew very much about starvation in betas, and he wondered it he'd already passed the point of no return.
It didn't matter. The team wasn't coming in time, and he didn't have to worry about it for long.
He wondered if he was about to prove that a beta actually could starve to death before dying of thirst.
What an interesting experiment.
Distantly, he was aware of a rattling in the kitchen, drawers pulled open, water running. The Relative must be fixing himself a snack.
He was cold again. He drew his knees up and managed to wrap his arms around them, despite the manacles, which fit better now. Looser, though he still couldn't compress his hands small enough to work them through the gaps. He might be skinny, but he had big bones. He folded himself up like a child jammed into some tiny protective space and laid his face down so his cheeks rested along his biceps. His legs seemed to have more room between his arms, now.
Why was he always cold?
The Relative's shoes crunched on concrete dust over scarred tile. He didn't raise his head. It was too heavy, and his face fit neatly between his bony upper arms, as if he were lying on a massage table. It was comfortable, except for the part where he was thirsty.
And so very cold. How could it possibly get so cold in Texas, in May, even at night? Was it night yet? He didn't think so. It was bright outside, but maybe that was the fire. Wouldn't the roses freeze? He could still smell them, and the smoke. His fingers felt numb, not even tingling. Were they turning blue?
Dying wasn't very much fun.
His heart fluttered, distraught, in the cage of his ribs. Panic? Heart failure? His blood volume had to be dropping with dehydration, and that was another thing that could kill him. The heart would have to beat faster and faster to maintain blood pressure, the body double-clutching, fighting the failing systems.
Gallant meatware. He admired it, even as he wished it would quit.
I'm going there to see my mother
She said she'd meet me when I come
I'm only going over Jordan
Addy believed in God. William believed in God. Not the same God, though: Gods in direct opposition, and who was to say which one was stronger? William hurt Addy, but Addy got away from William. She beat him. Sort of.
Addy Villette ran away from home to make her future over. That didn't turn out so well. But no one in Tyler County ever heard of her again, so at least there was no one to say, "I told you so." Not until her son came back and undid all her good work in getting him away.
The footsteps paused beside him. William stood over him, breathing.
Chaz didn't believe in God. But he thought he would have liked his mom, if he'd ever gotten to know her as a grownup. He thought it would be nice to think he was going someplace where he would see her again.
Then a tender hand caressed his neck, brushing his oil-stringed hair aside. He didn't have the energy to cringe from the touch. Shh, the Relative said, soothing, stroking Chaz's shoulders. He dropped to one knee beside him and put a warm arm around him.
It felt good. He wanted to lean into the touch, the warm affection of the man crouched beside him, put his head on William's shoulder and rest. He'd never believed anybody who talked about skin hunger, before.
But now he ached for that hand on his shoulder, and that more than anything told him that the meatware, gallant or no, really needed to hurry up and die. Because if it didn't, he thought he might start doing things to earn that touch. And he would not think about what happened then.
He could smell William--soap and water (he'd heard the shower running before) and peanut butter--over his own reek of starvation. William's hand was warm and soft.
"Hush, little angel," William sang. "Don't you cry. Papa's gonna buy you a mockingbird. And if that mockingbird don't sing, papa's gonna buy you a diamond ring--"
I could die now, he thought. It would be all right. I don't need to do this anymore.
"And if that diamond ring turns to brass, papa's gonna buy you a looking glass.... Pick up your head, angel. Come on, baby boy, you've done so good. You've been so brave. Just pick up your head for papa. It'll be over soon."
Something stirred him; something other than his own numbness and the starvation ache in his bones. Excitement, anticipation, made his hands shake. Nervousness, as if he was just about to kiss a girl he'd never kissed before, a thrill running down his spine, following the touch of the Relative's damp hand.
"So brave," the Relative crooned. "Thou art nearly purified. Food nor water requireth thee, only the pure fire of the Lord."
Because it was easier to obey, he lifted his head. If he tried to make me eat now, I would listen. So glad we seem to be past that--
He saw the ten-inch, black-handled chef's knife in the Relative's hand. He jerked away, hard, knees and elbows tangled.
"No," he said, cringing from the knife as he hadn't been able to will himself to cringe from the Relative's hand. "No, please, you don't have to do this--"
Now would be a good time for that cardiac arrest, he thought, scrambling to the end of his chain.
"Oh, baby boy," said the Relative, more sad than angry. "I thought you were ready." He rose easily and stepped back, the knife hanging by his thigh. It was good steel, the edge curved by sharpening. Chaz's grandmother's best kitchen knife, no doubt. It had that kind of look: a tool well-cared for, well-used, and well-loved.
He still felt the triumph, the excitement. But now it was tinged with sadness and exhaustion. The Relative was tired. Why did the boy have to make everything so hard?
"So be it," the Relative said, and stepped away.
Wherever the Relative went after he placed that knife on the far edge of the dining room table, it was out of Chaz's line of sight. But he could hear him moving through the house, opening doors, pulling open closets. He tried to struggle up; light as he felt, it should have been easy, but his knees buckled. He might have been able to manage it if he'd been able to push himself with his hands. As it was, he fell back to his knees, head bowed, and drew a series of shuddering breaths while he waited.
There were worse things than dying on your knees.
Like whatever the Relative was planning on doing with that knife.
He thought about his list, and wondered if you really could manage to swallow your own tongue without a gamma's assistance.
When the Relative came back, walking softly, talking to him in nonsense words--as if to a wary animal--he held something looped casually in his left hand, nearly out of sight behind his leg. A length of leather, part black and part brown, a shiny buckle marking the place where one color turned into another.
He blinked. His eyesight had gone kind of funny, but he finally made sense of what he was looking at. It was a man's dress belt. No, two dress belts, each about an inch wide, buckled together to make a six-foot leather strap with a loop at one end.
When the Relative lifted Chaz's chin, still crooning, and dropped the loop over Chaz's head, he meant to fight, but it just didn't happen. Cool leather settled against his collarbone, the tail of the belts falling between his shoulder blades. A gentle tug snugged the noose tight around his throat.
It was a technique prison rapists used to control their victims. He found himself shaking, shoulders hunched, belly sucked in, his whole body rattling with a terrible incapacitating trembling like a dog abused beyond reason. Psychological effects of starvation include hysteria and depression--but telling himself that didn't help. It didn't help the thrill of keen expectation that ran through him, or the cold terror of knowing that emotion wasn't his own.
I'm going to feel it when he kills me. Whatever it is to him, sexual thrill, exaltation, communion with his god. I'm going to know all about it.
He closed his eyes--Well, maybe it will hurt less--and opened them to the sound of grinding. The Relative was dragging the heavy glass-topped table away from the wall, backing it up one step at a time. He struggled--the glass was an inch thick, and the table probably weighed close to what he did--but in steady jerks it came closer, and when a little space had opened behind it, the Relative slipped between the table and the wall and pushed.
It went faster then.
The Relative didn't stop until the edge of the glass was level with Chaz's eyes. I could try to tip it over now. But he didn't have the strength. Hell, he didn't have the strength to get to his feet.
The Relative retrieved his knife, tucking it through his belt in back, and came around the table to catch Chaz by the elbows and haul him up. "Upsa-daisy, sweetheart."
Leather swung against Chaz's spine and buttocks; cracked tiles pressed sharp on the soles of his feet.
He did, because the choice was to be shoved. The chain dragged between his legs as the Relative guided him forward and bent him over the table. Then the Relative stepped on the chain, pulled it taut, jerking his upper body forward over the tabletop. It hauled his hands down painfully, the manacles striking the bones of his hands and his lacerated wrists as the table caught him across the inside of the forearms. Hard enough to bruise, maybe hard enough to break his newly-fragile skin.
He didn't mean to scream. But the Relative kicked his legs wide apart, and their combined weight--such as it was--pushed bone against the rounded unyielding edge of the glass, and he couldn't help it.
Not that he could manage a very good scream at this point. It was more of a whine, a sharp thready keening.
At least, he thought, I tried. And found it funny, until--
Cool leather wrapping his right hand. Resistance as he takes up the slack and brings his hand to the side, holding the sweet boy down. What a good, brave child. Just be brave a little longer, baby boy. God is waiting.
But at the same time, the leather tugged his neck; he gasped, his mouth filling with saliva. Air, he could get air. The constriction was only surface blood flow, venous return from the brain. The Relative wasn't pulling hard enough to do anything but make him lightheaded, yet, and that, he was already.
The tension on the leash slackened. A hand stroked his hair, the leather strap moving against his shoulders with the gesture. "Be brave, baby boy," the Relative said, full of love and pride and sweet anticipation. "It's hard, but it's got to be done."
If he lifted his chin, strained his neck, he could see the mirrors from here. And so, in the far wall between the flecks of gold, he witnessed the Relative reaching his left hand behind his back to retrieve the kitchen knife.
Ways this could be worse, by Charles Villette, age 25 and a half
The next jerk on the leash was hard and to the side, holding him bent double even without the Relative's weight on his shoulders. He gagged, strings of saliva running down his chin. Drool: his body's response to partial asphyxia. Gallant meatware. Still trying. Where was it finding the moisture? Sorry to give up on you, meatpuppet. So sorry.
He might have vomited if he'd had anything to vomit. The knife descended, sharply, with a twist, towards the nape of his neck and his spine.
Missed one, he thought. Paralysis.
But the blade only cut his shirt. No pain, just the burn of cloth pulled against his skin, and the sound of it shredding, the dull gleam of the knife blade thrust through his shirt-collar and sawed back and forth until the torn shirt stretched in rags from his waist to the sleeves. The Relative didn't even tear it all the way to the hem. It sagged free of Chaz's back until his emaciated ribs and shoulderblades rose like a Giger monster-landscape from shredded fabric.
His breaths came like individual punches in the gut. He couldn't move air properly because of the leash, because of the table compressing his diaphragm. It didn't matter. He had no pride. There was no percentage in dying well. He whimpered anyway, and words came out. It startled him that they were not a plea for death. "Please. Please, William. You don't have to--you don't want to do this. You're my dad. You love me. You don't want to hurt me. Please, you don't want to--"
The Relative crooned, "It's only skin and muscle; it can't hurt you, angel. I know you're scared, but you won't be, after. Just be brave."
The leash and the chain held him steady. He couldn't turn his head away from the mirror, but he dropped his eyes. No better; all he saw now was his own face reflected transparently in the glass-topped table, his hands pinned underneath it. "Please," he rasped, tears plopping to the tabletop, snot streaking his upper lip, saliva coating his chin.
"Shhhhh," the Relative said. Leaning down, he kissed Chaz's hair.
"Please. William. Daddy. Please. Don't cut me--"
In the mirror, he saw the second kiss, the Relative's eyes half-closed, the leash taut in one hand and the knife held well to the left. I'll struggle. I'll struggle, and maybe he'll miscalculate. Maybe he'll strangle me. It'd hurt, but it's faster than starving. And it would hurt less, I could die before--
Before he flays me. Before he rapes me. Before he rapes me with the knife.
"Please. I don't want to feel this. I don't want to watch this--"
The Relative raised his hand and set the point of the knife against Chaz's back, to the left of the spine, to the right of Chaz's shoulder blade, and level with the top of the bone.
"It's okay, baby. I just have to let the wings come out."
And he felt the Relative's flare of triumph and reverence and glory as the knife came down, the cold skip of the blade across the washboard of his ribcage. Shocking, slicing, incomprehensible pain.
Worth had taken part in her share of briefings. But this one was uncanny: outdoors under a sallow sky, every breath full of soot and the stink of sodden burned wood, the cops and SWAT officers nervous and shifting in a landscape that looked like an anteroom of Hell. She wondered if Reyes felt any different than he did in a police station squad room. He didn't look it.
Brady came around the back of the Yukon and dropped against the fender next to her, hard enough to make the big SUV rock. His lips cut a flat line across his face, and he frowned out across the trees toward where the Villette farm must be.
"Soon," she murmured.
He turned his head, an acknowledgement. But his eyes were still focused too far away.
Reyes paced in slow, short arcs before the assembled officers. His voice carried well even in the thick air. "You've received copies of the sketch of William Villette. If you meet him face to face during this operation, he will seem charming, well-spoken, trustworthy--he may even appear helpless. He will not seem dangerous.
"But we believe he's raped at least fourteen women, and convinced at least four people to die to protect him. I know it seems impossible that he could convince you to lower your guard. But he can. None of you are immune. He may turn one of you to use as a shield or a weapon. I know you're all vigilant. I suggest you ramp that up to paranoid."
A rustle of reaction that wasn't quite a laugh; Reyes's audience was too keyed up even for that.
"If Villette is armed, you may not see the weapon until too late. You should assume he has at least a pistol, probably the weapon of the federal agent he's taken prisoner.
"I repeat, you will want to trust this man. The only defense you have is to check your perceptions against those of your fellow officers. And you may not have time for that. If you have to make a quick decision and have any doubts about what you're seeing or hearing, put your safety and the safety of your fellow officers first."
Worth saw movement out of the corner of her eye. It was Falkner, come to stand at the SUV's front bumper. Her face was hard in the apocalyptic light, and her narrowed eyes followed Reyes. Pelletier walked up beside her as Worth watched.
"We should have a clear route to the road in a few minutes," Reyes finished. "As soon as that's confirmed, we'll set out. Get your people ready and wait for my word."
The officers scattered. At Worth's left shoulder, Brady looked down at his hands, closed them into fists and opened them. On her right, Falkner seemed about to speak.
Pelletier cupped his hand over one ear, listened to his earpiece in the other. He looked up at Reyes. "They're through to the road."
Metal smell, sugar smell, butcher shop smell, and cold hard turning warm under his cheek. He opened his eyes and saw his own shoulder, red running zigzag down skin-over-bone to pool on glass, the little puddle spreading, under his chin, under his nose. Into his hair.
Something snaked against his throat, was gone. Air cool where it had been.
Get up. Nothing to stop him. Except him. No, other him. Where was--
He lifted his head (drip. Drip.) and shifted one foot. He could balance on two feet. Or he could lean on the table, a little. That was the glass.
Just before he pushed upright he had a warning. Careful. Don't.
Vocabulary words for pain. Adjectives to modify them. Burning, maybe. Tearing. As if skin and muscle were like his shirt.
The flashes of light and blackness cleared. There he was, across the room, hazy with the smoke and half-naked and painted with blood and trailing mostly-red drapes of shirt from waist and wrists. Wait--the mirror. He remembered that. So that was Chaz, not the one who looked like him.
The one who looked like him (his name is William) stood behind his mirror self. William stood behind him, then. (He said he'd always be there.) His eyes were wide, lips parted.
Poor sweet boy, he's been so brave. So strong. Come on, now, baby boy. Almost done.
His legs shook, sagged. Weak, filthy, useless, helpless little animal, gagging on pain, sinking under the weight of...
The Chaz in the mirror knelt slowly, reverent under the weight of them, immense, wet, unfolding, each dripping primary pulling free of its neighbor, each feather separate and shining.
The little animal trembled. He heard it whimper. The Chaz in the mirror met his eyes. Awe and wonder choked him, thicker than smoke or blood, hateful, brutal.
"Look, baby boy," said the man standing behind the angel, from over his shoulder. "Beautiful red wings."
They spanned the room. The feather tips brushed red stains on either wall.
Four-wheel drive, Falkner thought as she wrestled the SUV over the mauled ground where the bulldozer had wrenched away the burned remains of trees. Thank God for Texas boys, after all.
There was no point in being subtle. Like every good farmhouse, all the big windows would face the road, and there was only one way in. And there would be a hell of a lot of their side on the ground: SWAT, state patrol, the two black Yukons. The ambulance, behind the others' protecting shield. They'd go in fast and hard.
It was the right choice, the only one that gave them a chance of getting the jump on Villette. But Falkner knew not just Brady but the whole team were playing worst-case scenarios in their heads that they wouldn't speak aloud. How long would it take Villette to kill Chaz, if he saw them coming and figured he had nothing to lose?
How likely was it that he'd done it already?
We're on our way. Be tough, Chaz. Please be tough.
"Oh, baby boy. Papa's beautiful angel. You're going to fly up to heaven and find her for me, angel boy. You're going to strike her down with holy fire. You're going to burn her for what she did to us."
He crouched in his own blood, kept his eyes closed. Righteous love, fury, adoration, obsession. Clear as words. Maybe they were words. Maybe William hadn't spoken aloud.
The wings were there. Rustling. He could hear them.
He felt them under his fingers.
Shock opened his eyes. In the mirror, William, behind him, brushed the tips of his fingers along the leading edge of one crimson wing. Lightly, lightly. His hands were already red.
He felt feathers beneath his hand. He didn't feel a hand on his feathers.
They're not there. They. Are. Not. There.
Batter through the projection. Harder to do, now. You can't hurt this much for long. You just can't. The brain won't let you. In the mirror--there he was, curled over his knees, all agony, weakness, half-naked skeleton fouled with his own blood and tears and slime. Bubbling, whining breath past clenched teeth. Less real than the wet red feathers under his/William's/his fingers.
Then gone, gone in the mirror, nothing left but the holy penitent on his knees under the weight of his reeking wings, so heavy they tore his back, flexing. I told you you would be an angel, baby. A beautiful angel, full of glory. Papa loves you so much.
Wouldn't you rather be the winged monster than the dying thing on the floor?
No. No no no no. Oh, he'd taken too long dying. It was too late.
Our father who art in the God-forsaken ruins of his parents' castle torturing his son until he breaks and dies and disappears forever and the magic mirror isn't talking--
The hand could feel the wings, but he couldn't feel the hand. Good. Be hard, smooth as glass. Give back what you're given. Touch, words, thoughts, emotions, light.
He'd seen his face in the tabletop, but he'd been a trick of the light. He'd written his pain and terror and shame on the mirrored wall over and over, day after day, but it didn't stick. When he was gone, the image would be, too.
Glory. Reflected glory. Shrug off radiance and let it burn the retinas of the one who forced it on him.
Rage and adoration reflected back on their source. Nothing left behind in the mirror. There were no wings. No angel. The dying animal was gone. Nothing in the room but a monster with no prey, and his reflection on every hand. Silvered glass returned what it was given and remained unmarked.
Things in the mirror weren't there. Only the mirror.
William Villette stood alone in the image, in the empty room. "Baby boy?" he whispered. Sound bounced off hard surfaces. Confusion and dismay reflected back at him. "Boy?--" louder, to echo back louder. "No. God damn you, no! How dare you go to her without me? I'm not done with you!"
He stepped forward to straddle the staple and the chain, the red-bladed knife slack in his hand, rage swung like a hammer. It hit, bounced off.
"Oh, Willy," said Addy's voice, with her son's mouth. The mirror of what she would have said, God willing. "But by God I'm done with you."
And Chaz, the monster, vanished behind the mirror of his rough new strength, rose, twisted the knife away--combat classes burned into his perfect, futile memory--and lunged.
What to? Mirrorshades, broken glass, cutting reflections. The Invisible Man went mad. We only exist because other people see us.
I wonder what kind of monster I will be. Would be. Will you, won't you. Won't survive this. Breakthrough. External manifestation. Thousands of calories to do the job. Don't have 'em. Done for. Burnout.
Thank God. They won't have to shoot me. They'd hate that.
On William's face, surprise, shock, terror. In his mind, battering through into Chaz's mind. The mirror crack'd.
Chaz's wings bated, thunderous, spattering blood from feather tips. William twisted and collapsed against the glass-topped table, toppled by Chaz's lunge. Pinions flailed the air, ripping the flesh of Chaz's back.
He clenched his left hand around the knife handle, forcing his broken right wrist to turn, jam into the manacle, palm flat on the end of the hilt.
Thrust from beneath. It's the only way you can reach. Count ribs. He couldn't see William's, but he knew where his own were. Where William's would be. Then just left of center. Daphne had taught him. The manacles dragged at his arms. Stay on target. He pressed the point against skin (there, he felt where it bit, right there) and leaned.
In the mirror, two men struggling. In the mirror, a man and the angel of death. In the mirror, a man and another mirror.
Pop. Crack. Got it right. He screamed as the knife slid between their ribs.
The blood that William wanted in Chaz's veins ran out over Chaz's hands. The steel that Chaz wanted in William's heart jammed on Chaz's/William's rib, hitched loose, sank. He felt the meat friction through his hands, the point ripping meat through William's projection.
I won't share this! No choice. He couldn't focus to raise the bright wall again.
William screamed, lips flecked red. Lung, Chaz thought, coughing from the steel in his own. No good. Not enough. William's big bony fist swept around, caught the bone of Chaz's eye socket. Hard to kill, his kind. Their kind.
Prod with the knife. Fish with it. Saw. Rake the wound wider because as long as he felt his chest cavity being churned with a red-hot wire the monster was still alive. What was William's was his, as long as William lived. William clawed at his hands, fighting him for the knife.
High in his back, in his spine, he felt a touch. White-hot, vision blackening, pain like being turned inside out. The blade stuck. Twist. Yank. Snap free as William's hands spasmed.
And slide, at last, into his goal.
Hot blood sprayed his face, his chest, the wall. The wings, probably, red on red. He'd hit the aorta. The pump still throbbed, but the seal was broken.
Not even a gamma could survive exsanguination.
He stumbled backward. He couldn't unclench his hand from the knife; his grip pulled William off the table and onto the floor, and Chaz fell on top of him. He shoved, scrabbled away. He meant to scramble to the reach of the chain, but he dropped before that, slipping in blood. His head banged on the tile.
You'd think, after everything, that wouldn't hurt at all.
He got his elbows under him, then his knees. Wounded gamma. Don't turn your back.
The Relative had stopped breathing, stopped moving. The chest wound no longer bubbled froth and blood. But William wasn't dead.
Because in the mirror, he could see the bloody angel, red as embers, hunched under the weight of his mighty wings.
He squeezed his eyes closed, hard. When he opened them, the wings resolved into the blood-soaked rags of his shirt, stretching from waist to wrists. More like a manta ray than an angel. Devil fish. Poor manta ray.
He had to lift his hands off the floor. He had to find the key for the manacles. Before the house burned. Before he died here, in spite of himself.
The Relative's clothes were soaked with blood. His fingers were stiff and numb, and tugging at the wet trouser pockets, inching around for an angle that would let him get his clubbed hands into them, used up most of his strength. He could feel the Relative's thigh through the pocket lining, still warm. He shuddered, and found he couldn't stop.
A ring of keys--house key, car key, a key too small for the padlock. Please, please let it not be on the kitchen counter. Then he found it in the watch pocket.
The little key was blood-slick in his clumsy hands. He pinched it in the fingers of his left hand, because he'd have to turn his wrist hard to get at the padlock, and as much as that would hurt when the manacle dug into his scabbed left hand, he knew he'd never get his right wrist to flex at all.
The padlock swung. He braced it against his hip to hold it still. If he braced it on the floor, he was afraid he wouldn't have the will to straighten up afterward.
He couldn't get the key in far enough. Or he didn't have the strength to turn it. Or it was the wrong key.
It took everything he had not to throw himself against the chain howling. Animal hysteria. Use that burst of strength. Grip. Turn.
Click. The hasp popped out. He sobbed on a drawn breath.
He staggered to his feet. The chain snaked to the floor, ringing like bells.
Every time a bell rings--
He lifted his head; in the mirror, the angel straightened. The angel with Chaz's face, covered in blood, cloaked in his stupendous wings.
No. No. He clenched his hands on the collar of his ruined shirt and pulled. Hard, short sharp jerks in time to his breathing. Each one tore cloth, tore at his back when the muscles flexed. The fabric was already rent and thin. It let go; his arms flung wide. More blood trickled down his back, curving into the hollows between his ribs.
But the blood-soaked rag was in his hands, inside out, the rolled-up sleeves around his wrists. He balled it up and hurled it, a quick, convulsive jerk. The shirt made a bloody sponge-mark on the wall where it struck. The motion made the slashed flesh of his back gape and pull. The pain made the room tilt.
He's still in me. With me. He'll always be with me.
In the mirror, the angel who looked like his father/him raised its head and met his eyes. For a moment, he couldn't tell if it still had wings.
Then it was him, clutching his elbows in his hands to keep his arms still. Just him. What little of him was left. The shivering animal, skeletal as a Dachau survivor, skin washed and hair matted with blood.
He had to get out. The fire was coming. He bent to drag the knife out of the Relative's chest. He might need it, even out in the real world. The Relative's hands were closed on the hilt; he had to knock them away.
He grabbed the hilt and pulled. The blade stuck, the way a carving knife did in a roast when it struck bone. The resistance pitched him to his knees. Another yank and the knife was in his hand. The tip of the blade was broken off.
He knew where it remained. He'd felt it there.
He picked up the Relative's keys. There was a car or a truck out there somewhere. He could drive to the next farm.
He stood up again. Who knew standing was so complicated? Maybe he couldn't drive to the next farm. He might pass out from blood loss first.
The smoke made his eyes sting; the air was better near the floor.
Walk, Chaz. If you can't walk, crawl. You didn't come this far through Hell to fall down and burn now. Walk, Chaz. Left foot. Right foot comes down on something sharp. Broken tile, broken mirror? Doesn't matter. The smoke makes your eyes run. Doesn't matter. Walk, Chaz.
Walk. Keep walking.
He might not make it long enough to find the car. But he would get out the door, at least. Keep moving forward. Chaz would not die in here, with him.
The air reeked of blood and sweat and smoke. And roses.
Jordan was steps. Harder than a river crossing. He almost fell. When he reached to catch himself, the pain chastised him: no help with this. Cross by your own strength or no golden fields for you. When he felt grass under his bare feet, the relief made him weak. It might have been gold; hard to tell in that light.
In the field a tall angel with long dark wings and a stern pale face waited. He wasn't surprised, exactly. And if she was stern, she was also merciful, because she pulled the dark wings from her own shoulders and wrapped them around his. Hiding the shame and brokenness. Hiding his filthy horrible dripping wings under her clean soft ones, so no one would know how he fell.
His strength failed him. The angel's didn't.
When Falkner first saw the house, she thought it was burning already. The ridge behind it showed fire like the humped back of some breathing orange animal, and the smoke rose in a black wall blotting out the eastern sky. The front picture windows blazed the same orange. It took her a moment to realize it was the reflected glare of the smoke-dyed sun setting behind her.
Her hands were stiff from fighting the wheel of the Yukon over the gravel road, and now the washed-out, overgrown drive. She'd worry about her back tomorrow. Brady jittered in the seat beside her, his knuckles white around the panic bar above the door. He wasn't an easy passenger, but she was a worse one. Right now she needed to feel how far down the pedal was.
"Radio," she reminded them.
Brady jerked his left hand, with the mic on the wrist. "Good."
"Good," Lau echoed in the back seat. Falkner couldn't see her in the rearview, but she didn't need to.
"Falkner," Reyes said in her earpiece, because of course he'd just done the same check with Todd and Worth in the SUV in front of her.
"Good to go," she replied. Nice and steady.
The SWAT teams checked in in her earpiece. No chatter. No need. All they needed was the order.
They slewed to a stop in the overgrown yard like a swarm of bees lighting on a windowsill. The two SWAT vans anchored the center of the line, the Yukons on their right, the cruisers like dominoes dropped in an arc on either side. Hand on the door latch, ready, ready, Reyes, call it--
"Go, go, go!"
The doors popped. She and Worth came out from between the SUVs side by side, guns drawn and low. Brady, fast and smooth on the other side of the vehicle. She could feel Lau behind him, solid, sure. Reyes already ahead, because he'd hit his door a second before he called it, always did. Todd would be right behind him, wound tight but granite-stable.
Beyond them on her left she saw SWAT fanning out. "Baker team, take position," said the SWAT leader in her ear--
On the porch of the house, the screen door swung outward.
A tall, thin man stood on the threshold, holding the screen ajar with his shoulder. His head was bent, and what little of his filthy hair wasn't flat and clinging to his scalp hung in his face. He kept his elbows close to his body, but his left hand reached, groped for the wrought-iron railing. The house door slammed behind him as he slid one foot forward, the other.
The sunset through smoke washed him red. No, it didn't. His naked protruding ribs, his spidery arms, his hair, the jeans that sagged on his jutting hipbones, his bare feet-- That was blood.
William Villette would have kept himself fed. It was Chaz.
He stumbled on the steps, caught himself on the railing at the bottom. His other hand thrust out for balance. The sun glared on the blade of a kitchen knife.
In a clatter of metal, the SWAT officers brought their rifles to bear.
Reyes. Order to stand down. Stand down.
Reyes stood in the clear, his gun at high ready, watching Chaz fight another step. His chest rose and fell like a sprinter's.
"It's Chaz," she snapped into her com. At the corner of her eye, she saw Todd pivot, plunge toward the SWAT team. Brady and Lau ran past her like greyhounds to back him.
The smoke stung Todd's eyes as he sprang forward, finger registered along the barrel of his unready weapon. Twenty-one feet; twenty-one feet was your advantage, if he had a knife, and if you had a gun. You could cover twenty-one feet in about a second, if you had to.
Every single one of those hard boys was doing that math in his head.
Reyes wasn't moving. When Todd jerked his head sideways for a glance, he saw him standing, weapon ready, staring at Chaz. Not at the house, or the fire. Chaz.
Todd remembered a girl screaming I love you out of a vortex of white fire, enough heat to crumble cinderblock. The worst they do, they always do for love. Cold sharp claws pinched his spine between the shoulderblades. He knew what Reyes was afraid of. Chaz, dripping blood, clutching a butcher knife, staggering out of a house with god-knew-what inside.
Reyes wasn't ordering the stand-down. I am never coming back to Texas. It's fucking Waco all over again.
Todd turned his back to Chaz, his back to the fire. His face to the armored men and the one woman with their helmet shields and guns. Getting his officer's body in between Chaz and the rifles.
Storm troopers, he thought. Imperial guards. They're on your side this time, Sol. Yeah, he'd have a hell of a time getting the irony of that one on the page, if he ever had the balls to write this down. If he were ever enough of an asshole to write it down.
Maybe Chaz would live long enough to sue him, if he did.
Todd got a deep breath full of smoke and shouted hoarsely, "He's a cop, hold your fire, hold your fire, hold your goddamned fire!" He opened himself like a man waiting to be crucified. Lau and Brady materialized, one on either side, arms spread, all of them yelling "It's the vic!" and "He's a cop!"
A fragile wall of flesh and spirit and trauma plates.
Solomon Todd thought of Kent State and stretched arms wide, to ache like wings expanded.
Falkner holstered her gun and stepped forward. Don't run. He doesn't even know we're here. Don't startle him.
She ran hard into Reyes's rigid arm. His head jerked once: No.
Revulsion swept her; she had to clench her fists on her coat to keep from breaking his nose. He wore pity and horror on his face, and guilt, and fear, and it was the last two that were keeping his arm up like a barricade.
She knocked the barricade aside. She didn't do it gently, and the impact stung her forearm. Good.
Chaz stumbled and came down on one knee as she closed in on him. If all that blood was his, they couldn't save him. She couldn't spot a wound. The kitchen knife was still in his right hand, red from end to end. So no, it wasn't all his.
Reyes might not be wrong. She'd get the blade in her stomach.
"Chaz." She held out her left hand and waited for him to see it. She counted eight seconds. Someone was going to take the shot. Chaz, please--
He raised his head. There was an arc of blood across his face that echoed the arching canes of the roses behind him. Under it his eyes had retreated into caved-in sockets; the tendons around his mouth showed like porch columns. She didn't think he could see her. He stank of blood and seven unwashed days of fear, and of something sour and acrid and chemical. Acetone. Paint thinner. What the hell?
He turned his right hand over, so the knife lay across his palm, and held it out. Or he tried to; when his arm came forward, his whole face clenched, and he made a hideous wet shuddering sound deep in his throat. The knife slid off his hand.
Then she saw his back and knew why he'd made the sound.
The incisions were long and straight, elongated lozenge-shapes like dressmaker's darts pulled open by the tension of stretched skin. They reached from the top of his shoulder blades to the bottom of his ribcage. Even in the half-light of sunset she could see the layers: skin, a thread of cream-yellow which marked all the subcutaneous fat Chaz had left, the dark wine-red of muscle tissue split and opened to the air. Slick-looking membrane and bone, holy God, at the bottom, like a rack of lamb. His back was smeared and clotted with drying blood, and with the fresh bright rivulets he'd started when he moved.
He was trembling; uncontrollable convulsive shudders, one after another. That was her excuse. But anyone who knew Chaz didn't like to be touched, who saw those two long open wounds, would know they were carved deeper than his back. No one should know that about him.
Falkner yanked off her coat and wrapped it around him, keeping it off the wounds with the bow of her arm. "It's okay. We've got you."
He pushed feebly at the coat, as if he'd shrug it off if he could shrug.
"Chaz. It's okay," she repeated.
She could barely hear the reply. "It's a--" Breath. "--good coat."
"It's just a coat." Some things, at least, could be fixed.
Chaz didn't like to be touched. But she didn't think he'd like to fall over, either. So when he sagged forward she caught him with her left arm, let him sink across her lap like a pietà reversed, his face half-hidden in the crook of her left elbow.
Her radio arm. Well, she had lungs. "Brady, Todd, Lau," she shouted. "Clear the house, now!"
Still silence from Reyes. Then this was her op.
She needed Worth. She raised her head to shout, and found she didn't have to.
Worth charged forward, awkward from a standing start, wrenching her knee as her foot caught on a tussock. She barely registered the spike of pain, or the redoubling twist when she dropped that knee beside Chaz and Falkner. Was all that his blood? Oh, hell.
"Site's not cleared," Falkner warned. "Keep your head down."
"Like you're doing?"
Worth couldn't tell if she was joking.
Falkner had him upright, kneeling, face against her arm as she held the coat she'd slung over his shoulders off his wounds. He stank, sweat and filth and oh, god, the sharp smells of nail polish remover and lactic acid overpowering everything. Starvation. Had the bastard fed him at all? She passed a hand beside his nostrils, felt air moving. ABC.
"Chaz," Worth said, "it's Daphne. I'm going to take your pulse, okay? Is there anything I should know about?"
She touched the collar of the coat and he winced and shied away. A rasping mechanical noise came out of him. Triggery. All right then, no pulse from the neck. She drew her fingers back and he made a small sound, a whimper, but it was a conscious sound and that was what mattered. "Talk to me, Chaz. Talk, keep talking. You're shocky. Stay with me. I'm going to touch your hand, okay? How are your wrists?"
"Yes," he said. And "They hurt."
She bet they did. She could see the scabs, the swelling, the weeping sores from here. Some movement from Falkner made Worth look up. Falkner was looking at Chaz's wrists, too, and the muscles stood out in her jaw.
The left one looked better, barely. He was so thin she could see the outline of the swollen joint capsule on the right. A sprain, at least. Worth reached out, gently, and when she touched his wrist he tried to extend it for her, to help. His face twisted in pain at that slight motion, and the deep breath he took to compensate seemed to hurt him further. "Just relax, Chazzie, we've got you."
He was trying. She could tell. His pulse was thready, too fast to count with her fingers. Chaz was always cool to the touch, but right now he was chilly, clammy. She caught Falkner's gaze over his bowed head and, forcing her voice light, asked "What's it look like under that coat, Chief?"
"Not bad," Falkner lied, but the motion of her eyes told the story.
Worth nodded. All right then. "Hey, Hero, remember the last time you got yourself fucked up so bad I had to hold your hand in the ambulance?"
She was rewarded with a corner of a smile. "Did not," he whispered.
Thank God; he was still fighting. "Well, I told everybody I did. They were jealous."
His eyelids twitched. Sort of a response.
"I want paramedics," Worth said, without raising her eyes from Chaz.
Falkner looked over her shoulder. "Where the hell is Brady?"
"Hey Chaz, you still with me?"
"Still here." He lifted his head slightly, as if to turn to see her, and she saw something that scared her so much she thought for a moment it had stopped her heart.
"Chaz. Don't move."
Good boy. He froze like a hunting dog on point, and held himself still, except for the trembling, teeth rattling. And nobody on earth could have prevented that.
Keep your voice soft, Worth. Calm. Conversational. "Chaz, what happened to your neck?" There were bruises, blossoming--fresh--and the two thin chafed lines marked by broken capillaries, about an inch apart.
"Choked," he said, through clicking teeth. "Li--ligature. Belt."
She did not panic, but only because she decided not to. He was talking; that meant the swelling hadn't closed his trachea. He was moving air. That left an equally scary possibility. Again, she reached to touch the collar of Falkner's loaned coat, and though he did what she said and held himself still, a fly-stung shudder ran through him. "Chaz," she said, "I'm sorry. I'm really really sorry. But you have a neck injury, and I'm going to have to touch your throat and face, okay? I need to hold c-spine on you, in case there's spinal trauma. Can you let me do that?"
Pause. Then thickly, "Broken?" No shock, just fatalism. As if he'd expected the worst. As if that wasn't the worst he had expected. Then a whispered confession: "I can't feel my hands."
"That's shock. That's just shock. And I don't think anything's broken, but I need to do c-spine as a precaution, man." Where the hell is Brady? "You can do this. You just have to stand up on it."
"Can't." His face was tight as a fist.
"Stand up on it, damn you."
He took a shaky breath. "On belay?"
It meant, My life is on the end of the rope you're holding.
She had to swallow the hurt in her throat before she could answer, "Belay on." I will not let you fall.
He knelt unresisting in Falkner's arms while Worth gentled the collar of the jacket down his shoulders. She would have taken it off him, to get a look at the back wounds, but they weren't pumping blood and he made a thick short keening sound between his teeth when she went to do it, and anyway right now all she cared about was his airway and his spinal cord. Anything else was a problem for the hospital.
When she rested her pinkies on his collarbones, he made the sound again. "I know it hurts." Forefingers under his chin, lifting his head into a neutral position. His ears fit neatly between her first fingers and her laterally stabilizing thumbs. Even over the carotid he was cold.
His breath came in great savage quick rasps. She worried he might hyperventilate himself into a faint.
"Worth," Falkner said, warning.
"I have to," Worth answered. "It's his spine."
Falkner bit her lip and looked aside. She cupped her free hand over Chaz's ear and turned toward the house. The voice that boomed out of her made two nearby officers lift in their boots. "Brady, can I bring up the damned paramedics? NOW?"
Brady had broken past Todd and Lau, knowing they would let him go by, knowing, too, that Falkner and Worth had Chaz, and there was nothing Brady could do for any of them that was more important than making sure of their safety. He'd thought he'd go into the house alone, and he was braced for it--but behind him, now that the guns were no longer trained on Chaz, his teammates were letting the Stateys follow, and Brady wasn't unhappy for the company.
He paused at the front door; touched it for heat. Not that he expected any, but you never knew, and it was the one you didn't expect that got you. He was sweating in his ballistic vest, the trauma plates dragging his shoulders down, a trickle of sweat between his shoulder blades growing into a river. From the corner of his eye he saw a second team go wide, around the side, covering the back doors. Todd's voice crackled in his earpiece. "Ready?"
The door was probably unlocked. Brady smashed it open with a high, hard kick by the doorknob, anyway. He really needed to break something.
"FEDERAL AGENT! FEDERAL AGENT!" Bellowing, the police right there shouting their own warnings, the one immediately on his left a petite blonde with a whipping ponytail and eyes like chipped glass. He wondered what it took to be a cute little state trooper in Texas, and decided he was damned glad she was beside him.
From upstage--right and ahead through the kitchen and what he expected would prove a dining room--came more voices, boots, shouting. The great room was clear, the only sign of violence a meandering row of cranberry footprints across dirty sand-colored carpet, and the rare-steak reek of blood. Under the blood, Brady smelled sour sweat, unwashed bodies, fear.
There could be somebody crouched behind the breakfast bar, and Brady jerked his chin at it. The blonde hunkered, two men behind her at they crossed the archway fast. All three came over the top of the breakfast bar like a row of highly armed Jacks in the box.
"Clear," one reported, and Brady swung around the corner, through the archway, into the dining room.
At first, he couldn't sort what he was seeing, with the vague light and the stench and the reflections. Details emerged, one at a time. First the blood. A slaughterhouse worth of blood, as if somebody had dyed a couple of gallon jugs of full-fat milk deep crimson and slung them all over the walls and floor. One bright arterial arc splashed the ceiling and part of the far wall.
There were two big windows in the front wall, the unmirrored one, and through them failing light filtered through the rosebushes. Downstage, about six feet forward of the window, at the end of a pair of drag scars, was a massive glass-topped table, puddled and smeared with blood. The body of a man with a more-than-superficial resemblance to Chaz sprawled beside it. A rag that might have been Chaz's shirt lay on the floor across the room from the body, as if someone had hurled it there.
The decedent--and Brady should have checked for a pulse before deciding that, but considering the massive, slashing overkill of the chest wounds, it was nothing more than a formality--had tumbled onto his back, one leg folded under him, eyes staring under a drying red film. He'd fallen half-across an undone leather strap or belt. A short length of heavy chain lay puddled beside him, one end fixed to a home-made manacle and the other padlocked to a staple bolted to the pad under the torn-up tile. The flies had found the body.
There were bloody handprints on the walls and the frame of the archway beside Brady, and in places alongside the bloody footprints and drag marks on the floor. As if somebody had gone on hands and knees for a little, before he could make himself get up again.
"Christ," said one of the cops. "Did he use a paint roller?"
Brady said, "Clear," because it was what you said, and turned on his flashlight, needing the beam more than he needed his night vision. Simultaneously, through his earpiece and just plain with his ears, he heard Todd and Lau say "Clear." He raised his eyes from the body on the floor, from the blood, and saw Todd frowning at him across the devastated dining room, his firearm at high ready and shaking in his hand.
It didn't matter. You were supposed to shake when you pulled the trigger. Pulled it, and kept pulling it, because once you started you didn't stop. That's what the two-handed tension grip was for, because the guys who designed it knew you were going to be shaking--
A half-dozen beams spotlit the room now, sweeping across every terrible detail. Brady was hyperventilating. He was back in Texas inside his head as well, the gun in his hand hot with firing, the blood--everywhere. And he thought, and could not believe he was thinking, It could have been worse, what happened to me.
Nikki Lau, eyes wide, turned and hurried with stiff dignity from the room. Brady might have been right behind her, but Falkner hollered from the front yard, in the carrying voice of command, "Brady, can I bring up the damned paramedics? NOW?"
Why didn't she just use the com? "Todd, back of the house," he said, and--damn seniority--Todd and the SWAT officers headed down the long corridor, banging doors open as they went. "Clear!" Todd yelled from the bottom of the hall.
Brady turned around and walked past the shuddering police, stepped onto the stoop, and paused. Falkner looked up at him; her hands were full of Chaz, and Worth was crouched beside them both.
"It's clear," Brady said. His voice was as steady as that wrought-iron-and-glass dining room table. "He took care of it. All."
Falkner had never seen Brady look like that. The catalog of Chaz's damage, his responses to Worth's manipulations, the blood--what was in there? No, not now. She kept her hand over Chaz's ear--she knew what her field-command voice was--and shouted, "We're clear! Medics, right now!"
Three of them pelted through the weeds, laden with gear. Falkner sat back and bore Chaz's weight, such as it was, and let Worth brief them. She spoke the language.
Inside Falkner's arms, Chaz was cold and quaking, rolling waves of shivering that would do nothing but wear him out. Hurry it up. Hurry.
"Possible c-spine injury, bilateral deep lacerations on his back," Worth recited, sounding as if she, too, were cold and shaking. "No arterial bleeding."
Worth was crying. Falkner had never seen her do it before. She doubted Worth had had a chance to notice she was doing it.
"No head trauma?" one of the paramedics asked dubiously.
"The blood's not all his. Rapid weak pulse, shocky, low BP, dehydration, treat his right wrist as broken, Jesus, why are you just standing there, this is a federal officer!"
Which was unfair. Two of them were getting a backboard and cervical collar ready while the third observed what he could around Worth's hands, Falkner's coat.
"It's okay, ma'am," said the second paramedic. "We've got him now." She had the cervical collar.
Worth's eyes got big at the sight of it. "Chaz, listen. You there?"
"The paramedics are here. They have to put a cervical collar on you. It's okay."
It was not okay. Falkner could tell from the way he breathed, short and jerky through his nose. "Worth, handle the coat."
Worth was almost hyperventilating herself, but she nodded. As the paramedic's hands replaced hers at his neck, she reached for the coat to ease it off his shoulders.
"Squeeze my hand," Falkner ordered Chaz, and found his left one with her right. "Harder. Harder than that. Come on."
The distraction was enough to get him through the application of the collar. Nothing was going to be distracting enough for the backboard.
When the paramedics got Chaz in place on it and his weight came down on the wounds on his back, a broken, scraping noise like an abused violin got out of his mouth. When they tried to tighten down the straps over his chest and arms and over his thighs--
"No." His voice grated like cinder blocks sliding. He arched his body, twisted, while three paramedics called him Sir in loud voices and one said, aside in doubtful understatement: "He's combative. This isn't great."
"Chaz, hold still. You have to hold still," Worth begged.
He couldn't do it. He was going to fight them, and hurt himself. Falkner put out a hand to stop the paramedics. "Chaz," she said, in the bring-the-hammer-down voice. "Look at me, Chaz."
He was panting through his nose, sweating with panic, but he looked at her. Whether his eyes were focusing was anybody's guess.
"You have to let them stabilize you for transport. You have to do this. I'll be with you the whole time; I won't let anything happen to you."
He squeezed his eyes closed and let out a shuddering breath. But he subsided, lay rigid and shaking while the paramedics snugged up the restraints. Falkner looked around for her coat and found Worth strangling it with both hands, looking at nothing. Falkner eased the cloth out of her grip and laid it over Chaz. She thought his mouth relaxed a little.
They lifted him and headed for the ambulance. Falkner saw someone with Lau's profile and the swing of her hair off to her right. Yes, Lau. Falkner caught her eye. Lau jogged over.
"Call Hafidha," Falkner said. "Tell her we're okay."
"Are we okay?" Lau said, with a lowered voice and a dubious expression.
"Yes." Falkner caught an acid whiff of vomit on Lau's breath. Good God, what was in that house?
Chaz and the paramedics had gone ahead, with Worth attached like a sidecar, keeping pace. "So far," Falkner added, and followed after.
Lau waited until Falkner started after Chaz and the paramedics. She knew her hands were going to shake on the phone keys. She also knew Falkner wouldn't think less of her for it. But Nikki Lau was bulletproof. Those were the rules.
She thought Brady had seen her bail on the house. He wouldn't think less of her, either. And she hadn't compromised the scene. One of the Stateys had only gotten as far as the back porch before he hurled, and seeing that, she'd felt relatively professional, puking briskly into the weeds and getting back to work.
She hoped one of the team had a breath mint on them.
She pressed one on the speed dial. There was barely time for a ring.
"Talk," said Hafidha's voice.
"We've got him, Hafs." She felt the prickling in her nose and throat and eyes that said she was going to cry after all.
"Oh, Jesus." A pause; she heard Hafidha breathing hard. "Okay. Okay. Is he all right?"
For an instant, Lau resented Falkner and the delegating process. How to answer that? "Yes. Maybe."
"Hafs, I don't know. He's been starved. He's hurt, I think. He's-- I don't know. The paramedics are here." Good grief, she knew better than this. She knew how to make a statement. You didn't say things like that, you just didn't.
Even with the memory of Chaz's blood-splashed skull-face before you.
She could hear Hafidha's uneven breathing. At last she said, "Did you kill the son of a bitch?"
"Tell me you didn't let him get away, and he's dead. Because if you--"
"Chaz-- Chaz took care of it." In a blood-sprayed room buzzing with flies and stinking of terror and meat already begun to turn. Her stomach humped rebelliously, and she swallowed. "He took care of it."
Hafidha's breath caught. "That's my baby brother," she said, her voice cracking.
When Falkner looked up, it had gotten dark. When had that happened? The yard was crisscrossed and pooled with cruiser headlights, spotlights, battery work lights, all haloed by the smoke in the air. The building looked like a crime scene, now, not a house. Ahead of her the open back of the ambulance was like a lit window in the wall of dark blue sky and silhouetted pines.
She caught up with the paramedics as they lowered Chaz onto the gurney. His left hand turned, fingers stretched, to brush Worth's, and Worth leaned over him.
"Refeeding," Chaz rasped.
Worth's expression went sharp with alarm. "Platypus, how many calories?"
"One thousand...five hundred fifty."
"The whole week?"
His lips moved, shaped "Yeah."
Something happened in his face, something Falkner couldn't read. It frightened her.
He squeezed his eyes tight. "Slamming."
Worth's mouth opened, a perfect O. "Oh, my God--" She turned to Falkner. "At the hospital. You've got to make them understand he could be starving. Rwanda, Bangladesh starving. Nobody knows how this works in betas. He's been without food the equivalent of, of a month or so, and I don't know--he was slamming neurons, so likely more. They could kill him by feeding him. He's at risk for cardiac arrest, just from the workload of digestion on his heart. You've got to find someone who's up to date on protocols for treating starvation."
So far, Falkner had told Lau. That was still true, wasn't it? "It's all right." She laid both hands on Worth's vibrating shoulders. "I've got Johns Hopkins on speed dial. By the time we get to the hospital, they'll have everything ready to prep him for evac."
Worth's throat worked; she nodded and managed a bent smile. "You would, wouldn't you?"
Yes, I would. I do. "Good job," she said, and felt Worth's shoulders drop.
A new set of red lights had joined the law enforcement vehicles in the yard. Firefighters. Mike Pelletier came around the ambulance, uniformed and bare-headed. He asked the question with his face.
"We've got him," Falkner said.
He nodded. "Your perp?"
"All right, then." He surveyed the house, narrow-eyed and professional. "Damn, wish I had a camera. There's a textbook case of how not to maintain a fire break around a dwelling. It's gonna be hell to save that."
A deep, harsh inhalation made Falkner turn to the gurney. But Chaz was just drawing breath to speak. "Let it burn."
Pelletier looked from Chaz to her.
"Let it burn," Chaz repeated, softer. Then, barely moving air-- "She's not here."
"She?" But his fingers uncurled, a flicked-away gesture, so Falkner knew it didn't matter if she understood. "It's his house," she told Pelletier. "Just buy us time to process the scene."
She lifted her left wrist, and noticed the blood smeared down the sleeve of her shirt. The other sleeve was worse. That gave her a chance to remember that the team would have their earpieces out; too much chatter on the line now that the crisis was over. One of the crises.
The paramedics were folding the gurney into the ambulance. "Stay with him," she said to Worth. "I'll be right back. If he threatens to make a fuss, tell him I'll slug him."
Worth managed to grin. Good girl. She'd do it, too. Falkner set off to find Lau.
Thirty feet from the ambulance, she met Reyes. The headlights from two cop cars intersected just beyond him, putting him at the apex of a triangle of shadow, standing straight as the pines across the road. He met her eyes, didn't look down. No, of course he didn't. What was done was done. You made the best choice you could, acted on it, and went forward from there; the past was a road that disappeared behind your heels. That was Reyes.
It wasn't easy to be Stephen Reyes. Falkner didn't think tonight would make it easier. She should nod and walk past, if she couldn't do any better. Instead she patted his shoulder. "Don't worry. I bet you've been wrong before."
He turned away, his face like hammered steel.
Tomorrow, Falkner thought. I'll forgive you then. She pushed on across the yard.
Lau snapped her phone closed as Falkner came up. "Tell the others I'm going in with him, to flash the badge in the ER."
"Copy. Any instructions?"
Falkner gazed across the yard to the house, the vehicles, the highly-organized commotion around them. Brady and Reyes would make the scene talk to them. Worth would get William Villette's body ready for the coroner and eventual release to Frost, and collect whatever information it could tell them at the scene. Todd would make sure they got out ahead of the fire, team and gear intact. Lau would figure out a way to turn the facts into a story that made sense to people who didn't want to know how little sense the world made, sometimes.
She could leave those things to the team; they were good at them. She'd do the thing she was good at.
"No," she said. "Carry on."
She headed back toward the ambulance.
Worth had triumphed, apparently. Chaz was grayish under the blood and his eyes were squeezed tight, but he was hooked up to the monitors, and her coat had been replaced with a blanket. "I've got him," Falkner said. Worth slid out of the ambulance and Falkner took her place. After a last look, Worth loped off toward the house.
One of the paramedics finished looping a cannula under Chaz's nose and said, "Sir? I'm going to start a line for fluids and pain meds. You're going to feel a needle stick on the back of your left hand." He set the line and pushed the blanket away from Chaz's arm, and froze, and jerked his head up to meet Falkner's eyes.
It was like watching Chaz cross the yard with the knife. She stared at the needle tracks inside his arm and thought, He wouldn't do that, and knew if she was sure, she wouldn't have had the thought.
Chaz's lips parted, sticky-dry. The oxygen and glucose were like a switch thrown; a return to coherence as rapid and remarkable as a diabetic's. "He injected me with his blood," he said, slow and clear.
No. She would react when she had time. "He raped at least fourteen women." God damn it, get your breath. Don't make him wait for this. "They all tested negative."
"Fifteen." Eyes shut, tendons straining on his chest below the collar.
You can't nod in a cervical collar. That's the point. But he did something with the corner of his mouth. "You figured it out."
"Chaz--" she said. And stopped herself before she could say it doesn't matter. Because of course it mattered. She swallowed pity and anger and sorrow, past the constriction in her throat, and they felt like gravel on the way down. "She must have been incredibly brave."
His face smoothed, and he breathed through his nose, one, two, three. "Yeah. He--" another gulp of air. "He didn't get her back."
Oh, sweetheart. But that wasn't something you said to one of your agents.
"Prophylaxis?" he got out, careful precision. Chaz would use the right word.
"Damned straight, prophylaxis." She nodded at the paramedic. Report it on the way in.
They were on agonizing conversational ground already; she might as well get it over with. "Chaz," she said, and was proud of how steady, how neutral her voice was, "do we need to run a rape kit?"
His eyes popped open. Then the thing he did with his mouth was a smile, sort of. "Huh," he muttered. "Forgot to put it on the list."
"No," he said. She could tell he was articulating carefully. "No rape."
There were no fates worse than death. But on the chance that death wasn't on the table after all, it was nice to be able to rule out a few other things as well.
The doors closed them in, and a moment later the ambulance rocked over the yard, down the gravel drive. Chaz didn't wince; he was too tense to tense up any more. How long before the pain meds took effect? One of the paramedics was on the radio to the hospital. She listened with one ear, in case she needed to correct anything.
"Everyone okay?" Chaz whispered. This time she was sure his eyes were focusing.
What did he want to say? "Reyes was there."
Chaz blinked. "He's right, you know." He closed his eyes. Falkner listened to the air hiss and catch in his dry throat.
He couldn't know Reyes expected the worst. Or what his worst was. She wouldn't believe it.
Drying blood glued hanks of hair to his forehead. Some were in his eyes. She itched to brush them back. If it were Rebekah on the gurney, she'd do it, but Rebekah was her daughter, and a child.
She didn't know what had happened to him in that house. But she could see he was holding himself together with strapping tape and barbed wire, that the holding-together hurt more than the wounds, but that he was doing it out of need. The cruelest thing she could do was touch him wrong by mistake, and make him come apart under her eyes.
In the bright working lights of the ambulance she couldn't help but read the catalog of his damage. The cervical collar hid the ligature marks, but the slashes on his back, the emaciation, the scabbed and oozing wrists, the needle marks, the bruises that bloomed everywhere--they'd seen corpses in better shape.
The glucose seemed to have stopped helping, or maybe it just couldn't keep up. She had to watch the paramedics to be sure he hadn't died yet. Chaz's eyes were half-closed and glassy, and his chest rose and fell and stopped, then rose again in a frightening non-rhythm. Each time she thought, That's the last. He's going to arrest. Then he'd take another painful drag of air, and she'd start the cycle of alarm over. Be tough, Chaz. Gammas are tough. You should be tough, too.
Please be tough, Chaz.
His last words might have been, "He's right, you know." If so, she didn't think she could say so to Reyes.
She thought of unfledged birds that fell from nests--half-naked, veins and organs visible through their tissue skin--how they gasped and struggled but couldn't make it, and there was nothing you could do to change the outcome.
At least when it happened, she'd be there. He ought to know someone was there. It wasn't as if he had anyone else.
Don't cry. If he opens his eyes and sees you, it'll scare him.
She was holding his hand, below the IV needle. When had she decided to do that?
"Sir, can you hear me?" one of the paramedics said. "We'll be at the hospital in twenty minutes. Sir?"
His fingers were cold and still in hers. "Chaz. I want you to talk. I don't care what you say, but I need to know you're conscious. Swear at me, if you can't think of anything else." What happens in the ambulance, stays in the ambulance.
Nothing. The paramedics exchanged a glance, checked monitors. Falkner bit the inside of her mouth to keep from giving an order, yelling, pleading, whatever it was she could feel herself about to do.
Chaz's lips moved. Falkner leaned over him and heard air leave his lungs, shaped by his tongue and mouth.
I am a poor wayfaring stranger
Traveling through this world of woe
Song lyrics. He was reciting.
But there's no sickness, toil, or danger
In that bright land to which I go.
She leaned forward, gripping his hand in both of hers. She waited for each breath, each word. Each word was another second of fight.
I know dark clouds will gather 'round me
I know my way is rough and steep...
Good boy. Keep fighting. His hand was cold, sticky with blood, fragile as a fistful of dry twigs.
But beauteous fields lie just before me...
His face twisted, as with terrible pain. He dragged in a breath, and this time the words were a hoarse rattle, made stronger with terror. "...don't remember. I can't remember--"
Falkner wanted to scream for someone to do something. To come and save him. But this was all they had: three good paramedics and an ambulance going as fast as it could.
There was a chorus; what was it? Think. It was the only thing she could give him. "I'm going there to... to meet my mother," she whispered.
His face went slack. Her heart leaped with fear. Then his lips moved.
She said she'd meet me when I come...
After that, she tried to whisper it with him. She wanted to know it, in case he needed a hand over the steep parts again.
The air smelled like water.
They slid Chaz out of the ambulance--"Just a little bump, sir!"--under a corrugated roof he'd never seen. Beyond the roof, the asphalt parking lot was dull and dry in the overhead lights. No patter of falling drops, no swish of wet in the sound of passing cars. Virga, he remembered. The rain that falls but never hits the ground. In the desert you could watch it pass from a dozen miles away, grey ghost veils sweeping from a racing cloud, watering nothing, leaving nothing but the smell.
The gurney trembled under him, over pavement. Somewhere past his head, automatic doors hissed open, and cool air and hard bright light reached out to touch him. Emergency Department, he thought. Emergence. I emerged.
The last thing he saw through closing doors was Falkner.
The coat she'd wrapped him in drooped from one hand. The other arm, elbow-locked, propped her against the rear of the ambulance. Her head sank until her cheek and forehead pressed against her bloodstained sleeve. He saw her close her eyes.
She'd let go. They were safe, then. He closed his eyes, too, and let himself fall.