"Single Bullet Theory" - by Chelsea PolkAct I | Act II | Act III | Act IV
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
Washington, DC, October 2012
It was busy, but not brutal. Lunch rush diners lingered, ordering another drink or asking to see the dessert board, and Dice had to go out to one of the tables to talk about the various beer selections available to one of the regular suits (a lawyer, of the sue-'em-till-they-weep sort) and his guest for lunch. Dice couldn't tell if he was wooing her for a lawsuit or just wooing her. Dice suggested sampling some wheat beers when she started asking about bitterness, and a bit of the Edmund Fitzgerald Porter for something completely different, and the lawyer ordered a cheese board, with "whatever would make it interesting." Dice had to go do that himself, because he didn't expect the kitchen to remember which cheeses highlighted which beers. Debbie did the same for wines, so he warned Jenny that he was going to be in the back for a few minutes.
Cheese was market price, and Dice chose half a dozen varieties, adding thin slices of grapefruit, tart green apples, fresh slices of fennel bulb, a little cup of blackberries, and four perfect squares of dark chocolate. It weighed in at $46. Dice winced, but he wasn't paying for it. He tucked the ticket under the blueberry cup, and set it aside while he poured the first four samples of beer. He enjoyed doing beer samplers, and he was glad that the lawyer had come in later, because if he'd done it at high noon Dice would have wanted to choke the life out of him with his silk jacquard woven Italian tie. A proper beer sampling took a couple of hours, and they'd be winding it up in the middle of the after-work rush.
He took one of the big trays and a frame to set it on to get the sheer everything onto the table, handed the cheese ticket off to Jenny, and then stopped dead in his tracks because a man was shrugging out of a jacket next to The Chair, and it was--
Christ in a bucket.
Dice walked back behind the bar, marching straight over to The Chair. "Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world," he said, and found that he was smiling. He reached across the bar to shake Solomon Todd's hand.
"Had to walk into yours, Dice." But he was smiling back. "I came looking for you. Hear you have weird stuff going down."
Dice gaped, and then dropped his shoulders and looked up at the penny-farthing in the rafters. "Geraldine. She told you?"
"She sorts my fan mail," Solomon Todd said. "I still get some. And when you asked her the very thing I asked her to watch for, she mentioned it to me. She didn't tell me your name, but I guessed. And correctly, I see. I figured if I was wrong then I could just have a club soda with some of that mushroom soup and shoot the breeze."
"Sure, okay, mushroom soup," Dice agreed. He was already pouring the club soda. "But I can't talk here."
"Tell you what. Make it just the soda, and I'll get out of your hair for a few hours," Sol said. "You're done at six?"
"Done at six, ready to go about six thirty. I don't know if my friend will want to talk to you. I haven't asked. I...haven't told him that I was looking into it," Dice explained. "And I don't know if what he's talking about is precisely your kind of thing, it's just..."
"Hair on the back of your neck started twitching?"
"Yes," Dyson said, and relief gently stroked his diaphragm into letting go.
"Right. Well, let's go have a beer anyway. You never showed up to my retirement party."
"You never told me you were having one."
"Well, I haven't had one yet, so it's not a complete snub," Sol said easily, and put down five dollars. "I'll see you then."
Dice watched him walk out, then turned to ring the drink in and nearly smacked straight into Dennis, who held a bus tray of stray beer mugs. He stood right in the middle of the aisle between the bar and the back counter, poleaxed look on his face.
"Dyson Jeremiah Cieslewicz, was that Solomon Todd?"
"My middle name's not Jeremiah," Dice said.
"You are in the kind of deep shit that requires a middle name for announcing your doom, so it's Jeremiah now. It was, wasn't it?"
"Yeah," Dice said. "It was."
"And you never told me that you knew him."
"Uh, yeah, I guess I do," Dice said. His face was hot. He probably looked like the surface of Mars right now. Fuck.
"Holy shit. You have to invite him to eat here. I will split my ass in four parts to say that I made him a meal. You must," Dennis said.
Dice gently pried the bus tray out of his hands. "He's coming back here at the end of my shift. You can invite him yourself."
"Name of Hell, Dice," Dennis said. "Who else do you know?"
"Rupert Beale?" Dice said, and instantly wished he could have it back.
"Christ on a hay truck," Dennis said. "Dyson, are you a writer?"
Dice just laughed.
Happy Hour kept him busy, thanks to someone coming in on the tail end and asking the lawyer and his date/meeting about the small glasses and the crumbs of their cheese board, and deciding that on word of mouth that he'd like the same thing. The guy was casually dressed, like he didn't go to work today, but Dice knew an expensive watch when he saw one. Dice went over and tried not to rush him, but the guy wouldn't be pinned down on preferences. Finally Dice suggested that he shouldn't try to find a narrow range of beer, but very differing tastes, and a very simple cheese board. After being assured that it was fine, he'd probably come back to do it again, Dice added a stiff card with lines for writing down thoughts about the beers and brought a pen along just in case. But the guy had one--a deep cobalt and gold pen, with a chased gold and silver fountain nib. They were attracting money. Maybe the suits would start riding bikes, too.
That made Dice grin at Jenny as he got his ass back behind the bar and caught up on drinks. He left his domain once more: to slap a Reserved card on the still-empty end of the big table, so Andy would have some help holding that end for everybody. Then he was mixing cucumber and rosewater martinis out of Hendrick's for a crew of women who looked like they were ready to unwind: updos came down, lipstick got refreshed, and laughter rang out by the pool table as one of the ladies proceeded to set up the balls for a game.
Gerry came in and disappeared into the kitchen, reemerging with a bus tray and got to work clearing off glasses, stopping to take drink orders along the way. Dice took the list of drinks from him and started logging orders on Gerry's ID. Dice knew everybody's ID and passwords, and used his powers for good, like making sure that orders kitchen staff took got entered as servers so they'd get a server's portion of the tip out for the serving work they did. Or making sure someone was logged in a bit early so it didn't look like they were always late, because life happened and everybody helped everybody else out and a good work environment needed to be hidden, lest some outsider come along and fuck it up in the name of productivity or some shit that didn't matter as much as people.
The place was swinging by five, the mash of voices loud enough to drown out the music playing for atmosphere. And one by one, the night-shift staff came in and took a bit of the load out of the day shift's hands, with bumped hips and handshakes and back-pats and everyone buzzing up to Dice to find out for real, he knew Solomon Todd, and they were meeting up here? Crazy!
So naturally they all found something that they needed to handle behind the bar when Sol Todd came in and sat back down at The Chair, every one of them wiggling an introduction. Dennis came out to express his respect for Sol's books and invited him to come and have a meal that it would be his honor to prepare. Dice was ready to seep into the floorboards and die, but Sol accepted Dennis' card, and kept up affable author for as long as it took for Dice to run his report, cash out, and declare how much of his tips he was taking home that day--forty bucks, to cover a meal--shit, he had that steak in the slow cooker, fuck, but it was on low so hopefully it wouldn't turn into carbon before he got home.
Then Dice noticed the helmet. "You're on a motorcycle?" Once he actually got on the sidewalk he saw it, four spaces up, and that was the only bike on the block.
Sol said, "Yeah, I can give you a ride," but Dice was already clipping his messenger bag across his body, securing the hip strap.
"I've got wheels," Dice said. "Can we go somewhere westward?"
"Georgetown, Foggy Bottom?"
"Yeah," Dice agreed. "That'll be good. I've got something in the slow cooker."
"Ah. Can you recommend something closer to home?"
Dice took his time getting Stone Soup out of the rack, thinking.
"Or someplace close enough that you can take a quick trip there and back while I protect a table from floating away," Sol said, like it was no big deal to him.
"Naw, Georgetown or Foggy Bottom is close." Then to settle it, he said, "I live in Arlington. I haven't eaten there much, don't really know if talking skullduggery at Chipotle is quite the thing."
"I know a place."
"Lead on, then."
"I'm headed to Blues Alley in case we lose each other," Sol said, and headed to his Harley.
"I'll meet you there," Dice said to his back.
Dice waited for Sol to walk up the block to where he lounged next to his parked and locked bike, and he knew he looked a bit smug. Sol shook his head, smiling.
"Right. How long have you been waiting?"
"Oh, not long," Dice said. "I'm pretty sure only long enough for you to find a place to park. Where are we going?"
They were headed to a restaurant with enclosed booths, dimly lit. It looked like fifteen years ago it had been an "intimate dining experience" and the few-surprises menu took pride in their burgers.
"What on the list is right with burgers?" Sol asked.
"Any beer, honestly, but I'd pick the IPA on draft. It's decent. That or the bottles of Shiner Bock, though they're ringing them up high."
"Did you always know beer?" Sol asked, and then they had to order. Burgers, onion rings, fries, and bottles of beer that had to wait a moment while Dice asked for glasses.
"Didn't know a lot in Chicago. No control over the stock. But The Crank's owner is into gin, the lead bartender knows her wine, and I got to learning beer. Been on brewery tours, I read review websites, keep up with distributors. I said I could learn it and I thought that meant the usual Miller, Budweiser, and a couple of locals, but Stewart--that's the boss--got pissed off at a truly shitty distributor that didn't want to spend time on the small pubs, and fired them, vowing to never stock a drop of big-brew beer. He told me to take a class, whatever I needed to do, but I was going to be his beer guy and he'd cover the expenses. And so I learned. And fucked it up a lot the first year, but now I have a handle on it."
They kept chatting about that until the burgers came, and gave thumbs-up to the waitress when she came by to ask how everything was tasting, and it was good. Dice was pretty pleased with his, and Duke already had his half done.
"If we want something, we move the ketchup bottle or the empties to the edge of the table. Otherwise she won't come back," Sol said. "It's never really busy in here and they're casual about kicking people out. So. How did you get onto the story of Natalie Summers-Barrington?"
Dice paused before eating one of his fries. "A friend came in on the day the case was over. He was...angry. And he told me that he knew that she'd killed him, but he just didn't know how she did it," Dice said. "He didn't mention any names. He went to school with her. Georgetown."
"Good school. What did your friend take?"
"Psychology. Which only compounds the self-blame, if you ask me."
"Oh, I agree," Sol said. "You know that she pursued Biology and Chemistry, looked to be headed for Neurochem. Yes?"
"Didn't know about the Neurochem bit but it doesn't surprise me," Dice said. "Did you know she was kidnapped when she was twelve? I found a photo of her on a blog post about the portrayal of women as victims in the media. Looked like it might have been academic slash activist writing."
The lines on Solomon Todd's forehead creased, and he pressed his lips together in a flinch of sympathy. "I have...a fuller picture. I could probably get the case files, if we needed them."
We. Wait, we? Dice looked at Sol, giving him the Spock brow. "You want me to work with the feebs?"
"Well, I'm retired. And this might be something but right now, it's not official. I still sneak into the building to steal donuts off Hafs." He grabbed a big onion ring and bit into it.
"Or you could bring her donuts and ask her to rob the case files blind."
"They might even be online, they're from 1999. You want me to work with you on this?"
"Wouldn't I be working with you?"
"If you haven't noticed, you're the leader of the Idlewood Sunday gatherings even when the doctors show up. All of them. That's your ship and you're the captain. We are working with each other."
"That's nice of you to say," Dice managed. He didn't chop the compliment off at the knees, but it was hard to hear praise, even still.
"It's the truth. You find survivors, Dice. You bring them in. You're the best we have on that job. When it comes to your friend, you lead and I follow."
"All right. But you've got the chops for finding the backstory. We sharing information?"
"Yes," Sol said. "We definitely are. And I interrupted your story."
"Yeah, all right. Where was I at. Okay. They dated for a while, but here's the thing. He'd been suspicious of her, thought that she'd gotten a rival passed out drunk at a party for...something. He didn't actually say. Just that he knew she'd been there and he suspected that she was responsible. And he dated her after that."
Dice took both bottles, set them on then end of the table, and sure enough the waitress was right there. "Refills?"
"Please," he said. "Can we get another fries and rings basket?"
"You bet," she said cheerfully, and took the cold ones and the burger plates away.
"I figure we're here long enough for one more beer to be okay."
"If not it won't be the first time I had to go back for my bike," Sol said. "So she's manipulative."
"I'd say that," Dice said. "He'd said that what happened to that girl was bad enough that she dropped out of school for it, and he still went out with Natalie even though he thought she was Trouble."
Their beers showed up. Dice took them, and poured them to build a head, fast and sloshing. "And I gotta ask myself, why would he do that? Something he's been ashamed of for years, probably the thing that made him choke out of his degree--he didn't say that, but I got eyes. And he said that it was like she'd cast a spell on him, that his previous suspicions didn't matter."
"Very manipulative," Sol said.
"Doesn't mean supervillain powers. People manipulate others all the time, right, but there is something hinky going down here. Might be whatever happened with Ingrid Lessing at her college, the mass fear, suspicion...emotional control. With a bit of a push to help steer people. Maybe she makes them overdose and forget that they overdosed somehow. I don't know. I don't have evidence."
"But you'd bet money."
"Damn straight I would. That murder was impossible."
"The Houdini clause," Sol said. "Only no one in law enforcement flagged it."
"Well, it's not like they held her in jail for more than an hour," Dice said. "She's rich and powerful. Cops see that, they think she did it with money, probably assumed their way right past it, and they had a patsy right there--did her friend Kylie get the Teflon treatment? You already know this, right?"
"Some," Sol said. "She was in jail for a bit, and then Natalie's lawyers showed up to rescue her after they'd gotten Natalie out on bond."
"But not until after she'd been thoroughly disoriented by being thrust into a nightmare. Cultivating gratitude?" Dice asked, and picked up his glass.
Sol nodded. "That's what I would think. But they didn't move to sever and then hang Kylie out to dry, when they could have. She's not poor, but she's not at Natalie's level of wealth, not before her widowing or after. Instead Natalie and Kylie were shoulder to shoulder with a pack of feral lawyers guarding them, strategic press statements, both of them always together, playing loyal friendship all the way. She moved Kylie into the house, they were together during the trial, and they were acquitted together. It wasn't the easy narrative to take but they did it."
Sol let him think, and Dice frowned over it until the fries and rings came.
"Friendship matters to her?" Dice asked. "Loyalty matters to her? It's not just manipulation, is it? People aren't just tools to her."
"There was no reason for Natalie to not discard her friend after the objective was achieved, so yes, I'd say that friendship matters to her...under certain conditions, at least."
"So that means... How likely is it she doesn't know what she's doing?"
"Each case--each host is different."
"But this one?" Dice persisted.
Duke reached into his bag. "Look at this."
"This" was a slim tablet, the newest model with the iconic logo on the back. He powered it up, gave it a couple of taps, and handed it over.
It showed a photo of Natalie standing next to an older man. Both of them were dressed in black, and Natalie wore a black brimmed hat. Dice figured the man with his hand on Natalie's shoulder was her father. He had white hair at the temples, and the strawberry bronze hair began high on his forehead.
Dice swiped and the next photo was of Natalie in black, a little older, holding a teenaged girl's hand, her head turned as if she was saying something to the blonde, who wept on Natalie's shoulder.
He swiped to the next one. Natalie, a little older, her black hat brimmed with a black mesh veil, standing alone.
Dyson watched photo after photo of Natalie Summers-Barrington comforting the children, nephews, nieces, spouses mourning at funeral after funeral. He looked up at Sol, who was looking at him with understanding the thoughts that crashed through his head.
"All right," Dice said. "Do you know how these people became dead?"
"There weren't that many postmortem examinations. One of these funerals--besides the one for Sheldon Barrington, that is--was under the veil of a suspicious death. I've got some obituaries scanned."
He took the tablet back, tapped and swiped and gave it back. They were scans of newspaper archives, some digital, some from microfiche.
One cover page of a postmortem examination, and cause of death was choking on her own vomit while unconscious, alcohol and sedatives in her blood.
"Holy shit," Dice said. "That's one hell of a single bullet theory."
Sol raised his glass to that. "If she doesn't know what she's doing, we stand a better chance. If she does know what she's doing..."
"She's the sneakiest serial killer who ever sneaked. This...is a lot of bodies."
Sol nodded and had some more of his beer. "And she'll be very, very dangerous. Gammas don't usually exhibit the kind of control she'd have to have to pull off hiding it."
Dice handed the tablet back to Solomon. "I noticed there were comments on tabloid sites about her having an eating disorder, although they seemed to be the same kind of sniping they hand to any woman--too skinny or too fat, never satisfied. But my friend made a point of how much she was capable of eating. Teenagers have a hollow leg, but impossible murder and a big appetite..."
"We're still looking at if. But I'd bet on it."
"Me too," Dice said. "Me too. Can the WTF go after her?"
"Strictly speaking, they've got no cause," Sol said. "And no formal request from law enforcement. That doesn't mean we can't advise them to lie in wait for her to do something, but it would mean another death. She's got rights."
"Yeah," Dice said. "You can't just buff the jackboots and go get her. Can I get copies of this?"
"Yes. I can send them to you. Proxied e-mail?"
"Let me give you my PGP key."
"That won't stop Hafidha," Sol said with a small smile.
"If Hafidha wants my ass all I can do is kiss it goodbye," Dice said. "I'm worried about mere mortals in the NSA and shit like that."
In the end, Dice gave Sol his PGP key, the amanuensis9981 e-mail, and the url for a web-based encrypted anonymous chatroom he named "bottom bracket blues" that he would create and lurk in, for stray comments that didn't warrant an e-mail...or a telephone call. Dice gave up his phone number, loath as he was to do it, and explained that it was only voice and SMS.
Sol had a card, and Dice fished into his pocket to enter the numbers right away. Solomon Todd looked at Dice's navy blue and silver Nokia 3310--no camera, monochrome screen, capable of leaving a crater when dropped--and gave it a solemn nod. Sol had a brand-new iPhone. He used a stylus--one of the doodads on a key ring that also had a little red devil duckie with flashing LED lights--and entered all of Dice's information, saving the text Dice used to send his PGP key.
"Requests for ringtone?"
"'Paranoid,' Black Sabbath," Dice replied, and Sol gave him a wry grin.
"Doesn't mean they're not out to get you. What are you going to do about your friend?"
Dice scrubbed his hair back, waving the little brick phone in his right hand. "I'm not sure. I've never done this initial part in person. And I still haven't figured out if he's hiding the superpower stuff because it'll make him sound crazy or if she hid it that well. If it comes up, can I tell him about you?"
"Yes. And if he wants to talk to me, I'll meet him or write to him or whatever he feels right with. But, Dice. Anything happens, anything, even if you feel like it might be silly, you tell me. Phone me. I don't want you alone on this. If you can't get me, call Chaz."
"Believe me, Duke," Dice said solemnly. "I will. Actually, you know what? One more thing."
And Dyson Cieslewicz gave the retired FBI agent his address.
Arlington, Virginia, October 2012
By some stroke of marvelous luck Dice hadn't just left the slow cooker on low, he'd dialed it to between low and "keep warm." There was burned-on sauce happening at the edges, but it hadn't gone completely dry. That skin on top was a reduction. Yeah. He added some of a bottle of molasses-based barbecue sauce, and shredded the steak with two forks. It tasted caramelized, not--okay, a bit burnt. But he wasn't hungry, so he turned it off and put the ceramic pot in the fridge.
He ran the carpet sweeper around and tidied before he turned to the laptop and checked his mail. There was mail from Sol. He'd sent it just a few minutes after they parted, so Dice entered the key and downloaded all of the files.
He read Sol's account of the 1999 abduction first. It began with a summary of the beginning of the fiscal year of 1996, after Colin Summers' company had closed a small pharmaceutical cosmetics company that they had acquired and had cut Gordon Spicer from the company payroll with some severance, but with no rights to the research that he had done during the acquisition.
Three years later, Summer's company Sunshine Supplements offered a cosmetic product that came from Gordon Spicer's research on medium-chain fatty triglycerides as a protectant for hair and skin. Meanwhile, Spicer had trouble sticking to employment as "erratic" behavior spotted his employment records. An associate who'd been interviewed said that most people believed that Spicer had a drug problem because of his dramatic weight loss and personality changes. The product's debut was probably the stressor that moved Gordon Spicer to follow and plan to kidnap Natalie Summers.
But when Natalie had first gone missing, no one had known any of that. Natalie's mother had called police when Natalie disappeared between a Neiman Marcus and a record shop. She had wanted to buy a new CD, and had agreed to meet her mother at the food court in twenty minutes. She never showed up.
An AMBER alert had been issued, the FBI involved, but Natalie had disappeared, and no communication had come to demand ransom until two weeks later. The orders were followed and the usual team of undercover police assigned, but no one showed up to get the ransom drop.
A completely different set of demands came, two weeks later, and the ransom stayed right where it was left, and no one came to get it. Then the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit had enough information to suspect Gordon Spicer, and the operation to rescue Natalie ended in Gordon's death, shot by a sniper.
Natalie had witnessed her abductor's death (Dice knew that blood on her face had come from a bullet) after being held captive for six weeks.
Dice sat back and rolled his shoulders, stretched, and finally got off the barstool to stand. Sol hadn't entered the chatroom, so Dice sent him a quick, encrypted message:
"Six weeks is a long time to be held by a gamma. But was Gordon Spicer a gamma?"
A few minutes later, a reply:
"He was still shouting and trying to grab Natalie after being shot in the head. It could have been a bad shot, but it took another one to stop him. Not conclusive, and the ACTF didn't exist then. No one could have known about the anomaly, so Spicer wasn't handled the way we handle suspected gammas. If it had been even two years later, things might have been different--if the right string of coincidences presented itself."
No, not conclusive. But it was a lot of that thing he didn't believe in, and he was glad that Sol was on this. He'd have never found all this information. He wasn't on his own, and that helped him when he double-checked the door and window locks before he went to bed.
He wasn't in this alone.
Washington, DC, October 2012
Everyone in the damn world decided to come have brunch before going to the nice and easy ride, which met up at the shop around the corner, so The Crank was slammed hard enough that Dice spent more time busing tables and doing prep than pouring drinks (besides coffee, which he ran through the tables). Every time he went into the kitchen he loudly told Dennis that this was his fault. Well, it was. The man made crepes, and they were really, really good. But everyone cleared out by one and left the bewildered staff to take a moment to breathe and take turns eating brunch, which was late for everyone instead of early, as it usually was on Saturdays.
Dice got by on a cup of fruit and coffee, then a muffin, then a cup of yogurt, then a good half dozen slices of bacon, all little offerings brought to him while he cleaned keg lines and weighed every open bottle of everything they had, taking a break to eat a spring greens salad and read the bar book, which had entries ranging from notes on customer alerts to bright ideas to truly awful puns, written by whoever was on staff, and found a note:
"Dice--Tyler came by last night (which is today, as I'm writing this) to find out if you had tomorrow (Saturday, which will be today when you read this) off, I told him you didn't and he said he was going to try to get there by six and please don't leave if he's late because he's doing bike maintenance 101 for women and he'll be crunched, he wants to talk to you about something and doesn't have your number. <3 Debbie"
"Something" likely to be Natalie, Dice figured. He probably didn't have anyone else to talk to. He circled the note and scrawled "thx <3 D" next to it, message received, and then left a note about doing the keg lines and the liquor weights, and asked, "Anyone know why we got slammed for brunch Saturday? Is it something we ought to plan for or was it just random?" and paged back to see if anyone else had mentioned the same thing, but no one had.
He started looking for Tyler around 5:30, which really was too early but every time the doors opened he looked up. Couldn't help it. When Tyler did arrive, he glanced over his shoulder when locking up his bike, looking back the way he came. When he came in he looked at every patron seated, as if he were scanning for someone he was supposed to meet, trying for casual but just a little too tense.
"IPA?" Dice asked, but Tyler shook his head and leaned close. "I wanted to talk to you. But...honestly? I'm a bit weirded out."
"It's probably nothing. No, it's stupid," Tyler said. "Did you have plans or anything? For tonight?"
"No," Dice said. "I'm not a wild Saturday night kinda guy. I go to the movies with Mary Lynn sometimes, but generally not. What got you weirded out, though?"
Tyler shook his head. "There are a million black sedans in this town."
Dice glanced over Tyler's shoulder to the window, and his gut started kicking to get free. "Kept seeing the same one?"
"No. Kept seeing the same two. Dumb. Probably a car service."
"Maryland license plates?"
"Yeah, how'd you know?"
"Because I just watched one roll by. KWX-941?"
"Don't think the cops will help," Dice said. "When did you start seeing them?"
"I noticed one parked partway up the street when I got out of The Knitting Loft. And then another one passed me on the way to the community center. Then when we were outside riding in circles on the basketball court, there was a black car parked, and it was still there through the whole class, then the first one was just driving down the corner when I left." Tyler gripped the strap of his bag, knuckles white.
"Okay, take it easy. You do have something to be freaked out about," Dice said. "You probably are being followed."
"Plenty of reason to be around Capitol Hill even on a Saturday, but up here in Logan Circle? What did I do, why would anybody be following me?"
"Don't worry about that now," Dice said. "Think about this morning."
He steered Tyler to sit down on the end of a bench and took the chair at his right hand. "Sit, close your eyes, feet flat on the floor, hands palm down on the table. Start at the beginning, from when you first walked outside. What did you do?"
"Went up Fourteenth," Tyler said. "I always go up Fourteenth. It's the only way to go."
"There's cars parked in the street?"
"Yeah, there's cars," Tyler said. "People who live there park in the street."
"So they're usually the same, parked in about the same spot. Do you notice anything different?"
"There's the Explorer, the red new Beetle, the Bronco's not there... Yeah, shit, there was a black sedan parked near the corner. Too new for my street. They know where I live." Tyler's eyes popped open. "What the fuck is going on?"
"I'm not sure," Dice said. "Do something for me, right now. You have a phone, right?"
"Take it out, open up the back, and pull out the battery. Just turning it off won't help. Take the SIM card out. They might be tracking your phone, and better safe than sorry."
Tyler cracked open his phone and tipped it over to let the battery fall into his hand. He pried the SIM card up with his thumbnail, stuffing the chip into his wallet. Dice had his bag on already, and pulled the straps tight, hooking the waist belt. "We're going to get out of here, and we're going to lose them. It'd be easier on a weekday but we're gonna lose them, scofflaw style. When we get out, I'm gonna head north but it's just to shake them. We're going to Arlington. That's where I live."
"Let me lead," Tyler said.
"Okay, you can lead," Dice agreed.
"And stick on my back wheel," Tyler said, headed out the door. "You never did an Alley Cat race. I have. Stick on my draft. If we get chopped--no. Don't get chopped. Stay close enough that you can hear me." Tyler had his keys out, and he pulled his logo-free all-black track bike out of the rack. Dice's Beef Gravy Surly looked really gaudy next to it. "You ready?"
"Trust me," Tyler said. "And stick close."
They didn't start out hell-bent for leather at all. Tyler went northeast to Logan Circle, and took advantage of the light traffic to get into the left lane and curb hop into Logan Circle Park. Not too fast, but Tyler went across the park before hooking left to roll down P Street.
"Just making sure I'm not jumping at shadows," Tyler said, and then "Shit. There's one. Oncoming. Hard right!" and he hopped the curb again to duck into a parking lot and salmoned up Church Street, which was little better than a one-lane alley but Tyler looped back to zip down a two-foot-wide laneway beside a little church and into a back alley, going upstream in the bike lane on Q Street.
They were going to die. Tyler was starting to speed up, clipping up the sidewalk to ride north, and Dice barely cleared the intersection before the light changed. There was an outraged honk--two, and Dice felt bad for them but he was too busy looking for black sedans with tinted windows and trying to stay in Tyler's draft without hitting his back tire.
He really should have started playing bike polo. It would help his agility now.
They stopped at a light, and Dice just put his feet down so he could look around, lifting his back tire so he could crank the pedal in place. There--no, diplomatic plates.
"U-turn," Tyler said, and wheeled into the crosswalk, hooking left to go back south. Dice cussed and got caught up just as Tyler was dodging right, back onto Church Street and onto a path too narrow for a car between the back end of a pretty Methodist church and a fenced-in playground.
"Gonna stay out of sight for a bit," Tyler said, taking it easy again. "They're together, I figure, so they're talking, and the more time we stay out of sight, the better--cross here, fast." And they were going the wrong way up the street long enough to duck into another alley, swerving potholes and cracked asphalt looking for the next turn...right, and back into the narrow single-lane Church Street, but at least they were going the right way.
"This is one of my favorite streets, you know," Tyler said. "I'd like to live here. Left, going to Dupont circle."
"You are crazy," Dice said, and then "Behind us," and pushed into it because Tyler stood up on his pedals to check traffic on the circle and called, "Straight through, quick." They scooted around the triangle island of sidewalk and zipped over the crosswalk, and then they were dodging pedestrians to ride over the lawn and then back off the park to head south.
"Seriously, you're being followed by mysterious men in black cars and you're talking about real estate?"
"Keeping my mind off it," Tyler said, and went no-hands to shift his sling bag. "He went for it?"
"Yep." Dice saw that their tail had committed, forced to go all the way around the circle while they darted back onto the street like minnows, escaping southward.
Tyler said, "Fuck, I'm too predictable," but he jammed back onto an alleyway and gradually got them onto M Street, headed east. Dice had the whim-whams. Every black sedan he saw made his stomach drop like he had just run off a cliff, and following Tyler into the teeth of DC traffic on a Saturday was more excitement than he wanted in an entire year, thanks. But while on the street and not swimming upstream into oncoming traffic, all he needed was speed and to listen for Tyler telling him what damnfool thing he was going to do next--
The light ahead turned yellow, then red--
"Right! Hard right!" Tyler hollered, and the noise that escaped from Dice's throat while he rocked his bike into a harder turn at speed--terror. But he made it, even though the guy in the Ford Fiesta was still leaning on his horn, sorry, sorry. Tyler was giving it more speed, enough that Dice's heart was pounding and his breath was coming up short and they were headed straight for the White House--
The White House! And its glorious perimeter of no-vehicle traffic, where a bicycle may boldly go and be well out of sight of anyone trying to track them while driving. They slipped in between lanes, gliding to the head of the line, and waited at the light on K, poised on their pedals.
"That where we're headed?" Dice managed to call.
"Yes. You hurting?"
"No," Dice panted. "Getting harder."
"That's fucking right you are. Go!"
Dice's legs were burning, but he went like an arrow loosed for Lafayette Square, and barely resisted the urge to whoop as they backpedaled and braked to slow down for the peds wandering about, chasing invisible butterflies with their cameras or whatever mad things peds do. Dice looked over his shoulder, but he couldn't tell if that black car was one of theirs or not.
He waved anyway.
They rode along the Reflecting Pool and then Tyler took the lane around the Lincoln Memorial. Dice bemusedly followed, mentally willing his adrenaline to stop pumping. They even took the lane across the bridge, passing Sacrifice and Valor without even looking up. They charged into the left lane like they owned it, going around the circle and straight into the Arlington Memorial Cemetery.
"You lead now," Tyler said, and Dice pushed ahead, taking a winding route gradually north. It took some jiggery pokery to get through the car-centric snarl between the cemetery and Dice's apartment, but Dice got on North Lynn Street bold as polished brass, making the left turn onto Lee and skipping up onto the trail at the last second. From there it was just getting their bikes down a grassy slope and across the back lawn, but the street in front of Dice's building was quiet.
They took the stairs at a trot, Tyler just behind, and Dice got the door shoved open to wheel his bike through getting his bike up on the wall just to let Tyler in, and headed straight for the laptop.
Sol wasn't in the chat room. Dice groped for his right side cargo pocket, and of course his right hand went stupid on something as simple as a button when Tyler said, "Dyson, what is this?"
He stood up straight, booting the power on his phone and looked at Tyler, who was staring at The Wall with his jaw hanging open. It was...pretty full, with the name Natalie Summers-Barrington smack-dab in the middle of a web of bubbles and lines in different colored chalk, the odd paper note taped up here and there.
Oh how the fuck did he wind up in a canoe with the devil laughing at him.
There were a number of ways to not handle this, and one that might work. So Dice opened a few steps back from the impulse to explain. "You know what it is, right? The structure, I mean."
Tyler turned away from it to face him. "It's a mind map. Combination note-taking and brainstorming board. And it's about--her. You--Dice, I want you to tell me why you did this." Tyler looked careful. Neutral. Listening.
"First, let me tell you my key. Everything in yellow is verified, cited, or sourced. Orange is speculation, ideas. Blue circling orange means the idea didn't prove out with my resources. White is first draft, editorial comments, directions to research. Now look at the map again, now that you know the key."
Tyler looked again. "What does 'crack?' mean? You circled that in blue and pink. What's pink?"
"Pink is information I got from somebody else. Like you."
"I didn't tell you 'abducted 1999.'"
"No, that was something I found when I was looking into it. Did you know? That she'd been kidnapped?"
Tyler stared hard at that wall, at Dice's clumsy printing. "She never told me anything about it. What's crack mean? Are you saying that she was an addict?"
"I don't know if she's an addict, but that's not what I mean by crack. It's jargon. I can explain it, but first I'd like your permission to call someone. And then I will give the phone to you, and you can talk to him. To Solomon Todd. May I do that?"
"Solomon Todd knows that you've been...stalking my ex-girlfriend?"
"Investigating," Dice said. "With Solomon Todd, the writer. Who is Retired Supervisory Special Agent Solomon Todd of the Behavioral Analysis Unit of the FBI. Will you speak to him?"
"You're not trying to tell me you're not crazy."
Dice gave a soft laugh. "Oh, I have PTSD. I score a 6 on the Adverse Childhood Experiences Scale. I'm a survivor of abuse and I'm still recovering. But you probably guessed all that just from knowing me, the past three years."
Tyler's gaze darted to Dice's left hand.
Dice held it out so Tyler could look at it. Tyler took it, raising Dice's left hand up to the light, feeling over the scars, the bones, and then put his finger along Dice's palm, and after years of treatment Dyson knew what that meant. He curled his fingers around it, as much as he could, pressed with each finger individually.
"Is it how your hand got hurt?"
"It is," Dyson said.
"Is it why you moved here from Chicago?"
"It is," Dyson said.
"Is it why you get your tattoos?"
"It is," Dyson said.
"Call your friend," Tyler said.
Dice pressed the green button with his thumb.
Sol answered on the second ring, and Dice said, "Hey. My friend and I are at my place. He was being followed. We lost them, but I think we need help, and I'd like you to talk to him, he's right here."
Dice handed the phone over. Tyler took it, and stuffed himself into the one wingback Dice'd snagged out of the junk room. Dice went into the kitchen, more to give Tyler a little privacy--well, such as it was in here--and wound up boiling water for tea and putting the shredded beef in a saucepan to reheat later. He ran water in the sink and scrubbed at the burnt slow cooker dish, but he wasn't done before Tyler handed him the phone.
"He says he's coming here." Tyler leaned against the Wall. "And not to worry."
Dice dumped the water out of the pot and refilled it with hot. "I'm sorry, Tyler. I really am. I wasn't sure that you were having the same kind of problem I had, but the things you said about Natalie made me think of it. Did she ever do anything you thought of as unusual? I mean...hang on."
He left the pot to soak and dried his hands. "I do have a couple beers but I think we ought to keep a clear head. I've got a lot of tea in the wooden box, pick your bag," Dice invited, and took down the two mugs that matched, the plain white ones that weren't chipped. "My little brother did this to my hand. And he killed people, people who were left-handed."
"Devil's hand," Tyler said, checking out the tags on the tea bags, choosing mint. "Old-fashioned Catholic school stuff? And you're left-handed."
Dice poured hot water in Tyler's mug and his own, apologetically offering sugar packets for sweetening. "Yeah. He--wanted me to stop. He was left-handed too, but he learned to use the right. I didn't, really, and he was obsessed. Bad childhood. But he killed people, with one left-handed punch. And he was superhumanly strong. This thing happens to people. Not all the time, but enough. Something bad happens to them. Something traumatic, like abuse. And then they get a knack for something. Like my brother's superstrong left jab. It hooks onto a talent. He was a boxer." And Chaz with his perfect math and pattern recognition. Maybe that's why It didn't take Dice--because he didn't have any talents.
"Natalie was--she was strong. Not like you're saying, though. But she could carry a lot of weight, and she wasn't buff, you know? She was skinny. But she carried around textbooks and an eight-pound laptop, never complained."
"I know another story," Dice said, and invited him back to the main room with an after-you gesture, hot water and tea bags soaking. "About somebody who could--kinda mind control. He could make people afraid. Suspicious. Threatened. And he'd feed off those feelings, they gave him something he needed."
"But how does it work?" Tyler ignored the wingback chair this time, favoring the floor and the big pillows Dice kept pegged to the wall as backrests. Dice sat cross-legged so they could see each other, set a chipped saucer between them for the tea bags.
"It's different for everyone. But they have this in common--they eat. A lot. My brother started eating a lot, our grocery bills went crazy. The guy who could make people afraid, he always had some kind of junk food on hand, people didn't think about it. You told me Natalie could eat a lot."
"Yeah. She could eat a lot," Tyler said. "Whole pizzas, I said."
"You know her," Dice said. "I've been trying to figure it out, on the Wall there. I have more on my computer. I got it from Solomon Todd. He was one of the FBI agents who was there in Chicago, when they were looking for my brother. I didn't know Eddie'd killed people. But they figured it out, and they brought him in. He's in a hospital in Virginia. That's why I have the car. I go to see him every week."
"I--" Tyler looked at the wall. "You're saying she killed him. Her husband. She did it. With a--superpower, like comics."
"And maybe a bunch more," Dice said. "And Solomon was already looking into her life, probably the day she was acquitted. The day you came in mad."
"Hasn't even been a week." Tyler looked at the wall. "But no proof?"
"No. But who would want you followed, Tyler? Can you think of any other reason? You know they were following you. I know it, too."
"No, nothing," Tyler said, and just then the intercom buzzed.
Dice didn't head for the speaker right away. He woke up his laptop and opened a program so a color webcam took up the whole screen, showing Solomon at the door. Only then did he cross and buzz them in, watching to make sure no one followed.
"I didn't notice an entry camera," Tyler said.
"Thank you," Dice answered. "You could find it if you knew it was there."
"You wired your front door for video surveillance?"
"I still wake up thinking he's standing by the bed," Dice said. "I need a little more proof than most people that I'm safe." He tapped a spot on the screen and the picture split into four, tracing the path from the front door up the stairs and to Dice's apartment door.
He opened it before Sol knocked, and let him step in.
"You found an apartment smaller than Chaz's old one," Solomon said, and smiled at him like this wasn't really an emergency visit.
"It's a bit monastic," Dice agreed. "This is my friend Tyler. He was involved with Natalie. This is Solomon Todd. Fight each other for the good chair, I'm putting the kettle on."
Tyler had already gotten to his feet, friendly smile in place. "Mister Todd."
"Sol, please," Solomon Todd said, and he stayed standing while Dice looked for a random mug that didn't look so much like a hand-me-down.
"I understand you're just now getting some answers," Sol said. "It's all rather a lot to take in, though, isn't it?"
"Yes, it's--I'm not sure what to believe. I don't doubt Dice's word about his brother, but I don't know if that's what explains Natalie."
"And neither do we," Sol said. "We're guessing at what exists in the interstices of what we do know, but your friend isn't condemned yet. The anomalous manifestation is one explanation, but it could be something else, and not connected to this at all."
"But you don't believe that," Tyler said.
"I think she saw you. That's a guess," Sol said. "You were in the courtroom on the day of the verdict."
"Yes," Tyler said. "I had to go see it, though. They weren't letting cameras in."
"Got it," Dice called, and brought out a tray with the third mug and a little tin teapot full of hot water. He held it while Solomon poured water on top of a bag of jasmine tea. "I never had guests over."
"I lived in an apartment like this," Sol said, looking up at the high ceiling. "Still remember it fondly. Bed's up there?"
"Yeah. Closet and bathroom under it."
"Dig the security," Solomon nodded at the laptop. "Yours?"
"Yeah," Dice said.
"And you gave up the safety of your home for a friend," Solomon said, and Dice shrugged. Tyler watched him over the rim of his cup.
"Safest place I could think of," Dice said. "Didn't think the cops would listen."
"I didn't, either," Tyler said. "I didn't think anyone would listen."
"Sorry I didn't tell you about this earlier," Dice said. "I wasn't sure if you were having the same thing as I did, or if you knew. I would have taken more time, but there wasn't."
"It's all right," Tyler said. "I don't know if you're right. But I--wait," he said.
Everyone stayed quiet, and Dice set the tray on the corner of the sink.
"She could have seen me," Tyler said. "After the verdict. She turned around. To face the gallery. I was standing up. I thought she looked at me, but I had thought that she wouldn't recognize me. I looked different back then."
"Maybe not as much as you think," Sol said, quietly. "She might have recognized you right away, or it could have been later."
"If she killed her husband, do you think she killed her father? He died of an overdose, too."
"Could show him the file," Dice said. "The funeral photos, what you know about the cause of death for that one, alcohol and sedatives."
"The bad dog," Tyler said, and gave an embarrassed chuff of laughter when Dice and Sol turned to look at him. "She told me exactly how alcohol worked on the body. She was helping me with a class unit about drug use, addiction. She called it the bad dog, because the way she drew the molecule looked a bit like a dog. She told me how you make it, all kinds of stuff. Could she do that? Could she--make more of the molecule? So her husband had a couple of drinks and died with point oh four one blood alcohol?"
Dice nodded. Slowly. "There's another story. About a guy who could dehydrate a body so it was basically a mummy. There's been others who could poison people, right?" He glanced at Sol for confirmation.
"We call it transmutation," he said. "And it manifests in a number of ways."
"Do they need to have consumed the drug first? Or can she just...make it?" Dice asked.
"You can't make something from nothing. She said that," Tyler said.
"So if you don't have anything to drink, she can't make you overdose on ethanol."
"She may believe that," Sol said. "One of the earliest transmuters we knew of ate arsenic as part of his mythology."
"Transmuters," Dice said. "I just had an idea, but it's blasphemous, so let's forget it."
Tyler laughed, then immediately looked contrite. "I'll have to go to confession for that."
"You still go to confession?"
"I lapsed years ago," Tyler said, and shrugged. "But I was sure tempted this week."
"Yeah." Dice had tried it. But he couldn't confess everything, so he couldn't go up to take communion. Because he didn't go up for communion, everyone knew he hadn't gone to confession--fine for your first Sunday, but not the second. The eyes were too much, and so he stayed home. Before anyone could ask him why, or start guessing what he wouldn't confess.
"So did you ever get drunker than you expected, around her? More stoned?"
Tyler shrugged, but he was looking up at the ceiling, not down. "You remember I told you that she could make you feel like you were the only two people on Earth?"
"She really could, you know."
"How do you mean?"
"I mean that--some people have it. They pay attention to you, they listen. She could do that. But I couldn't get enough of it. Maybe she was doing something to me. But not drugs, not drinking."
"Serotonin," Solomon said. "Oxytocin."
"Hell," Dice said. "Not even staying sober would help."
"You guys really know how to cheer a man up," Tyler muttered into his mug.
"Ha! You were the one who practically giggled his way across Washington while under pursuit, you maniac, while taking ten years off my life--that right turn onto Sixteenth just about made me pizza," Dice complained, but he was grinning, too.
"The people who were following you," Solomon said. "What happened there?"
Tyler and Dice both started telling the story, filling in each other's details, but Dice left Tyler to explain how they'd dodged and evaded and broke the law to get away from the cars he'd noticed since leaving home that morning. Something snaked between Dice's shoulder blades. Something wasn't right. He looked up at Solomon, then at Tyler, who faltered in explaining to look back at Dice, confused.
"It's not right," Dice said. "They got made, and they knew it--so what were they going to do, shoot us?"
Tyler shook his head slowly. "They might have been able to box us in. Would have, if we weren't mashing."
"You took off, and they chased you," Sol said. "You're right, it's not the right thing to do unless you're trying to intimidate."
Tyler huffed, wryly. "Well, I was intimidated. What do I win?" And that's when it hit Dice, quick as a clout on the ear.
"Oh fuck me," Dice said. "She forced us to castle."
"How much time did you spend away from your bicycle, Tyler?" Solomon asked, and stepped back when Tyler dove for his bike, running his fingers under the stem, crossbar, downtube, then just hauled up the front wheel and put the bike on its saddle and handlebars.
The scrape of Velcro separating put a chunk of ice in Dice's belly, and Tyler held out a black disc with electrical tape over the top.
Dice snatched it and peeled the tape away to reveal a green LED. "Christ in a bucket."
"I'm sorry, Dice," Tyler said.
"You didn't know. I'm mad at myself. I should have known. Herded like lambs, we were. Fuck. She might be headed this way."
"To your housewarming party?" Solomon asked. "Well, that would be rude, wouldn't it?"
"Is that what this is?"
Solomon nods. "It is now."
"Your cameras," Tyler said, and they all turned around.
"Oh, oh fuck, fucking hell," Dice said, and watched Isabella dig around in her bag for keys. She had the bag in the crook of her elbow with her arm raised, a shiny can of beer held aloft. She teetered on platform spike heels when she turned around, and accepted a steadying hand from another woman with long red hair in a gray coat...
"Oh fuck no, not Bella, please--" Dice groaned, but Bella lurched when the front door opened. Natalie steadied her again, removing the keys from the door with a black hand--covered in a glove.
"Touch, she needs touch," Sol said. "She held Bella's hand. Don't let her touch you."
Dice moved toward his phone, on the kitchen counter where he'd left it. "I'm calling 911, we have to get an ambulance for Bella."
"She could escalate when emergency services show up," Solomon warned.
"Bella could die," Dice insisted. "She needs a hospital."
"Let me," Sol said, and had his iPhone at his ear already. "Cop talk makes it go faster. We're going to have to be really careful. She's going to be at close quarters in here."
"We try to put one more person in here, we're gonna be a group hug," Dice groused, but he opened a wall cabinet and took out full-fingered bike gloves, passing a pair to Tyler. "Just in case."
"Excellent idea." Solomon dug some thin leather driving gloves out of his pocket. They had holes over the knuckles, but he held the phone with his shoulder and put them on.
That was all they had time for before the floorboards by Dice's door creaked, and a knock sounded.
Dice looked at the door, muttering, "Shit. No, hang on."
He went for the door and turned the lock, and then backed away. "It's open!" he called out, louder.
Natalie halted just on the threshold when she saw that there were more than just Dice and Tyler in the apartment, then looked at their gloved hands and pursed her lips. But she stepped through, and turned to snap the lock behind her.
"Standing room only, I see," she said. "I thought I could just come and apologize for any anxiety my security might have caused. I thought I saw you at my trial, Tyler--I barely recognized you. You're looking well." She paused, and looked him over again. "Quite well."
"You came to apologize," Tyler said. His tone was as flat as three-day-old beer.
Natalie drew off her right glove, and Dice watched her long-fingered hands. "As I said, I barely recognized you. I wasn't sure it was you. And I wanted to be sure it was, but it turned out to be such a disaster. I'm terribly sorry, Tyler. When I found out what happened I felt I had to come by and explain."
"And you knew where I was, because one of your 'security' planted a GPS tracker on my bike," Tyler said. "Most people use Facebook."
No, no, don't get her mad, don't set her off --"But you weren't sure if Tyler would want to talk to you," Dice interrupted. "You broke his heart at Georgetown. You must have known, he'd be hurt when you broke up, and sometimes catching up can be so awkward."
"Yes," Natalie said. "I wasn't sure how to get back in contact, but this was a mistake. I'm so sorry, Tyler. This was really rude. Inappropriate." She wrung her leather gloves in her hands, brow twisted with the need to smooth it over, and Dice caught himself frowning.
Was this an act? If it was, then she was good. She looked down, ashamed, and said, "But when I saw you it all came back to me, and you know what, I just kept thinking about you." Eyes back up, the struggling-through-it-all smile...
Was this an act?
When she smiled it was so...vulnerable, somehow.
"About me?" Tyler asked. "But it was years ago." Tyler had let a bit of uncertainty change his tone. Dice flicked a glance around the room, but no one was moving, or trying to speak.
She could make you feel like you were the only two people on Earth.
"Do you remember when we talked about music, and you played all the stuff you liked? About Thea Gilmore and the White Stripes?" Natalie asked.
Sol's gaze was riveted onto Natalie, who never even looked anywhere but at Tyler. She lifted up her shoulders, let them fall, and smiled when Tyler said, "Yeah."
"And how we'd go for those long, long walks? I wished I could have gone on another walk with you, to talk about--just stuff we liked, how you talked about Wolf's Rain and about how Kill Bill Part 1 was all about Asian live cinema from the '60s and '70s. Everything was so simple then. I was stupid," Natalie said. "I thought you were staid and...ordinary, but you were steady. Reliable. And I went looking for excitement without realizing how much I gave up when I broke up with you."
"We're all stupid at eighteen, Natalie," Tyler said, gently. "About a lot of things."
"Yes," she said, and the smile she gave him was like a sunrise. "But seeing you made me remember, and...I missed you. And I wanted to talk to you but I was afraid of what you'd think of me, after all these years, but I wanted to see how you were, if you were well. I wanted to be your friend again."
"But you thought it might be awkward," Tyler said, and Dice wanted to shake him. What if they were wrong about touch, what if they were wrong about all of it? He opened his mouth to say something, but then realized that Tyler's expression was smooth, attentive...careful.
Dice shut his damn mouth and pretended he was a statue.
"I don't think it could have been anything but awkward," Natalie glanced at him, and her smile was just for Dice, the bob of her head an acknowledgment, assurance that he hadn't been forgotten. "Your friend is very understanding."
"Oh, oh yes. This is my friend, Dyson. And this is Natalie, the girl I told you about."
"Friends call me Dice," Dice said. He thought he knew what Tyler was doing, and there was no time to second-guess. Just trust and stay in his draft.
"Hello, Dice." The smile widened.
"And this is Solomon," Tyler went on. "I only just met him today."
"I recognize you," she said. "I've read your books. Pleased to meet you. I'm sorry I interrupted your visit."
"Housewarming party," Solomon said.
"The place is so small, I have to have them in shifts," Dice added, and Natalie laughed.
"I would have thought you were talking about me," she said, and one hand glided through the air to measure the Wall, which she probably only saw at an angle. "That's a lot of investigating. Is it for a book, or a longer article?"
And just like that, the serene charm gained an edge, and Natalie looked intent, her smile sharp.
"No book, Natalie," Sol said. "Just interest."
"And why would you be interested in me?"
"I think you know," Sol said.
"Oh, I don't like to assume, Mr. Todd. Why don't you explain to me?"
Sol opened his mouth, but Dice spoke. "You were abducted when you were twelve years old."
Natalie's gaze whipped back to land on him.
"Out of a busy shopping mall on a nice day. I figure that means he didn't just grab you and shove you kicking and screaming into a van. He had a ruse. Security guard?" Dice asked. "Did he tell you he was trying to find you, that your mother had collapsed?"
Her lips pinched together, but she didn't answer.
"And that the ambulance was already there, but you had to hurry. So you followed him. You were scared and worried, you didn't think that it might not be true. You were still too young to be suspicious," Dice said. "And then he--what? No one reported a scream or a struggle. He drugged you, maybe. He did something so you couldn't scream, couldn't fight. And he took you."
"You don't know anything," she said.
"You never told anyone what happened to you. You never said," Dice said. "But I know it was bad. I know he hurt you. I know that you tried to keep believing that someone would rescue you."
Natalie didn't speak, but she stared at Dice, jaw clenched.
"And then one day you didn't have any hope left. No one was coming to get you. Your whole world was the rooms you were never allowed to leave, and him," Dice said. "You had no way out. You had no choice, Natalie. You did what you had to do. To survive. I know, Natalie. I did what I had to do to survive, and I did it every minute of every day. I know. It wasn't your fault."
"No one could understand."
"No one understood," Dice agreed. "No one understood what happened, and they all treated you differently. Nothing was ever the same again. You were alone, and there was no use telling anyone what it was like, because they'd pity you. Or give you stupid advice. They couldn't understand. What happened to you is something no one can know unless they had the same thing."
"You're like me?" Natalie asked. "Are you--like me?"
"I can't do the special thing you do, Natalie. The thing that protects you. But I was hurt by someone who could do a special thing. Just like you. He had a power, didn't he?"
"Don't talk about him," Natalie said. She had to force the words out.
"Okay, we don't have to talk about him," Dice agreed. "It's okay, you don't have to talk about him. Not until you want to. But can I make one guess, Natalie? You can answer yes or no or say you don't want to. Is that okay?"
"He was trying to make you like him. That's why he kept you. Is that right?"
"I don't want to--"
"It's okay," Dice said. "It's not your fault. You didn't ask for this. I just want you to know. I know that. You just did what you had to. You were lonely, and you wanted friends. You wanted love. You wanted to make the feeling that there was something deep inside that made you--"
"Okay," Dice said. "And you figured it out. Because you're really good at science, and you wanted to understand."
"It's just chemicals," Natalie said. "Love, happiness, fear, hopelessness--just chemicals. It's not real. Love isn't real. I can make you love me," she said. "I can do it."
"But it doesn't fill up the emptiness," Dice said. "Because I wouldn't really love you. I would just be doing what the chemicals made me do, so you couldn't ever fill up the emptiness."
"Nothing fills it," Natalie said.
"Everybody has to build inside that hole differently," Dice said. "They don't tell you that. They don't tell survivors how to get better. You have to figure out what fills the hole for you."
"I tried that!" Natalie shouted. "I tried, and I tried, nothing works, nothing!"
"That's the catch," Dice said. "It's really, really hard to do alone. Did you ever try making a friend without the touch?" Dice asked. "You're a scientist. You must have tested. Did they all fail?"
Natalie shook her head. Tears ran down her face, and she sniffled. "Kylie. Until...until the bail hearing. Two years. For two years. Not any more, though."
"Two years is really, really good," Dice said. "That's a long time."
"But she didn't trust me anymore, and I couldn't...I needed a friend," she said, and the sob she couldn't hold down burst out into tears.
Dice stuck his hand down his back pocket and pulled out a handkerchief, and Tyler tensed. Sol put out an arm to stop him.
"No, it's okay," Dice said, and walked forward, arm outstretched.
Natalie looked at it and laughed, still crying. "What an old-fashioned thing to have, that's--" But she took it, careful not to touch Dice. "Thank you."
"It's okay. There are more people like you, Natalie. You can get help."
Her shaking head denied it. "They'll put me in jail."
"It's not a jail," Dice said. "It is a hospital, though."
"You'll have psychiatrists," Dice said. "And people who know about your diet. You need to eat so much, because--"
"Metabolic load," she said, and blew her nose.
"Of course you'd know that," Dice said. "You'd know a lot. You could help study it, even. Kind of a weird way to become a scientist again, I guess." He smiled at her while she dabbed at her eyes. "I think it could help you."
"I don't know," Natalie said. "Maybe nothing can help me."
"Look," Dice said. "Maybe you don't have to decide right now. Maybe you can try. Maybe you can still go home, and go out to the hospital to talk, and make up your own mind whether you need to stay there or you don't. It's never been tried this way before..." He looked at Sol, who looked uncertain.
"Because once you're in you don't get out," Natalie said. "I'd be alone forever. At least, at least if I'm free I can be with people, even if--no. No, I won't do it. I won't!"
"Okay," Dice said. "You don't have to."
"You're lying. They'll make me."
"No, Natalie. No one can make you. You haven't done anything wrong."
"That's a lie and you know it."
Now Solomon spoke. "Strictly speaking? It doesn't matter if it's true or not. You can't be prosecuted for your husband's death. There are no warrants out for your arrest. You can walk out that door, and no one can stop you."
"You'll just wait until I do and lock me up," Natalie said.
"Or you could promise," Dice said, loudly, so she'd look back. "That when you wanted to hurt someone, that you would call for help. Then you won't do anything wrong, and you can't be locked up."
"It doesn't work that way," she said. "You know it doesn't."
"But it might," Dice said. "Just now, you could have used your gift on me, and you didn't."
"How do you know I haven't?"
Dice held up his gloved hands. "You need to touch. Skin to skin."
Natalie nodded, and crumpled the handkerchief in her fist. "In the movies when the lady tries to give the handkerchief back, the man tells her to keep it."
"You can keep it," Dice said. "I've got loads of them."
She laughed, three syllables worth and a little watery. She put the handkerchief in her pocket, and then slowly drew her gloves on.
"It could be a style statement," she said, holding her gloved hands out for inspection.
"For as long as you need to," Dice said.
"Do you really think they'd let me stay home?" Natalie asked.
"I think that you could go home. I think that with the right treatment, you could."
"But that I'd have to stay," Natalie said. "The first time I walked in, I wouldn't come out for--a long time."
"There's a very good chance of that, yeah," Dice said.
"Do I have to do it now?"
"Sol said that there's no cause to arrest you. You can walk out that door, if you want to."
Natalie tilted her head and gave him a look. "You think I couldn't hear the cops pulling in?"
"Ambulance," Dice said. "For Bella. I have a camera on the front door, on the laptop. Do you want to see?"
She stayed leaned back, face turned just so she looked at him sidewise. "You think I didn't hear the floor creak outside?"
"That's a friend," Sol said. "I asked him to come. And he didn't break down the door because you're still safe. You still haven't done anything wrong. You could open the door, and see for yourself."
Dice gaped, and then shut his mouth. "I didn't hear that."
"I did," Natalie said, and then louder: "I'm unlocking the door. Count to three and open it. I won't touch you."
She turned the lock and disappeared behind the Wall, emerging in the tiny area that held Dice's standing desk slash eating table.
"Clear," Sol said.
The door swung open. Daniel Brady led with his pistol, but he stepped inside and closed the door.
"Hey, Tank," Dice said.
Brady nodded and waved one purple nitrile-gloved hand. "Hey, Dice. You're a little too brave for your own good, you know that?"
"I--can see the merit in your argument," Dice said, and all the adrenaline he'd been holding back burst through. He leaned back against the wall to wait for his knees to stop shaking. "How long were you out there?"
"A few minutes," Brady said. "Your neighbor is at the hospital. I got a follow-up on the way in." Then he turned, and nodded in Natalie's direction. "Ma'am."
"This is Dan Brady. He works for the FBI. He used to work with Solomon, before he retired," Dice said.
"Agent Brady," Natalie said. "You've got the power to arrest me, I believe."
"Ma'am, I do," Brady confirmed. "But Dice is right. You haven't done anything wrong. I can take you up to the hospital tonight, if you like."
Natalie reached slowly into her pocket, and produced a set of keys. "I don't think I should ask anyone to ride with me. But if someone would bring my car home?"
"I can," Dice said.
"I would like to make a list of the things I want with me," she said. "My housekeeper can have them packed for me. I think we'd better go now, before I change my mind." She held her hands out before her. "I expect I need handcuffs."
"I think that would be best," Brady agreed. "Duke, a hand?"
Solomon moved to help. "I can ride with you. I'll pick the bike up later."
"Tyler," Natalie said suddenly, and everyone quieted.
"I used my gift on you. I'm sorry. I don't expect you to forgive me," she said.
"I don't know if I can," Tyler said. "But thank you."
"Dice," she said.
"I wish I'd met you a long time ago."
"A long time ago, I would have been just as confused as you," Dice said. "But thank you. It's nice of you to say."
She had one last smile for them both before Sol and Brady took her out the door.
Tyler didn't want to be alone, and Dice didn't blame him. So he poured the last two Saints, and the look on Tyler's face as he met the hopped-at-every-stage red ale was utterly gratifying.
"You should have this at the Crank."
"Can't. American beers only. This is from Scotland. And it's dear."
"I guess you're not driving that car back yet?"
"No, I'd rather drive a strange car in daylight. You feel like eating? I've got shredded beef and buns."
They ate, and it was still pretty good, and Dice let Tyler talk about whatever he wanted--sometimes about Natalie, and sometimes about music, movies, games, and war stories of bike culture when it was more underground. When the sky paled and Dice blew well under .08, he and Tyler took the wheels off their bikes and trotted downstairs to return Natalie's car.
"All right. The keychain says Audi. Willing to bet we can't figure out which car it is until I use the locator?"
"Mm, I don't really know cars," Tyler said, and held the door open for Dice. "But on the other hand..."
He pointed at a deep espresso black A8, parked directly across the street.
"Jesus H. tapdancing Christ," Dice said.
"I am not into cars. But Holy Shit," Tyler said.
"You wanna drive?"
"Fuck no, I wanna mess with the stereo."
The car had voice navigation and led them up into the Northwest, which wasn't a surprise. Money couldn't buy happiness, but it could buy a great big house at an expensive address. They pulled into the motor court and whistled at the stately Tudor manor.
Kylie raced out of the house while he and Tyler were still putting their tires on. She demanded to know what happened, and Dice's explanation let Kylie assume that Natalie'd gone for treatment of her eating disorder, which Kylie believed she knew all about. He gave her the numbers for Dr. Baylor and Dr. Ramachandran, saying that she should speak to either one of them.
He and Tyler set off for the recreational pathways, riding side by side on the trail when Tyler asked, "You said something about a Sunday meeting. What is that?"
"It's for survivors," Dice said. "We need support groups just like anyone else who went through trauma, but we can't exactly get specific in just any old group, you know? Sol goes to meetings, but nobody's a cop or a doctor in group. We're survivors."
Tyler dropped back, giving way to a dogwalker with four standard poodles cheerfully hauling her along, then slipped back in beside Dice. "How do you add people to the group?"
"We look for them on the Internet, where they're trying to find somebody who won't think they're crazy. We have a website, publish some careful stuff in the tinfoil-hat rags. We have a mailing list to keep in touch, because we only have meetings every other month. Some of the people come in from a long way off."
"Specifically. How do I get in?"
"Oh." Dice went no-hands when they hit a straight part of the path. "I give you access to the mailing list, and you catch a ride with me down to Ashton. Next meeting's on the first Sunday of November, if you want to come."
"Day after Tweed. Hey, are you working that Saturday? Do you want to go on the tweed run?"
"I don't have any tweed," Dice said.
"We can fix that."
"Even so, I'm working that day because of Tweed," Dice said. "But I'm off at six, if you wanted to go for another ride after. Or go get some beers, or something. I have to work Wednesday, too, because of Hallowe'en."
"Yeah, makes sense. And we could go get beers, sure. Unless you're tired of beers."
"I'm never tired of beers," Dice laughed. "Proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. Or do this ride again, this trail is nice."
"Even with the hills?"
"Sure," Dice said. "Good way to get harder."
They rode on in silence for a bit, until Tyler said, "What you did with Natalie."
"I couldn't have done it."
"Are you saying I should be a psychologist?"
"Well, yes but that's not what I mean. I thought of her as a threat. You didn't."
"I did, too. But then I realized something, and that's what made me speak up."
"And what was that?"
"That before Natalie became a killer--if she became a killer, mind you, so let's say before she started forcing people to love her or be her friend, she was a victim. Worse. She was a victim alone, and no one understood her. And no one she could talk to. Isolation makes gammas. The loneliness, the feeling that you're alien to everyone, and no experiences to stand against it, no proof that you're not what the monster in your head says you are."
"No proof that it's more than just chemicals," Tyler said.
"She's who you were talking about, when you said nihilists were boring."
"I was. And that was unfair."
"You didn't know. Nobody knows. Partly because it's suppressed by every government everywhere, but that's tinfoil-hat talk."
"Maybe not. I mean this could cause panic."
"Maybe it would, but maybe a lot more people could get help. Too many of us think we're alone in what we feel, and fear that we can't expose ourselves and still be accepted. That can't get easier if suddenly you've got some ability from out of a comic book. That's a lot of weight to bear."
"So don't carry it all?"
"Yeah," Dice said. "Exactly. And making sure that people know you'll share the burden, so you don't break under it."
"Somebody to say, 'Fuck you, get harder.'"
"And then be there to help you do it. Yeah."
"I'm gonna sprint that next straight stretch. You with me, or do I wait for you at the curb?"
Dice felt the sweat between his shoulder blades, the ache in his thighs. "I'm with you," he said.