2.07 "Smoke & Mirrors" - by Elizabeth Bear
Deliver us unto each other, I pray. -- Dar WilliamsAct I | Act II | Act III | Act IV | Act V
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
The dream is smoke.
Smoke. Not fire. Not yet.
But you know the fire is coming.
Eyes sting, burn, shed water down your cheeks as if the heat has already burst their orbs. You couldn't be blinder if it had. Smoke, everywhere the smoke, burning your lungs when you sit up in bed, hands groping wide. Nothing there--the nightstand, the plastic cup, your glasses. You grab them, reflex. They don't help. Through the smoke, you can't even see the nightlight.
Your hand finds another hand in the dark.
You grab it, squeeze. It squeezes back.
The person in the other bed rasps, coughs, gets out words though they sound sandpapered. "The house is on fire. We have to get down on the floor."
The floor is dirty; things on the rug crunch into your knees. It's hot down here too, but you can almost breathe. Almost. You have to get out.
She locks you in at night. You can't get out by the door.
There's the window and the tree outside. The hand on your wrist tugs you that way. But there's so much heat. The floor sears your hands when you crawl off the rug, and the rug is softening under your knees. It's just cheap stuff, nylon, and you're pretty sure it's going to melt to your skin.
Your groping fingers find the wall. The hand slides off your wrist. You grab after it, but it's gone--
Glass shatters; wood cracks in the frame. A gush of--amazing--cool clear air.
"We have to jump!"
Yes. You have to jump. When you grab the window edge the shattered glass cuts your palms. You scramble up out of the heat, a hand on your hip steadying you. Better to jump than to burn. More cuts on bare feet as you draw them up onto the ledge.
You lean forward and kick off as you let go.
When you reach the ground, you tell yourself, you will remember that this is a nightmare, and you will wake up. You will wake up.
Arlington, VA, February 13, 2009
Chaz Villette jerked out of his second-oldest nightmare gasping silently, one arm thrown across his eyes and his back jammed into the corner where bed met wall. His mouth tasted of sour old metal. Each breath rattled him like shaken tin. It was five seconds at least before he could make himself roll across the bed and snake an arm to the nightstand.
His fingers brushed two pieces of cold, comforting metal and brought them back to the dark confines of the bed, where everything was outlined with green crispness by the glow of his digital alarm clock. 2:52 am.
He'd gotten in around ten, having stayed at work late to slam over some files of a potential anomaly in Miami. Bed around midnight-thirty, which meant he hadn't even made it through a single sleep cycle. And not a chance in hell that he'd be falling back asleep tonight, he thought as he married the magazine to the Sig.
He was going to be so much wasted flesh at work tomorrow. Today. Whatever.
It wasn't even his nightmare, exactly. Nothing to do with his experience. Just something he'd seen on the news when he was eight, a foster home that had burned down with everybody inside except the foster mom and two of the kids who'd jumped to safety.
He'd had nightmares about it for years anyway, and he'd quickly learned to have them silently. Feral animals, an online friend had told him once, didn't yell for help. They knew nobody was coming to the rescue.
There. He'd distracted himself enough that he could hear over his heartbeat, and what he heard wasn't anything out of the ordinary. He got up without turning on the light--dark was safer, and he knew where all the obstacles were--and padded into the living room, his gun low beside his thigh and his finger registered along the barrel. This space too was dark and still, a slight breeze moving across it from the rear window left propped open a couple of inches and wedged there with two heavy chocks--a compromise his paranoia accepted. Beyond it, silhouetted against the night by the security lights on the next-door building, he could see the hunched dark curve of a watchful cat's back. Muddy footprints marked the white window frame. She'd ducked inside to dodge the rain, but now she was back on duty.
Chaz breathed deeply, his sinuses filling up with the sweetness of just-past showers, the bitterness of unpoliced garbage, automobile smells from the street. None of it like anything burning.
If he hadn't interrupted the dream, it would have continued with fleeing the flames down burning streets of tinder-dry wooden houses--the sort Las Vegas had never had, but which he'd read of when school did the history unit on the San Francisco fire. The fire in his dream was malevolent, intelligent. It wanted him--and anything else it could get.
He turned away from the window. If there wasn't going to be any sleep, at least there could be some World of Warcraft. Somebody was always awake on Azeroth.
He put the Sig on the desk beside his laptop and didn't bother turning on the light before he flipped the computer open. While it booted, he rested his chin on his hands and watched the comforting display. It wasn't until his desktop--a photo of the platypus poster from Palace of Wonders--flickered up that he sat back and blinked.
"Oh," he said to his subconscious. "Is that what you were trying to tell me?"
Washington, DC, February 13, 2009
Solomon Todd occasionally made a virtue of insomnia by reporting to work at five a.m. Usually, he wandered in, made coffee, arranged himself comfortably at his desk and spent a few fruitful hours on the kind of meandering, dogged trudge through fifteen-year-old paper trails that he found satisfyingly like a jigsaw puzzle, and everybody else on the team hated with a divine and fiery passion. This particular day, a complex of emotions accompanied him down these familiar hallways at an hour even earlier than his wont. Even Celentano's office was still dark.
One more year, he thought, as his fingers brushed the cool metal of the door handle leading to the BAU's little corner of the Hoover Building. Three hundred and eighty more days.
Mandatory retirement was fifty-seven. He'd always been good at surfing the changes, leaving behind one stage of his life and moving on to the next without regret. Love is not love that alters when it alteration finds, and if Sol Todd loved anything, he loved learning new things, exploring new perspectives, understanding others and bringing their stories into the light.
He still felt a pang as he scanned his card right-handed and thought there's one less time I'll do that. He waited for the green light and the click of the lock, expecting nothing inside but quiet and dark. Down the Hall didn't disappoint; it was as deserted as a shopping mall in a zombie movie. But when he walked past Hafidha Gates's locked and darkened Sanctum Sanctorum, the aroma of coffee and the glare of fluorescents greeted him.
Chaz looked up from his desk as Todd entered the bullpen. "Somebody's in early."
"Somebody's got no room to talk," Todd countered. He tossed his keys on the desk, triggering a metallic rattle and an array of multicolored LEDs inside his devil duckie key fob. "Couldn't sleep?"
Chaz shrugged. The condition of his eyes, sunken and bloodshot in dark rings, would have invited comparison to piss holes in snow if Todd's professional pride hadn't balked at such an obvious metaphor.
Chaz said, "Who sleeps?"
"If you're going to misquote Spooky Mulder at me, I need a caffeine drip. Is that coffee I smell?"
That earned a tired grin. "There's also Danish. Happy birthday."
Of course Chaz remembered. "Ooo--"
"Don't get too excited," Chaz said, his head bending over piles of paper again. "It's Entenmann's. Any insomniac baking got derailed by a stroke of genius. I think I found our next case."
"Does that mean no birthday cake?" Todd made large eyes, basset-hound mournful, and was rewarded with a snort and a flash of shy grin.
"Have I ever failed you? We might have to eat it on the plane, however."
"Hold that thought." Todd didn't want to think about the plane just yet. He loved the office by night and early morning, quiet and spacious-seeming. And somehow leisurely, as if there might be time to get a few things done before the next crisis blew down the hall. He ducked into the kitchenette, where the raspberry Danish lay untouched in its box. Unlit birthday candles dotted the length, one every inch and a half, regular as if Chaz had measured. Which he had, after a fashion. Todd poured coffee, added milk, cut a slice.
He reappeared behind Chaz's chair with the latter wrapped in a napkin and balanced atop the cup containing the former. Leaning forward, he peered past Chaz's shoulder. "What did you find?"
"Those jumpers in Miami. The ones Reyes picked out from news reports. The mother and two daughters, and the banker and his wife."
"The ones who went off the balconies of their extremely expensive condos. High-rise syndrome in a somewhat unlikely pair of coincidences."
Chaz nodded. He didn't look up at the smell of Danish, but he was chain-smoking Chinese ginger candies, which was probably taking the edge off his hunger, his nausea, or both.
He said, "Well, I figured something out in the middle of the night."
He didn't say how, and Todd figured it would be much smarter to take a nice big bite of raspberry Danish than to ask. Thoughtfully, he brushed the crumbs off Chaz's shoulder.
"Nice," Chaz said, dripping sarcasm. "Your colleagues are not tables, Sol."
"Quit trying to draw out the suspense."
Chaz blew a stray lock of hair off his face. When he shook his head in disgust, it fell right back where it had been. Todd decided not to point that out.
"Here," he said, drawing over the floorplan maps of both condominiums. "I realized that there was some stuff that just didn't make sense for a suicide or a murder-suicide. Like the Wursthoff place--"
"--The one where she also killed the two daughters?"
"Yeah." Chaz glanced aside, mouth twisting.
Sol shook his head. He set the last two thirds of the Danish down on the edge of Chaz's desk, resting on its napkin. Maybe he'd want it later. "The innocent have nothing to fear," he intoned with bitter irony. "Nothing except the people they should most be able to rely on. Forget my interruptions. Tell me more."
"So there was a wet towel jammed under the front door. One more on the balcony. One fallen to the street with the victims. What does that suggest?"
"Muffle the girls' screams?"
"Maybe. Maybe. Except what gets you out of bed at four in the morning and makes you shake your two little girls awake and kill them and yourself? People do that under stress. They don't do it when they're happy, financially successful nonfiction writers who've chosen to conceive by donation. She wanted these kids."
"And the other victims?"
"James and Susan Calvin. Also white, middle-aged. Financially successful. James apparently jumped off his balcony in the middle of the night after throwing his pregnant wife over. No signs of struggle, nothing in the apartment in disarray. Just like the Wurstoffs. Except Calvin brought a pillowcase with him when he died. And the trauma from the fall wasn't enough to hide the friction abrasions--rug burns is the common term--on his and his wife's knees and shins."
Maybe it was the hour. Maybe it was the date. Maybe it was that he, Sol Todd, wasn't Chaz Villette or anything like him--but he wasn't picking up Chaz's drift. He drank more coffee. "Meaning they were dragged to the balcony?"
"Duke." Chaz sounded horribly disappointed. "What is so terrible it makes you get down and crawl out of your apartment with a cloth held over your face, and then--after you've retreated to your point of last resort--fling yourself to certain death rather than face it?"
"Oh," Todd said. He set the coffee down beside the Danish, staying behind Chaz so Chaz would not see the tremors that had settled into his hands. Deep chills chased them. "But there's no evidence of fire in the condos--"
"Yeah," Chaz said, forcibly casual. "They only thought they were on fire."
When Stephen Reyes walked into the bullpen--his first cup of tea warming his palm, the left side of his jaw still numb with Novocain and the roughness of a temporary crown irritating to his tongue--he recognized the smell of conspiracy. The team, assembled around Villette's desk, glanced up like a pack of jackals surprised at a kill. Reyes breathed deeply, hiding a wince when the support strapping squeezed his ribs, and scaled the wall of their disapproval as he approached.
The body language was tight, closed, all around: Brady with crossed arms, Falkner frowning, Lau bent so her upper body half-vanished behind Brady. Worth and Hafidha radiated hostility like small angry suns, but that was only to be expected.
They'd cheerfully saved his life, but they were all still pretty mad at him. Only Todd looked halfway welcoming, and for him that was a professional skill.
"You're lying in ambush," Reyes said lightly. While waiting for them to assemble their tactics he sipped his tea, paying attention so it wouldn't dribble off his numb lip.
To his surprise, Villette stood up, stepped around Hafidha, and reached between Falkner and Brady to extend a file folder. Reyes wondered if the rest of the team had noticed that they'd formed up around him in a protective ring. Villette certainly did, but he was choosing to ignore it--to breach it--rather than acknowledge it with any apparent discomfort.
He was making an effort. An effort Reyes still wasn't certain he deserved.
If it comes down to a fight for this team, right now--you would lose it. Even Todd would side against him.
Sometimes unpopularity was the price of making the decisions you felt you had to make. Sometimes, you made the wrong decisions for the right reasons. Sometimes, you were just wrong.
Sometimes you were right all along, and didn't find it out until much later.
The questions were always more important than the answers, anyway. The trick lay in finding the right questions to ask, in sorting the signal from the noise. In finding the patterns. Which was the thing Villette was better at that anyone. Better than Reyes.
The problem was, they were both too damned close to the data, and too invested in hoping that some of the answers were wrong.
As Reyes let the folder slide into his free hand, Villette cleared his throat, avoided eye contact, and said, "You were correct."
"About?" He could see already, but if Villette was actually initiating a conversation he wanted to accept the overture and keep it moving. The relationship had to be rebuilt somehow; paperwork could be as good a foundation stone as any. And he couldn't keep letting Villette make the gestures.
"Miami," Villette said. "Sol and I want to go. We think it might be something. We think we know the manifestation, or at least have the beginnings of a typology."
Reyes looked at him, at Todd. At the rest of them, arrayed like a panel of unhappy thesis advisors. At the evidence of anomalous activity verified by two of his team. "What's he doing to them?"
Now Villette met his eyes. "We think he's making them see fire where there isn't any."
Demonstrate trust. Reinforce his judgment. Provide support.
"Right," Reyes said. "Lau, you think you can wrangle us an invitation to aid in the investigation?"
She snapped forward, relieved to be given a task. Villette wasn't the only team member at the end of his rope, or the only one who needed to be needed.
"I know a local homicide detective," she said. "I'll see who caught the Wursthoff case. Miami P.D.'s not real hot on the Department of Justice right now--we just filed against two of their own for corruption last May. It'll take just a second to make the call--"
Todd shook his head. "You know, that's an expression I never understood. Your whole life can change in a second. Can end in a second."
Lau, interrupted mid-thought, turned to stare. "I'm not sure I follow you."
"People say just a second. But the thing is, a second is a long time." He shrugged, palms up, making Reyes wonder what exactly he'd been playing at.
Lau seemed to accept it as just another manifestation of the mystery that was Solomon Todd, and stepped around him to head for her desk and her telephone.
"Who do you want on it?" Falkner had a magic trick of seeming to step forward without ever moving her body.
"Hostile police department," Reyes said. "In a heavily black and Latino city. We'll keep a light presence until we have more to go on. Villette and Todd, to start. They figured it out--"
"Chaz figured it out," Todd said.
Villette elbowed him, a blow that landed on Todd's shoulder due to the difference in heights. Todd looked unrepentant.
"And me," Reyes said, steeling himself for the quickly concealed expressions of dismay. "You may need a Spanish speaker. And I've been on duty for two weeks, and already missed one adventure. It's time I got back on the horse." He caught each eye in turn, waiting until Hafidha pursed her lips and nodded before finishing, "Todd and Villette, go get some rest. You both look like you've been up all night, and we can't leave until Lau gets us our traveling papers."
Chaz's go bag was in his desk. Between that and the backpack with his laptop and a 12-hour supply of Clif bars, he figured he was ready. Lau would get them the invitation and they'd be on the plane by dinnertime. The logical thing to do was just head to Dulles now and sack out on one of the couches in the Gulfstream. He slept better there than in his own bed.
The solution satisfied him, and he moved forward on it, pausing only to fill his lidless travel mug. But as he was passing down the hall towards Down the Hall, and eventually the building exit, Hafidha emerged from her lair like a trap-door spider and touched his arm. Because it was Hafidha, the casual contact didn't send his heart rate through the roof, but he still flinched, and hot coffee spilled over the backs of his fingers. "Yipe. Careful, that could have been a nasty accident."
"Nothing in this world happens by accident, baby bruddah," she said, with a pained turn of her head. Her portentous tone meant it had to be a joke, but her body language said otherwise. Before he could ask, she pulled back her hand.
"I won't see you until you come home," she said. "Don't leave just yet. I have something for you. Stay right there."
Bemused, he stayed, sweating into the handle of his go bag. He threw the strap over his shoulder beside the backpack strap, and that was better. He could switch the travel mug from one hand to the other, dry his palms on his cords, and listen to her rummaging in her office while he tried to pretend he didn't hate surprises.
When Hafs reappeared, she had both hands behind her back, and was tilting her head to look up at him over the tops of her glasses, through the eyelashes.
"Close your eyes and hold out your hand," she said.
He obeyed, though standing there in the middle of the corridor with his back exposed to the bullpen and his eyes closed made his calf muscles tremble with suppressed adrenaline.
Hafidha tapped the back of his hand. "No, doofus, palm up. Hasn't anyone ever given you a surprise before?"
The silence dragged, because he thought it better if he didn't answer. And because after a moment, she figured it out and let the question drop.
The tension hurt too much. He broke it to say, "This had better not be disgusting," just a second before something heavy, smooth, and cool settled into his palm.
Hafidha curled his fingers closed over it--don't drop it, honey--and he felt something crinkle. "Count ten seconds and open 'em."
He felt the empty space beside him as she stepped away, counted, opened his eyes. She was just disappearing through the computer room door, which shut behind her softly until the latch clicked. He wondered what she'd been doing for nine seconds. Possibly just watching him to make sure he followed orders.
He looked down. In his palm lay a dark chocolate espresso truffle in a gold paper cup, flavor identifiable by its rich scent and the oily black-brown bean adorning its lustrous dome.
Under the cup, when he lifted it, rested a gold pocket watch. The engraving on it was art deco, restrained. A gold watch fob coiled around it, slipping between his fingers when he moved incautiously. The watch was an antique. It had somebody else's initials on it. It was big enough not to get lost in his hand.
He looked again at the truffle in his left hand. At his shirt sleeve, buttoned down close over the wrist where he used to wear a succession of gadget-laden wristwatches. I must be the only person in the universe who has to be bribed to accept a present.
But of course, she knew that.
Miami, FL, February 13, 2009
It was past nightfall when they arrived at the Miami Police Department, and Todd was grateful for the elapsed time. Reyes was breathing decently and Chaz looked better too. The kid had taken his jump bag to the airport and crashed on the Gulfstream until it was time to lift. Todd should have done the same.
The P.D. was a rectangular, cantilevered dirty-white building that looked like a flattened, inverted wedding cake--each tier larger than the one below. Rows of black windows set at a forty-five degree outward angle striped it horizontally. It looked even uglier in the cement than it did on TV, which was saying something.
Chaz, in the front passenger seat, stared out the windshield at it as Reyes pulled the car past. "It looks like a college library from the '60s."
"That too," Todd said from the back seat, earning a curious glance over Chaz's shoulder. At least he was interacting, reaching out of himself more than he had before the team came back from Missouri. Solid case, worked hard to a clean ending. Or as clean as it ever got with five dead, not counting the gamma. And even the two in January hadn't shaken that. Hope Mitchell's death wasn't on them, and neither were the deaths of the BAU agents and EMTs she'd killed, though Daphne was taking it hard. And the thing in Portland had been a mess, but it hadn't been their mess, and Hafidha and Falkner had handled the cleanup damned well.
Todd hoped Chaz would ask, but instead he shrugged, snagged his travel mug out of the cup holder between his seat and Reyes's, and opened his door before Reyes killed the engine. Chaz unfolded like a time-lapse film of a sprouting sunflower, touched the butt of his pistol, swung his leather backpack onto one shoulder, and was ambling away across the parking lot before Todd or Reyes made it out of the car.
Todd shut the rear passenger door behind him, Reyes at his elbow. Reyes chirped the car, looked after Chaz's retreating back, and sighed.
"You know," Todd said aside to Reyes, "Hafidha, Lau, and I all speak Spanish."
The look Reyes shot him was flat and unreadable. "And I suppose one of you is Cuban?"
Todd smiled. "If I noticed, Chaz noticed," he said--and set off in pursuit of the object of discussion, who was shrinking rapidly into the distance.
By the time Todd and Reyes caught up, Chaz was reaching forward over an information desk, offering his gold badge and ID to the uniformed officer behind it. "Special Agent Charles Villette," he said. "And Supervisory Special Agents Todd and Reyes," he added, as Todd and Reyes respectively drew up at his heels, their badge folders extended. "We're here to see Sergeant De Los Santos. We're expected."
The officer behind the counter was a big man with a regulation black moustache stretching between reddened slabs of cheek. The name tag opposite his palm-tree emblazoned badge read "Miles." He glanced at each of them, examined their folders, and picked up his phone. There must have been a list of phone extensions under the overhang of his desk, because he ran a finger down it before he dialed.
"Sergeant? You have three Feds in the lobby. Do you know about this?" Whatever the phone said in his ear, he nodded at it, then rolled his eyes as he caught himself and said, "Thanks. Right, I'll tell them." He hung up, and turned back to Chaz. "He'll meet you by the metal detectors in five minutes and show you up. If you wouldn't mind waiting just over there?"
Inocencio De Los Santos was a round-cheeked, fortyish Latino man with a moustache, bifocals, and an expectant hound-dog expression that didn't have far to fall when he realized Lau wasn't with them. Still, De Los Santos shook hands all around and managed to mostly not peer past shoulders too obviously while checking to see if the pretty woman was maybe just briefly misfiled and might be arriving at any moment.
She's magic, Chaz thought. Trust me, man. I sympathize.
Sergeant De Los Santos led them through crowded corridors to a homicide squadroom that bore an eerie resemblance to the WTF bullpen, if Chaz ignored the color choices and the fact that a lot more people worked in these cluttered confines. But the center of the room was dominated by clusters of half-height gray cubes--four to a group rather than two, and smaller than the WTF cubes. Each one boasted a flat-panel monitor resting on a laminate desktop in unfortunate dried-blood burgundy, surrounded by whatever personal effects the detective in question had crammed into his or her space.
Chaz was pretty sure a baseline wouldn't have noticed Reyes limping, but the pattern of his stride was different, and Chaz couldn't help but be aware. If he wasn't careful, the mirror would give him flashes of the Old Man's aches and stiffness, the nagging throb in his jaw, the itch of the scars drawing a false part through his receding hairline. But Chaz didn't need the mirror for sympathy: the allegedly pleasant scent of Mederma and his own infinitely detailed memory handled that.
They walked in past a wall-height whiteboard covered top to bottom with cases written in a neat format--victim's name, detective's name, columns for the status of the case. Chaz noticed in passing that the name Calvin did not appear, and while the two younger Wurstoffs--Emily and Celia--had been written in with De Los Santos' name beside them, there wasn't a lot of evidence that the case was being worked aggressively. Which--Chaz had to admit, craning his neck back to read the names up beneath the ceiling--was understandable, given the workload and the fact that this one seemed to be a cut and dried incident of parental murder-suicide.
But De Los Santos wasn't acting as if he was offended at their presence or even wary of it, though hostile gazes settled on them from around the bullpen. Instead, he chattered away to Todd as he led them to his desk, where he bent over the keyboard and unlocked his screen saver one-handed. Chaz noticed a picture of a pretty dark-haired woman bracketed by two teenaged boys beside the keyboard. One, taller than his mother--if she was his mother--rested an arm on her shoulder and smiled. The other stood tucked into the curve of her arm. All three wore red--a scarlet sweater on the mother, a burgundy button-down on the older boy, a rugby-striped collared shirt on the younger.
Reyes, noticing them at the same time Chaz did, said something fluid and completely--to Chaz--incomprehensible, in a cheerfully questioning tone. De Los Santos' mouth curved up when he turned to glance at the picture. "No, I'm divorced. That's my sister Milagra and her boys."
Ouch, Chaz thought. Your father had a sense of humor. He knew why Reyes had switched to Spanish, and he also appreciated that De Los Santos had recognized the gesture for what it was and re-included the others. Or Chaz, anyway, as he was pretty sure Todd had followed.
Really gotta fix that, he thought, then told himself, Add it to the list.
De Los Santos was still speaking. "We'll get you guys set up in a spare office before we call it a night. Although I'm confused about what you think you're going to find here. The department thinks it's a clear murder-suicide. You think you've got a serial killer tossing people off balconies?"
Reyes smiled and shunted the question to Chaz with a gesture, leaving Chaz stammering with unpreparedness. He took a breath, shook it off, and made himself look De Los Santos in the eye--a task made easier when De Los Santos spun his chair around and dropped into it so he was looking up at Chaz.
Argh, Chaz thought, and squared himself up to De Los Santos' chair. "Okay, well. First off, the suicide rate in Miami is half that of the nearby rural counties, despite the fact that Miami was recently ranked the second most stressful city in the U.S. By contrast, Las Vegas has a much steeper annual suicide rate--higher than one per 1900 residents--despite being ranked only fourth on the same stress list."
De Los Santos blinked at him. "Why's that?"
"Why's it ranked lower?"
"Why's the suicide rate so high?"
Chaz nodded. He'd gotten himself tangled in a flood of badly linearized data without apparent logical connections yet again. "Nobody wants to admit it's gambling. But Atlantic City is also off the charts. Anyway, back to the deaths. There are few data on suicidal falls. It's not a widely studied area. But we do know that despite the reputation of certain landmarks as suicide magnets, most suicides by jumping occur from residential high-rises. That's not what's atypical. What's atypical is that--"
"Mary Wurstoff had no reason at all to commit suicide."
"Exactly," Chaz said, with a smile for De Los Santos that he hoped did not quite ooze relief for the bailout. "And we think you have another recent case--that of the Calvins--which demonstrates some striking correlations both in the victimology and description of the scene. Again, no reason for a murder-suicide, no signs of a struggle--"
"Approximately twenty percent of deaths of pregnant women are homicide by the father of the child. Open and shut, right?"
Chaz halted with his mouth half-open to offer the same statistic, raising his eyebrows at De Los Santos.
"They cleared that case in sixteen hours." De Los Santos shook his head.
Chaz noticed the brief, protective gesture of his right hand toward the photo frame. "Which is why you're still working the Wurstoff murders, isn't it? You said the department thinks it's clearly a suicide. Meaning you don't?"
"Twins. The wife in that first case--Susan Calvin--was pregnant with twins. And Emily and Celia Wurstoff were twins." De Los Santos pursed his lips. "Let's just say that after I caught this one, I noticed some striking correlations too. So when Nikki called and said you folks were interested, I said sure, come on down. It's not like you're going to hurt my clearance rate if you have got something here. So I guess that's an Anomalous Crime, is it? Something that just sits funny?"
"Sometimes," Reyes agreed. "We'd like to get a start tonight, if we can. Our technical analyst in DC--Hafidha Gates--will need computer access. She'll be searching for previously overlooked similar cases. Often in anomalous crimes, we find that there's an existing pattern. And the three of us would like to start by visiting the crime scenes."
"The Calvin apartment has been released. It's not going to trial. But I don't think the unit's been cleared by their families yet. They're--" De Los Santos shrugged. The families are not getting along too well. "Wurstoff is easier--we're only about four days out on that one and I haven't let them close it. We should do Calvin first, I guess, while there's a chance the family will be available to admit us. Are you gents ready to roll?"
"Born ready," Todd said, as De Los Santos levered himself out of his chair.
Chaz stepped back, happy to let Reyes and Todd take the limelight again, and slid his hand into his pocket to feel the warm shape of his new pocket watch. It ticked against his palm. Ridiculous to find it so comforting. And yet, there it was.
Proof somebody loved him.
"Two sets of twins!"
Chaz's voice echoed against the hard wood and metal surfaces of the rising elevator. When Todd turned to him, he was already blushing through his winter-sallow complexion. De Los Santos and Reyes had swiveled too, and now all three blinked at him, waiting for the elaboration.
"Sorry," he said. "I didn't mean to shout."
"Two sets of twins." The elevator door glided open. Todd thought of his own twin, and wondered how she was spending his half of their collective two-day birthday.
Back in Miami, he celebrated by stepping out into a pleasant, carpeted corridor illuminated by recessed ceiling lights and a window at the end. It looked as if it would open on a crank in the spring months, to let the breeze blow in, but currently it was shut and no handle was in evidence.
"Right," Chaz said. "Two sets of twins, affluent older mothers, and we know one of them conceived by artificial insemination. That suggests that there might be a medical intervention involved in the Calvin pregnancy as well."
"Susan Calvin's mother said she and James had been trying for several years," De Los Santos volunteered. "I'd say that's a pretty solid hunch, Agent Villette."
Reyes had drawn away while they slowed to chat. Todd lengthened his stride to catch up, De Los Santos and Chaz closing the distance easily. "Are we going to meet the mother tonight?" Reyes asked, as De Los Santos brushed past him to raise his right hand to the door.
"Sister," De Los Santos said, rapping firmly. A beat cop's knock, unhesitating and charged with authority. "Tracy Genoese. Trust me, she's the one you'd want to deal-- Hello, Tracy," he continued smoothly, when the door swung open. "These are the federal agents I told you about, the ones who would like to look around your sister's apartment."
Todd looked at Reyes, who had just turned to shoot him a matching glance. Nothing they could do about the compromised scene now, of course, and the family had probably been in and out multiple times since the apartment was released. Accepting the reality of the situation didn't make Todd any happier about it.
"Of course," she said, and closed the door long enough to take the chain off the slide.
Tracy Genoese was brown-haired, a wide-hipped woman with an expensive tan and a tendency to hold her elbows cupped in her opposite palms. She was doing it as she led them into the Calvin's spacious and graciously-appointed quarters. Todd recognized the touch of a professional decorator in the disposition of furniture around an airy living room, the placement of potted fan palms--now curling with neglect--on either side of the sliding door that lead out to a wide balcony. A white and gold rug covered the center of the pale tile floor, conversation-group furniture set about it in a calculatedly asymmetrical manner. A flatscreen television dominated the far wall, hanging over a credenza littered with small stacks of DVD boxes.
De Los Santos introduced them all briefly, Genoese nodding in response to each name. "The bedroom is through here," she said, pointing with her chin. "I'm going to wait in the kitchen if you don't mind?"
"Not at all," De Los Santos said. "Before you go--this looks like you haven't changed much."
"We haven't touched it," she said, as she was turning away. "It's going to be all lawyers all the time, I guess. Like this... this stuff matters."
She vanished through the kitchen doorway. A moment later, Todd heard the rasp as she pulled out a chair, and watched Chaz crane his head for a peek into the room she'd entered.
Chaz nodded, as if something he saw had satisfied his curiosity. He moved to the center of the living room and stood there, rotating in place like a fire sentry on a watch tower, taking in the layout.
"She wasn't lying," he said. "Somebody threw out a couple of vases of flowers from that credenza and a box of delivery produce that was on the kitchen table, but everything else is unchanged."
"You know that without comparing the scene photos?" De Los Santos crossed the living room to the balcony door and stood looking out it.
"I went over them on the plane," Chaz said. "I guess it's okay if we move stuff now-- Reyes?"
Reyes was disappearing into the hall that Genoese had indicated as leading to the bedroom. Todd, with a glance over his shoulder, followed, Chaz and De Los Santos on his heels. When they entered the bedroom, they found Reyes lying on his back atop the flowered counterpane, his head on a dead man's pillow and his eyes fixed on the ceiling.
"Something wakes you in the middle of the night," he said. "You sit up" --suiting actions to words, one hand pressing his shirt against his ribs-- "turn on the light, shove your arms into your robe and don't tie it very well. Then you reach over and shake your wife awake."
"James Calvin's bedside lamp was overturned," Chaz said. Gently, he reached past Reyes and tipped it over, tilting the shade. "The switch was on."
A click, as his bony fingers recreated the scene. He stepped back, clearing some distance between himself and Reyes.
"James Calvin wasn't wearing his robe," Todd said. "Susan was. Just the robe--a man's robe, too large for her--and nothing else. Calvin was wearing boxer shorts."
Scooby-Doo boxer shorts, in the photos. Todd wondered if he'd have been a good father.
Todd had seen Chaz's hands clench and slide into his pockets when they'd walked past a second bedroom down the hall, already set up as a nursery, the wainscoting topped by a wall runner bright with yellow and green teddy bears. If anticipatory buying were a sign of desire, these had been badly wanted babies.
And now they were dead.
And here he was, wishing there was something he could do to make this easier for a coworker, when he ought to be solving the case. Mind on your work, Todd.
"So if you're dragging your pregnant wife down the hall to toss her off a balcony," De Los Santos said, "Do you stop and put your robe on her?"
"Sergeant," Reyes said. "Do you know if Susan Calvin habitually slept in the nude?"
"Her sister might," De Los Santos answered, and vanished back down the hall.
He reappeared less than thirty seconds later. "According to Genoese, yes. I also asked what she could confirm about fertility treatments, and she said, and I quote, 'Shots in the ass and the whole nine yards.'"
"Shit," Chaz said under his breath, making Todd wonder just what exactly about that aspect of the case was hitting him so hard. Todd could speculate. But there were still a lot of ways that story could play out, and he wasn't sure yet that he wanted to commit to a narrative arc.
De Los Santos paused, scratched at his cheek, and said, "Toxicology on both of them was negative."
Chaz raised his eyebrows. "You have a gift for cutting out the inessential layers of the conversation, Sergeant."
De Los Santos winked. "Explains why I'm divorced. So what do you think happened?"
In lieu of an answer, Reyes rolled over and whisked down the counterpane on what would have been the wife's side of the bed. A pile of down pillows was revealed, the topmost one stripped of its case and lying naked.
"It was Susan's pillowcase that wound up on the ground," Todd said.
De Los Santos made a face. "If you're going to whip a pillowcase over somebody's face to blindfold them, you probably don't pull it out from under their head."
"Sounds like we have some agreement that we're not talking about a murder-suicide," Reyes said. "So you roll out of bed, hand your wife the first protective garment you find, and crawl to the living room."
"Open plan. There's no bedroom door," Chaz said, unwrapping a Clif bar while De Los Santos shot him a slightly incredulous sidelong glance.
Oblivious--or pretending--Chaz turned to survey the hallway. It would have been a long crawl. He finished, "So you don't check for heat."
"Why would you check for heat if there's no sign of fire?" De Los Santos craned his neck around, trying to catch someone's eye.
Todd and Chaz let Reyes be the one to offer the connection. Reyes rose to it. "That would also be one of the things we mean when we say, 'anomalous.'"
De Los Santos stared at them hard, sucking his lips against his teeth unattractively. "Sheeit," he said. "You guys are the X-Files, aren't you?"
Todd patted him on the shoulder. "Please," he said. "David Duchovny wishes he looked this good in a suit. Come on. Let's talk to Mrs. Genoese, and then we can get on to the next tomb of beautifully decorated horrors."
"Can we get some food on the way?" Chaz asked, sliding the empty candy wrapper into his pocket. "I'm ready to eat the scene photos."
When Reyes entered the kitchen, he found Tracy Genoese sitting in a straight-backed chair in the dining nook, tapping away at a palmtop with every pretense of absorption. She didn't look up as he walked across the parquet flooring, just moved her little plastic stylus with ever crisper efficiency, as if by ignoring his presence she could revise out of existence the terrible course of events that had brought him here.
He went to the sink, took down a glass from the obvious-choice cupboard over it, and turned on the filter before he let the water run. It wasn't what you did at a crime scene, but this wasn't a crime scene any more, and it was more important to establish a connection with Genoese.
She didn't speak until he came back to the table, the water glass damp in his hand. "There's an icewater thing on the fridge door."
"Hurts my teeth if it's too cold," he answered. He took a sip of tapwater. "Would you like some?"
She shook her head. Without looking up, she shut down the P.D.A. and slid the stylus back into the case, then squared the machine on the tabletop before her with the flats of her hands. "No, thank you. Would you care to sit, Agent Reyes?"
She gestured to the other chair that looked habitually used. James's chair, Reyes thought, as he set his water before it, then slid it gently across the floor. He settled himself and leaned forward, hands open and flat on the table, shoulders down. "I'm so sorry for your loss," he said.
She looked up, but not at him. Past him, rather, her eyes rising until they came to rest on the ceiling. "I keep telling myself it will stop hurting so much eventually," she said. "But James--how could he--? I liked him. I introduced them, Agent Reyes. And he-- oh, shit."
She was a proud woman. She didn't hide her face in her hands, just looked right at Reyes, tears and all, as if wondering if maybe he had the answer.
You didn't reach out and take the survivor's hand. You didn't say Maybe he didn't. You didn't express doubt about the outcome of a closed case. It was cruel and unnecessary and an abuse of authority, and it could turn back around to bite you faster than a rattlesnake.
"You didn't kill your sister," Reyes said. "Don't try to carry that, Mrs. Genoese."
"Doctor," she said, and bit the inside of her cheek. "Doctor Genoese. Could you call me Tracy? I prefer it."
"I can call you Dr. Genoese," he offered, with a self-deprecating tilt of his head. Just a professional relationship, ma'am.
Her sniffle was audible, but it lead to a watery sort of grin, which he returned with a shrug that said What can you do? Reyes took a sip of his water, found it tasteless from filtration. "What are you a doctor of, Dr. Genoese?"
"Ph.D. Pharmacology. I'm on the faculty at UM. I just--you know they say this sort of thing can happen in any family, that nobody's immune. But you think your family is nice people, is good people...."
"Sometimes," Reyes said, "there isn't anything you could have done to change it. Sometimes you do everything right and lightning strikes. Can you always predict how a particular drug is going to interact with a particular patient?"
She shook her head. "Of course not. It's a combination of genetics, environmental factors, and just plain dumb luck."
"So is something like this," Reyes said. "You can't accept blame, Dr. Genoese. You did not cause this to happen."
"I think I would like that water."
Silently, Reyes pushed his chair back, retrieved another glass, and filled it under the frigid stream that squirted from the refrigerator dispenser. He slid it in front of Genoese before resuming his seat.
She didn't drink. Instead, she wrapped both hands around the chunky glass and pressed it against her forehead and the bridge of her nose, eyes closing. "Thank you, Agent Reyes."
"Doctor," he said, and winked when she glanced up at him, the jerky movement spilling water droplets across her knuckles.
"And what are you a doctor of?"
"Psychology," he admitted.
It was always an uneasy feeling to know that somebody else was profiling you. But it was there in her clear assessing gaze as she set the water down, then rubbed her face with wet cold palms. "And you grew up to be a cop? That's a change in direction."
"I had a difference of opinion with... tenured faculty." When she didn't drop her gaze, he shrugged. "I like what I do now. May I ask a few more things about your sister?"
An awkward subject change, but his obvious discomfort had made them allies. Genoese sipped water and nodded. "What do you need to know?"
Kudos to De Los Santos, Reyes thought. When he'd said This is the one you want to talk to, he'd been perfectly accurate.
"Before she died, did she say anything to you at all about anything--no matter how slight--that seemed creepy? Or odd? Or out of the ordinary? Any unusual contacts or encounters? Old friends turning up out of the blue?"
Genoese shook her head, but it was a thinking shake. "Not off--oh. Wait. Somebody was sending her adoption flyers."
"Brochures. For adoption agencies. Some for abortion clinics. In the mail, tucked under her car windshield. We figured it was somebody at work who resented her pregnancy, because she got one batch in interoffice mail. Like anybody who worked as hard as she did to get pregnant was going to give up a child."
Reyes felt the cold tingle start across the nape of his neck and tried to quell it. Hunches were not good cop work. You could get way too invested in a theory before all the facts were in. "I don't suppose you--she--kept any of them? Or remember what agency they were from?"
"All different ones." Genoese picked up her water glass again, and this time she drank from it. "I remember that because she remarked on it at the time."
Behind the bright seal on the door, the Wurstoff's apartment was more of the same. The forty-three glass droplets in the square crystal vase beside the door came from Crate and Barrel, not Pier 1. The furnishings in the girls' room were pink and white, and meant to be grown into.
Chaz got through the scene visit on gritted teeth and ujjayi breathing, blessing his massage therapist for recommending he take up yoga to help restore flexibility. It turned out that the learned ability to stay in the moment was handy in more ways than one, and cyclical, meditative breathing helped with the panic attacks. Or maybe it was just the extra oxygenation.
Not that he had any intention--anymore--of fathering any children of his own. But nothing clarified your desire for something like realizing you couldn't have it. As soon as he'd become absolutely certain of what he was doing, and the reasons for it, he'd realized he'd always thought someday--maybe before too much longer--he'd get a chance to be a dad. And that maybe he'd do an okay job of it.
Part of the healing process was making things right for somebody else, after all.
But there was no way in hell he was perpetuating William Villette's DNA. So, good to have it clear in your head what you were walking away from when you decided to walk away from it. Thanks, brain, for being so upfront about it. He'd listed it under things you can't have and gotten Daphne to drive him in for the outpatient appointment.
Are you sure about this? she'd said in the car, the only thing she'd said at all, other than Whatever you need, kiddo.
He'd winked at her and put on his best cheerful voice and answered, Remember to spay or neuter your beta, and made a joke about a hot date with an icepack, and that had been the end of it. Whatever she thought, however much she guessed, she'd just bitten her lip and nodded and--even though he could see she wanted to--she hadn't tried to talk him out of it, which was why she was the person he'd chosen to tell.
But he thought he had some idea how desperately a parent-in-waiting could want a child, if it was anything like the way a child could want a parent. And he could imagine wanting a child that badly himself, one of these years. Badly enough to spend money, time, resources--
Reyes was staring at him.
Chaz tried to find something intelligent to say about the crime scene, but he had nothing. He was just about to stammer something lame about the line of movement from the bedrooms to the big plate glass sliding doors when--as if it knew he needed saving--his Adorable Overhyped Phone sang. He slid it from his pocket and silenced the twenty-second clip of "Merry Go Round Broke Down," then put it to his ear.
The Loony Tunes theme alone dropped his blood pressure ten points. Hafs' voice following was like a stiff drink and a shoulder massage rolled into one, combining courage with a sense of well-being.
"Wascally wabbit," he said, speaking softly so De Los Santos wouldn't overhear. "I love the pocket watch, by the way."
"Of course you do," she scoffed. "You got it from me, didn't you? Hey, are El Supremo and the Duke of Earl around? I have beta."
"When did you start picking up climbing slang?" he asked, setting the phone to speaker. "Reyes, Todd. Hafidha's got something."
"Four somethings," she said. "Alicia Post and family--husband, two infant girls, October of 2007. Same pattern."
"I remember that," De Los Santos said. "That was in this neighborhood, more or less."
"Like the two more recent ones," Tod said. "Well, that tells us something. Twins. And not just twins."
"Girls," Chaz said. "That's a scary specific victimology. And a tight geographic profile. We can do something with this. Hafs, do you happen to know if the Post children were naturally conceived?"
"I can find out for you, babycakes," she said. "But wait! There's more. If you order now you also get this free addition to your victim profiles. The Posts were affluent, well-educated... and black."
"Hello," Reyes said. "Okay, that's really useful. Our UNSUB is willing to wait months if necessary to find just the right target. He's a stalker, and he's very picky. The victims have to be just right. And race isn't a consideration?"
"Sharp," Todd said.
Reyes continued as if he hadn't heard him. "Hafidha, I need you to run down all three families and see if their twins were conceived through some sort of fertility clinic, or if the families shared a doctor, especially a pediatrician or an OB/GYN. Also, from something Tracy Genoese said, there's a possibility that the UNSUB located them through an adoption agency. Could you check and see if any of the couples had registered to adopt before they managed to conceive? I also need you to find out if there are any other sets of twins, especially female twins, in this neighborhood. Maybe we can get ahead of him."
The glitter of the chase was in his eyes. Chaz felt it too, the burn of adrenaline that--counterintuitively--calmed and focused.
Hafidha said, "Age range? We're looking for babies?"
"Age range unborn, in the case of the Calvins. But if you're having twins--"
"You tell everybody," Todd said. "You can't shut up about it. Especially if you've been trying hard, for a long time. Unless you go the other way and get superstitious."
"Right," Hafidha said. "I'll get on it. I'll also start looking for survivors of catastrophic fires. The mythology has to come from somewhere. Anything else?"
"Tell Brady he's coming to join us."
"Boys' club?" Todd interjected.
Reyes ignored him. "Otherwise, that'll do for now. Villette, I want you to head back to the PD and work the victimology and the geographic profile. See if you can support Hafidha in looking for other potential victims."
"Right," Chaz said. "You and Todd are going to talk to the families."
"Joy," Todd said. "Can't we have Hafidha send Lau as well?"
Miami, FL, February 14, 2009
The night burned into what was only morning by courtesy while Chaz hunched over his laptop in the conference room De Los Santos had secured for the WTF team. A timer in the corner of the screen reminded him to put calories into his body every thirty minutes, but the beep of the alarm contributed his only real awareness of the passage of time, and its cyclical nature tended to abrogate any grounding effect. So when the door swung open and Brady stomped through it, black nylon jump bag slung over his shoulder and his eyes red-rimmed from the late night flight, Chaz couldn't gather himself to do more than stare for several seconds.
"Coooffeeee," Brady said, drawing it out like the living dead--an attempt at normalcy that gave Chaz enough impetus to shake off incipient brain-death and point to the pot in the corner. "Sorry, just finished the last mug. I've just been using the water from the cooler."
"Urmph," Brady said, and tossed his bag on the table. "Reyes and Todd not back yet?"
The sounds of coffee scraped from a Folger's can and dumped into paper were normal, too, as was the slightly stale, acrid scent of supermarket grounds. If you pretend something long enough, it turns true, Chaz told himself, pushing back from the edge of the conference table. "Did they tell you they'd be?"
"I called Reyes from the airport." Water burbled into the pot in Brady's hand as he half-crouched to get it under the cooler spigot. "He said they were on their way back, and bringing a real breakfast."
Chaz glanced at the litter of Einstein Bros Bagels bags and plastic knives in the trash can by the door. "You suppose he means tostada and café con leche? Or something a little more substantial?"
"Probably not café con leche," Brady said. "It being Reyes."
"Yeah, and how weird is it that the Cuban guy doesn't like coffee?" Chaz shook his head. "I think it's just to be contrary."
As if his words--or the smell of cheap coffee--had been an invocation, Todd materialized in the doorway clutching the handles of a grease-spotted paper shopping bag. He swung it around to show off the Winn-Dixie logo. "Considerably more substantial," he said. "You might want to move your laptop."
Reyes appeared behind him as he entered, while Chaz was hastily clearing the table. The conference room filled with the smell of onions, cumin, garlic, and grease.
"Oh, God," Chaz whimpered. "If I'd known about this, I wouldn't have eaten so many bagels."
"I have faith in you." Reyes set his own shopping bag on the table and pulled out paper plates, then an assortment of crumpled tinfoil bundles. De Los Santos was nowhere in evidence, and Chaz wondered if he'd gone home to catch an hour or two of rest.
Meanwhile, Reyes lined up packages. "Empanadas, congri, maduros. Some other stuff. It's last night's leftovers, so it's not exactly breakfast food. But since we're all last night's leftovers at this point, it seemed appropriate."
Todd was also doling out packages: obviously much-washed supermarket deli containers full of rice and black beans, a plastic bowl of some mashed root vegetable. Chaz's mouth watered at the aroma of fried onions while Brady wandered over, nonchalantly inspecting the outlay. And even more nonchalantly putting himself between Chaz and Reyes.
"Happy Valentine's day," Todd said.
Chaz was amused to note that Brady and Reyes both demonstrated exactly the same guilty expression and reflexive reach for the cell phone, before collectively remembering that it was The Dead Zone and nobody was going to appreciate a romantic phone call this early. He smiled behind his hand: he'd sent an email a little after midnight, casual and cheerful, fretting the whole time that maybe it wasn't an appropriate acknowledgement of whatever the hell it was he and Marti had going.
"God, that smell would raise the dead," Brady said, scooping up a paper plate. Fork in hand, he paused and looked at Chaz. Holding eye contact, he said--in the tones with which you might encourage a shy, hungry animal-- "Betas first."
Chaz grabbed the nearest container of food so he'd have an excuse to look at his hands rather than noticing Brady's hesitant overture.
"This doesn't look like takeout," Chaz said, prying the lid off a deli container that--by the wrinkled and faded paper sticker on the side--still claimed it held German egg salad. "Did you hold up somebody's grandmother?"
"After a manner of speaking," Reyes answered, folding back the tinfoil sealing a paper plate full of starchy fried plantain chips. The next plate was sliced cucumbers and tomatoes dripping garlic-scented marinade.
"Yes," said Todd. "Reyes's grandmother."
"She's my great-aunt," Reyes said, rolling his eyes. "Two thirds of my family still lives in this town. I'd never hear the end of it from my mother if it got out that I visited Miami and didn't let Tía-abuela Xuxa feed me. I wish I could have brought Chaz to her, though, just to see what happens to her face when he gets up for fifths."
"I still find it a little creepy that you have family," Brady said. "I figured they grew you in the basement of the Hoover building."
Chaz, ladling beans and rice onto a plate, managed a sideways smile. If it was a day for peace offerings, he could manage one of his own. "Well, that explains why you were so eager to come to Miami."
Reyes hooked a rolling chair over with his foot and lowered himself gingerly into it. Fork upraised, he paused. "When you have tasted the rice, Boy Wonder, you will understand. Have you learned anything from the victimology?"
The tension in the room--Todd and Brady's unspoken and silent attention--focused on his response. Chaz had the power here, he realized, analyzing the alien sensation. They were waiting to see if he would accept Reyes' attempt to normalize relations. Before he put the first bite in his mouth, he said, "Nothing new and significant. But I'm still waiting on Hafidha. Anything in the interview--oh, my God. This is good."
Reyes grinned as if he'd cooked it himself. "Abortion flyers. Adoption flyers. Both families."
"Bingo. The kids are definitely the trigger, then." The rice was savory with olive oil and bits of onion sautéed translucent. Chaz bent over his plate, eating between sentences, trying not to swallow so fast the rice gave him hiccups. "Remind me to send Tía-abuela Xuxa a thank-you card."
Chaz's phone and laptop chimed their email alerts simultaneously as he was starting on his second helping of empanadas. With a sigh, he pushed the plate aside, wiped his fingers, and pulled the phone from his pocket.
"Hafs," he said. "She's got a potential. Ingrid Fromberg and Peter Hsiung have twin seven-month-olds and recently filed a police report about harassing mail. Hafs sent the address."
Brady and Todd each shoveled in another forkful before pushing their plates away, but Reyes stood up unhesitatingly, reaching for his phone.
"Back on your heads," Todd said, turning for the door. "I'll get the vests from the car."
"Never mind," Reyes said. "The car is where we're going."
In the parking lot, Todd was still struggling with the velcro on his ballistic vest when Reyes tossed Chaz the car keys. Todd saw Chaz catch them automatically, a hand extending on a go-go-Gadget arm to hook them out of the air. They jangled hard, and Chaz wasted a moment staring at them. The look he leveled at Reyes after was not so much a speaking glance as a five-book opus.
"Aww, crap," Brady said. "And me without an airsickness bag."
Reyes opened the rear driver's side door. "Could you get us there faster?"
"Get in the car, Brady," Todd said, and slid in back, beside the boss. He buckled his seatbelt, folded his hands in his lap, bowed his head, and--as Chaz hit the flashers and laid rubber in the cop shop parking lot--commended his soul unto the hands of a just and loving God.
Maybe Reyes' presence in the car had a quelling effect, or maybe it just wasn't as bad at night, in the back seat. Or perhaps Chaz took some pity on his passengers, because Todd didn't think he was actually getting used to Chaz's driving.
Reyes, in a stunning display of coordination and grace under fire, retrieved his palm from his inside pocket while Chaz made the turn into traffic. He flicked it on. "Do you need directions?"
"I looked at a city map on the plane," Chaz said, calm and competent-sounding. "I'll get us there. De Los Santos?"
"On his way," Reyes said. "I told him to wait for us on the ground, and not to send in uniforms. If we're lucky we're way in advance of trouble, and we'll just be waking up some nice people who are probably exhausted from midnight feedings anyway."
And if we're not lucky, a gamma would eat the uniforms for lunch.
The slide on Brady's pistol echoed as he chambered a round. "Then where's the cavalry?"
Todd looked at Reyes. Reyes was head-down and focused, and seemed not even to notice that Brady had spoken. Situational deafness. Hell of an advantage.
Todd thumped the back of Brady's chair. "Dunno how to break this to you, man. But you are they."
Chaz killed the flashers as they turned down a street dominated by the high-rise Fromberg and Hsiung lived in. He let the car glide to a vacant space on the curb half a block away and pulled in, laying both hands on the steering wheel for a second before killing the engine and the headlights.
"Go," Reyes said, door already swinging wide to fill the car with the smell of waterfront. Sharp sea, pungent rot, an overlay of diesel. The slap of four pairs of shoes echoed as they moved down the street, Brady and Chaz dropping to the back of the group as always. De Los Santos waited in the lobby with the doorman.
"He says no one has come in for hours," De Los Santos said. "He also says Fromberg and Hsiung aren't answering their intercom."
"We're going up," Reyes said, tapping the I.D. on his chest. "Unless you have an objection?"
Chaz wondered if the doorman was legal, from the way he shook his head, big-eyed, and stepped back out of Reyes' line of sight. Reyes glanced over his shoulder, collecting De Los Santos into the team on a single sweeping gaze. When he headed for the elevators, the rest stepped with him as one.
"You've got to know," Reyes said to De Los Santos, "that if we're about to walk into a hostage situation, the perp may be much tougher than you anticipate. Be aware. Be wary."
"I saw The Matrix," De Los Santos said. "Like that?"
Brady pushed the button for the top floor. "Even if Todd does look a little like Hugo Weaving."
They rode up in silence, harness creaking, the car reeking of gun oil. It was funny, Chaz thought, how even knowing nobody was listening couldn't stop you from praying silently to yourself. Or not-so-silently; in his peripheral vision, he could see the movement of both Brady's lips and De Los Santos's. Beyond them, he glimpsed the mirrored walls of the elevator, his own drawn face endlessly reflected. He fixed his gaze on Reyes's thinning hair, instead, and tried not to look at the raw pink lines threading through it.
Fromberg and Hsiung were on the twenty-first floor, their balcony facing the street rather than the ocean. As the agents left the elevator, Chaz fought the urge to turn and make sure the reflections weren't following him down the hall like a cascading CGI effect. The fact that your post-traumatic stress is triggering does not mean the mirrors are really watching you, Villette.
Reyes was hyperventilating right along with him. First time back in the field. Chaz drew his weapon and a deep breath of air and took his place on the right side of the door. There was nobody overhead, which meant muzzle-up was a safe position. He felt Brady panting behind him as he pressed his shoulder to the wall, and the calm, competent presence of De Los Santos. From the other side of the door, Todd's eyes met his over a rueful and encouraging grin. All Chaz could do was nod once and try to regulate his breathing.
Reyes, leaning in from behind the frame, pounded hard upon the panel. "Ms. Fromberg? Mr. Hsiung? We are federal officers. Please open the door."
Silence. Chaz caught himself holding his breath and forced his lungs to let that one out and take in another. By the time he was on the third cycle, footsteps approached behind the door. Moments later, a shadow darkened the peephole. The voice that followed was male, muffled, well-spoken and crisp with nervousness. "Present your identification, please?"
Reyes opened his folder and raised it to the peep while Chaz took another breath in, let another breath out. Maybe they're okay in there.
Maybe they're alive.
The door cracked open and rattled on the chain. As it opened, Chaz heard a baby begin to cry. "Oh, god," said the man who peered through the gap, "Do you have a warrant? Is this a raid? We haven't done anything."
He was in his early fifties, fine-boned, Asian, with thick graying hair and pinstriped pale blue pajama bottoms. He matched Hafidha's forwarded driver's license photo of Peter Hsiung. The first baby's wail was joined by a second one.
Chaz took a breath he didn't have to force on himself, and with a look from Reyes holstered his gun. It still took a second to uncurl his fingers, and when he looked up again the old Reyes magic was in play and Hsiung was shutting the door to undo the chain and admit them. That was good. Once they were inside he could find a wall to lean against while he shook.
The inside of the condo was spacious and--once Hsiung moved around it, bringing up the track lights--bright. Spanish tile floored the kitchen and dining area that opened off to the left of the door, and was embraced by a big L-shaped living space in which Shaker reproductions focused on the inevitable wall-height sliding doors and iron-railed cement balcony beyond. On the right was a hall that must lead to the bedrooms; from that direction, Chaz could heard a woman cooing over the wails of frustrated infants.
"I'm sorry we woke them," Reyes said, as De Los Santos shut and locked the door behind them. "And I'm sorry to appear at your door at four in the morning with pistols drawn. We had some concerns you and your wife might be in danger. Is your wife in the other room?"
"She's with the girls," Hsiung said, eyes pinched tight and forehead wrinkled. "What do you mean, in danger?"
Reyes's voice was soothing, persuasive. Todd at his shoulder projected reassuring sympathy, and Brady was all the authority anybody would ever need. He stepped back behind De Los Santos and crossed to lean against the bare wall beside the hallway.
Down the hall, Ms. Fromberg sang to her daughters. That was much easier to listen to than whatever half-truths Reyes was telling her husband to instill him with a spirit of cooperation. She was singing "The Itsy Bitsy Spider." It might not be working on the babies, but it made Chaz want to shut his eyes and lean his head back. Just for a while.
He didn't, because if he did, he knew it would be all over. But her voice was sweet, if off-key.
And God, he was so tired.
Brady kept his gaze on Reyes and Hsiung, but that didn't keep him from using his peripheral vision to watch Todd watch Chaz play out his withdrawal. Brady thought he knew what Chaz was thinking, what he was feeling: Chaz was just Fourth FBI Agent in this scene. He knew the lines by heart, but he didn't have the strength tonight to play it.
Brady told himself that the frown with which he observed Chaz's adrenaline reaction was professionally stern, and that he didn't feel a pang at the way the kid folded his arms across his chest to hide it and hug it close. But when Reyes and De Los Santos drew Hsiung aside, getting him to turn his shoulder to the room for the air of intimacy, Brady leaned over to Todd and said, "I can tell you know something's still not right."
Todd's mouth twisted. "I'm aware of my own subtext, thanks." Then, in the unmistakable diction of a man Changing The Subject, he straightened up and intoned, "Oh-look-here's-Ingrid-Fromberg."
Brady glanced over in time to see her emerge from the hallway, juggling squirming babies. As if to give her name the lie, she was brunette. Brady guessed she was Chinese on one side. She was taller than her husband but about the same age, dressed in gray cotton pants and a tank top, and--to judge by the shadows under her eyes--worn out from lack of sleep. She gave a little squeak and jumped eight inches straight up in the air when she almost walked into Chaz in his gunbelt and body armor, who by his stillness had all but vanished against the shadows.
She stumbled when she came down. Brady sprinted halfway across the room before he knew he was moving, visions of dropped babies and broken ankles dancing in his head.
But Chaz was there. He caught her around the mid-back, his other hand steadying a slipping infant, and with a quick awkward sidestep managed to keep both adults on their feet and both infants from crashing to the floor. He turned as they stumbled into the hall and let his shoulder thump solidly against the wall, absorbing the impact for all of them.
"I'm sorry I'm sorry I'm sorry--"
Brady checked at the top of the hall, more afraid of knocking them off their feet than of them continuing to fall over on their own. Chaz had flattened himself against the wall, both arms full of Ms. Fromberg and her daughters, and was looking down at them through a mask of bemused chagrin.
"Oh, jeez," Fromberg said, tilting her head up to stare at the point of his chin, while one of the girls again began to wail. "Usually it's the girls peeing themselves around here. But I nearly just did. Are you okay, officer?"
"Special Agent," Chaz said, flushing from his shirt-collar to the bridge of his nose, with special attention to the ears. "Villette. Um. Charles Villette. Sorry. I'm so sorry."
Hsiung must have pulled away from Reyes and De Los Santos, because he brushed unceremoniously past Brady and put a hand on Fromberg's shoulder. "Ingrid, you okay?"
"Sure," she said, stepping away from Chaz. "The dashing FBI agent kept me from harm. Here, do something with your offspring." She balanced the quieter bundle on her hip, leaning her body to offer Hsiung the screaming one.
"I'm sorry," Reyes said. "I know your daughter is upset. But I really need your attention."
Fromberg looked from the girl to Reyes, to Hsiung. "Did he say we were in danger? Oh, gosh. This kid. I'm so sorry--"
Brady almost tripped over his own feet when Chaz said, "I'll take her. She just needs a change. I can do it--if you don't mind me handling your child--while you talk to my boss."
He held out both hands, serenely competent, and both Hsiung and Fromberg stared at him. Probably not any more gape-mouthed than Brady.
"She does," Fromberg said. "But how did you know?"
Chaz touched his nose and grinned.
Fromberg, eyebrows rising, let him lift the little girl out of her arms. "You have kids?"
"Foster-siblings," Chaz said, emphasizing the plural. "This is not my first dirty diaper."
If he was telling the truth, Brady thought it wasn't the whole truth. "I'll keep an eye on him," he assured Fromberg, and followed Chaz and the unhappy little girl--who had stopped crying in shock at being handed off to a stranger, but was now watching her unlikely caretaker with big eyes and a crumpled mouth that said she might start up again at any provocation--down the hall.
"Do you always take a girl dancing before you get her name?"
"Lily," Chaz said. "Unless the other one is Lily, and this one is Rose." He neatly unfolded blankets, tossed them over the crib rail, and set the girl on a wicker changing table. Keeping one hand on her belly, he pulled a disposable diaper out of the box with the other and slid it under her behind. "She's teething, too, which is part of why she's more miserable than her sister, but I'm sure being wet and messy and woken up in the middle of the night by yelling giants doesn't help--it's okay, sweetie. Shh. Shh. We'll get you dry and find the Oragel and then I'll take you back to Mommy--and then there's being scared and confused and not being able to make anybody understand why."
Brady folded his arms over his chest while Chaz peeled open diaper tapes. The smell assured him that Chaz had been correct as to the nature of the contents. Eyes watering, he turned toward the fresher air in the hall.
"How do you know all that?" he asked, for something to say, because the other option was to start razzing Chaz about playing Mary Poppins, and Brady wasn't sure the fragile scar tissue of their working relationship would stand up to that just yet.
He wondered if he--or Chaz--was more surprised when Chaz, without looking up, answered quietly: "Because I remember."
"We'll want to place you in protective custody," Reyes said, in his best I'm from the government and I'm here to help you voice. "Just for a couple of nights, until we can find the people responsible. We will put you up in a hotel, and you'll have security."
He had positioned himself in the Hsiung-Fromberg's kitchen, leaned against the butcher block island so the couple could sit comfortably at their table and make eye contact with himself and De Los Santos. Todd was in the living room on his cell, making arrangements. Chaz and Brady were still in the nursery, but the second girl's howls of outrage had softened, so they must be making some progress.
Kitchens were a good place to talk. You brought your friends into the kitchen. It was a core room of the house--public space, but not for display, the way a decorated living room might be. Working space. The sort of place where everybody could have a cup of coffee and feel that much more comfortable.
"Do we need a bodyguard?" Hsiung glanced at Fromberg. He held his daughter on his lap; she was wide-awake and flirting with Reyes now, and occasionally banging her hands on the edge of the cherrywood table.
"I think it would be safest for your daughters if you accepted Agent Reyes's offer of protection," De Los Santos said. Like Reyes, he had taken the proffered coffee. Unlike Reyes, he was drinking his. "The unknown individual we're seeking may be responsible for at least eleven deaths, and we know he targets families with twin daughters."
"God--" Hsiung's daughter made a noise of frustrated protest as his arms tightened reflexively around her. His face blank with worry, he turned to Fromberg, but whatever he'd been about to say was interrupted by the triumphant return of Villette and Brady, bearing the second twin.
"I think she'd like a snack," Chaz said, placing her in her mother's arms. "But she took it like a trooper. I did her gums, too, though she wasn't overjoyed about it."
"She hates the taste," Fromberg said. "Or maybe the numb lips."
Reyes felt a sudden profound sympathy with the infant girl. The handoff accomplished, Chaz backed away. "Who doesn't?"
Hsiung leaned his shoulder against his wife. Obviously grateful for the interruption, he looked up at Chaz and said, "How did the microchipping go?"
Chaz stared at him, befuddled, and snuck a glance at Reyes. Fromberg just swatted her husband. "Ignore him. He has a terrible sense of humor."
Brady had fallen into position inside the archway. He shrugged.
Todd said, "No offense. Anyway, the NSA handles RFID-chipping citizens. We at the FBI stick to covering up presidential assassination plots. How are we doing in here?"
"Agent Reyes was just about to offer us a selection of fine hotels," Hsiung said, with a glance at Reyes, who nodded. He liked this couple and their broad--and obviously self-aware--use of humor as a coping mechanism, and every time he thought that, he felt his heart stutter a little at the thought of what might have happened if they had not arrived in time. The sharp pain of every deep breath was a reminder to regulate his breathing.
There was no reason to believe that the gamma would have struck here tonight, of course. But tell that to Reyes's endocrine system. From the way De Los Santos had his mug wrapped in both hands, he was feeling it too--all that adrenaline, and nothing to do with it.
"I have a few more questions to ask you first," Reyes said. "Unfortunately, they're somewhat personal. But your answers may help us track the killer, so I need you to be as honest as possible."
They were watching Reyes now, wary as cornered foxes. He read the relief on their expressions when his first question was, "Because we believe the killer is targeting couples with twins, I have to ask if you underwent fertility treatments when you were trying to conceive."
"Actually," Fromberg said, with a sidelong grin at her husband, "they were an accident. We had decided we didn't have the kind of life that would accommodate children. And then..."
"Excuse me," Chaz said, and cut across the center of the conversation as if somebody were winching him in, eyes fixed on a stainless steel refrigerator covered with magnets and flyers and takeout menus. He reached out and pulled something down, a lemon-yellow trifold brochure, and extended it to Reyes.
Reyes took it from his hand. "Butterfly and Bee Fine Organic Produce," he said. He frowned at Chaz. "Is that the same company?"
"As the box in the Calvin scene photos?" Chaz nodded. "It is."
"It's a free trial," Hsiung said. "Local organic produce. A couple of nice young ladies were handing out flyers. We get a box a week for a month, and if we like it, we can sign up."
"So far?" Reyes asked.
"Actually," Fromberg said with a shrug, "It's not all that great. We've got one more box coming in the trial, and I was going to cancel."
"Ms. Fromberg," De Los Santos said, "I don't suppose you still have the last box?"
"No," she answered. "We recycled it. But I've got some eggplants and a couple of zucchini."
Reyes had Chaz call Hafidha, who confirmed in a few seconds that there was no such business as Butterfly and Bee Organic Produce. A Miami PD crime scene tech arrived ten minutes later, along with a pair of uniforms and a yawning female detective named Houska who must have owed De Los Santos a favor. The CSI accepted the vegetable evidence with a tolerant grin, signed for chain of custody, and vanished again like a zephyr. She'd obviously fingerprinted weirder things than aubergines. Fromberg, Hsiung, and their daughters left for the hotel a few moments later, in the care of Houska and the two uniformed officers.
Reyes turned back to his liaison and his team. "Alone at last," he said, just to watch Brady roll his eyes. "Okay. We need a plan of action. How do we locate the gamma?"
De Los Santos cocked his head at the unfamiliar term. "Gamma. Is that like UNSUB?"
"Only anomalous," Todd said, provoking De Los Santos to grin at him. "If the gamma is watching this condo, he knows we're on to him."
Chaz, his eyes on the bare patch of refrigerator door that had been under the brochure, said one word. In Reyes's opinion, possibly the worst word available.
Brady's sharp intake of breath was as good as the question none of them could quite frame. Chaz looked up. "Or a gamma and an accomplice. But I can't imagine an alpha accomplice surviving a gamma long. A team, anyway. Isn't it obvious?"
"Twins," Reyes said. A gamma and an accomplice. This was getting to be a theme.
"Twin girls. Two nice young women handing out flyers. Adoption agencies. Older, affluent parents. We know" --Chaz rubbed sweating hands on his corduroys, larynx bobbing as he swallowed, but his voice stayed authoritative, his recitation becoming a chant-- "We know there's a genetic component."
"We suspect," Reyes corrected, but Chaz rolled over him and kept going.
"The UNSUBS are women, young. Sisters. They were orphaned or abandoned at a young age, and were either raised in institutions or the Foster Home Of The Month Club. And they resent it. They want revenge. They'll demonstrate all or part of the homicidal triad. They have a criminal history, but it may consist of primarily misdemeanors. Some of it will revolve around starting fires. They may have been physically or sexually abused; they were certainly neglected. Their fingerprints will be in the system."
Chaz stopped, abruptly, as if rising out of a trance. De Los Santos was staring at him; Chaz noticed and looked down, pinning his gaze on the toes of tasseled tan loafers Reyes could have used as lifeboats. "Sorry," he said.
"Don't be," De Los Santos said. "That was pretty fucking awesome, man. You sure about that?"
"You don't get a lot of female serial killers, do you? No, wait--" De Los Santos held up both hands. "That's one of the things you mean when you say 'anomalous.' Right?"
Again, Chaz nodded.
Todd looked up. "What if they're not biologically related? If they were step-sisters, if they thought of themselves as sisters--they could still share parental trauma. Assuming they are both gammas, which is the most paranoid way to proceed, and therefore the one I feel most comfortable with."
"The genetic component--" The tension line of Brady's throat told Reyes how hard he was working not to turn and stare at Chaz.
"One instance is not proof of causation. It's not even really all that suggestive, except for being a remarkable illustrator of the power of the human mind to construct patterns out of coincidence." Todd said it very gently, looking directly at Brady so that Brady had no choice except to look right back.
Chaz would never know. His eyes were closed, spine arched, belly sucked in so taut Reyes could see the outline of his ribcage through the shirt. He blew air out, hard, hissing through his nose: diaphragmatic breathing.
Brave kid, Reyes thought, and did the only thing he could do--change the subject wholesale. "We need those fingerprints."
"I'll get it expedited," De Los Santos said, reaching for his phone.
"Too easy," Brady said in the car, five hours later, while Todd sweated into his ballistic vest. "You really think they're in there? It can't be this damn easy."
The object of his attention was an overgrown doublewide trailer set among rows of similar structures. A sagging lattice porch festooned with winter-drab trumpet vine was anything but welcoming, and no movement showed through grimy windows.
IAFIS said the fingerprints on the squash that weren't Fromberg's belonged to Tameka Santiago and Carey-Ann Petit, and the Florida DMV said that Santiago and Petit lived here. Todd had stared at their license photos so long the images swam in front of his eyes like sunspots: two thin, pretty girls in their early twenties, one a dark-skinned, classically African-American beauty with crooked teeth and a pierced nostril; the other's fine, pale features framed by fine, dark wisps of hair.
The trailer's side yard had a garden patch and a few more trellises, overhung with yellowed vines and woody winter squash. Unless that was an intentional misdirect, this was the place.
"I think you just cursed us," Todd said, pulling open the passenger door.
Reyes and Chaz emerged from the next vehicle, standing to greet De Los Santos as he crossed the road from a gathering of SWAT team members. "We've cleared the surrounding residences," De Los Santos said. "We're ready to go."
"Right," Reyes said. "Let's do this."
Todd never had much luck remembering exactly what went on during a raid. Running and shouting and the crackle of his earpiece, straining for any sign of movement or sound of a threat. Sweat, his arms burning from the weight of the gun, the acrid stink of his own adrenaline filling his sinuses and coating the back of his tongue. The tight-chest anticipation of any moment mayhem.
And then nothing, as voices familiar and new rang back from every corner of the trailer. Clear! Clear! Clear!
Reyes, calmly, from the kitchen: "I got something."
Something turned out to be a stack of hand-folded yellow brochures and two-foot-cube boxes, only one of them assembled. Crack and peel labels were stuck to two sides of it, reading Butterfly and Bee. A glance in the open top confirmed newspaper and sad-looking vegetables inside. The cigarette-scarred card table underneath overflowed with fast food wrappers and overwhelmed ashtrays.
Todd rocked back on his heels and shared a frown with Reyes. Before he could speak, his headset crackled.
"Bedroom," Brady said. "Somebody's been packing. We're too late." He came stomping out of the rear of the trailer a moment later, Chaz lurching along at his heels. "Todd might be right about them watching the condo."
"Todd's always right when he tells you something that will not improve your day," Reyes said. "Okay, we know they're on the run. We know they don't have much stuff--"
"They must have split last night," Chaz said. "It looks like a thorough packing job, and they didn't take the car that's registered to Petit. It's still parked out back. So they had something else to work with. Maybe they stole something."
"Maybe they went on foot," Todd said.
Reyes jerked his arms in frustration, moving like a pissed-off spider yanking the strands of its web. "Shit," he said. "Options?"
Brady said, "They were watching the Hsiungs and saw us go in. They've got nothing to hold them in Miami except familiarity. They're in the wind."
Chaz shook his head. "They've identified a target. Those kind of victims don't grow on trees."
"Yeah." Brady's jaw worked. "My profiler brain says we catch them now, or we lose them in the long grass for god knows how long and god knows how many more deaths before we pick them up again."
Reyes squinted at him. "Your what?"
"Profiler brain," Brady said. When Reyes stared at him, he spread his hands in exasperation. "Like your lizard brain. It tells you things you don't want to know, and it never shuts up not once."
Reyes looked at Chaz. "You think they're not going to give up on Hsiung and Fromberg."
"I think they're not going to give up on Lily and Rose. They resent those kids, Reyes. It's personal." Chaz's hands clawed in emphasis. "They hate 'em like you hate the guy who ran over your dog. And they're--"
"Right," Reyes said. "Chinese fire drill. We're going back to the Hsiungs'."
When Brady slid behind the steering wheel, he found Todd already in the car, forehead leaned against the passenger window, staring into the hazy mid-day distance without seeing a thing.
"Hey," Brady said. "You in there?"
"They're pretty girls," Todd said. He didn't lift his head. "Twenty-year-old girls. They should be worrying about calc tests and getting their hearts broken. Goddamn clusterfuck."
Brady pushed the key into the ignition. It didn't turn; after a bad moment he realized he'd left the wheel jammed over. When he leaned on it, the car started.
Todd spoke as if the silence oppressed him. "379 days to retirement."
"Oh, right. Happy birthday." As they pulled out, apparently it had become Todd's turn not to answer. And Brady's turn to fill the silence.
He said, "Why do we always get these again?"
Duke shrugged. "Who ya gonna call?"
Timing was everything. Brady gave it two beats before he filled in, "The good news is, unlike the Ghostbusters, we have somebody who actually knows how to drive a meatwagon."
At first he thought he'd blown it, but when he glanced over, he saw Duke shaking in silent laughter. He wiped his cheek ostentatiously as Brady hit the lights and said, "That's what I love about you, Danny. You can always see the upside."
"To any kind of clusterfuck at all."
Todd unfolded his arms and sat back in the seat. "God, I hate stakeouts."
Miami, FL, February 15, 2009
Sunday night, Chaz stood at the front of the living room, arms wrapped across his chest, the watch Hafidha had given him closed inside his left fist. A dim spill of light from the hallway was enough to scrape reflections across the inside of the sliding glass doors, blinding him to the balcony and the night outside. City lights stretched far below, bright enough to shine through the glass, but not bright enough to balance light levels and let him see anything else.
Somewhere out there were two girls just a little younger than him, chipped and cracked by a life not too different from his own, knapped into a shape he found all too recognizable. Angry and abandoned and lost, and striking back in the only way that made sense to them.
It didn't make what they were doing right, or sane. But somebody, somewhere, should have been able to intervene and save them. There was no lie Chaz could tell to make himself believe that deep down, he was any different.
He had the autopsy report to prove it. He'd murdered his monster, too. And yet he was waiting here to stop them if he could, to kill them if he couldn't. Because he knew they were watching, and he knew they would come for Lily and Rose. Even if it meant their own deaths.
That was the thing. They were smart. And they were watching. And they needed to believe they were coming for Lily and Rose. He knew what would tempt him from hiding in their place. And he also knew how he would have been biding time for his chance.
Chaz felt Todd about to come into the room before he saw movement reflected in dark glass. It didn't always work, or even most of the time. But one of the untrustworthy tricks of the mirror was that sometimes, when it was quiet and still, Chaz could sense it sensing what to reflect when someone's attention fell on him.
"Brady and De Los Santos checked in from the surveillance van. Nothing stirring. And the pizza came."
"Hm," Chaz said.
"Hungry?" Todd asked, which was shorthand for I need to know if you're functional, and I respect you too much to ask if you're keeping it together.
"I should eat," Chaz said, which wasn't an answer.
If Daphne were here, she'd be leaving cartons of takeout on the kitchen table and shoving chopsticks into his hands. Todd didn't answer, just came a step closer. His silence made a space between them that invited Chaz to fill it, and Chaz, even knowing what Todd was doing and how he was doing it, still felt the pressure. And the relief, when he opened his mouth and said, "I keep thinking about jumping."
Not suicide. And not falling, the way the victims had fallen.
Jumping, the rush, the air howling in your ears like choirs of enraged angels cursing Lucifer down. Committing yourself of your own free will to free fall. Making the choice. Taking all the precautions and then taking the chance.
Todd made an encouraging reporter noise.
"One death might not be cleaner than another. But fire hurts. People know that, because they've been burned a little and can extrapolate."
Was that a flinch crossing Todd's face? It was, an empathic grimace.
Chaz let the subject slide inobviously to a related topic. He'd been going there anyway. "But the experience of free fall is a lot less common. Not many people know what waiting for impact is like. Until you're there and it's too late to go back."
"You used to skydive," Todd said, neutral and offhand. "You think it's like that? When they chose to jump, to get away from the fires in their heads?"
"I had a canopy," Chaz said, flatly. They didn't. His left hand tightened on the pocketwatch so he could feel it tick against his palm. He remembered the plunge, the exhilaration, the snap of the canopy opening. An old-fashioned round parachute was just a drag device, but a modern canopy was an airfoil. When it opened, you were flying.
"You know, it wasn't exactly skydiving."
"Yeah," Todd said. "We know."
He grinned at Chaz in the window, scrambling the horizontal lines that normally defined his face. Chaz blew hair out of his eyes, closed them tight and shook his head. Well, he hadn't gone out of his way to keep them from figuring it out.
Todd said, "Why'd you stop?"
"I was too good at it." Chaz should turn around, have this conversation face to face. He swallowed and made it happen. Nobody will ever be able to say you didn't have guts, Villette. All sorts of other things. But not that you didn't have guts.
"That's a funny reason to stop." Now they were eye-to-eye, Todd's head tilted back as he looked up at Chaz. A small, slender, unassuming man, gray-eyed and dark-haired, what hair he had left. Insignificant.
Chaz let his hands drop to his side so he could slip the watch into his pocket. The tick was like a heartbeat, but he didn't want Todd to know he needed the comfort. "So we're really careful, you know? Meticulous. Everything triple-checked, hundreds of jumps to learn the skills, it's not... slapdash. But you're still playing chicken with the dirt. People get competitive. See how far they can push it. How long they can fall, how low they can pull. You don't get a lot of time to fix mistakes if you make them, and everybody makes them."
"And because of your stage one, you could push it farther than was safe for anybody else."
Chaz nodded. Tick, tick. Tick.
Because he was Duke, Duke didn't say any of the stupid, obvious things. What happened? Who died? It's not your fault, you know--Todd just heard the silence, understood what was coded in it, and folded his own arms, tacit permission for Chaz to mirror and do the same, resuming the comfort of his armor.
"Her name was Ramona Marjorie Parks," Chaz said.
"Was she your girl?"
Chaz shook his head--your girl, only Todd would say that, like somebody's grandfather--and Todd sucked in a breath through his teeth and said, "Sometimes that's worse, you know?"
Things that didn't happen were always more complicated than things that did. His whole life was a testament to that one.
Chaz said, "I wasn't her type. But I was... in awe of her. She was my best friend. She was total commitment. And she taught me some stuff. Lots of stuff. Like okay, hotshot, your timing is awesome, your reflexes are insane. But equipment fails. The environment intervenes. You can open on an off heading. You can have a line over your canopy, or you can have an object strike, or you can tangle in your lines. The pilot chute can collapse instead of deploying your main canopy. Stuff goes wrong."
"The plan never survives contact with the enemy," Todd said.
"Yeah." Chaz forced himself to drop his hands to his sides, and this time Todd mirrored him. The game everybody played, but because of who they were and what they knew, they were playing it with intent. Intention mattered. "And you think the ground is a long way down. And it's long enough to have plenty of time to think about it. But if something does go wrong, it's not like skydiving."
He tilted his head and rolled one shoulder up, as if trying to scratch his ear. "BASE jumpers don't use ripcords. It's static lines or just the pilot chute. And we don't carry reserve chutes. There's no time and there's no point."
He gestured to the night invisible beyond the reflections. Twenty-one stories down. A little over twelve feet to the story, in this particular building. Plenty high for an exit, if you knew where to land and if nothing went wrong. A little over four seconds of free fall.
As Todd had pointed out back in DC, a second was an awfully long time. Chaz waited four seconds before he continued, just to test it out. It felt like a lifetime.
"I liked jumping," Chaz said. "This sounds crazy, but it made me feel in control."
"Doesn't sound crazy at all." Todd came across the living room finally, leaned his palms against the glass door and his weight on his palms, spreading asymmetrical hands wide. Not hiding the missing fingers for a change. "You know. When I was in 'Nam..." He stopped, snorted. Shook his head. "It wasn't 'Nam."
"Yeah." Chaz turned to stand beside Todd, facing their images in the glass. Hiding his faint, painful smile. If he looked at the shadows they cast, then he could see through their reflections to the city below and beyond. "We know."
"There's ways to tell people things without ever actually telling them. Subtext. Misdirection. Indirection. White space in the narrative."
Tick. Still ticking.
"Yeah," Chaz said again, because it deserved an answer. "We're not going to catch these women this way, Duke. They're not coming after Lily and Rose as long as they know we're here. We can't stay here forever; they've got more time than we do. And nobody else can protect the twins."
"Yeah," Todd said. "I know."
Shoulder to shoulder, they waited. Chaz heard Todd breathing, slow and steady, unruffled and unhurried, as if all he had to do in life was take in air and let it out again. It was different to make the choice, rather than have it be forced upon you. It was one thing to give something, and another to have it stolen.
Agency. Agency was the thing that kept you whole, when the monsters tried to take everything you were and make you eat it.
Falling and jumping were not the same. "Duke?"
"Get Dad," Chaz said. "I have something to show you two."
When Todd came to collect Reyes from the kitchen, the stillness of his features was all the warning Reyes needed.
"Chaz wants you," Todd said.
Reyes set his murder mystery aside and rose from the chair he'd been perched on, reflexively touching his sidearm. "Did he say why?"
Todd let his shoulders rise tightly and fall. A self-contained man, watchful and prone to keeping his opinions to himself. A secret-keeper, which Reyes could respect.
So many of them in the unit were. Had to be. When you were full of dangerous knowledge, you learned tactics for protecting people from it.
Todd said, "It took fifteen minutes for him to work up to it. I wouldn't give him too much time to think."
Another secret kept, the conspiracy of silence and support the team had built around Chaz since he was injured. A wall that could easily become a trap, for keepers as well as kept.
"Coming." Reyes made sure Todd saw him adjust his weapon. Todd's breath caught in his throat, and his brows rose. Reyes wanted to close his eyes. Instead, he nodded.
Todd's spine straightened and his chin tucked. With a small movement of his hand Todd brushed the hem of his jacket behind the holster. Reyes didn't need to discuss the potential for all the ways this could go bad. He and Todd had forged their understanding in the days before there was a Shadow Unit, when it was just that sometimes there was a particular type of bad one, and everybody in the BSU knew Reyes and Todd were the guys who made a hobby out of those.
So Reyes just asked, "Is this a worst-case scenario?"
Todd's voice wasn't a whisper, but it was almost too soft to hear. "I'm not sure. But I don't think so."
Reyes let go of the breath he'd only just realized he was holding. "Then don't do anything you can't take back until you are sure."
"Steve," Todd said, in a voice that commanded attention. There was a lot of charisma in that intense frown, when Todd decided to stop making himself seem like somebody's addled bachelor uncle.
Reyes stopped, frowned back, and said, "You only use my first name when it's life or death."
"It's okay to care about the kid."
Whatever Reyes had been anticipating, that wasn't it. "Excuse me?"
"I said. It's okay to let yourself care about Chaz."
"I care about everybody on this team--"
"This," said Todd, "is where I point out that you can't bullshit a bullshitter. He's the son you never had, and you desperately want him to be okay, and you're terrified if you let yourself feel any warmth for him you'll miss the first subtle sign that he's turned and then we'll all pay the price. And that is a hell of a burden to put on any relationship, personal or professional."
Reyed caught himself staring, slack-jawed if not gape-mouthed, and blinked. If he were trying to learn to parent, there weren't many worse ways to do it than trying to parent a feral, emotionally bereft twenty-six-year-old. He said, "Is that what's going on?"
"Also," Todd pointed out, "I feel like I should point out that just because we know Chaz and Hafidha have got it, whatever it is, doesn't mean that any of the rest of us couldn't flip over to the dark side if the right buttons got pushed. The anomaly does not respect purity of heart, Sir Knight. Now tell me you haven't thought of that possibility. Go on. I double dog dare you."
It would have been a lie, and he and Todd both knew it. "Hell," Reyes said, at last, when he had realized that whatever Todd's dissection had set tossing in his gut, he wasn't sorting it out today, and slapped a lid back over it. "I fucking hate profilers."
"What?" said Todd. "You forgot the rest of us can do it too?"
Reyes and Todd walked into the living room side-by-side, Reyes thought, like the disposable field agents from a movie: two fit, besuited men in their fifties, one black and one white. Chaz had been standing with his forehead leaned against the floor-to-ceiling wall of glass, but he turned at they entered, the pressed-pale triangle on his sallow forehead reddening as blood flowed into it. His gaze flicked from Reyes to Todd and then back again.
Reyes told himself it was the pressure of that stare that drew him up short across the width of the cavernous living room, some twenty-five feet. Perilously short range. And of course, Chaz had a gun of his own.
Reyes said, "You wanted me?"
"The UNSUBs are not coming after Hsiung as long as they know we're here," Chaz said. "We know they can wait. We know they will spend as long as it takes cultivating a target. They like to be seen but unnoticed, even as it feeds their fury to be unnoticed by the parents they think they should have had. They'll hold back and wait until we're gone."
Reyes nodded. "You have a suggestion?"
"I have a solution," Chaz corrected. Grinning like a skull, he vanished before their eyes.
The weapon was in Reyes' hand before he'd registered drawing it. He felt something move through the room, a stir of air, but couldn't track it. When he turned he found Todd armed and turning too. Their eyes met, then Todd's chin jerked towards the kitchen. Through the archway, Reyes heard the rattle of cardboard and the sound of chewing. A shadow fell through the light that streaked the floor.
Reyes said, "Did you know about that?"
"I guessed. Something. Not what."
Todd licked his lips like a nervous dog. Reyes thought of saying, If it goes bad, we have to remember that's not Chaz in there anymore.
But of course that was the most terrible secret of all. It was Chaz, and it always would be, even if he were a gamma now. It wasn't like a movie zombie, the killing made easy by the knowledge that the person you had cared for was just a shell with a monster inside. The monster Reyes knew held the person you loved hostage as well.
"Cover me," Reyes said. "I'm going in to talk to him."
"Steve," Todd said. And then he stopped, when Reyes turned to him, and shook his head. Because anything Todd could say, Reyes already knew. "Remember he cares about you, too."
Yes. Which, if it was a gamma in charge in there, made Reyes all the more tempting a target. Hurt him, hurt the host. The anomaly loved a good return on its effort.
"I'll keep it in mind," Reyes said.
He holstered his gun before he went through the door.
While Reyes and Todd stood blinking at where he had been standing, Chaz dug his fingernails into his palms and walked between them. Most of a pizza still burdened the kitchen table, cooling towards room temperature, the crust soggy and the cheese congealing. Chaz could have gotten a plate, a glass, paper napkins, and served himself and sat down at the table like a civilized creature. Instead, he dropped the mirror, folded it and slipped it away. Then he reached out left handed and hooked the box, flipped the lid up, tugged loose a slice of pie. He folded it in half lengthwise and leaned over the box to eat, supporting the floppy middle with the tips of his right fingers. Big bites, barely chewed. Barely tasted. If he thought too much about eating, the conditioned response from the AZT would kick in and he'd be swallowing bile.
He was still keyed up from jamming, the mirror raw and ticklish. It tried to kick on again when Reyes came through the archway behind him, a shiver of silver across its surface as if somebody had pitched a stone. Chaz sat on it, hard, and pulled free another pizza slab.
"That's a second-stage manifestation," Reyes said.
Chaz, mouth full, nodded. He'd bitten off too much; he chewed ferociously and swallowed, a lump that stretched his throat and hurt going down. He turned around.
Reyes stood just inside the doorway, hands at his side. Left thumb resting on his belt, fingers in easy reach of his piece. There was no indulgence in Reyes' expression. Just the kind of intent concentration you would turn on a big, agitated, potentially dangerous dog.
"Since when?" Reyes asked, as Chaz had known he would. Because that didn't just happen. Obviously. Chaz had done that thing, and known how to do it, and shown it to Todd and Reyes so they would know he could do it and see the obvious way in which it was the solution to their problem.
Chaz couldn't pretend he didn't know what Reyes was talking about, but he could buy time while chewing. When he got his mouth cleared, he said, "Since Texas."
"That's how you got him."
There was nothing left in Chaz's hand but the crust. He folded it into his mouth without glancing down, chewed, and swallowed. Not nearly enough, but it would hold him until after the argument. And there was definitely going to be an argument.
"That was the thing I couldn't figure out from the scene," Reyes continued. "How you got him. Why did you feel the need to hide it?"
Chaz closed his eyes. "I was ashamed."
Like an abused child. Like a rape survivor. Like anybody who has had their autonomy and self-determination stripped away.
"Because he made it happen," Reyes said.
He said it the way Chaz never in a million years could have. Matter-of-factly. With no extra emphasis on the word he. With all the fucking compassion in the world.
Chaz nodded. "It's like a gun. You don't pull it until you're prepared to shoot someone."
"You still should have told us."
So you could have poked and prodded and questioned me about that too? But Reyes was right, which was what sent the conversational antibodies sailing through Chaz, ready to come snarling out of his mouth. Chaz counted ten instead. He bit his lip and thought about temperate words, about the reassuring things he should say. All of them lies, the kind of mollification and placating that had been frozen out of him in six nights curled on a cold slab floor.
"Like all the things you told me?" he said, and was pleased at how calm-sounding his voice came out.
"Need to know." Reyes stepped forward into the kitchen, shaking his head, but he still didn't tuck his hands in his pockets. "I didn't think it would be helpful to you. I was probably wrong."
"And it was helpful to set Brady up to kill me?" Adrenaline pumped through Chaz's system. The cold tingle of his fingertips said be ready to fight. The deep determined flex of his heart answered be ready to run. The mirror shivered in response, rattled mylar, and Chaz felt it slip as if through his fingers and begin to unfold. It was all right there, laid atop Reyes' response as easy and uncomfortable as an unsent letter, and Chaz grabbed it and twisted it around and fired it back in anger. Reyes' voice, and the way Reyes wore his face, and the relaxed hands shoved into his pockets, the one dropped shoulder that belied all the fucking pain he had to be in, casual and nonthreatening.
Everything Reyes was not, right now.
The mirror said, "Subject is a thirteen-year-old mixed-race male with wildly inconsistent test scores. He has survived significant trauma--the drug addiction and death of his mother would, in my opinion, provide more than sufficient footholds for the progression of the anomaly as we understand it--and while there's no evidence yet of sadistic proclivities, we know that the anomaly is capable of masking its existence and activities for long periods of time. Extreme caution is recommended in the care of this adolescent. While this subject is potentially one of our best leads in understanding the early progress of an anomalous individual, if that in fact is what he represents, there are other concerns--"
"Villette," Reyes said, his expression blank as the face on a coin.
Chaz shut the mirror's mouth, hard, with an effort that hit him like a punch. He dragged his hands from his pockets, leaning heavily on a Windsor-backed chair, and swallowed nauseated saliva.
"You've known I was a monster for thirteen years," he said. "You left me there--you gambled my life and the lives of all my school mates and foster families--to see what kind of monster I would grow up to be. Why are you so surprised to find out you were right?"
"There wasn't--" Reyes started. And then he stopped, checked himself, brushed aside whatever he'd been about to say with one hand and said the truth instead. "At the time, I couldn't think of anything else to do. I didn't know you weren't safe. I could--what. I could have had you placed in Idlewood. That was my option, Villette. Would you have been better off--safer--if I'd decided from your test scores that you were a monster?"
"The people around me might have been." Chaz turned aside because he had to, but he kept Reyes in his peripheral vision. He needed this and he was manipulating Reyes so he could hear it. And he didn't care.
"Do you know what else was in that report?" Reyes asked. He quoted--from memory. "It is my recommendation that this adolescent be kept under observation until such time as further determinations of his potential--both academic and for violence--have been made. I agonized over that sentence. Could I have done better? Probably. Definitely. But damned if I know how, even now. You think the Clark County foster care system would have taken kindly to a Fed--a black, Latin, Eastern Fed--swooping in and telling them that an at-risk child who was being housed and fed and educated and provided with adequate medical care was in need of more than that?"
"No," Chaz said, and because this was one of the more honest conversations of his life, he didn't hesitate before he said it. "But you placed other people at risk when you left them in contact with me. When I could have been--anything."
"Your file indicated that it was unlikely that you would harm anyone."
"The file of a juvenile gamma?"
"You're not a gamma--"
"Don't lie to me." He spat it out like loosened teeth, and let it lie there on the red Spanish tile between them. "Don't make an ass of yourself by lying to me, Special Agent. I'm a mirror. I know what I am."
Tick. Tick. Still ticking. Chaz couldn't feel the watch unless his hand was on it, but he could imagine. It was at least fifteen seconds before Reyes drew a breath, let it out again, and pushed his hands into his pockets, ruining the beautiful line of his suit.
"No," Reyes said. "You don't. Whatever that mirror reflects, all it tells you about yourself is the absolute darkest truths. Tell me something, Villette. Have you ever intentionally hurt anything?"
"I stuck a butcher knife into my father's spine and twisted it until he bled to death," Chaz volunteered, in what felt like a quite reasonable tone of voice until the words were out of his mouth and he saw Reyes' reaction.
"Self-defense," Reyes said, mildly, his eyebrows wrinkling his forehead. "Try again?"
"You," Chaz said. "Just now."
Reyes shrugged. "Same exception. Are you done?"
Chaz wondered if Reyes could see the pulse jumping in his temple. He took a breath, held it long enough to feel dizzy, and said, "Tolerably. For now."
"Do you need to be relieved of duty?"
"I need to catch the people who killed Mary Wursthoff and her daughters."
"Yes." Or die trying. Which Reyes might consider a check in the plus column, right about now.
"All right," Reyes said. "Chaz. Listen to me. I'm only going to say this one more time."
Chaz knew already what he was going to say. And it didn't matter, because he found that he deeply--cravenly--wanted to hear it. Pathetic, he taunted himself--and then what brought him up short was not his own voice in his head, but Daphne's. Needing people is not the same thing as being a failure. He nodded, because he didn't trust his voice, and pinned his eyes on Reyes' shoes.
"You are not a monster. You are--Chaz, look at me."
Somehow, he got his eyes up. And despite what Reyes had done to him--had failed to do for him--he kept them there.
"You are the exact opposite of a monster. If anything, you sacrifice and efface yourself far more than is good for you. You don't always have to let the competition win to be a good person. Sometimes, you're entitled to want something. Sometimes you're entitled to fight for what you want."
Chaz flinched. He needed to look away again, but now that he had Reyes' gaze, he couldn't. How much does he know?
He's Stephen Reyes. He knows as much as he chooses to.
Chaz nodded, though it hurt.
Reyes said, "Okay. Then we'll talk about this further when we get home."
"If we get home," Chaz said, even knowing that he shouldn't, that he should take the offered cease-fire and back away.
Reyes was already turning toward the doorway. He paused, glanced toward the living room, then turned only his head to look back at Chaz. "Don't even say it."
The noise, when it happened, was human noise: two grown men arguing in stiff, stilted voices about the sort of betrayals you never could quite fold up and put away. Todd let himself breathe when he heard that, though he kept them shallow, listening.
And when Reyes came back through the door, shoulders crunched around his ears, Todd was still there and still holding his gun.
"He converted," Reyes said, without preamble.
"In Texas. I heard."
"Did you catch the manifestation?"
"Besides vanishing like a conjurer? I heard his Evil Overlord version of you, if that's what you mean--"
"He's got two," Reyes explained. He took Todd's elbow, and led him away from the kitchen, from which now issued the rustle of paper, the monotonous, mechanical crunch of Chaz eating pizza. "Two manifestations. Functional invisibility. And--what the hell do you call the other thing?"
Todd decided that if Reyes had his hand on Todd's gun arm, it was okay to put the gun away. While he was feeling for his holster, he said, "Provisionally, it sounds like Throwing Every Stupid Thing You Ever Did Or Even Thought About Even If It Wasn't Witnessed By Anybody Back In Your Face."
It didn't get a laugh. But it got Reyes to toss his head back ruefully, which was something. This much intensity wasn't good for anybody's judgment.
"He said he was a mirror," Reyes said. "That's the mythology. Chaz and his masks, being whatever you expect him to be, barely there at all behind them. If you could have seen it--he looked like me. Not the me in photographs, the one you almost don't recognize. The real me."
"The one you sometimes don't like very much."
"Yeah," Reyes said. "That's the guy." He shook his head. "He knew just what would hurt, too."
Todd pressed his lips together and managed not to say, from the sound of it I'm not sure you didn't deserve it. Instead, he said something more important, and harder to get out. "I know what you said to him, but--was that a gamma thing to do?"
The eyes Reyes turned on him were dark enough to seem black, shining with moisture. Todd knew the pinch at their corners was the closest Stephen Reyes could come to demonstrating grief.
"No," Reyes said. And he looked down. "Because what he threw at me in there?"
Todd nodded, and watched the flinch shudder across Reyes' features.
"Wasn't the worst thing I've ever done to him. So he's not a gamma." Because a gamma wouldn't hold anything back. "Call Brady. Tell him to go get the family and bring them here."
"You're not using a couple of babies as bait. Reyes."
"Hell, no," Reyes said. "Haven't you ever heard of a decoy?"
Todd pressed his knuckles into his eye sockets. "Three hundred and seventy-fucking-eight days to retirement."
Livejournal post, somewhere in the Internet
Chaz (standuponit) wrote, @ 2009-02-15 11:01:33
[filtered/Wabbit and Harpy] I know I have a lot of explaining to do.
I am so, so, so sorry, and I hope you will forgive me someday.
Current mood: ashamed
Current music: Quiet out there. Too quiet.
[Add to memories] [Tell a friend] [Track This] [Link]
Chaz had expected that Brady's arrival--with De Los Santos, Hsiung, Fromberg, and the bundles of old clothes that were standing in for Lily and Rose--would be the overture to an explosion. Instead, Brady paused inside the door, looked Chaz up and down, hunched his shoulders around his ears like a disgruntled bulldog, and proceeded past.
It was better than he deserved, Chaz supposed. He'd just try to stay out of the way while Brady was in the condo. The conversation with Daphne and Hafidha when he got home would be worse. This is what comes of not breaking the bad news quickly and getting it over with.
In any case, Brady wasn't going to stay long. Just long enough for Hsiung and Fromberg to dress in navy blue windbreakers, wraparound shades, and ball caps that read FBI across the brows. There was no way to disguise Chaz and Brady as anything but themselves, and it wasn't necessary; they would accompany De Los Santos and the civilians to the transport waiting outside, where all five of them would appear to leave. In reality, Hsiung and Fromberg would be returned to their daughters, Brady and De Los Santos would drive around the block and park their van to the condo's garage to take up a ready position... and Chaz, wrapped in mirrors, would take the service elevator back up to the twenty-first floor and rejoin Reyes and Todd, who would be lying in wait.
This last part of the plan was the one Brady objected to most strenuously, though not--to Chaz's surprise--because of Chaz. "Three of you against two gammas," he said. "Even with the elevator override key, I'll be between ninety and a hundred fifty seconds away."
Long enough for anything to happen, his expression said.
"I can last three minutes against two women with no combat training," Todd said, his voice as calm and reassuring as ever. "Even gammas."
Their gazes crossed, Todd's and Brady's, and for a second it was just them in the room. Soldiers, Chaz thought, but like Robert Frost and his elves, it wasn't soldiers exactly. It was one of those things Todd had mentioned, the things you know without being told.
Brady shrugged; Todd looked around the room. "And I won't be alone."
"If you get my team killed while I'm not here to cover them, I will personally come to Hell, track you down, and kick your skinny ass, Solomon Todd."
Whether or not Brady was looking at Todd when he said it, Chaz knew his words were for all three of them. He caught himself nodding agreement and turned away to hide a grimace that kept trying to turn into a smile.
Miami, FL, February 16, 2009
Solomon Todd sat in the warmth of a darkened bedroom and listened to Reyes breathe in his sleep. He could sleep too, if he wanted; Brady and De Los Santos were ensconced in the van, and somewhere out there in the living room was Chaz. Well, Todd assumed it was the living room. How did you go about keeping track of your invisible friend?
He could sleep if he wanted. But sleeping in Kevlar gave him a rash, or so he'd told Reyes when Reyes lay down fully clothed atop the covers. Bemusedly, he wondered if it was true.
So he was awake when his earpiece crackled sometime around four AM, and Brady said, "Somebody just pulled in. Green sedan."
It was the seventh such news bulletin since midnight. Todd saw the glisten of the whites of Reyes' eyes as he lifted his head, awakened by his own headset.
Todd lifted his wrist to his mouth and said, "Copy. Is it them?"
They weren't sure this was how the gammas were getting into the condos. The garage was just a guess, supplemented by Hafidha's assertion that someone had accessed the card lock in each building immediately prior to and following each of the other incidents.
Todd coughed. He massaged his throat, trying to drive out the itch before it made him cough again.
"I'm waiting for a clear line--no. One occupant. Male."
On the bed, Reyes sat up suddenly, and coughed also, doubling over, racked with spasms.
"Never mind. It's on," Todd said, before another bout seized him. "They're here."
The bedroom door stood ajar, and through it he glimpsed flickering, an erratic orange light that made his gut twist and his eyes water. He felt the heat as he dropped to the floor, belly-crawling, the MP-5 pushed out before him. His elbows chafed on the insides of his sleeves.
It's not real.
Reyes crouched beside him, purpled by the glare of uncontrollable fires. "It's not real," Reyes said, ducking his head low beside Todd's. Tears streamed down his face; the smoke thickened between them. Reyes was lost in it.
Todd pushed himself to his knees, found Reyes's elbow by following the sound of coughing that came with little grunts of pain. Tapped it to let Reyes know where he was and found him standing. Stood himself, into the heat, the blindness, the searing pressure of flames licking now across the ceiling, the black streaks they left behind. He got his weapon up.
Coughing. He couldn't stop coughing. It's. Not. Real.
The illusion of blindness was as effective as the thing itself.
He crouched, a compromise, and now saw Reyes crouching also, by the door, back flat beside it, one leg kicked out for balance and his machine pistol at high ready. Firelight limned one side of his profile, gleamed off snot and tears.
"Three," Reyes said, and Todd did the count in his head.
They came down the hall like SWAT, clutching their MP-5s. Striding through the flames, Todd was sure he felt the shoe leather crisping around his feet. The fire slammed across the hallway in front of them, level with the nursery door, just a few feet ahead of Reyes. Blocking the path they should have been being herded along.
The gammas knew what they had in the trap was not what they had come to catch.
The heat leaned on Todd's face like a hand, shoving against him. Pushing him back. Somewhere beyond it, beyond the flames, beyond the death and the burning in his hands as if his gun were also on fire, he heard a woman screaming.
Reyes shied back, squinting through a furnace light, smoke, glare and black shadows. The living room lay beyond, a few short steps. On the other side of a wall of heat that curled Todd's eyelashes, sizzled his flesh under his vest. He smelled char, ozone, the reek of his own burning hair.
Fire hurts. People know that, because they've been burned a little.
"Or a lot," Todd said, and stepped forward past Reyes, into the veil.
The fire might not be real, but the pain was. And the line of flames did not part before him; rather, more fire sprang up to greet him as he passed. He pressed on, walking on stumps, cinders, ashes. Somehow his burned feet carried him. Somehow his burned eyes saw.
Somehow his burned hands held the gun out before him, though the gun burned too, in an impossibly blue flame, until he couldn't hold on to it anymore and it fell away into the firestorm.
Where the hell was Brady? Where the hell was Chaz?
The flames curled away, rolling up like a carpet before him. A gap, which he stepped into, because he must. Reyes at his heels, both of them knowing it was a trap.
As the flames snapped shut around them, it was no comfort at all to learn they were not wrong.
The headset brought Chaz all sorts of sounds, all sorts of information. Brady's heavy breaths and the echoes of his footsteps; Todd's voice chanting three words between hacking coughs. Reyes, silent except his struggle to control the rasp of his wheezing. The sounds told him there was fire. The sounds told him his team was fighting.
He couldn't see the fire at all.
He saw two girls--young women, the well-trained part of his brain corrected--two pretty girls by the door, just inside it, the taller and darker--Santiago--closing it behind her with a hand protected in a nitrile glove. The smaller and fairer--Petit--turned to survey the condo, her eyes skipping over Chaz as if he were just one more shadow in the unlit living room. She held her sister's right hand, their fingers interlaced, and in her other, gloved, hand she had a ring and two keys. The fake delivery business got them in the door, Chaz understood, and who didn't leave keys lying around? Easy enough to copy.
They stepped into the apartment, peering about like a pair of feral cats. Two or three more steps, still clutching each other, brought them into the middle of the room.
Chaz raised his pistol and let the mirror fall.
"Federal officer," he said calmly over the sights. "Carey-Ann, Tameka, please put your hands where I can see them and step away from each other. You are under arrest."
Carey-Ann spun, dragging Tameka with her. She threw the keys--hard--at Chaz's face. Good arm; they would have smacked him over the eye if he hadn't leaned aside. He felt the keys snag on his hair as they passed, and ignored it to bring his sight picture back in line.
"Bastard," she said. "Who the hell are you? Who the hell are you!? "
"I'm a federal officer," Chaz repeated. "You are under arrest."
She screamed, white frustration, bleak and searing as the flames that erupted all around her and her foster-sister like curling petals. She stood amid them like Lakshmi rising from a crimson lotus, and for a moment Chaz was struck by the horrible beauty of the illusion.
But then the flames raced outward, dragon-tongues. Chaz locked his arms, push-pull, steadying the muzzle of the Sig as fire broke over him. The fire's not real. It cannot hurt you.
Crawling flame blanketed the entire condominium. A wall of orange-blue veiled the hallway, fire caterpillar-creeping up walls and around the kitchen arch. There was the heat. The unreal heat.
Tameka yanked Carey-Ann's arm, dragging at her, and managed to shift the smaller woman two steps towards the doorway. But Todd and Reyes burst out of the flames behind them, Reyes armed and Todd empty-handed, and now their route back was blocked as well.
"Tameka," Chaz said. "Please put your hands up. Please. Please. We don't want to hurt you."
He would have said more, but the fire silenced him, his lungs searing with every breath until he was sure he could feel the alveoli bursting like blowtorched grapes. He coughed, shuddered. Through curling illusory smoke, Chaz saw Reyes raise his machine pistol. He braced for the shots--wishing he had time to tell Reyes no--but no sound came.
Reyes held his fire. The flames were harmless, the pain just the pain of a ghost. All it could do was frighten.
Forty-five seconds. In approximately one minute, Brady and De Los Santos and two more guns were going to come through that door.
Brady might hold back. Nobody could expect De Los Santos to do anything but kill.
Squinting over the barrel of his gun, Chaz let the mirror shake itself wide.
Don't. (It said.) Don't hurt me. Don't hurt me. Don't hurt me Mommy Alice don't burn me I'll be good I'll be good I'll never smoke again I'll never touch your curling iron I never please don't I never--it wasn't Tameka it was me, me, me, me please don't hurt her it was me....
He got hold of it, clawed it close, hooked the edge in so he could breathe past the reflection. Saw Carey-Ann's wide eyes over the top of it, saw her recoil. Stagger back, until Tameka's hand on her wrist was the only thing holding her upright.
He watched the flames die away to every side. Reyes and Todd were over there somewhere, but they were beyond the edge of his adrenaline tunnel vision. There was nothing here: nothing but him, two gammas, and a dying, illusory inferno.
For half a second, he dared to hope.
Tameka dropped her sister's hand and lunged.
Reyes might have gotten off a burst. Chaz wasn't sure. He squeezed the trigger and hit and would have kept squeezing, but fifteen feet was too close and the gamma was on him, clawing, choking, thumbs gouging up under his chin. The gun went skittering, that way, and then he was soaking in slick blood, trying to bring up his hands to strike the insides of her elbows. The pressure stopped his breath, filled his mouth with saliva that ran down over his chin. He hit her, hard, got a knee in her diaphragm. The blow drove a mist of blood out of her mouth, across her face, chased by the breath he'd pummeled from her. Seconds. One, maybe two.
She snapped at his face with flashing teeth. World swimming black, he bashed her nose in with his forehead, got his hands inside her arms finally and jerked sharply out. Nothing, God, gamma-strong and the air wasn't getting in him, the strength draining like blood.
There was a rescue knife in his pocket, the same place it always lived. Blade on one end, razored hook on the other. For cutting yourself free of tangled things. He grabbed after it, jammed his hand into the folds of fabric. Rough plastic bent his fingernails.
She snapped away. He heard something terrible pop, twist, and for a moment wasn't sure it wasn't him. He rolled up on one elbow, shied from her bulging eyes, already swimming with pinprick hematomas, her lolling tongue. She dangled from the lamp-cord in Todd's hands, swaying bonelessly as an empty skin, a wet stain spreading down the thighs of her jeans.
Todd gave her one more shake, like a terrier shaking a rat, then winced and--with an uncoiling twist of both hands--let her fall.
"Shit," Chaz said, and rolled to his feet as the wall of fire he'd known was coming roared over and through them. Carey-Ann. She was right there, no--there, somewhere. Behind the smoke and heat which couldn't hurt him, but could blind him, blind them all. Until she found his gun, Todd's gun, a poker from beside the fireplace. Anything at all.
He couldn't see her, but he could feel her. Feel the wall of her hate, her pain, her thwarted love. Feel her hiding behind her fire of the mind as she scrabbled past him, toward the balcony, toward the shape of Chaz's pistol.
A huge sound, but not the sound of gunfire. The sound of a door kicked open. Brady.
Chaz let the mirror spread, as it wanted to spread, and filled it full of fire. The fire that burned him, burned Todd, burned Reyes. Burned Brady and De Los Santos as they charged into the room. The fire that had burned Carey-Ann, that she remembered with every nerve ending and fiber of her body. The fire that shivered like a pyre in Solomon Todd's nightmares. The fire that had stalked Chaz through those long nights in Texas, like a tiger at the edge of the dark. All the fire in the room. All the fire in the world.
Carey-Ann lifted his gun. It didn't matter if she knew how to use it. It was live, a round chambered. All she had to do was press the trigger.
Chaz swept up fire like light through a lens and let it burn.
Her fire. Her demon.
He aimed it back at Carey-Ann.
She turned, spun away from him, fired. Fired the gun and kept firing, moving through a curtain of shattered glass, out onto the balcony until her cut hands gripped the railing and she jumped up, leaned out, balanced--
--and like a leaf, let go.
Chaz sat outside the broken window on the cement balcony, fingers folded between his knees, letting the cold wind ruffle his hair. Predawn grayed the sky and brought out the shadows between the tendons on the backs of his hands. He didn't look up when he sensed Todd approaching.
Todd stopped a few feet back, leaning over to peer down the side of the building to where city lights still burned, below.
"Long way down," he observed. "You're going to have to account for that Sig."
"Poetic justice." Chaz's head felt heavy. He dropped it into his hands, pulling his hair into tufts. "I'm okay."
"Sure you are." Whether the dropoff really bothered him or not, Todd came to stand at Chaz's shoulder. Chaz braced himself for the platitude, the offer of a sympathetic ear, the "We're-here-for-you-Charlies." But instead Todd breathed in, breathed out, and said, "You don't have to talk."
"Reyes is wrong," Chaz said, when he had intended to take Todd at his word. But a bubble of something--self-loathing, honesty--pushed the words up out of his throat. "I should be in Arkham."
Chaz felt Todd shrug. "Idlewood is for the monsters. Reyes doesn't think that's you."
He knew Todd saw his left hand curl into a fist, saw it strain the roots of his blood-sticky hair. He raised his head, tugging against the pain, and looked Todd in the eyes. "Sol. When I had the knife in my hand, I didn't stop." He gestured to the broken window. The flash of red and blue emergency vehicle lights reflecting off neighboring buildings locked his attention. Down there, cops and CSIs and an ME were bustling about. Yellow tape was being stretched. Firefighters were considering the best way to hose the brains off the sidewalk. Chaz didn't need to see it; he could construct a perfectly satisfactory simulation in his head. "I didn't stop this either."
Silence, while Chaz waited for Todd to say, You saved my life tonight, or something else true but inadequate. Instead, Todd said, "I'm going to touch you."
Chaz didn't look at him, but nodded. And Todd reached out and began to untangle Chaz's fingers from his own hair. Inch by inch, Chaz forced them to unlock, and made himself not resist when Todd pulled his hands away and placed them back on his knees. The touch itched, made him flinch, especially when Todd--as if automatically--brushed the pad of his thumb across the nearly-invisible symbol tattooed on Chaz's wrist. He endured it, and Todd pretended he didn't notice the way Chaz shuddered.
"She chose the fall over the fire."
Todd said, "It's the same choice she gave her victims."
"And what choice did she ever have? Carey-Ann? Her and Tameka?"
Todd shifted from one foot to the other. "You wish you felt worse about killing her than you do."
It was more shocking to hear somebody say it out loud, matter-of-factly, than just to feel it. Not feel it. Whatever. Chaz swallowed, his throat not as raw as he thought it should be. He asked, "How do you know that?"
"It wins when you hurt, too," Todd said, stepping back. "You don't deserve that."
Just pretend you accept it. Nod, and let it wash over you. Don't argue. Sure.
"You positive about that?"
When Chaz didn't answer, Todd scuffed at the floor. "We learned something else today."
Unwillingly, Chaz felt himself nod. "Two gammas. One manifestation. No genetic link. But a wealth of common environments. How does that explain me?"
Todd paused. When he spoke, finally, it was in clinical tones that would have done Frost proud. "So maybe it's not hereditary. Maybe it's acquired. Maybe it's not genetic, but still congenital. Maybe you got it from your mother, something she was exposed to while you were in utero." He shrugged. When Chaz snuck a glance up at him, he was staring over Chaz's head, granting Chaz a peculiar kind of privacy. "Maybe it's a fucking teratogen. Did you ever think of that?"
Chaz hunched forward, legs drawn up, elbows pressed between his thighs. He pushed his face into his knees and breathed the smell of laundry detergent and stale sweat. Denial flared hot in his chest, but he choked it back.
"But more likely it's a complex of factors," Todd continued. "The evidence so far indicates that if--if--there's a genetic predisposition, it has to be triggered under the right circumstances, and they define how it manifests. Primary and secondary cracks, right?"
"Except Hafidha and I don't have primary cracks, now do we?"
Todd rolled his eyes. Chaz just caught it from the corner of his attention. "Who can tell? It's not like we can do family interviews for either of you. Maybe you both caught it young, younger even than Mitchell or Grossman. Maybe that's the saving grace."
"The Anomaly is chicken pox?"
"Or more like shingles. Do you remember everything that ever happened to you?"
"Maybe not the first six or seven months," Chaz admitted. "But I remember--"
No words, just an eyebrow.
"Everything after I converted," Chaz admitted. "Or when I must have converted. So maybe I had a childhood illness. Maybe it was freaking birth trauma. Maybe we're just like serial killers, is that what you're saying?"
"Genetics, environment, and trauma inform the pathology? Sure, why not? It's always more complicated. Pardon me, I'm just going to compromise this crime scene a little more, here." Avoiding the broken glass, Todd plumped down beside Chaz, knees drawn up, bony ankles exposed in argyle dress socks.
"Stylin'," Chaz said, and Todd extended a leg for inspection.
"Still too hip for the room."
The wind was good, left to right across the gap, steady and not strong. It wouldn't blow you back into the structure. It wouldn't gust from behind and create a low-pressure pocket. Good wind. But cold.
Cold enough to make Chaz's chest ache, and the muscles between his shoulders, and the bones in his hands. That healed break in his right wrist, too, like the blade of a butterknife prying between the bones. He lifted his head.
Chaz wanted to take even more of the blame, to tell Todd that if only he--Chaz--had had a little more foresight, he would have had his rig on and been able to go after: outfall her, track her, catch her. Pull low and save her life.
Sure. In the movies, where his canopy wasn't in a closet in Arlington. Where four seconds was long enough to catch somebody in free fall when they had a half-second head start. Where the firefighters wouldn't just be hosing two sets of brains off the pavement.
From a plane, he might have pulled it off. Not from a high-rise.
They watched the sunrise for a little while, other people's voices lofting from the crime scene below. Finally, Todd said, "Do you think I don't know I'm the team's executioner?"
Chaz felt the flinch like a spasm all the way down his back. Muscles contracting, making him jerk. "It's not fair of us to ask that of you."
"Life isn't fair. And there's a limit to the number of times you can be damned for the same offense." Todd stretched out over his knees, grabbing the tips of his shoes in both hands. "Did I ever tell you why I joined the Bureau?"
"Did it also have anything to do with when you weren't in Cambodia?"
Todd snorted, folding his maimed hand inside the whole one. "Vietnam. I wasn't in Vietnam. No, this was a lot later. Mid-eighties. I was freelancing, living in Brooklyn in an unreinforced masonry walkup that would give any self-respecting San Franciscan nightmares. Well, late one night early one morning I was tapping away on a story, and the intercom buzzed. Which wasn't unheard of--I was keeping ink-stained wretch hours in those days and everybody knew it--but when I got up and hit the button I heard screaming."
"Hush. I'm telling you a story."
Chaz hushed. "Sorry."
Todd accepted the apology with a negligent gesture. "Lots of screaming. A man and a woman."
The silence stretched until Chaz had to fill it. "What did you do?"
"I called 911." Todd glanced sidelong and spread his hands. "And then I got my revolver out of the drawer and went downstairs to see what was happening."
Chaz waited. The pause was part of the pacing. But he nodded, to let Todd know he was listening.
"The lobby was on fire," Todd said. "And so was the young man who must have pushed the intercom button. His clothes were burning. He was burning. And screaming. And the woman who was with him was screaming, too, and beating at him with her hands. I thought she was trying to put the fire out. I stuffed the gun in my waistband and pulled off my shirt and went to help."
Chaz realized from the sting that he was biting his knuckle, and pulled his hand away from his mouth. "She wasn't trying to put the fire out."
"She was a gamma," Todd said. "The guy was her boyfriend, and it turned out she caught him cheating, and--"
"Right," Chaz said. "Spontaneous human combustion is one hell of a manifestation. How the hell does the energy conversion on that work?"
"She was in breakthrough." Todd rubbed his hands as if they hurt. "So here we are, right, and I'm trying to put out the fire on this poor motherfucker, and he's trying to get away from the girl, and about the time my slippers start smoldering I figure out that this is not what it appears to be."
"You shot her," Chaz said, when Todd had been silent longer than was usual.
He turned his right hand over and showed Chaz the palm, a pale stretched-looking burn scar crossing the top half. The ligature mark from the lamp cord crossed it, livid and swollen, seeping at the edges. Chaz's hand curled in sympathy.
"Good thing I threw the gun at her, because the rounds cooked off, and I hate to think what would have happened if it had still been shoved down my pants."
Todd hit the deadpan and the arched eyebrow just right, and Chaz couldn't help it. He started to laugh. Helplessly, leaning forward to lay his forehead on the backs of his hands, while Todd patted his shoulder with avuncular affection. When Chaz stopped, he turned his face and gasped, "So why didn't she set your slippers on fire?"
"She starved to death while she was trying."
It was cold at dawn in February, even in Miami. Chaz had plenty of time to notice how it raised the hair on his arms while Todd thought about what he was going to say next.
"But I would have shot her if I could have held onto the gun. The boyfriend lasted about two weeks before the burns got him: third degree over sixty percent of his body. I was only in the hospital for three days."
"Oh," Chaz said. He sucked on his lower lip for a minute. "And then what?"
"And then I figured if anybody knew anything about this, it would be Uncle Sam. So I passed the bar and joined the F.B.I. And eventually found Reyes."
Chaz turned so the cold wind blew across the back of his neck, prickling the hair there. "So you're saying you became an F.B.I. agent in pursuit of a lead?"
Sol did that thing with his hands, the one that involved a tilt of the head and each palm rotating in opposite gestures, as if to say, It is what it is, kid.
Chaz contemplated inappropriate comparisons with Popeye the Sailor Man. Instead, he said, "And the rest is history."
"God," said Todd, standing up again. He dusted his hands on his trouser legs. "I hope not. Are you following the moral of the story here?"
Chaz shook his head.
"Self-defense is not murder." Todd held his hand out, fingers extended, to lift Chaz to his feet if Chaz would take it. "Murder is murder. And even if you become a monster, it doesn't mean you have to stay one."
Chaz stared at his hand, but didn't reach for it. Not yet. There was more coming.
Todd huffed irritably. "And when I say you I mean me, all right?"
That was the end of the story. "All right."
"Are you ready for breakfast yet?"
Chaz consulted his appetite. He would have been ready for breakfast hours ago, if he weren't trying to punish himself. "You buying?"
"Sure," Todd said. "Let's go find an Awful House and do our paperwork. I can put off retirement for a couple more years."
The author would like to thank Tom Dancs, whose expertise on BASE jumping was invaluable in making Chaz sound legit. Any errors, of course, are my own.